Monday, March 31, 2014

This Graphic Novel about food might grab some of your students.

Knisley, Lucy (2013)  Relish:  My Life in the Kitchen.  New York:  First Second.

    So this graphic novel is a memoir about cooking.  I don't imagine that every seventh grader through high school student is going to grab this one off the shelf, but for those student you have who are passionate about cooking --- this might be perfect.  Well, sort of.  There is a lot of coming of age stuff in here, including pornography and underage drinking.  I don't think it is the sort of thing that would bother any but the most sensitive readers, but it is important to be aware of. 

     Much like this review, the memoir is not linear, and is punctuated throughout by recipes, explanations about the right way to cook something,  and, (as seen above) even advice about how to shop for food.  In between cooking moments, though, we find out about Lucy's parent's early marriage, her mom's early work life in the food industry, Lucy's parents eventual breakup, and Lucy's early childhood through her college and post college days. 

     It was a good book.  I am not going to say you have to read it, but if you know a kid or two who loves preparing food, you might check ti out -- this book could become very important to them.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Shortest review of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief in the history of the universe.

Zusak, Markus (2005)  The Book Thief  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.

If you haven't yet, read it.  Now.*

*  That is the whole review.  But if you want don't like being commanded to buy a book and want some reasons, I will include them here in this asterix note.  The voice of the teller is masterful, the story is utterly gripping, and the entire book is moving.  You need to read it.  Your students need to read it.  And there is enough here to sink your teeth into that it would be a great book to study in a high school English class.  There is a lot of history in here too. 
     I could tell you the plot, but there is no way I can do justice to the writing, and without that, the plot won't mean much.  Here, I'll give you some of the opening lines, maybe that will help.

    "First the colors.
           Then the humans.
          That's usually how I see things.
          Or at least, how I try.
               Here is a small fact.
                    You are going to die.
     I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations.  Please, trust me.  I most definitely can be cheerful.  I can be amiable.  Agreeable.  Affable.  And that's only the As.  Just don't ask me to be nice.  Nice has nothing to do with me."

That isn't enough?  Okay look, it is about Germany in World War Two.  It is about a little girl names Liesel.  It is about family and sacrifice and justice.  It may possibly have made me cry. 

Go back to the review above.  Then, please, trust me.  You won't regret it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Asian American Superheroes at last!

Yang, Jeff; Shen, Parry; Chow, Keith; Ma, Jerry (2009) Secret Identities:  The Asian American Superhero Anthology  New York:  The New Press

     Most graphic novels I review in this bloggy thing do not involve superheroes.  I try to avoid them because the stories are usually not that good and because some people think that superheroes are the only thing graphic novels contain and because usually it is a stretch to think of using them in the classroom.  In this case, though, I am going to make an exception.
    When I was growing up reading comics, Asian Americans appeared in comic books in usually three roles:  the sidekick (Kato, manservant of the Green Hornet), the martial arts master (Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu); or the villain (Fu Manchu, the Silver Samurai, the Hand, etc).  This anthology is a team up of some up-and-coming Asian American graphic novel artists who take a new look at what an Asian superhero could be.  The stories are short (I often wished they could go on and sometimes felt that just as I was getting lost in a story, it ended.) but most of them are very well done.  "Driving Steel" takes place in the wild west, where a Chinese immigrant superhero defends some railroad workers and unwittingly teams up with another American folk hero. Another of my favorite stories was "The Blue Scorpion and Chung" which nicely turns the Green Hornet story on its head. In fact, most of these stories have an ironic twists to them somewhere.
Some other stories are simply parodies, like this cover shot:

     The whole book is great fun.  There are some moments of excessive violence and sometimes ignorant unsympathetic characters use racial slurs, so this might be best for sixth grade and up.  If you like comics and like seeing justice done at last, you'll appreciate this.  If you can't stand comics, you might want to stay clear. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Graphic Novel on the History of the Vietnam War

Zimmernman, Dwight, Jon; Vansant, Wayne  (2009) The Vietnam War: A Graphic History  New York:  Hill and Wang

