Stories for Ways & Means

Musicians and contemporary painters came together to collaborate and create original children’s stories for a 350 page book project called Stories for Ways & Means.

The book includes stories from Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Frank Black, Justin Vernon, Laura Marling, Devendra Banhart, Alison Mosshart and Kathleen Hanna as well as painters/illustrators like Anthony Lister, Dan Baldwin, Swoon, Will Barras, James Jean, Ronzo, Kai & Sunny, and more.

What makes the telenovela popular?

A particular type of consumer enjoys stories with plots, characters, and imagery that allow them to get lost in the narrative, according to a new study.

The authors wanted to understand what kinds of stories allowed consumers to mentally enter a story, a phenomenon called “narrative transportation.” They also wondered which kinds of consumers were more likely to identify with the narratives. They reviewed articles written in five different languages that dealt with the theme of narrative transportation and tested consumer reactions to those stories.

They found that consumers were most likely to engage with realistic stories with identifiable characters and plots that easily lead to mental imagery. They also identified five characteristics that made participants more able to be transported: familiarity, attention, ability to fantasize, higher education, and female gender.

“The Extended Transportation-Imagery Model: A Meta-Analysis of the Antecedents and Consequences of Consumers’ Narrative Transportation” will be published in the February 2014 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research.

New algorithm ranks scientific literature

Keeping up with current scientific literature is a daunting task, considering that hundreds to thousands of papers are published each day. Now researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a computer program to help them evaluate and rank scientific articles in their field.

The researchers use a text-mining algorithm to prioritize research papers to read and include in their Comparative Toxicogenomics Database (CTD), a public database that manually curates and codes data from the scientific literature describing how environmental chemicals interact with genes to affect human health.

To help select the most relevant papers for inclusion in the CTD, Thomas Wiegers, a research bioinformatician at NC State and the other co-lead author of the report, developed a sophisticated algorithm as part of a text-mining process. The application evaluates the text from thousands of papers and assigns a relevancy score to each document.

But how good is the algorithm at determining the best papers? To test that, the researchers text-mined 15 000 articles and sent a representative sample to their team of biocurators to manually read and evaluate on their own, blind to the computer’s score. The biocurators concurred with the algorithm 85 percent of the time with respect to the highest-scored papers.

Using the algorithm to rank papers allowed biocurators to focus on the most relevant papers, increasing productivity by 27 percent and novel data content by 100 percent.

There are always outliers in these types of experiments: occasions where the algorithm assigns a very high score to an article that a human biocurator quickly dismisses as irrelevant. The team that looked at those outliers was often able to see a pattern as to why the algorithm mistakenly identified a paper as important.

(The paper, “Text mining effectively scores and ranks the literature for improving chemical-gene-disease curation at the Comparative Toxicogenomics Database,” was published online April 17 in PLOS ONE. Co-authors are Dr. Cindy Murphy, a biocurator scientist at NC State; Dr. Carolyn Mattingly, associate professor of biology at NC State; and Drs. Robin Johnson, Jean Lay, Kelley Lennon-Hopkins, Cindy Saraceni-Richards and Daniela Sciaky from The Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory.)

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An Evaluation of Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book according to criteria for children’s fiction

Author: Quintus van Rensburg

The journey from child to lifelong reader often starts with a favourite book. Then follows the realization that there is loads of interesting books, which poses the problem: How do I find it? Slowly but surely you learn to traverse the library landscape, finding order in what initially seemed like a huge pile of books.

This is the purpose of selecting books for children; getting them to read, helping them find out what their interests are, assisting them in the use of books and libraries, creating skillful library users.

To quote a Dr. Suess poster:

The more that you read,
The more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
The more places you’ll go!

What is children’s literature? While theoretical definitions abound, essentially F.J. Harvey Darton’s words from 1932 still holds truth: “… printed works produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure, and not primarily to teach them, nor solely to make them good, not to keep them profitably quiet.”.

Generally this type of literature approaches reality from the child’s point of view. Not only should the content reflect the child’s world, but also the format in which it is presented. Children’s literature should address the needs and wants of a child.

The content of children’s literature caters for limited experience and emotional response. Because of this lack of experience, a child will expect the author to use words he or she understands and be able to communicate an idea successfully in a different, childlike, way. This literature reflects the world around us, but without cynicism or clinical analysis.

