Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Action Adventure Adolescent Novel with a Bat Protagonist Since Silverwing!

Oppel, Kenneth (2000) Sunwing  New York:  Aladdin.

Opening Lines:  "Wings trimmed tight, Shade sailed through the forest.  The naked elms, maples, and oaks blazed in the moon's glow, their branches spiked with icicles.  Beneath him, trees lay toppled like the skeletons of giant beasts.  The groans of freezing wood filled the air, and in the distance Shade heard a mighty crack as yet another branch snapped and fell."

Shade is a bat, a particularly good, gifted, and courageous bat.  As the book opens, he is tryng to protect his family and avoid war with the owls.  On the run from a force of owls, Shade leads his family through what seems to be a cave and into what appears to be a bat paradise.  It is an indoor jungle with all the food and nesting sites they could ever want, and no owls.  One night when he is asleep, however, Shade wakes up to the sight of humans gassing some bats and pulling them from their roosts. With the help of Marina. a female bat that Shade won't admit to himself he is rather fond of, Shade discovers that they are being held in what is essentially a giant bat trap and that the humans are operating on the bats, implanting explosive devices in then, then dropping them from planes to destroy cities.  Shade must convince the other bats to escape, avoid capture and implantation save the bats that have already been operated on and their targets, prevent a war with the owls, and outwit Goth, a vampire bat bent on ruling the bat kingdom and eventually the world.

Sunwing is a well-told and gripping story.  It has enough action and adventure to keep kid's attention, but at the same time, Shade grows from an insecure young bat who worries about his small stature to a bat who learns to be confident in his strategic and leadership abilities, learns to stand up for what is right and persuade others to follow that path as well, and comes to understand that Marina likes him not in spite of what he thinks of as his flaws (compassion, thoughtfulness, and other traits) but because of them.

When they are trapped in the bat environment, there is a group of bats who are following a kind of a fatalistic cult that teaches that the missing bats are sacrifices that need to be made in order to enjoy their luxurious lifestyle.  Readers with an axe to grind might perceive this as an attack on organized religion, but the rest of the story doesn't bear that out.

Strong second grade readers will be able to make it through this book (though it might work best as a read-aloud for that age.).  Third through middle school will enjoy it.  Though the book is targeted to boys, girls who enjoy fantasy and/or nature will also find it captivating. There are two other books in the series that I know of, Silverwing and Firewing.  I recommend them all.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Nerd Stories!

Black, Holly; Castellucci, Cecil (editors)  (2009) Geektastic:  Stories form the Nerd Herd.  New York:  Little Brown.

Opening Lines:  "I awake tangled up in scratchy sheets with my head pounding and the taste of cheap alcohol and Tabasco sauce still in my mouth.  The spirit gum I used to attach my nose ridge and eyebrows sticks to the sheets as I roll over."

I am a nerd.  I have never felt bad about that, though my younger brother, looking out for me, has told me repeatedly that I am not a nerd.  The problem comes in definitions.  When I define a nerd, I think of someone who loves to learnt who  and read and is willing to jump into life with both feet, unafraid of looking foolish.  I think of someone who is willing to admit publicly that he or she loves Shakespeare and legos and the Periodic Table and comic books, and Plato and Star Wars and historical reenactments and so on.

My brother might define a nerd as someone who has trouble fitting in, who dresses unstylishly, who says awkward and embarrassing thing in public, and who lacks social skills.

Other people think of a nerd or a geek as someone who engaged in pop cultural texts that mark them as an outsider -- someone who dresses up like a klingon and goes to comic book conventions, or someone who gets together with their stormtrooper unit every weekend, or someone who is a member of the Society of Creative Anachronism and travels miles to participate in mock sword fights on the weekends.

Editors Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci gathered some really impressive authors and asked them if they could write about the broad subject of geekiness and nerdiness.  Some of the authors who appear in this volume are M. T. Anderson (the Octavian Nothing series), John Green (Fault in Our Stars, An Abundance of Katherines, etc.), Hope Larson (who wrote an excellent graphic novel adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time), Garth Nix (Sabriel series), Scott Westerfield (Uglies, Leviathan) and many others.  Perhaps as a result, the topics of stories (and definitions of what it means to be a nerd) cover quite a range.  One of my favorites is a touching story about a shy but huge teenage bay who is part of a Society for Creative Anachronism group styling himself as "the Quiet Knight", He is quite taken by a girl in the group and later sees her at school and is able to sort of come to her rescue.  There are other stories about a Rocky Horror Picture Show aficionado, two best friends on the run from a nerd-hunting game, several stories of nerd love (the best kind), a cheerleader who decides to become a Star Trek fan, and one about a kid who goes to confront his favorite science fiction author about the possibility that author may have had an affair with the fan's mom.

 Clearly these are PG-13 rated stories (and maybe one or two that come close to being R rated), and this book is certainly not one that would work to study as a class.  But for students who may find some of themselves in some of the characters here, this book may be a good way to remind the non-conformists, the different, and those who really love learning, that they are not alone.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Excellent Graphic Novel About a Fifth Grade Girl Who Loves Roller Derby!

Jamieson, Victoria (2015) Roller Girl.  New York:  Penguin.

Opening Lines:
Girl 1:  "Ugh, there's only Astrid here.  I told you only babies hand out at the park."
Astrid, lacing up her skates, shoots them an angry look.
Girl 1:  Come on, Let's go to the mall.  I don't know why you wanted to come here anyway."
Astrid clicks on her skate helmet.
Suddenly Astrid is larger than life and skating toward them at the mall.
Astrid:   "Better call mall security, you jerks!"
The two girls run screaming.
Girl 1:  "Aaaaaaaagh!"
Girl 2: "OMG, I chipped a nail!"
Next page, daydream vanishes,   Astrid is skating by herself on a sidewalk.  Astrid:  "Sigh."

I would have reviewed this book months ago, but it has been impossible to get it away from my sixth grade daughter long enough for me to read it.  This is a remarkably good graphic novel -- and one that will especially grab the sorts of readers who loved Raina Telgemeier's Smile and Drama and Sisters.  Jamieson weaves a wonderful tale about Astrid's growing interest in roller derby, participation in a Saturday skating camp, and eventual growth and mastery of the sport.  Along the way she gains and loses friends, struggles with the skills not coming to her as smoothly as she things they should, deals with being jealous of her friend's success, and grows with the support of an older mentor.  This graphic novel has a beautiful balance of action and relationships and is sure to be a hit with fourth grade girls on up (and maybe some boys as well).

The art reminds me a lot of Raina Telgemaier's style. The characters are just the right combination of realistic and cartoony.  The inviting and colorful style adds to the excitement of the story.

In the story, When Astrid has an argument with her friend Nicole and Nicole chooses not to go with her to Roller Derby Camp, Astrid doesn't tell her mother that Nicole's family will not be driving Astrid home.  As a result, Astrid has to walk the couple of miles home.  It is a great lesson in perseverance, but also in the value of communicating with your parents.  Some parents may have issues with this deception. There are good themes in the book as well though.  Astrid seeks help from adults when she needs it, learns to stand up for herself, learns the value of sticking with something she cares about, and learns a lot about friendship.  Once or twice in the book there is a vulgar reference (one of her rivals calls Astrid "Ass-turd" at one point) which might argue against including it in your classroom library.  All in all, though, it seems to me to be an excellent book for upper elementary and middle school students.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Excellent Picture Book for Math Teachers!

Wallmark, Laurie; Chu, April (2015) Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine.  Creston Books.

Opening Lines:  Ada was born into a world of poetry, but numbers, not words, captured her imagination.

There are lots of picture books about math: thousands of counting books,books about adding and fractions, and even high-interest narrative book like the Sir Cumferance series.  But there are not many picture books -- in fact, none that I can think of, that describe math heroes -- or in this case, math heroines.

This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Ada Byron Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron the poet, and how she grew up fascinated by numbers and what she could make them do.  When she was bedridden by measles, her interest in mathematics grew even more..  When she became a young woman, she meets Mary Fairfax Somerville, a well-known female scientist and mathematician.  Through Somerville, Ada met Charles Babbage, who had invented the first computer/calculator.  Though Babbage continued to develop the mechanics of the Difference Engine, it was Ada who figured out how to program it in a way that made it more efficient.

