Jul 23

Games & Books & Q&A: Sarah Schoemann

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The next interviewee from the field of gaming in my Games & Books & Q&A series is Sarah Schoemann, a video game designer, educator, and born-and-bred New Yorker now transplanted to Atlanta.

Sarah SchoemannSarah is the founder of of Different Games, a conference on inclusivity and diversity in games and game culture. She’s also a PhD Student in Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and her research and organizing interest is in social justice issues related to technology. Also, Sarah might be adopting a dog soon, and she’s really, really excited about that.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

SS: I was probably about 6 when my Mom took my older sister and me to get an NES, and I remember the experience feeling pretty epic. We had an Atari that my dad would sometimes set up on top of the TV in their bedroom for us to play with, but this was a huge cultural phenomenon at the time so we were pretty amped up about getting to play Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. My favorite game was probably the movie tie-in, Home Alone, which involved sneaking around Kevin’s house, hiding from the movie’s two burglars and setting traps to slow them down. You basically had to survive for 20 minutes without being caught to beat it, which I only managed when a glitch in the game trapped one of the burglars mid-shimmy on a drainpipe. Honestly, my Mom was way better than me at this and all of our Nintendo games, almost as a rule.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

I was really into ghost stories and mysteries as a kid. I loved Alvin Scwartz’ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark even though they initially gave me horrible nightmares. I had a much less scary book by him (sort of a Scary Stories primer) when I was too young to read on my own called In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. I LOVED to have that read to me so much that my mother got me an audiobook version of Scary Stories on cassette tape.

Unfortunately the narration by Broadway actor George S. Irving (whose dramatic performance swings from quavering to booming on a dime) and the foreboding synthesizer soundtrack was a bit much for me as an under-10 listener. I had to wait a few years before I could return to those stories and actually enjoy them, although of course then I had to contend with the book’s gorgeous and utterly terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell.

I got into books like Goosebumps, a popular series of scary books for young readers that offer a sort of gothic-horror alternative to The Baby-sitter’s Club. Then I graduated to the Fear Street series by the same author, R.L. Stine, which was teen-themed for more matured tastes. Kind of like Sweet Valley High, but for adolescents who like their high school romance with a side of Santa-suit-donning axe murderers.

I liked more subtle scary stuff, too, like John Bellairs’ books such as The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which featured gorgeous cover art and illustrations by the late, great Edward Gorey. And adult short fiction by folks like Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl.

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?

SS: When I was an older adolescent, I got into books by Toni Morrison like Sula and The Bluest Eye and Richard Wright’s Native Son which got me to think critically about identity and race in America and to see the way that current social conditions are tethered to our dark national history. Reading fiction that dealt with those themes was crucial in helping me to make sense of and contextualize the real-life horror of events like the Rodney King beating and the LA riots, which I had watched unfold on TV as a child.

However, even though I now look to literature to teach me, I still appreciate stories as a source of joy. Since my tastes always tended towards dark material like ghosts and mystery I’ve always loved gallows humor. My parents’ coffee table book of funny, creepy drawings by Charles Addams, the creator of The Addams Family, was a big influence on my taste in comics and graphic novels. Seeing the work of great illustrators helped me discover how powerfully visual storytelling can communicate ideas and this has continued to influence me as a game designer.

Something Queer Is Going OnWith that in mind, I think my absolute favorite books as an early reader were the Elizabeth Levy series Something Queer Is Going On (later renamed The Fletcher Mysteries). They were all centered on the adventures of two quirky best friends who solved mysteries while hanging out with their droopy, immobile basset hound, Fletcher. But unlike a lot of girl characters in books, who wanted to impress people or be liked by boys, these girls were awkward and scrappy and seemed like people my sister and I could hang out with.

Not only did they have strong, spunky personalities in the stories but the pictures of them creeping around to investigate sinister goings-on with Fletcher were so descriptive and endearing that they added as much to the characters as the written narrative. These books showed me the way visual media like games and illustrated books are able to tell us things that writing alone can’t. When great writers and artists come together to tell stories visually and narratively, they can be that much more compelling, whether in a video game, a comic or an awesome book.

