|Sarah Towle, StoryApp Author and 2013 SCBWI Summer Conference Faculty|
Sarah Towle’s debut storyapp, Beware Madame La Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour Of Paris, launched in July 2011 to rave reviews and went on to earn a Top 10 2011 App by School Library Journal, a Teachers With Apps Top 10 2011 Tried & True Classroom App, and a Top 10 2012 Educational Travel App by the World Youth & Student Educational Travel Confederation. It is now available in iBookstores. Sarah’s second title, Day of the Dead, will follow in 2013. Published by Time Traveler Tours & Tales, Sarah’s concept combines the traditional power of storytelling with the latest in mobile technology to bring history to life.
Sarah will be on faculty at the upcoming 2013 SCBWI Summer Conference (August 2-5, 2013.) I caught up with her to learn more about her remarkable StoryApp and her Sunday afternoon conference workshop...
Lee: Can you tell us about "Beware Madame La Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris?"
Sarah: Beware Madame la Guillotine is a daylong story-based treasure hunt through Paris at the time of the French Revolution with 18th century convent schoolgirl turned murderess, Charlotte Corday, as your guide. It’s unlike any other tourism app in that it is rooted in narrative storytelling. It’s different from most nonfiction histories in that the story is recounted in the 1st person. Targeted to youth (12+), and the young at heart, it’s been dubbed the next generation of tour guide for a new generation of traveler, perfect for family and student educational travel groups. But you don’t need to be in Paris to enjoy it, evidenced by the many teachers and librarians who have adopted it for curricular use as well.
In the storyapp, Charlotte Corday takes you back in time to four steamy summer days in Paris in 1793, when already simmering tempers came to roiling boil. That’s when she stalked and killed radical propagandist, Jean-Paul Marat. She drove a dagger into his heart as he languished in the bath due to a skin ailment. She believed Marat to be the puppet-master behind the increasing violence later termed the Reign of Terror. She was convinced that if Marat were removed from the picture, the Revolution could return its original, humanistic goals. She resolved to kill him, even though it would mean sacrificing her own life as well. Confident that violence was justified if done in the name of peace, she faced Madame la guillotine calm and erect, assured that her French brethren would one day applaud her.
As Charlotte spins her yarn, she brings the history of the French Revolution to life. Prompts are triggered at certain points throughout the narrative, compelling you to seek out cultural artifacts related to her tale, thus driving both story and itinerary forward. Pop-up windows provide additional information about the Revolution, trivia and tidbits that Charlotte could not have known. Activities, such as multiple choice questions and map-orientation puzzles, ask you to think beyond Charlotte’s story, to consider bigger-picture issues in historical context, unlocking deeper-level understanding of the period. Archival images, including several masterpieces, illustrate Charlotte’s story and offer a subtle lesson in art history. What’s more, the app is fully bilingual in French and English, making it a fun language-learning tool for advanced students.
Beware Madame la Guillotine puts an important past moment in the palm of your hand and invites you to discover history with one who helped make it. It appeals to youth, in part, because no one can resist a good story; in part, because the story is delivered on a device they associate with play.
Lee: How cool! How did it evolve as an app? Was there a moment when you thought, wait, this isn't a traditional print YA Nonfiction book after all!
Sarah: I was searching for a way to bring history to life in an enriching, educational and dynamic way for young people. As a kid, I found history dry, boring, difficult to perceive. But all that changed when I grew up and set off on an expatriate journey around the world. Suddenly, history was fascinating to me because I was steeped in it, surrounded by it, living, speaking and breathing it. That’s when I realized that understanding history unlocks a greater appreciation of people and culture. And not just that of others, but of your own as well.
In 2004, I landed in Paris and flipped for the rich cultural and historical heritage of the city – there’s a reason why Paris is the most visited city in the world. Yet, year after year, I was stunned to observe the stampede of family and student educational tour groups that tromped right past timeless cultural artifacts without stopping to heed their tales. This compelled me to find away to unleash the narratives hiding in plain sight.
By 2006 I was fast at work, retelling the history of Paris for youth, one era at a time, in what I envisioned to be a 12-chapter book, from Roman Paris through today. In 2009 I had completed a 70-page proposal and three sample chapters and was ready to sell my concept to the editor of my dreams. But a series of serendipitous events revealed that the project was destined for digital, rather than print.
I’ve recounted these events in several places, including my website, Katie Davis’ Brain Burps About Books and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, Cynsations. So I’ll just cut to the chase here and say that it was, ultimately, 44 13-14 year olds that steered my in the storyapp direction. These wonderful young people had all agreed to pilot the prototype version of Charlotte’s story tour back when I was considering self-publication in print. In their follow-up anonymous questionnaires, they informed me that they loved the concept of learning history through story. They loved Charlotte and were keen to see her story through to the end. They enjoyed the treasure hunts and learning extension puzzles and games. But they hated having to stop at each point in the tour and read the story out loud.
“It stinks as a book,” they told me, unwilling to spare my feelings. “But it would make a killer app.”
Beware Madame la Guillotine was one of the three sample chapters I had originally prepared for the book proposal. It is now the first in a hopeful series of immersive story-based apps and interactive books about Paris: the digital fruit of an idea initially envisioned for print.
Lee: Was the research you had to do to make the project an app different then if you had written it as a more traditional published-on-paper book or guide?
Sarah: No, and yes.
