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Friday, April 21, 2017

Amazing Historical Graphic Novel about an African American Unit that Fought in World War Two and a Controversial Graphic Novel about Identity, Adolescence, Despair, and Perhaps Hope.

20 April 2017
Brooks, Max;  White, Caanan (2014) The Harlem Hellfighters.  New York: Broadway Books. 

Image result for the harlem hellfighters book

Opening lines:  “They used to call it the ‘Great War.’  But I’ll be damned if I would tell you what was so great about it.  They also called it ‘The War to End all Wars’ cause they figured it was so big and awful that the world’d just have to come to its senses and make damn sure we never fought another one ever again.”
            So begins the graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters.  This book brings to light the forgotten story of the 368th regiment, an African-American unit that fought in France during World War Two.  They spent more time in combat than any other unit fighting for America.  Though they fought in trenches on the front lines, they never retreated or lost any ground to the enemy.  Not a single soldier of the 368th was ever captured. 
            Here is the whole story of the regiment, of their enlistments in Harlem, New York, of their training in South Carolina, where often the civilians in the neighboring towns seemed more hostile than the Germans that the 368th would eventually fight, of the difficult journey to the European theater across submarine infested waters, and finally of their fight in the trenches of France.  We see them changed form a collection of teachers, porters, farmers, musicians, workers, and students to a unified fighting force.  We also see them facing prejudice and harassment from white soldiers in their own army and dealing with that sometimes with patience, sometimes with anger and revenge. This account gives us not only the triumphs of the 368th, but also the moments when they fought with each other, made wrong decisions, and let each other down.  It seems an honest and moving portrayal.
            The artwork reminds me of Dave Gibbon’s work on the Watchmen.  The style is realistic, yet dramatic and rendered mainly in line and shadow.  It effectively conveys the horror of war, the heroism of the men who fought in it, and the hectic pace of battle.  The artwork and the words make for a gripping story.
            The artwork and text would be accessible for student readers in fifth grade and older, though there is some vulgar language and minor sexual innuendo that may be an issue in some school contexts.  As always, I would encourage teachers to read the book before putting it in their classroom library or using it in a unit about World War Two.  I would encourage History teachers and English teachers especially to read it.





Tamiki, Mariko; Tamiki Jillian (2008) Skim Toronto: Groundwood Press

Image result for Skim Tamaki

Opening Lines:  “I am Kimberly Keiko Cameron (AKA Skim).  My best friend: Lisa Soor.  My cat:  Sumo.  Interests:  Wicca, tarot cards, astrology, (me=Aquarius = very unpredictable). Philosophy.  Favorite color: Red.  Year: 1993.” 
            Skim is in high school, and, like many high school kids, she is desperately trying to figure out who she is, who her friends are, and how this life thing is supposed to work anyway.  In the first few pages of this graphic novel, Kim and her friend Lisa are excited to be going to their first meeting with a wiccan coven.  Skim has been building a collection of items that she has read a necessary to be a wiccan.  When they go to the wiccan circle, however, they find a group of what seem like hippies talking about the power of nature.  Skim seems disillusioned but continues thinking about witchcraft.  A day or two later, after she has snuck away to the outer edge of school property to smoke, she meets her favorite teacher, Ms Archer.  After they have a long talk, Skim starts to focus on Ms. Archer and comes to believe that Ms. Archer likes her in a romantic way.  Eventually they share a kiss. Meanwhile, the school is reeling from the suicide of a popular boy who had just broken up with his girlfriend.  Skim goes to visit Ms Archer and is rebuffed.  Skim and Lisa go on a double date with two boys.  All of this is a realistic portrayal of the confusion of trying to negotiate identity and relationships in high school.
            The art is both beautiful and ugly.  Tamiki’s drawings are sometimes blindingly full of white space, sometimes shrouded in shadow.  She draws Lisa and Skim in a way that highlights their awkwardness and shows how hard they are trying to be something other than what they are sometimes.  The style of drawing owes a bit to classic Japanese art, but in a way that hints at it without clobbering you over the head.  
            Sometimes I talk with my students about how children’s literature can serve as a mirror – showing us how the world really is, as a lamp – showing us how the world ought to be, or sometimes serving as a door – letting us into another world (I got these ideas from M.H. Abrams and Junko Yokota).   This book probably falls nearest to the analogy of a mirror.  It is an authentic portrayal of the path that some high school kids walk.  This book has the potential to connect with such students who may believe that most adolescent or YA literature portrays a world unlike the one they live in.
           Having said that, as a teacher, I really had a hard tiem reading aobut a relationship between a teacher and a student, even such a short-lived on as is depicted here.  While it may be a mirror book, and while it is certainly true that such things happen, the inapporapriateness of the power differential and the moral wrongness of such a thing is soemthing that is hard for me to read aobut, particularly when the relationship is shown to be unfortunate and painful, but not really wrong in anay way.  I unserdstand that it is authentic mirroring, but I guess I was looking for the book to be a bit of a lamp in that moment. 
           Furthermore, that authenticity may prove difficult for parents and administration to swallow.  This book contains references to sex acts, the inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student, lesbian impulses, drinking and smoking, witchcraft, and suicide. It would very much depend on your school context, but teachers considering using this graphic novels should anticipate parental and/or administrative challenges.  The Tamikis’ more recent graphic novel, This One Summer deals with similar themes of identity, frustration, and perhaps hope (or at least survival) but in a way that might be less likely to be challenges (though only slightly so).  I cannot imagine using Skim anywhere but high school or college and would encourage the teacher to consider carefully whether the thematic value of the book outweighs the extreme reaction that parents, administrators, and likely students would have. In short, if you want to use this book, know what youare getting into. 


