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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Graphic Novels to Teach Math With!

Yang, Gene Luen; Holmes, Mike (2016) Secret Coders 2: Paths and Portals.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Panels:

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            The Coders are back.  Hopper, Eni, and Josh now discover that Mr. Bee, the grumpy janitor from the first book, was once a teacher at the school, and he begins to teach them while at the same time, they begin to dig into some of the suspicious doings that the dean of the school (and his pet rugby team) seem involved in.  When the dean captures one of the janitor’s robots, and then the janitor himself, the secret coders need to decide if it is worth unleashing chaos to set the janitor free. 
            There is a lot of learning in this book, but Yang embeds the instruction into the stories so completely that many students won’t even notice they are learning coding, geometry, and even how to write letters in mandarin Chinese. Yang takes his time with both character development and plot development probably because he knows he will have many books in the series to develop these aspects more fully. 
            What makes this such a great book for a math classroom library is that the math stuff is solid, but deeply embedded in the experiences of the children.  This book goes a long way toward helping students see the answer to the perennial questions, “What are we going to use this stuff for?”
Holmes’s artistic style seems drawn from Saturday morning cartoons.  The characters are drawn in part like caricatures, but there is enough realism built in that a student can get lost in the world of the book.  If you teach math or coding, you need this book now. 

Yang, Gene Luen; Holmes, Mike (2017) Secret Coders 3: Secrets and Sequences.  New York: First Second.

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            This is what happens when I do more writing than review writing.  I end up with more wonderful Secret Coders Books to review.  In this one, Principal Dean kidnaps Hoppers Mom and the kids follow, eventually ending up in the lair of Dr. One Zero, a former pupil of their janitor-mentor, Mr. Bee.  Dr. One Zero imprisons them and steals their flying turtle to use its laser to draw out Mr. Bee from hiding and at the same time destroy their school. Along the way, the Coders have to learn use their newfound skills at writing ifelse statements to trick a robotic cat into destroying their cell door and program a flock of robotic birds to intercept Dr. One Zero’s craft and foil his plans.  Unfortunately, after rescuing Hoppers Mom, they return to school to find that Dr. One Zero has become the new principal of their school. 
            Math.  Geometrey.  Coding.  Problem-solving.  Fun.  Buy this.

Shiga, Jason (2017) Demon 2.  New York: First Second.

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            What does a story about a guy who, when he dies, possesses the body of the nearest person to him, have to do with teaching math?   When the main character, Jimmy Yee has a mission, to get revenge on the drunk driver that killed his family, and when he uses math to do it.  Jimmy is a former actuary who can cube two digit numbers in his head, and so evading the mysterious government agency that is after him, escaping capture, and getting to his goal is mostly a matter of logic and math.  Although the story is certainly grisly, it may be amazing way to teach the value of logic in problem-solving, if you can get past the carnage. 
            So here are the rules, which Jimmy Yee figures out as he goes (and so does the reader).  1.  Jimmy possesses the body of whomever is nearest to him when he dies.  2. The possessions do not ross species, so he cannot possess the bodies of animals. 3.  The possessions occurs somewhere between a speed of mach 10 and instantaneously.  4.  He does not gain or loses his own mental skills when he transfers.  He gains some physical skill if he possesses a bodybuilder, but not all.  5.  He possesses the body of whatever person’s head is closest to his own. 
            But when Jimmy breaks into prison to complete his mission, he finds out his daughter is still alive and has the same abilities that he does, and that both of them are surrounded by hundreds of agents.  Can Jimmy figure out a way to escape the trap?
            Jason Shinga draws the characters in this graphic novel with big, often round heads that are reminiscent of Charles Schultz’s peanuts characters.  This stylized drawing approach minimizes the reality of the story that Jimmy is racking up a pretty massive body count.  Shinga also uses the convention of drawing Jimmy’s face on whatever person he has possessed so that it is easy to keep track of when Jimmy makes the jump.
            In an age of violence, school shootings, and indifference to death and suffering, this book seems to be more a part of the problem than the solution.  The fact that Jimmy is being hunted by people who want to use his abilities for nefarious ends, and the fact that those people try to use his daughter to blackmail him, and the way that he uses logic to get out of trap after trap, makes this book one that may win you over.
            Given the violence and several occasional vulgarities, this book would be best for high school and the teacher should preview it before putting it in her or his classroom.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

New Trade Books for Kids Who Love History (and the teachers that teach them)

Fleming, Candace (2014) The Family Romanov:  Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia  New York:  Schwartz and Wade.

