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Monday, September 18, 2017

4 New Graphic Novels for English/Language Arts: Ban Hatke's Mighty Jack and the Goblin King; George O'Connor's Artemis; Adam Rapp and Mike Cavallaro's Decelerate Blue; and Margaret Atwood's Angel Catbird

Hatke, Ben (2017) Mighty Jack and the Goblin King.  New York:  First Second

Image result for mighty jack and the goblin king

Opening lines:

Well, here's the whole page.  It makes more sense with the images:  (This is actually the second page.  The first page doesn't have any words.  It is the image of a hand ...oh, just order it already.)

Image result for mighty jack and the goblin king
This Review, Short Version:  Buy this right away.

Long Version:

My favorite books take me so far into other worlds that I get lost in them for a while.  Ben Hatke has been doing this to me since I read his first Zita the Spacegirl book. I am not sure how he does it, but I think it involves taking kids from earth who are so real I feel like they live on my block, putting them into very differnt fantasy worlds, and then filling those fantasy worlds with so much activity and such interesting characters that you are drawn in.

In the Narnia books, the Pevensie children discover they are actually kinds and queens in the world they fall into.  Harry Potter discovers he is actually The Boy Who Lived.  Percy Jackson finds out that he is the son of the sea god Posiedon.  In Mighty Jack and The Goblin King, Jack and his friends are in constant danger not because they are prophesied to inherit the kingdom, or bcause there is a powerful wizard out to get them, but because they are in the way, don't kow the rules, or are just hanging out in a very dangerous place.  This is another element that grabs the reader.

Right  The story.  Well, at the end of Hatke's first book, Mighty Jack, a giant creature had kidnapped Jack's autistic sister Maddy and Jacka nd his friend Lily had followed them through a gateway.  Goblin King opens as Jack and Lily emerge into the world where Maddy has been taken.  Immeidately they are in trouble.  Jack fights, and bareley defeats a giant knight, then Lily falls off a bridge and lands on something hard.  Jack has no choice but to continue after Maddy.  Lily ends up being rescued and nursed back to health by a stquad of goblins.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Two New Picture Books that could be helpful for teaching history at any age: The true story of Winnie the Pooh and something about goblins too.

Mattick, Lindsay; Blackall, Sophie (2015)  Finding Winnie:  The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

Image result for Finding Winnie

Opening lines:  "Could you tell me a story?" asked Cole.
     "It's awfully late."  It was long past dark and time to be asleep.  "What kind of story?"
     "You know, a true story.  One about a bear."  We cuddled up close.
     "I'll do my best," I said.

And with that, we fall into two separate stories.  The first is about a veterinarian named Harry Colebourne who lives in Winnepeg.  Harry is called up to fight for Canada in the First World War. While riding a troop train to a training base, Harry gets off at a station and encounters a trapper who has a bear cub with him.  Harry buys the bear and takes it with him to a staging base in England.  The bear, named Winnepeg, or Winnie for short, serves as a mascot for his unit.  When it becomes clear that his unit will be shipped to fight on the continent, Harry drives in to London and donates his bear to the London Zoo and tearfully says goodbye.  As the book puts it, that is where one story ends and another begins.  Some years later, a young schoolboy named Christopher Robin Milne becomes quite taken by the bear and loves visiting him in the zoo.  That bear becomes part of the basis for the beloved children's book character Winnie the Pooh.

There are a couple of things that make this book stand out as a picture book (and explain why it was honored by a Caldecott Medal).  First of all, the images, which straddle the line between realism and cartoon, give us a remarkably clear sense of the bond between the bear and the soldiers.  A section in the back of the book contains annotated black and white photographs from that period so that children can see images of the bear and the soldiers (and the bear with Christopher Robin) and the similarity between those photographs and some of the images in the book connect the story even more deeply with history.

Secondly, by telling two separate stories, the book does an amazing job of helping young children get the sense of how history can link together more than one generation (particularly when one picture in the back reveals that the author of the book is Harry's great-granddaughter.)  For kindergarteners and first graders beginning to learn history, the book provides this veracity and the sense that old photos and documents contain fascinating narratives -- and that there is more to the stories of those who go to war than just fighting.

