Literacy Collaboration: The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon

Here’s a neat project just finishing up, in which Juan Felipe Herrera (United States Poet Laureate) and artist Juana Medina were “slow writing” a picture book story, with input from second and third grade classrooms around the country. I say “slow writing” because the story had been unfolding one chapter at a time, over months, and the book apparently has just been completed.

There are five chapters, and an epilogue, and the prompt for one of the chapters gives you a nice taste of the story and the characters: How does Catalina use the poetry book to unleash her neon powers and save her familia?”

Herrera and Medina used input from elementary students who responded to the prompt (via a teacher submitting ideas with an online form) as the spine of the next part of the story. Then, they give credit to the schools where the ideas were submitted from.

Cool, right? You bet it is. I hope they do it again.

Check out The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon.

Peace (writing it forever),
Kevin

Book Review: Minds Made for Stories

Thomas Newkirk‘s idea that story is everywhere, in everything, is not all that new, but his framing of the issue in the Common Core-infused world of the US education system is worth noting. Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational Texts is Newkirk’s, well, story of how he came to see stories in the anchors of all texts.

“The hero of this story is narrative itself –how it comes to our aid as we sort out the welter of information that is available, as it undergirds our belief that our world is comprehensible, and meaningful, and one in which our actions have consequences. Narrative is there to help us ‘compose’ ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base.” — Thomas Newkirk, Minds Made for Stories, p. 5

Newkirk refers to many of those before him, including Peter Elbow, James Moffett and others, whose work and insights about writing has informed the teaching and thinking of writing in the past 50 years. Here, Newkirk argues that “narrative” is not a genre, and that the Common Core classification breakdown of writing into the three rungs of Narrative, Information/Expository, Argument/Persuasion is faulty categorization system, in that it fails to acknowledge that all texts have a narrative beneath them.

He advocates the direct teaching of noticing these stories, in all sorts of texts in the world of young people, and by noticing the frames of narratives, young people will be more apt to compose their own, breathing life into arguments and into informational texts, which often take on the lifeless role of teacher-as-audience assignments.

In one example, he breaks down the box score of a baseball game, to show how one can ferret out the true story of the game from just the mere numbers. In another section, he praises the role of Miss Frizzle and the Magic School Bus series for the way is uses story to contextualize science themes. He does the same with many picture book authors, too, such as Eric Carle. We lose that sense of underlying story in the content fields as students get older. Why is that?

This book  is part of our framework for a summer camp we are now designing in a partnership between my Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and an urban middle school in Springfield. Our program is even called Minds Made for Stories. All that we are planning to do during our free summer camp (we are being supported through a grant from Mass Humanities) will be done through the lens of story, through historical documents, a social justice mindset and a larger community project.

I appreciated Newkirk’s insights. The reminder of how powerful a role stories can play in our lives, in school and certainly beyond school, is always welcome in this day and age of standards, testing and information overload. We need stories to make sense of the world, maybe now more than ever.

Peace (tells the story),
Kevin

Book Review: Horizon

I am always on the look-out for adventurous and exciting books to read-aloud with my son. He’s 12 but still enjoys having me read, and I am holding on to that with all I’ve got (he is the youngest). I’ve had mixed results with special series that get put out by Scholastic over the years, even though we get a good deal through the book club.

I have to say: Scott Westerfeld’s Horizon is a pretty fun read, with lots of action and adventure, and a brimming mystery that had my son and I talking about the possibilities of What the heck is going on in this story?

Horizon is centered around a plane crash, in which a handful of kids survive (while everyone else is gone, apparently dead) in the middle of a jungle where not everything is as it appears to be. In fact, clues around them suggest that they may not even be on Earth. But if not, then where? I won’t give it away (and I don’t have much to give away, to be honest) but it has that sense of Lost, in that we experience this strange place through the eyes and stories of the young protagonists.

So, yeah, we’re ready for the second book. Apparently, the books in the series will be written by different authors, a common Scholastic We hope someone is hard at work writing it.

This book is a nice fit for older elementary and middle school students. There are some scenes of injury and death, but nothing too gruesome.

Peace (in another world),
Kevin

Book Review: Some Writer

I am resisting the urge to say …. well … Ok … this is Some Book. Really, Some Writer is a fantastic non-fiction cross between picture book and biographical story that expertly weaves in the life of writer E.B. White with fantastic primary sources, often in the form of artistic collages.

Like many, I am sure, I know of White’s work as the author of the marvelous Charlotte’s Web. But I also remember reading The Trumpet of the Swan, and even Stuart Little, to my older sons as read-aloud books, and wondering at the inventive spirit of White’s stories. Some of the vocabulary and syntax always seemed a little more adult-like in the Swan and Stuart, but I never felt that way with Charlotte’s Web.

White, of course, made his name not just as a children’s novelist, but as a writer in the New Yorker magazine, where he wrote funny small pieces and sketches of characters and places for decades. My first encounter with White beyond my own childhood reading of Charlotte’s Web was Strunk & White’s famous Elements of Style book, which is sort of a bible for writers. I wanted to be a writer, so it became a regular reading.

