Where In The World Are Grandma And Me?

Any parent whose 11-year-old considers him an honorary kid is doing something right. Fifth grader Aaron Schlichting brags that his dad, Mark, can make funny noises just like a kid. And for Mark Schlichting, 45, Aaron's kudos count for a lot. Schlichting is a reigning muse in the business of converting children's lit into interactive CD-ROM discs that have the funny noises and animation kids squeal over, while delivering, as he puts it, "invisible education."

Aaron may not be the most objective source, but when he says he likes "the stuff my dad makes" better than Nintendo, he's speaking for many children. Schlichting's Living Books are such hot sellers that he could end up serving as the Dr. Seuss of the digital age. Living Books is a division of Broderbund, a software maker based in Marin County, Calif. Among its famous products are Print Shopa desktop publisher for children of all ages-and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"-a computer detective game and PBS TV show in which kids track a fedora-topped criminal through the world, while they painlessly absorb volumes of geography. Schlichting and his two oldest sons, now teenagers, were already fans of Carmen when Schlichting, a freelance animator, came to work at Broderbund. He lobbied his bosses to let him start a CD-ROM division that would add a new dimension to children's books. In the CD-ROM version of "Carmen," for example, kids can click a button to hear a clue in Spanish or a Polish folk song.

Living Books has since won rave reviews, and industry giants such as Apple's John Sculley use them in product demonstrations. In one popular title, "Just Grandma and Me," Aaron is the voice of Little Critter. He remembers that when he was taping it, "I kept on changing my voice. [But] my dad wanted my voice." It's that ear-and respect-for the tastes of kids that guides Schlichting, who as a boy was a devotee of Seuss and Disney. (When he created a sound effect for a falling leaf, he dubbed it "Ode to Goofy," after the sound the Disney dog makes plunging off cliffs.)

Kids, who contribute to and critique product development, stream through the Living Books offices. But even when they're not around, it's clear who's in charge. The offices are strewn with toys, and the only creature regularly wearing a tie is a plastic shark. The grown-ups Schlichting's team of animators--cavort in a soundproofed room, imitating duck waddles. Their aim? Never to hear the ultimate kid insult: "Boring!" Like many in the industry, Schlichting believes in using high tech for humanism. He subscribes to the Buddhist concept of "right livelihood": finding the work you were meant to do, doing it consciously and for others as well as yourself. He hasn't abandoned conventional books. In his free time, he's reading myth-master Joseph Campbell.

Schlichting comfortably declares his idealism. "Can you change the world? Yes, you can." At the moment, he is trying to change a specific corner of the world: that inhabited by booksellers. This week, he'll be at the American Booksellers Association convention in Miami, convincing them that CD-ROMs will help create new readers. He says there's already been progress. "They've warmed up. They've warmed up to a boil." And they're quacking like ducks.