Friday, August 29, 2014

Short Stories from the author of Stargirl

Spinelli, Jerry (1997) The Library Card.  New York:  Scholastic

Three kids:  Mongoose, Brenda, Sonseray, and April.  All of them find a magical blue library card that changes their lives.  Mongoose and his friend Weasel sneak out at night and tag buildings with spray paint.  When Mongoose finds the library card, he becomes more and more interested in what books hold.  Brenda is hooked on TV, and goes into withdrawal when her school has a TV Turn-Off Weekend, Brenda's parents agree to participate, then she finds the card.  Sonseray and his nephew Jack are homeless and living in a car, scraping together enough money to eat.  The library card offers them a chance to connect with memories of their lost family.  And April boards a bookmobile only to find it is being hijacked. 
     Jerry Spinelli sees the world differently than I do, and it is a great gift of his writing that, when I read his work, I can see through his eyes.  Stargirl was the first book of his I read and it helped me to see high school in a new way (even though I had been teaching high school for ten years when I first read it).  In The Library Card, Spinelli lets himself run free for a while.  It reminds me, in a way of watching Robin Williams perform live.  Spinelli's imagination seems unbounded by any kind of control -- which allows him to tell stories about someone hijacking a bookmobile in a way that also says a lot about relationships between different aged kids.  The weird thing about it all, it seems to me, is that while I am reading through all these twists and turns, they never seem unnatural (until I try to summarize it).
      This seems like a middle school book to me.  Young readers will want to know that there is very little connecting the separate short stories.  They really should be taken on their own.  Not much objectionable here.  This book is certainly worth a look -- especially for Spinelli fans. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Best Historical Graphic Novel I've Read This Year

Getz, Trevor R. and Clarke, Liz (2012) Abina and the Important Men.  New York:  Oxford.
In 1876, in the Gold Coast of West Africa, a young African woman named Abina Mansah, was sold by her husband to be a servant in the household of a wealthy palm oil planter and influential man named Quamina Eddoo.  Slavery was illegal in the Gold Coast, then a colony of Great Britain, yet was practiced widely and without fear of reprisal.
Abina escaped Eddoo's household and sought help from an African court translator named James Davis. With his help she filed court papers and was granted a trial. At that trial, she sought to confront the colonial authorities with the injustice of a written law that is not enforced.  It is a fascinating and surprisingly gripping courtroom drama -- and all of it is based on a real and recently discovered court transcript. 
Getz and Clarke have turned this story into a remarkably accessible graphic novels that students in middle school and high school will find interesting.  The art is excellent and they do a nice job of using the panels to tell the story. 
But that isn't the only reason that I love this graphic novel.  See, although historical graphic novels are a great way of getting students to engage in the real human stories that make up history, they come under criticism because, in order to craft a graphic novel (especially one like this when no photographs of the participants exist), the creators have to make interpretive choices.  And this means that the factual and authentic nature of real history is diluted (or so the argument goes).  Never mind that any book that describe history must make all sorts of interpretive choices -- what to foreground and what to put in the back of what we read -- which photographs to use and how to present them -- which facts to include and which to ignore as superfluous, and so on. 
The wonderful thing about this book as that it responds to that argument by including both the 65 page graphic novel version of the story, but also the entire transcript the GN version is based on, 6 essays to provide context for the story (describing geography, political context, sociological context, the influence of the church, slave trade and the abolition movement, and what we know of Abina Mansah.)  Then there is also a reading guide and some suggestions for using the book in the classroom.    
So here it is:  if you teach middle school or high school history, get this book.  Get a class set.  Use it as a way to help students think about the interpretive challenges of history.   This would be perfect for a unit after AP students take the AP test in the Spring.  If you don't teach history, but teach high school or middle school -- buy the book anyway and put it in your classroom library.  If you don't teach, but like reading about history, buy the book and read it, then loan it to a history teacher.
Oh, and a shout out of thanks to Dr. Jung Kim, a literacy professor, colleague, and personal hero of mine, for giving this blog a plug.  Like reading this stuff?  Feel free to become a Follower.  I think there is a tab somewhere on this page.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

How can you be a good guy when the woman who has taught you everything you know is running every con and illegal moneymaking scheme she can think of?

