In this podcast, Franki Sibberson chats with Patrick Carman about multimedia books and the challenges of teaching and learning in an age with so many media distractions. You can visit Patrick’s website at this link:
A full transcript of the podcast is available below the player.
Franki: You’re doing a lot of work on creating multimedia books for kids: 39 Clues, Skeleton Creek series, the Trackers series, and now 315. Can you tell us exactly what these multimedia books are and how they work?
Patrick: Well, they’re each a little different. This is kind of like a progression. And when I did the first one, that was Skeleton Creek, I actually pitched that idea to my editor at Scholastic. His name is David Levithan. He also writes books. This is probably – I bet it was almost four years ago now, and I thought, “Well, they’ll just never do this. This is just too forward thinking.” I’m not even sure I wanna do it.
And it just so happened that when I sent that proposal in, they were also secretly working on 39 Clues. So the timing just turned to be perfect. And he wanted to do it right away. And then I sort of, I don’t know, I guess I didn’t really beg, but I definitely asked them many of times over and over again. Could I please do a 39 Clues book once I knew what it was? And so that’s how I got – it’s all just a [laughter] flurry of stuff that happened.
So that was maybe three years ago there was – when things started getting going there was a real push on Scholastic’s part internally to try and start doing more things for the sort of wired kids who were more into multimedia, the idea of multimedia. And so Skeleton Creek, the simple answer there is – that was the first one. And that’s just a book and a movie at the same time. That’s the simple answer.
So a young reader will get the book. They open it up, and it’s like a journal. They’ll read about 25 pages. It’s a pretty quick setup. And then around page 25 there’s a page that only has a Web address and a password. So they go online. They go to the Web address and they put in that password and it unlocks a little part of the story, about between two and four minutes of the story, like a little movie. And they watch that part of the show which then had different characters.
So one is writing and one is filming. And it goes back and forth like that through the entire book. There are 9 videos and about 220 some pages of text. And so when they get done, they’ve watched about two SpongeBob SquarePants. That’s about like the same. A couple of cartoons. But anyways, it’s a little bit – it’s like watching a couple of half hour TV shows. But they’ve also read 220 pages. And for a lot of readers that are especially middle school, that’s – doing that outside of work from school, that’s a big accomplishment. So it’s a way to just sort of meet them halfway.
39 Clues, that one’s a little bit more – I always think of that one is for slightly younger audience, maybe more 9, 10, 11, maybe 12. But the thing I hear a lot from educators about that one, because I travel to a lot of schools, is that the tech really sort of hooks a lot of kids in. And then the books and the story are what hold the readers. But I think that’s a great example of how if you can get a young 9, 10-year-old gamer to go and just check out the web site.
It’s so well done, and it’s so immersive and such a rich experience that it sorta draws them in. And there are also trading cards in the books. And there’s a lot of things that are just sorta make it more than, I don’t know, make it more than just the reading part. And then once you hook them, then the reading is what kinda holds them ’cause the story’s really well done and the characters –
Franki: It’s a good series.
Patrick: – are great. And it’s a lot of fun, a lot of different writers. And then 315 is sort of like the next thing. I feel like I tend to accidently be a little bit ahead. I don’t really do it on purpose.
But I have a little studio out here. I live in eastern Washington in Walla Walla, Washington. And we’re always talking about this stuff. And we, again, here I feel like we’re just a little bit ahead of where things are going. So probably will be a little bit of an uphill battle at the beginning to sort of get people to understand what it is, and then I think probably maybe by the fall or the spring it will be more common. So basically this is an app only.
So it begins as something you get on your phone if you have an iPhone or an iTouch. Which really I initially thought of it is for an iPod touch that there were about 80 million of those. And so a lot of 10-year-olds, 11, 12 either have one or they have access to one. And then, of course, Android it also works in that – on those devices as well or on an iPad or whatever. But the three stands for listen, read, and watch. And you do the whole thing in 15 minutes or less.
So it’s kind of reinventing the short story for a wired world trying to get kids to even spend 10 or 15 minutes turning digital pages. It will come out in the fall. Scholastic is gonna put it out in a print edition. You’ll go online and get the other parts. And they’ll do that for Halloween this coming fall. But for now if you wanna do it, you go into the Android marketplace or the Apple store and you look for 315 or the number 3-1-5 and you’ll find it.
