Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gene Yang's two-book set on the Boxer Rebellion _Boxers _ and _Saints_ is excellent.

Yang, Gene Luen (2013) Boxers and Saints  New York:  First Second

Woo hoo!  I have been waiting for these two books for a long time.  Boxers and its companion book, Saints are amazing.  Both are amazing intertwined stories that tell stories about two people on opposites sides of the Boxer conflict. 

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, who has watched in anger time and time again as soldiers, empowered by foreign missionaries, have stolen from and harmed members of the local villages as they despoil the countryside.  Little Bao discovers that he can channel the power of a forgotten ancestor, the first emperor of China.  Soon Bao surrounds himself with trustworthy friends and others who have lost loved ones to the military bullying.  Bao trains his followers to protect the weak, to be kind to women, widows, and children, and to obey a set of moral principles.  Unfortunately, the first emperor keeps coming to Bao in dreams and encouraging him to go on the offensive, to attack the foreigners and the Christians, and to take back his country. 

At the same time, in Saints, Four-Girl has displeased her father and is cruelly kicked out of the home she has been growing up in.  She eventually finds refuge in the house of a missionary who takes care of her and educates her.  As Fourth-Girl learns more about the Catholic church, she begins to have dreams/visitations from Joan of Arc who tells her how to lead a holy crusade. 

These two stories are, of course, on a collision course and the conclusion is already known to anyone who really understands the futility of war. 

The colorful art is gorgeous, the chance to learn something about the Boxer rebellion is exciting, and the characters are such that most readers will find themselves rooting for both sides.  If you teach middle school or high school history or English, you should check this one out.  ,

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wondermous Graphic Novel Version of L'Engles's Wrinkle in Time!

Larson, Hope (ill.)  (2012) Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel.  New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 

When I heard that there was going to be a graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time, I was scared.  That book, like the Narnia series, Lord of the Rings, Xanth, and the Ender series are all books that are very important to me and I don't want to see them hurt.

When I heard the adaptation would be done by Hope Larson I calmed down a little bit, but I was still afraid.  I like Larson's work, but her style is a little bit too cartoony for my liking.  And then, about a month ago (I am not quite sure exactly -- this has been a busy summer) a copy arrived.  I was still scared when I opened the first page, but then I fell in, and I absolutely loved it. 

Here is why:  Hope Larson totally gets this book.  The adaptation is true to the spirit of the original story.  All the stuff that matters so deeply to me is here:  Charles Wallace's wonderful oddness; the mystery of the old ladies; the delightfully automatic growth of Meg and Calvin's relationship; the movement of the story and the argument against sameness and conformity that was so important to me as a child; and finally, the importance of faith and the distinctions between working for light and working for darkness with the listing of religious figures lining up behind the light.   

And the truth is that I got a little choked up (in a profoundly manly way) around pages 350 to 360 when Meg's father says goodbye to her, before she faces It.

Oh, that's right.  Some of you don't know what the story is about.  Okay, brief synopsis: Meg's father was working on a top secret government project when he disappeared.  Meg and her brother Charles Wallace and their new friend Calvin are recruited by some rather odd old ladies to travel across the dimensions to rescue their father from a horrendous evil that enslaves entire societies.  Along the way they meet people who help them, but in the end it is the tree of them that must challenge the mind that is behind it all.

The graphic novel retains every element of the plot, but does more than that too.  When I recently reread Wrinkle in Time in the original text-only version, I was struck by how sparse the description was.  It is hard for even a highly imaginative young reader to picture the characters, the settings, and especially the other worlds in this novel.  Hope Larson helps me to see it -- and though her picture don't always match up with mine -- they don't jar with mine either.  Like I said, Larsen gets this book.

So if you loved Wrinkle in Time as a child, and are trying to figure out how to get a  fourth grader or older kid hooked on L'Engle's work, check out this adaptation.  It is a thick one at 392 pages -- but it reads fast.  Good stuff!  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Two great stories -- but I am afraid you probably can't use either one in your classroom.

Kim, Derek Kirk (2011) Same Difference  New York:  First Second

This is a great story about a guy who has always regretted his decision not to go to the prom with a blind girl.  Later, while helping his quirky friend with a situation she got into by messing with her housemate's mail from his ex-girlfriend, he runs into the blind girl again.  What happens next is a heartwarming and heartbreaking and quirky and interesting tale that does a great job of developing themes of prejudice and preconceptions for both Asian people and those who are blind. 

But here is the problem, the book contains a fair amount of vulgar language, some sexual references and some sexual imagery.  Also a lot of smoking.  And that is a shame because I don’t think any high school teacher could get away with keeping this in their classroom – even if they were very careful of which students they loaned it out to, sooner or later a parent objection could get very ugly.

Still, it is a good book.  You might want to read it for yourself and decide.

