Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Stay tuned

Hello Amazing readers and teachers and people in general,

I am taking a break for the next week and a half to read like crazy and visit bookstores in St. Louis, Memphis, Kansas City, and Austin, Texas (coincidentally also cities with amazing BBQ ribs!). In January I'll post the best of 2014 in graphic novels, adolescent fiction informational books and picture books.

In the mean time, since I am teaching an interim course called "Bookstores in Chicago", feel free to recommend your favorite bookstores anywhere in the country.  It would help me for the class.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, December 15, 2014

ADD father leads ADD son into the land of manic craziness

Gantos, Jack (2000) Joey Pigza Loses Control  New York:  Scholastic

There are three sorts of people who should read Joey Pigza Loses Control if they haven't yet. The last group is the biggest.  
Group number 1.  If you have Attention Deficit Disorder or another learning difference that makes you feel like you are some time out of sync with the rest of the world, this novel will remind you that you are not alone.  Joey Pigza has a pretty severe case of ADD which he keeps under control with medication.  It is summer vacation though, and Joey is going to spend a couple of weeks with his dad and his grandma.  Joey would rather stay with his mom, but everyone agrees it is a good idea.  At first, things seem okay.  It is good to get to know his Dad, whom Joey hasn't seen much since the divorce.  It gets even better when Joey's Dad asks Joey if he would like to play on the team his dad coaches.  But then Joey notices his dad is still drinking (he was supposed to have stopped) and his dad starts suggesting that joey doesn't need his Ritalin patches.  Soon things start to spiral out of control. 
Group number 2.  If you have a child or a friend or a student who has Attention Deficit Disorder or a similar learning difference, this book will help you understand what goes on inside such a person's mind.  There are things that Joey does that, when you see things from his perspective, make perfect sense at the time -- but when he has to explain to someone why he put his dog in the glove compartment, or why he drew fake Ritalin patches all over himself, the simple explanation suddenly gets a lot more complicated. 
Group number 3.  The largest group of people who will want to read this story are those who like to read good and interesting stories.  Jack Gantos does a great job of brining his readers so deeply into the story that Joey's struggles become theirs and the story grips us until the end -- even if it isn't a thrillers tory with machine guns and explosions and arch enemies.  Joey's everyday life becomes as gripping as a mystery novel.
This book is probably most appropriate for fourth through eighth graders.  Teachers should know that Joey's dad drinks alcohol when he knows he shouldn't, that Joey's grandma smokes constantly, even through she is on oxygen -- but that Joey realizes these things are wrong.  I doubt any parent who reads the whole book would object to it -- but if they only make it halfway, you could have a challenge on your hands. 
Bottom line:  check it out.    

Friday, December 12, 2014

An old standby you probably need in your classroom library

Cleary, Beverly  (1983)  Dear Mr. Henshaw  New York:  Scholastic

Leigh Botts is a typical kid.  He is sometimes confused about why his mom and dad got a divorce and what he is supposed to be accomplishing in school and what he is going to do with his life and why the letter he wrote to a famous author when he was in second grade never got answered.  So he writes again.  And again..  And when Mr. Henshaw replies, Leigh isn't afraid to express his opinion.  The letters serve as the framing story for a book about a kid growing up (most of it takes place during his sixth grade year. We see Leigh learn ho to deal with bullies, learn how to accept his parents divorce, and grow into a strong writer. 

This book was written in 1983.  Cell phones are noticeably absent, as is email.  But the story at the core is one that kids can relate to deeply.  If you teach third grade through sixth, you should have this book on your shelf.  If you've got kids that age, you might want to pick up a copy too.   

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist Book One -- off to a good start

LaFevers, R. L. (2009) Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist, Book One (Flight of the Phoenix)  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.

This is a pretty well written book.  It isn't the most spectacular thing I have read this year (or even this month), but it is good, solid storytelling -- and since there are now 5 books in the series, it will keep fourth through sixth graders busy reading some interesting stories.
In this first book in the series, we meet 10 year old Nathaniel Fludd.  His parents were declared lost at sea and he is on his way to meet his new guardian -- Aunt Phil (short for Philomenia).  Aunt Phil explains to Nathaniel that the Fludds have always been beastologists -- those who study mythical beasts.  The next thing Nathaniel knows, he and Aunt Phil are aloft in a rickety plane in search of the elusive phoenix.   
I could be wrong, but I don't think this book will ever be anyone's absolute favorite, but it is certainly a series that kids will enjoy a great deal.  If you are going to buy a kid one book this Christmas, this probably isn't it.  But if you are going to buy five books for someone, Nathaniel Fludd might deserve a place in that pile.

Just a really, really good adolescent book. That's all.

