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.