Storyhaven: A Narrative Format for Children’s Books that Opens Spaces for Agency and Participation


Gareth Osborne

The community this practice-based research addresses is children and adults with a focus on how they interact through fiction. Traditionally, these interactions have been limited by the ‘inherent power inequality’ in books that are supposedly for children, but are entirely written, published and distributed by adults (Waller 2010: 279).[1] Recently, some have tried to frame this power inequality in a more positive light, highlighting how adult authority, stemming from expertise and experience, attempts to share its power through stories with the ‘might’ of children or their future potential (Beauvais 2015: 80–82). Yet, this is still problematized by the peculiar temporality of the book form, which constantly delays the point at which the child can act on its fictional calls to beyond the last page of the story, extra-textually to the reading experience itself (Beauvais 2015: 20).


This research suggests that to maximize the potential of childhood reading experiences to share power and agency with children, we need to explore new participatory forms beyond the book. Intriguingly, some of the most innovative recent publishing practices in participatory texts are being developed by immersive theatre companies such as Punchdrunk, who are writing children’s books to use as gateways into adventures that place children at the heart of hyper-real story worlds they are invited to cocreate in tandem with adult practitioners[2] They point to how children’s books might be written with child agency in mind from the start, integrating it into the fictional experience rather than grafting it onto the finished reading engagement through the current industry practice of participatory workshops and author events.[3] 


Childhood media experiences are becoming increasingly domesticated (See Tichi 1992, Huhtamo 2012, Fassone 2018); the COVID-19 crisis has seen children isolated in socially distanced classrooms or struggling for the attention of remote-working parents at home. This research suggests a possible future for children’s fiction as a driver of more participative social fictions, in which children become active co-creators of the experience, rather than silently imagining into the words of adult authors. 


While proposing that more space be opened up in the creative processes of children’s literature for child participation, it nevertheless locates child agency within the necessary and inevitable bounds of adult discourse, rather than romanticizing it into an idealized space of childhood independence.[4] When children write creatively, they often seek out the support of adult-written story worlds to scaffold their fledgling creative efforts, filling adult narrative worlds out, opening them up to new directions, or subverting them entirely (Vaclavik 2008: 131–32).[5] This is not a process that should be escaped from, but one that might be potentialized to explore new ways to learn about literature in the classroom, innovate more inclusive publishing models for children, and help adults and children interact more fruitfully through their fictions. 


By encouraging participation and agency within the bounds of engaging adult-written narratives children can also be encouraged to contribute to research into reading and writing from the point of view of characters they invent for themselves, playing to their strengths as expert engagers with stories from the inside, rather than via reader-response interviews or surveys that often overawe children and fail to penetrate the whys and hows of their fictional encounters (Hodges 2009: 167 and Tatar 2009: 6). Such immersive, collaborative practice-based research in children’s literature harnesses precisely the sphere adults have crafted for children to allow them to maximize their ability to act and think in the face of overwhelming adult authority.

If you want to experience the game materials directly, you can read the rulebook here, then get a taste of playing Episode 1 here. To follow the development of the project visit the website here.



[1] See also Rose 1993; Nikolajeva, 2010: 8. ↩︎

[2] In Punchdrunk Enrichment’s 2016 A Small Tale the company wrote a children’s book with the express intention of its characters escaping from its pages and having to be written back in by the child participants. ↩︎

[3] See the family event programming at such new social and participatory venues for extending children’s reading engagement like Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books or Discover Children’s Story Centre. ↩︎

[4] See Lesnik-Oberstein (1994: 114) on how the act of reading itself, that holding of the child in deep identification with a character, can be linked to adult-serving constructions of childhood as a space of innocence; Gubar’s kinship model for children’s literature studies makes space for child agency within adult discourse (2015: 450–57). ↩︎

[5] See also the growing trend in resistant or transformative fan fiction: Barnes 2015; Duggan 2021. ↩︎