Monday, December 30, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 20, 2013

New George O'Connor Graphic Novel! Aphrodite!

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

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

And then there are books you actively wait for. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, December 6, 2013

Sherlock Holmes -- In love?

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad choice for high school and up. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Another one of those journalism-based adolescent action books.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

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

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

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

Boring title, but a pretty interesting adolescent novel

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

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

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

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