Friday, December 2, 2016

Amazing Novel for High School History, Music, and English teachers

Anderson, M.T. (2015)  Symphony for the City of the Dead:  Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.  Somerville: Candlewick.

Image result for Symphony for the City of the Dead

Opening lines:  "An American agent met with a Russian agent one bright summer morning when the world was collapsing inthe face of Nazi terror.  It was June 2, 1942, the Second World War was not going well for the Allied forces.  Most of Europe had already been conquered by the Nazi German onslaught.  France had fallen, and so had Norway, Denmark, Poland, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia.  Now the Germans were deep inside Russia, clawing away at the country's innards."

In Symphony for the Dead, M.T. Anderson (author of Feed, Octavian Nothing, and the hilarious Jasper Dash books) takes us to the depths of despair and starvation, and to the unlikely possibility that a nervous and starving Russian composer in the besieged city of Leningrad could, through the music of a symphony, give Russians enough hope to turn the tide of the war.  Anderson has never underestimated the ability or maturity of an adolescent or young adult reader, and make no mistake, this non-fiction regular text book (that is to say, it is not a graphic novel) is a  challenging one.  But it is also utterly gripping,  From the opening story of how Allied spies smuggled Shostakovich's symphony to American shores to the flashback story of Shostaokovich and his struggles to survive as a musician in the schizophrenic would of Russian fine arts under the paranoid and monomaniacal Lenin, this book is gripping.  In these pages, you will find the tragic story of Lenin, who trusted no-one, and how he decided to trust Adolph Hitler who declared he would never invade Russia.  Lenin's trust was so strong that even as the Germans were striking deep into Russian territory, killing Russian soldiers and destroying Russian planes and airfields as they went, Lenin forbade Russian soldiers to return fire.  Here you will find the story of the desperate conditions within the besieged city of Leningrad and how people ate furniture glue, shoe leather, and eventually turned to cannibalism to survive.  But here you will also find the hope of a symphony which kindled Russian hope and encouraged the Americans to come to their aid.

This book might work as a supplemental text in a high school classroom, but I think it would be far more successful as a go-to book for that student reader in your class who is obsessed with history or music and wants to read a powerful story without any sugarcoating.

Though as I mentioned before, there is some talk of canibalism, it is certainly not celebrated.  Though there is despair here, there is also hope.  While not well suited to younger kids, if it was used in the high school, this book would be unlikely to be challenged.

The writing is superb, the story is gripping, and it is probably the best book I have read this year.  Buy it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Graphic Novels: D-Day, Artemis Fowl, Amelia adaptation, Shakespeare, and Vampires

Capa, Robert; Morvan, Jean-David; Trefouel, Severine (2015)  Omaha Beach on D-Day.  New York:  First Second.

Image result for Omaha Beach on D-Day Capa

Opening Lines:  "January 27, 1944.  Italian front, three miles from Cisterna di Latina.  The allied troops were unable to advance, immobilized by the Wehrmacht's fierce resistance. The Americans had blanketed the area with artificial fog to hide their positions from the German artillery.   I was determined to make the most of the situation."

This is not a graphic novel about the invasion on D-Day, although it includes that.  This graphic novel is the story of a war photographer, Robert Capa, who went along on the D-Day invasion and got some of the best photographs of that action.  Combining black-and-white comics with excellent reproductions of Capa's photographs, and including some regular-text essays, this book follows Capa through the end of the war and a bit beyond.  Along the way we see him interact with everyone from common soldiers to General Eisenhower and the writer Earnest Hemingway.  The book also takes an interesting digression to figure out which soldier was in the iconic photo of an American soldier swimming to the Normandy shore, pushing a life preserver in front of him.

This book will not give you a full historical and strategic overview of the invasion that turned the tide of World War Two, but it will take you deeply into one man's perspective.  Although the text is a secondary source biography, the photographs reproduced in the book offer an excellent opportunity to allow history students to consider the value of photographic primary sources and the research required to fully understand them.  The photos are, it must be said, spectacular.

There is plenty of smoking and drinking in this book (as there was in World War Two) and some fairly vague references to Capa's amorous affairs, but this book should be suitable for fifth or sixth grade and up and is unlikely to prompt any challenges.

If you know a child who loves World War Two, photography, or journalism, I would encourage you to get hold of this one.

Colfer, Eoin; Donkin, Andrew ((2013)  Artemis Fowl:  The Eternity Code.  New York:  Hyperion

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Opening lines:  "Excerpt from Artemis Fowl's Diary, Disk 2.  Encrypted.  My name is Artemis Fowl and I am a genius.  The last two years have been exhilarating, even by my own high standards.  It had all started with the internet, but then these days, it always does."

In this adaptation of the third book in Colfer's excellent series, Artemis Fowl tries to sell a underworld investor the chance to get ahead of the market on Artemis's latest invention, a computer cube that makes smart phones look dumber than dirt.  When the deal goes bad, Artemis's faithful bodyguard, Butler, takes a bullet meant for him and the criminal gets away with the cube., Artemis must enlist the help of Captain Holly Short of the Lower Elements Police Recon (that's LEPrecon); Foaly the technical genius centaur; and the flatulent dwarf, Mulch Diggums to try to get it back.

This is a rip-roaring action graphic novel, but one that requires a fair amount of thought from the reader to understand the levels of subterfuge involved in reclaiming the cube.

Though this is a violent graphic novel, it pales in comparison to the tamest violent PG 13 film.  It is probably best for fourth grade and up.  Artemis consistently employs logic to make his decisions, which may be useful for high school math classes doing a unit on logic.

This is a fun one.  I recommend it, especially for classroom libraries.

Spender, Nick; Haynes, Stephen (2008) Macbeth  Brighton, UK: BOok House..

Image result for Macbeth Nick Spender

Opening lines: "When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?   When the hurley-burley's done, when the battle's lost and won.  That will be ere the set of sun.  Fair is foul and foul is fair; hover through the fog and filthy air."

A couple of years ago, my amazing student Courtney R. was spending a semester in London and I asked her to keep her eyes open for any graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.  She brought back this one and inscribed it with a kind note and an apology.  "Sorry if this version isn't the best."

I finally got around to reading it a week ago and I have been trying to figure out ever since whether this version is the best, the worst, or somewhere in between.  The illustrations are very thoughtfully done in a way that makes them both exciting and faithful to the book.   Spender favors light from fireplaces and dark shadows to give the whole play an authentic and creepy quality.  And it would be a great way for students to get to know Macbeth in the way it is traditionally presented (that is to say, not with updated costumes and sets to make it look like it is taking place in Vietnam, the moon, or downtown Cleveland.)

Unfortunately, however, the creators made the choice to typeset the words rather than have them be hand-lettered in classic comic book tradition.  That might not seem like a big deal, but that lettering allows the graphic novel text to carry more emotion and emphasis (even though we often don't consciously notice it when we are reading.)  This version, though, will strike you as cold and sterile because of the type.  The other drawback is that in this adaptation they have cut out Lady Macbeth's speech about being determined enough in the murders to "rip the babe from her breast" and also the gatekeeper's speech about the effects of drink.  While that makes it easier to put this version in your classroom library without fear of a parental challenge, it leaves out two scenes that are considered by many to be important parts of Shakespeare's play.

If you are teaching Macbeth, I would encourage you to have a look at this version.   It may be a very helpful tool for you.

Gownley, Jimmy (2006) Amelia Rules: What makes You Happy and Amelia Rules: Superheroes.  New York:  Atheneum.

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Opening lines:  "It's weird...  In a way, I can't believe fourth grade is over.  But on the other hand, I can't believe it took so long. Every day you sit in class and the clock seems to stand still.  Then one day you look behind you and wonder where it all went."

