Interactive eBook Review: Underground Kingdom

As I explore Interactive Fiction and Choose Your Adventure genres, I realized that I have an app that is all that on my Ipad. I had forgotten about Underground Kingdom, for some reason, and yesterday, I returned to the interactive ebook to see how it might help me think about my students reading and writing interactive stories. Underground Kingdom does a nice job of adapting the old Choose Your Adventure story concept (there are 23 possible endings and you can access a map that shows your path and your dead ends, so you can always jump back into the story at different points).

Underground Kingdom was financed via Kickstarter, and the app (which costs $2.99 at the iTunes App Store) takes advantage of the technology by integrating motion graphics, simple animations and, of course, the hyperlinked tree effect, which allows a reader to jump around the story arc based on choices made. The plot of the book has to do with a black hole at the center of the earth, a strong gravitational field, and a hidden kingdom … of monkeys. Yeah. So, you can get a sense of the fun and adventure that this sort of story brings to an iPad (Underground Kingdom is not yet available for other devices.)

 

I had fun reading/playing this story, although I wasn’t all that overwhelmed by the graphics and the story is still pretty text-heavy. Still, the plot moved at a rapid pace, and the use of second person narrative making choices was effective. I liked that when I hit a dead end, I could venture back to the story map and keep going in another direction. In fact, after 25 minutes of reading/playing, I still seemed to have a long way to go with the story.

It makes me wonder if there are other Choose Your Adventure stories out there in ebook/interactive format. Do you know of any others?

Peace (in the paths),
Kevin

 

Bringing Choose Your Adventure Novels to the Classroom

My sixth grade team got an email the other day from our school’s administrative assistant, letting us know that we still have some money in our grade level supply fund and, she urged, we better spend it before the district takes it back. We didn’t even know it was there, so that kind of email is like a holiday cheer for a teacher. My first impulse: let’s get some new books for the classroom. As it turns out, I was starting to go through the application process for Donors Choose to ask for a collection of Choose Your Own Adventure novels as part of my inquiry into Interactive Fiction (I’ve been writing all week about this topic. See my post from yesterday.). I want to use the Choose Your Adventure books as mentor texts and then shift my students into writing their own multiple ending stories with Twine or some other technology platform.

There is another motive here, too, which is to vary the kinds of texts my students are reading. We recently referenced Choose Your Adventure stories, and I read part of one aloud to the class as we collectively chose various story paths, when we were studying Narrative Point of View. It’s not easy to find an accessible second-person-narrative story that works, but Choose Your Adventure stories fit the bill perfectly, and I had a lot of students intrigued by the story. It turns out that this generation of kids haven’t really been exposed to these stories. In the past, I’ve had kids who devoured the Goosebumps series, so they had some understanding of the reader as protagonist. Not many of my students had read Goosebumps, and very few knew about Choose Your Adventure stories. Which is sad, really, since they offer such a different kind of reading experience and interaction.

So, I saw the email, dropped out of Donors Choose, and got to work on Amazon, finding books that I could suggest we order for our students. Bingo! I am hoping the plan for a collection of new books is now in motion and my collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books will be coming soon.

Wish me luck …

Peace (in the endings),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Horten’s Marvelous Mechanisms

Sometimes, you just come across a read-aloud book that makes you think, Why didn’t I know about this one before? That’s how I felt as my son and I zoomed through Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms, a novel by Lissa Evans that is packed tight with lots of action, mystery and humor. The story revolves around 10-year-old Stuart Horten, whose family moves back to Stuart’s father’s hometown where a decades-long mystery about a great-uncle remains unresolved. Stuart resolves to resolve it. Using his wits and detective smarts,  a help from an unlikely friend, Stuart slowly uncovers clues to the whereabouts of his famous magician uncle, Teeny Tiny Tony Horten, who disappeared one night long ago and whose workshop of magic remains a mystery.

I won’t give the story away, but my son was amped up for the clues that Stuart had to find and solve, and as soon as we were done with Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms, we were on our public library site, ordering the sequel, Horten’s Incredible Illusions. Evans does a nice job here of creating a believable character, setting the plot in motion, and even allowing us moments where we can suspend our disbelief about magic in the world in order to enjoy a good story.