We live in a world where math heroes often fly under the radar, and where most elementary children have never imagined that a female mathematician could make a difference in t he world -- let alone in the world of the early 1800s.  Math teachers who care about their female students should thank Laurie Wallmark and April Chu for creating this book, then they should immediately order this book for their classroom.  Right away.

(And if you like the illustrations, you might also want to check out April Chu's illustrations in her previous book, Village by the Sea.)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Kid reporters versus greedy and corrupt politicians and con artists with the fate of their town at stake!

Bauer, Joan (2008) Peeled  New York: Scholastic

Favorite Quote:
"How did you know I needed fudge?"
"Everyone needs fudge, Hildy, it's how God helps us cope."
(pg 168)

I loved this book.   Why did it take me so long to read it?

1.  After reading Bauer's Hope was Here I figured she couldn't write something that good again, so why bother trying (Peeled is very different from Hope was Here, but it is no less excellent.)
2,  My oldest daughter wouldn't let me read it for fear that it would take me too long to read, thus depriving her of the chance to reread it again.
3.  The opening lines give entirely the wrong impression about what this book is. Keep reading to the bottom of page 5 and you will be hooked.

But the point is, it was excellent.  I should have read it sooner.  You find yourself rooting for the kid reporters desperately.  The story is excellent and interesting and... oh, enough with the laudatory  adjectives, lets get to the story already.

Hildy, a reporter for her high school newspaper (and the daughter of a reporter father who died years ago), uncovers a story involving the mayor, the editor of the town paper,a land developer, a fortuneteller, a haunted house, and the possible destruction of several townspeople's apple orchards. When she and her student editor start running stories aobut it, the school tries to shut down the student newspaper.  A crusty reporter who is a former colleague of Hildy's late father shows up and takes over as adviser.  Throw in a death, a romance, and an underground paper and you have got a dynamic and interesting story.

And I guess one of the things I love most about this book is that it shows reporters doing what reporters are supposed to do, get at the truth.  At one point the crusty adviser tells Hildy that before she can run a story about the town newspaper editor's possible corruption, she has to call him and read it to him.  Hildy is scared, but she makes the call because it is the right thing to do.  It turns out there are reporters like this.  They tend to not be the ones in the limelight, but their presence gives me hope.  This book does too.  It is a good one.

This book is probably ideal for fourth grade through early high school.  I didn't notice anything that a reasonable person would find objectionable.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Roald Dahl book you probably haven't read yet.

Dahl, Roald (1983) The Witches.  New York:  Scholastic.


Opening lines:  "In fairy tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.  But this is not a fairy tale.  This is about REAL WITCHES.
     "The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this.  Listen very carefully.  Never forget what is coming next.
     "REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women.  They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs.
     "That is why they are so hard to catch.
     "A real witch hates children with a red-hot sizzling hatred that is more sizzling and red hot than any hatred you could possibly imagine."

If you have read any Roald Dahl at all, you know he was an odd man.  His children's books make that quite clear.  After all, in Matilda, Mrs. Trunchbull locks children in a spiked closet.  In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several of those rotten kids get what is coming to them.  The Witches also has moments that make adults cringe.  For example, the main character's grandmother smokes cigars. The witches in the story look like nice ladies, but are hatching a plan to kill all of the children in Europe.  And in the end, when the boy and his grandma turn the tables on the witches, the grandma suggest a final twist on the plan that will mean that all of the witches will be devoured by carnivores.  So why in the world would you want a fourth or fifth grader to read this?

For the same reason that you loved reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Dahl has an amazing ability to walk a thin line between safety and terror.  His child-protagonists are often put in positions in which their lives are at stake.  To make that threat real, there need to be real (and often fatal) consequences.  This doesn't traumatize or terrify the child-reader.  On the contrary, it draws him or her into the book.   There is a point in this book where the grandson is hiding behind a screen  in a hotel meeting room full of witches who are discussing their evil plans.  They beginning sniffing and the readers knows it is just a matter of time before they realize that he is there.  It is a delightfully scar scene.  Somehow, though, at the same time the reader is scared, the reader also knows that everything will be okay.  That's the way kids' books work.

Besides the cigar smoking grandma and the violent scary witches, there is nothing particularly offensive in this book.  Some parents might object to the presence of witches in the book, but they are teh antagonists.  This book would work well for 4th through 6th grades.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Classic Newbery Honor Book from 1954 that actually is still a good story

Ullman, James Ramsey (1954) Banner in the Sky.  New York, Scholastic.

Opening Lines: " Most of the boys of the village were tall, broad, and strongly built.  Rudi was small and slim.  But to make up for it, he was quick."

When we first meet 16 year old Rudi, he is slipping away from his job washing dishes to climb partway up the Citadel, and unconquered mountain that the village is at the foot of.  He ends up rescuing an English climber who was scouting a possible route up the mountain.  Rudi wants more than anything to be a part of such an expedition, partly because his father died in an attempt at a summit years ago.  Unfortunately, Rudi's mother has forbidden him from climbing and the other guides are utterly opposed to such a youngster joining them.

Honestly, the book takes its time getting started, and the characters are sometimes somewhat flat (Captain Winters is kind and good-hearted, Saxo, a rival guide, is boorish and mean -- but not mean enough to really be scary. Rudi himself is a nice good-hearted kid).  The plot is pretty straightforward, not a lot of surprising twists.  But for all of that, it is still a spellbinding story.  Rudi must manage his fear, manage the half-truths he is telling in order to be allowed to join the expedition, and ultimately, must figure out how to solve the problems that the mountain offers. And there are some points in the book that are really quite moving.

There is nothing remotely objectionable in this book. except perhaps the fact that Rudi lies at several points, including to his own mother.  But he is eventually scolded for that.  My Sense is that this might be a pretty good read-aloud book.  It would certainly be worth keeping in a fourth, fifth, or sixth grade classroom library.  I don't think there is enough thematically to sustain a literary study, even in small groups, though.  I suspect the book might be appropriate for middle school and high school too (it is a fairly thick book -- 285 pages) but the tame nature of the story might be off-putting for students who are used to action-adventure books that move a bit more quickly.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Civil Rights, a Mass Murderer, Abraham Lincoln as a Superhero, the Confederate General who Tried to Free the Slaves, and the Eccentric Genius who fought Edison: Five Graphic Novels about History (that I didn't know existed )

Poe, Marshall; Linder, Ellen (2008)  Little Rock Nine  New York:  Aladdin.

Opening Lines:  May 17, 1954.
Engineer:  Ready Charlie?
Charlie:  Ready when you are.
Engineer:  3...2...1...we're live!
Charlie:  In a landmark decision today, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs in the matter of Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education.

Little Rock Nine tells the famous story of the nine students who were pioneers in integrating the Little Rock High School by looking closely at how that decision affected the people of that community. The book tells the story of Thomas, an African-American teenager who was hurt in an earlier attempt to integrate the schools, and whose family is opposed to him getting involved again.  It is also the story of Will, a white teenager whose Dad is a lawyer who fought for integration of the schools,and whose grandpa is a traditionalist who opposes integration on allegedly moral grounds.  Thomas and Will are on the same summer baseball team and Thomas's mother works as a maid in Will's house.  As the arguments around integration of the high school become more heated, Thomas and Will find themselves in the middle of the arguments.

It seemed to me that the art in this book was a little odd, though I couldn't quite put my finger on exactly why.  It might be that everyone's eyes seem a little too wide, or it may be that the facial expressions seem off to me somehow -- but these things do not detract from the story much.  The story is on the one hand, nicely complicated, showing how often white and black families were torn as members within each family took up different positions on the issue of integration of the schools.  At the same time, students older than middle school may find the story a bit simplistic.

The book does use the N word several times, mostly in the context of the students receiving training from the NAACP on not responding to violence.  The word ass comes up a couple of times as well.  It is hard to imagine an accurate portrayal of the anger of the times that wouldn't include these words, but some parents may find this objectionable

Geary, Rick (2003) The Beast of Chicago:  The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes.  New York:  Nantier Beall Minoustchine.


Opening Lines:  The year is 1893.  The world is coming to Chicago -- and Chicago is ready to meet the world.

