Browsing articles in "Entertainment"
Jul 14, 2012

Helping Your Tween be a Critical Media Consumer

Tweens are at a great age to begin learning how to become critical consumers. They have the ability to think about things from someone else’s perspective and they’re growing in their desire to become more independent thinkers. Both of these are important skills in learning to think critically.

To be a critical consumer, tweens need to understand that advertisements and marketing are about selling them something. Even their favorite TV shows and computer games are filled with persuasive messages to either keep them interested in that particular form of entertainment or to get them interested in something else that the same company is promoting. Any form of media is also promoting the worldview of the creator. This doesn’t make marketers and media producers evil, but it does mean that whenever we’re engaging with their content, we have to understand that they are trying to persuade us to adopt their point of view and value system.

A good way to help your tween understand this is to talk about specific examples in their own life when they have tried to get you, a sibling, or a friend to do something. Ask them questions like how they went about convincing that person, what arguments they used, did they appeal to their emotions? Once you’ve been able to identify a few specific strategies that they’ve used to try to get someone to do something, then you can start drawing parallels with how marketers work. Marketers want us to buy their product or watch their show. How do they go about convincing us that we should? They try to appeal to our desires to be cool, to look good, to have friends or do fun things. Ready to try it?

Watch this cereal commercial together and ask the following questions:

1. What words do we hear? What are the people in the ads, the songs, and the words on the screen saying? Jot down the words and put a check by them if you hear them more than one time.

2. What are we seeing? What visual images are being used to sell the product? What activities are the people/cartoons/animals on screen doing?

3. What is the theme of the advertisements for this product? What is the overall message that a child would walk away with? Come up with one sentence that starts with “If I buy _____________, then I will ______________”

This activity gives you and your tween the chance to critically deconstruct an advertisement. Instead of just mindlessly watching, they now have the skills to critique. And, once you’ve done this a few times with your tween, they’ll begin to think of media and marketing from a new perspective. They will be empowered to really think about the meaning behind messages sent by advertisers. This is the heart of being a critical consumer!

It’s also important to help your child to learn to deconstruct and critique the media that they consumer, from TV shows to movies to songs. Like commercials, media is created from a certain worldview, not in a vacuum. The person who created our child’s favorite TV show may have a vastly different worldview than you and your family. It’s fine to explore those worldviews, as long as both you and your child understand that this is what you’re doing. For example, the gender stereotypes that are presented in entertainment targeting your tween may promote very different ideas about what it means to be a boy or girl than you do in your own home. It’s important for your tween to be able to notice that, think about it critically, and then make a decision about what they themselves believe.

In an activity similar to the one that we discussed above, you can watch a TV show or movie with your child and practice being critical consumers together.

1. First, ask yourself a few questions about the target audience: Who does this message come from? Who is the target audience according to the developer? It’s important to really understand whom the target audience is in order to determine if the product/program is appropriate for you or your child.

2. What message is being sent through words, music, images and stories? What about the unspoken messages? Are there impressions that you get very clearly whether they are or are not spoken? In many TV shows aimed at tweens there is an unspoken message that parents are stupid or sometimes basically absent. How are different types of people depicted? Are there messages about how to get what you want? How to be in relationship with others? How to deal with friendship problems?

3. What values are presented? What positive and negative messages come through? How do these compare to your own value system?

Another fun activity that can really open both your and your child’s eyes to the messages being sent through different media and marketing campaigns is making word clouds. You and your child can use Wordle to create word clouds from groups of words that you gather from different advertisements, TV shows, music, etc. Here are some specific ways that you might use word clouds with your tween:

1. Work with your tween to develop a word cloud of the characteristics that they think are most valuable in a girl or boy and compare it to those they see presented in media portrayals. For example, after you help them make theirs, you might look through magazines together, watch advertisements, or TV shows and collect words and themes that you both agree are being used to promote value in a person.

2. Watch a TV show or movie that you and your tween are considering and record the words or themes that you notice. Use Wordle to develop a picture of the overwhelming themes within that show. This will help you decide if the overall worldview presented by the program is one that you want to support

3. Record the words used in music that you and/or your tween consider sexualizing or negative to make a word cloud and compare it to one for music that you both find positive. The visual of the word cloud really allows you to compare and contrast the different messages being sent.

If you’re comfortable with it, it’s okay for your tween to engage with media that promotes a different value system than your own. What’s important is that both of you are able to think and talk about it together. This is a good way to jumpstart a conversation about why your family has certain values in the first place.

These activities will give you a good opportunity to start practicing being a critical consumer of media and marketing with your child. This will lead both of you to feel more empowered to choose your response to media and marketing.

