Monday, November 24, 2014

Quirky anti-bullying, art-wins, that-plan-is-so-crazy-it-just-might-work kind of a novel by E.L. Koningsburg

Koningsburg, E.L. (2004) The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.

Margaret Rose Kane gets sent to camp.  It is her first time and the other girls in her cabin decide to make Margaret Rose's life as miserable as they can.  Margaret Rose engages in mostly non-violent protest and eventually, with the help of the apparently dim-witted janitor, she gets a ride back to her favorite crazy uncles' place.  The uncles have built over the years a kind of art tower, and when Margaret finds out that her uncles have tried to keep from her the knowledge that the upscale neighbors are trying to take it down, Margaret hatches a desperate plan to save the towers and rescue her summer.
Pretty much every character in this book is someone worth getting to know.  The book deals with a host of interesting themes, from how you respond when everybody seems to be against you, to recognizing that people are not always shat they seem, to the question of whether beauty is more important than progress, to the value of a place, to lots of other things worth thinking of.  This would be a good read-aloud for sixth grade and up.  there is the occasionally marginally vulgar word, but nothing that could result in a serious challenge. 
This is a book that you will want your students to know about (and one many of them will come to love). 

Caroline is a teenager who lives on the run with her dad. Her life is not as bad as you would think, and it is far worse.

Rock, Peter (2009)  My Abandonment  New York:  Houghton Mifflin.

Caroline and her father live in a cave in a forest preserve near Portland, Oregon.  Although they have no running water, no refrigeration, and no electronics, and although Caroline doesn't have a mother, doesn't go to school, has no friends, and must spend much of every day in hiding, she enjoys her life.  She has a toy horse named Randy, a garden to tend, and books to read.  She and her father go into town from time to time, visit a homeless encampment occasionally, and her father spends a lot of time teaching Caroline to survive and thrive in the woods, and in hiding. 
But when they are discovered and must go on the run, things change.  For a while they try to reenter society, and then go back on the run and back into hiding.  Life gets much harder, and Caroline soon finds herself having to make some very hard decisions, without her father there to guide her. 
The character of Caroline is distantly reminiscent of Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games but whereas Katniss must deal with a manufactured survival situation  in a dystopian world of the future, Caroline lives utterly and completely in our world, in the here and now.  While Katniss sometimes uses almost superhuman endurance and abilities, Caroline is a remarkable hero because she is so real.
This novel has moments that are hard to read.  People die.  Dreams don't always work out.  And as a reader, you're not always sure that everything is going to work out in the end.  But in spite of all the struggling and heartbreak, this is a book of great hope (embodied largely in Caroline).
I think of this book being mostly suited for high school students, especially those who you think might really like the action of a series like Hunger Games, but who scoff at the fantasy of it.  It is also a book that I think has great potential to be taught in a literature class, so those of you who are teachers might check it out for that purpose.  I am not sure if it would work as a read-aloud, but that also might be worth a try.  It certainly has the suspense for it.  There is no significant male protagonist in the novel (besides the dad, and it may be difficult for male students to identify with him since he is certainly paranoid, perhaps has PTSD, and is not always likeable.)  But the action will hold male readers' attentions.
There is one gristly scene, but I don't think there is anything in here that would cause the book to be challenged.  If you don't mind a book that is sometimes more true than happy, check this one out.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Best YA Novel to reference leprechauns since the Artemis Fowl Series!

Pratchett, Terry  (2011)  The Wee Free Men:  The Beginning.  New York:  Harper

In the beginning of The Wee Free Men, Tiffany, who wants to be a witch, goes to the fair and finds a booth where a woman agrees to tell her some things about becoming a witch.  At the end of the conversation, this exchange occurs:
"Are you listening?"
"yes," said Tiffany.
"Good.  Now,.. if you trust in yourself..."
"...and believe in your dreams."
"...and follow your star..."
 "You'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working  and learning things and weren't so lazy.  Good-bye."  (p.40)
You can see the comic set-up in that exchange.  Pratchett knows how to write an engaging story, but also one with funny moments to diffuse the tension.  Anyway, so here is the story:   Tiffany wants to become a witch (mostly because her Grandma sort of was a witch and helped people).  So as she is working on that she finds out that she is being guarded, assisted, and sometimes saved from monsters by a band of six-inch tall, head-butting, hard-drinking, thieving, Wee Free Men.  They are also fiercely loyal, protective, remarkably strong, and seemingly indestructible.  As Tiffany takes on the Queen of the Fairies and a weird, shapeless, bodiless evil creature, the wee free men prove to be invaluable allies.
And along the way we get humor, excitement, tension, and sometimes profundity.  At one point, one of the wee free men, Rob Anybody (they are not very good at coming up with names) says, "Ah, weel, what's magic, eh?  Just wavin' a stick and sayin' a few magic words.  An' what's so clever about that, eh?  But lookin' at things, really lookin' at 'em, and then workin' 'em out, now that's a real skill."  (p. 146)  There is truth in that.
So it is a fun ride, and because it is a big book, it might be just the thing to keep a strong 8th grade or older reader happy for a while.  And you'd like it too. 