Stead, Rebeccca (2012) Liar and Spy  New York: Wendy Lamb

I loved the first Rebecca Stead book I read -- When You Reach Me -- but in order to really enjoy that book, you kind of needed to have read Madeliene L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, so it was hard to recommend universally.  And then I read Liar and Spy.
I could tell you that this book is kind of like a cross between Holes (for the surprise twists), Harriet the Spy (for the humor and the idea of kids spying on adults) and Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie (for the sequence in the science lab). 
I could tell you it is about a seventh grade boy named Georges who moves into a new apartment building with his family and meets an odd 12-year-old named Safer who enlists George's help to spy on a mysterious stranger who lives in their building.  And I suppose I could explain the three other sub-plots that are woven around that story (especially the one where the nerds band together and defeat the bullies -- at least for a little while) -- but that really wouldn't give you the flavor of the book.
I could tell you there are some excellent themes subtly woven into this book.  Themes about fear and courage, truth and untruth, friendship, independence, and non-conformity.
I could quote you the opening paragraphs of the book:
"There's this totally false map of the human tongue.  It's supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet on the front, bitter on the back.  Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since. 
     "But it's wrong -- all wrong.  As in, not even the slightest bit right...."
But none of that would get across how much fun this book is, how delightful its characterizations and twists and turns are.  And how, when I finally figured out the final revelation, it made me a little teary in a happy way (to be clear, as a burley sort of guy, I don't cry, but I do sometimes get a little sniffly inside my nose.)  And how  much fun it would be to read this book out loud to fifth graders and up.  And how it would be a great book to give as a gift or to get for you upper elementary, middle school, or even high school classroom.  
The only way I am going to get all that across is if you read it.  Can you do that for me?  Then we'll talk. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

24 men. 2 lifeboats. 1 desperate chance to survive -- all in a wonderful non-fiction graphic novel

Bertozzi, Nick (2014) Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey.  New York:  First Second.

It was said that if you wanted speed in an Antarctic Expedition in the early 1900s, Roald Amundson was your man.  If you wanted an expedition to bring back valuable scientific data, go with Robert Falcon Scott.  But if you wanted to get every member of your party home in one piece, you'd have to pick Ernest Shackleton.
If you have never before heard the story of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16, you are in for a treat.  Bertozzi masterfully tells the story of how their ship, The Endurance, was trapped in the ice and finally crushed; how they dragged two lifeboats and all their gear across the open ice, striving to reach that Antarctic land mass, only to find that the ice was moving them away from the land faster than they could push the boats toward it; how they eventually crossed the ocean under constant storm conditions and subzero temperatures; how they landed on tiny, barren Elephant Island, and how Shackleton and four other men crossed to sea again to South Georgia Island, and finally how they had to climb over a mountain range and glacier to reach the whaling station that meant civilization and rescue.  It is an amazing story.
Bertozzi uses well-chosen images, carefully planned panel transitions, beautiful cut-aways of ships and lifeboats, and remarkable amounts of emotion conveyed though simple line drawings of face to get across to the reader all of the anguish, desperation, despair,  and ultimately triumph of the expedition.  he also shows remarkable attention of historical detail yet makes sure that the reader is swept up in the drama of the story.  If you teach history or English, you really ought to buy this book.  If you have a graphic-novel loving kid in 5th grade or up (perhaps a remarkable fourth grader could get into it as well), pick this one up for Christmas.  The art is beautiful and the storytelling is magnificent.  Nothing objectionable (though there are some references to earlier expeditions having to eat their dogs -- which could be disturbing to a dog-loving kid..  
Here is another taste of the art:  You can't read the words, but it should give you an idea of the flavor of it anyway.

Jennifer Strange, a quarkbeast and some has-been magicians versus the Ununited Kingdoms, random trolls, and corporate magic!

Fforde, Jasper (2011) The Song of the Quarkbeast  Boston: Harcourt Mifflin.

"Trolls are noted for two things:  Their ability to hide motionless and undetected in a damp riverbed or pile of dead wood for months if necessary, and a lack of any sense of moderation when it comes to the use of violence"
                                       --Jasper Fforde, The Song of the Quarkbeast 195-6
How did I not know about this book for three years?  Maybe because publishers aren't sure if it is a young adult book or a fantasy book?  Who knows.  I am glad I found it eventually, though, because this book is a riot.  It is about a sixteen year old girl named Jennifer Strange who is the acting manager of Kazam Inc (the real manager and owner disappeared some years ago). Jennifer has no magical powers.  She manages an oddball collection of wizards and magicians.  Since the events of the first book in the series (The Last DragonSlayer), the magic has been coming back into the land -- but it is coming slowly and if Kazam is going to survive, they need to win a challenge put forth by their evil corporate rivals, iMagic.  Fortunately, Jennifer is resourc3eful, persuasive, plucky, and given to hair-braded schemes that work out in the end.
In a literary world filled with books that seem to be just a shade or two removed from Harry Potter and his friends in Hogwarts, this book is different.  Magic here is sometimes weak, sometimes given to power surges, and always unpredictable.  Spells are written in a system that resembles computer code.  And evil magicians are sneaky and tricky in ways that the somewhat predictable Voltemort could never imagine.  I am not saying it is better than Harry Potter -- I am saying it is an entirely different world.  Harry and his friends take the Hogwart's Express to get to school.  Jennifer travels in a beat-up orange VW bug and sometimes a threadbare magic carpet.  Harry can turn to Dumbledore and McGonagall for advice.  Jennifer's mentor is lost in time and space, he two wisest magicians become frozen in the beginning of the book, and so she has to rely on an intern and her second string of wizards.  Harry moves through a castle filled with interesting ghosts from the past.  Jennifer has a ghostly moose. 
I could go on, but I'll keep this short.  This is a delightfully fun, action-packed book.  Strong Fifth-grade readers and up would enjoy it (the book has a quarkbeast on the cover, not a picture of the heroine, so boys as well as girls can read it without being embarrassed.  There is nothing significantly objectionable or challenge-able (other than the perennially problematic fact that there is magic in the book -- but it resembles nothing even remotely occultic.)   You'd like it.  So would your students.