Anna Quindlen: The Lamp of Self

In the recent edition of Newsweek, Anna Quindlen sounds off about where the world of books and reading may be heading, particularly in light of the oncoming bus known as the iPad (which writer Daniel Lyons writes about in an interesting way in the same magazine, pointing out the benefits and dangers of Steve Jobs/Apple’s closed systems).

Quindlen notes that there “is and has always been more than a whiff of snobbery about lamentations that reading is doomed to extinction.” Books in book form are still everywhere, and most of us are still in the transition from paper and digital form, and that transition may be around for quite some time.

I am a digital guy, for sure, but I have not yet made my way to the Kindle, Nook or iPad or any other (although I have read books on my iTouch and on my XO computer, just to see what it was like).  I am still attached to the  physical substance of the book, even though, I understand the interesting aspects of eReaders and am fascinated by the possibilities of multi-layered composition.

I liked this point made by Quindlen, too:

“Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self: that’s why it survives.”

I imagine that this holds true, whatever the “container” the book comes in.

Peace (in the digital world),

How to make a movie? Ask Amelia.

I stumbled into this neat picture book in our local library and finally got around to reading it yesterday with my youngest son. Amelia Makes a Movie by David Milgrim is a whimsical look at making a home movie from the viewpoint of two creative kids, and supportive parents in the background.

I love how Milgrim captures the essence of how to really make a movie — Amelia and her little brother plan out the story, build a set, shoot the video on the camcorder, re-imagine and re-shoot the movie when a better idea comes along (thanks to the little brother), and then after some editing, the kids showcase the movie before friends and family, just like a Hollywood premiere.

In a playful way, Amelia shows the reader how they, too, can make a movie themselves. It reminds me of a conversation that I had yesterday with someone who is writing a movie script in hopes of eventually shopping it around, and we were wondering what movies will be like in 10 years or so when this current crop of young video producers make their way into Hollywood. Just think of how young kids are with all the tools at their disposal for creating visual compositions.

I am going to try to add this book as resource over at my Making Stopmotion Movie site.

Peace (in the shoot),

Regarding “Regarding the Fountain”

Regarding the Fountain, by Kate Klise

Sometimes, you just stumble upon a gem and that was the case this week with the book written by Kate Klise and i llustrated by M. Sarah Klise called Regarding the Fountain. I found it on a shelf in our library, thinking it might be right for one of my students, but during some quiet reading times in class, I opened it up and was hooked.

The subhead gives you a clue as to what is in store: “A Tale in Letters, of Liars and Leaks.” Yes, the book is full of puns, so be warned.

The book tells the story of a town where the main river dried up thirty years prior when a new school was constructed. In the current time, the school water fountain has gone kaput and the principal wants to hire someone to design and install a new water fountain. He gets more than he bargains for when he contacts Florence Waters, who has a spirit and vision all of her own, and she enlists a fifth grade class to help her. Meanwhile, the kids uncover a mystery about what happened to the river.

And the entire novel is told entirely through letters, memos and notes.

I loved how Klise makes you read between so many lines (just when you think the teacher is proposing marriage to Waters, you learn this is not the case at all, and that makes you chuckle at your own assumptions), and infer what is happening that has not been written. She injects so much humor, too (the communications between Waters the designer and the principal are priceless). And she empowers the kids at the school, who write an opera, dress up in elaborate costumes and play with the two pet monkeys she has sent them from Africa. There’s more, but you get the point.

This small book (check out part of it at Google Books) is a great example of non-traditional text and as we think about ways to use digital media to tell stories — through hyperlinks, videos, audio tracks, etc. — it is useful to be reminded that words in a linear sentence is not the only way to tell a story and engage a reader.

It reminds me of a story I once wrote that was told exclusively through the concept of canceled checks. You leave out as much as you put in, hoping that the reader can fill in the gaps of the story.

I see that Klise also has other books like this one out, including Regarding the Trees: A Splintered Saga Rooted in Secrets and Regarding the Bathrooms: a Privy to the Past.

Don’t you just love coming across a new book series or author? That makes my day. I might need to create a glog about this book for my students.