Franki: I have the first one. I love it. So I’m waiting –
Patrick: Oh, yeah.
Franki: So what was it that hooked you – that got interested in this? You’ve committed so much time and energy to something that really hasn’t been done before for children’s books. So what really hooked you?
Patrick: I have visited about 1,000 schools, something 1,000 and change. And the longer that I’ve been out visiting schools, the more I’m seeing what – it’s become the high-five I call it, that the number of things that there are to distract young readers has just gotten to be more and more and more. So when I first started going out, it was pretty much TV and video games.
And then the Internet came along and then iTouches and iPods and all that kinda stuff and cell phones. And so those five different things, it’s a lot for young readers to deal with. And we even as adults we deal with that. I mean I’m staring at my computer screen while I’m on the phone right now. And that’s –
Franki: Me, too.
Patrick: – that’s fairly common. So it’s really easy to get overwhelmed by this stuff. And if you ask – if I get in front of a group of 100 or 200 sixth graders and I say – and I do that high-five test, I’ll say, “Yesterday how many of you did these things and count them on your fingers.” I’m getting better than 75 percent of the audience will have all five fingers up. They did all those things.
Patrick: And by the time I get down to like a high-three, I’ve basically gotten every single person in the audience. And so I think it’s just what I’ve been trying to do for the last few years is find ways to get reading to make that top five because what’s happening in too many schools that I go is we’re – I’m talking to a lot of the reading specialists and the teachers and the librarians about the number of kids that are reading below grade level at that sort of critical, sort of fourth through eighth grade.
And I think that’s it because reading’s not making their top five when they have free time. And so really it began as what’s the simplest thing I can come up with that would be a way to meet a young, wired reader halfway, right in the middle? And that’s where Skeleton Creek came from was this idea that if they will read a little ways I will reward them and let them go online and watch this fun sort of spooky video, whatever. And then we’re gonna go back and forth like that all the way through to the end. And it seems super ’cause we downloaded over ten million videos now.
Patrick: Numbers are great on the book, too. So then with 315, there we’re actually putting in even more. We’re saying look we’re gonna give you a little audio intro. This is gonna be a fun little – it’ll set the whole story up for you for about a minute. And then you’ve gotta read for about ten minutes. It’s a nice little, tiny ten minute chunk of reading and then you get to watch the payoff for two or three minutes. So I think I’m doing it because I’m realistic about where kids are.
And I don’t think that all books should be like this. In fact, I think that would be a tragedy. And I really like writing traditional novels. I have one coming out in the fall. And I just that maybe 20 percent, if we – what I’d like to say as a writers and educators and publishers, if we could spend about 80 percent of our time actually trying to stand out from all that noise, I think we’ll be fine.
But that other 20 percent if we can actually figure out ways to blend in with what’s going on with kids. And by that, I mean multimedia, connecting words via technology with the kids. And I think we’re gonna get a bunch of readers back.
Franki: That’s so smart. So what’s the response been so far from students and teachers?
Patrick: Well, I think that it has – I think I’m tracking along with teachers and media specialists, with librarians and kinda about the same track. And what I mean by that is three or four years ago I think everybody was a little leery about where this was all going. There is sort of a sacredness about reading a book. There’s something about it that sort of drives you out of all that other stuff. And that’s a powerful, important thing. But I think – and I felt that way, too.
And I think that as I’ve sort of been willing to step outside of my comfort zone a little bit and try these things, I think now I’ve gotten to where, well, I mean I’m happy to have every other project that I do be something that’s more about trying to draw readers in and do things a little differently with multimedia. And I’m finding that educators largely feel the same way.
I think they’re a little – I’m getting a sense that people are a little bit alarmed in general at how little a lot of kids are reading. And whatever it takes to get them back into — get their nose in a book. And I think this is just one aspect of that.
Franki: So one more teacher question. What advice do you have for teachers who are new to this kinda story? Like how can we best support our student, those readers when we haven’t read books like this up until now?
Patrick: Well I think that the simplest thing to do if you wanna try something like this or see how it actually will work in your school setting is just to get one copy of Skeleton Creek or Trackers, another series that’s like this that I wrote that’s a book and a movie. It does the same thing. And just read the very first chapter in front of a class. It takes about 15 minutes. And then just show the first video.
