Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Two Edgy High School Graphic Novels You Might Want to Check Out

Seagle, Steven T.; Kristiansen, Teddy (2013) Genius  New York:  First Second.

Opening lines:  It's always the little things / Small notions lost to the complex mind because of their innate simplicity/ Ideas beating on the subconscious like sand grains depositing themselves on shores until some kid scoops them up and notices/  That it is not just some gritty mortar muck.../ It's also something smaller...simpler.../  You have to see the big picture to build a sand castle/  But you have to appreciate the small picture to understand the sand./  I was always pretty smart.

Ted is a physicist near the midpoint of his career.  His job is in jeopardy unless he can come through with a breakthrough in his research soon.  When he finds out that his senile father-in-law worked as an MP and that Albert Einstein confided in him about some ideas he was working on, Ted sees a solution.  All he has to do is get the information out of his hostile and incoherent father-in-law.  Somewhere along the way, though, Ted begins to ask himself what it is he wants out of life.

Often graphic novels resist categorization.  I cannot tell you whether this one counts as a YA book or whether it is only intended for adult audiences.  There are some frank discussions of sexuality, puberty, impotence, and it is probably not suited for study in a high school classroom.  Nor is it necessarily the sort of book that you wold find yourself recommending to a wide swath of students.  But here is the thing:  in spite of all of Ted's flailing attempts to make the life of a college physics researcher work for him -- in site of the ways he is neglecting his wife and children in pursuit of the fame of making a really big discovery -- in the end he finally figures out what is really important.  And the final six pages or so are worth the price of the book.  I think it might be a very good book for high school seniors trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives.  Read it first, though.  This is the sort of book that might easily be challenged -- for all the wrong reasons.

Mechner, Jordan; Pham, LeUyen; Alex Puvilland (2013) Templar  New York:  First Second

Opening lines:  May 1291.  I never saw Jerusalem, that holiest of holy places.  The closest I got was Acre./  For twelve days our fortress held fast while the Saracens laid waste to the city. /  Thousands took refuge with us.  Women.  Children.  We shared with them what little we had./  Until our walls too came down.  /  So many brave men fell at acre.

Martin is one of the Knights Templar.  He fought at Acre.  He knows he is not the most perfect or praiseworthy knight, but he sees himself as someone who can bring help to those who need it.  When political maneuvering by both the church and the state results in mass arrests and a massacre of the Knights Templar, and soon their order is openly defames and brought to trial, and their treasure captured, Martin, along with a rag-tag band of former Templars hatches a plan to steal the treasure back.  What follows is an adventure of disguises, secret tunnels, bravery in the face of desperate odds, and more than a little bit of history.  Martin's beloved, who has, during his time in the east, been forced to wed a nobleman helps fight for the cause.  This graphic novel blends action and history in a way that is emotionally engaging.  It is a really fun book to read.

The way in which the Templars are discredited and the bogus trials for those that turned themselves in might make this a good companion piece for any class studying The Crucible.  It might work best for high school kids, though.  One of the Knights Templar is a bit of a womanizer and there are some accusations that the Church makes against the knights that are unsavory, and so it would be best if teachers pre-read the book before using it in class, but it is the sort of class that could enliven either a history or an English class.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Three Picture Books you should know but probably don't.

O'Connor, George (2004) Kapow.  New York:  Simon and Shuster.

Opening lines:  "Hmmm... This looks like a job for American Eagle!"

This picture book does a masterful job of flipping back and forth between the world of the imagination and objective reality the child is moving through.  But it is way more exciting than that last sentence makes it sound.  This is the story of a boy and a girl who are pretending to be superheros.  As the American Eagle and Bug Lady they capture a panther that it escaped from the zoo (they put a plastic clothes hamper over the pet cat) and then try to stop the Rubber Bandit (a little brother with an over-sized sweatshirt) from robbing the First National Bank (located in the living room).  However, when their roughhousing knocks over a bookcase and destroys a potted plant, American Eagle displays true bravery (and admits to his  mom that it was his fault).  It is a delightful story of imagination and the images are exciting and clear with comic book colors.

 It would also be a useful resource for teaching kids how to read graphic novels, since the story is told with speech balloons and narration boxes.  It might also serve as a model for young children who haven't learned how to do imaginative play.   Could be used as a read aloud for kindergarten and for independent reading for first grade and up.

