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Monday, January 15, 2018

Excellent Adventure-based Graphic Novels: Delilah Dirk, The Nameless City, Pandemonium, and Spill Zone

Cliff, Tony (2016) Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling.  New York:  First Second.

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First Lines:  "My name is Erdemoglu Selim.  I was once a lieutenant in the Turkish Janissary Army.  I abandoned that life, however, for this one.  The sort of life where I had been tasked with creating a distraction."

This is the second book in a delightful series.  In this one, Delilah (adventurer, skilled swordswoman, righter-of-wrongs) discovers a British officer spying for the French and must go to London to expose him.  While there she returns to her childhood home and, as Alexandra Nichols, must deal with her mother who wants her to resume her identity as an English gentlewoman.  There are themes of identity and expectation, but what will grab the attention of your readers is the rollicking adventure storyline and the clear and exciting way that Tony Cliff shows fight sequences and depicts intrigue so that the reader is rarely confused.

This could be ideal for fourth-graders and up.  There is almost nothing that is offensive, except a reference on page 64, where a character identifies someone who is acting foolish with a term normally reserved for donkeys and posteriors.  This book would be an excellent addition to your classroom library.

Hicks, Faith Erin(2016) The Nameless City  New York:  First Second

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Opening lines:  "...on the 34th day of our journey down the River of Lives, we came to the great City, Daidu.  But something was amiss, for the City was not called Daidu by those we spoke to at the gates."

Kaidu is the son of Adren, the general of the conquering armies that have taken control of the Nameless City.  In the City he meets a street urchin named Rat.  She shows him how to run across the rooftops.  As a city person, she hates the conquering Dao armies.  Kaidu has seen the scorn the soldiers have for the people of the city.  Kaidu and Rat develop an unlikely friendship and together help to convince the various leaders of the city to meet for peace talks.

That summary doesn't do justice to what is an amazing experience.  Hicks has built a fascinating world and the illustrations invite us into that world.  The details are magnificent, the characters interesting, and the story believable. I can imagine walking in her city.

There is some violence in this story, but nothing excessive.  This would be excellent as a classroom library book for about fourth grade and older.  It might also be worth undertaking as a language arts text.  Excellent stuff.

Hicks, Faith Erin (2017) The Nameless City:  The Stone Heart.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Lines:  "On our eighth day in the Nameless City, my travelling companion happened upon some of his people, far from their homelands.  They had travelled miles to buy and sell in the City.  It was a common story, repeated many we spoke to.  The Nameless City is different from many cities we passed through in our journey down the River of Life.  The City does not have a single population.  Rather it is filled with many different people from many different nations.  I had to ask:  Who does the city belong to?  Who are its rightful people?"

The story of the Nameless City continues in this second volume.  We learn that Rat's parents were killed by the Dao, Kaidu's people.  We also learn that Kaidu's dad, the general, is working on a peace plan in which the city would be governed by a city council, with every tribe having a seat, to break the cycle of invasion and subjugation.  As the peace plan gets closer though, it becomes clear that the enemies of peace -- those who wish to hold on to power, are willing to go to great lengths to ensure that the peace plan is never realized -- and those great lengths will change everything for Rat and Kaidu and present them with their greatest challenge ever.  This is a wonderful story of sudden twists and turns punctuated by moments of great beauty.

You need to read this, seriously.  It is one of the finest graphic novels stories I have read in a long time.  Good for fourth or fifth grade and older.  Great for your classroom library.  Especially good for English or History classes.  (Obviously this is a work of fiction -- but it raises some interesting questions of tribal conflict and democratic governments -- when it isn't moving at breakneck speed toward the next plot twist.)  I loved this book.

Wooding, Chris; Diaz, Cassandra (2012)  Pandemonium.  New York: Scholastic.

Opening Lines:  "Let's play skullball!  And it's a great catch by Seifer Tombchewer, captain of the home team!"