Peace (in the sleight of hand),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairland and Led the Revels There

I think the length of the title says a lot about Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. It reminds me of Fiona Apple, in a way, and reflects both the high interest and sense of wordplay and imagination that is inside this book (the sequel to the first, The Girl Who Circumnavigated the World in a Ship of Her Own Making.) The Girl Who Fell is another tour de force, but it is not likely for everyone. The vocabulary is rich, and offputting at times, and the story shifts and flows in very odd directions. You can get reader whiplash at times. But if you dive in, you will be rewarded with a story of many levels, told in the vein of Alice in Wonderland, the Land of Oz books, and even A Wrinkle in Time.

The story centers on the adventures of the protagonist, a girl named September, who in the last book, saved Fairyland by defeating the evil ruler. Here, she enters Fairyland again, only to be on a quest that requires her to travel beneath Fairyland — into Fairyland-below — where the shadows of creatures above are being trapped. Or not. In this underworld, they are ruled by September’s own shadow, which she had sacrificed in the last book and had sliced off her. In order to stop her shadow from destroying Fairyland, September must continue to go down many layers of this magical underworld to save a sleeping prince. To say she meets more than her odd share of interesting and crazy characters would be to undersell Valente’s gifts as a writer.

I’m not sure who the audience for this book is, though. While it seems to be aimed at young adults, the vocabulary and syntax and writing style would likely frustrate even the strongest readers. It maybe more for adults who enjoy the whole Wicked franchise — those seeking to relive the imaginary journeys of our youths through fiction, echoing the classics while carving out something new. The Girl Who Fell is not necessarily an easy read, but it is an enjoyable ride.

Peace (in the adventure),
Kevin

Book Review: Who Could That Be At This Hour?

I admit: I don’t know what to make of this book. Part of a new detective-noir-for-kids series called All the Wrong Questions, Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket (who is the 13 year old detective narrating the story that is part of a four novel series) is both confounding and interesting and off-putting and grabbing — sometimes within sentences of each other. One one hand, the language and tone of the book is perfect for noir. You can hear it in the dialogue and Snicket’s inner thinking. On the other hand, the story unfolds at such strange angles that I wonder if any of my students would stick with it, even those who loved The Series of Unfortunate Events. I just don’t know.

There are places where I chuckled out loud (good jokes about books, and recurring lines that hit the humor vein), and others where I was scratching my head. I didn’t mind that the back story of the main character, detective Lemony Snicket, is barely revealed but the way the pieces are revealed are plain confusing.  Snicket (the write) is asking the young reader to put a lot of trust in him that all will be revealed somewhere down the line.

The plot itself — a recovery of a stolen statue and many misleading stories by characters with their own reasons for what they are doing — is a typical noir plot, with twists and turns and wrong questions being asked leading characters into sticky situations. And of course, there are the confounding females (three of them, at least) who lead our narrator in one direction after another.

I will say this: the cover is eye-catching. I just don’t know who will read it and stick with it.

Peace (in the noir of the night fiction),
Kevin

PS — the video trailer:

 

 

IDEO: The Future of the Book

I am always fascinated by inquiry into books and how technology is shaping, reshaping our writing and reading experiences. This video comes from the IDEO site, which has a lot of interesting projects and research elements underway around literacy and design. It focuses in on Nelson, Coupland and Alice — three platforms for literacy. (I’ve heard about Alice numerous times and need to check it out)

Peace (in the share),
Kevin

Book Review: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

Writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal might as well be me.

So many of her entries in her wonderful Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life feel as if they were cribbed from my journal — if I still kept one — or from any of the Slice of Life writing or Six Word Memoirs or Day in a Sentence writing activities that I often take part in. Well, sure, she’s a woman and I am a man, so there are a few differences in perspectives and experiences, and her insightful writing goes deeper than mine usually does … but this treasure of a book (recommended by Penny Kittle in Book Love) is a look at Rosenthal’s life, set up as encyclopedia entries (with scattered other tidbits woven in), that should resonate with anyone leading what they consider to be an “ordinary” life.

I liked that format here — that we can organize our thinking about the everyday events and people in our lives as a sort of encyclopedia that keeps on growing (which to me would give the digital book format a leg up on the paper format — the book is done and published, unless she writes a sequel — but a digital version could keep growing and expanding).

What I liked best of all in Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is Rosenthal’s voice as a writer — her honesty about the world around her, which may seem mundane at times but is not (just like the lives of most of us), and it’s fascinating to watch the lens that she sees things through — with humor, compassion and off from an angle. Her lens helped me to look around and see things that way, too. While some of the entries might seem rather light (she writes about going out for coffee quite a bit), Rosenthal can suddenly take your breath away with a piece about the murder of the woman who was her nanny, and the last night they spent together as friends.

