Thursday, December 29, 2011

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga--Stupeflix

Bibliography: Lyga, B. (2007). Boy toy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Summary: Josh Mendel has a secret. Unfortunately, everyone knows what it is.

Five years ago Josh’s life changed. Drastically. And everyone in his school, his town—seems like the world—thinks they understand. But they don’t—they can’t.

And now, about to graduate from high school, Josh is still trying to sort through the pieces. First there’s Rachel, the girl he thought he’d lost years ago. She’s back, and she’s determined to be part of his life, whether he wants her there or not.

Then there are college decisions to make, and the toughest baseball game of his life coming up, and a coach who won’t stop pushing Josh all the way to the brink.

And then there’s Eve. Her return brings with it all the memories of Josh’s past. It’s time for Josh to face the truth about what happened.

If only he knew what the truth was… (Houghton Mifflin Company).

Tool: Stupeflix

Stupeflix is an easy-to-use video tool that is similar to Animoto or PhotoPeach: simply upload your images, and Stupeflix will render them into a professional video. A feature that I really appreciated that is absent from many congruent tools is its text capability--i.e. users can insert text slides or add captions to their images. This feature was invaluable when making a book trailer for Boy Toy. Because Josh's story is told via flashbacks and because much of it is too graphic to include in a book trailer destined for YouTube, visual literacy must be assisted with a boost from actual literacy: a series of seemingly random images is drawn together using text. Users are also able to edit their own slide transitions.

Stupeflix has only two cons: 1) users are limited to one-minute free videos (anything over that limit will cost you), and 2) videos are unable to be embedded. They are, however, able to be exported to both Facebook and YouTube. From YouTube, users may embed their videos on other sites, as seen below; while this inconvenience would not keep me from recommending this tool, users should be aware of this additional step. Overall, however, I found my Stupeflix experience to be relaxing and enjoyable.

Review: I first read about Boy Toy in a School Library Journal article about self-censorship. Apparently, when the expected challenges to Barry Lyga’s book did not materialize, he did a little digging and discovered that because librarians were so concerned about its subject matter—-child molestation-—Boy Toy was not being purchased for collections. In short, Boy Toy was not offending anyone because it was not available to anyone. (Whelan, D. L. (2009). A dirty little secret. School Library Journal, 55(2), 26-30.)

The content is certainly mature. What I found offensive about this book, however, was not the protagonist’s detailed flashbacks of his sexual relations with his teacher, but that the author and/or his editors assumed that by producing controversial material, Lyga could get away with poor storytelling. Boy Toy is not written well, which is not evident at first. Josh is a humorous, engaging narrator, and he often uses the “F” word and talks about women in relation to their various body parts, seeming like a realistic 18-year-old boy…until the reader finds out he was molested. As the details of his childhood trauma are revealed, the character becomes less and less believable and finally loses all credibility post-climax when he “learns his lesson” and moves on.

None of the other characters—-with the exception of Eve, Josh’s abuser-—are believable either and are included simply to pad the juicy meat of the story, Josh's and Eve’s relationship. Rachel, Josh’s girlfriend, is especially pointless, serving only as a tool to initiate Josh’s flashbacks, which he relates after she coldly demands that it is her “right to know” everything that happened between the 12-year-old Josh and the adult that abused him. Um, what?

Lyga took a brave step by writing about such a heavy subject so graphically, but Boy Toy has no follow-through. He attempts to show that his character is scarred by referencing Josh’s affinity for math and including an awkward baseball subplot. These additions are clearly metaphors for Josh’s need to control the situations around him since he wasn’t able to as a child, but they wear thin quickly. The reality is that Josh will be struggling—-and healing—-emotionally and mentally for the rest of his life, and reducing child abuse to an "AHA!" moment is somewhat demoralizing. Real issues such as Boy Toy's are so important to include in the library, but this particular presentation is disappointing. Grades 10+.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell--Jog the Web

Bibliography: Bell, C. D. (2010). Little blog on the prairie. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Summary: Genevieve Welsh has a nice, normal, regular summer planned. That is, until her mom signs up the family for Camp Frontier, a theme vacation that promises its guests the “thrill” of living like 1890s pioneers. Even though they’re forced to surrender all their modern possessions, Gen manages to secretly keep in touch with her friends back home, regaling them with all the horrible day-to-day details of life on this “Little Hell on the Prairie.”

In truth, frontier living isn’t all bad. There’s a cute guy named Caleb who lives in the next clearing. And who knew Gen would prove to be so good at churning butter? Besides, by the time Gen’s friends turn her stories into the most popular blog on the Internet, Gen’s got more important things to worry about—like finding a way to keep her family from failing the frontier competition and trying to keep the resident “Nellie Olson” from stealing Caleb... (Bloomsbury).

Tool: Jog the Web

Using Jog the Web, I get to examine two Web 2.0 tools: 1) Jog the Web itself and 2) the blogging platform. Jog the Web creates "slide shows" out of websites, which users can comment on much like adding a caption to pictures on Facebook or Flickr. This tool could result in some very cool student projects. For example, in a unit on current events and the media, a student might showcase different news, BBC News,, The Huffington Post, The Onion, etc.--exploring the pros and cons of each site and what each site considers newsworthy. I love that the final product, the jog, is not static: your slide show changes along with the web sites, so every day--indeed, every few minutes in the case of some sites--your jog is different, which is excellent if you are using Jog the Web in a project similar to the one just described.

In my jog, I wanted to compare various blogging platforms, evaluating their various features and determining why users might choose to blog on one site over another. Blogs are the titans of Web 2.0 self-publishing, and on a blog about Web 2.0 tools, I am excited to finally be able to feature them. I am even more excited that I can do so using another tool--yet another example of the "non-linear, non-subjective...wibbly-wobbly" world of Web 2.0 (to quote Doctor Who). We never find out which blog Genevieve's friends use to propel her to Internet superstardom, but here are a few they may have checked out:

Genevieve's Guide to Blogging Platforms (on the Prairie)

Unfortunately, jogs are unable to be embedded, so you will have to click the above link in order to fully interact with mine. Here is a screen shot of the first page of my jog in order to provide a general idea of the final format of Jog the Web:

Review: Instead of writing this post last night, I had an impromptu YouTube video dance party with my sisters, visiting from out of town. At the end of the night, due to the cold front sweeping through Texas, all three of us—-and the cat—-huddled in my bed under the quilt, trying to keep warm and keeping each other awake with sudden outbursts of Led Zeppelin songs. (I’m a starving student—-no, I’m not turning on the heat in October!) Gen, the protagonist of Little Blog on the Prairie, and her brother Gavin will do the same thing while sharing a trundle bed in a log cabin. And while they didn’t sing “The Immigrant Song” in 1890, the shared experience and the bond between siblings remains the same in 2011.

Gen, however, isn’t living in 1890 either—she lives in the present. Like the Laura Ingalls Wilder book from which Bell’s novel cheekily gets its name, Little Blog on the Prairie is a neat blend of both historical information and realistic fiction. In the case of Little House on the Prairie (1935), Wilder relayed an autobiographical account of historical events in the form of fiction, but with Little Blog on the Prairie, Bell has created something more complex. Gen is a contemporary teenager who has been relocated to frontier family history camp and relays her own autobiographical account of history via blog (and a smuggled cell phone). Both Wilder and Gen introduce their readers to the trials (and, with time, rewards) of homesteading, and both women become famous because of their experiences and their writing. Blogging, however, is a bit different than publication in 1935, and Gen’s fame grows beyond her control.

