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.

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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,

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"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.