On Board the Fiction Express

I don’t normally do commercial on the blog, or endorse products beyond the occasional book review. The whole point of the blogis that it represents my ‘life’s work’ to a great extent, and I’m happy to share it for free. The payback is that it sometimes leads to other projects and even paid contracts. However, I’m going to make an exception for something which came to my attention recently via Twitter (doesn’t everything?).

Fiction Express for Schools is an exciting new website that combines literacy and IT. A 21st century take on the ever-popular ‘Choose-your-own-adventure’ books, Fiction Express allows the readers to vote each week to decide where the plot goes next. Each e-book runs for 5 weeks and chapters are published every Friday. At the end of each cliffhanging chapter the readers are given options as to where the plot goes next. They vote online by 3 pm on Tuesday for the one they like best. The votes are counted and the option with the most votes is then conveyed to the author, who writes the next chapter in ‘real time’ for publication at the end of the week. There is also a blog on the website where students can interact with the authors and Fiction Express editors.
A subscription to Fiction Express for Schools normally costs £199+VAT for whole school use, but you can get 10% off this price with discount code BOYD10. So, for a cost of £180+VAT, you will receive 12 e-books (4 per term at different reading levels) throughout the year, which can be read by all of your pupils, both at home and in school. Fiction Express also provides comprehensive weekly teacher resources to accompany each chapter.
PS. There really is nothing in it for me!
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Welcome to Planet Alice

Fans of the digital novel Inanimate Alice – and the number is growing rapidly – will be interested to hear of some new developments and more resources for teachers. The series was given a boost this week with the publication, in conjunction with new global education partners Promethean, of the third edition of Alice’s School Report which features a ringing endorsement from no less a figure than filmmaker, media expert and educational authority Lord David Puttnam:

“Here is a terrific reading-from-the-screen experience that talks the language of digitally literate educators. Kids will read this when they won’t read from books. It’s vivid moving imagery embracing some of the techniques used in both film and video-games. It’s authentic rich-media, yet it is a high-quality text that teachers can rely on. Surprisingly intimate, the feeling for the characters forms in your head, just like reading a book, surely more so for those whose prefer engagement with “born digital” material. Kids will love reading with Alice.”  David Puttnam

Read the full School Report here.

One welcome change to the new-look IA website is the addition of a Starter Activities Booklet on Episode 1 for teachers who are new to the story, while a host of extra materials can be found on the Promethean Planet website. No need to have or use a whiteboard to access the materials, simply open a free account and go to the User Group to find out how other teachers and kids have been engaging with Alice and taking her on their own adventures. If you are a teacher discovering Inanimate Alice for the first time, I suggest you watch and listen to the introduction from teacher-librarian and media specialist Laura Fleming, and if you are  introducing young people to Inanimate Alice for the first time, this film trailer is perfect for setting the scene. Perhaps after reading the series you could challenge them to make their own version. Find out how to make a film trailer here.

Murder Most Fatal

Every Tuesday in July here on Arran, the Whiting Bay Club of Drama and Music presents in the Village Hall the wonderfully entitled ‘The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery’. But as it happens, one hundred and twenty-two years ago today there began a real-life story to match anything by the great Victorian crime novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when a young builder’s clerk from London, Edwin Rose, met a violent death near the summit of Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak. Just over two weeks later, his badly decomposed body was to be found in a stone shelter, where it had been deliberately hidden, his skull shattered and his spine broken.

Goatfell on Arran. Beautiful and dangerous

Rose had been on a walking trip to Scotland with several companions, and was in Rothesay on Bute when he had a chance encounter with John Laurie, a pattern-maker at the Atlas Iron Works in Glasgow’s Springburn. The two men struck up a friendship despite the misgivings of Rose’s friends, and spent the next few days walking on Bute before deciding, on the afternoon of the 15th of July, 1889, to take a ferry to Arran and climb Goatfell, a mountain which remains as popular with walkers today. Easily accessible in both summer and winter, it can be treacherous in bad weather.

