Head-to-head with Neal Hoskins, WingedChariot Press

A version of this post first appeared on the inismagazine.com blog on 19/12/11

WingedChariot Press is an independent publisher of multi-lingual children’s picturebooks, founded in 2005 by Neal Hoskins. In August 2009, they launched Europe’s first ever picturebook app for a mobile device: The Surprise, by Sylvia van Ommen. Five titles have since been produced for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, the most recent beiang, My House, by Marianne Dubuc, which has been heralded as the first truly bilingual children’s book app.

Education, and specifically language-learning, is at the heart of the company’s philosophy, with some titles giving young readers the option of having stories narrated to them in up to ten different tongues. The house style is constantly evolving with each new release, but to-date there has been a conscious effort to not stray too far from the conventional picturebook experience.

Neal demos one of his picturebook apps

Neal demos one of his picturebook apps

Interactive features and sound-effects are used sparingly, ensuring that the text and illustrations remain centre-stage. Readers progress through the story by swiping their finger across the screen, aping the action of turning a page rather than simply pressing a ‘forward’ or ‘backward’ button. If you’re as ham-fisted as me, this can lead to frustration at times, as one’s attempts to explore animated elements within the artwork can inadvertently move the narrative on too quickly. However, smaller hands probably wouldn’t experience the same difficulty!

There is something rather satisfying about the leisurely, uncluttered feel of these apps that perfectly echoes the European sensibility of titles such as The Red Apple and My House; what Hoskins has described as, “the calm aquarium-like pace […] that gives children time and space to enjoy new words.” In The Red Apple, for example, the illustrations on each page remain completely static, except for the constant gentle fall of snow flakes across the screen; a technique which serves to subtly heighten the tale’s wintery setting, without distracting from the narrative itself (see video below).

In terms of fulfilling their educational aspirations, real-world experience has validated WingedChariot’s more nuanced approach, with teachers and students responding positively to the integration of these apps into the classroom. Anyone interested in this area would be well advised to check out a series of videos Hoskins has recently produced tracking the deployment of digital books for both lessons and leisure, within the modern school setting (I’ve included several links at the end of this post).

So what does this true pioneer of digital children’s publishing have to say for himself about the past, present and future of WingedChariot, as well as the current status of digital publishing for children in general? Read on, dear Inisers, and you will surely find out…

TD: Hello Neal! To get the ball rolling, can you pitch WingedChariot Press to Inis readers in one sentence?

NH: As it says on our website www.wingedchariot.comwe build beautiful stories for touchscreens. 

TD: Do you remember the moment when you first saw the potential of using this technology to publish for young people or was it a slow burn?

NH: The Eureka moment came at Bologna in Spring 2008, flicking through colour pages of one of our books as a jpg file on an iPod touch outside my hotel one morning. We started to actually produce digital titles in the Summer of 2009 with an app calledThe Surprise. We made this with another developer (who went bust) so decided to make our own after that, as we thought, “hey this is neat and interesting and right up our street!”

TD: Tell me more about WingedChariot’s digital vision…

NH: We are enthralled by the potential of digital delivery and focus on quality content for language learning and play. I think a quote from Pixar’s John Lassetter sums us up neatly: “The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.”

TD: What has been the response to your picturebook apps so far, in particular the multi-lingual functionality? 

NH: Excellent, multi-lingual is something we felt we could well, so we did it. We are still learning other stuff, we found our digital work in classrooms really rocks!

TD: Can you briefly describe the journey of one of your apps, from source to screen? 

NH: As a publisher we operate are rather like a bespoke leather shoemaker, so they don’t all have the same journey. We find artists and they find us. Michael Slack, the author of Scruffy Kitty, asked us to make an app with him, so we did. Some of the apps are digital-only, whilst others are made from modifying content from conventionally published books.

TD: There is a definite house-style about each of the Winged Chariot titles
I’ve tested. You seem to be resisting most of the ‘cheap thrills’ employed by other developers, in preference of a more minimal, dare I say, traditional, approach. Is this a fair assessment so you think? 

