Amy Kefauver

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This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview. Source: ANTIC: Open Apple podcast Source URL: Interviewer: Kevin Savetz

Kevin: tell me how you got started at Scholastic.

Amy: I was an English Lit major in college and I knew I wanted to be in children's publishing, so I came to New York and Scholastic was my second job. I started off in the book club division where, I don't know if you remember, but getting those little cheap-y paperback books in your classroom, which I loved as a kid, and I got to work there and--

Kevin: Oh, yeah I loved that, too. Sure.

Amy: I know. It was like the best part of the month, was when the Scholastic books came. And so I just sort of worked my through a couple of different divisions at Scholastic and then I was in the classroom magazine division, working on magazines for fifth grade kids and Scholastic recognized that computers were coming into to the classroom and so they needed to have a presence there. So, they started a whole new division and very quickly after they started up, they posted some jobs and I applied. And I was completely thrilled to be part of it.

Kevin: So, you were editor of Microzine?

Amy: I joined as an Associate Editor, but the guy that was my boss was a part of the very first team, and after I had worked for him, I think, for about a year, I think it was about a year, he went onto other projects within the division and then they bumped me up to editor.

Kevin: So, was Microzine marketed directly to schools? I mean, who was supposed to be buying Microzine? Was it the schools, was it parents?

Amy: It was the schools and it was whoever was making the buying decision, usually it was often sort of a central person for a school district or something. And so, our marketing people were going directly to the schools and we published guides for the teachers, documentation stuff for the teachers, and then material for the parents, but it was really the schools that were our customers.

Kevin: And did you have a sense of if a school, would they buy one copy, were they buying ten copies, were they buying one for the whole lab?

Amy: Well, that turned out to be an interesting marketing event. We started publishing it as a magazine, which meant that you would buy a subscription and you would get five issues during the course of a school year. So, they did that initially. Then, it turned out they could also make additional monies by selling individual back issues and, unfortunately, very quickly on, we heard from teachers, they said, "Oh, we absolutely adore Microzine," and then salesperson would say, "Great! So we can sign you up for another year?" and they would say, "We don't need to because we've got a whole new bunch of kids and these are great and they're holding up. So, we have everything we need." And we thought, "Well, gee, that isn't what we want to hear."

So, they marketed it as a library on a disk, meaning you are always building your library and, as it turned out, you know, certain elements were the same, issue to issue. There's always a Twistaplot but the other three programs were always different and since the goal was to have this be an initial introduction to kids to what the computer can do and all the different utilities and things that it can do, we were able to keep tapping into different curriculum areas, science or history and different things that the computer could do. You know, we very quickly did a database and very quickly did accounting and a little word processor and stuff but, after that, it was more hitting different areas of the curriculum so teachers could see the value in continuing to subscribe.

Kevin: So what was--I'm sorry, go ahead.

Amy: No, I was just gonna say, sort of to go back to what you asked me a little bit ago was, I think it was used both in computer labs and in individual classrooms. But were you about to ask me how did we decide what the content was?

Kevin: Yeah. How did you decide what the curriculum was? Were you guys, I mean, Scholastic, I'm sure, knows a little bit about making curriculum but were you working with outside teachers or were you just making it up as you went along or how was that [inaudible 00:04:47]?

Amy: Well, we had a really good, you know, Scholastic's a big company and so we had a lot of resources and the marketing division was full on and the salespeople knew what the different curriculums were gonna be. Nationwide, there's a lot of consistency in what's taught in fifth grade or fourth grade or whatever and so we knew that, for the Twistaplots, we just had to get the reading level right and topics that the kids would find intriguing. And then, after that, it was, I would look over the year and try to have a good balance, so that we had a good mix of science and math and history, and sort of split it up between the issues, so that one wasn't heavily weighted in one area or another.

So, luckily, with the editors that were there on staff and the programmers, who were hugely instrumental in all of this, there was never a lack of ideas, and sometimes, the hard thing was, "What do we leave out?" because there was all of these things that we want to do and we can only do about 20 programs a year. Also, we were constrained by the limits of the machine and how much we can fit on a disc and that kind of thing.