First, a clarification.   This is not the same Amelia who graces the pages of Melissa Moss's excellent Amelia's Notebook series.  There are some great things about this Amelia.  She is plucky, we get to share her frustration with some aspects of life, and she is sometimes funny,  The artist draws her in a way that makes her seem like a pretty sympathetic eight-year-old.

At the same time, there are some things about this series that give me pause.  While Gownley doesn't quite go the way of the Marvel Superheroines overly busty forms, he does have a penchant for showing teenage female belly buttons and some of the scenes he favors are, well, a little odd.  Amelia Rules!: Superheros, for example, opens with a daydream sequence in which one character, Reggie Gabrinski,, imagines he is a superhero named MiracleReggie and is fighting Space Ninjas.  When it looks like he is on the ropes, he sends a psychic distress call and a female superhero in a miniskirt and crop top comes to the rescue.  After she defeats the villains, Reggie suggests that it is smootchy time.  Now, all this is perfectly in line with the average adolescent boy's fantasy world I suppose, including the fact that the woman whom his fantasy is centered upon is his teacher, but honestly, it is a little creepy.

If that were an isolated thing I would let it go.  But soon after that we see Amelia's mom in a short nightshirt and then a little while after that young Amelia imagines herself as a sixteen-year old wearing (wait for it) a crop top and a belly button ring.  After a while, there seems to be a certain sort of inevitability to it. Like all females should dream of growing from awkward eight-year-olds to shapely, scantily clad bombshells.

Maybe I am being oversensitive (as the dad of two daughters who I want to have a wide variety of options for their lives), but because of this, I would take a pass on this series.

White, Kiersten; Di Bartolo, Jim (2014) In the Shadows  New York:  Scholastic.

Image result for in the shadows kiersten white

Opening Lines:  Um, the first 33 pages are images with no text, so I would have to say it doesn't exactly have opening lines.

When my friend Kris gives me a book and tells me to read it, I do.  She teaches middle school and was the one who introduced me to the amazing work of Adam Rex.  When she told me to read this one, I did., even though it didn't look like the sort of thing I would like. In the Shadows is an excellent example of something that isn't exactly a graphic novel, but I am not quite sure what I should call it.  A hybrid, maybe?  It tells the story in much the way Brian Selznick does in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  It alternates between a series of single page illustrations that tell the story, to chapters that are just text.  Some books written this way can be jarring as you move from comprehending images to comprehending text.

The story of this one is complicated.  A group of rich people gather in an old mansion on a stormy night.  They have captured a baby demon who grants them impossibly long life.  When an intruder tries to stop them, He sets in motion a conflict that will continue through several lifetimes.  As we alternate from time period to time period, we gradually get more and more of the story and come to understand the most recent situation where the man who opposes the demon captors takes two young people into his confidence and involves them in a tremendous final struggle.

Though I am not a big fan of horror, this is a very readable book and might be an excellent choice for middle school teachers that want to give struggling students the experience of completing a fairly lengthy book without having to read that much text.  This is also a book that encourages rereading.  Teachers should preview it, however, to get a sense for how to describe the book to potential readers who might be put off by the occultish parts.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Basketball, Magic Tricks, Dogs, Road Trips, and Biohazardous Material: Five Good Adolescent Novels

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem; Obstfeld, Raymond (2013) Sasquatch on the Paint  Disney/Hyperion.

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Opening Lines:
Hey, Chewbacca!  How do you say 'loser' in Wookie?"
Don't look, Theo told himself.  Don't look!  No good can come from looking.

Theo Rollins grew several inches during the summer between seventh and eighth grade and now everyone expects him to be this amazing basketball star.  Theo hasn't played much and can't really control his new, taller self that well, and so, when he makes the team, his lack of skill starts to make his life miserable.  Soon he is trying harder than ever before and finding that he is failing at basketball, at the academic games team that he excelled on the year before, and that a girl that he maybe likes has coined the name Sasquatch for his on-court performance.  Add to this his widowed dad who may have started secretly dating again and a false accusation that Theo has been stealing and you have a story that will hook both basketball players and those who don't get excited about the game.

This would be a great book for middle grades PE teachers to read aloud for five minutes per classroom while their students stretch out, but it also a good enough story to go in any classroom library.  I don't know how much of the novel was written by the famous ballplayer Abdul-Jabbar, but the on-court scenes do ring true.

Theo's friend Gavin is a bit of a troublemaker, but there is nothing in this novel that would be likely to cause anyone to challenge it.  It is probably best for readers as young as fourth or fifth grade, but could be enjoyed by readers well into high school. It is worth a look.

Curtis, Christopher Paul (1995) The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963  Austin: Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

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It had been years since I read this.  I remembered that it had something to do with the Birmingham bombings, but the rest was kind of hazy.  When I reread it, I realized that I had forgotten how much of it was funny, how much was touching, and how much was gripping (and even a little scary).  If you haven't read it for years, check it out.  If you have never read it before, you are in for a treat.

Kenny is a good kid, growing up in the largely African-American city of Flint, Michigan.  When his older brother, Byron keeps getting into trouble and hanging out with kids his parents don't approve of,  Mom and Dad decide it is time to take a road trip to Alabama, where Kenny will be spending the summer under the close eye of Grandma Sands.  When they arrive in Birmingham, Kenny finds himself learning a lot more than he ever thought he could about goodness and evil in the world.

Along the way there are these wonderful moments, like when Byron gets his tongue stuck to the frozen car mirror when he and Kenny are supposed to be scraping the ice off it, or like when Kenny's friend cheats him out of almost all of his army guys, or some of the best moments in the book are when Byron stands up for Kenny.  It is a fine book.

I suppose some parents might object to teaching kids about injustice and inequity and racism, but perhaps that would be a good reason to start some excellent discussions -- and Curtis does tackle these problems on a level that makes sense for a middle school audience.

Ideal for fourth grade and up, this book seems suited to both language arts and history classes.

Evens, Lissa ((2012) Horton's Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery, and Another Very Strange Adventure.  New York: Sterling.

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Opening Lines:  Stuart Horton sat at the kitchen table and looked at the front page of the crummy little newspaper he'd just been given.  Then, with a feeling of foreboding, he began to read.

I am a bit conflicted about this one.  It is a nice enough story.  Stuart Horton, a remarkably short 10- year-old, has inheirited his late Uncle's magician gear.  Along with his friend April, he agrees to curate an exhibit of that gear at the museum.  While trying to figure out how the tricks work, Stuart and April find themselves repeatedly transported to distant lands where they must solve puzzles to return home.  Meanwhile, back home, someone is trying to invalidate Stuart's Uncles's will and take the magic tricks away from the kids.

All this is fine and makes a nice adolescent novel, but there were some things I got stuck on.  For one, as a self-identified nerd, I took some issue with Stuart's dad, who makes crossword puzzles for a living and speaks in a strange hyper-vocabularied speech (for example, instead of "I'll make you a lunch", Stuart's dad says "And I shall prepare a portable container of noontide comestibles for you." (72)).  Some of the adult characters are like that,  A little too exaggeratedly quirky to seem real (or even funny).  But the bottom line is, it is a nice enough book.

I could imagine some third graders reading this book, but it probably would work better for fourth through sixth as the oldest. There are one or two extremely minor cases of mild vulgarities being used ("hell" for example, on page 124.)  I doubt this would be enough, however, to get the book challenged.  This would be a good one for the classroom library.  I doubt there is enough here to make studying it in class worthwhile.

Henkes, Kevin (1995) Protecting Marie  New York: HarperCollins.

