8.28.2012

Star Wars Helps Improve Children's Literacy




What do literacy and Star Wars have in common?  A lot, apparently.

EUCantina.net devotes itself to the expanded universe (EU) of Star Wars.  This summer, EUCantina.net decided to focus on the issue of illiteracy in the United States, because as the site's current tagline says, "44 million adults in the U.S. can't read well enough to read a simple story to a child."

EUCantina teamed with Reading is Fundamental (RIF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving literacy in children across the U.S, to try to generate in children a deeper appreciation, and hopefully a love, of the page and words.  Austin Blankenship, one of EUCantina's administrators, described the impetus for this collaboration.

"When I found RIF, I started looking closely at the startling statistics on children's literacy. I realized that this was an area that desperately needed our help," said Blankenship.  "Children's literacy is a major issue, but I think that it is being overlooked as a real problem. Most people would agree that kids need to be able to read, but they probably don't realize the true impact that literate children will have on a society. I also worry that in general the public doesn't truly understand the poor position that children's literacy is currently in."

And a poor situation it really is.  According to RIF, two-thirds of impoverished U.S. children do not have books at home, annearly 40 percent of U.S. 4th graders cannot read at the most basic proficiency level (RIF.org).  Blankenship realized EUCantina had a wonderful opportunity to aid in RIF's endeavor because of it was an area that his website could relate to because it reviews Star Wars books and comics.

"A big first step to helping these kids is to get them interested in reading. That's where Star Wars comes in," explained Blankenship.  "So many young girls and boys are fascinated by Star Wars. If we can provide them with an easy-to-read Star Wars book, that will instantly grab their attention."

EUCantina went the extra mile and contacted authors of Star Wars books to see if they would participate, and participate they did.  Readers participating in the program this summer have a chance to win several signed copies of Star Wars books, including The Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia which has been signed by all seven of its authors.  Blankenship said that EUCantina had connections with these authors already and he knew that the program would easily appeal to them.

Blankenship said the literacy endeavor has been going well, and he hoped that the program will continue to benefit children throughout their lives.  "They'll start with Star Wars, and realize that reading is something that can be fun and interesting.  It's a great way to make that first step have a lasting impression."

It's not too late to join the Rebels in the fight against illiteracy of Death Star proportions.  Through September 12, you can donate directly to RIF through EUCantina's main page, or you can choose to purchase a wicked Yoda-themed "A Force for Childhood Literacy" tshirt!  The shirts cost about $16 each; $4 from each purchase goes directly to RIF and the rest covers the cost of the shirt (EUCantina makes no profit on them).  

Of course, you can also make a difference by grabbing one of your old Star Wars books and donating it to a young relative or your local shelter, thus perpetuating the love for Star Wars and reading for generations to come.

All photos courtesy of EUCantina.net.

8.19.2012

The Geek Gig: Amy Ratcliffe

When I think about how much effort I've put into this blog thus far, I almost start to pat myself on the back.  Then I remember Miss Amy Ratcliffe, and how she has been doing the same thing for far longer, has built a reputation from it, and continues to provide quality geek content for all her readers on a regular basis.  I need to pull my arm away from my back at this point.

Amy Ratcliffe
An operations/logistics worker by day and blogger by night, Amy Ratcliffe blogs over at Geek with Curves, which boasts over 600 readers.  This is nothing in comparison to her Twitter handle where an impressive 12,000+ followers await her every 140 characters.  "Being a geek is such a big part of my life that it was only natural to write about it," she says in an email interview.  "It's fun to share my experiences and meet like-minded people."

The geekery all started for Amy when she caught an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  "I was instantly hooked, partially due to Wil Wheaton, but mostly because it was an awesome show and unlike anything I'd seen before," she says.  "TNG was on the downward slope by the time I caught that episode, and I remember watching a few of 'best of' marathons before the series finale aired. Those were some perfect weekend afternoons." 

Despite her success with geek blogging, this direction for her life was not clear from the start.  "I'm sort of a late bloomer," Amy admits.  She mentions that her interests in careers varied from marine biologist, to psychologist, and eventually to forensic anthropology.  Realizing these degrees took too much effort for her taste, Amy quit college and only eventually returned to get a degree in business administration.

"I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up until five or so years ago," she explains.  "I always enjoyed writing though.  I wrote short stories and essays and occasionally contributed to newsletters I stumbled across... but I couldn't make it click.  Finally, two years ago after a few false starts with blogs focusing on food and travel and various things, I found my niche: I decided to write about geeky stuff.  I put in all my effort and it's worked out."  Amy blogs about geek crafting, conventions she attends, her thoughts on the latest Game of Thrones episode, and even the occasional sci-fi parody video.

Amy on a speeder bike
In addition to her own blog, Amy writes for such sites as Fashionably Geek, IGN, and The Mary Sue.  Her writing has provided her many geek-out moments of meeting people she admires.  In particular, she remembers talking to supervising director Dave Filoni at the premiere of Star Wars: The Clone Wars as she covered the event for Newsarama.  "I asked him a question about whether certain characters in the The Clone Wars were at all inspired by the Bene Gesserit in Dune. There was a connection and he elaborated on it. I mean, I got to talk about Dune and Star Wars with Dave Filoni and I was getting paid to do it. It was definitely a 'pinch myself' sort of moment."