Graphic Novel Versions of Wilfred Owen, Sigfried Sassoon and other World War I poets!

Duffy, Chris (ed.) (2014)  Above the Dreamless Dead:  World War 1 in Poetry and Comics. 

When I was in high school, I remember slogging through poetry units, wanting to like poetry, but wishing it was more exciting somehow.  And then I remember the day our teacher introduced us to Siegfried Sassoon and Wilford Owen.  I remember the power of Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est".  That scene of tired soldiers marching asleep, bootless, blind and deaf to the world, and then the shelling and gas and the "ecstasy of fumbling/ fitting the clumsy helmets/ just in time" and the guy who gets caught without his mask drowning in a green sea and how the point of the whole poem was that war wasn't glorious, but horrible (and that you had to understand the sarcasm of the last line to grasp it).  That was what made me think this poetry stuff might be worth a second look.
Chris Duffy has assembled a collection of amazing poets:  Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Hardy, Sorely, Kipling, and Graves.  He has also pulled together some amazing graphic novel artists:  Kevin Huizenga, Peter Kuper, Garth Ennis, Anders Nilsen, and lots of good up and coming folks too.  And what you get when you combine these two lists are amazing poems given even more impact when combined with powerful images.  Simon Gane has a brilliant two page adaptation of Rupert Brooke's poem "Peace" which features a soldier either suiting up to either go to war or to leave the physical world.  Kevin Huizenga does a beautiful job turning Charles Surley's song "All the Hills and Vales Along" into a haunting and macabre reflection on death that reminds me of the gravedigger's scene in Hamlet. Peter Kuper's thick-lined illustrations bring Isaac Rosenberg's poem "The Immortals" to vivid life (and makes us wonder if the poet is speaking of killing lice, humans, or both. There are more than poems here too.  Eddie Campbell adapts the final chapter of Patrick MacGill's 1916 novel "The Great Push".  Hunt Emerson provides a one-page adaptation of a rather crude soldier's song (which includes words like arsehole, bollocks, and fornicate -- which might mean it is better to pick and choose poems from this collection rather than get a class set and have it challenged when a student brings it home and parents have a look).  Duffy has organized these works into thematic sections:  The Call to War, In the Trenches, and Aftermath.
It isn't a cheery, happy, friendly book.  But it is powerful, sobering, and very very good.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I like almost everything about the poetry/novel HateThat Cat. Almost everything.

Creech, Sharon (2008) Hate That Cat  London:  Bloomsbury.

The impetus for this book was a poem by Walter Dean Meyers:
Love that Boy
Love that boy,
like a rabbit loves to run
I said I love that boy
like a rabbit loves to run
Love to call him in the morning
love to call him
"Hey there, son!"
Fellow Trinity Professor (and voracious reader) Mark Peters recommended Creech's book to me.  It is actually the sequel to Love that Dog (which I haven't read) , but that doesn't really matter because it is quite a wonderful book.  The story is told through a series of poems written by a grade school student for his teacher, Mrs. Stretchberry.  The poems are a delightful exploration of what it means to be a kid, about what it means to grow to love a pet, and what exactly poetry is anyway.  The protagonist grows in confidence as a poet and learns to not only not hate cats, but to actually love them (or at least one in particular).  
The poetry is good, the story is interesting, and by the end, the book may well convince some kids who think they hate poetry that actually it isn't a bad thing.  But I do have a small bone to pick with it.  There is a character in the book, the protagonist's professor uncle, who is referred to in this way:
"Although ... my Uncle Bill
who is a teacher
in a college
said those words I wrote
about Sky [his dog]
were NOT poems.
He said they were just
and that a poem has to rhyme
and have regular meter
and onomoto-something and
And I wanted
punch him."
As a professor who sometimes teachers creative writing and who happens to be named Bill, I would like to point out that the main character's Uncle Bill must have not studied any poetry after the 1940s and probably needs to consider a career change immediately.  Frankly, I wanted to punch Uncle Bill too. He is giving professors a bad name.
Having said that, this is a good book.  The poetry is easy to read, the book will move swiftly (a bonus for struggling readers), and will hold the reader's attention.  I think it would be ideal for fourth grade and up (maybe third grade, I am not sure).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Graphic Novel about the rise and decay of the city -- good for high school art

