Ever since the Lost My Name books took children's publishing by storm, Wonderbly has been a company to watch. Founded by Asi Sharabi, the business runs on lean startup principles, and has transitioned from a one-trick pony to a serial innovator (it's collaboration with the Roald Dahl Estate, My Golden Ticket, won last year's FutureBook Children's Book of the Year).
Last week, Wonderbly released its latest product, the first in a series, called Mystery Kit: The Curious Case of the Magboggle. This "story that happens to you in real life," provides an interactive kit to help children become not just readers but directors and heroes as they play out a narrative in their own homes.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to catch up with Sharabi and Katy Balfour, the creator or Mystery Kits, to find out about the behind-the-scenes struggles behind the final prodict, and explore how the company is flexing to lure in a new generation of potential bookworms.
Why this, why now? What behavioural trends, and/or gaps in the market, did you spot?
Katy Balfour, a senior producer at Wonderbly and the creative genius behind Mystery Kit, spent 12 years creating immersive theatrical experiences as an associate director for Punchdrunk Theatre. She knows the power experiential storytelling can have and that its impact on children can be particularly profound. She was convinced there was a way that you could distill the essence and impact of this theatrical work into a kit that would help empower adults to create magical, story adventures for their own children.
Immersive is quite a buzz word- particularly in terms of technology with the lastest AR and VR stories being constantly in the news. And while tech is major part of our DNA, we were never keen on making something that involved kids retreating into screens. Katy wanted to create a product that made them engage with real life. For a fictional world to interrupt their ordinary day, turn everything on its head and make them think that perhaps the real world is a little bit more magical and mysterious than they thought.
The popularity of products like ‘Elf on the Shelf’ and ‘Fairy Doors’ convinced her that parents enjoyed this kind of play, but she felt these products seemed to be missing a vital trick- the interactions are very transactional, going back and forth but not building or leading anywhere. And they tended to focus on rewarding ‘good’ behaviour and threatening 'bad'. She wanted to create a structured narrative- with a beginning, middle and end- that would take the children on a journey. She wanted them to feel powerful and important and to introduce them to an authentic, believable character that could come in and out if their lives, igniting their sense of adventure.
What dead ends do you go down, or pivots did you make, while developing the product?
Many. In the first iteration of the kit we made the creature far too scary- there is a tremendous responsibility when creating a story that, to the child at least, appears real. Tension and fear must be used carefully. They are essential, in order for the child to feel a sense of accomplishment it cannot be too easy or safe- there must appear to be real jeopardy and consequences if the Magboggle isn’t thwarted- but this needs to be tempered with support, guidance and empowerment of both the child and adult on the adventure.
Another key area which took many twists and turns was the visual language of the kit. To create something that was both engaging to children but also felt authentic and real was a complex design challenge. It was crucial that the artefacts that the child interacts with did not feel dumbed down or as though they were created for children. They had to feel legitimate so that they helped draw the children into the adventure. Anything that felt fake could be the difference between a child believing in ot or not. It took several iterations and a lot of creative and committed work from the Wonderbly design team to strike the right balance.
The instructions were probably the hardest part to crack. Katy’s instinct is to give lots of information, lots of support, to provide lots of ideas - but no one wants to wade through pages and pages of text. By whittling it down to the essentials and then encouraging people to use their own creativity to embellish and adapt the material, they can tailor it to the needs of the child.
What have been the trickiest challenges in getting it produced?
Landing the final format. Early iterations had lots of different parts and were labour intensive. Letters were sealed with black wax, there was printed material but other objets too - feathers, lockets, keys. It was very complicated, not just to mass produce but for a consumer to create. By asking people to use things that they have in the home to add texture and by being creative with design we have created something which feels much greater than the sum of its parts.
What are you particularly proud of in terms of the finished result?
We love that when you open it and begin to flick through the props booklet, you can see the world which you are about to create. We’re so proud that the families who tested it got such pleasure from it, and that we’ve created a product that the whole family can enjoy together, where adults get into it as much as the kids. And we’re so excited that we are bringing a whole new form of storytelling to children everywhere - stories that they don’t read or watch, but stories that happen to them, that they live.
What’s next for Wonderbly?
Loads...as some might have seen, we’ve teamed up with the brilliant SixteenSouth to take the world of Lost My Name, our original book, to the TV screen. We’re heads down, round the clock in development and soon will be on the road to find the right broadcaster.
Following the success of My Golden Ticket, we are also working on another exciting partnership which hopefully we'll be able to reveal soon.
And slowly but surely we're opening up and starting to play more of a 'publisher' game. Katy Balfour is our first commissioned creator with Mystery Kits and we are on the lookout for more. Our mission and ambition have always been to become a global publishing brand that inspires a new generation of creators. We want to inspire and empower the best storytellers, product designers, creative technologists as well as companies/brands to think about innovative personalised products and formats - and come make them with us, so they can leverage our design expertise, proprietary tech and global printing network.