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The Innovators of Children's Book Publishing
A Look at Workman's Children's Art Team
At right: Nathalie Le Du, Senior Editor. Photo credit: Tae Won Yu.
IP recently had the chance to speak with the Kid Collective at Workman Publishing, a talented group making headlines with their interactive and innovative publishing projects. While some publishers are abandoning print in favor of engaging children’s book apps and digital forms, Workman is filling that physical book void in the most creative of ways from their design studio, the ‘art cave.’ Their recent book projects utilize the physical parts of the book – from the pages themselves to their fun additions like enclosed stickers – to playfully engage the reader. This recent work in “interaction design” has produced some incredible books from the Workman team, many of which can be viewed here and in the sidebar at the right. We spoke with Nathalie Le Du, Senior Editor, about Workman’s creative process and what makes their art cave so successful.
Train by Mike Vago
IP: Your books require a lot of paper engineering to bring their creative quirks to life; how closely do the concept and the actual production intertwine in your office? Are there ever hiccups bringing the idea to reality?
We don’t think of concept and production as just intertwined, but, rather, we treat them as one. We’re constantly asking ourselves, “What necessitates this as a physical object?” So, the books that we create and fall in love with usually demand some sort of one-of-a-kind production.
And I think this ethos is just an extension of who we are as the Kid Collective—a collaboration of designers, paper engineers, inventors, artists, educators, writers, and editors. It’s a kind of braintrust, and we’re all in on each book from the very start. At other publishers, where an idea might come from an author or an editor and then slowly find its way to production only after being cemented in place, we build a book from the ground up as a team and each person is tinkering with it with his or her own expertise. In other words, every person is pushing the book towards excellence in his or her own unique way.
As for the “hiccups,” there are plenty—but the iteration of an idea can be the most fun part of the process. When we’re in a room together and we’re identifying and solving problems, it’s a kind of magic—or, rather, it’s like playing a game. We’re improvising, laughing at our mistakes, coming up with new ideas, and refining our approach—together, as a team.
The Paint by Sticker series.
IP: How do you source and manage inspiration? Do you have brainstorming free-for-alls, or is it an orderly process? And how do you separate the good ideas from the not-so-feasible?
As I mentioned, we’re a group of experts from vastly different fields, so inspiration comes from a diverse set of sources. And our brainstorming is both a complete free-for-all and a disciplined process—by that, I mean, we leave a lot of room to play in that collective knowledge. There’s a lot of freedom, candor, and laughter when we’re in a room together. But once we’re hooked on an idea, we ruthlessly root out any weaknesses in the concept—reworking, reworking, and reworking it. The good ideas can withstand that kind of pressure—and, in fact, benefit from it. I think we all feel a great deal or responsibility to make sure each book lives up to what we dreamed it could be. That being said, if an idea isn’t feasible, we don’t necessarily reject it altogether either. Sometimes technology just needs time to catch up to our dreams.
IP: As the recent WSJ feature on Workman notes, you are producing books that can only exist in the physical world. With so many companies focusing on digital as the "interactive" platform of the future, why did you decide to go physical?
We’ve all been under the spell of books since we were kids, so it’s as much an extension of our personal stories as the kind of work we want to create. But also, there is a huge gap in publishing right now in the field of “interaction design.” Board games and video games (and to some extent, streaming television) have been making giant strides in the field. We want to combine our love of substantive, informative nonfiction with the modern advances in interactive, play-based experiences and learning. Essentially, we just want to make things that kids would prefer to video games.
IP: Are there any recent or forthcoming projects that you feel really exemplify the creativity of your division?
We’re just wrapping up a new series called SUMMER BRAIN QUEST, which is a brand new line of summer workbooks designed to stop summer slide. Research shows that if kids take a break from learning all summer, they can lose up to three-months-worth of knowledge from the previous grade. So we set out to create a one-of-a-kind workbook experience that would have everything a kid would need to turn summer study into a learning adventure. Each SUMMER BRAIN QUEST workbook includes a pullout tri-fold map that functions as a game board, progress chart, and personalized learning system. Our map shows different routes that correspond to over 100 curriculum-based exercises in the book and 8 outdoor learning experiences. The variety of routes enables kids to choose different topics and activities and take an active role in their learning. We also included 130 achievement stickers to mark progress, incentivize challenging exercises, and celebrate accomplishments. As kids complete activities and earn stickers, they can put them wherever they like on the map, so each child’s map is truly unique—just like each kid.
SUMMER BRAIN QUEST sticker and maps.
The format of SUMMER BRAIN QUEST came out of lots of conversations about what summer means to kids—we concluded that what kids want is a game, what they need is a workbook, and what they love about summer is the chance for an outdoor adventure. Those three concepts became the pillars for SUMMER BRAIN QUEST. In addition, we used the map format to guide kids so they feel supported, and included stickers to offer positive feedback and build confidence. We want kids to look at their map and see how far they’ve come, what they have learned, and just how much they accomplished.
To learn more about Workman, visit the website here.