Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Best mathematics-based graphic novel I have read in at least five years!

Andriopoulos, Thodoris (2010) Who Killed Professor X?  New York:  Birkhauser.

Opening lines:  "Paris, 1900 / The City of Light is getting ready to host one of the most important conferences ever held in the history of mathematics."

Shortly after giving the opening lecture of a worldwide math conference, a famous German mathematician, called Professor X, (no relation to the X-men's mentor) falls over dead in a hotel dining room.  A police inspector is called in and, with the help of a trusted mathematician, begins to try to determine who committed the crime.  One of the difficulties, however, is that the suspects are mathematicians and have given statements that are full of math language.  So the inspector and his assistant must solve the problems to determine the location of each suspect at the moment of the murder.

As the inspector goes through each of the suspects, his assistant, Kurt, fills us in on their backgrounds.  The suspects may sound familiar to you.  We find out about Rene, Blaise, Isaac, Leonhard, Carl Friedrich, Pheidias, and Sophie,  We learn about them and their lives as we consider whether they might have been the murderer.  Working the solution provides another pice of the puzzle necessary for solving the mystery.

I'll admit, having the statements essentially be math problems is a little contrived, and not every single student will latch hold of this book, but for students anywhere from middle school to college who like a good story and a puzzle, this is a great way to connect them to geometry and algebra -- in a way that they won't even notice and will probably enjoy greatly.

I enjoyed the book a great deal.  My sixth grade daughter, who is a bit of a math wiz,did not find the book particularly engaging.  My daughter who is a high school senior (and not particularly interested in math, though she is no slouch) read the whole thing cover to cover.  I have a colleague who is a math prof who is quite excited about it, but so is his wife who is a landscape architect.  So it is hard to predict who will latch onto this book and who won't -- but since those who like it, really like it.  I suggest you buy yourself a copy as soon as you can.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Two Fantasy YA novels (one of which is scary) and Two Children's Lit Blogs You Should Listen To

DiTerlizzi, Tony (2010)  The Search for Wondla  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Opening Lines:"Eva Nine was dying.  The tiny scarlet dots on her hand mirrored the glowering eyes of the snake that had just bitten her.."

Eva Nine has lived her whole life in a sealed environment, cared for by a robot called Muthr.  She is in training for the day she will go outside.  Eva Nine knows there are other Sanctuaries out there somewhere and she is hoping that someday she will meet another person.  But when an invader breaks into the sanctuary, destroying the place, Eva Nine finds herself climbing a ladder, opening a hatch, and escaping into a world that is not at all what she expected.  In that world, she will find friends, enemies, and, perhaps, the answer to the questions that plague her.

This is a wonderfully written story, and a nicely illustrated one at that.  It takes the reader into another world that has enough challenges, dangers, and difficulties to have readers on the edge of their seats, and enough friends and resources that Eva Nine can meet those challenges.  It is also the kind of fully developed world that is interesting to explore along with Eva.Nine.

It is a big book (489 pages) but written at a level that a strong fourth grade readers up through high school (and college, my amazing student Megan was the one who loaned this to me) would be able to find their way into it, and though the protagonist is a girl, the story is action-packed enough that many boys might be interested in Eva Nine's adventures as well.  There are no particularly wonderful themes int he book, but neither is there anything offensive.  It is simply a fun story.  And with a couple of sequels out there, this might be just the thing to keep that voracious reader in your class busy for a while.

Choldenko, Gennifer (2011) No Passengers Beyond this Point.  New York:  Scholastic.

Opening lines:  "My mom says worry is like a leaky faucet -- every drip makes you imagine something bad on the way...trouble...trouble...trouble,,,do something."

If Franz Kafka wrote an adolescent novel, this might well be what it would be like (up until the ending, which is decidedly un-kafkaesque).  Finn Tomkins and hi sisters India and Mouse are flying on a plane from Thousand Oaks, California to Fort Baker Colorado.  They are flying by themselves because there mom is still working a job in California and their Uncle Red is waiting for them at Fort Baker.  Their plane, however, experiences turbulence, and when it lands, and the Tompkins kids are met by a driver, they find out they are being driven not to Fort Baker, but to Falling Bird. Falling bird at first seems like a dream town.  The kids names are on billboards welcoming them and there are crowds shouting their names.  They each get their own house with everything just as they wold like it.  Before long, however, the dream turns into a dark nightmare world where they each carry a stopwatch counting down the time they have left, and though they are trying desperately to get to Fort Baker, or back to their mom, like a Kafka novel, they find themselves trapped in waiting rooms where no one ever leaves, given the choice to sacrifice their time remaining in exchange for a job in the bureaucracy of this strange new world, and on the run from pretty much everyone who just wants them to give up trying to escape and join the hollow fulfilling life that everyone in the town of Falling Bird seems to have bought into. Unlike a Kafka novel, though, there is eventually an ending and it is actually a good one in which the character's attitudes toward themselves and each other change in good and heartening ways.  That sentence makes it sound like suddenly at the end, things get smarmy -- that isn't it.  After you have gone through the nightmare world with these characters, you share their joy in returning to their lives.

The author, Gennifer Choldenko is best known for Al Capone Does my Shirts.  This is a very different sort of book, but it is well-written.  You will want to read it before you find the student reader this is right for.  Fourth graders could handle the vocabulary, but you would need a particular kind of reader with a taste for the creepy.  This might be a good book to move addicts of the Goosebumps series into slightly higher quality writing.  There is nothing here, apart from the overall tone of the book, that anyone would find objectionable.

