Monday, December 30, 2013

Best graphic novel I have read this year (but I can't be sure you'll like it.)

Vernon, Ursula (2013) Digger: The Complete Omnibus Edition Saint Paul, MN: Sofawolf Press. 

 My niece bought a graphic novel for my daughter.  It's called Digger and it is by someone called Ursula Vernon and I have never heard of it before or of her and that is a tragedy because she has written a masterpiece.  But the thing is, even though this is the best graphic novel that I have read all year (edging out George O'Connor's Aphrodite just barely), there is a good chance you might not like it.

I think I love it for a bunch of reasons, but one of the first is that it connects a bunch of my interests.  The main character is a wombat (I have loved wombats since I first saw one at Brookfield Zoo on a trip to Chicago when I was in grade school), he is an engineer (so is one of my best friends) , the story features intelligent trolls (the college where I teach has the troll as a mascot), and there are wonderfully bizarre characters like a slug that can tell the future by reading leaves, a medicine/woman/hag who is neither old nor hag-like, a shrew that thinks it is a troll, rats with wings, and a human guide who took the wrong herbal supplement and ended up with the head of a deer.  So that stuff might all be stuff I connect with and you don't.  But fortunately, that isn't all this book offers. 

The writing is brilliant.  In some sections she slips into first person narratives told through narration boxes with an incredibly strong voice to them (her writing skills are ridiculously well-demonstrated in one of the bonus stories in the back that describes a villager's interaction with Digger the wombat.  The point-of-view is close to the villager, which allows the reader to draw conclusions about that is going on even before the villager does.  But really, you would have to read it to really get a sense for it, but I think I can give you some idea with a couple of quotes taken out of context:

"Don't you know not to mess with a sleeping wombat?  We swing pickaxes for twelve hours a day.  We're like biceps with feet." (Digger, p. 23)

"He wants something, and I'll bet you diamonds to dolomitic conglomerates it's gonna involve us going back down that hole." (Digger 119)

"No one should have to explain cultural relativism on a queasy stomach, particularly since wombats aren't cultural relativists.  We know full well that some stuff is just wrong."  (Digger, p. 441)

The art is brilliant as well.  Vernon's work is very careful.  Every single line is necessary and conveys a great deal.  At times it looks almost like a woodcut.  Despite a minimum of lines, the expressions of the characters carry a ton of feeling and emotion.  Between the text and the image, you begin to really care for many of the characters (and intensely dislike some of the others -- though often your allegiance shifts as you get to know more about them.

Like in Jeff Smith's Bone series (or Lord of the Rings for that matter), Vernon masterfully weaves a world that is strangely both like and unlike ours -- but which is fully and completely believable.  Somehow an anthropomorphic wombat encountering violent fruit makes sense in the context of the tale.


Although this story first appeared in a bunch of different volumes, it hangs together when you read it all at once (though the omnibus edition is a little hard to read on the couch.  It is so huge you almost need a table to put in on).  It also has some powerful themes and ideas in it.  Vernon herself states the theme of the book as "If you are reasonably polite and reasonably intelligent and work very hard, you should win in the end".(807) but it seems to me that sells the book short.  It also deals with brokenness and the difficulty of making things right, about gender stereotyping and the stupidity of violence and how hard it is to figure out what is the right thing to do in some situations.  Also redemption, how strength is not based on size or muscles, and how people who seems insane makes sense when you know their backstory. 

Sounds interesting, you might say, but is it a children's' book?  Is it written for adolescents?   Honestly, I have no idea.  I think reasonably intelligent middle school and high school students would love this book.   There are three minor vulgarities that I noticed and there are some implied references to sex, but nothing graphic.  My guess is that Vernon wrote this book for people and not specifically for children  (just as Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings) -- but sometimes I think the best books in the world are like that. 

I have more to say, but really I want to suggest that if this sounds intriguing to you, you ought to buy the book.  I'll let Digger have the last word.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How a kid archoleogist found a fossil estimated to be two million years old

Berger, Lee R.; Aronson, Marc (2012)  The Skull in the Rock:  How a scientist, a boy, and Google Earth opened a new window on human origins.  Washington D. C.: National Geographic.

So this kid, Matthew Berger, is out hunting fossils with his dad one day in 2008 and he sees this tiny fossil of a human clavicle sticking out of a rock and he calls to his paleontologist dad and finds out he has not only found a fossil that might be 2 million years old, but he has also made a really important discovery for that field of study. 

