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Chris Barton writes about Chris Barton's writing ... and other, more fascinating elements of the world of children's book publishing.
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1. Games & Books & Q&A: Sarah Schoemann

The next interviewee from the field of gaming in my Games & Books & Q&A series is Sarah Schoemann, a video game designer, educator, and born-and-bred New Yorker now transplanted to Atlanta.

Sarah SchoemannSarah is the founder of of Different Games, a conference on inclusivity and diversity in games and game culture. She’s also a PhD Student in Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and her research and organizing interest is in social justice issues related to technology. Also, Sarah might be adopting a dog soon, and she’s really, really excited about that.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

SS: I was probably about 6 when my Mom took my older sister and me to get an NES, and I remember the experience feeling pretty epic. We had an Atari that my dad would sometimes set up on top of the TV in their bedroom for us to play with, but this was a huge cultural phenomenon at the time so we were pretty amped up about getting to play Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. My favorite game was probably the movie tie-in, Home Alone, which involved sneaking around Kevin’s house, hiding from the movie’s two burglars and setting traps to slow them down. You basically had to survive for 20 minutes without being caught to beat it, which I only managed when a glitch in the game trapped one of the burglars mid-shimmy on a drainpipe. Honestly, my Mom was way better than me at this and all of our Nintendo games, almost as a rule.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

I was really into ghost stories and mysteries as a kid. I loved Alvin Scwartz’ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark even though they initially gave me horrible nightmares. I had a much less scary book by him (sort of a Scary Stories primer) when I was too young to read on my own called In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. I LOVED to have that read to me so much that my mother got me an audiobook version of Scary Stories on cassette tape.

Unfortunately the narration by Broadway actor George S. Irving (whose dramatic performance swings from quavering to booming on a dime) and the foreboding synthesizer soundtrack was a bit much for me as an under-10 listener. I had to wait a few years before I could return to those stories and actually enjoy them, although of course then I had to contend with the book’s gorgeous and utterly terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell.

I got into books like Goosebumps, a popular series of scary books for young readers that offer a sort of gothic-horror alternative to The Baby-sitter’s Club. Then I graduated to the Fear Street series by the same author, R.L. Stine, which was teen-themed for more matured tastes. Kind of like Sweet Valley High, but for adolescents who like their high school romance with a side of Santa-suit-donning axe murderers.

I liked more subtle scary stuff, too, like John Bellairs’ books such as The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which featured gorgeous cover art and illustrations by the late, great Edward Gorey. And adult short fiction by folks like Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl.

CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult? How did it shape you?

SS: When I was an older adolescent, I got into books by Toni Morrison like Sula and The Bluest Eye and Richard Wright’s Native Son which got me to think critically about identity and race in America and to see the way that current social conditions are tethered to our dark national history. Reading fiction that dealt with those themes was crucial in helping me to make sense of and contextualize the real-life horror of events like the Rodney King beating and the LA riots, which I had watched unfold on TV as a child.

However, even though I now look to literature to teach me, I still appreciate stories as a source of joy. Since my tastes always tended towards dark material like ghosts and mystery I’ve always loved gallows humor. My parents’ coffee table book of funny, creepy drawings by Charles Addams, the creator of The Addams Family, was a big influence on my taste in comics and graphic novels. Seeing the work of great illustrators helped me discover how powerfully visual storytelling can communicate ideas and this has continued to influence me as a game designer.

Something Queer Is Going OnWith that in mind, I think my absolute favorite books as an early reader were the Elizabeth Levy series Something Queer Is Going On (later renamed The Fletcher Mysteries). They were all centered on the adventures of two quirky best friends who solved mysteries while hanging out with their droopy, immobile basset hound, Fletcher. But unlike a lot of girl characters in books, who wanted to impress people or be liked by boys, these girls were awkward and scrappy and seemed like people my sister and I could hang out with.

Not only did they have strong, spunky personalities in the stories but the pictures of them creeping around to investigate sinister goings-on with Fletcher were so descriptive and endearing that they added as much to the characters as the written narrative. These books showed me the way visual media like games and illustrated books are able to tell us things that writing alone can’t. When great writers and artists come together to tell stories visually and narratively, they can be that much more compelling, whether in a video game, a comic or an awesome book.

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

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2. Games & Books & Q&A: Tom Angleberger

The next author I’m featuring in the the Games & Books & Q&A series — in which I alternately interview children’s/YA literature folks about video games and ask gamers about the books that inspired them — is Tom Angleberger.