Katchor, Ben (1991)  Cheap Novelties:  The Pleasures of Urban Decay  New York: Penguin

Apparently for years there has been this comic strip that runs in some city newspapers titled "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer"  It follows a solidly built guy who makes his living taking pictures of properties that are going to be sold.  As he wanders the city of new York, he encounters mystery and magic, dullness and dreariness and he brings to each new job the same existential questions about why some parts of the city change so fast and some stay the same.  I know, it doesn't sound like something that is going to win the most-entertaining award, but the thing is, the character of Julius Knipl knows how to do more than just observe, he knows how to see things that most people miss. 
This would be a great book for a high school art class.  There is nothing majorly objectionable in in (though there is one sequence where Knipl wanders into a meeting of old men who discuss sexual metaphors for the economy and so on.  It is pretty tame stuff (and way in the back of the book) and there is nothing drawn or pictured that might be offensive.  Because of that and the nature of the book, this one is going to get its best reception in a high school art classroom. 

Excellent read aloud for third grade -- and it is about a somewhat brave shrew!

Vernon, Ursula (2008)  Nurk:  The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew.    Orlando:  Harcourt.

After I finished reading the Lord of the Rings books to my youngest daughter, we both felt like we needed a break before we started something else huge.  I had recently read Ursula Vernon's Digger and so when I checked to see what else she had written and I came across this book, we decided to give it a try.  Turns out, it is a wonderful book.
Nurk is a shy and nervous little shrew.  He spends most of his life indoors, wishing he were as brave as his adventurous grandmother, Surka.  When he discovers her lost diary and receives a message meant for someone else, Nurk finds himself in a boat made from a snail shell, travelling downstream to answer a call for help from the dragonfly kingdom.  Nurk seems to get more and more nervous as his adventure gets him into more and more perilous situations, but he keeps going. 
That just tells you the plotline, though.  What is wonderful about this book is the way it is told.  There are excerpts from his grandma's journal (her handwriting was atrocious) that include accounts of her fighting hungry crocodiles and maddened eggplants, and meeting blue chickens and friendly trolls. Nurk's love for dry socks becomes an important part about how he survives the traps put in his way by the fiendish grizzlemole.  And there is a tree that grows talking (and mildly discouraging) salmon as if they were fruit.
I also love that there are some bits in here that adults will appreciate more that the kids (and that is okay).  Consider this quote from Grandma Surka's Journal "Being in charge isn't much fun.  Sure, you can sleep in late, but there are so many things to worry about all the time.  The best plan for any sensible adventurer is to sweep in, take the throne, live like a king for a few weeks, and then sneak out in the middle of the night before people start asking questions about road maintenance and tax relief."
I can think of nothing in this book that would cause it to be challenges.  It is great for reading out loud to second or third grade, and could be read independently by third through fifth grades (and up).
Check it out.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Graphic Novel about King Arthur -- ennhh

Matthews, John; Collins, Mike  (2009)  The Chronicles of Arthur:  Sword of Fire and Ice  New York:  Aladdin.

I really wanted to love this book.  I love the King Arthur stories and have from way back -- the mix of the hard reality of uniting discordant kingdoms, the magic of Merlin, the tragic romantic triangle of Arthur, Lancelot and Gweneivere, the rise and fall of Camelot, and even the villains -- Mordred and Morgan Le Fey. There is so much there to work with -- and so much of it seems ideal for turning into a graphic novel.  I have been waiting for a good Camelot Graphic Novel for years.
And it appears I may have to wait a bit longer.  Matthews and Collins seem to focus on all the wrong parts of the story.  There is a lot of magic here -- I would argue maybe too much.  The flashbacks are sometimes hard to follow.  The panel to panel transitions are often difficult.   The story is forgettable.  The story seems to focus more on Merlin than on Arthur -- but neither one of them seems particularly sympathetic.  And because the story tries to inject more excitement by bombarding us with demons and witches and dragons, we never get the gritty world of medieval England -- which I think is necessary if we hope to see Camelot rise above it and bring justice and prosperity to the land.  There may be a really good King Arthur graphic novels out there, but this isn't it.  I can't even recommend that it for a classroom library as a gateway to books like The Once and Future King or The Acts of  King Arthur and his Noble Knights.  I think it would be easier to start student readers on the books themselves.
So I guess I'll keep searching and hoping.