Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Do non-interactive books do a better job of encouraging literacy than interactive books?

A recent study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center seems to indicate that they do. The study found that when parents and children read together, children recall significantly more details when reading print books or regular, non-enhanced ebooks than they do when reading interactive ebooks. In addition, children engage with the content more when reading non-interactive books, with actions such as pointing and talking about the story.

So what does this mean? Are interactive books a dead end? I personally don't think so. We live in an era of options, and while all those options sometimes make it difficult to choose, in the long run this is a good thing, because there is no one right option for everyone and every situation. There are many ways to read and many ways to publish, and we can pick and choose as the situation requires. The key, as with everything, is balance.

For Parents

The old advice is still the best: read to your child early and often. We started reading to our son the day we brought him home from the hospital, and read to him almost every day after that until he was a teen. Even then, we sometimes read books together as a family, taking turns reading. We spent a glorious weekend reading the last Harry Potter book together the weekend it was released. I don't think it's unrelated that, at age 16, my son just finished his first year of college, living in the dorm, earning excellent grades and fitting in well with the other students. Reading to him was certainly not solely responsible--he's his own person and in large measure responsible for his own success--but it certainly helped.

But interactive books have their place as well. They may not be as good at developing traditional literacy skills, but computer literacy skills are just as important in today's world, and interactive books do help with those. In addition, the study also showed that interactive books have a lot of appeal for children, and can help encourage an interest in books, especially for reluctant readers. And in some cases, interactive eBooks can teach things that are difficult to teach using traditional books, or provide additional experiences and information about a particular topic. So the key, as it always has been, is in providing a variety of experiences for your child: books, ebooks, apps, not to mention "real life" experiences.

For Publishers, Self-Publishers, App Developers, and Authors

Parents will need books in a variety of formats, which is good news for everyone involved in creating books for children. Publishers can choose to provide their content in a variety of formats, or focus on just one or two. Print, Kindle, ePub, iOS, Android, computer: it's all good and all will be needed. Publishers need to keep aware of the changes in the industry and be prepared to act accordingly. Read industry newsletters and learn as much as you can about the different options, so you can make appropriate choices. Print is not dead, and I don't believe it will go away any time soon, but there's no denying that print markets are shrinking, so publishers need to think carefully about what formats to publish in, and run the numbers to see what makes sense and what will be profitable.

Some projects will be ideally suited to interactive ebooks, others will be a good fit with print and traditional ebooks, while still others will make sense to do in both formats. Any absolute statements about what publishers "must" be doing should be viewed with caution and evaluated carefully. There is no one right solution, and thank goodness we live in an exciting time of options.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Review: Black Heart

Black Heart
The Curse Workers, book 3
by Holly Black

Take The Godfather, mix in a little bit of The Sting, and add some magic, and you have a recipe for a great series. That alone would be enough, but Holly Black didn't stop there. The Curse Workers is also a great character driven story, a tightly plotted page turner, and one of the most original fantasies I've read in a long time.

When you read as much fantasy as I do, sometimes it starts to run together. Not so with the Curse Workers series; it's unique and memorable.

Cassel Sharpe comes from a crime family, but with a difference: in this mafia, people have the ability to curse other people with their hands. Curses are like a very specific, very limited magic. Curse workers might be able to cause luck, alter memories, break (or heal) bones, or, in rare cases, kill. Much of the tension in the first book, White Cat, comes from the fact that while Cassel comes from a talented curse worker family, he himself has no curse abilities.

If you haven't read this series, I urge you to stop here and read White Cat, and the second book, Red Glove. You could probably read Black Heart without having read those, but you'll appreciate it much more for having read the whole series. The rest of this review may contain spoilers for the first two books.

There's a reason why there are so many examples of cons in literature and television and movies. There's something fascinating about confidence men. They're smart, charismatic and they have a freedom from the constraints of society that we envy, if we can admit it. But Cassel is not free. He is trapped by the expectations of everyone in his life: his family, the Feds, Zacharov, the Dean of the school, Lila, and even his friends Daneca and Sam. Everyone has expectations, and everyone wants something from him, and there's no way that Cassel can live up to those expectations.

Cassel is such a great character. In spite of his background, or maybe because of it, Cassel tries so hard to be good, but with all these conflicting expectations, how can he possibly figure out what's right? But he is smart and he is charismatic, and you can't help but cheer for him as he navigates the shark-infested waters of his life.

One of the best things about this series is that there are no clear divisions between good and evil. It's hard to even tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Instead, we have complex characters who have conflicting interests and make choices and take action based on those interests. Is it any wonder that Cassel has trouble figuring out the right thing to do?

