Monday, January 30, 2017

Three New Graphic Novels Worth Reading (Good for Science, Theology/philosophy, and English classes)

Hosler, Jay (2015) Last of the SandWalkers  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Lines:

"Lucy's Journal.  February 15th, 1002 PC (Post Coconut)
            We left New Coleopolis this morning with no fanfare.  Leading the first mission to seek out life beyond our oasis should have been the greatest moment of my scientific carrer.  Instead we shuffled out of town like wriaths through the morning mists. It's just as well, though since most of our colleagues are convinced we will fail."

Joy Hosler is the amazing biologist/graphic novelist whose first work, Clan Apis, follows two worker bees that are part of a colony.  In Last of the SandWalkers, Hosler here gives us a much fuller story of several beetles who leave their safe home and go out into the desert on a voyage of discovery.  Lucy is the plucky leader. Professor Bombadier is her resourceful mentor, Raef is a robotic firefly, And Mossy is a relatively huge horned beatle.  Along with them is treacherous Professor Owen.  As they journey on what turns out to be an epic adventure, the reader learns a great deal about entomology in general and beetles in particular -- including about trap-door spiders, whirligig beetles, and what it is like to get caught in amber.  Not that the learning gets in the way of the story -- which has enough twists and turns and moments of danger to easily keep students' attention.

The images and panel movement draw the reader naturally into the story.  The art serves the story so well that it is easy not to notice how really accomplished the black and white drawing is.

This book is probably best for middle school and up and could be valuable for middle school and high school science and biology classes -- both as a classroom text to consider ecosystems and adaptation, but also as a supplementary book for kids who love to read.

These is nothing here likely to cause a challenge -- though extremely careful readers may catch that Hosler takes a swipe at the sort of fundamentalist religion that sets itself up in oppostiion to science -- but because it is a made-up beetle religion and doesn't appear to be targeting any particular faith, it is unlikely anyone would object.

This is a really good one.

Kashyap, Keshni; Araki, Mari ((2012) Tina's Mouth:  An Existential Comic Diary.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin.

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Opening Lines:  "January 26.  Dear Mr Jean Paul Sartre,  I know that you are old and dead and also a philosopher.  So, on an obvious level, you and I do not have a lot in common."

So begins Tina's Mouth, a graphic novel that takes us inside the life of a high school sophomore trying to make sense of religion and beleif  and the meaning of life by keeping a diary of her existentialism. She tries to make sense of all this while living through losing friends, having crushes, losing crushes, and trying to figure out how life works.

The book is just barely a graphic novel.  Some pages have a single image and a large section of separated text.  Instead of regular panel movement, there are sometimes inset panels in panarama double-page spreads.  The lettering is typeset instead of drawn, and the illustration sometimes reminded me of paper dolls in that they seemed to have a limited range of movement.

Tina's search for meaning and friends and love is touching and certainly evocative of the searching that many readers may remember from their young adulthood.  There is no real resolution of Tina's search, though, save an acceptance that she doesn't really understand existentialism and that her search will go on.

This book is probably best for high school-aged readers, though teachers should be warned that there is enough vulgar language here that a parental challenge might be likely.  The language is nothing more than you would hear in many high school campuses, though other than verisimilitude, it doesn't seem to serve any thematic purpose.

This might be a good one to check out from your local public library before buying.

LaBoucane-Benson, Patti; Mellings, Kelly (2015) The Outside Circle.  House of Anansi Press.

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Opening lines:  "Today is the first day of the Warrior Program.  We are going to start today with a smudge and a prayer.  It's important to make these offerings as we ask the creator for help."

