Monday, March 30, 2015

Serious Narrative Non-Fiction: One graphic novel about a mom surviving cancer. One traditional book about kids surviving war in Sudan.

Park, Linda Sue (2010) A Long Walk to Water  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.

Opening Lines:  "Going was easy.  Going, the plastic container held only air.  Tall for her eleven years, Nya could switch the handle from one hand to the other, swing the container by her side, or cradle it in both arms."

Nya lives in Southern Sudan.  She walks eight hours ever day to fetch water for her family from the pond.  The water is not particularly clean and her mother knows that she should boil the water to prevent disease, but boiling the water means there would be less of it to use.  As the dry season gets going, the pond begins to shrink.  When Nya's mother gets sick from the bad water, it is up to Nya to figure out what to do.

Salva lives in Southern Sudan.  One day when he is in school, he and his classmates hear gunshots.  His teacher rushes them out of the schoolhouse.  Soon  Salva finds himself in a group of refugees, fleeing for their lives and headed for the border with Ethiopia.  He finds a friend and a relative, but also finds violence and loss.

When their stories begin to intersect toward the end of the book, it is a moment of cool clear hope after a long drought full of despair and uncertainty.  Park does a nice job of adapting this true story narratively.  It is a story with some violence and some vague suggestions of sexual menace, but it should be suitable for sixth grade and up.  I think it would make a particularly good read-aloud.

Fies, Brian (2006) Mom's Cancer  New York:  Harry Abrams.

This graphic novel takes the reader from the moment that the author's mother had a small seizure and discovered she had a tumor growing in her brain, through how her three children (called in the book Me, Nurse Sis, and Kid Sis) walk with her through brain scans, diagnosis, waiting, understanding the depth of the problem, first appointments with doctors, biopsies, chemo, side effects, radiation, stages of grief, miraculous healing, and life after cancer.  The book is at least as much about how siblings cope with the illness of a parent as it is about the author's mom's journey. 

As you can see in the image above, the art is an interesting combination of caricature and realism.  Fies also uses visual references to things like the kids game Operation, and at once point talks about how when someone is struggling with cancer, their family becomes like superheroes in that their abilities, concerns, and passions are amplified.  He illustrates this with a brief superhero fight between caped crusaders based on himself and his siblings.  By alternating between gut wrenching realism and cartoonish comic relief, Fies helps the reader get through the difficult stuff.  He incorporates humor into the text as well.  Anyone who has dealt with cancer will smile at a section where he and his siblings call the doctor when their mother is coughing up blood, only to be told to relax, and that such a thing is normal, but then later, when she experiences an innocuous symptom (like a runny nose) they are chastised for not immediately informing the doctor. 

This is a sobering topic and, while there is nothing obviously offensive in the text or images, parents might reasonably object that it is too depressing of a story for young children.  This may be a good one for a teacher to have handy for a student struggling with a parent's cancer.  This one is ideal for high school and up. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Two Dragons and a Rogue Titan -- books for fourth grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade

Coville, Bruce (1991) Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher.  New York:  Scholastic

Opening lines:  "Jeremy Thatcher crumpled his paper in disgust.  The dragon he had been trying to draw looked like a dog with wings."

Jeremy Thatcher wanders into a strange store he has never seen before and soon he finds himself holding a dragon egg, which the proprietor tells him must be handled very carefully.  A few days later a tiny red dragon hatches.  Jeremy figures it is the best pet he has ever had.  Best of all, no one else can see it, and it can communicate with him mind-to-mind.  However, when the dragon starts to grow, when a girl in his class can see it too, and when Jeremy realizes that when he gets angry with the school bully, so does his dragon, he starts to wonder if raising a dragon is going to be as fun as he hoped.

Though Jeremy himself is in sixth grade, I think there are a lot of fourth graders who could handle this book (and since kids always prefer to read about someone older than them...)  This book could work for literature circles -- it has a good story and a nice ending -- but it is probably best suited to a classroom library. 

Riordan, Rick (2007) The Titan's Curse.  New York:  Scholastic


Opening line:  "The Friday before winter break, my mom pack me an overnight bag and a few deadly weapons and took me to a new boarding school."

This is the third in the Percy Jackson series and yes, it would probably be best if readers started with the beginning of the series, but I wanted to say that for kids finding their way into fantasy writing, this series is an excellent introduction.  It is exciting, gripping, fun, easy to follow, and has a remarkable ability to kindle an interest in Greek mythology. 

In this one, Percy Jackson, son of Posiedon, must rescue his friend Annabeth from the evil forces that have captured her -- forces that include no less than the most famous titan ever.  Percy is joined in his quest by some new allies, followers of Artemis.  We also get to meet Apollo, Annabeth;s parents, and some other new characters.  The book contains the usual assortment of close calls, narrow escapes, desperate situations, stunning rescues, and magical moments.

