Seriously, It’s Worthy of the Book

We’re going to see the new Hunger Games movie today, and it’s got me thinking about all of my favorite books-turned-movies.  We need to get into this, I think.  This is a very important topic.

book

I really like movies.  Maybe not quite as much as books, but almost.  It’s because medium is not the issue.  Stories are the issue.  And good movies tell a story just as well (though quite a bit differently) as good books.  Someday we’ll dish on my all time favorite movies, but for today let’s just stick with the ones that were based on my all-time favorite books.

In fact, let’s narrow it down even more, and let’s deal with movies based on children’s and YA books.  We’ll do the adult version (why does that have to sound icky?) some other day.

To be clear from the start, the main thing I’m looking for when they take one of my favorite books and make it into a movie is that it capture the essence of the book.  It has to get the feeling right.   I’m not a crazy purist.  The medium is so different that it’s okay to mess around with the actual facts and features a little, but you have to keep the heart of it.  When you crush that, you ruin the whole thing.

Agreed?

Okay, let’s do this.  I’ll give you an overall rating for the movies that are in a series, but I’m going to have to add individual ratings for each movie, as well.  Each one will be given a letter grade on how it holds up as a movie all by itself, on how it adapts the story, and on how it captures the essence of the book.  I’m taking this seriously, people.

A+ (It Elevated the Book)

The Chronicles of Narnia – These movies get this category to themselves.  Here’s the deal:  those books are really short and (I say this with great love as I am a huge fan) lacking in depth and detail.  The movies round them out and give them life.  They are wonderful movies.  I absolutely recommend kids watching the movies even before they read the books, and if you keep reading, you’ll see that that’s really saying something.

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – A+ as a movie on its own merit.  The moment where Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus is pure magic.  A for straight up story adaption.  I’ve never seen a movie that so closely sticks to the book.  A+ for capturing the essence.  Just really.  Whoever made this movie loved this book. You can tell.
  • Prince Caspian – B+ as a movie on its own merit.  Solid, and with a few moments of greatness (mostly just Edmund) but not over the moon.  B for story adaption.  It departed a bit, but not too significantly.  A for capturing the essence.  The conflict between Peter and Caspian is the heart of this story, and they got it.
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – A as a movie.  This was always my favorite story of all the books and it makes a great tale on the big screen, too.  B- for story adaption.  They had to invent a bad guy (or in this case, a bad mist).  It was necessary, but it changed things.  A for capturing the essence.  The stuff with Eustace is perfect.  And Lucy’s self-discovery.  And Caspian really growing up.  It’s great.

A (The Experience Isn’t Complete Until You’ve Seen the Movie)

Harry Potter – We love these movies.  Not as much as the books, but very, very much.  We come back to them time and again.  BUT.  I definitely made my kids wait until we had finished each book before watching the corresponding movie.  It was the right move.  There are so many, I’ll be brief in the breakdown:

  • The Sorcerer’s Stone – A on its own merit, A for adapting the story, A+ for capturing the essence (it’s so darn magical)
  • The Chamber of Secrets -B on its own merit (to be fair, this is my least favorite book, too), A for adapting the story (it was a simple one, so it worked pretty well), A for capturing the essence (what there was to capture)
  • The Prisoner of Azkaban – C on its own merit (I didn’t like this movie much.  It was a good book, but they didn’t do a good job in the movie of making sense of it all.) C for adapting the story (again, it’s complicated.  You have to make sense of it), B for capturing the essence (the important stuff was mostly there)
  • The Goblet of Fire – A+ on its own merit (This is a fantastic movie), B for adapting the story (it’s such a long book, I give them a pass, but it doesn’t stick to the facts too closely), A+ for capturing the essence (this book was a turning point in the series and so is the movie.  And Hermione.  She’s wonderful.)
  • The Order of the Phoenix – A on its own merit , B for adapting the story, A for capturing the essence (because the parts with the D.A. are perfect.)
  • The Half-Blood Prince – B on its own merit (not bad, just completely forgettable), B for adapting the story, B for capturing the essence
  • The Deathly Hallows (Pt1) – B on its own merit (those scenes with Harry and Hermione in the tent really drag it down), A for adapting the story, A for capturing the essence (It’s just that the essence is so dreary.  It’s hard to take without the second half.)
  • The Deathly Hallows (Pt2) – A on its own merit (Just really wonderful), B for adapting the story (they had to break away from the actual events a little to make it work), A+ for capturing the essence (It’s note perfect.  Really.)

The Hunger Games  – I haven’t let my kids read these yet, and they’ll definitely wait on the movies until they have.  I can’t wait.