***

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 20

Games & Books & Q&A: Tom Angleberger

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The next author I’m featuring in the the Games & Books & Q&A series — in which I alternately interview children’s/YA literature folks about video games and ask gamers about the books that inspired them — is Tom Angleberger.

Emperor PickletineAs anyone who’s ever folded a piece of notebook paper into a Star Wars character knows, Tom is the author of the Origami Yoda series, including the upcoming and final title, Emperor Pickletine Rides the Bus. His most recent book is The Qwikpick Papers: Poop Fountain!

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

TA: Probably Pong, my dad had it. I remember that you could create your own variant games by leaving the switches stuck halfway.

I think my first arcade game may have been Space Invaders. And my first real gamer moment was when my school got an Apple ][ and I saw Colossal Cave Adventure boot up for the first time.

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

TA: I played a lot of games that now leave me wondering, why did I waste my time on that? Stuff like the Atari Raiders of the Lost Ark or, frankly, most of the Atari games.

Even a lot of computer games left me feeling the same way — possibly because I was never able to finish them. (Cranston Manor, Masquerade, The Bard’s Tale and the aforementioned Colossal Cave Adventure.) I remember a real moment of clarity after trying to swim past a shark in some dumb game. You had to work so hard to get to that shark and then it just swam right into you. That became a touchstone for me — just because someone made it, doesn’t mean it’s worth playing.

But then there were games that WERE worth playing!

In the arcade, it was Discs of Tron, Marble Madness, Joust and the sublime Star Wars (vector graphics).

And on my Apple it was Lode Runner. What a game! Not sure it’s ever been topped. 150 levels + 50 more with Championship Lode Runner. You had to run and gun (drill actually) and think.

And what I may have enjoyed the most was programming my own games in BASIC. Man, those were the days!

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

Tom AnglebergerTA: I have put serious time into early Final Fantasy games (Final Fantasy Tactics is another masterpiece), Donkey Kong Country, Tony Hawk Pro Skater (2 was my favorite), NBA Jam, various golf and racing games. And I love pinball simulators since I cannot afford my own machine. (Best pinball ever: The Addams Family by the master, Pat Lawlor.)

But aside from Words with Friends, my gaming time now is mostly devoted to one game: 007: Quantum of Solace. Michael Hemphill, my co-author on Stonewall Hinkleman, and I have been playing the two-player version of this on the Wii for years. It is surprisingly deep, we keep finding new strategies, new variations.

We’ve been playing various games together for about 15 years, I guess: Gran Turismo, ATV Offroad Fury, Dynasty Tactics, a little bit of Mario Kart and now this OO7 thing. It’s woven into our friendship.

***

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 18

Modern First Library: more from Cyn, and from Books on the Nightstand

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Modern First Library

Cynthia Leitich Smith has a second guest post for BookPeople’s new Modern First Library program, and it’s about the one negative experience she’s had in the store. Check it out.

And then check out the latest episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, in which hosts Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman discuss which picture books they’d include in their own Modern First Library. Thanks for featuring the program, Ann and Michael!

Besides, if you like books (and I’m pretty sure you do), and you like podcasts (I know I do), why wouldn’t you want to listen to a podcast about books? I just this moment subscribed to Books on the Nightstand, and I can’t wait to hear more.

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Jul 16

Games & Books & QA: Andy Robertson

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Andy RobertsonNext up in my Games & Books & Q&A series of chats with gaming folks about books and with children’s/YA lit folks about video games is Andy Robertson. Andy is a freelance family technology expert for the BBC and The Guardian, and he runs the Family Gamer TV YouTube channel.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

AR: I remember playing a game on the C64 called Star Quake and Monty on the Run. They were difficult but fun and offered a labyrinthine world to explore.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

Asterix 33 - Asterix and the Secret Weapon.cbr-000AR: I enjoyed reading Asterix and Fighting Fantasy adventures. I think mainly because they felt like they were my own thing that I’d found myself rather than being told to read them.

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?

AR: Reading the Bible, I think, as part of Sunday school and then later in church as an adult. It offered a fascinating fabric of life captured through the years that needed substantial interpretation before you could really know what to do with it -– endless possibilities.

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 16

The cover for Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet

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Attack Boss Cheat Code - May 2014
Coming in October — written by me, illustrated by Joey Spiotto, and published by POW!