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Opening line:  “On the night or February 12, 1903, a long line of carriages make its way through the Imperial Gates of St. Petersburg’s Winter palace.”. 
            There are moments in history when everything turns upside down.  When Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Empress Alexandra began their rule of Russia, they were following a long line of predecessors into what seemed a predictable reign.  Alexandra bore three daughters and, after much waiting, a son, Alexei, who would turn out to suffer greatly from hemophilia.  Then follows wartime troubles and Alexei suffers from more bouts of hemophilia-induced internal bleeding and the pain that accompanies it.  The Tsar and Tsarina eventually put their trust in a peasant mystic named Rasputin.  Rasputin, many allege, not only brings about the downfall of the Tsar, but would be indirectly responsible for Nicholas’s abdication of the throne, and eventually the death of his whole family. 
            Fleming carefully unwinds the narrative, paying attention not only to the Royal family, but to the peasants as well.   She paints Nicholas and Alexandra as partly na├»ve, party disinterested monarchs who more than anything want to escape the burdens of leadership and raise their family without interruption.  This is a tragic moment in history and it is fascinating to see it unfold.
            Strong fourth and fifth grade readers could make sense of most of this, but it is probably ideal for middle school and high school readers.  The book does cover the murder of the royal family in a matter of fact way and makes vague references to Rasputin’s  womanizing, but there is little here that could offend or trouble parents. 

Haskins, James (1977) Barbara Jordan.  New York: Dial Press.

Opening Quote:  “If there are any patriots left, I am one.”  --Barbara Jordan.

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            One thing history can do is remind us that things were not always the way they are now.  Somehow in the last forty years, the word politician became a bad word.  When Barbara Jordan became one of the first black women elected to US Congress,that was not so much the case.  Jordan was skilled at the art of compromise, of crossing the isle and finding the common ground of justice and helping the American people that let the legislature get things done.  She was organized and passionate, feisty and a good friend, principled and a good bridge-builder.  This book chronicles her hard work in law school, her hard work running for office, and her phenomenally hard work once she was in office.  This biography is not only an interesting portrayal of Barbara Jordan, but also a fascinating portrait of a time in our country's istory when compromise across the aisle was the ay we got things done.  
And she did all this as a black woman running for office in Texas.  Texas at the time seemed to have a very different sort of identity than it does now.  Although the biography probably skews in the direction of being overly positive toward her life, it does not omit the criticism of her being an Uncle Tom, or forgetting her people.  It acknowledges those criticisms and offers her response, then lets the readers decide.
I stumbled upon this book because it was a Coretta Scott King Award winner.  Although I believe it is out of print, websites like can be relied on to have a used copy usually for under six dollars.

Moss, Marissa (2017) Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective.  Creston Books.

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Opening Lines:  “Kate read the newspaper advertisement for the third time:  Wanted: Detective.  Must be observant, determined, fearless, and willing to travel.  Pinkerton Agency 353 Michigan Ave.  Chicago.  She had no experience at all, but the job called to her.”
Okay, yes, this is a picture book, but it is a wonderful one.  Moss tells the story of Kate Warne, the first woman detective in America.  Moss describes how Warne convinced Allan Pinkerton to hire her, even though he had never hired a female agent before.  She describes Warne’s first case, a theft of $40,000 from a locked pouch in a safe.  Warne took on a disguise, befriended the suspect’s wife and found out where the money was hidden.  An extensive author’s note at the end of the book fills in some details including how Warne served in the Secret Service, how she died, and where she is buried.
April Chu’s illustrations do a lot to bring the reader into the dusty sepia-toned world of Chicago in 1856.  Moss’s writing engaged the reader in the story, but also makes sure they will be interested in the history of it as well.  And extensive author’s note at the end will fill in some of the gaps for the interested reader.
I was going to say that this would be a great picture book for kids interested in history or detectives or law enforcement.  But as I think about it, this is the sort of book that might take a kid who doesn’t yet realize they are interested in these areas and start an interest that could make a huge difference.  I suppose the book is probably targeted at first through third grade – but I would use it up through middle school and high school as a way of getting students interested in a topic.  Check this one out. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Good Graphic Novels for Humans and Trolls of all Sorts of Ages

Orchard, Eric (2016)  Bera the One-Headed Troll  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Panels:

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            I teach in a college where our mascot is the Troll.  We are the only college with such a mascot in North America.  So I am a little defensive when it comes to trolls who generally get a bad rap.  Not so in this graphic novel. Bera is a kind and compassionate troll and when a baby appears in a tiny boat on the edge of her island, she saves it from the sirens.  Before long she sets out on a journey to return the baby to its people, and she must elude a witch, a giant, and many other obstacles to keep the baby safe.
            Not only is this a fun book for third grade and up, it also teaches kids to be careful who they trust  At several points, Bera things she has found someone who will care for the baby as she does.  In several of those cases, she is wrong. 
            But Bera is a good troll.  A fine example of what a troll should be.  Trinity alumni in particular may want to pick this one up. 

Weing, Drew (2016) The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo.  New York: First Second.

Opening Lines: 

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Charles is a small bookish kid who is always writing things in his notebook.  He wants to be a reporter someday, and so when his family moves to the big city, Charles begins writing a blog.  He views the city as a dangerous place, with high crime rates and danger of being mugged lurking around every corner.  When he discovers that he actually has a monster in his closet, he is even more scared.  Eventually a kid he meets gives him a card that says Margo Maloo, Monster Mediator.  He calls the number and Margo arrives through hi bedroom window, finds an old access panel in the back of his closet, and leads him down a shaft where she finds the Troll that has been living in Charles’s basement.  The troll (whose name is Marcus) was trying to scare away Charles’s family because he was afraid they would mess with his stuffed animal collection.  Soon Charles and the troll are getting along pretty well. 
            As the story goes on, Charles starts going along on Margo’s missions, sort of as her sidekick.  It becomes apparent that she really is a mediator, solving conflicts by getting the two sides to talk together and works something out.  There are still plenty of challenges and dangerous situations though, and Charles begins to learn that the city is not a place he should be scared of, but is in fact fascination, both in terms of the human community and the monster community.
            Bottom line, this book is a lot of fun.  Ideal for third grade and up. I suppose some parents might object to a book with monsters in it, but if they read the book, I think they would change their minds.  

Knisley, Lucy (2016) Something New:  Tales from a Makeshift Bride.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening lines: "Of all the unfamiliar roles in which I have found myself as an adult, this has been one of the strangest.  Despite hundreds of years of traditions and expectations, familiar rituals and ancient promises...  A year ago I couldn't have even imagined myself as a bride."

 Lucy Knisley writes really interesting memoirs in graphic novel form.  Her previous graphic novel, Relish, looked at her life in terms of food.  This book looks at how difficult it is to fight societal expectations and family expectations and make your wedding your own. She manages though, and gets her wedding dress with pockets, her (relatively simple) wedding, and all without permanently alienating her mom, fiance, friends, or anyone else. Along the way we find out the story of her relationship with John, her struggles with dating, and plenty of self-deprecating stories that make us smile.

There are interesting themes here including the importance of thinking critically about sociatal traditions before buying into them, how marriage is based on more than perfect appearance, and how humor can diffuse tension among others. 

This book would be good for high school and up, though teachers should be aware that Knisley references some same-sex dating that she did along the way and occasionally mentioned her support of same-sex marriage. This is not a major part of the book and would likely not even raise an eyebrow of the average high school student, but parents may be cautious or offended.  

Hale, Shannon; Pham, LeUyen (2017)  Real Friends: A True Story about Cool Kids and Crybabies New York:  First Second.

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Opening Line:  “When I was little, I didn’t worry about friends.”
When Shannon goes to kindergarten she meets Adrienne and they become best friends.  But when Adrienne moves away, Shannon is alone.  She meets Tammy, but it isn’t the same.  Adrienne moves back, but befriends Jan, who is cool.  And at that point, Shannon starts down the difficult road of trying to find and maintain friends in the difficult world of elementary school. 
            This is a remarkably honest book and the reader shares in Shannon’s triumphs and sorrows.  Pham’s illustrations use amazingly evocative facial expression to let the reader get inside the heads of Shannon and her friends (and enemies).  We also get to see what Shannon dreams of, including the stories of castles and knights she envisions writing some day, the scenarios he is pretending in her mind when she plays with her friends, and the image of Jesus comforting her when no one else will.    

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            This would be an excellent book for third graders and up, particularly in teaching social skills and providing comfort for kids who are stuck on the outside of friends groups they wish they were in.  It is certainly directed at a female audience.  There is nothing here that could cause any objection that I can see.  I am guessing every teacher can think of at least one kid who needs this book.  