Emperor PickletineAs anyone who’s ever folded a piece of notebook paper into a Star Wars character knows, Tom is the author of the Origami Yoda series, including the upcoming and final title, Emperor Pickletine Rides the Bus. His most recent book is The Qwikpick Papers: Poop Fountain!

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

TA: Probably Pong, my dad had it. I remember that you could create your own variant games by leaving the switches stuck halfway.

I think my first arcade game may have been Space Invaders. And my first real gamer moment was when my school got an Apple ][ and I saw Colossal Cave Adventure boot up for the first time.

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

TA: I played a lot of games that now leave me wondering, why did I waste my time on that? Stuff like the Atari Raiders of the Lost Ark or, frankly, most of the Atari games.

Even a lot of computer games left me feeling the same way — possibly because I was never able to finish them. (Cranston Manor, Masquerade, The Bard’s Tale and the aforementioned Colossal Cave Adventure.) I remember a real moment of clarity after trying to swim past a shark in some dumb game. You had to work so hard to get to that shark and then it just swam right into you. That became a touchstone for me — just because someone made it, doesn’t mean it’s worth playing.

But then there were games that WERE worth playing!

In the arcade, it was Discs of Tron, Marble Madness, Joust and the sublime Star Wars (vector graphics).

And on my Apple it was Lode Runner. What a game! Not sure it’s ever been topped. 150 levels + 50 more with Championship Lode Runner. You had to run and gun (drill actually) and think.

And what I may have enjoyed the most was programming my own games in BASIC. Man, those were the days!

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

Tom AnglebergerTA: I have put serious time into early Final Fantasy games (Final Fantasy Tactics is another masterpiece), Donkey Kong Country, Tony Hawk Pro Skater (2 was my favorite), NBA Jam, various golf and racing games. And I love pinball simulators since I cannot afford my own machine. (Best pinball ever: The Addams Family by the master, Pat Lawlor.)

But aside from Words with Friends, my gaming time now is mostly devoted to one game: 007: Quantum of Solace. Michael Hemphill, my co-author on Stonewall Hinkleman, and I have been playing the two-player version of this on the Wii for years. It is surprisingly deep, we keep finding new strategies, new variations.

We’ve been playing various games together for about 15 years, I guess: Gran Turismo, ATV Offroad Fury, Dynasty Tactics, a little bit of Mario Kart and now this OO7 thing. It’s woven into our friendship.

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

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3. Modern First Library: more from Cyn, and from Books on the Nightstand

Modern First Library

Cynthia Leitich Smith has a second guest post for BookPeople’s new Modern First Library program, and it’s about the one negative experience she’s had in the store. Check it out.

And then check out the latest episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, in which hosts Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman discuss which picture books they’d include in their own Modern First Library. Thanks for featuring the program, Ann and Michael!

Besides, if you like books (and I’m pretty sure you do), and you like podcasts (I know I do), why wouldn’t you want to listen to a podcast about books? I just this moment subscribed to Books on the Nightstand, and I can’t wait to hear more.

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4. Games & Books & QA: Andy Robertson

Andy RobertsonNext up in my Games & Books & Q&A series of chats with gaming folks about books and with children’s/YA lit folks about video games is Andy Robertson. Andy is a freelance family technology expert for the BBC and The Guardian, and he runs the Family Gamer TV YouTube channel.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

AR: I remember playing a game on the C64 called Star Quake and Monty on the Run. They were difficult but fun and offered a labyrinthine world to explore.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

Asterix 33 - Asterix and the Secret Weapon.cbr-000AR: I enjoyed reading Asterix and Fighting Fantasy adventures. I think mainly because they felt like they were my own thing that I’d found myself rather than being told to read them.

CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult? How did it shape you?

AR: Reading the Bible, I think, as part of Sunday school and then later in church as an adult. It offered a fascinating fabric of life captured through the years that needed substantial interpretation before you could really know what to do with it -– endless possibilities.

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

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5. The cover for Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet

Attack Boss Cheat Code - May 2014
Coming in October — written by me, illustrated by Joey Spiotto, and published by POW!

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6. Cynthia Leitich Smith and BookPeople’s Modern First Library

Modern First LibraryThis month, several of us Austin authors are guest-blogging for BookPeople’s new Modern First Library program. The latest to do so is Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of the Feral series and Tantalize series for young adults as well as several picture books, including Jingle Dancer.

Here’s a little of what Cyn has to say:

When we talk about diversity in books, we often mention the concept of “windows and mirrors.”

I ached for a mirror. Books, for all their blessings, had failed me in this regard. However, I saw Star Wars in the theater over 380 times.

For the rest, pop on over to BookPeople’s blog.