One obvious theme of this book is that young adults need to be aware of what they put online. Gen’s blogging has consequences, and how she deals with those consequences represents Little Blog on the Prairie’s subtler themes of growing up, learning how to make mature decisions, and re-connecting with and appreciating one’s family. Of course, Gen’s immediate concerns are learning how to use the outhouse without peeing all over her floor-length dress, milking the cow without getting kicked, and trying not to make a fool of herself in front of Camp Frontier’s resident cute boy. Who knew that pioneer life could be so hard and yet surprisingly fulfilling for a city girl from 2010? Grades 5-8.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle--SlideShare

Bibliography: Dunkle, C. B. (2010). The house of dead maids. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Summary: The child who will become Heathcliff is already a savage little creature when Tabby Aykroyd arrives at Seldom House to be his nursemaid. But the Yorkshire moors harbor far worse. The ghost of the last maid will not leave Tabby in peace, yet this spirit is only one of many.

As Tabby struggles to escape the evil forces that surround the house, she tries to befriend her uncouth young charge, but her kindness cannot alter his fate. Long before he reaces the old farmhouse of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff has already doomed himself and any who try to befriend him (Henry Holt and Company).

Tool: SlideShare

SlideShare is an effective means of putting your PowerPoint presentations online in an easily embeddable format. Simply create a presentation (or "webinar," as they are referred to in SlideShare) in PowerPoint, and upload it into SlideShare. This tool is wonderfully convenient if you need to share presentations with teachers and students but are unable to e-mail attachments to them due to size restrictions or software inconsistencies. For example, I used it last spring when I created a presentation advertising a poetry slam in the library--my presentation, made in Microsoft Office 2011, was incompatible with the 2007 version on the school computers. How did I get my presentation to the English department so that teachers could get the word out to their students? SlideShare.

This tool has some neat features that students often have trouble with when strictly using PowerPoint: Slidecast, the addition of audio (featured here), and the ability to easily import YouTube videos are two examples. I also really like that users can choose to play the entire webinar straight through or manually go slide by slide in order to peruse in more detail. Users also have the ability to download webinars, provided that the creators chose to license their products under the Creative Commons. SlideShare does have some minor inconveniences. Not all fonts are transferrable from the PowerPoint to Internet mediums, and don't waste time on slide transitions and animations in PowerPoint--they will be lost. If you need to change your project, you must change it in PowerPoint and re-upload the file. Overall, however, SlideShare is an excellent and user-friendly way to share your presentations.

(Note: In my webinar, I feature Kate Bush's classic single, "Wuthering Heights." In accordance with copyright regulations, I only use 30 seconds of this track. Remember to always respect others' intellectual property when creating your projects.)


This slim volume only takes a few hours to read, and I recommend that you budget that time and read all of The House of Dead Maids at once…especially if you’re reading it alone after dark. Dunkle’s prelude to Wuthering Heights is surprisingly disturbing, even for a ghost story, and the action begins almost immediately, with our heroine encountering her festering predecessor by Chapter Two. Dunkle leaves little to the imagination when it comes to her unholy spirits, but just in case a gore-hound reader finds her gruesome descriptions lacking, they are wonderfully accompanied by Patrick Arrasmith’s chilling illustrations.

For all of her fleshed-out horrors on the moors, Dunkle’s boy Heathcliff remains a mystery, and here lies the novel’s strength. In Brontë’s original novel, the gypsy-like Heathcliff was found and taken in by the Earnshaw family while still a small child, and little, if anything, is known of his history. While one might assume that a prelude would shed some light on his background, Dunkle leaves the reader just as confused about her antihero’s origins as Brontë did over 150 years ago, simply alluding to atrocities that he may or may not have witnessed before becoming Tabby’s charge. If Heathcliff, or “heathen git,” as he is cruelly called in Dunkle’s novel, is a tragic figure as a man, he is even more so as a child. As in Wuthering Heights, readers will be left struggling, unable to determine whether “Himself” is appealing or horrifying.

Dunkle does not leave Tabby’s character unaffected, however, and her development from pious child to dark storyteller is notable. Tabitha Aykroyd was the Brontë’s housekeeper for most of her life, and according to Dunkle, while little is known about her, we do know that her ghost stories were beloved by—-and probably influenced—-the Brontë children. I have never read Wuthering Heights (a travesty, I know, and that is why I chose to learn more about it by creating the above webinar), but my experience in The House of Dead Maids was certainly not lacking for that; in fact, it served as a successful gateway to Brontë’s classic novel, inspiring readers to explore new, dark worlds just as Tabitha's stories once did. Grades 6+.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling--the dark arts

Bibliography: Rowling, J. K. (1997). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Summary: Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility.

All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley--a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry's room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn't had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry--and anyone who reads about him--will find unforgettable.

For it's there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that's been waiting for him...if Harry can survive the encounter (Arthur A. Levine Books).

Tool: the dark arts (in collaboration with and

In preparation for the opening of Pottermore, I wanted to show how Web 2.0 has affected J. K. Rowling's series. It is unclear right now whether or not Rowling's new interactive website will allow users to collaborate and create, Web 2.0-style, and critics have argued that Pottermore's survival will depend not only on its "transmedia storytelling" as told by Rowling but also on its support of fan contributions to that storytelling process...because Harry Potter has been living in the digital world for quite some time already.

In an article entitled "The Boy Who Lived Forever," Time details the underground culture of fan fiction, beginning with "J.K. Rowling probably isn't going to write any more Harry Potter books. That doesn't mean there won't be any more. It just means they won't be written by J.K. Rowling." (Grossman, L. (2011, July). The boy who lived forever. Time. Retrieved from,8599,2081784,00.html). Web 2.0 has taken fan fiction--and the Potterverse--to a whole new level. Because my site focuses on visual storytelling, I will explore the unique relationship between the dark arts, a graphic design forum, and, the oldest site completely dedicated to Potterverse fan fiction (or "fic"). is already an excellent example of the Web 2.0 facet of self-publication. People share their fics and leave them open for others to post reviews. With the dark arts, however, writers are able to access other elements of Web 2.0: collaboration and visual storytelling. the dark arts is a forum for graphic designers to create Harry Potter-themed art. If you have a validated fic on, you are eligible to request an accompanying banner for your story, and an artist will visually interpret your fic. Writers can request specific characters and images; however, the final product is the result of the artist's imagination.

Here, for example, are banners for two different Marauders-era fics (used with permission).

"By the Light of the Moon" by Queenie Shacklebolt. Banner by violet ephemera from tda.
""By the Light of the Moon" is the compelling tale of the werewolf, Remus Lupin. Follow Remus from his days at Hogwarts to the rise of the Dark Lord Voldemort and, eventually, to the birth of Harry Potter and the Dark Lord's downfall. Find out how Remus deals with the prejudice and hate he is faced with when people discover his secret...he's a monster."

"The Padfoot Chronicles" by Lady Snape of Spinners End. Banner by angelic. from tda.
""The Padfoot Chronicles" is the story of Sirius Black--the rebel, the friend, the brother, the-risk taker, the wizard, the prisoner."

The collaboration between writers on and artists on the dark arts is a really neat example of Internet culture fusing with fan culture, and the process of acquiring a banner is a relatively painless introduction into the weird, wide world of Internet forums. Also, users should take note that the artists on the dark arts are committed to respecting intellectual property--they will only use images available for public use, and writers must commit to crediting the artist when posting his/her banner.

Because I assume that most teacher-librarians are already very familiar with the first book in the Harry Potter series, I am going to do something a little different with this post. Rather than review Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I am going to preview my own fic, inspired by Rowling's first novel.

