“Stanley & The Candy Cane Wormhole” is a Christmas themed game that comes with a beautifully illustrated children’s book, a candy craft, and fifty clue cards that help players build a treasure hunt around their home. Intended for children aged three and older, the game has STEM elements built into it.
The accompanying storybook introduces readers to Stanley, a timid snow squirrel who accidentally triggers wormholes that send seven gifts across the planet, back in time to the dinosaurs, and even to Mars! Stanley must solve seven challenges to get all of the gifts back. Each time he demonstrates a different value, like healthiness and gratitude, the wormhole gets stronger. The story features Santa and is designed to be read as a tradition.
A Tasty Candy Food Kit containing candy canes, marshmallows, chocolate drops, reindeer dust (cookie sprinkles), cookie gel, and snow squirrel fur (cotton candy) is also included in the kit along with a Treasure Hunt Game. The game challenges parents to set up clue cards leading to an early gift, a chocolate or candy treat, or a favor. Then, children must solve riddles figure out the next hiding place. The 52-card deck also has picture clues for little ones who don’t read yet!
“Stanley & The Candy Cane Wormhole” was authored by Chris Harden, a toy inventor who is known as the cocreator of TROBO the Storytelling Robot, A Shark Tank hit from season 7 that landed a handshake deal with Robert Herjavec. TROBO read stories about science and math to kids ages 2 to 5. Chris is an engineer as well as a writer of children’s books, graphic novels and business books. He learned the art of storytelling while illustrating independent comics and inking Marvel, DC and TopCow comics, working in the world’s leading theme parks, developing games at EA sports, and in film school at Florida State University. Chris currently works at Unity technologies, the world’s leading game engine for independent developers. In addition to his technical skills and his artistic skills, Chris has an MBA and is a serial entrepreneur.
Recently, Chris discussed the book, game, and kit via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in toys and how did you break into the industry?
Chris Harden (CH): I’m a father of two kiddos. My home is covered in toys, hopefully educational, but not always. I broke in with a “Shark Tank” product I co-created called TROBO a few years ago.
MM: What gave you the idea for this Christmas-themed book and activity set?
CH: The idea of wormholes for gift delivery occurred to me while working on marketing for TROBO one Christmas, but it didn’t really fit with that character’s folklore. So, I just set the concept aside until a few years ago, when I got inspiration one night to revisit it. The idea that we could use science theory and Christmas magic to update our holiday with modern aspects was quite appealing. I love stories like “The Grinch,” “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” and one of my favorites, “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” My family and I almost always watch those and others at Christmas time. So, working on a Christmas story was very inspiring. I added the activity set pieces (the candy and the game) as a way to make the story more into a tradition than just a story. How could children get involved and interact with Stanley was a core driver of the effort. Answering the question of why would they care, and what would excite them is what helped me evolve the pieces. For example, my first idea for the candy cane wormholes was a printable poster that looked like a wormhole, and you’d fill out the longitude and latitude of your home. That felt ok, but I didn’t like it was exciting. So, I eventually got the idea of shaping a candy craft kids could build, which is what drove the shape of the wormhole merry go round in book. And the first game mechanic was a classic “letters to Santa” with riddles sent by Stanley. In the first user trials, this was super boring! I felt it almost immediately with my own kiddos, so I scrapped that concept and explored other mechanics that would be engaging. I hit upon the idea of losing a gift (because the wormholes are wobbly) and finding it with a treasure hunt. I did a family trial of the treasure hunt mechanic over that summer; it was a huge success. So that led to the game mechanic you see now, which was also a huge success in this past Christmas’s trial.
MM: Why did you choose a squirrel as your main character?
CH: I started with loveable characters that would make a great fit. I wanted something small, like children, so the character could deal with some of the same insecurities we all have as children. I landed on Stanley’s main flaw being one of lacking self-confidence and overcoming that in the story. He also has others that make him affable and imperfect, like clumsiness. You don’t normally think of squirrels as clumsy, but he falls out of every wormhole he jumps through, and I hope that he always lands in an awkward situation. Starting out, I sketched ferrets, cats, squirrels, foxes, and maybe some other critters. I quickly homed in on a squirrel, because I love their tails. And once I had the idea to highlight his tail by swirling the stripes much like the swirl of strips on the wormhole, it was set. I feel his swirly tail, though perhaps a bit hard to manufacture in the future, will be a signature part of Stanley’s impression on the world. Giving him a pink nose and popping his round ears through the hat just made him so charming. When I tried it with a fox and pointy ears, it just didn’t sing.