This book looks at three things:  first, the life's story of that kid's father, Lee, and how his childhood interest in saving the gopher tortoise led to an interest in science, which led to a lifelong interest in fossil hunting.  The second part of the book is the story of this one particular expedition and what tools and evidence led Lee and his son Matthew to be in the right place to find the human skull that Mathew's find led to.  The third part de3als with what scientists have been able to learn from Lee and Matthew's find.  What is excellent about this book for young readers is that the connection to kids draws them in and before they know it, they are reading about how science gets done. 

The pictures, as in all National Geographic books, are illustrative, intriguing and utterly beautiful.  They get you inside of the hole in the rock where Lee found the rest of Matthew's ancient skeleton. They let you see what it was in the Google Earth pictures that led Lee back to that site. 

My fourth grade daughter is not exactly a science nut, but she found the book interesting and intriguing (I think the pictures helped draw her in).   I would say for third through middle school, this is a good one (though the picture book format may be off-putting to older readers.

Friday, December 20, 2013

New George O'Connor Graphic Novel! Aphrodite!

O'Connor, George (2014) Aphrodite: Goddess of Love.  New York: First Second.

There are some books that you are delighted to find when you stumble into them.  There are some books (usually by certain authors) that, when you see them, you grab them without even checking the back of the book for the story because you know this is going to be good. 

And then there are books you actively wait for. 

For me, that would be pretty much anything George O'Connor does -- and especially each new installment in his Olympians series.

And here is why:  George O'Connor does thorough research (in this book, his author's note identifies the source for a six-panel sequence at the back of the book in which Eros is stung by a bee and is convinced he is dying as a lyric poem called The Anacreontea -- which I have never even heard of).  And yet, O'Connor doesn't let the research usurp the story.  He does the research to find the pathways the story can move through, then selects the best story he can come up with.  In this case, we follow Aphrodite from her arrival on the shore of the sea, through Zeus's hasty marriage of her to Hephaistos, and then to the story of the golden apple, which seems to be leading up the Trojan War (I am guessing the next book will be Ares).  And without taking anything away from Rick Riordan, O'Connor doesn't need to update the old stories to give them extra zip -- instead he just tells the stories so well that they will absolutely grab you. 

And the art!  It is clear and dramatic and emotional and intellectual and absolutely right.  Before I read O'Connor, I thought of Zeus as having a big red beard (that's how Marvel Comics shows him).  O'Connor reasons that, since Zeus is a shapeshifter, he would pick a form more suited to wooing -- and his confident but dashing depiction seems perfect.  I like Hephaistos's boxy but earnest appearance and although I think a beardless eight inch mustache would look ridiculous on anybody who doesn't live in the water, it is perfect on Poseidon.  And O'Connor knows how to use panels to tell the story.  They are never cluttered but always detailed and I find with each reading I spot more than I did before. And O'Connor is able to draw people standing around in a way that seems filled with action (and when there really is action, the story sours).

Finally, somehow O'Connor is able to write an entire book about the goddess of love and neither shy away from the nature of her powers and interests, nor draw anything objectionable.  . 

I managed to wrangle and early copy and so I am not exactly sure when this book hits bookstore and library shelves, but you should pre-order or get in line or whatever you have to do because this is a great graphic novel.

Now I have to wait for the next one.  Sigh.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Excellent Graphic Novel (that you won't be able to use in school)

Siegel, Mark (2012) Sailor Twain: Or the Mermaid in the Hudson  New York:  First Second

This is a very interesting book.  Part historical fiction, part fantasy/fairy tale, it is an extremely engaging story about a troubled riverboat that is sort of haunted by an alluring mermaid.  This story has some interesting echoes of Shakespeare's Hamlet (including a boiler tender named Horatio who is the sole survivor of the destruction of the U.S.S. Elsinore) and other echoes of Huckleberry Finn.  The art is beautiful and otherworldly, the story is full of interesting twists, and Siegel's mastery of the graphic novel form allows the reader to quickly fall into the story.  There are themes here that high school students would enjoy discovering and talking about.

But it will never work in your classroom, so you might as well forget about using it.


