uTales: Two Maine illustrators create digital children’s books

Posted Nov. 13, 2011, at 9:15 p.m.
Detroit resident Hazel Mitchell's rendition of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale &quotThe Ugly Duckling" earned her first place in uTales' Classic Fairytale Competition recently.
Detroit resident Hazel Mitchell's rendition of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling" earned her first place in uTales' Classic Fairytale Competition recently.
UTales offers a growing collection of children's books which can be viewed on a computer, iPhone or iPad.
Photo Courtesy of uTales
UTales offers a growing collection of children's books which can be viewed on a computer, iPhone or iPad.
UTales readers can buy books individually or buy a $9.99 monthly subscription.
Photo Courtesy of uTales
UTales readers can buy books individually or buy a $9.99 monthly subscription.
Nils von Heijne
Nils von Heijne

Take a classic story and rework it, this time doing something that the original creator couldn’t – make it digital. That’s what uTales, a new online children’s book database, asked of authors and illustrators a little more than a month ago. Two Maine authors rose to the challenge.

Hazel Mitchell of Detroit, Maine, rehashed “The Ugly Duckling,” a literary fairy tale written in 1844 by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Her rendition of the endearing tale won her first place — and an iPad — in uTales’ Classic Fairytale Competition, which ended just a week before uTales launched on Nov. 2.

Josh Alves of Glenburn created “The Cautionary Tale of the Three Little Pigs,” which won second place.

“We’re all waiting to see what happens with uTales,” said Mitchell. “It’s exciting … I think digital is the way things are going, and I don’t think we can fight it. I think we have to embrace it. I think it has a place, and I don’t think [physical] books will disappear.”

uTales was born out of one man’s desire to stir up the traditional book publishing business.

Two years ago, Nils von Heijne took a solo trip to his family’s summer house on an island off the coast of Sweden. The home had been in his family for 100 years, so it was no surprise that he came across a few items from his childhood, including some 1940s picture books that his grandparents used to read to him. As he flipped through their pages, memories flooded back.

“It struck me that the books probably had a great influence on my growing up,” said Heijne in a recent phone interview from his home in New York, which he moved to from Sweden two years ago. “But it also struck me as sort of sad. If I had more books as a child, they probably would have given me a broader world image.”

An entrepreneur and social media expert, Heijne founded uTales, a business largely based on everything he found odd about traditional children’s book publishing.

“With traditional publishing, very few talented storytellers ever get published,” Heijne said.

Anyone can submit a book for review by the uTales panel, whose members then decide whether the book is of good quality and safe for children.

So far, established authors and illustrators have created books for uTales, but so have talented artists and writers who had never published a book before — including an illustrator for the 2009 blockbuster movie “Avatar.”

“It’s a great way to get your work out there,” said Alves. “You never know who is going to see it. The way things go now, it’s almost reverse publishing. Things are getting really popular online. You get blogs that are getting book deals. And uTales is a great way to practice [completing] a whole book yourself.”

Alves is known for his comic strip “Zeek And Dent,” which ran for 500 strips in the Bangor Daily News, and his single-panel series “Tastes Like Chicken.” Only over the past few months has he dived into picture book illustration.

Mitchell is also fairly new to the industry. She began establishing herself as an illustrator two years ago and so far has managed to keep busy on several projects, including a new chapter book series, “All-Star Cheerleaders,” written by award-winning author Anastasia Suen.

“I remember when I was seven years old walking to school. I remember thinking, ‘Everything is like a book,’” said Mitchell, originally from Yorkshire, U.K. “I know I always wanted to illustrate children’s books, but I got distracted by life.”

Mitchell studied art in college, but being a children’s book illustrator didn’t seem like a possibility at the time. Instead, she joined the Royal Navy as a graphic designer, producing manuals and technical drawings of helicopters. She then ran a printing business for many years before moving to the United States in 2000, and Maine soon after.

For the uTales book, she drew the illustrations in pencil and imported them into Photoshop, where she added color and detail. She then used the uTales creation tool to put together the digital book, complete with text, sound effects and animations.

“It’s very simple,” Heijne said. “We wanted to lower that threshold. A lot of picture book creators aren’t digitally savvy.”

Another appealing aspect of the whole process is that the tool is free for authors and illustrators to use. If a book is published on uTales, the creator retains the book rights.

uTales readers can buy books individually (Mitchell priced “The Ugly Duckling” at $3.99) or buy a $9.99 monthly subscription for unlimited access to the growing collection, which can be viewed on a computer, iPhone or iPad.

In an effort to battle illiteracy globally, Heijne has partnered with Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit founded in 2008 that has since built 30 schools in villages around the world.

“We allow our uTalers to have a choice to give a part of their earnings to Pencils of Promise, and so far, more than 85 percent of them have chosen to do that,” said Heijne.

uTales offers only English books at the moment, but the company plans to launch books in several languages. Now a collection of 148 published books, uTales’ goal is to expand quickly and reach more people. The authors and illustrators of the digital stories, called “uTalers,” already form a community of 1,000 people from around the world.

For information, visit utales.com. For information about Mitchell, visit hazelmitchell.com; Alves, visit joshalves.com.

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