Fialkov, Joshua Hale; Tuazon, Noel; Keating, Scott  Elk’s Run. New York:  Villard.   Very interesting book – set in Appalachia somewhere – a band of moralist Christian separatists live a life free from the influence of television or radio or modern media in a valley accessible only through a single highway tunnel.  When a mob-based “justice” killing threatens to bring the attention of the outside world on the idyllic community, young John and his friends try to escape to the outside world, and on the way find some of the secrets of the town’s founders.   

            This is a really interesting story, but like Same Difference, there are so many vulgar words that there is no way it could be used in class, or even be a part of a classroom library.  Sigh. 

By the way, I start teaching next Thursday.  I'll try to keep up with postings, but if you want to save yourself the trouble of having to check this blog from time to time, sign up to be a follower on the side over there.  If you do that I think you get email notifications or something.  But they don't try to sell you stuff.  Honest.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

New Informational Picture Books that Rock (and help meet common core standards)

     The Common Core Standards have, for reasons I still do not understand, have taken to using the term Informational Book instead of the perfectly serviceable term Non-Fiction.   They have also increased the emphasis on such books.  At another time I promise to write a long essay about why fiction still matters -- but in the mean time, the good news is that there are a ton of new informational picture books out now that are excellent and interesting.  Here are three good ones:

Smith, David J.; Armstrong, Shelagh (2011) This Child:  Every Child:  A Book about the World's Children.  Tonawanda, NY: Citizen Kid Press

This is an excellent book.  It takes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as a framework for showing the huge diversity among the 2.2 billion children in the world.  It is maybe a little text heavy, but it does a nice job of covering children's rights, including: the right to an environment where they can grow and reach their potential: the right to live with a family who cares for them; the right to food, clothing, and safety; the right to health care, safe water, and nutritious food; the right to be together in the same country as their parents; the right to be protected from kidnapping; the right to a good quality education; the right to protection from work that harms them; the right to be paid fairly; the right to protection and freedom from war; and the right to play and rest.  For each right, both the text and the illustrations demonstrate the range of different situations that children live in all over the world.

Elementary teachers will find this book incredibly useful for social studies instruction.

Sweet, Melissa  (2011) Balloons over Broadway:  The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin.

Where do I start.  The images are wonderful -- a combination of photos, carefully chosen combinations of period fonts, assemblages, and cartoonish illustration.  The story is wonderful -- about how Anthony Frederick Sarg became interested in pulleys, toys and marionettes already at age six and eventually became the genius behind the puppet-like balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  The tone of the book is also wonderful -- it talks to children like they are intelligent enough to understand some pretty complex ideas and somehow manages to suggest that such innovation and imagination is not only accessible to them, but may actually be in their future.  This book is a joy to look at and a wonderful example of a fascinating narrative biography (as far from the dull condescending biographies I read as a little kid as the distance of  Sarg's journey from being a toymaker in London to the designer of the largest inflatable puppets in the world.)  Good stuff.  Buy it.  

Uchida, Yoshiko; Yardley, Joanna (1993) The Bracelet  New York: Paperstar

Okay, I admit it, this one isn't new, but it is an interesting example of how the line between informational books and fiction quickly gets blurred.  The Bracelet is technically fiction.  It tells the story of Emi, whose Japanese family is being moved to the Japanese-American Internment Camps during World War Two.  Emi's best friend Laurie gives her a bracelet just before she leaves.  Emi loses the bracelet after they arrive at the camp, but comes to understand that it is not the bracelet but the thought of the gift that really matters -- that and the memory of Laurie that Emi holds in her heart. 

Some of the illustrations are perplexing (when Laurie arrives at the door, though Yardley may have been trying to show her as sad, she looks angry and resentful.) and the story ends a bit oddly (whatever happened to the bracelet?  Whatever happened to Emi and the other children in the camp?) it is an excellent introduction to the idea of the internment camps -- and again a good choice for social studies.  Is it a true story?  Well, parts of it are factual, and it certainly captures the spirit of a family moving into the camps.  Is it an informational book?  You've got me, but I think it is certainly useful for teaching.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Best Beowulf Graphic Novel Ever!

Hinds, Gareth (1999) Beowulf  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

I would love it if high school English students would read the wonderful poetic translation of  Beowulf by Seamus Heaney and be able to experience the combination of hero story and horror story that comes through to be when I read it.  It would be great if the first time through they would be able to see the armored hero, the epic battle, the slavering monster, the guts and the gore that make this story the equal of any action movie Hollywood could throw out there -- but the fact is that it takes time to learn to see images in your head as a reader, and if you are new to reading epic poetry it is especially hard, and some English teachers try to make Beowulf into something more than what it is -- a wonderful campfire story. 