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7. Games & Books & QA: Samantha Berger

So, we’re going author, gamer, author, gamer in the the Games & Books & Q&A series, and as you pattern-recognition aficionados out there already know, that means it’s time for me to feature another children’s/YA author.

crankensteinSamantha Berger has written picture books including Crankenstein and its upcoming sequel, A Crankenstein Valentine, both illustrated by Dan Santat (Little, Brown); the equally upcoming Witch Spa, illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Dial), and the (yes) upcoming Snoozefest, illustrated by Kristyna Litten (Dial). She has written cartoons and promos for Nickelodeon and other networks. Sam has also written comic books and commercials. In addition, she’s written movie trailers, theme songs, slogans, magazine articles, poems, TV-books, sticker books and professional books. Basically, you name it, Sam writes it.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

SB: I’m a child of the very first games. We had Pong in my house, and my little brother and I spent long, long periods of time playing it. It was MESMERIZING.

HYPNOTIZING.

The little DOOT… DOOT… DOOT… sound? The little light ball bouncing around the screen? I mean, you could do it for hours.

And we DID. (My first warning I could easily become an addict.)

Then Asteroids came out, and they had it in places like Pizza Hut.

Yeah it was in B & W and yeah it was basic, but somehow I was GOOD at it.

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

Samantha Berger right-side upSB: As a kid, I was never good at sports. What I loved about video games was that I was good at it. And it felt sporty …

… somehow.

Even though it was motor skills and hand/eye coordination and reflexes … it felt sporty. It felt like, if you could be a high-scorer, there was no possible way you could be picked last in gym.

Asteroids and Pong were the ONLY games I was good at. My little brother would go on to beat me, nay SLAY me in Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Atari, and everything else. I died fast and often. Many quarters were lost in mere minutes. It became … a lot less fun.

I vividly remember when Dragon’s Lair came out. It cost TWO quarters to play, and the animation was very advanced at the time, and I LOVED that about it.

… but I still sucked at it.

And that was kinda the end of my affair with the Game of Videos.

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

SB: I am not a gamer and don’t play any games whatsoever. This was a conscious choice, as I felt like, without careful self-monitoring, I could easily slip into a phase of playing them ALL THE TIME, NONSTOP, and using it as the perfect procrastination for writing!

And, with social media, and on-demand TV marathoning, and my dog, friends, and exercise, I have noooooooo problem with procrastinating or getting easily distracted already. So I drew a line and told myself not to tread in such dangerous waters.

Ironically, last week’s freelance gig had me NAMING a bunch of new digi-games for Sesame Street.

I’m happy to name them, but I just can’t play them!

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

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8. Why Modern First Library is important to me

Modern First Library

This month and next, BookPeople’s blog will be publishing guest posts from other authors and illustrators — first from a few here in Austin, then from others across the country — discussing why they support Modern First Library.

The first guest post is up, and it’s from me.

I thought about the issues raised by the We Need Diverse Books campaign not as an author but as a dad — and, specifically, as the dad of kids who fall into some relatively privileged demographics. I don’t want any parents out there to feel that the discussion about the representation of diversity in children’s literature is someone else’s issue. We all have a stake in it, even those who are already getting represented just fine.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

I don’t want them — or anyone else in their demographic — to get the idea that they’re at the center of the universe just because they happened to get born as non-poor, white, American males. Growing up with such an idea fosters a sense of entitlement that I think we’re all better off without.

How can parents discourage that sort of privileged thinking in their offspring, especially in a culture that sends so many messages to the contrary? I believe that one good way is to immerse kids early on in great picture books offering a broad view of a population that’s full of loved, valued, unique people.

You can read the rest here.

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9. Games & Books & Q&A: Tracy W. Bush

Tracy_BushMy friend Tracy W. Bush, Audio Director at Seattle-based game developer 5TH Cell, is the next interviewee in my Games & Books & Q&A series of chats with gaming folks about books (and vice versa). Tracy has composed music for games including Scribblenauts Unmasked, World of Warcraft III, Tabula Rasa, and Dungeon Runners. For more about Tracy’s work, see his 2013 interview with joystiq.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

TB: The VERY first video game I played? There were a couple. But the very first one that I recall was a game where you rode a motorcycle and jumped a ramp that had buses underneath it. There was also a “breakout” type game at the army post NCO club where we were stationed in Germany. I played that a lot before we got our own Atari at home.

