Between Worlds by Skip Brittenham
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016
Available: Hardcover, Kindle edition, Audible edition
Between Worlds is a YA mash-up of the science fiction, fantasy, and romance genres that markets itself as providing an immersive augmented reality experience. Augmented reality, if you haven’t experienced it, adds new aspects to your existing reality and allows you to manipulate them in a 3D environment. In the case of Between Worlds, you can download an app that uses the camera of a smartphone or tablet to create the illusion that the people and creatures in the book’s color illustrations are three-dimensional and can move around on the page in limited ways, depending on where you move your camera screen. This is a pretty neat trick that you would expect to engage teens, and when I tried it out with my son, he got very excited about the concept. However, there were a limited number of color illustrations, and the app didn’t work with all of them, so he quickly got frustrated and abandoned the book.
It’s neat to see publishers trying new things and taking risks to create a more immersive and attractive reading experience, and the idea is an interesting one, but it still needs work. I don’t think it would necessarily work on a large scale, since most people don’t want to download an app for every book they read, and having to stop reading to activate the illustrations actually doesn’t create an immersive reading experience– it breaks it down. Based on my son’s reaction, the AR aspect of the book was enough to catch his attention, but not enough to convince him to read it. This might work better with nonfiction: a few years ago we reviewed a nonfiction book called Horrible Hauntings that used this technology very effectively to simulate ghosts moving around in the illustrations on the pages for each entry.
The story itself was okay, but it didn’t impress me. Although it had some interesting ideas, they weren’t fully explored, and the primary characters, Mayberry and Marshall, were flat and unsympathetic. Mayberry was the brainy new girl whose urban “coolness” and obnoxious attitude left her on the fringe in her rural high school. Marshall was the geeky prankster from a well-known and formerly wealthy family that had fallen on hard times, and who has a secret crush on her. The two bond over their outsider status and love of science. When Marshall learns that Mayberry’s mother, a biologist, is studying a local colony of quaking aspen trees, he suggests to Mayberry that they break in to the restricted forest to seek out the mythical Wishing Tree that is supposedly at the center of the grove. Mild teen rebellion, science fiction, fantasy, and a touch of wish-fulfillment romance ensue. Despite packing all that in (and an alternate reality with the potential to be very interesting), the characters and story just aren’t enough on their own, and with the AR breaking the flow of the reading experience instead of enhancing it, the book is only temporarily enticing.
I think it’s great to see a major publisher trying new things to enhance the reading experience, and I hope we’ll continue to see experimentation. However, the story on its own was not enough to carry this reader, and I don’t think this particular experiment was a success. I look forward to seeing what comes next!
Reviewed by Kirsten Kowalewski