Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: The Maze of Bones

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In my current graduate class (Electronic Materials for Children and Young Adults), we're currently studying transmedia storytelling.  Basically, these are stories that combine several different mediums, including print, electronic, audio, video, gaming, and social media, to create vivid stories.  (If this sounds intriguing to you, check out my class's webpage to learn more.)

In the past, I have thought of myself as largely a traditionalist when it comes to books.  I prefer print books to ebooks... honestly, it has taken me a long time to come around to even admitting that ebooks do have their advantages.  So I didn't really expect to like transmedia storytelling.  When I first started reading about it, I thought that it would be kind of overwhelming.  I also that that it would be very time-consuming to switch from one form of media to another, and that readers might get confused when switching between materials.  I wondered if otherwise enthusiastic readers might run up against difficulties with accessing the different forms of technology, or in seeing how it all fits together.

Then I started checking out some of examples of transmedia stories.  I explored several of the websites discussed on my class's webpage.  To be honest, while I liked the ideas presented in a lot of them, I remained skeptical about the experience.  For me, books have always allowed for so much imagination that I didn't really see what all those other media elements could add.  I mean, I don't even like to see movies that are based on books--they always fall short of my imagination!

But then I checked out the 39 Clues series.  I read the first book, The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan.  The 39 Clues series is one of the prime examples of transmedia storytelling for children right now.  This series is a collaboration by many of the current "greats" in children's and young adult literature, including Rick Riordan, Patrick Carman, Judy Blundell, Gordon Korman, David Baldacci, and Margaret Peterson Haddix.

The series tells the story of the Cahill family, with a focus on adolescents Amy and Dan.  Apparently the Cahill family has many branches, but they can all be traced back to common ancestors.  Members of this family include basically every famous person to ever influence history, including Annie Oakley, Benjamin Franklin, Wolfgang Mozart, William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and more.  Now the current members of the Cahill family are locked in a struggle to uncover the great secrets of their family.  It takes the form of a treasure hunt, with clues leading them from destination to destination--and it turns family members against each other as they compete to be the first to the prize.

In the first book in the series, The Maze of Bones, Amy and Dan learn the background of their family and embark on the hunt for clues.  They are pitted against older and more ruthless relatives, yet against all odds, they succeed.

The book itself captured my interest and my imagination, but it also seemed to be able to stand alone--meaning that I didn't need to access any other form of media to be able to understand and enjoy the story.  So yes, it was completely possible to enjoy this book without engaging in the whole "transmedia" experience.  But for those that want to get the full effect, there's a rich world to explore outside the basic story.

When I checked the book out of my local library, the librarian also gave me a stack of six cards to go with it.  I flipped through them several times and didn't initially understand what they were to be used for or how to interpret them--except that they all said to refer to the website.

So I checked out the 39 Clues website.  That was when I really started to see what is so exciting and different about transmedia storytelling.  While The Maze of Bones could stand on its own, it was greatly enhanced by the interactive website.

The site encourages users to "Read the books.  Collect the cards.  Play the game."  The website definitely keeps the tone of the story and draws readers into the experience.  To begin, I had to answer a series of questions to determine which branch of the Cahill family I would belong to.  It was both fun and interactive--though I was pretty disappointed when it turned out that I'm a Lucian.  (Most of the members of the Lucian family in The Maze of Bones are bad guys, although the branch did have some historic good members).

After registering, I was listed as a "classified agent" and ready to explore the site further.  I entered the code from my set of cards, then asked to solve a message written in a cipher code.  I then started on my "missions" to earn more cards.... and more secrets of the Cahill family!  I found the website to be completely addictive.... though I do have to sadly report that I was not very good at most of the games!  (Guess it's pretty clear that reading, not gaming, is my forte.)

If you're looking for a unique reading experience to draw in kids ages 10 and up, then I highly recommend the 39 Clues series and its website.  It would be a great took for hooking reluctant readers.  This would also be a really fun series for parents to read with their children, then try to solve the clues together as their own "team of Cahills."  While I was skeptical about transmedia storytelling at first, now I think I'm hooked!

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