As far as the writing process goes, No, not really. I researched the history of the French Revolution from every angle, just as I would if writing for print. I sought out as many primary sources as I could and used those to inform Charlotte’s voice and character. I went on many, many site-based research visits to trace her footsteps, to step into her shoes so that I could better imagine what it would have been like to plan and carry out a murder, knowing it was tantamount to suicide.
I also worked very hard to research and think through various issues of craft and genre that came up for me throughout the writing process. Things like: What does it mean to write creative nonfiction vs. historical fiction and which best suits my underlying concept? How do you develop a story arc from historical record? Is it possible to honestly create a compelling character, true to fact, in the 1st person? When can you extrapolate in the nonfiction genre to create emotional resonance between character and reader, and when can you absolutely not?
With regard to the production, however, Yes, my process was very different. For starters, I had to create a tour that intersected with Charlotte’s own journey and make it doable for the reader/user to do in a day. I had to study a lot of digital products, from CDRoms to web-based learning tools to early apps, to envision the best screen-based navigation and user experience (UX). In the app space, we’re not simply turning pages anymore.
Indeed, writing the story was just one piece of this creative puzzle. My research ballooned to include the how to’s of making wire-frames and spec docs; obtaining image rights on a shoestring; recording and engineering audio (also on a shoestring); building a web-based platform to support the project and brand; branding and positioning; learning how to market using social media. And so much more.
The research, and the learning, has been endless!
Lee: Your Sunday workshop (along with Julie Hedlund) is called "Picture Books and Story Book Apps: Same, Same but Quite Different." Can you give us a sneak peak of what the session will cover?
Sarah: Sure! Let’s just say that due to many factors, including fear of financial risk-taking in an economic depression as well as not really understanding the potential of the medium, the first storyapps to appear on the digital landscape were mainly scanned reproductions of former print products. Established publishers have been, for the most part, unwilling to experiment with original content. So, if they’ve produced apps at all it’s been with already branded, tried and true content for which they own the rights. Some of these apps have worked in the medium, but most of them really have not, thus contributing to the debate about whether publishing digitally is worth the expense and effort.
In the last year, however, early experimenters in the digital wild, wild west have come to realize that a new medium deserves a new approach – as I said above, we need not be limited to page turning anymore. So, more and more, original content is being produced specifically for digital media. These products are really breaking new ground and revealing the potential of the form.
Julie and I will be demonstrating this transformation in two ways. We will illustrate the evolution of storyapps, while identifying interactivity that serves and enriches story vs. that which distracts and detracts. We will also offer a model of great transmedia storytelling – that is, storytelling across the media – by way of explaining how a single tale can (and must) be retold and adapted to work best in print vs. digital formats, as well as other media, like film.
Lee: That sounds great! Lots of people see the changes coming to the children's publishing industry as scary - what's your take?
Sarah: I’ve never been more excited for writers and illustrators as I am right now. The Digital Revolution has exploded the opportunities for us all. In fact, thanks to the digital innovations, we are now firmly ensconced in a content-based economy, meaning that writers, especially good ones, are in greater demand than ever.
Digital formats, moreover, are highly visual, meaning that great illustrations are needed now more than ever to lend their spice to all the new written content.
And absolutely everyone is talking about the importance of story, from children’s book publishers to advertising executives to global corporations. Story is both the oldest human art form and the art form of the moment. Stories have the power to unite us, to bind folks from all over the world. And they will go on doing exactly that, with ever increasing reach, until there are no more humans left to recite and receive them. So, rather than bemoan the potential passing of the book – which I do not believe for a moment will ever happen – the challenge today is to think “book and beyond”. That is, to endeavor to produce and deliver our content in the media our audiences most wish to receive it.
This, to me, is the future of “transmedia” storytelling. And why I have now published Beware Madame la Guillotine as an interactive book for the iPad as well as a storyapp. Soon, it will also be available as an eBook for eReader. And I’ve never stopped hoping that it will someday appear in a bookstore shelf, as a traditional print publication. That is a goal I will continue to work toward.
Lee: Does your next project, "Day of the Dead," have a location-based element to it as well?
Sarah: It does. In its eventual app form, it will take reader/users from Les Halles in Paris’ famous Marais district, to the Paris Catacombs, then on to the Montparnasse Cemetery. But, in contrast to Beware Madame la Guillotine, this story and the next one, Long Live the King’s Garden, will be published as interactive books before they evolve into storyapps.
Lee: Speed round! Newest piece of technology you're excited about?
Sarah: Well it isn’t really new anymore, but I remain a loyal fan of the iPad. It has endless potential. It’s so totally intuitive that it has exploded the possibilities in eLearning, especially among early readers as well as autistic and other learning challenged populations. There’s so much you can do on an iPad. And, well, everything on it just looks great!
The one downside of the iPad was once the expense. But now we have the iPad mini, which does everything its bigger cousin does, though in a smaller display.
Lee: Coolest French Revolution fact you learned that surprised you?
Sarah: That the guillotine is really small and surprisingly compact – not much wider than a human neck (I don’t know why I imagined it otherwise). That it was totally portable. And, that its use was not abolished in France until 1984.
Lee: 1984??? That is surprising! *pulling my collar* Black and White Inspiration for the Saturday Night Gala?
Sarah: The printed page. Obvious, yes. But ironic, too, at least for me since I am, thus far, a bullishly digital gal.
Thanks so much, Sarah!
To attend Sarah's workshop and experience all the craft, business, inspiration, community and opportunity the SCBWI Summer Conference offers, you'll need to be there yourself. Find out all the details and register for one of the few remaining spaces here.
For more on Sarah, visit her website here.