Friday, November 10, 2017

Five Novels Suitable for Use in English Language Arts Class (some more than others)

Reynods, Jason (2016) Ghost.  New York: Atheneum.

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Opening lines:  "Check this out.  This dude named Andres Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons...with his nose.  Yeah.  That's true.  Not sure how he found out that was some special talent, and I can't even imagine how much snot must be in those balloons, but hey, it's a thing and Andrew's the best at it."

Castle Crenshaw's voice sounds upbeat and sarcastic, but a couple of pages after the opening lines above, we find out that one night years ago, Castle's dad had been drinking and when Castle's mom fought back against the usual physical abuse, Castle's dad grabbed a pistol  Castle and his mom ran for it, and Castle's dad got arrested and taken to jail.  The story, however, takes place years later and opens as Castle stands looking through a chain link fence at tryouts for an all-city track team.  On a whim, he walks over and challenges one of the kids to a race.  Though the coach is angry about the interruption, he gives Castle one chance.  When Castle ties the kid, the coach convinces Castle to give the team a try, though Castle isn't very enthusiastic about it.

And of course, it doesn't go smoothly.  Castle, who takes on the nickname Ghost, is fast but insecure, can be a hard worker, but is inconsistent, and is embarassed by his tennis shoes so he shoplifts a better pair.  He is nearly kicked off the team several times, and yet it is clear to the reader that Ghost has found a home.

One of the things I love most about this book was Coach Brody.  He is a tough guy who cares about the kids on his team and  is willing to push, encourage, cajole, and challenge them to get them to commit to something and experience what being excellent at something can do for them.  Ghost finds out  that, though Coach Brody drives a cab to pay the rent, he is a former Olympic team member.  Ghost also finds out that his fellow team members, who he initially doesn't think much of, have their own stories and eventually become people he cares for.

My daughter is a runner and loved this book.  I am not a runner and I loved this book.  I would be best for maybe fourth grade at least through middle school (my daughter read it last year, when she was an eighth grader).  There is nothing in here that I could imagine would be challenged, unless someone objects to the authentic depiction of poverty and injustice and the ability for kids who have been through a lot to still be able to challenge themselves..

If you teach English Language Arts (or Phys Ed, for that matter) , you need this for your classroom library.  Seriously.  You might also think about using it for literature circles or incorporating it in a unit.

Meloy, Colin; Ellis, Carson (2011) Wildwood.  New York:  Harpercollins.

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Opening line:  "How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries."

I have always loved books that take me to other worlds.  Narnia, Middle Earth, Xanth, Barsoom, and other worlds fascinated me when I was younger.  J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series introduced the idea of another world that coexisted in the same space as ours.  Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series extended that idea.  Now along comes Colin Meloy (Lead singer and songwriter of the band The Decemberists) who introduces us to the Wildwood.  The Wildwood is just outside of St. Johns, a neighborhood of Portland, Oregon.  Usually the Wildwood stays separate from our world, with people coincidentally choosing never to go there and thinking nothing of it, but some people are able to penetrate the barrier.

Prue and her classmate Curtis, chasing a murder of crows who have abducted Prue's baby brother Mac, find themselves in the Wildwood, a land of coyote soldiers, human bureaucrats, owl kings, and many other animal factions which seem to have trouble working together.  Prue escapes the evil Dowager Empress and finds her way out of the Wildwood, but she also learns something about her parents and her past.  She decides to return to the Wildwood, even though that idea of doing so scares her.

Prue and Curtis find themselves desperately fighting to stop the Dowager Empress before she sacrifices Mac, reawakens the Magical Ivy, and destroys the Wildwood (and maybe the whole world).  But to do that they will have to unite the bandits, the mystics, and the bird kingdom.

This is a world you can immerse yourself in.  The protagonists are likable and bad guys fun to dislike.  Other than the fact it is fantasy, there is nothing here I could imagine anyone objecting to.  This novel would work well for fifth grade and up, though the fact that this first volume in the series weighs in at over 540 pages may give less experienced readers pause (and delight the readers you cannot recommend books to fast enough).  This would be good for your classroom library.

Lu, Marie ((2011) Legend  New York:  Penguin.

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Opening lines:  "My mother thinks I am dead.  Obviously I'm not dead, but it's safer for her to think so.  At least once a month I see my wanted poster flashed on the JumboTrons scattered throughout Downtown Los Angeles."

Day cannot be captured.  He strikes against the California Republic,  destroying military weapons, stealing money, and always escaping before anyone even sees him.  Also, he never kills.  Then when an attempt to steal medicine for his family goes wrong, he throws a knife at a soldier, who later dies.  That soldier's sister, June Iparis, the only person to ever get a perfect score in her trials (sort of comprehensive standardized tests), is assigned to find him.

This dystopian novel includes themes of deception versus truth, power inequity, and loyalty to family versus the state,.  It also explores some interesting ideas of bioethics.  Told in alternating voices of Day and June, it is primarily an adventure book, but, like many of the better dystopian novels, digs into some serious ideas worth discussing.

This book would work best for high school, both in your classroom library, but also potentially as part of a dystopian literature unit.  There is nothing here particularly objectionable beyond some non-extreme violence and romance.

Conoghan, Brian (2016) The Bombs that Brought Us Together.  New York:  Bloomsbury.

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Opening lines:  "It was hard to remain silent.  I tried.  I really did, but my breathing kept getting louder as I gasped for clean air.  My body was trembling, adding noise to the silence."

Charlie Law is fourteen years old and lives in Little Town.  His new friend, Pavel, is a refugee from Old Country.   Little Town is under threat from Old Country that wants to take it over. When Old Country invades Little Town, Charlie finds himself in need of food for his family and medicine for his asthmatic mom.  He ends up beholden to the Big Man, the head of a black market criminal enterprise. Charlie must make a series of decisions which have difficult consequences, and he really has little choice in how he makes those decisions.  Life as a refugee in a bombed out city ruled by an egomaniacal thug is not fun.  Neither is this book (but of course, it isn't trying to be).

This would seem at first glance like a good choice for teachers who might want to help their students explore the plight of refugees.  Honestly,though, it has some significant flaws.  Though Charlie and Pav refer to themselves as friends, I didn't see much evidence of any real friendship there.  After wading through a lot of darkness, violence, vulgarity, tension, and despair, we get to see justice (sort of), friendship (somewhat), and the beginnings of a romance between Charlie and Erin F. (someday), win out.

And there is a part of me that really believes that high school students should not just be reading happily-ever-after books, but I worry that it would be hard for students to identify or even care for Charlie.  I also wonder if many of them would be interested in it.

Although Charlie himself is between middle school and high school, I see this more as a high school book.  I am not sure why I think that, though.  Middle school students could handle the vocabulary.  There is some vulgarity in the book though it tends to be kind of obscure slangy references to pubic hair or terms like "butthole".  I am not sure I would fight for this one, though.

This one would be okay for your classroom library, but I don't think it is something that you absolutely must get a hold of.