What I remember about the bike ramp game (which was at a pizza parlor in Kentucky) was that the graphics were pretty rudimentary, but it totally communicated the feel of what it was you were supposed to do. I mean, you had to use your imagination a little bit, but it totally worked. This also was in the mid-’70s when Evel Knievel was a big hero, so it kind of hit the zeitgeist as well. I remember that I really liked it, but I only had the one quarter, so…

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

TB: When I was a kid, my favorite thing to read was Asterix comics. We were living in Germany, and I had been put in a German school, but I didn’t really speak the language. I had to learn pretty quickly, and I had a German tutor. The way she taught me quickest was by reading Asterix comics with me and teaching me that way. They were full of puns and visual gags and things that didn’t translate from the original French to German very elegantly, but I really liked the stories. Also, there was a sense of them being involved in actual history, since Cleopatra and Julius Caesar were main characters, and that spurred in me an interest in history which I still have to this day.

The_Hitchhiker's_Guide_to_the_GalaxyCB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult? How did it shape you?

TB: When I was 14 I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Probably the most influential book from my childhood. Until I’d read that book I didn’t even know there was such a thing as comedy books — you understand that the funniest books we got in school was Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, which were pretty dry. Hitchhiker’s was very, very funny, as well as being absurd, and that was kind of a revelation to me. That it’s OK to be funny, silly, even as an adult. Before that, I’d kind of assumed that all adults were just serious and dull all the time. That’s probably the first time I figured out that it was OK to grow up and be funny, and enjoy humor, and that it was socially acceptable to do so.

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

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10. My Modern First Library list

Modern First Library

My list of contemporary picture books that I’d include in a Modern First Library is up over at the BookPeople blog. Have a look, and let BookPeople and me know which books you’d include on your list.

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11. Games & Books & Q&A: Tanita S. Davis

A la CarteNext among the children’s/YA authors that I’m featuring in the Games & Books & Q&A series is Tanita S. Davis. Tanita is the Coretta Scott King Honor author of Mare’s War. Her other YA novels (all published by Knopf) include Happy Families, which was included on the ALA’s 2013 Rainbow Project List, and A la Carte. Her fourth YA novel, Peas & Carrots, is scheduled to be published in 2016. Tanita blogs at fiction, instead of lies.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

TSD: I remember that I was GOOD at the first video game I ever played. My cousins were kids who got everything on the bleeding edge of new when we were growing up, and we didn’t have video games, and they did… the first time they let me play, I smoked ALL OF THEM. They were disconcerted. I was disconcerted! Being raised very conservative Christians, we were all about the “thou shalt not kill,” and I was good at something with a GUN!? How did that happen? The game was, of course, Duck Hunt. Apparently, if you subtract mud, bugs, real ordinance and actual ducks, I am an awesome shot!

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

Tanita Davis bwTSD: My cousins had Frogger — in which I was frequently flattened – Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man, of course. There was also Spy Hunter, and some race car driver game (Grand Prix, I think), where I flipped my car over and over and over again… (apparently I can shoot, but cannot drive).

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

TSD: My hand-eye coordination as a kid was fairly awful, and now it’s even worse! Every once in awhile, I’ll find an old game like Frogger and play it on the computer, or go to the arcade at the mini-golf place, and waste a bunch of quarters playing Pac-Man, but mostly I stick to thinks I can actually, you know, win. Like air hockey. I’m terrible at video games, but I like to watch others play and enjoy.

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments (if they’re working again).

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12. No comment(s)

My comment-moderation system is down, so the comments you’ve been leaving aren’t showing up. Sorry about that! I’ll have it fixed soon, I hope. In the meantime, please feel free to tweet at me or contact me through older-fashioned means.

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13. Introducing BookPeople’s Modern First Library

Modern First LibraryI wrote in my newsletter last week about my new project with BookPeople. “Our hope,” I wrote, “is that by leveraging the longstanding popularity of Margaret Wise Brown, for instance, Modern First Library will get more great new books representing an increasingly broad swath of our society into more homes and into more readers’ hands. If this grassroots approach works, we hope that other booksellers will emulate it in their own communities and that it will encourage publishers to create and support more books reflecting the diversity in our world.”

Today, I’m pleased to share the Austin indie bookseller’s blog post officially launching the initiative:

Under the banner of this program, we will be featuring a broad range of books, new and old, that we think belong on the shelves of the very youngest readers.

BookPeople is committed to helping all kids find books that broaden their idea of what’s possible, provide fresh perspectives, and open windows to new experiences: all the things that great children’s books always do. And because we live in the vibrant, global society of the 21st century, our book suggestions have been purposefully designed to reflect the diversity of that experience. After all, a child’s first library offers his or her first glimpses of the world outside the family’s immediate sphere, and we think that view needs to reflect a reality that’s broad, inclusive, and complex, just like the world we all live in.

