Of Monsters and Tech: Making an Interactive Book with Scratch and Makey Makey
In a previous post Getting Unstuck with Makey Makey, I hinted at a project that had created a shift in how I value making something simple. This is a story about making something that felt useless.
During my library undergraduate degree, I was given a lovely old Latin book for my 21st birthday at a surprise celebration from a circle of friends. It had a beautiful wide spine with gilt Latin lettering. Despite not knowing Latin, I loved this book and it had a meaning beyond the printed words. It has been part of my book collection for over twenty years, shipped twice across the world with me.
The marauded manual
Last year, my daughter asked to borrow this book as a costume accessory when she dressed as Hermione for Book Week. As nutritious as literacy is, eating books is not encouraged in our house, however, our puppy took advantage of the book left precariously within his reach. I’m not sure the author, writing this book over 150 years ago, imagined his book would become a 21st century dog chew toy.
I’m also quite certain, that the author never dreamed of the adventures that befell his book next. I’m not sure the author would have approved. As a librarian, I’m not even sure that I approve of my own actions! I feel a little embarrassed to share the unimaginable destiny that befell this beautiful old Latin book.
When books bite back
After the savage attack, I stood there holding the ragged remnants of a piece of my past. An author’s hard work in tatters. The lost stories of those who had owned this book before me. A gift, ravished. The book was irreparable. All that I could think about was that it looked like it had been gnawed and gnashed by monsters.
A thought occurred.
Conjured in my mind, was the scene in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Hagrid sends The Monster Book of Monsters to Harry as a gift to help with his studies. The book that Hagrid sends is actually a monster and naturally tries to bite Harry, before being tightly contained with a belt and buckle. I imagined Hagrid in his hut, trying to wrap his beloved gnashing book, before posting it to Harry. I thought about Hagrid’s kind nature, and his powerful heart that always sees the true beauty in monstrous things.
Then the idea came to me.
My old book now really was a monster. Perhaps It just needed help to embrace its monstrosity.
Making a monster
I like to use resources that I already have for making projects. I had some air drying clay, so I made some eyes and teeth and then painted them. I had never transformed a book into a beast before, so I had no suitable fabric remnants. The cost for fake fur fabric in the local fabric shop seemed quite expensive for this experiment. Instead, I went across the road into the charity shop and found a brown furry blanket for $1. I glued the blanket onto the shredded remnants of the cover of the book, created spidery legs and attached the eyes and teeth.
Yes, I confess, I really did this to a 150 year old book!
I took “him” along to some Harry Potter events, including a local dress up cinema screening and a Harry Potter High Tea. Something amazing happened. People exclaimed, and would stop to spontaneously pat it were curious about how it was created. Amazed at the love, I imagined this was the destiny of this new creation, guarding my Harry Potter books and going on the occasional outing for pats.
A year later, thinking about activities for Book Week 2018 in Australia, and seeing the twenty years of Harry Potter celebrations via #HarryPotter20 at the same time, I thought about taking the monster book out on adventures.
I had just come home from helping out at Code Club and talking about Book Week projects. I walked past my book shelves and routinely noticed my quiet inanimate Monster Book of Monsters. I stopped to pat him. I thought about how nice it would be if the book could respond to my friendly pats. An idea flickered. This would be quite easy to achieve with Scratch and Makey Makey!
I made a very quick, simple pressure switch from cardboard and copper tape. I reused some packaging foam to separate each trigger. When the switches were joined together by pressing the top of the book, the switch would trigger. I attached these to the pages in the middle of the book. In Scratch, I created a project with some play sound blocks, found a free to use monster sound effect, hooked up Makey Makey alligator clips to the switches inside the book. The first interactive version was born.
I took him into Code Clubs for the kids to interact with. I was again surprised by the love. All I could see was my imperfect craft skills and all the improvements I could make with the fur and teeth. I felt like he didn’t look perfect. This didn’t seem to matter. What seemed to matter that was that he was obviously homemade, had a story and would respond to touch. People were curious and had questions.
A comment from a child in our Code Club sparked my imagination further. He said, “That really sounds like a puppy vomiting!”
The obvious next step was to encourage the kids to hack the book with their own monster sounds!
I took the book back to our Code Clubs, this time with an external microphone for my laptop. I encouraged anyone who wanted to, to record a sound and add a code block. Soon children, teachers and librarians were all keen to step up and donate their monster noises, becoming more and more expressive as their confidence grew.
To keep the activity accessible, it was a matter of recording a sound in Scratch, helping them to name the sound and to add a ‘play sound’ block. Then, showing how to simply drag the sound block onto the code to the top so that each person could immediately hear their sound first. This doesn’t create the most efficient code, but it did give an important instant feel to the project with a no-wait reward to hear your voice added to the cacophony. It was easy for anyone who had no coding experience and there was a lot of laughter
We’ve created a monster!
Here is a sample of the lovely voices of students of two Code Clubs, teachers and librarians who helped give a destroyed old book an unimaginable future.
The code is not complicated, the craft isn’t sophiscated. What is perhaps enchanting, is that there is recognition of an imaginative artifact, created originally in the mind of J K Rowling, and slightly re-imagined with a piece of anyone who interacted. It’s a simple but powerful idea.
Even someone new to Scratch could drag and drop a single code block and contribute their unique voice. Kids would open up the book and see the switches and ask questions about how it worked. There was surprise that it was made from a “real book”, and there were questions about what language the book was written in. This led into talking about Latin and old languages, spell books and even forbidden books. The most exciting ideas were the conversations that emerged about other ways to augment and annotate books with Makey Makey and Scratch to add your own voice to a book. Endless iterations.
I have created a monster.
Is there a monster lurking within your imagination?