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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,

Image result for Boerman-Cornell, Kim, Manderino

"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

Image result for black widow forever red

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. 

Image result for Jane, The Fox, and Me

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.

Image result for The Amazing Crafty Cat

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.

Image result for A Year without Mom

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.

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.

Image result for i yam a donkey

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,

Image result for Artichoke's Heart novel

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.