Curtis, Christopher Paul (2004) Bucking the Sarge New York:  Random House.
Luther T. Farrell has won the science fair two years in a row.  He wants to go to college and major in science or philosophy.  But it isn't going to be easy.  His mother, the Sarge (as she calls herself) has built herself a kingdom by running every slum scam and not-entirely-legal scheme she can think of.  Luthor works for her as the supervisor of a group home for elderly men, but he wants out.  He wants to escape her evil empire, win over Shayla, the girl he secretly admires (who is also pretty much his only competition for the science fair), and help his friend Sparky find a way to sue the chicken chain restaurant in their neighborhood.   
This could all be pretty easy except for four things:  The Sarge doesn't want him to go.  He doesn't realize how deeply entangled in her empire he is.  And, the Sarge is pretty scary.  The good news is, Luthor has a plan.  . 
This is a good (and sometimes funny) book that could lead to some good discussions about how to live the right way in a world that is pretty messed up.  The book does refer to condoms  a couple of times, and fraud and criminal behavior fairly often, but not in a way that glorifies those things.  It would be a good book for high school, but teachers should probably read the book first before they put it on their shelves.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chinese Folk Tale Picture Book about Animate Cookware

Compestine, Ying Chang; Serra, Sebastia (2011)  The Runaway Wok.  New York:  Dutton
Ming's family is so poor that on the eve of the Chinese New year, they have to scrimp and barter just to be able to have enough to make some stir fired rice to share with the neighbors.  Ming is supposed to trade two eggs for some rice, but instead (in a remarkable Jack-and-the-beanstalk-like move) trades to an old man for a rusted wok which the man claims in magic.  They bring the wok home, clean it up, and then what as it rolls off the table and out the door.  It ends up going to the kitchen of the richest (and stingiest) family in the village.  When they take it to be a serving bowl and load it up with food, the wok runs back to Ming's family.  The wok then visits the rich man's son, who stores his fireworks in the wok which again runs back to the family.  The wok visits the rich man's counting house, where the rich man dumps a bunch of coins into it and the wok once again redistributes the wealth.  Before the rich family can summon the authorities, the wok challenges them to try to catch him and soon takes the entire family far away. 
The pictures are really funny and cartoonish and go well with the light-hearted tale.  It is a fun story and a good book for kindergarten through second grade or so -- though it is possible some parents might object to a perceived leftist political ideology in the book.

Orphan boy gets job at Globe Theater, meets Shakespeare, and doesn't become a writer or actor!

Woefle, Gretchen; Cox, Thomas  All the World's a Stage:  A Novel in Five Acts  New York:  Holiday House
     So this 12 year old orphan kid named Kit Buckles works as a pickpocket for this jerk of a guy.  On one of his first big jobs, Kit bungles it and gets caught publically -- ruining his anonymity and chance of ever being a pickpocket again.  Richard Burbage, the star actor of the Globe, tells Kit he has to work off his debt. Eventually Kit finds out that he cannot go back to the pickpocketing gang, that he likes this theater work (even though he is very insecure about it and gets a lot of abuse from one or two of the other newly hired boys.)  When the Globe is nearly sold out from under the actors, Kit takes part in their desperate gamble to save it.  In so doing, Kit begin to understand how important it is for him to work at the Globe --but when a bit part on the stage doesn't go so well, Kit needs to figure out where he belongs.  Shakespeare helps him along.
     This book would be an excellent addition for third or fourth grade and up -- particularly as a way of kindling interest in Shakespeare studies that are bound to come later. The books has suspense and moves fairly well, but this realistic drama doesn't have a gunfight or a kidnapping at the end of every chapter -- so for readers who like that sort of thing, this one might not be ideal.