MM: The story talks about wormhole portals, so is it safe to assume that you’re a big fan of science fiction?
CH: I’m a fan of fiction in general, but I grew up on “Star Trek,” “Quantum Leap,” “Back to the Future,” “The Time Machine,” and more. At the same time, I love LOTR, Harry Potter, How to Train Your Dragon, etc. And I grew up a huge comic book nerd; Spiderman was my first comic ever, and Stan Lee is my #1 hero. (The similarity in his name and the squirrel’s is no accident.) I’m fascinated by movies like “Inception,” “Interstellar,” “The Matrix,” and nearly all of the Marvel movies. In fact, early versions of Stanley’s story toy with the idea that he can’t get back to the North Pole until he solves a problem, much like the Quantum Leap concept, but it was a bit too much to work into a children’s book. But the idea that there may be a greater presence driving Stanley like that could show up in a future movie, if I am ever so blessed to get to make one.
MM: What was the hardest thing about writing this book and designing the kit?
CH: Trimming the story to fit in a 32-page children’s book. It really has the potential to be a movie, and I wove in so many larger picture subplots and characters, but industry experts drive you to fit it in 32 pages. I had it at 40 pages for a long time until my readers (parents) and trial users told me it was just too long to keep the little ones’ attention. So, I cut big plot points, refined, etc. and got it to the 32-page standard. But there are 8 possible stories planted in the book, that I hope to develop as more books, should Stanley take off. The hardest thing about the kit was getting feedback. You can’t play test this with kids any time of year, so I relied heavily on parental feedback, and then ran user trials each Christmas, which cost $1000 each time. Also, I was experimenting with a beloved tradition, so getting parents willing to trust that I wouldn’t put them in a bad situation by introducing Stanley and then messing up the folklore was a bit scary. Then finally actually getting trial users to take anonymous surveys when they are all extremely busy and tired was the hardest part. It’s super hard to get tough, honest feedback, much less from worn out parents.
MM: How did you think up all the activities on the cards?
CH: The activities are driven by the 7 values in the book. So, I brainstormed ways little kiddos could show patience, like sitting quite for 20 seconds, or show bravery by singing for 20seconds in front of everyone, etc. There’s lots more that can be done with these kinds of activities, and I hope to eventually add expansion packs like a set of yoga cards, and education packs teachers can use in classrooms (like math and spelling challenges).
MM: Why are you using Kickstarter to promote it?
CH: I love Kickstarter. It enables you to do so much with so little. The Kickstarter community cares about your success, even when they don’t know you. You can efficiently tell whether you have market fit with your product while ideally generating enough investment dollars with early sales to build an inventory you then use in retail. And you can go as little or as big as you think you can or want to go on the platform. It served us well on TROBO, and I’ve backed over 60 projects and reviewed many more. It is an open platform where you can literally learn what marketing techniques are successful from some of the best launchers in the world, just by getting engaged.
MM: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten about this set so far?
CH: I’ve had my first-year trial users tell me their children were asking for Stanley again the next year, and I’ve received fan art from kiddos drawing Stanley. The former tells me I may have a market that will continue to make Stanley a part of our Christmas culture; the latter is about as heartwarming as it gets. Having anyone draw your character as a gift is a show of love. What more could you ask for?
MM: How do you hope this series evolves?
CH: I hope to develop the other 8 books (7 from the places Stanley visits + a hidden one). In each of the locations Stanley visits, he meets a unique friend, like Nina the Nanopus under the sea, overcomes a challenge like needing to be giving, and builds more of his folklore and adds a bit more science. Early readers of the book have consistently told me they want to know more about those places. Then I hope evolve pieces of all the books into a movie.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
CH: I dream of one day having Stanley be as much a part of Christmas as the Grinch is. It’s a big dream, that I won’t be anywhere near able to accomplish on my own. But if families out there embrace Stanley enough to adopt him into their lives, he may have a chance.
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To learn more, visit the official website: http://www.candycanewormhole.com/
To view the Kickstarter, see here.