The book would be ideal for first grade and second, but could also be useful for introducing concepts of historical research and analysis to middle grades and high school kids.

Hatke, Ben (2016) Nobody Likes a Goblin.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Lines:  "Deep in a dungeon the bats were sleeping soundly, / and Goblin woke to a new day./  He lit the torches.  He fed the rats.  He gnawed an old boot for breakfast, and he thought about the day ahead."

In this picture book by Ben Hatke, (which seems to have been a character study for his recently released graphic novel Mighty Jack and the Goblin King)  Goblin likes to pass his time with his friend Skeleton.  Then a group of adventurers storm the dungeon and take everything, treasure, Goblin's furnishings, and even Skeleton.  Goblin sets out to find his friend.  Along the way he meets a hill troll who was raided by the adventurers who took his goose (which he calls his Honk-honk). Goblin tells the troll he will get the Honk-honk back.  When Goblin enters human territory, he is met by fear, horror, anger, aggression, shouts of "Filthy Goblin!" and villagers carrying pitchforks and frying pans menacingly.

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Goblin finds Skeleton and flees from the adventurers.  He hides in a cave, feeling that nobody likes a goblin.  Then he finds more goblins in the cave and they scare the adventurers away, taking their stuff (and some human friends) to start a new community. (The Troll gets his Honk-honk back.)

It struck me that though this is a fine picture book for kindergarten and first grade, it might also be useful for middle school or high school history classes.  The way Hatke draws the adventurers, they are clearly what we could traditionally think of as protagonists, heroes, or good guys.  In fantasy novels, such adventurers frequently defeat goblins, trolls, and other creatures and take treasure or whatever else they need from them.  We accept this narrative as it is told to us -- assuming the treasure is ill-gotten gain and that the creatures are dangerous and somehow in the wrong.  This story turns that around though, and presents the story from the perspective of the group that is usually thought of as the bad guys -- in much the same way that Howard Zinn's History of American Empire looks at history from the perspective of those who lost the battle, the war, or the negotiations.

I don't mean to suggest that Hitler's actions were justifiable, or that we need to understand that there are two sides to the Armenian or Rwandan genocides -- clearly within the sweep of history there are those who act from a morally reprehensible view of the world.  At the same time, though, our students are taught to automatically accept their own history as being righteous and justifiable.  This book may offer a way for students to reconsider those positions -- but it does so in a way that is disconnected from our world.  Thus in-class conversations might be possible without the interference of deeply held and unquestioned contextualized political presuppositions.

The art work, as in everything else Ben Hatke does, is beautiful.  Hatke illustrates things with enough detail to make settings and characters real enough that we can sympathize with them, yet also keeps the layouts simple enough that the reader can follow the story effortlessly.  History teachers might think of having a look at this one.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A bombing in Israel, A dying boy's last year, and an ancient Indian epic--all of them dealing with religion and faith with varying degrees of success

Faith and religion are generally topics that we avoid talking about for fear of offending anyone.  Yet in a world where religious extremists use their faith as an excuse for violence, and where it is sometimes hard to see past the glare of media stereotypes to see the good people of faith fighting for social justice, some sensible discussion of religion could make a difference.   This is particulalry true for high school students who are trying to figure out their place in the world.  I recently read three books, all appropriate for high school level readers, that deal with religion in very different ways and offer food for thought without being aggressive or evangelical.  All three are worth a read, though I reccommend some more highly than others.

Baxter, Jack; Faudem, Joshua; Shadmi, Koren (2015)  Mike's place:  A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv.  New York:  First Second.

 Image result for Mike's Place graphic novel

Opening lines  (sort of)  (see below):

Image result for Mike's Place graphic novel
Mike's place is a bar in Tel Aviv that is known for being a warm, cozy, hospitable place.  It features live music, an upbeat atmosphere, and welcomes everyone, whether local or stranger, Israeli or Palestinian, regardless of politics.  When US filmmaker Jack's plans to make a documentary about the trial of a Palestinian accused of masterminding terrorist attacks fall through completely, a walk at night and a chat with Mike's Place owner and bartender Gal lead Jack to decide to make a documentary about this apparently neutral ground in the middle of the religious tension in this part of the world.  But as we get to know the family of workers, regulars, and visitors that form Jack's Place, we also see glimpses of the suicide bombers who are planning to destroy the bar.