Apr 28, 2010

Discover Colorful Chinatown on a Family “Staycation”

Is your family’s budget tight? Do vacations seem like a luxury of the past? If so, consider planning a “staycation” – a vacation at home or close to home. Being a tourist with your preteen is a great way to rediscover your city. What better place to start than Chinatown?

Start your day with a Chinatown photo scavenger hunt. Challenge another family for extra fun. The family with the most photos of found objects wins the hunt, and the losers buy dinner! Your scavenger hunt list might include:

  • A Hello Kitty t-shirt (a popular Japanese character – but should be easy to find in Chinatown)
  • Live eels/turtles/crabs (eek!)
  • A golden cat figurine (a symbol of good luck)
  • Green guava candy (delicious!)
  • Dragon fruit (hint: it’s hot pink with green tips)
  • A Chinese magazine (bonus points if you recognize any Chinese celebrities)
  • Dried squid (a pantry essential)
  • A hand-painted scroll (China has a rich tradition of symbolism – locate a scroll with a black dragon for luck and wealth)
  • A kung-fu video (an ancient meditation and art)
  • The number 8 (on a storefront – 8 is lucky in Chinese culture)
  • A bamboo shoot (boil or braise for a stir-fry or a hearty side dish)
  • A historical landmark (bonus points if you uncover some of the history behind it)

Exploring the winding streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown is a vibrant and delicious journey. Chinatown is bustling with crowds and energy and is well suited for tweens, who find the liveliness exciting. If it’s food you’re interested in, you’re in the right place. Within Chinatown is an array of seemingly endless markets and restaurants. If you and your tween are game for something different, try the beef tripe or oxtail – many restaurants and street vendors offer these Chinatown menu staples.

There are a few streets (and treats) that shouldn’t be missed.

  • Mulberry Street is home to Lung Moon Bakery (83 Mulberry, South of Canal); with classic Chinatown treats such as elegant moon cakes, buns, and sticky rice balls that are too good to pass up.
  • Bayard Street will bring out the kid in you. At UiUi Bubble Tea (49 Bayard) Homer Simpson greets you with a smile, and at The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard) flavors like Red Bean, Lychee and Peanut Butter and Jelly will pique your youthful curiosity. Find a street vendor for some fish balls – a favorite snack of many Chinatown kids.
  • Mott Street is the soul of Chinatown, with amazing restaurants, bakeries and shops, all worth exploring. If you’re in the market for a set of chopsticks with a back-story, then you can’t miss Yunhong Chopsticks (50 Mott). Off Mott Street is Pell Street, and off Pell Street is the narrow Doyers Street…a secret passageway that will lead you to Chatham Square, the heart of Chinatown.
  • From Chatham Square, wander along East Broadway and check out the offerings at the East Broadway Mall. If you are on the scavenger hunt, you’ll find many of the items here under one roof.
  • Don’t miss Aji Ichiban (23 East Broadway; another location at 37 Mott Street) for endless snacking fun. From wasabi peas to spicy dried shrimp, try as many new munchies as you dare.
  • Dim sum, Chinese cuisine with a wide range of light dishes served with tea, is a good option for sampling. There are great dim sum places all over Chinatown; try The Golden Unicorn (18 East Broadway) where most of the dim sum dishes and desserts are $3.75 each.
  • When you reach Allen Street coming from East Broadway, head North to make your way back to Canal, but before you do, take a Lower East Side detour over to Hester Street (off of Allen; North of Canal) and head East to 63 Hester Street. There you’ll find The Sweet Life, an adorable candy store with a whimsical Wonka-like feel. So if your tween wasn’t thrilled by the assortment at Aji Ichiban, some familiar treats from The Sweet Life might be a nice break.
  • When you finally make your way back onto Canal Street, take one last detour up Bowery, where you can pick up a carbon steel wok at one of the many restaurant supply stores, and then go East on Grand Street. Turn South on Elizabeth Street to find one of Chinatown’s hidden gastronomic gems, Malaysian Beef Jerky (95 Elizabeth).
  • One last stop at the new Hong Kong Supermarket on the corner of Hester and Elizabeth, for some fresh fish to take home for dinner, concludes your Far East Side adventure.

To get to Chinatown, take the N, R, W, J, M, Z or 6 trains to Canal Street, and head East on Canal to Mulberry Street. On your way, you can stop at the intersection of Canal and Baxter, cross over to the big information booth in the middle of Canal to pick up a map for more highlights of Chinatown.