  • The Hunger Games – A on its own merit.  Just such a great film.  A for adapting the story. I was worried that it would be impossible because so much of the book is inside Katniss’s head, but Jennifer Lawrence totally pulls it off.  Other than being condensed, this is dead on.  A+ for capturing the essence.  One word.  Rue.
  • Catching Fire – A on its own merit.  A for adapting the story.  A++ for capturing the essence.  This movie really brought the book alive.  I was pretty blown away when I saw it.  So now I’m nervous about Mockingjay because how can it measure up?

Lord of the Rings - I’m in the middle of tormenting my kids with making them get through the books before watching the movies.  No regrets, though.  Those books are a masterpiece.  If you watch the movie and then ever read the book, you’ve basically committed a crime.  BUT, once you’ve read the book, you should definitely watch the movies.  They are wonderful.  I’m not breaking these down, because it’s basically all one long story.  A+ on its own merit.  If you like long movies, these are basically perfect.  A on adaption of story.  This was an epically difficult job, and they totally pulled it off.  Of course, it doesn’t stick perfectly to every detail (The Two Towers really should get a C here, because its the worst), but considering the scope, it’s amazingly faithful.  A+ on capturing the essence.  The work they put into the world, to the details of the different cultures, really reflects Tokien’s vision.  And it’s just stunning.

B (You’ll Enjoy this Movie But Not In The Same Way As The Book)

A Series of Unfortunate Events – My kids saw this movie before they read the books, but that didn’t stop them from totally enjoying both.  The movie only covers the first three books and changes quite a few things, but it’s so weird and delightful that it’s okay.  A on its own merit (the moment where they create a sanctuary is perfect in every way), C for adapting the story (they didn’t even really try to be faithful), A+ for capturing the essence.  They nailed the feeling of the books exactly.

Anne of Green Gables – Basically the first movie is lovely and faithful and you should watch it (before or after the books, it won’t really matter) and the second movie is okay as a movie but has nothing to do with the books, and the weird third movie should be avoided at all costs.  I’m not giving these grades because the above is really all I have to say about it.

Ender’s Game – Solid movie, but this book needed to be a miniseries.  A movie just didn’t have time to make you really buy his genius as a leader, and without that, something was lacking.  It was pretty faithful, but they were forced to skip over so much of his battle school experiences, and that weakened his character and the overall impact of the movie.  A- on its own merit, B for adapting the story, B for capturing the essence.

The Hobbit – Not nearly as faithful as The Lord of the Rings.  In fact, though I liked the first movie, the second one disappointed me enough that I’m not even excited to see the third.  I’m treating these as one, as well.  A- on its own merit.  Still better than most movies out there.  C for adapting the story.  It’s not the stuff they leave out.  They have to leave stuff out to condense to movie form.  It’s the stuff they add in that kill it (I’m looking at you, weird elf/dwarf love scenario).  B for capturing the essence.  They are doing a good job showing the growth of Bilbo’s character and of tying this in with The Lord of the Rings which is great, but they’re getting a little lost in the huge set pieces, which is pulling the focus away from the there and back again nature of the book.

F (This Will Ruin A Book You Love)

Where the Wild Things Are – If all the weird adaptions of Dr. Seuss books have taught us anything, its that you really shouldn’t try to put a picture book into a movie (unless you are doing a cartoon short a la The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) As a full-length movie, it’s a disaster.  This movie was actually painful.  Which didn’t just make me sad.  It made me mad because I love that book.

I’m sure we could do a bunch more, but I’ll leave it at that.  I mean, we could dish about this all day, and I’d never be tired of it.  But Mockingjay is waiting.

What do you think?  Am I wrong about these?  What am I missing?  Any other movies that really capture your favorite kids’ books?  Bring it on.

Posted in Book Recommendations | 3 Comments

Happy Thanks Day

Sarah woke up on Thanksgiving morning and sniffed the air expectantly.  No scent of roasting turkey reached her nose.  She lifted her head off the pillow, listening for the sound of the TV showing the big parade.  All should could hear was a strange humming sound.

It all came back to her in a rush.  She wasn’t at home.  She was at Carrie’s house, down the street.  Her mom and dad were in the hospital, taking care of the new little baby.  She could see them later this afternoon, but for now, she was spending her favorite holiday at the neighbors.  Sarah tried hard not to cry.

“Happy Thanks Day!” shouted a voice in her ear.

Sarah jumped, hitting her head on the bunk above her.  Carrie was hanging over the edge, grinning down at her.  Her bright red hair stuck out around her ears.  She flipped off the top bunk.  “Come on!  Let’s head downstairs!  I can hear Freddy already.”