Van, Muon; Chu, April  (2015) In a Village by the Sea.  Creston Books

Opening lines:  In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house.  In that house, high above the waves, is a kitchen.

Sometimes it is hard to figure out why picture books are wonderful.  Sometimes, a picture book will not have much of a plot to speak of.  In a Village by the Sea, for example, the story is simple.  A woman, a baby, a dog, and a cricket wait in a house in a village by the sea for a man to return from fishing.  That is really all there is to the story.  But what makes this story wonderful is that Muon Van's simple story is wonderfully depicted by April Chu.  Chu's illustrations show the world of a Vietnamese village (and especially one particular house) as a world that the reader can explore. We climb the cliff from the beach, look in through the windows, the curtains blowing in the summer breeze, and see the layout of the house.  Young readers can imagine walking with the dog into the kitchen, smelling the boiling noodle soup, checking on the slumbering baby, and looking through the hole in the floor to see what the cricket who lives under the house is painting. This is not about the story, it is about taking a beautiful trip to a village halfway around the world and being soothed by that which is familiar there.

Chu's book evokes a different kind of imagination than O'Connor's book did, but it is no less rich. This would be a fine book for kindergartners on up.

Burke, Rachelle (2014) Don't Turn the Page.  Berkeley: Creston Books.

Opening lines;  "How about a bedtime story," Mama asked.
                          Sami shook her head.  "I don't want to go to bed.  I'm not tired yet."

 All right.  I admit it.  Not exactly a ground-breaking set of opening lines. And, when it comes right down to it, this book isn't exactly cutting edge.  It is a story about a little hedgehog that doesn't want to go to bed, so her Mama reads to her and she gets sleepy and eventually goes to bed.  The twist in this book is that the storybook they are reading is about a bear that doesn't want to go to bed.  And so the Mama bear reads him a book, which is about a hedgehog that doesn't wantt to go to bed.  In fact, both animals are reading the very book that the child is reading.

And honestly, it is a nice twist.  But I think what makes the book is more the familiar parts than the metaphysical twisty parts.  The story is exactly the sort of comforting, happy story that is best dead with the child on your lap, ready to go to bed.  It might not be a perfect classroom read-aloud, and it might not be a book that first graders are going to grab off the shelf.  But if you can get a child (or a parent) to bring this book home, you may have the chance to permanently associate reading in that child's mind with comfort, security, and love.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Really Amazing Book about Fencing, Evil Corporate Bosses, Autism, Patterns and Dreams of Space Travel that would be Great for High School Students

Moon, Elizabeth (2003) The Speed of Dark.  New York:  Ballantine.

Opening Lines:  Questions.  Always questions.  They didn't wait for the answers either.  They rushed on, piling questions on questions, covering every moment with questions, blocking off every sensation but the thorn stab of questions.

It is the near future.  Lou Arrendale is autistic, but thanks to new therapies, he holds down a well-paying job working for a pharmaceutical company.  Lou and the co-workers on his unit are very productive, analyzing patterns in data effectively as a result of the difference the autism gives them.  The company gets a tax break for employing them and uses that money to build accommodations into their office unit -- including a mini-trampoline room with a stereo system and the freedom to make changes in their offices that are outside of normal company policy (for Lou that means fans and pinwheels -- the spinning soothes him when he gets agitated.)

But there are changes coming.  Newly hired Senior Manager Gene Crenshaw thinks the accommodations are a waste of money and he wants to get rid of them.  When Lou's immediate boss, Mr. Aldrin, protests that the unit makes a lot of money for the company and the accommodations have already been made -- they don't cost anything to maintain, Crenshaw hits on another idea.  The company has been working on a therapy that might be able to use nanotechnology to rewire the brains of autistic people to make them not autistic any more.  With subtle suggestions, Mr. Crenshaw makes it clear that Lou and his fellow workers should agree to be text subjects for the new therapy, and implies that if they do not, they might lose their jobs.  The workers meet and are divided about what they should do.

There is more to Lou than we see at first.  Lou goes one night a week to a sort of fencing club, held at the home of two married university professors, Tom and Lucia.  He has friends there too, including Marjory, who he likes talking to, and she seems to like talking to him too.  A fellow fencer, Don, seems jealous of Marjory's attention to Lou, and Lou's growing fencing skill.

When someone slashes Lou's tires and later smashes the window of his car while he is at fencing practice, Lou needs to figure out the pattern before he gets hurt.