Kevin: All right. I have several questions now. Do you know how any subscribers you had, an average or at peak or just any sort of idea?

Amy: Oh, goodness. I'm sure I knew, at one point. I honestly don't know. I'd have to go back and I'd have to find that out for you. We had a lot. There was, I sort of did myself in. I had decided, at one point, that any kid that wrote in, I wanted them to get a personal letter. I'm sorry. You can probably hear that. I live near a hospital. So, sorry for the siren and it's hot here, so I had the windows open. So, you can edit that one out. Let's see. What were you asking me?

Kevin: You can go back to that.

Amy: Oh yeah, yeah. I wanted to have every kid get a personal response and it was certainly easy enough for the kids that just wrote me out of the blue, but then we started doing these little Monitor Mysteries, where they could write in and get a little certificate if they completed it, and I always tried to put in a little additional note. It was fine because I absolutely adored my job and I loved everybody I worked with, but there were a couple of years there were I was working seven days a week because I would come in on Saturday and Sunday and do nothing but answer letters. Yeah, and after a while, we hired someone to sort of generate a form letter but then we would always put personal notes on the bottom to the kids and I just remember there were a lot of letters. So, I'm embarrassed that I don't know the answer to that but, as I said, that's something I could probably find out for you.

Kevin: If you can, that would be interesting to find out. I was just curious if it was hundreds or thousands of subscribers.

Amy: Oh, it was definitely thousands. I just don't know how many. It was definitely in the thousands because it was making money for us for a while, so that was great.

Kevin: You lead me right into another question. I was gonna ask what feedback you got from students. It sounds like you got a lot of it. Can you tell me more about that?

Amy: We got a lot of, I think I would have to say, almost without exception, all the feedback from the kids was overwhelmingly positive and they would ask for stuff and they would ask, you know, "Why can't you do this?" or "Why can't you do something about that?" They wanted a Twistaplots about dinosaurs and they wanted outer space and all that kinds of stuff. Some of the teachers were more critical, which you would expect, and we always tried to listen to that, and when it came time to do an advisory board, I tried really hard to fill it with people that had made really critical but thoughtful comments because I thought they could help us best to make it better.

But the kids loved the Monitor Mysteries a lot, they liked the Twistaplots a lot, and anything that sort of smacked of a video game, of course, was really popular. We did a little program on light refraction and we sort of took a play off of the game Pong, which I'm sure you're too young to remember, but I remember it and it was this great game with a little ball bouncing back and forth, and we did it so that you would move a little device that was sort of like coming from a flashlight and if you moved the little barrier correctly, you could refract it back to hit a target. So, that was pretty fun because they thought they were, well, they were playing a game, but there were also some good principles behind it. So, that kind of stuff was usually a hit.

Kevin: Well, tell me about the, can you give me some examples of the critical feedback from teachers? What were they upset about?

Amy: This was so long ago. I'm trying to remember now. A lot of times, it was that the programs didn't do enough, that they weren't powerful enough and I'm sure it sounded lame to them but it was just a factor that we had 64k or 128k. It was really little back then and there really is only so much you can do, especially when you've got programs that have a lot of graphics. Everything was so primitive back then. It took enormous amounts of space and so we had to be careful and try to get in as much information but also keep the kids engaged. So, there was that. They'd say, "This is kind of a puny program." It was like, "Oh, we're really doing the best we can with the limits of the machine."

Let's see, so there was that. I think that some of them felt that it wasn't scholarly enough, that a lot of it was sort of too much fun and the earlier Twistaplots were absolutely, just pure fiction and, after a few years, we got a couple of fabulous writers who were science writers as well as good fiction writers, and they would start to do things that the way that you moved through the Twistaplot was to read, comprehend what you were reading, answer some scientific questions, make some good guesses. So, this woman, whose name I suggested to you, Laurie Hopping, wrote one called "Escape from Ant-caztraz" and you learned a lot about ants and their biology and social cultures and everything to get through the story. So, that was one response we did in reaction to feedback from teachers.

Kevin: So, was there a killer app in Microzine? Like, what was the thing that you came out with that everyone was just like "Yes, this is awesome." What was your Oregon Trail, I guess?

