Monday, September 23, 2013

Graphic novel about Roberto Clemente

Santiago, Wilfred (2011) 21, The story of Roberto Clemente.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics.

So I don't know much about sports, but I do follow baseball a bit (if being a fan of the Chicago Cubs counts).  For some reason, baseball seems to prompt more graphic novels than any other sport.  21, The story of Roberto Clemente is the latest entry into the field. I don't know much about Clemente either, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this biographical account.  But here is what I can tell you.  This is a fascinating and multifaceted story of Clemente's journey from a relatively poor beginning in Puerto Rico to becoming a legendary baseball player.  I can tell you there are themes of struggling against a language barrier and the barrier of prejudice.  I can tell you that Clemente's spirit comes across in these pages as aggressively optimistic and unstoppable (though there are certainly moments of discouragement here.  I think this might be a very good book for high school students who love baseball, Puerto Rico, and interesting stories.

I can also tell you that it is not always an easy read -- particularly for those not familiar with graphic novel conventions.  Look at the image below.  See the panel with eyeballs at the ends of fingertips.  This is Santiago's way of expressing the extreme skill and sensitivity with which Clemente handles the ball.   New graphic novels readers trying to read this (and other scenes in the book) might find themselves seriously confused.  This is not the graphic novel to start out a student on. 

But if you are a Phys Ed teacher looking to connect with a student who loves graphic novels, or if you are an art teacher looking for an innovative graphic novel that your students might like, or if you are an English teacher looking for a way to connect with some students who would benefit from hearing a Puerto Rican voice or seeing a Puerto Rican character, then this would be an excellent choice. 

And, to be fair, I am not really a sports fan, I am not from the islands, and I am not an art student, but I really enjoyed this book.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Harvey Pekar's New Posthumus Book and What to do with it

Pekar, Harvey  (2012) Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me.  New York:  Hill and Wang

I'll admit, I usually am not sure what to do with Harvey Pekar.  He was a grumpy, curmudgeonly, lovable, annoying, talented, depressed, jerk of a guy.   His writing tends to be self-absorbed, honest, opinionated, persuasive, offensive, and emotionally moving.  So now, some years after his untimely death, this interesting graphic novel comes out.  It charts Pekar's change from a Jewish boy raised by Zionist parents, to a college student and later adult who questions the way Israel deals with Palestine, and indeed questions Israel's exclusive right to the land it occupies.  The book is, at times, overly didactic, and the framing device of Pekar having a conversation with these two guys in a bookstore seems as contrived as it is, yet somehow it also works.

So it is an interesting book.  Can I recommend it to high school teachers or their students?  I certainly wouldn't encourage a class to read it -- it would put half of them for sleep for sure.  I wouldn't suggest that this be the go to book for a teacher trying to engage an average student in reading. 

But if you have a gifted student who likes new perspectives and might be interested in understanding what goes on in the middle east and what is behind most of the situations that concern Israel and its neighbors -- if you have a student like this -- well then this book might be a handy one to keep around.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Girl with a Bow and Arrow -- and a Wolf.

Springer, Nancy  (2001)  Rowan Hood:  Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest  New York:  Penguin.

Lately it seems like every protagonist from Legolas to Katniss to Merida (of Brave) to Hawkeye of the Avengers is shooting arrows from a bow at remarkable speeds.  I am not sure that the girl who is the main character in Rowan Hood can compete with them.  I am actually quite sure she wouldn't want to.  Rowan starts out as a sacred little girl.  Enemies have burned down her mother's house and she decides to go in search of the man whom she believes is her father, the mysterious Robin Hood. Along the way she bonds with a wolf-dog, frees an oppressed princess, and befriends a lad who is mocked as the village idiot, but who may have more talent than that world has ever seen.

What I think I love most about this book is that, although Rowan grows more and more capable and confident as the story goes on, she never seems to seek violence (though she sometimes falls into violent situations),  One could argue that Katniss (of Hunger Games) doesn't either, that all she wants to do is be done with the games and get back her district -- but when she is in the midst of a fight there seems to be a part of her that relishes it -- and she does seem, on some level, to enjoy being a rebel leader.  Rowan fights well, but finds she has a greater gift for healing.