Pete Carver is an indiginous Canadian whose one wish in life is to take care of his younger brother Joey. Pete's mom is a heroin addict.  Pete himself runs with a gang and is involved in selling drugs.  When his girlfriend tells him she is pregnant, he tells her the baby probably isn't his and kicks her out of the car.  Then one night, during a fight with his morher's boyfirend Dennis, things get out of hand, Pete kills Dennis and is sent to jai.  Pete asks his fellow gang members to take care of his little brother.  In prison, things get worse.  When Pete find out the gang is putting Joey at risk and there  is nothing he can do about it, he is ready to do something rash.  Instead he finds out about a rehabilitation program that uses traditional tribal worship to help people learn to deal with their anger and get themselves straightened out.  Pete has to face his brokenness, acknowledge his anger, and eventually make a choice aobut how he wants his life to go.

The art in this book is beautiful.  The story is engrossing (it isn't an easy journey for Pete at all).  The scenes are painful to look at sometimes, but in order to value Pete's eventual triumph, we have to be there in the bad parts too.

There is some vulgar language in here, but it expresses the hardness of Pete's world and his own bitterness, and it is something I would fight for.  This book might be a good choice for a high school English classroom, especially when paired with another book about mistakes and redemption (Paul Fleishman's Whirligig for example).  This one is well worth buying. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Three quick reviews -- good books for middle elementary

Smith, Roland, (2008)  IQ: Independence Hall.  Ann Arbor:  Sleeping Bear Press

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Opening lines:  "From a window across the street, Eben Lavi watched the couple and the two children leave their loft and climb into the back of a white limosine.  It pulled away from the curb and started down the street.  A moment later a blue SUV fell in behind the limo, three cars back, and began to follow."

Q and his step-sister Angela are the children of famous rock star parents.  When they are on tour with their parents, the coach bus breaks down and an old drifter shows up and fixes it.  Their parents explain that the drifter is actually Boone, and old roadie friend of theirs.  Soon Q and Angela find out there is more to Boone than meets the eye and before they know if they are caught in the crossfire between Israeli secret-service operatives and a group of ex-FBI mercinaries.  And underneath it all are some surprising revelations about Angela's late mother.

This book has all the excitement of an action adventure spy movie, but, one that is maybe with the violence is toned down, a bit more humor, no offensive language and a story that is perhaps a little easier to follow than a typical YA spy novel.  There are several other books in the series.  This is a good one for stronger readers in fourth and fifth grade especially.   I suppose some parents might object to the way that Q and Angela deceive their parents from time to time.

Quattlebaum, Mary (1996) Jazz, Pizzazz, and the Silver Threads.  New York:  Bantam.

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Opening lines:  "Each time Jenny clicked her magic wand against the table and --whoosh-- a scarf appeared, Calvin felt his attention click up from his history book and whoosh away."

Okay, so the writing on this book didn't win any awards, and the story isn't utterly gripping, but it is about a nine-year-old boy named Calvin whose quest for a pet leads him to care for his nieghbor Jenny's pet hamster, and, when that plan goes awry, Calvin is soon organizing a jazz concert with geriatric dancers in a desperate bid to keep the hamster.  Wacky hijinks ensue.

This is a story that may well make seven- to ten-year-olds laugh.  They may enjoy the social interaction in the book.  And it is short enough at 120 pages that it might be managable for a struggling reader.  Plus it involves a pet hamster.

Nothing offensive here at all.

Gannett, Ruth Stiles (1948) My Father's Dragon  New York: Random House.

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Opening Lines:  "One cold rainy day when my father was a little boy, he met an old alley cat on his street.  The cat was very drippy and uncomfortable so my father said, 'Wouldn't you like to come home with me?'"

So begins the story of the father, Elmer Elevator, who undertakes a mission to Wild Island to rescue a dragon that is unjustly imprisoned there.  For this vital mission, Elmer packs into a backpack: "...chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, a package of rubber bands, black rubber boots, a compass, a toothbrush and toothpaste, six magnifying glasses, a very sharp jackknife, a comb and a brush, seven hair ribbons of different colors, an empty grain bag with a label saying "Cranberry", some clean clothes, twenty-five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and six apples."  The story which follows is improbable, involves outwitting animals, ends with a freed dragon, and is silly and sure to be a hit with first and second graders who have good senses of humor.

