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),


Movie Stardom: My Son and the Youth Film Festival


Last summer, my then-7-year-old son  (he’s now 8) rounded up a bunch of friends and relatives and produced an 8 minute movie called Robbers on the Loose. The project was inspired by similar movie-making ventures by older kids in the neighborhood, including my older sons. As a production assistant (!) to my young son, I helped with some of the holding-of-the-camera and some of the video editing. But the story, the direction, the props (including our dog) were all of his ideas, and the end result was a goofy sort of cops/robbers story complete with a chase and battle scene. In our city, there is an annual Youth Film Festival that celebrates young filmmakers, and we sent his movie in on a whim.

We learned this week that his film has been accepted (the festival is today) and in the local newspaper yesterday, his name and his movie were featured in the promotional material. Boy, was he excited!

Robbers Loose news item

If you happen to be in Northampton today, from noon to 3, come check out the Northampton Youth Film Festival at the Academy of Music. We’ll be there, popcorn in hand, and maybe a camera of our own to try to capture the sense of his movie on the big screen.

Here is the trailer we had done for it way back in the summer:

Peace (in the moviemaking),


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),


CommonSense Media: App Collection for Special Needs Students

CommonSense Media just put out an interesting guide to Apps called PowerUp that might help students with special needs and learning disabilities. I think one of the possibilities of touchscreen and multimedia devices is that it can make a wider array of content more available to a wider range of students. But, let’s face it, there is a lot of junk apps out there, too. CommonSense Media does a nice job of annotating the apps in this  free list (which is also downloadable as a PDF) and putting them into various categories, and then sorted by difficulty/age levels, that can be helpful for teachers and parents to consider.

The apps are sorted into:

  • Communication
  • Social Interaction
  • Organization
  • Reading
  • Math
  • Motor Skills

Not all of the apps are free, however. But they do seem like an interesting collection worth a gander.

Here’s what they say about their list:

“No matter which hurdles your kid faces, the apps and other media included in Power Up can give them an added boost. We don’t expect an app to be a complete solution, of course. Working with kids who face challenges requires lots of time, attention, and patience on the part of a parent, teacher, or other adult caregiver. Our goal is to offer you a host of fun, well-designed apps that were recommended and tested by field experts. We hope they can become a part of your toolkit as you work with your child.” — CommonSense Media PowerUp

Peace (in the powering up),



Composing Interactive Fiction 4: Resources, Ideas, Possibilities

(Note: This is part of a short series I am sharing about trying out Interactive Fiction as a writer. On Sunday, I shared out the overall experience. On Monday,  I shared out the first story that I wrote, and well as provided some advice on how to play it. Yesterday, I went in another direction, using a free software program called Twine. Today, I will share out resources that I have discovered and maybe get you to tinker with some other Interactive Fiction possibilities yourselves. – Kevin)

I’ve stumbled on a fair number of resources around Interactive Fiction that might be helpful if you, like me, are wondering what it is all about and whether it has a place in the classroom as a writing experience. I apologize if this post seems more like a stream of consciousness than a coherent presentation of ideas. (Maybe I should have created it as interactive exposition?)

First, I have to share out again Jason Sellers post at NWP’s Digital Is site. Jason’s post got me started down this path. Here is a video of his presentation about the project at a teaching conference recently:

This video is a great piece about the art of video game storytelling. I like how it broadens the view of what writing can be.

Playfic is a neat site for creating, sharing and playing Interactive Fiction games. While there is a learning curve, one can also creatively “steal” the code from other stories and then revamp them. Here is a handy cheat sheet of commands for playing the games/stories at Playfic.

IF Shortcuts

A more advanced tutorial on using Inform 7, the software that Playfic runs off, is here, too, although this is more heady stuff.

Twine is a free software program for creating hypertext stories, which are different from the typical Interactive Fiction, but in the same vein. (Which reminded me of this article that I read a while back about non-sequential narratives. It’s pretty fascinating.) Chad shared out a few resources that were helpful to me, including this quick tutorial on the basics of Twine.

By the way, Eastgate is an online journal for hypertext projects and you can easily get lost in the mix there. There’s some nifty poetry, media projects and stories that pushes the boundaries of our conceptions of writing in a digital space. I am sure there are other hypertext journals out there, too. If you know of more, leave me a comment, won’t you?

Jason had his students head to the 2012 Interactive Fiction Competition (who knew?) to play and vote on some stories. It looks like a nice range of stories that can be played online as well as offline. They might work well as mentor texts.

Hypertextopia is another site that allows you to build/construct hypertext stories. It’s been some time since I have explored it, but when I did use it for a story collection, I liked it.

Inklewriter is an online space for making linked make-your-own-ending stories that Ryan shared with me on a comment this week. I have not yet tried it (although I have had it bookmarked for a time now) but Inklewriter looks pretty intuitive to use, along the lines of Twine but in an online space (for easier sharing, right?).

I have used wikis with my students for those kinds of branching story projects (which Twine might replace this year). I even created this resource for other teachers thinking about how to help students make their own make-your-own-ending stories with online tools. As I think about the role that Interactive Fiction might play in teaching writing, that lesson plan will be my starting point. I even presented about it once at a regional reading conference. (Note to self: dig up those files.)

Finally, all this reminded me of a video series that I made to experiment with annotations in Youtube, using the ‘choose the path’ concept for choices made by the viewer. I used this tutorial to understand a bit about how to use the spotlight/annotation feature in YouTube. I admit: I have not used this with my students, but I would love to do it.

Peace (in the paths),




My Songwriting is a Mess of Ideas

The Mess of Songwriting
My band, Duke Rushmore, is making an effort to write more of our own material. Back in the day, I used to write songs all the time for myself and for my bands, but I sort of drifted away a bit. Now, I back a bit on my guitar, tinkering around. Both our lead singer and drummer write lyrics, with no music, so I have asked them to send me their words, hoping maybe I can find a way to bring them to life.

