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Digital and Media Literacy Book Review: Spaceheadz

Katie Donnelly

While this series on digital and media literacy efforts has focused primarily on formal initiatives so far, innovative digital and media literacy efforts can pop up in informal and unexpected settings as well. Children's book author Jon Scieszka, best known for books like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales, has created Spaceheadz (SPHDZ), a series of books for seven-to-ten year-olds that can be used to teach digital and media literacy skills. Scieszka is no stranger to promoting literacy through online tools; he's the founder of Guys Read, a web-based literacy program for boys.

The Spaceheadz books are written in Scieszka's trademark zany style, enhanced by black-and-white comic art from Shane Prigmore. They tell the story of Michael K., a fifth grader in a new school who finds himself seated with some very strange new classmates, Jennifer and Bob. It turns out Jennifer and Bob are actually aliens called Spaceheadz, with class hamster Mr. Fluffy as their leader. The Spaceheadz are on a mission to convert 3.14 million and one Earthlings — or else the Earth will be turned off. Along the way, they must avoid the bumbling Agent Umber and his AntiAlienAgency.

The Spaceheadz have gleaned all of their knowledge of Earth entirely from advertisements, which they take literally. They speak in taglines—"Just do it," "Think outside the bun", etc.. (Unlike in Admongo, the jingles and catch phrases that the Spaceheadz repeat so often are both real and recognizable.)

Check out a video highlighting the series:

Scieszka explains the impetus for the Spaceheadz series in this interview with Karen Calabria of Kirkus Reviews

At the heart of this book is media literacy. I want kids to first realize that people are pitching them like mad, all the time. They’re deluged with pitches, ads—lies, basically. The best way to get kids to understand that is to get kids inside that world, to realize the pitch and then turn it around and make it their own. I’ve been going to schools and libraries with this book, and the amount of advertising that comes out of their heads shocks me. It even shocks them. They know all the catchphrases and jingles. I was at a presentation once, and out of nowhere, in the middle of what I was reading, this kid just jumped up and shouted, “Kid-tested, Mother-approved!” It was the perfect Spaceheadz response—he’d probably heard that a hundred times, in the last week alone.

On their own, the books provide a basis for conversations about advertising literacy. It's hard to read them and not think about the pervasive nature of advertisements and the validity of advertising claims. But the series takes things a step further, embracing digital literacy through cross-platform storytelling. Readers are invited to participate in a series of online extras that extend the narrative and provide additional character information. These features, which are seamlessly integrated into the print edition, include:

By participating in the story in both print and online, kids are able to hone their reading and computer skills through a fun, multiplatform experience. There are countless entry points to participating in the story, and the extent of digital exploration is left entirely up to the reader. However, Spaceheadz is clearly focused on raising awareness about advertising literacy — like Admongo, it doesn’t delve much deeper into analyzing the values implicit in advertising messages. Nonetheless, with a little framing, innovative teachers and parents could certainly use Spaceheadz to teach digital and media literacy in both formal and informal settings.

This article is part of our series on digital and media literacy education initiatives. Previous entries in the series include: PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab Program Ready to Expand, FTC's Admongo Promotes Surface-Level Advertising Literacy, Holocaust Museum Repackages Multimedia Propaganda Exhibit for Media Literacy Educators, and Common Sense Media Employs Comprehensive Evaluation Strategy for Digital Citizenship Curriculum.