Okay, I'll admit, when I saw the cover and read the first couple of lines, I figured this was going to be another run-of-the -mill manga-style vampire story.  Turns out, every assumption I made was wrong.  The story begins when Siefer (pictured on the cover), son of the chief of a little town in the middle of nowhere is kidnapped and taken to the great city.  It turns out his is a dead ringer for the prince of the realm, who is missing.  Siefer's job is to act as a decoy and rule in his stead until the Prince is found and the culprits captured.  But Siefer knows nothing of how to govern, and nothing of magic, which the prince is known for.  throw in the fact that the Prince is engaged to be married and his fiancee is coming for a vist soon, and add a girl is age who comes to the castle to plead her case and ends up teaching him how to do magic and you have a story that is not only engaging, but actually quite funny at times.

This is the first book in a series, and like the first Harry Potter book, there is not a ton here in terms of teachable themes, but it is a book that your students will enjoy.  I am going to guess middle school and up with this one, mostly because the romantic intrigues might fly over the heads of younger kids.  Well worth getting a hold of.

Westerfeld, Scott; Puvilland, Alex (2017)  Spill Zone.  New York:  First Second

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Opening Lines:  "Whenever I go in planning to shoot, I always come out with more pictures of the playground.  A hundred years ago, Victorians thought that cameras captured glimpses of the spirit world.  They thought the fugitive wisps of light in their photos meant something.  But frankly, they just had shitty cameras back then.  It doesn't matter what I shoot with, digital, infrared, even old school chemical film, nothing ever shows up on the swing.  People think there is something hidden in the Spill, fairies in those wisps of light.  They're wrong.  The spill zone shows everything.  My guess is Hell does too. "

Addison lives with her little sister, Lexi ever since the Spill that claimed her parents' lives.  No one quite knows what the Spill was -- nanotech gone bad, aliens, extra-dimensional invaders, all they know is that within the Spill site, things get really weird.  Addie makes her living sneaking into the Spill Zone and taking pictures of the weird and frightening creatures there.  When a customer offers her a fortune -- enough to get her and Lexi away from the Spill Zone forever -- to retrieve an artifact from a hospital within the Zone, Addie agrees.  But the law keeps getting closer to figuring out that she is the one sneaking in there, and the artifact has some disturbing properties on its own.  And of course, there are the creatures within the Zone.  For Addie to get in and out one more time will not be easy.

Westerfeld and Puvilland have crafted a convincing and frightening world and a gripping and entertaining story. There isn't much thematically here for a literature class, but it would be a good addition to a high school classroom library.   Lexi has a doll who has been animated by the Spill that is rather disconcerting, and the rest of the story is also frightening from time to time.  There is also some sparing use of vulgar words, but there is nothing here any worse than a typical Steven King novel.

It was a good story.  I am looking forward to the sequel.  If you like your adventure stories with a touch of horror, you should pick this one up.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Five Excellent Books that Can Help you Get Students Excited about Science.

Holm, Jennifer L. (2014) The Fourteenth Goldfish  New York:  Yearling.

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Opening Lines:  “When I was in preschool, I had a teacher named Starlily.  She wore rainbow tie-died dresses and was always bringing in cookies that were made with granola and flax and had no taste.”

Okay, so the story is maybe a bit far-fetched.  Ellie is a sixth-grader who gets a call to pick up her grandfather from the police.  She knows her grandfather is a scientist/genetic inventor who experiments with jellyfish.  She eventually finds out that he has invented a genetic formula that has regressed his body to that of a sixth grader.  He has retained his crankiness, old man fashion sense, and passion for science.  At first Ellie finds him annoying and embarrassing, but eventually he ignites an interest in science in her, which eventually grows to a passion, and she helps him to consider some of the ethical implications of his research.  Throw in a boy classmate who joins them, mostly to spend time with Ellie, which leads to a budding first romance and you have got a story that will grab middle grade students and may even get them to love science (real science – which doesn’t necessarily translate to what we teach in school I am afraid.) 

Nothing objectionable here that I noticed.  Should be great for fourth through seventh grades or so.  

Heiligman, Deborah (2009) Charles and Emma:  The Darwin’s Leap of Faith. New York:  Henry Holt and Company

Opening Lines:  “In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper.  He had been back in England for almost two years, after a monumental voyage around the world.  He was in his late twenties.  It was time to decide.  Across the top of the left-hand side he wrote Marry.  On the right he wrote Not Marry.  And in the middle: This is the question.”