Well, obviously, you can't have an authentic mermaid story without full frontal nudity.  And this isn't from a distance either.  The text is sprinkled with vulgarities.  There are some sexual situations and they are not handled with subtlety. There is no way this one would last for more than three minutes before it would be questioned, challenged, and pulled from the classroom.  And that is too bad, because, although in its current state it is really unworkable for even high school seniors, underneath all that it is a very interesting story.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Sherlock Holmes -- In love?

Naslund, Sena Jeter (1995) Sherlock in Love.  Boston:  David R. Godine.

Out of any high school class of thirty or so, a handful of students will be rabid fans of the BBC Masterpiece Theater show Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character (Cumberbatch is also the voice of Smaug the Dragon in the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies) and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson (Freeman plays Bilbo in the same movies).  Another handful of your students will be familiar with Sherlock Holmes through the movies starring Robert Downey Jr (who also plays, of course, Iron Man in the Marvel movies).  So if there was ever a time to get your students interested in reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock stories, this is it (you can get an electronic copy of the stories for free on Kindle and other e-readers.)

But what do you do when your eager readers devour the two volume set of Doyle's work and still want more.  Well, happily there is a long tradition of pastiches, with excellent Holmes novels written by the likes of Nicholas Meyer (director of Star Trek Wrath of Kahn) and many famous and obscure writers (there is also a graphic novel adaptation of some of the original stories).

A good representative novel in that line is Sena Jeter Naslund's Sherlock in Love.  It isn't written as an adolescent or even a young adult novel, but it is wholly within the grasp of high school readers.  In this novel, Sherlock meets a violinist in a London orchestra and deduces that he is in fact a woman, cross-dressing to be able to play in the all-male ensemble.  Holmes falls in love with Victor/Violet's violin playing, intelligence, playfulness and then falls in love with what she looks like.  Soon he is pursuing her all the way to Austria, where he finds her in the clutches of Mad King Ludwig. 

It is a good and satisfying read for Sherlock enthusiasts, though there are some subtle references to King Ludwig's homosexuality (so subtle I missed them on my first read through) and some mention of Holmes use of cocaine (which at the time the stories were written, was not an illegal drug).  These are both very minor parts of the story, though.

Not a bad choice for high school and up. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Another one of those journalism-based adolescent action books.

Winerip, Michael (2005) Adam Canfield of the Slash.  New York:  Scholastic.

Based on the title,  I honestly thought this book was going to be about a kid who was part of a rock band.  It isn't.  Adam Canfield is a typical over-committed middle school student who has somehow found himself as the co-editor of the school paper.  Actually, Adam loves reporting and he sort of gets along with his co-editor Jennifer.  But Jennifer is more of an organized, detail-oriented editor, and Adam is really a reporter who is interested in editing.  When a third-grader named Phoebe stumbles into a story that points toward corruption in and beyond their school, Adam and Jennifer find themselves having to learn to tiptoe very carefully around what they have found and what they can publish without getting in trouble.

There are three things I like about this book.  First, it is a gripping story that keeps the pages turning -- partly because the main characters seem always to be one misstep from disaster.  Second, the only way the book can work is that the characters are authentic and likable.  Adam is a good kid, but he is always running late and missing deadlines, usually through no fault of his own.  Jennifer is much more put together, and the two of them are a good team -- working together to figure things out. Phoebe is a nice addition to the mix.  She is earnest and dedicated but also insecure and nervous.  And though Adam finds her annoying at first, she eventually wins his grudging respect. Finally, I love that this is a book about kid journalists.  Language arts teachers will like the way the book reinforces the value of writing. 

There aren't a lot of deep themes here, but it is a fun book, and middle school kids will like it.

(Oh, and I should mention, there is exactly one vulgar word in the book.  It starts with A.  If you are teaching in a particularly sensitive school, you might want to know that.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Drama (the sequel to Raina Telgemeier's graphic novel Smile)

Telgemeier, Raina (2012) Drama. New York: Scholastic.

