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.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Better than Hatchet! (At least at first)

Mikaelsen, Ben (2001)  Touching Spirit Bear  New York: HarperCollins.

Sometimes my students do their own book commercials and tell me that I NEED to read a particular book.  Ken, who graduated last year, said that this book, Touching Spirit Bear was his favorite, told me I needed to read it right away, and even loaned me his copy (I am looking at it right now -- Ken, wherever you are, stop by sometime.  I'll get it back to you, and thanks!)

So anyway, this book was fantastic -- at least at first.  It dragged a little in the end -- but no matter -- it is still totally worth reading.  Here is the story.  There is this kid named Cole Matthews.  He pretty much hates everyone and everything.  He keeps getting in trouble with the law -- though his rich father's lawyers always seem to get him out of trouble.  One day, for no real reason at all, Cole beats his classmate Peter Driscal so severely that Peter suffers brain damage.  It looks like Cole's anger and stupidity has finally caught up with him, then a social worker offers Cole another chance.  Cole can submit to social justice, a restorative practice in which Cole lets a native American council decide his punishment.    Cole plays along, hoping that if he appears contrite enough, they will go easy on him.  Their recommendation, that he spend a year by himself on a remote Alaskan island. 

And so Cole finds himself stepping off a boat onto an island equipped with a small cabin, and plenty of supplies to see him through  the weekend.  When the boat is gone in the distance, Cole laughs, confident that his years on the swim team will allow him to swim tot he distant shore and escape.  He sets fire to the cabin and swims for shore.  The cold water and the tide are against him however, and he finds himself back on the island, exhausted, without shelter or supplies, and then he hears something in the woods behind him and realizes there is a bear on the island with him.

The book gets better and better after that.  There is action, desperation, atonement, redemption, and resolution.  It isn't perfect, though.  You remember how in Lord of the Rings, after Frodo defeats Sauron, the book goes on for nearly a hundred pages?  The end of this book feels a bit like that.  There is some really interesting stuff about circle justice, but at some point it stops being about the story and keeps on going for a bit. 

But that is a minor flaw.  This book will grab hold of you by the scruff of the neck and not let you go for a good long time.  Excellent for upper middles school through high school (and older).  Go, find it somewhere, and read it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Best Young Adult Book I've Read this Semester

Fforde, Jasper (2010)  The Last Drogonslayer  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin

Jasper Fforde writes the Tuesday Next series  -- pretty much my favorite book series since the Hitchhiker's guide series.  The problem with the Tuesday Next books, though, is that besides wonderful humor, a gripping story, and tons of nerdy oddball unexplained references (Did you know that our universe got Aldi Supermarkets in an extra-dimensional trade for some classic rock music), it also has lots of clever literary references.  And even the brightest, most amazing high school English nerd has not had enough time to read all the classic literature that would allow them to get those references. 

And this has been frustrating to me, because I want to recommend Fforde's work to young readers, but I am afraid they will be turned off by all the literary references.  And then along comes this book and...oh, my word!  (That is pretty strong language for me, actually).

The main character, Jennifer Strange, is a fifteen year old Volkswagen bug-driving indentured maanger for the Kazam wizarding company. The world Jennifer lives in has been slowly losing its magic or decades.  Partly this is blamed on the dragons, who occupy lands separate from the humans -- and neither race stays into the other lands because of a treaty and some pretty powerful spells.  So Jennifer, her quarkbest (kind of a spikey dog) and her.....

Look, this isn't working, and here is why.  It isn't the plot that makes this book wonderful (though the plot is well crafted.)  It is actually the writing.  Okay, try this(this is the first page):

"Once, I was famous.  My face was seen on T-shirts, badges, commemorative mugs, and posters.  I made the front page news, appeared on TV, and was even a special guest on The Yogi Baird Daytime TV Show.  The Daily Clam called me "the year's most influential teenager," and I was the Mullusc on Sunday's Woman of the Year.  Two people tried to kill me.  I was threatened with jail, had fifty-eight offers of marriage, and was outlawed by King Snodd IV.  All that and more besides, and in less than a week.        My name is Jennifer Strange."

Okay, try this one.  This is from page 10:

"The phone bleeped.
'Jenny?  It's Perkins.'
The Youthful Perkins was one of the only young sorcerers at Kazam and was serving a loose apprenticeship.  His particular field of interest was Remote Suggestion, although he wasn't very good at it.  He'd once attempted to get us to like him by sending out a broad Am I cool or what?! suggestion on the wide subalpha, but he missed it up with the suggestion that he often cheated at Scabble, and then wondered why everyone stared at him and shook their heads sadly.  It had been very amusing until it wore off, but not to Perkins."