Clark, Kristin Elizabeth.  (2016)  Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux.

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Opening line:  "Something about my mom's new age music makes me want to stab myself in the eye."

Within the last couple of years, it seems like the Young Adult Literature market has been flooded with books dealing with aspects of LGBTQ life.  Like all other topics for books, some of these are quite good.  Many of them are not as worthwhile as others.  This one well worth the read.

Jess is going on a road trip from her mother's house in California to Chicago where her dad is getting married.  Since the last time she saw her dad, she was a boy named Jeremy, Jess is worried about this trip so she is bringing along Chunk.  Chunk was her best friend when she was a guy, and he seems to accepted her change without much fanfare.  As they head west, though, Jess's increased anxiety about how people perceive her, causes her to think that everything is about her.  When Chunk takes a detour to meet Annabelle, a girl he met through a Star Trek chat room, Jess is irritated by Chunks lack of attention to Jess.

While the story is told through Jess's voice, the message comes through loud and clear.  Jess thinks the story is about her bravery in revealing her transformation to her father.  This is what I expected, a book about Jess finding herself and discovering the courage she needs to make a successful transition and Chunk and Annabelle accepting it as well.  It is actually about her eventual realization that the world doesn't revolve around her.  That sets this one apart from others I have read.

This would be ideal for high school readers.  While there is no graphic sex or anything like that in the book, expect it to be challenged as it does feature a romance involving a trans person (though only at the very end).

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

For Middle School and High School History Classes: One graphic novel and three conventional novels.

Falkner, Matt (2014) Gaijin:  American Prisoner of War New York: Disney Hyperion.

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Opening lines:  Sunday, December 7. 1941.  It’s Koji Miyamoto’s 13th birthday. // “Koji – why don’t you turn on the radio while we do the dishes.”  “Sure thing, Ma,” / “How about I wash and you dry.”  “Okay.” / “Hi-Yo, Silver!”  “Swell, the Lone Ranger!” 

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            This graphic novel follows the life of 13-year-old Koji Kiyamoto.  Koji lives in San Francisco with his mom.  His Japanese father is overseas.  When Pearl Harbor is bombed, Koji starts being bullied at school, then the authorities confiscate the radio, and then finally, Koji and his mom get a letter that he is being taken to a relocation camp.
After Koji runs afoul of a gang of boys who ridicule him and call him gaijin (Japanese for foreigner) because of his mixed-race ancestry and gets in a fight, the camp commander assigns him to be an assistant to Mr. Asai, a Japanese man who fixes things in the camp.  When Koji accompanies Mr. Asai to his house on a day pass, they find that the couple renting Mr. Asai’s house have taken it over, broken into his storage room, and stolen and sold his stuff.
Later, though, Koji’s affection for Mr. Asai is tested when the gang peer-pressures him into throwing a dirt clod at Mr. Asai.  And the bottom line of this graphic novel is that it is as much about Koji growing up and grappling with divided loyalties as it is about the way the United States handles (or mishandled) the treatment of Japanese –American citizens. Koji is also worried that his mom is spending time with the American guards at the camp and is being unfaithful to his father. 
In an afterward, Matt Faulkner tells the story of a great aunt of his who fell in love with a Japanese man, married, moved to Japan, then, an earthquake in Tokyo caused them  to move back to Boston.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they got a letter saying that her husband and children would be taken to an internment camp.  Though Faulkner’s aunt (who was Irish –American) was not required to be interred, she chose to go to the camp with her family.  This became the basis for Faulkner’s graphic novel. 
Generally, this is a good book.  The drawing is strong, though the caricature-like style that Faulkner employs at times made it hard for me to fully invest myself in the main character.  Also, the lettering is clearly typeset, which makes the voice of the novel seem stilted and sterile.  Some readers may take offences at the repeated use of the term “Jap” to refer to Japanese American characters in the book.  Overall, though, the story realizes important questions we still struggle with today, including, what it means to be an American, including how we treat those who look different from us, and what it is like to be an outsider. Faulkner’s book teases these ideas out over a variety of narrative turns.  The ending seems a bit rushed, but is still satisfying.  
This would be a good acquisition for a classroom library and might also work well as a supplemental book for classes studying the Japanese iInternment Camps in World War Two. 

Moss, Marissa (2012) A Soldier’s Story:  The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero

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Opening lines:  “Just a minute there,” the recruiter stops me as I lean over to dip the pen in ink.  “You can’t enlist.”
            I freeze.  Can he tell?  I’m wearing a shirt, vest, and trousers as usual.  My curly hair cut short except for a lock that insists on falling over my forehead.  I brush it away nervously and meet the man’s eyes.  I’ve been passing for nearly three years now, but every new encounter still brings with is the same fear.  I take nothing for granted.  The key thing, I remind myself is not to reveal anything, to act as normal as possible.
            “I beg your pardon,” I say as if I haven’t heard him clearly.  I keep my voice calm and low, pushing down the panic that’s building up inside me.
            “I know you love your country,” the man says kindly. “but you need to grow up a bit before you join the army.”  He looks at my peachy cheeks, free of any sign of a whisker.  “We aren’t taking sixteen-year-olds.”
            Eventually, though, Sarah Edmonds, AKA “Frank Thompson” joins the Union Army.  As she marches off the war we begin to slowly learn about her early life with an abusive father in Canada.  We find out what drove her from home and prompted her to disguise herself as a boy.  We find out about how she kept herself alive by doing odd jobs and eventually becoming a book salesman, and we find out why she wanted to enlist.
            Frank is affable and funny and a hard worker.  As we follow Frank through serving as a soldier, mail deliverer, spy, and nurse, we get to know the other soldiers, experience some of the important battles of the civil war, learn about daily life for soldiers, and most of all become more and more invested in Frank’s life.  At several points, she is almost discovered to be a woman.  She also falls in love with her fellow soldiers more than once and must hide her feelings.  In this book readers will find adventure, history, and some interesting ideas and themes to think about. 
            While teachers will want to know that the book contains some mild and very occasional vulgar language, they should also know that it is a gripping book that will engage readers deeply.  It would probably work best for high school students, but skilled and adventurous middle school readers might want to give it a try as well.  Though some boys eschew books with female narrators, they might want to give this one a try.  The descriptions of battles and spy missions are enough to hold the attention of action/adventure addicts. Moss includes excellent supplemental materials including biographies of generals, a civil war timeline, bibliographies, and an explanation of who the real Sarah Edmonds was.

            Excellent for your classroom library or for use in conjunction with a unit on the American Civil War.  

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2015) The War that Saved my Life.  New York: Dial

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Opening Lines:  “Ada!  Get back from that window!”  Mam’s voice, shouting.  Mam’s arm, grabbing mine.  Yanking me so I toppled off my chair and fell hard on the floor. 
            “I was only saying hello to Stephen White.”  I knew better than to talk back, but sometimes my mouth was faster than my brain.  I’d become a fighter, that summer.
            Mam smacked me.  Hard.  My head snapped back against the chair leg and for a moment I saw stars.