This is a n interesting enough plot, but what makes the book spectacular is that we get all this through Lou's point of view.  This means that, through his eyes, we see patterns in things that most people would miss.  It also mean that we have trouble understanding the nuances of what people are saying to him.  Lou's voice is as captivating as he is a character.

Yeah, you might be asking, but how is this a YA book?  Well, I am not sure it is, actually.  I think it might just be a regular book.  Lou is not a teenager, notr is anyone else in the book.  And the themes the book wrestles with apply to pretty much anybody, regardless of age.  But I can tell you that it is a book that high school students would enjoy.  And it is a book that high school students should be reading.  The language is not particularly vulgar.  There is some violence in it, including a brief hostage scene, but all in all, the book manages to be gripping, thoughtful, and hopeful, all at the same time.  I think you should read it.

By the way, Audible.Com has a really wonderful audio veriosn of the book that I also highly recommend.

Monday, April 11, 2016

This Gary Schmidt book isn't science fiction really, but it is good!

Schmidt, Gary D. (2012) What Came From the Stars  Boston: Clarion

Opening lines:  "So the Valorim came to know that their last days were upon them.  The Reced was doomed, that the Ethelim they had loved well and guarded long would fall under the sharp trunco of the faceless O'Mondim and the traitors who led them.  The Valorim looked down from the high walls of the Reced and knew they wold find no mercy in the dark fury of the O'Mondim massed below -- none for all they had loved. "

Gary Schmidt may be the most masterful storyteller I have ever met.  Whether in writing or speaking, he weaves a spell quickly and completely over his audience.  His books are always wonderful, though sometimes it takes a while to get into some of them.  When I heard that Schmidt had written a kind of science fiction novel, I was apprehensive.  In addition to loving Gary Schmidt's work, I love science fiction (I go back to the days of Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Larry Niven but also love the more recent work of writers like Orson Scott Card, Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler, and others).  And I get scared when one of my favorite writers of realistic fiction decides to give SF a try.  I think this reaction of mine goes back to when I first read CS Lewis's Space Trilogy. I had loved his Narnia books and was hoping for something similar with the Space Trilogy -- but when I read it I was deeply disappointed. Whatever Lewis was writing, it wasn't science fiction to me.  There was very little science and I had trouble figuring out who I was supposed to root for.  So when I heard about Schmidt's book, I was worried.  I didn't want to be disappointed.

The opening lines didn't sooth me either.  It seemed like he was writing a pale imitation of Tolkien.  I got really frightened.

But then I got to the end of the first chapter and the beginning of the second chapter.   It is at this point in the story that the Valorim take all the art of their civilization, all the creativity, all the beauty, and, in short, everything good and noble and honorable, and they put it into a jewel in a necklace sort of thing, and then they somehow propel it out into the galaxy and it traverses incalculable distances, enters our solar system, the Earth's atmosphere, and eventually ends up in sixth-grader Tommy Pepper's lunch box.

And then I relaxed.  Get Schmidt into our world, and I know everything will be okay.  Better than okay.  It turned out to be an excellent book. Tommy and his sister Patty who never speaks and his friend Alice are soon dealing with strange and violent happenings.  It turns out that the O'Mondim, relentless hunters from the planet that the necklace has come from, have  come to get it back.  Before long Tommy is fighting to save his house, his friends, his school, his town and maybe the planet.  Alternating chapters continue the story of the Valorim's final days which Schmidt handles well, but I found myself racing through those chapters to get back to Tommy and Alice.  There are some parts when we feel desperation for our heroes -- but there is a satisfying and beautiful ending as well.

This book would work best for good fourth grade readers and up.  It isn't really science fiction (though it isn't really not science fiction either)  And though I haven't tried it, I think it would make an excellent read-aloud book.  This one is worth getting a hold of.  You'll like it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

4 Classic Middle Grades Books (Raskin, Cooper, Sorensen, Lawson) -- two good, two pretty bad

When I am at thrift stores, I often pick up classic Newbery Award-winners just to see how children's literature has changed.  Usually I end up very thankful for the wider range of stories we have access to today as opposed to those that were available in decades past.  So join we in a quick jaunt through the decades and by the end, I think you will be glad for the Children's Literature Renaissance we are currently living in.  Let's start with the 1940s.

Lawson, Robert (1944)  Rabbit Hill New York: Dell Yearling.