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Opening Lines:  Fanny Swann popped the only red balloon, pretending it that it was her father's heart.  And then, within a matter of minutes, her anger dissolved into tears. After slapping at the remaining balloons, Fanny turned toward her mother, wrapping herself around her, burying her face in her mother's dress.
"It's because of me," Fanny said between sniffles.  "I know its because of me."

All her life, Fanny has wanted a dog.  She had a puppy briefly, but that creature introduced an element of chaos into her house and her father, an artist whose life is intensely ordered, couldn't handle the unpredictability that the dog brought into their lives.  For Fanny, this was the deepest betrayal and now she feels like she can never trust her father again.  So when he brings home a new dog, this time a mature one, Fanny feels like she can't trust him.  What if she falls in love with this dog, then her dad gets rid of it?

Fourth grade and up for this one.  I think it would make a good read-aloud book or would be a good addition to your classroom library. It could work in literature circles too, but thematically it is of moderate depth.  Nothing objectionable here that I noted.

This one is worth a look.

Sachar, Louis  (2015) Fuzzy Mud  New York: Delacorte.

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Opening lines:
Woodridge Academy, a private School in Heath Cliff, Pennsylvania, had once been the home of William Heath, after whom the town had been named.  Nearly three hundred students now attended school in the four story, black-and-brown stone building where William Heath had lived from 1891 to 1917 with his wife and three daughters.

Tamaya Dhiladdi is in fifth grade, and so she walks home with Marshall Walsh who is in seventh grade.  When Marshall is threatened by a bully named Chad Hilligas, he convinces Tamaya to take a shortcut with him, and soon the two of them, pursued by Chad, are deep in a woods that holds a frightening secret, a genetic experiment gone very wrong.

This would be a good story for language arts class -- Sachar's writing ability is unquestionable -- but it would also be an excellent choice for either science class or math class.  The kids discover an experiment designed to provide biomass energy -- but which, has mutating and is now growing at an exponential rate.  Graphics at the beginning of each chapter and equations within the text remind the reader who quickly two cells can grow to over 4 trillion cells. This book could easily be used in a biology class to intruduce both scientific and ethical issues.  It would also work for Language Arts -- maybe for literature circles.

This one is probably best for fifth grade and up.  Nothing too objectionable here.  And it is a really good book.  You should buy or borrow it soon.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Second Grade Read-Aloud Recommendations.

I don't know why, but I have had two different former students email me for recommendations for good read-aloud books for second grade.  Here are some possibilities pulled from the email I sent in reply..  Feel free to comment if you have some other ideas.

Hmmm, a second grade read aloud?  Well, I know Kate DiCamillo has some wonderful books about a pig (I looked it up, -- it is called the Mercy Watson series) that are quite funny.  Let me look at my shelf and see what else I can find.  Hang on. 

Okay.  Two categories:

Classic Second grade Read Alouds:

Image result for charlotte's web

Charlotte’s Web  by E.B. White
Trumpet of the Swan also by E.B. White
Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
Horrible Harry by Suzy Kline
The Boxcar Children (the first one) by Gertrude Chandler Warner.

More recent books I think would work as second grade read alouds:

Image result for bink and gollie

Get Ready for Second Grade, Amber Brown by Paula Danziger
Bink and Gollie  by Kate DiCamillo  (I find this book hillarious)
Vergie Goes to School with us Boys By Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard.  (Picture book – but worth reading to them)
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo  (this may be a little over their heads at the beginning of the year, but might work toward the end of second grade.)
The Cam Jansen series by Keri Arthur  (lots of fun)
Because of Win Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Two YA Books With Shakespearean Echoes and One Without

So I am teaching an Honors course in Young Adult Literature and Shakespeare.  My amazing students have so far written one paper that connects Shakespeare's Tempest and the narrative arc of the Harry Potter series and another paper that connects Romeo and Juliet and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. The next unit sets them free to think about other ways that YA literature and Shakespeare can be read side-by-side.  So I starting to read some books that have those connections explicitly or implicitly.  In that spirit, here are three YA books I have recently read that are, to greater or lesser extent, kinda Shakespearean.

Dionne, Erin (2010)  The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet. New York: Puffin.

Image result for The Total Tragedy of a girl named Hamlet

Opening line:  "I hadn't figured out a way to stop time, join the circus, or make myself invisible."

Hamlet Kennedy has a difficult life.  She is in eighth grade, her name is Hamlet (courtesy of her Shakespeare-obsessed parents), her younger sister Desdemona is joining her in middle school (courtesy of the fact that she is a genius) and seems to be having an easier time getting to know the popular kids, her parents have volunteered to make a presentation about Shakespeare in her English class in full Elizabethan dress (courtesy of the fact that they are English professors), and finally, there is this boy she likes (and you can imagine how that is going).  Hamlet's other problem is her English teacher keeps nagging her to read aloud in class, which Hamlet finds embarrasing.  How can she possibly escape all these potential doom scenarios?

To tell the truth, when I first saw this book, I envisioned that it would be some version of the play Hamlet, only with a female protagonist and somehow updated to a modern school.  It isn't.  But it still would be a valuable book for those interested in Shakespeare to read. It is more about a kid who learns to appreciate Shakespeare far more deeply than she ever thought she might.  And Hamlet Kennedy does discover that she has a talent for reading out loud and acting.  This theme of discovery is a good one, especially for middle school students.

This book is suitable or middle school and early high school.  These was nothing in here that I thought would offend anyone.  It is a fun read, but there is probably not enough thematically here to justify using it as part of the curriculum.  Excellent addition to a classroom library, though.

Mandel, Emily St. John (2014) Station Eleven.  New York: Vintage.

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Opening lines:  "The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.  This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night in the Elgin Theater in Toronto."

This isn't a children's book.  It isn't really a young adult novel either, but it is a book that high school students can read and will love and one that is easily paired with King Lear or other Shakespearean plays.

It starts on a stage in Toronto, where we meet Arthur Leander, a famous film actor who has returned to the stage to play King Lear.  Arthur will have a heart attack and die on stage on the same night that an outbreak of a pandemic flu will begin sweeping the globe, killing most of the humans on the planet.  A few chapters later, the book will start again, this time with Miranda who is on the South coast of Malaysia when the epidemic begins claiming lives.  Miranda is on assignment for the shipping corporation that employs her.  We also find out that in every spare moment after work, Miranda is drawing a comic book about Doctor Eleven, who lives on a damaged space station of his own design.  And two chapters after that, the book starts again, this time with Kirsten, an actor who plays with a travelling theater and orchestra many years after the plague, wandering the decaying highways of Michigan, performing for the little towns that have sprung up.  When they arrive at one such town, where Kirsten's friend and her husband had dropped out of the travelling symphony to raise a family, Kirsten finds her friend is nowhere to be found and the townspeople are strangely tight-lipped about the matter.

And from there we are swept into a story that moves forward and backward in time, slowly revealing connections between these characters and also telling the history of the world before and after the pandemic.  There are several plots in the midst of this, all of them compelling and despite the apparent disjointedness of those plots, it all come together nicely in the end.

Someone more gifted than I am can perhaps do some thinking about ways in which the plots connect to Shakespeare, but I can tell you that it manages, like the best of Shakespeare's plays, to follow a few little lives and somehow convey an epic sweep of action.  I can also tell you that Mandel is an excellent writer and not only constructs a completely believable world within the book (several actually), but also does so with beautiful attention to the sound of the words she uses.  Some chapters seem downright poetic.

As I said, this would be a good novel for high school.  There are some references to sex and one relatively minor gay character, and a bit of violence, but if this were a film, I imagine it would be PG 13.  I doubt it would be challenged.  My brother uses this one in the high school English class he teaches and says it works very well.  It would also be good for your classroom library and might work as a read-aloud.