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Jul 15

Cynthia Leitich Smith and BookPeople’s Modern First Library

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Modern First LibraryThis month, several of us Austin authors are guest-blogging for BookPeople’s new Modern First Library program. The latest to do so is Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of the Feral series and Tantalize series for young adults as well as several picture books, including Jingle Dancer.

Here’s a little of what Cyn has to say:

When we talk about diversity in books, we often mention the concept of “windows and mirrors.”

I ached for a mirror. Books, for all their blessings, had failed me in this regard. However, I saw Star Wars in the theater over 380 times.

For the rest, pop on over to BookPeople’s blog.

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Jul 13

Games & Books & QA: Samantha Berger

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So, we’re going author, gamer, author, gamer in the the Games & Books & Q&A series, and as you pattern-recognition aficionados out there already know, that means it’s time for me to feature another children’s/YA author.

crankensteinSamantha Berger has written picture books including Crankenstein and its upcoming sequel, A Crankenstein Valentine, both illustrated by Dan Santat (Little, Brown); the equally upcoming Witch Spa, illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Dial), and the (yes) upcoming Snoozefest, illustrated by Kristyna Litten (Dial). She has written cartoons and promos for Nickelodeon and other networks. Sam has also written comic books and commercials. In addition, she’s written movie trailers, theme songs, slogans, magazine articles, poems, TV-books, sticker books and professional books. Basically, you name it, Sam writes it.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

SB: I’m a child of the very first games. We had Pong in my house, and my little brother and I spent long, long periods of time playing it. It was MESMERIZING.

HYPNOTIZING.

The little DOOT… DOOT… DOOT… sound? The little light ball bouncing around the screen? I mean, you could do it for hours.

And we DID. (My first warning I could easily become an addict.)

Then Asteroids came out, and they had it in places like Pizza Hut.

Yeah it was in B & W and yeah it was basic, but somehow I was GOOD at it.

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

Samantha Berger right-side upSB: As a kid, I was never good at sports. What I loved about video games was that I was good at it. And it felt sporty …

… somehow.

Even though it was motor skills and hand/eye coordination and reflexes … it felt sporty. It felt like, if you could be a high-scorer, there was no possible way you could be picked last in gym.

Asteroids and Pong were the ONLY games I was good at. My little brother would go on to beat me, nay SLAY me in Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Atari, and everything else. I died fast and often. Many quarters were lost in mere minutes. It became … a lot less fun.

I vividly remember when Dragon’s Lair came out. It cost TWO quarters to play, and the animation was very advanced at the time, and I LOVED that about it.

… but I still sucked at it.

And that was kinda the end of my affair with the Game of Videos.

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

SB: I am not a gamer and don’t play any games whatsoever. This was a conscious choice, as I felt like, without careful self-monitoring, I could easily slip into a phase of playing them ALL THE TIME, NONSTOP, and using it as the perfect procrastination for writing!

And, with social media, and on-demand TV marathoning, and my dog, friends, and exercise, I have noooooooo problem with procrastinating or getting easily distracted already. So I drew a line and told myself not to tread in such dangerous waters.

Ironically, last week’s freelance gig had me NAMING a bunch of new digi-games for Sesame Street.

I’m happy to name them, but I just can’t play them!

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 10

Why Modern First Library is important to me

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Modern First Library

This month and next, BookPeople’s blog will be publishing guest posts from other authors and illustrators — first from a few here in Austin, then from others across the country — discussing why they support Modern First Library.

The first guest post is up, and it’s from me.

I thought about the issues raised by the We Need Diverse Books campaign not as an author but as a dad — and, specifically, as the dad of kids who fall into some relatively privileged demographics. I don’t want any parents out there to feel that the discussion about the representation of diversity in children’s literature is someone else’s issue. We all have a stake in it, even those who are already getting represented just fine.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

I don’t want them — or anyone else in their demographic — to get the idea that they’re at the center of the universe just because they happened to get born as non-poor, white, American males. Growing up with such an idea fosters a sense of entitlement that I think we’re all better off without.

How can parents discourage that sort of privileged thinking in their offspring, especially in a culture that sends so many messages to the contrary? I believe that one good way is to immerse kids early on in great picture books offering a broad view of a population that’s full of loved, valued, unique people.

You can read the rest here.

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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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