October 16, 2012

By Susan Tofte

From Paper to iPad: The Evolution of the Great Cookie Thief

Ed. Note: Susan Tofte is Sesame Workshop’s archivist.

How would you update a classic? Take a treasured story from one era and spruce it up for a new century’s readers?

Sesame Workshop has produced over 1200 books in a variety of formats since the early 1970s. Part of the philosophy of our publishing group is the willingness to tell stories in whatever formats will attract and reach preschoolers. Animated book apps and e-books are the most recent formats in which Sesame Street characters have come to life. For the Workshop, an eagerness to create books in emerging digital formats is tempered by the need to balance innovation with our mission of education. It is a delicate balancing act, but one that the Workshop’s publishing group has pulled off time and time again.

In September, Sesame Workshop partnered with Callaway Digital Arts to produce an app version of the classic storybook The Great Cookie Thief. The story of The Great Cookie Thief originally aired as a Muppet segment on Sesame Street in 1971. Later the script became the basis for a storybook published in 1977 by Western Publishing. The story takes place in an Old West watering hole where residents talk about their collective problem: a thief who has been stealing the town’s cookies. Townfolk compare the attributes of a suspicious character (Cookie Monster) with an image on a wanted poster to determine if he is indeed the Great Cookie Thief.

In the process of transforming the show segment into a book, editors needed to capture the spirit of the story while meeting the curriculum goals of literacy and relational concepts (comparing objects).

Work on a book involves a lot of give and take. There are complex negotiations between illustrators, authors and editors to balance the creative vision for the book with what is appropriate and educational for young readers. When I pulled files from Sesame’s archive, illustrator Michael Smollin’s early sketches revealed notes from the book’s editors, asking him to rethink scenes with cowboys gambling, remove a cowboy’s pistol, and make sure only milk was served at the bar.

Illustrations also needed to remain consistent throughout. The fringe on a cowboy’s shirt, stitching on boots and the placement of the wanted posters needed to look the same from spread to spread.

The most notable request from the editors was for stronger female representation. When The Great Cookie Thief aired on Sesame Street, no female Muppets were written into the script – only cowboys and Cookie Monster. In a memo to Workshop editor Anna Jane Hayes, the team at Western Publishing was passionate about filling that gap: “We are very much concerned with avoiding sexism in our books and hope to include nothing that might seem to be demeaning to women. Therefore, we ask that you take special care in your presentation of the “dancing girls” here. … It is important also, that at least one more woman be included in a position of importance – as a cowgirl with a speaking part.”

The use of speech balloons was an effective way to use dialogue originally written for the show. Yet the placement of speech balloons affects how well young readers follow and understand the story. Editors repeatedly questioned: Do the balloons respond to each other and make sense? The positioning of the tail on a speech balloon could make all the difference in understanding who was talking. Use of overlapping balloons helped make it obvious when two sentences needed to be read in sequence.

When the Great Cookie Thief was adapted for an app, characters were re-drawn digitally, animated, and given voices. New technologies meant more interactivity between the reader and the story, so additional lines of dialogue were written to prompt the reader to participate, not just passively watch the action unfold. To create the app, editors at Sesame Workshop worked with programmers and designers at Callaway Digital Arts to update the book for the new digital format while still maintaining the educational themes of the book.

The interactivity of the app pulls young readers in by asking them to help the characters in the book. It’s the reader who makes comparisons between the wanted poster and Cookie Monster. To encourage this participation, it was important for children to relate to the characters acting as models for action in the story. Editors decided to make a child character already present in the book as gender-neutral as possible. In extra lines written for the app, gender-specific “he” and “him” terms were replaced with “the kid.” Puppeteer Fran Brill was asked to provide the voice, since she’s proven adept at performing both male and female characters on Sesame Street. She was able to create a voice that kids could interpret as either a girl or a boy – whichever helped them engage more with the story.

Callaway’s designers and programmers pored over 100 books from the Sesame Street library before choosing The Great Cookie Thief to adapt as their most recent project. The story won their vote because of its Cookie Monster star (a favorite character among the programmers) and the potential for interaction suggested by the illustrations and dialogue. There was also the hope that the story’s humor and the vintage look would appeal to adults, helping to promote a shared family experience.

The original plan was to adapt just the storybook into a simple story app. But as designers worked with new technologies they couldn’t resist adding a virtual photo booth where parents and kids can create their own wanted posters by adding props, googly eyes, and mustaches to self-portraits and Muppet characters. Editors and artists added wry humor to additional dialog and animations. When a cowboy hunts for his glasses to examine the wanted poster, he first pulls out an array of odd props from his jacket, including a sly homage to Steve Jobs. These additions help with the flow of the story and reward readers for lingering longer on a page.

For Senior Editor Betsy Loredo, working on book apps has required a tectonic shift in her thought process as an editor. In The Monster at the End of This Book, Grover desperately tries to keep the reader from turning the pages of his story so they will not reach the end of the book. When the story was developed into an animated app, it was difficult to imagine how to adapt it digitally when the whole concept revolved around physically turning pages. By accepting the idea that terms like “book”, “page” and “turn” were metamorphosing into something different for kids growing up reading books digitally, the possibility for what a book might become seemed limitless.

Understanding the evolving media children are using to read and having a presence in that media means that Sesame Workshop will continue to use books to extend Sesame Street’s curricular goals, no matter how kids turn the pages.

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