And we have so much evidence to support the fact that if you just do that, that book will just go completely viral in your school. And the great thing is it’ll be probably be a couple of students that actually are not known for being big readers who will see it and go, “What was that?”, because it’s a fun, spooky little thing that happens in the first video. And the idea that, “Wait hold on. So I can actually read part of this and watch part of it.” And they’ll pick it up and run with all completely on their own.
Franki: So you’re finding that some of the more reluctant readers are really finishing more books. Is that what you’re finding?
Patrick: Well that’s been what’s so great about this. And I think we fail to recognize sometimes that it’s those students that sort of – when a kid who doesn’t normally do very much reading gets excited about a book, then all of the other kids who are not very excited about reading get excited about a book. And so it has a certain kinda synergy to it where – I mean of course they’re gonna be big readers in every school. But it’s that kind of experience where a nonreader starts reading again.
That all of sudden a lot of other kids are like, well, I guess if that person’s doing it, then there must be something going on. I think that’s what happened with Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I think a lot of nonreaders read that – are reading those books because nonreaders are reading them. So this is a similar thing where that’s part of the beauty of it.
I talk to a lot of reading specialists who say – I mean I just – I get e-mails probably two or three a week from a reading – mostly reading specialists that say, “I’ve got this group of kids who are reading below grade level andSkeleton Creek is the first thing that I’ve been able to get my hands on that I don’t have to don’t anything. They’re just super excited to just read.” They just wanna get to –
Franki: Yeah, it’s really –
Patrick: – the video.
Franki: That’s making a huge difference. I just feel like it’s such a – I spent a few minutes on 315 after I read the others. And I’m just like this is another way to hook some of those kids that just need re-hooked. We’re loving it. So that’s good. How is this process different from the writing process you use when you write more traditional books? Do you find it similar or different or –
Patrick: Well it’s quite different. Actually I spent about ten years in advertising before I became a writer. And then about five years after that, I ran a technology company. So I’ve spent a lot of time in those kind of collaborative, creative environments. And I think this is probably part of what happened with me, too, if I really wanna be honest about is after about six or seven years of writing books that were traditional books, you begin to realize it’s a little bit of a lonely pursuit.
I mean you can probably tell even just by this short conversation that I’m – well I like to be around people. And I like the process of writing stories a lot, but I also find that it – being around other creative people is very fulfilling for me. And so the difference, the big difference is that writing a book, it’s kind of a solitary pursuit. And when you get involved in doing even one video, you have six or seven different people involved between the actors, the director, the person holding the camera.
Then we get in the editing room. And it’s just a completely different kind of energy. And there’s a lot of give and take. And so you have to give up some of the control. But very different processes. One is you do it yourself pretty much and maybe an editor dips in at certain points.
But when you’re doing things like 315, I mean we had voice talent, video talent. I read the short stories. We’re even farming out some of these stories. And so I write most of the stories, but I probably won’t write all of them.
And so there’s just a lot of people involved, even when you think about the experience of the technology for this. I mean creating the app. That also that require we work with other people who are good at that. And then we give our ideas and we hope people understand this. Is this gonna – are they gonna know what order to do it in? And so, all those things come into play. And it’s a lot of – if you’re up for group collaborative, creative stuff, it’s just magic. It’s a lot of fun.
Franki: I hadn’t even thought of that as a difference. That’s so interesting. So fascinating. So do you think other authors are gonna jump on board and we’re gonna see a big variety of different kinds of story telling using new media?
Patrick: It is an interesting question. I’ll be honest. I would’ve thought that by now we already would’ve seen a lot more than we’re seeing. And the only thing – I mean I would’ve thought by now we would have lots of books that were like the book and the movie, the same time idea, because really it’s a pretty straightforward idea. I mean you read for a little while and you put in a password at a web site and you watch part of the story. And you just go back and forth.
So it’s not complicated. And it would work and will work for lots of different kinds of stories. But we haven’t seen even one more. That’s just – in three years we haven’t seen another one. So I’m thinking maybe it’s a little harder than it — and it is hard. And it’s not — to do it well, it does cost some money. And it does take effort, and you’ve gotta put a team together. And there’s a lot of moving parts.
