Early in the summer of 2009—many digital generations ago—HarperCollins set out to experiment with several iPhone/iPod Touch apps. We decided to create two apps based on easily searchable and popular topics (example: ABC), and one app based on a classic and best-selling picture book. The staff at Greenwillow Books was charged with figuring out how to make an app of Freight Train, by Donald Crews. Don was happy and willing to experiment, and we were off and running. At that time the field was wide open, and there weren’t many models for us to emulate. Now the technology has evolved so that picture books are adapted as interactive e-books as well as apps, and many of the challenges and frustrations we faced have been replaced by new ones. But here is a record of what it was like in the dinosaur days of electronic publishing.
Our goals for the project were as follows:
1. Create a child-centered app that would be played again and again.
2. Deliver enjoyable interactions with an educational component, excellent music, and surprises.
3. Promote the author and his books; remain true to the author’s vision.
4. Experiment and learn about the business models and about the creative process.
We chose Freight Train for several key reasons. It is an award-winning picture book with sales of more than a million copies. The art is simple and clean and would translate beautifully to the small screen. The subject matter is perfect for the intended audience. The book is linear (it literally moves along one track), so translating to the app experience was possible without creating additional art or files. We could see much potential for interactivity. There was well-known age-appropriate music in the public domain that we could use to enhance the experience for kids. We also had a Spanish version of Freight Train, so we would be able to make the app in two languages. We were further fortunate because Don had created Inside Freight Train (2001), a novelty board book featuring pages that slid open to reveal the contents of the freight cars, so we already had great additional art to use.
Step One: The Editors’ Storyboards
The first thing we did was to storyboard the app as sequential screens. We imagined interactions, sounds, and movement. We thought about the pacing and how we were going to keep kids engaged and surprised. Freight Train (the book) has two distinct parts—the introduction of the cars, before the train moves, and the pages showing the train moving through the landscape. This was a challenge, because we realized that the interactions would primarily happen in the first half of the app. The second half of the app would basically be a movie. We trusted that the magic of the book’s pacing would translate to the app format. We showed our storyboards to several developers and chose a developer who shared our vision.
Step Two: Don’s Storyboard
After we had a developer on board, Don brought his own ideas to the process and refined the rough editorial storyboards for the developer. He also weighed in on music, sound effects, and design.
Step Three: The Developer
Our developer then created detailed storyboards, told us what was possible technically (and what was not), suggested revisions, and encouraged us to move away from the book in order to deliver more interesting interactions, such as an addictive game featuring a mechanical scoop kids could manipulate to load and unload the cargo in the gondola car. But Don opted to remain true to his original work at all times, resisting a suggestion, for example, to introduce an animated opening sequence featuring music and the moving train—it was important that the train move only after the parts had become a whole and the concept of moving had been introduced in the text. We then started the time-consuming (and often frustrating) process of reviewing and approving “screens” one at a time, on our desktop computers—a very different experience from playing with the app on a mobile device!
We decided to create a soundtrack of four railroad songs to play throughout the app. Our conclusion in-house was that music was an important component to the app experience for preschoolers, and we were determined to make the music great. All the songs are new recordings for this app, including one original, extremely catchy song (we sang it here in the office a lot) that the developer wrote for us. But it turns out that seamlessly integrating four songs, regardless of what the user is doing at any point, is quite complicated. Don approved the voices and the music—and even listened in, via a conference call, on one recording session to make sure the tempo and vocal quality was just right. (I don’t think I’ll ever forget that editorial experience!)
MAKING the Freight Train app was rewarding, challenging, exciting, and a true high point of my life as an editor to date. It was thrilling to be a pioneer of sorts—along with Don and colleagues at Harper and Greenwillow—but also enormously frustrating. We were learning as we went, and we were ambitious. The fact that the text and songs had to be translated into Spanish chewed up the memory, making two apps essential. Thus we found ourselves making every change/adjustment/test twice along the way. We adopted new Adobe technology during the build process in hopes of making the memory and art rendering issues disappear. Then Apple rejected the use of that software when we were just two weeks from submission. Our timing was off! We were too far along (and it was too costly) to retro-fit for the iPad launch, so iPad resolution is not perfect and we had to field complaints and deal with confusion about that as well as miss out on some great publicity opportunities. Collaboration between author/editor/art director/digital publisher/developer was new ground for everyone, and complicated. Things that I took for granted for years as a book editor turned out not to be the case here. I’m proud of the Freight Train app, and so is Don. But if a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? Letting people—a lot of people—know that an app exists is a big challenge.
DESPITE the challenges, Freight Train, with more than a million copies in print, now exists as a hardcover, a board book, a big book, a paperback, a bilingual edition, in multiple foreign editions, as a digital edition with music, and as an app. It was originally published in 1978. And it doesn’t show its age. Now that’s a picture book!