Look.  You are just going to have to trust me on this one.  If you like really clever and funny books that are page turners with a lot of action and twists and stuff -- pick this book up and give it a shot,  Then give it to a middle school or high school kid with a good sense of humor. 

Now if you will excuse me, when I was finding that picture up top there I found out the sequel, The Song of the Quarkbeast is apparently just out and I NEED to read it now. 

Two very different picture books -- both good.

Nelson, Kadir (2011) Heart and Soul:  The Story of America and African Americans  New York: HarperCollins

Henkes, Kevin (2012) Penny and her Doll  New York:  HarperCollins

Children's picture books are amazing in their range.  I recently read two picture books, one after the other, liked both of them, and was struck by how bizarrely different they were.

Let's start with Kardir Nelson's Heart and Soul.  Here is the cover:

I could stare at Kadir Nelson's illustrations all day.  I used to assign my Children's Lit students to buy Nelson's We are the Ship which isn't even really a kids book (though it is a beautiful picture book about the Negro Baseball Leagues -- you should buy it from an independent bookstore immediately -- or get it out from your library). His paintings always seem to smell like summer to me. I wish I could walk into them (and talk to the people he paints, their faces seem to have so many stories etched into them).  Just look at that illustration above for a minute.  Isn't it gorgeous?  Hold on, let me show you another one:

How does he make something as horrible as slaves exposed on the deck of a ship making the middle passage from Africa look so beautiful?  I know this image is a little small, but one of the things that strikes me about it is how he honors the dignity f every single person he depicts, even the white sailors.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yeah, so Heart and Soul is this amazing overview of the story of African-Americans in America from the Revolutionary War to the election of President Obama.  And if I wasn't jealous enough of Nelson's artistic ability, he is an excellent writer as well.  The text takes the form of a narrative from an older family member to a younger one (or maybe a group of kids) about their history.  The voice is strong and interesting.  Here are the opening lines of the book:

"Ever visit the capital in Washington, DC?  It's a beautiful white building made of sandstone, and it has a big iron dome that rises over the city like a full moon.  It was built by slaves and freemen to be a symbol of the liberty Americans had won from England in the American Revolution.  Inside the rotunda there are large paintings and sculptures of famous Americans.  Big ol' statues of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.  The paintings tell the story of how America came to be.  Strange, though... nary a black face in all of those pretty pictures.  There's plenty of white folks and a few Indians here and there, but none of us.  It's as if we never existed -- stricken from the record, like Moses from the walls of Egypt.  Of course, those fancy paintings ain't telling the whole truth."

Bottom line:  Heart and Soul is a beautiful books that more students ought to be exposed to -- from pre-K grade through graduate school (though the little ones might enjoy it more if you show them the pictures and talk through it -- they might have to be in first grad before the text really makes sense to them. )  It is serious at time, but also full of sunlight and hope throughout. Buy it.

So how can I talk about a book called Penny and her Doll after describing a book that covers almost the entire sweep of American history?  How could Kevin Henkes ever hope to achieve that level of gravitas? 

Well, that's an easy question -- he can't, he doesn't, and he isn't trying to.  Penny and Her Doll is about a girl (actually a mouse-girl -- this is Kevin Henkes after all) who is trying to think of a name for her new ragdoll sent from Grandma.  Penny struggles with finding the right name for a while, and finally she does.  That's it. Nothing profound, just the story of a little kids solving a real problem by working at it for a while.   Henkes's style is nothing like Nelson's.

This book is covered, inside and outside with flowers.  There is a lot of pink going on here.  The mouse is presentational rather than representational.  So why would I like this book?  I mean, doesn't it seem a little bit shallow?

Maybe, but look at the cover once.  The focus of the whole cover is on a young mouse showering a little doll with affection.  Look at the way she holds the doll.  This little mouse really cares.  And the story is a simple one with simple words -- but it is also very reassuring.  Penny is seriously worried, the way little kids can be sometimes, that she will not be able to find a name for her doll.  The grownups in her life reassure her that she will come up with something.  And eventually, after thinking it over for a few days, she does.  Nothing dramatic here, but yet there is something very important being communicated.

Reassurance.  Listen, maybe you have a rosy picture of childhood as a time when each day stretched out before you without any commitments, and life was carefree and without worry.  If that is your memory, it is false.  Children worry about a lot of things.  Many of the things they worry about are not, of course, reasonable, but they don't know that.  One of the things picture books can do is remind them that things are going to be okay.  This book (and the other Penny books with it; Henkes has several out) is reassuring.

