eBook Review: Cosmo’s Day Off


Perhaps my expectations are a bit too much for interactive ebooks being developed for the various mobile devices in our lives. Or maybe I made the mistake of experiencing The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore before really experiencing other ebooks and therefore, my bar has been set pretty high.

My seven-year-old son and I sat down on our iPad the other day to “read” through Cosmo’s Day Off. It was nice. It had elements where he could manipulate different elements of the screen. You touch something and it does something. You know the deal. The art was colorful. The story, eh, just so-so. In fact, afterwards, I asked my son what the book was about and he gave me this pretty blank look, as if he were wondering “did we just read a story?” instead of experiencing an app.

And that’s the difference, right? I want the technology and immersive reading elements to complement the story — in whatever form it is — and not supplant it. It’s like reading a picture book where the art is so wonderful and the writing so weak that you feel as if you are completely off balance. Cosmo’s Day Off is not quite like that, but it is missing something.

The story, such as it is, is that an alien named Cosmo has to get to work and he is late. He finally arrives to find out that it was a scheduled day off. Poor Cosmo. You can listen to the audio narration, or record and save your own (which is a nice element of this ebook, and my son loved that you could manipulate the pitch and tone of the voice. A little too much. I had to stop him at one point because I was getting tired of the shift from chipmunk voice to baritone rumble voice.)

Peace (in the books),
Kevin
 

Sharing the Page with Writers I Admire

Book cover

I still can’t believe it.

I opened up a package the other day and in it was a huge textbook, Modern Literature: Rhetorical and Relevant, and there, on page 505, is a graphic novel review that I did for The Graphic Classroom. The review is for the book After 911: America’s War on Terror, which I liked but found to have some shortcomings. What gets me is who else is in this textbook collection broken down into themes of social justice, identity,  global issues and more. I am squished in this tome with some of my favorite writers, such as Billy Collins, Dave Barry, Annie Dillard, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie, Marjane Satrapi and even Ray Bradbury.

Yikes!

To be honest, I almost turned down the request for the article because, eh, I wasn’t all that interested in being used by a huge publishing company trying to sell textbooks. But I wanted to get some good PR for my friend, Chris Wilson, at The Graphic Classroom, and I was able to work out a small financial deal from the company. At least, I told myself, I was getting paid for the writing gig.

If only I had known who else would be in the pages, I might not have resisted so much. (ha)

And then I was reading the foreword to the textbook (which I think is mostly targeted for California, but aren’t they all? Or Texas?), and I realize that one of the advisors behind the book is Kathleen Rowlands, who is the director of the Cal State University Northridge Writing Project. I am always happy to see writing project connections to any work I do. And I don’t even know her.

Finally, I started reading the textbook. I know. Who does that?  Who reads a textbook unless you have to? But there is some fine stuff in there, and while I mentioned a list of famous folks, there is an entire collection of some incredibly powerful student writing, poems and stories that showcase some amazing talent. Plus, there are comics and other non-traditional texts. That made me happy, too, to know some high school student somewhere has a chance to explore many kinds of text.

I can’t say I would run out and buy the book (it probably costs an arm and a leg) if I weren’t in it, but I am quite happy to have it on my bookshelves, knowing my words are sitting comfortably close to some wonderful writers. I hope they don’t mind a little riff-raff in the neighborhood.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

PS — a version of the review that I got published here is still over at The Graphic Classroom.

 

Book Review: Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading

Now, this is a book I can use, although I pilfered it from my wife’s collection of teaching resources.

Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading (by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke) may not sound all that alluring but this resource of more than 75 news and magazine articles tied to various reading strategies in the various content areas (science and social studies being the main focus) is a goldmine of great ideas and handouts. Daniels and Steineke cull through The New York Times, Rolling Stone magazine, Car & Driver, and more to gather up great examples of topics that can be used for teaching reading skills.

As we talk more and more about the shift to the Common Core, with its emphasis on reading and writing in the content areas, this book provides another bridge for English teachers like me to bring various genres of writing beyond the narrative into the classroom, and for content-area teachers to bring more reading and writing skills into their classrooms.  Plus, the push for more reading of informational texts (charts, maps, data sets, etc.) and expository/persuasive writing is front and center in the Common Core, no matter what state you live in in.

Here, Daniels and Steineke make that work accessible and fun, with many of the activities geared around collaborative work by students. They also provide multiple extension activities so that a lesson could last 20 minutes or become an entire unit of instruction.

