Monday, February 29, 2016

A Graphic Novel Not About Love and a Book About Naval Battles, Both Perfect for a Very Limited High School Audience.

O'Brian, Patrick (1979) The Fortune of War  New York:  Norton.

Opening Line:  The warm monsoon blew gently from the east, wafting HMS Leopard into the bay of Pulo Batang."

When I was little, my Dad loved to take me and my two brothers sailing.  The wind and waves and the push of the wind along with time with our dad, made it usually a wonderful experience.  Even when the wind would die down and we would be stuck off shore waiting for the slightest breeze, it was a fun thing to do.  I suppose there were moments during those sailing jaunts, when I must have imagined what it would have been like to be on a three-masted navy frigate during the War of 1812, with cannon fire and smoke and what it would have been like to have been on such a ship when the entire battle could turn on how well each vessel was captained.  If i didn't imagine such a thing, I should have.

Patrick O'Brian's series featuring Captain Jack Aubrey was not written for young adults, but those that are interested in sailing, naval battles, intrigue, and occasional moments of humor, might enjoy this series.  I am sure it is best o read them in order, but I have never done so.  I buy one of the series int he bookstore every now and then.  I don't worry about where in the series I am or how far Captain Aubrey has risen in the ranks.  Instead I just settle down and enjoy the story as it takes me aboard a wooden vessel and into a wonderful world of strategy and sailing.

This particular book takes Captain Aubrey and his good friend, Naval Surgeon (and secret agent) Stephen Maturin into the war of 1812 and all the battles, politics, and intrigue that you would expect.  Frankly, though, it doesn't really matter which book you grab.  They are all quite wonderful.  This, however, would not be a good book for a new reader.  The print is small, the vocabulary advanced, and the voice takes some getting used to before you begin to recognize the funny bits.  For the right student, though, this series could keep them busy for quite a while.

Shiga, Jason (2011) Empire State:  A Love Story (Or Not)  New York:  Abrams ComicArts.

Opening Lines:  "See ya tomorrow, Jimmy. / Bye. / Hey, come with me to Longs.  I wanna grab a pack of smokes."

There is a genre of graphic novels that exists somewhere between memoir and realism, that consists of a portrayal of the everyday lives of everyday people. It tends to be sort of low energy and a little cynical and a little on the edgy side.  Empire State fits into this category.  It is the story of Jimmy, an Asian-American 20-something who works in a library and lives with his mom.  Sara, his friend, moves to New York and Jimmy decides to follow her and confess his love for her.  Unfortunately, his plans go awry and he never is quite able to tell her how he feels.  And that is pretty much how it ends.

For most of your students, this would be a depressing and perhaps pointless graphic novel to read.  It certainly will not be the most popular book in your classroom library.  But there are always some students who want a story that rings true to their experience in the world.  Punk rock, Catcher in the Rye, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, black and white photography of poverty and destitution:  all these things appeal to kids who want to see their world mirrored in the art they consume.  Things don't always seem to work out.  Not every princess meets a prince.  Job offers don't always work out.  And sometimes coincidences work against us as well as for us.

The art mirrors these themes.  Shiga's main characters seem permanently slouched and pudgy.  The settings are typical and relatively uninteresting.  At one point, Jimmy goes to the observation deck at the Empire State building, hoping to meet Sara there.  Shiga draws the deck in a way that makes it seem more like a fenced in schoolyard than a place to see the city.  This is not a world of amazing vistas or unequaled metropolises, or redemptive love.  It is a world of the utterly ordinary and unremarkable.

Empire State is a graphic novels that will make that connection for that sort of student.  There is despair, banality, vulgar language, futility, mediocrity, and maybe some of the truth that student is looking for.  This is certainly not a graphic nvoel for everyone, but for some students, it might help them to know that they are not alone in how they see the world. Because of the language, it might be best to keep this one behind your desk and only loan it out to students who will be neither surprised nor offended.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Two Graphic Novels, One of Which Absolutely Grabbed Me

O'Connor, George (2016) Apollo, the Brilliant One  New York: First Second

Opening lines:

Okay, so normally I start out any given book commercial with the opening lines of the book.  I can't do that for this book because after I read it the first time, my daughters grabbed it and read it.  Then i read it the second time and my wife asked if she could bring it to her fourth grade classroom to show let one of her students (who is crazy about George O"Connor's Olympians series) read it.  I said that would be okay as long as he got it back to me quickly and he agreed.  But then he loaned it to one of his friends to read overnight and that kid loaned it to another kid and while I am sure it will find its way back to me eventually, I don't have ti now.  But I think the opening lines must be working pretty well, at any rate.

In the other books of the Olympian's series, George O'Connor has shown that he is a master of the graphic novel format.  For example, point-of-view in graphic novels is a very tricky thing.  The first several books int he Olympians series were told in third person (though usually with an interesting focus).  When he got to Poseidon, O'Connor decided to try first person.  He had to trash several finished drafts to get it to where he wanted, but it is an excellent book.  All this is to say that Apollo: The Brilliant One may be the best yet for point of view.  Apollo's story is told by the nine muses, each one bringing a different perspective to the understanding of this multi-faceted Greek god.  Apollo, you might remember from your grade school days, is the god of everything from the sun to music and poetry and a bunch of other things.  He is also incredibly heroic and incredibly flawed.