Those who have read Erik Larsen's Devil in the White City are familiar with the story of H.H. Holmes, a drifter, fraud, confidence man, and above all, remarkably resourceful murderer.  With the World's Fair coming to Chicago, Holmes established himself as a respectable man in the community and build an apothecary and rooming house in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood.  By using a revolving door of different contractors, Holmes was able to construct a building with secret passageways, trap doors, unventilated rooms, and hidden gas lines -- all to create a factory for murder.

Geary's graphic novel may not have quite the beautiful writing style of Larsen's book, but the images he uses, including building layouts, maps, and beautifully rendered line drawings (at times they look almost like woodblack prints) really help clarify the details of Holmes's story.  That is not to say that the book is graphically horrifying. Thankfully, Geary leaves the more gristly bits up to the imagination.

This book would be an excellent companion piece to The Devil in the White City and could be a great way to bring students to that work.  While not quite as transparent as Larsen's footnotes are, Geary does a nice job of describing his sources and clarifying what information is corroborated and which is speculation.

This graphic novels would be ideal for high school.  Apart from the gristly subject matter, there is nothing particularly objectionable in the book.

McCloud, Scott (1998) The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln. LaJolla:  Homage Comics.

Opening lines:  Monday!  The sun downs on a mighty nation!  Happy Commuters hurry to work!  Eager bright-eyed children prepare for school!  Here's the bus!  Hop on board!  Hurray for Monday in the good old U.S. of A.!

Okay, this one is pretty, um, odd -- sort of quirky.  It is also a lot of fun.  Scott McCloud, who most recently brought us the excellent graphic novel Sculptor, does a masterful job of telling this story (even though he choses to work entirely with computer-generated images, which frankly llook a little clunky sometimes).

Right, the story.  So, high school student Byron Johnson and his friend Marcie are in detention after school (Marcie for having a bad attitude, and Byron for reading is class).  Marcie asks "Who cares about American history" and a powerful superheroic character dressed in a stovepipe hat, bow ties and coat and tails bursts through the brick wall and takes them on a journey back in time riding on an american flag as if it were a magic carpet.  It soon becomes apparent to Byron, however, that Lincoln is a liar and probably a fraud.   He shows them Columbus claiming America with an American flag (despite the fact that Columbus never got any further north than the Dominican Republic), shows them the pilgrims arriving and immediately sitting down to picnic tables filled with thanksgiving dinner, and shows them Ben Franklin conducting electricity down a kite string to Thomas Edison who has just invented the lightbulb. Soon Marcie and Byron are travelling to Washington DC to stop the fake Lincoln.  They are defeated and return home, where Byron encounters the real Abraham Lincoln.  Together they defeat a plot by space aliens to enslave the American people.

I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous, and it is -- but i is also a remarkably witty exploration of the ways we use history to justify some rather silly arguments, of the errors in history that many people in the US have accepted as true, and ultimately, of why history matters.  This would be a great book to introduce high school history students to some of the basic conflicts in history study (including bias--McCloud seems to take republicans to task more than democrats.)  One of my favorite parts is when the fake Lincoln debates teh real one on live TV and wins easily due to his superior media savvy.

There is nothing particularly offensive in the book, though some Christian readers may object to repeated use of the phrase "Oh, My God!"

Murphy, Justin; Milgrim, Al; Brown, J. (2008) Cleburne: A Graphic Novel. Jacksonville: Rampart Press.

Opening lines:  I can see the smoke on the horizon... I can smell the powder int he air... the dead are all around me... and the enemy approaches.

Patrick Cleburne was a general in the confederate army during the civil war.  He is best known for arguing that the South should emancipate slaves and use them to solve its problem of dwindling army forces.  Murphy's graphic novels dramatizes Cleburne's leadership as a general, his doomed relationship with Susan Tarleton, and eventually, his death in battle.

When I read it, I had the sense that General Cleburne was being built up into a perfect hero and I questioned whether he could have been that perfect.  I found myself very suspicious of the facts as reported in the book.  I wondered whether Cleburne really fought that hard to offer African Americans thier freedom and i questioned his motives.  When I did some checking, I found that the story, though perhaps romanticized, is basically true.  Eventually I realized that the fault may lie in Al Milgrom's inks.  Milgrom cut his teeth inking superhero comics for Marvel.  In his hands, Cleburne (as you can see int he cover image) cannot help but look heroic all the time.  The art perhaps bends the story further than one realizes.  Because of this, it might be good if using this in a middle school or high school class, to pair it with a more conventional biography.

In spite of its flaws, it is a nicely done biography that may pique students' interest.

Mehta, Rave (2012) The Inventor: The Story of Tesla.  New York:  Scholastic.


Opening lines:  It is often said that Tesla was born of lightning and put on the earth to lead man into our next evolution... into our next revolution.

Read the opening lines.   Really?  It is often said?  By whom?   That line pretty well typifies the voice of this graphic novel -- overdramatic and somewhat full of itself.  At the end of the publication data it says "The characters and events depicted here are based on true events, but we've taken some creative liberties, so enjoy it for what it is, a great story!"  From the start then, we know that, although it might be a great story, the historical facts of this book will be suspect.

And so what we get is a remarkably one-sided depiction as a genius whose attempt to better mankind was thwarted again and again by the selfish and possibly evil Thomas Alva Edison.  Tesla does all the work and Edison takes and the glory, and makes fun of Tesla's Alternating Current in the bargain. The story is sometimes coherent and entertaining (for example the part where Tesla demonstrates alternating current for Mark Twain).  There is not much science here, and not much history either.  Spelling errors and a lack of knowledge of graphic novel conventions (like bracketing translations of foreign languages so the readers know that the characters are not speaking English) make what is not a bad story into a pretty wretched graphic novel.

I would take a pass on this one if I were you.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Wonderfully Weird Graphic Novel by Gene Yang!

Yang, Gene (2004) Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order  San Jose, CA: SLG Publishing.

Opening Lines:  "Food is the key to dreams.  I first realized this at Maggie Johnson's fourteenth birthday party last year.  We stayed up until four in the morning gorging ourselves on oreos, potato chips, and cottage cheese."

Loyola Chin, a sophomore in high school finds that by experimenting with what foods she eats before bedtime, she can go different surreal vivid places in her dreams.  She eventually discovers that when she eats cornbread before bed, she goes to a high mountaintop and meets a kind of spiritual guide named Saint Danger.  Saint Danger shows her how to look out at the world from the mountaitntop and discover things that are actually happening, like her friend Maggie out on a date with the boy she likes: Devon.  Saint Danger seems nice, if a little odd.  Meanwhile, Maggie has a falling out with Devon, and, needing a ride home, offers to help Gordon, who has always wanted to date Loyola.

This is where things get a bit odd.  Saint Danger tells Loyola that when she wakes up, she needs to plug the television into her nostril.  She does and a robot takes her to the Order of San Peligran, which Saint Danger is the leader of.  She meets him for real, instead of in a dream, and they kiss.  While Gordon tries to figure out how to get her attention, Loyola starts to suspect that Saint Danger may be out to destroy the world.

If that plot summary seems very odd, that its because it is.  But underneath the dreaminess and confusion, it is the story of a nerdy guy who loves a girl who doesn't notice him because she is in love with someone else.  And in the end, it is quite a wonderful book.

If you have read Yang's American Born Chinese or The Shadow Hero or Boxers and Saints and enjoyed them, and if you have an offbeat sense of humor, I would encourage you to have a look.  Or if you have students who fit the above description, you might get this book for your classroom library.  There are a couple of moments when Loyola's flirting with Saint Danger gets a little suggestive, it is not the sort of thing most parents would object to.  Young readers who are not so creative in their sense of humor, though, will probably have trouble getting into this one.  While some very bright middle school readers would like this one, it is probably best for high school.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Aurora West is Back! (Unstoppable Graphic Novel Heroine Returns)

Pope, Paul; Petty, JT; Rubin, David (2015)  The Fall of the House of West.  New York:  First Second.

Opening lines:  "I've been learning a lot about my mother recently.  She was an explorer.  A linguist.  A scientist and a hero.  When I was four years old, she was murdered."