Regardless of whether you use it or not, though, you will enjoy reading this one.  Go buy it.

Lu, Marie (2014) The Young Elites.  New York:  Putnam.

Image result for the young elites

Opening lines:  "I'm going to die tomorrow morning.  That's what the Inquisitors tell me, anyway, when they visit my cell. "

Adelina Amouteru was exposed to the blood fever when she was young.  It scarred her face and body, turned her hair silver, and also gave her mysterious powers.  After she killed her abusive but economically powerful father she attracted the attention of the Inquisition and new she is sentenced to die.  On the day of her execution, though, she is rescued by the Young Elites, a secret society of people like her dedicated to rescuing other paranormals and bringing down the oppressive rule of the king and his Inquisitors.  Adelina feels attracted to the leader of the Young Elites, Enzo, but at the same time, the leader of the Inquistors, Toren Santoro has a powerful hold over her as he has imprisoned her little sister.  Eventually, Adelina is presented with the choice of whether to use her powers to help the Young Elites or to ally herself with the Inquisiiton.

And the choice she faces might sound familiar (Anikin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Richard the Third, Neo from The Matrix, and so on).  It is a classic being-tempted-by-the-dark-side kind of a narrative.  Such a choice can end with the protagonist choosing the good side (Luke, Neo) or the dark side (Anikin, Richard) but what makes the story interesting is usually the struggle of their choice.  Anikin and Richard, for example, are pushed by circumstances toward a dark choice.  Anikin fights against it.  Richard embraces it, but also spends some time justifying it (as Shakespeare's villains do).  Luke and Neo are sorely tempted, but manage to stand strong.

Adelina struggles with both sides, but as I read it, doesn't so much make a decision as have it decided for her.  Perhaps this is saying something about the nature of a woman's choices in her world.  For me as a reader, though, it so eroded my ability to care about her as a character that by the end I didn't much care for her or the book.  This may have just been my take as a reader, and so you may want to check it out yourself (it is a fairly popular series).  Though I had hoped I might be able to use it in my class (to pair with Richard III,) I don't think this book would lend much to such a conversation.

This book would be best for high school.  There are some fairly passionate love scenes and one of the main characters is a bisexual courtesan.  This might cause the book to be challenged.  Frankly, though, I wasn't impressed enough to even consider fighting for it.

You are certainly welcome to read it yourself, of course, and set me straight.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mighty Jack, Secret Coders, and Red's Planet: Three Excellent Graphic Novels for Middle School (including one good for math class)

Ben Hatke (2016)  Mighty Jack.  New York: First Second.

Image result for Mighty Jack

Look, just go get this one.  Right now.  Preferably from an independent bookstore in your area -- but otherwise from Amazon.  Go now.

Why havn't you gone?  What are you waiting for?  You think I am kidding? This is Ben Hatke we are talking about!  He does an excellent job with the graphic novel form, and boy, does he know how to weave a good tale.  Seriously.  And I love the way it is possible to fall right in to the world of his books, wander around for a while, have some adventures, and then come out again in time for dinner.

All right. Fine,  A plot summary?  Really?  Won't take my word for it, huh?  Okay, so there is this kid named Jack.  Summer is beginning, but since his mother has to work, his dad isn't on the scene, and his little sister, Maddy, is autistic, it is Jack's job to watch over her.  When they are at the farmer's market, a guy sells Jack some magic beans in exchange for the keys to his mother's car (the con artist will look awfully familiar to readers of Hatke's Zita the Spacegirl series).  Police recover the car eventually, but Jack's mom is angry.  Eventually Jack and his sister plant the seeds in the backyard and this crazy alien garden grows and soon both of them (and Lilly, a neighbor girl who likes swordfighting) are battling plants with tentacles, exploding plants, and something far harder to get rid of.

Well, yeah, sothe book is incomplete.  So what?  It leaves you waiting for the sequel.  That isn't a bad thing.  It gives students something to look forward to.

There. Satisfied?  Look, that plot summary doesn't begin to do it justice.  You know middle school kids who need to read this thing.  Actually, you know fourth graders who need to read this.  And maybe some high school students who are not afraid to be reading something allegedly written for younger kids.  Actually, who are we kidding,  You need to read this thing.  It is really good.

Seriously,  Graphic novels this good don't come along every day.  Go get it.

Nothing objectionable in this book -- just awesomeness.  No, listen, you can thank me later.  Just go get the book!

Yang, Gene Luen; Holmes, Mike (2015) Secret Coders.  New York:  First Second.

Image result for Secret Coders

Opening lines:  "Listen.  I'm going to tell you a story -- a story about me.  But I am telling you so you'll remember -- remember about you.
     I wasn't that thrilled about moving, but I downright dreaded Stately Academy."

Hopper is a new girl at Stately Academy.  Though she has trouble fitting in, she is more troubled by the angry janitor who yells at her and the creepy birds that seem to be staring at her.  When she finally finds a friend, Eni, and then she finds a robot in the janitor's shed and at the same time, she also finds a mystery.  One that will require math and logic to solve.

And maybe that part scares you, because you have read other graphic novels that try to weave mathematics into a story and you fear that this one will be clunky too.  And honsetly, maybe it is a little clunky here and there, but Gene Yang is such a gifted graphic novel artist and so skilled at telling a story through words and pictures that it is unlikely you will even notice the clunkiness -- even as you are subtly being taught how binary programming language works, and how to code directions for an ambulatory robot.  This book is well worth getting for your classroom, even if you don't teach math.

I would recommmend it for fourth grade and up.  There is nothing in here that would be problematic for marents or community members that I noticed. This is a good one.  Well worth buying.

Pittman, Eddie (2016)  Red's Planet  New York:  Amulet

Image result for red's planet

Opening lines:  "Hey, here's a good one...  The Mysterious Zeke Heainey Incident by Ivan Gadunt.  Pine Mountain, Georgia -- On a cool October night, a full moon shone brightly over the tall Georgia pines.  It was one of those cold nights that stories are written about... stories told around campfires on other cold nights, under less impressive moons.  On a lonely country road, an even lonlier old pickup truck rambled along, down the lonely road of destiny.  Zeke Hainey was returning from a weekend hunting trip, his only companions:  a cuo of bad coffee, his old hunting dog, and a fading radio station.
      Aw, c'mon!  Stop the boring stuff and start reading the good parts, will ya!"

Red tries to run away from her latest foster home and is apprehended by a police officer, who puts her in the back of his prize vintage cop car.  Then that car is taken away by aliens looking for collectables and Red finds herself on a distant planet alternately excited and fascinated, scared, and having the time of her life.  She meets some rather odd friends along the way and maybe finds a home.

The art in this one is a slight characature style, funny, but real enough not to be distracting, The book is fascinatingly told and is often kind of funny.  Readers and young as fourth grade might like this one, though some of the humor will go over their heads.  I found nothing in this book likely to get it challenged or banned.  I recommend buying it for your classroom library.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Saving a school, killing a mockingbird, and a dystopian book that is more dys than topia.

Clements, Andrew (2011) Keepers of the School:  We The Children.  New York: Atheneum.

Image result for We the children andrew clements

There was a student in my Children's Literature class a couple of years ago who would raise her hand every time I asked if anyone had read a particular book.  All of my students are amazing, but this student, Nicole, seemed to have read everything.  When she told me, at the end of the year, that I had to read Andrew Clement's Keepers of the School series, I ordered it immediately.  And it came as no shock to me to learn that she was right.  It is an excellent book -- particularly for upper elementary and middle school.