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Two picture books: One good for art class. One not good for teaching English grammar.

Steptoe, Javaka (2016) Radiant Child:  The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.  New York:  Little Brown.

Image result for radiant child the story of young artist jean-michel basquiat

Opening Lines:  “Somewhere in Brooklyn, between hearts that thump, double-dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice, a little boy dreams of being a famous artist.”
Of course, it isn’t the text that makes this picture book wonderful (though the text is both artfully and poetically written), but it is the images.  Steptoe does a brilliant job using the same media that Basquiat used.  Pages in this book appear to be paintings on wooden walls that make use of charcoal, objects, and collage techniques.  Somehow the images manage to welcome you into another world while simultaneously reminding you that you are looking at an illustration painted on old boards (or, on one specific page, a painting of a painting of Basquiat and his mother looking at the painting Guernica in a museum)..
            And the bottom line is, these images are beautiful to look at.  In both the street scenes and the scenes set inside the Basquiats’ apartment there is so much light and energy and life.  One two-page spread shows Basquiat in his early 20s walking the streets of New York with an art kit in one hand, burshes in the other and canvases tucked under his arm.  There is activity in the background with people dancing on the side walk, walking, and playing music.  There is a fancy yellow sports car by the curb, and muted blues and reds, and browns and blacks – so much to look at.  And yet our eyes are drawn to Basquiat’s face with his wide-eyed grin and his eyebrows raised as if he were drinking in all the action, noise, and beauty of the city.
            This book would be great for elementary school classroom libraries and any art classroom from elementary through high school.





Bell, Cece (2015) I Yam a Donkey.  Boston: Clarion.

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Opening lines:  “I yam a donkey!”
“What did you say?  ‘I yam a donkey’?  The proper way to say that is ‘I am a donkey.”
“You is a donkey too?  You is a funny-looking donkey.”
            So begins the silliness of this picture book by Cece Bell (author of the graphic novel El Deafo. )  In the book, a goofy and arguably not terribly bright donkey continues this discussion of confusion with a bespectacled yam who is trying very hard to teach the donkey proper grammar. 
            Maybe that makes it sound like this would be a  greeat book to teach young students proper grammar.  Um, I would love to be proven wrong, but I am not convinced that is a good idea.  The donkey persists in its confusion and the yam continues his prescriptivist rant until the end when the donkey pronounces “Oh!  You is lunch” and devours the yam and several of his vegetable friends.  Clearly knowing good grammar did not help the veggies evade their end, and incorrect grammar did not stop the donkey from triumphing.  So the message regarding grammar is mixed at best.
            But in terms of silliness, this book is a winner.  When I was reading it silently to myself I could imagine the laughter and squeals of pre-k through first graders as they read each new incorrect interpretation of the donkey.  Cece Bell is nothing if not good at inducing giggles.  This picture book is a lot of fun.
            Incidentally, the entire book is told with word balloons making it useful perhaps for teaching little kids how to read graphic novels.  There are no real panel divisions, though. 


Monday, April 3, 2017

Three Novels from 2008 good for Language Arts (and one for PE)

Supplee, Suzanne (2008) Artichoke’s Heart.  New York:  Dutton,

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Opening Lines:  Mother spent $700 on a treadmill “from Santa” that I will never use.  I won’t walk three blocks when I actually want to get somewhere, much less run three miles on a strip of black rubber only to end up where I started out in the first place.