Paul Pope's first graphic novel in this series, Battling Boy was about a young boy who comes to Arcopolis from another realm to fight monsters since their previous monster-fighting hero, Haggard West, was killed by a particularly nefarious monster gang.  In that graphic novel, there was a minor character, the grieving daughter of Haggard West, named Aurora.  Her determination and resourcefulness made her at least as intriguing as the Battling Boy and soon Pope wrote a prequel about Aurora West.  This is a second prequel that takes Aurura from the end of the first prequel (when she was making progress in learning about how her mother died) to the beginning of the Battling Boy book. And it is a good book, with action and adventure and mystery and even some lighthearted moments.  But it isn't perfect.  SO here are a couple of things you should know before you pick it up.

First, it can be kind of confusing.  I would not recommend this book as an introduction tot he series.  It doesn't help that the format is so small. Occasionally the panels are so full of action, it is hard to figure out what is going on.  Usually, though, it is just a matter of figuring out who the characters are and how they are related to each other.

Second, it is moderately violent.  It is nowhere near the top of the violence spectrum in graphic novels, but it is possible that some parents might object tot he amount of violence.  I would recommend this book for a more seasoned graphic novel reader.  For those who like graphic novels with female protagonists, it might be a good follow up to Shannon Hale's excellent Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack.

The story is engaging.  I think this one would work best for fifth and sixth grade and up.  It is worth adding to your classroom library.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

More amazing YA fiction from Cory Doctorow!

Doctorow, Cory (2013) Homeland.  New York: Tor.

Opening lines:  "Attending Burning Man made me simultaneously one of the most photographed people on the the planet and one of the least surveilled humans in the modern world.."

Marcus Yallow, the teen-aged hacker-turned-political-activist who we met in Doctorow's Little Brother is back.  While he is attending the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, he runs into his old  nemesis, Masha.  She slips him a flash-drive just before she is kidnapped by the same quasi-government operatives who jailed and tortured Marcus in the previous book.  Marcus is injured in the explosion that serves as a diversion to cover the kidnapping.  When he eventually returns to civilization and gets a chance to look at the documents on the flash-drive, he discovers that Masha has handed him a huge set of incriminating documents that could shut down the oppressive government operation forever.  But how can he verify the information and get it out there without the government goons tracking it back to him?  What follows is a wild ride of a story that involves peaceful protest, police manipulated into brutalization, a crusading politician, plenty of close calls, and enough hacking, techno-strategy, and suspense to keep any thinking reader on the edge of her or his seat.

This book would be best for high school.  It is too big to be a read-aloud in a single semester, though you could get far enough into it to get students hooked, then leave it up to them to finish it.  It weaves together themes of human rights and civil rights versus increased government control in order to have safety from terror; technology's role in consolidating or distributing power, and how activism can make a difference.  It might be hard to use the book in a classroom setting because it is a big one (390+ pages) -- but perhaps as a post-test unit for an AP class.

Oh, and while I am thinkng of it, though the cover looks like a graphic novel, this is a traditional YA novel.

There is little here that would bring about a parental or community challenge.  There are implied moments in which Marcus and his girlfriend Ange are together alone in his bedroom and sex is implied, but not really stated.  It is also true that neither Marcus nor Ange are advocates for traditional marriage -- but all this is very much peripheral to the story.

I highly recommend it.  It is a gripping, interesting, and very smart book.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Non-fiction book about the plot to steal Lincoln's body

Craughwell, Thomas J. (2007) Stealing Lincoln's Body  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press

Opening Lines:  "At 7:22 in the morning of April 15, 1865, a twenty-three-year-old United States Army surgeon felt the last tremor of life leave the body of Abraham Lincoln."

This blog generally contains reviews of the best Young Adult Literature i can find, so what am I doing reviewing a non-fiction book that was written for adults.  Well, it turns out that some young adult readers like non-fiction, and some of them don't seem to pay much attention tot he boundaries that publishers set between different ages of readers.  Also, this is a honking good book that high school students interested in history, crime, crime-fighting, Abraham Lincoln, or good stories would absolutely love.

Craughwell starts off with a prologue that describes Lincoln's last days and the funeral train that toured the country to unprecedented crowds, and then the debate that began about where Abraham Lincoln.  But things get even more interesting when we start to read about the men who hatched a plot to steal Lincoln's body from the cemetery where he was interred in Springfield, Illinois, and hold his body hostage until the government released one of the most accomplished counterfeiters ever from the jail in Joliet, Illinois.  Along the way we find out about the history of counterfeit money in the US, the huge part it played in the civil war, the creation of the Secret Service (authorized by President Lincoln the day before he was assassinated, and the bizarre story of how Lincoln's body was buried in a basement under a pile of lumber for many years, its location known only to a secret society of trustees.

Craughwell doesn't write in a overly-academic style, so his prose is accessible for interested high school readers, but some of the vocabulary may stretch them just a little bit.  Craughwell is a historian and does a really nice job of contextualizing the events of the book, explaining the sources for his assertions, and questioning facts that are uncertain, but he does so in a way that is interesting and not off-putting in the least.

I have to give my oldest daughter credit for finding this book. She spotted it while on a National Close-Up trip to Washington DC.  It think it would be a fine addition to both high school history classrooms and any high school classroom library hoping to provide a variety of books that might interest young readers.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Best Graphic Novels about the Civil Rights Movement Yet!

Lewis, John; Aydin. Andrew; Powell, Nate (2013) March Book 1 Marietta, Georgia: Top Shelf

Lewis, John; Aydin. Andrew; Powell, Nate (2015) March Book 2 Marietta, Georgia: Top Shelf

Opening lines: "John?  Can you swim?"
                         "Well, neither can I -- but we might have to."

These lines, spoken by John Lewis and his friend Hosea as they march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the front of a line of protesters, toward police officers armed with tear gas is the beginning of the two-book graphic novel series, March.  It is an autobiography of congressman John Lewis and his part in the civil rights movement.  Although the opening scene is dramatic, the real strength of the book comes in the smaller moments.  John Lewis was a young college-aged man during the beginning of the civil rights movement.  He took part in a lot of actions that never made the news -- sit-ins (in which civil rights protesters would enter and sit at the lunch counter or a restaurant or store that posted that they would not serve blacks) and smaller protests.  This book brings out those smaller moments, difficult decisions, one-to-one interactions between activists and store owners.  Those are the moments that seem the most powerful to me.

The first book has a framing story in which Congressman Lewis is spending some time explaining the movement to two young boys (and their mother) before the Obama Inauguration.  Even this framing story highlights the smaller personal moments behind historical events.

Like many autobiographies, there are movements when the reader wonders how the memory of the moment might have changed over time --  but most of the story seems like a credible account.  Artist Nate Powell does a fantastic job of capturing both the history and the personality of each moment he depicts.  The creators seem to have deliberately aimed the book at a very broad audience in terms of age, prior knowledge about the civil rights movement, and even reading comprehension level.  I am convinced a strong fourth grade reader could get through this material, enjoy it, and understand pretty much all of it.  At the same time, there is enough solid material here that reading this book graphic novel would be appropriate in a high school or college class as well.

There is a scene in the story where John Lewis and others are going through desensitation training to prepare them for the abuse they can expect during the sit-ins.  During that scene, civil rights activists pretending to be anti-integration people, scream the N-word at those pretending to be civil rights protesters.  It is a short scene, and the word is clearly condemned, but some parents may not want their children to even be exposed to that word. 

These are both excellent books.  You and your students need to buy and read them as soon as you can. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Post-Apocalyptic Native American Monster-Killer YA Action Novel (now with extra mutants)

Bruchac, Joseph  (2013) Killer of Enemies,  New York:  Tu Books

Opening lines:  "I'm five miles away from the walls of my prison, up in the high country above the Sonoran Desert.  Thus far, surprisingly, nothing has yet attempted to maim or devour me since I have settled here a half hour ago."

