Monday, June 30, 2014

Excellent Graphic Novel about the Air War in World War Two

Vansant, Wayne (2013) Bombing Nazi Germany:  The Graphic History of the Allied Air Campaign that Defeated Hitler in World War Two.  Minneapolis:  Zenith

     "It was a strange war.  And a violent one.
     They fought as part of an awesome battle force 30 miles long and five miles above the surface of the earth.  Their machines were made of aluminum, plexiglass and steel.  They shivered  in their cockpits in subzero temperatures, fastened to life with only facemasks of oxygen.  They died in horrible ways.  In flashes of black smoke.  In explosions of ragged steel, or falling all the way down, screaming, to the hard earth.
     They fought each other and also killed thousands of innocent civilians.
     They were led by a small group of innovators and revolutionaries.  Radical, innovative men who conceived of winning the war in a way that hadn't been seen before.  Their theories and beliefs were played out in hundreds of violent, freezing encounters in the sky high above the ground. 
     These were the men who took part in World War Two's air war."
     This is how Bombing Nazi Germany begins, with these words in front of an image of German fighters attacking allied bombers, smoke from anti-aircraft flak, two bombers on fire and going down,  And that single page gives you some insight into the way this graphic novel works.  It is exciting, it is historically accurate, and it is balanced. 
     I remember that one of my best friend's little brother loved to read about World War Two.  He would devour everything he could get his hands on, whether it was his reading level or not.  Hew was willing to plow through some pretty dense historical tomes because of his interest in the war.  And there is a lot there to be interested in.  World War Two was a war of desperation,   And the acts of pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners become riveted when you realize the incredible odds they faced.  Bombers were unreliable, prone to fatal breakdowns in the air.  They often had to manage with little or no fighter escorts.  And the only reason most of the crewmen were willing to risk their lives was that the air war seemed to have a good chance at stopping Hitler.
    The images in this graphic novel will pull kids in.  The drama of individual stories will keep them interested.  But along the way, they will earn about allied and German strategies, about the ways in which the air war was effective and ways in which it was not, and they will learn that Germans were not the only one committing atrocities in the war.  The book does not pussyfoot around moments like the firebombing of Dresdin.
     I do not mean to suggest that this is a perfect historical study -- it doesn't do much with primary sources or corroborating sources or making historical arguments explicitly -- but if you want to get a kid excited about history -- real history-- this book would be an excellent start.
     I think it could grab the attention of kids as early as fourth grade, but middle school and high school readers would not think this book was beneath them.  It would, admittedly, probably be more enticing to boys than girls, but I think there is stuff for both here.  This book is well worth adding to your classroom library. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Good Book You Probably Can't Use in the Classroom

Peters, Julie Anne (2004) Luna  New York:  Little Brown and Company

    Let me start out by telling you what the book Luna is not.
     It is not a book that is trying to convince the world that transgendered people are everywhere and you should be one too.  It is not trying to convince its audience to start cross-dressing. It is not trying to push for greater acceptance of transgendered people.  This is not a book with an axe to grind.  And even though the title character, Luna, is a person who was born a boy (named Liam) but is convinced he wants to be a girl, this book really is not about him.  In fact, if it were up to me, I would have named the book Luna's Sister
     Luna is the story of Regan, a girl whose life has been turned upside down by her brother telling her that the driving desire in his life is to be a girl.  As far as Regan knows, she is the only one in her family and in the community who Liam/Luna has told.  She is also the one who helped him after a suicide attempt.  And so, Regan's love and concern for her brother has become a full time job.  She helps him when their dad insists he try out for sports.  She helps him when he decides he want to try passing for a girl at the mall.  She helps him when he makes contact with a transgendered person on the internet and wants to meet with her when she is in town for a conference.

     What ends up taking a back seat in Regan's life are her own wants and interests.  She loves her regular babysitting job, but eventually loses it because she has to cover for her brother.  And when, in science class, she meets a boy who actually seems to like her for who she is, she has to keep putting off going out with him because she has to help her brother.
     In the end, I would argue, this is about the universal struggle that any high-school- aged kid goes through when someone they care about is dealing with something that is all-consuming and that thing is breaking apart their family..  It would be a great book for a kid with struggles like that to read and feel they are not alone. 
     But the problem is, this is a book with a transgendered character, and realistically, it is bound to be challenged if you use it in your classroom.  It is bound to be challenged if you put it in your school library (unless, you have a policy defending a range of perspectives).  In fact, it might get you into trouble if you keep it in your classroom library.  When I was teaching high school, this would have been the sort of book I might keep behind my desk and loan out to someone who I knew could handle it. 
     Maybe that seems cowardly, and maybe it is.  But I think you need to ask yourself how you can best help your students who struggle.  Then you need to ask yourself if you can still be that helpful if you lose your job.  Sigh.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Frenetic Fun Graphic Novel for 2nd to 4th graders

