Create Your Own Storybook App

Kath here. Please welcome Julie Hedlund to Writer Unboxed today. Julie submitted one of the winning pitches via the Writer Unboxed Facebook page, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. Julie’s first book, A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, will be released as an interactive storybook app for the iPad in January 2013 by Little Bahalia Publishing.

She is also the founder and host of the 12 x 12 picture book writing challenge, a monthly contributor on Katie Davis’ Brain Burps About Books podcast. She is the creator of Julie Hedlund’s Template for Storybook App Proposals and serves as the “Field Guide” to 21st Century Publishing for Children’s Book Insider. She is also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and The Children’s Book Hub. 

In April 2013, Julie will fulfill a personal dream by leading the first annual Writer’s Renaissance retreat in Florence, Italy.

I used to think that unless I held a printed book in my hand with my name on it, I wouldn’t feel like a “real” author.

 That all changed two months ago when I got the first illustrations for my upcoming storybook app, A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, coming out from Little Bahalia Publishing in January 2013. It was only then that I realized that my story was alive. Children would read it, and it no longer mattered to me whether they read it on a screen or on paper.

I want authors to feel empowered by the revolution that’s happening in publishing right now rather than afraid. Already there are so many new opportunities available to us that authors even 10 years ago couldn’t have hoped for. We have more control (both creative and financial) over our careers than ever. It’s a great time to be a writer!

Learn more about Julie’s innovative projects  and how you can apply new media to your projects by reading her blog, or follow her on Facebook or on Twitter

Create Your Own Storybook App

Despite the seismic shift occurring in the publishing industry today, it is a great time to be a writer. We have more opportunities than ever to build, define and shape our careers.

Writing book (and storybook) apps is one of the new opportunities. However, it’s important to differentiate book apps from ebooks and storybook apps from book apps.

ebook – Electronic version of a print book, or a book composed and published electronically with minimal interactive elements.

Enhanced ebook – An ebook that contains much of the same written content as print books and standard ebooks, but also includes extra material, such as audio or video, similar to the “bonus features” of a DVD.

Book app – A book that requires the reader to interact with the story in order for it to proceed. Also includes non-linear interactivity ideally designed to enhance the narrative. Interactive components can include sound sprites, animation, illustration, music, virtual/augmented reality scenes and more.

Storybook app– Illustrated book apps geared for young children that include animation and other interactive elements (similar to picture books).

The craft of writing ebooks is much the same as writing for print. Book apps, however, require new thinking, planning and plotting. These five “rules” of writing book apps are a good place to start.

1.      Story is king.

This is true for any type of writing, and apps are no exception. No number of whizz-bang features can make up for a substandard story. As much as our job as authors and illustrators may be changing, so too it is staying the same. We must write great stories worth reading.

2.      The format should fit the story – not the other way around.

It can be tempting to let the technical capabilities of the format drive the story (ooh it would be so great to show rain falling on this page since it’s raining in the scene). Resist the temptation. If it’s raining on your page, it’s also difficult to read it!

If a straight narrative is the best way to tell your story, or it requires exquisite illustrations in full-page spreads that would be compromised on a screen, don’t shoehorn interactive elements in. Interactivity should be as considered and purposeful as every word and should only be included if it moves the story forward or deepens meaning or comprehension.

Although it wasn’t originally written as an app, a great example of a story that became better as an app is The Monster at the End of this Book. Many of us remember this story from our own childhood, and it was already interactive, since Grover speaks to the reader. In the app, the children get to actively defy Grover by cutting ropes and breaking down the brick wall he builds to keep them from turning the pages. The reader becomes an active and critical participant in moving the narrative to its satisfying conclusion.

3.      Non-linear elements should enhance, rather than detract from, the story

Perhaps the biggest difference between a book of any format and an app is that apps make use of non-linear storytelling. These are elements that are separate from (but related to) the main narrative. Examples include animation, alternate endings, musical interludes, separate dialogue between characters, games, etc.