Lozen is 17 years old.  She lives in a place that was a prison before the cloud came and civilization crumbled.  She serves four warlords who live in an uneasy alliance.  Lozen's job is to venture out into the wilds beyond the walls of the prison and dispatch the genetically modified monsters who prowl the landscape so that the soldiers and messengers of the warlords can move about freely and loot the wreckage.  Lozen hates the warlords and she hates her job, but she does it because her family also lives int he prison and the Warlords control her access to them.  Lately, though, when she has been out hunting, she has heard a voice in her mind, communicating with her. She isn't sure if the person behind the voice is a friend or a foe, but she suspects that soon everything in her world may change.

This is a good action story that will grab female and male readers alike.  Although most teen readers wouldn't notice or care, there are some flaws in the book.  The first half of the book is written almost episodically.  Lozen gets sent out on mission after mission.  Each time, she fights some kind of genetically altered beast and returns to see her family.  About halfway through the book the larger story really gets going and the pieces start to fit together.

The other thing is that Lozen's identity as a Native-American comes through mostly in her violent warrior heritage.  It helped a lot that her mother's folk stories sometimes clarified for her ways to use her intelligence to defeat her enemies.  It still remains however that shooting something or blowing it up seemed to be the most effective problem-solving strategy in the book.

This one is probably most ideal for high school, though advanced middle school readers could handle it.  It contains very occasional profanity (one or two instances in the whole book) which would probably not result in a challenge.

This would be a good one to add to your classroom library.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

YA Novel about deafness, grace, school, families, and rock and roll

John, Antony (2010) Five Flavors of Dumb  New York:  Penguin.

Opening Lines:  "For the record, I wasn't around the day they decided to become Dumb.  If I'd been their manager back then I'd have pointed out that the name, while accurate, was not exactly smart.  It just encouraged people to question the band's intelligence. maybe even their sanity.  And the way i saw it, Dumb didn't have much of either."

Piper is eighteen years old, a senior in high school, and deaf.  When her big mouth lands her a job managing the garage band "Dumb" and worse, after promising to find then a paying gig, Piper realizes she has gotten herself into a difficult place.   Soon she is dealing with a rivalry between the bands angry female punk bassist and the airhead female guitarist who one of the male group member brought on board; trying to prepare them for a recording session with a washed-up former rock musician; and trying to convince the male members of the group to accept a nerdy chess-team refugee who also plays the drums.  Piper is also dealing with her parents, who intend to spend her college money for an operation that will allow her newborn deaf sister to be able to hear (and thus deprive Piper of a sister who might be able to understand her.  Throw in her brother who seems bent on self-destruction, a mysterious mentor who keeps sending the band to historical parts of the city to learn rock and roll history, and a couple of romantic sub-plots and you have a funny, remarkably engaging novel that high school students will really enjoy.

Early on in the book, my one complaint was that Piper's Dad is a pretty colossal jerk.  He has never learned sign language, he doesn't seem to know who Piper is or what is important to her. By the end of the book, after a fair amount of grace, he turns out to be a better guy than anyone knew.  And I am always a fan of any book where the nerd gets the girl (or in this case, the girl gets the nerd)..

The reading level of the book is probably suitable for middle school kids and up, but the content seems more ideal for high school.  This is a good story and well worth checking out.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

If Harry Potter were written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver -- you probably wouldn't want your kids to read it -- but you might like it.

Grossman, Lev (2009) The Magicians  New York:  Penguin.

Opening lines:  "Quentin did a magic trick.  Nobody noticed."

When we were in Boston this summer, my friend Laird recommended I read this book.  Since I couldn't recall Laird ever recommending a book to me before, I bought it.  Then I read it.  Ever since then, I have been trying to figure out what to make of it.

This is the story about a kid who gets to realize his dream, walk through a door into another world, go to a school of magic, and learn to be a magician.  It sounds like Narnia and Hogwards rolled into one. Except there is more to it than that.  Quentin Coldwater is as brilliant as Hermione and in some ways as courageous as Peter Pevensie, but he is also a teenager and is as filled with as much angst, insecurity, and moral ambiguity as many modern teenagers.

And when he steps through the portal in an alley and ends up in a school of magic, the air is sweeter and the world is magical, but there is also a lot of hard work and studying to be done to master magic, and friends are not easy to come by, and although the world is beset by an unnamed peril, stopping it is not as easy as it is for Harry, Hermione, and Ron.  Quentin makes some mistakes, some big ones.  He has some good teachers, but none of them have the wisdom of Gandalf or Dumbledore.  He also finds himself to be one of the best pupils.  He learns his lessons really well.  He falls in love, or at least thinks he does.  He also starts partying too much and eventually is unfaithful to his girlfriend.  He becomes disillusioned and even the chance to explore another new world brings him only to a place of greed and desperate danger.

Make no mistake, this isn't the sort of book you could teach in your school.  You couldn't keep it in your classroom library either, not even in the special shelf behind your desk  There is too much vulgar language, sex, and people treating each other really badly for that.  And in fact, most of you probably wouldn't like it yourselves (I am still not sure if I liked it, though I am glad I read it.).  But, then again, it might be the sort of book you might want to read.  Quentin faces harder, more grown-up struggles than Harry ever did, and he falls further into despair than Frodo and Sam ever did -- but when he triumphs (and it isn't a complete triumph) there is some powerfully realistic hope there.

And this might be the sort of book that you could give to a former student who over the years has become a good reader and a friend.  And even if neither of you are sure you like it, you might have a really good conversation about it.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Little Robot, the new book by Ben Hatke, comes out September 1 (and it is really good!)

Hatke, Ben (2015) Little Robot  New York : First Second.

First lines:  Well, actually, the first 25 pages don't have any words at all.  So I am not sure I could say that this book has any first lines.

But I can tell you how the book opens.  As a truck crosses a bridge at night, it hits a bump, and the rear door slides open.  A box falls out and bounces off the road and into the river.  The next morning an African-American girl  wearing a nightshirt, climbs out of a window in a trailer park, and wanders off in search of something to do (and someone to play with).  She eventually ends up down by the river where she finds the box, opens it, and finds a robot who doesn't even know how to walk yet.  Armed with her toolbelt, she eventually overcomes her fear and helps the robot learn how to walk.  Before long, however, the robot factory notices the robot is missing and sends out a huge and scary looking retrieval robot.  Can the girl help the robot evade the danger?

Here is the thing about Ben Hatke, he tells what seem to be very simple stories, and then you get into them and find out there is a lot more to the story than you thought.  In this book, Hatke somehow subtly weaves in themes of what it means to be a friend; how friendship can cross lines of diversity and even language; the connections between learning, growth, and building; and even what it means to be human and alive.  As he did in the Zita the Spacegirl books, Hatke also gives us a heroine who is not only strong and resourceful, but also feels a range of emotions (with Zita, that meant she sometimes actually cried.  With this unnamed heroine, she is clearly frightened and scared sometimes -- but she overcomes her fear when she needs to.

Hatke also gives us amazing images.  One of my favorites is the little girl, in her tee shirt and toolbelt, dancing with Little Robot (who looks kind of like an animated trashcan).

It is hard to figure out the ages this book is intended for (in my mind, that is always a good sign).  I think four year old pre-readers could make sense of it, but I also think elementary, middle school, and even high school kids could get a lot out of it.

Bottom line:  This is one of my favorite books so far this year.  You really need to get hold of it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Story of a Kid with Autism Who Falls in Love -- and what happens next

Baskin, Nora Raleigh (2009) Anything but Typical  New York:  Scholastic

Opening Lines:  "Most people like to talk in their own language.  They strongly prefer it.  They so strongly prefer it that when they go to a foreign country, they just talk louder, maybe slower, because they think they will be better understood"

Jason Blake is a twelve-year old kid.  He really likes to write.  He posts his stuff on a writing website and reads stuff that other writers post.  It is on that site that he meets PhoenixBird, a giel his age.  He encourages her in her writing and chats about school.  When he finds out that she is gong to the same children's writing convention ) sponsored by the website) he is excited, then scared, then wants to call it off, then wants to go.  Jason wants to meet her, but worries that if they meet, nothing will ever be the way it was before.  This story has echoes of the play Cyrano DeBergerac in which a talented poet with a grotesque nose, uses his words to woo a woman he loves..  Like that play, the ending is not a happily-every-after ending, but rather an ending that is more real than that, yet somehow still satisfying.