It is 1939 in London.  Ada is ten years old.  Ada has a club foot.  Because her mother is ashamed of this physical difference, she abuses Ada physically and emotionally.  Ada is never to go outside and always to stay away from windows.  Ada’s younger brother Jamie, who is 6, is allowed to leave the house and play with his friends in the streets.
When World War Two breaks out, and London is threatened with bombings, the government orders that children be evacuated to the country.  Mam intends to send Jamie to the country, but keep Ada in London, since Ada is an embarrassment.  Instead, Ada and Jamie both escape and are sent to the country.  Once they arrive, all the other children are claimed, but not them.  Jamie and Ada are dirty, poorly dressed, and lack manners.  Eventually the woman coordinating the resettlement in the town sends them to live with Miss Smith who lives on the edge of town.  Miss Smith is not excited about taking them in.  It turns out that Susan Smith lived in the little cottage with her best friend Becky, and since Becky has died, Miss Smith has been in a state of grief and depression.  At first, Ada and Jamie take care of the cooking and cleaning, and Susan seldom leaves her bedroom.  Eventually, though, she begins to take a hand in the kid’s upbringing.  Ada, who has never known what it is like to walk without pain, learns the joy of riding a horse.  Miss Smith remembers what it is like to care for another person and slowly they begin to build a new life as a kind of family – but the war, bombing, Mam, and other conflicts threaten. 
And like many great books, the summary of this book does not convey what it is like to read it.  This book is delightful, and soon the reader is drawn into the little English town and is rooting so hard for Ada and Susan that the book becomes all encompassing.  I would say it will have you turning pages faster and faster to find out what is going to happen, except the writing is so good that it will slow you down so you can enjoy it. 
It would be a excellent book for a middle school or high school History class to be able to personalize the war and help student to understand what it was like for non-combatants at the time. It is also well-written enough that it would be an excellent addition to a middle school or high school English/Language Arts class.  And it would make a splendid read-aloud book.
It may be worth mentioning that there are very subtle yet clear implications that Susan and Becker were lovers, however, if the teacher does not focus on this, the majority of high school or middle school students will fail to make the connection.  Still, teachers should be aware of this.
And what a splendid ending.  Look, you should buy this and read it yourself if you do nothing else. 

Moss, Marissa (2016) Mira’s Diary:  California Dreaming.  Berkeley: Creston.

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Opening lines:  “July 10.  Usually I start a brand new journal with a brand new postcard, a picture of where I’ll travel to next.  But this time I’m starting with a drawing of what’s right in front of me, because it’s pretty spectacular. 
            “Much better than looking right next to me, at my oh-so-furious brother.  We’re finally doing something fun, taking a ride on the giant Ferris wheel in London and he looks ready to kill me.”
            This is part of an ongoing series in which Mira travels through time, trying to find her mother (and defeat the mysterious watcher who is working against them.). In this one, Mira must journey back to San Francisco just after the great earthquake.  She gets a job as an entertainment reporter and rubs shoulders with Mark Twain, finds her mother, another time traveler, and the watcher.  Along the way she is continually orienting herself based on her knowledge of both modern and historical San Francisco.  Her knowledge of history helps her out more than once.  The book does a nice job of showing that history happens in neighborhoods and cities where people carry out their regular day-to-day lives.  There is also a strong freedom-of-speech, anti-censorship theme. There is also the beginning of a romance happening.
            While this book is perhaps not as gripping as Moss’s A Soldier’s Story, it seems like a good way to engage late elementary or middle school students in beginning to think aobut their world from a historical perspective. I have not read the other books in the series, but suspect they also would serve this purpose well.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

4 New Graphic Novels for English/Language Arts: Ban Hatke's Mighty Jack and the Goblin King; George O'Connor's Artemis; Adam Rapp and Mike Cavallaro's Decelerate Blue; and Margaret Atwood's Angel Catbird

Hatke, Ben (2017) Mighty Jack and the Goblin King.  New York:  First Second

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Opening lines:

Well, here's the whole page.  It makes more sense with the images:  (This is actually the second page.  The first page doesn't have any words.  It is the image of a hand ...oh, just order it already.)

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This Review, Short Version:  Buy this right away.

Long Version:

My favorite books take me so far into other worlds that I get lost in them for a while.  Ben Hatke has been doing this to me since I read his first Zita the Spacegirl book. I am not sure how he does it, but I think it involves taking kids from earth who are so real I feel like they live on my block, putting them into very differnt fantasy worlds, and then filling those fantasy worlds with so much activity and such interesting characters that you are drawn in.

In the Narnia books, the Pevensie children discover they are actually kinds and queens in the world they fall into.  Harry Potter discovers he is actually The Boy Who Lived.  Percy Jackson finds out that he is the son of the sea god Posiedon.  In Mighty Jack and The Goblin King, Jack and his friends are in constant danger not because they are prophesied to inherit the kingdom, or bcause there is a powerful wizard out to get them, but because they are in the way, don't kow the rules, or are just hanging out in a very dangerous place.  This is another element that grabs the reader.

Right  The story.  Well, at the end of Hatke's first book, Mighty Jack, a giant creature had kidnapped Jack's autistic sister Maddy and Jacka nd his friend Lily had followed them through a gateway.  Goblin King opens as Jack and Lily emerge into the world where Maddy has been taken.  Immeidately they are in trouble.  Jack fights, and bareley defeats a giant knight, then Lily falls off a bridge and lands on something hard.  Jack has no choice but to continue after Maddy.  Lily ends up being rescued and nursed back to health by a stquad of goblins.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Two New Picture Books that could be helpful for teaching history at any age: The true story of Winnie the Pooh and something about goblins too.

Mattick, Lindsay; Blackall, Sophie (2015)  Finding Winnie:  The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

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Opening lines:  "Could you tell me a story?" asked Cole.
     "It's awfully late."  It was long past dark and time to be asleep.  "What kind of story?"
     "You know, a true story.  One about a bear."  We cuddled up close.
     "I'll do my best," I said.

And with that, we fall into two separate stories.  The first is about a veterinarian named Harry Colebourne who lives in Winnepeg.  Harry is called up to fight for Canada in the First World War. While riding a troop train to a training base, Harry gets off at a station and encounters a trapper who has a bear cub with him.  Harry buys the bear and takes it with him to a staging base in England.  The bear, named Winnepeg, or Winnie for short, serves as a mascot for his unit.  When it becomes clear that his unit will be shipped to fight on the continent, Harry drives in to London and donates his bear to the London Zoo and tearfully says goodbye.  As the book puts it, that is where one story ends and another begins.  Some years later, a young schoolboy named Christopher Robin Milne becomes quite taken by the bear and loves visiting him in the zoo.  That bear becomes part of the basis for the beloved children's book character Winnie the Pooh.

