February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Nonfiction Transmedia Challenge | Consider the Source

Marc 2Back in November, 2011, the author Patrick Carman wrote an article for School Library Journal  titled “Read Beyond the Lines: Transmedia has changed the very notion of books and reading.” As many of you know, Carman set out to build a pathway “back” to reading for digitally connected young people through his transmedia projects. He explains, “Transmedia, as I define it for the work I do in publishing, is a project that uses multiple platforms to create one seamless story through: the written word, video, audio diaries, illustrations, websites, apps, and social media.”

I’ve been thinking about transmedia from a different angle; I am in the middle of working on two books and in some sense both stand exactly between two distinct transmedia experiences.

Here’s what I mean. For Carman, the goal is to create a “seamless story” across platforms. The story itself begins in his imagination, or, as with a “39 Clues” title, in a larger project that is, itself, a concept, an idea. Inherent in my nonfiction research is exploring “the written word, video, audio diaries, illustrations, websites, apps” though, not yet, social media. And because my sources cross media–and present the kinds of information that really need to be experienced–I have a dual challenge: searching across media, and blending some of the resources I discover into a “seamless” nonfiction book or experience.

For example, I’m working on a book on the history of New York City (to be published by Candlewick in 2017), and was interested in learning more about Manhattan before the Dutch arrived. I found a most amazing site: Welikia: Beyond Mannahatta. By typing in any address in Manhattan (and the site is expanding to encompass the entire city) you can find out what trees grew on that spot, what animals lived there, and what artifacts left behind by Native Americans have been found there. This site does something I could never reproduce in the few pages of my book that will deal with this phase of the city’s history. So how should I incorporate this resource into a print book?

In the past there would be a bibliography in the back of the book, along with perhaps, a videography, or weblinks. The assumption was that access to the Internet took place through immobile, desktop devices, and that not all readers had easy access to them. Today I think it’s essential to include the url, and maybe even a QR code, in the running text. Readers of print books, and not only enhanced ebooks, should be able to experience the depth of the digital resource at just the right moment in the narrative, without putting the book down.

Here’s a different example. My wife, Marina Budhos, and I are just finishing up our second collaborative book–this one is titled The Eyes of the World (Holt, 2017). It is about another couple–the photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Since that conflict was intense, and important, but largely unknown to our readers, the book needs to give them a sense of the war, even as our focus is Capa and Taro. This was a conflict that produced many visual artifacts–as seen in the posters, stamps, and placards in the Southworth Spanish Civil War Collection at the University of California San Diego. We can show a tiny bit of this in the book, but not all the splendors available in the collection. Another way to capture the passions and tragedies of that war is through the songs sung by those who volunteered to go to Spain to fight fascism. A YouTube video documents a concert Pete Seeger gave in Spain in 1993, where for the first time since the war ended in 1939, those words and melodies could be heard in that country. That one video contains a look at the history of a half century in Spain. I can describe this moment, but you have to see and hear it, and witness the aged audience singing to their youth, to really understand the moment.

Nonfiction research is, most of the time, an exploration across media. And now, nonfiction books, can, should, must give readers the chance to experience what those various forms of media have to offer to enhance the narrative set down in text. So that is our challenge–to seek the best pathways into the world (that is what nonfiction does) in any form, to build a compelling narrative in words, but, also, to find ways to weave in the sounds, the images, the videos, the resources that can best complement text and craft a true transmedia nonfiction experience.

That’s what I’m thinking about these days.



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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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