Google+ Followers

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.

Image result for wake novel

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.

Image result for Sweethearts novel

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.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Hamilton Creator Miranda to Write Picture Book about President Trump

Every so often I use this space to pass along information from the children's publishing world.

I have been emailing back and forth with a couple of publishers about a research piece I am writing about celebrities writing picture books.  Everyone from Jamie Lee Curtis to Spike Lee, has penned a picture book in the last couple of years.  I have been trying to look at how their writing process differs from conventional authors (especially in terms of how much support the publishing company provides).  Anyway, I was talking with the editor of a small children's press out of Bakersfield,, California called Sloof Books.  They recently published a picture book by noted actor John Lithgow and have been in talks with country singer Trisha Yearwood.  When I was interviewing the Editor-in- Chief of the company she mentioned that they had recently signed the creator of the Musical Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda, to write a parody of a picture book to be titled Max and the Wild Trumpus.

Patterned after the classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are, Miranda's book tells the story of what happened the night after Max wore his wolf suit and traveled to the island of the beasts and had a wild rumpus.  It turns out that the following night, after making mischief of one sort or another, Max's mom sends him to the land of the Wild Trumpus.

My editor friend, April, says that Miranda got the idea when he saw this picture of former president Obama and the first lady reading Where the Wild Things Are:
Image result for Donald Trump and where the wild things are

Miranda thought how unlikely it would be that President Trump would ever read children's books out loud.  Mirada had also been reading about President Trump's intention to cut all federal funding for libraries and was wondering what he could do about it.  April says that the book was partly a way of working off his frustration, but adds that all proceeds from the book will go to help the libraries that Mirada suspects may close because of the cuts.

After much pleading, April agreed to send me a short except of the book.  She cautions that this is in a very early draft stage and so it is likely this verse will not even be in the final book.  But here it is, straight from her email:

And when Max came to the place where the wild Trumpus lived, he was a little bit scared.  The Trumpus looked angry and had scary teeth.

Image result for Trump Monster

The wild Trumpus combed his terrible hair and roared his terrible words and pushed his terrible lips together and rolled his terrible eyes and showed his tiny claws.
"You Loser!" said the Terrible Trumpus. 

"I will build a wall with haste 
to keep immigrants in their place
all friendly laws I'll soon erase
destroy libraries so there is not a trace
and force you to eat toxic waste,"

till Max said “BE STILL!”                       
and tamed the Trumpus with the magic trick of staring into his yellow eyes without blinking once  and said
And the wild Trumpus was frightened and called  Max the most wild thing of all.
Where the Wild Things Are was originally written by the late Maurice Sendak who died in 2012.  April Sloof says that she and Miranda met personally with the grandchildren of Sendak and they gave their blessing of the project.  No word yet who will illustrate.

The book is due out this May.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Best Book of the Year so Far!

Shusterman, Neal (2016) Scythe.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.

Image result for Scythe
            Opening Lines:  “The Scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.  Citra was at the dining room table, slaving over a particularly difficult algebra problem, shuffling variables, unable to solve for X or Y when this new and far more pernicious variable entered her life’s equation.”

            Okay, I’ll admit it.  I was getting a little tired of dystopian novels.  I mean, I liked Hunger games and Divergent and Shipbreaker but lately I have been reading dystopian stories where all the cats have died or the world has been buried in ice.  And I keep thinking about how bad it is going to get before this fad burns itself out -- I am just waiting for the society that is ruled by the winners of a Scrabble tournament or a world where the economy depends upon ancient Twinkie sponge cakes dug up from an ancient landfill.  Then along comes Neal Schusterman’s Scythe to remind me that it isn’t the genre so much as they writing that makes a book excellent.  And this one is my favorite read of the year so far.  You have to read this.
            Citra and Rowan are both teenagers who are chosen to be apprenticed to a Scythe.  In the world of this book, set in the relatively distant future, a world-wide computer net, combined with advances in nanotechnology, ensures that no one need die of natural causes.  Since the transportation network is computer controlled as well, accidents are unheard of and practically speaking, people can live for as long as they want to.  Of course, this has led to overpopulation.  So a cadre of Scythes, each working independently, are responsible for choosing, on their own, without computer interference, a certain quota of people to kill each month.   Although Scythes have some say in how they carry their duties out, they must grant a year’s worth of immunity from scythes to any relatives of the person they kill. 
            It is unprecedented when Scythe Faraday takes two apprentices at once, and the assembly of Scythes decides that at the end of Citra and Rowan’s apprenticeship, they will fight to the death to determine which one will become a Scythe.  Faraday continues to train them both, but when Faraday dies in an apparent suicide (deciding not to be saved by the nanobots in his body) Citra and Rowan are each turned over to a different Scythe.  Citra is apprenticed to Scythe Curie, who approaches her task with mercy and compassion; and Rowan is apprenticed to Scythe Goddard, who is known for orchestrated mass cullings which cause people to die in terror.  And with this, Schusterman sets up a story that will lead Rowan and Citra to make choices that will affect the structure of their world.  There are enough satisfying twists and turns to keep readers happy to the end. 
            There is enough going on here thematically that it would be an excellent book to consider using for high school English classes.  Though there is certainly some violence here, it is not glorified but rather shown to be abhorrent.  This would also be a fine book for a class or school library.  I doubt it would be likely to be challenged.

