Let's talk about interactive children's entertainment, children's literature, and magic

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June 27, 2011

Interactive Media - Never Ever Just On The screen

I just wanted to take a second out of my day here in hopes of pointing out, with a beautiful example, the importance of remembering that media, in all forms, has the ability to captivate through interaction, and should never be considered as something that happens only on the screen:

June 17, 2011

Powerpoint Animation Tools: Rotating 3D Objects

I'm posting this because I spent an entire afternoon trying to figure it out.

You can't, and here's why:

Powerpoint takes a finished, locked-in image (ie your 3d object) and moves it around your slide.
It can't show different parts of that image because it is, for all purposes, a 2d picture of something 3D.

there are a lot of links like the ones below this post talking about hidden pivot points and other workarounds, but they don't work in 3D. I'm putting them down there to make this post as searchable as possible in hopes of preventing people from wasting as much time as i just.

April 23, 2011

Games For Health

In 2007, I partnered with Eliza Gregory, who was then working at Harvard Medical Center, to envision a simple game that addressed flu pandemic. What resulted was a series of 3 mini-games, each of which served different functions during the three phases of a disease outbreak: outbreak, spread, and pandemic.

The first two games focused on proper hygiene methods, helping prevent a player from getting infected, then, at later stages of an outbreak, helping them stop from spreading it or infecting others. The third game was inspired by google’s report of its ability to track flu by tracking related searches. By playing a simple memory game that challenged a user to remember where they had been over the incubation period of the disease, the game collects data that can help an organization such as the CDC track and manage the crisis.

The Young Linguists

Children and Learning in the Interactive World 

Someone once told me a story: a long time ago, imperialists had a lot of problems. Sure, they had weapons and knew a lot about mass suppression of local inhabitants, but what they often didn’t have was a way of talking to them, which posed a challenge when they wanted to do more than kill whoever they found. This happened a lot--destruction had fewer benefits than taking. If they destroyed in the process of taking, swell, but taking came first. Learning languages was not such an obstacle in large regions that only spoke one, slightly-relatable language, but in exotic parts of the world, the jungle terrain meant densely packed, segregated societies of natives with totally exotic dialects. Even if you conquered them, they wouldn’t know how to surrender efficiently. The solution to this problem was innovative, simple, and enlightening: drop a young child off with members of every expedition, and leave them with the locals. When they came back, they had a young translator. Boom. Done. 

Modern technology is today’s jungle. We aren’t oppressing a race any more, our interactive systems trade input and output. But that makes communication even more vital. There is so much innovation that we have had to use imaginary words to define them. It’s the first time in a long time that children are more adept at learning vital skills than their elders. Kids teach their elders how to do things with their computer that have become essential to life, advancement, and community.

What this means: Anyone working on an interactive system should approach their process of educating users as a toymaker might build a puzzle. If it can be fun and easy, if its output can grow in complexity in unison with the progress of its input—it will ultimately become a tool that benefits its user and the toolmaker as well.

 Make it fun, ramp it up gradually, and don’t be boring.

April 17, 2011

Universal Kids Lit Question: What to do with parents?

Anyone who has ever written in children's entertainment, whether hundreds of years ago or today's most successful brand, must always deal with the same question: what do I do with the characters parents to make way for the story?

Sure, you occasionally have exceptions like Danny The Champion Of The World, which is all about the main character's father. But for the most part, writers resort to the same solutions, and they all have their own characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.
"Look, no parental supervision!"
By far the most popular solution to this problem is orphanage--the main character's parents have been lost and the character is forced to confront the challenges of the story on his own. Roald Dahl did this a lot. 

Take for example,  James and The Giant Peach, whose main character's parents are killed in a rhinoceros accident. 

If the orphan hero/heroine of the story does not leave the normal world like in Peach, the orphanage often plays a role in the story too. Such is the case with BFG

Grandma is sick!

The orphan often has a protective figure, like an aunt--which leads the writer back to the same problem, only with the protector now. In the case of The Witches, Dahl gives the grandmother pneumonia, which gives his character the freedom to go get turned into a mouse, etc.

lightning bolt: translation: Rowling removed
my parents but won't let me or my
readers forget them.