Fan Fiction: Chapter One of "The Skeptical Chemist"
England is on the brink of the Enlightenment, and who should be setting the stage of the Scientific Revolution but Albus Dumbledore? Joined by his partner in alchemy, Nicolas Flamel, and by Robert Boyle, known today as the "father of modern chemistry," the young Dumbledore struggles in his work both on the Philosopher's Stone and in understanding his professional--and personal--relationships. Note: This story contains material of a sensitive nature and is for mature audiences only.

Gramercy, as the Elizabethans would say, to (sol) from the dark arts for this banner!

“Paracelsus be naught but a hasty-witted jolt-head, plaguing all pursuit of chemick with his gibble-gabble,” the young man muttered to himself, thrusting his flask down so vehemently that Albus feared the glass would crack.

“Corpus bones,” Albus thought, shaking his head silently and continuing on at the fireplace, the small laboratorium growing more stifling with each suck and pump of the bellows. In—“God’s wounds!” Out—“God’s teeth!” Each successive curse was accompanied by a fiery blast from the furnace, like licks of hellfire…or the merciful end to the suffering Albus endured at the bickering tongues of Masters Boyle and Flamel, morelike.

“In the writings of our philosophical father,” Master Flamel replied loudly and acidly, “Paracelsus doth admit that his pursuit of alchemy is not for the making of gold but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines, thou great ape. Though why one would shun the making of gold, I know not.”

Boyle looked up from his labor with a shrug, although Albus saw that his eyes glittered angrily. “Forsooth, Paracelsus did do much for the study of toxins, but what of chemistry? My experiments be corrupted by his hokum on the spiritual attributes of mercury, sulfur, and salt. These elements be elements only, not the very foundations of our spiritual disposition, and to say otherwise is to keep company with fools.”

“Careful, thou Irish wastrel, with thy criticisms, or thou will lose thy position here with us as alchemist. Master Dumbledore, please kindly remind Master Boyle of what are the actual elements and of what kind of knowledge he will be able to pursue as a beggar on the Londontown streets. These blasphemies have put me in ill humor, and I must relieve myself.” And with a pointed look at Boyle, Flamel swept from the room to locate the nearest privy.

“D’anam don diabhal!” Boyle muttered under his breath. Albus knew that Master Boyle only used his native speech when truly vexed. He wondered at the meaning of the Irish words but thought it better not to ask. Rather, he lamely offered: “Master Boyle, the four basic elements are earth, fire, water, and ai—“


“Pray pardon?”

“Please. When you speak at me, speak at me as Robert…Albus.”

Startled, Albus stopped with the bellows, and the laboratorium grew silent other than the burbling and babbling of this or that potion. He and Masters Boyle and Flamel had known of each other for several years past but only in the capacity of alchemical colleagues. To be addressed so informally…

Albus looked up. The laboratorium was a small, cramped chamber perched precariously at the top of the rather run-down residence of Master and Mistress Flamel, or the House of the Silver Crescent, as it was so-called, for every house within the City of London was blessed with a name. Although the room spanned several strides, crossing that space would be nigh impossible for all the equipment crowding every available surface, and it was even less feasible for one to stand upright beneath the roof’s many gables.

At Albus’s back stood the open furnace. As one of the four natural elements, fire was key to much of his and the others’ work—essential for the distillation and transmutation of silver and mercury, as was his focus; for the creation—theoretically—of the Philosopher’s Stone, as was Master Flamel’s; and for whatever observations Rob—err, Master Boyle was making on gaseous properties. Of course, the other elements were present in the attic as well. Earth, in her metallic splendor—antimony, arsenic, bismuth, zinc—lay strewn across his own workspace like a not-so-blushing bride upon her wedding bed. Water flowed swiftly through tubings knotting Master Flamel’s table, as though she, too, were in a rush to transfigure herself into the aqua vitae, the Elixir of Life, that the alchemist had so bent his head upon.

And air? Why, air was in the very name of the device upon which Master Boyle labored so intently: the air-pump, although of what be its designated purpose, Albus could not yet fathom. As his eyes roved over the mess of tools—aludels for condensing vapors, alembics for distilling mixtures—and texts—ancient scrolls of Zosimos of Panoplis, Andreas Libavius’s Alchemy, fresh from the printers—they settled on the odd contraption and the long, white fingers fiddling with its knobs. Slender yet strong, connecting to a well-muscled forearm used to holding tinctures over heated coals for hours on end. As the man stretched to lift a lever on his machine, his back arched and then tensed, sending his muscles a-rippling beneath his length of burnished hair like kelpies galloping about beneath a river’s surface. He reached back down, doubling over, showing off a firm, shapely—

“—Pigeon pie for the good sirs?” Albus’s mouth watered as Mistress Flamel shuffled into the room, laboring under a tray laden heavy with vittles and nearly upsetting Master Boy—err, Robert’s air-pump as she did so. “Pray pardon, Master Boyle,” she mumbled, as the man quickly righted his experiment.

“Twas naught, good lady,” he reassured her kindly. “It be our fault for littering your attic with our noisome machinations and odorous potions. Let me lighten your load—verily, I can ne’er resist a pie made by the right beauteous Mistress Flamel!”

The frailsome woman—who surely was no beauty—blushed at the compliment, but her rosy coloring paled quickly, as she heard her husband’s heavy tread in the stairwell. The room fell silent.

“Wherefore thou be bothering these men, Perenelle?” Master Flamel said, as quiet and cold as the grave. Mistress Flamel stared, unseeing, at a point fixed somewhere beyond Albus’s head.

“Answer thy husband, thou witless slattern.”

“Nicolas, I—I—“

CRACK. Albus winced at the blow, which sounded for all the world like the whip lashing ‘cross the backs of the poor souls in the stocks on the street below. Mistress Flamel crumpled to the floor, whimpering and clutching her left cheek in both hands.

“When thou speakest at me, thou willt address me as thy lord and master, slut. Now leave us to our business. We work for the greater good and will suffer no more interruptions.”

Albus stared at the stone floor. He did not look up as he heard Mistress Flamel stagger to her feet and stumble out of the laboratorium. He did not look up as he heard Robert say coldly, “I am finished with my work this day,” and briskly follow her down the staircase. And he did not look up as he heard Master Flamel say, “Master Dumbledore, the fire is in want of building.”

Albus again picked up the bellows.

To find out what happens next to the young Dumbledore, please click here:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mixed Vegetables, Vol. 1 by Ayumi Komura--Embedding 101

Bibliography: Komura, A. (2008). Mixed vegetables (Vol. 1). (S. V. W. Lucianovic, Trans.). San Francisco, CA: Shojo Beat. (Original work published 2005).

Summary: Hanayu Ashitaba is the daughter of the celebrated Patisserie Ashitaba, but all she wants to do is be a sushi chef. Hayato Hyuga is the son of the prestigious Sushi Hyuga, and all he wants to do is be a pastry chef! It’s love and leftovers in the Oikawa High School Cooking Department as these star-crossed gourmands do their best to reach their cuisine dreams!

Hanayu knows that it will break her parents’ hearts if she defects from the bakery to become a sushi chef. But if she marries into a sushi family, they’ll have to understand her decision. Now she just has to get Hayato Hyuga interested in her, and what better way than to wow him with her cooking skills?!

Can Hanayu create the recipe for happiness (Shojo Beat)?

Tool: Embedding 101

I hope everyone is enjoying these last dog days of summer before the real work begins. As a special treat (literally, since this post is food-themed), I want to offer some helpful hints on embedding so that you are able to utilize these Web 2.0 tools to their full, shareable potential. Recognizing and using HTML embed code is probably old hat to many readers; however, some people may be confused as to how share their creations--YouTube videos, Flickr photos, Google Maps, MP3 files, Word documents, PowerPoints, etc. The list is endless. As an example, I found "Sushi Go Round" (see below), which the game makers generously allowed users to share on their own blogs and websites. It is both quick and addicting, and I highly recommend it...especially right now before school starts, and access to gaming sites is restricted by your district's policy.