            If I haven’t made it clear yet, you need to read this book as soon as you can.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

True Life Attempted Murder Story -- Good for High School

Busby, Cylin; Busby, John (2008) The Year We Disappeared.  New York: Bloomsbury.

Image result for the year we disappeared

John Busby, a police officer in a Massachusetts seaside town, was driving to work one night when another car pulled alongside him and fired a shotgun through his window, blowing off his lower jaw.  He managed to steer himself into someone’s lawn, get out of the car and signal for them to call 911. He was rushed to the hospital, stabilized, and flown to Johns Hopkins where he began a long and grueling healing and reconstruction process.
            While in the hospital, John thought about who had done this.  He concluded quickly that the local crime boss was behind it, partly because John was scheduled to testify against the crime boss’s brother.  Meanwhile, because of a clause in his contract, John’s family had around-the-clock police protection.  Because the police chief had been intimidated by the crime boss, the investigation was going nowhere.  John’s kids went to school accompanied by officers and the family seldom left the house.  After several incidents of intimidation, they built a high fence and got an attack dog, but the day came when the family had to decide whether to continue to live under what felt like house address or just disappear to another part of the country and start living again.

            The story is told in alternating chapters by John Busby and his daughter Cylin.  It makes for fascinating reading.  There is some violence and some vulgar language, but it would certainly be appropriate for a high school classroom library.  Well worth reading. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Informational Book about the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team -- Great for PE

Coffey, Wayne (2005) The Boys of Winter New York: Three Rivers Press.

Image result for the boys of winter

Opening lines:  “Year before I ever heard of Lake Placid or the Olympics, before I knew the mname of a single Russian Hockey Player, I was a kid in Massachusetts who wanted to be the next Bobby Orr.  I grew up skating on Holmes Pond, which took its name from our next door neighbor, Mrs. Holmes, who owned it.”

Among the holes in my reading knowledge, sports-related gaps are some of the biggest, and the hockey-related knowledge hole yawns open like a deep canyon, so when my amazing former student Evan recommended this book about the 1980 US Olympic team, I was glad to read it.  I was not surprised to find the story fascinating. 

The author, Wayne Coffey, has a remarkably readable style as he tells the story of the American Team’s Journey to the final game and describes the game itself that changed the way the world thought about American hockey teams.  But Coffey does more than this.  Within each chapter he also digresses repeatedly to tell the life stories of each play on the American side and most of the players on the Russian team.  In fact, he not only relates how the players got to skate on the ice while the world watched, he also describes what has happened to them since.  The hockey descriptions are excellent and Coffey does a really nice job of describing strategy (which would be really useful for Phys Ed classes), but honestly, the most enjoyable part of the book for me was seeing the amazing variety in temperaments, backgrounds, training styles, and approaches to life that the different players had.

This book is probably best from high school readers.  There are some descriptions of drinking and messing around, but nothing that would be likely to cause the book to be challenged.   It would be a great addition to an English classroom’s library, but I think it could be even more valuable for use in a PE class, or for a PE teacher to keep on hand for interested students. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Four Multicultural Novels for Everyone from Elementary to High School

Agosin, Marjorie (2014) I Lived on Butterfly Hill.  New York:  Atheneum.