There are a couple of things that make this book stand out as a picture book (and explain why it was honored by a Caldecott Medal).  First of all, the images, which straddle the line between realism and cartoon, give us a remarkably clear sense of the bond between the bear and the soldiers.  A section in the back of the book contains annotated black and white photographs from that period so that children can see images of the bear and the soldiers (and the bear with Christopher Robin) and the similarity between those photographs and some of the images in the book connect the story even more deeply with history.

Secondly, by telling two separate stories, the book does an amazing job of helping young children get the sense of how history can link together more than one generation (particularly when one picture in the back reveals that the author of the book is Harry's great-granddaughter.)  For kindergarteners and first graders beginning to learn history, the book provides this veracity and the sense that old photos and documents contain fascinating narratives -- and that there is more to the stories of those who go to war than just fighting.

The book would be ideal for first grade and second, but could also be useful for introducing concepts of historical research and analysis to middle grades and high school kids.

Hatke, Ben (2016) Nobody Likes a Goblin.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Lines:  "Deep in a dungeon the bats were sleeping soundly, / and Goblin woke to a new day./  He lit the torches.  He fed the rats.  He gnawed an old boot for breakfast, and he thought about the day ahead."

In this picture book by Ben Hatke, (which seems to have been a character study for his recently released graphic novel Mighty Jack and the Goblin King)  Goblin likes to pass his time with his friend Skeleton.  Then a group of adventurers storm the dungeon and take everything, treasure, Goblin's furnishings, and even Skeleton.  Goblin sets out to find his friend.  Along the way he meets a hill troll who was raided by the adventurers who took his goose (which he calls his Honk-honk). Goblin tells the troll he will get the Honk-honk back.  When Goblin enters human territory, he is met by fear, horror, anger, aggression, shouts of "Filthy Goblin!" and villagers carrying pitchforks and frying pans menacingly.

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Goblin finds Skeleton and flees from the adventurers.  He hides in a cave, feeling that nobody likes a goblin.  Then he finds more goblins in the cave and they scare the adventurers away, taking their stuff (and some human friends) to start a new community. (The Troll gets his Honk-honk back.)

It struck me that though this is a fine picture book for kindergarten and first grade, it might also be useful for middle school or high school history classes.  The way Hatke draws the adventurers, they are clearly what we could traditionally think of as protagonists, heroes, or good guys.  In fantasy novels, such adventurers frequently defeat goblins, trolls, and other creatures and take treasure or whatever else they need from them.  We accept this narrative as it is told to us -- assuming the treasure is ill-gotten gain and that the creatures are dangerous and somehow in the wrong.  This story turns that around though, and presents the story from the perspective of the group that is usually thought of as the bad guys -- in much the same way that Howard Zinn's History of American Empire looks at history from the perspective of those who lost the battle, the war, or the negotiations.

I don't mean to suggest that Hitler's actions were justifiable, or that we need to understand that there are two sides to the Armenian or Rwandan genocides -- clearly within the sweep of history there are those who act from a morally reprehensible view of the world.  At the same time, though, our students are taught to automatically accept their own history as being righteous and justifiable.  This book may offer a way for students to reconsider those positions -- but it does so in a way that is disconnected from our world.  Thus in-class conversations might be possible without the interference of deeply held and unquestioned contextualized political presuppositions.

The art work, as in everything else Ben Hatke does, is beautiful.  Hatke illustrates things with enough detail to make settings and characters real enough that we can sympathize with them, yet also keeps the layouts simple enough that the reader can follow the story effortlessly.  History teachers might think of having a look at this one.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A bombing in Israel, A dying boy's last year, and an ancient Indian epic--all of them dealing with religion and faith with varying degrees of success

Faith and religion are generally topics that we avoid talking about for fear of offending anyone.  Yet in a world where religious extremists use their faith as an excuse for violence, and where it is sometimes hard to see past the glare of media stereotypes to see the good people of faith fighting for social justice, some sensible discussion of religion could make a difference.   This is particulalry true for high school students who are trying to figure out their place in the world.  I recently read three books, all appropriate for high school level readers, that deal with religion in very different ways and offer food for thought without being aggressive or evangelical.  All three are worth a read, though I reccommend some more highly than others.

Baxter, Jack; Faudem, Joshua; Shadmi, Koren (2015)  Mike's place:  A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening lines  (sort of)  (see below):

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Mike's place is a bar in Tel Aviv that is known for being a warm, cozy, hospitable place.  It features live music, an upbeat atmosphere, and welcomes everyone, whether local or stranger, Israeli or Palestinian, regardless of politics.  When US filmmaker Jack's plans to make a documentary about the trial of a Palestinian accused of masterminding terrorist attacks fall through completely, a walk at night and a chat with Mike's Place owner and bartender Gal lead Jack to decide to make a documentary about this apparently neutral ground in the middle of the religious tension in this part of the world.  But as we get to know the family of workers, regulars, and visitors that form Jack's Place, we also see glimpses of the suicide bombers who are planning to destroy the bar.

And though this is a graphic novel telling of a true story of the days leading up to a real bombing and the pain, grief, havoc, and eventually rebirth that followed, it raises a series of interesting questions about the brokenness of humans and about the grace that sometimes comes to them.  Here there is romance, betrayal, friendship, music, and violence -- and the amazing part of it is that the graphic novel format allows us to be right in the middle of Mike's Place and the lives of its inhabitants.  When the bomb blast comes, it is not a shock -- the reader has been expecting it -- but it hurts all the same.  We know these people.

After the blood and ambulances and hospital stays; after the injuries, deaths, and recoveries; after the grief and sorrow and post-traumatic stress, when the community of Mike's Place begins to rebuild, there is a sense of renewal and redemption and restoration of grace (while at the same time, there is a certainty that this sort of thing will happen again.)

Each section begins with a quote from the Qur'an which argues for unity, friendship, non-violence and hope.  (For example, section 2 begins with "Truly those who believe, and the Jews and the Christians, and the Sabaeans -- whoever believes in God and the Last Day and performs virtuous deeds -- surely their reward is with their sustainer and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve.")  Such quotations hang on through the images of the warmth inside the bar, the darkness outside of it, the joy and happiness of the Mike's Place crew, and the straight-faced isolation of the bombers-in-training. There is also a theme of seeking God, though it is very subtle.  French waitress Dominique goes to a fortune teller seeking divine wisdom to figure out which of her lovers she should stay with.  Filmmaker Jack calls home to his wife in the US every night, then goes for long walks in the falling dark, at one point buying a good luck charm from a shopkeeper.  Cameraman Joshua and his girlfriend seek meaning in each other, but don't seem to be finding it.  And most of all, the patrons at Mike's Place seem to seek a world that is calm, rational, joyful, unified by something, and not caught in the grip of hate.

The book contains a smattering of vulgar language, implications of people sleeping with each other, at least once cheating on a committed relationship, and there is some violence --but the way the book opens up discussions of what we should do when religions are in conflict with each other would seem to outweigh the negative aspects and make it a good choice for high school students.  In any case, it is well worth checking out.