Raina Telgemeier's first graphic novel, Smile, told the semi-autobiographical story of a girl dealing with braces and learning what friendship is and isn't.  It is an engrossing story that has stood up to multiple readings by my fourth grade daughter. 
     The sequel, Drama is aptly named.  It is a story of a bunch of middle school kids putting on a musical and finding out how they fit in and are useful to that drama production.  It is also the story of the drama of middle school as boys and girls break up, get together, flirt, dream, are trapped in love triangles, and ultimately find far more drama than resolution. 
     The artistic style of this thing (see above) is certainly very well done.  The colors and images are not only engaging, but engrossing.  Fair warning, there is a gay character which may cause parental challenges in some middle schools. 
      And in the end, I feel conflicted.  The story is certainly interesting, and my daughters seemed to enjoy reading it, so it may be an excellent way to get kids reading.  In the end, though, my English teacher self was not particularly satisfied.  The book really is just drama.  None of the characters changes much.  In the end, it is kind of like a soap opera.  Relationships rise and fall, dramatic things happen, but in the end, we are kind of back where we started.  I guess I loved Smile because the main character escaped her unkind friends and found a safe haven of new friendships.  Drama isn't really like that.  Many of your students will love it, though.  Best for middle school readers.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Boring title, but a pretty interesting adolescent novel

Stanley, Diane (2011) The Silver Bowl.  New York: Harper

I cannot imagine any self-respecting middle school or high school kid picking up this book and, upon seeing the title, thinking "Excellent! I have always been looking for a book about a silver bowl!  Based on my interest in earlier books about golden knives and brass spittoons, I am sure I will enjoy this!  I wish there were more books about dishes!"

Yet, in fact, it is kind of an interesting book.  So this girl Molly is raised by an unloving dad who sends her off to the castle to find work as a scullery maid. She eventually makes some friends (though not at first, the kitchen is pretty harsh) and work her way up to being a silver polisher.  In doing that, she starts to hear voices when she is polishing this particular silver bowl and eventually finds that she can enter into the world of the scenes shaped into its sides.  In doing that, she finds out about a plot to kill the royal family and soon finds herself and her friend Tobius on the run from scary silvery wolves with an injured prince.  And it turns out that she is the only one who can break the curse and make the kingdom safe again -- but to do it she has to break into the captured castle and again enter the world of the silver bowl.  And, of course, there is a love story woven through the middle of it.

I don't think this one is going to make my top ten list this year or anything, but if you are looking for an interesting book to keep a voracious reader busy for a day or two, this is a good choice. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Excellent Non-fiction Picture Books (Or, if you must, you can call them Informational Books -- but really, all books are informational.)

When I was a little kid, most non-fiction books were dull biographies.  Kids today are lucky enough to have a whole passel of informational books that also have good stories in them.  Here are a few:

Murphy, Jim (2012) The Giant and How He Humbugged America.  New York:  Scholastic.

On Saturday, October 16, 1869, a farmer digging a well in Cardiff, New York, came upon an astounding discovery.  He found what appeared to be a giant petrified human being.  It was over 10 feet tall and very detailed, with ribs, toenails and muscles clearly visible.   The farmer, a man called Newell, called upon historians, experts, and reporters, and soon a crowd was gathered around the hole.  News spread like wildfire and soon Newell was charging admission to the huge crowds that came to see the giant.  As the Cardiff giant's fame grew, he seemed to capture the imagination of the entire nation.

Too bad the whole thing was a hoax. 

I still remember when I first read about the Cardiff giant, in a SRA article (SRA was an ancient reading program -- sort of the 1970s version of Accelerated Reader) and how fascinated I was by it.  Murphy (who apparently wrote and illustrated this book) does an amazing job with the story.  The amount of text and vocabulary mean this book is probably ideal for second or third grade an up -- but it is fascinating stuff.  The illustrations are mostly pictures and illustrations from newspapers-- but they really give a feel for the excitement of the time. 

Murphy chronicles the exciting rise of the giant and its equally fascinating downfall.  This is an especially good book for kids who are already pretty good readers.

Kvatum, Lia; Pokrovskaya, Liya (2012)  Saving Yasha:  The Incredible True Story of an Adopted Moon Bear.  Washington D.C.: National Geographic

So the other day my daughter asked me why so many kids her age (she is in 4th grade) want to be veterinarians when they grow up.  I wasn't sure of the answer to that question, but I think it probably has to do with the fact that a high proportion of animals seem eminently huggable.
     Saving Yasha is the story of a profoundly huggable Moon Bear cub in Russia who was orphaned, cared for by scientists, and released into the wild.  Every page has a huge photo of an amazingly cute bear doing amazingly cute things.  Along the way, the text tells kids all sorts of interesting information about Moon Bears -- but it is the pictures that will keep them turning the pages.  The book does give a pretty good explanation of what bear researchers do -- which is bound to interest the child looking for an answer to the question of what they want to do when they grow up.
     This would be a great read aloud, but it is also the sort of book that second graders on up could read on their own. 

