That scary looking fella in the picture above? That's the bad guy in The Dragon Defenders novels - The Pitbull. You can see him by downloading a free app onto a device, and holding the device over a certain page. In each Dragon Defenders novel, there are four or five bits of digital content available.
When I chose to include augmented reality in my junior novels, I thought long and hard about it. There's a bit of the literary purist in me - that a book is a book, and that the visualisation of the story should take place only in the reader's mind. So it wasn't a decision I made lightly.
That hesitancy also dictated what I would, and wouldn't, include as digital content. For example, I decided never to have the three main characters - Flynn, Paddy and Briar - feature in any of the video clips accessible via a device and the AR Reads app. I also wanted the place - their paradise island - to remain purely a figment of the reader's imagination. I realised if I was to do it I needed to strike a balance. And, importantly, I wanted the books not to have to rely on the digital content - I wanted a reader to have the option whether or not they wanted to use a device, and for that decision to have no impact on the enjoyment of the story. I also didn't want to exclude anyone without access to a device.
I won't lie - I took a bit of flak. Not much, but there were those who thought it was a bad idea, that it would detract from the experience of reading the book. There were others who thought I was gamifying books, but in truth, a reader of one of The Dragon Defenders novels probably spends 0.1% of the time they're engaging with the books with a device in their hand. They look at the content, then move on, back to reading.
Now, a couple of years in, and with three bestselling novels on the shelves, I can happily say it is an experiment that paid off – most gratifyingly in ways in which I didn't expect.
I began to get emails pretty soon after publishing The Dragon Defenders - Book One. Usually from mums, sometimes from dads, occasionally from teachers. They all said the same thing. Their son/daughter/niece/nephew/etc was reading my books, where previously they showed no interest in reading at all. They were reading like crazy, begging for another chapter before the light went off. Of course I like to think they were enjoying the story, but I also know that they were motivated to get to the next bit of digital content – particularly for those kids who would live on computers and video games if they were allowed.
I knew it was a success when one mum emailed to tell me this story: she walked into her 10-year-old reluctant reader son's room at 10.30pm one night only to see a dim light coming from under the duvet. She threw back the covers to see that he was using the light from the iPad to read The Dragon Defenders!
The Dragon Defenders books are being read all over the country in bedrooms and classrooms and it's gratifying to know that they're being read by those who, given a choice, wouldn't normally pick up a book. Like I said, I tell myself that the story is what really captures their imagination, but if not, and the only reason they're reading is to get to the next bit of augmented reality content, then I'm OK with that too.