Thursday, May 23, 2013

Classic: My Side of the Mountain (Why did kids love this book?)

      George, Jean (1959) My Side of the Mountain New York:  Dutton.

     As part of my quest to eventually read all of the Newbery Honor and medal books back to the beginning of time, I recently picked up My Side of the Mountain.  Somehow I must have dodged and weaved my way through school in such a way that no one ever put this book in my hands.  I know plenty of adults, though, who speak of this book with great fondness.  So I decided to see if I could figure out what all the fuss was about.
     It isn't the plot.  In fact, there doesn't seem to be much of a plot.  This is the story of a boy who runs away and returns to the land on the side of a mountain that his grandfather once farmed.  He manages to find shelter and food, befriend several animals, and keep himself from being caught by the occasional person wandering in the woods.  Then at the end, he goes home.  That is pretty much it.  No real life threatening moments (though he did get kind of scared during a snowstorm.  No moment when he or someone he knows is in great peril.  No quest, no puzzle, no journey, no voyage of self-discovery.  Nothing much at all.
     And it isn't the characters.  Sam is a good kid and you root for him.  And his woodland animal friends are interesting, but they aren't exactly characters.  He interacts with a few people here and there, but there are no amazing friendships, interesting sidekicks, clever conversationalists, amazing team-ups, or dynamic duos here.  It is pretty much the kid.
     And it isn't the remarkable stylistic beauty of George's writing.  Oh, it is fine. She makes it easy to picture things in one's head.  But there are no moments in this book where you need to grad a pen and copy down a quote because it perfectly sums up something you had long felt was right but had never been able to put into words until that moment.  Nope.  It is just competent storytelling. 
     And it isn't that there are themes here that resonate with a deep inner sense you have about the nature of what the universe is really like, or what it ought to be like.  In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of a theme that this book connects to -- maybe some sort of naturalistic individualism?  Other books do that better though
     So what is that makes this book so great?

     Honestly, I don't know, except that I think it might be an example of "The Boxcar Effect".  I loved the Boxcar Children series when I was young (you probably did too).  When I read those as an adult, I was surprised at the one-dimensionality of the characters and the predictability of the plots.  But of course, that wasn't why I loved the boxcar children.  I loved them because...(wait for it)... THEY LIVED IN A BOXCAR!  And so when I read those books as a kid, I imagined how cool it would be to have a whole boxcar to myself -- to build shelves in it and dig in a creek until I could make a swimming hole and a place to store food underwater so it would be cold, and so on.  The point of those books was not the story or the characters, it was the imagination that the book opened up in me.
     I think the same thing is true of My Side of the Mountain.  Sam builds himself a house inside of a hollow tree.  He makes a stove out of clay from a riverbank and makes himself clothes out of a deer skin that he scavenges from a hunter who loses track of the deer he shoots.  Sam has a trained hawk as a watchdog and no one to tell him when it is time for bed or what to eat or that he ought to brush his teeth.  And so it isn't really what George does with the story -- it is much more a matter of what I or you or any other reader can do with the set up in his or her own mind.  What makes this book work is the imagination we bring to it.
      Which I suppose is what makes every good book work, now that I think about it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Red Handed, the Fine Art of Strange Crimes (new Graphic Novel -- it is good, but you may need to read it a couple of times before you can figure it out)

Kindt, Matt(2013)  Red Handed:  The Fine Art of Strange Crimes.  New York:  First Second

     When it was on my shelf, waiting to be read, I figured it would be a graphic novel about strange crimes and the mysteries that surround them.  I was figuring it was going to be an excellent non-fiction book (or, in the current bizarre parlance of Education-speak: an Informational Book).  When I finally started reading it, I had it pegged as an exciting whodunit kind of a book.  By the time I finished it, I was seriously confused.  I enjoyed it, I am just not sure how to describe it.  This book is about mystery, crime, heroism, art, the uncertaintyy of knowing, morality, and more beside.

