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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Writing: 9/11, Independent Publishing, and A Bronx Tale

This post first appeared at Keith Publications' writer's blog. See this URL for the post and its comments at Keith Publications.

 “Nothing sadder than wasted talent.” It’s a great line from a funky little movie called A Bronx Tale – a final comment on the life of a mobster.

Wasted talent.

 On Sept, 11, 2001, the mayor asked everyone to stay home. They closed our place of work that day. So I stayed home, eyes glued to the TV set, contemplating a whole new world before us – a world of terror, of endless war against a constantly roving, lurking foe. In the days and months to come, uncertainty and consternation grew at the process of homeland defense. We gave up some civilized freedoms in the name of fighting a foe that belonged to no civilized nation.

 What did I want as my personal legacy? In the movie, A Bronx Tale, the boy asks the mobster “Is it better to be feared, or to be loved?” The mobster’s response, in gravely-voiced Bronx-English, is that ‘… it is bettah to be feahed.”

 As a legacy, I wanted neither to be feared nor loved, but to be published -- to leave behind stories that would stand up to the test of time, like the notion of a city with the tallest buildings in the world. What galvanized me in those days after 9/11/2001 was that I had stories beating against my skull, trying to escape, and I needed to act. Or in the years to come I might regret ‘wasted talent.’

 I sat down at my lime green iMac (so proud to actually own my own computer!) and wrote a whole series of juvenile non-fiction picture books about planets and stars; sort of a geology and astronomy course for 3rd graders. All twelve burst right out of my head almost faster than I could write them down!

This first work was condescendingly dismissed by big publisher(s) with the words “books like these don’t sell.” Actually, the editor who told me this (from a major publishing house who shall remain nameless, but who’s initials start with the letter ‘S’) looked neither at the concept, nor the writing, nor the implementation plan! I was dismissed, just as the big publishers at the time tried to dismiss electronic publishing, and online marketing. A figurative ‘whatever.’ Very frustrating.

 We’ve seen a lot of changes since 9/11/2001. Traditional publishing is experiencing what can either be regarded as an Armageddon of rising indie businesses (‘no one will want a book anymore’ – so much ‘crap’ produced that drowns out the really well done (traditional) book) or a huge opportunity for indie writers to meet readers bored with the fare turned out by these venues.

Overall, readership is rising (giving credence to the notion that the number of ways to slice up the economic pizza are infinite.) I’ve had to learn a whole business – how to edit (or find suitable outfit to do a professional job), how to do the artwork (or find a suitable outfit), how to market, how to assess the ‘production quality’ of a book. Not to mention honing the writing craft itself. All while, keeping up with the demands of my day job!

 In the movie, A Bronx Tale, when the mobster died, the boy was the only witness to his legacy. He was the only attendant at the funeral who came, not for show, but to pay respects. The mobster left his mark on the boy forever, and in a strange way, acted as a community leader, with a powerful, but not maximized, influence on the whole neighborhood. His life had amounted to ‘wasted talent,’ just like quite a few lives in the same neighborhood.

 I love this 1993 movie, partly because it’s a great character study, with plenty of classic lines. It’s about a boy who, departing from tradition, chooses a mobster as his father figure. And in turn, the mobster introduces him to some unconventional ideas like seeing beyond ethnicity for who people really are.

 On a day to reflect on 9/11 and legacies, I can say to my fellow writers, that story-telling, working closely with art directors, illustrators, galvanized by new technologies that allow an author to find their audience, and provide the reach for a potential world-wide audience, is the chance of a lifetime.

It’s a feeling captured better by another, popular, song about the great city of New York that includes the words “…it’s up to you…”

 Books 1 & 2 of Claudia Alexander’s children’s science-learning picture book series titled: Windows to Adventure, will be re-released this Christmas with augmented artwork and new book production oversight.

Friday, February 10, 2012

STEM friday: Slingshot, a gaming learning activity with teacher's input

Today I'm going to talk about Slingshot. Here's the URL:

Here's a little about the designers:

Fuzzy Duck Design / Fuzzy Duck Studios
Divisions of Imagebay Incorporated

I just received information about the site this morning, and looked over the teaching material about an hour ago.

First let me say that I firmly believe that gaming and other accoutrements of the modern world (apps, e-books, and online activities) make STEM material just as accessible as traditional books and magazines and should be taken very seriously by contemporary teachers trying to reach middle grade kids. I was at the KEEPING IT REAL conference on non-fiction for kids (January 2012, Sacramento, CA), and the keynote speaker said that the e-publishing world was not yet here. And many of us in the audience shook our heads in disbelief!

Slingshot is an attempt by educators, screenwriters and gamers to use the playtime aspects of characters and imaginative play to make certain aspects of engineering, aerospace, and planetary science more accessible and relevant.

The target age is 6-12. The game, and the embedded science-learning activity, looks top notch.

The characters are positioned in the Jupiter planetary environment, with its family of moons, and given a 'quest' type set of goals. In order to accomplish the goals, the characters have to have a good understanding of orbits, of atmospheric science and how to place a spacecraft into orbit using aero-braking and other engineering techniques. The characters have to understand changing aspects of their planetary environment such as changing gravity when they go from moon to moon, etc.

Here's a list of lessons:
1. Scale model of the solar system (plus more about energy and climate change)
2. Physical laws of motion (plus more)
3. How helicopters work (plus more: matter and anti-matter)
4. Aerodynamics of flybys with a slingshot maneuver around a planet (plus more about charged particles)
5. remote sensing and cameras (plus more about the element hydrogen, as in a hydrogen explosion).
6. the need for spacesuits; biology in space (plus more about life)
7. Aerodynamics of planetary entry (drop into an atmosphere). (plus more about icy moons with liquid water)
8. Surface and underwater on Europa
9. Extraterrestrial life (plus more about human biology and radiation sickness)
10. More biology in space (discussion of Biosphere 2)
11. recap
12. student activities

Also a significant portion of the lessons are addressed to non-technical things spanning getting along with others, to death in the line of duty.