Hague, Bradley (2012) Alien Deep:  Revealing the Mysterious Living World at the Bottom of the Ocean.  Washington D.C.: National Geographic.

I sometimes forget that after I learned things in school, scientists and discoverers kept6 adding to that body of knowledge.  Somehow, when I turned my back for a couple of decades, scientists found out that around volcanic vents in the super deep parts of the ocean are bizarre thriving ecosystems including giant clams, hairy-armed crabs, and ten foot long tube worms.  And they have discovered these world by using robot submarines. 

So not only is this an amazing alien world reached by strange space-ship looking vessels, but it is all new knowledge that most grown-ups do not know.  Some of the text is pretty small and tightly packed -- but it is the kind of book where a younger student (say second grade) could read the captions are the first time through and maybe dig a little deeper the second time.  It is sort of episodic -- with a lot of smaller sections rather than a single narrative through line. 

Oh, and the pictures are remarkably breathtaking. 

Cole, Henry (2012) Unspoken: A story from the underground railroad.  New York:  Scholastic.

Okay, this isn't exactly non-fiction -- but it sort of is.  This is the story of a little girl who notices a runaway slave in her family's corn field and she gives him a place to stay (actually, I am not sure it is a him -- we see only the eye of the escapee.  The story is told solely through pictures and, for little ones, is perhaps best read first with an adult who can help make connections from page to page.  Soon, though, the child readers will be able to make connections on their own. 

It is a powerful story, and well worth reading (even though there aren't any words).  Here is one more picture.  Enjoy it, then go get the book.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Graphic Novel for Girls

Torres, J.; Bone, J. (2010) Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures.  Toronto:  Tundra Books.

In all honesty, when I was a little kid I wasn't very discriminating about what comics I read.  In my cousin's cottage there was this huge drawer in a desk in the living room that was filled with Donald Duck comics (mostly from the Carl Barks years), some superheroes (Superman, Batman, and an early Avengers), Hot Rod Magazine, Mad Magazine, and lots of Archie comics.  As I grew older, I started to get sick of the Archie ones first.  I think that was partly because the Donald Duck stuff involved these crazy trips through time and to bizarre islands and other countries.  The superhero ones were exciting (though frustrating because I never knew what happened before or after the individual issues I had access to).  But the Archie ones had the same characters, the same jokes, and essentially the same stories.  Nothing ever changed.   

Alison Dare seems to be made up of equal parts Donald Duck (exotic locations) superheroes (exciting stories) and Archie (nothing really ever changes.)   Alison is the daughter of two archaeologists.  In the first story, while on a dig in the middle east, Alison finds a lamp, with a genie, and soon she and her two friends are  she and her friends are deep in trouble.  The second story, set back in the states involves an evil mastermind getting the better of the Blue Scarab, and Alison having to save the day. 

This graphic novel fills a void.  There are not a lot of good GNs for 3rd through 5th grade girls.  This book is fun and exciting -- but don't look here for character development or themes of abiding interest.  It is just a fun little ride.


Monday, November 18, 2013

A Few More Picture Books (then a graphic novel next time -- I promise)

I am actually quite a fan of winter (I love shoveling snow, no joke) but I recognize that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for snow and cold.  So here are some picture books that will make you think of other seasons. 

Fogliano, Julie; Stead, Erin E. (2012) and then it's spring.  New York:  Roaring Brook Press.

This is a remarkably simple book about a little kid who plants some seeds when everything is brown.  He waters it and worries about it and mostly he waits in his little red wagon until finally one day everything is green.  The illustrations are simple but realistic (my favorite one is a cutaway that shows the ants and mice underground as they wait for spring too) and detailed enough that little kids can spend a long time looking at them.  No deep themes here, but the words are well chosen/  I also love that the little guy wears glasses. 

Woodson, Jacquline; Lewis, E.B.  (2012)  Each Kindness.  New York:  Nancy Paulsen Books.

Okay, the bright sunny pictures manage to keep this book from being too gloomy -- but actually the story is about a girl named Maya who joins an elementary classroom part way into the semester, after all the friendships have been chosen.  Despite her teacher's attempts to find a friend for Maya, the other kids shut her out.  Then one day Maya isn't there any more and Chloe wishes she had made the decision to be kind to her.  Although we might wish for a happy ending, we don't really get one with this book -- and actually I think that is okay.  It is good for little kids (and big kids too) to recognize that unkindness hurts, and we don't always get another chance.  Though you might not want to buy this for your child, it would be helpful for kindergarten through second (or maybe through adulthood, now that I think about it) to hear this in class and think about how they can make the world better.
     To be honest, though, it really doesn't matter what the subject is, E.B. Lewis's art makes me think of summer.

