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At the Carnegie Library, a computer program helps children write stories.


Roshan Klein sits in the Carnegie Library in Oakland, putting the finishing touches on his first-ever published work. He wears a tan sweater and gray pants, and sits on his foot.

Klein lets me peek at the first lines of the story: "Once upon a time there was a fox. He wanted to travel to the beach. And then he met a happy ghost. The ghost said 'Hi, Foxy!' Soon a lion came, and he wanted to play with the ghost and the fox ..."

This first-time author can barely reach the keyboard. Roshan is 4-and-a-half years old.

His story was created using My StoryMaker, a program developed by an eight-student team from Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center. Funded with a $50,000 grant from the Grable Foundation, My StoryMaker was conceived to improve children's literacy -- and, of course, to show them a good time.

"We wanted to increase foot traffic in the library with a fun experience that kids would come back to time and time again," said Eric Baugh, the library's project manager. "The traditional library method [is] 'child pick up book, read book and put the book back.' But [My StoryMaker] makes the child the author, writing his own book and sharing it with other children. We're creating a groundswell of child authors."

My StoryMaker debuted Dec. 17 after a successful 400-kid trial run at West View Elementary School. Despite scant promotion, the program is heavily used, and not just by children. "We've seen plenty of adults in here playing, too," says Baugh.

The program, found on computers in the children's wing, begins with the user choosing a title. He then picks a main character from a menu of cute, squinty-eyed animals, robots and ghosts, and selects one of several available settings (all bright, simply animated landscapes) and finally a goal -- to find love, for instance, or to make friends.

"The concept is close to a fairy tale," says Baugh. "There's a problem and a goal, allowing kids to create conflict resolution."

Users click on characters, objects and scenery, which float down from the top of the screen, and select interactions that create the story's text. When Roshan decides that the fox should throw a ball to the ghost, the characters onscreen play catch; the appropriate sentence, which can be edited or deleted, appears in the text box. Each screen provides authors with options to steer the story in any direction.

All those options, however, can pose problems for the youngest players. Roshan's father, Sridhar Seetharaman, said, "Roshan loves to draw and make stories himself at home, but at this stage he gets caught up with [the program's] technicalities."

Indeed, Roshan struggles to click on the object he wants, and often ends up with a castle instead of an igloo, the beach instead of the forest.

So what privileges My StoryMaker over a pad and pen?

"The child can actually type 100 percent of the story or none at all," says Baugh. "In allowing the child the freedom to only select characters and actions or actually craft a full story, with both ending in a completed piece, the program is able to adapt to the child."

Even the best authors, after all, have editors.


-- Justin Jacobs 

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