Writing the Interactive Book
In March 2020, the United Kingdom went into total lockdown. Schools closed immediately, and suddenly a whole new way of approaching education became necessary. This was a shock to all, and schools faced online learning in a variety of ways, some coping better than others, as the nation’s teachers and school leaders had to up-skill faster than they had ever done before.
As an English teacher in a private school, for ages 4-13, I was luckier than many, and our amazing community came together very quickly to design an online curriculum for our pupils. However, we all quickly realised the toll that the crisis was taking, not only on the children, stuck at home without their friends, and hearing frightening news stories every day, but also on their parents, juggling working from home and schooling their kids.
Very early in the lockdown, I came up with the idea to write an ‘interactive book’ to give my pupils something to engage in online besides their school work – and something to look forward to every Monday!
This is how it worked.
Topical Subject Matter
As you will have noticed, if you have read or listened to the story, it is a dystopian novel (for ages 9-12, mostly, though some readers were both younger and older than this) about a group of children in a fictitious UK, who can no longer attend school because the country has been taken over by the Krissmas Party. This political party have bizarrely made it Christmas every day, in order to have complete control of the population by taking away their education. The children in the story find themselves quarantined after fighting back against the Krissmas Party, and, whilst locked in their homes, they discover a secret code enabling them to communicate with each other virtually. After a series of dramatic adventures – in which they rescue the main protagonist’s grandmother (who is trapped in a care home) and eventually succeed in overthrowing The Krissmas Party – schools are finally reopened.
Of course, you will have spotted already that, whilst this is essentially science fiction, there were a number of parallels between the characters’ lives and those of children in the UK (and all over the world) during that time – and that was quite deliberate. Whilst obviously many of the pupils in the school (in the target age group) chose not to engage with the Interactive Book project, the 20% who did described how much they looked forward to each new chapter (each one always ended on a cliff-hanger!), and sometimes whole families were engaged in listening to the next instalment of the story each week. Parents liked the way that children in the story faced similar challenges to those being faced by their own children and said that they were able to discuss lockdown issues through the characters in a non-threatening way.
One Chapter Every Week
I was not writing this book entirely from scratch. It was actually a rewrite of a story written many years ago. To put the process simply, every week I produced a new chapter and published it on our Virtual Learning Environment on Sunday evening, so that children could access it first thing on Monday morning. In addition to the text, I also recorded an audio version, with sound effects and music by my 22-year-old son, Will Davis, for those whom I knew struggled with reading.
A testimony to the quality of this audio version is the fact that 75% of the audience either just listened to the story or listened whilst reading (this was revealed by a poll – see below). My son’s music and sound effects improved with every chapter – one reader said that it was ‘like going to a movie, just without the pictures’!
Will had just graduated from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts with a BA in Actor Musicianship, but was at that time in lockdown with us. In the video below, he explains to the children how he went about the process of adding music and sound effects to each chapter.
I had a front page on the school Virtual Learning Environment that changed each week. It included:
Every week, there was feedback on the previous week’s polls, plus a new poll relating to plot and/or character development. Participation in polls varied, depending on how busy pupils were with school work, but always there was enough engagement to influence the development of the plot or of a particular character. For example, one week, the poll asked children to decide what had happened to a secret envelope that Sham had found and hidden before his ‘arrest’, and the following week, they were asked to guess what else was inside it (use the slider to view both polls):
As often happened, the plot changed quite dramatically as a result of these two polls, due to the children’s voting and also due to their emailed suggestions.
At the end of the project, I asked the readers to choose their favourite character: she turned out not to be the main protagonist, so my last job was to write an additional Prologue, just to introduce her in a more powerful way!
Every week, I added to the previous chapter the pictures that children had sent me during the week, and made suggestions for illustrations relating to the current week’s chapter. Some children became committed illustrators and sent through pictures every week! Here are just a few examples, but you can see their wonderful illustrations throughout the book on this site.
An Empowered Readership
The Readers’ Choices aspect proved to be the most valuable part of the whole project, because there was a sense of ownership by the children and a real passion about the story from its most faithful readers. In other words, the book came alive with the children’s input – it was like a living, breathing entity, filled with their pictures and their ideas. There were characters who mattered to the children and events/situations that they felt they had some control over. In a time during which they felt a lack of control over their actual situation, those who engaged in this creative process felt empowered and motivated.
Naming the Story
The final chapter of the book coincided with the last week of term, and we had a virtual Interactive Book Naming Party, in which some children dressed as characters from the story, my son explained the process of developing his sound effects (one of the children described the audio version of the story as “a film without pictures“) – and we voted on and decided on the name of the book.
The final result is a completed school book, which I am in the process of putting together and printing for my faithful readers – plus, of course, it is now published here for the world to see! Some are interested in a sequel, and we are hoping to start an Interactive Book Club once school life returns to normal.
This is an idea that could be taken up by other schools, libraries and reading clubs around the country – if not around the world – in a variety of ways. All it needs is a little imagination and enthusiasm, from both educators and children, to get it off the ground!
I created this website, so that the children could share ‘the story of their story’ with a wider community. It was such a bright experience in a time of darkness for so many.
Thank you for reading and listening.