Thursday, January 29, 2015

Excellent book for budding engineers,, entrepreneurs, and anyone else who likes challenges

Hawkins, Aaron (2010) The Year Money Grew on Trees.  Boston:  Houghton-Mifflin.

My young friend Zander likes to take things apart and build things and figure out how things work. My former student Jeremy broke his leg one summer and figured out how to use a wagon, some plastic sheeting, a car battery, and a fan to build an air conditioned trailer for himself so his friends could tow him on their bikes.  My friend John is an engineer and the head of research and development for a hydraulics company.  All of them (and some people you know, and you, and me) will like The Year Money Grew on Trees. 

School is out for the year and Jackson's parents are saying he should get his first summer job working for a company that the school bully also works for.  As Jackson is trying to figure out how to avid this fate, he has an odd conversation with his even odder neighbor lady.  Her grown son has angered her and she has decided she wants to give away the 300-tree apple orchard that is attached to her property.  She suggests that Jackson farm it for the summer.  If he will pay her $8,000 off the top of his profits, he can keep the rest and she will give him the orchard.  Jackson knows nothing of the farming, business, or even how to drive a car.  But he accepts the deal, and they even meet with a lawyer and draw up a contract. 

Soon Jackson is talking to an apple farmer at church about irrigation and pesticides, bargaining with a dairy farmer for manure to use as fertilizer, finding our how to open an account at the feed store, learning how to motivate his cousins to help him, figuring out how to put together the irrigation system (which is mostly pipes stored in a shed), learning how to drive a tractor, investigating marketing and sales, and worrying himself silly when the temperature at night dips too low. 

This makes it sound like the book is a how-to manual.  It is not.  It is an interesting novel, with a remarkably gripping story (kudos to the author, who is a professor of electrical engineering -- but must have learned how to write really well somewhere along the line.)

This book would be useful for math, business, science, and English classes -- though it is probably best as an option in a classroom library.  My young friend Zander is a fourth grader -- I think he could read this (though he is a good reader). It is probably ideal for fifth through high school.  You would probably like it too.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Four Excellent But Very Different Adventure Novels (conveniently arranged from most realistic to least realistic)

Vanderpool, Clare (2013) Navigating Early.  New York: Delacorte Press.

Jack Baker does not want to go to boarding school.  His father is in the military, though, and since Jack's mother's death, it seems like the easiest solution.  At school he meets an odd kid named Early Auden, and by befriending Early, Jack guarantees that he will never fit in.  (One of the things that makes Early so strange is that he reads the number Pi as a story -- one that he thinks he is living in.  I know that sounds hard to imagine, but it makes total sense in the story).   Soon it is holiday break, and when Jack's dad doesn't show up, he decides to go with Early on a journey to find out the truth about the great Appalachian bear and the school's legendary hero, the Fish.

They set out by boat and soon find themselves dodging criminals, living in the wild, and discovering the answers to questions they didn't even know they were asking.  This is a great book for fifth or sixth and up, especially boys (though there is plenty here to keep any reader busy).  The realistic detail makes this book a good one to introduce nonfiction readers to fiction -- especially those who swear they don't like made-up stories.  There are enough themes here to make this not only a good read-aloud book, but a book worthy of study in language arts class (or actually, math classes would enjoy it too).  The only potential drawback here is that the eastern prep school context might not connect with students from non-white, non-upper class backgrounds. 

O'Connor, Barbara (2010)  The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester.  New York:  Frances Foster Books.

Owen Jester has problems.  He has found an excellent frog (who he named Tooley) to be his pet, but Tooley is not doing well in captivity.  Owen's other problem is named Viola.  She is bossy and annoying and always getting into his business.  These two problems are starting to make his summer look pretty bleak.  Then, late one summer night, he hears the sounds of something big falling off a freight train as it rolls through town.  It takes a couple of days, but before long, Owen and his friends (and eventually Viola) find a huge crate in the ditch next to the tracks.  They open the crate and find a two-person submarine.  Owen hatches a plan to get the sub out of the ditch, across the road, down the hill, and into the pond where they can try it out.  Moving the sub (and keeping it secret) turns out to be a far greater adventure than any of them thought.  Although it doesn't have quite the level of realistic detail that Navigating Early  does, it is a completely believable book.