“Shouldn’t we get dressed and comb our hair first?” asked Sarah.

“Not me!” Carrie said.  “You know what I’m thankful for? Pajamas!  You know what I”m not thankful for?  Combs!”  She raced out of  the room.

Sarah followed more slowly.

At the bottom of the stairs, Carrie was laughing and ducking as her big brother Freddy flew a remote controlled airplane around the room.  That explained the humming sound.  The plane swooped close to Sarah’s head and she jerked away, heart pounding.  Was he trying to hit her?  She chose a low chair in the corner, hoping to stay out of the way, while Carrie begged for a turn.  In Carrie’s hands, the toy flew even more dangerously.  She knocked over a lamp, which didn’t break, and then an old vase, which did.  At that exact moment, Carrie’s mother came down the stairs.  Sarah sighed with relief.  Now Carrie would have to put away the airplane.

“Happy Thanks Day!” said Carrie’s mom.  “Oh dear, the vase is broken!  Well, fortunately, I was never very thankful for that vase.  Get the broom, Freddy!”

“I’m not thankful for sweeping,” Freddy said.

“You’d be even less thankful for cutting your foot on broken glass.”

“Good point!” he said, laughing, and began to sweep up the mess.  “I’m also super thankful for a helpful little sister,” he said as he finished up.

Carrie held the dustpan for him.

‘I’m thankful for sunshine!” Carrie said when they were done.  She and Freddy ran to the door and yanked it open.  Outside it was snowing, a light fluffy snow, just the kind that Sarah loved.  If she was at home, she would bundle up in her orange Thanksgiving sweater and her hat and mittens and winter coat and go out to play.

“I’m not thankful for snow,” said Freddy, shutting the door firmly.

“Me either,” Carrie said.  “But I am thankful for forts!”

Brother and sister got busy piling every blanket and pillow in the house on the living room floor.  When they started building, they called Sarah in to help.  She had certainly never heard of making such a mess on Thanksgiving morning.  Didn’t they have guests coming over soon?  But no grown ups said anything, so the kids built the biggest, most elaborate fort Sarah had ever seen.  It was fun.  So much fun that she forgot it was Thanksgiving and that everything was wrong.

“Who’s thankful for spaghetti?!” sang Carrie’s dad, coming out of the kitchen with a heaping platter.

“Me!” shouted everyone, rushing toward the table.

Sarah poked her head out of the fort.  Spaghetti?  For Thanksgiving?  Where was the turkey?  She joined the others at the table, staring wide-eyed at the garlic bread and meatballs.

“Guests first!” announced Carrie’s mom.  “Sarah, are you thankful for spaghetti?”

“Um…yes, but…”

“But what, dear?”

“Isn’t there any turkey?” Sarah mumbled, though it came out sounding more like “Uma ena turkey?”

“Oh, of course, you must be surprised.  But no one in this house is thankful for turkey.  We are very, very thankful for Harold’s spaghetti and meatballs, however.”

Sarah nodded, trying to look like this made sense.  Wasn’t turkey what the pilgrims ate?  Wasn’t that the point of Thanksgiving?  To remember the pilgrims?  She watched Carrie’s dad pile spaghetti and bread on all the plates.  It was unnatural.

It was also delicious.

The meal was long and loud.  (“I’m thankful for music!” shouted Freddy before belting out the Spider Man theme song.)  There was quite a bit of mess. (“I”m thankful for laughter!” giggled Carrie after snorting so hard that milk came out of her nose.)  Dessert was heaping bowls of ice cream with lots of toppings.  (“I’m thankful for cherries!” said Carrie’s mom as she put fourteen of them on her ice cream.)  It felt strange not to be eating pie, but Sarah did discover that chocolate sauce and caramel sauce blended together was the best taste on earth.

When they were finally finished, Carrie’s parents pushed their chairs back.  “I’m thankful for paper plates,” said Carrie’s mom, dumping everything from the table into the trash.  That explained the lack of china.

“I’m thankful for neighbors with new babies!” said Carrie’s dad.  “Ready to go see your baby sister, Sarah?”

Sarah looked down at her pajamas, now stained with sauce in a few places.  She nodded reluctantly.

It was a short drive to the hospital, and a long walk up all the stairs to the room where Sarah’s family waited.  Sarah pushed open the door.  Her mother was still on the hospital bed, a little bundle of blankets in her arms.  Her father sat in a chair nearby, a plate of turkey and stuffing on a tray in his lap.  They both looked up and smiled.