Look, I could give you a whole plot summary, but I think we both know you don't need that.  Get the book, read it yourself, and make it available to your students.  I certainly know young readers who read this before they were in fifth grade, and plenty who started the series after that, but fifth grade seems like a good place to start.

 LeGuin, Ursula K. (1968) A Wizard of Earthsea.  New York:  Bantam

Opening lines:  "The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards."

There are some classics that remain in front of young readers because they are universally respected and honored (thing Narnia of Middle Earth).  There are others that seem to get lost in the shuffle of history, even though they are magnificent.  Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea is one of those. 

Here we meet young Sparrowhawk and follow his growth from a lonely young man to the greatest wizard the world of Earthsea has ever known.  Along the way we see him outwit marauding invaders, study as an apprentice and later as a student, make a colossal mistake, and go head-to-head with a dragon and worse.  To be honest, this book is a little slow in finding its feat.  Once it really gets moving though, it is difficult to put down.  Sparrowhawk learns a lot of important lessons in his journey, and it is a satisfying book.

This isn't like Harry Potter, where a gifted person with a wand and a spellbook can get the hang of magic pretty quickly.  Sparrowhawk (or Ged as he is later called) has to work hard for his abilities and magic in this world is much less reliable than it seems to be in the world of Hogwarts.  Good readers who like fantasy should be able to jump on board this world starting in sixth grade or so.  And if you have never read it, you should. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Three kind of odd, kind of edgy graphic novels for high school (maybe)

High School students have a remarkable range as readers.   Some haven't really read a book since their fourth grade teacher read them Charlotte's Web out loud.  Some read three huge books a week.  And in between those two extremes is an unbelievably wide range of preferences, abilities, interests, and prior knowledge.  The three graphic novels I am about to review are not good choices for someone who has never read a graphic novel before.  They are not good choices for someone who only reads a couple of books a year.  And they are probably not good choices for someone whose reading tends toward the predictable or conventional.  But for the thoughtful, quirky, and/or adventurous high school reader who is comfortable with stories that are perplexing, odd, or decidedly inside the twilight zone, these might be a good fit. 

Novgordodoff, Danica (2014) The Undertaking of Lily Chen.  New York:  First Second.

Deshi Li is from the mountains of Northern China.  His brother, who was of marriageable age, has died unmarried.  According to an ancient custom, it is Deshi Li's responsibility to find a wife to be buried next to his brother.  With his family's savings in hand, he goes off to hire a grave robber to set him up with a recently buried corpse.  When he is helping the grave robber dig up a body in the middle of the night, they are discovered and somehow in a short bit of time, Deahi manages to incite the grave digger to want to kill him, to find a living girl who he thinks might make a good bride for his brother (if he can manage to kill her), and to find himself helping that girl flee from her family.  From there it is one part adventure story, one part offbeat romance, and one part quirky road trip.

The artwork is quirky -- the figures are long and lanky or fat and bunchy, and the backgrounds are often hauntingly beautiful watercolors.  There are some stylistic elements from ancient Chinese illustrations.  Like the story, the artwork ranges from breathtakingly beautiful and strikingly ugly (intentionally so).

There are some sexually suggestive scenes and some vulgar language in this book.  It is probably the sort of graphic novel that high school teachers want to keep behind their desk and only loan out to the sort of student who would not be offended by such a thing (there is nothing in the story worse than what you would find in Shakespeare, but I still advise caution.)  Certainly not appropriate for any student younger than high school.

Gaiman, Neil; Zulli, Michael (2005)  The Last Temptation.  Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse.

So it turns out that when Neil Gaiman was still writing The Sandman comic book for DC, one of his big fans was the rock star Alice Cooper (seriously) and it turns out that when Alice as working on a concept album, he had his agent contact Neil about collaborating on a graphic novel.  Gaiman met with Cooper, they discussed the project and Gaiman (along with artist Michael Zulli) put together a haunting and odd little story.

Young Steven, trying to prove to his slightly older friends that he is not a wuss, goes into a mysterious theater and meets the Showman (who looks remarkably like Alice Cooper.) Steven meets the performers in the show and soon finds himself not only watching the show, but part of it.  The boundaries between what is happening on the stage and what is happening in his real life start to drop, and the Showman starts to tempt Steven with all manner of Faustian bargains.  Steven must decide whether to be true and loyal to the world he knows and loves or to succumb to the temptations the Showman offers.  In the end,. the Showman is revealed for who he really is, Steven makes the right choice and wins (though he loses too, a little bit).  Think of it as kind of a horror story with a hopeful ending. 

The art is beautiful, though often creepy.  The whole book is in black and white, but it works.  Zulli does have a tendency to track his panels across the two page spread which can make them a little tricky to figure out how to read at first.

There are rotting zombies and beheadings in this book and a few very subtle references to sexuality and drug use, but the overall message of the book is decidedly against those things.  I would suggest that teachers read this one before putting it in their classroom library.  High school only for this book.

Malkasian, Cathy (2010) Tempeerance.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics.