Apr 28, 2010

Interview With Gail Carson Levine

Newbery Award winning author, Gail Carson Levine, talked to about her experiences as a young adult novelist and shared advice for aspiring writers. As well as penning Ella Enchanted, Fairest, Dave at Night, The Wish, The Two Princesses of Bamarre and the Princess Tales among others, Gail also wrote Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly to help young authors avoid writer’s block and develop a process. If your tween is interested in creative writing or is a fan of Gail’s books, we highly recommend sharing this article with them.

How did you start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I wrote as a kid, but I never wanted to be a writer particularly. I had been drawing and painting for years and loved that. And, I meditate. One time when I was meditating, I started thinking, “Gee, Gail, you love stories – you read all the time. How come you never tell yourself a story?” While I should have been saying my mantra to myself, I started telling myself a story. It turned out to be an art appreciation book for kids with reproductions of famous artworks and pencil drawings that I did. I tried to get it published and was rejected wholesale.

That book led me to a class on writing and illustrating for kids, and when I went into it I thought that I would be more interested in illustrating. But I found that I was much more interested in writing and that I didn’t like the illustrating at all. I had always been the hardest on myself when I drew and painted. I am not hard on myself when I write. I like what I write, so it is a much happier process.

That’s how I got started. And then everything I wrote was rejected for nine years.

Wow, that must have been difficult. What was the process of rejection like? Were you able to glean any positive lessons from rejection?

I belonged to critique groups and took classes, and my teachers and fellow students liked my work. It was a happy time for me – I felt supported, so rejections didn’t sting as much as they might have in other circumstances. Some of the rejections were actually quite encouraging, when editors would write little notes to me that they liked my work. Form rejection letters give you no help and are just discouraging, but if an editor writes you a note, it means they believe in you even if they happen to be rejecting that specific piece of yours.

Is rejection something you still have to deal with today?

I just got rejected from an adult poetry class! Getting rejected is not easy no matter when it happens or what circumstance it is.

What is your favorite part about being a writer?

I love it all. I love having written. Sometimes I love writing. I love to revise. Revising is my favorite part of writing. I love working with kids and seeing kids over a real span of time. I am very interested in seeing who they turn into. Getting to know these great kids has been a joy.

Is there anything that the kids you work with have taught you, or ways that working with kids has enriched your writing life?

One of the things that has helped me a lot, and that kind of stunned me when I started teaching kids is how they just leap into writing. I give the kids a writing prompt and they just start. They don’t agonize over it. I find this very freeing.

Some of the kids I’ve known for ten years. I’ve gotten to watch them grow up and fulfill themselves, which is very rewarding. Besides, working with kids is just fun!

What is your most important piece of advice for young writers?

Save everything you write. I think kids abandon stories all the time. They start stories and get frustrated or get a different, better idea. I think that it is more worthwhile to stick with a story and revise it and try to finish it than to abandon ship. Revision, for any writer, is the name of the game.

On your blog you said that revision is your favorite part of the writing process. Do you revise as you go along, or do you write the first draft straight through and then revise later?

My method isn’t methodical. Many, many, many, and more scenes that I start with vanish and new ones take their place. I write notes first. Sometimes I write some of the scene in my notes. Then I copy what I’ve written into my manuscript, which is just story, not a mix of story and notes. If I’m beginning a book, I write notes and then, when I figure out my beginning, I write it in a separate document (the clean page). This isn’t particularly the right way; it’s just my method.

What is your daily writing routine like?

I don’t have much of a daily schedule, to be honest. I have a computer on the kitchen table and I always write while I eat breakfast. But my daily schedule varies depending on what I’m working on at the time. Today, for example, I worked on a speech I am giving in a couple weeks. I am also taking physical therapy because I strained my neck, so I did those exercises. Then I ate lunch, and then I revised my latest manuscript, a fantasy mystery for kids, until I started talking to you! So it varies every day. The point for me is I have to get the work done, and so I get it done.

Your books are so imaginative. How do you come up with your ideas?

I don’t think of myself as someone who has a lot of ideas. I have to work for them. When I get to a point in the story where I don’t know what’s going to happen next, I list all the possibilities that I can think of. Eventually, something pops up. I write a lot of notes – through writing notes, ideas come. When I’m really in the grove, I’m thinking about what I’m doing a great deal. Taking a shower is a good place to get ideas; doing something very repetitive and boring is a good place to get ideas. Your mind is freed through repetition, so new ideas tend to pop up.

What are some of your favorite books for tweens?

The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff
The Birthday Room by Kevin Henkes
The Ear, The Eye and The Arm by Nancy Farmer

What was it like to see Ella Enchanted made into a movie?

It was great! It brought the book to a lot of new readers, which was very fun. I also got to go to Ireland to watch three days of the shooting! The movie is very different from the book. I had very little to do with making of the movie, though they did talk to me a bit and listened to things I said, about the dialogue for example.