As a Meta-reading aside, I loved that the back of the book jacket is a blurb about how Rosenthal reads the back of a book jacket to gauge a book, and I adored the little lists that were hidden away inside the flaps of the book. I like how she opened up the last few pages to give her illustrator and bookmaker a chance to have a few words about the making of the book. There are all sorts of little tidbits of interesting information scattered throughout the book like that, and as a reader, I appreciated the fun of the discovery.

There are plenty of additional goodies at her website, too.

Peace (in the life),
Kevin

 

Book Review: One Size Does Not Fit All

Nikhil Goyal is a self-proclaimed child of No Child Left Behind. That is, he is one of the generation of students whose educational experiences from elementary school through recent high school graduation was defined and structured through the lens of standardized testing and standardized curriculum. And he is not happy about that (nor should he be). His insightful book — One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School – is a powerful call for our country to rethink the ways schools are structured, and the way learning environments are established, from the most important constituency of all: the student.

Goyal wrote this book when he was just 17 years old. He conducted numerous interviews, did extensive research and considered his own educational experiences in New York to form a powerful screed on the ways that standardized learning is dulling the minds of too many students and sapping the creativity out of their lives. Luckily, he takes the next step, too, and proposed various ways that he thinks schools should (no, must) change in order to nurture the critical thinking skills and creative prowess of young people. Goyal’s book is full of voice, and passion, and frustration for the ways that the Bush presidency moved us in a direction of testing-first, and how the Obama administration has continued and built upon that theme.

If you, like me, feel as if the only voices we have been hearing are our own (educators, and maybe even some parents) and those of the government (local, national) and educational businesses (textbook companies, Gates), it is refreshing to get a glimpse of what a recent graduate is thinking. Refreshing, but saddening, too. Goyal might be in unique in his perseverance of his research and interviews, and in his ability to understand that his voice might lead to change (and his gift for writing), but you can’t come away from this book without thinking of those generations of NCLB/Race to the Top students and how the shifts in education have affected them.

I am sure educational policy wonks will point to One Size Does Not Fit All and say something like, “See? He learned to make arguments, was able to write and publish a book, and is now a speaker on the world stage. Our system works.” Gosh, though, I hope not. I hope, instead, they read Goyal’s book (they better read it!) and think, “Wow. Maybe we are sapping the creativity our of our educational system. What a miserable learning experience he had, and if he had that kind of public school experience, maybe many others are having it, too.”

I’m not holding my breath, though.

Peace (in the pages),
Kevin
PS — here is Goyal giving a talk:

 

 

Book Review: The Secret Ginger Mice

Now, here’s a book that my 8-year-old son and I chose from the library shelves for a read aloud based entirely on the cover: a watercolor illustration of two mice on a raft tumbling over a waterfall. Plus, the title intrigued us. The Secret of the Ginger Mice. We had a whole discussion about that word “ginger” and he guessed it had to do with ginger ale, the soda.

Well, not quite, but Frances Watts’ first installment in a series she is calling The Song of the Winns is a fast-paced adventure that tells the story of a mouse who gets kidnapped (perhaps), and then whose brother and sister set off to find him, only to run into trouble left and right. The book shifts back and forth between two different stories — that of the mouse who has disappeared, who begins making his way south to come home with a companion, and that of the siblings, who head north to rescue their brother. Plenty of cliffhangers ensue!

The larger story is that of a country that is in rebellion against a monarchy, and the mice kids’ family has some roots as rebels, although our protagonist mice — Alistair, Alice and Alex, plus a friend, Tibby Rose — don’t quite know that until near the end of the book after they are reunited, make their way home, and then realize that they are in danger and must leave again (just in time for book two). Oh, and ginger refers to the color of the fur of Alistair and Tibby Rose, and that shading is important to the larger context of the story, for reason I will not give away.

My son and I really did like this book, and it is a perfect read-aloud. Plenty of adventure (even pirates!), intrigue and mystery, and the weaving of the stories works nicely, too The use of mice as main characters connected us back to The Rats of NIHM and other stories, which was a nice connection to make. My only complaint is that as the designated reader-alouder person (!), I kept stumbling over the names Alice, Alex and Alistair when they were together (go ahead, read those three names fast a few times and tell me you aren’t stumbling, too. Hrumph).

Peace (in the adventure),
Kevin