Ask Julie Wittig about the source of inspiration for the whimsical creatures in her new e-book, and she’s likely to shuffle her feet and look down.
But she’s not shy: It makes sense that an e-book titled “Groundlings: The Abandoned Burrow” has some basis in what’s going on under those feet. The writer and illustrator of the book —whose digital design clients have included Disney, Mattel and Sony — can be even more specific about where she was when the idea struck.
“I love to take my dogs on trips across the states, and on one drive, I was in the middle of America, driving through Kansas and Nebraska,” says Wittig, who lives with her husband in Overland Park.
“I tend to daydream when I’m between the places I visit, and I just started wondering what was going on under all that earth.”
The e-book, published by CyberTales and available on iPad or Apple computers using Mavericks, details the adventures of creatures that grow in energy pods in the soil. Each character is unique to the type of soil it draws energy from.
Clado, the main character in the first book in the series, is sure to capture young hearts. The normally timid Groundling finds the courage to take an adventure with his friends.
It’s a book that will teach young readers, primarily those in the 5- to 10-year range, more than just reading skills, Wittig says.
“It teaches STEM principles, as well as reading skills,” says Wittig, referring to the skill set most schools deliver: science, technology, engineering and math. Begin the book, and the reader will discover that in order to turn a page, she will have to follow directions that will build those skills.
But primarily, the author’s goal is to encourage kids to read — even if they’re having fun doing so by tapping a creature’s belly and jiggling the device to loosen-up a rock pile.
She’s been on a tour with the book and visited libraries, stores and schools in her hometown in Wisconsin, as well as in the Kansas City area.
“The response is huge,” she says of her 45-page book. “It’s a way to get kids to read without realizing it, because it’s part game-like and part reading.”
To progress from one page to the next, a child must read, absorb and follow a set of instructions; there’s no jumping ahead to the end of the book. It’s a concept, she acknowledges, not everyone approves of.
“There’s a debate about the benefits of this, but all studies have shown that interaction catches the kids,” she says. “And the linear driven nature of this is unique.”
The characters appear both cuddly and silly. Wittig’s background as an artist for Disney and other animation studios is clear. “I’m a digital artist first,” she says with a broad grin. “But the story-telling comes from my upbringing.”
Her grandfather, who lived on a shoreline in Wisconsin, was a tale-teller.
“He didn’t read stories, he made things up,” she says. “Every story was different. And in the winter, when I was a kid, you had maybe three TV channels, so there was a lot of room for creativity.”
The variation of soil that her creatures live in, from loamy to rocky, reflects the many places she and her husband, a football coach, have lived. When he’s busy in the fall season, she and her two dogs think nothing of exploring the states alone.
“I have a vintage Jeep and my dogs, and driving inspires me,” she says.
“This is just the first of a series, and I have others that will soon be published, as well,” she says, mentioning a short book about a firefly with a broken tail, who is on adventure to get well.
“I love weird, made-up characters, and I feel fortunate that I had a great childhood where I could use my imagination,” she says. “I do this because at heart, I’m still a child.”