And now for the how-to in three easy steps:

1. With most Web 2.0 tools, there will be an option you can click on labeled "Share" (or even simply "Embed"). Sharing, after all, is what makes Web 2.0 so extraordinary. In many cases, such as the "Sushi Go Round" game, you will be able to share not only your own work but others' products as well. (This feature depends on their pre-determined user settings. For example, they may have not released their Flickr images under the Creative Commons license, in which case you shouldn't use them.) The tool will then provide you with the embed code. It will look something like this:

Image courtesy of Tom Thomas' Web Tracker: A glitter free blog about Myspace

A complete embed code will look something like this:

2. Copy and paste the provided HTML code into your own blog or site. It's as simple as that! HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is the publishing language of the Internet, and your site will recognize it and convert it automatically to your desired video/image/animated project/etc. Note, however, that some blog providers, such as WordPress, do not allow Flash or JavaScript embeds (which is why I chose Blogger for my needs).

3. If you wish to embed a project that is not originally web-based, such as a file from Microsoft Office, there are many sites that will convert your uploaded files into publishable material and provide you with the HTML code. Examples that I recommend are Scribd for Word documents, SlideShare for PowerPoint presentations, and Zoho Sheet for Excel spreadsheets. (Note: Zoho Sheet is still a beta site, meaning that it is still being tested.) There are similar sites that create embed code for audio files-- MixPod is the easiest to use and provides the most versatile player designs.

Got the hang of using embed code? Still tempted by "Sushi Go Round?" Go on. Treat yourself.

Review: School library media specialists will sometimes hesitate when
confronted with manga. This particular format of graphic novel is complex, with several different genres—action-cenered shonon (boy's manga), romance-centered shojo (girl's manga), seinen (manga for adults), redilsu komikku (women's manga), kodomo (children's manga), and hentai (erotic manga)--and from each genre sprout many different offshoots. For example, shonen-ai, or the lightly homoerotic "boy love," is a form of shojo meant to appeal to teenage girls, while yaoi is “boy love” on a more graphic, hentai level. Navigating through this terminology may be intimidating, but since manga is so popular, ensuring that patrons have access to [age-appropriate] titles is a librarian's responsibility.

Mixed Vegetables, for example is shojo (The name of the publisher might have given that one away!). It is a cute, relatively non-sexualized romance between a girl and a boy that would appeal to high school students while still being very appropriate for middle school readers. Hanayu is a very modern, likeable heroine who, of course, wants to get the boy...but only so that she can advance her career! Naturally, Hayato has some surprises of his own, and watching the two characters attempt to establish their respective careers while sidestepping around their emotions and playing mind games with each other makes for a quick, fun read. Girls of all ages (including twenty-somethings like me!) will appreciate that Hanayu refuses to give up her dreams to get the guy but instead incorporates him into her plans.

Why I was drawn to Mixed Vegetables, however, is that it is an example of yet another subset of manga: the whimsically named “mangia manga,” or food-themed manga. I love to eat, and I love to read, and a graphic novel focused on food seemed especially intriguing. While readers shouldn’t expect any recipes from Komura, she does provide a lot of interesting asides and trivia about Japanese cooking techniques and eating habits. For example, the first dish Hanayu shows off with (much to the chagrin of her instructor) is an ikizukuri platter, which is a sushi tradition of preparing sashimi while the fish is still alive. The customer selects their fish, and the sashimi chef fillets and guts it, serving it to the customer with the heart still beating. Would that American sushi chefs be so bold with their presentation!

Mixed Vegetables is a great addition to any secondary school library’s graphic novel collection. If you have a manga club at your school, this book would be a great pairing with a candy sushi-making activity. My mom tried it with her middle school students, and it was a great success. There are many easy-to-follow recipes online: the “nigiri” below, for example, is made from Rice Krispie treats, Swedish Fish, and Fruit-by-the-Foot. Almost as delicious as the real thing! Enjoy! Grades 7+.

Image courtesy of Flickr: bloody marty mix

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue--Storybird

Bibliography: Donoghue, E. (1997). Kissing the witch: Old tales in new skins. New York, NY: Joanna Cotler Books.

Summary: Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother; Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror; Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire. Acclaimed writer Emma Donoghue spins new fairy tales out of old in a magical web of thirteen interconnected stories. Women young and old wander this strange and delightful landscape in search of shelter, power, or their heart's desire. They work, struggle, marry for love or money, lose children or steal them, plot escape or revenge. Above all, they tell each other their own stories. The alliances they form are sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always unpredictable (Joanna Cotler Books).

Tool: Storybird

Storybird is a really excellent demonstration of the collaboration that defines Web 2.0. A Storybird is a short, art-inspired story designed to be worked on by multiple users, and it can be read online, shared (i.e. embedded), and printed. Professional artists contribute a set of related images to Storybird. These images cover a range of mediums, styles, and themes, and users choose the set that they like the best. Then they, along with anybody else they invite, write a story to "tell" the images, rather than the conventional method of using illustrations to tell a story.

Storybird is a wonderfully innovative way to foster creativity, and the images range from light pastels of fluffy bunnies to heavy woodcuts of tattooed fairies, so the tool should appeal to youth across the K-12 range (I used the artist HidenSeek). To accompany Kissing the Witch, I wanted to create a new fairy tale with a strong female protagonist, and I wanted this fairy tale to be a collaborative effort between the strong women in my life. With each contribution to "Aisling's Island," these women's lives interweave for a brief moment in order to create a story, much like the women's lives in Donoghue's stories. When several minds are involved, the Storybird takes on an almost Surrealist element, becoming sort of an "exquisite corpse"--a parlor game turned modern art method in which words or images are collectively assembled. Think of drawing a person's head on a piece of paper, folding it, and having the next player draw the torso. Now think of re-enacting that same process online using professional art. That is the possibility of Storybird.

Aisling's Island by nmalesa, mjmalesa on Storybird

Review: Like Russian nesting dolls, Donoghue’s re-imagined fairy tales richly reward the reader as he or she delves deeper into the characters’ lives, each one a story within a story. Unlike the dolls, however, these narrators are far from mute, and women who traditionally have little to say—-usually because they are unconscious and waiting for a man to “save” them—-are given their own voices that resonate with oral storytelling conventions. Since oral storytelling was traditionally a male occupation (Any female bards come to mind?), Donoghue’s use of writing in the feminine voice to re-claim a masculine art is a not-so-subtle act of revolution, and it is only the first. She challenges patriarchal norms of female sexuality by having well-known fairy tale heroines engage in lesbian relationships or even (and perhaps even more shocking) in no relationship at all, choosing business and freedom over love. She challenges the god-centric Western religions by having her characters reincarnate, sometimes simply by passing on their stories but sometimes by actually being reborn from a woman into a bird or a horse. Finally, she challenges people to think.

Kissing the Witch’s major flaw is that, despite its very good attempt at inclusiveness, it encompasses only stories from European tradition. While the voices of Cinderella, Snow White, and the little mermaid are easily recognized, some readers may be less familiar with the Grimm brothers’ goose girl or Perrault’s Donkeyskin. Because Donoghue chose to highlight these lesser-known but equally important female voices, taking the chance that she might alienate her readers in the process, she should also have allowed women from African, East Asian, or Native American folk tales to tell their stories.

