Vintage Enhanced E-Books for Your Hip Kids: Living Books, Back to Life

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By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

Ever wish you could go back to how technology was in the 1990s, with its bulky devices, minor improvements in speed and convenience and 16-bit graphics? While the eighteen-inch cell-phone is probably not making a comeback any time soon, you can now buy your children vintage enhanced e-books.

Wanderful Interactive Storybooks announced today the new launch of an old series of enhanced e-books brought into the 21st century: the award-winning Living Books series that was originally produced and distributed by Broderbund on CD-ROMs in the 1990s. The company, now a part of trade and educational publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, sold millions of copies to families and schools.

The books have been turned into iOS apps with little added to the original interactivity and animation aside from new, iPad-friendly navigation, an index of other Wanderful apps and links back to the Apple App Store so readers can buy more.

Like the original Living Books from 20 years ago, the new versions offer animation, interactivity and read-along technology in up to six languages.

The company will initially launch with three apps, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “Little Monster at School” and “Arthur’s Teacher Trouble.” Each app is available for $4.99 for a single language edition or $7.99 for the premium version with a classroom activities guide as well as all the languages. Additional languages can be purchased for the basic version for $1.99 each.

According to Mark Schlichting, who is one of the original creators of Living Books and is involved in the new project, it was no easy matter getting this project off the ground.

In 1998, Broderbund became a part of The Learning Company, which was sold to Mattel in 1999 for nearly $4 billion in what has since been called one of the worst acquisitions in history. Mattel sold what was left of the company for less than $30 million years later and the Broderbund assets ended up in the hands of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which sold them to Wanderful in a deal announced last week.

Once Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sold Wanderful the rights, the company approached the original authors of the books and secured the secondary rights to produce them in this new form from every author but one. Once the rights were secured, Wanderful brought in the original artists and software developers to create the new product.

According to Schlichting, it cost the company about a $250,000 to rebuild the original animation and book engine for the new versions. The new navigational elements and re-sizing the books for the iPad and iPhone screens came at additional cost. All in all, it took about two years to secure the rights and create the product.

Two decades later, the Wanderful product stands up nicely to competitive book apps from companies like Callaway Digital Arts, Nosy Crow and Oceanhouse Media — except with a vintage feel from the original graphics and animation that give books like The Tortoise and the Hare a worn, authentic and precious look.

In the past few months, new research has started to emerge that suggests interactive, enhanced e-books are not as educational for children as reading old-fashioned print books. That research is nascent and Schlichting insists that the new Wanderful product offers a different kind of interactivity that will not distract children from their learning.

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

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