Fourth graders and up of both genders will enjoy this book. There is a little bit of science here, and it has some interesting themes of friendship and cooperation, but this is probably a classroom library kind of book. 

Lord, Cynthia (2010)  Touchblue.  New York: Scholastic.

Tess is happy living on an island (I think in Maine) with her lobster-fishing dad and her school-teaching mom.  When the state threatens to shut down the island's school because of low enrollment, several families on the island decide to take in foster children.  Soon, Tess's family is welcoming Aaron, a red-haired trumpet player whose mom has substance abuse issues and is unable to raise him -- and soon Aaron and Tess are having to deal with Eban, their school's resident bully/jerk. 

This book is a bit like a ride in a lobster boat during high seas.  At times it is predictable, at times it is not.  There are lost of snags and sandbars and floating logs it could run aground on, but it doesn't.  I kept expecting some sort of major gaffe or generalization about foster care that would make me cringe.  It never happened,  And the ending brought the story safely into harbor.

As adventure stories go, this one is a little laid back -- but it reads like a lazy summer day.  This would make a good read-aloud for fourth or fifth grade (good for both genders -- though maybe tipped a little toward girls.).  I am not sure there is enough here to make it worthy of class study (though maybe as one of several options for literature circles...).  It is certainly a good book to have in your classroom library.  It is certainly a realistic story with only a few coincidences that stretch believability a bit.  Satisfying ending.

Malone, Marianne (2011) Stealing Magic: A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure. New York:  Random House. 

Ruthie and Jack have discovered a magical way to shrink down and enter the Throne Rooms in Chicago's Art Institute -- and through those rooms, to travel in time.  Unfortunately, someone else has access to that magic, and they are stealing valuable pieces of art and selling them.  Ruthie and Jack need to find and return the items, catch the culprit, and somehow make sure that no one finds out about the magic.

If you have ever seen the Thorne Rooms, you will know how infectious the idea of entering their worlds can be.  This sort of adventure, though, is more for those who like a dash of fantasy with their realism.  Fourth or fifth grade and up for this one, skewing slightly toward girls.  There is some history and architecture here, but more on the level of getting kids interested.  Might be fun to pair this book with some non-fiction that ties into some of the period or architectural concepts introduced here.  Good for a classroom library, but I don't think this one will stand up to being a read aloud or the subject of language arts study. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Two excellent middle grades books set in the middle ages!

Pyle, Howard (1967 -- 1888) Otto of the Silver Hand  New York:  Dover

Okay, so when I was a little kid, I loved reading about knights.  Dragons were cool too, but to a little kid, the idea of putting on armor and assaulting a castle is pretty powerful.  I remember reading Howard Pyle's books about King Arthur and his knights.  The language was sometimes difficult, the illustrations looked old -- and in many books that would be a drawback -- but when you are reading about knights, that kind of authenticity is a bonus.  I did not know then that Pyle had written Otto.  And make no mistake, Otto is an odd book.  Otto is the son of a baron who is raised in a monastery to keep him safe from his father's political enemies.  Eventually, however, he is kidnapped.  The cool part of the book though is when his father's faithful servant, One-eyed Hans, is sent on a rescue mission.  Turns out that One-eyed Hans is a kind of cross between Middle-Earth's Aragorn, Marvel comic's Wolverine, and Artemis Fowl's Butler.  The story of him infiltrating the castle, sneaking out with Otto and fleeing to bring him to safety is wonderful.  And the end features a heroic stand on a bridge as well as a reformation and redemption. 

This book is a class, but it is not dull.  Kids who love knights will love it.  Good read-aloud of second and third grade, and a good book for motivated readers fourth grade and up.  It is a little violent, but I doubt anyone would challenge it. 

Cushman, Karen  (1995) The Midwife's Apprentice.  New York:  Clarion,

You know how in children's literature orphans like Harry Potter usually have annoying and negligent caregivers but usually their lives are not really that bad?  In the Middle Ages, orphans had it harder.  The girl named only Brat sleeps in a dung heap because it is warm and eats only that which she can steal.  She is noticed by (and eventually apprenticed to) a midwife who treats her like dirt and heaps abuse upon her.  As the books moves along, however, we see Brat (now called Beetle) slowly become confident and even willing to play tricks on those that give her a hard time.  Eventually she begins to dream of being a midwife herself, when a crisis of confidence derails her plans. 