In Some Writer, Melissa Sweet has not just done her homework, but she has brought White’s words and experiences to life in a book that should appeal to readers of any age. From White’s life-long journal entries, we find a curious and funny soul, noticing the world through attentive eyes. We find drafts of stories (including a fascinating series of drafts of the first lines of Charlotte’s Web, where White struggled to write the perfect opening).

It’s another in a line of new non-fiction that shows just how creative one can get with telling a story of another’s life, and here, Sweet’s gentle guiding voice and collages do just that. It’s a lovely reading experience.

Peace (written on the Web),
Kevin

 

If the Web is the City, Are Apps the Gated Suburbs?

I’ve recently read, with interest, a book by Virginia Heffernan entitled Magic and Loss: The Internet As Art, and it seems to mesh quite nicely with some of the exploration that had been done in the Networked Narratives experiment. As the title suggests, Heffernan proposes that we view the Internet itself as a huge canvas of realistic art, and then she dives into elements like design, text, images and more to explore these ideas through a networked lens.

In the chapter on Design, she notes that because the Web is both a commercial space and a collaborative space, it has become a messy sprawl of links, images, advertisements, and more. As a result, the experience of many users is far from ideal.

“The Web is haphazardly planned. Its public spaces are mobbed, and urban decay abounds in broken links, ghost town sites, and abandoned projects. Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary. Bullies, hucksters and trolls roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble dominates major sites.” — Magic and Loss, page 45

Heffernan then goes on to develop the metaphorical supposition that this messy reality of the Internet gave rise to the closed and contained experience of Apps, which pulled us away from the Internet and created a sort of Gated Community. She talks about this as the “online equivalent of white flight.”

“The parallels between what happened to Chicago, Detroit, and new York in the twentieth century and what happened to the Internet since the introduction of the (Apple) App Store are striking.” — Magic and Loss, page 45

Is this true? Does the metaphor hold?

I guess I had never really considered the connections but she raises some intriguing points. So, as we talked about the nature of “civic imagination” in Networked Narratives and built our own “Arganee World,” we also considered what we meant by public spaces. A further point of discussion might have been how to “design elements” can play a larger role in the permanence of online spaces, and is connected directly to how much a user invests in the experience.

I guess one of the larger questions remains: What do we give up when we move into any gated community? What do we trade for our security? There is a certain beauty in the chaotic mess of the Internet — the expected discovery or connection — as well as some real ugliness — trolls and negative comments and attacks — and we cede some authority to app developers when we move into the app on our mobile device.

During one summer’s CLMOOC, we explored the idea of the Internet as Public Sphere. I wrote about it here and here and here.

Peace (in all spaces),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Anatomy of a Song

Here’s a book that hit a number of buttons for me. It’s about music. It’s about songwriting. It’s an oral history project. It’s an inside look at how creative people are creative. Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits by Marc Meyers is apparently a riff off a Wall Street Journal column he wrote, diving deep into songwriting by interviewing the writers, producers, engineers and musicians behind some iconic music. (I didn’t know WSJ had a music column, did you?)

I really enjoyed Meyer’s approach here, as he brings the voices behind the scenes up in the mix, so to speak. I knew most of the songs, but not all, and he stops at REM’s Losing My Religion, arguing that 25 years have to go by before one really knows if a song reaches iconic status. I’m fine with that.

It’s intriguing to hear the stories behind the songs, of where the inspirational lines may have come from or where the melody or harmony originated, and the process that goes into the writing, recording and engineering of songs that become the soundtrack of our lives.

Anatomy of a Song covers quite a bit of ground — there are 45 chapters, sort of like a 45 spinning on your old record player — from Lawdy Miss Clawdy by Lloyd Price to You Really Got Me by the Kinks to The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff to Heart of Glass by Blondie to Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper and more. You might quibble with his selection, but I didn’t mind.

Peace (inside the songs of our lives),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Spill Zone

It’s a strange world that Scott Westerfeld and illustrator Alex Puvilland have envisioned in Spill Zone. Something tragic has happened. Something so immense and unfathomable that whole cities are evacuated and left to ruin. But what exactly happened? If Westerfeld knows, he’s not telling. Not yet anyway.

The graphic novel, Spill Zone, is a fascinating entry into the world gone awry, as our teen heroine, Addison, seeks to make enough money to survive, and to protect her younger sister, who was caught in the midst of the catastrophic meltdown or explosion or whatever it was when it happened and now, she is strangely silent. Her doll, though, is even stranger, communicating to the sister in some form of mind-melding that hints at something larger unfolding.

The doll needs to recharge so periodically in the spill zone. When Addison goes back to the devastated city on her motorcycle, where she takes photographs of the strange new world to sell, the doll comes for a ride, too. The doll is an indication of something really strange happening.

The story here revolves around a business offer that Addison can’t refuse, although she should refuse it. The work brings her deeper into the city than she would normally allow herself to go — right into the heart of the very hospital where her parents were working when the catastrophe hit, and died (as far as we know) — and then, even weirder things happen as Addison makes her escape.