This is a great book for middle school girls.  I suspect high school girls would like it too.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

For High School History Teachers looking for something to challenge their more amazing students.

Diamond, Jared (1999) Guns, Germs and Steel:  The Fates of Human Societies  New York:  Norton

This book is not written for high school students, but since high school students tend to straddle the young adult and adult mega-genres, and since some of your students are really bright and need a challenge, I wanted to mention it.
     The premise it really interesting.  Diamond brings the tools of science to bear on the questions of history -- mainly why certain civilizations developed in certain ways and eventually conquered other civilizations.  Specifically, for example, why is it that  the tiny nation of Spain was able to completely conquer that far more numerous, well-organized, and experienced armies of the Incans instead of the Incans conquering the Spaniards.  Well, obviously, you say, the Spaniards had huge ocean-going vessels and gunpowder.  Indeed, but why did they have these things and the Incans didn't?  And why did the Incans and many Native Americans all the way up into Canada die from exposure to the germs of the Spaniards instead of the other way around.  The answer lies in a complicated series of variables that calls upon evolutionary biology, climatology, plant biology, geology, anthropology, and other disciplines besides.  The resulting treasure hunt for answers is a wonderful ride.. 
     Again, though, most of your students will not care for this book.  Get it for the one or two who will find it fascinating -- because this book may be able to fan a spark of interest into a career-spanning flame.   Great book.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Big Ol' Bunch of Picture Books

I tend to read picture books while eating lunch in my office.  When I am done I put them in a pike and eventually that pile grows tot he point where I am fearful of a huge bookslide that will seep everything from my desk, cascade over me as I work, and trap me in the space under the bookcase where I would have no choice but to read myself out.
     That kind of happened this morning.  And when I restored order I decided it was time to get some of these things reviewed and then safely stored where they can no longer threaten the lives of any students who wander into my office unaware of the danger they are courting.  And so, here goes:

Willems, Mo.  (2012) Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs.  New York:  HarperCollins.

Five reasons to buy this book:
1.  It is by Mo Willems.
2.  The endpaper has alternate ideas scratched out like:  Goldilocks and the Three Robots; Goldilocks and the Three Naked Mole Rats; and Goldilocks and the Three Meercats.
3.  This is the opening sentence "Once upon a time, there were three dinosaurs:  Papa Dinosaur, Mama Dinosaur, and some other Dinosaur who happened to be visiting from Norway."
4.  It ends with two morals -- one for Goldilocks, and one for the dinosaurs.  Both are hilarious. 
5.  Did I mention it is by Mo Willems?

Allen, Kathryn Madeline;  Futran, Eric (ill.) (2012)  A Kiss Means I Love You.  Chicago:  Albert Whitman

This book features huge close photographs of kids smiling, crying, waving, tugging, laughing, crying, pouting, cheering, shushing, and so on.  Each page has a simple bit of text: "A yawn means I'm sleepy."  This would be an excellent book for PreK 3s and $s through kindergarten to use to learn about how to read facial expressions. 

Bernasconi, Pablo (2005) Captain Arsenio:  Inventions and misadventures in flight.  Boston:  Houghlon Mifflin. 

Okay, maybe it is my quirky sense of humor, but I LOVED this book.  This illustrations are wonderful and the text is hilarious.  So Captain Arsenio (former cheese master, blacksmith, scuba diver, and ship captain with no knowledge of physics and mechanics) gets together what the book describes as "useless materials" and decides to build a flying machine.  Each attempt includes a narrative from an overall historian-type narrator, a quote from Captain Arsenio (which usually ends with "It cannot fail!") and a flight diary that includes a diagram of how high he flew and for how long, and his overly optimistic thoughts through to the moment of impact. The vocabulary may need some explanation for younger readers (typical sentence: "As improbable as it appears, this diary shows us that the Motocanary did fly for a few feet before crashing into a tree.  Maybe the failure is due to Captain Arsenio's misplaced trust in the unreliable canaries.")  Good stuff!

Singer, Marilyn; Cairns, Julia (ill.)  (2011)  A Full Moon is Rising.  New York:  Lee and Low. 