All of a sudden, it felt like Thanksgiving.

Sarah ran to her mother and buried her face next to the sweet-smelling bundle that was her little sister.  “Happy Thanks Day,” she whispered.  “I’m thankful for you.”

Then she sat on her dad’s lap and told them all about spaghetti and ice cream and the best and weirdest Thanksgiving ever.

 

 

Posted in Fall | Leave a comment

I’m Boring But This Is Not

I had a long, thoughtful post about storytelling as a way to teach more effectively all planned out in my head, but sadly today I am not interesting.  It happens.  I pounded out 2,000 words of my novel this morning and I’m pretty sure I’ll end up cutting every last one in the editing process. I began my thoughtful blog post, and realized I was boring myself.  My thoughts are flat today. Maybe my brain is frozen. It is, after all, 20 degrees outside.

Luckily for us, the internet is full of extremely not boring people and things.

I found this for you (and by you, I mean me, of course).  It’s just…well, let’s say that when I’m really into a book, I become this other person, a troll sort of person, who gets very angry if you drag me out from under my bridge. I try to hide it, but it’s a problem. And I may or may not have passed this particular characteristic on to my daughter. So really. This.

The bagpipes at the end. It could not be more perfect.

I’m going to go read a book now. If you interrupt, I’ll probably make that angry face.

But at least angry isn’t boring. So there’s that.

 

Posted in Stories for Book Lovers | Leave a comment

Fortunately, this Book

So I mentioned to some friends the other day that I wanted to find someone to do pen and ink drawings to go along with a short story I’m working on.  I had this idea that it would be cool to have simple drawings but have them interact with the words.

“So, have you seen Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk?” the friend asked right away.

No, but I liked the sound of that.  I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman.

The next day I looked up the book and immediately bought it.

It is exactly…exactly…the sort of thing I’d envisioned (though admittedly on a slightly bigger scale). And somehow my friend knew that instantly.

My friends are so much cooler than I am.

You guys, this book.  It is wonderful.  I’m already thinking of all the kids in my life who need it for Christmas.  I mean, not my own kids, because the second they saw it lying on my desk, they were all over the title and the cover illustration and had read the whole book before I even knew what was happening.

Here, take a look at it really big and you’ll see why:

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Yes, that is a dinosaur in a hot air balloon. Yes, there is a mysteriously wonderful red button about to be pushed.  Yes, the main character is sporting a manic grin and a fabulous scarf, not to mention the ever important bottle of milk.  You know you want to know what’s up with that milk.

The whole book is like this, you guys.  The story is super fun.  Quirky and strange, which you would expect from Neil Gaiman, but the kind of weird that made both me and my kids laugh out loud.  And the illustrations (done by Skottie Young) have the exact same feeling.  I hate to use the overworked word whimsical, but they are.  Simple, too, but with enough detail to be fascinating.

The best part is the way the words and illustrations interact.  I can’t get enough of it.

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I won’t give away any more, but every page is a delight.  Every page, people.

It’s a small book, a quick read even for a kid, and if you know anyone aged 8-12, you should buy them this book.

In my not-at-all-pushy opinion.

(Unless you know the same kids I do. Then ask me first. I probably already bought it for them.)

Oh, did I mention that it’s all about a dad making up a story for his kids?  Yeah.  It is.

Thank you, Neil Gaiman. You’re my hero.

(And if any of you like to do pen and ink drawings, I have this odd little story I’d like to talk to you about…)

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If My Life Were a Book

If my life were a book
I like to think
You would laugh out loud as you read it through
In part from the witty things that I say
But also from mixups along the way
And the weird, funny people I knew

If my life were a book
I sincerely hope
It would sometimes make you want to cry
Because people came close, right up into the heart
To the place that will bleed when it must come apart
And you stand there just wondering why

If my life were a book
I sort of suspect
You’d get angry at points and then hurl it away
Because life isn’t fair and some people aren’t kind
And at times I am lazy and waste my own mind
And you don’t want to read of those days

If my life were a book
I’ll admit I would like
It to often inspire you to go make a snack
In the warm, snuggly evenings of fullness and cheer
As you read of good food and of friends gathered near
You should fill up whatever you lack

If my life were a book
Oh I really do hope
There’d be some shining moments that jolt you awake
Where the miracles happen and magic unfolds
Where corners are turned, victories won by the bold
Your heart pounds and your hands start to shake

If my life were a book
My only true fear
Is for you to feel nothing as you skim its lines
Because nothing much happened and nothing was risked
Your mind wanders as you hide a yawn with your fist
It falls closed and it slips from your mind

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Kid Interview: Bedtime Stories

This is National Young Readers Week.  Who knew?  A bunch of librarians and a few teachers, that’s who.  Also me, because I live in a bubble world where I have time to pay attention to such things and then let you know about them.  I do it for you, people.