Benjamin Pratt' attends a strange school.  It was built over two centuries ago by a sea captain who wanted to give the kids of the town an educational institution that would last.  The school almost seems to be as much of a boat as it is a school. with decks instead of floors and a ship's bell to signal the end of class.  When Ben starts school for the year, still reeling from his parents' separation, he finds out the school is scheduled to be torn down to make way for a huge amusement park that could revitalize the area's economy.  He also has an odd encounter with the school's head janitor, a man who has served at the school for as long as anyone can remember.  He presses into Ben's hand a golden coin, which sets in motion the story that follows (including intrigue, mischief, new friends, sailboat races, rescue, secret compartments, hidden messages, and the chance to save the school).  Almost from the star, Ben's friend Jill is a part of the story as well, but as the series develops, Jill's role expands.

Fair warning, though, the story is not complete in this book, it leads right into the next book in this series.

The book is well-written, exciting, requires student-readers to do some thinking as they go, and connects with both male and female readers.  There is nothing in the books that would cause them to be challenged, though the kids do sometimes go against school rules.  This is not a book to choose if you want to engage students in discovering new cultures -- it is very much about white, middle class people -- but it is a good story and I can think of no reason for you not to get ahold of it for your classroom library.

Acampora, Paul (2014) I Kill the Mockingbird.  New York:  Roaring Brook.

Image result for i kill the mockingbird

Opening lines:  "My mother's wheelchair does not fit through the bathroom door and
I don't know what to do about it."

Lucy, Elena, and Michael had this amazing teacher who they called Fat Bob.  Fat Bob died at the end of the previous school year and they have been trying to figure out how to do right by him.  When they read Harper Lee's  To Kill a Mockingbird they decide that everybody should read it.  Further, they believe the best way to make people want to read it is to make it scarce and hard to find.  So they visit bookstores throughout their area and take all the copies of To Kill and Mockingbird and hide them elsewhere in the store.  Their scheme starts to pick up momentum and soon grows out of control.  But how they solve that problem is only a part of the book.  Lucy, the narrator also has to figure out how to convince her mother to eat better so she will recover from her chemotherapy, and she has to figure out what to do about her friend Elena who think is that Lucy likes their other friend Michael as more than a friend.  Especially because what Elena says might be true.  Along the way the story includes a horror Santa with an axe, major home runs, Uncle Mort's bookstore, graveyard talks, and a movement that sweeps the country.  Fat Bob would be proud.

It is a fine book.

There is some mischief in the book, but nothing that would get it challenged.  This one would be best for fifth graders and up -- but would work really well for middle school.  I can't be sure, but I think it might make a good read aloud too. And chapter 17 might make a nice little dramatic reading for somebody.

Get it.

Terrell, Heather (2013) The Relic.  New York: Soho Teen.

 Image result for the relic terrell

Opening lines:  "Eamon throws his axe into the ice above his head.  He hits a perfect depression in the wall.  Pulling up hard, he kicks the bear claw toes of his climbing boots into the wall.   He repeats this practiced motion over and over.  Like some kind of arctic cat, he scales the frozen Ring."

I was really excited about this book.  It is such a cool idea for a dystopian novel.  In the near future, after an ice age, a medieval style community sends its adolescents on a rite of passage to plumb the crevasses of a frozen sea and bring back artifacts of the previous civilization.  Especially valuable artifacts (e.g. the ones that make refrence to the false god Apple) mean that the finder will win a seat on the ruling council.  So it is both a trial and a contest.    Eva, the daughter of the chief, decides after the apparently accidental death of her brother Eamon that she is going to compete in the Testing.  Maidens are allowed to do so, but it is very rare.  The book also features an interesting love triangle, and Eva proves to be a remarkably capable competitor and anyway, as I say, when I first heard about it, I as pretty excited.

But I ended up being disappointed in the book iself, mostly because the actual writing is pretty bad in places.  Eva, whose voice the book is written in, tends to spend most of her time thinking about her motivation to do something and asking questions about why she should or shouldn't do it.  I can imagine books in which such an approach would lead me to be very interested in the main character and share in that character's difficulty in making certain decisions -- but this book is supposed to be, to some extent, an action book.  In the moments when things get really exciting -- when Eva is scaling an ice wall or dogsled racing against the other competitors or helping a competitor in clear violation of the rules -- she begins this lengthy and tiresome internal monologue.  It made me want to scream at the book sometimes.

Maybe you like that sort of thing -- maybe it just isn't my kind of book.  If so, you might want to pick it up and read a chapter or two and see what you think.  There is nothing particularly offensive here -- though I suspect some readers could see parts of the book as an indictment against religion -- and I doubt it would be challenged.   I'll leave the choice to read it up to you, though.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Three Classic Adolescent Novels about violins, horses, and a kid named Hubbo.

Classic novels are interesting.  Sometimes even though a book might be forty or fifty or a hundred years old, the storytelling is so spellbinding that the dated references and anachronisms fade so far into the background that you don't even notice them.  Other times it becomes clear that tthe way we view the world has changed so much that even a good story can get bogged down my moments of cultural disconnection for the modern reader.  Here are three adolescent novels I read this summer.  Some of them would be excellent for a contemporary classroom.  Others might be more of a stretch.

Wolff, Virginia Euwer (1991) The Mozart Season.  New York: Scholastic.

Opening lines:  "In Mr. Kaplan's studio is a needlepoint pillow, on a chair.  On one side of it is a violin.  The other side says, 'A teacher is someone who makes you believe you can do it.'"

Allegra Shapiro is going into eighth grade.  She loves playing the violin and is pretty good at it.  Toward the beginning of the summer, just after her softball team fails to make the playoffs, she finds out that on the strength of her audition tape, she has been accepted into the prestigious Oregon Bloch Competition.  She will compete at the end of the summer, if she decides to go for it.  Over a summer that includes subbing for an injured violinist at a community orchestra concert, a visit from her rather odd aunt, family mysteries, and a quest to find the tune that a dancing homeless man has been looking for for decades, Allegra practices and focuses, and finally makes a decision.

This is not an action book, but it doesn't move slowly either.  Allegra's first person narrative voice, her interesting life, and a plot with some twists and turns will keep students interested.  Obviously, this will be an easy book to convince violin-playing students to read, but I think it might be worth suggesting that thoughtful non-musicians give it a shot as well.  i would recommend it for strong fourth-grade readers and up.

There is nothing in this book that I noticed that would be offensive to parents or cause it to be challenged.  I would probably work as a decent read-aloud, though it doesn't strike me as one that would grab all the students. This would be a great book for your classroom library, though.

Doyle, Brian (1988) Easy Avenue.  Toronto:  Groundwood.


Opening lines:  "My last name is O'Driscoll and my first name is Hulbert.  When I was little I couldn't say the word Hulbert very well.  The word Hulbert came out something like Hubbo and everybody started calling me that.  They still call me that.  Hubbo.  Hubbo O'Driscoll."

One of the reasons to read classic adolescent literature is to get a sense for how much it has changed over the last three or four decades.  Easy Avenue is a funny and interesting book, but it isn't in any kind of a hurry to get to the plot of the book.  When  I was six chapters in, I almost gave up on it.  There was no real plot development at that point and I wasn't sure I even liked the main character, Hubbo yet, and the period wasn't always described in a way kids can relate to.  Also, in the first half of the book, there are cruel pranks that go unpunished.  In fact, I am not sure why I kept reading.

But I did.  And here is the thing.  At the end of this book Hubbo shows himself to be a truly Nobel young man in a way that is very uplifting, and believe it or not, made the first half of the book worthwhile.

I am not sure what kind of kid would like this book.  It is short (only 118 pages) and so it might make a good read aloud if you can hold students attention for the first half.  There is a girl in the story whose reputation is unfairly damaged.  The language is not explicit, but I suppose could cause very sensitive parents to object (though I would find that highly unlikely).  The vocabulary is at a level that a fifth-grader could understand it, but it might be better for middle school (especially for the kid who always picks the shortest book).  I wouldn't call this one a must-have, but if you stumble across it, it would not be a bad addition to your classroom library.

