Deep in Earth's next ice age, stories have become the fuel for life. In the remote outpost of Storyhaven the townsfolk gather to tell their tales. Now though, this precious resource is disappearing. Someone is stealing the town's stories. Deprived of their fuel the fablehearths will go out, the ice will creep back in and families will perish in their beds. In a last desperate roll of the dice, the town’s story shamans develop a perilous means of time travel to allow their most intrepid explorers to journey back into the past to save the town's tales before they can disappear.
Children reading for pleasure at 10 years old is a stronger predictor of academic success than parents’ level of education (Sullivan & Brown, 2015). The powerful mental stimulus of reading boosts children's creativity and literacy skills, as well as positive social and emotional development (Whitten et al., 2016). Reading for pleasure, however, is on the decline as books must compete with video games, streaming TV and mobile phones for children's attention (Clarke & Picton, 2020). Social media like Instagram and Tiktok is increasingly recognised as damaging to young people's mental wellbeing (Rogers & Rousseau, 2022), monetising their need for social recognition from their peers to generate advertising revenue.
Storyhaven is an immersive reading and roleplaying game for children aged 7-13 years old to play with their friends and family, in which they become adventurers from the town of Storyhaven, sent back into the past to save the townsfolk's tales and rewrite them.
By maximising the social potential of shared reading experiences and bringing the story world to life through immersive theatre techniques, Storyhaven aims to welcome more children into the excitement of reading and books, as well as challenging established readers with an innovative new format for children's fiction that encourages them to co-author the narrative alongside us.
Storyhaven's powerful invitation to extend its story world from the inside boosts children's skills of creative writing, critical thinking and self-expression, while its team-play dynamics and face-to-face human connection emphasises negotiation and dialogue across differences.
The experience is driven by a team reading game that can be played on a mobile phone, tablet or laptop. 2-6 players navigate their way together through episodes of a branching narrative (choose-your-own-adventure story), talking decisions over together in a way that creates a fun, bonding social experience.
Storyhaven can be played in a few sessions over one weekend, or spread out longer, like the shared reading of a children's book, over 2-6 weeks, creating a parallel ice-age world families or groups of children can dip into whenever they have spare time. The reading game remembers where they are in the narrative, so they only have to open it again on their devices to continue their journey together.
At key points in the plot the words are brought to life through video messages from immersive theatre actors playing characters from the story world in a way that makes the reading experience attractive to reluctant readers, as well as providing established readers with a thrilling new digital media experience.
Episodes designed for team play lead into episodes for lone reading, which differentiates players' experience of the story world, promoting dialogue in the next session of team play. This harnesses social peer-group experiences to power real changes to children’s reading habits at home as child players will be motivated to undertake the lone reading adventures to collect clues, knowledge, and equipment for their team. By maximising the social potential of shared reading, the prolonged group reading experience of Storyhaven provides an easy and fun framework through which families can be encouraged into supporting their child's reading development outside of school.
Children are invited to create their own player characters from one of the Storyhaven town guilds, who each bring different skills to the team during gameplay, allowing every player to feel like they have contributed to the success of the mission. As players choose their character name and draw or collage the image for that character, this puts the games' diverse players in control of their own representations, which is a powerful device for making children's fictional experiences more inclusive. To mirror and encourage this, the illustrations have been designed to be an inclusive invitation for diverse children with different nationalities and backgrounds to imagine themselves at the heart of the adventure.
Immersion in the game is supported by physical props like a printable map of the town, which can be spread out in front of everybody when playing around a table or taken with players on a car journey or camping trip to support their shared imagining of the story world.
Children love creatively adapting objects they find lying around the house to support their games of make-believe. Storyhaven plays to this need to make a story their own from the inside. An old leather satchel might be transformed into an improvised adventuring bag; a handkerchief and some painted pebbles could become a pouch containing the crystal story runes they save and rewrite on their adventure. The more the children are allowed to contribute to crafting the experience, the more special it will become to them, and the more powerfully they will be motivated by the fiction.
Children keep an adventure journal during gameplay, in which they rewrite the stories they save on their adventure into the town's past. In the plot of Storyhaven, the stories are enshrined within crystal rune stones, gifted to members of the town to enshrine the key meanings of their tale. This device helps children to understand that stories can always be reworked and passed on anew, and helps them towards becoming authors themselves as they rewrite the story world from the inside. As they do, they come to understand how powerful stories work to position their listeners, boosting critical thinking in ways that make it less likely they will be influenced by the polarising narratives of social media and misinformation.
They are encouraged to keep notes on the development of their character and clues to the mystery of who is stealing the town's stories, which helps build literacy skills of note-taking and responsibility for their own learning. By the end of the experience the children will have compiled a real literacy achievement that they can show to family and friends, which further encourages their storytelling and self-expression.
The alluringly designed pages of the journal are provided with the game, printable from any home printer. Instructions for how to make a DIY ancient cover are included, which boosts children's ownership of the experience and pride in their literacy development.
The game is accompanied by access to the website, where children can read more about the story world, explore an interactive town map that will allow them to enter its buildings and meet more characters.
They can upload the stories and artwork they have created during the game to be featured in galleries of player content, read those submitted by other children, and win prizes that will further motivate them in their reading journeys.
Families will also be encouraged to share their illustrated stories, invented player characters, and immersive gameplay spaces on social media via the hashtag #storyhaven.