    I remember when I was in high school, it seemed like history classes never quite got to the Vietnam war, and when they did it seemed like they somehow managed to make the most interesting and controversial war I could think of into something that was dull as dirt.  This graphic novel has some amazing and interesting parts (I loved the stories about the small Navy boats that had to cruise the inland waterways) but also has a lot of dry, dusty textbook stuff.  So this one is kind of a mixed bag.
      I really liked Wayne Vansant's work on The Red Badge of Courage.  In this book, there seem to be a lot fewer connections between panels.  That is the magic that makes graphic novels work -- when the reader has to look back and forth to discover the differences and similarities from one panel to another, then realizes how the character or scene has changed and the story has advanced.  If you don't have much of that, the story can seem more like a well-illustrated history textbook than a living breathing story. The art work is good in this book, it just isn't very connected.
     The editorial stance here is certainly from an American perspective.  It isn't particularly slanted toward a rah rah perspective, nor is it slanted toward those who opposed the war (though both hawks and doves are covered well).  It has a few bits that talk about the war from the perspective of Vietnamese civilians -- but these are rare.  This is the American history version of Vietnam.
     So am I suggesting you avoid this book like the plague?  No, I think it might be very much interesting to students fifth grade and up --but I think it is important to know that this is not the best of Vansant's work, and it is not the last word on graphic novels and Vietnam. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Graphic Novel Version of Red Badge of Courage -- And it is pretty good!

Crane, Stephen; Vansant, Wayne (2005) The Red Badge of Courage:  The Graphic Novel.  London:  Penguin.

     This is a very well done adaptation.  Vansant is really good with panel transitions and somehow he manages to capture the point of view of the book.  We stay close to Private Henry, seeing his reactions to things in his facial expressions as well as Crane's words.  The story moves well, and Vansant captures the excitement and terror of the battlefield as well.  Reading this book is like seeing a really good stage adaptation of the original book --the action is moving in front of you and the characters are clearly brought to life.  In face, the only two complaints I have about the book is that the format is about the size of a regular paperback novel -- which means that he images are small -- they are easy enough to read, but I wish they were bigger.  They are beautiful sometimes and deserve to be bigger.  Similarly, I wish the images where in color.  Black and white works for this story -  it is somber when it needs to be, but I do wish it had color to it. 
      This would be a great book for any middle school or high school English teacher who teaches Red Badge of Courage.  I also think, though that the format makes this story accessible to younger grades.  I could see having this in my classroom library if I taught fifth grade or up.

A Fantasy Too Ordinary

Oliver, Lauren  (2012) The Spindlers  New York:  Harper.

     Liza wakes up one morning to discover that her annoying but nonetheless beloved little brother has been somehow been replaced by an evil lookalike.  She vows to find out where he has been taken and to get him back.   Shortly she finds herself in a subterranean world trying to find the evil Spindlers who have taken him.  With the help of a rat named Mirabella, Liza sets off on an adventure that involves, peril, desperation, betrayal, and ultimately triumph.  Sounds pretty good, huh?
     Yeah, the book is fine, really.  The world Oliver creates is interesting.  The plot is interesting, as are the characters.  But here is the thing -- the world it creates is different, but surprisingly ordinary.  Creatures in the underground world steal scraps and socks and glasses and keys from the world above and then haggle and scrape to sell them in an open market that reminds me of the local Swap-O-Rama.  Mirabella the rat wears scraps of fabric and paper so she can make herself feel elegant, but the effect is sorry and depressing.  There are dangers here, but they are not breathtaking in scope.  All in all the world created in this book has the feel of a bargain basement world.  I am not saying that all of fantasy has to be beautifully dressed princesses and breathtaking vistas, but I would argue that there has to be amazement and wonder.  When I read Lord of the Rings, I want to go to Middle Earth and have a look around.  I wish to visit Narnia, and Ender's Battle School, and even places like Victoria Roth's Insurgent Chicago and the worlds of Zita the Space Girl.  But the world in Spindlers seems drab and dirty and full of anxiety but no wonder or amazement. 
     It is probably best for fifth and up.  I wouldn't tell you not to buy this book, but I wouldn't tell you to go out of your way to buy it either.  Check it out from the library, read the first two chapters, and see if you think I am right about this. 
Oh, and by the way, if you check out this bloggy thing from time to time and would like to be informed by email whenever a new one is posted, I think there is a button up there on the right maybe that you can use to sign up to follow if you want.  There are other people who have done so and no harm has befallen them. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hunting for Creatures Thought Extinct

Smith, Roland (2005) Cryptid Hunters.  New York:  Hyperion.