Opening lines:  All the hill was boiling with excitement.  On every side there rose a continual chattering and squeaking, whispering and whistling, as the Animals discussed the good news.  Through it all could be heard again and again the words, "New Folks coming."

Apparently in 1944 the notion of a good book for children involved talking animals, many of them comical, a plot so thin it can barely be detected, and above all no significant danger, themes, or issues.  There are a few high points in the book, including the description of the joy that a young rabbit takes in just running. but there are also several awkward parts that haven't translated to the modern world very well.  Apart from the slowness with which the story gets going, there is also the moment when one of the animals refers to one of the humans as a "fat colored woman".

So even though it won a Newbery, I would pass on this one.

Sorensen, Virginia (1957) Miracles on Maple Hill.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Opening Lines:  "Mother, say the scoot-thing again." Marly said.
     She slid forward in the car seat, talking right against her mother's neck, over her coat collar.  "Say it just the way your grandma said it."
     "Marly -- again?" Mother asked.  "And please don't breathe down my nexk, dear!"  She was driving, and the road was narrow and snowy and worrisome.

Perhaps prior to 1960 authors didn't believe students could  follow complicated plots or intrigue or really anything interesting.  This is not a bad book exactly, it just reads more like a narrative of a fairly interesting trip.  So Marly and her family leave the big city to visit this little house (which apparently they own) where her mother grew up.  The people there are friendly and folksy and help the family get settled in and the children learn the joys of maple surgaring time and life in the woods and stuff like that.  When their neighbor, Mr. Chris, has a heart attack, things look uncertain, but then everything is okay.  The best part of the book was that Marly's father, who had recently returned tot hem after doing time in a World War II POW camp changes from being angry and broken and self-centered into becoming a member of the community and a caring dad once more.

This one also has some dated elements that will strike the reader as odd.  Marly's brother Joe chastises her for having emotions at one point.  Later he starts to think well of her after she makes him pancakes when he is out on an adventure.  At another point one of the characters declares that the need for help in emptying maple sugaring buckets is so intense that perhaps even the girls can help carry buckets.

This might make a good read-aloud for third or fourth grade, particularly after recess.  There is not much that anyone would find offensive -- except maybe for a scene where her father burns in the wood stove the baby mice they found living in a drawer.

Raskin, Ellen (1974) Figgs and Phantoms  New York: Puffin.

Opening Lines:  The black-clad giant moved slowly, silently, like a grotesque late-afternoon chadow, past he shops on Hemlock Street.  Head erect, shaded eyes unseeing, the monstrous hovering creature seemed to defy nature as it balanced its teetering bulk on two small feet.

Although we think of the 60s as the age of psychedelia, it evidently took a while for it to filter down to children;s literature.  That is not to say that Ellen Raskin's Figgs and Phantoms  is a Kerouac-esque journey through a drug-addled mind, but it is certainly a rather odd little book  Mona is embarrassed by her family.  Her mom goes by Sister Figg-Newton and is a tap dancer and baton twirler.  Her Uncle Truman is a contortionist, Her aunt is a dog catcher.  And her Uncle Florence teams up with her to dress as a giant and scope out bookstores for good deals.  It seems that something is wrong with Uncle Florence, though.  He doesn't speak of dying, but of going off to someplace called "The Isle of Capri".  Mona wants to figure out what this heaven-like place is and how she can join him there.

Yup, that's the story.  Sounds about as complicated and confusing as Raskin's more well known Westing Game.  And it is.  It is a fascinating world to walk around in, but unlike other absurdest fictional worlds (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes to mind), I found this one neither delightful nor funny.  Strong fifth or sixth grade readers might find it interesting, but I found its pseudo-spirituality and non-compelling plot didn't really grab me. I caught the many references to Pirates of Penzance but that didn't do much ofr me wither (and I doubt most of the student readers would catch those connections.

Finally we come to the 1990s and

Cooper, Susan (1999) King of Shadows  New York: Aladdin.

Image result for king of shadows

Opening lines;  Tag,  The little kids' game, plain ordinary tag, that's what they had us playing.  Even though some of us were younger than eleven, and the older ones were as big as men.

