Laurence Anholt has been making traditional books for years, both by himself and in collaboration with his wife, Catherine. Recently, he has dipped his toes in digital waters, working with developers Auryn, Inc., on an app version of the first book in his Artists series, Camille and the Sunflowers.
Find more great apps developed from printed books among our Best Book Apps of 2011.
This app, Van Gogh and the Sunflowers, received a starred review from Kirkus and was named to our list of Best Book Apps of 2011. It tells the story of Camille, son of the Arles postmaster, and his friendship with the iconic painter. The app features a fascinating pop-up design that enlists children in the animation of characters, and it also gives them the opportunity to join in the painting. Perhaps most spectacular is the app’s virtual gallery, which displays a number of van Gogh's Arles paintings and provides extra information about the artist.
Anholt spoke to us from his home in Devon, England, about traditional books vs. electronic ones, collaboration and bridging cultures.
Can you tell me a bit about how turning your book into an app came about?
Sure. I have been talking to Umesh Shukla at Auryn [the U.S. company who put this together] for about five years. Initially we were discussing an animation, but Umesh starting getting into apps and the suggestion came from him.
I had no idea it's been so long in the planning. So you've been wanting to make your book a multimedia project for a while—why?
To be truthful, the original reason was just pragmatic—because that seems to be the direction that children's publishing is going, and most authors are keen to adapt. After a while, I became more enthused myself. I realized that Umesh was keen to maintain the integrity of the book…the softness of the illustrations and the moral aspect of the story. Then I realized the potential of the technology for adding "layers."
What do you feel the app does that the book can't and vice versa?
Well, I think the interactive educational aspects are amazing—the way the reader can enter a virtual museum, for example. I like the painting application, where [children] can color their own pictures. I think Auryn have done an incredible job, and we consulted very closely. They listened to everything I had to say. BUT I would be lying if I didn't say that I have some reservations about the technology in general.
Can you say a little more about those reservations? I think all of us book people share them to some extent.
You see the thing I love about picture books for young kids is that it is a three-way relationship between the child, an adult and the book. The spontaneous chatter [that] goes on is where a kid learns to develop empathy and so many essential human skills. I am a little nervous that kids of the future will get locked into a two-way dialogue with a machine or a faceless entity such as the Internet. The result may be LESS communication, and that is scary.
It's also to do with time. When my kids were little, my wife and I loved to share stories with them. We would enter a completely timeless zone [that] was almost hypnotic. This experience is so soothing and bonding.
Can you talk about the collaboration with the developers? In traditional publishing, authors and illustrators are often kept apart, but it wasn't that way with you and Auryn, I gather.
That's right. I'm unusual as an author, because I am pretty collaborative and really enjoy interacting with people who have other talents. My publishers are very supportive of that, and it's something I have done in various ways. Most interestingly, I worked with a Korean theater company on a stage musical adaptation of this book!
[What] I liked so much about that team, and Auryn, too, is that they were equally interested in the historical background—they really studied van Gogh, and that is always important for me. I do take some poetic license with my stories, but they are based on lots of research. Auryn were very appreciative of that.
I love the way the app's gallery folds in extra information about van Gogh and his art. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
No credit for me on that respect. Umesh Shukla at Auryn is a very clever guy, and he seemed to instinctively understand the balance between content and economy [that] is at the heart of making picture books, too.
Here in the States, we tend to take liberties with the pronunciation of van Gogh: "van go." I love the way the app's narration corrects that. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes, we talked about that a lot. I see that there have been several reviews questioning this: "van goff??" Neither the British nor the U.S. pronunciation is really accurate. In fact, Vincent (a Dutchman) would have said "van hoch." I believe that one of the reasons he got into signing his paintings "Vincent" was because the French had trouble with his name, too. You see, this is one of the things [that] I love about these projects—they raise so many interesting cultural issues for kids.
Do you hope you'll be able to reach kids you otherwise wouldn't with a traditional book?
Of course that is one of the primary reasons for exploring this technology. I have always wanted my books to be as inclusive as possible. But it's a fascinating time for all of us. I have seen tiny babies swiping iPads...it's incredibly intuitive. They are wonderful devices, and I'm fascinated by e-books, too.
I suppose my greatest fear is that future generations will only be able to digest "tweet-sized" bytes of information, and the amazing journey that full-length novels provide will become forgotten. But I am fundamentally optimistic; my guess is that we will experience a pendulum effect, and it won't be long before people start hankering for paper, paints and handmade artifacts again. Then we will find a balance between technology and art.
Do you see yourself going digital with other books? Either more of your series about the artists or some of the books you've done with your wife, Catherine?
I am always ready to explore ideas. It's incredibly good fun, and I don't want to give the impression that I am a Luddite. Auryn are already talking about developing some of the other artist books in my series—there are eight now, and I'm working on a new one about a [top secret] artist! I can't say who, but some people will be pleased to know that it's not another bearded Frenchman!