So maybe for a lot of writers it’s a little scary to think about. And things like — I think there have been some other things that have been a little bit like 39 Clues. But that’s a big, big budget. Big undertaking project, too. So that would require a large publisher to go in with a big commitment to make that happen again. So I think we’re gonna see — I’m just we have to see more of this kinda stuff. I know I’m signed on to do like six more, totally different things that are coming up in the few years.
Franki: Oh, good. That was my last question. What’s next? [Laughter]
Franki: What’s next for you in publishing? You said you had one just traditional book coming out in the fall. And then what else is coming up?
Patrick: 315 will be one of those things where it’s — we’re getting a new episode out every two weeks. And so it’s kind of we’ll go all the way through until I think about July or something, until the first season, we’re calling them seasons, is done. And then we’ll take a little break for about two or three months. And then we’ll do a second season. And we’ll just kinda — we’ll keep doing that forever.
And then about every — and then every season will be put together as a print edition. I mean those will follow. So that’s gonna be kind of ongoing and a lot of fun. And then the traditional book I have coming out in the fall through Scholastic is a called Floors. And that is a very — this is my best shot at — I grew up just loving Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
And this is — I think this is kind of a throwback to that kind of a story where it’s a kid who lives in a little, tiny, very odd hotel on a gigantic piece of land in Manhattan. So the land is worth this untold amount of money. And everybody wants to get their hands on it. But the little hotel is sitting there, and the person who runs the hotel vanishes. And it’s this kid’s job to figure out — there are a lot of secret rooms —
Franki: What fun.
Patrick: — and hidden doors and things. And things keep showing up for him to solve. And it’s just gonna be a lot of fun. So that’ll be 9 to 12 of solidly middle grades with a lot of good, big laughs and a big adventure. And then for Harper — I’m kind of settling in with Scholastic to do the middle grade books. And settling in with Harper to do the YA stuff. So I’ve got a project coming out called Dark Eden in the fall. That’ll be a little bit – I think they call it winter. So it’s more like November. But that’s gonna be similar to 315 in that it will begin as an app.
And so you can download the free app. And what you do with Dark Eden, though, is you go inside the story. So this story takes place in a couple of buildings way out in the woods where these kids are getting cured. And there’s this very sort of strange thing going on. They don’t know what’s happening. And it’s gonna be a lot of fun. So you go into the story and you’re actually staring down at the top of a building that you can kinda —
Patrick: — see the floors. And then you slide your thumb over and you kinda slide around to the different rooms. And you’re looking for numbers. And so if you find the number one, you push on it. It’s either gonna be a journal entry, an audio diary, a slide deck, or a video. And you go around and for each part of the story there are seven or eight things that you have go around and find and unlock. So it’s real immersive story telling.
And then that’ll come out in about 13 different parts. Those can be serialized. There will be a new part each week that’ll come out for 13 weeks. And that’ll tell the whole story. But if you wanna read it as a traditional novel — and this is one the things I’m really trying to get back to is how do we – can we figure out a way to do both? And so this is an opportunity to give a story that will reach every kind of reader.
So if you just want — if you’re a very wired person and you really wanna do it that way, you can experience the entire story of Dark Eden on your — with the device on your phone. And if you’d rather do it as a traditional novel, then the novel will be just a standalone totally nice, big, chunky, paranormal story.
Franki: So it’s almost who’s got the projects. Wow.
Patrick: So that’s coming out.
Franki: Is that fall, too?
Patrick: It really is. So we wrote — yeah. I wrote the book. And then we had to rewrite the entire thing. So I wrote it twice so that you could have one that was a traditional novel and one that is a multimedia immersive experience telling the same story.
Franki: Nice. Well that’s exciting. Sounds like some really good stuff. And you said you had six other projects in the works, huh? So we’re gonna see lots —
Patrick: So then there’s more —
Franki: And there’s more coming from — you don’t —
Patrick: Yeah, they’ll be more things like that. I just wanna say — just to reiterate, I love traditional books, and I think we can reach a lot of kids with traditional books. And I wanna keep doing that. And I completely support that, of course. And again, I just hope that as educators, writers, publishers that we just — we recognize that the world is changing. Young readers are moving in a certain direction. And I think it’s pretty smart for us to lead and to kinda move out in the same directions that they’re going to make sure we just keep capturing young readers.