     It seems targeted for adults, and there are one or two scenes that hint at marital infidelity  -- but it is pretty much PG 13 -- a high school kid could handle this  (See the illustration below.)  This scene is about as risque as it gets.
     There are some very intriguing moments -- a woman who steals chairs from places she works and stores them all in her house, a man who steals famous paintings, cuts them up, and sells framed pieces of them.  A different woman who plans the perfect crime, and a detective who solves crimes by relying on cameras.  There are also some scenes that are likely to disinterest some  high school readers including a couple of long digressions about the meaning of art.  In the end, it all comes together and wraps up nicely, though I would not call the ending satisfying. 

     The art is strong, and the use of panels most excellent, but I am afraid this book is not destined to become one of your all time favorites.  Don't rush out to buy it -- but if you see it at your favorite bookstore, page through it for a while -- if it interests you, check it out.  I could be completely wrong about it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Four Graphic Novels that deal with special education

Special Education

Pekar, H. and D. Haspiel (2005). The Quitter. DC, New York.
Excellent autobiography.  It is honest, and authentic and depicts both racial tension and violence but not unreasonably.  Pekar struggles with what seems to be depression or low self image or defeatism or something.  This one is good for high school -- but definitely preview it first.  

Harvey Pekar

Powell, Nate (2008)  Swallow Me Whole.  Marietta, GA: Top Shelf.  Novel about a high school aged brother and sister who both struggle with schizophrenia.  Can't say it was my favorite. 

Tobe, K. (2001). With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child. New York, Hachette Book Group.
Excellent manga about raising an autistic child.  This one especially highlights the differences between raising an autistic child in Japan as opposed to the US.  Good stuff. (I think there are at least 5 volumes of this story.)


Lambert, Joseph.  (2012) Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller.  White River Junction VT: The Center for Cartoon Studies.
     Four reasons why you should pick up this graphic novel:
1.  It tells the whole story.  The classic movie, The Miracle Worker tells the story of the saintly patient Annie Sullivan and how she helped the spoiled and wild, deaf and blind Helen Keller to learn to communicate with and understand the world.  It doesn't however, tell the rest of the story -- about the neglect and poverty of Annie's early life, about the fame that followed Annie's work with Helen, about how that fame made life difficult for both of them and about the bizarre and unresolved accusations of plagiarism.  It is a fascinating story.

2:  The story of a deaf and blind girl is remarkably well suited to the graphic novel format.  Lambert uses drawings to allow the reader to imagine the world from Helen's perspective.  The love of her mother appears as disembodied arms in a field of blackness.  When Helen begins to learn sign language, more and more of the picture starts to fill in with words standing for objects.  It is remarkable.
3.  The story is told in such a way that it provokes powerful emotions.  We feel Annie's frustration, but also her achievements, and we can understand  more fully why Helen is such a brat.  The text and images not only bring us inside the characters' heads through the different point of views conveyed through the text, but the images allows us to get inside the characters' hearts at times too.
     Although this book does not have quite the same emotional climax of the movie (the water pumping scene), we feel the joy of discovering language even more powerfully here, over several panels and pages. Check it out.  It is a good book.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Quick review of an excellent non-fiction picture book

Hill, Laban Carrick; Collier, Bryan (ill.) (2010) Dave the Potter:  Artist, Poet, Slave.  New York:  Little Brown and Company

Just outside of Edgeville, South Carolina, during the mid 1800s, there was an African American slave who made all sorts of pottery -- mostly drinking vessels and storage jars thrown on a potter's wheel.  He often wrote on his pottery.  Sometimes he signed it -- but always just Dave (because to sign more could have called attention to himself and been dangerous and many slaves did not have family names.)   He also sometimes wrote poetry or messages like the following:

     put every bit all between
     surely this jar will hold 14
           --July 12, 1834

     Dave belongs to Mr. Miles
     wher the oven bakes and the pot biles
          --July 31, 1840

Historians have been able to gather a remarkable amount of information about Dave's life, including that he lost his leg when he was near 35 years old, that he made an estimated forty thousand pots over seventy years, and that the last pot he made that survives is dated May 3, 1862.   It is a lot of information, but not really enough to fill a chapter book.  I is, however, a perfect amount of an excellent picture book.  Laban Hill's text is good, but it is Bryan Collier's images that take your breath away.  They are realistic paintings with beautiful earth tones, but what strikes me most on nearly every page is the way Collier uses light.  Many of the scenes seem to be lit by a late afternoon sun which brings a slightly orange tinge to things.  It reminds me of Kadir Nelson's work. 