As a writer, I appreciate the aspect of the materials addressed to effective characterization. As a member of the under-served population (I am African-American), I appreciated the site's attempt at Diversity. Nonetheless, I felt that the site's materials were presented upside down. Rationale for the site and details of the characterization were presented first, and the educational aspects last. I felt like that was the equivalent of showing me the sewing and pattern making when what I wanted was the suit itself. For kids, the site should dive into the conflict, put the audience into the situation, and explain the behind-the-scenes later.

They are putting kids into a situation, then asking them to understand some pretty sophisticated physics.

As someone involved in education at the University level (how do we engage youngsters so that we have the next generation of professors and professionals?) I understand the gap between the practice of science, and where some of the educational material is. (Example, I just reviewed a new Scholastic book about the planets, which was woefully simplistic, from my perspective. Neptune is not 'blue' for example.) As a professional, and a tax-payer, I'd like to see kids come up to speed a little faster. But as someone who delves into non-fiction writing for the ages 8-10, I find the range of Slingshot in terms of the lessons its trying to teach, to be ambitious. It seems a lot like Battlestar Galactica, with a technology guide attached.

I wish them luck, though. I believe that good games, with lessons attached, are the way to go.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Is magazine writing dead?

I noticed a series of cool articles about the importance of magazine writing on non-fiction for kids. The thing is ... these articles were written in 2004.

My question is this... in the current publication environment, where short stories are getting good play on Kindle Shorts, and magazine publication is down overall, are these articles still relevant to an author seeking to get their content about science out there?

Here's an article on the rise & relevance of short stories online for 99cents:

would it make more sense to move your publications into this venue? (admittedly formatting/editing for Kindle is not straightforward). Moreover, other formats (epub) make it easy to insert actual movies (short vids), and are much more visually engaging for kids of this era.

What about the use of apps? Here's a nice outfit that claims to be able to create kid-friendly apps to go with your non-fiction children's book:

And here's another example from Twitter;
If you have older kids who love Legos, and you have an iTouch, iPhone or iPad 2, the Life of George game is fun.

Over Xmas I watched my nephew spend an obscene amount of hours on his gameboy playing educational apps. (They said that couldn't be done -- interesting kids in educational apps, but I saw it happen. His favorite app was Family Feud, but he had to spell a lot, and asked us endless spelling questions.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

STEM Friday with Windows to Adventure!

Bloggers across the kidlitosphere celebrate STEM Friday by writing about science, technology, engineering and mathematics books for kids on Friday.

So I’m writing about my new book series: Windows to Adventure!

This series is meant to be companion pieces for the science found on the massive website Windows to the Universe. (, but includes more personable fantasy characters to make the science accessible for younger readers.

STEM Friday was started by author Anastasia Suen at her blog: Booktalking (, and I thank her for this opportunity to both learn and share fabulous science-learning resources for kids with other knowledgeable kidlitophiles.

I work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a professional scientist. (NASA does not endorse any commercial products, and my writing for kids is an activity that is separate from my NASA work).

I’ve always believed that kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Windows to Adventure (W2A) is predicated on that theory! (grins). I figure that if kids can memorize all the names and features of dinosaurs, then they can learn the names and features of the layers of the atmosphere, the properties of stars and planets, and some of the physics – from geophysics to astrophysics – that makes these topics interesting to someone like me. Its just a matter of making the material engaging, of finding a way of answering some questions and laying the seeds for more questions. If the kids are curious and intrigued, they’ll invest the time to come up with answers of their own. That’s my goal, to make the science intriguing and not in a finding-answers-to-my-homework sense.

W2A takes a group of kids on ‘adventures’ in which the science is important but incidental. In one story they go straight up in the atmosphere, meeting fantasy characters along the way who are associated with atmospheric layers like the stratosphere and magnetosphere. In one story they go walking along the Milky Way to meet stars of different ages (and sizes). In the first book they go along to meet some of the most distinctive mountains and volcanoes in the solar system (in anthropomorphic form so that they can remember their geography and geology more easily).

The books also introduce cultural things – such as language! If the kids are in a country like Japan, some of the characters speak some standard Japanese phrases as ‘konichi-wa’ (hello!).

As a practicing planetary scientist I hope to broaden a student’s exposure to aspects of the planets, to compare and contrast these worlds – all in a way that is interesting and that helps them to be ale to process the news that is coming out of NAS mission like Cassini’s mission to Saturn, or these exoplanets that we’re discovering, to understanding aspects of our own planet’s climate change.

So today while blogging with you, I’m also going to be posting new material to the forum page of the Red Phoenix Books website, where I hope to bring planetary science news of the day up for general discussion with visitors.

Oh, and did I mention that the books try to be multi-cultural, with protagonists of many different ethnicities and cultures? I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood, and that is the basis for creating the neighborhood where these stories take place.

The ten books in the series can be found here (Windows to Adventure). I call them ‘creative non-fiction for kids’ – because though they combine science with fantasy and adventure, at bottom they are not plot-driven stories but vehicles for conveying information.

I hope to see all of you as visitors to the site, and participants in the forum! Cheers.

Links mentioned here:
Windows to the Universe
Windows to Adventure
A Scientist's Cafe (forum) (also found directly from the Red Phoenix Books site's navigation panel.
Other resources at Booktalking's STEM Friday