Image result for i lived on butterfly hill

Opening Lines:  “The blue cloud finally opens – just when the bell rings to let the Juana Ross School out for the weekend.  I’d been watching the sky from the classroom windows all day, wondering just when the rain would pour down.  I run down the hall and through the front doors with Luciela, Marisol, and Gloria at my heels.  “Quick, girls, get under my umbrella,” Marisol shouts, and her cousin Luciela and I huddle close, on each side of her.”
            Celeste has a pretty carefree life, friends at school, a wonderful house on Butterfly Hill overlooking the harbor, two parents and a grandma to take care of her, and the joy of living in Chile, the most beautiful country in the world.  But when a military dictatorship seizes control of the country, warships fill the harbor, and her parents need to go into hiding because their volunteer work as doctors among the poor has branded them as subversive, Celeste gets sent to live with a single Aunt in the United States – in a very cold and barren place called Maine with no friends and no parents or grandma.  But these challenges are nothing compared to when she eventually returns to Chile and must find her mother and father who are among the disappeared.  
            This story has joy and comfort, heartbreak and homesickness, old friends and new, reunions, more joy, and a healthy dose of magic.
            You need to read this book.  You need to read it now.  Then your students need to read it.
            This could be a great book to study as a class, keep in your classroom library, or read aloud.  It is rather lengthy (clocking in at 454 pages), but kids who devoured Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo would probably like this one too. 
            There is nothing offensive here that I noticed and plenty of good thematic material for class discussions.  This book could be read aloud to fourth graders (though it might take all year) and some of the sharper ones could handle reading it, but it is probably best for 5th graders and up. 
            Read it as soon as you can.  It is the best book I have read so far this year.

Johnson, Angela (1998) Heaven New York:  Simon Pulse.

Image result for Johnson, Angela (1998) Heaven

Opening Lines:  April 28,  Sweet Marley.  I’m on my way to Kansas.  I guess me and Boy have finished our stay in Oklahoma.  I decided on Kansas because of a dream I had.  I dream so much now.”
Every now and then I run into a book where I have trouble keeping the characters and the story straight.  This one started out that way, but then, about a third of the way in everything sort of clicked.  This is the story of a girl named Marley coming to terms with the knowledge that her parents, who raised her, are actually her aunt and her uncle and that the person she has always thought of as her Uncle Jack, a carefree drifter who sends her postcards from time to time, is actually her father. 
While Marley is African-American and there are some references to her culture, this is a book in which race plays a small part.  It is not part of the theme, plot, or overall message of the book.  The book is more of a story about a girl learning to accept a past that doesn’t agree with her perception. 
It is a good book. There is nothing here that would give any cause for challenges.  The reading level is probably suitable for students as young as third or fourth grade, but because it manily deals with a kid trying to find her identity, I think it might work better for fifth grade and older. It would be a good book for your classroom library.  I am not sure it is thematically strong enough to sustain small group or whole class study in a literature class.  I also think that because of the confusion in the first several chapters, it might not be the best choice for a read aloud book. 

Kuroyanagi, Tetsuko (1981) Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window.  New York: Kodansha, USA

Image result for Totto-chan

Opening Lines:  They got off the Oimachi train at Jiyugaoka Station, and Mother took Totto-chan by the hand to lead her through the ticket gate.  She had hardly ever been on a train before and was reluctant to give up the precious ticket she was clutching.”
            One of my students, who is herself from Indonesia, highly recommended this book.  It reminded me a bit of Meynert DeJong’s classic early Newbery Winner, The Wheel on the School. As that book gives a glimpse of what it is like to grow up in a school in the Netherlands, so this book describes Totto-chan’s adventures in a school in Japan – only this is not a particularly conventional school.   In the beginning of the book, Totto-chan gets expelled from firt grade, essentially for being too curious, too interactive, and too excited about learning.  Her parents then send her to a different school – Tomoe, a school that meets in decommissioned train cars, where students learn whatever subjects they are interested in, and where teachers and students go on class walks every afternoon. 
            When Totto-chan drops her new purse in the pit toilet and wants to shovel out the cess pool to find it, the headmaster shows her where the shovels are, cautions her to be careful, and requests that she shovel all the sewage back when she is done.  The students go on camping trips in the school gym where they set up tents; come to school in the middle of the night to witness the arrival of a new train car classroom; and are allowed o go skinny dipping in the pool. 
            There is not much plot here, the story is more told in episodes, but it will certainly hold student’s (and adult’s attentions.)  Partly what is so enchanting about the book though is to get a glimpse into a completely different way of running a school.   Here is how the headmaster introduced the school library to the children.  “This is your library.  Any of these books may be read by anyone.  You needn’t fear that some books are reserved for certain grades or anything like that.  You can come in here any time you like.  If you want to borrow a book and take it home, you may.  When you have read it, be sure to bring it back!  And if you’ve got any books at home that you think others would like to read, I’d be delighted if you would bring them here.  At any rate, please do as much reading as you can!”
            This would be a great way to introduce another culture to your students.  It could easily be a read-aloud book for second through fourth grade.  It would be a wonderful addition to a class library.  And it could be an interesting topic of study for a unit that looks at education in other cultures. Fifth graders and older would also be interested.  And I highly recommend it for teachers wanting to rethink how to best do educator.

