Adam Henderson is a technical wizard. Growing up working and tinkering at his father’s computer repair shop located in the shadow of Microsoft meant Adam had access to the latest and greatest technology. By fifth grade, Adam was engaged in white-hat hacking, finding and reporting security holes to companies. By sixth grade, his attention focused on Trackers–spy devices cobbled together from video game controllers, cameras, joysticks, and even remote-controlled cars. Adam called upon three of his friends to test these Trackers, not knowing that the four would quickly get sucked into a world of crime obscured by layers of subterfuge and deceit. This is the world of Trackers, a multimedia book series by Patrick Carman that almost seamlessly weaves short cinematic sequences, puzzles, and video games into the reading experience. As with Carman’s previous books, these elements emerge organically from the narrative, playing an essential role in the story’s development.
The two books in the series, Trackers and Trackers: Shantorian, are framed as the transcript of an FBI interrogation conducted by special agent Gantz. As Adam recalls the events that led to his arrest, he periodically provides Gantz with codes to access multimedia files he prepared to support his story ranging from site rips of websites he encountered to video footage recorded using his team’s Tracker devices. Readers can enter these codes on the Trackers Interface or read the text transcripts Gantz entered as appendices to the FBI’s interview transcript, located at the back of the book. While this process may sound complicated, in practice reading Trackers is fairly straightforward: every time you see a code, either go online to watch the action unfold, or read the text transcript if you don’t have internet access.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the series with Patrick Carman, who explained, “Kids will find a way to get to the material. Kids don’t have a problem with stopping and starting . . . that’s the way they’re wired.” This non-traditional reading experience appears to be resonating with young audiences. According to Carman, the online videos from Skeleton Creek, his previous multimedia book series, received over eight million views. Carman referenced receiving “…hundreds and hundreds of emails from educators, librarians . . . talking about how these kinds of formats are helping to bring readers that we had lost back to books.” Readers are becoming similarly entangled with the mini-games created for Trackers, competing to earn top scores. The scores have become so high, in fact, that the PC Studio team has been “trying to figure out over the past couple of months if there’s some way that [players are] hacking this thing so that they’re able to get these kind of scores, and we cannot figure out how that’s possible . . . the top three or four people are way beyond what we can do here at the studio.”
Over the past few years, Patrick Carman has dedicated considerable effort to exploring how to infuse his books with engaging content that speaks to younger audiences. With his Atherton series, savvy readers could scour each book’s illustrations for five digit codes that unlocked the memories of a mad scientist. In the Skeleton Creek series, Sarah Fincher used password protected video files to pass messages to her friend Ryan McCray. It is therefore intriguing that one of the major themes in Trackers is technology’s power to simultaneously unify and isolate people socially. Reflecting on this dichotomy, Carman explained,
I’m a relic, and things were a lot different when I was fifteen and sixteen. There were no cell phones, no laptops . . . I learned to type on an actual typewriter. And we had plenty of things to distract us, but things have changed so much.
I travel to a lot of schools, and I see firsthand that while we do still have a lot of traditional readers, we don’t have as many as we used to. And we’re missing an awful lot of kids entirely . . . . Do I want to get rid of the internet? Obviously, I don’t want that because of all the amazing things it brings. Do I wish that kids could be a little less plugged in, and connect the old-fashioned way, by a conversation? Yeah, I do.
While there are currently no plans to release a third installment to the Trackers series, an insightful letter written by Adam Henderson at the end of Trackers: Shantorian provides a satisfying capstone to the story of Adam and his friends. Don’t take Carman’s conflicted views on our plugged-in generation as a sign that he’s leaving transmedia publishing, though. Later this week, I’ll share a preview of some of Carman’s upcoming projects that approach multimedia books from an entirely different angle.
For more information on where to buy Trackers and Patrick Carman’s other books, visit his website at PatrickCarman.com.
Disclaimer: the author received review copies of the Trackers books, and thoroughly enjoyed reading them on his train ride to work.