Monday, March 30, 2015

Serious Narrative Non-Fiction: One graphic novel about a mom surviving cancer. One traditional book about kids surviving war in Sudan.

Park, Linda Sue (2010) A Long Walk to Water  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.

Opening Lines:  "Going was easy.  Going, the plastic container held only air.  Tall for her eleven years, Nya could switch the handle from one hand to the other, swing the container by her side, or cradle it in both arms."

Nya lives in Southern Sudan.  She walks eight hours ever day to fetch water for her family from the pond.  The water is not particularly clean and her mother knows that she should boil the water to prevent disease, but boiling the water means there would be less of it to use.  As the dry season gets going, the pond begins to shrink.  When Nya's mother gets sick from the bad water, it is up to Nya to figure out what to do.

Salva lives in Southern Sudan.  One day when he is in school, he and his classmates hear gunshots.  His teacher rushes them out of the schoolhouse.  Soon  Salva finds himself in a group of refugees, fleeing for their lives and headed for the border with Ethiopia.  He finds a friend and a relative, but also finds violence and loss.

When their stories begin to intersect toward the end of the book, it is a moment of cool clear hope after a long drought full of despair and uncertainty.  Park does a nice job of adapting this true story narratively.  It is a story with some violence and some vague suggestions of sexual menace, but it should be suitable for sixth grade and up.  I think it would make a particularly good read-aloud.

Fies, Brian (2006) Mom's Cancer  New York:  Harry Abrams.

This graphic novel takes the reader from the moment that the author's mother had a small seizure and discovered she had a tumor growing in her brain, through how her three children (called in the book Me, Nurse Sis, and Kid Sis) walk with her through brain scans, diagnosis, waiting, understanding the depth of the problem, first appointments with doctors, biopsies, chemo, side effects, radiation, stages of grief, miraculous healing, and life after cancer.  The book is at least as much about how siblings cope with the illness of a parent as it is about the author's mom's journey. 

As you can see in the image above, the art is an interesting combination of caricature and realism.  Fies also uses visual references to things like the kids game Operation, and at once point talks about how when someone is struggling with cancer, their family becomes like superheroes in that their abilities, concerns, and passions are amplified.  He illustrates this with a brief superhero fight between caped crusaders based on himself and his siblings.  By alternating between gut wrenching realism and cartoonish comic relief, Fies helps the reader get through the difficult stuff.  He incorporates humor into the text as well.  Anyone who has dealt with cancer will smile at a section where he and his siblings call the doctor when their mother is coughing up blood, only to be told to relax, and that such a thing is normal, but then later, when she experiences an innocuous symptom (like a runny nose) they are chastised for not immediately informing the doctor. 

This is a sobering topic and, while there is nothing obviously offensive in the text or images, parents might reasonably object that it is too depressing of a story for young children.  This may be a good one for a teacher to have handy for a student struggling with a parent's cancer.  This one is ideal for high school and up. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Multimodal Masterpieces by Marissa Moss (Excellent historical and fiction stories told in journal form)

This year Marissa Moss is Trinity's Young Authors Festival featured presenter.  I am excited about this because I really like her work. 

Marissa Moss is the master of using the journal form to tell a story.  The journals are typically handwritten and include drawings, and sometimes objects to help the reader understand the historical period (or, in the case of the Amelia Notebooks, complicated family situations) being talked about. 

Here are six of her books you'll want to check out.  All of them are ideal for third grade through middle school.  :

Moss, Marissa  (2000) Hanna's Journal:  The Story of an Immigrant Girl.  San Diego:  Harcourt.

Opening lines:  "September 27, 1901.  Today is my birthday.  I am now ten years old and Papashka gave me this journal to write in.  All this paper just for me!  He knows I want to learn, so now even though I cannot go to school like my brothers, I can practice sums and copy lessons here."

Short Summary:  Hannah is the middle child of a Jewish family of eight living in Lithuania.  After a pogrom, Hannah has a chance to go wither cousin Esther to America, where it is hoped, she will be able to earn enough to pay for the others' passages over.  Esther is horribly seasick and anxious about the whole trip, and so Hannah takes on the task of leading them, though Hannah is younger.  With the help of her new friend Samuel, they survive the Atlantic crossing by steamship, make it through Ellis Island, and eventually find their relatives.

Moss, Marissa  (1999) Emma's Journal:  The Story of a Colonial Girl.  New York:  Scholastic.

Opening lines:  "July 18, 1774.  The house is hush and still.  I should be asleep, like everyone else, but I am too excited, so I have taken my journal tot he windowsill and write by the light of the moon.  Tomorrow I leave our farm in Menetomy and go to Boston, such a big bustling city."