This past week, I did work on a song with lyrics from our singer, but I don’t think the tune will work with the band. But he was thrilled to have his words put to music, so that was a nice gift that I could give to him.

Looking at the lyric sheet, I realized: what a mess I make of it when I work on a song. Literally. I scratch out words, rewrite phrases, put lines through whole lines and then remove the lines, draw arrows. The chicken-scratch-lyric sheet is like a roadmap of ideas that can be interesting to examine. Or maybe interesting for the singer, to figure out what I was doing with his words that he graciously and courageously sent my way.

You see, this kind of collaboration requires me to block out the world for a stretch and remake the writing of someone else, which can be both exciting and unsettling. It’s exciting because you are bouncing off the words of someone else. It’s unsettling because there is a lot of responsibility that comes with this kind of endeavor. Most of all, I did not want to lose the meaning of his song, even if the words were moved, deleted, changed, altered. The story had to remain true. I think I did that for him but it weighed heavily on me as I sat there with my guitar, wondering where to even begin as I looked over his words and thought about what he was trying to say.

Yeah, it was a mess but it came out OK in the end.

Here is a demo of the song. It’s rough and the recording didn’t come out so great because I was quickly working to get it down.

Peace (in the collaboration),


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),


Composing Interactive Fiction 3: Story Choices and Twine

(Note: This is part of a short series I am sharing about trying out Interactive Fiction as a writer. On Sunday, I shared out the overall experience. Yesterday, I shared outthe first story that I wrote, and well as provided some advice on how to play it. Today, I went in another direction, using a free software program called Twine. Later in the week, I will try to share out resources that I have discovered and maybe tinker with some other Interactive Fiction possibilities. – Kevin)

IF FictionPage

I found Twine, a free software program that allows you to make Interactive Fiction, from my friend, Chad, in one of his comments at my blog this week. (Twine is also the name of the new Twitter video app, but they are different programs altogether.) Twine is a program that allows you to map out choices that a reader might make in a story, and then it moves them along various story arcs via hyperlinks. It’s a sort of Make Your Own Ending program.

Here is a map to a story that I created, called Here There Everywhere. I like the visual element of story construction and Twine uses that interface as its main element of design of writing.


Twine is very different from Inform, which is the software unpinning of Playfic, which I used earlier this week.

In Playfic, the reader/player needs to know the commands that will move you through an environment. It is very language-based. With Twine, you just need to make a choice and follow the link left by the writer. In terms of true Interaction Fiction, I think Playfic is the better choice because it becomes more of a game than just a story. In terms of ease of use, Twine wins hands-down, although it is less of game and more of a story.

And as I think about how to bring this idea of Interactive Fiction into my sixth grade classroom for a writing experience, Twine takes the cake. If you learn just a few simple steps, you can be writing a story within minutes. (But Playfic might be a logical extension activity for some students who “get it” and want more. See my story — What To Write With When You Are Writing story as my own example from the other day.)

A nice thing about Twine is that it resembles an HTML editor in a lot of ways, so you can embed video, images, audio, etc, as long as they are hosted somewhere online. You can then embed the code right into the story. I did that with my story by adding a video intro and outro to the my story, just as an experiment, and it worked like a charm. One issue with Twine (but not with Playfic) is that the program lives on your computer, so if you want to share your story with the world, you need to host it online. Twine does its part to make it simple, though, by creating your story in a single HTML file.

Here’s an easy way to host your file. Use the new Google Drive feature. (Essentially, you create a public folder and pop the HTML file in there, and share the preview link.) That’s what I did with my Twine story. It’s a relatively simple and pretty effective way to host a HTML file. The guy who developed Twine has also developed a bunch of easy-to-follow video tutorials and Chad pointed me to another post that has an easy walk-through of the basics of Twine.

Check out my story: Here There Everywhere.

Let me know what you think of the story and my reflections. I’m sorting this out as I go, inspired by NWP friend Jason Sellers post on NWP’s Digital Is about Interactive Fiction.

Peace (in the storybuilding),


Composing Interactive Fiction 2: Playing My Story

(Note: This is part of a short series I am sharing about trying out Interactive Fiction as a writer. Yesterday, I shared out the overall experience. Today, I want to share the first story that I wrote, and well as provide some advice on how to play it. Later in the week, I will try to share out resources that I have discovered and maybe tinker with some other Interactive Fiction possibilities. – Kevin)

(Click on the image to get to the story, but I suggest you read my post first.)

I named my Interactive Fiction story What To Write With When You Are Writing because my initial idea was to create a story where the player needs to choose a writing device, and the end result would be to make fun of technology and end up with a pad of paper and pen. Things did not quite go as I had planned, though, and I ended up simplifying the idea considerable.

What you need to know to play the story (that sounds so odd, doesn’t it?):

  • You navigate by using compass directions. In this case, writing “go east” or “go west” will move in that direction.
  • If you there is an object (such as, oh I don’t know, a key, maybe?), then you need to “take key” in order to have it in your hand.
  • To open a door, write “open door.” Unless it is locked, then you need to “unlock door” before you can “open door.”
  • Once a door is unlocked, you need to give directions again on which way to go (east, west).
  • The same thing is true with a locked box. You need to “unlock box” before you can “open box.”

I think all of these hints will help you navigate my story, which ends in a cloud of ideas (you’ll see). Let me know how it goes, please, and what you think. Even in a small, simple story like this, the amount of thought and planning that I did was pretty intense. I had this whole visualization of the hallway and rooms, etc, and creating that experience for others was tricky and challenging (in a good way).

Peace (along the paths),