 I didn’t like this book when I started it.  It is a novel about a fat girl and it is set in the south and a lot of the scenes take place in a beauty salon and it just seemed from the start like I knew where it was going and I was never going to care about the main character.  It turns out I was completely wrong.  I ended up liking the book a great deal.

Rosemary Goode is 16 and she is fat.  She has always been fat and she expects she always will be fat, in spite of her mom’s nagging and her well-intentioned Aunt Mary’s meddling.  But when her mom puts her in an experimental counselling program and Kyle Cox, a boy at school, is nice to her, Rosemary decides she wants to lose weight.
            
The novel then needs to walk a very tricky line between emphasizing the idea that Rosemary’s sense of self-worth is not just predicated on her appearance, even though the plot and the other characters might be emphasizing exactly that.  It doesn’t help that Rosemary’s mom owns a hair solon and gossip and snide remarks are part of the world Rosemary moves through. 
            
What makes the book work, oddly, is Kyle, Rosemary’s love interest.  His relationship with Rosemary is real and moving.  He sees in her something she doesn’t see in herself.  He asks her out.  He brings her flowers, and he seems to care about her as a person. 
            
Rosemary also becomes friends with KayKay, a nice athletic girl who is being shunned by the popular kids.  Now that she has friends, a counsellor, and a boy who seems to like her, Rosemary drops from 210 pounds to 165 and eventually to 158.  Yet somehow she always has to fight the desire to eat more than she should, and always she is insecure about her appearance.  Together, she and KayKay learn to ignore the toxic popular girls and Rosemary learns to trust in Kyle’s love for her (rather than convincing herself, it is part of some kind of practical joke.  Rosemary grows strong enough that she can cope with her mom developing cancer and can even be civil to her meddling aunt.  In the end, this book leave Rosemary in a place where she (and the reader) have hope for the future.   
            
This would be a good book for upper middle school or lower high school readers.  There are some occasional vulgar words, but nothing that might cause the book to be challenged. The novel might be good for a Phys Ed Classroom studying body image. And would also fit well in an English classroom library.  Well worth reading.





McMann, Lisa (2008) Wake.  New York:  Simon Pulse.

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Opening lines:  Janie Hannigan’s Math Book slips form her fingers.  She grips the edge of the table in the school library.  Everything goes black and silent.  She sighs and rests her head on the table.  Tries to pull herself out of it but fails miserably.  She’s too tired today.  Too hungry.  She really doesn’t have time for this.
            
Jamie’s problem is that if people fall asleep in the same room she is in, she enters their dreams.   This makes her privy to all sorts of secrets she would rather not know and it makes it hard for her to carry on a regular life.  Sleepovers are fraught with danger.  She can’t study in the library at school because students like to sleep there, and she learns to drive around town in such a way that she doesn’t go near houses where she knows that particularly powerful dreams might cause her to black out.   

When she meets Cabel and finds out about his horrific dreams (which seem inspired by physical abuse against him by his father), she finds him to be a compassionate, caring, really nice boy.  He seems to like her too and she thinks that maybe she can confide in him.  Then she helps an older woman at work resolve a troubling and incomplete dream by going inside the dream and helping the woman change it.  Her life is finally looking up.

Then she finds out that Cabel goes to parties every weekend, is apparently sleeping with a cheerleader, and seems to be a drug dealer. 

It turns out that some of these things are lies, that Cabel is involved in something really important and dangerous, and that Janie’s abilities may hold the key to finding out the truth.  

Interesting idea.  Intriguing characters.  Good plot.  The only problem is the language.  I understand the need to write like students talk, and the need to connect with students in a way that seems relevant and real world enough to grab their attention.  And maybe there are some students who really talk like this, but the amount of vulgar language and sexual innuendo guarantees that this book will be challenged.  And that is a shame because most of that language is utterly superfluous to the character and the story.  Because of that, it would be hard to use this story in a class, or even have it in your classroom library without some sort of disclaimer on the book.





Zarr, Sara (2008) Sweethearts New York:  Little Brown.

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Opening Lines:  A Dripping faucet.
            Crumbs and a pink stain on the counter.
            Half of a skin-black banana that smells as old as it looks.
            If I look at these things and at nothing else, concentrate on them and stay still, and don’t make any noise, this will be over soon and I can go home without Cameron’s dad ever knowing I am here.
            He is yelling.
            
When Jennifer was younger, everyone in her school called her Fatifer.  Cameron was the only person in the world who she thought understood her.  Then one day when she was at his house, Cameron’s father verbally abused and threatened them in a particularly disturbing way.  They escaped the house together.  Shortly after that, Jennifer found out that Cameron had died. 
            