Peace (in the fountain),

The alternative history of “Leviathan”

We still read aloud to all of our sons, even the sometimes-grumpy sixth grader will sit next to us for extended periods of time to listen to a book. He reads a lot on his own, too, but this tradition of read-aloud has been part of our family since he was little. It gets trickier to find the time and the right book, however, but we keep going.

Two weeks ago, we started to read Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, bestselling author of Uglies. The book is a retelling of history prior to World War I, with some significant changes in the world. For one, Europe is home to two main powers who have begun to harness technology for advancement. The Darwinists tinker with animals to create super-creatures, such as living sky creatures, while the Clankers create powerful machines to rule the world.

We’re not yet far into the story, but you can see things set in motion already — with the main character, Prince Aleksander, on the run after his father — Archduke Ferdinand — has been killed.

The world created by Westerfield is pretty amazing and the pace of the story is brisk. It’s a perfect read-aloud for a 12 year old and I like that the other main character in the story is a girl (pretending to be a boy so she can fly the skies).

I tried to explain to my son that this is a variation of steampunk fiction (he looked at me strange when I said that) in which writers envision a world where technology took root earlier than it did, and the world became a vastly different place as a result.

Peace (on the pages),

Books, on the cheap

While I would always advocate that you find ways to support your local independent book sellers, it’s hard to pass up an offer like this one from Barnes & Noble. This week, the book chain is offering pretty steep discounts on its books for teachers and it’s worth a visit. Plus, I have a few gift cards hanging around and a few books on my wish list, including:

What books are on your wish list?

Peace (in the pages),

New Ambassador for Children’s Lit

Katherine Patterson has taken over as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, taking over from Jon Scieszka (God, I won’t miss having to spell his name!).

I know Patterson mostly from Bridge to Terrabithia, but she has garnered much praise for her other books, too. She certainly will be a change from the man-whose-name-I-can’t-spell, but I like that different kinds of writers can take on the role of promoting young people’s literature.

Patterson’s platform will be “read for life,” according to the press release.

With books, she said, kids (and adults) use their “powers of intellect and imagination” and experience “delight.” Stories also teach children about people from other religions, races, and countries, she said. “Books help us make friends who are different from ourselves.”

Good luck, Katherine. I hope you keep inspiring young readers.

Peace (in the book),

Honoring Jon Scieszka

ImageChef On January 3, 2008, the Library of Congress named Jon Scieszka “Inaugural National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature”.

Over at The Year in Reading blog, Franki and Mary Lee are seeking to give the man his props for his work over the course of the year to promote and encourage literature for young people. They are encouraging more of us to write about his impact on us and those around us.


I was never a huge fan of the Stinky Cheese Man fractured fairy tale stories, but I know my students are, and when we are talking about how to fracture a story, one reference to this now-classic collection is enough to get most of us talking the same wavelength. And The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is wonderful and a great way to teach point of view in any classroom.

But, I loved reading Knucklehead, which is Scieszka‘s memoir of childhood in a house full (literally) of boys, and reveled in the mayhem of his world. I wish he had gone a bit deeper into how that all effected his writing. He touches on it but I wanted more. The book is very accessible to young people and boys, in particular, will find a voice they know and adventures they can understand. Plus, how can you beat a title like Knucklehead?

Another great piece of work by Scieszka is the Guys Read collection, which springs from his work to promote reading among middle-school-aged boys. He asked authors to write about their own experiences and uses those stories to encourage writing and reading. The book is a joy to read and I was excited to see it on the shelf of the local Barnes & Noble yesterday in the young adult fiction area.

Finally, Scieszkalaunched the Exquisite Corpse project online this year, in which he began a nutty story and other famous authors pick up a new chapter each week, with the goal of the story expanding for an entire year. My students and I have been using the chapters for reading (prediction of text, foreshadowing, plot design) but also for prompts for writing (what happens next?). And now, with holiday break about over, we are behind a few chapters! Some of you may recognize the concept from my recent Three-Headed Collaborative Story Adventure, and yes, Scieszkawas one of the inspirations there, too. (oooh, I see Natalie Babbitt is the latest author to add to the story).