I really enjoyed this book, despite some moments when the dialogue seemed inauthentic.  For example, at several points in the book, girls, when seeing Jason acting out some aspect of his autism, respond by saying "Gross!"  Now I am the first to admit that kids can be cruel and insensitive, but I have also seen when I visit schools that because we no longer segregate students with autism, it really isn't such a big deal.  And I also think that when kids are going to be cruel, they can be a lot more subtle than saying "Gross!".  However, apart from a few moments like that, it is an interesting book.  While it could work for studying in a fourth, fifth, or sixth grade classroom, I think it would work best as an addition to a classroom library.  

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Two Excellent Books Introduce New Readers to the World of Sherlock Holmes

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur; Culbard, I.N. J.; Edginton, Ian (2010)  A Study in Scarlet:  A Sherlock Holmes Graphic Novel. New York:  Sterling

Opening Line:  "In the year 1878, I took my degree as a doctor of medicine at the University of London before proceeding to Netley and the course prescribed for Army Surgeons."

That line, uttered by John H. Watson M.D. is the first line ever written by Conan Doyle in the first story about Sherlock Holmes.  It is a part of a wonderful and fascinating story called "A Study in Scarlet".  But as you can tell by that line, it is not exactly written to be accessible to young readers.  Culbard and Edginton provide visuals that add a level of understanding to the words.  The majority of the book stays true to Conan  Doyle's original language and opens up the story so studnets can appreciate it fully.

The story begins with Dr. Watson's first meeting with Sherlock Holmes and theier agreement to share an apartment.  Before long, Watson is brought into a case that Holmes is working on -- a case involving a dead man, no witnesses, and the word "Rache" written on the wall in blood.  Watson tags along as Holmes uses his remarkable analytic powers to discover the story of this murder.  The twists and turns along the way (a lead suspect is murdered, and the murderer turns out to not be the villain everyone is expecting.)

This book is ideal for fifth or sixth grade and up, both for studnets who find Holmes intriguing in his own right, and for those who have seen the PBS Sherlock series and want to find a way into Conan Doyle's work, this graphic novel version is an excellent way to start.Look at the way a simple illustration of Holmes brings energy to a rather d=pedantic text int he panel below.  Then get hold of the book.  It is a good one.

Mack, Tracey; Citrin, Michael  (2006)  Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars:  The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas New York:  Scholastic.

Opening Lines:  "Ladies and gentlemen, lads and lasses, I take you now to the dangerous heights of the tightrope -- the boldest show  act of all time some twelve spans above us."

Throughout the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes employs a group of street kids to track murderers, gather information, stake out buildings, and other tasks.  Although the irregulars are never major characters int eh Conan Doyle stories, they are often pivotal in solving a crime.  Mack and Citron have fleshed these young characters out, and as such, they make an excellent doorway for your readers into the world of Sherlock Holmes.  Wiggins, Ozzie, Rohan, Alfie, and the girl Pilar all are the ages of young readers and as they are drawn into a Holmes case in which the fate of the British Empire depends upon finding a single book, The near misses, death-defying escapes, close calls, and desperate situations that follow will keep readers focused on the story through to the end.  This book seems best for fourth grade and up,  There isn't enough here thematically to make the book worth a class study, and it probably doesn't have enough universal appeal to be a good read-aloud, but it would be an excellent addition to any classroom library,

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Jasper Dash is back! (and why that should matter to you)

Anderson, M.T. (2014) Pals in Peril:  He laughed with his other mouths  New York:  Beach lane Books

Opening lines: " The moon was not the only thing glowing in the sky that January night.  Other things soared over the white farms and forests.  Things watched the cold Earth carefully.  Things peered down at the hills and the little houses and the fir trees on the mountainsides.
     From a mile above, a car looks very much like a very tiny thing.  Just like a toy.
     Inside the car, there was a lot of noise.  The Delb family drove home from their skiing vacation.  Mom Delb drove.  Dad Delb slept,  And their two kids, Grady and Hopper fought int he backseat, slapping each other's heads. "

So begins the latest adventure featuring Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut; and his friends Lily Gifelty and Katie Mulligan.  the main character, Jasper Dash,is the washed-up boy hero of a series of books from the '50s -- much like Tom Swift.  Katie is the hero of a series of junior high books called Horror Hollow (much like Goosebumps).  Lily is just a kid.

Anyway, in this book, Jasper, distraught after his latest invention, an atomic powered phone the size of a lunch cart, is not as novel of an idea as he had hoped, teleports himself into the heart of the Horsehead Nebula to look for his dad (long story) and is soon hoodwinked by a life form that he thinks might be his dad, but is in fact intent on taking over the Earth.  Only Lily and Katie can help (with the help of a very old 1950s copy of Jasper Dash and his Amazing Interplanetary Runabout; Jasper Dash and his Incredible Undersea Drill, or maybe Jasper Dash and his attractive Photon Sweater -- actually it is unclear what the title of the book was)

Sounds cheesy?  Sounds odd?  Sounds like the sort of thing that could only be appreciated by someone with a very strange sense of humor.  Fair enough.  Guilty as charged.  But look, this is really smart, really funny stuff.  If you got a kick out of Danel Pinkwater's The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death, or Doug Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Buckaroo Banzai and his Adventures Across the Eighth Dimension -- well, then you ought to read this book and any other Jasper Dash book you can get your hands on (Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware is my favorite -- partly because it includes a teenage monk who has just taken his vows of sarcasm.)

No worries that a parent would challenge this book.  Actually, the likelihood that a parent would even be able to understand it is fairly low.  The age of the reader is probably less important than his or her sense of humor, but I would guess that this book would work for fifth grade and up -- if the young reader has a sufficiently developed sense of humor (and a sufficiently underdeveloped sense of seriousness.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Time-Travelling Teen Teams with Adolescent Anglo Assassin from Ages Ago (by Artemis Fowl's Author)

Colfer, Eoin (2013) Warp:  The Reluctant Assassin.  New York:  Hyperion.

Opening Line:  "There were two smudges in the shadows between the grandfather clock and the velvet drapes.

17 year old Chevron Savano is an FBI agent.  She was recruited as part of a plan to use teenagers to investigate high school students being recruited into terrorist groups.  Because of a mistake she made, she is now babysitting something called a WARP pod in a beautiful house in London, and going stir crazy.  The head agent tells her "On most days a man probably won't come out of the WARP pod, so you don't have to do anything except study for your diploma.  But on the off chance that this very special man does emerge from that hatch wehn I am out, you need to keep him alive.  Just keep him alive and call me.  That's it."

Young Riley lives in London in 1898.  He doesn't remember his parents.  He is apprenticed to a man named Albert Garrick.  Garrick is teaching Riley to be an underworld assassin.  Riley doesn't want to kill anyone, but he knows his craft, and he is terrified of Garrick.  On the night when Riley is supposed to pass Garrick's final test for him and kill his first victim, something very strange happens before Riley makes an attempt.  The next thing Riley knows he is in a new London that he doesn't recognize with a man dying in front of him and a strange girl taking him into custody as a murderer. From that point, the story really picks up speed.

Like Colfer's wonderful Artemis Fowl books, this first book in the WARP series features both a strong male and female protagonist, a smart and diabolical enemy, and plenty of twists and turns that require the reader to be on her or his toes.   Fans of Fowl may like this book quite a lot.  So will young readers who like a book to be credibly scary, but turn out all right in the end.

There is nothing in this book that would cause it to be challenged, except maybe some violence and a truly frightening, amoral, and violent villain.  I still think Artemis Fowl might be a better series to start most readers on, but if they loved that one, they might like this one too.  And if they are inclined more toward realistic thrillers than fantasy, this might be an easier Colfer series to start them on. Although strong fourth and fifth grade readers could certainly handle the reading level on this one, it seems to me it might be more appropriate for middle school and up.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Two Wonderfully Imaginative Picture Books

Barnett, Mac; Klassen, Jon (2012) Extra Yarn New York:  HarperCollins

Opening Line:  "On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town, where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow of the black of soot from chimneys, Annabelle found a box filled with yarn of every color."