After Cinderella chooses the fairy godmother in the first tale, she asks “Who were you before you walked into my kitchen?” The woman replies, “Will I tell you my own story? It is a tale of a bird” (Donoghue, p. 9). So it goes, with each woman offering to "tell you [her] own story." Much later, the witch of the title ends her own tale—-and, in doing so, all thirteen tales—-with “This is the story you asked for. I leave it in your mouth.” And this reader’s response? “Will I tell you my own story? It is a tale of a computer.” Grades 8+.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd--JayCut

Bibliography: Dowd, S. (2007). The London Eye mystery. New York, NY: David Fickling Books.

Summary: Ted and Kat watched their cousin, Salim, board the London Eye, but after half an hour, it landed, and everyone trooped off—-except Salim. Where could he have gone? How on earth could he have disappeared into thin air? Ted and his older sister, Kat, become sleuthing partners, since the police are having no luck. Despite their prickly relationship, they overcome their differences to follow a trail of clues across London in a desperate bid to find their cousin. And, ultimately, it comes down to Ted, whose brain works in its own very unique way, to find the key to the mystery (

Tool: JayCut

Note: As of January 31, 2012, JayCut will no longer be available free of charge.

JayCut is a powerful video editing tool with the capabilities of such programs as iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, and Adobe Premiere. With JayCut, users can import audio, images, and video; cut clips and meld them back together again using transition effects; add text. JayCut also has a major advantage over the aforementioned programs: it is a free online tool, meaning the user can access and edit their project on any computer at any time at no cost. This lack of affiliation with any parent company (JayCut was developed by students at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm) also allows the user to upload media in several different formats. For example, both .wmv files and .mp4 files are compatible with this program, so users can skip that pesky step of converting files into the correct format. (Windows Movie Maker accepts .wmv files, and iMovie accepts .mp4 files. For quality free online file conversion, I recommend Zamzar).

JayCut has one glaring con that would prevent me from using this tool more regularly. When editing a project, other programs allow you to see the individualized stills from the clip you are working with, making it easy to determine where you need to cut. In JayCut, however, the clips appear as blue bars, and you can only see what you need and what you don't by physically scrolling through the video. Compare the two examples below:

The first image is a screenshot of this book trailer being made in JayCut, and the second is of the book trailer for The Ghost and the Goth, made in iMovie. Being able to see the clips laid out in still form makes the editing process much easier for me.

JayCut, however, is a great service for people who do not have access to their own video editing software. It is easy to use and can be used anywhere. No file conversion required. For a very helpful how-to-use tutorial, see

Review: My student aide recently exposed me to Doctor Who, a British sci-fi drama and the longest running show in television history (various incarnations have been on the air since 1963). I am currently watching at least one episode a day…and sometimes three. So when I started reading The London Eye Mystery several weeks ago, my mind was already inundated with British colloquialisms, fluxes in time and space, and whodunnits. This mentality is a very good place from which to begin a novel in which a boy seemingly vanishes from inside a sealed capsule on what was at the time of publication the world’s largest Ferris wheel.

I am not arguing that The London Eye Mystery is science fiction. Rather, it is more of a mixed genre novel: realistic fiction and mystery, narrated in the first-person by a boy who processes life in precise scientific terms. Although he never explicitly states why his brain is “wired differently,” the reader is meant to understand that Ted has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by challenges with social interaction and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Ted’s narrative style makes for a unique (and perhaps slightly challenging) reading experience. On one hand, his need for logic is personified through short, easy-to-read syntax and a cohesive sequence of clues, resulting in a story that is accessible for elementary school-aged readers. However, his difficulty with reading emotions and relating to other characters, as well as his penchant for processing ideas in meteorological terms, may be more appropriate (and less confusing) for a middle school-aged audience.

Overall, the mystery is solid. Dowd makes sure that all of the clues are presented to the reader, but she does so in a way in which perhaps only a child fixated upon the Coriolis effect could put them together (What is the Coriolis effect? Find out in the book trailer above.). What makes Ted such an enjoyable narrator is how open to possibility he is. When one of his legitimate theories on his cousin’s disappearance is “Salim went into a time-warp. He could be stranded in another time or even a parallel universe,” the reader is able to appreciate that, in Ted’s world of science, anything can happen (p. 105). This potential makes The London Eye Mystery that much more intriguing. Grades 5-8.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos--Storify

Bibliography: Aronson, M., & Budhos, M. (2010). Sugar changed the world: A story of magic, spice, slavery, freedom, and science. New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Summary: Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos were inspired to write this book when they discovered that they both have sugar in their family background. Those intriguing tales inspired the husband-and-wife team to trace the globe-spanning history of the essence of sweetness, and to seek out the voices of those who led bitter sugar lives. As they discovered, the trail of sugar runs like a bright band through world events, making unexpected and fascinating connections.

Sugar leads us from religious ceremonies in India to Europe’s Middle Ages, when Christians paid high prices to Muslims for what they thought of as an exotic spice, then on to Columbus, who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas.

Cane—-not cotton or tobacco—-drove the bloody Atlantic slave trade and took the lives of countless Africans who toiled on vast sugar plantations under cruel overseers. And yet the very popularity of sugar gave abolitionists in England the one tool that could finally end the slave trade. Planters then brought in South Asians to work in the cane fields just as science found new ways to feed the world’s craving for sweetness. Sugar moved, murdered, and freed millions.

Using songs, oral histories, and more than eighty archival illustrations, Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos put a human face on this vast pageant (Clarion Books).

Tool: Storify

Storify is a brand new tool that is a perfect accompaniment for nonfiction. (Although if you are really inventive, you can probably create a very clever mad lib of a fictional story using people's tweets and Facebook posts as dialogue. Something to think about...). Using social media--Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Google--the user is able to create a story from people's tweets, posts, pictures, and videos. For example, if you want to show how people around the world reacted to Prince William's and Lady Catherine's double kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony or the killing of Osama bin Laden, you can use the Storify Editor to search through social networking sites for these or any other key words. Then you move the posts into your story and add your own commentary. To help your story go viral, Storify can notify via Twitter the people whose tweets helped "tell" your story. This exceptionally easy-to-use tool is a perfect example of Web 2.0 creation and collaboration. Storify would also make a great addition to any lesson on globalization, which is why I opted to use it with Sugar Changed the World. Note: To use Storify, you must also create a Twitter account.

Review: Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos begin their book by explaining how sugar’s paradoxical history involves each author personally and how the lives of both Aronson’s Russo-Judaic family and Budhos’s East Indian family were determined by a global phenomenon: what the authors term the “Age of Sugar.” The goal of this informational book is stated in the title, and the authors are determined to show how “sugar changed the world” by examining how the concepts of slavery, revolution (both political and economic), and freedom are the direct progeny of humanity’s craving for [cheap] sweetness.

Aronson and Budhos also wrote this book to encourage young people to think critically. When so much of American elementary and secondary education is programmed around standardized tests, we tend to both learn and teach in separate units rather than examining how these “units” are interrelated to form history and how history can help us answer the “Big Questions.” In this case, the questions Sugar Changed the World tries to answer are “How were sugar and slavery related to the struggle for freedom?” and “How were sugar and slavery entangled with the birth of the Industrial Revolution in England? (p. 127).

I admit that, prior to reading this book, I did not know the answer to either question, nor had I ever thought about sugar in relation to anything other than cupcakes. I picked up this book because I love to eat and thought that I might enjoy picking up a morsel or two of food history. Aronson and Budhos do not disappoint in this regard. I did not know, for example, that, in the Middle Ages, sugar was originally thought of as a spice and used to juxtapose bitter or salty tastes in meat, fish, and vegetable dishes. Sweetness is mainly associated with the dessert course today, and blending combating flavors is considered cutting-edge cuisine, but consider holiday foods such as turkey with cranberry sauce or brown-sugar-glazed ham. Like most of our holiday traditions, these foods are time-travelers, linking us to medieval times.