Crutcher, Chris (2007) Deadline.  New York:  HarperCollins.

Image result for deadline chris crutcher

Opening line:  "My plan was to focus my senior year on information I could use after graduation when I set out for Planet Earth from the Pluto that is Trout, Idaho, population 943."

That's how this novel begins.  But as Ben is about to begin his senior year, he finds out that he has an illness that will kill him in a year unless he starts immediately on a course of treatment that will be painful, leave him spending most of his remaining year in a hospital bed, and only has a small chance of being effective.  So Ben refuses treatment, swears the doctor to secrecy, and decides to make the most of his remaining year.  He goes out for football and makes the team because of his speed and daring.  He asks the girl he likes if she will go out with him and eventually ends up with a girlfriend.  He decides to help the town drunk get sober.  He takes on his narrow- minded history teacher by proposing a project where he will try to get one of the streets in his hometown renamed as Martin Luther King Drive, despite the townspeople's extreme lack of interest in such a change.  And all along he keeps his secret from his parents, his girlfriend, his brother, school authorities, and everyone.

As his relationship with his girlfriend grows, though, and as his teamwork with his brother on the football field seems to be leading them to double scholarships, Ben feels more and more like he wants to tell someone, but now so much time has passed that if he does tell anyone, they will feel betrayed.

And here is the most interesting part of this very gripping novel.  Ben has visions where he is talking to someone he calls Hey Soos (think Mexican pronunciation of Jesus).  Hey Soos appears in his dreams and they talk about right and wrong.  Hey Soos seems a lot more real than Ben's biblical image of Jesus, and at first Ben assumes Hey Soos is his own subconscious.  Later he isn't so sure.  Yet because the question is not settled and because Hey Soos doesn't seem to be a religious figure, Crutcher is able to bring in some religious-moral perspective without all the baggage that usually goes along with it.  And because the main character is facing his own death, he listens to that advice in a way that is different from how most high school students might listen.

Crutcher's work is frequently challenged and occasionally banned.  I am not sure why.  There are some vulgar words from time to time and a character in the book has had a child outside of marriage, but the book combines authenticity with the very real and complicated ethical dilemmas that high school students need to deal with, I suggest that Deadline belongs on every high school teacher's shelf (if not on every student's desk as part of a unit).  Best book I have read in a long time.  Buy it.

Arni, Samhita; Chitrakar, Moyna (2011) Sita's Ramayana.  Toronto:  Groundwood.

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Opening lines:  "For a thousand years the Dandaka forest slept. // Until one day the daughter of the earth came.  At her touch the flowers, creepers, and trees of the Dandaka awoke from their long sleep. The forest watched her with great interest.  She was no hermit's wife -- beautifully dressed in priceless silks and ornaments, worth a king's ransom."

The Ramayana is apparently a great legend of ancient India.  It involves a princess and her brother and honor and right and wrong and I really wanted to like it.  It seems like a great story, and I applaud the publisher, Groundwood, for bringing this ancient story to light -- but I couldn't get through it.  The story is told in graphic novel form (sort of) and in spite of the way the book preserves the language of the original and the beautiful art inspired by the art of India, I don't think it works very well as a graphic novel.

There were several reasons for this.  First was the lettering.  I'll admit I have a preference for hand-lettered graphic novels.  Part of the reason for my preference for hand lettering is probably tradition.  the first comic books that I read were hand lettered, with some words emboldened to indicate emphasis -- but more than that, it was like the hand lettering captured the voice of the story.  This is certainly true with modern hand-lettered graphic novels.  Sita's Ramayana uses typeset lettering in a sans serif font.  The lettering seems artificial and lifeless and doesn't convey the depth of the passion of the story.  In fact, as times words of intensity seem humorous because of the way the print looks so bland and emotionally level on the page.

Second, Chitrakar's illustrations, while an excellent example of the Patua scroll painting tradition, do not convey the story in such a way that supports the words as much as it could.  Consider this illustration:

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The words may be too small to read, but just look at the panels.  What is happening here is that Surpanaka, princess of Lanka (on the right) has transformed herself into a beautiful woman to win the love of Lakshmana (the fellow on the left).  Lakshmana, however, realizes that she is a demoness, and in the second panel, cuts off her nose. She flees back to Lanka in the fourth panel and persuades her brother Ravana, king of Lanka to avenge this insult.  Unfortunately, the panels do not to a very good job of conveying this action.  In the second panel, the thin stick that looks like a baton in Lakshmana's right hand, is actually a sword.  In the third panel, the red color on Surpanka is meant to indicate that her nose has been cut off. There is no indication of movement (which could be accomplished by a two-panel series showing the sword at the beginning of its arc and at the end.) So while the illustrations are beautiful, they do little to convey action and passion in ways that the words cannot.

Perhaps I do not know how to read this type of art.  That is a fair criticism, but if that is so, I doubt many other readers will know the secrets either.  For me, at least, the magic of the graphic novel's integration of word and action through image and panel never quite get off the ground. So much so, that honestly, I did not make it to the end.

Having said that, I have no doubt that this rendition would help newcomers to the story to be able to picture what is going on, and as such might be worthy of a classroom library for students who are interested in reading this ancient tale.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Best book ever for teaching with graphic novels!

So there is this amazing new book that just came out.  Um, well, I really think it is the best book ever for using graphic novels to teach middle school and high school across all subject areas.  But, um, this is sort of awkward. I was one of the people who wrote it.

 So I am a bit sheepish about touting it, and I certainly can't review my own book.  So I'll give you the details and then a couple of quotes from the back and that will have to do. Aw shucks.  Now I am all embarrassed.

Boerman-Cornell, William;  Kim, Jung;  Manderino, Michael (2017) Graphic Novels in High School and Middle School Classrooms.  Lanham:  Rowman and Littlefield,

Image result for Boerman-Cornell, Kim, Manderino

"As we write this introduction, refugees are seeking asylum in a Europe that doesn't seem to want them.  Police officers have been accused of beating and killing African Americans in a cycle of fear and violence that sometimes has the officers in the sights of snipers.  Undocumented immigrants in the United States suffer exploitation and bigotry.  Americas national policies seem ruled by obstructionism, extremism, and people talking past each other.  News and information are increasingly difficult to verify and trust.  Globally the nations of the world seem unable to stem the tide of climate change.  Human trafficking and income equality make us wonder where justice is.

"Given all these challenges that face our children, why are we writing a book about how to use overgrown comic books in the classroom?  What can graphic novels offer a world plagued by inequity, injustice, and despair."

 Quotes from the back of the book:

"An essential book for explaining clearly the richness of visual literacy, how many layers of meaning can be packed into the magical combination of words and pictures."
--Marissa Moss, award-winning author of Nurse, Soldier, Spy, author and illustrator of the Amelia's Notebook series, and owner of Creston Books Publishing.