Annabelle loves to knit.  When she finds a box of yarn, she knits herself a sweater, then one for her dog, her friend Nate, Nate's dog, her entire class, including the teacher, her mom and dad, Mr and Mrs Pendleton, Dr. Palmer, dogs, cats, birds, and pretty much everyone and everything in town.  Her bottomless box of yarn is bringing color to the town and its inhabitants.  Then an archduke who is really into fancy clothing shows up, tries to buy the yarn for ten million dollars, and, when Annabelle refuses to sell, the archduke and his men steal the box and sail away over the sea.  There is a wonderful ending to the book as well.

Klaasen's art combines dark and dreary line drawings with remarkably textured yarn, which, although it is of subdued color, stands in strong contrast to the bleakness of the rest of the people and scenery.

This is an excellent and magical book.  It would make a splendid read-aloud book for pretty much any grade from K to 12.  The theme of the book is a little elusive, but seems to involve the power of imagination and creativity over acquisitiveness and greed.  But as soon as I write that sentence, it seems to kill the charm and wonderment of the book.  So actually, I take that sentence back.  Forget you ever read it.  just know that it is a good book with an excellent (if somewhat elusive) message.  Buy it.

Tan, Shaun  (2013) Rules of Summer.  New York:  Arthur A. Levine

Opening line:  This is what I learned last summer: never leave a red sock on the clothesline.

The thing I love most about Shaun Tan's work is the way he builds a believable world with profoundly unbelievable elements, which he then helps you believe in.  This ability was exemplified in his masterful picture book, The Arrival.  That book used his ability to depict alien elements in an everyday way to show how disconcerting the immigration experience can be.

This book is just fun.  Tan makes the most out of text lines which seem utterly mundane and images which are colossally imaginative.  For example, the text line "Never ruin a perfect plan"  goes with an image of what appear to be two armored, horned, and tailed guards carrying a huge strawberry past two other similarly clad guards.  Unfortunately, however, one of the guards with the strawberry has stepped on the tail of the guard walking ahead of him and that guard's tail has come off.  A closer look reveals that the guards with the giant strawberry and smaller than the other two guards,and that their armor seems to be held together with scotch tape.  The reader slowly realizes that the main character and his older brother are in the costumes and are trying to steal the strawberry from some kind of enchanted stronghold.

Like Chris Van Alsberg's excellent picture book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, each page reveals only a very interesting part of a story.  The reader is free to fill in the gaps as he or she pleases. On other pages, the unnamed main character plays a racket game with robots, stares in from outside his own house as a giant cat watches television with his brother, is imprisoned and rescued from an Antarctic fortress, and has other adventures.

Adults may have a hard time with this book, because they may not have the imagination to just enjoy it.  Little kids, however (maybe first grade and up?) who have a reasonable tolerance for silliness and a love for adventure will find it a delightful voyage of a book.  Get this one too, as soon as you can.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Travel to strange alien worlds -- one in Northern Minnesota in the 1840s and one in India in 1947,

One of the best things about reading is that you can completely immerse yourself into a culture that would take years for you to get to know in real life.  These two novels allow that immersion, and while there may be some culture shock, you and your students will get to experience some amazing places and people.

Master, Irfan (2012) A Beautiful Lie  Chicago:  Alfred Whitman.

Opening lines:  "Something was wrong."  I could sense it, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was.  It reminded me of when my father would jerk his heard this way and that, sniffing the air like an agitated rooster."

Bilal's father is dying.  At the same time, his country, India, is moving toward partition into two separate nations of India and Pakistan.  As the anger and tension in Bilal's town increases, Bilal makes a decision he will make sure that his father never learns of unrest.  All Bilal has to do is make sure no one visits his father and that his father does not see any newspapers.  But how can he do that while still going to school and managing the house.  That is where his firends come in.  Together they will keep the world away from Bilal's father.  But, of course, the world will change, whether they want it to or not.

Along the way, we meet the other members of Bilal's community, the caring teacher, the selfless older doctor, the pompous religious men, the blind man who somehow seems to see the world more completely than anyone else, and the boys (including Bilal's older brother) who seem to be waiting for the slightest chance to set fire to the world and burn it to the ground.

I found the ending of this book to be very moving, but you really need to read the epilogue as well. This book is probably ideal for middle school and high school readers, though, of course, sharp younger readers may wish to give it a shot. There is nothing here that would cause the book to be challenged, unless it would be the not-entirely-charitable portrayal of the town's religious men, or perhaps the violence of the riots.  But all those are overcome by the message of the book, that even in a time of change and violence, there is always hope, and more than that, love.

Erdrich, Louise (1999) The Birchbark House New York:  Scholastic.

Opening line:  "The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl."

Here begins the story of Omakayas, who lives with her family on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker some time around 1947.  As she grows up, she must deal with her annoying younger brother, with her parents expectations of her, and with her father's long absences -- problems that sound familiar to 21st century Americans.  Omakayas must also learn to handle bears, diseases that the white men have brought that could wipe out their whole family, starvation, hard winters, and how to discover what she can contribute to her community.

Like many stories based on truth, the plot here is more episodic than sweeping, and the joy and mystery of the novel seems more contained in small moments than in dramatic battles, death-defying rescues, or startling revelations, yet those small moments, when Omakayas befriends a small bird, when the family moves to the summer rice camp, and when the winter ends or father returns home, or when Omakayas figures out what she is the best at.

There is a glossary in the back, but some of the vocabulary might prove frustrating for younger readers.  Having said that, I think fourth grade and up would enjoy this one.  I cannot imagine anyone objecting to this book, unless it would be someone who thinks that the white settlers are not praised for bringing the trappings of civilization as well as smallpox.  This might make a fine read aloud.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Good story...bad science fiction

Grant, Michael; Applegate, Katherine (2012) Eve and Adam. New York:  Feiwel and Friends,

Opening line:"I am thinking of an apple when the streetcar hits and my leg severs and my ribs crumble and my arm is no longer an arm but something unrecognizable, wet and red."

Science fiction is not necessarily about getting the science right.  It is about using science to explore possibilities.  But here is the thing, the author needs to frame the hypothetical parts of the story in such a way that the science gives the reader the chance to believe in the story.  At the same time, too much exposition about the science can get in the way of the characters and their stories.  It is a fine line to walk.  I get that.

And the story of Eve and Adam is an interesting one.  Evening Spicer is a girl who gets hurt in a horrible streetcar accident.  She goes to the hospital at first, but is quickly taken from there to the huge pharmacological research complex that her mother is the owner and CEO of.  There she begins her recovery and some odd things start happening.  First, she meets Solo Plissken, a teenaged boy who is kind of a gopher for the scientists.  He also lives in the complex and seems to be hiding something.  Eve finds him attractive (but that scares her -- she seems pretty timid about starting a relationship with a boy).  Then her mother gives her a project to concentrate on during her recovery.  It is a computer simulation that allows Eve to use the genetic code to design a human being.  She throws herself into the project and is almost so focused on it that she doesn't notice how quickly she is healing -- almost, but not quite.

From there the story gets really interesting.  Intrigue, revelations, subterfuge, danger, and, of course, a love triangle soon follow.  It is a good story, and honestly, probably fifty to sixty percent of the young readers of this book will find it quite enjoyable.  But any reader who has been exposed to good science teaching (or good science fiction) may find themselves getting stuck in places.  The science simply needs more scaffolding to let us believe in it.  It don't want to spoil the plot, so I will try to keep it general, but for example, how can genetic modification cause the body's healing processes to repair broken tissue faster than cells can divide?  How could you create a fully grown human clone in a matter of a few days? How is it that a high school student (admittedly a very bright one) can play around on a simulator for a few days and create an aesthetically perfect being?  How could you grow a clone in just a few days and imprint on that clone the English language and basic understanding of such depth that they could function on their own in a city without having any trouble?  Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that these things are impossible (especially in a world of fiction -- that is what is so great about fiction) just that the authors need to persuade the readers more that such things could be possible.

There is also some stereotyping of scientists here as nerds, as being physically uncoordinated and weak, and as being amoral -- and that bothered me (probably because I am a nerd).  And the conflict in the love triangle was resolved quicker than some readers would have wanted it to be (though I didn't mind that).