And of course today's most famous orphan is Harry Potter,whose lightning bolt scar is a constant reminder of Harry's parents and the night they were permanently removed from his story.


Sometimes a story is so bazaar it doesn't even need to answer the question of parents. In my favorite animated series of all time, Adventure Time With Finn and Jake, the world of the story suggests that Finn is the last human in the world. Some episodes suggest he was adopted by Jake's dog family, but it's never answered directly.

Leaving Them Behind
When an author sets his story in an imaginary world, removed from the normal, he or she often decides to simply leave the parental figures in the real world. This is exactly what happens in Where the Wild Things are.

The problem here is, what to do when the character returns? 

4/18/11: Update: Check out http://sommerleigh.com/archives/540 on 'the epidemic of absentee parents in YA' and http://forums.nathanbransford.com/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=1686&start=30

April 14, 2011

The Engagement Reveal

During his or her daily life, a non-magician will experience many processes and techniques employed by a magician without ever knowing it.

Lately, the most interesting example of this has come out of my friends' getting engaged. Once the fiancée has a ring on her finger, she must hide it from view until the moment she informs someone of her engagement. This informing often happens in person, especially with ones considered close, so there is a very pregnant moment between the informing and the ring reveal.

The result is, in magician's terms, a very big, sparkling prop, resting in prime position to be seen by the audience. The risk of it being seen too soon creates tension for the performer/fiance, because the engaged couple want to tell them themselves, rather than disclose the news by a glimpse of the ring.

In magic, I like to break a routine down into two phases--the mechanics, and the reveal. The mechanics (see my earlier post here) incorporate everything the magician does to present the illusion, but the illusion does not become apparent to the audience until it is revealed.

If a magician found himself with a sparkly ring on his/her finger, they would make an extensive effort to conceal it in the open, subtly suggesting that the hand's fingers are empty when it really bares a ring. 

In reality, the non-magician fiancées I meet are full of nervous energy, because the prop sits on their finger, hiding, waiting to be revealed. This feeling of anxiety between the mechanics and the reveal is something the magician feels over and over again, and difficult to describe. Just try being calm in the moment before revealing an elephant.  

April 08, 2011

Joseph Campbell and Kids

Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell
Campbell's 4 Functions of Mythology, and how they relate to Children's Entertainment

In Occidental Mythology (1964), Joseph Campbell first said that mythology serves 4 functions...which means that every great story does the following:

  • AWE The story opens its audience up to the wonder of the universe. The audience says WOW, the universe holds more than I can ever know.

March 26, 2011

The Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo's Fads, Microsoft's Sweet-Spot, and why Children's Literature is Awesome

Nintendo's Official Seal of Quality in NTSC re...Image via Wikipedia

The first thing you need to know about Nintendo? The blue ocean strategy: basically, this means creating a market where one never existed before, rather than fighting over pre-existing customers.

Nintendo did this brilliantly when they introduced the Wii  in 2006. Microsoft and Sony were fighting to the death over  18 to 34 year old males, offering expensive hardware that required tons of investment and huge costs of goods on every console sold.

Meanwhile, Nintendo said 'let's get everyone playing video games, regardless of age or gender.'

March 20, 2011

Adults as Children, Children as Adults

Someone smart whose name I forget said that the best way to deal with children is to treat them as adults, and the best way to deal with adults is to treat them like children.

In his masterpiece, Las Meninas, the artist portrays his subjects from their own view.

The picture is full of other royals, nobles and servants, all described here.  Young children keep the king and queen company, entertaining them during the long, dull process of sitting for a portrait.

A college professor of mine was once asked whether he liked children. He said this was like asking someone if they liked a particular ethnicity or gender. In other words, not all kids are the same, because not all people are the same.

For a long time, I thought the child on the right was rather special:

Sometimes it helps to write for a particular audience, because as my professor said, kids aren't the same.I don't write for all kids aged 10-12. Murukami said if only 1 out of 10 customers came back to his bar, that 1customer is the one he had to cater to. I write for kids who can't put down books. There aren't as many these days, but it doesn't matter.  This child in Velásquez's work represented the 1 child I wrote for as opposed to the other 9.