The discovery of Rose’s body sparked a manhunt which led to the eventual arrest of Laurie in his home town of Coatbridge. In the subsequent trial, one of the most eagerly followed in Scots legal history, Laurie admitted to robbing the Englishman but denied the charge of murder, claiming that Rose had in fact met two others on the summit and descended with them.

Conan Doyle's famous hero Sherlock Holmes wrestles his arch-enemy Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls. Art by Sidney Paget

The ultimately successful prosecution case rested on circumstantial evidence relating to the nature of Rose’s injuries and behavioural reports, which convinced the jury of Laurie’s murderous intentions. The only suspect had been seen drinking in the Corrie Bar in Brodick at 10pm on the evening of the tragedy and had checked out of his lodgings the next day without paying. Yet there was never any of Rose’s blood found on Laurie’s clothing, and the victim’s cap and walking stick had been found lying in the vicinity of the body. There had been no attempt to hide them.

Laurie was convicted of murdering the 32-year old Rose and handed a death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He protested his innocence until his death 40 years later in what was then known as the ‘lunatic division’ of Perth prison. It remains the longest prison term served in the country to this day. But was there a miscarriage of justice? Was Rose pushed or did he fall? Unlike even the best fictional tales, in this case we will probably never know.

The Amulet of Samarkand

I am increasingly intrigued by, and attracted to, the range of graphic novels now available on the market, so when a new one comes along – OK, when a publisher sends me a copy and asks me to review it – how can I resist? Fortunately, in this case, what I can say is welcome to the colourful world of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus and The Amulet of Samarkand. Unaware of the original Bartimaeus trilogy of Jonathan Stroud, and approaching the text with an in-built wariness towards yet another story about a  smart kid with magical powers, I was quite prepared to dislike this book, but by the end of its 144 pages (compared with the original novel’s 500) I was kind of hoping there might be more.

This is a novel aimed at young readers, but one which will be enjoyed especially by those sophisticated enough to appreciate the humour which binds the young Nathaniel (apprentice magician, more able than he is given credit for by a bullying master), Bartimaeus (the 5000-year-old djinni whom he conjures up to assist in reclaiming the said amulet) and the reader, in what is really a conspiracy against the pesky adults who tend to control things and generally make a mess of it. In this case, in a clever reversal of the traditional magical fantasy tale, the demon is the ‘good guy’ and the baddies are the tightly-knit, elitist group of ruthless magicians who run the country from Westminster (sound familiar?)

Set in what is described on page one as ‘London. Now’, the backdrop to the story is actually a dystopian future London which looks a bit like the the London of the middle of last century. And when I say looks like, I mean is stunningly drawn and coloured to look like. This book is first and foremost an absolute visual delight. I particularly liked the depiction of rural England, where Nathaniel and Bartimaeus take a trip to a government conference at Heddleham Hall, organised by the arch-criminal and Junior Minister for Trade, Simon Lovelace. In the words of the ancient spirit with the 21st Century sense of humour, ‘It felt good to be free of the city and surrounded by the natural contours of the trees and crops. I perked up a bit.’ Earlier, he had spoken of escaping London’s congested streets, feeling ‘groggy with motion sickness and the terrible stench of technology.’

The novel comes alive in graphic form. Text copyright Jonathan Stroud 2010. Illustrations copyright Lee Sullivan 2010

It isn’t hard to tell where the author’s sympathies lie. When Nathaniel and Bartimaeus find themselves in a deserted building in the centre of London, having narrowly escaped another attempt on their lives by the villainous Lovelace, the latter muses, ‘What was this place, do you think? A library? Don’t suppose the commoners are encouraged to read much anymore, are they? That’s usually the way it goes.’ So there you have it. It isn’t really about the theft of a precious bracelet at all. It’s about the theft of our intellectual freedom. Read books, be clever, or this is the kind of pickle you will find yourself in. And so say all of us!