Park, Linda Sue (1999) Seesaw Girl. New York:  Dell.

Image result for seesaw girl

Opening Lines:  “’Is anyone coming?’ Jade Blossom whispered.  Graceful Willow peeped around the edge of the sliding paper door.  She looked back at Jade and shook her head, putting her finger to her lips.”
            We read books set in other cultures for two reasons, I think.  First to have an adventure in a world very different form our own.  Second, to discover again and again that we have a great deal in common with other cultures. 
Seesaw Girl  gives us plant of both of these aspects.  In the beginning, Jade and Willow are pulling pranks against the boys who live in the same court  They put soot in the writing ink so that the boys’ calligraphy will be blotchy.  Then they sew the boys’ trouser legs shut.  Before long, however, Willow gets married, leaving Jade alone, without her best friend.   
So Jade hatches a plan to escape the inner courtyard, journey out into the world, and visit her best friend.  Along the way she discovers that not everyone in seventeenth century Korea lives like she does.   

Nothing offensive here, and it is probably best for fourth grade and older.  It is a quick read, but a good one. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Reviews of books by LeGuin, Pratchett, White, and Brodien-Jones -- two of them wonderful, one okay, and one not so much.

LeGuin, Ursula K. (1970) The Tombs of Atuan. New York:  Aladdin.

Image result for the tombs of atuan

Opening lines:
“Come home, Tenar!  Come home!”
In the deep valley. In the twilight. The apple trees were on the eve of blossoming; here and there among the shadowed boughs, one flower had opened early, rose and white, like a faint star.

Tenar is taken from her home as a little girl to serve in the temple.  There she slowly becomes a servant to the God thought to reside there, and her life becomes dark and twisted.  When the wizard Ged arrives, she helps to trap him in the labyrinthine maze under the temple, but she begins to develop compassion for him as he seems to be starving to death. Before long, however, the reader begins to wonder who is saving whom. 

It is easy to see why this is considered a classic (and why it won a Newbery Honor.)  Le Guin is a master at crafting a world and setting her characters into it so that it feels natural.  The story is gripping without being a frenetic run from one cliffhanger moment to the next (as many modern action adventure novels are.  Instead, it just grabs hold of the reader and will not let do.    

This book would be ideal for advanced middle school readers or high school readers.  Those familiar with fantasy will have the easiest time here.  There is nothing particularly offensive in the book, save mention of the evil god in the beginning.  Since Ged saves Tenar from serving him, I think anyone familiar with the whole story would not have a problem with it. 

Pratchett, Terry (2015) The Shepherd’s Crown.  New York: Harper.

Image result for The Shepherd's Crown

Opening lines:  “It was one of those days that you put away and remember.  High on the downs, above her parents’ farm, Tiffany Aching felt as though she could see to the end of the world.”
My friend Kris first introduced me to the Tiffany Aching books, and she lent me this one too.  In this one Tiffany must continue serving as the wise woman of two villages (even though she isn’t that old,) stop an invasion of evil elves, and, as usual, manage her unpredictable and overenthusiastic allies, the Wee Free Men – eight inch tall, hard-drinking celtic creatures who look out for her, protect, her, and occasionally get her in big trouble.
The story is great, but the writing is exceptional.  Pratchett manages to explore important themes without ever taking himself or the story too seriously.  At one point, after Tiffany rescues an evil elf princess called Nightshade, who has been thrown out of the faerie realm and is trying to learn about human life, there is this exchange:
“’I have been watching humans,’ said Nightshade…, ‘and I can’t understand them.  I saw a woman giving an old tramp a couple of pennies… Why would she do that? How does it help her?  I don’t understand.’
‘It’s what we do,’ said Tiffany.  ‘The wizards call it empathy.  That means putting yourself in the place of the other persona and seeing the world from their point of view.’” (p 203)  A [age later, Tiffany is trying to talk the elf out of robbing a bank to give money to the old woman.
But look, that disconnected summary doesn’t give you any idea of what reading this book is like.  It is delightful, funny, and gripping all at the same time. 
This book is probably best for 8th grade and up.  There is nothing particularly offensive in it, although Tiffany and others like her sometimes call themselves witches.  Some parents might object to the depiction of witches – though they do not do any evil or sacrifice toads or whatever.  Tiffany mostly just tries to keep the land safe and care for the people on it.
Read it if you have a moment.  This one is a good one.

