Don’t ask about the app. I wasn’t the first person to enquire whether Step Outside Guides would be coming soon to the iTunes Store. But it turns out that co-creator Margie Skinner has problems just navigating her way around an iPhone home screen. She’s much more at home pounding the streets of the capital, which is why these new child-friendly London guides are firmly rooted in the real world of bridges, squares and landmarks you can explore on a cheap-day return ticket.
With the London 2012 Olympics just over the horizon, new books about London are even more ubiquitous than adverts featuring the great Usain Bolt. Some of these publications — like the pleasingly retro Ladybird Book of London — will appeal to those of us who were kids in the 60s and 70s. Step Outside Guides are old-fashioned, too, but in a good way. Margie and co-publisher Francesca Fenn are targeting families who want to explore London without getting sucked into wallet-draining attractions.
The first two Step Outside Guides, The London Treasure Trail (Holborn to Kensington) and Down by The Thames (Tower Hill to Embankment), were published in March 2012. Designed and illustrated by Francesca’s son Sam Fenn, these 32-page books are intended to put kids in charge of the trip. (This will strike a chord with anyone who spent their formative years being dragged round cathedrals, galleries and stately homes.) Scattering photos, maps and historical facts along the route, each Guide also has a friendly animal narrator, to help point out the location of the free loos and good picnic spots.
Step Outside Guides are interactive, though not in a way that involves swiping, pinching or leaving sticky fingerprints on a screen. There are boxes to tick, questions to complete and even a word search puzzle. But what you really notice are the humorous observations in the text and the willingness to embrace the quirkiness rather than the commerciality of modern London. According to Margie that’s reflected in feedback from the users: “Lily aged 6, told us her favourite thing on the London Treasure Trail was the public toilet on High Holborn, which we highlight because it looks very grand, but always seems to be closed!”
They know the market: Francesca’s background is in educational programmes, and Margie spent 13 years working for Dorling Kindersley when it was blazing a trail in innovative non-fiction for kids. This is a “mum’s eye” perspective of days out that anyone can enjoy — provided they have a Travelcard and a bit of curiosity about London. The emphasis is on exploring the city on foot, district by district, rather than heading straight for the Millennium Wheel or the teeth-rottingly ghastly M&M’s World in Piccadilly Circus. (It’s enough to make you feel nostalgic about the demise of the Swiss Centre.)
The book world is increasingly dominated by the rush to digitise, so it’s refreshing to find a publishing venture that’s rooted in old technology like ink on paper. With an initial print run of 1,000 copies, Step Outside Guides are unlikely to be outselling DK’s Eyewitness Family Guides. (The Times did offer a favourable comparison, though, in a recent write-up on guide books for kids.)
The third Step Outside Guide, The London Lion Hunt, is due out on 16 July and will cover Westminster, Trafalgar Square and Chinatown. There will be a special Christmas-themed Guide, too, but Santa is keeping the details under wraps.
If you’re producing a series of travel guides the most obvious question (apart from the app query) is “Where next?” Margie thinks there is scope for at least 10 Step Outside Guides to London, and after that they’ll consider adding other UK cities to their portfolio.
Right now it’s all about thinking local, rather than global. That might seem like a strange ambition for a travel guide publisher, but I got the impression this venture is putting the fun factor ahead of sales targets.
Step Outside Guides are £5.00 and are available from stepoutsideguides.com and selected shops in London, Essex and Hertfordshire.