Spill Zone is the first book in a series (which I think played out as a comic, too) and my middle school son and I were both hooked. But, a word of caution: this is aimed more for high school readers and older, due to some language and content.

Peace (strange, indeed),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Stone Heart (The Nameless City)

You know a book has captivated your attention when you find yourself on the edge of your seat, wondering what will happen next, and then stare for a long time at the cliffhanger at the last page. Such was the case with the second book in The Nameless City trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks entitled The Stone Heart. (I wrote about the first book — The Nameless City — here).

Hicks has tapped into the very elements that make graphic novels so special to read and experience — using her artwork, historical research and development of characters, Hicks has created an imaginary world (based on Ancient China and the Silk Road) that feels alive and real. The artwork is really exquisite and detailed. Reaching the end of The Stone Heart is a disappointment but only because Hicks is still working on the third, and final, installment of the story.

Now we have to wait …

And what is this story? A city of mixed tribes and people that has two potential paths — war and conquest, or peaceful transition in which all tribes determine the future. For now, war has won out, or the prospect of war, and our two main protagonists — Rat, an orphan girl raised by monks in the Nameless City, and Kaidu, son of a Dao warrior — are faced with a dangerous task that may shape the Nameless City for years to come.

The mysterious backdrop to the story is a past people — the ones who first built The Nameless City and whose reign mysteriously came to an end  — and a hidden book that contains a power of great destruction, a book once protected by monnks that has now fallen into the hands of a young leader who has killed his father in order to ascend to power. He believes the book will forge his way forward. Others, like Kaidu and Rat, understand that the book was hidden for a reason and fear what it may unleash on the world.

The Stone Heart is an adventurous book that stays true to its historical (if fictional) roots of Asian culture. It continues the magic of the first book, and I am hopeful Hicks will bring the overarching story to a close with the third book with all the elements that has kept me reading (as well as my middle school son). The Nameless City series is appropriate for upper elementary, middle and high school students, with some violence as part of the plot of palace intrigue.

Peace (hoping),
Kevin

Book Review: The Poet’s Dog

The title is what caught my attention: The Poet’s Dog. Poetry. Dog. Book. I’m in.

But it was the story that kept me reading, devouring this short but sweet story in one sitting, and wanting to read it again. Then I realized that the author, Patricia MacLaughlan, lives in the town right next to mine, and I felt an even deeper connection. (I admit: I have not read her other books that have brought her much attention, including her novel Sarah: Plain and Tall.)

The Poet’s Dog has beautiful prose, with whispers of poetry everywhere, as the story explores the notion that dogs can talk to children, and to poets — both of whom have open ears and open hearts to the world. Here, a dog saves two children in a winter storm, and then the children save the dog from his sorrow, and in-between, we learn the real story of Teddy, the dog.

There are no wasted words in MacLaughlan’s book. Each sentence, each piece of narrative, is there for a reason, and I found myself in the poet’s house, huddled up amid the fierce winter storm, as the dog and children become part of each other’s lives with words and love. The ending, too, is very satisfying, if not too surprising, allowing us a glimpse into the kindness of the world, and the possibilities of poetry.

Dogs. Poets. Kids. Kindness. What’s not to love about all that?

Peace (after the storm),
Kevin

Book Review: Book Scavenger

Now, here’s a book with a cool story (and perfectly suited for read-aloud, as I did with my son) that comes with a perfect activity for all of us book-loving, game-loving fools of the world. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is a mystery story of sorts, as our protagonist, Emily, must solve a series of puzzles, found in books, to solve a larger mystery of a game set across the city of San Francisco. It all begins and centers on Edgar Allen Poe, but that’s about all I will say, so as not to give anything away.

Suffice it to say that Bertman has infused her novel with a love of books on many levels, with allusions all over the place to much-loved classics, and established Emily Crane as a heartfelt character. Her family moves .. a lot. Her parents aim to live in all 50 states, and then write a book about it (they already blog about it), and so Emily (age 12) never connects with other kids her age. She knows it is all temporary.

But James, a boy whose family owns the house where Emily’s family rents, is the first kid whose love of puzzles and challenges draws her into an unexpected friendship, as both kids try their hand at Book Scavenger, a website where people hide books and others find them, and collect points. Garrison Griswold, publisher and creator of Book Scavenger, has set in motion a new game, but then falls victim to a subway attack. Emily finds one clue and then game begins… and the story twists and turns, full of cryptic notes and odd discoveries.

Although Book Scavenger, the game and website, is part of a fictional novel, Bertman (and no doubt, her publisher) have created a real-life Book Scavenger site, where you can hide books and track the progress of those books being found. My son was very interested in this literary hide-and-seek game, and I am sure we will be doing some book hiding in our part of Western Massachusetts. Of course, we hope others in our area have read the book and followed the path to the website. (And you can track activity via the #bookscavenger hashtag on Twitter)

Now, the question is: what book shall we hide? And where?

Peace (hidden but in plain view),
Kevin