I could talk on and on about reading to young children, but I think all the grownups have already said quite a lot on the topic.  We all know that we’re supposed to read our kids books before bed, and we’ve all heard what that can do for their reading development.  Instead, I decided to ask my kids a few questions about bedtime stories.  I also asked my daughter’s best friend (a serious reader) for her thoughts, since she was with us at the time.

Their thoughts first.  Then mine (because of course I’m not going to say actually nothing).

Where is your favorite place to read?

Lucy (5): In my end of the day spot at school

Scott: (8): In my room, on my bed

Ellie (10): Under a willow tree or in the library [Note: I was unaware that she had much experience reading under willow trees, but I will allow that it's a lovely idea.]

Ellie’s friend (10): In my bed

Would you rather read to yourself at bedtime or be read to?

Lucy (5): At home, I like to have someone read to me. [Note: this is fairly obvious, since she can't read yet.]

Scott, Ellie, Friend: Read to myself [Note: the "duh" was implied in all three cases.]

If someone is going to give you a bedtime story, would you rather they read you a book or tell you a story out of their head.  Why?

Lucy (5):  Scary story out of somebody’s head

Scott (8): Out of their head because that way I can’t look at the book at what they are about to read.  I can’t see what’s in their head.

Ellie (10): Told a story they made up

Friend (10): Told a story out of their head

What do you think makes the best kind of bedtime story?

Lu (5): Scary princess stories

Scott (8): Adventurous and funny just because I like those better all the time

Ellie (10): A funny story.  I feel like at nighttime, I need something to make me laugh.

Friend (10): Funny or happy.  If it was scary, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

Can you remember your favorite book that people read to you when you were little?  What was it?

Lu (5) Right now, Pete the Cat.  When I was little, I don’t remember.

Scott (8): [thinks a very long time] I don’t remember.

Ellie (10): I don’t remember

Friend (10): These Sesame Street books.  I don’t remember what they were called or the details.

In a picture book for kids, which is more important: the written story or the illustrations?  Which needs to be really good to make it a great book?

Lucy (5): The words because you know in like scary stories, you can still tell what’s happening from pictures but you don’t know for sure what the author meant without the words

Scott (8): The written story. The point isn’t really the pictures.

Ellie (10): The writing because that is more interesting than the pictures.

Friend (10): The story

Don’t know about you, but I found bits of that quite interesting , and I do mean other than the fact that my 5-year-old is obsessed with scary stories.

First, I apologize to artists everywhere.  I’m pretty sure their answer to that last question represents a bias I have handed down to them.  I won’t claim that their answers are representative of all kids.  (I will admit that Scott saying the point is the story and not the pictures was extremely satisfying, though.)

The most interesting piece of all of this  was how they all emphatically preferred a made-up bedtime story to a story out of a book.  I’d love to explore that one further with them and in other research.  In fact, I think I will.  But it does speak powerfully for the art of storytelling.  Books are great, but I suspect that what kids love is the personal connection of a story that comes from inside you.  It’s more spontaneous.  It’s more unpredictable (as per Scott’s reasoning).  It’s more about the relationship than even the fun of the story.  Storytelling is awesome.

Also, for those of you with little kids, take note of the fact that my big kids now greatly prefer reading to themselves and don’t even have clear memories of those picture books they once made me read over and over.  That does NOT mean that those times were wasted.  In fact, I think it’s the opposite.  The reason they love reading to themselves now (rather than struggling with reading and therefore still wanting to be read to) is largely because of all that time we read to them.  And the fact that they don’t still cling fondly to those picture books is because they’ve been pushed out of their minds by the chapter books they now consume so happily.  What this perspective does bring, though, is freedom.  The act of reading together is what mattered, not what we read.  So, parents of toddlers, you can dump the books that drive you crazy!  It’s quite all right.

This whole book thing is like the rest of parenthood.  Hours and hours I put into reading the same old inane picture books.  And now?  I can still quote every word of Hippos Go Beserk (which to be clear, was one of the good ones), and they don’t even remember that we used to read it.  But they DO still love to read and they DO still love to sit on my lap.  Not at the same time anymore (which frankly is good, because now they have all these long limbs that get in the way), but those hours paid off.

It’s not about what they remember.  It’s about who they’ve become.