Wait a minute, you say.  So the first story was very honest -- so much so that it sounds like it might be a little unsettling.  The second book frankly seems a little unrealistic -- but it is reassuring.  so which is it?  Which kind of book does a little kid need to read.

My friends, children desperately need both. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Margaret Peterson Haddix's _Just Ella_

Haddix, Margaret Peterson  (1999) Just Ella  New York: Aladdin

Okay, so the original story of Cinderella has been told and retold in pretty much any setting and variation you can think of.  And even though Margaret Peterson Haddix (author of Running out of Time and about a hundred other good books) starts her novel at the end of the story and presents a Princess Ella who has to choose between life as the royal wife of Prince Charming and a more ordinary life with a tutor who wants to help refugees of the most recent war the kingdom has had with its neighbors -- it still sounds like a familiar love triangle thing (Twilight anyone).  But don't dismiss this novel quite so quickly. 

What makes it good is a combination of Ella's interesting voice and her interesting personality.  Ella has just been handed her dream -- a life of phenomenal luxury after more than her share of abuse and poverty-- but she starts to realize that a life of wealth has its own constraints.  She finds she is not really free to do what she wants, but rather that the expectations upon her as princess and upon the noble women of her culture in general leave her very little choice in things.  When her pompous and rotund tutor has a heart attack and is replaced by his idealistic son, she starts to wonder what her life is for.  And that is what makes this book great.  It isn't about a helpless and confused girl choosing between two hunky suitors -- it is the story of a thoughtful and reflective girl making a deliberate choice about her life. it's good.

This is a good one for girls from fifth grade on up.  It fits best with a literature class -- although it gives a stereotypical picture of medieval life, it clearly is not intended to offer any historical insights.  Boys might like it if they read it, but the cover is going to make it a pretty hard sell.     

Monday, October 14, 2013

Artemis Fowl is back!

Colfer, Eoin (2012) Artemis Fowl:  The Last Guardian.  New York:  Hyperion. (not a graphic novel)

Okay, if you haven't read the Artemis Fowl books, go read them.  These are not a harry Potter rip off and not a hunger games rip off -- this is something different.  Artemis Fowl is this kid genius who, in the first book, is out to steal a huge amount of gold -- from the leprechons and fairies.  And I know, that would be ridiculous, except the way Eoin Colfer writes, Captain Holly Short (she is actually a faerie) of the Lower Elements Police Recon (LEPRecon -- get it?) and senior tech genius of the fairy world, Foaly (he is a centaur) are utterly believable characters.  And they are smart too.  So the story that follows is a gripping contest of wits peppered with humorous moments.  Mostly, though, it is just the sort of book you can't put down.  And in the sequels, that is even more true. 

In this latest novel, Artemis is called in when evil pixie genius and terrorist Opal Koboi puts in motion a plot involving clones, deadly radiation, and the possible destruction of both the hidden underground fairy world, and the surface world as well.  Artemis, with the help of his hulking bodyguard Butler, and his Dwarf Associate Mulch, needs to outwit Opal, and quickly.

Does it sound silly.  Sorry.  That is my fault.  Actually it is an excellent story -- but you just have to read it.  This stuff is excellent for either gender (boys will identify with Artemis, girls with Holly) and probably good for good readers in fifth grade through me (If I have it figured out, a couple of years ago I finished 30th grade).  Check it out, folks.  Good stuff!

(Oh, and although these are regular novels, there are also graphic novel version of the first few out already.  Also, math teachers will be interested in the symbolic code that runs at the bottom of every page (and would be a good one for young cryptographers to crack.) Physics teachers might be interested in some of the weird physics stuff involving extradimensionality and time-stop theory.  English/Language Arts teachers will be excited because their students will be totally absorbed in these books. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fearless Science! Pioneering Primate Biologists! Jane Goodall! Dain Fossey! Birute Galdikas! (And all this wrapping in a beautiful graphic novel)!

Ottaviani, Jim; Wicks, Maris.  (2013) Primates:  The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.  New York:  First Second.