And though this is a graphic novel telling of a true story of the days leading up to a real bombing and the pain, grief, havoc, and eventually rebirth that followed, it raises a series of interesting questions about the brokenness of humans and about the grace that sometimes comes to them.  Here there is romance, betrayal, friendship, music, and violence -- and the amazing part of it is that the graphic novel format allows us to be right in the middle of Mike's Place and the lives of its inhabitants.  When the bomb blast comes, it is not a shock -- the reader has been expecting it -- but it hurts all the same.  We know these people.

After the blood and ambulances and hospital stays; after the injuries, deaths, and recoveries; after the grief and sorrow and post-traumatic stress, when the community of Mike's Place begins to rebuild, there is a sense of renewal and redemption and restoration of grace (while at the same time, there is a certainty that this sort of thing will happen again.)

Each section begins with a quote from the Qur'an which argues for unity, friendship, non-violence and hope.  (For example, section 2 begins with "Truly those who believe, and the Jews and the Christians, and the Sabaeans -- whoever believes in God and the Last Day and performs virtuous deeds -- surely their reward is with their sustainer and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve.")  Such quotations hang on through the images of the warmth inside the bar, the darkness outside of it, the joy and happiness of the Mike's Place crew, and the straight-faced isolation of the bombers-in-training. There is also a theme of seeking God, though it is very subtle.  French waitress Dominique goes to a fortune teller seeking divine wisdom to figure out which of her lovers she should stay with.  Filmmaker Jack calls home to his wife in the US every night, then goes for long walks in the falling dark, at one point buying a good luck charm from a shopkeeper.  Cameraman Joshua and his girlfriend seek meaning in each other, but don't seem to be finding it.  And most of all, the patrons at Mike's Place seem to seek a world that is calm, rational, joyful, unified by something, and not caught in the grip of hate.

The book contains a smattering of vulgar language, implications of people sleeping with each other, at least once cheating on a committed relationship, and there is some violence --but the way the book opens up discussions of what we should do when religions are in conflict with each other would seem to outweigh the negative aspects and make it a good choice for high school students.  In any case, it is well worth checking out.

Crutcher, Chris (2007) Deadline.  New York:  HarperCollins.

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Opening line:  "My plan was to focus my senior year on information I could use after graduation when I set out for Planet Earth from the Pluto that is Trout, Idaho, population 943."

That's how this novel begins.  But as Ben is about to begin his senior year, he finds out that he has an illness that will kill him in a year unless he starts immediately on a course of treatment that will be painful, leave him spending most of his remaining year in a hospital bed, and only has a small chance of being effective.  So Ben refuses treatment, swears the doctor to secrecy, and decides to make the most of his remaining year.  He goes out for football and makes the team because of his speed and daring.  He asks the girl he likes if she will go out with him and eventually ends up with a girlfriend.  He decides to help the town drunk get sober.  He takes on his narrow- minded history teacher by proposing a project where he will try to get one of the streets in his hometown renamed as Martin Luther King Drive, despite the townspeople's extreme lack of interest in such a change.  And all along he keeps his secret from his parents, his girlfriend, his brother, school authorities, and everyone.

As his relationship with his girlfriend grows, though, and as his teamwork with his brother on the football field seems to be leading them to double scholarships, Ben feels more and more like he wants to tell someone, but now so much time has passed that if he does tell anyone, they will feel betrayed.

And here is the most interesting part of this very gripping novel.  Ben has visions where he is talking to someone he calls Hey Soos (think Mexican pronunciation of Jesus).  Hey Soos appears in his dreams and they talk about right and wrong.  Hey Soos seems a lot more real than Ben's biblical image of Jesus, and at first Ben assumes Hey Soos is his own subconscious.  Later he isn't so sure.  Yet because the question is not settled and because Hey Soos doesn't seem to be a religious figure, Crutcher is able to bring in some religious-moral perspective without all the baggage that usually goes along with it.  And because the main character is facing his own death, he listens to that advice in a way that is different from how most high school students might listen.