The dessert course as we know it today was not developed until the late 18th century. At this point, sugar had become cheap and available enough to justify creating an extremely sweet dish to conclude the meal, yet at what cost? In the section “How We Researched and Wrote This Book,” Aronson and Budhos have argued that “if [their] book accomplishes nothing more than to encourage teachers to teach slavery in North America as a small part of a much larger system primarily focused on the Caribbean and Brazil—-with all that implies for understanding slavery, African American history, race, and the United States as part of a larger world--[they] will have succeeded” (p. 128). They should succeed. Of the approximately 12 million people transported from Africa across the Atlantic, only 4% were destined for North America. The other 96% were brought to the Caribbean and Brazil to live, work, and die young on the sugar plantations.

Although their language becomes a tad idealistic at times (“We are the sum of our own soul strength, not of the judgment imposed on us by others,” p. 123-124), Aronson and Budhos do an excellent job of explaining and justifying their thesis. After reading this book, I am inclined to believe that sugar really did change the world, and I am now able to answer the aforementioned questions. Reading this book was an exceptional learning experience on both the factual and critical levels. Grades 8+.

Note: On their website, the authors have provided examples of music developed in the sugar islands as a response to slavery: ( Although this particular information is not specified, these neo-African rhythms are the foundation of what would eventually become rock ‘n’ roll. Just another illustration of how sugar changed the world.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie--GoAnimate

Bibliography: Alexie, S. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Summary: Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Born with a variety of medical problems, he is picked on by everyone but his best friend. Determined to receive a good education, Junior leaves the rez to attend an all-white school in the neighboring farm town where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Despite being condemned as a traitor to his people and enduring great tragedies, Junior attacks life with wit and humor and discovers a strength inside of himself that he never knew existed (Little, Brown and Company).

Tool: GoAnimate

GoAnimate utilizes a similar format to most video editing tools...except, of course, that the user is not merely editing but also creating his or her own animated videos. To use GoAnimate effectively, you must think of your project in terms of a flipbook. Remember those? A flipbook is a small book consisting of a series of images in different positions that create the illusion of flowing movement when the thumb is placed so the pages flip quickly, and that concept is exactly how GoAnimate works. If your characters are having a conversation, Character A must talk in the first scene, and you must create a new scene in order to have Character B respond. Every scene you create is one in a series of stills that will become your video.

GoAnimate is a very fun tool to use, but a word of caution: getting carried away may be costly. While this tool offers many free features, to access some of the neater backdrops/characters/props, users need to pay using GoBucks. Each GoBuck costs a penny, so, for example, the stereotypical Native American in the book trailer below cost 175 GoBucks, or literally, $1.75. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian cost about $6.00 to make. The best suggestion I have for keeping your GoAnimate costs down is to use this tool to create strictly original material. If you go in with a set idea in mind, as I did for this project, you are more likely to pay for that classroom backdrop or that tomahawk prop or whatever else you need to create the effect that you want. If you go in wanting to play, however, you are far more likely to stick to the free features...and GoAnimate has plenty of them. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by nmalesa

Like it? Create your own at It's free and fun!

Review: While reading Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I had to take parts of it with a grain of salt, as it were. I read it with the same attitude that I read Sapphire's Push: "OK, I know that some kids have it really bad, but this story has to be a compilation of multiple children's lives on the reservation (or in Harlem, in the case of Push). All of these things can't all happen to one person—that's way too extreme." Then I handed the book to my Potawatomi friend, who read it and said, "Yup, that's about right." In fact, Alexie's first foray into YA literature is semi-autobiographical, and most of Junior's experiences from living on the Spokane Indian Reservation while attending the all-white Reardan High School mirror Alexie's own adolescence.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has given me my only experience with book challenges and censorship. My mother, a secondary school librarian, was asked by her principal to remove it from the middle school shelves because of its [one-time] use of the “N” word. She obliged and moved it to her ninth grade campus instead, feeling that there is something to be said about age-appropriateness and if a younger student wanted to read it, then he or she could utilize the inter-library loan system. My aunt, an eighth grade English teacher at a private religious-affiliated school, chose this book for her summer reading program but was forced to remove it from the list after parents petitioned against it for its [one-time] mention of masturbation. Interestingly, her students read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games the year before, and no one complained about kids reading about kids killing kids. Perhaps some people find realistic fiction more terrifying because while the Bogeyman cannot attack children, poverty can. Drug abuse can. Racism can. Disabilities can. Junior must wake up each day and face each one of these terrors and more.

It is interesting that there is enough material in such a slim book to warrant challenges based on multiple “offenses.” You might think people would pick one and stick with it. In an odd way, however, this difference in opinion on what should or should not be challenged mirrors Junior’s coming-of-age experience: diversity may often cause a whole boatload of problems, but in the end, it is what keeps life interesting. Grades 7-10.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kit's Wilderness by David Almond--Prezi

Bibliography: Almond, D. (1999). Kit’s wilderness. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Summary: The Watson family moves to Stoneygate, an old coal-mining town, to care for Kit’s recently widowed grandfather. When Kit meets John Askew, another boy whose family has both worked and died in the mines, Askew invites Kit to join him in a game called Death. As Kit’s grandfather tells him stories of the mine’s past and the history of the Watson family, Askew takes Kit into the mines, where the boys look for the childhood ghosts of their long-gone ancestors (Delacorte Press).

Tool: Prezi

Prezi has become one of the "it" tools in education and is a highlight at seminars and workshops due to its innovative format. With its ability to create dramatic pan, rotation, and zoom effects and its nonlinear sequencing, Prezi is the antidote for people who are bored with the traditional PowerPoint presentation. In fact, under the "Learn" tab, Prezi has even provided instructions on how to "Prezify your PowerPoint or Keynote slides." This unique presentation tool is a great way for educators to visually demonstrate the "teaching/learning/thinking outside the box" concept since Prezi itself literally defies the box, presenting ideas in more of a cloud-like, story-map format.

Because it bills itself as the "zooming presentation editor," I wanted to create something to showcase the zoom feature, and what better way to do this than to mimic zooming into the blackness of a mine shaft? Its nonlinear format, however, does make Prezi a bit tricky to get the hang of on first use. I had trouble manipulating its features with the touchpad on my MacBook Pro and had to move to a desktop because I felt the mouse gave me better control. (Actually, I created this Prezi on four different computers--such is the magic of Web 2.0 and Internet storage). My biggest tip for using Prezi is, when using the zoom feature, create your presentation first, keeping images/text/YouTube videos at a size at which you can see them, and add the zoom effects when you are finished. I literally lost several images when I started this presentation--I zoomed them in so they would give the effect of appearance/disappearance, but when I zoomed out, I never found them again. Until you're finished editing, keep your images large enough so that you can see them.

Overall, Prezi is an effective visual storytelling tool and a great way to introduce students (and teachers) to Web 2.0 tools and new ways of presenting/discussing ideas. For more examples of Prezis, please see my "About" page.

Review: Kit’s Wilderness has a much greater scope than its approximately 200 pages would lead one to believe. Although the publisher’s summary explains that the thirteen-year-old Kit moves to a decaying coal-mining town in the English countryside and that he finds it haunted by so-called “ghosts of the past,” this brief attempt at explanation does not begin to cover the true depth of Almond’s Printz award-winning novel. Like the coal upon which Stoneygate grew out of, Almond creates a narrative out of multiple layers that, over time, are fused together into one story spanning generations, all the way back to the Ice Age.