Amy: I don't think we had one. We had, the Twistaplots were hugely popular, with teachers as well. I think 'cuz they could see the value in the kids. It also took them a while to complete. So, I think that the teachers felt that if it's taking them this long to get through and they're engaged, that's good and they saw that as a positive. God, Scholastic Software had some real rockstar standalone things like, oh my goodness, my friend programmed one. It was about math. It'll come to me. There was a math thing that was just a knock out and Bank Street Writer was great. Point of View was great. Those were all, like, not Microzine.

Kevin: I didn't realize you guys did Bank Street Writer. I thought that was Broderdund.

Amy: It was Broderbund, but Scholastic was affiliated with it in the early years. So, there was some definite connection and I think they published it in certain parts, and I would have to go back, again, and find out what the exact legal arrangement was, but it was sort of like scholastic published the US edition of Harry Potter. So, yes, it's JK Rowling, obviously, and her publisher, but Scholastic had the US rights and we had some affiliation with Bank Street Writer that was, of course, hugely popular. And then we went on the Success With Writing, which was, you know, exclusively Scholastic. So, it all sort of evolved over a couple years, but I think it was really the Twistaplots that were just the most popular. I wouldn't say that Microzine had a standalone Oregon Trail.

Kevin: Was Steve Gast the man you were mentioning before, who started off as editor before you came in?

Amy: No, that was Jeff Segal. Steve Gast was in a more executive, managerial area. He was absolutely the first wave and I was only there for a little while before he went on, but he was part of that first team, for sure.

Kevin: Okay. It was a name that I saw in my notes, and I thought I might as well find out. I gotta say, I love, on the Twistaplots, at least some of them that I've seen, when you started off, it's just like, "Do you wanna play as a boy or a girl?" Like, that's awesome. There's something awesome about that.

Amy: Well, that also helped with the pronouns too, but I actually, that's so funny. I remember demoing that but there was one, oh my god, it might have been Pirates of the Soft Seas or something, but you had to answer that and then you got to type in your name. And I was sort of horsing around and Jeff actually was with me there at that demo, and I typed in that I was a boy and then I typed in that my name was Sue. And I looked over at Jeff and he was like, "Oh my god, a boy named Sue." It was so corny. But the audience thought it was funny. I thought it was hilarious, but trying to make it fun for the kids, that they can fool around with it a little bit and still get their work done.

Kevin: Right. Well, I had read something about the choose your own adventure books, when they came out, they learned early on that a girl would read a book with a boy protagonist but a boy wouldn't read a book with a girl protagonist.

Amy: I believe that.

Kevin: But, on the computer platform, you could just play it any way you wanted to.

Amy: Exactly. The other thing too with those Twistaplots at the beginning was, another change that we made was, in the beginning, you could sort of, there were multiple endings and, as you can imagine, it was kind of complicated to structure that and map it out so that all the stories make sense, but we decided pretty quickly that it really made, especially when you're introducing the curriculum and stuff, you want them to succeed by making the correct science decisions or the correct decisions based on what they read, so we tried to have lots of branches but we tried to have basically one ending. So, that's another reason why they got a lot longer. We wanted to make it more challenging.

Kevin: I know you were responsible for a lot of content in there besides the Twistaplots, there were articles and things. Can you tell me a little bit about creating that stuff?

Amy: Sure, some of it, again, there was a lot of input from lots of folks. We originally worked with a group out in Minnesota, a team of developers, and they were fabulous and they had lots of ideas, but then once the editors sort of got their hands on it, lots of people were suggesting ideas and coming up with things and so we would, I would try to sketch out for the year, you know, the curriculum areas and we would try to find ideas we could make fit into those slots. How can you take the idea of light refraction and get science, but then how can you make it fun? And so a lot of stuff, just a lot of freewheeling ideas and a lot of late nights.

And then some of the editors would say, "I want this to be entirely mine and I'm gonna go off and create this whole thing and come back and run it by you." So, one of them was, it was almost like a Rube Goldberg device, where you had to go from one side of the screen to the other, but you had to know sequence of events, and if you press the toaster down, the toast flies up and the bird is flying over right at that same moment and the bird picks up the toast and drags, that kind of thing. It was just sort of piling ideas in there and some people would take ownership of it and go off and develop it and then we might tweak it.