28 February 2017
White, Ruth (2003) Tadpole.  New York: Dell Yearling.

Image result for tadpole book white

Opening Lines:  One day in June, Mama found this ad in the paper: permanent waves one $ Sat morn come early.  And there was an address for a boarding house in Riverbend.”
Carolina Collins always feels inferior to her older sisters.  Kentucky is more popular than Caroline; Virginia is more attractive; and Georgia is smarter.  When their guitar-playing cousin Tadpole shows up at her house one day, looking for a place to lay low from his abusive uncle, he shakes up the town and Carolina begins to see that maybe she has a talent for music, and a way to stand out from her sisters,   Past of the charm of this story is the way that it paints life in their little town as both heartwarming and a really difficult place to scratch out a living. 
This story is perhaps best for fifth grade and older.  It is more likely to become a favorite of the girls, but boys would like the story as well.  It might well make a good read aloud.

There is nothing particularly offensive here, though child abuse is discussed, though not graphically described.  

Christine Brodien-Jones; Kneen, Maggie (2010)  The Owl Keeper.  New York:  Scholastic.

Image result for The Owl keeper

Opening Lines:  “When Max first saw the girl that night, standing beneath the owl tree, he thought she was a ghost or a vision, or maybe a comic-book character come to life.  It didn’t occur to him that she might be real.”
            Max is being raised in some weird world where an oppressive government is trying to kill off all the owls.  He is being fed poisoned food that seems to sort of interfere with his memory.  He is being watched.
            But since his watchers don’t seem to pay attention to him at night, he often sneaks out and goes to the owl tree where one night he meets this mysterious girl and together (along with an owl) they decide to go on a quest to try to find Max’s Gran and the Owl Keeper who could save them all.
            This world and these characters just don’t hold up real well.  I don’t know what motivates the good guys.  Sometimes I am not even sure what motivates Max.  And the conclusion is inconclusive.  It isn’t that it is a bad book, it is just that there are so many better books out there.  Why waste your time with this one. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

English legend in a fantastic new graphic novel, a classic fantasy novel, and a new weekly comic magazine!

I have always loved the legend of King Arthur.  Books like T.H. White's The Once and Future King and John Stienbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights first caught my imagination with tales of bravery and good versus evil and intrigue and so on.  Recently I stumbled upon some versions of the King Arthur story that I had not read before.

Anderson, M.T.; Offermann, Andrea (2017) Yvain: The Knight of the Lion.  Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Image result for yvain the knight of the lion

Opening Lines:
"I shall speak of love
and of hate
It is truely a marvel, but I tell you
hatred and love may live cramped together,
crouching in the same heart."

I'll confess -- M.T. Anderson fits in a fairly exclusive category of mine.  When I see a book with his name on it, I buy it without hesitation.  Many are familiar with his book Feed or perhaps the two book Octavian Nothing series.  Others may have encountered his delightfully absurd humor/adventure books about Jasper Dash and his friends (including Whales on Stilts, Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware, and others.)  Nonficioin readers may have enjoyed his more recent Symphony for the City of the Dead which describes the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the part he played in breaking the siege of Leningrad during World War Two.  Anderson is a remarkably versatile writer.

But I never could have guessed that he would write this graphic novel.  In Yvain, Anderson takes a nearly eight hundred year old poem by Chretien de Troyes and, working with artist Andrea Offermann, turns it into a remarkable adventure that will grab the imagination of a new generation of readers.  The story concerns Yvain, one of the knights in King Arthur's court, who rides out to avenge his cousin's honor, enters a strange land, and accidentally kills the king of that land.  When he falls in love with the grieving queen, he sets out to prove his honor and win her hand.  What follows has all the magic, heroic battles, intrigue, and excitement that I remember from reading Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Arthur.  