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Books that will make you scream at me, "Why didn't you tell me about this book sooner?!"

Gidwitz, Adam (2016)  The Inquisitor’s Tale  New York:  Dutton.

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Opening Lines:  “The king is ready for war. 
Louis of France is not yet 30, and already he is the greatest king in Europe.  He loves his subjects.  He loves God.  And his armies have never been defeated.
This war, though, is different.
E is not fighting another army.
He is not fighting another kind.
He is fighting three children.
And their dog.”
This is a hard book to describe.  It is wonderful, but any summary will make it seem less than wonderful.  And so I am tempted to not summarize it, but you need to understand what it is like.  I will try.  My apologies for not doing this splendid book the justice it deserves. 
We hear the story as travelers tell it to each other in the dining room of an inn in France in 1242.  A\t first the story seems like it might be exaggerated, but gradually it becomes clearer and clearer.  Jeanne is a peasant girl whose life is saved by her dog which is then martyred but returns as a mysterious ghostly hound.  Jeanne herself has visions of the future.  Jacob is a Jewish boy whose entire community was destroyed by the King’s soldiers.  He discovers that he can heal any wound.  William is a moor from Africa who was raised by monks and has remarkable physical strength.  The three kids find themselves travelling together and soon draw the ire of the king by trying to prevent a public burning of books.  In the story, the three kids grow closer together, the king unleashes his army, and the kids work several miracles in the service of justice and mercy.
I know nobody reads a book because it contains important themes, but this one looks at making space for differing religious perspectives, contains a serious exploration of why God lets bad things happen, and also addresses themes of redemption and forgiveness.  There are some beautiful passages of dialogue which utterly fail to answer any of the questions these themes raise. And that is what makes this book ring authentic.     
“There are some people in this world who have magic in them.  Some of these people, it turns out, are children” says the inquisitor who has been following the children with the intent to turn them over to the authorities.  A few pages later, reflecting on their mostly unsuccessful attempt to save books form being burned publically by the king, Jacob says, “We saved five books.  How many worlds did we save?”
This book contains an excellent story that will make you think.  There is nothing here that would cause the book tobe challenged.  I think it could work as a read-aloud in fourth or fifth grade and as a book to be studied in middle school or even high school.  Regardless, you need to read it right away.  No sense in waiting any longer.  Go get a hold of it. 

Zentner, Jeff (2016) The Serpent King.  New York: Crown

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Opening Lines:  “There were things Dillard Wayne Early Jr. dreaded more than the start of school in Forrestville High.  Not many, but a few.  Thinking about the future was one of them.”
            Dill’s dad is a former snake-handling preacher who is in jail for distributing pornography and because of this, Dill is an outcast among his fellow students.  Fortunately he has two friends who are also outcasts.  Lydia plans to be a fashion designer in New York, and because of this, her fellow students in Forrestville High look down on her for not being like them.  Dill’s other friend is Travis, who loves fantasy novels and wears a cloak and carries a staff with him. Each one of these high school students have dreams, secrets, and fears and they all care for each other.  One reason I love this sotry is that it is an excellent depiction of what real healthy friendship looks like.  (Of course you will also encounter bullying, injustice, physical abuse, intolerance, horrible parents, awesome parents, and all the stuff that goes along with being a teenager.  This story slowly grabs hold of you and then becomes irresistible.  Parts of it make you want to yell at the book.  Other parts of it will leave you smiling to yourself. 
            This book is for high school students.  There is some vulgar language here, a reference to masturbation, and senseless violence.  There is also real love, transformation, and redemption.  There is hopelessness and hope.  One of my favorite quotes from the book is this one, “And if you are going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” (327)
            If you buy this, and if you read it, you will be glad you did.  

Lathan, Jennifer (2017) Dreamland Burning. New York:  Little Brown.
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Opening Lines;  “Nobody walks in Tulsa.  At least not to get anywhere.  Oil built our houses, paved our streets, and turned us from a cow town stop on the Firsco Railroad into the heart of Route 66.  My ninth grade Oklahoma History teacher joked that around these parts, walking is sacrilege.  Real Tulsan’s drive.
     “But today my car is totaled and I have a one o’clock appointment with the district attorney at the county courthouse.  So I walked.”

