Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Welcome to the Wild World of Enhanced E-Books

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of my book The Mighty Mars Rovers: The incredible adventures of Spirit and Opportunity just released enhanced e-book versions of my book and three other Scientists in the Field titles. And I have to say, they are pretty dang cool. Here’s a short video that shows how they work:
If you have trouble viewing the video click here.

I’m a pretty low-tech person (lucky to be married to a high-tech hubby and raising a high-tech tweener) and I still read books the old fashioned way – printed on paper and bound with a cover.  But iPads and the like can do something that print books cannot. They can show video.

When I was researching and writing The Mighty Mars Rovers, I discovered a treasure trove of cool videos and animations produced by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab, available for free to the public. They showed Spirit and Opportunity’s launches (impressive billowing smoke at take-off), the sequence of their landings (parachutes deploying, retrorockets shooting, air-bag-wrapped landers bouncing to a stop), and how their robotic arms move. Several videos strung together photos taken by the rovers so you could watch their journeys across the red planet as if you were rolling in their tracks. And update videos showed scientists and engineers talking about their work on the mission – their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and triumphs.  I loved watching the videos while researching and I remember wishing my readers could watch them, too.  But how would kids ever find them and would they take the time to wade through the archives to find the best ones?  I linked to a few of my favorites on my website, but I really wished readers could see the robotic arm in action while reading about the robotic arm.

And now there they are (among other enhancements). As you flip through the pages, small video icons show where to click to view a short video on the topic discussed. My daughter, who has read the book, spent several hours watching all the videos – some of them multiple times. And I think she got more from the book as a result.

But what if kids simply flip through and only watch the videos? Would that undermine the purpose of the book? From viewing the videos, kids would learn a lot about rovers, about Mars and about the scientific process. Some might be inspired to consider a vocation in science. Others might be inspired to work a little harder to overcome obstacles to follow their dreams. But I wonder: Will some kids be inspired to read a book they might otherwise have passed up? That’s something I’d really like to know. Will the enhancements become a substitute for the written word or a way to pull kids in or lead them to a deeper understanding?

What do you think about interactive enhancements in ebooks? What are the possibilities? What might be the drawbacks? Writers: What have been your experiences with enhanced versions of your ebooks? Teacher, librarians, parents and kids: Have you had any interesting encounters with enhanced ebooks?  What was it like? Did it change the way you approached the book? We are entering a brave new world full of pitfalls and possibilities. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Elizabeth Rusch

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