If you enjoyed the first two books in this series, you won't be disappointed in this one. It's a great story that builds to a surprise (at least to me) climax. I think Holly Black has some talent as a con artist, because even after reading all three books, I didn't see the climax coming, and afterwards it was so obvious I don't know how I didn't anticipate it.

My only problem was one of the subplots that seemed a little too tangential and didn't seem to fit in very well with the main plot. I'm not sure what purpose it served, but it's possible it was a distraction or a red herring.

Buy Black Heart from:
Your local independent bookseller through IndieBound
Barnes & Noble

FTC required disclosure: Reviewed from purchased copy. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Book Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

The Girl of Fire and Thorns
by Rae Carson

Once every generation, God chooses someone to bear the Godstone, a mark which indicates that person is selected to perform an act of service sometime in his or her lifetime. Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, the younger daughter of the King of Oraville, is the current bearer of the Godstone, but she doesn't feel worthy. She's not thin, beautiful, or adept at court politics like her older sister, and she worries that when the time comes, she won't have the courage to perform her act of service.

When Elisa is wed to Alejandro de Vega, the King of neighboring Joya d'Arena, she is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger. Joya d'Arena is on the verge of war, and the Godstone makes Elisa a target. Between the people who expect her to save them, and those who want to kill her, Elisa isn't sure that she'll even survive long enough to perform her act of service, if she could even figure out what she is supposed to do.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a well-built fantasy with a kick-ass heroine, rich worldbuilding and themes, and enough excitement and intrigue to keep the pages turning. I first read it for the 2011 Cybils Awards, then read it again—twice—before reviewing it, and each time I got more out of it.

The worldbuilding is excellent, with a Spanish influence that made a refreshing change from the standard fantasy setting. The major religion is thoughtfully developed, with some superficial resemblance to the Catholic church, but with its own unique beliefs and rituals. In spite of the resemblance, it isn't a Christian religion, but one that fits into the world Carson developed. Religion plays an important role in the story, but not in a dogmatic way. Instead, questions of faith are explored without finding easy answers. The Godstone gives Elisa a connection to God, and she prays often, yet her prayers are not always answered; loved ones die, and Elisa battles doubts about herself and about God. When person after person claims their actions are the will of God, Elisa asks why it is that she seems to be the only one who doesn't know the will of God! Elisa even questions several times whether some bearers of the Godstone could have been selected from among the enemy, something that has never occurred to anyone else. (Not all the bearers are known).

Elisa is a terrific protagonist who ranks right up there with the best literary heroines. She may be overweight and self-doubting, but she kicks ass in every way. Some reviewers objected to the fact that Elisa loses weight as a result of the privations and trauma she experiences. They worry that the book sends the wrong message about weight, that the outward change reflects an inner change from lazy to strong, and that weight is something to be ashamed of. I didn't get that on my first read-through, however the idea troubled me and I paid close attention to it on my second and third read.

I've come to the conclusion that I disagree with this view. First, Elisa is not lazy and self-absorbed, not at the beginning, and not ever. Early in the book, King Alejandro's personal guard observes that she has steel in her, and she does. By the third chapter, she has saved her ladies during a battle, pulling one of them to safety, and killed a man to save someone else. Even as she runs into the battle she feels her stomach and breasts bouncing, but she acts without thinking and without worrying about the consequences. These are not the actions of a lazy, self-absorbed person.

Even before that, she is not a spoiled, lazy princess; she is, in essence, a prisoner. A prisoner in a gilded cage, but a prisoner nonetheless. In order to protect the bearer of the Godstone, she is not allowed to take any risks, to do anything, or even to know anything about the Godstone that she bears. Elisa is interested in war and strategy, but all she can do is read about it; she is never allowed anywhere near danger. She does clearly have an eating disorder, but given the suffocating life she has lived, is it any wonder? And an eating disorder is not gluttony; it's trauma.

Even when she loses weight, it's made clear that she isn't thin. She has lost weight, a significant amount of weight, as anyone would who lives through the experiences she does, but she is "not even close to thin." And time and time again, the people who matter most to her, including a certain romantic interest, make it clear through words and actions that her weight never mattered to them, that she was always beautiful. Here's some thoughts from Rae Carson about weight and judging people by appearances.

I think I've made it clear how much I loved this book. It was definitely one of my favorite books of the year, and I'm really looking forward to the release of The Crown of Embers in September.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns was a 2011 Cybils Awards Finalist.

Buy The Girl of Fire and Thorns from:
Your local independent bookseller through IndieBound
Barnes & Noble

FTC required disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.