Short Summary:  On the eve of the American Revolution, ten-year-old Emma Millar is sent to live with her Aunt Harmony and her boarder, Thankful.  Emma ends up becoming sympathetic to the revolution, then eventually serves as a kind of spy, passing important information to the Colonial Army.  Along the way she meets a boy named Amos who, as it turns out, is also helping the Colonial Army, loses some people close to her, survives the lower floor of the house being occupied by a British General, and even sees General Washington.  In the end she is reunited in . She also sees George Washington. 

Moss, Marissa (1998) Rachel's Journal:  The Story of a Pioneer Girl.  San Diego:  Harcourt.

 Opening lines:  "March 10, 1850  I have never had my own book to write in, but I have one now, and my own pen too.  Grandfather gave them to me.  He says it is my task to chronicle our long journey and write letters back to the States.  Mother and Pa will be busy driving the teams of our two wagons and Ben and Will have to tend the stock. That leaves me with the chore of writing."

Short Summary:  Rachel is travelling with her family from their home in Illinois, west to Sacramento, California.  They are traveling with four other families and along the way they will have to deal with flooded river, their own fear of Native-Americans, lack of drinkable water, dying animals, steep cliffs, and more.  As with the other books, Moss's engaging writing style works well with the sketches and images that accompany each journal entry. 

Moss, Marissa (1996) Amelia Writes Again.  Middleton, WI: The Pleasant Company.

Opening lines:  "This is my beautiful new blank notebook, waiting for me to fill it with words and drawings.  But I feel as blank and empty as these pages."

Short Summary:  Amelia's annoying older sister Cleo has given her a new notebook, provided Amelia will writ some nice things about her in it.  Amelia's best friend wants to know hat she writes in the notebook.  Then an arsonist burns part of their school down and Amelia thinks of an idea to help people feel better again.  Okay, so the plot is a little disjointed, but the way Moss gives us the energetic authentic voice of a 10-year old more than makes up for it.  The pictures are delightful.

Moss, Marissa (1997) Amelia Hits the Road  New York:  Scholastic

Opening Lines:  "This is my new travel notebook. Mom bought it for me so I wouldn't be bored on the long driving part of this trip.   She said if I am busy writing, I won't be busy fighting with Cleo.  I don't fight with Cleo.  She fights with me."

Short Summary:  Nadia is taking a trip with her Mom and her sister Cleo to Death Valley, Yosemite, and to visit Amelia's friend Nadia who Amelia hasn't seen since she moved.  Along the way Amelia and Cleo have their ups (dancing to the jukebox in an old time diner) and downs (Cleo gets carsick a lot).  As this series goes on, there are more and more funny bits that tie in to previous books. 

Moss, Marissa (2000) Amelia's Family Ties  Middleton, WI:  The Pleasant Company.

Opening lines:  "I love getting mail, even junk mail, but when I saw this letter I was almost afraid to open it.  I could tell from the return address that it as from my dad.  My dad -- its weird to even say that.  I don't remember him at all."

Summary:  Amelia takes a trip to meet her Dad, who she has never known.  She takes her first airplane flight.  She meets her dad and then his new wife Clara.  When Clara reads Amelia's notebook, the whole situation explodes.  This is an amazing book for looking at some of the emotions and reactions kids can have when they are stuck between two parents/families.  Good stuff.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Buck Rogers and Zach who? Two science fiction books for middle school and high school.

Nowlan, Philip Francis (1962) Armageddon 2419 A.D.: The Seminal Buck Rogers Novel.  New York:  Ace Books.

Opening line:  "My first glimpse of a human being of the 25th century was obtained through a portion of woodland where the trees were thinly scattered, with a dense forest beyond."

When I was 11 years old, scholastic book order offered this book, Armageddon 2419.  I had just seen Star Wars in the theater (it was 1977, the year that blockbuster was first released.)  I loved the experience of the film, had found out that it was something called science fiction, and was really excited to find out that this science fiction stuff also came in books.  My Uncle Dirk had loaned me some of his vast SF collection, but it was stuff like Bradbury, Asimov, Niven, and Clarke that were a little too difficult for me (which doesn't mean I didn't try to read them).  When my Scholastic book order form had this book on it, I thought, finally,  Maybe this book will be like Star Wars. 

