IA Italy 2

Hello faithful readers!
I’ve been away for a little R&R, but now I’m back, so look for many new posts in the weeks to come. Here’s something new for the New Year. Enjoy!


Much ado has been made about the demise of the book with the rise of the digital age, and to be sure, e-books are one of the strongest areas of the publishing market. As a confirmed bibliophile, I see e-books as a convenience product that supplements rather than replaces books, and in the children’s realm they now work best for reference applications. As far as children are concerned, the printed book-as-a-perfect-technology is hard to beat.

What I have been watching for in the last few years are cross-over projects which capture both the narrative quality of a book and the multi-media potential of digital technologies. Children today are growing up in an increasingly sophisticated environment, and I was sure that sooner or later someone would begin to publish for this. I think digital enhancements to printed books are inevitable—like book related websites and tie-ins—but this is something different.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a game or a virtual environment. I’m definitely not talking about a toy or a movie. I’m talking about a new medium that integrates the narrative form of a book with new ways of telling the story which are digital. And now I think I’ve found the first completed instance of it.

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Welcome to inanimate alice, an ambitious new on-line serial story co-created by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph (a.k.a. Babel).

IA Alice Russia

This is the dark and moody story of Alice who is eight when the narrative begins. Alice has a problem. She keeps losing her parents. Her mother is an artist, and her father does something covert and shadowy that may have to do with the oil industry. As the series is conceived, Alice progresses from age eight to her 20’s through ten episodes, each set in a different location. Episode 3 was just released in December. There is a tense and suspenseful undertone to the completed installments, set in China, Italy, and Russia. Each episode gets more complex narratively and visually as Alice’s sophistication grows. The sense of menace grows with each episode as well.

What distinguishes this project, and qualifies it as something “new” as opposed to a game or interactive movie, is that the narrative moves in one direction. The interactivity of the experience is confined to advancing the story by clicking a forward command, (think turning the page), and some simple games that Alice has created and shares with the reader within the context of the story. Unlike a game or CD-rom, there are no choices to be made on the part of the reader. Unlike a movie, the story must be read in words in addition to its visual elements. Like a picture book, the visuals exist to support the narrative, not the other way around. The reader reads and controls the advancement of the story. It shares more with a book than other forms of digital media.

IA Italy 1

In an excellent 12/7 interview in The Guardian, Pullinger talks about what her narrative intentions were. “For me, the kind of gameplay in Inanimate Alice is the kind of interactivity I’m interested in as it’s part of the story, not a diversion from the story,” says Pullinger. “As a reader I’m not interested in choice, I’m not interested in having to make decisions as I’m being told a story. But I think that anything that involves interactivity involves a different mindset than reading a piece of fiction.”

This project has garnered an incredible number of awards in Europe, and just by reading the press and reviews, it’s clear that people are having a hard time figuring out what to call this new medium. “Kinetic novel”, “digital drama”, “online movie productions”, “digital fiction”, “new media objects”, “blook” (which I hate), “flashfiction”, and the terribly pedantic “Ergodic literature” have all been thrown around.

Kate Pullinger acknowledges the complexity of this problem. “I think that when a new form emerges, part of the problem is how to figure out what to call it, how to describe it – but what I do know is that I like to make it and people like to read it when they find out about it…” She has more to say about it in a recent blog post.

This isn’t Pullinger’s first foray into digital narrative, but it is the first for children. A previous project The Breathing Wall (2004) tells the story of a man incarcerated for the murder of his girlfriend. Part mystery, part dreamscape, the two-hour CD story is told through two types of narrative, alternating between day-dreams (flash movies), and night-dreams. The night dreams are told with an experimental software program called the Hyper Trance Fiction Matrix, which allows the story to respond to the listener’s rate of breathing via a headset with microphone. (Wild, right?)

IA China 2

Clearly, this whole thing is in its infancy, but I for one am interested in seeing where it goes. Right now there are fairly rigid barriers between what is being conceived as a “book”, and some of the more amazing technological innovations in the video game and digital design industries. As these fields merge more closely under the heading of “new media”, I think we’ll see more and more of this type of project. Pullinger and Joseph are both involved in writing programs at DeMontfort University in the UK, which has a new Institute of Creative Technologies program.

Is there a commercial future here?
No one has figured that out.

Will these kinds of stories completely replace the book?
Not likely.

Are they intriguing?
You bet.


Many thanks to Read Roger for first bringing this to my attention.

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Bonus: Check out an online version of US author/illustrator Jean Gralley’s passionate argument in favor of digital children’s books that first appeared in the January ’06 issue of the Horn Book. She also has a very cool flash animation piece called “Books Unbound” that demonstrates the potential of digital picture books.