Julie Landry Laviolette used to bristle when she saw kids engrossed in games on iPads or tablets. “I would say to myself, ‘Surely they can be involved in something more constructive.’”
But instead of complaining, this mother of two set out to create something different. Technology didn’t have to be the enemy; it could be a powerful tool. The result was Story Bayou — a word play on Story By You — a book app that allows young readers to control the plot as they read.
“It’s a new type of reading,” says Laviolette. “As a mom, I look for tools that will help my kids become lifelong readers. It makes sense to harness the technology they love and offer books in a format they are excited about using. The interactive nature of Story Bayou not only gets kids to read, it engages them by allowing them to choose how the action unfolds.”
Story Bayou released Brush of Truth, a story about a medieval sorcerer’s magic paintbrush that is discovered in modern time by two tweens. With 65 decision points and 20 possible endings, Brush of Truth leads the kids on adventures under the sea, through floating graveyards, and inside sand castles as they discover the brush’s powers.
The response has been impressive; the app has sold in 23 countries and been a Media of the Year award winner by Creative Child Magazine. Even more impressive is that Laviolette started with little knowledge of technology. In fact, she stumbled into the whole venture almost by accident.
At her son’s fifth-grade graduation luncheon, she was chatting with a dad who turned out to be Jason Milgram, CEO of Linxter, a software development company looking for new ideas. They started talking and soon became partners. Laviolette, a long-time freelance journalist, brought her writing and marketing skills to the table. Milgram served up the technical know-how to handle coding and website development. It was a business match made in heaven.
“This generation of children has grown up learning through technology,” says Milgram, a father of two. “It makes sense for us not only as technologists, but as parents to give kids information in a format they are incredibly proficient at using.”
Laviolette wrote Brush of Truth, the equivalent of a 125-page book, in about two months. Illustrations and coding took another two months, followed by de-bugging and testing. The book was released in February 2012, but creating the product was just the beginning. The challenge was how to make this book stand out from the 40,000 other book apps.
Initially, Laviolette spent long hours writing press releases and trying to generate a buzz on social media and review sites. She had to figure out how to navigate her way in an industry that is just in its infancy. She created teacher lessons plans and connected with other app developers and writers online for support.
“I would get to the end of the day and realize that I’d spent 12 hours on the computer,” she says.
But she was also juggling her paying assignments — yes, she’s still a freelance journalist — and caring for her family, which includes daughter Chloe, 10, and son Ian, 12. That meant carpool and keeping house, homework, laundry, and dinner at night.
She realized had to manage her work hours better and has since cut back. “I had to ask, ‘What’s my overall goal?’ That was to get kids reading.” But she admits, “Finding the time to do everything is a challenge. I’m a mom, freelance journalist, children’s fiction writer, and the CEO of a tech company.”
The company is not yet profitable, but Laviolette is confident they’re onto something big. “Book apps are an emerging trend in children’s literacy. Some teachers are using them in the classroom, and parents are using them to get kids excited about reading,” she says. “This is clearly the future.”
The beauty of a reading app like Brush of Truth is that for $1.99, kids can enjoy it again and again. Its interactivity makes it a better buy, says Laviolette. “You can spend hours and hours with this book and still have new paths to explore.”
To other moms considering a venture outside of their comfort zone, Laviolette, now working on her second book, counsels: “Don’t get discouraged by small setbacks. Keep your head up and find a support network. My motto? Be fearless.”
• To learn more, go to storybayou.com.