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?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Picture books good for teaching art students (and others) to avoid perfectionism, to value things that have a common beauty, and to appreciate math (okay, that one might be more for math students)

Moss, Marissa (1990) Regina's Big Mistake  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.

Opening lines:  Everyone in Mrs. Li's class got a piece of paper.  Everyone was supposed to draw a jungle or a rain forest.  That meant Regina too.

Regina is a little girl who struggles with wanting her picture to be perfect -- to follow all the directions and to be as beautiful as everyone else's work.  But as she looks around her, she despairs that she will never be able to make a picture as nice as the one's her classmates are making.  Then, she starts to make mistakes.

As it turns out, though, the mistakes lead her (as they often do) to make a picture that is different from the ones the other students are making -- in the best possible way.  Marissa Moss's simple but realistic drawings make this book an excellent choice for little kids -- but also for high school students who have not yet learned that m making mistakes can lead to some of the best thinking and creativity.  So I recommend this one for students in kindergarten  through high school (and older if necessary,)

Moss, Marissa (1996)  The Ugly Menorah  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux.

Opening lines;  Rachel loved the heavy silver menorah her family used every Hanukkah.  All year long, it sat in the cupboard , hidden from sight, but once a year, at Hanukkah, her father brought it down and polished it and set it in t he window.

Rachel cannot figure out why her grandmother keeps an old ugly menorah on her windowsill, so she asks about it, and her grandmother tells her the story of how Rachel's late grandfather, when they were just married and very poor, made a menorah out of scraps he scavenged from a construction site.  Grandma explains that what makes the menorah beautiful is the memories that go with it, and the caring that grandfather put into the object.  Rachel comes to understand.

This one is a good book for helping art students to understand that the concept of aesthetic beauty is always subjective.  It would work for elementary art, but also might be a good lesson for students in middle school or high school art as well.  Moss's illustrations carry a remarkable amount of emotion in them -- though it is hard to pin down exactly how they do that.

Schwartz, David M.  (1998) G is for Googol:  A Math Alphabet Book  Berkeley, CA:  Tricycle Press

Opening lines:  A is for Abacus.  Hundreds of years before calculators were invented, people in China discovered they could add and subtract quickly by sliding beads back and forth on strings.

Actually, though, the explanation of Abacus goes on for two full paragraphs, two cartoon illustrations and an explanation of how an abacus works.  That page also has a list of none other math terms that start with A.  B is for Binary gets a two page spread, 13 paragraphs, a chart illustrating how to form numbers using binary, and two additional illustrations.  My point is that even though this is an alphabet book, it doesn't minimize the concepts it is talking about, but explains complicated concepts fully.

This would be a great book for math readers in about third grade up through high school.  It might also be interesting for art students to look at how the illustrator (Marissa Moss again) finds ways to picture complicated abstract concepts.  Another good picture book.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Excellent picture book tells the story of the first woman to fly a plane across the English Channel

Moss, Marrisa (2001) Brave Harriet:  The First Woman to Fly the English Channel  Orlando:  Harcourt.

First Lines:  It's a strange thing to see an aeroplane fly.  The thing is so gawky and bumbling on the ground, so spindly and flimsy-looking, but then, once in the air, it soars with the grace and beauty of a hawk, strong enough to lift a person high above the trees and into the clouds."

 Why have I never heard the story of Harriet Quimby?  Harriet was the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel.  She did so in 1912, when airplane construction probably had more in common with how kites are made than with the way planes are manufactured today. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the flight was too difficult and arduous for a woman to attempt.  Her well-meaning friend, Gustav Hamel (who had flown the channel himself) proposed that he dress as Harriet and make the voyage safely so that Harriet could claim the credit.

Marissa Moss's brilliant picture book tells this story, but also illustrates (through C.F. Payne's excellent illustrations) how what Harriet loved above all else was the joy of flying. Like Moss's other excellent non-fiction books, she gives an accurate account, but tells it in a way that the gripping story comes alive.

There is nothing in this book that would cause it to be challenged (unless soemone objects to telling the history of women as well as men).  Although it would be a reasonable read-aloud for kindergarten and first grade, second graders and up would get the most out of it.  (Actually, as i was reading it I wished I had it when I taught high schoolers.  This is the sort of book that would make students want to look up more information.  It is certainly worth picking up for your classroom.