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.