Evolution In Storytelling: How Disney Publishing is Shaking Up Digital Books For Kids

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Disney's Palace Pets App

Disney’s Palace Pets App

Where are digital children’s books headed? The Digital Media team at Disney Publishing believes interactivity and reader-defined narratives are the way of the future.

The line of digital apps for kids from Disney Publishing is breaking down the barriers between games, books, and movies with their line of story-infused apps. “We see the digital format as an opportunity,” said Lyle Underkoffler, Vice President of Digital Media at Disney Publishing Worldwide.

Are They Books At All?

It’s debatable whether one could actually call Disney’s hybrid stories “digital books” because they go way beyond the words-on-paper format of traditional books. Is Disney Palace Pets a story or a game? An app or a book? “It’s all storytelling,” says Underkoffler, “But we’re trying to innovate, learn, and react.” See related article on the Star Wars Scenemaker Storytelling App.

The Disney Publishing apps are meant to be played on tablets, and are priced around $4.99 and below. Disney is one of the best-selling children’s publishers on the Apple App Store. Whereas many digital children’s books still mimic the look and feel of a regular paper books, Disney Publishing has leaped past that model in exploring the interactive multimedia capabilities of digital. Underkoffler told me about some of the ways his team is expanding digital storytelling for kids by a whole new look at page turns, contextually relevant plotting, and parental control.

Redefining Digital Page Turns

“We’re moving away from turning the page,” said Underkoffler. In many of these apps, getting to the next screen takes a pinching motion, not the swiping page-turn motion that’s common for many digital books.

In some apps, readers can move the tablet itself to the left and right to reveal a panorama view of the scenes on the screen. Disney calls this “pan and view” and it’s a natural movement for digital native kids, even if it’s not instinctive to their parents.

As the stories unfold, the page-turns are based more on the activities the children are engaged in, not a linear narrative. “The story beats are all made for digital content,” said Underkoffler. “We give kids active agency in the outcome.”

Disney's Doc McStuffins app

Disney’s Doc McStuffins App

Letting Kids Drive

“Freedom of expression is important for kids,” said Underkoffler. The Disney Storytime app allows kids to choose from dozens of stories to read as well as create an avatar with their own photo. Underkoffler calls it “integrated storytelling.”

The Doc McStuffins Paint & Play app has little in the form of narrative, and almost no reading beyond the Big Book of Boo Boos—so it would not be called a book in today’s definitions. The app is built to allow kids to engage in imaginative play, and as such, one may conclude that it allows kids to create their own narrative as they engage.

“There’s a lot of personalization in our apps,” said Lyle Underkoffler, VP Digital Media at Disney Publishing Worldwide, “Our apps make the child the star.”

Parental Control

Tablets are used by individuals, whereas traditional picture books are often shared by adults and children together. This difference in “togetherness” is something Disney is paying attention to. One of the tenets behind the work at Disney Publishing is that while creating the apps, the teams ask themselves whether the stories and media allow families to come together.

“Our apps provide agency for children and parents—though it’s different agency,” said Underkoffler. Some of the game-oriented apps, such as the Doc McStuffins line, include activities that extend beyond the screen and encourage engagement from parents.

Parents’ agency concerns controlling the content they see within the app, the reading levels, and other elements such as timing and skill levels. Both parents and children use these apps, but often separately and in different ways.

New Digital Storytelling For Kids

If you’re an adult, you may scratch your head about whether the Disney multimedia apps are books or whether contribute to literacy. But today’s youngsters are the first generation of digital-native kids, and old definitions do not apply. “The expectation is that there is an evolution in storytelling,” said Underkoffler, “The constraints of yesterday aren’t there today.”


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