 Best non-fiction graphic novel I have read in a long time!  I mean, Jim Ottaviani does excellent work (Feynman and T-Minus for example) but this is exceptionally wonderful.  I have never seen the artist Maris Wicks before, but her images are very clean and simple, yet detailed -- and absolutely perfect for this book.

oh, right.  I should explain what the book is about.  Okay, so this is a kind of triple biography that looks at Jane Goodall, the famous biologist that studies chimpanzees and first discovered that they can use tools; Dian Fossey, who studied (and fearlessly protected) mountain gorillas; and Birute Galdikas (I had never heard of her) who studied and rehabilitated orphaned orangutans.  It turns out that all three of them became interested in primates before they had any kind of formal training in animal biology or anthropology, but were encouraged to go into the field and begin pioneering work by Louis Leakey, the famous archaeologist and anthropologist who was convinced that amateur, untrained observers could see things which academically trained scientists could not.  This is the story of their journeys into jungles and how they coped with poaches, aloneness and medical disasters.  And maybe that doesn't sound like that much fun -- maybe it sounds like reading a textbook.  If that is so, my apologies for not capturing it the way I want to.  This is a book where every page is an interesting journey.  If you teach science, art, or language arts, this would be a good one to have in your classroom library.  I recommend this book for advanced fourth grade readers through 47 year olds. 

Seriously, get this one.  Support good graphic novels like this and maybe we will get more of them!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Good Graphic Novels for Fourth Graders

One of my former students emailed and asked for a list of good graphic novels for fourth grades.  So I modified my master list and this is what I came up with.  There are a range of texts here.  None of them are perfect for every fourth grade reader, but all of them are perfect for some fourth grade reader.  The list is not in alphabetical order; it is not proofread all that well, some of the entries have long annotations attached and others don't; and so it isn't perfect.  But I'll cut and paste it haer anyway.  If it is useful to other fourth grade teachers, excellent.  If not, well, don't say I didn't warn you.

List of GNs appropriate for fourth grade

Siegel, S. C. and M. Siegel (2006). To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel. New York, Aladdin.  This is a story that upper elementary girls might like.  The main character gets a chance to study with a famous dancer and choreographer.

Yolen, Jane.  (2010)  Foiled.  New York:  First Second.

Heuvel, Eric (2007)  A Family Secret.  New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.    Fictionalized story of the resistance in Holland during WWII.  Kinda didactic. 

Heuvel, Eric; vanderRol, Ruud; Schippers, Lies (2007)  The Search.  New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Fictionalized story of the resistance in Holland during WWII.  Kinda didactic. 

Lutes, J. and N. Bertozzi (2007). Houdini: The Handcuff King. New York, Hyperion.     Excellent -- it is a single day of Houdini's life, but manages to get across as much as a biography.  Very well done.

Sturm, J. and R. Tommaso (2007). Stachel Paige:  Striking Out Jim Crow. New York, Hyperion..  Excellent!  Good for fourth grade on up.  This is a real story, but it does sensitively use the N word once -- great themes. 

Taylor, Sarah Stewart; Towle, Ben (2010) Amelia Earhart:  This Broad ocean.  New York:  Hyperion.  Sort of a fiction piece about a girl reporter who lives on an island in Newfoundland which is the starting point for Earhart’s attempt to fly across the Atlantic.  A lot of biographical data here, and extensive end-notes for at least some sourcing.

Hosler, J. (2000). Clan Apis. Columbus, OH, Active Synapse.

Ottoviani, J. (1998). Dignifying Science: Stories about Women Scientists. Ann Arbor, MI, G.T. Labs.    
Excellent -- biography and explanation of significance of contribution -- a variety of artists.  Covers Hedy Lamarr, Lise Mietner, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintlock, Birute Galdikas

Colfer, Eoin, Donkin, Andrew; Rigano, Giovanni; & Lamanna, Paolo. (2009) Artemis Fowl:  The Arctic Incident: The Graphic Novel.  London: Penguin     Though it lacks the cryptography elements of the text version, it still has Artemis’s use of logic.  Fun read.

Ottaviani, Jim; Cannon, Zander; Cannon:  Kevin.  (2009) T-Minus:  The Race to the Moon  New York:  Aladdin.

Hale, S., D. Hale, et al. (2008). Rapunzel's Revenge. New York, Bloomsbury.Excellent book with intertextual references to classic literature.  Themes of self-reliance, independence, friendship, justice, and exploitation.  Excellent for fifth or sixth grade.


Hale, S; D, Hale, et al.  (2010) Calamity Jack New York:  Bloomsbury  Even better than Repunzel’s revenge.  Does a great job of establishing a whole world. 

Larson, Hope  (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!  

Lat.  (1980)  Town Boy.  New York:  First Second.  Memoir of a child growing up in Malaysia.  Excellent. 

 O’Connor, George (2010)  Athena:  Grey-eved Goddess.  New York:  First Second.  Excellent book.  The Fates narrate.  Focus is Athena, but that includes the story of her birth and the stories of Medusa, Perseus, and Arachne.