This was a fun novel.  No deep themes here, just a fast-moving story about an orphaned brother and sister who go to live with their uncle, who happens to be a cryptid hunter -- and get drawn into his deadly rivalry with another, less scrupulous cryptid hunter.  So what is a cryptid then?  A cryptid is an animal who existence has not yet been proved scientifically -- in this case, that could mean anything from bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster to a species of dinosaur that has been living in an isolated area of Africa. 
     Part of the fun of the book is that Uncle Wolfe has been pretty successful in his chosen profession and has a lot of fancy gear and equipment that the kids get to use.  Before long, they are on their own, in a race against the semi-evil Dr. Blackwood and his henchmen to be the first to fink a dinosaur egg (and possibly a dinosaur sitting atop it).  On the way there are plenty of twists and turns and even a revelation or two. 
     I am thinking third or fourth and up for this one.  Your students will not discover any deep awareness of who  they are as a person -- but they will like this story -- and since Smith ahs a couple of sequels to it, you'll be able to keep them busy for at least a couple of days. 


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Epic Graphic Novel about Palestinian/Israeli Conflict

Yankin, Boaz; Bertozzi, Nick (2013)  Jerusalem  New York:  First Second

     This is an epic -- a sweeping story that covers two families over several generations caught up in the creation of the Isreali State.  We see brothers on opposite sides of the conflict, sons set against fathers, and a family torn over the question of whether to take in the newly widowed bride of their brother.  This is such a huge story that trying to summarize it would be to spend a lot of time on something that really wouldn't give you a sense of what the book is like anyway.  Suffice it to say this is about families more than it is about politics.  It doesn't push the Israeli or Palestinian political perspective, but does address a lot of the issues of morality that war and occupation and conflict bring with them.  The questions of morality addressed here are large and small.  Should you punish your child for stealing kerosene that you need to keep your family warm?  Is a strong man one who fights for his family and community or one who refuses to fight?  The reader gets to know individual members of the families and comes to like, sympathize, and sometimes hate them.  It is a story that draws you in.
     The overwhelming and persistent theme in this book is something like "War.  What is it good for?  Absolutely nothing.  (Say it again.)"  The book has some vulgarity in places, and some depiction of sexual interaction, but I think it could work for high school students (You'll want to read it and consider it in the context of your particular school.)  Worth a look.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Well of Lost Plots

Fforde, Jasper (2003) The Well of Lost Plots.  London:  Hodder and Stoughton.

Okay, so I have said it before, the books in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series are not really ideal for high school students -- they are too clever.  Fforde has too many literary references.  Even the most well-read high school student you know won't have had enough time to have read everything that Fforde refers to.  Still, they will catch a lot of it, that the story is funny and fast-paced. 
     This particular book follows Thursday Nest, who is a literary detective who works for JurisFiction and tries to straighten out justice issues inside of books as she fights the Goliath Corporation which has gone back in time and removed her husband -- so that he now exists only in her mind.  She is also up against the new upgrade to the bookreading system that Goliath is on the verge of loading into the system.  Thursday suspects there is something peculiar about the new system.
     This is a brilliant novel about the dangers of giving control of your entire literary connection to a corporation.  The new system sounds an awful lot like an e-reader.  I don't know whether your students will like it, but if you are a voracious reader and have a sense of humor (if for example you enjoyed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), I guarantee you'll love this book.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Paul Fleischman's Whirligig is an excellent novel (can't figure out if I read this and never posted it,or what, so here it is.)

Fleischman, Paul (1998) Whirligig.  New York: Macmillan

My friend Kim has recently returned to the joy of reading.  This one is especially for her.  So there is this 17 year old kid named Brent who has just moved to this new school.  He is nervous and insecure and trying to fit in, so when he gets invited to a party by his new friend and he hears the girl he has his eye on will be there, he is excited about going.  Unfortunately, one thing after another goes bad, culminating with public humiliation and soon Brent finds himself drunk, driving home, and the next thing he knows he is responsible for losing control and killing a girl his age who he never knew.

Brent’s parents and their lawyer want to get him out of it, but Brent wants to do something – even though he knows he can never make it right.  Eventually, the girl’s Mom agrees to meet with him and sets before him a remarkable task.  The rest of the story is told in a series of connected but separate stories – some of which only feature Brent peripherally – but it is an amazing and powerful story about redemption and grace.
I loved this book. Good for middle school and up.  It would be especially ggod as a book to use with a creative writing class.