Two Podcasts about Children's Literature I am Recommending:

The Yarn

The Yarn offers short fascinating interviews with creators of children's literature, mostly about the craft of knitting together a book.  I have listened to excellent interviews of Gary Schmidt, Jennifer Holm, Rebecca Stead, and others.  Well worth listening to!

Galaxy of Super Adventure is not like any podcast you have ever heard before.  It is not like any podcast on this planet.  In fact, I do not recall ever encountering anything like this anywhere in the galaxy (well, maybe that one time when i was visiting the Xentarian Chaskadhel, but that was a long time ago).  Each podcast starts out with a kind of radio play about Ben, Jerzy, and Zack aboard their space ship, After a series of events involving really cool sound effects (and sometimes fear gremlins, sentient mustaches,and/or teddy grahams shortages) they eventually settle down and offer the most profoundly insightful conversations about graphic novels and how they work and why they matter and stuff like that.   If you want to learn more about how graphic novels work, this is the place.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Funniest YA novel about breakfast cereal mascots I have ever read!

Rex, Adam (2012) Cold Cereal  New York: HarperCollins.

Opening lines:  In the busy airport, baggage turned slowly on a carousel.  A crowd of people stood around it, arms crossed and waiting, some to them staring at the silent television bolted to the ceiling.  The closed captioning at the bottom of the screen was seven seconds late and often misspelled, so though the newscasters were back and reporting on the death of billionaire Sir Peter Humphreys, the words still read: BURLAP CRISP -- ANOTHR GOOD CEREAL FROM THE GOOD FILKS AT GOODCO // THERES A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC IN EVRY BOX.

Scott has these headaches -- and when he has them he sees weird stuff: mermaids, leprechauns, unicorns, and a talking rabbit.  Scott has always figured that is just part of what makes him different.  Then one day the talking rabbit that he is imagining steals his backpack and before long, Scott and his sister are drawn into a complicated plot involving a corrupt cereal company that is exploiting the magic in the world to not only sell more cereal, but also change the kids who are eating the cereal.  Along the way they will encounter revelations hoodlums, near escapes, plot twists, and an actual bigfoot.  

Adam Rex is the genius who wrote The True Meaning of Smekday and if you haven't read that, you should.  And if you read it and didn't think it was all that funny, then you must live a life devoid of joy or something because, boy howdy. was that a great book. (And if you saw the animated verson of it, called Home, I hope it as as good as the book but i really doubt it.

I would like to quote some of the funnier bits, but I can't because, well, it just doesn't work.  You need to be in the midst of the story for the humor to work.  And actually, besides the humor, it is a remarkably gripping book. Plus, there is both parody and satire in this book.  Good stuff.

This is best for strong middle school readers and up.  I cannot imaging anyone would object to this unless they think it is somehow arguing that unicorns and dragons really do exist. But even if it did, I cannot imagine what would be offensive about that.

Oh, and there are some nice inside jokes for theater kids too.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Two Good Classic Children's Books (one about rodents, the other about Jake and his grandpa)

O'Brien, Robert C. (1971) Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  New York:  Alladin

Opening lines:  Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice, lived in an underground house in the vegetable garden of a farmer named Mr. Fitzgibbon.  It was a winter house, such as some field mice move into when food becomes too scarce, and the living too hard in the woods and pastures.

I tried to read this book once when I was younger.  I had been told it was science fiction and so when I started reading it and found that it was not, in fact, about space travel, time travel, or alien invasions, bu rather about a mother mouse trying to protect her children and a community of hyper-intelligent rats who help her, I was disillusioned and stopped reading the book.  Recently, though, after years of not reading it, I found a copy to the book read it, and found it to be quite enchanting.

Mrs. Frisby is a field mouse, whose husband was killed by the farmer's cat years ago.  As the book opens, her son Timothy is very ill, and Mrs. Frisby is determined to figure out a way to help him.   A dangerous trip to the mouse who lives in the barn and serves as the doctor, leads her to undertake a quest, first to the see an owl (an encounter also fraught with danger) and then to meet with a secret society of rats.  She finds out that her late husband was a good friend to many more creatures than she thought, and she also finds out that the rats are experimental rats form the city, that their intelligence has been greatly increased, and that they intend to found their own self-sufficient community int he mountains.  Soon Mrs.Frisby and her new-found allies are neck deep in adventure.

This is a well-told tale, makes an excellent read-aloud book, is filled with the best kind of tension, but not terror, and not likely to draw fire from event the most persnickety parent.  It is a good one.  You should read it, especially if you haven't yet.

Park, Barbara (2000) The Graduation of Jake Moon  New York:  Atheneum.

Opening Lines:  There are these three eighth-grade boys.  They've just gotten out of school for the day.  And they're about to take off in different directions when they notice something going on in the trash dumpster at the other end of the parking lot.

Jake Moon has had a harder time in middle school than most kids.  He deals with the same middle school problems that everybody else does, but he also has to deal with Skelly.  Skelly is Jake's grandpa.  Skelly has Alzheimer's Disease and has for many years.  Jake is used to having the same conversations over and over with Skelly.  Jake is used to Skelly thinking he is Skelly's childhood friend.  In fact, Jake actually likes Skelly quite a bit.  But Skelly is requiring more and more care and Jack feels like he is sacrificing his life.  Then one day Skelly wanders off and Jack's life turns upside down.

This is an amazing book that speaks to the universal feeling that happens in middle school (and high school, and maybe adulthood too) that one is being pulled in different directions.  It shows a kid who is capable of great love in spite of his hard demeanor.  It also shows that even a grandparent buried beneath layers of Alzheimer's can express a mysterious love.  This would also make a great read-aloud book.

I doubt anyone would object to this book, but if they do, tell them to talk to me.