Please have a look at what BookPeople’s children’s book buyer has to say about Modern First Library, and stay tuned for guest posts on the subject by Austin authors Cynthia Leitich Smith, Don Tate, Liz Scanlon, Varian Johnson, and me. In the meantime, check out the Modern First Library starter sets — the folks at BookPeople have worked hard to put those together, and it shows.

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14. Games & Books & Q&A: Carly Kocurek

Carly KocurekThe first member of the gamer camp that I’m featuring in the Games & Books & Q&A series is Carly Kocurek. Carly is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and Media Studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where she teaches courses in game studies and game design. Her first book, a cultural history of the video game arcade in the 1970s and 1980s, is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press. She is also co-author and co-developer with Allyson Whipple of Choice: Texas, a web-based interactive fiction game about reproductive healthcare access in the state of Texas.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

CK: When I was a kid — really young, like 4 or 5 — my family used to go to a local pizza place, now long closed, called Ken’s. I was completely fascinated by the arcade games near the doors, and I’d always beg for quarters for them. I think this worked maybe once, and I can’t even remember the game. I do, however, remember the way that the buttons and the plastic on the cabinet felt. Later, we got a hand-me-down Atari 2600 from some family friends, so I played Pong and Frogger and a few other things. The first game that really resonated with me, though, was Tetris. I got a GameBoy for Christmas in 1989, and I played Tetris for years and years. I’ve talked about this before, but that game is and was incredibly important to me. I’d play when I couldn’t sleep or when I was worried. I found it fun, obviously, but I also found it soothing. My mom and I had a back-and-forth high score ware that lasted about 10 years. I’d wake up and she’d have beaten my high score in the night, so I’d work all day to beat hers.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

CK: I really loved Roald Dahl’s books. He’s a really problematic author, in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to anything even remotely having to do with race. But, for his flaws, there are other things he does so well. He has all these stories about brilliant, interesting, kind, adventurous kids who are basically being tortured by brutish adults who don’t understand them or who are actually just monsters. That was so powerful for me, then. I read Matilda and James and the Giant Peach over and over. The American Girl books were also a serious fixation, and I think they’re part of why I wound up studying American cultural history.

CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult? How did it shape you?

Winter of Fire

CK: There’s a book called Winter of Fire by Sherryl Jordan that I have to mention. I think I might have read that book more times than any other book from my childhood. I could say a lot about it, but at a basic level it’s about a girl who changes the world. I want more stories like that. I want every kid to grow up reading books about girls who change the world. I had to read so many books about boys on adventures and boys becoming heroes when I was at school, and that’s fine, but it should have been more diverse. We expect girls to be able to relate to stories about boys, but we train boys they don’t have to deal with stories about girls. That seems dangerous.

I have a really battered paperback copy of this book around somewhere. And, it’s one of those I know I’ll never get rid of. It’s beloved. If it was a velveteen rabbit, it would 100% be real by now. The book has a pretty clear narrative about a young girl — and a girl who is part of a social class that’s devalued and dehumanized — fighting against sexism. I grew up around a lot of really amazing, strong women, but reading a book that was so explicitly about a system that’s unfair and having a character really fighting that, and often suffering for being willing to fight, was really inspiring for me then. It still is now, but now I know all kinds of true stories about those kinds of fights.

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

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15. Games & Books & Q&A: Greg Pincus

14 FibsThe first member of the children’s/YA literature camp that I’m featuring in the Games & Books & Q&A series is Greg Pincus, the author of middle grade novel The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. (Arthur A. Levine Books). Greg also writes poetry (including the Fib, a form he invented) and screenplays, and he blogs about children’s literature at GottaBook.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

GP: It was awesome. And it was Pong. I remember thinking that it was fun to be able to use the TV in a different and interactive way… and that you got to play with a second person, too. [See Greg with his dad, below, playing an unknown game on a borrowed console that grown-up Greg cannot identify.]

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

GP: I was actually more of a pinball buff, and we didn’t have our own home console… but still, I mean, if there was a Space Invaders machine around? Well, I was on it. Missile Command was a sore spot for me because, seriously, the controls just never worked well. (No!!! It wasn’t that I was no good at the game! The controls just didn’t work well.) But I played it anyway, along with Pac-Man and some Q*bert and Marble Madness and Galaga and Centipede. But not Asteroids. I just stunk at that. In all cases what I loved was that there was lots of action, sometimes some strategy (and often that you had to think about on the fly), serious hand-eye coordination, and what seemed like a lot of variation. Plus, games are fun.

