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

Image result for artemis fowl the eternity code

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.

Image result for Amelia Rules

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.

Image result for sasquatch in the paint

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.

Image result for the watsons go to birmingham

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.

Image result for horten's incredible illusions

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.

Image result for Protecting marie

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.

 Image result for Fuzzy Mud

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.