And then a lot of times the graphic artists would come up with fabulous ideas, too. This one woman was sort of, Lauretta Jones was kinda a pioneer back in the day for these graphics and realized that, and this shows you how primitive it was, the graphics would come up and they would be essentially drawn on the screen in the same sequence that the artist created it and she realized that she could use that to her advantage. So, when they did a Twistaplot called "Fossils Alive," it came up as a dinosaur skeleton, but then it sort of came to life based on the order in which she drew the skin and the features of the dinosaur. So, it looked like it was sort of emerging and that was just taking advantage of what the technology was at the time.

It was basically what games and things we thought were fun that we could say, well, can we hang a math hat on this somehow, because then we could do this with coins or something. And we're obviously all playing games on our own and coming in and playing games from competitors and stuff and just really getting loosened up for the day and getting all excited about doing stuff that we really loved. So, it was a good time in my life, too, my career. It was a really fun time, it was a very lively group there.

Kevin: That's great. Awesome. So, Microzine was supposed to be from grades four to six and then, at some point, you guys came out with Microzine Junior, which I believe was kindergarten through fourth.

Amy: Yeah. I thought that was a little bit too wide a range, but you know, that's a marketing decision. I would have loved to pull it down to K, one, two or maybe one, two, three. For what the kids are able to do, it was an awfully wide range, but it was fun, because we got to try different things and, again, step back on those Twistaplots and get the reading level down and the number of decisions down and that kind of thing.

Kevin: What got me into this is I had read something in an old magazine saying that there was Microzine for the Atari and it seemed like, I'd like some clarification from you, either it never came out for the Atari or it was only out for a little when you guys decided [inaudible 00:22:00].

Amy: I think it was just one issue, quite frankly. I think it was just one issue and it was that crazy parallelogram box or rhombus shaped box. I don't know if you ever saw that.

Kevin: I've seen pictures of that.

Amy: Which was quickly discarded. The box, it wouldn't fit on any shelf. There was a lot of feedback on that, as you can image. People'd say, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this box? I can't put it on a shelf! It flies off." I think it came out for one issue on the Atari. It was like they had an interview with the older brother from ET and something and that idea was quickly discarded because boy, that gets out of date before it's even published. The kids have long moved on by the time that comes out. So, I'm so sorry. You said you're doing this podcast for Atari, and it's like I don't have that much to offer you, I'm afraid.

Kevin: I'm doing a favor for my Apple brethren, it's okay. We're all [inaudible 00:23:08]. It's all right. So, you said stuff went out of date. What was lead time on production?

Amy: That was one of the hardest things. Well, let's see, we did five issues a year. We were at least two months, it was usually more like four was safer because you had to create this stuff but then you had to test it rigorously because, you know, this stuff is going into the schools and, especially at the beginning, teachers had to be convinced that they wanted this and needed it, and they were so certain it was gonna be a problem and it was gonna be buggy. And we just decided that we were going to create something that, one, the kids could totally use on their own. So, the documentation was pretty light, because there was a lot of the documentation built into the actual programs, which they could get just by pressing a question mark and you'd get a help screen of whatever you're doing at that moment. But we also had to test it rigorously and we hired a lot of local kids, high school kids, to come in and bang on those programs and they were triumphant when they could make it crash. Of course, we insisted that they write us very detailed report on "What the heck did you do to make this crash?" and then we would take it back to our offices, try to recreate it, then we would go to the programmers and work on that.

That probably took the longest and then, of course, you need the time to produce these things and produce these discs and get them packaged. If I'm remembering correctly, there were some times when we skated pretty close to the edge with two months lead time. It was more like four was better because that meant that you having hysterics to get it done. But, you know, five discs during the school years is a lot, and that meant that you always had something in different stages of productions. I had a big wall in my office and we had the status of every program. It was like a war board or something, where was each piece? Was it with the developers? Is it with the programmers? Is it with this editor? Is it in testing? So we could keep it moving through.

Kevin: So, some of the Microzine features were later complied into themed bundles. For example, "Haunted House" and "Mystery Pine Crest Manner" were reissued as "Tales of Mystery." Do you know if many of those bundles were release and was there any reason other than marketing and have another thing to sell?

