Catherine Stine's IDEA CITY

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Fun Ways to Teach a Class-Write a Rap Song!

My son has been taking Arab class during these last two years of high school. The teacher, Anna Swank, is exceptionally creative and inspiring. She's taken them to a Lebanese restaurant in Queens, where they ordered food, and spoke to the staff in Arabic, on trips to the neighborhood deli, to chat with the owner, a Christian Egyptian, who makes wicked good sandwiches, and even to Syria and Tunisia.
For senior project, my son and his friends, many of whom are also musicians,

decided to write and perform an Arab rap, which underscored the importance of learning the language. Of course, they were determined to totally entertain themselves while doing it. And isn't that the part of the learning process that ultimately cements the subject in your mind? (My son is the tall one in the wheat-colored shirt, and then in the black soccer shirt). Their lip-synching is a bit off, but hey, this is video art 101. (They recorded the soundtrack and then tried to synch the video)

In addition, here is a link to today's New York Times article on Anna Swank's class. Kudos to all. Teaching and learning should always be this fun!

Most of Anna's students will go on to study the language and culture in college. I know my son will take Arabic 3.

Which begs the question, what have your teachers, your kids' teachers, and you done to reach out to your brother and sisters across the globe? And how creative can your teaching really be? I know I'll be stretching as I ready myself for teaching Writing & Lit this fall to college freshmen. My students are mostly film and art majors, struggling to write and make sense of the literary cannon. I intend to bring in film, and art right along with the books. And I'll use Anna Swank as a true inspiration as I proceed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Fine Points Between YA Dystopia and Sci-fi

What distinguishes a YA dystopian novel from a YA sci-fi novel? And is there a difference between hard-core genre sci-fi, and creating a futuristic world, conceivable by scientific standards? What is the prevailing mood towards these genres?

Dystopias are almost always cautionary tales—utopias that have soured—and tropes for real life scary cultural trends such as fascism, climate change and technology run amok. Interestingly enough, the ancient translation of the word utopia is “no place”, which suggests that a utopia cannot actually exist.

A classic example of a dystopia that almost all high-school students read—and end up loving—is George Orwell’s 1984. Written in 1948, Orwell warned people of the dangers of totalitarian government a la Stalin’s Russia, and the loss of one’s personal independence in a repressive style of communism. Control in 1984 is obtained through mass brainwashing, and Big Brother’s ultimate desire is to have a person die loving the Party; this, so that there’s no danger of the “vaporized unperson” becoming a martyr and fomenting rebellion. Does Big Brother succeed? Ah! For the answer to that question, you must read Orwell’s very clever afterward.

Some current YA dystopias are THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, set in an alternate USA, where teens fight to the death for the richest district’s entertainment, and BIRTHMARKED by Caragh O’Brien, a world where life is reduced to helping birth babies for the exclusive set inside the Enclave by “Unlake” Michigan.

So, what about YA sci-fi? I believe it’s slowly but confidently creeping into the YA canon, despite some editors fears that teens won’t “get” the science behind the stories, and therefore must be limited to YA fantasy where there is no steep learning curve. Quite the contrary, I think teens are itching for this kind of concrete, yet visionary material. After all, the classic authors such as Sir Arthur C. Clarke ended up inventing satellite technology. I mean, how cool is that?! In Clarke’s own inspiring words: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Who wouldn’t want to explore the magic of the real world?

There’s no need to fear that pages of details will overrun the genre on how to build a robot from scratch, or power a rocket. No current author wants to mimic the old-school adult genre. So, there’s no need for authors writing YA sci-fi to hide it under names like “futuristic thriller”.

Current examples of YA sci-fi run the gamut from Cory Doctorow’s LITTLE BROTHER, a sort of cyberfest for Internet geeks (And major nod to Orwell’s Big Brother), and THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by Mary Pearson, which explores the ethics of using new science in medicine, and the nature of the soul.

And now, onto the difference between YA dystopia and Post-apocalyptic fiction… for this discussion, I will ferry you onto the excellent post by YA Highway:

But before running off, you may want to answer this challenging question: Is S.A. Bodeen’s THE COMPOUND post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, or simply a thriller?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I did a presentation last week for 4th and 5th graders. Instead of reading them something of mine that was already published, I decided to read a couple of chapters from a work-in-progress and show them my illustrations that go along with it.

This is a project that I'd put away for months following a random publishing professional's comment that she was looking for middle grade material a la WIMPY KID, and I replied that I had something along those lines but it was fantasy and probably young middle grade. She responded with a tone of disdain. "No one's looking for any younger middle grade than WIMPY KID." After which, I put my project in a closet and didn't do any more pictures for it. Maybe she was right.

But my intuition told me otherwise. I was wondering what she'd think of CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS, and FERGUS CRANE, and the amazing HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, all aimed for a slightly younger middle grade audience than WIMPY KID.

I kept arguing with her in my head. But I wasn't sure enough of myself to get the darn project, which had been my joy, off of the dusty shelf. Until...

Until I did that school visit last week and read my three chapters... and realized that the kids were eating it up and wanting more. And loved the illustrations.
Not only that, but they had inspiring answers to my questions about the project.
I took a poll; "How many want a scary ending?"
A few hands shot up.
"How many want a funny ending?" A few different hands went up.
"How many kids want a funny AND scary answer?"
Every hand shot up and the kids cheered.

It's a no-brainer. Deliver that funny-scary ending (Which I already have!).
So, now I have my sketchpad back out, and my inking pens and the white gouache that renders all of those wiggly, blotchy lines super-sharp. Hey, I even installed Creative Suite 4 (Which I bought last December!) so that I can import the illustrations into Photoshop and make 'em sparkle with wacky backgrounds and airbrush shading. I know, I know, Creative Suite 5 is already out. No problem, I'll upgrade soon.

The moral of the story? Don't let one person sway you off your dream project. Especially if you've gotten great feedback from a lot of other people--and from a set of cheering 4th graders who are whip-smart and full of hilarious suggestions, like "Put some spikes on that rat's leather jacket!"