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

GP: I still love video games, though now I mostly play them on my phone or via the Xbox. I also really limit my time on them because I know, truly know, that I could easily play for hours, particularly since I have a need to finish/beat games! I play games with my kids, too, and watch them do things that I cannot do (my visual-spatial skills are a generation behind!). I still prefer games that require some strategy and thought rather than just pure shooters, and marvel at the way graphics have evolved. And most of all, I love the way games have evolved to tell stories and create worlds… or allow the player to do the same. It’s a rich, fun sandbox out there! (Though I still play Space Invaders whenever I run into an old machine.)

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

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16. Introducing the “Games & Books & Q&A” series

Attack Boss Cheat Code - May 2014As I worked on my forthcoming picture book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet — which will be published by POW! this October, with illustrations by Joey Spiotto — I was struck by similarities between adults who have tied their love of video games into their careers and those who create books for children and young adults.

Among those in the gamer camp that I’ve spoken with, or read essays by, or listened to interviews of, or just followed on Twitter, I’ve noticed a lot of the same passion for creativity, thoughtfulness about their audience, and concern for diversity within (and represented by) their field that I’ve long seen among other children’s authors and illustrators.

There’s been some crossover — video games playing roles in fictional stories, children’s books being reimagined in digital form, individuals I know who have worked in both fields — but I wanted to see more.

That’s what inspired me to begin this “Games & Books & Q&A” series of simple interviews with authors/illustrators about their gaming experiences, and with gaming folks about their reading tastes while growing up. I think these will be enlightening and fun, and I hope you enjoy the parallels and cross-pollination between the two fields.

Let’s get started with middle-grade novelist Greg Pincus and Carly Kocurek, who teaches college courses in game studies and game design. I’ll continue next week with Tracy W. Bush, who composes music for video games, and YA novelist Tanita S. Davis.

And if there’s anyone in either camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

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17. You like smiles, unicorns, and video games, right?

Or even just two out of three? Well, then…

From livescience.com:

If smiling for a video game could be, by itself, enough to make some people happy, then “Unicorb” — a video game controlled by a player’s facial muscles — should be regarded as something akin to a cyber fountain of joy.

Credit: Tiffany M. Youngquist, Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, University of Washington

Credit: Tiffany M. Youngquist, Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, University of Washington

During a game, Thalia’s EMG electrodes must be positioned on specific muscles located around each player’s mouth, eyes, and other facial areas that move in characteristic ways when people express happiness or surprise. The electrodes capture the muscle player’s signaling, which is then amplified and interpreted to control the height and speed of Unicorb’s flying unicorn.

“The control signals are designed so you have to use your smiling muscles and surprise muscles,” said Youngquist. “The idea is that through facial feedback, we can kind of enforce a state of happiness or positivity in the user.”

My upcoming picture book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet (to be published this fall by POW!, with illustrations by Joey Spiotto) does refer to various types of game controllers — but, I must admit, facial electrodes are not among them.

Better start working on a sequel…

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18. Bigger than a book: my new, (no longer!) secret project

For the past few months, while working on getting my next few books written and revised and ready to greet the world, I’ve been plotting away behind the scenes on a secret project with Austin, Texas, independent bookseller BookPeople. In this month’s edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, I at last get to tell the world what BookPeople and I have been up to — a program we’re calling Modern First Library.

I’m also giving away a copy of The Great Greene Heist, the smart, engaging, fast-paced new middle-grade novel by Varian Johnson, to one subscriber to my newsletter. If you’re not already receiving it, click the image below for a look — if you like what you see, click “Join” in the bottom right corner, and you’ll be in the running for the giveaway at the end of this week.

20140624 Bartography Express

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19. Games Week at The Guardian

I like Andy Robertson‘s evenhanded, commonsense approach to the joys and concerns that parents have when it comes to their kids and video games — it fits right in with the tone I strove for in my upcoming book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet.

I bring up Andy because he’s on prominent display in the Games Week feature published this week in The Guardian.

In Video games and violence: a parents’ guide, he counsels:

Unlike film and books, video-games are a new technology that we don’t yet fully understand, particularly in their potential for health or harm. That means that it is even more important for parents to accurately understand video game violence and the context in which it exists.

Playing games together as a family, stopping technology migrating to bedrooms, making use of PEGI ratings and having open conversations about these topics creates a healthy environment to maximise the enjoyment of this aspect of family life whilst avoiding potential pitfalls.

In another article this week, he sympathizes with parents who ask, “Is my child spending too much time playing video games?