Offermann does a nice job with a style that reminds the reader of tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, but also showcases Yvain's strength and skill in battle, and insecurity and confusion when he realizes he has done wrong.

There is a bit of violence here, but nothing excessively gory.  My guess is that this book is best for fourth graders and up. Although there are some heroic female characters, the book may appeal slightly more to males than females. There is nothing here that would cause any reasonable person to challenge the book.

Did I mention that Yvain rescues a lion from a dragon and the lion becomes his companion?  What could be cooler than a knight in armor going into battle with a lion at his side?

Lawhead, Stephen R. (1989) Arthur.  Westchester, IL:  Crossway.

Image result for arthur stephen lawhead

Opening Lines:

"Arthur is no fit king.  Uther's bastard, Merlin's pet, he is lowborn and a fool.  He is wanton and petty and cruel.  A glutton and a drunkard, he lacks all civilized graces.  In short, he is a sullen, ignorant brute
     "All these things and more men say of Arthur.  Let them.
     "When all the words are spoken and all the arguments fall exhausted into silence, this single fact remains: we would follow Arthur to the very gates of hell and beyond if he asked it.  And that is the solitary truth."

I cannot remember if I read Lawhead's trilogy when I was younger.  I suspect I did.  I can't remember even the slightest scrap of it, though.  So when my friend Kris loaned it to me, I decided to give it a try.  Lawhead has two earlier books in this trilogy: Taliesin and Merlin.  I skipped to the third book because I wanted to read of Arthur.

And that is what I got.  Here is the story of Arthur from the time he pulls the sword form the stone to his rise to power and eventually his fall.  This version concentrates on the battles and how Arthur's mastery of military strategy allows him to win battles in which he is greatly outnumbered or disavantaged.  Lancelot does not appear in these pages, nor does his infidelity with the queen Guenivere (here she is named Gwenhwyvar).  In fact, Lawhead's version of the queen is much more interesting that the usual version -- in which she is a vision of beauty blessing the various knights who battle over her favor.  Here she is a fierce Irish warrior queen, and nearly a match for Arthur on the battlefield. All the other elements of the legend are present though.  I found myself despairing when Arthur's kingdom began to fall apart, and then delighting in the conclusion in which the once-and-future part of the story is nicely hinted at.

This is some pretty thick reading.  I would recommend it for high school students, though I imagine a determined middle schooler could make it through.  There is some sexuality obliquely described here, plenty of violence,, and some mild cursing (see the opening lines above).  Seasoned readers of fantasy, though, will take it in stride.  This is a good classic to have on hand.

This last one isn't a book at all.  It is a magazine series.

 Image result for the phoenix comic

You see, long ago in the forgotten mists of time, there used to be magazines like Dynamite and Pizzazz (in the US)  that featured short stories and comics and other things that were interesting for grade school kids.  Then those magazines vanished.  And while their spirit survies to some extent in Mad Magazine and American Girl Magazine and the like, these things are not the same.

 Then, as if from a forgotten planet or a dimension beyond human understanding, a British company has begun publishing The Phoenix.  It comes out once a week and features puzzles and some non-ficiton features, but mostly it is a series of serialized comic stories.  Each story develops in each issue, but then ends on a cliff-hanger, so that the reader has to wait it out until the next week's issue arrives.  Features like Lost Tales, Mega Robot Bros, and the Adventures of John Blake will grab elementary school reader's attentions.  I could not tell from the website whether it is possible to subscribe int he US, but the word is that they are working on a deal with Scholastic to distribute it in the US.  Feel free to check it out on thier website and, if you wish, leave them a note encouraging them to make it available throughout the globe.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Three classic children's novels that do not mention our current political troubles in any way.

It is getting harder and harder to escape the anger, insensitivity, vitriol, and horror of our current political situation.  Some people have called reading novels escapism.  But that is an inaccurate term.  Those of us who turn to reading fiction for solace do so not because we want to escape our problems and go to a happy land without conflict or difficulty.  Rather we want to trade the problems we face which we can do little about -- for the vicarious life of a character in a situation often even more dire than our own, who can and does do something that changes his or her world.  That is why we sometimes need to read.  Here are some classics that may help.

Farmer, Nancy (1994) The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm.  New York: Scholastic.

Image result for the ear the eye and the arm

Opening line:
"Someone was standing by his bed, a person completely unlike anyone Tendai had ever met."