      Rowan is about to begin her summer internship. When the workers renovating her family’s carriage hours discover a body (and leave the worksite immediately, fearing the authorities will investigate their immigration status) Rowan is the one who calls the police.  She starts to wonder whose body it is and how it came to be hidden in her carriage house.  From there this excellent novel splits.  We follow one story concerning Will Tillman, a white teenager growing up in Tusa in 1921 who inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to a race riot that he will try desperately to prevent.  Rowan’s story continues as she finds out more about the body and also navigates race relations in today’s world as a mixed-race daughter of professional, upper middle-class parents.  After Rowan witnesses a car versus pedestrian accident that seems racially motivated, the two stories come together in an incredibly powerful conclusion.
      This story has enough going on in it thematically and is well-written enough that would be a good book for a high school English class to pair with something like To Kill a Mockingbird.  It would also make a fine addition to a classroom library.  And you would really enjoy reading this one. At the very least, put it on your summer reading list.

Balliet, Blue (2013) Hold Fast. New York:  Scholastic.
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Opening Lines:  “It was the bitterest, meanest, darkest, coldest winter in anyone’s memory, even in one of the most forgotten neighborhoods in Chicago.”

Warning:  This is a really good book, but you are going to have to be patient.  There is a long wait for the payoff.  Things get desperate quickly and for a long time the mystery doesn’t get solved.  I found that frustrating when I first read the book.  It is not until the last third of the book that things start to come together, but when they do it is worth it.  And then it is totally satisfying. 

            The story is about a family.  Summer and Dash are the parents, and Early (a girl) and Jubilation (a boy) are the kids.  Dash disappears abruptly from his life, gone without a trace.  Thugs break into their house, threaten them and ransack the place.  Summer, Early, and Jubilee go on the run and soon find themselves in a homeless shelter and also find out that the FBI is looking for their dad, and that Early may hold the key to finding him,.This is not just a mystery of a missing dad and an unknown crime – the book also explores the second mystery of why there are thousands of homeless people suffering lives of crushing desperation and at the same time, thousands of foreclosed buildings sitting empty.

            Balliet’s writing is, as usual], filled with clues and cyphers, and evey now and then an amazing quote that will really grab you.  One quote that grabbed my attention was this one: “Reading is a tool no one can take away.  A million bad things may happen in life and it’ll still be with you, like a flashlight that never needs a battery.  Reading can offer a crack of light on the blackest of nights.” (p 166).

            This one is probably best suited to high school, though advanced middle school readers could also read it.  It would work as a read-aloud, but I think is best suited to be part of your classroom library.


Gansworth, Eric (2013) If I Ever Get Out Of Here.  New York:  Scholastic
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Opening Lines: 
“Cut it off,” I yelled.
“Shut up, or my dad will hear you,” Carson Mastick said.  “He’s not that drunk yet, and I’m gonna have a hard enough time explaining how you came down looking like a different kid than the one that went upstairs.”  For ten minutes he had been farting around, waving the scissors like a magic wand.  Now he yanked the long tail of hair from my neck and touched the scissors an inch from the collar.

            Lewis Blake has grown up on the reservation.  High school has been torture to him so far.  Nobody ever talks to him.  Kids bully him, and his family is so poor they have a hole in the roof of their kitchen.  Then he meets George Haddonfield, who is a new kid, and what’s more, George lives on the base – his dad is a soldier and his Mom is from Germany.  They hit it off, bonding mostly over music, especially the Beatles and Paul McCartney and Wings.  George invites Lewis over and Lewis is impr3essed with how nice George’s family is, but Lewis can never reciprocate.  He likes in a ramshackle dwelling on the reservation, his mom works long hours cleaning other people’s houses and never has any energy to clean her own, and his Uncle Albert who Lewis shares a bedroom is a little, well, off.  He has other things to worry about too.  George is getting friendly with a girl, what if he gets a girlfriend.  And on top of all that, Lewis gets bullied constantly by Evan Rediger, whose father is so rich and powerful that no one will listen to Lewis when he reports what he is going through. 

            This is a book that is remarkably real to some kid’s high school experience.  It has some vulgar words in it and some honest conversations about difficult topics. It is also a book that shows what real friendship is like and a book in which the bullies and the corrupt do not always win in the end.  It is also a book that says a lot about poverty and what it is like to be an outcast because of your culture.  This would be an excellent book for your classroom library (though you would want to read it first).  I could also be a fantastic read aloud or better still, a book to be studied in class.