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            In the world we live in, Charles Darwin is the father of evolutionary theory which some people hold equal to atheism.  In the world and time that Charles Darwin lived in, however, things were not so clear cut.  Like everyone else in his time, Darwin was raised attending church and living in a society rooted in Christian ethics and understandings.  When he began to think about evolution, he questioned and doubted the Christian understanding of how the world began and how God maintains it.  However, this belief system was not easily dismissed by Darwin.  One reason he struggled with belief in God his whole life and never fully settled the question was his wife Mary. 
            Yet this is not a book with an axe to grind.  It is a carefully researched and well- written book about a remarkably strong marriage and the evolving thought of a very thoughtful couple. I did not know that Darwin studied theology at University and intended to become a country parson before his interest in science took over.   In 1836, for example, Darwin published a letter in a South African newspaper arguing for increased funding for missionaries.  Two years later he notes in his journal that while he remains a strong believer, he is beginning to question the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.  Before he married Emma, Darwin asked his father if he should discuss his doubts with his fiancĂ©.  Darwin’s father counselled him against such an action.  Darwin talked to her about it anyway.  When Emma’ sister Fanny died, Emma became more devout.  As they grew older together, the death of several of their children and Charles’s own illness continued to drive Emma deeper into belief and caused Charles to question more deeply – but until his death, he continually was searching for ways that he could share the depth of Emma’s belief. 
            Heiligman doesn’t slouch in describing the development of Charles’s understanding of the the way the animals of the world interact and change over time.  And in the end, the book does not try to argue either side of this debate, but perhaps to argue that the debate itself is an unfair reading of what Darwin himself was thinking.  It may help students who struggle with this question themselves to understand that it is not always necessary to have a clear answer to all such mysteries.
            This book is ideal for high school students.  There is nothing objectionable here, though teachers should recognize that this is a sensitive issue for some parents.  

Koch, Falynn (2017) Science Comics: Bats: Learning to Fly.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Lines:  Hoo!/ Ugh./ I hate to admit it… but I think I’m lost.  Little brown bat.  Myotis lucifugus./ I’m glad y’all could make it out for this special nighttime hike.  The national park only does this a few times each year.

            This graphic novel is one of the latest in a series.  Some of the earlier books in the series seemed to be struggling to figure out how the graphic novel format could be effectively utilized to explain science.  With this book, the series seems to have found its fee.  There is a single narrative through-line about a little brown bat and a teenaged girl who initially is not so interested in what the ranger has to day, but when the bat gets close to the group and one of the panicked humans swats it, the girl decides to help the bat in any way she can.
But woven through the narrative is plenty of explanation and exposition about nearly every aspect of a bat’s life.  There is plenty here to interest students from third grade up.  This is an excellent book for your classroom library.  It would work as an in-class text as well, though I am not aware of any elementary curriculum that divest that deeply into the biology of a single creature.  

Loux, Matthew (2017) The Time Museum  New York: First Second.

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Opening Lines:  Image of time travelers working on building a machine outside of tier time travelling vessel/ Image of a triceratops herd stampeding.  Time traveler:  I wonder if they know somehow…/ Man in sunglasses and trenchcoat:  Unless you wish to remain and ask, I suggest you finish your work!
            Delia is a science nerd.  Her thorough report on the life cycle of the dung beetle puts her class to sleep, including the teacher.  When he best friend deserts her for a cooler friend at the beginning of the summer and she finds out she and her family are going to visit her eccentric uncle, she takes it in stride.  When it turns out that her uncle s the curator of the Earth Time Museum, that he is himself a time traveler form the future, and that he is offering her a chance to do a summer internship with the museum, she is overjoyed.  When she finds out that she will have to compete with other science students of the position, and that most of them are from the future and seem to know much more than she does, she is close to despairing.  The contests begin and she soon finds herself making decisions that may save the museum or doom it.
            This isn’t hard science and, in fact, the reader will learn little about science at all from this graphic novel, but a consistent theme throughout the book is that scientific thinking, passion for science,  and problem-solving ability is more important than memorized facts, a concept that might be very encouraging to some young science students.
            There is nothing in this graphic novel that reasonable parents would find objectionable.  It would be best for fourth grade and up. It is a lot of fun.