Zimbabwe, 2194.  When his three children are apparently kidnapped, General Matsika seeks the help of three very unusual detectives, the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, all possessed of unusual abilities.  But even as the detectives track the Tendai, Rita, and Kuda, the three children have escaped their captors and are trying to elude pursuers and may be running into more danger than they originally were in.  Somehow, both groups end up becoming involved in a conflict as old as humanity, where good and evil fight it out in the great city and it is up to both the misfit detectives and the children to save the country..

This story was gripping and thought-provoking enough in 1994 to win a Newbery Honor.  It has lost none of its excitement in the twenty plus years since it came out.  In fact, in today's political landscape of turmoil, students may find it refreshing to be in a desperate fictional battle between good and evil, knowing that in the end, good will prevail

This would make a good read-aloud for fourth or fifth grade.  Fifth graders through middle school would enjoy reading it themselves.  There is nothing particularly offensive or likely to be challenged in this book.  I recommend it.

Hill, Kirkpatrick (2002) The Year of Miss Agnes.  New York: Aladdin.

Image result for the year of miss agnes

Opening lines:
"What happens now?" I asked Mama as we watched the plane take the teacher away.
"Maybe no more school,"  Mama twitched her shoulder a little to show she didn't care.

The kids who attend the one-room school house in a tiny Alaskan village have gone through more teachers than they can count.  When Agnes Summerfield shows up one day, they find out what good teaching is like, but they all are wondering whether Miss Agnes will stay.

Look, maybe this will be easier if I just give you a quote form the book.  Here you go:

     "When Miss Agnes read to us, she did all the people in different voices and we forgot right away it was just reading.  It got real, like being inside the book.
      "I didn't want Miss Agnes to ever stop reading.  I felt as if I really was in that deep, dark forest with trees taller than you ever heard of.  And when she stopped, I felt shocked, as if I'd come out of a dream." (p. 39)

See?  It is a nice world to spend some time in and would make a great read-aloud for third through fifth grades.  Nothing objectionable here, except perhaps the vaguely imperialist notion that a white woman from England is teaching native Alaskans.  I prefer to think of it as reenforcing the notion that teachers care for thier students, period.

Read this.  It will make your world happier.

Zindel, Paul  (1968)  The Pigman.  New York:  Bantam. 

Image result for the pigman

Opening Lines:
"Being of sound mind and body on this 15th day of April in our sophomore year at Franklin High School, let it be known that Lorraine Jensena and John Conlan have decided to record the facts and only the facts about our experiences with Mr. Angelo Pignati."

All right, this may not be quite as much of a recommendation as the other two.  But some readers may remember this one from their own high school experience and may enjoy returning to a realistic novel and characters whose challenges seem almost quaint in light of what we deal with in today's world.  I think maybe The Pigman is an acquired taste.  And to be honest, this book has not worn as well as the last one.  Kids today may have trouble figuring out what it means when one character says to another "You're such a card".  Lorraine's fascination with psychology and analysis may also seem very much out of date.  The way Lorraine's mother resigns herself to putting up with sexual harassment a the workplace may be authentic, but is also depressing.  Some students may have trouble relating to the sixties-style experimentation attitude that leads Lorriane and John to throw a party at the Pigman's house when he is in the hospital without so much as thinking about it.  Finally, depending on your reading of the book, it may seem to end without much hope for the future of the characters at all.

Having said that, the book alternates between the voices of John and Lorraine and the very different way in which they see the same events is certainly intriguing.  Likewise, John's bad boy attitude may interest some readers as well.  There were parts in the book where I laughed out loud.  For a certain sort of reader, this book may connect in an authentic way.

This one is probably best for high school.  There are some vague sexual references and certainly a jaded and callous way of viewing the world, but little here that could invite a challenge in this day and age.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Three New Graphic Novels Worth Reading (Good for Science, Theology/philosophy, and English classes)

Hosler, Jay (2015) Last of the SandWalkers  New York:  First Second.

Image result for last of the sandwalkers

Opening Lines:

"Lucy's Journal.  February 15th, 1002 PC (Post Coconut)
            We left New Coleopolis this morning with no fanfare.  Leading the first mission to seek out life beyond our oasis should have been the greatest moment of my scientific carrer.  Instead we shuffled out of town like wriaths through the morning mists. It's just as well, though since most of our colleagues are convinced we will fail."