Amy: That's why. It was a way to reach another market, so that if a teacher. That was almost more too for the labs, when, if the kids didn't have a lot of time and they could come in and pick up sort of a twofer. So, we tried to bundle them in subject areas or interest areas that, kid likes this mystery, you maybe just want to do two mysteries for the afternoon or something. It was a marketing. It was a way to take stuff, because it was very expensive to produce this stuff and how to get the most bang out all of this effort and all of these months of this huge team of people to see if we could bundle it and sell it just in a different way and maybe increase the market a little bit.

Kevin: Some of the later, going back to Twistaplots for just a minute, some of the later Twistaplot stories moved from a choose your own adventure format to more of a computer text adventure format, with players [inaudible 00:27:17].

Amy: Exactly. Right.

Kevin: What prompted that change?

Amy: Well, I guess it was more of an editorial thing. We felt like, well, it was two things. One, was an editorial thing, you feel like if you're telling the story, you're telling a story, not multiple stories. It just felt, if you had five legitimate endings to a story that maybe the story was weaker than, from a plot point of view, than one story that was moving ahead to one outcome. And the other thing was, adding these curriculum aspects, if you're trying to have the kids learn something, remember something, make some good guesses based on what they've read, you're kind of directing them, in a way, to the ending and so when we went from that multiple ending format, and that happened pretty quickly, to the one ending, they got a lot longer and more complex, so that the kids would feel that they accomplished something by the time they got all the way through it, and that it was worth going back and making a couple of attempts to get it right.

Kevin: You mentioned earlier you played some of the games and things from the competition and I'm curious about what from other sources was your inspiration? What things did you borrow or steal from? [inaudible 00:28:57] were you different from [inaudible 00:28:59]?

Amy: Yeah, there was, well, my husband and I, we were dating at that point but he was a graphic designer at Scholastic. He and I were complete fans of text adventures and used to play those a lot. And, of course, there's no imagery on those. It was all text, and that sort of, I liked the idea of that and, of course, we'd been doing Twistaplot where full screen graphics would come up, but we did a couple where you'd have a much more primitive graphic, but it would be the top half the screen, and then you'd have a lengthy caption underneath. So, that was, in a way, sort of blending the two ideas, where you could move from room to room and text would change accordingly and the challenges would change accordingly. So, that was just one sort of small subset of the Twistaplots.

I was also, we're huge fans of Roadrunner and so the idea, the complete obsession of that and I'm trying to think which one that sort of prompted. There was Roadrunner and oh, Tetris was a big one and we didn't really figure that one out. We were trying to figure out how we can do spatial relations and shapes and things like that. That was more in the Microzine Junior thing, where they were playing with shapes and things. Of course, we did it a much more elementary, it wasn't like falling down. It wasn't like a video game thing but we got the idea of let's do something with shapes and colors that they could do.

A lot of it was just you sort of come and you just sort of play a game for 30 minutes and then you feel like you're ready to go to work. So, we would do stuff like that and try to have our bosses understand we're actually working.

Kevin: It's research.

Amy: But, yeah. But it was more to just get sort of warmed up and into it. I think the thing that would have been the killer is if we had gotten bored at that whole idea. If you're getting bored, you're not going to come up with anything fun for the kids. So, it was more like that. I guess it was the text adventures that I was thinking of when I mentioned to you, that I was trying to figure out how to combine a lot of text on the screen, from a kid's point of view, a lot of text, and a little, minimal graphic that sort of keeps them intrigued and moving from point to point.

Kevin: What haven't I asked you yet that I should have?

Amy: About developing it?

Kevin: About the whole experience, about any of it.

Amy: About the whole experience?

Kevin: I want to set you up a story that you haven't told me.

Amy: Well, I wish that it had been, or we had figured out, or I had figured out a way to make it less expensive to produce because I think it was such a great idea and I don't and we didn't run out of ideas for programs. So, I wish there were a way we could have kept advancing with the software and the machines and everything to keep it going 'cuz I think it was great for its time and I wish it could have continued. God, the developers, you're going to laugh at this, when we went from the Apple II Plus to the II C, those guys were ecstatic and I remember, because there was so much more we could do. There was all this energy. I remember one guy saying, "You know, that Apple II Plus is a Ford and the II C is a Ferrari." He was so excited about that and so I wish we could have kept it going to what's going on now.