This is a beautifully illustrated book of poems about the moon.  Each poem represents the point of view of someone different in the world, from a girl in New York City to a man and his daughters watching the moon from their boat in the Bay or Fundy, to a family celebrating Sukkot in Israel.  Each poem presents the moon I a new light.  Beautiful poems and illustration.  Might be a good one for reading examples to first or second graders, then suggesting they write their own poems.

Kimura, Ken; Murakami, Yasinari  (2003)  999 Tadpoles.   New York:  NorthSouth.

This is your basic frogs-have-tadpoles-which-then-outgrow-the-pond-and-leave-and-save-their-parents-from-a-hungry-hawk-story.  It is kind of fun, though (in a OCD sort of way) to count the tadpoles and later frogs.  No deep profundity in this one, but, as I said, it is kind of fun.

Someone recommended to me the Austrailian picture book author Christobel Mattingley.  I have looked at three of his books and can confidently say that they are entertaining and interesting to look at.  I can also say that they all appear to be written in English, yet have a high proportion of slang that I cannot begin to guess at the meaning of:  "fossick"?  "swaggie"? "plaits"?  One of the coolest things about reading picture books from another country, though, is to see how they are different from so many of our picture books.  So here is what I read:

Mattingley, Christobel; Lacis, Astra (il.)  (1984)  The Angel with a Mouth-Organ.  New York:  Holiday House.

In this story within a story, a mother tells her kids about when she was young and the war came and her father had to leave the family for a while and how the family endured hardships and hunger and sickness and finally reunited with her father (though he had lost his arm).  Though the story is very much uplifting in the end, it struck me how rare it is to encounter a serious and tragic picture book in America.  It is a great story, but parents and teachers alike might feel a little strange reading it to kids. 

Mattingley, Christobel;  Mahony, Will (ill.) (1975)  The Great Ballagundi Damper Bake  London:  Angus and Robertson.

I felt like an alien with a broken translation device reading this book.  It made sense for a while, then I would lose the English for a while, then it would come back.  As near as I can figure, the town of Ballagundi, strapped for cash, gets this idea to hold a huge contest for people who are good at baking damper (which looks kind of like it might be sourdough bread.)  Anyway, this old guy comes in from the outback and bakes an amazing damper, but because he isn't using flour from the town's mill, he is disqualified.   Later they decide to use him as a spokesman for the town, so he gets his winnings after all.  Nice enough story and fun to puzzle through the slang.  Not much going on thematically, though.

Mattingley, Christobel;  Mullins, Patricia (ill.) (1981) Rummage.  London:  Angus and Robertson.

The man pictured on the cover is a scrappy independent junk dealer.  The owners of the stands next to him, think he is bringing down the value of the area, so they get him a hair cut and a fancy suit and a spiffy new stall, and then no one shows up to buy his stuff.  Eventually he grows out his hair and puts on his old clothes and starts selling junk again and his customers come back.  Not sure what exactly the point of this was -- it is good to be a little unkempt?  Nice story though.

Mattingley, Christobel;  Yamaguchi, Marianne (ill.) (1985)  The Miracle Tree  San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

This is an incredibly powerful story of a woman separated from her husband and mother when the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  Without knowing each other, all three of them interact with a tiny sprout of a tree growing up through the wreckage.  The story is remarkably heartwarming. Parents who do not want their child to know there are such things as atomic bombs or wars or sickness or separation might want to skip this one -- but if you want your child to understand how hope can shine through the darkest times of our broken world will definitely want to get hold of it.  I am quite certain it is out of print, but many libraries still have it and I have seen it on the website.  Worth the hunt.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Some graphic novels about art:

Visual Art


Bellstorf, Arne (2012) Baby’s in Black:  Astird Kirschherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and the Beatles.  New York:  First Second.
Set during the early days of the Beatles, this concerns the romance between bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and photographer Astrid Kirchherr.  Sutcliffe eventual leaves the band to become a visual artist and e close to Astrid and the way she sees the world.  Not really a happy ending. Best for high school or older.


Castellucci, C. and J. Rugg (2007). The Plain Janes. New York, Minx.
After a 9-11 sort of incident, a girl named Jane moves to a new school where she eventually meets a bunch of other girls whose names are all variations of Jane.  Together they use art to wake up their sleepy little town.  Best for middle school and high school girls.