We start our approach in one of two categories when selecting material for children; fiction and nonfiction. Both fiction and nonfiction can be subdivided further into different categories. Children’s fiction can be divided into picture books, traditional literature, fantasy and realistic stories. Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, by Dr. Seuss (1962), can be categorised as a picture book. Picture books are visual works of art that use pictures and text to tell a story.

When evaluating fiction we look for specific elements, no matter what the literary quality: plot, characterization, theme, setting, style and format. Added to this in children’s fiction is from which point of view the story is being told.

Point of view
As in many of a Dr. Seuss’ books there is narrator in Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, an omniscient one in this case. This presence describes the characters and their actions. The description of the characters is not that detailed, because the text is supported by illustrations and it is left to the imagination of the reader to fill in the gaps.

Dr. Seuss has a unique style, a combination of rhyme and rhythm. He employs certain elements in the text to work in combination with the rhymes to create rhythm and a sense of forward motion. He starts with a very small character on the first page, “a very small bug by the name of Van Vleck”, illustrated in a very simple setting. From this point forward every page adds something extra, new characters grow bigger and the illustrations more elaborate. The narrator also keep score, continuously adding to the “Who’s Asleep Count”. The descriptions of all the sleepers are funny, adding to the appeal of the content.

The rhyming of Dr. Seuss makes the book also a fun tool for practicing reading aloud and developing reading skills.

The theme of Dr. Seuss Sleep Book is sleep. The book is perfect to read at bedtime as the narrator talks to the reader as if he, or she, is about to go to bed, but never in a condescending way. The suggestion is that sleep is important, everybody goes to sleep, and even the silliest of creatures understand that they have to sleep. The content is easily comprehended, making the book not only good reading material for children, but, with the help of the illustrations, also a great book to read to younger children.

The aim is to provide the child with a good reason to go to sleep, to accept sleep as a part of their daily routine. The theme is also reinforced by the illustrations.

The narrator in Dr. Seuss Sleep Book describes how sleep spreads through the world. How more and more creatures fall asleep, starting with the small Van Vleck and near the end even “every whale in the ocean has turned off his spout.”

Throughout the book a score is kept of the amount of sleepers. Every turn of the page brings a new scenario of fantastical creatures that are going to bed. At the end there is a sense of urgency and expectation before the climax where the narrator waits for the reader to go to sleep.

The characters in Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book are mostly imaginary, except for recognizable animals and the reader, who is drawn into the story in the conclusion. The characters are fun, zany creations with names like Biffer-Baum Birds, Hinkle-Horn Honkers and the Foona_Lagoona Baboona. They cover a broad spectrum of characteristics. This should make it easy for children of different cultures and gender to relate to them. Some have names, weird and funny sounding, almost similar to human names, but different in a funny way, like Snorter McPhail. They remind you of soft toys, something you can hug; a characteristic that makes them approachable to a child. The characters find themselves in situations that mimic the human world and hold human occupations like milkman, barber and fisherman; this may help to make them appear believable. At some point they sing songs that may sound vaguely familiar to American children: “Dixie” and “Swanee River”. The animals that are used near the end also provide a connection with the world of the child.

All the characters find themselves in the same situation, they are about to go to sleep, a situation children can relate to. It might even be that the child reads or hears the story at bedtime. The end action for every described character is the same – sleep. The suggestion is that every night the same ritual plays itself out in the world, a ritual in which the reader is part of a group of different and amazing beings. The focus is on a very simple, common denominator in every character that everyone shares, and children can easily understand – sleep.

The setting is provided by the illustrations. It is mostly imaginary creations, but some elements of the illustrations are similar to that of the world of the child. I think the most important part of many of the illustrations is the bed. The bed in the fantasy world is a human bed. In my view this helps establish a connection between the reader and the creatures and help makes the story believable. For most of the book a different scenario unfolds as you turn the page. The setting of each scenario is the same: someone or something is sleeping or about to go to sleep.

Maybe less so, but also of help, is elements that are vaguely familiar to their human counterparts. Houses look almost like ours, plants are everywhere and things that might be plants, or at least remind us of plants. I also like the fact that the moon and stars makes an appearance from time to time, reinforcing the theme.