Now years later, Jennifer is at a new school in a new place and she has reinvented herself as the new, thin, funny, social, perfect girl Jenna.  Jenna has a boyfriend (Ethan) and some good friends who she laughs with.  But when Cameron shows up and she finds out that he isn’t dead, her life turns upside down.  She starts to wonder whether she really loves Ethan, finds herself trying to advise her friend who likes Cameron about how to get to know him, and wonders why her mother told her that Cameron died in the first place.  Finding out that Cameron is homeless only complicates matters.
           
 There are some interesting themes in this book, but nothing that I think would hold up to studying it in English class.  It might make an interesting addition for a high school classroom library, though.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Hamilton Creator Miranda to Write Picture Book about President Trump



Every so often I use this space to pass along information from the children's publishing world.

I have been emailing back and forth with a couple of publishers about a research piece I am writing about celebrities writing picture books.  Everyone from Jamie Lee Curtis to Spike Lee, has penned a picture book in the last couple of years.  I have been trying to look at how their writing process differs from conventional authors (especially in terms of how much support the publishing company provides).  Anyway, I was talking with the editor of a small children's press out of Bakersfield,, California called Sloof Books.  They recently published a picture book by noted actor John Lithgow and have been in talks with country singer Trisha Yearwood.  When I was interviewing the Editor-in- Chief of the company she mentioned that they had recently signed the creator of the Musical Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda, to write a parody of a picture book to be titled Max and the Wild Trumpus.

Patterned after the classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are, Miranda's book tells the story of what happened the night after Max wore his wolf suit and traveled to the island of the beasts and had a wild rumpus.  It turns out that the following night, after making mischief of one sort or another, Max's mom sends him to the land of the Wild Trumpus.

My editor friend, April, says that Miranda got the idea when he saw this picture of former president Obama and the first lady reading Where the Wild Things Are:
Image result for Donald Trump and where the wild things are

Miranda thought how unlikely it would be that President Trump would ever read children's books out loud.  Mirada had also been reading about President Trump's intention to cut all federal funding for libraries and was wondering what he could do about it.  April says that the book was partly a way of working off his frustration, but adds that all proceeds from the book will go to help the libraries that Mirada suspects may close because of the cuts.

After much pleading, April agreed to send me a short except of the book.  She cautions that this is in a very early draft stage and so it is likely this verse will not even be in the final book.  But here it is, straight from her email:

And when Max came to the place where the wild Trumpus lived, he was a little bit scared.  The Trumpus looked angry and had scary teeth.

Image result for Trump Monster

The wild Trumpus combed his terrible hair and roared his terrible words and pushed his terrible lips together and rolled his terrible eyes and showed his tiny claws.
"You Loser!" said the Terrible Trumpus. 

"I will build a wall with haste 
to keep immigrants in their place
all friendly laws I'll soon erase
destroy libraries so there is not a trace
and force you to eat toxic waste,"

till Max said “BE STILL!”                       
and tamed the Trumpus with the magic trick of staring into his yellow eyes without blinking once  and said
"SHUT UP YOU BIG BULLY!  BE NICE TO ALL PEOPLE!"
And the wild Trumpus was frightened and called  Max the most wild thing of all.
 
Where the Wild Things Are was originally written by the late Maurice Sendak who died in 2012.  April Sloof says that she and Miranda met personally with the grandchildren of Sendak and they gave their blessing of the project.  No word yet who will illustrate.

The book is due out this May.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Best Book of the Year so Far!

Shusterman, Neal (2016) Scythe.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.

Image result for Scythe
            Opening Lines:  “The Scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.  Citra was at the dining room table, slaving over a particularly difficult algebra problem, shuffling variables, unable to solve for X or Y when this new and far more pernicious variable entered her life’s equation.”