Castellucci, C. and J. Rugg (2008). Janes in Love. New York, Minx (DC).
The Janes are back and looking for love.  Actually a nice story.  Tow themes:  Art rules and be yourself.  Best for middle school and high school girls.  

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 uncertainty 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.

Thompson, C. (2004). Blankets. Marietta, GA Top Shelf Productions.
Good semi-autobiographical story – deals with conflict between fundamentalist religion and artistic expression.  Nice bit of romance.  Might be hard to use in high school, though.  Some nudity.

Thompson, Craig.  (2006)  Carnet de Voyage. Marietta, Georgia: Top Shelf
Craig goes on a trip to Europe and deals with life and his own art while there. 



Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wonderfully Funny and exciting novel for 3rd through 5th graders!

Funke, Cornelia (2007) Igraine the Brave New York:  Chicken House.

Igraine's parents are famous magicians.  Her brother is studying magic.  Everyone expects Igraine to be a sorcerer too, but Igraine dreams of being a knight.  When her parents accidentally turn themselves into pigs and the kingdom is threatened by an evil magician and his evil knight, Igraine rides forth -- into trouble, trickery and triumph.  She finds some new friends on the way as well.

If you have been looking for a good read-aloud book for third or fourth grade, this is it.  Funke (best known for the excellent Inkspell series) gives us a fun book that doesn't talk down to kids and yet is completely accessible.  It is true that it starts off a little bit slow.  But it picks up speed quickly and soon feels delightfully out of control.  I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Shakespeare's King Lear in Graphic Novel Form -- two different versions

Hinds, Gareth (2007) William Shakespeare's King Lear,  The Comic.Com.

Appignanesi, Richard  (2009) Manga Shakespeare King Lear  New York:  Abrams

There is a secret known only to excellent English Teachers and a few scholars.  Shakespeare did not write plays for people to read.  He wrote them to be seen.  Whenever we force a student to read a Shakespearian play without first seeing it performed, we are creating a confused and angry Shakespeare hater.  Sometimes when they later see the plays they come around -- but this pain and suffering is utterly unnecessary. 

If I ruled the universe, every high school English classroom would be attached to an excellent theater, where they could see Shakespeare any time they wanted, free of charge (of course, if I ran the universe, there would also miniature woolly mammoths and every restaurant in the world would have to serve my amazing wife's beef-ramen stir fry -- so it is probably better that I don't rule the universe).  If you cannot do that, though, and if a field trip to an excellent Shakespearian theater is impossible, and if you would rather not have to stop the Kenneth Brannaugh video every three minutes to point something out -- then I can recommend an excellent alternative.  Have the students read Shakespeare initially in a graphic novel adaptation.   Graphic novels allow readers to see who is speaking and what they are doing as they utter those amazingly insightful lines. 

It turns out there is a real range of quality when you are looking at adaptations.  The classic comics adaptation is one of the worst.  Its characters seem to mostly be talking heads who don't ever do anything.  Instead, then, let me talk about two of the best adaptations, those by Gareth Hinds and Richard Appignanesi. 

Hinds has a profoundly interesting style (See my review of his Beowulf  last month).  He uses line drawings and color washes to evoke emotions from his readers.  On pages 89 to 91, for example, when Cordilia and Lear are reunited, he renders it in such a way that it is deeply moving.   In Lear he also uses arrows and speed lines to indicate movement.  Hinds understands that Shakespeare should move across the stage, and he does everything within the limitations of the graphic novel format to make that happen.  He also uses the graphic novel format to go beyond what can fit on a stage.  His rendering of the final battle between the English and the French (94-95) is wonderfully sweeping, and lets us see how the whole conflict plays out.

Get hold of this one.  You need it.

A second and also excellent version is the Manga Shakespeare version. Though unaccountably set in in the American frontier in the 1750s, and though lacking the color of the Hinds version, like all of the Manga Shakespeare books, this one brings Lear alive in excitement and action.  Teachers can discuss with students whether this version fits well into the native American tableau.  Even more than Hinds, students will have to learn their way around reading a graphic novel, but once they do that, this version should grab and hold their attention very effectively.

I love that both of these versions preserve Shakespeare's rich original language instead of trying to water it down with paraphrasing.

This would be a good one to get a hold of too.  If you end up using either one of them in class, let me know how it goes.