Continuing our exploration of the world of e-books for children, we’re asking practitioners and people on the ground about some of the challenges and triumphs for them personally, as well as for the children’s publishing industry as a whole.
Today we have with us Janet Wong, former lawyer turned children’s book author of numerous books, including A Suitcase of Seaweed, Me and Rolly Maloo, Twist: Yoga Poems, and Once Upon a Tiger, an illustrated e-book poetry collection about endangered animals, as well as three e-poetry collections, co-designed and edited with Sylvia Vardell: Poetry Tag Time, p*tag and the recently released Gift Tag. Janet’s many awards include the International Reading Association’s “Celebrate Literacy Award”.
We first interviewed Janet in 2008 and it’s great to welcome her back to PaperTigers to talk here about her experiences with e-books.
What was your inspiration for writing e-books? Was that your intention from the get-go, or was there an evolution in your creative process?
Sylvia Vardell and I hatched our PoetryTagTime project one year ago at the NCTE convention with one simple goal: to make poetry an impulse buy. Poetry books are too often neglected, left to collect dust on bookshelves. We wanted people to hear about our books, read a sample poem, click “buy” (for no more than the cost of a cup of coffee)–and fall in love with poetry!
Children’s books, particularly picture books, present specific challenges to the e-book industry in terms of faithful reproduction of art and story. They also present exciting opportunities for new forms of interaction. What limitations or challenges, expected or unexpected, have you personally experienced creating e-books for children, and in turn, what benefits have you discovered as compared to printed books?
Designing for the small black-and-white screen of the Kindle isn’t easy, especially since you can’t know what size font a reader will choose. A child who chooses a large font might end up breaking a poem’s lines in places where a line break might be, well, ugly. For our third PoetryTagTime venture, GIFT TAG, Sylvia came up with the name “Kindleku” to describe the form that we “invented” for the Kindle screen. This form allows a maximum of 10 lines and 25 characters per line (including spaces)–the most that will fit on a Kindle screen when it is set at Font Size 6 (though Font Size 4 is, in my opinion, the best size for reading most e-books). Douglas Florian called this form the “Kindlekuku” and we acknowledge in the intro that it was cuckoo to limit our poets to 250 characters per poem–but we think the poems are terrific!
Particularly in English-speaking countries, a common concern is the lack of diversity in children’s books. How do you think e-books might address such concerns, and how has your work engaged with issues of multicultural children’s books?
More and more people are discovering the authors in themselves and soon will be using e-books to make their voices and stories heard. This is such an exciting time to be involved with books. There will be lots of awful books, just as there are lots of awful YouTube videos–but there will also be indie-published gems. I anticipate an explosion of diversity in subject matter and also books offered in many more languages. For instance, one of the e-books I’m working on is a ballad about the first famous Chinese poet, Qu Yuan, and the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival, that will appear in a bilingual Mandarin/English edition. I’m looking forward to publishing e-book versions of several of my books in several languages, from Korean to Lithuanian!
On a similar note, in the twentieth century the development of children’s rooms in public libraries marched hand-in-hand with growth in the children’s publishing industry. Do you think e-books will change the roles of traditional libraries, and how do you envision e-books reaching children of all incomes and backgrounds?
Thousands of copies of my e-books Once Upon a Tiger: New Beginnings for Endangered Animals and PoetryTagTime have been downloaded by children in Ghana and Kenya through the terrific Worldreader.org program–books that would’ve cost a fortune to ship to Africa. The newest Kindle includes a $79 version; with the abundance of free and cheap books, these e-readers might be the best way to reach children in circumstances where traditional libraries are not an easy option.
We love sneak previews! What are you working on at the moment? Do you plan for it to come out in print, as an e-book, or both?
Right now Sylvia and I are finishing up GIFT TAG, an anthology of holiday poems. This is the third book in our PoetryTagTime series. It will be available as an e-book for Kindles, Nooks, iPads, phones–and computers, too (many people are just discovering that they can download the free Kindle app to their regular computers). The book begins with a Thanksgiving poem by Jane Yolen and contains a reminder of the meaning of Christmas by Lee Bennett Hopkins, a whimsical dreidel poem by Douglas Florian, a Mew Year’s Day poem for cat-lovers by Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis, and 23 more poems about everything from getting your first bicycle to your first bottle of perfume, being a spider in a Christmas tree, and having your Christmas stocking pop!
If you were a fortune-teller, where would you predict the future lies for the evolution of the printed book vs. the e-book generally?
Too often I hear people say something negative about e-books, followed by the phrase, “because I love books.” I love both ice cream and frozen yogurt; can’t we have both? I’ll make a bold prediction: e-book poetry anthologies will actually make print collections of poetry more popular than ever. I think a lot of people who are new to poetry will take a chance and spend $2.99 to buy an e-book anthology like PoetryTagTime, which will lead them to discover a bunch of poets that they’d never heard of before. You can’t read Allan Wolf’s poem in P*TAG about burping up kittens in Shanghai without wanting to read more of his work–which is currently mainly available in print books only.
What’s up next on your to-read e-book list? Do you have any favorite e-books that you’d recommend?
Each week I have a new favorite! Today’s favorite, though, is an OLD book: Opposites by Richard Wilbur. The line drawings come through really well on the Kindle, and the poems beg to be read again and again, of course–even just one poem at a time, when the mood strikes. That’s a great thing about a poetry book: you can read it a poem at a time and not feel like you’ve “lost your place”–and the poems are so short that you can read one on your phone while you’re waiting in line!
Thank you, Janet.
And the good news is that since doing the interview, Gift Tag has been released and is now available to buy… Time to get e-reading!