Seredy, Kate (1935) The Good Master.  New York:  Scholastic.

Opening Lines;  "Jancsi was up bright and early that morning and at work milking the cows.  He was so excited that he couldn't stay in bed.  For today Cousin Kate was coming."

One of the things books should do is give readers a good into other cultures, times, and worlds.  This book brings the reader into Hungary around the turn of the 20th century.  The question, however, is what we do with a culture that has values that may be at odds with the values of 21st century America.  On the one hand, this is a heartwarming story about a rather difficult city girl  who is sent by her parents to live with her Uncle and Aunt and cousin and through kindness and strictness, learns to behave correctly and becomes a delightful person to be around (and along the way we learn about Hungarian Easter Egg art and some other cultural details).  On the other hand, it is a story that describes corporal punishment as being a good thing, moves from breaking gender stereotypes to reinforcing them, and is particularly harsh in generalizing "gypsy" children as "swarms of dirty little wretches..." who "...steal like magpies."  There are some parallels between this book and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew particularly in the way that Kate is tamed.  There are some negative depictions of the city as an exclusively unhealthy place.  There are also truly wonderful moments, such as when Kate is reunited with her dad. So this book is kind of all over the place.

I would have a hard time imagining this book being used in a straightforward way in a classroom, but I could see it as an excellent subject of a critical response by fifth graders and up.  If it is used in that way, it would be less likely to be objected to by parents.  Read it yourself and see what you think.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Three Excellent Graphic Novels -- with three amazing female protagonists

Stevenson, Noelle (2015) Nimona.  New York:HarperCollins.

Opening lines;  Lord Ballister Blackheart:  "What?  Who are you?  How did you get in here?"
Nimona:  "Hey, Boss!  The name's Nimona."
Clanking sound as he extends his metal arm.
Nimona:  "Oh. huh.  The agency sent me.  I'm your new sidekick."
Lord Balckheart:  "That makes no sense.  Why would they send some kid to be my sidekick?"

Thus begins the story of Nimona and Lord Blackheart.  Nimona thinks of Blackheart as the most accomplished villain ever and wants to learn to be just like him.  She is disappointed when she finds out that Lord Blackheart has rules -- he doesn't kill people indiscriminately, least of all his arch nemesis, Sir Goldenloin.  When, with Nimona's help, Blackheart discovers corruption in the kingdom, he needs to seek out his hated enemy Goldenloin to help.  And somewhere along the way Nimona realizes that Blackheart is close to uncovering her secret, that she is not just a shapeshifting kid sidekick, but far more.

Stevenson draws here characters right on the edge of cartoony and realistic and is remarkably good with using the panel divisions to tell the story in a way that is funny and gripping at the same time.

This is a fun and funny story that would be great for middle school and older readers who have read some comic books or fantasy (doing so will help them to get more of the jokes.)  It is remarkable story about loyalty, friendship, and, strangely (for a book with the villain as the main character) about doing the right thing.

There is nothing particularly controversial about this book.  Though in the interest of thoroughness, I should mention that some adult readers might wonder if the book is implying a relationship that is more than friendship between Blackheart and Goldenloin, but any such implications are speculative at best (and no student-reader shy of high school is likely to consider them. )  Bottom line, it is a wonderful book.  Buy it.

Bell, Cece (2014) El Deafo.  New York: Abrams.

Opening Lines:  "I was a regular little kid.  I played with my mom's stuff.  I watched tv with my big brother, Ashley and my big sister, Sarah.  I rode on the back of my father's bicycle.  I found caterpillars with my friend Emma.  And I sang."

On page 2, however, Cece gets very sick.  She is rushed to the hospital where she is diagnosed with Spinal Meningitis.  Eight pages later, she is out of the hospital but eventually realizes that she is deaf.

And what happens next is amazing.  the best books in the world let you get inside the mind, body, emotions, and life of another person.  Bell's drawings and writing take you inside Cece's life.  You see her triumphs and loses and struggles to fit in while wearing a clunky hearing aid around her neck.  Bell draws all her characters as rabbits.  While I have no idea why she chooses to do this, I can tell you that it works.

The bottom line is that this is a story of a little kid trying to fit in and having a hard time of it.  So yea, it is valuable as a way to live inside the shoes of a deaf person for a while, but it might be even more important as a story about how schoolmates can be jerks, but also how eventually things get better.

Fourth graders and up would enjoy this one.  Cece discovers at one point in the story that she can listen in when her teacher leaves the room but forgets to take off the mic that hangs around her neck, and as a result, Cece becomes invaluable to the class as a lookout when they are engaging in mischief of one sort or another.  I suppose some parents might object to the rule-breaking but it serves to make a point about the difficulties of fitting in socially with a difference when you are in late elementary school.  Buy this one too.

Cliff, Tony ((2013) Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant.  New York: First Second.

Opening lines:  Constantinople (Istanbul) 1807.
 Lieutenant Erdemoglu Selim:  "Tell ne friend, who is this?"
Cafe Owner:  Hm?  Ah.  Halukoglu Bahadir.  Freshly returned from Siam I hear."
Selim:  "Mm, yes.  He's been telling stories of it."
Owner:  "Sound's very exotic."
Selim:  "Very."

Selim leads an uneventful life working in the court as part of the Janissary Corps.  He likes cafes, hates fighting, loves a good cup of tea, and avoids stress at all costs.  Unfortunately, he is sent to interrogate a recently caught thief who seems to be a combination of Indiana Jones, Wonder Woman, and maybe that sword-wielding elf who unaccountably appeared in the second Hobbit movie.  She loves the tea he brews for her and tells him her whole story.  As Selim is reporting to his superiors, Delilah Dirk escapes and soon Selim finds himself branded a traitor and, along with Delilah, on the run from his own fellow troops.

And there begins a romp through the middle east that is the sort of non-top action and wisecracks that would make Indiana Jones proud.  The illustrations are reminiscent of the best comic books -- they move the action along and make the story magically bombastic.

This one is good for fourth grade and up as well.  There is a bit of violence, but really more property damage than lives lost.  This, too, is one you need for your classroom library.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Weapons of Math Destruction, Kid versus Captain, and the Incarnation of War looks for Love

I got lost in some excellent science fiction and fantasy novels the last couple of week.  I have got some excellent graphic novels on deck, but first, some good old fashioned SF/F stuff.

Sanderson, Brandon (2013) The Rithmatist  New York: Tom Doherty.

Opening lines:  Lilly's lamp blew out as she bolted down the hallway.  She threw the lamp aside, smashing oil across the painted wall and fine rug.  The liquid glistened in the moonlight.
      The house was empty.  Silent, save for her panicked breathing.  She had given up on screaming.  Nobody seemed to hear.

This book is by far the best book I have read so far this year.  The story takes place on a world very similar to ours, only the United States is a grouping of islands and the main focus of society is fighting the wild chalklings who are ravenously destructive neasts that are confined to the isle of Nebrask.  The human army keeping them at bay are Rithmatists, who can use a kind of geometry-based magic (yes, you read that right) to keep the chalklings under control.  Joel is a remarkably smart boy who does poorly at school and is really interested in the Rithmatists, even though he is not one.  When he gets a position working as the assistant to a kindly Rithmatist professor for the summer, Joel meets Melody, herself a failing Rithmatist and soon all three of them become involved in a murder mystery with serious implications for the continued survival of humans.