Buzzeo, Toni;  Small, David (2012) One Cool Friend.  New York: Dial Books

This is a silly book.  Elliot wants a penguin and his father, thinking he wants a plush penguin, agrees.  Then Elliot apparently kidnaps a penguin and his apparently oblivious father apparently doesn't notice.  His oblivious father also apparently doesn't notice when Elliot uses the air conditioner in his room to freeze a wading pool of water so he and the penguin can ice skate.  His oblivious father also apparently doesn't notice Elliot's penguin in the freezer when he goes for ice cream.  Turns out, though in the surprise ending, that Elliot's father is not as oblivious as you might think..The whole book is structured around one joke, -- but its silliness is something kids will enjoy.  The art is a little overly cartoony for my taste, but it is well done. 
     And I know this one is about ice and snow -- but you see it is warm outside, that is why Elliot needs to run the air conditioner.  Remember running the air conditioner?

Finally, there is nothing like thinking of the seashore when you are cold and miserable.  Although maybe you weren't thinking of this sort of sea adventure"

Kimmel, Eric A.; Glass, Andrew (2012)  Moby Dick:  Chasing the Great White Whale.

You  know the story already.  Ishmeal goes to sea on the Pequod with Queequeg, Starbuck, Stubb and, of course, Captain Ahab.  They do some whaling and eventually find the great white whale with Ahab hoping to get his revenge.  Instead the whale turns the tables.
     I actually love the novel and so it is a little hard for me to take the rhyming verses that summarize the story -- but the paintings are beautiful and actually, this book is a good summary of the story (though I think it mistakenly makes reference to a character called Flash -- I think they mean Flask -- the butterless man).  This might be a good way for a high school teacher to summarize the novel before teaching it (though I would argue that no one should read Moby Dick until they are at least 25 and have lived a little.  The book is much funnier then.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Quirky Graphic Novel (maybe mostly for girls)

Hartman, Rachel  (2002) Amy Unbounded, Belondweg Blossoming.  Wynnewood, PA:  Pug House Press.

      This is Amy of Eddybrook.  Amy lives in a medieval village community with her family.  Her age is unclear but she seems to be entering adolescence.  It is a little hard to explain what this book is about.  There is political intrigue between the queen and the guilds and Amy's father and other members of the community.  There is a love story involving a dragon who takes the form of a monk and is forbidden from caring about humans.  Most of all, though, the story is about Amy as she goes through puppy love and idealized love and finally starts to become comfortable with the annoying boy next door (who turns out to be a much funnier and more caring person than she thought).
     So this is not a quest story that unites the kingdom against an evil foe.  This is not a princess story about a street urchin who rules the kingdom.  It is certainly not a Disney story about two beautiful people who finally get together in spite of adversity.  Look at the picture of Amy above.  Amy is normal looking.  She has a big nose.  She sometimes says awkward things.  She has no special talents.  Sometimes she blunders through life a bit, like we all do.  It is a normal story about normal people.  So this isn't a fillet mignon of a book.  It isn't a lobster thermidor.  This is more of a shepherd's pie kind of a story, or a casserole kind of a story.  Amy Unbounded is kind of like comfort food.
     This is also not destined to become a classic piece of literature and I very much doubt it will end up making anyone's top ten list of excellent stories.  The art is competent, but not breathtaking (black and white -- mostly line drawings).  But if you are looking for a graphic novel about a strong female character who doesn't look like a Disney princess, you might want to check out this graphic novel.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Non-fiction Picture Book about Dinosaurs! (Just sayin')

Fern, Tracey; Kulikov, Boris (2012)  Barnum's Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World  New York:  Margaret Ferguson Books

This is the amazing story of the dinosaur hunter, Barnum Brown -- who first discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex bones.  The focus here is on Barnum who from a young age was interested in geology, and how he eventually travelled the world finding dinosaur bones.  The pictures are exciting (though I wish they showed more about the dinosaurs sometimes).  Still, this would be a great book for sparking children's interest in paleontology. 