            Okay, I’ll admit it.  I was getting a little tired of dystopian novels.  I mean, I liked Hunger games and Divergent and Shipbreaker but lately I have been reading dystopian stories where all the cats have died or the world has been buried in ice.  And I keep thinking about how bad it is going to get before this fad burns itself out -- I am just waiting for the society that is ruled by the winners of a Scrabble tournament or a world where the economy depends upon ancient Twinkie sponge cakes dug up from an ancient landfill.  Then along comes Neal Schusterman’s Scythe to remind me that it isn’t the genre so much as they writing that makes a book excellent.  And this one is my favorite read of the year so far.  You have to read this.
            Citra and Rowan are both teenagers who are chosen to be apprenticed to a Scythe.  In the world of this book, set in the relatively distant future, a world-wide computer net, combined with advances in nanotechnology, ensures that no one need die of natural causes.  Since the transportation network is computer controlled as well, accidents are unheard of and practically speaking, people can live for as long as they want to.  Of course, this has led to overpopulation.  So a cadre of Scythes, each working independently, are responsible for choosing, on their own, without computer interference, a certain quota of people to kill each month.   Although Scythes have some say in how they carry their duties out, they must grant a year’s worth of immunity from scythes to any relatives of the person they kill. 
            It is unprecedented when Scythe Faraday takes two apprentices at once, and the assembly of Scythes decides that at the end of Citra and Rowan’s apprenticeship, they will fight to the death to determine which one will become a Scythe.  Faraday continues to train them both, but when Faraday dies in an apparent suicide (deciding not to be saved by the nanobots in his body) Citra and Rowan are each turned over to a different Scythe.  Citra is apprenticed to Scythe Curie, who approaches her task with mercy and compassion; and Rowan is apprenticed to Scythe Goddard, who is known for orchestrated mass cullings which cause people to die in terror.  And with this, Schusterman sets up a story that will lead Rowan and Citra to make choices that will affect the structure of their world.  There are enough satisfying twists and turns to keep readers happy to the end. 
            There is enough going on here thematically that it would be an excellent book to consider using for high school English classes.  Though there is certainly some violence here, it is not glorified but rather shown to be abhorrent.  This would also be a fine book for a class or school library.  I doubt it would be likely to be challenged.

            If I haven’t made it clear yet, you need to read this book as soon as you can.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

True Life Attempted Murder Story -- Good for High School

Busby, Cylin; Busby, John (2008) The Year We Disappeared.  New York: Bloomsbury.

Image result for the year we disappeared

John Busby, a police officer in a Massachusetts seaside town, was driving to work one night when another car pulled alongside him and fired a shotgun through his window, blowing off his lower jaw.  He managed to steer himself into someone’s lawn, get out of the car and signal for them to call 911. He was rushed to the hospital, stabilized, and flown to Johns Hopkins where he began a long and grueling healing and reconstruction process.
            While in the hospital, John thought about who had done this.  He concluded quickly that the local crime boss was behind it, partly because John was scheduled to testify against the crime boss’s brother.  Meanwhile, because of a clause in his contract, John’s family had around-the-clock police protection.  Because the police chief had been intimidated by the crime boss, the investigation was going nowhere.  John’s kids went to school accompanied by officers and the family seldom left the house.  After several incidents of intimidation, they built a high fence and got an attack dog, but the day came when the family had to decide whether to continue to live under what felt like house address or just disappear to another part of the country and start living again.

            The story is told in alternating chapters by John Busby and his daughter Cylin.  It makes for fascinating reading.  There is some violence and some vulgar language, but it would certainly be appropriate for a high school classroom library.  Well worth reading. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Informational Book about the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team -- Great for PE

Coffey, Wayne (2005) The Boys of Winter New York: Three Rivers Press.

Image result for the boys of winter

Opening lines:  “Year before I ever heard of Lake Placid or the Olympics, before I knew the mname of a single Russian Hockey Player, I was a kid in Massachusetts who wanted to be the next Bobby Orr.  I grew up skating on Holmes Pond, which took its name from our next door neighbor, Mrs. Holmes, who owned it.”

Among the holes in my reading knowledge, sports-related gaps are some of the biggest, and the hockey-related knowledge hole yawns open like a deep canyon, so when my amazing former student Evan recommended this book about the 1980 US Olympic team, I was glad to read it.  I was not surprised to find the story fascinating. 

The author, Wayne Coffey, has a remarkably readable style as he tells the story of the American Team’s Journey to the final game and describes the game itself that changed the way the world thought about American hockey teams.  But Coffey does more than this.  Within each chapter he also digresses repeatedly to tell the life stories of each play on the American side and most of the players on the Russian team.  In fact, he not only relates how the players got to skate on the ice while the world watched, he also describes what has happened to them since.  The hockey descriptions are excellent and Coffey does a really nice job of describing strategy (which would be really useful for Phys Ed classes), but honestly, the most enjoyable part of the book for me was seeing the amazing variety in temperaments, backgrounds, training styles, and approaches to life that the different players had.

This book is probably best from high school readers.  There are some descriptions of drinking and messing around, but nothing that would be likely to cause the book to be challenged.   It would be a great addition to an English classroom’s library, but I think it could be even more valuable for use in a PE class, or for a PE teacher to keep on hand for interested students.