So, thank you, Mr. Scieszkafor making reading and writing fun during your tenure as ambassador to young people’s literature and my youngest son is looking forward to the next Trucktown books. (me too)

Peace (in the books),

Considering Glogster

I’m considering bringing my students onto the educational arm of Glogster this coming week to create a book review of Three Cups of Tea (I’ll share the assignment later but it has to do with a series of Three Questions …) I set up a teacher account and created 80 student accounts and have started to build a database of names, usernames, passwords, etc. It’s all free!

I’m a little nervous about the messaging element of the site, though, and wish I could push a button and remove that option. I only want them to focus in on creating a poster review of the book and not get lost in sending messages (which I know happens).

So, my dilemma: does the positives of creating an online poster showing knowledge of the book that they are supposed to be finishing up this week outweigh my concerns about messaging?

I’ll let you know what I eventually decide.

But here is a sample book poster that I created for Peter and the Sword of Mercy, just to show some possibilities. I love how easy it is to make and how easy it is to embed a Glogster. I could see making up a site of all of the Three Cups of Tea posters.

Peace (in the poster),

Are we now People of the Screen?

I finished up the collection of articles in The Best Technology Writing of 2009 (a recommended book for those of you with gift cards in hand, wondering what to read) and Kevin Kelly has another fascinating take on technology and culture in an article entitled “Becoming Screen Literate.”

His premise is that the Age of Books on paper is in serious decline as we become more and more People of the Screen, using our computers and mobile devices for creating content, viewing content and interacting with content — including the stories that now rest between the shelves.

“We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift –from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality,” writes Kelly (177).

It’s hard to argue the point. Kindles are everywhere, and other ebooks are on the way (hello Apple). We are in the midst of some transition for sure, although whether we ever lose the emotional need for bound pages is another question (I say, no) but if a device comes out that makes an emotional impact as a reader, the book industry as it is set up right now will be in deeper trouble than it already is.

Kelly argues that this shift of visual fluency opens up more doors for us as participants. He cites sites such as Seesmic that are built around the idea of posting via video, and responding via video, and having those discussion archived like blog posts — systematic video conversations. The concept of the Mash-up — of grabbing and remixing media — show the possibilities of the screen fluency age, Kelly suggests.  He cites a site called TimeTube that shows the various iterations of videos from the original to the various creative spawns of the original — a video timeline of mashups.And he notes, the mashup has its roots in the age of Literacy.

“You cut and paste words on a page. You quote verbatim from an expert. You paraphrase a lovely expression. You add a layer of detail found elsewhere. You  borrow a structure of one work to use as your own. You move frames around as if they were phrases. (179)”

Here, I just did that, didn’t I? With Kelly’s words. Now, if I had a video of him, I could possibly remix his ideas (and the old Jumpcut site used to be a place to do that, although it has since disappeared. I’m sure there are already others in its place.)

Kelly admits that what is missing from the full-blown visual literacy movement is a search tool that can smartly scan through videos and find moments based on key phrases that would allow you more freedom for those reconstructed moments. Video search tools are incomplete, but does anyone doubt that someone (Google? Microsoft? Some unknown?) will invent a way to search the actual content of videos this way?

“Text, sound, motion will continue to merge into a single intermedia as they flow through the always-on network. (187)”

Clay Shirkey, meanwhile, has the last say in the book collection, noting in his piece “Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus” that more and more people are using technology for their own creative aims because we have migrated away from television and onto the computer. That “cognitive surplus” that we used to use for watching Gilligan’s Island or Friends is now being used to compose our own media (see the ever-increasing popularity of YouTube, for example, or Flickr or ….).

“Media in the 20th Century was run as a single race — consumption … People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they also like to share. (216)”

Shirkey’s point is that we are now in the midst of trying to figure out what to do with all of this cognitive surplus we have (now that we no longer care to sit like vegetables in front of network television, we have the time and energy to do other things) and the messy nature of the Net is evidence of that. Content and creation goes in all sorts of directions during these times (the “gin” reference in the title points to another time in history when there was a cognitive surplus) and watching it settle and move forward will be one of the most exciting things to watch in the next decade.

Don’t you think?

Peace (in the future),