Amy continues to write and publish her work across the Internet.  She provides some solid advice and encouragement for geek writers when she says, "If you'd like to get involved in blogging, geeky or otherwise, you've got to dive in and realize that it takes hard work and time.  A friend of mine constantly says, 'Don't tell me how bad you want it, show me.'  If you're starting with the intent of showing your writing chops, building a brand, or wanting to get paid for your writing later, you've got to take it seriously.  Write every day and understand that it is rare to get paid for content right away."

"Most importantly though, writing about the topics you're passionate about makes writing about a bajillion times more fun (and easy) and that travels through the words to your readers."

For more of Amy Ratcliffe's geek wisdom and writings, visit her blog Geek with Curves and follow her on Twitter @amy_geek!

Star Wars heels made by Amy
When not writing, Amy can often be found crafting geeky
items, like these Star Wars heels.

8.13.2012

How the Gaming Industry Could Learn from Hollywood

Welcome one and all to the very first guest post for Geek My Life!  Today we are honored to hear from Sechin Tower, a male writer who wants to comment on the way females are portrayed in science fiction, gaming, and entertainment.  I like it when the men speak up.  Enjoy!


Woman Warriors in Film and Games
Recently, feminist pop-culture analyst Anita Sarkeesian drew both an avalanche of animosity and a tsunami of support when she announced plans for a documentary about female video game characters. Speaking as a guy and a gamer, it got me thinking that game companies could—and should—do a lot more to court female players, not only out of a lofty concern for gender equality but also for the down-to-earth reason that it would broaden their own market. You won’t catch me saying this often, but I think Hollywood has a lesson to teach about this.

Rise of the Woman Warrior
Male heroes have been slaying monsters for as long as humans have been telling stories, but we may be experiencing a historic shift in that pattern. A quick rundown of the history of women warriors shows not only an increase in frequency, but also a change in attitude. Here are a few of the high (and low) points:
Amazons. Contrary to contemporary depictions, the ancient Greeks considered tales of women warriors to represent a shocking threat that needed to be subdued and dominated by strong men.
Wonder Woman. Fast forwarding to the 20th century, Wonder Woman gave her sisters of Themyscira a PR makeover, but not right away. The original comic book was little more than a BDSM fantasy. Fortunately, the character evolved over the years, most memorably with Linda Carter’s portrayal of a hero who secretly defended the status quo (patriarchal as it was).
Sigourney Weaver. James Cameron’s 1986 masterpiece Aliens not only inspired a host of less-than-awesome franchises but also established the tough-but-vulnerable Weaver as the First Lady of Science Fiction.
Warrior Princesses to Vampire Slayers. The 1990s opened a floodgate of action-grrrls, starting with the neuvo-Amazon Xena, then the unrealistically buxom Lara Croft, and, of course, Buffy Summers, created by Joss Whedon to flip all the horror movie clich├ęs upside down.
Some say these depictions are anti-feminist because they show women abandoning their femininity or objectifying themselves, but you’ve got to admit that the modern plethora of femme fatales are widely loved by both genders (and has sure enhanced cosplay options).

Hollywood Today
Today, science fiction and fantasy is more popular than ever with both men and women. This year alone, several box-office blockbusters feature female action heroes, most notably the fearless archers Merida of Brave and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. Even classic stories are being retold with stronger roles for women, such as Snow White and the Huntsman, which begins to reverse the usual gender roles so that the female protagonist does most of the heavy lifting (or, in this case, heavy sword-swinging). Oh, and let’s not forget Charlize Theron’s role as the queen: she might be evil, but nobody would dare to question her ability or authority.
We have come a long way, but there’s plenty more room for improvement. For all the successful super hero movies, we still lack an iconic female cape-jockey who can keep up with the boys in her ability to sell tickets (if not to inflict gratuitous collateral damage during fights).
Still, Hollywood has been making great strides to appeal to female viewers, and not just by adding female characters, but also by increasing character depth. The result: better movies for all, more tickets sold, and more people discovering how great it is to be a geek.

Game Publishers Take Note
Video game publishers have not been as successful at appealing to women for a variety of reasons. Women represent half the potential market, so it would benefit them to explore more about what these customers might want. Doing this would be good for us, too, because it might lead to new types of games and new ways of gaming.
Not all gamer guys want big guns and big boobs, either; some of us want to share games with the women in our lives. It’s easy to get my wife to go see a big Hollywood blockbuster because she knows that even if the hero isn’t female, there will still be plenty of other elements to appeal to her. It’s much harder to convince her to co-op the latest zombie-slaughtering XBox release, because experience has shown that games don’t carry the same promise.
Hollywood has learned to produce good, geeky products that appeal to both genders without missing out on the action, suspense, and imaginative ideas. If Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo could figure out how to do the same, I think all of our lives would be geeked for the better.


Sechin Tower (SechinTower.com) is the author of Mad Science Institute, a sci-fi novel which features (among other things) a strong female protagonist and plenty of adventure.