NH: Yes, we have tried to maintain a certain bookish quality in all our apps. First and foremost, we like great art. Some of our apps are not really stories, more like a pure combination of pictures and words. Indeed, My House is a word chase game really. We concentrate on getting the experience of good artwork to kids and families, and we are doing a lot of research into how best to get great content into schools and, most importantly, making it easy to use. We are constantly learning and that takes time. We have one project currently in the workshop that is much more radical in its feature set than what we’ve published to date, but good work takes time and thought. There is a lot of content out there that is poorly drawn but ‘does stuff’ – keeping things simple can sometimes be really difficult. As a publisher of quality picture books we always tried to push the warm heart and richness of our stories. Digital publishing is really no different to conventional practice – a publisher still sits between the reader and writer, but just with new tools in the hands now.

TD: Are there any other digital publishers in the marketplace at the moment who you are particularly fond of or impressed by?

NH: We love some other app story makers and always champion them.There are two that come to mind: Nosy Crow and our Norwegian friends at Snowcastle.

TD: How do you select which languages to feature? Why does this change from app-to-app?

NH: We like to play with languages. We will add Dutch, Korean and Japanese to the new app, My House, soon. Sometimes the choice of languages is due to the author’s nationality. Like everything in apps we have no set pieces, no standard template to work by, and we like that.

TD: Have you any plans to publish on the Kindle Fire when it reaches this side of the Atlantic?

NH: Yes, we will look at the Kindle Fire and may indeed work there. We look at all digital devices with colour touchscreens.

TD: Are there advantages in being an independent publisher in this sphere or are you always running to keep up with the big boys? 

NH: In terms of content delivery it’s a no brainer. Getting content to people in 99 + countries was just not possible as a small publisher of physical books. But now, with digital delivery, it is. People mention costs – and yes they CAN be high if you want them to be – but if you measure your budgets and build a set of good apps, this will get you a long way in these new stores.

TD: Can you foresee a time when you partner with a larger entity in the digital realm as you’ve done with Walker Books in the conventional picturebook market?  

NH: Interesting question! All I can say is yes, maybe that might happen.

TD: Christmas 2012 – where do you see Winged Chariot this time next year? 

NH: In the clouds!

TD: I’m intrigued – is this a metaphor for high-flying success in 2012 or a reference to ‘cloud computing’ perhaps?! 

NH: This is all I can say at the moment, but I will throw you the name: “Storycloud!” 

TD: Curioser and curioser! What’s the plan now as regards expanding into other global markets, such as the US?

NH: The US is the biggest and most competitive market. We are looking at working with app in schools in a district of Canada. Something we could achieve. We usually work with Kirkus and SLJ for our US reviews and of course people review them there every day too.

TD: And in terms of the broader opportunities of digital publishing for children – what challenges/ possibilities lie ahead in the next 12-18 months?

NH: It’s all about the decisions publishers make. There will always be challenges for formats and new devices, but it looks like there will be three major platforms to sell content on next year – Andriod, iOS and Windows Phone 7. There are many opportunities still to be had in delivering a bigger and better experience for young readers. For children’s stuff, I’m afraid ePub just doesn’t do it – the shackles still need to come off as far as some big players in the industry are concerned. I feel that some of the techmakers just want to hoover-up digitized content into epub, which is fine, but real digital application – especially decent colour stuff – well that takes more polish, more code, more daring and more thought. Having said all that, I think we will see some great things start coming out in 2012.

For more on WingedChariot see: www.wingedchariot.com/ or to purchase any of their apps, visit: itunes.com/apps/wingedchariot

YOUTUBE Links – WingedChariot in the classroom:

Children’s views on paper books versus tablets: http://youtu.be/XTw6YJwkaSw

Exploring Stories to Touch: http://youtu.be/8lb3dN37nj0

Children’s reactions to Scruffy Kitty: http://youtu.be/UzVdAiaXx3o

Teaching languages with Stories to Touch: http://youtu.be/eDgq6hvGxtU

Classroom activity using In Front of My House: http://youtu.be/pZj4UJGMy8M

Thoughts on the future of the book: http://youtu.be/lJ4kr_JaPZY

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