Video games are entertaining, enjoyable and beneficial to children in many ways. They educate, provide space for creativity and offer healthy social interaction. But at the same time, the best examples are highly moreish and children will push boundaries to play for increasing lengths of time.

Excessive behaviour in any area of life rightly signals alarm bells for parents. However, for emerging an technology like games, it can be hard to identify excess over enthusiasm. Is an hour a day okay? Two? It’s even harder to judge if you don’t play games yourself.

The package of articles also includes a fascinating one by Leigh AlexanderGirly video games: rewriting a history of pink — about an art exhibit I was entirely unaware of, even though it was here in my home city:

The Visual Arts Center in Austin, Texas, currently has a very unusual exhibit: a vintage girl’s bedroom, perfectly preserved. There’s a chunky monitor pegged to a Nintendo Entertainment System, all dove’s breast gray and violet.

Pom poms decorate the television as a pink pinata slumps alongside; a pearly Polly Pocket toy, Judy Blume novels and posters depicting the romantic heroines from popular anime series Sailor Moon complete the picture. It’s presented in the museum as a “typical girl’s room” from the early 1990s. Also in the museum is another exhibit: a set of plastic digital Barbie game capsules under glass, hushed and precious. It looks like a priceless slice of history.

Except none of it’s real, exactly. The little girl’s room never happened. And the Barbie games are virtually worthless.

This is the art of Rachel Simone Weil, who has reimagined the nostalgic digital past as it might look if girly things had mattered then. A digital artist, programmer and rom-hacker, Weil found herself increasingly drawn to obsolete technology and collector culture – where she was surprised to learn that the traditionally feminine had no real value, financially or otherwise.

It sounds like the exhibit has since closed. I hope not. Jenny and I would love to go, and take our daughter — and sons.

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20. Summer reading and home library suggestions from the ALSC

large_SummerReadingLists14_ALSC

If you need summer reading lists for students in grades K-8, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) has your back.

ALSC — a division of the American Library Association (ALA) — has updated its lists and provided them in color and black & white formats that make it easy to print these up and distribute them.

ALSC also has the backs of Shark Vs. Train and The Day-Glo Brothers, both of which are included on this year’s summer reading lists. Not only that, but Shark Vs. Train is also included among the titles the ALSC included on its updated home library recommendation lists.

Thank you, ALSC!

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21. The Writing Process Blog Tour

Melissa Wiley asked if I’d like to participate in this rolling series of authors’ monologues about their current projects and writing processes, and I thought…

Well, from the title of this post, it’s pretty obvious what I thought. So here goes:

What are you working on?

I’ve got a couple of things going on at the moment, both of them picture books under contract.

One is a biography whose ending my editor and I are still trying to nail down — we want to make sure that we hit the final note just right. Do we leave the reader with one last impression of the subject himself, or encourage the reader to view the bigger picture beyond this one person’s life, or invite the reader to look inward and consider how the subject resonates with them individually, or attempt to accomplish something else? The runaway for figuring this out is growing pretty short.

The other book is all made-up fun, or will be. Right now, I’ve got characters and a vague sense of what the conflict is going to be, but so far there’s neither a story nor, frankly, much fun. (Though I’m enjoying myself.) What I’m working on, then, is figuring out the specifics of what happens, or might happen, or could happen, or should, or ought to, etc. Opening lines popped into my head late last night, so I need to revisit those and see if they still seem to set the right tone and get the story going in a good direction.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

I don’t know that my picture books individually differ drastically from other narrative picture books, but collectively they stand out a bit by falling into two distinct camps. I love writing seriously researched nonfiction, and I love just making up silly stuff, and I feel just as comfortable doing one (The Day-Glo Brothers) as the other (Shark Vs. Train). Enough people have asked me some variation of “How do you do that?” that I understand that enjoying both types of writing is not the norm, but it feels perfectly natural to me. Writing for this audience wouldn’t be nearly as fun if I didn’t or couldn’t do both types of books.

Why do you write what you do?

I write my biographies because something about the arc of an individual’s life — regardless of whether anyone I know has ever heard of this person — fascinates me. I like writing about people who end up in vastly different circumstances from those in which they entered the world, and about how inner drive and outer happenstance work together to change the course of a person’s life, and about the impact that person’s life has on the rest of us. And I like writing about people whose fields of achievement offer lots for me to learn about along the way and lots to distill and convey to my readers.

I write my fiction because I’ve always enjoyed getting people to laugh — or at least taking a shot at getting them to laugh — through the words I string together. It’s no fun when my efforts fall flat, but the times when my audience (even if that audience consists of just one person) does laugh — those keep me going.