"I don't know anyone who has spent as much time thinking critically about the place of the graphic novel in the classroom than these authors.  This book tackles not only the question of how to incorporate graphic novels in the classroom but also the more fascinating questions of why the medium is so powerful.  This is the first book that should be picked up by any teacher thinking of building a curriculum that includes graphic novels."
--Ben Hatke, award-winning graphic novelist and creator of Zita the Spacegirl, Mighty Jack, and Little Robot.

"The authors ask an important question:  Can graphic novels change the world?  And then they show us how, in fact, they can.  The chapters in this book highlight the value of this format in guiding students' reading, writing, and thinking.  They clearly and expertly discuss the ways graphic novels can be used to teach a wide range of skills and strategies that students need, both inside and outside the classroom."
--Doug Fisher, author, speaker, and literacy researcher, San Diego State University.

Other Quotes:

"This book has been remarkably useful for us as we have redesigned the required curriculum of the Xavier Institute to include more graphic novels.. I enjoyed reading it. Particularly the parts about physics and biology."
--Dr. Henry McCoy, Dean of Instruction, The Xavier Institute (formerly Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.)

"I was skeptical at first.  I had never read a graphic novel.  But our students like the format and it seems a good way to get at the foundational ideas that underlie many of our courses. Now if only someone would write a graphic novel about herbology."
--Neville Longbottom, Headmaster, Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry.

"I found myself quite taken by the parts about inquiry learning.  The authors have convinced me that a book like this will help teachers encourage independent thinking, group problem-solving, and intrinsic motivation." 
--Nicholas Benedict, founder of the Mysterious Benedict Society

So there you have it.  The book is available through the Rowman and Littlefield website, through Amazon, and if you go to your local independent bookstore, they can order you a copy too.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Heroes return (Black Widow and Harry Potter) but these books are not the perfect experience

Stohl, Margaret (2016) Black Widow: Forever Red.  New York: Marvel

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Opening Lines:  Natasha Romanoff hated pierogies – but more than that, she hated lies.
Lying she was fine with.  Lying was a necessity, a tool of tradecraft.  It was being lied to that she hated, even if it was how she had been raised.
Everything Ivan used to say was a lie.

Ever since I first bought comic books at Argus Used Books Shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, there have been novelizations of the Marvel Superheroes.  I remember reading some of them, and remember some being good and some being not so good.  What seemed to make a difference often was whether the writer of the novelization seemed to have read at least as many of the comics as I had.  If they hadn’t, the book was usually missing some important links or characterization, or some aspect of the main character’s personality, or even about the world they lived in. 

Recently, Marvel has upped the ante.  They have managed to get some real giants of adolescent and YA literature to craft stories about their heroes (now household words after the terrifically popular series of Marvel movies.  Eoin Colfer has written about Iron Man, Shannon Hale about Squirrel Girl, and Margaret Stohl about Black Widow.  These are not graphic novels, they are regular text novels containing brand new stories. And sometimes it works. 

I am not sure what to tell you about Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow, Forever Red.  Stohl has done her homework and the storyline seems to fit well with the character.  The story has Natasha Romanoff (The Black Widow) shepherding two teenagers.  Ava is a homeless kid living in New York who was exposed to a strange experimental machine when she was a young child and seems to have gained reflexes, strategy, and tradecraft similar to what the Black Widow has.  Alex is living a comfortable suburban life, raised by a single mom.  But it turns out that he seems to have black widow-like reflexes too. 

And while the book is a fun action-adventure sort of a novel, if it has a problem, here it is—you don’t buy this book to read about the two junior widow kids.  You want to read about Natasha.  This book spends at least as much time on the two kids and often they seem to be the central focus of the book.  Their story is interesting, and the budding romance between them will also hold readers’ attentions – but it is supposed to be a story about Natasha.

Not much in the way of themes here – other than a kind of “Who am I” theme that draws connections between Black Widow and the kids throughout the book . There is certainly violence, a bit of vulgar language (though not much) and some suggested sexual intimacy between Alex and Ava, but nothing very explicit.  This would be a good one for a 7th through 12th grade classroom library, but I cannot imagine any class actually studying it and getting much out of it.

Rowling, J.K.; Tiffany, John; and Thorne, Jack (2016) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  New York:  Arthur Levine.

Image result for harry potter and the cursed child cover

Opening Lines:  King’s Cross.  A busy and crowded station.  Full of people trying to go somewhere.  Amongst the hustle and bustle, two large cages rattle on top of two laden trolleys.  They’re being pushed by two boys, James Potter and Albus Potter.  Their mother, Ginny follows after.  A thirty-seven year old man, Harry, has his daughter Lily on his shoulders.
ALBUS:  Dad, he keeps saying it.
Harry:  James, give it a rest.

Of course, this is the latest in the Harry Potter saga – or is it.  Presumably written by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne with editorial oversight by J.K. Rowling, the story follows the children of the heroes of the first seven books.  Specifically we meet Harry’s son Albus, who gets sorted into Slytherin house, and Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius, who meets Albus and forms a sort of friendship. 

I have talked to several other Harry Potter fans about this, including my own daughter, and though they all have read it, they all have some reservations.  The first reservation I inevitably hear may be the easier of the two to dismiss.  They will  inevitably say the writing just doesn’t sound like Rowling’s.  I detected several spell names which seemed to be theatrical puns rather than the Latinate incantations that Rowling prefers   And certainly our heroes, now recast as middle aged parents, seem to lack the energy and sharpness they had in the first seven books.  But we might respond that it doesn’t sound like Rowling because it probably wasn’t her that wrote it.  This seems like a purist’s complaint. 

The second complaint is harder to articulate, but I would argue is a more serious flaw of the book.  The relationship between Albus and Scorpio is ambiguous.  Are they really good friends, or is there a homosexual attraction between the two?  The book stops short of clarifying this, perhaps preferring that the reader decide for him or herself.  When I read it though, this ambiguity seemed to mess up both possibilities.  Their relationship seems a bit too hysterical to be a strong platonic friendship, but it seems too reserved to really be a gay relationship.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that so much of the theme and the plot hang on their relationship.  So it is very hard for the reader to see that motivations spring from a deep platonic relationship (as they did between Harry, Ron and Hermione, at least until Ron and Hermione became an item in the sixth book) because the relationship being shown doesn’t seem to be platonic.  But it also doesn’t seem to work as a gay relationship because without that relationship being able to develop in any real way, it too lacks depth.

None of this need concern teachers who are afraid of the book being challenged.  It is all open for interpretation and nothing is clear.  But that makes it a hard book to read.  Perhaps it is clearer in the stage production. 

At any rate, though it is certainly an imperfect book, Harry Potter fans will want to read it.  It might be a good addition to a high school language arts class library.  

Friday, June 30, 2017

Two Very Different YA Novels -- from Kara Thomas and Eoin Colfer

Thomas, Kara (2017) Little Monsters  New York: Random House.