Crutcher's work is frequently challenged and occasionally banned.  I am not sure why.  There are some vulgar words from time to time and a character in the book has had a child outside of marriage, but the book combines authenticity with the very real and complicated ethical dilemmas that high school students need to deal with, I suggest that Deadline belongs on every high school teacher's shelf (if not on every student's desk as part of a unit).  Best book I have read in a long time.  Buy it.

Arni, Samhita; Chitrakar, Moyna (2011) Sita's Ramayana.  Toronto:  Groundwood.

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Opening lines:  "For a thousand years the Dandaka forest slept. // Until one day the daughter of the earth came.  At her touch the flowers, creepers, and trees of the Dandaka awoke from their long sleep. The forest watched her with great interest.  She was no hermit's wife -- beautifully dressed in priceless silks and ornaments, worth a king's ransom."

The Ramayana is apparently a great legend of ancient India.  It involves a princess and her brother and honor and right and wrong and I really wanted to like it.  It seems like a great story, and I applaud the publisher, Groundwood, for bringing this ancient story to light -- but I couldn't get through it.  The story is told in graphic novel form (sort of) and in spite of the way the book preserves the language of the original and the beautiful art inspired by the art of India, I don't think it works very well as a graphic novel.

There were several reasons for this.  First was the lettering.  I'll admit I have a preference for hand-lettered graphic novels.  Part of the reason for my preference for hand lettering is probably tradition.  the first comic books that I read were hand lettered, with some words emboldened to indicate emphasis -- but more than that, it was like the hand lettering captured the voice of the story.  This is certainly true with modern hand-lettered graphic novels.  Sita's Ramayana uses typeset lettering in a sans serif font.  The lettering seems artificial and lifeless and doesn't convey the depth of the passion of the story.  In fact, as times words of intensity seem humorous because of the way the print looks so bland and emotionally level on the page.

Second, Chitrakar's illustrations, while an excellent example of the Patua scroll painting tradition, do not convey the story in such a way that supports the words as much as it could.  Consider this illustration:

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The words may be too small to read, but just look at the panels.  What is happening here is that Surpanaka, princess of Lanka (on the right) has transformed herself into a beautiful woman to win the love of Lakshmana (the fellow on the left).  Lakshmana, however, realizes that she is a demoness, and in the second panel, cuts off her nose. She flees back to Lanka in the fourth panel and persuades her brother Ravana, king of Lanka to avenge this insult.  Unfortunately, the panels do not to a very good job of conveying this action.  In the second panel, the thin stick that looks like a baton in Lakshmana's right hand, is actually a sword.  In the third panel, the red color on Surpanka is meant to indicate that her nose has been cut off. There is no indication of movement (which could be accomplished by a two-panel series showing the sword at the beginning of its arc and at the end.) So while the illustrations are beautiful, they do little to convey action and passion in ways that the words cannot.

Perhaps I do not know how to read this type of art.  That is a fair criticism, but if that is so, I doubt many other readers will know the secrets either.  For me, at least, the magic of the graphic novel's integration of word and action through image and panel never quite get off the ground. So much so, that honestly, I did not make it to the end.

Having said that, I have no doubt that this rendition would help newcomers to the story to be able to picture what is going on, and as such might be worthy of a classroom library for students who are interested in reading this ancient tale.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Best book ever for teaching with graphic novels!

So there is this amazing new book that just came out.  Um, well, I really think it is the best book ever for using graphic novels to teach middle school and high school across all subject areas.  But, um, this is sort of awkward. I was one of the people who wrote it.

 So I am a bit sheepish about touting it, and I certainly can't review my own book.  So I'll give you the details and then a couple of quotes from the back and that will have to do. Aw shucks.  Now I am all embarrassed.