O'Connor manages to bring all the multiple (and sometimes contradictory) stories about Apollos into a coherent narrative that is true tot he myths, but is also delightfully readable.  And O'Connor's images are clear enough and detailed enough that they give young graphic novel aficionados and neophytes alike plenty to enjoy.

Oh, and by the way, Apollo is published by First Second books, hands down the best graphic novel publisher in the business.  It is also First Second's tenth anniversary of making awesome graphic novels.  I should probably send them a card or something, because they have made my life richer with graphic novels like Zita the Space Girl, Boxers and Saints, and too many more to mention.  Maybe you should send them a card too.

The book is probably best for third grade through high school.  If you teach in one of those grade levels, buy this book.  Your best readers and your students who are still becoming your best readers will thank you.

Prince: Liz (2014) Tomboy  San Francisco: Zest Books

Opening Lines:

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Liz Prince's Tomboy as I am about the George O'Connor book.  The idea of this book is excellent.  It is a kind of autobiographical sketch of a young tomboy and how she has trouble fitting in with boys and girls.  As this is the experience of a lot of girls who are not so girly, it obviously has a broad appeal.

The difficulty I had with this book is that the main character is hard to like much of the time.  She seems to be very self-focused (to be fair, what little kid isn't -- but somehow other books minimize this).  Since it is a kind of growing-comfortable-with-who-you-are/coming-of-age story, it makes sense that there would be some vulgar words in it, but there are a lot of them.  And Liz is saying them when she is in middle elementary school.  I know that some little kids talk like this, but that may make it hard for kids who don't talk like that to connect with Liz.  It would certainly make it hard to keep this book in a classroom library.

And then there is the fact that Liz has a (perhaps justifiable) persecution complex).  I get this too.  I am a nerd and always have been.  Middle school was rough for me until I found friends who didn't care about my nerdiness and in fact celebrated it.  Liz finds acceptance finally in the punk rock world.  But it takes a long time, and that hope in the end feels empty in some ways.

The line drawings are nicely rendered.  They are pretty sparse, but effective for the story.  It might not be a bad story for you to check out, but it would be hard to share it, in the context of your classroom, with the students who might benefit from it, without having the book challenged. I would have trouble recommending an age level for this.  It is certainly appropriate for adults, but they are perhaps the ones who need it least.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Two good books for fourth, fifth, and sixth grade boys especially

Paulsen, Gary (1989)  The Winter Room. New York:  Dell Yearling

Opening lines:  "In the spring, everything is soft.  Wayne is my older brother by two years and so he thinks he knows more than I can ever know.  He said Miss Halverson, who teaches eighth grade, told him spring was a time of awakening, but I think she's wrong.  And Wayne is wrong too."

Everyone knows Paulsen's book Hatchet.  It is amazing, though, how many of Paulsen's other books remain on the shelves, unread.  This is a rambling set of four big interwoven stories, and within each of them, countless other stories. Here you will find the story of two boys trying to imitate their favorite western television programs by jumping from the hayloft of a barn down onto a horse and what happens next.  here you will find the story of a practical-joker elderly Norwegian farmer who, when he knew he was going to die in the deep winter, opened all the doors of his house and went into the smallest room, then lay down ont he floor with his arms and legs spread wide, knowing that his friend would find him and would have to figure out how to get his body out of the house.  And here is the larger overarching story of two boys who idolize their uncle, lose faith in his amazing powers, and then find that faith rekindled.

At 102 pages, this would make a good quick read-aloud or a good book to give to students who don't have the stamina to read a longer work yet.  Students without senses of humor, or those opposed to stories that take place in rural places should probably take a pass on this one.

Gantos, Jack (1994)  Heads or Tails:  Stories from the Sixth Grade.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux.

"I crept up on my diary.  Carefully I undid the lock with the small key I kept on a string around my neck, then slowly opened it.  "Ughhhh," I moaned.  The pages were filled with squished spiders."

Jack is a sixth grader with an odd life.  His dad says he has a new job and they are going to move out of the lower class neighborhood they live in with weird neighbors and alligators in the canal.  Jack keeps getting his brother into trouble.  Jack never means to, but each time it happens, his parents seem to get more frustrated with him.  Jack joins the safety patrol so he can talk to Donna, a girl he likes, but then she quits the safety patrol and he has to deal with a crabby lady whose house is next to where he walks kids across the street.  And there is a hurricane on the way.  Fortunately, Jack seems to be able to find joy or at least humor in all of his difficult circumstances..  The book is kind of dark at moments (but then, so is life as a sixth grader) but overall, seems to have a positive upswing.

Like The Winter Room, this book has an overarching story, but at the same time seems to be a collection of shorter episodes.  This might be frustrating for more experienced readers looking for a single large plot to drive the action, but for less experienced readers, the episodic stories might help them be able to take smaller bites and digest their reading as they go.

There is some mild swearing in this book (I believe the word "hell" comes up once, but nothing here that would likely cause the book to be challenged. It is a good book.