This book is probably best for high school, though certainly there are many middle school readers who would have no trouble understanding it.  There is some sexual innuendo, though nothing really explicit, and no actual sex.  The story does deal briefly with a character who is a drug dealer and is in trouble with the gangsters he lent money to, though his life is clearly shown as being horrible, but overall, there is not much here that a reasonable adult would object to.  The main protagonist is female, but chapters alternate with a male perspective.  I suspect it would not be too difficult to get males to read this one as well.

But as I said before:  This is a good enough book, it just isn't very good science fiction.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Another Adventurous Graphic Novel for Girls!

There has been quite an increase in graphic novels avialalbe for girls.  Some of them, like Smile by Raina Telgemeier and the recent Caldecott Medal winning This One Summer are realistic fiction stories concentrating on relationships and coming of age struggles.  But for girls who like some swordplay or monster-battling mixed in with the stuff of life, this new graphic novel is worth taking a look at.

Pope, Paul; Petty, JT; Rubin, David (2014) The Rise of Aurora West.  New York:  First Second

Opening Lines:
"...spaces described by a falling body related as the square of the interval..."
"Are you about done with that homework, Aurora?
"Just about."
"When you finish, suit up and meet me in the weapons room."

In the pages of Paul Pope's Battling Boy, we met Aurora West, daughter of Haggard West, science hero and monster hunter in Arcopolis.  In this prequil, Aurora is still learning the ropes of monster hunting from her father when a dying henchman scratches a symbol in the dust that looks familiar to Aurora.  Soon she is trying to figure out the link it has with her own past (and her late mother).  At the same time, the monsters in Arcopolis seem to be working together, as if they were being guided by a leader, and it is up to Aurora and her father to figure out what.

The art is well done and exciting (though it is in black and white), the characters are interesting (Aurora's supporting cast includes a housekeeper/fight trainer who is missing a leg, a boy from school who Aurora ropes into helping her, and and imaginary friend who may not be so imaginary -- or so friendly) , and the story is gripping (though confusing in a few places).  Nothing much here that would cause the book to be challenges (though Haggard West uses the word "hell" a couple of time, I doubt this book would even get a PG-13 rating.)

Fourth graders and up would do fine with this book -- provided they are familiar with graphic novels and adventure stories.  Anyone unfamiliar with either of those will have a hard time.   Adventure lovers will enjoy a really great ride.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Excellent graphic novel for middle school girls by Cory Doctorow!

Doctorow, Cory; Wang, Jen (2014) In Real Life. New York:  First Second.

Opening lines:
Anda, wake up!  I made your favorite!  Huevos rancheros!  Happy birthday, Sweetpea!

Anda is kind of plump.  Her life at school does not seem to be a lot of fun.  When a guest speaker explains to their class about multi-player on-line games, Anda finds herself giving it a try. The next thing she knows, she is part of a crew of girls who slaughter gold farmers to drive up the value of the gold they have.  At first, Anda enjoys the chance to e accepted and valued for her skills rather than her appearance.  When she actually talks to a gold farmer, though, she finds out that he is actually a teenager in China who is being exploited as a child worker.  One of her crew members discovers that Anda has been fraternizing with the enemy, and suddenly Anda finds herself in a moral quandary between calling out her fellow team remembers as bullies (and losing their company) and standing up for that which she deeply believes is right.

Doctorow's writing complements Jen Wang's images beautifully.  Wang shows a remarkable contrast between the brilliant and beautiful world of the game, and the brown, dim, and stale world of real life. 

Themes covered in this graphic novel include the difficulty of making good decisions in morally ambiguous situations, how the value of a person does not depend on what they look like, and how social justice requires a strong sense of responsibility.  The graphic novel also ends on a strong note of justice and reconciliation.

There are a few words in this book that might cause the book to be challenged.  A few mild vulgarities, a couple of places where characters use God's name in vain, and an occasional image or two that shows smoking.  All in all though, the book would get a PG-13 rating. 

This might be a good book to add to a middle school library. 

Laughed out loud at this adolescent novel -- at least once every three pages.

Rex, Adam (2014) Smek For President New York:  Hyperion

Opening lines:
 I heard our back door open, and J. Lo plunged through in a snit. 
     "The peoples of this town, they sure do hold a grudge," he announced.  "You accidentally make one puppy colossal and suddensly you are 'that alien'"

Okay, so yes, that is a confusing way to open a book -- which is why I recommend you get a hold of the first book in the series, The True Meaning of Someday right now. No, I'm serious.  Go do that.  I'll wait. Go. (And if you can, get the audio book version -- it is even funnier).

What, you don't trust me.  Okay fine, I'll explain.  So several years ago my friend Kris gave me Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday and it was amazing.  The main character, Gratuity Gucci (she goes by Tip) is a 13 or 14 year old African American kid.  Her mom is kidnapped by aliens who need to probe her brain to learn to speak Italian.  While her mom is gone and Tip is trying to survive on her own, the aliens, called the Boov, invade earth.  They round up all the humans and tell them they may go about their daily lives, provided they are all willing to relocate to Florida (a kind of human reservation).  Tip decides to drive there to find her mom, and on they way she meets a Boov called J.Lo.  J. Lo (he chose that name for himself without really understanding the implications) is on the run because he was assembling a transmission tower and accidentally sent a message to another even more greedy alien race called the Gorg.  So Tip and J.Lo become fugitives from the Boov as they try to find Tip's mom.  Along the way they become friends, avert an invasion by the Gorg, and drive the Boov off-planet. 

But the story isn't the point.  The point is that somehow this book manages to be really funny and at the same time have all sorts of cultural relevance.  And that is just the first book off the series.  The second book (which is the one I am reviewing, remember) is even funny (but you need to read the first one to make sense of it).  J.Lo's version of English (No, that is not a typo in the opening lines above, Jo.Lo really does say "suddenly") is often genuinely funny, as are the cultural differences between the Boov and the people of Earth. Also, the Boov technology is described with enough plausibility that fans of true science fiction will not be frustrated.

There is nothing objectionable in the book.  In fact, Tip narrates both books, and whenever she has the need to express anger or frustration, she tells her audience that she is sorry, but she cannot report on what she said because it wouldn't be polite. 

What age is it good for?  Beats me.  In terms of vocabulary and content, I would say maybe really good fourth grade readers and up -- but what is most important in connecting this book with potential readers is that the reader have a really good or quirky sense of humor. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Excellent novel about grief and pain and eating disorders -- but it takes a long time to get to the hope part

Anderson, Laurie Halse (2009)  Wintergirls  New York:  Speak

Image result for wintergirls

Opening line:  So she tells me, the words dribbling out, with the cranberry muffin crumbs, commas dunked in her coffee.

Lia thinks she is fine.  Her parents are divorced, she hates school, her best friend died, alone, in a hotel room and now Liao is seeing that friend, Cassie, haunting her.  Also, Lia is starving herself to death.  But she is fine.  Even as her weight continues to drop and she becomes dependent upon cutting to dull the pain of being alive, Lia is confident that everything will be fine.  It is when she lets down her little sister, possibly the only person in the world that she cares about, that Liao understands how broken she is and sets about trying to repair her life.  But it might well be too late.

Anderson captures what seems to me to be the authentic voice of someone who has an eating disorder.  I don't know that for sure because I don't have an eating disorder myself, but Anderson did extensive research and Lia's articulate and poetic voice seems to nail it.

This was a hard book for me to read as a dad.  The parents in Lia's life are certainly not perfect, but they care about her, they would move heaven and earth to save her, and yet, there is nothing they can do.  That was hard to read without wanting to scream at Lia or force feed her or lock her up somewhere safe.  This was a book that taught me a lot about myself, including how all my ideas about letting a child grow in responsibility by giving them freedom, all those things are things I would jettison in a moment if one of my daughters was in danger of hurting herself.

I don't know what it would be like to read this book as a child.  I know some adult readers have suggested that it is not a good book for high school girls because it could trigger a relapse in those who have eating disorders, it could teach those who are claiming to be better but are actually still counting calories and exercising at night some new tricks to keep the desperateness of their situation hidden. 

There is a bit of vulgar language, but not anything that would make the book likely to be challenged -- the challenge is much more likely to be about the eating-disorder content.  But it is a well-written book, and I think it would be a good one for high school students to read -- maybe in the context of a phys ed or health class?