Coal works both as an extended metaphor and as a foundation for the magic that saturates Kit’s world. Almond’s application of magical realism to a contemporary British boy is interesting, as the style is often associated with post-colonial literature (with “post-colonial” typically referring to the British Empire), with the magical element being used by the writer to create his or her own reality rather than submit to an oppressive “actual reality.” It is not a difficult stretch, however, to see that a young adult reality might often be oppressive: Kit is uprooted from his home and moved to a dying town in order to take care of his dying grandfather; his best friend has disappeared, trying to escape an abusive father; and Stoneygate is not very accepting of those who stray into the darker places of the world. Kit uses writing as a form of genesis, creating ghosts that bleed into his reality to form a new one.

The ghosts are real, but Kit’s Wilderness is not a ghost story. Rather, it is an examination of how a story can bind us together through our human experiences and help us find a way out of the darkness. As Karin Snelson recommends in her review, "Ages 11 and much, much older."

The audiobook, read by Charles Keating, is also highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick--Glogster

Bibliography: Selznick, B. (2007). The invention of Hugo Cabret: A novel in words and pictures. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Summary: Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks--like the gears of the clocks he keeps--with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the train station, Hugo's undercover life and his most precious secret are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo's dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery (Scholastic Press).

Tool: Glogster

Because Brian Selznick has already taken such a unique approach to visual storytelling, I wanted to create something beautiful and slightly abstract in order to do The Invention of Hugo Cabret justice. Glogster is certainly a tool for people who want to create. Its tagline is "Poster Yourself," and the tool acts concurrently as an alternative to blogging, a form of social networking, and a medium in which to create sharable art.

While blogs are certainly an important means of sharing information, and while much of that infomation can be visual, they are text-based. The whole premise of the original "web log" is that it serves as sort of an online journal. Anyone who has seen Roger Kumble's Cruel Intentions, however, knows that journalling is so effective because it often goes beyond relying on text to express ideas: many people, particularly young people, express themselves through illustration. (If you have seen Cruel Intentions, think about Sebastian's telling drawing of Kathryn's crucifix.) Glogster is a "blog" of sorts designed especially for this demographic. Each "entry" or "post" is actually an online poster, and users, or "gloggers," can incorporate images, video, audio, and text into their glogs in a collage format, making ideal for those who want to move self-expression beyond basic blogging.

The community aspect of Glogster is an interesting feature of this tool. Like any social networking site, users may add friends, message each other, either privately or publicly, and comment on each other's glogs. From my time on the Glogster message boards, I have observed that this particular social network is pretty close-knit. My student aide says that Glogster is for goths, and while it may be true that many alternative-type people are drawn to the tool, Glogster is a supportive community for artists in general. For example, my glog, which, like the book that inspired it, is an homage to pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès, steampunk, Paris, and the death of the Victorian era, has received very positive feedback from other gloggers. If you are interested in using Glogster, please take the time to peruse and maybe comment on others' posters. There is a lot of great self-expression there.

Review: With his integration of words and pictures, Brian Selznick has created an innovative reading experience unlike any other I have encountered. With The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the only YA book to have won the Caldecott award, Selznick treats the reader to a night at the movies. Using both his own illustrations and stills from silent films, he mimics a silent film-watching experience, right down to early film technique. Zooms, panning, long shots, and even high-speed chase scenes are all represented in Selznick’s novel, albeit frame by frame.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
is a novel that could only exist in the twentieth century and beyond because it assumes visual literacy. The film medium altered forever the way human beings process a story. Flashbacks, viewing a scene from a different perspective other than the camera’s, cutting to a different location, montage—-viewers take these seemingly basic elements of visual storytelling for granted, but actually nonlinear storytelling is a relatively recent development that can only exist because of such dreamers as Georges Méliès, one of the pioneers of movie-making and a central character in Hugo’s life. A magician by trade, Méliès began conveying his illusions through the camera, becoming the first formalist filmmaker with his still-celebrated A Trip to the Moon. (Formalist directors create stylistically flamboyant films and concentrate on expressing their subjective experience of reality. Realistic filmmakers, such as the Lumière brothers, credited with inventing the film medium, attempt to show reality objectively. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick also pays tribute to their Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.)

While reading this book, however, I could not stop thinking about another tribute to the movies, Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino, another formalist filmmaker. Pre-war France loved cinema, but as I watched Hugo run through the streets of Paris, I knew what was coming for him and for his beloved movies, and it hurt. In 1931, Hugo Cabret was twelve years old, and when the German army marched through Paris, he would have been twenty. What happens to him? The reader knows he grows up to become a magician like his mentor, but nothing more is said. Like the movies, Selznick has created an enclosed world, and all we know is what we are given before the curtain comes down. But perhaps the storytelling experience is more magical this way. Hugo will never age, Méliès will never be forgotten, and what happens next is up to the reader/viewer’s imagination. Grades 4-9.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld--One True Media

Bibliography: Westerfeld, S. (2005). Uglies. New York, NY: Simon Pulse.

Summary: Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can't wait. In just a few weeks she'll have the operation that will turn her from a repellent ugly into a stunning pretty. And as a pretty, she'll be catapulted into a high-tech paradise where her only job is to have fun.

But Tally's new friend Shay isn't sure she wants to become a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world--and it isn't very pretty. The authorities offer Tally a choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. Tally's choice will change her world forever... (Simon Pulse).

Tool: One True Media

One True Media is similar to Animoto (see Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl) in that users upload their images, and the tool manipulates them into a music video of sorts. Unlike Animoto, however, the effects in One True Media are not randomized: users are given complete control of the editing process, creating a much more satisfying creation experience. The user chooses both the montage style and theme song (for Uglies, I used the "Metropolis" style with the song "Santa Rosa Shuffle"), and all of the movements within that montage are at the user's discretion. For example, for the slide "Tally is ugly," I applied the metro effect with a dissolving transition and a zoom in motion of a 3-second duration. Because I wanted this slide to be associated with the next one--"She is about to turn 16. About to turn pretty."--I used the same effect and transition but zoomed out. The image of Shay was created using the bridge effect with a circuit transition. Different effects are associated with different montage styles: if the user were to apply a different montage, say "Fright Night," for example, then the effects could be "blood spatter" or "old film."

Most of the features in One True Media are free, and users can create shareable videos for free that are up to 30 seconds long. Because Uglies clocks in at 2:33 and because I used some premium features, such as the text on the train (all other text images are JPG images created on PowerPoint and uploaded into One True Media), I paid for a downloadable video ($2.99). This video automatically downloaded into an MP4 format, making it easily shareable online and transferable into programs such as iMovie. A nice feature about these videos is that the One True Media logo is not plastered all over your images, as many other Web 2.0 tools are wont to do.

I enjoyed my One True Media experience and will continue to use it for my own personal slideshows. It is slightly more difficult to use than other slideshow/video tools, but the creative control makes it worth it.

Review: Uglies begins with a note from Scott Westerfeld saying that this book began as a series of e-mails exchanged with science fiction writer Ted Chiang about his short story “Liking What You See: A Documentary.” In Chiang’s universe, a procedure has been invented in which the brain no longer produces a chemical reaction when observing a human face and therefore can no longer perceive beauty. Each section in Uglies also begins with quotes about beauty cited from sources such as the New York Times, Francis Bacon’s Essays, Civil and Moral, and Modernist poet Archibald MacLeish. This grounding in the intelligentsia’s perception of beauty is a perfect juxtaposition for Westerfeld’s futuristic world in which beauty is used as a form of population control, and independent thinking is abolished along with the asymmetrical imperfections of your face.