This is a classic.  Nothing offensive here.  Might be worth a look.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Two Graphic Novel Collections that are Kind of Cool and the Return of the Stratford Zoo

Duffy, Chris (ed.) (2013) Fairy Tale Comics.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening lines:  Once upon a time there was a poor little girl named Emma who lived in a poor little town where everyone was hungry and spent their days dreaming of sweet porridge."

This book has seventeen fairy tales, each illustrated in graphic novel form by a different artist.  Here you will find well-known standards like "Little Red Riding Hood" (adapted by Gigi D.G.); "Snow White" (adapted by Jaime Hernandez), "Rapunzel" (adapted by Raina Telgemeier) and others.  There are also some tales that might be unfamiliar to you.  I particularly liked "The Prince and the Tortoise" (adapted by Ramona Fradon and Chris Duffy), "Give Me the Shudders" (adapted by David Mazzucchelli) and "Azzolino's Story Without End" (adapted by Chris Thompson).

I can't say every single story in here will be to your taste, but the vast majority of them take you quickly into the world to the fairy tale and illustrate the stories in a way that is compelling, funny, and faithful.

The age level for this one is a bit tricky.  It is far easier to read aloud a picture book than a graphic novel (though it can be done), and there are some visual puns that the littlest kids won't get -- but I am guessing tht there are some stories in here that would be well-suited to kindergarten or first graders, and other stories that would grab older students in third or fourth grade.  Middle school and high school students might be able to use it as a reference (I remember asking my drama students to present a folk tale or fairy tale and being surprised how unfamiliar they were with the genre.)

This is a beautiful, silly, and sometimes just-a-tiny-bit-scary book and worth picking up.

Josh Elder (2014)  Reading with Pictures:  Comics that Make Kids Smarter. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing

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Opening lines:  "Fifteen years ago I began teaching high school and self-publishing comics at around the same time"  (From Gene Yang's Forward.)

It is kind of a paradox.  We learn so much from reading stories, without even working at it.  But when stories are written to try to teach us something, we sense the inauthenticity and the lack of faithfulness to the story and we reject the teaching.

This book began with a cool idea -- use the graphic novels format, which kids enjoy so much, to engage kids in school subject areas.  However, each piece in this collection has to make a decision about where in the continuum from being mainly about the story to being mainly about the content being taught.  And where they come down on that line determines whether each story works or doesn't.

The first story in the collection, for example, "G-Man: Reign of the Robo-Teachers" is a fun little story of what happens when robots take over the teaching duties in a school and the kids hack into their operating system.  It is a great story with colorful and interesting art.  I doubt there is much academic content to learn from this one, though.  The very next story, "The Power of Print" reads like a dull filmstrip about how humans devleoped writing.  Lots to learn here, but nothing like an engaging story, particularly with lines like "Writing has allowed for the development of society -- would we have cities and governments without a written language?"  The artwork, in evenly-spaced panels and consisting of a subdued wash of color does little to grab us either.  Most of the stories fall somewhere in the middle, as in the story of "Albert the Alien" which uses a class scenario with a foreign exchange student from another planet to teach about idioms and literalism for language arts class.

The other issue for teachers with this collection is that, even though it has 16 different stories covering language arts, science, mathematics, and social studies, that only works out to three or four stories per subject.  So while it is a good book for the back of a third through sixth grade classroom, it is not the sort of book that would likely be used to teach a lesson or a unit.

Lendler, Ian; Giallongo, Zack (2015)  The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Romeo and Juliet.  New York:  First Second

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Opening lines:  Banner:  Big Bill Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:  A most excellent and woeful tragedy!  A tale of ancient grudges and the true love of good friends.
Little Monkey: "Mom, what's a woeful tragedy?."

The first book in this series, an adaptation of Macbeth, was hilarious.  This one is at least as good and maybe better.  The zoo animals of the Stratford Zoo are once again putting on a play.  This time it is about Romeo the Rooster, prince of the petting zoo, who meets Juliet, a bear from the woods, and they decide they want to be friends.  Unfortunately, bears can never be part of the petting zoo, and if creatures from the petting zoo come to the forest, they will be eaten alive.   Star-crossed lovers indeed.