The best non-linear storytelling is so relevant to the narrative arc that these features create a reading experience that is greater than the sum of the parts. All without compromising the integrity of the underlying narrative.

A great example of how to strike this balance is Beware Madame la Guillotine. The app’s primary narrative tells the story of a young woman who murdered a key figure in the French Revolution. At the same time, it is a walking tour of Paris as seen from the protagonist’s eyes. At different points on the tour (story), readers can take quizzes or learn more about the historical context. There is even a recommended bistro where users can eat lunch! Alternatively, all the extra features can be shut off and users can either read or listen to the story in English or French.

4.      Think outside the page.

Think of the screen on a tablet as a window into your story. Writers are no longer confined to the limits of the printed page. This is where, assuming you are following rules 1-3, you can unleash your creativity.

Mo Willems could have simply made an animated version of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, but instead he created something new with Don’t Let the Pigeon Run this App. In it, kids learn to draw their own pigeon. Then, with prompts from Mo, they speak into the device to answer questions. The drawing and their answers are combined into their own story, which they can read, play, save and email to loved ones.

In the young adult novel Chopsticks, words are not the only device to move the plot forward. Readers must analyze photos, music mixes, videos, letters and newspaper clippings to solve the mystery of a young woman who disappears.

Both of these apps are examples of genre-bending storytelling that go beyond where print alone can go, and with great effect.

5.      Don’t be tied to a single format

Finally, remember that you are not confined to a single format, even with one story. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore began as a short animated film (which won an Oscar), then became an app, then a printed picture book, and now there is an app solely for interacting with the printed book.

After Lessmore, author/illustrator William Joyce created a new transmedia story with his Guardians of Childhood series, which includes picture books, chapter books, apps and a feature film. Joyce is creating story worlds rather than single narratives. Readers consume the story in all its forms because they fall in love with the characters and the world itself.

So if you plan your story across multiple formats, think about how the each can complement or enhance the other. I highly recommend this recent podcast interview, where Joyce discussed his creative process in more detail.

As always, the best way to study the craft of writing is to read, read, read, and in this case play, play, play with book apps in order to learn what works and what doesn’t, what is possible and what is yet-to-be-created.

It is indeed a great time to be a writer.



    • says

      Jacko, “Choose your own ending” is certainly one way that non-linear storytelling can be incorporated into book apps. As you point out, that feature has been around for long before ebooks and apps came into the picture.

      But there are many other forms of non-linear storytelling too, some of which I mentioned in the post. It’s anything that is layered over the main narrative – separate from related to. Does that help?
      Julie Hedlund´s last blog post ..I’m on Writer Unboxed Today!

  1. Laurie Jacobs says

    Great post, Julie!
    I’ll have to look at all the apps you cited. I’m excited about the possibilities you suggest.

  2. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Thanks for this informative post. And yes, it’s a great time to be a writer!

  3. says

    Julie it is a great time to be an author. So, so many possibilities. Your explanation of the differences between book apps and ebooks, then storybook apps from book apps, finally is straight in my head.

    I’d like to give this a shot in 2013. :-) Thanks, my friend.

    • says

      Beth, I’m so glad. We are still at the beginning stages with apps, so I don’t think everyone is on board with recognizing them as a legitimate form of storytelling – yet. It’s true that there is a great deal of “noise” out there, but that’s true with any genre. Quality will improve as more talented writers try their hand at apps.
      Julie Hedlund´s last blog post ..I’m on Writer Unboxed Today!

  4. says

    I would think this kind of storytelling would be a natural for the best of teachers–you know, the kind who integrate commerce, role-playing, travel, etc, into what others keep boringly didactic. Fascinating and exciting. I would love to know if this solves the supposed issue with young men abandoning fiction as they mature. My bet would be yes, because you can blend fiction and NF so well.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Think Your Partner Doesn’t Support Your Writing? Look Again

    • says

      Jan, I could not agree more! Bewared Mme la Guillotine is a perfect example of how to mix history, art, travel, and culture in a NOT boring package. If history had been presented to me that way in high school (as opposed to long outlines of events to copy from a blackboard), I am sure I would have found it as fascinating as it truly is.

