My Golden Ticket, the new book from children’s publisher Wonderbly, takes young readers on a tour through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – and is a brilliant example of personalised storytelling using algorithms and one huge InDesign file.
In 1964, Roald Dahl created one of the most bonkers and memorable children’s book settings of all time. Willy Wonka’s factory – featured in the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – was a confectionery-lover’s paradise, with a candy meadow, a chocolate river and lickable fruit-flavoured wallpaper. It was also a dangerous place: one where children could end up sucked into chocolate pipes, shrunk to a fraction of their original size or attacked by a pack of nut-cracking squirrels.
Dahl’s fictional universe has been brought to life in two films and a West End show and has now been reimagined in a personalised children’s book created by London publishing startup Wonderbly.
Produced in partnership with the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, My Golden Ticket is laid out like a journal and written from a child’s perspective, as if it were the reader’s own account of a tour through Wonka’s factory. With beautiful illustrations and witty writing, it’s a book that rewards repeat reading and a great example of how personalisation can forge a deeper level of engagement with a story. Almost every page features a personalised element – a feat achieved through some clever tech and spectacularly complex InDesign files.
Wonderbly was founded by David Cadji-Newby, a TV writer and former ad copywriter; Asi Sharabi, an ad executive; Tal Oron, a creative technologist and Pedro Serapicos, an illustrator and graphic designer. The company was previously called Lost My Name (its initial product was a personalised book about a child losing their name). It appeared on Dragon’s Den in 2014, receiving a record £100,000 investment from Piers Linney, and has since sold over 2 million books, won multiple awards and received $9 million in a funding round led by Google Ventures.
The Roald Dahl Estate approached Wonderbly last year with the idea to create a personalised book based b on one of his novels. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an obvious choice – not just for the richness of its setting but because it left scope to create new stories and rooms within the factory.
The initial idea was to create a book that would offer children a chance to go inside Wonka’s world. “I think it’s every child’s dream really,” says Story Producer Katy Balfour, who is also an Associate Director at immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. “Because it was for older readers [Wonderbly’s earlier books are aimed at two- to-six-year-olds], we wanted to make it more dense – something you could pore over,” she adds.
Wonderbly was keen to avoid imitating Dahl’s voice and decided to tell the story from a child’s point of view instead. This led to the idea to create a journal and the company promptly gathered up every journal-style children’s book it could find to analyse what did and didn’t work with the format.
Balfour and David Cadji-Newby then plotted the book’s narrative and worked with illustrator Adam Hancher to decide what imagery should be used to bring the story to life. The book contains tickets, sweet wrappers and a map of the factory as well as doodles and diagrams.
“The idea was to make it feel as if all the things in [the book] are things that child has collected up in their trip around the factory,” explains Balfour.
Wonderbly decided the book should culminate in a child receiving a personalised sweet, so the team had to build a story that would work towards this point. They also wanted to explore some of the rooms introduced in Dahl’s novel in more detail. The book takes readers through several areas, including the Rainbow Drop Room, the Rock Candy Mine and the Flavour Fairground.
“I think there were two things happening simultaneously,” says Balfour. “One was [thinking about] the natural places you’d want to go [in Wonka’s factory] but b also, we knew quite early on we were building up to this point of having a personalised chocolate bar, so it also came about from thinking ‘what goes into a chocolate bar and how can the rooms serve that purpose? We’ll need a flavour, a topping, a centre and so on,” she says.
Bringing Wonka’s World to life
Once the narrative had been established, Hancher worked with assistant illustrator Adam Williams and graphic designer Andreas Brooks to create the book’s visuals. Brooks designed Wonka’s brand identity – a Wonka logo appears on every wrapper, poster, ticket and piece of ephemera featured in the book – and the lettering for packaging and posters, while Hancher created illustrations. The team looked to vintage theme park memorabilia and confectionery ads for inspiration to create a brand that looks as if it was founded in 1964.
“It was important to physically make the items. we wanted to create as much depth as possible” – Katy Balfour
Sweet wrappers and tickets were designed, printed out and photographed to give the book more depth: “When we researched other journals for kids, we found they’re quite flat – even really good ones, you can tell they’ve been made on a computer, so it was really important [with My Golden Ticket], to physically make the items, to tape them and photograph them,” says Balfour. “Often we ended up having to retouch them again but just having that texture of the tape, the shadows … we wanted to create as much depth as possible.”
These items are filled with imaginative details that readers might miss on first glance. A strapline on a wrapper for Cavity Filling Caramels reads: “Recommended by 0 out of 10 dentists” while Coconut Shys promise “meekness in every mouthful”. Other details were added to create a sense of intrigue and mystery – in the same way that Dahl’s book leaves many an unanswered question about Wonka’s candy wonderland, Wonderbly’s hints at areas undiscovered. A map of the factory in the book’s opening pages alludes to locked rooms and a note explains that floors two to 70 are not yet mapped.