Image result for Little Monsters Kara Thomas

Opening lines:
"They fire off a round of texts at me at five minutes after midnight:
      We're coming.
     Get ready.
     They're not threats, but my friends have a way of making even the simplest demands feel like ultimatums."

Bailey is in a car with Cliff Grosso when he gets a DUI and loses his scholarship and because she is not very popular, everyone blames her for ruining Cliff's life.  Then one night Bailey leaves a party and Cliff leaves right after she does.  Bailey never makes it home.

This is the set-up for Little Monsters.  The novel is told through alternating chapters narrated by Kacey, her friend Jade, and sections of Bailey's diary.  This is a murder mystery so well-plotted that it will keep the reader rivited to the end -- if the reader can stand to hang in there that long.  This book is well titled.  Kacey moves through a world of jaded, cynical, unhappy girls.  They are cynical about school, family, their community, each other, and the future.  And Kacey is not much different.  She sums it up this way:  "There is no such thing as best friends.... Everyone is only out to protect themselves."  The epilogue contains a grain of hope, but make no mistake, this is a world of monsters.

So what is wrong with that?  Aren't books supposed to tell the truth?  To be authentic?  High school girls can be pretty monstrous.  Aren't there some girls out there who would jump at a chance to read a book that shows them the world as they understand it?  A book that shows unflinchingly the worst of what humans can be to each other?  Don't we sometimes read to know that we are not alone?  Isn't the world like this sometimes?

Yes, all those things are true.  And yes, high school students use vulgar language, engage in under-aged drinking, cut themselves, have sex, talk about each other as if they were no more than the sum of their attractiveness or unattractiveness to others, and betray their friends.

But I don't relish spending time with such people.  I certainly don't mind books that show the pain of being a human, but I also read to know that all worlds have some degree of hope in them -- that there is always the chance things will get better.  And honestly, at the end, there is some hope to be found, but it comes so late and there is so little hope that at that point, the book had worn me down and I didn't want to spend any more time in this world.

Lurie Anderson's now classic novel Speak certainly paints a dark picture of life for high school girls -- but there is a moment in that book where the main character returns to a bathroom stall where she has written something truthful and negative about the boy who date-raped her, and finds the stall wall covered with affirmations and corroborations of what she wrote.  That moment is one in the book where there is a lot of hope that eventually the truth might come out.  I do not find such a moment in this book except at the very end, and then it is muted.

It may be the result of my overly optimistic nature, and I can think of some students who might like this book, so if this sounds like a book you would enjoy, you might want to pick it up.  I would have a hard time recommending it, though. It could be used to prompt an interesting discussion in language arts about what makes a book worthwhile, and whether it is necessary for books to offer hope.

It is clearly written for a high school audience.  The vulgar language might easily lead it to be challenged, however, so I would encourage teachers to read it before putting it in your classroom library.

Colfer, Eoin (2014)  The Hangman’s Revolution.  Los Angeles: Hyperion.

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Opening lines:
"Boxite Youth Academy, Present Day London.  New Albion.  115 (Boxite Calender)
London Town.
Once there had been a magic about the city.  Just hearing the name conjured images of Dickens's young trickster Dodger or of Sherlock holmes in Baker Street putting his mind to a three-pipe problem, or of any one of a thousand tales of adventure and derring-do that were woven through London's magnificient avenues and shadowy network of backstreets and alleys. For centuries, people had journeyed from across the world to England's capital to see where thier favorite stories were set, or perhaps to make thier fortune, or maybe to simply stand and gaze at the wonders of Trafalger Square of Big Ben.
Not anymore.  The days of magic were long gone."

Cevron Savano, 17 year old FBI agent, and Riley, 19th century London native and budding stage magician, are back in this sequel to The Reluctant Assassin.  In this second book of the WARP series, Chevie returns to the 21st century to find that everything has changed.  The world is now run by a dictator named Colonel Box and Chevie is now one of his soldiers, about to be interrogated under submission of treason.  There is a part of her brain, though, that knows that something is wrong and eventually she escapes to Riley’s London, where the two of them hope to stop Colonel Box before he can seize control of the world. 

There are no important themes here (though the book will set you thinking), and no profound character development.  This is a wonderful, rollicking action/adventure ride with plenty of surprises, explosions, trips through the London sewers, temporary allies, anachronistic weapons like tanks, zodiac boats, and cruise missiles in the London of 1899, chase scenes, near escapes, moments when all appears lost, unlikely love interests, and victories of bravery, subterfuge, and cleverness. 
I like that Colfer has included both a male and a female protagonist and suspect that male and female students will like this one.  Other than violence, there is nothing objectionable here.  This book seems suitable for students in grades four and up. If you want a fun thrill ride of a book, I recommend this one. It might be an interesting diversion for a physics or science class as the discussion of time travel is complex and brings up some interesting questions -- but for a language arts class-- there isn't much going on here thematically.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Three Graphic Novels: a Crafty Cat, a Missing Mom, and a Lonely Outcast Saved by Jane Eyre and a Wild Fox

Britt, Fany; Arsenault, Isabelle (2012)  Jane, The Fox, and Me.  Toronto: Groundwood Books. 

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Opening lines:  “There was no possibility of hiding anywhere today.  Not in the halls at school or out in the schoolyard, or even in the far stairway, the one leading to art class that smells like sour milk.  They were everywhere, just like their insults scribbled on the walls.”
So begins the story of Helene, drawn in this graphic novel as an average kid, but apparently the bullying and abuse and insults on the walls that proclaim that she is overweight and smells and say, “Don’t talk to Helene, she has no friends now.”  Helene escapes from the horrible loneliness of the drab grey schoolyard by imagining herself to be Jane Eyre.  When she is able to plunge into her book, she lives in a world of vibrant color and peace.  Strangely, at school, where she feels so lonely, she is constantly surrounded by people.  In the world of her book, she often seems to be the only person there, but it is a world of great beauty and tranquility.  Where there are other people in the world of Jane Eyre, they are people who understand her and connect with her.  Forced to go to camp with her schoolmates, Helene endures more insults and humiliation.  She sees a fox (one of the few creatures (or objects) in her world with color.  Even that is driven from her by her classmates.  And just when I think the story will end in desperation and existential angst, Helene and some other outcast girls discover what generations of nerds before her have discovered, that there are other people somewhere around you who don’t care about clawing their way up the popularity hill – and that those people make the best friends.  Here is hope. 
This book is splendid.  It would be ideal for middle school and would be a good one to study as a class.

Harper, Charise Mercicle (2017) The Amazing Crafty Cat  New York: First Second.

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Opening lines:  “In this house, in this room, Crafty Cat adds the last piece of tape.  Purrfect!”
In times of stress, like when she drops her birthday treat on the ground, young Birdy transforms into the amazing Crafty Cat.  Anyway, that is the idea of this book that is probably ideal for second and third grade.  Like Babymouse, Birdy lives in her imagination sometimes and as a result, real life is rather annoying most of the time. This book is funny sometimes and actually includes some instructions for crafts.  The story isn’t much, but I expect that, for some of the intended audience, that will not matter much.  The artwork is pretty simplistic which will make it easy for graphic novel beginners to follow, but may not grab young students’ attentions as much as teachers might like.