      And yes, apps provide a way to blend fiction and nonfiction in ways never done before. I am working on one at the moment that takes place in Renaissance Italy. My protagonist is an unreliable narrator, so I’m planning to incorporate historical context and facts in the form of “hotspots” that will ask readers to guess whether what the character just said is true or not. The answer will include the history.
      Julie Hedlund´s last blog post ..I’m on Writer Unboxed Today!

  5. Sandra C says

    Thanks for this post! I am very intrigued and can’t wait to check out these apps. Choose your own ending stories were always my favorite…(hello, future writer) now with the added elements you mention above it is indeed a great time to be a writer.

  6. says

    Great post and love the app story you mention in your response to Jan. My toddler loves books in both electronic and print format. As a parent, I’m not always impressed by storybook apps, because misplaced “extras” can take my son away from the story. He’s fine with it, but honestly, it makes me a little crazy. Thanks for sharing your expertise on this issue.
    Stacy S. Jensen´s last blog post ..12x Party!

    • says

      Stacy, I think most interactive features for toddlers in apps can be considered a distraction at best. At that age, they are not able to tell the difference between the interactivity and the main story. I still think it’s okay to let them “play” with storybook apps (better than straight games, IMHO), but the apps should be balanced with a healthy dose of books.

      Once children reach the age of 5 or so, again this is just my opinion, I think they are better equipped to benefit from non-linear story elements that add to or enhance the main narrative.
      Julie Hedlund´s last blog post ..Gratitude Sunday 100

  7. says

    I am most impressed. I want to more more more of Julie Hedlund. I agree that the e-changes HELP, don’t hurt, writers. I also loved your detailed explanation of the terms in the new world. Now… to learn the wonderful ways of creating apps. hmmm? Maybe not. Seems hard. But in this brave new pub time, must be embraced. Thanks again for an informative, insightful post as well as your work continued interest in and work with authors. Good luck on the book launch. I predict a rousing success.

    • says

      Diana, apps ARE hard to do well, but so is any other kind of writing. Thanks so much for your kind comments, and I suspect you’ll have no trouble adapting to the brave new world of publishing. :-)
      Julie Hedlund´s last blog post ..Gratitude Sunday 100

  8. says

    Excellent and enlightening post, Julie! How does it feel to be the go-to girl for storybook apps? :) You are THE expert! The one you said you’re working on about renaissance Italy sounds GREAT!!! Thanks for explaining the terms – that was very helpful. This all is remarkably difficult for me to get straight in my head :)
    Susanna Leonard Hill´s last blog post ..The 2nd Annual Holiday Contest!!!

    • says

      Susanna, I have to laugh because I’m not sure ANYONE can be called an expert in a genre that’s so new, but THANK YOU anyway! Writing the terms in this way helped ME get them straight in my head too. :-)
      Julie Hedlund´s last blog post ..Gratitude Sunday 100

  9. says

    Julie, what an amazing post. The way you differentiate Book App and Storybook App with appropriate examples is an excellent learning for me. Thank You for sharing your expertise with us and indeed this is a great time to be a writer. The Renaissance Italy work of your is surely a path-breaking work like Beware Mme la Guillotine!

    All the best and Keep writing such wonderful posts and books.

  10. says

    Sorry that I’m just making my way over here. I had this starred in my Inbox because I didn’t want to miss reading it!

    Wow! Very informative. I love that you differentiated between book apps, ebooks, storybook apps, and book apps. You summed it up in an easy-to-understand, crystal-clear way! I will bookmark this for future reference.

    And…I am so looking forward to Troop!

  11. says

    Julie, Thanks so much for sharing this! I’m totally busting at the seams to create an app of my own. You explained the process well, and it left me very excited and curiious to get started. So I’m off to search for the next step.