This book keeps you guessing about who the bad guy is (and the ending is satisfying in that you might be able to guess part of it, but by and large, you won't see it coming)  Joel is an excellent protagonist as is Melody, once you get to know her.  And it turns out that geometry is actually pretty fascinating when it is a matter of life and death.  This is a book where there are clear divisions (and some fuzzy ones too) between the forces of good and evil and you will find yourself rooting hard for the good guys.  It has a hint that something romantic might develop between Joel and Melody -- just enough to be intriguing but not to distract from the story.

I know some smart fourth and fifth grade readers who would enjoy this, but it is really ideal for sixth grade and up.  And for math teachers looking to build up their classroom library -- run to your local independent bookstore and buy it today.  Your students will love it (but you will love it even more).  In fact, you might consider using it as a read aloud.  There is nothing particularly offensive int he book, though it is scar in some portions and occasionally the violence is pretty graphic.  Nothing compared to prime time television, though.

Get it.  Read it. Have your students read it.  Good stuff.

Card, Orson Scott (2008) Ender in Exile.  New York: Tor.

Opening Lines:
Dear John Paul and Theresa Wiggin,
You understand that during the most recent attempt by the Warsaw Pact to take over the International Fleet, our sole concern at EducAdmin was the safety of the children.  Now we are finally able to begin working out the logistics of sending the children home.
      We assure you that Andrew will be provided with continuous surveillance and an active bodyguard throughout his transfer from the IF to American governmental control.

I am assuming you have read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.  You haven't?  Seriously?  Look, there is no sense even talking about Ender in Exile until you have read Ender's Game.  Go read it now.  I'll wait.

Okay.  You read it?  Good.  It is an amazing book isn't it.  I remember reading it when it first came out.  There were a lot of people ravenously waiting for the next book in the series to come out.  Before long, Card released Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead and they were good -- but they didn't have the same kind of gripping story that Ender' Game did.  Then, in 2008 (apparently -- I just discovered it last month in an awesome independent bookstore in Moab, Utah) Card came out with Ender in Exile.  I'll tell you what -- Ender in Exile is a much better sequel than the Speaker for the Dead or Xenocide.  Ender in Exile takes place just after the triumphant end of the Formic War.  The nations of earth are starting to fight over who will control the genius children who helped win the war.  Ender and his sister Valentine make the decision to leave in a ship that is carrying colonists to inhabit one of the dead Formic worlds.  The journey will take two years on board the ship, but while they are travelling, forty years will pass on Earth.  When they arrive, Ender is to serve as governor.  Unfortunately, the captain of the starship they are on has his own designs on that position.  How can Ender, a twelve year old boy, possibly outwit the man who has all the control (and also avoid an assassin who awaits him at the colony and negotiate his first romantic relationship.)

This book isn't' as good as the Rithmatist, and  it isn;t as good as Ender's Game -- but that still leaves plenty of room for it to be honking good.  This book is perhaps best for anyone who has already read and loved Ender's Game.  Nothing particularly objectionable here besides a couple of very occasional  vulgar words.  Too long for a read aloud, but excellent for a sixth grade and up classroom library.

Anthony, Piers (1986) Wielding a Red Sword.  New York: Del Rey.

Opening lines:  It was a travelling show, the kid that drifted from village to village, performing for thrown rupees.  There was a chained dragon who would snort smoke and sometimes fire when its keeper signaled.

When I was in high school I think I read very book Piers Anthony had written.  I started with the gripping and hilarious Xanth series, then read several other books before I discovered his incarnations of immortality series.  I devoured those too.  But somehow the whole lot of them got lost in a move somewhere and it wasn't until I recently encountered this book in a bookstore that I remembered how much I liked it and re-read it thinking about its appropriateness for the classroom.

And that is where things get difficult.  It is an interesting book.  Mym, the main character is a prince who runs away.  He falls in love with a circus performer, but then ends up agreeing to take the mantle of the incarnation of War.  Soon he has a pale horse that can move astonishingly fast and a red sword that can stop time.  However, he finds it difficult to maintain relationships.  He also finds out that the incarnation of Evil is trying to manipulate him.

It is an interesting and fun premise and makes for a good fantasy novel, but i had forgotten the enthusiasm with which Piers Anthony descries the physical nature of War's interaction with several women who he becomes involved in.  I don't remember that affecting me much as a high school kid, and there are some interesting themes that work themselves out as War tries to figure out how physical attractiveness, intellectual interaction, and deep caring are parts of what makes love work.  The female characters in the book tend to be pretty passive and certainly couldn't stand up to Katniss, Triss, or Hermione Granger.  In fact is was somewhat startling to me to remember that just a few short decades ago there was a clearer divide between boy books and girl books.

I am not sure this one is suited for a high school classroom.  It is a good story, but perhaps best left for readers to discover on thier own.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Weird Words, Genius Clusters, and the Ghost Army of World War Two

My apologies.  It has been a couple of weeks since I have last posted.  I have been hiking five national parks out west with my family.  But that gave me a lot of time to get some reading done too -- so here we go.  Today I want to highlight three excellent non-fiction books that you might not normally think of for use with middle school and high school students.

Beyer, Rick; Sayles, Elizabeth (2015)  The Ghost Army of World War Two:  How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery.  New York:  Princeton Architectural Press.

During World War Two, the United States army gathered artists, sound engineers, architects, and others who could think outside the box to form a top secret unit whose job was to fool the enemy.  using rubber inflatable tanks, bogus uniforms, and recordings of tanks, trucks, and men, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops traveled throughout Europe on a moment's notice to plug holes in the allied line by impersonating units that were not there, to convince the Nazi army that the Allies were planning an offensive where in a different place than they actually were, and to generally cause confusion.  The 23rd had to be able to alter their uniforms quickly, give the impression there that they were a force hundreds of times bigger than they actually were, imitate the styles of each radio operator in the units they were imitating, and also fool allied troops enough to maintain secrecy.  The unit included several men who sent on to e notable artists, sculptors, and included Private Bill Blass, who went on to be a famous fashion designer.

This book's intended audience is adults, but the language is fully accessable to high school students.  There are a couple of elements in it, however, that could cause the book to be challenged.  Because there are some excerpts from diaries and letters home, the book does contain some vulgar language.  There is one reference, during the description of a particularly hard winter in 1944-45, when the troops attempted to decorate a Christmas tree with radar-jamming tin foil and balloons made from condoms.  There is also mention on two different occasions to  the men of the 23rd going to brothels, though in both occasions it was primarily to do life drawings (some of which are included in the book -- women in their underwear -- which also could be problematic for many schools).

This book covers history, strategy, and the difficulty or war for those who fought in it.  In spite of the potentially objectionable parts, I would encourage high school history teachers and reading teachers to check it out.  It is an excited narrative of an aspect of World War Two that most people don't know about.

Bierma, Nathan (2009) The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English.  Sherwood:  William, James and Company.

Opening Lines:  "I used to be picky -- really picky -- about English grammar and usage.  By the time I was in high school, at the dinner table I was correcting sentences that ended in a preposition.  I was shaking my head scornfully when someone confused "lay" and "lie".  I was trying to right the coruse of the English language one error at a time."

Nathan Bierma goes on to explain how, after a course taught by legendary English professor James VandenBosch, he came to realize that English has morphed in so many directions over its long history, and has incorporated words form so many other languages, that it is more important to celebrate its flexibility and diversity than it is to try to freeze it in time and get everyone to standardize how they use it.

And so what Bierma has written is a celebration of the quirkiness of our language.  Here you will find an explanation of the history of the pronunciation of the word Arkansas, a list of Australian idioms (like "He's got a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock"), he truth about how many words Eskimos have for snow, the history of the word meh, and a definition of the word snollygoster.  Students who love words and where they came from (and i acknowledge that such students might be in the minority) wll get a kick out of this book.  Middle school and high school English teachers should especially consider this one.