Young Nat Field loves escaping form his crummy life by doing theater.  He is excited that his summer theater group is going to be able to tour to London, but isn't looking forward to spending time with all the members of the troupe.  Some of them are bullies.  When he gets to London, Nat falls ill with what turns out to be the Plague and he finds himself transported in time back to Shakespeare's day where he ends up acting in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream and meeting Shakespeare himself.  Of course, in this new drama troupe, he finds some of the same struggles that he had in his modern troupe.  He also finds, in William Shakespeare, an adult mentor who seems to be standing in for the father that Nat has never known.

This is a well-done historical novel.  The references to Richard Burbage, and the moving of the Globe Theater and street life in London was wonderful.  It is a story that keeps the reader's interest and even has some emotional content in it.  The ending is very nicely done as well.

I highly recommend this one for fourth grade and up.  Susan Cooper is a strong writer and worth checking out.

Stay in the Boxcar Children's boxcar, a Narnian palace, Laura's cabin, or other places from children's literature!

1 April 2016

This one isn't a book review, but more of an announcement about something that sounds like aficionados of children's literature would really want to hear about.  Those of you who actually know me, know that I am not really a big Disney fan, but I got a press release from Hyperion/Disney Worldwide Publishing two days ago about  this.  So apparently based on the runaway success of Universal Studios Harry Potter-based theme park in Florida, they are "excitedly exploring the possibilities" of a children's literature based series of "Adventure Habitats"

In the press release, Hyperion/Disney spokeswoman Loo Flirpa explained that they have already negotiated the rights for many of our favorite children's books and that they are actively working on other ones.  The corporation has drawn up preliminary plans for a Boxcar Children habitat which would sleep up to six people in an actual boxcar and would include a cookfire and picnic tables for outdoor dining, a swimming hole , and a spot just upstream from the swimming hole where milk and pop can be kept cold by storing it in a "cooled grotto."

In a similar vein, families could stay in an environment based on the log cabin from Laura Ingall's Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods or actually sleep overnight on the Magic School Bus.  They are also working on designs for a room designed to look like the royal chambers at Narnia's Caer Paravel.

A Hogwarts-based dorm-style facility would include space for large groups (like family reunions) from 10 to 30.  Guests could reserve dorm spaces and common rooms in the style of any of the four Hogwarts houses.

Similar dorm-type accommodations are being planned in the style of the dormitories on board the Battle School in the Ender's Game books, those depicted in the Divergent series, and also Camp Half-Blood from the Percy Jackson series. This first phase of the project would be completed to open by summer of 2017.

Lirpa seemed even more excited about another phase of the park that she referred to as "Active Adventure Habitats".  These, she says in the press release are for guests who would like an even more realistic immersion in their favorite books (though she also cautioned that such experiences are likely to be a bit pricey -- but added that they may have a program for elementary and junior high teachers to be some of the first to try the environments -- at a reduced cost).).  For example, there will be an environment based on Gary Paulsen's popular Hatchet and its alternate reality sequels including Brian's Winter.  In this "habitat", guests would be taken to what would appear to be a campsite by a lake (with the tail of a small airplane visible sticking up from the middle of the lake) where they would have to use a hatchet to chop down enough limbs to build a lean to.  When they are finished, they can fish in the lake and cook up their catch.  .The press release hastened to add that when they returned to their lean-to, a hydraulic flap on the forest floor would have slid aside revealing already made comfortable mattresses positioned so that guests can feel like they are sleeping on the ground.  At a random time in the middle of the night, Guests can expect to be woken up by a simulated moose attack!

Another "Active Adventure Habitat" would be based on Louis Sacher's bestselling Holes.  This one would accommodate larger groups.  Guests would stay in old canvas army tents and would store their clothing in orange crates labeled "X-Ray, Zigzag, Caveman, and Barfbag."  After a wonderful night's sleep, guest would be awoken by a screaming drill sergeant and would be ushered out onto a dry lakebed where they would have to dig a hole as deep as their shovels, and would be told that if they dig up anything "interesting", they should tell the warden.

In the Lord of the Rings Active Adventure Habitat, large groups could imagine trying to sleep through the battle of Helm's Deep.  The sounds of rocks breaching the walls, the screams of those being killed by invading orcs, and finally an early morning visit from Aragorn would encourage guests to put on appropriately-sized chain mail and join the battle (though Lirpa points out the battle would be staged, and more of a photo opportunity than anything else.)

Additional Active Adventure Habitats are being planned for Hunger Games, Charlotte's Web, Animal Farm, and Lord of the Flies.  This phase of the park is slated to open in the summer of 2018.