This is the kind of book that my youngest daughter loves.  It has humor, desperation, and triumph, but it also has cats, babies, and waif's who need help.  Not sure you'll get a boy to give this a shot (though they should because they would love it), but it is sure to be a hit with girls.  Best for fourth and up.  There are some birth scenes, but nothing graphic.

Friday, January 16, 2015

This graphic novel is fun and funny (but kind of dumb)

Kolchalka, James (2014) The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza.  New York:  First Second

There are two kinds of Saturday morning cartoons.  There are some, like Bugs Bunny or Thundaar the Barbarian, or even Sponge Bob Square Pants that are funny, but also make you think, and maybe even give you some cultural knowledge along the way.  There are other cartoons (and I can't think of an example title for you because this type of cartoon tends to be utterly forgettable) that are high energy, frantic, filled with pratfalls and fart jokes, and give you nothing to keep your brain alive.  Much of the humor in such shows derives from how stupid the main characters and the villains, and pretty much everybody in the cartoon are.  Those are the kind I can't stand to watch. 

James Kochalka (whose earlier works were mostly introspective, funny, idiosyncratic one-panel comics) has written a contribution that I would have to classify as mostly belonging to theat second category of comics.  The plot, in a nutshell, is this:  The Glorkian Warrior and his faithful sentient backpack gets what seems to be a wrong number phone call on the emergency space phone.  The caller orders a pizza.  The Glorkian Warrior decides to deliver the pizza.  After several misadventures with robots and pizzas, they return home, giving up on the adventure and instead decide to order a pizza.  Then they realize that they had been reading the address wrong and actually they had somehow called themselves in  the past to deliver a pizza to the present, which they then eat.  Sound kind of thin for 110 pages of material?  Well, all this takes a lot longer because the Glorkian Warrior struggles with basic comprehension and cognition.  Consider this conversation between the Glorkian Warrior and his backpack:

Glorkian Warrior:  Hey, what's that sound?  Are my feet ringing?
Backpack:  No boss, that's not your feet.  That's the emergency space phone.
GW:  Oh good.  As long as it is nothing important.  Wait a minute -- Emergency?!  Are my feet on fire?!  Help!  Help!
B:  No, Boss!  It's the phone. 
GW:  The phone is on fire?!  Oh no!  If the phone is on fire, how will we call for help?!  Aaaah!
B:  The phone's not on fire, Boss.  It's just ringing!
GW:  Ringing?!  Aaah!  What do we do!?

It goes on like that for a while.  To most adults, this sort of dialogue is mind-numbingly insipid.  However, I suspect that for certain 3rd grade through 6th graders this sort of silliness is hilarious. The drawing is simplistic and cartoony (see the illustration on the cover above).  It kind of matches the writing.

So this is not the book that is gong to help students understand anything.  It will also not inspire them to do anything.  In fact, its only redeeming quality is probably that some students will laugh their heads off and enjoy every minute of reading this. And that may be a very admirable thing. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

New graphic novel, good story, tough language, hard decision

Means, Greg; Red, M.K.; Flood, Joe (2013) Cute Girl Network. New York:  First Second.

Skateboard girl Jane takes a tumble in front of Jack's soup wagon.  After a couple more meetings, they start dating.  He thinks she is beautiful and clever.  She thinks he is kind and compassionate and endearingly forgetful.  Then the Cute Girl Network steps in.  A group of girls in the city connects with each other to serve as a warning system about guys who are jerks, idiots, and generally insensitive -- so that those guys can't just keep hopping from girlfriend to girlfriend.  They contact Jane and warn her that Jack is bad news.  They arrange for her to spend time with several of Jack's Exes.  At the same time, some of Jack's friends are warning him that the only way to keep Jane is to be more forceful and commanding with her.  Will Jane realize that Jack is right for her even though he was wrong for those other girls?  Will Jack realize that what makes Jane love him is who he is, not who his friends think he should be?