Some place names are funny, while some reference is made to real nearby places that may be familiar to children in some cultures. Dr. Seuss uses Reno, Rome and Fort Knox.

Dr. Seuss Sleep Book is an odd size, 16,5 cm x 22, 5 cm. I take it that this size is popular with children, because the publisher has not adjusted it in more than 50 years.

The front page features an attractive design with some of Dr. Seuss’ creatures sleeping on nests perched on a barber pole. The picture should appeal to children. All sides of the cover features red and white stripes, something associated with the Dr. Seuss books. There is also a picture of the Cat in the Hat on both the front and back. The cat and the stripes are associated with Dr. Seuss and will help children, who are familiar with the brand, to make a quick decision on whether to read the book.

The illustrations are in the unique style of Dr. Seuss and form a well balanced work with his unique style of writing and the cover.

It is a good quality book, good quality paper that is glued together. The printing is of good quality, but I do doubt the use of what seems like the Times New Roman font. A less formal font might be more appropriate. The colour of the font is black throughout the book. It might be a good idea to change the colour of the font on some of the darker pages. The pages of the book are multicoloured and not numbered.

Dr. Seuss’ book fluctuates effortlessly between the real and the imaginary. I can imagine that this is very stimulating and fun for children – and some adults. I think I will now go read my copy again.

Stories not spoiled by ‘spoilers’

Many of us go to extraordinary lengths to avoid learning the endings of stories we have yet to read or see – plugging our ears, for example, and loudly repeating “la-la-la-la,” when discussion threatens to reveal the outcome. Of book and movie critics, we demand they not give away any plot twists or, at least, oblige with a clearly labeled “spoiler alert.” We get angry with friends who slip up and spill a fictional secret.

But we’re wrong and wasting our time, suggests a new experimental study from the University of California, San Diego. People who flip to the last page of a book before starting it have the better intuition. Spoilers don’t spoil stories. Contrary to popular wisdom, they actually seem to enhance enjoyment.

Even ironic-twist and mystery stories – which you’d be forgiven for assuming absolutely depend on suspense or surprise for success – aren’t spoiled by spoilers, according to a study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego’s psychology department, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Christenfeld and Leavitt ran three experiments with a total of 12 short stories. Three types of stories were studied: ironic-twist, mystery and literary. Each story – classics by the likes of John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver – was presented as-is (without a spoiler), with a prefatory spoiler paragraph or with that same paragraph incorporated into the story as though it were a part of it. Each version of each story was read by at least 30 subjects. Data from subjects who had read the stories previously were excluded.

Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.

The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.

Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones.

Why? The answers go beyond the scope of the study, but one possibility is perhaps the simplest one: that plot is overrated.

“Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology.

“Monet’s paintings aren’t really about water lilies,” he said.

It’s also possible that it’s “easier” to read a spoiled story. Other psychological studies have shown that people have an aesthetic preference for objects that are perceptually easy to process.

“So it could be,” said Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student at UC San Diego, “that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

But the researchers are careful to note that they do not have a new recipe for writers to follow. After all, spoilers helped only when presented in advance, outside of the piece. When the researchers inserted a spoiler directly into a story, it didn’t go over quite as well.

The overall findings are consistent with the experience most of us have had: A favorite tale can be re-read multiple times with undiminished pleasure. A beloved movie can be watched again and again.

“Stories are a universal element of human culture, the backbone of the billion-dollar entertainment industry, and the medium through which religion and societal values are transmitted,” the researchers write. In other words, narratives are incredibly important. But their success doesn’t seem to hinge on simple suspense.

Christenfeld and Leavitt conclude the paper by saying that perhaps some of our “other intuitions about suspense may be similarly wrong.”

“Perhaps,” they write, “birthday presents are better when wrapped in cellophane, and engagement rings are better when not concealed in chocolate mousse.”

We might be also well-advised to reconsider surprise parties, Christenfeld said. Meanwhile, he and Leavitt continue to investigate what makes stories work – or not. Numerous recent scandals about fictionalized memoirs have inspired them to explore why it matters that a story be true. “Why does it matter,” Christenfeld said, “whether something happened to one person in five billion or to no one? If the story is still a good story, why do we care?”