The writing style of Uglies is not quite as sophisticated as Westerfeld’s other work, but this simplicity works both because of the book’s fast, adventurous pace and because the characters themselves are not sophisticated. That is not to say that they are not sufficiently complex or well-developed; rather, they are a product of their simplistic, “pretty” environment, and much of the enjoyment of the book comes from seeing Tally, the protagonist, develop beyond her simple concepts of “ugly” and “pretty” to which she has been culturally programmed. Her relationship with David, the leader of the rebel camp that lives outside of society in order to remain ugly (and, as we learn, avoid having their brains surgically altered during the "pretty" process), is particularly poignant.

To a degree, Uglies is a social commentary on our obsession with Paris Hilton, plastic surgery, and the quest for physical perfection, but Westerfeld never gets too didactic and never goes too long without a good high-speed chase sequence. Like the dark underbelly of the parties and pleasures in New Pretty Town, however, Westerfeld’s message is always lurking behind his science fiction/adventure front: What is the price we must pay for equality? Grades 6+.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi--Slide

Bibliography: Bacigalupi, P. (2010). Ship breaker. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Summary: In America's Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota--and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it's worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life... (Little, Brown and Company).

Tool: Slide

Slide is a basic, one-function slideshow tool. The user can upload their images and design a slideshow using various templates and effects. I kept my example simple, using only the 8MM style to create the gritty effect I wanted for Ship Breaker, but users can choose from several preset designs, styles, skins (Slide's term for "frames"), and themes (think animated daisies or stars moving across your photos). Slide's caption feature is very helpful, allowing users to bypass the creation and conversion of JPEG images in PowerPoint when they need to display text, a common scenario in image-based tools. Google has recently acquired Slide, and, subsequently, the site has experienced some changes. In true Google fashion, simplicity is now Slide's selling point, and the tool has slimmed down on many of its features. While this does make it very easy to use, one absent--and very missed--feature is an audio accompaniment. Slideshows are no longer able to have a soundtrack. If your goal is to create an exciting, gripping-the-edge-of-your-seat book trailer, I recommend more animated tools such as Animoto or One True Media. If your goal is to create a simple, sharable slideshow with interesting, albeit basic, visual effects, however, Slide is your tool, and the results can be very effective.

Review: It is fitting that Ship Breaker—a dystopian novel set in a future Gulf Coast community destroyed by its predecessors’ reliance on fossil fuels and yet still vicariously relying on that past—won the 2011 Printz award following the most destructive oil spill in history. Bacigalupi makes that future seem very near, and although Ship Breaker is science fiction, the “science” element is very subtle. Wind-powered clipper ships and genetically mutated “half-men” are shrewdly woven into a gritty reality of slave labor and death, and because these inventions are so far removed from the hellish, wonderfully descriptive life of Nailer, the protagonist, both he and the reader are able to marvel at them together.

The story itself contains relatively traditional components: dreams of escape to a better life, boy meets girl, kidnapping, pirates, adventure on the high seas. This familiarity also helps ground the reader in Bacigalupi’s universe, as does his use of familiar locations, such as New Orleans, although here the city is in its third ruinous reincarnation, devastated by hurricanes, or “city-killers.” In order to depict a realistic “global” future, the characters are all of multiple ethnicities—in fact, there is only one easily identifiable white character in the book. This multiculturalism should ring true to teenagers, many of whom are already learning that they will have to compete globally as adults, a theme in the novel. Fans of nonfiction and realistic fiction will appreciate Ship Breaker for its politics—what decisions are being made on the global scale, and how are they affecting people at the local level?

In Nailer’s case, the “local level” means deadly work stripping down ships for their salvageable materials. It means slavery and starvation and daily beatings from a drug-addled father. The wealthy Nita, however, sees ship breaking, or processing recycled materials, as an environmentally friendly and economical way to run a business. Overall, Ship Breaker is a sophisticated use of the YA genre in order to comment on global warming and reliance on fossil fuels. Tool, one of Bacigalupi’s humanoid characters, may put it best, however: “The climate changed. The weather shifted. They did not anticipate well” (p. 204). Grades 7+.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes--StudyStack

Bibliography: Montes, M. (2006). Los gatos black on Halloween. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Summary: Under October’s luna, full and bright, the monsters are throwing a ball in the Haunted Hall. Las brujas come on their broomsticks. Los muertos rise from their coffins to join in the fun. Los esqueletos rattle their bones as they dance through the door. And the scariest creatures of all? Wait until you see them (Henry Holt and Company)!

Tool: StudyStack

StudyStack is an easy-to-use, green alternative to the labor-intensive buying of hundreds of index cards and handwriting each question and answer over and over and over. This online flashcard site has thousands of free user-created sets ranging from AP Human Geography to Welsh language to Midwifery to the LSAT. When you click on your desired subject, flashcards will appear automatically, but StudyStack also converts all sets to crossword puzzles, hangman, matching activities, target activities (see example below), wordsearches, and a bug munch game similar to an educational Pac-Man.

If you are unable to find specific information, you can easily create your own flashcard sets, just as I did for Los Gatos Black on Halloween, which is listed on StudyStack under "Spanish Halloween Terms." All you do is type your "questions" and "answers" into the designated boxes, and StudyStack automatically formats them into flashcards and the additional games. Unfortunately, StudyStack does not allow for image uploads on the flashcard function, so for students who learn more visually, I recommend creating a target activity like the one below.

All activities can be embedded in teacher websites. I have included the targets activity to show how StudyStack can be used visually. I also understand that, being a children's book, Los Gatos Black on Halloween is a departure from the YA books I usually feature, but due to its bilingual nature, I felt it was appropriate to include this book as the example of the StudyStack tool.

Flashcards and educational games by StudyStack

Review: Marisa Montes’s poem, Los Gatos Black on Halloween, is both entertaining and instructive, incorporating Spanish terms for typical Halloween fare—las calabazas for “pumpkins” and los monstruos for “monsters,” for example—so that children will be able to grasp their meanings using context clues. She writes, “The corpses with their cold, dead eyes, / Los muertos from their coffins rise.” Coupled with Yuyi Morales’s illustrations, an elementary student could easily determine that los muertos translates to “the dead.” By teaching children “cool” Spanish words that they might not learn otherwise (“dead,” “witch,” “vampire”), Los Gatos Black on Halloween is an excellent tool to foster excitement about bilingual education and learning about other cultures.

Morales’s pictures, however, are why this book ultimately succeeds and also why it won the Pura Belpré Award (Montes’s narrative garnered it a Pura Belpré Honor). Her rich paintings are deliciously dark (and perhaps a bit too scary for primary students), evoking a chilling Halloween atmosphere, but they also celebrate Latino/a culture. Every bruja (“witch”), esqueleto (“skeleton”), and fantasma (“phantom”) is dressed in traditional Mexican garb (Morales herself is from Mexico), and nearly all of the architecture, with the exception of the Haunted Hall, mimics the pueblos of the Southwest.

My one complaint about Los Gatos Black on Halloween is certainly nitpicky, but in the line “On harpsicords once tucked away,” the word “harpsichord” is spelled incorrectly. Perhaps this is simply an editor’s error, but in a poem with only about 30 lines, it does detract, however minimally, from the book’s authority as a resource. The audience for whom it was intended, however, will be much too distracted by the fun of Morales’s illustrations and decoding Montes’s Spanish words to care about a misspelled English one. The meaning is still clear. As Morales has said in an interview, in children’s books, “communication [is] universal” ( Grades 1-4.