Burks, James (2012) Bird and Squirrel on the Run  New York: Scholastic

When I see modern cartoons on TV I feel really old.  I realize that my beloved  Bugs Bunny and the Jetsons must have seen frenetic and chaotic to my parents, but somehow when I see Phineas and Ferb or SpongeBob SquarePants or whatever, it seems like a lot of running around and screaming and not a whole lot of plot or humor or anything.  That has affected the way I look at graphic novels of lower elementary students too.  If even the style of the thing resembles the zigzag blocky style of modern cartoons, I tend to write the thing off without even giving it a chance.  Frankly, that is kind of what I did with James Burks's Bird and Squirrel on the run. 
     Then my amazing fourth grade daughter and her friends, who love the book, turned it into a hilarious dramatic reading and I finally got it.  So here, then is a review of Bird and Squirrel from an enlightened curmudgeon:
     The plot is fairly simple.  The gregarious, daring and outgoing bird decides to be friends with the nervous, anxious, terminally shy squirrel.  When a carnivorous cat enters the picture, the two friends must run, dodge and outwit the feline terror.  But that really isn't what the book it about.  It is about two very different friends, who come to appreciate the aspects of their personalities that make them different.  That part of it is quite heartwarming. 
     The style of the art is still not my favorite, and it does tend to have a fair amount of violence-without-consequence (think Road Runner and Coyote's epic battles); but I have to admit, the book is funny, engaging, and has some substance to it.  It think it would be enjoyed by both boys and girls from second grade on up.  I cannot imagine a parent challenging this book.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Classic Sci-fi that somebody really ought to turn into a graphic novel --a really big graphic novel.

Niven, Larry (1970) Ringworld  New York:  Ballantine

     In March of 1980 (I know because I wrote the date on the inside front cover), I bought a copy of Larry Niven's Ringworld.  I was, at the time, in the 8th grade.  I remember buying it and reading it and enjoying it.  Recently I decided to reread it all these years later.  I discovered something surprising.

At the time I first read it, Niven's book was way above my reading level.  There were words and concepts that I did not understand (and the dictionary definition didn't help either.)  So, according to the way some researchers think about adolescent and young adult reading, I should have been frustrated at the difficulty of it.  Reading that book should have been a huge mistake that resulted in me being so frustrated that I would turn my back on reading forever.

As it turned out, though, I found reading something that was too difficult for me to understand fully oddly exhilarating  I remember feeling the same way about some books by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. VanVogt.  As I reread it, I was that there were some sexual references that were subtle enough that they must have flown right over my head -- but I also remembered how I felt trying to puzzle out the relationships between the main characters, Louis Wu -- a long-lived human; Nessus - an alien being from a race whose defining characteristic is cowardice; Speaker -- one of the kzin, a catlike predator alien species; and Teela Brown -- a human who is the result of a selective breeding program that isolates luck as a characteristic.  I remembered how cool the concept of a vast ringworld was -- built by and incredibly advances civilization, yet fallen into ruin. 

I have no idea if 8th grade geeks of today would find it as exciting as I did, but it seems to me that it might be worth a shot.  Or maybe it would be better for high school kids.  Really, though, this book commercial is less about the book and more about this idea -- if a student wants to read something that you know is way to hard for him or her, let him or her give it a shot.  The combination of being allowed to make a choice and the challenge of something they shouldn't be able to read may give them the chance to jump a reading level or two when no one is looking.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Just in case you were looking for a really reliable dephagmotiser or maybe an aether oscillator

Broadmore, Greg (2009) Doctor Grordbort's Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory  Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics

Whether you are a diabolical villain or a futuristic super hero, chances are you have been looking for an inexpensive wave disruptor gun, or perhaps an infinity beam projector?  I know, how about a portable Massmotron, or a Destroxulonic Plosive Force Destabiliser, or maybe a bifurnilizer or a plosice inversion klug or a hydroblaugh.  All these amazingly deadly creations can be seen (and perhaps even ordered) from this beautifully illustrated catalogue.
The tone of the catalogue is alternately complimentary ("Featuring crisp, glossy red accents and a pleasingly angled stabilizing fin, this atom ray gun will let your enemy know that he (or it) is dealing with a gentleman of no small sum of character and flair") and condescending ("Order [a goliathon] right now or consider one's self a snotty cur.") but throughout the prose is wonderfully constructed.  The images are remarkably believable, so convincing that you will picture yourself riding a Lazoplod or an amphibious  attack-type walking war wagon into battle, firing your phlosgiston over-charger wave pistol at whatever meager resistance your enemies have managed to cobble together.
I could tell you that this is a parody of a catalogue and would be useful for teaching students how to write a parody, and that would be true, but the bottom line is that reading this book is a whole lot of fun.  It creates a sort of a steam punk world through testemonials and even a brief comic short in the back showing the latest adventures of the incredibly insensitive colonialist, Lord Cockswain.   In the very back section there is a pin-up page of Moon Mistress versus the Metal Men that has said superhero wearing some remarkable revealing underwear that might cause this book to be challenged.  That is too bad because that image is not at all connected to the rest of the book (and could, I suppose, be removed). 
I suspect anyone from fourth grade on up would find this book enjoyable, though it seems targeted toward middle school and high school boys.