Though older kids might enjoy reading it, it seems best suited for kindergarten through second grade.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Two amazing picture books (good for Art, English, and History)

Allen Say (2011) Drawing from Memory New York:  Scholastic.

You probably know someone who is still young and who loves drawing or who wants to be an art teacher someday.  Don't finish reading this review.  It will only waste time.  Instead, go order this book.  You may want to order a copy for yourself too -- even if you don't fancy becoming an artist some day, if you are interested in history, memoir, Japan, art, education, a well-told story, or beautiful books.

This is the story of children's illustrator Allen Say.  It is a beautiful combination of black and white photographs, drawings from memory, and drawings that Say made when he was just learning how to draw.  it describes his early development as an artist, his disagreements with his father over whether art was a respectable profession, the teachers that nurtured him, how he had to leave home to go to school, the glory of his first studio space, how he learned to combine karate and drawing, and best of all, how he managed to get himself apprenticed to the premier cartoonist in Japan.  I cannot decide whether I like the words best or the art.  I suspect the answer is both. 

I don't know what to tell you about age level for this book.  I think first graders and younger would have a hard time with it.  Beyond that, all bets are off.  I think it would be excellent for middle school, high school, college, and regular grown-ups.  Here is an example of what a page looks like:

This may be the best picture book I have read this year. It is so good that I kept it even when it was overdue (and I NEVER let books be overdue).

de la Pena, Matt; Nelson, Kadir  (2011)   A Nation's Hope:  The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis.  New York:  Dial Books.

So I'll confess up front, I am not much of a boxing fan, but when I turned to the first page of this book and saw Kadir Nelson's painting of a crowd outside of Yankee Stadium in 1939 in the setting sunlight, it took me by surprise, and it took my breath away (and I don't even like the Yankees).  De la Pena frames this book as not only the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, but also as Joe Louis's fight for respect in Jim Crow America.  And also maybe, as the way that Joe Louis gave America a hero when it really needed one.  He does a nice job.  The book is well written. but really, it doesn't matter.  What makes this book is Nelson's illustrations.  The light and dark in an image of a brightly lit boxing ring adrift in a sea of darkness; the image of Joe Louis as a dejected kid, dreaming of a better life; the image of a black family huddled around the radio:  all these draw you far deeper than you would ever think images could.  I am used to getting lost in the words of a book.   This experience, getting lost in the images, was somewhat new to me.

Look, you'll just have to see it yourself. 


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Two good picture books

Stead, Phillip C.  (2012)  A Home for Bird  New York:  Roaring Brook Press.

Vernon the frog stumbles upon a knick-knack craft scultpurey thing of a bird.  He introduces his new friend bird to his friends, skunk and porcupine, explaining that bird is very shy.  The three friends (and some others besides) decide that bird is unhappy and they set out to find a good home for bird. 

The story is engaging (even for adults) the illustrations are delightful -- a bit cartoony (see illustrations above) but also really quite beautiful.  This is a good book.

Smith, Lane  (2012)  Abe Lincoln's Dream  New York:  Roaring Brook Press

Anything Lane Smith writes always strikes me as being just a single degree or two off from the normal world we live in.  It isn't a big enough shift that you can pinpoint what makes it seem so odd -- but clearly it is something. 

In this story, the ghost of Abe Lincoln confides in a little African-American girl about his recurring nightmare that he keeps having.  She shows him around the world of the 21st century and together they conclude that although this world is far from perfect, some of the things Lincoln put in motion have borne fruit. 

This illustrations are oddly wonderful (not sure if a little kid would like them) and the storyline mores along quickly.  Not many words per page, which might make it good for new readers and restless readers alike.  Good stuff.

Monday, October 28, 2013

What if William Shakespeare had Written Star Wars?

Doescher, Ian  (2013) William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope  Philadelphia: Lucas Books

It starts like this:

C-3PO:  Now is the summer of our happiness
              Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack!
              Our ship is under siege, I know not how.
              O hast thou heard?  The main reactor fails!
              We shall surely be destroy'd by this.
              I'll warrant madness lies herein.
R2-D2:  --Beep, beep.  Beep, beep, meep, squeak, beep, beep, beep, whee!
C-3PO:  We're doomed. 
              The princess shall have no escape this time!
              I fear this battle doth portent the end
              Of the rebellion.  O!  What misery!