My kids have, they sort of look back on what we did and they sort of roll their eyes and go, "Really?" and I said, "You don't understand. Back in the day, this was really cool and your mother was at the forefront of this stuff." We were all these great people and we really felt like we were making this big difference in the schools and having the teachers welcome it and the parents maybe not so alarmed and have the kids engaged.

So, the other thing that was nice about that, that I don't think I talked about was we did a lot of school visits, where we took software and development into the schools and I always paired up an editor with one of the programmers, and they went out as a team. And I think that benefited the product a lot because the programmers had this incredible skill. They were so brilliant at what they did, but to see it in use with not someone as skilled as they were, a 10 year old kid or an 8 year old kid and to see what they could and couldn't do was a real eye opener for them and I think that the product benefited because I think they came back with a better understanding of who their actual audience is. I mean, the kids weren't our customers but they were our audience, so we wanted this to be for them and, of course, the editors got a big snootfull of what was and wasn't working, as far as how the program was designed. You know, something that seems so clear to you and then you go and you watch somebody else try to understand your directions on the screen or something and they're not getting it. That was important, too.

So, I'm kind of all over the place here. I guess I wish that there were something like this that came out periodically for kids in schools. I just think it would be really fun. But the trouble is that things change so quickly now and the technology changes so fast that I'm not sure that a publishing company would be able to keep up with it.

Kevin: Yeah. It's going to be now an iPad app that's good for a few months and that would be, I don't know.

Amy: Yeah, and then it's gone. You just invest enormous resources, in terms of money and time and people, to get something good and if you can't sell it for very long, you're not going to be able to do it.

Kevin: Why did Microzine come to an end?

Amy: I think that the market was, it just wasn't making enough money, quite frankly. People, I think the market got a little bit saturated and it just got too expensive and Scholastic Software was in full swing then and I think that they wanted to devote more time to different products and one off products, which would stay for a couple of years. It was absolutely I think one of the more expensive items to produce, so I think they felt that we'd had a good run and it was time for them to move on.

Kevin: Yeah. It did have a good run. It was nine years, or almost nine years?

Amy: I know, I know. We're proud of that. I'm still in touch with a lot of these folks and lot of these authors and things. You know, people who write for kids, they never go away. They're always doing stuff and they're always onto the next thing and this one women, Laurie Hopping, is now designing ESL games. She's living in Michigan and just doing incredible stuff and designing stuff for adults and kids because she's a game designer. And she worked on I think it was Science World Scholastic, that magazine, which was a great magazine and sort of took all the skills and just took it to the next event.

Kevin: Well, I hope to talk to her, soon.

Amy: Yes, she's fascinating. She's a good person.

Kevin: So, I just got back a couple weeks ago from Kansas Fest, which is an annual conference of Apple II devotees and there were 70 people there.

Amy: Neat.

Kevin: Yeah, it's a lot fun. People there, they don't hack [inaudible 00:37:47]. I just want you to know that people remember Microzine and talk fondly of it.

Amy: That's so nice to hear. That's really lovely to hear. I was reaching out to Jeff Seagal and he was wrapped up in a bunch of stuff and he couldn't talk to you but he commented on it. He said, "This is so incredibly great to hear that something that we worked on so hard and cared a lot about, that people liked it and remembered it." So, that's really nice.

Kevin: I'd like to ask you, if you could send a message to those grownups who were kids using Microzine back in the day and you can send them a message right now, what would you tell them?

Amy: Oh. That I hope that they're still really excited about trying new things, whether it's on the computer or anywhere else, that I hope that they still have all that energy and enthusiasm that makes them actually pick up a pencil and write to somebody who's working on it, because we get as excited about it as they do. So, I just hope the energy and excitement is still there.

Kevin: Nice. I think that's all I have. Thank you, Amy.

Amy: Okay, well, that's great. I hope it was helpful. It was lovely to talk to you.