There was something special about this kid. He seems serious about playfulness: patient, thoughtful, and noble. If there had been flashlights back then, I bet he would have used them to read after bedtime. Maybe he even risked candles. This was my audience.

Last winter I saw Velásquez's painting up close and decided to find out who this inspiring young child was.

The child in question is described in detail:

To the right of the Infanta are two dwarfs, [including] the Italian, Nicolas Pertusato (5), who playfully tries to rouse a sleepy mastiff with his foot.

This child was actually the inner child of an adult, playing with a dog like a wise man. He was a prince within a king --a child within  an adult .

I'd been writing for an adult in the pleasant disguise of childhood. And maybe that sums up good kids literature.

The best children's entertainment is what Hollywood calls a four quadrant product, because it appeals to all the major demographics of a household--children and adults alike.

If we write for the mature, wise centers of our young readers, we cannot help but reach the children in adults too.

March 04, 2011

Magic and Writing as Tragedy

Although they both are devoted to audiences--exist for them, in fact, both magic and writing naturally require solitude that a practitioner of either must accept if he or she is to find success.

The technique of magic cannot be shared with an audience or laymen, for doing so negates the end result of the process. In other words, showing someone how a trick is done makes the work committed to pulling it off worthless.

Writing cannot be done alone unless it is a collaborative work, and yet being with other people is necessary if you want anything to write about.

Both magic and writing exist for an audience. The irony is that successful execution of either requires solitude.

February 23, 2011

Tell and Show

The importance of showing and not telling is vital to good writing. 
But as we can see here, telling comes first, and the writer’s transformation of what he is telling into what he is showing is vital to all storytelling. A writer’s story must tell us something--some essential truth/lesson/wisdom--if it is to successfully captivate us.

We focus so much on showing when we present and critique our pages, but often a story feels empty because it doesn’t know what it is about on the deeper, thematic levels. This is because the reader doesn’t know what they are telling. Before we know what to show accurately, we need to know what to tell accurately.

Joseph Campbell writes about the 4 vital roles that mythology play, and I always think about them when I nail down what I am trying to tell (will focus on this in a future blog entry).
But if it does not tell us this thing by accurately showing, it is not successful either--it may not even be a story. So one could say the writer’s process is one of turning accurate telling into accurate showing:
In revision, we often get the comment that we are telling instead of showing, which means we aren’t accomplishing this transformation:
We are failing to accurately show the vital thing we are telling. Often this happens when we describe what happens instead of actually showing it happen. On a larger scale, the plot might be wrong--the wrong thing happens or a character makes the wrong decision--or the character might speak out of character.

If the writing is confusing, the reader doesn’t understand what he is being shown and therefore doesn’t know what he is being told:
If the reader is bored, perhaps we are being shown or told too much:
This is also the reason why cutting is so important.

And that is my spiel about showing and telling.

February 16, 2011

Computer/Word/Keyboard Tricks I wish someone told me about

I'm collecting all the computer/keyboard shortcuts I feel like some people might not know about because it's assumed everyone knows them. These may be obvious for a lot of people, but I didn't learn half of these until I was in the computer lab at college and overheard someone next to me. Does anyone have any other ones to share?

Delete Key Vs. Backspace: I'm embarrassed to say it but I didn't know the delete key erased words in front of the cursor--as opposed to the backspace key, which erases characters before the cursor--for years.

The End key: it takes your cursor to the last character in the line.
The Home key: it takes your cursor to the first character in the line.
Shift+Home/End: If you hold down the shift key and Home/End, you select all the characters in between your cursor and the beginning/end of the line.

Control Key + Arrow: the cursor jumps by word instead of character
Shift+Control+Arrow: So now if you hold the shift key down with the control key and move the arrow, you select items word by word.

From the forums:

Ctrl+end - takes you to the end of the document
Ctrl+home - takes you to the beginning of the document

If you set the cursor then scroll forward or backward then shift and click it selects all the text in between.

Hold down the "control" key (ctrl) and hit "enter" and you'll get a page break. Use page breaks for new chapters to format your manuscript.

I put in page breaks at new chapters right from the beginning. It makes it much easier to find my place in the draft as I scroll through pages. No matter how much more editing and writing I add within a chapter, the page break is maintained. It's nice!