Joy Hosler is the amazing biologist/graphic novelist whose first work, Clan Apis, follows two worker bees that are part of a colony.  In Last of the SandWalkers, Hosler here gives us a much fuller story of several beetles who leave their safe home and go out into the desert on a voyage of discovery.  Lucy is the plucky leader. Professor Bombadier is her resourceful mentor, Raef is a robotic firefly, And Mossy is a relatively huge horned beatle.  Along with them is treacherous Professor Owen.  As they journey on what turns out to be an epic adventure, the reader learns a great deal about entomology in general and beetles in particular -- including about trap-door spiders, whirligig beetles, and what it is like to get caught in amber.  Not that the learning gets in the way of the story -- which has enough twists and turns and moments of danger to easily keep students' attention.

The images and panel movement draw the reader naturally into the story.  The art serves the story so well that it is easy not to notice how really accomplished the black and white drawing is.

This book is probably best for middle school and up and could be valuable for middle school and high school science and biology classes -- both as a classroom text to consider ecosystems and adaptation, but also as a supplementary book for kids who love to read.

These is nothing here likely to cause a challenge -- though extremely careful readers may catch that Hosler takes a swipe at the sort of fundamentalist religion that sets itself up in oppostiion to science -- but because it is a made-up beetle religion and doesn't appear to be targeting any particular faith, it is unlikely anyone would object.

This is a really good one.

Kashyap, Keshni; Araki, Mari ((2012) Tina's Mouth:  An Existential Comic Diary.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin.

Image result for tina's mouth an existential comic diary

Opening Lines:  "January 26.  Dear Mr Jean Paul Sartre,  I know that you are old and dead and also a philosopher.  So, on an obvious level, you and I do not have a lot in common."

So begins Tina's Mouth, a graphic novel that takes us inside the life of a high school sophomore trying to make sense of religion and beleif  and the meaning of life by keeping a diary of her existentialism. She tries to make sense of all this while living through losing friends, having crushes, losing crushes, and trying to figure out how life works.

The book is just barely a graphic novel.  Some pages have a single image and a large section of separated text.  Instead of regular panel movement, there are sometimes inset panels in panarama double-page spreads.  The lettering is typeset instead of drawn, and the illustration sometimes reminded me of paper dolls in that they seemed to have a limited range of movement.

Tina's search for meaning and friends and love is touching and certainly evocative of the searching that many readers may remember from their young adulthood.  There is no real resolution of Tina's search, though, save an acceptance that she doesn't really understand existentialism and that her search will go on.

This book is probably best for high school-aged readers, though teachers should be warned that there is enough vulgar language here that a parental challenge might be likely.  The language is nothing more than you would hear in many high school campuses, though other than verisimilitude, it doesn't seem to serve any thematic purpose.

This might be a good one to check out from your local public library before buying.

LaBoucane-Benson, Patti; Mellings, Kelly (2015) The Outside Circle.  House of Anansi Press.

Image result for the outside circle

Opening lines:  "Today is the first day of the Warrior Program.  We are going to start today with a smudge and a prayer.  It's important to make these offerings as we ask the creator for help."

Pete Carver is an indiginous Canadian whose one wish in life is to take care of his younger brother Joey. Pete's mom is a heroin addict.  Pete himself runs with a gang and is involved in selling drugs.  When his girlfriend tells him she is pregnant, he tells her the baby probably isn't his and kicks her out of the car.  Then one night, during a fight with his morher's boyfirend Dennis, things get out of hand, Pete kills Dennis and is sent to jai.  Pete asks his fellow gang members to take care of his little brother.  In prison, things get worse.  When Pete find out the gang is putting Joey at risk and there  is nothing he can do about it, he is ready to do something rash.  Instead he finds out about a rehabilitation program that uses traditional tribal worship to help people learn to deal with their anger and get themselves straightened out.  Pete has to face his brokenness, acknowledge his anger, and eventually make a choice aobut how he wants his life to go.

The art in this book is beautiful.  The story is engrossing (it isn't an easy journey for Pete at all).  The scenes are painful to look at sometimes, but in order to value Pete's eventual triumph, we have to be there in the bad parts too.

There is some vulgar language in here, but it expresses the hardness of Pete's world and his own bitterness, and it is something I would fight for.  This book might be a good choice for a high school English classroom, especially when paired with another book about mistakes and redemption (Paul Fleishman's Whirligig for example).  This one is well worth buying.