“Read it. Watch it. Live it.” Scholastic’s promotional blurb for Skeleton Creek, a multiplatform project due next month, lets kids know what they’re in for. Conceived, written and produced by Patrick Carman, author of the Land of Elyon, Atherton and Elliot’s Park series, Skeleton Creek is a ghost mystery that plays out on the page and in online video footage. Here’s how it works—and how it all came together.

Slipped into a plastic sleeve suggestive of videocassette packaging, the paper-over-board book is the journal of Ryan, a teen who had a serious accident after a brush with the sinister force shrouding the town of Skeleton Creek. Now confined to his home, Ryan writes of his research into the mystery and his frightening experiences, while his best friend Sarah uses her video camera to track the ominous presence, filming documentary-type footage. Readers use passwords in the journal to access the videos, posted on a dedicated Web site. The site goes live February 10, the laydown date of the book, which has a 100,000-copy first printing.

The project grew out of Carman’s interest in finding a new way to combine literature and the Internet, now so integral to kids’ lives. “In the past, when technology has been included in one of my book projects, I’ve never felt like it was deeply connected to the story,” says the author. “A web-based add-on that has no meaningful connection to a book often feels hollow for readers, as if it’s been bolted on as a bonus rather than essential to the experience.” Carman says this left him frustrated, knowing that technology means something different to his children, ages 11 and 13, than it does to him. “Technology holds more weight as a narrative expression in their world.”

On one of his frequent school visits, Carmen was thinking about how he could bring the printed word and online video together, when he sketched a picture in his journal. “It was a page from a book that twisted in the middle. When it came out the other side, it was a piece of film stock. The image completely ignited my imagination.”

Patrick Carman.
Photo: Matt McKern.

This then sparked two key questions for him: “Was there a story that could be told in which the printed word and online videos could contribute equally? And better still, could they be made inseparable?”

He decided they could. Carman’s journal doodle became the logo for PC Studio, the production house he founded to create Skeleton Creek’s video elements. After writing the script—his first ever—the author shared it with David Levithan, Scholastic’s executive editorial director, who, Carman says, “offered a lot of great suggestions to tighten things up.”

Carman then collaborated with Jeffrey Townsend, a scriptwriter, production designer and director who worked in Hollywood for 20 years. “Jeffrey took my working script and turned it into something that could actually be used to direct actors and scenes,” Carman says. “There were months of back-and-forth meetings, and I was present at all the shoots, where we made a lot of changes on the fly. It was demanding, exciting and amazingly fun.”

Levithan calls Skeleton Creek a “massive undertaking on Pat’s part, as it is essentially making a movie and a book at the same time.” Since the editor has worked with Carman on The Land of Elyon books, he notes, “I was confident that Pat could pull this off. He’d send us casting videos and show us stills of the locations, and we basically acted as editorial consultants. I guess it was my one chance to be a movie executive.” Though the Skeleton Creek story arc now spans two journal and video installments—the second is due in fall 2009—Levithan says that additional books and films may follow. And Scholastic has signed Carman for another multimedia project based on this model, likely launching in 2010.

When Patrick Carman was deliberating about how he could incorporate technology into a book series, he made a sketch that inspired him to add the video component to Skeleton Creek. That sketch morphed into the logo for the production company he founded to do the videos.

Levithan emphasizes Scholastic’s commitment to finding new ways of using technology and literature together, citing the success of The 39 Clues, a multiplatform series launched last fall whose two debut books have 1.5 million copies in print. (Carman will pen the fifth installment, due in August.) “This is absolutely the wave of the future, and something we jumped on early because of our resources,” he says. “As we did with The 39 Clues, we are launching Skeleton Creek across all of our publishing channels in an ambitious way. We want to have the best possible projects along these lines.”

Musing on his future projects, Carman says, “There will always be endless space in bookstores and libraries for traditional books, and I hope to write many more of them. But as an author who stands in about 100 different school gymnasiums every year, I think we need to start thinking outside the box more often.”

Such thinking on the part of authors and publishers, Carman adds, can lead to innovative projects that enhance the appeal of the printed word to today’s young readers. “Books are by far the most difficult entertainment sale for our kids,” he observes. “No sounds, no lights, no gaming strategy, no beat to dance to, no person on the other line to talk with. And yet all the studies show the same thing: reading is king when it comes to educating kids. It’s not about bridging the gap between technology and books—it’s about erasing it.”

Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman. Scholastic, $14.99 ISBN 978-0-545-07566-4