Now I am certain that not everyone reading this is either a Star Wars nut or a Shakespeare nut.  And I suppose even fewer of you are both.  So let me break this down for you:

If you are a Star Wars Nut but not a Shakespeare nut:  Buy this book immediately.  You will find it hilarious and you will discover that the once-impenetrable Shakespearean language is suddenly clear as a bell and funny as well.  I am not sure why I find it so delightful when Biggs says, "But Luke, at that quick pace shalt thou escape/ Before thy speedy ship is blown in twain?" and Luke replies "'Twill be like Beggar's Canyon back at home." 

If you are a Shakespeare nut but don't care so much about Star Wars:  Buy this book immediately.  This book may be your one chance to be able to absorb the details of Star Wars without having to watch the movie.  Besides, you will be the sort of person who will get the joke when Artoo speaks directly to the audience and explains that he speaks in beeps and whistles because he has been ensorcelled, and explains how he really feels about Threepio and the others.

If you don't really like either one, but you teach students who like one or the other, buy this book for them. Your students and their parents will love you for it.

If you like both, you probably aren't reading this any more, you are probably riding your bike to your favorite independent bookstore or taking public transportation to your local library.  Good.  When you get back and finish reading it, let me know how much you liked it.


The Texts I am Using for this Spring's Childrens' Literature Class

So by the time you read this, I will have sent off to the Trinity bookstore the list of texts I will be using for this Spring's Children's Literature class.  In case any of you are interested, here is the list:

Alexie, Sherman  (2007) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian  (Young Adult)

Draper, Sharon (2008) Copper Sun  (Young Adult)

Green, John  (2012)  The Fault in our Stars  (Young Adult)

Hatke, Ben (2011) Zita the Space Girl  (third through 5th or so -- Graphic Novel)

Klaasen, Jon  (2012)  This is not my Hat  (Picture Book)

Lai, Thanhha (2011) Inside out and Back Again   (Adolescent)

Leland, Christine (2013) Teaching Children's Literature:  It's Critical  (Textbook)

Nelson, Kadir (2011) Heart and Soul:  The Story of America and African-Americans (Picture book)

O'Connor, George (2013) Poseidon:  Earth Shaker  (5th through 12th -- graphic novel)

Pinkney, Jerry  (2009) The Lion and the Mouse  (Picture Book)

Schmidt, Gary  (2011)  Okay for Now  (Adolescent)

Selznick, Brian  (2011) Wonderstruck  (4th to 6th -- hybrid -- pictures and words but not a graphic novel)

Sheinkin, Steve  (2012)  Bomb:  The Race to Build and Steal the World's Most Dangerous Weapon  (Middle-school and high school -- non-fiction)

Swanson, Susan Marie  (2009)  The House in the Night (Picture Book)

Willems, Mo  (2012) Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs  (Picture Books)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Defense of Reading, Books, and Libraries by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on
libraries, reading and daydreaming
(A friend of mine who is an amazing children's literature professor in Indiana, passed on this lecture to me.  It is a very strong argument for teaching children's literature, and I thought you all might like to read it.  So here it is.  --BBC)
'We have an obligation to imagine' … Neil Gaiman gives The Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries. Photograph: Robin Mayes
It's important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members' interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I'm going to tell you that libraries are important. I'm going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I'm going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.
And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I'm an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.
So I'm biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.
And I'm here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.
And it's that change, and that act of reading that I'm here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it's good for.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read. And certainly couldn't read for pleasure.
It's not one to one: you can't say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it's a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it's hard, because someone's in trouble and you have to know how it's all going to end … that's a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you're on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
I don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. 
It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian "improving" literature. You'll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.
We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King's Carrie, saying if you liked those you'll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King's name is mentioned.)
And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
You're also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it's this:
The world doesn't have to be like this. Things can be different.
I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?
It's simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if "escapist" fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.  Another way to destroy a child's love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children's library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children's' library I began on the adult books.
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.
I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.
In the last few years, we've moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That's about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.
Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.
I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.
A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It's a community space. It's a place of safety, a haven from the world. It's a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.
Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.
Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.
According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the "only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account".
Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.
I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I'd try and spell out some of these obligations here.
I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.
We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.
We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.
We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.
We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it's the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers' throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.
We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we 've lessened our own future and diminished theirs.
We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.
Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I'm going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It's this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.
We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we've shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.
We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.
Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. "If you want your children to be intelligent," he said, "read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.
• This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman's lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency's annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.