If you teach art or elementary school or if you just love beautiful images and interesting historical stories, pick this one up.  It is a good one.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Looking for a good graphic novel for 3rd through 7th graders? (besides the Zita books) Check this out.

Kibuishi, Kazu (2009) Amulet Book 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse. New York: Graphix.

 This book is the second in a series, and as such it may be a little tough to pick up in the middle.  So the short version of book one is that Emily has inherited this magic stone, and she and her brother Navin have been transported, along with their sick mother, to a fantasy land where theirr companions, including a couple of robots and a pink rabbit are helping them in hopes that Emily, as stone keeper, will save their world.  Also, they live in a giant walking house. 
     I know that sounds silly, but actually, it is honking cool.
     Anyway, in volume two, they have to escape a pack of evil elves, aid some powerful but benevolent trees, rescue their mom, defeat the elf king, and master the magic stone without letting it take over. 
     I know that sounds silly too.
     But here is the thing, a graphic novel is a combination of words and pictures, and these pictures are awesome.  Third graders through seventh grade3rs are going to love this book.  It is fun and funny and sometimes gripping. 
     This is not the sort of graphic novel with themes in it that will stretch your consciousness or change your life.  But it isn't lightweight either.  It treats the reader as if he or she is intelligent and perceptive.  Good stuff.

Monday, May 6, 2013

New Graphic Collection of All World Literature -- Not my favorite

Kick, Russ, Ed.  (2012) The Graphic Canon.  New York:  Seven Stories Press

     Don't get me wrong, it is a great idea.  Russ Kick seeks out excellent graphic novel creators and has then each pick a great piece of world literature (Volume one covers everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Mary Wollstonecraft) and then turn it into a wonderful adaptation.  Some of my favorite literature ever is in here:  The Iliad, the Odyssey, Lysistrata, the book of Esther, Beowulf, Dante's Divine Comedy, Malory's Morte' D'Arthur, Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, Donne's The Flea, Paradise Lost, Gulliver's Travels, Candide, A Modest Proposal, and more besides. 
      But by and large, it just doesn't work -- particularly in terms of the book's usefulness for a high school or even college audience.  Some of the excerpts are more showcases for the artists than they are illuminations of the original piece (though the art is often breathtaking).  Some stories are truncated or abridged so completely that they are only enjoyable to someone already very familiar with the literature to which they are referring.  Some stories do not use the graphic Novel format effectively but really are more like an illustrated picture book in which the block of text and the images do not really interact very well.
     And what poses the biggest difficulty to teachers is that many of the adaptations are deliberately gross, vulgar, or sexually explicit.  So while I admire the creativity of the artist who took John Donne's great seduction poem, The Flea, and turned it into a lesbian love story, that piece makes it impossible to think of including this book in a high school library, let alone using it as a supplemental text. 
     And yes, I understand that wasn't the goal of the book perhaps, but come on.  The main place literature anthologies are read is in high school and college courses.  Lysistrata is a funny play, but it is not necessary to depict the characters as naked to get across the point of it -- the writing is wonderful in its subtlety.  Other pieces depict deification, vivisection, and other painful images to look at.
     So it is a great idea, and it is a beautiful anthology, and I will defend its right to be produced, sold, and collected in public libraries, but it also probably has something in it to offend everyone.  So for teachers, this anthology, which could have been a wonderful gift to high school and college readers, is instead just a frustrating failure.  Feel free to read it if you are interested, but it won't be useful for your school.