Boerman-Cornell, William;  Kim, Jung;  Manderino, Michael (2017) Graphic Novels in High School and Middle School Classrooms.  Lanham:  Rowman and Littlefield,

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"As we write this introduction, refugees are seeking asylum in a Europe that doesn't seem to want them.  Police officers have been accused of beating and killing African Americans in a cycle of fear and violence that sometimes has the officers in the sights of snipers.  Undocumented immigrants in the United States suffer exploitation and bigotry.  Americas national policies seem ruled by obstructionism, extremism, and people talking past each other.  News and information are increasingly difficult to verify and trust.  Globally the nations of the world seem unable to stem the tide of climate change.  Human trafficking and income equality make us wonder where justice is.

"Given all these challenges that face our children, why are we writing a book about how to use overgrown comic books in the classroom?  What can graphic novels offer a world plagued by inequity, injustice, and despair."

 Quotes from the back of the book:

"An essential book for explaining clearly the richness of visual literacy, how many layers of meaning can be packed into the magical combination of words and pictures."
--Marissa Moss, award-winning author of Nurse, Soldier, Spy, author and illustrator of the Amelia's Notebook series, and owner of Creston Books Publishing.

"I don't know anyone who has spent as much time thinking critically about the place of the graphic novel in the classroom than these authors.  This book tackles not only the question of how to incorporate graphic novels in the classroom but also the more fascinating questions of why the medium is so powerful.  This is the first book that should be picked up by any teacher thinking of building a curriculum that includes graphic novels."
--Ben Hatke, award-winning graphic novelist and creator of Zita the Spacegirl, Mighty Jack, and Little Robot.

"The authors ask an important question:  Can graphic novels change the world?  And then they show us how, in fact, they can.  The chapters in this book highlight the value of this format in guiding students' reading, writing, and thinking.  They clearly and expertly discuss the ways graphic novels can be used to teach a wide range of skills and strategies that students need, both inside and outside the classroom."
--Doug Fisher, author, speaker, and literacy researcher, San Diego State University.

Other Quotes:

"This book has been remarkably useful for us as we have redesigned the required curriculum of the Xavier Institute to include more graphic novels.. I enjoyed reading it. Particularly the parts about physics and biology."
--Dr. Henry McCoy, Dean of Instruction, The Xavier Institute (formerly Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.)

"I was skeptical at first.  I had never read a graphic novel.  But our students like the format and it seems a good way to get at the foundational ideas that underlie many of our courses. Now if only someone would write a graphic novel about herbology."
--Neville Longbottom, Headmaster, Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry.

"I found myself quite taken by the parts about inquiry learning.  The authors have convinced me that a book like this will help teachers encourage independent thinking, group problem-solving, and intrinsic motivation." 
--Nicholas Benedict, founder of the Mysterious Benedict Society

So there you have it.  The book is available through the Rowman and Littlefield website, through Amazon, and if you go to your local independent bookstore, they can order you a copy too.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Heroes return (Black Widow and Harry Potter) but these books are not the perfect experience

Stohl, Margaret (2016) Black Widow: Forever Red.  New York: Marvel

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Opening Lines:  Natasha Romanoff hated pierogies – but more than that, she hated lies.
Lying she was fine with.  Lying was a necessity, a tool of tradecraft.  It was being lied to that she hated, even if it was how she had been raised.
Everything Ivan used to say was a lie.

Ever since I first bought comic books at Argus Used Books Shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, there have been novelizations of the Marvel Superheroes.  I remember reading some of them, and remember some being good and some being not so good.  What seemed to make a difference often was whether the writer of the novelization seemed to have read at least as many of the comics as I had.  If they hadn’t, the book was usually missing some important links or characterization, or some aspect of the main character’s personality, or even about the world they lived in. 

Recently, Marvel has upped the ante.  They have managed to get some real giants of adolescent and YA literature to craft stories about their heroes (now household words after the terrifically popular series of Marvel movies.  Eoin Colfer has written about Iron Man, Shannon Hale about Squirrel Girl, and Margaret Stohl about Black Widow.  These are not graphic novels, they are regular text novels containing brand new stories. And sometimes it works. 