Benjamin, Ali (2015)  The Thing about Jellyfish:  New York:  Little Brown.

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            Opening lines: “A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating.  It doesn’t matter what kind:  The Blood-red Atolla with its flashing siren lights, the frilly flower hat variety, or the near transparent moon jelly, Aurelia aurita.  It’s their pulse, the way they contract swiftly, then release.  Like a ghost heart—a heart you can see right through, right into some other world where everything you ever lost has gone to hide.”
            Suzy Swanson’s friend Franny Jackson drowned a few months ago.  Suzy is trying to piece her life together.  Jellyfish may hold the key she thinks.  That is really all I can tell you.  You are just going to have to read it. 
            This book is a kind of exploration of how a kid looks and the world and science.  It is also kind of a mystery story … and kind of a treatise on friendship … and kind of a moving narrative about grief. It is a nerd story in the best sense of the term.  It is about a kid who is different, persistent, and who cares about things that really matter.
This is a really good one.  You should read it.  I t is about grief and so I suppose a parent might object to it on the grounds that it is morbid – but I have not heard of any such objections.  It would be best for fifth grade and up  Check it out. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Top Five Books of 2017

2017 was a great year for some really exciting books, but because of a back injury toward the end of the year, I have a huge pile of books I have read but have not been able to review yet.  I will be getting to those in the next couple of weeks.  For now, though, here are the top five books I reviewed in 2017:  (Remember these are books I read in 2017 --but not all were published in that year.)

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

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For English teachers, this is an excellent graphic novel to introduce anything that touches on King Arthur.  Though Arthur only makes a cameo or two in the book, it captures the excitement of a knight with a pet lion fighting against evil magic, a dragon, and enemies -- but also concerns itself with the relationship between Sir Yvain and the queen whose husband he killed in battle.  It is a relationship with intense hate and, eventually, deep love as well.  Ideal for late middle school and high school.

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

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Terry Pratchett's fantasy series are not exactly Young Adult fiction.  They are written for an open audience that might include everyone from middle school through adulthood.  My friend Kris introduced me to the Tiffany Aching series and I continue to love them.

Tiffany Aching serves two villages as their wise woman/witch, even though she herself is very young.  Though she faces remarkable challenges, she alwasy seems to come out on top, partly because she has been adopted by a group of utterly unpredictable and savagely loyal allies, the Wee Free men -- eight inch tall, hard-drinking, tough-as-nails-and-about-as-bright celtic creatures.  The story is great, the writing is exceptional, and these are excellent books.

Some parents might objcet to the existnce of witches in this book -- but the witches Pratchett depicts are more on the order of wise woment in the village than they are the horrid, evil,toad-sacrificing women from other corners of the children's ltierature world.  Worth reading.

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

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This is my favorite book that I read this year.  Schusterman is excellent at world-building and has created a utopian future where a benign computer called the Thunderhead protects humans and regenerates them through healing nanites such that they need never die.  Unfortuantly, since the planet cannot sustain a growing population, the Thunderhead creates an independent group of humans, the Scythes, to randomly glean people and keep the population under control.  When a group of scythes starts flaunting the rules and gleaning people for the joy of killing them and watching them panic, two teenaged apprentice sythes find themselves on opposite sides of escalating conflict.  Masterfully written and utterly gripping,-- this is the sort of book that you (and your students) can't wait to loan out.  Upper middle school and high school.  Nothing here any reasonable person would object to.  Good stuff.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series

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I reread it this year.  Harry and his friends still completely captivate me and have me on the edge of my seat.  This is a world worth revisiting.

For first time readers, it is worth noting that while the first couple of books are ideal for a forth or fifth grade audience, later books become much more dark, scary, and sometime violent.  In our family, we read them all out loud to our kids to slow things down. I recomment this approach.

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

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This also was not written specifically as a YA book, but it is an amazing true story that high school students would find utterly captivating.  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.  The book tells the story of how he evaded the other car, got help, eventually recovered, determined who had shot at him and that they were still after him, and decided to take his family into hiding. 

High school students would love this book.  It will grab and hold their attention throughout.  Obviously it is violent and sometiems scary -- but ultimately the message of Busvy's recovery is that he has to let go of hate.