Tolstikova, Dasha (2015) A Year without Mom.  Toronto:  Groundwood Books.

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Opening lines:  “Once, when I was very small, I bit my mom’s finger.”
12 year old Dasha is growing up in Soviet Russia. When her Mother goes to the US to study advertising.  Dasha must live with relatives.  She has to survive physics (which apparently 12 year olds study in Russia), survive her first crush (Petya – though it turns out he like Katya).  While it is a fascinating book in terms of learning to see cultural differences and understandings, it also has an odd, inconclusive ending and includes a fair amount of smoking, drinking, and kids wanting to talk like adults.  It also has some wonderful page turns. 
            It is as hard to figure out what age level this book is intended for as it is to figure out what format it is.  It isn’t exactly a graphic novel (all the lettering is typeset, there are few panel division, and sometimes the text appears as a picture book/sometimes as word balloons.)  I think it might work for a high school literature class, perhaps as part of a classroom library.  Not sure it could stand up to real study, though.  Might be worth checking out (especially if you like to support smaller presses like Groundwood) but I would advise teachers to read it before using it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Amazing Historical Graphic Novel about an African American Unit that Fought in World War Two and a Controversial Graphic Novel about Identity, Adolescence, Despair, and Perhaps Hope.

20 April 2017
Brooks, Max;  White, Caanan (2014) The Harlem Hellfighters.  New York: Broadway Books. 

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Opening lines:  “They used to call it the ‘Great War.’  But I’ll be damned if I would tell you what was so great about it.  They also called it ‘The War to End all Wars’ cause they figured it was so big and awful that the world’d just have to come to its senses and make damn sure we never fought another one ever again.”
            So begins the graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters.  This book brings to light the forgotten story of the 368th regiment, an African-American unit that fought in France during World War Two.  They spent more time in combat than any other unit fighting for America.  Though they fought in trenches on the front lines, they never retreated or lost any ground to the enemy.  Not a single soldier of the 368th was ever captured. 
            Here is the whole story of the regiment, of their enlistments in Harlem, New York, of their training in South Carolina, where often the civilians in the neighboring towns seemed more hostile than the Germans that the 368th would eventually fight, of the difficult journey to the European theater across submarine infested waters, and finally of their fight in the trenches of France.  We see them changed form a collection of teachers, porters, farmers, musicians, workers, and students to a unified fighting force.  We also see them facing prejudice and harassment from white soldiers in their own army and dealing with that sometimes with patience, sometimes with anger and revenge. This account gives us not only the triumphs of the 368th, but also the moments when they fought with each other, made wrong decisions, and let each other down.  It seems an honest and moving portrayal.
            The artwork reminds me of Dave Gibbon’s work on the Watchmen.  The style is realistic, yet dramatic and rendered mainly in line and shadow.  It effectively conveys the horror of war, the heroism of the men who fought in it, and the hectic pace of battle.  The artwork and the words make for a gripping story.
            The artwork and text would be accessible for student readers in fifth grade and older, though there is some vulgar language and minor sexual innuendo that may be an issue in some school contexts.  As always, I would encourage teachers to read the book before putting it in their classroom library or using it in a unit about World War Two.  I would encourage History teachers and English teachers especially to read it.

Tamiki, Mariko; Tamiki Jillian (2008) Skim Toronto: Groundwood Press

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Opening Lines:  “I am Kimberly Keiko Cameron (AKA Skim).  My best friend: Lisa Soor.  My cat:  Sumo.  Interests:  Wicca, tarot cards, astrology, (me=Aquarius = very unpredictable). Philosophy.  Favorite color: Red.  Year: 1993.” 
            Skim is in high school, and, like many high school kids, she is desperately trying to figure out who she is, who her friends are, and how this life thing is supposed to work anyway.  In the first few pages of this graphic novel, Kim and her friend Lisa are excited to be going to their first meeting with a wiccan coven.  Skim has been building a collection of items that she has read a necessary to be a wiccan.  When they go to the wiccan circle, however, they find a group of what seem like hippies talking about the power of nature.  Skim seems disillusioned but continues thinking about witchcraft.  A day or two later, after she has snuck away to the outer edge of school property to smoke, she meets her favorite teacher, Ms Archer.  After they have a long talk, Skim starts to focus on Ms. Archer and comes to believe that Ms. Archer likes her in a romantic way.  Eventually they share a kiss. Meanwhile, the school is reeling from the suicide of a popular boy who had just broken up with his girlfriend.  Skim goes to visit Ms Archer and is rebuffed.  Skim and Lisa go on a double date with two boys.  All of this is a realistic portrayal of the confusion of trying to negotiate identity and relationships in high school.
            The art is both beautiful and ugly.  Tamiki’s drawings are sometimes blindingly full of white space, sometimes shrouded in shadow.  She draws Lisa and Skim in a way that highlights their awkwardness and shows how hard they are trying to be something other than what they are sometimes.  The style of drawing owes a bit to classic Japanese art, but in a way that hints at it without clobbering you over the head.  
            Sometimes I talk with my students about how children’s literature can serve as a mirror – showing us how the world really is, as a lamp – showing us how the world ought to be, or sometimes serving as a door – letting us into another world (I got these ideas from M.H. Abrams and Junko Yokota).   This book probably falls nearest to the analogy of a mirror.  It is an authentic portrayal of the path that some high school kids walk.  This book has the potential to connect with such students who may believe that most adolescent or YA literature portrays a world unlike the one they live in.
           Having said that, as a teacher, I really had a hard tiem reading aobut a relationship between a teacher and a student, even such a short-lived on as is depicted here.  While it may be a mirror book, and while it is certainly true that such things happen, the inapporapriateness of the power differential and the moral wrongness of such a thing is soemthing that is hard for me to read aobut, particularly when the relationship is shown to be unfortunate and painful, but not really wrong in anay way.  I unserdstand that it is authentic mirroring, but I guess I was looking for the book to be a bit of a lamp in that moment. 
           Furthermore, that authenticity may prove difficult for parents and administration to swallow.  This book contains references to sex acts, the inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student, lesbian impulses, drinking and smoking, witchcraft, and suicide. It would very much depend on your school context, but teachers considering using this graphic novels should anticipate parental and/or administrative challenges.  The Tamikis’ more recent graphic novel, This One Summer deals with similar themes of identity, frustration, and perhaps hope (or at least survival) but in a way that might be less likely to be challenges (though only slightly so).  I cannot imagine using Skim anywhere but high school or college and would encourage the teacher to consider carefully whether the thematic value of the book outweighs the extreme reaction that parents, administrators, and likely students would have. In short, if you want to use this book, know what youare getting into.