I am not sure what to tell you about Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow, Forever Red.  Stohl has done her homework and the storyline seems to fit well with the character.  The story has Natasha Romanoff (The Black Widow) shepherding two teenagers.  Ava is a homeless kid living in New York who was exposed to a strange experimental machine when she was a young child and seems to have gained reflexes, strategy, and tradecraft similar to what the Black Widow has.  Alex is living a comfortable suburban life, raised by a single mom.  But it turns out that he seems to have black widow-like reflexes too. 

And while the book is a fun action-adventure sort of a novel, if it has a problem, here it is—you don’t buy this book to read about the two junior widow kids.  You want to read about Natasha.  This book spends at least as much time on the two kids and often they seem to be the central focus of the book.  Their story is interesting, and the budding romance between them will also hold readers’ attentions – but it is supposed to be a story about Natasha.

Not much in the way of themes here – other than a kind of “Who am I” theme that draws connections between Black Widow and the kids throughout the book . There is certainly violence, a bit of vulgar language (though not much) and some suggested sexual intimacy between Alex and Ava, but nothing very explicit.  This would be a good one for a 7th through 12th grade classroom library, but I cannot imagine any class actually studying it and getting much out of it.

Rowling, J.K.; Tiffany, John; and Thorne, Jack (2016) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  New York:  Arthur Levine.

Image result for harry potter and the cursed child cover

Opening Lines:  King’s Cross.  A busy and crowded station.  Full of people trying to go somewhere.  Amongst the hustle and bustle, two large cages rattle on top of two laden trolleys.  They’re being pushed by two boys, James Potter and Albus Potter.  Their mother, Ginny follows after.  A thirty-seven year old man, Harry, has his daughter Lily on his shoulders.
ALBUS:  Dad, he keeps saying it.
Harry:  James, give it a rest.

Of course, this is the latest in the Harry Potter saga – or is it.  Presumably written by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne with editorial oversight by J.K. Rowling, the story follows the children of the heroes of the first seven books.  Specifically we meet Harry’s son Albus, who gets sorted into Slytherin house, and Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius, who meets Albus and forms a sort of friendship. 

I have talked to several other Harry Potter fans about this, including my own daughter, and though they all have read it, they all have some reservations.  The first reservation I inevitably hear may be the easier of the two to dismiss.  They will  inevitably say the writing just doesn’t sound like Rowling’s.  I detected several spell names which seemed to be theatrical puns rather than the Latinate incantations that Rowling prefers   And certainly our heroes, now recast as middle aged parents, seem to lack the energy and sharpness they had in the first seven books.  But we might respond that it doesn’t sound like Rowling because it probably wasn’t her that wrote it.  This seems like a purist’s complaint. 

The second complaint is harder to articulate, but I would argue is a more serious flaw of the book.  The relationship between Albus and Scorpio is ambiguous.  Are they really good friends, or is there a homosexual attraction between the two?  The book stops short of clarifying this, perhaps preferring that the reader decide for him or herself.  When I read it though, this ambiguity seemed to mess up both possibilities.  Their relationship seems a bit too hysterical to be a strong platonic friendship, but it seems too reserved to really be a gay relationship.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that so much of the theme and the plot hang on their relationship.  So it is very hard for the reader to see that motivations spring from a deep platonic relationship (as they did between Harry, Ron and Hermione, at least until Ron and Hermione became an item in the sixth book) because the relationship being shown doesn’t seem to be platonic.  But it also doesn’t seem to work as a gay relationship because without that relationship being able to develop in any real way, it too lacks depth.

None of this need concern teachers who are afraid of the book being challenged.  It is all open for interpretation and nothing is clear.  But that makes it a hard book to read.  Perhaps it is clearer in the stage production. 

At any rate, though it is certainly an imperfect book, Harry Potter fans will want to read it.  It might be a good addition to a high school language arts class library.  

Friday, June 30, 2017

Two Very Different YA Novels -- from Kara Thomas and Eoin Colfer

Thomas, Kara (2017) Little Monsters  New York: Random House.

Image result for Little Monsters Kara Thomas

Opening lines:
"They fire off a round of texts at me at five minutes after midnight:
      We're coming.
     Get ready.
     They're not threats, but my friends have a way of making even the simplest demands feel like ultimatums."

