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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Constitution -- As A Graphic Novel? Seriously?

     At some point, Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell, creators of The United States Constitution:  A Graphic Adaptation (2008) must have realized that what they were attempting was, at best, insane.  I mean, how can you take a document of profound and foundational importance to the United States, a document that has been an inspiration to many other democracies, a document that is full of compromise, and above all, a document that is complicate and hard to understand, and translate it into a medium most often reserved for caped superheroes and talking animals.  And yet, despite this realization of insanity, they not only completed their task, but did so in such a way that uses a range of graphic novel techniques to make the constitution understandable.  (The term graphic novel by the way, is a generic term that refers to any narrative, fiction or non-fiction, novel or not, that uses the conventions of a comic book to tell a story or convey information.)
     The text alternates between the text of the Constitution, the words of the founding fathers taken from other sources, a contemporary voice explaining what the different articles mean, and dialogue between people affected by the constitution in today's world.  The artwork combines historical scenes with symbolic representations (the three branches of government -- executive, legislative, and judicial, are represented by giants in suits with their respective buildings -- white house, capital dome, and supreme court building -- as heads. The states are represented by their state birds, with the bald eagle representing the interests of the  federal government.) 

     Some of the more difficult laws, articles, and amendments are portrayed here in a way that makes sense (the eleventh amendment, for example, that allows citizens to sue states in state court, but not in federal court).  By and large it is very well done.  In fact, the only complaint that I have is that it moves often from subject to subject as it moves from panel to panel.  What makes graphic novels fun to read is the connections between the panels.  Though this book has some of that, it doesn't have as much as it could.  Overall, though, it is well worth reading -- and if you teach middle school or high school history or social studies, you should order it right away.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Excellent book by Richard Feynman -- but I am not sure it it counts as an adolescent or young adult book

     Richard Feynman led an interesting life.  He was recruited while still in graduate school to work on the atomic bomb project.  He soon found himself in the company of world-famous scientists like Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein.  He drove the Army security officers crazy by figuring out how to crack open the safes and the file cabinets that held the secrets of the bomb (possibly making him the first real hacker?) and by evading the army censors by sending coded letters to his wife, then supplying the censors with the code.  Later in life he did some of the earliest theorizing about nanotechnology and served on the commission to investigate the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  Throughout his entire life, he exemplified the heart of scientific thinking by being endlessly and boundlessly curious.  The book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999) is Feynman in his own words -- through a series of graduation addresses, interviews, and shorter pieces.  Equal parts science, math, history, and humor -- high school students who consider themselves nerds in good standing will love this book.
     The problem is, it really isn't a Young Adult or Adolescent book.  At least, it doesn't seem to be marketed that way.  In fact, judging from the cover, it seems to be written for adults.  I don't for the life of me know why.  Feynman, even when he was well past middle age, seemed to have the energy, spirit, and sense of humor of a teenager.  Sure, some of the physics and math language is very occasionally challenging (though this is a rare thing), but I am not sure why this book isn't actively marketed for high school readers.  All high school physics teachers, mathematics teachers, history teachers, and maybe English teachers should have this on their shelf, ready to lend out.  It is a good one. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (your choice -- cynical review or trusting review

     I can't figure out whether I think this book is absolutely brilliant or fiendishly manipulative.  So here is the deal -- if you are a trusting soul, read up to the picture of the book cover and stop.  Then get hold of the book and read it.  You will find it to be wonderful and remarkably moving.  If you are a more cynical sort, skip to after the picture of the book cover and begin reading.  Then go get hold of the book and read it yourself so you can be thankful that at least you know you would never fall for such a sappy story.
     Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine is about Caitlin.  Caitlin has Asberger's syndrome and has a lot of trouble understanding the emotional cues that people give her.  She is also remarkably well-read and a profoundly gifted artist, despite being in sixth grade.  Caitlin and her dad have a much bigger challenge, though.  Just before the opening of the book, Catilin's older bother, Devon was killed.  Since Caitlin and Devon's mom died many years ago, Caitlin and her dad are left to deal with Devon's death as just the two of them.  Since Caitlin doesn't understand emotions (both her own and those of other people) and since her dad seems equally adrift at understanding his own anger and sadness, there seems to be little hope that they will be able to sort their way through this mess.
     Except that Caitlin is a remarkably hopeful and tenacious kid.  She also has some teachers who are patient with her (actually, my favorite is the gym teacher who, in a moment of exasperation, insults Caitlin horribly -- but has the class to realize he acted like a jerk and apologizes with contriteness and humor).  And here is the amazing thing about this novel.  Because Caitlin doesn't understand the emotional landscape she is in, she is able to discover profound things in ways that a regular kid would not.  It is Caitlin who realizes, after reading the dictionary, that she and her dad need something called Closure.  And it is Caitlin who finally helps him out of his funk and back into the world, at least a little bit.  Another theme of the book is Caitlin struggling to make friends with other kids.  At times this is a cringe-fest, but at other times, it starts to work out. 
     I found myself tearing up (in an appropriately macho way) more than once as I read it (actually, about five times, I think).  I couldn't quite figure out why at first.  I am actually not really a fan of books about kids with disabilities.  Sometimes they seem to focus too much on the disability for my taste.  Then I realized that I wasn't getting marginally weepy because this was a story about an autistic girl grieving for her kind older brother who was killed senselessly -- rather I realized that what makes me intermittently teary about this book is that when I read about Caitlin's struggle I am really reading about struggles that are universal -- struggles that have been part of my childhood and adult life.  I do not know why people I love sometimes die.  I do not know why grief has to hurt so much.  And I do not understand the mystery about how laughter and healing can sometimes jump out from behind the living room couch when you least expect it.
     So this is a good book after all.  It would be a great read-aloud for fifth or sixth grade through freshman year of high school (and maybe later still).  It would be a great book for independent reading for those ages too.  It would be a good book to study in language arts as well.  Read it.  You'll be glad you did.


     On the other hand, maybe I am being suckered here.  Mockingbird  is a story of a kid with Asberger's trying to get over her brother's murder.  At nearly every turn, Caitlin says something that seems so profound, it often takes adults by surprise and brings a tear to their eyes.  Consider this Caitlin quote, for example:

 "Sometimes I read the same books over and over and over. What's great about books is that the stuff inside doesn't change. People say you can't judge a book by its cover but that's not true because it says right on the cover what's inside. And no matter how many times you read that book the words and pictures don't change. You can open and close books a million times and they stay the same. They look the same. They say the same words. The charts and pictures are the same colors.  Books are not like people. Books are safe"

 Or this one:

“I don't think I'm going to like it at all. I think it's going to hurt. But after the hurt I think maybe something good and strong and beautiful will come out of it.”

    I mean come on.  I know Asberger's kids are often very smart, but my cynical side says that for a kid who can't figure out what it means when somebody smiles, isn't this a bit of a stretch?  Don't I have a right to be upset when an author uses a character in a way that is unrealistic just to make me feel sympathy?  And could her brother really have been so good of a kid -- almost an eagle scout, yet someone who is so selfless that he always cared for Caitlin first?

  I guess in the end, though, I like this story, and I want it to be true, even if it isn't ultimately realistic.  When I was reading it, the characters were believable to me, not jarring.  Maybe you are a better hardbitten cynic than I am.  Read it,  Decide for yourself.