Lendler and Giallongo handle the violence in the play in a way that uses humor to avoid anything that might be troubling.  For example, after the death of Mercutio, Romeo grabs a sword and flies at Tybolt the fox, but at that moment, two elephants arrive late for the play and as they are crossing to their seats, we miss the entire battle.  The next panel shows Tybolt the fox lying on the ground with his tongue hanging out, hands clasped over his chest, holding a lily, and Romeo the Rooster standing over him with a sword saying "Whoops."

I don't know what age the book was originally intended for, but it seems to me it would work well with third grade and older.  There is no offensive violence in the book, though there is a point where a donkey character is rightfully called an ass, and another point where Juliet says, "Well, this sucks."  Most communities probably would not be terribly bothered by that though.

It is a great way for younger readers to tackle the story of Romeo and Juliet so they will be ready when they get to read the real thing.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Children's Literature Booklist for this year

So this is the list of books that I will be using in Children's literature this year.  I think it will be the last year for Sherman Alexei's The Absolutely True Diary Part Time Indian.  It is such a good book, and I have kept it on the list for such a long time, but ten years old is pretty much my limit.

Anyway, here is the list:

Alexie, Sheman (2007)   The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  New York: Little, Brown 
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Barnett, Mac; Klassen, Jon (2012) Extra Yarn. New York: Harper Collins 
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De la Pena, Matt (2015) Last Stop on Market Street.  Putnam. 
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Hatke, Ben (2016) Mighty Jack.  New York:  First Second. 

Jamieson, Victoria (2015) Roller Girl.  New York: Dial 

Klaasen, Jon  (2012)  This is not my Hat  New York:  Candlewick. 
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Ryan, Pam Munoz (2015) Echo. New York:  Scholastic. 
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O’Connor, George (2015) Ares: Bringer of War.  New York: First Second. 
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Sanderson, Brandon (2013) The Rithmatist.  New York: Tor
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Santat, Dan  (2014) The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Firend.  New York:  Little Brown 
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Schmidt, Gary (2011) Okay for Now  New York:  Clarion 
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Schmidt, Gary (2015) Orbiting Jupiter. New York: Clarion. 
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Tamaki, Jillian; Tamki, Mariko (2014)  This One Summer.  New York: First Second 
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Woodson, Jacqueline (2014) Brown Girl Dreaming  New York: Penguin.
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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The most amazing book about autism you have never heard of!

Frenz, Florida (2013) How to be Human:  The Diary of an Autistic Girl.  Creston Books.

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Opening lines:  "Not too long ago, my friend and I had a discussion about which was worse, anorexia or autism.  She argued anorexia was worse because it can kill you.  At the time, I couldn't come up with a good enough rebuttal, so the conversation ended."

Books can let us enter the minds, bodies, selves, and contexts of those who are different from us. Some recent books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and The Speed of Darkness admirably use fictional characterizations to get us inside the minds of people who have autism.  This book is different from those in a couple of ways.  First of all, the author, who goes by the name Florida Frenz, is herself autistic.  Secondly, she wrote the book as she was growing up with autism. So it is truly from a kid's perspective.

 It includes a running narrative, her own illustrations, and several charts of the author's devising.  Her illustrations show us how, when she hears the sound of fingers snapping, it feels to her like "pushing soapy plates together"; the difference between the way she looks on the outside and what she feels like on the inside; what her internal emotional thermometer looks like; and lots of images of how she tries to navigate the differences between outside appearances and inside feelings.

This is not a long book -- it is bound like a children's picture book and comes out somewhere between 30 and 40 pages --but it is not really written for little kids.  Though the images break up the space of the page, there is a fair amount of text here.

This book would be great for upper elementary through college (and beyond) to help classmates, family members, friends, persons with autism, anyone who has ever felt like an alien in their own land, and pretty much anyone understand what one autistic person's take on life is like.  I found it interesting and compelling and well worth the read.