Language purists may well pick up on the fact that the novel contains American spellings (such as ‘theater’ and ‘fulfill’), which is strange for a book by an English author, but it was developed and published by Stroud’s American publishers Hyperion in the first instance, before reaching the UK market. A minor irritation for this reader, but I suspect not even that for enthusiasts.

The Amulet of Samarkand is adapted from the original novel by Jonathan Stroud with the help of Andrew Donkin, himself the author of more than sixty books for children and adults. It is beautifully drawn by Lee Sullivan (Transformers, Judge Dredd, Doctor Who) and the amazing colouration is by Nicolas Chapuis (Elephantmen, The Wheel of Time). It is also available from Amazon for less than a fiver, which is a far bigger crime than the theft of a precious brooch.

Click here for a complete list of recommended comic books and graphic novels.

Alice’s School Report – Making Great Progress

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am a huge fan of Inanimate Alice, the online digital novel which looks to me, and an increasing number of teachers across the world, like it begins to define the future of reading for young people in a transmedia world. The power of Alice as a learning context for teachers and students is only beginning to be felt but for those who already ‘get it’ the benefits have been enormous, not only in terms of student engagement with the narrative as a quality story, but more especially with their immediate, spontaneous and almost universal desire to write their own versions, episodes and storylines using whatever tools they have available to them, even if that only amounts to pencils and paper. If you have any responsibility for teaching literacy, imagine a text so powerful that your students, including the most difficult to motivate, are demanding to write! Laura Fleming, a library media specialist from River Edge, New Jersey, who is responsible for Alice’s School Reports and the Inanimate Alice Facebook page, sums it up well:

“As students are interacting with the story, they are active participants in telling the story. They fully understand what it is like to walk in the character’s shoes. In using this digital novel I have never seen them more engaged in text.”

A new feature on the IA website is Alice’s School Report. The second issue has an interview with the series’ artist Chris Joseph and features the work of English teacher Nancy Boag and her second year students at Ayr Academy in South Ayrshire, Scotland. Read too about how, for one secondary teacher, using IA has not only transformed his classroom but his whole approach to learning and teaching – Just Trying to be Better than Yesterday.

Megan decided to set Episode 5 in Glasgow.
Megan

To see some more of her classmates’ stories click here.

It Was a Dark And Stormy Night

“Though her beloved Roger had departed hours ago, Lila remained in her rumpled bed, daydreaming about his strong arms, soulful eyes, and how, when he first fell asleep, his snoring sounded not unlike two grizzly bears fighting over a picnic basket full of sandwiches, but as he drifted off into deeper slumber, his snoring became softer, perhaps as if the bears had decided to rock-paper-scissors for it instead.”

Thus began one of last year’s runners-up in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Run as an annual event since 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, the aim of the competition is for entrants to compose the worst possible opening line to a work of fiction. The competition was founded in honour of the minor Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was responsible for coining phrases such as “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the great unwashed”, and whose novel Paul Clifford opened with the line – since immortalised in parody by Shulz’s famous cartoon beagle Snoopy – “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -except at occasional intervals when it was checked by a violent gust of wind…………..”

The rules of the competition are very simple. Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. Since its inception, tens of thousands of submissions have been made to the competition, resulting in the publication of five collections of the best of the worst. Sadly, however, all are now out of print.

Try your hand also at Literacy Adviser’s “Dark and Stormy Night Competition” with a difference! Using Twitter, the challenge is made more difficult by restricting the opening line to 140 characters. In this case the entries have to be on the theme of education and you should send your entries to @literacyadviser using the hashtag #DSN ie simply put #DSN before your opening line. For some inspiration, here is another entry from last year’s Bulwer-Lytton:-

“The pancake batter looked almost perfect, like the morning sun shining on the cream-colored pale shoulder of a gorgeous young blonde driving 30 miles over the speed limit down a rural Nebraska highway with the rental car’s sunroof off, except it had a few lumps.”