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iBrothers Grimm: The eBook is dead, long live the eBook


This is a guest post by Chris Stevens. Chris is one half of Atomic Antelope, a small iPhone app studio with just two staff — one based in London, the other in Seattle, USA. They have made the iPad’s best-selling children’s book app to date.

When a tiny software company decides to battle it out in the iPad App Store, what more unlikely weapon could they pick than the illustrations from a dog-eared copy of Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865? Little did Ben (the other half of Atomic Antelope) and I imagine that our adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic book would rise to become the number one kid’s book on the platform, beating Marvel, Disney and Amazon to the prize.

While many readers complain that many eBook publishers seem to be stuck in the CD-ROM hell of the 1990s, we designed Alice for the iPad to look like it’s fallen straight out of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The book responds physically to the movements made by its reader. Tilt your iPad the right way, and Alice shrinks. Tilt it the other way and she grows. You can throw cards at the Queen of Hearts, or shake the Mad Hatter’s bobblehead. Everything reacts, and it seems like the world loves our creation.

So how did we, as if by magic, wrestle Disney and Marvel to the floor with a book that is over 145 years old? The answer seems to be the marriage between physics and storytelling. Alice uses cutting edge physics and accelerometer readings to create the effect that brings static illustrations to life. Ben is unique in being able to code this stuff, and I like drawing. I think Carroll would have loved it.

We see ourselves as post-Brothers Grimm. The Grimms went around collecting folklore and translating it into the written word. We’re picking up where they left off. We’re updating great works of illustration so they can compete with 24 hour MTV. Alice is just the start of what we’re planning.

 

You can’t hold Alice for iPad without a sense that this might actually be the future of children’s books. While critics will inevitably complain about the dumbing down of literature, others will wisely point to the fact that any book that gets kids involved in reading is welcome. It’s also a great example of how, as a culture, we can reuse our art.

When we looked at Alice in Wonderland and the original illustrations by John Tenniel, we thought: Why hasn’t anyone done anything with these wonderful public domain illustrations? As a society we’re constantly having copyright rammed down our throats, but there’s this wealth of amazing material out there in the public domain.

But don’t think this came easy. I scrubbed floors and washed car windscreens at traffic lights to pay for food to keep this thing afloat, “and what about Ben?”, you ask.

“This was the biggest gamble of my life”, Ben told me this morning when we discovered we’d won the App Store jackpot. “Imagine giving up everything and working twelve hours a day, day after day, never knowing if it would ever amount to anything. Our app store success is a vindication, to say the least.”

Perhaps more interesting than the success Alice has seen, is the way we worked on the app. Ben is based in Seattle, while I’m over in London. Yes, we wrote Alice over Skype. What’s more 21st Century than that?

“We’re working 24 hours a day”, Ben would often joke during the app design process. “Although we’re two people, if you imagine we’re one then we’re like the sort of soldier the US government wishes it could build.”

Alice for iPad is available now in the Apple App Store [download link].

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