Bailey is in a car with Cliff Grosso when he gets a DUI and loses his scholarship and because she is not very popular, everyone blames her for ruining Cliff's life.  Then one night Bailey leaves a party and Cliff leaves right after she does.  Bailey never makes it home.

This is the set-up for Little Monsters.  The novel is told through alternating chapters narrated by Kacey, her friend Jade, and sections of Bailey's diary.  This is a murder mystery so well-plotted that it will keep the reader rivited to the end -- if the reader can stand to hang in there that long.  This book is well titled.  Kacey moves through a world of jaded, cynical, unhappy girls.  They are cynical about school, family, their community, each other, and the future.  And Kacey is not much different.  She sums it up this way:  "There is no such thing as best friends.... Everyone is only out to protect themselves."  The epilogue contains a grain of hope, but make no mistake, this is a world of monsters.

So what is wrong with that?  Aren't books supposed to tell the truth?  To be authentic?  High school girls can be pretty monstrous.  Aren't there some girls out there who would jump at a chance to read a book that shows them the world as they understand it?  A book that shows unflinchingly the worst of what humans can be to each other?  Don't we sometimes read to know that we are not alone?  Isn't the world like this sometimes?

Yes, all those things are true.  And yes, high school students use vulgar language, engage in under-aged drinking, cut themselves, have sex, talk about each other as if they were no more than the sum of their attractiveness or unattractiveness to others, and betray their friends.

But I don't relish spending time with such people.  I certainly don't mind books that show the pain of being a human, but I also read to know that all worlds have some degree of hope in them -- that there is always the chance things will get better.  And honestly, at the end, there is some hope to be found, but it comes so late and there is so little hope that at that point, the book had worn me down and I didn't want to spend any more time in this world.

Lurie Anderson's now classic novel Speak certainly paints a dark picture of life for high school girls -- but there is a moment in that book where the main character returns to a bathroom stall where she has written something truthful and negative about the boy who date-raped her, and finds the stall wall covered with affirmations and corroborations of what she wrote.  That moment is one in the book where there is a lot of hope that eventually the truth might come out.  I do not find such a moment in this book except at the very end, and then it is muted.

It may be the result of my overly optimistic nature, and I can think of some students who might like this book, so if this sounds like a book you would enjoy, you might want to pick it up.  I would have a hard time recommending it, though. It could be used to prompt an interesting discussion in language arts about what makes a book worthwhile, and whether it is necessary for books to offer hope.

It is clearly written for a high school audience.  The vulgar language might easily lead it to be challenged, however, so I would encourage teachers to read it before putting it in your classroom library.

Colfer, Eoin (2014)  The Hangman’s Revolution.  Los Angeles: Hyperion.

Image result for The Hangman's Revolution

Opening lines:
"Boxite Youth Academy, Present Day London.  New Albion.  115 (Boxite Calender)
London Town.
Once there had been a magic about the city.  Just hearing the name conjured images of Dickens's young trickster Dodger or of Sherlock holmes in Baker Street putting his mind to a three-pipe problem, or of any one of a thousand tales of adventure and derring-do that were woven through London's magnificient avenues and shadowy network of backstreets and alleys. For centuries, people had journeyed from across the world to England's capital to see where thier favorite stories were set, or perhaps to make thier fortune, or maybe to simply stand and gaze at the wonders of Trafalger Square of Big Ben.
Not anymore.  The days of magic were long gone."

Cevron Savano, 17 year old FBI agent, and Riley, 19th century London native and budding stage magician, are back in this sequel to The Reluctant Assassin.  In this second book of the WARP series, Chevie returns to the 21st century to find that everything has changed.  The world is now run by a dictator named Colonel Box and Chevie is now one of his soldiers, about to be interrogated under submission of treason.  There is a part of her brain, though, that knows that something is wrong and eventually she escapes to Riley’s London, where the two of them hope to stop Colonel Box before he can seize control of the world. 