“We certainly wanted to leave a sense of some things [being left] undiscovered,” says Balfour. “You don’t want to know every corner of a story because that’s often where the magic is, in the things that are unexplored. So you get access to all of these rooms [in the book], but there’s still a place where you can imagine and create rooms for yourself and think about what some of those rooms might look like,” she adds.
Creating a personalised story
What really sets the book apart from your average children’s picture book is the level of personalisation. This can often be a fairly basic affair – the inclusion of a child’s name at a few points in the story or a printed message at the beginning or end of a book – but Wonderbly has always adopted a more sophisticated approach. Its earlier titles feature illustrations that are automatically generated based on children’s interests and culinary preferences as well as satellite photographs of their homes. My Golden Ticket takes this one step further, generating text and illustrations based on a child’s name to create a book with thousands of possible variations.
These elements become more sophisticated as the book goes on: in the beginning, children visit the Flavour Fairground to pick up a flavour for their sweet: someone called Holly will receive Honey, while Jack will receive Juicy Jelly. This is followed by a trip to the Rock Candy Mine to uncover a texture – depending on the letters in your name, you might end up with a nutty, airy or lumpy snack (or something else entirely).
In the Toffee Apple Orchard, readers uncover their family tree and their family’s fruit (see p127). This part of the story was created using two algorithms: one generates a fruit name based on the reader’s surname, which ensures it sounds like something Dahl might have cooked up himself, and the other creates alternative versions of the reader’s surname to show how it has b
changed over time, as most surnames do. “Previously we’ve created generative images, but this is our first piece of generative text, so we can turn any combination of letters into a kind of Dah-lified fruit,” explains Nick Marsh, VP of Product at Wonderbly.
“[The surname algorithm] slowly changes the name, but instead of doing it just one letter at a time, which would be really easy, but would leave you with lots of surnames that sound nothing like a word, we’ve chosen to do something a little bit different. There’s a bit of natural language programming to it, so it always sounds like something you would say,” adds Balfour.
The most complex personalised elements are an Oompa Loompa poem and the personalised sweet in the book’s final pages. The sweet is made up of flavours and textures picked up earlier in the story and its colour and shape are determined by the reader’s name. “The shape is linked to the length of your name, the colour of the wrapper is dictated by the colour which you pick up earlier in the story, and the name of the bar is dictated by the first letter of your name, so it always alliterates, for example Jack’s Jangle or Claire’s Crackle,” explains Balfour.
Each of these titles has a pattern associated with it – for example, purple and orange stripes – which determines the design of the sweet wrapper. The final word in the sweet name is randomly assigned (readers might receive a marvel, a glory or a surprise) and its flavour and possible side effects are specific to each child’s journey. If a child received a snozzberry sweet in the Flavour Fairground, then their personalised sweet will taste of snozzberry. If they become humongous after eating a candy in the inventing room, then their sweet will come with a warning that it might make you humongous. Even slight variations in names can result in a different sweet.
The personalised Oompa Loompa song is also based on flavours and colours picked up earlier in the text and recounts each child’s experience in the factory. Cadji-Newby had to come up with multiple variations of each line in the song to suit different flavours, colours and textures, writing different versions to account for two, three and four-syllable words. The song is automatically generated when customers input their child’s name online and uses an InDesign file of over 300 layers.
“Every one of these pages is an incredibly dense and complex InDesign file which our software interprets and stitches together to create this single application that generates the book,” explains Marsh.
This combination of old fashioned storytelling and digital tech is evident in each of Wonderbly’s books and reflects its founders’ varied backgrounds. My Golden Ticket was created by an equally varied team: Cadji-Newby has written for BBC comedies as well as children’s books and Balfour has worked on a range of productions with Punchdrunk, including a secret, medical-themed Jack White gig in London.
Balfour sees little difference between crafting an engaging children’s book and a live experience. Both required her to think about physical spaces and how a story could be told through props and physical objects.
“[The process is] very similar. You’re creating a space from nothing, so you think about the same things – ‘what does [the space] look like? How do you feel when you’re in it? What are the key items that would transport anybody to that place? In fact, it’s harder [with a book] – it needs to be much more thought out with this, because you don’t have the crutch of somebody actually being there. [With theatre], you can always turn the lights down low and play some spooky music, but we’ve had to pick these things really carefully and thoughtfully, because there’s a limited amount of space.
“It’s the same process really,” she adds. “I think any good storytelling is, regardless of the form. Whether it’s theatre, or books, or film, or gaming, you’re trying to transport someone somewhere.”
The book ends with its narrator eating a Forget Me Nut, which erases their memory of the factory visit. It’s an ending that is designed to make little readers wonder – if only just for a second – whether the events in the book could have actually have taken place.
“The whole thing, as well as being a romping story that goes through the factory, is about trying to get a child to suspend their disbelief a little bit,” says Balfour. “When I was a kid, I used to love the idea that you would get lost in a story and part of you always wanted it to be real, and I suppose that’s what I want to do – to create things that have enough persuasion in them, enough hooks, that if you choose to, you can take yourself one step further on that journey and entertain the fact that maybe, just maybe, it might have been…”
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