Jul 9

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

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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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Jul 8

My Modern First Library list

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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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Jul 6

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

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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.

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Jul 3

No comment(s)

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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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Jul 3

Central Texas educators: Win this Day-Glo Brothers teaching aid

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Day-Glo visual

The Day-Glo Brothers, my first book, was published five years ago this week, and when I began doing school visits, I brought along this 32″ x 10″ visual aid. It consists of seven sturdy posterboard panels, joined by three metal rings, that help explain how ordinary light and color, ultraviolet light and fluorescence, and daylight fluorescence work.

Once Shark Vs. Train came along, the focus of my presentations shifted, and this teaching aid no longer got much use. But I’ve taken good care of it, and it’s in great shape, and I’d like someone out there to have it.

But not too far out there, because I don’t want to risk it getting damaged during shipping. So if you’re an educator in the Austin area — which I’m defining as “within 20 miles of my house” — you’re eligible to win this Day-Glo Brothers artifact.

Two weeks from today, I will select one person who has subscribed to my Bartography Express newsletter with an Central Texas educational email address (one ending with @austinisd.org, @pfisd.net, @roundrockisd.org, etc.), and this teaching aid will be theirs to keep. I’ll even deliver it myself and explain how to use it.

How do you subscribe, if you aren’t already receiving Bartography Express? It’s easy: Just click here and fill out the form.

Good luck! And here’s to a happy new home for something I made all by myself.

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Jul 2

Introducing BookPeople’s Modern First Library

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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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Jun 29

Games & Books & Q&A: Carly Kocurek

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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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Jun 29

Games & Books & Q&A: Greg Pincus

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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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Jun 29

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

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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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Jun 26

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

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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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