Create new family customers
During the piloting of Storyhaven with children in schools, a real strength of the project was the way it engaged reluctant readers, who wouldn't usually see reading and books as being for them. Its enticing visuals, social gaming feel, and immersive call to participation takes long-form fiction reading where children are now in their current video-game and social media environment, rather than waiting for them to come to bookshops. This creates powerful new media gateways to the world of reading. One positive and engaging reading experience could open reluctant readers up to engagement with more traditional book forms, generating new family customers for your bookshop. Boys especially can often see book reading as something threatening, at which they routinely fail or are excluded from. Storyhaven defamiliarises the book form of reading, while keeping word-based imagining at the heart of its engagement, opening spaces for different kinds of children to imagine reading as an activity that is 'for them'. Harnessing the social potential of shared reading, Storyhaven supports weaker readers into gradually longer and deeper fictional engagement. By the end of the experience, almost without them realising it, the children will have engaged with a novel-length book text in a way that will give them more confidence to continue their reading journeys thereafter.
A fictional form for children designed especially for independent bookshops
The evolution of bookshops into social, participatory sites of story engagement presents an opportunity for the children's book form itself to evolve to better take advantage of this potential. In conversation with Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books, a leading example of these newly social reading spaces, and the Egg Children's Theatre at Theatre Royal Bath, renowned experts in participatory theatre for children, Wonderspun has developed Storyhaven to open spaces for more child participation within the fictional story world of the reading experience, rather than that participation being grafted on afterwards through author talks or workshops. As child readers are invited to cocreate the narrative through their roleplaying, creative writing, illustrations and crafting, this opens up possibilities for new kinds of immersive bookshop events hosted by actors playing characters from the narrative, in which children are motivated to share their creativity with each other by this sense of stepping into an engaging story world. Such immersive trends in children's story engagement are already underway within the industry. Bath Children's Literature Festival are interested in developing these ideas with us through further funding calls, and we will be seeking new partners at the Bologna and Shanghai Children's Book Fairs next year to explore the potential of such immersive bookshop events, both digital and live, to create exciting new reading engagements for children and connect family readers in innovative ways.
Opportunities for international bookshop partnerships and knowledge-sharing
While we are working on a future boxed game version of Storyhaven, the potential reach of our digital-only format is exciting in that it allows families around the world to access the materials quickly and cheaply, bringing its innovative blend of immersive theatre and reading to a wider audience and boosting the social impact it might have. We plan to run this digital format with a network of international bookshops, not only in English-speaking countries, but also building on the growing trend for non-native English-speaking families to support their children's language-learning with fictional experiences in English (Foray et al, 2015). Within this network, we aim to pair up bookshops from different countries to create an opportunity for knowledge exchange through a single recorded Zoom conversation about the potential and practicalities of such immersive story experiences for business models in different countries, excerpts from which will be published as an article in a trade magazine, further raising the profile of the bookshops involved.
- One tweet to introduce your family followers to Storyhaven and give them the social media hashtags they can use during gameplay to share their creativity. We will write this single twitter thread for you, so that you can easily copy and paste the text and images into a post, while adding any personal touches you feel appropriate. You can find it here.
- (OPTIONAL) Retweet or repost your family customers social media activity during gameplay.
- (OPTIONAL) One recorded Zoom call with a partner bookseller in another country, who has digitally hosted Storyhaven too, in English, discussing a list of questions we will provide about the potential of such immersive projects for children's reading practices and your business model to contribute to an article that will be published in The Bookseller. Send only the Zoom audio file (usually auto-saved into your documents/Zoom folder) to firstname.lastname@example.org
The website has a separate child-facing immersive zone to entice child readers into the experience by allowing them explore an interactive map of Storyhaven, in which they can enter buildings and see who is awake in the town. It functions as an immersive back-cover blurb to present the story world and encourage children to begin engaging with the characters. You can explore it here. Children will arrive there via our Tiktok promotional videos, by seeing the address on a public library poster, or via their parents/teachers showing it to them after seeing it on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram.
An adult-facing zone of the website will explain to interested parents the pedagogical value and workings of Storyhaven. You can see it here, although much of its content is similar to this page you are reading.
Parents will then be invited to buy the game for £4.99.
To experience the gameplay materials as your family customers would, visit this page and enter the login details that we sent you in our initial email.
Maybe your family customers are already comfortable reading fiction in English, but even if they aren't, it is likely that your child customers will be studying English at school and their parents will be wanting to improve their English for professional purposes. In our team we have over twenty years' experience of Teaching English as a Foreign Language at institutions like the British Council in different countries across the world. We strongly believe that Storyhaven’s group-reading dynamics allows stronger readers to support weaker ones as teams negotiate the narrative together. Its chunked text breaks down a long novel-length text into smaller, more digestible passages and episodes, gradually leading non-native speakers into a rich and prolonged fictional experience in English that could be transformative of their language learning, as well as the reading-for-pleasure habits that are so key to advanced progress with English beyond B2 level of the CEFR. The website has an easy to use language button that instantly translates all page content, so that parents can can fully understand the project in their own language before deciding to embark on their exciting fictional adventure in English with their children. This follows a growing trend for non-native-speaking families to want to support their children's language-learning through shared fictional experiences in English (Foray et al, 2015).
If you have finished hosting Storyhaven and wouldn't mind feeding back to us on the experience, we would be most grateful. You can fill in a short feedback form here.