Weiner, Eric (2016)  The Geography of Genius.  New York:  Simon and Shuster.

Eric Weiner set out to answer what seems at first like it might be a simple quesiton.  What makes a place a haven for geniuses?  Athens, Greece during the time of Plato, Socrates, Aescalus, Aristotle, and Alexander; Florence, Italy during the Renaissance; Edinburgh, Scotland during the scientific revolution; and Silicon Valley in contemporary California -- are all examples of such pockets of genius.

The further Weiner digs into the question, though, the more complicated the answer becomes.  Ancient Greece had a strong community ethic, consumed large amounts of diluted wine, and was a place where there was a lot of walking and talking.  Were these important variables?  Florence was a place of civil unrest and political uncertainty, vast wealth, ready cheap labor, and a lot of artistic competition within its walls and from other cities.  In each place Weiner visits, he seems to expand the number of variables and the complexity of his questions.  But it isn't frustrating, because with each new city and time period considered, the reader gets a more complete picture of what genius is.  This is a book that won't necessarily be a crowd-pleaser, but at the same time could grab student-readers who have an interest in history, science, math, art, or solving mysteries.

It might also be interesting summer reading for teachers who want to read something a little different.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Is friendship between a math nerd and an athlete even possible?

Hasak-Lowy, Todd (2013) 33 Minutes until Morgan Sturtz Kicks my Butt.  New York: Aladdin..

Opening lines:  11:41 AM "Think about this:  Had the British not won the French and Indian War," Mr Griegs says, "We'd all be speaking French right now."
Fact: I am in Social Studies.
My hand goes up.  I'm not sure I want my hand to be up, but too late.  It's up.

Sam Lewis is a seventh-grader.  A year ago, he and his best friend Morgan were an inseparable video-game playing team.  In spite of the fact that Sam was on the Math team and liked to do physics experiments for fun, and Morgan is more of an athlete, their friendship was strong.   Since then, things have gone downhill.  Chris, a new kid, showed up.  At first it was like the three musketeers, but gradually Chris and Morgan's friendship strengthened and Sam and Morgan's friendship waned.  But how is it that Sam now finds himself in a position where an accidental slip caused Morgan to think that Sam insulted him (which Sam kind of did, but he didn't mean it) and now everyone in school has heard that at the end of the day, Morgan is going to kick Sam's butt.  Sam's um,.. friend Amy thinks Sam should talk to Morgan and work things out, but Sam is reluctant.  On the other hand, the end of the school day is coming soon. What is going to happen.

This book is not the greatest middle school novel ever, but it isn't bad.  Sam is in a position that many middle school kids find themselves in.  He is struggling to figure out how this whole social life thing works, and finds that every time he thinks he understands social dynamics, he is wrong.  It is easy to root for Sam. His self-deprecating humor makes him a very sympathetic narrator, and the relationship between him and Amy is a developing middle school relationship that stays full of romantic tension without going anywhere.

The book jacket blurbs tell me that it is laugh-out-loud funny, and maybe it is, but the story his a little close to home for me, and I found it hard to laugh at Sam, even in the midst of a food fight.  My guess, though, is that most middle school kids will not have the problem I did and will find the story quite funny at times.  And I did enjoy the ending very much.

This book is ideal for middle school -- though it may not have enough action for some middle school boys and may not have enough romance for some middle school girls.  This book would be a nice one to round out a middle school classroom library nonetheless.  It could be a pretty good read-aloud book.  I don't see it working for a class to study.  It has some themes, but they don't run too deep.

I found nothing here that I thought would prompt parents to object (though I have been surprised before).

Monday, May 9, 2016

Three Fun Graphic Novels (that will not answer any existential questions).

Luke, Deb (2015)  The Lunch Witch  New York:  Papercutz.  

Image result for The Lunch Witch

Opening lines:  Grunhilda the Black Heart:  "For generations and generations, the women in my family have stirred up trouble in a big, black pot.  / Needs more eye of newt./  Still bland.  /  My great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great / -great grandmother.../ invented the.../ recipe for;;;/ Haansel-and Gretel pie. "

This graphic novel is about the unlikely friends that develops between a witch who gets a job as a cafeteria lady and a girl named Madison who is in danger of flunking out of school.  When a spell goes awry and Madison gets turned into a toad, it is up the the witch to save her, over the protests of her dead ancestors who are angry that the witch is trying to help someone.  This book might contain a theme or two, but mostly it is just a fun story.

The illustrations are grey and angular and no one in the story is pleasant to look at.  It is a funny book at times, and the caricature nature of the illustrations might contribute a bit to that, but generally it seems to ma the at the words and images are not always supporting each other the way I might hope they would.

This book is probably best for third grade and up.  There is nothing particularly offensive in it.  The book does use the word "turd" once and the illustrations are creepy and grey.  The Witch character is neither admirable nor the sort of person readers would want to emulate.  She gets fired in the first five pages, then accepts the job as lunch lady only because she needs to be able to feed her pet bats.  Her spellcasting is often incompetent.  It is hard to imagine someone arguing that reading this book would lead any students in the direction of witchcraft -- it seems far more likely it would convince students of the value of getting a good job.  There is nothing truly problematic here.

Stevenson, Noelle; Ellis, Grace; Brooke; Allen (2015)  Lumberjanes:  Beware the Kitten Holy.  Los Angeles:  Boom Box.

Opening Lines:  Gasp/ Rustle, Rustle / Aaaahhhhh  Aaaaahhhhh.  Aaaa.  / Mal, Molly, What in the Joan Jett are you doing?

The Lumberjanes are kind of like girl scouts -- except that the Lumberjanes are friends that fight three-eyed saber-toothed foxes, river monsters, evil eagles, yetis, and possessed boy scouts.  There is usually a mystery to be solved, and each of the girls contributes toward solving it.

This graphic novels was originally released as a regular run comic book, but the issues are here recast as chapters (each of which begins with a parodic page from the Lumberjanes' Handbook.) and it works better than most rebound regular run collections.

This is not a story that is going to have deep themes, character development, or one that will contribute to a profound understanding of our purpose in the world.  Themes of friendship and cooperation are present, but not really developed in a serious way.  I loved that there was some cryptography in the book and a few references to things like the Fibonacci sequence -- but these are not exactly common.

As you can see from the cover, the illustrations are cartoony and fun.  The story can be a little hard to follow, though, and at first it is kind of difficult to identify each character's uniquenesses in the midst of the frenetic fight scenes.  Eventually though, readers will catch on.

 This one is perhaps best for fourth grade and up (I know some high school students who are fans) and probably more interesting to females than males.  They are unlikely to be challenged, partly because Stevenson and Ellis use the time honored comic book tradition of substituting made up oaths for more vulgar terms.  In this case, the girls tend to say things like "What the Mae Jamison is going on?' -- substituting famous females for oaths.

This is a fun series and may be just the thing for getting some reluctant readers who liked Babymouse and the like when they were younger to pick up a book again.

Stevenson, Noelle; Ellis, Grace; Brooke; Allen (2015)  Lumberjanes:  Friendship to the Max.  Los Angeles:  Boom Box.

Opening lines:  huff huff huff huff///  Jo!  Where are you? / I'm over here.  Where are you? // Jo, hurry! / I'm coming!  Hold on!

In the second book of the series, the Lumberjanes fight insane dinosaurs, befriend a were bear, and deal with the fact that one of their number may be magical, evil, and or a Greek goddess.

As with the previous book, this one contains a lot of adventure and action, and would be a good addition to a classroom library, but there isn't enough here to focus on as a reading circle book or a book to study in class.