Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Art, Music, Germany, and the Beatles

So last week I read Arne Bellstor's new graphic novel Baby's in Black:  Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and the Beatles, (2012).  The book looks at a chapter from the early days of the Beatles.  In those days, John, Paul, and George were playing in Germany to great acclaim along with their bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe.  The story mostly concerns Stuart's romance with a young german photographer named Astrid Kirchherr who is quite taken with the Beatles.  When german authorities discover that George is underage and the Beatles decide to return to England at least for a time, Stuart decides to remain in Germany to be with Astrid.  Their romance deepens and Stuart begins to see success in his art career.  At the same time, though, he begins to develop a strange debilitating illness.

This book is unlikely to become anyone's favorite graphic novel ever, but for high school teachers of Art, Music, and History, it could be a good resource to add to their classroom library. (I sort of wish the book had more to say about the Beatle's music and about Astrid and Stuart's art, but it does present the whole story fairly quickly and might lead students to want to check out some other sources.) 

Although it is implied that Astrid and Stuart sleep together, there are no explicit scenes that might cause trouble with parents.  True to the time period, though, everybody in this book is smoking a cigarette all the time.  I certainly wouldn't want this sanitized out of the panels, but readers will likely be struck by the ubiquity of the smoking.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Ender's Game -- Over 20 years old and still excellent

This past week I re-read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.  I hadn't really planned to do so, but my 13 year-old daughter had been reading it and I picked it up to reread the first chapter and once again I got hooked.
      This time, though, as I was drawn again into Ender's world at Battle School I tired to figure out why I (and an awful lot of other people) like this book so much.  On its surface it isn't particularly remarkable.  Ender is a brilliant kid who is chosen to be trained to be a military leader and to fight against an alien force that has its heart set on colonizing earth.  His older brother was also recruited, but was found to be too heartless to be a good leader.  His older sister was also recruited but found to be too empathic to put the objective before the soldiers.  And so Ender fights his way through bullies and an increasingly difficult series of strategic games to eventually accomplish the impossible. 

     There is something about this book that makes it more dramatically engaging than either of its sequels.  (In the Ender's Shadow series, Card comes close to the excitent ot the original.)   I think it is a couple of things.  First, because Ender's only real strength is his mind, it is easy to get him into situations that are desperate -- and whether it is a bully who wants him dead, or an arena game where the rules are stacked against him -- Ender has to think his way out.
     Second, I think it is his vulnerablility.  Event though I have read this book several times, I still find myself wondering how he is going to survive.  Like many other exceptioanlly wonderful adolescent literature writers (I think of Tolkein, for example), Card is willing to put his protagonist at great risk.
      Third,  Ender is a likable protagonist.  He cares for other people.  He wants to do the right thing.  He wishes he had a real friend.  All of this gets us on his side.
     Really, though, this doesn't solve the mystery at all.  The truth is, I have no idea what makes Ender's Game such a great book.  I just know that it is.  And if you teach kids fifth grade and up, it is a great way to engage students in reading an excellent story.  So you need to buy it (and maybe a second copy, because your students are going to wear the first one out.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

The World Beyond Persepolis

Recently I have read three books, one novel and two graphic novels, all about life in the Middle East.  I am certainly not an expert on any aspect of life in the Middle East and am still learning a lot about the culture, language, and religion of places like Palestine, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.  Here are some books that help teach some of those cultural aspects and provide interesting stories besides.  Fair warning, though, the last two would be more useful for college teaching than middle school or high school.

Most recently I read Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi.  This book, published in 2000, won the ALA's Batchelder Award for excellent children's literature translated into English from another language.


This book concerns a Palestinian kid who injures his knee while he is goofing around with his friends (and trying to be as brave as his deceased older brother).  His knee is shattered so completely that he has to go to an Israeli hospital to have it operated on.  There he meets a collection of Israeli kids, including Yonatan,  who spends much of his time reading books about science.  The two of them develop an unlikely friendship and learn a great deal about each other's lives.

It is a good book, though the ending is fairly unsatisfying.  It doesn't make the mistake of trying to resolve the entire Israeli/Palestinian conflict on the back of one friendship, nor does it take sides in the conflict.  It might be an interesting book to complement a unit on the modern Middle East, or to connect to as student of Palestinian or Israeli heritage.  I con't imagine any kid getting wildly enthusiastic about this book though.

Zahra's Paradise, by Amir and Khalil, is the amazing story of a familiy's fight to find a son who disappeared during a protest in Iran.  They fight against the bureacracy of a corrupt government in an attempt to locate their son and get the government to admit what happened to him.  Along the way, the victim's older brother comes across what turns out to be a far larger conspiricy and a far greater injustice than they had ever imagined.

This would be an excellent graphic novel for high school students to discover the depth of human rights violations and injustices that go on every day in courtries all over the world -- except, there is a fair amount of objectionable material here.  Vulgar langauge, depictions of violence, and several scenes of nudity would make it hard for many high school students to catch the point of the book -- though some parts toward the end are breathtaking in the way they call for change. 

I can think of some high school students who would get a lot out of this book, but I can also think of many (if not all) schools where recommending such a book to a student might get a good teacher fired.  Too bad, because it is a good book.

Craig Thompson is, of course, the creator of Blankets which was an amazing graphic novel about a boy's struggle to find love and purpose and an understanding of God in the midst of an extreme fundamentalist Christian family.  That was also a graphic novel that I thought would be excellent for students to study, but it had a couple of scenes that involved nudity.  I always figured that maybe Thompson's next graphic novel would have an intriguing story like the first on, but might be something that coiuld be used in a high school literature class.

If that is what I was looking for, Habibi is not it.   It is an amazing story that weaves together stories from the Bible, the Koran, 1,001 Arabian Nights, and other sources.  It tells of a woman named Dodola who is sold into slavery, stolen from her owner, and eventually escapes her new captors along with a homeless boy named Zam..  They two of them endure endless hardships and a life which seems to get worse and worse.  Dodola must sell her body to get food for them.  Zam tries to carry water to earn money so that Dodola will not have to work in this way.  He is eventually lost in the city and falls under the care of eunichs, while Dodola is captured for a sultan's harem.  Zam mutilates himself.  Dodola is harshly abused by the sultan when she tries to escape and she almost dies when the Sultan's guards try to drown her in a polluted river.  The story ends on a hopeful and arguably redeptive turn, but we must endure such agony to get there.  It is a moving and powerful book.

It is also a very honest graphic novel, and that is unfortunate for anyone hoping to use it to teach high school literature.  It depicts with graphic frankness: rapes, mutilations, births, opium abuse, sexual abuse involving underaged children, and so many other horrors that it is a painful book to read sometimes.  In the end I was glad I read it, but like Joe Sacco's work it made me feel very uncomfortalbe and unsettled.  I am afraid this one  would be too much for many readers. 

I think these are some powerful books that have a lot to say aobut the treatment of women, children, and arguably all humans in some parts of the world.  But, as Peter Parker's Uncle Ben says, "with great power comes great responsibility."  Read these books with care.  I would hate to see anyone hurt.