O’Connor, George (2012) Hades: God of the Dead.  New York:  First Second.  Excellent.  As usual, this is not really a book about Hades, but it is the story of Demeter and Persephone.   The art work is excellent and absolutely enhances the story.  Begins with a beautiful second person sequence of what it is like to die if you are Greek. 

O’Connor, George  (2011)  Hera: The Goddess in her Glory  New York:  First Second.  Excellent look at the labors of Heracles from Hera’s perspective.

O’Connor, George (2013) Poseidon: Earth Shaker  Nw York:  First Second.  First Person narraton by Poseidon.  Includes parts of the Odyssey and the story of Theseus.


O’Connor, George  (2011)  Zues: King of the Gods  New York:  First Second.  Excellent look at the creation of the earth from Zues’s perspective.

Telgemeier, Raina (2010)  Smile.  New York:  Scholastic.   Raina is due to get braces when she falls and knocks out to of her teeth.  This GN, though, is less about her orthodontic adventures and more about how she matures from middle school into high school and eventually ditches her friends (who seem to ridicule her a lot) for a new set of friends she can feel more comfortable around.

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.

Avi, Floca,B. (1993) City of Light, City of Dark, Scholastic     Good story – some thematic development (cross generational friendship, optimism vs pessimism.  Mostly just fun, though.

Doyle, A. C. and M. Powell (2009). The Hound of the Baskervilles. Mankato, Stone Arch.     Introductory page identifies Dr. Henry Watson, not John (as he is later correctly called in the book).  Other than that, an excellent adaptation.

 Kibuishi, Kazu  (2008) Amulet:  The Stonekeeper  New York:  Graphix.      Good adventure story.  Nice drawing.  Persistent theme seems to be the difficulty of determining who to trust.


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.

Renier, A. (2005). Spiral Bound (Top Secret Summer). Marietta, GA, Top Shelf.     Anthropomorphic children discover that the monster in the pond is mechanical -- restore an exile to the community, and cavort through an underground newspaper/art complex.  Their art teacher is a whale in a kind of motorized fishbowl.  Ideal for middle school.

Robinson, J., P. Smith, et al. (2003). Leave it to Chance:  Monster Madness and Other Stories. Orange, California, Image Comics.     Chance rocks!  Strong female protagonist.  No bad words.  Some scary monsters, but little graphic violence.  Some mention of witchcraft -- but no how to.

 Robinson, J., P. Smith, et al. (2002). Leave it to Chance: Trick or Treat and Other Stories. Orange, California, Image.

Smith, J. (2006). Bone (series).  New York, Scholastic.     Excellent for about 4th through 7th.


Taylor, Sarah Stewart; Towle, Ben (2010) Amelia Earhart:  This Broad ocean.  New York:  Hyperion.  Sort of a fiction piece about a girl reporter who lives on an island in Newfoundland which is the starting point for Earhart’s attempt to fly across the Atlantic.  A lot of biographical data here, and extensive end-notes for at least some sourcing.

 Yolen, Jane.  (2013)  Curses Foiled Again   New York:  First Second.       It completes the story begun in Foiled.  Aliera Carstairs is a high school student who works hard, likes to read, and is passionate about fencing (sword fighting, not chain link and picket fences).  She has been taking lesson for years and is very good with a foil.  In the first book her mom was at a garage sale and bought her a fencing foil with a red jewel at the end of the hilt.  It turned out that the foil was enchanted and allowed her to see the faerie world all around her.  This led to some odd and otherworldly experiences and the discovery that her lab partner was a troll.   Now in the second book, we are drawn into the real conflict -- a save-the-world-from-utter-destruction kind of thing with plenty of close calls, plot twists, narrow escapes, and surprising revelations. Good stuff.  Mike Cavallaro's illustrations are exciting and engaging.  The use of color to indicate the separation between the mundane wold and the faerie one is well handled.  The facial expressions are particularly well-rendered.

 Hatke, Ben (2010)  Zita the SpaceGirl  New York:  First Second.  Absolutely excellent.  Great story.  Themes of friendship and loyalty and courage and responsibility, etc. 

Hatke, Ben (2012)  The Legends of Zita the Spacegirl.  New York:  First Second.  Strong follow-up to the first Zita book.  Plays around with themes of identity and fame a bit.  Doesn’t quite have the freshness of the first book, and ZIta doesn’t quite have the vulnerability, but it is still a very good book. 

Herge’.  (1956)  The Adventures of Tintin: The Black Island. Boston:  Little, Brown     Very much suitable for middle elementary – 3rd on up.  Good story.  Not much thematically, though.

Holm, J. L. and M. Holm (2005). Babymouse:  (series). New York, Random House.      Excellent for third grade to fifth grade or so.