It is a wonderfully quirky love story.   Jack is broke and can't afford to take Jane places.  Jane is broke and doesn't want to go to fancy places anyway.  Jack forgets things and messes up even worse when he tries to apologize.  Jane likes his honesty and imperfection.

So in many ways, it seems like a great book for high school students -- the kind of book that can serve as awake-up call to students who are too focused on status and coolness and liking someone for what they seem to be, not for who they are. 

But the book has a problem.  It is not a problem that is necessarily going to deter high school readers from it, but a problem that could get it challenged by their parents.  The book is sprinkled through with vulgar language and speaks openly about sex and various parts of the anatomy.  This is a shame, because although some of that language establishes Jane's spontaneous character, it is not really necessary for the story to unfold.

So I don't know what to tell you.  I don't think this book will work in the classroom, in a classroom library, or in a school library.  But maybe it is the sort of thing that an amazing teacher can mention to the right sort of reader, and then leave it up to them.  Or maybe not.  As I said, I don't know what to tell you. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Top Ten Graphic Novels that I read in 2014 (and are suitable for the classroom)

Here are the best of the best -- a far-ranging list including fiction and non-fiction, history and heroes, wombats, sumu wrestlers, and a spacegirl.  I'll give some target ages, but as always with all books, if you have any question about the appropriateness of the book for a particular grade level, class, or student, you probably ought to give it a read yourself. As with the top ten young adult books,, I'll include a ten word summary -- but the full review is in my blog somewhere in the last year.  (Someone needs to teach me how to do internal links.  Sigh.  I am so embarrassed)  They are ranked here in order from best ever to merely amazing in every way. 

1,  Yang, Gene; Liew, Sonny (2014) The Shadow Hero  New York:  First Second.

10 word summary:  Hank, reluctant teen-aged Asian superhero, dodges bullets, avenges father's killer.
Grade range:  5th to grad school and beyond.
Good for:  English class

2.  Getz, Trevor R.; Clarke, Liz (2012)  Abina and the Important Men  New York: Oxford

10 word summary:  Sold into slavery in Africa, 1876, Abina sues for freedom.
Grade Range:  High school
Good for: History class

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

10 word summary:  Antarctic ice crushes ship.  Three rowboats cross ice and sea.
Grade Range:  Smart middle school through high school
Good for: History class

4. Hatke, Ben (2014) The Return of Zita the Spacegirl.  New York:  FirstSecond.


10 word summary:  Imprisoned Zita escapes with friends' help, saves planet.  Goes home.
Grade Range:  Smart third grade to middle school (and older)
Good for:  Language arts.

5.  Vernon, Ursula (2013)  Digger:  The Complete Omnibus Edition.  St. Paul, MN: Sofawolf Press

10 word summary:  Female wombat engineer saves world (but not her world).  Quirky.
Grade Range:  High School readers who like odd quirky humor (and wombats)
Good for:  English, Science (geology), Engineering,

6.  Pope, Paul (2013)  Battling Boy  New York:  First Second.

10 word summary:  12-year-old extra-dimensional boy sent to earth to fight monsters, learns.
Grade Level:  6th and up.
Good for:  English.  (Note, there is a female protagonist too.)

7.  Axe, David; Hamilton, Tim (2013) Army of God:  Joseph Koney's War in Central America.  New York:  Public Affairs.

10 word summary:  Kony kidnaps, terrorizes children, uses them as army, eludes capture.
Grade Level:  High School
Good for:  History class.

8.  Pham, Thien (2012) Sumu.  New York: First Second.

10 Word Summary:  Scott breaks with Gwen, goes to Japan, studies Sumu.wrestling.
Grade Level:  High school.
Good for:  English class

9.  Mizuki, Shigeru (2013) Showa 1926-1939:  A History of Japan.  Canada:  Drawn and Quarterly.

10 Word Summary:  Author's childhood highlights Japan's political and economic struggles before WWII.
Grade level:  High School
Good for:  History, English.