This is a fascinating but odd story and it is difficult to describe.  Pa and two girls live in the forest.  Pa is chapping down trees to build a giant walled village (it actually looks more like a boat than anything else).  Minerva trusts Pa.  Peggy does not.  When Pa is beating Peggy (and perhaps hoping to rape her, it is unclear), a man steps from the woods and tries to stop him.  Minerva is struck by how perfect the man is, but Pa beats him senseless.  Peggy flees, but Minerva pleads with Pa to let her fix the man he has beaten.  Pa relents, but chops off the man's leg anyway.

Then we skip forward in time.  Pa is gone to who-knows-where.  Peggy has never returned.  Minerva has taken charge of the ship-village and makes up stories of their brave Pa who is out there somewhere fighting glorious battles for them.  She has healed the man from the forest, made him a wooden leg, and, since his memory is damaged, has made of a history for him in which he is a powerful fighter, hero of many battles in which he fought alongside of Pa, and he now protects the city as Minerva's husband, Lester.

Eventually, though, Lester goes off in search of Pa, an insurrection threatens Minerva's rule of the city, and Peggy comes back on the scene.  I will leave off the part about the birds, and the part about the living puppet that Minerva makes our of Lester's wooden leg because at this point it would only confuse you.

The amount of detail in the art is stunning (the story is nearly 250 pages long and Malkasian seems to be the sole creator).  Pa is a truly horrific character -- mostly because of the way he is drawn to look like an utterly normal (but very angry man).  Lester's loyalty and compassion in spite of his damaged mind are beautifully rendered in his face and stance.  And Minerva, with her bulbous nose and plain features evokes sympathy as she tires to hold her world together.

Readers who are not flexible and adaptable to new worlds within a book will likely be frustrated by this story.  Some readers, though, may be quite taken by it.  Best for high school, and again, teachers will want to read it before putting it in their classroom library. 

It is an interesting and engaging (but very odd story) with plenty of opportunity for readers to discuss both the iconography and the symbolism in the text.  Apart from a very subtle suggestion of a possible rape, there is no sexuality in here.  No vulgarity either.  The violence, however is striking and sometimes disturbing. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Two Graphic Novel Adaptations of Classics

Deas, Robert (2008) Manga Shakespeare Macbeth.  New York:  Amulet

The Manga Shakespeare series has done a really nice job of presenting Shakespeare's work using graphic novel techniques in a way that will grab student's interests.  Remember, Shakespeare didn't write the plays in hopes that some day high school students throughout the world would read them in manuscript form.  What makes Shakespeare so wonderful is to see the script interpreted by actors who understand the words, embody the characters, and add another layer of meaning to the experience.  Deas does exactly that in giving us the body movements, facial expressions, and interpersonal actions that make clear how characters are connected to each other and how they react to what is said. 

But this is no classic comics full of talking heads.  Deas's illustrations are exciting and interesting, though as you can see form the cover, the isn't the Macbeth of 12th century Scotland exactly.  Oh, Shakespeare's words are intact, but Deas moves the story to post-apocalyptic Japan.  And, although some readers might find it a bit weird, it works.  As countless avant garde productions have proven time and time again, Shakespeare's plots and writing can stand up to a lot and not only still make sense, but still carry profound ideas. 

I much prefer this version to the paraphrased graphic novel versions that substitute bland updated language for Shakespeare's original.  Like a good production, Deas's art will help students figure out the more tricky stuff just by combining the sense of the words with the appearance of those who are saying them and those that are hearing them.

This version is probably best for high school English classes.  Adventurous middle school teachers might give it a shot too.

Bingham, Jerry (1984) Beowulf.  Chicago:  First.

Look, Beowulf has always been a comic book story.  Sure we dress it up as a classic epic poem, point out to students the beautiful alliterative lines and creative descriptive phrases, but the bottom line is, this is a story about a cannibalistic, serial-killing monster with powers beyond those of regular humans who ends up facing a stranger form far away who has strength and cunning beyond that of mortal men.  Beowulf, the super-hero, defeats Grendel, the super-villain, but like any good comic book, the story continues, and Beowulf must face an even worse monster -- Grendel's mother.  After another epic battle in which Beowulf saves the world, he seems to retire, then comes out of retirement to battle a dragon of unexplained origins.  See, totally a superhero story.

Bingham embraces that idea.  His drawings of hyper-muscled heroes; evil, twisted monsters; and bikini-clad women whose only purpose seems to be to stand next to the hero during the victory celebration (and occasionally to scream at the monster).  Reading this book is pretty much like reading Robert Howard's Conan the Barbarian.  And I don't mean to suggest that is necessarily bad.  This sort of presentation might get some middle school and high school readers excited about epic poetry and event literature in general who had previously not given it a second thought.

Having said that, while Bingham's text might be a useful one for comparing to the original text, I still prefer what Gareth Hinds did with the story.  Hinds's art isn't necessarily as exciting as Bingham's, but Hinds has a better grasp of the story.