So listen up, if you want to get high school students excited about an epic poem translated from old English, what you need is Gareth Hinds' graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.   Yes, it does, at times, make the whole story into a superhero battle -- but folks, that is what it really is -- and get this, Hinds (who has also done brilliant adaptations of King Lear and The Odyssey) really loves literature.  He tells the whole story in the order it appears in the original manuscript (and not just the excerpt of the first battle that appears in literature anthologies  -- we're talking the battle with Grendel's Mom and the battle with the dragon when Beowulf is an old man and has returned to his own country).  he also loves the language of the original poem, and though this is a prose translation, it includes lines like this:

"Never since I first laid my right hand to the sword and bore the shield on my left have I given this hall of the Danes to any man to keep.  And  now I give it in trust to thee.  Do thou keep it as befits thy grace.  Be of good hope; be valiant; and watch for the foe."

or this:

"Now it came to pass that King Hygelac made war against the men of Frisia. and he took with him a great host and many famous chiefs, but the king was slain and all his nobles with him, save Beowulf only.  Then Beowulf took the kingdom himself, ruling its people well for fifty years, until will began in the dark of night -- a dragon, to rage."

Add to this beautiful illustrations that remind me a bit of Alex Ross's work --so much emotional content in the image of Beowulf walking away from us along o grey and joyless cliff-edged beach.  At times the book runs for several pages with no words at all, at times it read more like a picture book, with the words separate from the images -- so the format is at time unfamiliar for both the experienced graphic novel reader and the graphic novel non-reader alike.  That's okay, though.  This thing rocks.   

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Fine Example of a Really Bad Graphic Novel

Lechner, John  (2009) Sticky Burr:the Prickly Peril  New York:  Candlewick

Usually when I read a bad book I don't bother reviewing it.  What would be the point?  It is not like anybody out there is looking for books to not buy. 

But sometimes people ask me how to tell a good graphic novel from a bad one, and I have a hard time answering that -- I think because it involves a lit of different variables.  And sometimes it is a whole lot easier to say what is wrong with something that what is good about it.    I recently read Sticky Burr: the Prickly Peril and it nicely exemplifies everything that can make a graphic novel (or any kids' book really) truly horrid.  My deepest apologies to John Lechner who wrote Sticky Burr: the Prickly Peril.  I am sure he was giving it his best shot.  No apologies to the publisher, Candlewick, however.  They are an excellent publisher and really should know better.

So what is wrong with Sticky Burr? Let's start with the most basic things.  A graphic novel at its best works because it combines words and pictures so closely that the synergy between them is what tells the story.  This means that the image has to tell a chunk of the story and the images need to tell the other chunk.  Often in Sticky Burr the words or the images are working alone.  On the opening page for example, one character says to the other "Spiny Burr, what is all that racket?"  All what racket?  There is nothing in the movements or positions of the other characters on that page that would indicate that anything other than a calm conversation is going on.  The words have to do the work on their own.  In other cases, the words and images are both doing the same work.  Later in the book, Sticky Burr is caught on a leaf growing on a branch that protrudes from a wall inside of a deep ark pit.  We can see this quite obviously from the image.  So why is Sticky Burr saying "I got stuck on this bramble,"?  That is obvious.  Why not have him say something that could advance the plot, tell us something we don't know, or clarify something that we cannot see in that moment?

Secondly, if you must write a story about burrs (the kind that get stuck to your jeans when you walk through the woods) must you name them with names that seem cribbed from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or the Smurfs?  To do so seems to me to be talking down to your audience.  If you want to make Burrs believably real, think about what kind of names such creatures would really have.  If all burrs are sticky, why would one burr pick that as an identifier?  It would be like calling a human Humanoid Human.  That is nothing but talking down to your readers.  Younger audiences are younger, they aren't incapable of thought. 

Next, one of the things I have always enjoyed about graphic novels is the way the hand lettering allows us to get a clearer sense of the emotion and emphasis that the creator of the graphic novel is trying to get across to us.  Computer lettering lends the entire book a sterile feel.  It takes a little longer to hand letter, but it is worth it.

At several points in the book we have a separate section that gives us a story from the perspective of Grumpy Burr or Angry Burr or Disenfranchised Burr or whoever.   These interruptions in the flow of the story appear to exist only to provide some first person narration -- almost as if the publisher wanted to argue that the book will help teacher address one of the common core standards for Elementary Language Arts.  It doesn't advance the story at all. 

The plot is remarkably simplistic (it reminds me of the basic plot to any and all Superfriends episodes.  Like that cartoon from the late seventies, this story involves a disgruntled member of a community who betrays his former friends and unleashes scary monsters which our heroes, using remarkable skills, swiftly dispatch. 

If you want to see what a good graphic novel for little kids looks like, check out Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke or Jellaby by Kean Soo.  Avoid Sticky Burr at all costs.