There are no important themes here (though the book will set you thinking), and no profound character development.  This is a wonderful, rollicking action/adventure ride with plenty of surprises, explosions, trips through the London sewers, temporary allies, anachronistic weapons like tanks, zodiac boats, and cruise missiles in the London of 1899, chase scenes, near escapes, moments when all appears lost, unlikely love interests, and victories of bravery, subterfuge, and cleverness. 
I like that Colfer has included both a male and a female protagonist and suspect that male and female students will like this one.  Other than violence, there is nothing objectionable here.  This book seems suitable for students in grades four and up. If you want a fun thrill ride of a book, I recommend this one. It might be an interesting diversion for a physics or science class as the discussion of time travel is complex and brings up some interesting questions -- but for a language arts class-- there isn't much going on here thematically.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Three Graphic Novels: a Crafty Cat, a Missing Mom, and a Lonely Outcast Saved by Jane Eyre and a Wild Fox

Britt, Fany; Arsenault, Isabelle (2012)  Jane, The Fox, and Me.  Toronto: Groundwood Books. 

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Opening lines:  “There was no possibility of hiding anywhere today.  Not in the halls at school or out in the schoolyard, or even in the far stairway, the one leading to art class that smells like sour milk.  They were everywhere, just like their insults scribbled on the walls.”
So begins the story of Helene, drawn in this graphic novel as an average kid, but apparently the bullying and abuse and insults on the walls that proclaim that she is overweight and smells and say, “Don’t talk to Helene, she has no friends now.”  Helene escapes from the horrible loneliness of the drab grey schoolyard by imagining herself to be Jane Eyre.  When she is able to plunge into her book, she lives in a world of vibrant color and peace.  Strangely, at school, where she feels so lonely, she is constantly surrounded by people.  In the world of her book, she often seems to be the only person there, but it is a world of great beauty and tranquility.  Where there are other people in the world of Jane Eyre, they are people who understand her and connect with her.  Forced to go to camp with her schoolmates, Helene endures more insults and humiliation.  She sees a fox (one of the few creatures (or objects) in her world with color.  Even that is driven from her by her classmates.  And just when I think the story will end in desperation and existential angst, Helene and some other outcast girls discover what generations of nerds before her have discovered, that there are other people somewhere around you who don’t care about clawing their way up the popularity hill – and that those people make the best friends.  Here is hope. 
This book is splendid.  It would be ideal for middle school and would be a good one to study as a class.

Harper, Charise Mercicle (2017) The Amazing Crafty Cat  New York: First Second.

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Opening lines:  “In this house, in this room, Crafty Cat adds the last piece of tape.  Purrfect!”
In times of stress, like when she drops her birthday treat on the ground, young Birdy transforms into the amazing Crafty Cat.  Anyway, that is the idea of this book that is probably ideal for second and third grade.  Like Babymouse, Birdy lives in her imagination sometimes and as a result, real life is rather annoying most of the time. This book is funny sometimes and actually includes some instructions for crafts.  The story isn’t much, but I expect that, for some of the intended audience, that will not matter much.  The artwork is pretty simplistic which will make it easy for graphic novel beginners to follow, but may not grab young students’ attentions as much as teachers might like.

Tolstikova, Dasha (2015) A Year without Mom.  Toronto:  Groundwood Books.

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Opening lines:  “Once, when I was very small, I bit my mom’s finger.”
12 year old Dasha is growing up in Soviet Russia. When her Mother goes to the US to study advertising.  Dasha must live with relatives.  She has to survive physics (which apparently 12 year olds study in Russia), survive her first crush (Petya – though it turns out he like Katya).  While it is a fascinating book in terms of learning to see cultural differences and understandings, it also has an odd, inconclusive ending and includes a fair amount of smoking, drinking, and kids wanting to talk like adults.  It also has some wonderful page turns. 
            It is as hard to figure out what age level this book is intended for as it is to figure out what format it is.  It isn’t exactly a graphic novel (all the lettering is typeset, there are few panel division, and sometimes the text appears as a picture book/sometimes as word balloons.)  I think it might work for a high school literature class, perhaps as part of a classroom library.  Not sure it could stand up to real study, though.  Might be worth checking out (especially if you like to support smaller presses like Groundwood) but I would advise teachers to read it before using it.