They’ve become people who want to sit and read under willow trees, at least in their imaginations.  They’ve become people who want to snuggle into bed and listen to a scary princess story before sleep.  These are people I’m really glad to know.

(Though now I’m going to have to work on my scary princess stories.  It’s a very specific genre.  Ideas?)

 

Posted in The Storytelling Life | Leave a comment

Ironic Giant

Henry Granger was an inventor.

He had a different job, of course, sweeping floors at the local elementary school, but he was not a janitor.  He was an inventor, through and through.  He only felt truly alive when he was in his basement workshop, tinkering with wires and scrap metal.

His mother, who lived in a tiny apartment on the top floor of his house and cooked him a terrible dinner every night at 6:00 would yell down the stairs, “Henry!  What’s all that racket?  Are you messing around with those tin cans again?”

Henry always answered politely, “Sorry for the noise, Mother.  Can’t invent anything without a little banging.”

“Looks like a bunch of junk to me,” she sniffed, but he just dipped his burnt meatloaf in some ketchup and said, “It always looks like junk before it’s finished.”

The pile of scraps on Henry’s workbench on the meatloaf night did look like junk.  Odd pieces of bent iron stuck out all over the place and the knobby round piece on top was covered in rust.  Thick wires crisscrossed in every direction like a child had tied the whole thing together.  No one could have guessed by looking at it that it was actually Henry Granger’s finest invention.

It took a few more days of tinkering to get it just right, but when Henry was satisfied that it was ready, he invited his friend George over to have a drink and see his masterpiece.  George worked with Henry at the school, and he was most definitely a janitor, but he was also a kind and friendly sort, and the two men got along like jam and bread.

“Whaddaya call it?” George asked when he saw the invention.  It didn’t look much better than it had a few days before, just as much rust and just as many wires.  The only significant change was that it now sported two arms and two legs along with its knobby head, so that it was clearly identifiable as a two-foot-tall robot.

“I call it Giant,” Henry said gravely.

“Seems like a silly name for such a little bitty robot,” said George.

“Well, that’s just the thing,” said Henry, who was fond of being just a little too clever.  “It’s an Ironic Giant.”

George blinked at his friend in confusion, then shrugged and took a swig of his Coke.  “Well, it’s a smart little thing.  Can it walk?”

In answer, Henry pressed a button, causing Giant to stagger forward a few steps.

“Well, I’ll be,” George said.  “Can it talk?”

“That’s the part I brought you here to see,” Henry said.  “That’s what makes it my finest invention.”

He pressed another button.  Giant began to hum.  Then it gave a great clunk.

“That means it’s ready,” Henry said.  “Ask it a question.”

“Um…what’s your name?” George said.

“Well, it’s Tiny, obviously, because Henry is so good at making sense.  And your name is Einstein, obviously, since you can so easily remember things you were just told two minutes ago.”

George set down his Coke.  “Whew-eee.  It really can talk.  That’s just amazing, Henry.  You’ve really got something there.”

“Because there was nothing before it could make noise.  Just the wind whistling over your workbench.”

“He just keeps going, don’t he?” George said.

“No, I don’t keep going.  I just shut off the second you brilliant humans are ready to open your brilliant mouths.  What could a robot like me possibly hope to say to such impressive beings?”

George chuckled.  “He’s the funniest little thing.”

“Which you would definitely be qualified to judge because you are such an expert in comedy.”

“I do like good comedy.  Which reminds me of this joke I heard the other day…”

“Oh, please.  Tell us a joke.  I’m sure it will be so original and entertaining,” said the robot.

Pleased with this encouragement, George told the joke.

“As expected, you’re quite the wit,” Giant said when he was finished.  Henry laughed freely since he knew George would think he was laughing at the joke.

That night, after George went home, Henry carried Giant upstairs to dinner at his mother’s.

“Don’t you bring that junk up here to clutter up my space!” said the old woman.

“It’s all finished,” Henry said mildly.  “I wanted you to see him because I made him just for you.  He’s a robot.”

“That’s the ugliest robot I’ve ever seen,” she said, slamming a plate of congealed mac and cheese in front of her son.

“And you’ve seen so many robots, I’m sure,” said Giant.

Henry’s mother looked offended.  “I don’t need to see a bunch of robots to know ugly when I see it,” she snapped.

“Of course not,” responded the robot.  “And I’m sure none of the ugly you’ve seen was ever, say, in the mirror.”

“Well, you little… Henry!  Don’t you let this junky old robot talk to me that way!”

“He doesn’t mean anything by it, Mother.  He’s a robot.  I’ll turn him off for a while if you like.”

