Vooks is a company based in Portland, Oregon, that is dedicated to bringing storybooks to life through animation. The brand currently has dozens of books in its library and is launching more this month, including some containing the iconic Curious George character. Established in 2018, the company now has several hundred books in their library which they add to weekly.
Shannon Bex is the Co-Founder & Chief Communications Officer at Vooks. A professional singer, dancer and choreographer who has appeared on reality television shows on MTV and NBC, Shannon’s extensive knowledge of the music industry served her well as she entered into the e-publishing world. Vooks was actually started by Shannon’s brother, Marshall Bex, and his business partner, Russell Hirtzel. Shannon, who enjoys working with her brother, came on board due to her love for storytelling and her knowledge of the legal aspects of the entertainment industry.
“My brother started Vooks as a concerned father,” Shannon explained in a recent exclusive interview. “He wanted his three kids to be strong readers but his youngest just wasn’t interested in books. She did love games and animation though, which isn’t surprising since she was born the year that the first iPhone came out. My brother thought that Video Books would be a good medium between TV and books. Entertaining enough to engage but with slow pacing to enhance literacy without the gamification that so many reading apps were offering. He has a lot of work experience in advertising and understood the power of digital platforms and consumer behavior.”
While digital picture books are certainly a hybrid between traditional paper books and animated television cartoons, it can be surprisingly difficult to strike the right balance between having enough animated and interactive features to amuse children without overwhelming them and detracting from the importance of the text. To strike that balance, Vooks has employed educational professionals who provide their expert advice on a consistent basis. One such expert is Patricia Duncan who creates FREE resources for the website and founded the “Pause and Ponder” feature which prompts parents or teachers to stop and discuss the story at specific intervals (a classic scaffolding technique which is extremely beneficial for early readers).
To date, Vooks works with approximately forty publishers that range in size from giants like HMH Publishing to midsize houses like Chronicle Books, to small boutiques like Familius Press, Sleeping Bear Press, and Kidscan Press. The Vooks library is growing every week with plans to have over 200 + more launched by the end of 2021.
“Publishers of all sizes are welcome,” Shannon declared, “but we are careful about the content that we select. We have publishing and licensing consultants who help us decipher the way to grow our library. Originally, publishers worried about ebooks negatively impacting their physical sales. I want to make it very clear that Vooks is not here to replace traditional paperback books, we simply help kids connect to those classic stories in a familiar setting for their generation, aka virtually. We also compile data about which content is popular with certain age groups and that sort of information is very valuable.”
Although they operate in the fairly new media of ebooks, the team at Vooks is diligent about staying true to the artwork and styles of the source material–right down to the text font. Producing a Vooks Story typically takes between 6 to 8 weeks. Voice talent is pooled from far and wide to narrate the stories and if a character is meant to have a specific accent then someone with that precise inflection is found. Considering that Vooks is a startup company, its team understands the importance of fostering emerging artists. Hence, although some of their books are narrated by A-list celebrities such as actress Kate Winslet and The Texas Tenors band, many of their books are narrated by emerging artists whose names are still largely unknown.
“We all start somewhere and there are diamonds to be found in the rough,” Shannon proclaimed. “Sometimes you find the most gorgeous and unique things inside the unknown and that’s why we are always open to working with new talent across creative fields.”
Yet some of Vooks licensing is legendary. One of their most ambitious projects came by way of HMH Publishing who tasked them with creating ebooks for the iconic Curious George franchise. Given that the series is so heavily licensed, there was a lot of red tape to work through yet the publishers and license holders were ultimately delighted by Vooks’ contributions to the brand–even lauding the original music that they created in-house to go along with George’s VOOKS adventures.
“HMH really took a chance with us,” Shannon said with a laugh. “We were a new company being handed this huge IP but it worked out well and I think we proved ourselves. Another project that I am especially proud of is our work on And the People Stayed Home by Kitty O’Meara from Tra Publishing. That poem was inspired by the pandemic and was originally published in Oprah’s magazine. Kate Winslet read that for Vooks’ version. It helped us gain popularity but, moreover, it was such a beautiful piece of art and I’m very proud of the team for putting it together so well.”
When asked how she would like to see the company evolve and expand over the next five years, Shannon had several points to make. Firstly, she would like to see the company reach global audiences, especially among children in other countries who want to learn English but have difficulty finding printed books in the language. Given the widespread availability of smartphones, even in the poorest nations, Vooks has already made great strides in reaching this goal.
“Personally, I would love to have more one-on-one time with authors and illustrators,” Shannon explained. “We recently had Plant A Kiss illustrator Peter Reynolds join a digital voiceover session for that book with the narrator. It was so cool how Peter and Russell, our Co-Founder and Chief of Content Creation went back and forth inspiring one another which really improved the quality of the narration and the enjoyability of the recording session. I would really like to see more of that in the future.”
At its core, the mission of Vooks is to introduce books to as many children as possible. After all, books are inherently educational since learning how to read offers children lifelong success. By making books engaging and fun, Vooks helps to instill a passion for reading in children, making them intrinsically motivated to read throughout their lives.
The Vooks app is available and accessible through essentially any smart device. Their digital offerings can be enjoyed on phones, tablets, TVs, and laptops. To learn more, visit the official website.