And it was, kind of. So this guy Rogers is investigating this strange biological phenomenon in a cave and he passes out.  Somehow the chemicals put him into a coma and slow down his biological functions so that he sleeps for nearly 500 years.  When he wakes up, the United States is no more.  A rag tag collection of rebels (equipped with gravity belts, missile guns, and subspace radios) are fighting against a conquering force of vaguely Asian people called Hans, who hold the cities.  Rogers brings World War One fighting techniques to the table and soon the tables are turned.  Somewhere in the midst of all this, Rogers meets a woman named Wilma Deering who shows him that women can be warriors and can contribute their strength, intelligence, and resourcefulness to the war effort. (In fact, in the world of the future, no one questions this).  It is a sweet romantic sub-plot.

The book has some issues.  The Americans seem to be an exclusively Caucasian bunch.  The Asian Hans are not depicted in the best light.  Both these aspects might be a good source for a conversation after the student has finished the book.  But the story is remarkably progressive for when it was written.  I recommend it for Middle school and high school. 

Lupica, Mike (2010) Hero  New York:  Penguin.

Opening lines:  There were four thugs, total gangsters, in front of the house with their rifles and their night vision goggles.  Four more in back.  No telling how many more inside."

Zach Harriman's dad is a special advisor to the President of the United States.  Zach has always thought of his dad as a diplomat. When his Dad's plan goes down under mysterious circumstances, Zach starts to realize three things.  First, his dad had super-powers -- strength, invulnerability, speed.  Second, Zach is developing powers too.  Third, this means that there are people who are out to control and manipulate him.   Now he isn't sure who he can trust.  It won't be easy to figure out.  Zach might be developing into a superhero, but he is also a fourteen-year-old kid. 

This is an action packed book that should attract readers fifth or sixth grade an up.  There is a bit of violence, but nothing too graphic.  There probably aren't enough themes here to make this worthy of study in a language arts class, but it would be a great book for a classroom library. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Two quirky books for middle school nerds (and other people who like to read)

Stewart, Trenton Lee (2009) The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma.  New York;  Little Brown

Opening lines:  "In a city called Stonetown, on the third floor of an old, grey-stoned house, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was considering his options.  He was locked inside an uncomfortably warm room, and the only way out was to make an unpleasant decision."

The Mysterious Benedict Society is back.  Once again they are squaring off against the evil Ledroptha Curtain and his nefarious Ten Men (who use office supplies to threaten and maim with remarkable cruelty.)  This time, though, the trouble begins when there is a blackout in Stonetown and Curtain and his men steal the Whisperer, the device that nearly allowed Curtain to take control of the entire world in the first book.  Before long the members of the society find themselves captured and held in an old prison in an unknown location.  Can even their remarkable intelligence, talents, and resourcefulness allow them to escape and get word to Mr. Benedict in time to save the world again?

Once again, Steward has crafted a gripping mystery that assumes the reader is intelligent enough to figure out the secret messages, traps, and codes along with the society.  That makes it sound like this is some kind of thin libretto to allow for educational opportunities in the book.  It isn't.  It is a rip-roaring story that doesn't talk down to the brilliance within every kid. 

This book is probably ideal for late fifth grade and up.  You don't have to read the previous two books in the trilogy, but the book would be more fun if you did.  Math teachers may find some good material in here to teach logic, and English teachers may be able to use some of the word-play in lessons, but really it is just a good book that would go well in your class library.  There is nothing objectionable in this books (unless you are deeply morally opposed to seeing office supplies used as weapons, then you might want to take a pass.)

Bosch, Pseudonymous (2009) This Book is not Good For You.  New York:  Little Brown.

Opening Lines:
"Mmmm...mmmmm......good snap...melts smoothly on the tongue...a hint of blackberry...yet earthy underneath...mmm...yes...strong note of...cinnamon and -- is it cardamom?  Or maybe licorice?... velvety mouth-feel ...not too sweet ... lovely finissh...mmm...must have another...Aaaaaaaaaak...!
      "Oh.  It's you.
     "Thank goodness.
      "For a second I thought it was -- well, never mind what I thought.
      "The question is, what am I going to do with you?"

That gives you a taste of the intrusive narrator's voice.  Like all the books in this series, This Book is not Good For You is a wild ride where you cannot trust the narrator ever.  And some pages are ripped out or scribbled over, or redacted.  If that sounds frustrating, it isn't.  A strong story threads through the whole book.  It is up to Max-Ernest and Cass to figure out a complicated plot involving a lot of food (particularly chocolate), a zoo, and a whole lot of collateral trivia.  Is the story good?  Yes,  Are the characters interesting?  Yes.  Will fifth graders and up like it?  Yes, especially the quirky ones. 