“Right.  Because I’m the one he really wants to turn off,” said the robot.

“Well, just see to it that you do,” Henry’s mother said, pointing a wooden spoon at Giant.  “I’ll have no more words out of that pile of junk.”

“Of course, Mother,” Henry said.  He pressed a button.  The lights inside of Giant’s head winked out.

“Much better,” she said.

“Sure it is,” he answered. “I always love it when your voice is the only one I can hear.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, but as he was calmly eating gloopy mac and cheese, she said let the comment slide.

Downstairs later, Henry set Giant back on the workbench and turned on his power.

“Oh, there’s the brave man who made me,” said Giant immediately.  “Boy, do you ever know how to stand up to that woman.”

Henry chuckled.

“You must be so proud of yourself,” Giant continued.  “All the brains it takes to make something like me, and you’re using them so well.  You’re really brave working down in this basement and sweeping floors all day.  Those are some really big accomplishments.”

Henry’s smile faded.

“Being smarter than other people has done you so much good.  You’re really living the high life here.  That pasta tonight was really excellent looking.  I can see why you never leave here.”

With one sweep, Henry knocked the robot off the workbench, causing its head to fly off.  The lights went out.

“Irony is amusing,” Henry muttered, “but no one mocks Mother’s cooking.”

 

 

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Narrative Intelligence: Why Your Kid is Smarter Than Your Phone

So I had this idea when I was mopping the floor a few weeks ago.  (All my best ideas come when I’m mopping the floor.)  I was thinking about my kids and how stories have always just been such a natural part of their lives and how now their brains just sort of have this automatic “story mode,” which I love.  Then I thought, why isn’t some kind of story intelligence included in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences? (If you aren’t a teacher and therefore don’t know about MI, click through and read about them here.  Very interesting stuff.)  So I “invented” a new intelligence.

I called it “Narrative Intelligence.”  It’s not the same as linguistic intelligence because, though you can use words to tell stories, that’s only one way.  Narrative intelligence, as I conceived it, would be the ability to think in terms of stories, to understand the flow of narrative, and communicate it to others.  That communication can take lots of forms.  Telling a story in words, in pictures, in film, in acting (with or without words), in music (with or without words) touches on several of the other intelligences (linguistic, visual/spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, even interpersonal and intrapersonal if you are getting into content), but it doesn’t encompass any of them.  It’s a separate kind of intelligence.  Narrative Intelligence.

Then, like any self-respecting inventor or new ideas, I googled  it.  Yeah, narrative intelligence is already a thing.  Of course it is.

Narrative intelligence is an important part of human cognition, especially in sensemaking and communicating with people. Humans draw on a lifetime of relevant experiences to explain stories, to tell stories, and to help choose the most appropriate actions in real-life settings.

This is exactly the sort of thing I was seeing in my kids!  And yeah, I didn’t think of it first, but still, how cool is that?  The idea that you are building a narrative of life experiences and processing it in such a way as to make appropriate decisions.  I’ve talked before about how the narrative we tell ourselves affects our lives.  In my mind, the idea is that by immersing ourselves in the right kind of stories and experiences we could build up our narrative intelligence, could refine the way we organize our experiences into a storyline that would drive us forward to be better people.

I may have mentioned before that I love grandiose claims.   Stay with me anyway, though, because this is where it gets interesting (to me, at least).

You know who mostly is interested in the idea of Narrative Intelligence?  Programmers.  Why?  Because in order for an artificial intelligence (e.g. a computer program) to really function, it needs to replicate or at least imitate the narrative intelligence of a human, and this is VERY, VERY difficult.  I read a bunch of impossibly complicated academic papers about this because I’m just that nerdy.  (This one was the most helpful.)  I’m going to break this down as I understand it, and hopefully it will make sense:

1. Humans tell stories and understand stories based on a whole lifetime of experiences.  These experiences and the stories they form also help them act appropriately.  (That’s our definition of narrative intelligence.) For example, every time a kid is taken to a McDonalds, his parents go first to the counter to order, then wait until food is put on the counter, then take it to a seat and eat.  Therefore, the child a) could tell a story that takes place in a McDonalds and have it make perfect sense, b) could understand a story about someone messing up that procedure and know why it was funny, and c) could appropriately order his own food when he goes to a McDonalds as an adult.