Sara Pennypacker's novel about Gypsy Moths and Hiding a Dead Body

Pennypacker, Sara (2012)  Summer of the Gypsy Moths.  New York: HarperCollins.

     Stella is excited about spending the summer with her Great Aunt Louise who lives on Cape Cod and takes care of summer cabins -- even if that means sharing her aunt with a foster child named Angel.  Stella loves the beach and the summer breeze and the garden and the fact that her Aunt is a stable, loving (if gruff) alternative to Stella's flakey and undependable mother.  However, when the two girls find that Aunt Louise has died during the night, they have to decide whether to report the death or bury the body themselves in hopes that their idyllic summer life can continue. Soon they find themselves doing housekeeping duties for the cottages, babysitting tourist's kids, and trying to pay bills feed, themselves, and keep the secret of where Aunt Louise is.
     Sara Pennypaccker is the author of the Clementine series, deeply loved by both my daughters.  Like the Clementine books, and parts of this book are joyful and funny and the moving ending actually got me to sniffle a little bit (in a manly way, of course),  
     Here is the thing though.   I don't believe that we read novels to escape our problems -- I think we read them to exchange our problems for a different set of problems.  I love that feeling of sinking deep into a book and forgetting about my committee assignments and curriculum changes and becoming instead worried about whether the main character will be able to triumph over whatever adversity they are struggling with.  But it turns out that there are some sets of problems that characters struggle with that I greatly enjoy -- and others that make me cringe.
     This book, for me, is a cringer.
     After Stella and Angel decide to bury the body in the garden under cover of night, they begin to have to lie to cover up what is happening.  As I read on, I began to have this overwhelming dread that they were going to get caught.  At one point it looked like they were going to confide the whole story to George (a trustworthy adult character0 and I was excited that finally the tension would be relieved.  Something came up, though, and they were unable to tell him.  So the tension continued until the end -- and when the truth came out, the relief was wonderful.  Not sure I would want to read it again, though.  Still, maybe you like this sort of tension.  Then grab the book and get to reading.
     This one would be best for fifth grade and up, I think.

Oh, and while I am thinking about it, just a reminder.  If you find out about these blog posts through facebook and would rather get an email notification when a new one comes out, you can sign up to be a flower by clicking on the follower thingy.  I think.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Zita the Spacegirl returns -- and it is excellent!

Hatke, Ben (2014) The Return of Zita the Spacegirl  New York:  First Second.

Zita the Spacegirl is back, and this third book in the series may be the best yet.  This one has all the excitement, surprise, humor, and thoughtfulness of the original Zita the Spacegirl and once again, author/illustrator Ben Hatke shows his mastery of panel plotting.
     But you don't care about all that.  You want to know if it is a good story and if your third graders or sixth graders or middle school students will like it.  The answer to all of the above is yes. 
     In this book, Zita has been apprehended and is being tried and help on trumped up charges on a prison world.  Her old friends, Mouse, Piper, One, Strong-Strong and the rest are far away (though they have heard her distress call) and so she must rely on help from her cellmates Ragpile and Femur and from the mysterious Ghost.  Escaping her cell is relatively easy, but escaping the planet, and freeing all those trapped with her is a bit more daunting.  But here is the thing -- the story is funny and exuberant and filled with tension and has surprising turns and a completely satisfying and triumphant ending.    
     You'll be swept up in the story and so you won't notice, but Hatke's sense of timing and choices in moving from panel to panel are masterful -- and in fact, this is why you can get lost in the story. 
     Look at this page:

We actually shift here, from the perspective of the character in the rafters (I won't tell you who that is yet) to Zita's perspective as she awaits trial.  We are able to get a sense for the vastness of the space there are in, but we still see the frustration on Zita's face.  And look at the way the action moves us across the page and straight on to the next one.
     The other thing I love about this book is that there is actually quite a lot to talk about with students here.  There are some really interesting themes here including what it means to be morally responsible for your own actions, when civil disobedience is appropriate, what freedom means, and the values of friendship and cooperation.  There is also a nice little romantic subplot to boot.
     Look, if you like graphic novels, or good stories for middle grades and middle school kids, if you like to laugh or get caught up in a book, or if you like Zita's previous adventures, go get this.  It is excellent.