Digital Picture Books: The New Way to Teach Reading?

We all know that digital is the wave of the future. iPads, iPods, there isn't something that can't be watched on a screen right now...or read. Last week I spoke to Valerie Mih and Wallace E. Keller of digital publishing company, See Here Studios, about the first digital, 3D picture-book The Wrong Side of The Bed 3D! I had a lot of questions, namely: what is a digital picture book? How do we feel this is changing the way children read? What is the writing process like? They were kind (and patient) enough to chat me through it.

Explain to us what a 3D picture book is.
Valerie: A 3D picture book is augmented from a 2D picture book using stereoscopic artwork. There are two images built into the frame which in 2D looks like one but using the 3D glasses separates the images back out. One eye sees one thing and the other eye sees another. The Wrong Side of the Bed 3D can be read in 2D and 3D.

I want to talk a little bit about this digital age of reading. Many people, myself included, are wary of all this new technology when it comes to literature. Picture books are the first books children come to. What are we saying if their first reading experience occurs on the screen?
Wallace: Well, children are exposed to television very early on. They know the form. What we're trying to do in our work with these picture books is strike a balance between text and image. We don't want this to read exactly like a book, or else what is the point? We also don't want it to be too image heavy and just develop into a short film. It's about balance, and we're constantly re-assessing and working on that. We want children to have a dynamic reading experience. We're passionate about that.

How do you feel it's changing the reading process?
Valerie: Our goal is to make digital picture books a tool for reading, not a hindrance. We think it helps children really get engaged with the text.
Wallace: Especially when they put on the glasses. It's like, "OK, and now it's time for reading."
Valerie: It's an interactive event. They retain the books more because they are experiencing them on several levels.

Let's talk about The Wrong Side of the Bed. How is the writing process different on a digital picture book as opposed to in print?
Wallace: It's a very different process. It's a broader theater, if that makes sense. There are so many other elements at our disposal and those elements effect the way the story is told. For instance you really don't have to be a slave to any kind of 32 page spread. The images are dynamic and more than one can be represented on a page. I love that the book is alive like that, it's really in motion.

What do you say to people who feel like these digital advancements are making reading too gimmicky?
Valerie: Yes, people do feel that way but if you think about it, authors and artists have always kind of pushed the limit. For example, those tactile picture books that used to exist when we were kids.
Wallace: The ones you could touch. Even the "choose your own adventure" books.
Valerie: There has been interactive text since the beginning of the written word. We are not trying to replace print but instead expand and build on it. We are excited about using the medium to get children MORE interested in reading.
Wallace: We also feel that there is a lot of opportunity for growth. For children to grow up with these books and continue getting something out of them.
Valerie: I was in a second grade classroom the other day and all of the children were captivated by the story. We hope that older children will stay with these picture books. That's important to us.

Well, that is my soft spot. Older children reading picture books? That I love.
Valerie: We truly think the digital medium is the way to bridge the gap and expand the market. There are just so many ways to be involved with these books. It's really an ultimate reading experience.

Can you tell us a bit about See Here Studios and how you began?
Valerie: Both Wallace and I have a background in independent production and we wanted to create something that was ongoing. Most of my projects were single model--project to project--- and we wanted a place where we could have a creative home. Then the iPhone came out, which was hugely appealing for independent artists, and then the iPad, which just made illustration-focused works (like picture books) seem like a no-brainer.
Wallace: It was the natural thing for us to form a partnership. We wanted to have the ability to produce new works together.

What's next?
Wallace: We're creating more digital children's books, including working with other author-illustrators. We get a lot of submissions but honestly, it's tough to say exactly what we're looking for.
Valerie: I suppose we're looking for a bit of a cutting edge, unique style. We are also doing a lot of really neat things with kinetic typography, playing around with making the words on the page come to life.
Wallace: We've given images life but we feel giving words the same power could be really amazing.
Valerie: We're exploring educational research, studying different schools of thought on how children learn to read, such as Rudolf Steiner's philosophies. He believed that it helps children learn when letter forms are described in meaningful illustrations, so the letter shapes becomes evocative and alive. We'll be playing with that in some of our upcoming titles.

Thank you, Valerie and Wallace!

If you are in the San Francisco area and would like a chance to see Wallace read from The Wrong Side of The Bed 3D! live readings will be held at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum on Saturday July 31 from 2-4pm and San Anselmo's Play-Well TEKnologies on Friday August 6 from 7-8:30pm. Both readings are open to the public and free 3D glasses will be provided to the audience.