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February 23, 2007

The K in D&K

Last week, my supervisor mentioned she'd heard that some of the profits from DK books had gone into building the first organic farm to turn a profit in the UK.

So I googled "DK organic". Amongst a load of links to booksellers offering me illustrated guides to gardening, I found this article. It turns out that Peter Kindersely made £100 million when he sold DK. (If anyone was in doubt that the book business is a business, that should make them think). He'd become interested in the organic movement after DK published The Complete book of Self Sufficiency in 1975 and started, gradually, buying up farmland. Thirty years on, Sheepdrove Farm has a turn over of over £2million.

The article is fascinating, suggesting Kindersley aims to build Sheepdrove into a brand, in the same way DK has become and building a similar education and profit approach to business.

February 13, 2007

the branded book

In a reflection of Katherine's post on the paper she gave at Imperial last month, I thought I'd give some overview of the recent one I gave at her department, which discussed the use of branding in children's non fiction.

I came to the subject of branding because I was looking for ways to consider the notion of series within children's non-fiction. Many non-fiction children's books come in series form, for example the Horribles (pictured) or Eyewitness Guides.

everything's horrible

There is little about series books in children's literature studies. What there is tends to be exceptions which prove the rule that children's literature studies sees series books as popularist trash, undeserving of research. As one critic put it, they are the "literary equivalent of junk food". The biggest problem for me is that the small amount of work there is talks almost exclusively about fiction. This gap in the field got me thinking about what exactly the series was in non-fiction. There is little sense of change over time, no feel of narrative whole in completing the series. It's not characters which are repeated as much as symbols, icons and styles. I started to wonder if we'd be better off thinking of Eyewitness or Horrible as "brands" rather than "series".

I also think we need to address that these books are marketed as brands. There are "spin off" products for the Horribles (Katherine's last post is an example of one, there are also toys, magazines, activity books). Such branding is as true in fiction as it is non-fiction. I once saw a Jacqueline Wilson taxi-cab; pink with the tagline "every girls best friend" emblazoned over the roof. Children's books are marketed commodities and I think children's literature studies would do well to critically reflect on this.

My paper was very much a "work in progress". In my further work on this area I want to consider the implications of branding media - branding a soap is one thing, but media carries ideas and information. Do we require our knowledge to come with a stamp of some form of trustworthy organization? I also wish to consider the formation of identity which comes with branding, ideas of "brand loyalty" and membership of a group of users of a particular brand.

I'll leave you with some links to examples of branded children's non-fiction books. I think they all use branding in different ways.

As I said earlier, this is still work in progress - it'd be interesting to hear anymore about what people think on the topic.

Chemical Chaos: the CD-rom review

Ok, I admit that I picked up a box of coco pops for the free Horrible Science CD-ROM 'Chemical Chaos', conveniently positioned in a die-cut out of the front of the box; as Alice mentioned at her Reading seminar, this is some pretty serious brand strategizing!

Now for my amateur review. I should have known better, but I was slightly dismayed that this is a PC only disk, though I managed to open it up, very slowly, on some emulation software.

Having read somewhere around 8 or 9 of this series (no match for Alice, no doubt) I feel quite familiar with the writing and feel of the books, but it hasn't quite come across in much of the CD. It feels mainly like some sort of time warp to 1996 when CD-roms were actually a thing. The interface is fun, especially the sound effects, and there is a lot of information on the disk, though much of the straight text would have been easier to get through in a book.
The quizzes are much better suited to the screen, but the creators neglected to think through the tasks involved from our end, and the result is a very frustrating grind through random selections to find out correct answers!

Interface design is not easy; an interactive environment needs to take into account how users will make their way through a process and build in responses that will be logical, coherent and minimize frustration; but what can you expect from a free disk floating around in a box of cereal.

February 2, 2007

Tracing genres in children's books

Speaking to a small and lively group in science communication at Imperial College a few weeks ago allowed me to reflect on some of the themes of my research, and crystalize the central point of my presentation into a few simple thoughts; so here they are.

I talked about the development of themes and styles in children's books; the overhaul of the Victorian tendencies for moralistic stories and fairy tales in the early 20th century. The Russian Revolution spurred reforms in education and in the status and quality of children's publishing; a new modernist approach was born that combined high-quality illustration, highly affordable production, and more natural themes, such as in this 1928 book by Mayakovsky and Zdanevich, about the circus:


This new approach to children's non-fiction books spread through Europe with the educational reforms of the 30s (Montessori, Piaget, Bakulé). It would reach France and inspire the Père Castors, and later touch Britain, where Penguin would publish the Picture Puffin Books from the 1940s. Though the look and content of Picture Puffin Books was largely a product of British postwar social modernism, their spritiual origin does at least partly stem from the work of avant-guarde Russian artists.

My talk went on to cover some aspects of children's non-fiction publishing up to the present day, but this seems far too much for a single post. The central point was to consider the development of this genre of children's publishing in terms of its historical and cultural development. Too often we assume that the layout, content and illustration of contemporary children's books are complete departures from what came before; we are used to thinking of design as though it is art; the product of a lone genius. In fact children's science books today draw inspiration from earlier ones, both in terms of their form (ypes of pictures, information in bite-size chunks, arrangements in two-page spreads, etc.) and content (science, nature and other 'useful' topics repackaged for entertainment -- or is that 'edutainment').