February 09, 2011

Last lines of a manuscript I had to shelf

‎"‎The endless sea surrounded us, and the setting sun mixed the color of the sky in such a way that it was impossible to know where the ocean ended and the sky began. I felt convinced then that there were no longer borders or edges in the world we shared. The horizon was gone, and so were our own."

February 02, 2011

The Importance of Outlining

I would rather literally paint myself into a corner than write without an outline. That paint on your clothes will come out, and if it doesn't , they were just some old clothes anyway.

When you write without an outline, you wish you could throw everything out like an old pair of clothes, but there will inevitably be things worth keeping, as if you had to get out of that corner and salvage specific brush strokes or sections of the walls, under the very real risk of getting stuck in another corner somewhere else, in some other room.

Someone once defined madness as the act of repeating the same thing over and over again even after getting the same result, expecting a different one each time. That's how I used to feel writing without an outline. It's like painting without even knowing where the walls are and then wondering why you're in some corner of the story, clueless as to the role that corner plays in the greater narrative.

January 26, 2011

Combining NGrams and Worldle

Google recently came out with NGrams, causing a lot of excitement/stories in the media:
"Google used some of the data obtained from 15 million scanned books to build Google Books Ngram Viewer.

"'The dataset....weighing in at 500 billion words from 5.2 million books in Chinese, English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish. The Ngram Viewer lets you graph and compare phrases from these datasets over time, showing how their usage has waxed and waned over the years,'
says Jon Orwant, from the Google Books team."

I'm a huge fan of tools like these and this one immedietly made me think about Wordle, which I wrote up here.

But how would you use NGrams to improve your own writing? The answer is by combining it with Wordle.

Take the most common words from your manuscript and feed them into NGrams. I get something like this:

By looking at the Ngram results, you can basically see which of your words is more problematic than others--if a word is more common in the history of english fiction, you don't need to worry as much. The most common word here is 'like' so that means I don't need to worry about cutting down on its usage as much as I need to cut down on 'around,' 'turned', 'seemed,' and 'something.'

January 19, 2011

My Query Letter: The Typewriter

A few years ago I realized it was time to take writing seriously. I decided to buy something that would make me feel more like a writer. I bought an old Remington that actually worked.

I love the thing, and when I finished my first book I wanted to make my query letter unique. I decided to type them up on the Remington. It was a real act of dedication. Typos resulted in having to start from scratch, but the letters looked great.

When I eventually signed with my agency, I told them about the type-written query letters (I submitted to them via email so they never got one). They scratched their heads and finally said my brilliantly and painstakingly typed queries had probably resulted in a lot of people thinking I was a really old person who didn't know how to use a computer.


January 12, 2011

You Only Get One Read

(or, in Zack Kaplan's words: "Save The Read.")

In the acknowledgments section of Steve Martin's amazing autobiography, 'Born Standing Up,' Martin thanks all the people who helped him--especially those who read his early drafts:


It's an important rule  you learn really quickly, in a very painful way. You show someone something, and then realize how bad it is. And there's no going back.

The implications for this on a career level are massive. You never want to show anyone in the industry something you aren't absolutely sure is ready. Because of this, it's very hard to justify partial submissions these days (ie sending an editor/publisher the first 100 pages of your manuscript). This used to work--especially for writers who had already published--but it's a bad idea these days. The industry responds to good material, but it has to be complete and it has to be ready. This month, when my agent told me it would be a  bad idea to submit a partial, I realized I had wanted to do it out of impatience--why else would I be breaking this sacred rule? It's gotta be perfect.

Save The Show
Jason Latimer
Steve Martin started out as a magician, so I think it's worth mentioning that "Save The Read" has a direct crossover with magic. When working on a new effect, you cannot bring it out until you are very, very confident performing it. When you first show it to a trusted friend before anonymous audience members, he or she watches your new material in the same way a trusted friend might read a new manuscript--you only get one shot, because next time they know what to expect. Ultimately, every audience member you encounter can only experience an effect once before it changes for them. As Jason Latimer says, "The first time you see it, it's magic. The second time you see it, it's education."

So Save It.

January 05, 2011

Rejected McSweeneys List #1