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

10 Word Summary:  Five miles high, they fought, froze, died, and beat Hitler.
Grade Range:  Fifth and up.
Good For;  History class, my young friend Kyle, and other kids who love history.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Top Ten Adolescent/Young Adult Books I read in 2014

This top ten list is not a list of the best books that came out in 2014.  I haven't read all those yet. It is a list of the top ten books that I happened to read in 2014.  The publication dates range from 1989 to 2014.   And it is a list of what I liked.  I don't know if you will like the same books (though I am quite certain you will like some of them. 

I will present them in order from the my absolute favorite book I read in 2014 to my tenth favorite book I read in 2014.

I'll also include a ten word review.  I haven't yet figured out how to link to the whole review (the amazing Tim Mata just had the patience to teach me how to get the picture of the book to display properly in facebook, so he may be able to help me out) but the review is on the site...somewhere. 

1.  Zusak, Marcus (2005) The Book Thief.  New York:  Alfred Knopf

10 word review:  Death narrates, Liesel steals, rescues, cries.  In war, nobody wins.

2.  Rex, Adam (2007)  The True Meaning of Smekday  New York: Hyperion

10 word review:  Boov invade. Gratuity looks for mom.  Earth wins.  I laugh.   

3.  Fleishman, Paul (1998)  Whirligig.  New York:  MacMillan.

10 word review:  Brent drives drunk, kills girl, does penance (whirligigs) finds grace.

4.  Schmidt, Gary (2004) Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.  New York:  Clarion.

10 word review:  Turner and Lizzie, friends.  Racists want island gone.  Bittersweet end.

5.  Fforde, Jasper (2014)  The Song of the Quarkbeast.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin. 

10 word review:  Jennifer against iMagic Corp, with friends' help, she wins.  Laughter.

6.  Stead, Rebecca (2012) Liar and Spy  New York: Wendy Lamb.

10 word review:  Lonely Georges meets quirky Safer, spies, fights bullies.  Revelation, joy.

7.  DiCamillo, Kate (2013) Flora and Ulysses  Somerville, MA:  Candlewick. 

10 word review:  Cynical girl befriends super squirrel.  Learns to believe in life.

8.  Westerfield, Scott (2010) Behemoth  New York:  Simon Pulse

10 word review:  Disguised girl and Prussian prince defeat German-Turkish alliance.  Fun suspense.
(German-Turkish counts as a single hyphenated word because...well,  it just does, okay?)

9.  Reeve, Philip (2009)  Fever Crumb  New York:  Scholastic. 

10 word review:  Orphan girl engineer discovers buried revelations.  Hunted, she runs. Scriven?

10.  Riordan, Rick (2005)  The Lightning Thief.  New York:  Scholastic.

10 word review:  Percy against the Greek gods.  What took me so long?

Next up, top ten graphic novels. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Now that's more like it! Excellent King Arthur graphic novel!

Lee, Tony; Hart, Sam  (2011) Excalibur:  The Legend of King Arthur.  Somerville, MA:  Candlewick

A month or two ago I reviewed a graphic novel about King Arthur that was really pretty bad -- and I said in that review that it was a shame because the King Arthur story is such a good one -- and that graphic novel had horribly mangled and missed it.  I recently read Tony Lee and Sam Hart's graphic novel Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur and all I can say is -- that is what I am talking about!

Seriously, it is all here in words and pictures.  We get to see Arthur's transformation from a skinny straw-haired boy to the king who could unite all of Britain.  There is romance here (and not just the Arthur and Guinevere thing -- but the more complicated web beyond it.  Here are battles and magic and enchanted swords and portals into the realms of faerie and noble knights and evil villains and sorceresses and everything that the story of King Arthur is supposed to be.  The art captures all of it, the heroic stances, the tragic injuries, the rise and fall of an entire kingdom.  It is here and it is right.  And Lee and hart know how to write a graphic novel.  The panel transitions are well-thought out and highly engaging.

This is probably a book that will grab boys first (though there are some heroic female characters here as well -- they just aren't the center of the story.)  There is some violence and some clothed embracing in bed, but nothing that is obviously worthy of a challenge. I would say it is probably ideal for 5th or sixth graders through high school   (and once your student or child is hooked on this one, give them T.H. Whites excellent book The Once and Future King or John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights.  Let them find Mallory and the other historical classics on their own.  It is more fun that way.