I already have in mind four of the ideas here for my sixth graders:

  • A jigsaw activity that uses two articles around genetic cloning — of dogs and cats. The students learn to annotate their text in preparation for sharing out their findings to their partners.
  • An activity called Quotation Mingle, in which students are given small pieces of an article that has been cut up, and their job — like a detective parlor game — is to determine the theme of the article. In this case, Daniels and Steineke provide an article about girls, driving and texting (high interest? you bet), and a handout of quotes taken from the article.
  • There is a whole lesson around the science of Invasive Species that nicely connects to science and geography, with articles on Fire Ants, and Killer Bees, and Asian Carp, and more.
  • And there is a very interesting activity called “Country X” in which students are given maps to a mystery country and they need to make inferences and judgements about that country. This “reading” of maps is important, as is the reading of data, and it is something I am working more on with my students.

I’m bringing this book into my school to show my principal, in hopes he might purchase it for our school library. My wife wants her book back.

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

 

Poetry Book Review: Mirror Mirror (A Book of Reversible Verse)

I had never heard of Reverso poems before a colleague came in and dropped Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse in my lap, saying he thought I would like it “since they seem like those two-voice poems you like so much.” Well, the poems in this collection by Marilyn Singer had me hooked, and quick. She calls them “reverso” poems, in that you read the poem top to bottom for one meaning and then bottom to top for another meaning. The one thing that can change is the punctuations. But not the words in each line. The lines are the same, just flipped.

Got that?

In her lively picture book, Singer tackles fairy tale characters, cleverly twisting lines to show views and perspectives from opposite characters. Each page has both poems written, so you don’t really need to read from bottom to top (which might confuse some readers) and it did remind of that video The Lost Generation, where the text circles back on itself in an ingenious way to make a point about young people today.

Of course, I could not let the book go without trying my hand at it, too, right? So, here goes.  My poem is about writing.

I am embedding the poem as a podcast from top to bottom first, and then showing the poem, and then embedding the poem as podcast from bottom to top. That way, the audio at the top is heard first, and then you listen to the audio at the bottom and flip the text in your head. Reader, stay with me here, if you can. It’s fun stuff. (And before I forget to say it, get Mirror Mirror for your classroom and see what your young poets can do it with. I’m going to use it later this year, too).

Here is the poem read top-down.

 

These lines define me
by scribbling, scratching. Singing,
I transform symbols into meaning
with a simple gesture as smooth as ink.
Consider me
ever hopeful; a sign of my imagination
immersed in words.
I breathe in ideas.
I breathe out stories.

Here is the poem read bottom-to-top.

 

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Ghost in the Wires

Kevin Mitnick is a legendary hacker who pioneered the use of phone phreaking (gaining access to systems via the phone lines) and social engineering (gaining access to codes for phreaking by chatting with engineers, secretaries and others), and while he was imprisoned for his hacking, he claims never to have done it for profit. He was in it for the fun, the thrill of the activity, and he was energized by the cat-and-mouse games that went on. He was out to prove himself to the world. But the police and FBI were soon hot on his trail, and even though he used his knowledge of the government information system to go into hiding for a time, he eventually was caught.

Ghost in the Wires is Mitnick’s tale of how he came become such a notorious hacker. It’s full of interesting technical talk about the early days of computers, the lack of security at so many sites, and the high intelligence, perseverance and creativity it took for Mitnick and his friends to worm their way through various computer networks. At times, the book is a little too self-serving, and the writing could have been stronger. I was glad his co-writer, Bill Simon, resisted too much technical talk (which Mitnick apparently wanted) because that move makes the book accessible to a wider audience.

I was somewhat familiar with his tale because I have read the WhizzyWig series of graphic novels by Ed Piskor, which is inspired by Mitnick and other early phone phreakers. The two books — WhizzyWig and Ghost in the Wires — are nice companion pieces, and give some insight into the motivation of hackers. While it is true that some hack for financial gain, most early hackers were looking for the thrill of the action, and the thrill of seeing how much they could get away with. At one point, Mitnick even compares hacking to a magic act, where the audience is in awe of what can be accomplished, but they would be stunned by how easy it is once you know the trick. Every system has weaknesses, Mitnick says, and the hacker

Look around your classroom. Notice the kids who are smart, but bored, and who can work their way around a computer or piece of technology with ease. They might be your future hackers. We need to find a way to engage those kids, too, and use their skills in creative ways. Metnick and others were always left out of the social loops, left to their own devices, and in doing so, society created this cadre of intruders. While Metnick went to jail, the story does have a happy ending — he is now a high-paid consultant for many companies seeking to strengthen their data security.

But I wonder about those kids who are not so lucky.

Peace (in the wires),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Wonderstruck

 

Some writers just leave me gasping for breath. I can’t put the book down and feel as if life is intruding on an intimate space that the writer, the characters and I inhabit. I was thinking of this as I finished up Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (whose The Invention of Hugo Cabret remains a solid favorite of mine), shifting towards the end of a twining narrative of words and illustrations that had me hooked from the very start. Selznick is one of those writers who is also an illustration, and who has come to understand the way to merge those two ideas together, so that the pictures are not just complementary tokens to the story. The illustrations are the story itself.