What are some of your favorite moments in your books?

In The Wish, I loved the parts with the dogs – I am especially proud of the dialogue. In Ella Enchanted, I loved the letters between Prince Char and Ella. In Princess Tales, the humor – I always am delighted when I write something funny. And Dave at Night is a very important book to me. The character of Solly in Dave at Night is one of my favorite characters. (Editor’s note: Dave at Night is based upon the childhood experiences of Gail’s father spent in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City; it was named an ALA Notable Book and Best Book for Young Adults.)

Thank you, Gail! It was a pleasure to speak with you.

Thank you!

For more advice from Gail Carson Levine about creative writing, you can visit her blog or you can contact Tony Hirt at HarperCollins Children’s Books ( to arrange for her to speak at an event.

Nov 26, 2009

Why Does New Moon and the Twilight Series Fascinate Tweens?

Tweens and teens will be flocking to the theater this weekend to see the movie New Moon. The Twilight Saga books, the movie is based on is the second, have become a national phenomenon making fans of preteen girls to women in their fifties. So, what is all the fuss about? Kristine Gasbarre, author and celebrity editor of says, “The relationship between Bella and Edward is the epitome of young romance. They ignore all obstacles in their way because their longing for each other is so overpowering.” Add Edward’s masculine strength and his desire to protect Bella and you have the formula for a thrilling romance.

Many girls fantasize about being completely desired and adored in a romantic relationship. One of the most compelling aspects of Twilight is that Edward cannot fight his urge to be with Bella even though he knows that as a vampire everything about their relationship is unnatural and fraught with risk. According to Sari Cooper, a New York City Sex Therapist, this type of fantasy is normal. “The experience of being desired is a huge turn on for women and Edward can’t get enough of Bella.”

However, understanding the difference between fantasy and reality is key. Sari points out that the wonderful thing about daydreaming is that the person fantasizing is in control, which makes it safe. “No one is going to get hurt.” In Twilight, Edward saves Bella from a gang of men about to attack her. He is so furious that it takes all of his will power not to avenge Bella by killing them. In a book this may seem romantic, but in real life it would be terrifying. Sari recommends that parents not only read the books or see the movies, but also ask their daughters how they would feel if the situations described happened in reality. “It’s exciting to watch someone get rescued in a movie, but we would not necessarily want to experience it in real life.”

Critics of the Twilight series have raised concerns about girls confusing the fantasies of romantic love in the books with the realities of abusive relationships. Gina R. Dalfonzo writes in her essay for National Review:

He [Edward] spies on Bella while she sleeps, eavesdrops on her conversations, reads her classmates’ minds, forges her signature, tries to dictate her choice of friends, encourages her to deceive her father, disables her truck, has his family hold her at his house against her will, and enters her house when no one’s there — all because, he explains, he wants her to be safe. He warns Bella how dangerous he is, but gets “furious” at anyone else who tries to warn or protect her. He even drags her to the prom against her expressed wishes. He is, in short, one of modern fiction’s best candidates for a restraining order.

By romanticizing Edward and Bella’s relationship, girls run the risk of not recognizing signs of abuse in boyfriends once they start dating. The Twilight Saga offers an important opportunity for parents to have an ongoing dialogue about the series with their daughters. In an age-appropriate way, parents can discuss thepositive and negative attributes in different types of romantic relationships.

So, what can parents do to help their daughter’s develop healthy relationships? Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl, says that girls first need to focus on establishing positive relationships with each other. “Girls first learn how to be emotionally intimate with their friends. Through their experience of love between best friends, girls can experience profoundly attached intimacy. Other than the lack of physical attraction, the mechanics are no different.”

Friendships give girls the opportunity to develop positive communication skills, have respectful disagreements, be interdependent, and share mutual empathy. Girls need to gain an understanding of themselves, their feelings and their boundaries in order to achieve these skills. To have a positive sense of self, girls need both self-respect and the respect of their friends. They need believe that their needs and interests are integral to the friendship. This involves the ability to be simultaneously proactive about their wishes while also respecting their friends’ boundaries.

Inevitably, girls will “break up” with some of their friends. Rachel Simmons points out, “Heartbreak happens in all friendships. When a girl looses her best friend she is entitled to be devastated, write bad poetry, listen to sad music, and eat ice cream. After awhile it is important for her to get back into the world and “friend-date” again.” By realizing that they have the resilience to get through the ups and downs of these early relationships, girls gain the confidence they need to expect appropriate boundaries in their romantic lives. By asserting their needs in both friendship and love, girls are more likely to find someone who fulfills their inner desire to be adored for their true selves.