How does your writing process work?

For biographies, with the very first piece of research I consult, I generally start creating a timeline of key events in the subject’s life. From that timeline, the period of the person’s life that most intrigues me will begin to emerge — I don’t generally write cradle-to-the-grave biographies, so I’m on the lookout for a significant place to start my telling of their story and a meaningful, resonant place to end my telling. Then I’ll research and research and research until I’m not running into much new information, or not finding any information that alters the story arc that’s taking shape. By then, I’m feeling sort of full and antsy, and I can’t help but start writing, though I’ll probably continue doing research of some sort until the illustrator is entirely finished with the art.

That’s a fairly amorphous process, but it’s even more so for my picture book fiction. Sometimes, I bang out a full draft the first morning an idea occurs to me, or the first day I pull a previously-jotted-down story idea from a pool of candidates. Other times, there’s a lot of mulling — weeks and weeks of mulling — about how to approach a character or theme or plot point before I ever actually start writing what anybody else would consider to be a draft.

For both types of books, I tend to revise a lot as I go. I turn in very clean drafts — not that they necessarily get returned from editors in quite the same condition.

Who’s next?

Who am I going to ask to answer these questions after me? Well, Melissa has already gone to my go-to author.

So, I was thinking that instead I would ask the most recent commenter, which would be Tina Kugler. But I see that Tina has already taken a crack at these questions.

So, how about you? If you’d be up for keeping the Writing Process Blog Tour going — or if you’ve already done your bit — won’t you please leave a comment letting me know where the rest of us can find your answers?

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22. Squish: Game On! and The King of Kong

In Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet, “O” is for… well, it’s for something other than “obsession.” But that might have made for a good alternate. Probably since about 24 hours after the first video game was switched on, there have been stories about video-game obsession — stories of players who just… can’t… quit.

Recently, I enjoyed a couple such stories, for distinctly different audiences.

Squish Game On

For the younger set, there’s Game On!, the fifth book in the Squish graphic novel series by siblings Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. The series centers on its grade-school-age namesake amoeba who, this time around, finds himself hooked on the handheld game Mitosis.

Game On! walks the fine line between sympathizing with Squish’s obsession and scolding him for the lengths he will go to in his pursuit of the next level. The narration and visuals are full of self-aware fun, with the Holms keeping things light even when Squish appears to be heading off the deep end.

The tone gets a lot darker, and the ideal audience considerably older, with the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

The obsession this time around that of adults fixated on the all-time high score in Donkey Kong — who holds it, how they got it, whether they’ll be able to hang on to it, and what they sacrifice along the way.

But as with Squish — and as I suspect is true with most obsessions– Donkey Kong challenger Steve Wiebe makes it through to the other side of his fixation in pretty good shape. (Here are part 1 and part 2 of a 2012 interview with him.) Each of these protagonists picks up some knowledge of himself along the way, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

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23. No, it’s not just your kids

PewDiePie - YouTube

Lots of parents I know are mystified by their children’s appetite for watching gaming videos online. And lots of kids I know are mystified by their parents’ mystification.

These videos are such a key part of gaming culture that Joey Spiotto and I included a nod to them in Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet, coming from POW! this October. But for a more scientific documentation of the phenomenon, have a look at Tubefilter’s new list of the Top 100 Most Viewed YouTube Gaming Channels in the World:

Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg’s PewDiePie channel is obviously at the top of the inaugural Top 100 YouTube Gaming Channel Charts. The 24-year-old Swedish online video gamer scored an unbelievable 311.2 million views in the month of May. That’s a month-over-month increase of 5% and roughly equates to more than 120 views per second during the 31 days of the month.

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24. Kirkus on One Death, Nine Stories

The first review I’ve seen of this one (which includes my YA fiction debut) is a good one:

Complex and emotionally demanding, this collection aims for and will resonate with serious readers of realistic fiction.

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25. Those other robots have WHAT?

There’s a lot that I love about this recent presentation by Lonnie Johnson — rocket scientist, Super Soaker inventor, and pursuer of solutions to the world’s energy problems.

But my favorite part starts at the 5:22 mark with “When I was a kid…” He goes on to discuss how Lost in Space and Robbie the Robot inspired him as a teenager in the 1960s to build his own robot. Except that…

“Nobody told me that the other robots that I was watching [on TV] had people inside.”

Even if he had known, I doubt he would have let it stop him.

And if you’re thinking that Lonnie Johnson would make a great subject for a picture book biography, Don Tate and I agree. Our book, Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super Stream of Ideas, will be published by Charlesbridge in 2016.

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