Can I use it in my language arts classroom to teach point of view?  Sure, but that would be kind of like using the back of one of Monet's haystack paintings as a blackboard to teach students the shading necessary on a foreshortened circle.  Is there anything objectionable in the book?  Nope (and if there were, adults wouldn't be clever enough to find it.)  It is a good book. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Two Dragons and a Rogue Titan -- books for fourth grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade

Coville, Bruce (1991) Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher.  New York:  Scholastic

Opening lines:  "Jeremy Thatcher crumpled his paper in disgust.  The dragon he had been trying to draw looked like a dog with wings."

Jeremy Thatcher wanders into a strange store he has never seen before and soon he finds himself holding a dragon egg, which the proprietor tells him must be handled very carefully.  A few days later a tiny red dragon hatches.  Jeremy figures it is the best pet he has ever had.  Best of all, no one else can see it, and it can communicate with him mind-to-mind.  However, when the dragon starts to grow, when a girl in his class can see it too, and when Jeremy realizes that when he gets angry with the school bully, so does his dragon, he starts to wonder if raising a dragon is going to be as fun as he hoped.

Though Jeremy himself is in sixth grade, I think there are a lot of fourth graders who could handle this book (and since kids always prefer to read about someone older than them...)  This book could work for literature circles -- it has a good story and a nice ending -- but it is probably best suited to a classroom library. 

Riordan, Rick (2007) The Titan's Curse.  New York:  Scholastic


Opening line:  "The Friday before winter break, my mom pack me an overnight bag and a few deadly weapons and took me to a new boarding school."

This is the third in the Percy Jackson series and yes, it would probably be best if readers started with the beginning of the series, but I wanted to say that for kids finding their way into fantasy writing, this series is an excellent introduction.  It is exciting, gripping, fun, easy to follow, and has a remarkable ability to kindle an interest in Greek mythology. 

In this one, Percy Jackson, son of Posiedon, must rescue his friend Annabeth from the evil forces that have captured her -- forces that include no less than the most famous titan ever.  Percy is joined in his quest by some new allies, followers of Artemis.  We also get to meet Apollo, Annabeth;s parents, and some other new characters.  The book contains the usual assortment of close calls, narrow escapes, desperate situations, stunning rescues, and magical moments.

Look, I could give you a whole plot summary, but I think we both know you don't need that.  Get the book, read it yourself, and make it available to your students.  I certainly know young readers who read this before they were in fifth grade, and plenty who started the series after that, but fifth grade seems like a good place to start.

 LeGuin, Ursula K. (1968) A Wizard of Earthsea.  New York:  Bantam

Opening lines:  "The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards."

There are some classics that remain in front of young readers because they are universally respected and honored (thing Narnia of Middle Earth).  There are others that seem to get lost in the shuffle of history, even though they are magnificent.  Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea is one of those. 

Here we meet young Sparrowhawk and follow his growth from a lonely young man to the greatest wizard the world of Earthsea has ever known.  Along the way we see him outwit marauding invaders, study as an apprentice and later as a student, make a colossal mistake, and go head-to-head with a dragon and worse.  To be honest, this book is a little slow in finding its feat.  Once it really gets moving though, it is difficult to put down.  Sparrowhawk learns a lot of important lessons in his journey, and it is a satisfying book.

This isn't like Harry Potter, where a gifted person with a wand and a spellbook can get the hang of magic pretty quickly.  Sparrowhawk (or Ged as he is later called) has to work hard for his abilities and magic in this world is much less reliable than it seems to be in the world of Hogwarts.  Good readers who like fantasy should be able to jump on board this world starting in sixth grade or so.  And if you have never read it, you should. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Three kind of odd, kind of edgy graphic novels for high school (maybe)

High School students have a remarkable range as readers.   Some haven't really read a book since their fourth grade teacher read them Charlotte's Web out loud.  Some read three huge books a week.  And in between those two extremes is an unbelievably wide range of preferences, abilities, interests, and prior knowledge.  The three graphic novels I am about to review are not good choices for someone who has never read a graphic novel before.  They are not good choices for someone who only reads a couple of books a year.  And they are probably not good choices for someone whose reading tends toward the predictable or conventional.  But for the thoughtful, quirky, and/or adventurous high school reader who is comfortable with stories that are perplexing, odd, or decidedly inside the twilight zone, these might be a good fit. 

Novgordodoff, Danica (2014) The Undertaking of Lily Chen.  New York:  First Second.

Deshi Li is from the mountains of Northern China.  His brother, who was of marriageable age, has died unmarried.  According to an ancient custom, it is Deshi Li's responsibility to find a wife to be buried next to his brother.  With his family's savings in hand, he goes off to hire a grave robber to set him up with a recently buried corpse.  When he is helping the grave robber dig up a body in the middle of the night, they are discovered and somehow in a short bit of time, Deahi manages to incite the grave digger to want to kill him, to find a living girl who he thinks might make a good bride for his brother (if he can manage to kill her), and to find himself helping that girl flee from her family.  From there it is one part adventure story, one part offbeat romance, and one part quirky road trip.

