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.