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2. A computer doesn’t have those life experiences.  Each and every one has to be entered into it by a programmer.  This is why a program that wants to present a realistic and adaptive narrative in a real-world situation is so expensive to make.  Because it takes a ridiculous amount of information to form a single narrative.  For example, a story about getting food at McDonalds needs information about the ordering procedure, but also about the behaviors of people waiting in line, which people do the ordering, what variations of the ordering procedure are acceptable and what variations are ridiculous, exactly how you pay and all the possibilities thereof, and on and on.  All so you can tell how you ordered a hamburger.  And what if it was from Burger King?  Does that change anything?

3.  Really smart people are working hard to come up with solutions to this problem.  These solutions are all over my head.

Do you find that all as fascinating as I do?  Okay, maybe you don’t.  I congratulate you for reading this far anyway.  Here’s what I take away from it all:

Our ability to tell and understand stories is what makes us better than computers. 

I mean, sure, my phone can quickly find out what phase of the moon we’re in when I’m not even sure what the phases of the moon are, can multiply 465 x 393 in seconds when I’d need ten minutes, and can remember all the phone numbers when I can’t even remember mine, but it couldn’t explain why it’s ridiculous for a man to sit in a McDonalds waiting for someone to bring him food he never ordered.

But I can.  My kids can, too.  And they could also make up three different funny back stories for why the man would be doing that.

That’s narrative intelligence, people.  And if computer programmers can spend hours and hours trying to build it into an artificial intelligence, just imagine what we can do to grow a brain that already has it. Not like a science experiment.  Like LIFE.  New people.  New places.  New experiences.  New stories.

What are we waiting for?

 

 

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Boo Ha Ha!

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Even though I’m all about ghost stories (that don’t involve zombies) I think I’m just about done with the scary stuff for this year.  It’s time to laugh a little, don’t you think?

With that in mind, I bring you this little tale that is absolutely NOT written by me (I found it here.), but which made me laugh and which I’m dying to tell to my kids tonight.

Chris Cross, a tourist in Vienna, is going passed Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof graveyard on October 31st.  All of a sudden he hears some music.  No one is around, so he starts searching for the source.  Chris finally locates the origin and finds it is coming from a grave with a headstone that reads: Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827. Then he realizes that the music is the Ninth Symphony and it is being played backward! Puzzled, he leaves the graveyard and persuades Tim Burr, a friend, to return with him.

By the time they arrive back at the grave, the music has changed. This time it is the Seventh Symphony, but like the previous piece, it is being played backward. Curious, the men agree to consult a music scholar. When they return with the expert, the Fifth Symphony is playing, again backward. The expert notices that the symphonies are being played in the reverse order in which they were composed, the 9th, then the 7th, then the 5th.  By the next day the word has spread and a throng has gathered around the grave. They are all listening to the Second Symphony being played backward.

Just then the graveyard’s caretaker ambles up to the group. Someone in the crowd asks him if he has an explanation for the music.

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about” says the caretaker. “He’s just decomposing!”

I’m sorry.  I am.  I like puns.  Especially if they’re part of a whole story and not just a question/answer joke.

For kicks I’ve been sending one or two of these stupid fun little Halloween jokes in my kids’ lunches this week.  I decided to go for it, even though, to be honest, I was half-expecting them to come home rolling their eyes and telling me to stop being so…Momish.  But they didn’t.  They came home laughing and telling each other the jokes they’d gotten.  They love them.

Aaaand that’s why you keep trying things as a mom.  Because you just can’t ever predict what they’ll think is fun.  And who wants to miss out on fun just because you were afraid of being mocked?!

I mean, isn’t that the point of Halloween?  To have fun at the risk of being mocked?  So go for it.  Break out your worst puns today.  Word play is good for the soul.

And let’s face it, your kids are going to think you’re weird no matter what you do.  Might as well lean into it.

Photo courtesy of Tina Philips at freedigitalphoto.net.

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To Face Your Fears

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The street is dark
The air is cold
It’s me and my brother
My sister’s too old

A creepy glow
Unnatural green
I think nothing of it
It’s Halloween

A figure jumps
It’s black and fat
I know that tail
My neighbor’s cat

Fearsome smiles
And flickering flames
Just jack-o-lanterns
Ours look the same

A horrid face
Boo who? it asks
But I’m not scared
It’s just a mask

My brother stops
Your turn, he says
Wait? By myself?
In my fairy dress?

I swallow fear
I grip my bag
My hands still shake
My wings still sag

Take courage now
There’s candy there
It’s just three words
It’s only fair

I stand up straight
I ring the bell
Trick or Treat!
I loudly yell

A friendly smile
The candy falls
The chocolate kind!
The best of all!

I slip away
My victory won
Bring on more doors!
Bring on more fun!

If Halloween’s
The perfect time
To face your fears
Well, I’ve faced mine

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

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