Or in this case, one of the stories. Here, in Wonderstruck, Selznick skillfully uses his line drawings to tell the tale of a deaf girl, and the pictures are like a silent movie unfolding on the pages. We don’t hear the sounds. We don’t hear any dialogue. We only see the world in a veil of silence, and through the eyes of the character. The effect is pure genius.

And then there is the other part of the story, as a young boy named Ben tries to find his father after his mother has died in a tragic car accident, and he too becomes deaf  (by a lightning strike). Using a museum as a setting for the middle of the novel, the two narratives of these characters in Wonderstruck slowly come together in a wonderful way, which I won’t give away here, except to say that the panoramic model of New York City is a delight to see, as are all of the hidden reasons for its importance.

I’d like to share this quote from the book:

“Ben remembering reading about curators in Wonderstruck, and thought about what it meant to curate your own life, as his dad had done here. What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go into your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house, and his books, and the secret room, he realized that he had already begun doing it. Maybe, thought Ben, we are all cabinets of wonder.” (574)

Is there a better phrase than that? Maybe we are all cabinets of wonder? I love that idea.

Don’t be put off by the size of this book (630 pages) nor the price, and be sure to read through Selznick’s notes at the end of how he came to write this story and how he researched the elements. Just like the video that he made for Hugo Cabret in which he talks about how he made that book (which I show every year to my young writers), Selznick here pries open the veil of the writing and drawing process for the reader to see and understand.

Peace (in the wonder),
Kevin

 

(Interactive) Book Review: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore


All the promise in the world hasn’t yet translated into digital books truly taking advantage of all of the affordances of the digital canvas. I keep waiting, and waiting. Honestly, I am not sure exactly what I am waiting for but, like the famous expression about pornography, “I’ll know it when I see it” or I will know it when I experience it. I hope.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is an interactive book on the iPad that comes pretty darn close. It’s beautifully designed; it draws the reader in with both the story and the interactive elements; and when you first read it, the next thing on your agenda will be to read it again. And again. Trust me. We can’t keep the iPad and Morris Lessmore out of our kids’ hands — and they range in age from 7 to 13. The writers and creators of this beautiful story have done it right — from the ways in which the reader can play music, to creating a swipe of blue across the grey sky, to the animation, to the ways the books in the library read the first lines of famous novels; to the story itself (about the wonderful magic of books that we read and the stories that we write, and how those stories linger on even after we die). Each page holds a little treasure to be savored.

I wish there were more books out there like The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Why aren’t there? It may be that the confluence between design (so important) and rich storytelling have not yet found enough common ground. It seems like most ebooks are really just games disguised as books instead of books as an immersive experience. Kudos to the group that pulled this book together. And I wait for the next one.

Peace (in the interactive),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Reality is Broken

(This book is going to be part of an online discussion at the National Writing Project Book Group, so I will hold off on a lot of details about the book here. — Kevin)

I guess the title says it all for the underling premise of Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. She’s certainly someone with a lot of credibility in a lot of circles — as an academic and as a gamer, and game designer, too. This book delves into the many ways in which reality for many people is boring, unfocused, and unmotivating, and how gaming can bring new possibilities for increasing our satisfaction with reality by inserting challenges, rewards and connections into life.

“If you are a gamer, it’s time to get over any regret you might feel about spending so much time playing games. You have not been wasting your time. You’ve been building up a wealth of virtual experience that …can teach you about your true self: what your core strengths are, what really motivates you, and what makes you happiest.” (p. 12)

McGonigal has a lot of good points about the benefits of gaming to engage us, particularly when she delves into the global social game movements that connect people across the world for information building, cooperative challenges and problem solving that could have an impact on the real world (which is the concluding premise — to solve world problems we need to create a gaming mentality). She also notes that the sheer number of hours that young people are playing, and the complexity of games that people are playing, is changing the way people interact with the world. And if you buy into the 10,000 hours argument of expertise (see Malcolm Gladwells’ Outliers), we are now seeing a generational wave of gaming experts emerging in our ranks. (Although, I wish those hours were creating more than just playing).

But I did find much of the middle of the book veering off a bit too much into happiness quotients and other topics that I had trouble buying into, and I found myself muttering at McGonigal more than once. Some of it felt wish-washy. I understand that she was trying to lay her groundwork for why gaming can positively impact reality, but I didn’t buy all of it. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Still, the book does a nice job of taking a step back from an individual gaming experience and argue on behalf of the gaming experience itself. And as a teacher who is still grappling with the possibilities of how to work gaming into my curriculum in a meaningful way, McGonigal is an experienced voice to turn to (watch some of her video presentations — she’s a great speaker). She really does know her games, and her gaming experiences as a designer were interesting to read about.

I’ll be interested to know how my NWP friends felt about the book when the discussion goes live sometime in early October. I have a ton of pages in Reality is Broken with note tabs, ready to be reviewed again in a few weeks.

Peace (in the game),
Kevin