The artwork is quirky -- the figures are long and lanky or fat and bunchy, and the backgrounds are often hauntingly beautiful watercolors.  There are some stylistic elements from ancient Chinese illustrations.  Like the story, the artwork ranges from breathtakingly beautiful and strikingly ugly (intentionally so).

There are some sexually suggestive scenes and some vulgar language in this book.  It is probably the sort of graphic novel that high school teachers want to keep behind their desk and only loan out to the sort of student who would not be offended by such a thing (there is nothing in the story worse than what you would find in Shakespeare, but I still advise caution.)  Certainly not appropriate for any student younger than high school.

Gaiman, Neil; Zulli, Michael (2005)  The Last Temptation.  Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse.

So it turns out that when Neil Gaiman was still writing The Sandman comic book for DC, one of his big fans was the rock star Alice Cooper (seriously) and it turns out that when Alice as working on a concept album, he had his agent contact Neil about collaborating on a graphic novel.  Gaiman met with Cooper, they discussed the project and Gaiman (along with artist Michael Zulli) put together a haunting and odd little story.

Young Steven, trying to prove to his slightly older friends that he is not a wuss, goes into a mysterious theater and meets the Showman (who looks remarkably like Alice Cooper.) Steven meets the performers in the show and soon finds himself not only watching the show, but part of it.  The boundaries between what is happening on the stage and what is happening in his real life start to drop, and the Showman starts to tempt Steven with all manner of Faustian bargains.  Steven must decide whether to be true and loyal to the world he knows and loves or to succumb to the temptations the Showman offers.  In the end,. the Showman is revealed for who he really is, Steven makes the right choice and wins (though he loses too, a little bit).  Think of it as kind of a horror story with a hopeful ending. 

The art is beautiful, though often creepy.  The whole book is in black and white, but it works.  Zulli does have a tendency to track his panels across the two page spread which can make them a little tricky to figure out how to read at first.

There are rotting zombies and beheadings in this book and a few very subtle references to sexuality and drug use, but the overall message of the book is decidedly against those things.  I would suggest that teachers read this one before putting it in their classroom library.  High school only for this book.

Malkasian, Cathy (2010) Tempeerance.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics.

This is a fascinating but odd story and it is difficult to describe.  Pa and two girls live in the forest.  Pa is chapping down trees to build a giant walled village (it actually looks more like a boat than anything else).  Minerva trusts Pa.  Peggy does not.  When Pa is beating Peggy (and perhaps hoping to rape her, it is unclear), a man steps from the woods and tries to stop him.  Minerva is struck by how perfect the man is, but Pa beats him senseless.  Peggy flees, but Minerva pleads with Pa to let her fix the man he has beaten.  Pa relents, but chops off the man's leg anyway.

Then we skip forward in time.  Pa is gone to who-knows-where.  Peggy has never returned.  Minerva has taken charge of the ship-village and makes up stories of their brave Pa who is out there somewhere fighting glorious battles for them.  She has healed the man from the forest, made him a wooden leg, and, since his memory is damaged, has made of a history for him in which he is a powerful fighter, hero of many battles in which he fought alongside of Pa, and he now protects the city as Minerva's husband, Lester.

Eventually, though, Lester goes off in search of Pa, an insurrection threatens Minerva's rule of the city, and Peggy comes back on the scene.  I will leave off the part about the birds, and the part about the living puppet that Minerva makes our of Lester's wooden leg because at this point it would only confuse you.

The amount of detail in the art is stunning (the story is nearly 250 pages long and Malkasian seems to be the sole creator).  Pa is a truly horrific character -- mostly because of the way he is drawn to look like an utterly normal (but very angry man).  Lester's loyalty and compassion in spite of his damaged mind are beautifully rendered in his face and stance.  And Minerva, with her bulbous nose and plain features evokes sympathy as she tires to hold her world together.

Readers who are not flexible and adaptable to new worlds within a book will likely be frustrated by this story.  Some readers, though, may be quite taken by it.  Best for high school, and again, teachers will want to read it before putting it in their classroom library. 

It is an interesting and engaging (but very odd story) with plenty of opportunity for readers to discuss both the iconography and the symbolism in the text.  Apart from a very subtle suggestion of a possible rape, there is no sexuality in here.  No vulgarity either.  The violence, however is striking and sometimes disturbing.