Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Good Graphic Novels for Humans and Trolls of all Sorts of Ages

Orchard, Eric (2016)  Bera the One-Headed Troll  New York:  First Second.

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Opening Panels:

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            I teach in a college where our mascot is the Troll.  We are the only college with such a mascot in North America.  So I am a little defensive when it comes to trolls who generally get a bad rap.  Not so in this graphic novel. Bera is a kind and compassionate troll and when a baby appears in a tiny boat on the edge of her island, she saves it from the sirens.  Before long she sets out on a journey to return the baby to its people, and she must elude a witch, a giant, and many other obstacles to keep the baby safe.
            Not only is this a fun book for third grade and up, it also teaches kids to be careful who they trust  At several points, Bera things she has found someone who will care for the baby as she does.  In several of those cases, she is wrong. 
            But Bera is a good troll.  A fine example of what a troll should be.  Trinity alumni in particular may want to pick this one up. 

Weing, Drew (2016) The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo.  New York: First Second.

Opening Lines: 

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Charles is a small bookish kid who is always writing things in his notebook.  He wants to be a reporter someday, and so when his family moves to the big city, Charles begins writing a blog.  He views the city as a dangerous place, with high crime rates and danger of being mugged lurking around every corner.  When he discovers that he actually has a monster in his closet, he is even more scared.  Eventually a kid he meets gives him a card that says Margo Maloo, Monster Mediator.  He calls the number and Margo arrives through hi bedroom window, finds an old access panel in the back of his closet, and leads him down a shaft where she finds the Troll that has been living in Charles’s basement.  The troll (whose name is Marcus) was trying to scare away Charles’s family because he was afraid they would mess with his stuffed animal collection.  Soon Charles and the troll are getting along pretty well. 
            As the story goes on, Charles starts going along on Margo’s missions, sort of as her sidekick.  It becomes apparent that she really is a mediator, solving conflicts by getting the two sides to talk together and works something out.  There are still plenty of challenges and dangerous situations though, and Charles begins to learn that the city is not a place he should be scared of, but is in fact fascination, both in terms of the human community and the monster community.
            Bottom line, this book is a lot of fun.  Ideal for third grade and up. I suppose some parents might object to a book with monsters in it, but if they read the book, I think they would change their minds.  

Knisley, Lucy (2016) Something New:  Tales from a Makeshift Bride.  New York:  First Second.

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Opening lines: "Of all the unfamiliar roles in which I have found myself as an adult, this has been one of the strangest.  Despite hundreds of years of traditions and expectations, familiar rituals and ancient promises...  A year ago I couldn't have even imagined myself as a bride."

 Lucy Knisley writes really interesting memoirs in graphic novel form.  Her previous graphic novel, Relish, looked at her life in terms of food.  This book looks at how difficult it is to fight societal expectations and family expectations and make your wedding your own. She manages though, and gets her wedding dress with pockets, her (relatively simple) wedding, and all without permanently alienating her mom, fiance, friends, or anyone else. Along the way we find out the story of her relationship with John, her struggles with dating, and plenty of self-deprecating stories that make us smile.

There are interesting themes here including the importance of thinking critically about sociatal traditions before buying into them, how marriage is based on more than perfect appearance, and how humor can diffuse tension among others. 

This book would be good for high school and up, though teachers should be aware that Knisley references some same-sex dating that she did along the way and occasionally mentioned her support of same-sex marriage. This is not a major part of the book and would likely not even raise an eyebrow of the average high school student, but parents may be cautious or offended.  

Hale, Shannon; Pham, LeUyen (2017)  Real Friends: A True Story about Cool Kids and Crybabies New York:  First Second.

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Opening Line:  “When I was little, I didn’t worry about friends.”
When Shannon goes to kindergarten she meets Adrienne and they become best friends.  But when Adrienne moves away, Shannon is alone.  She meets Tammy, but it isn’t the same.  Adrienne moves back, but befriends Jan, who is cool.  And at that point, Shannon starts down the difficult road of trying to find and maintain friends in the difficult world of elementary school. 
            This is a remarkably honest book and the reader shares in Shannon’s triumphs and sorrows.  Pham’s illustrations use amazingly evocative facial expression to let the reader get inside the heads of Shannon and her friends (and enemies).  We also get to see what Shannon dreams of, including the stories of castles and knights she envisions writing some day, the scenarios he is pretending in her mind when she plays with her friends, and the image of Jesus comforting her when no one else will.    

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            This would be an excellent book for third graders and up, particularly in teaching social skills and providing comfort for kids who are stuck on the outside of friends groups they wish they were in.  It is certainly directed at a female audience.  There is nothing here that could cause any objection that I can see.  I am guessing every teacher can think of at least one kid who needs this book.  

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Books that will make you scream at me, "Why didn't you tell me about this book sooner?!"

Gidwitz, Adam (2016)  The Inquisitor’s Tale  New York:  Dutton.

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Opening Lines:  “The king is ready for war. 
Louis of France is not yet 30, and already he is the greatest king in Europe.  He loves his subjects.  He loves God.  And his armies have never been defeated.
This war, though, is different.
E is not fighting another army.
He is not fighting another kind.
He is fighting three children.
And their dog.”
This is a hard book to describe.  It is wonderful, but any summary will make it seem less than wonderful.  And so I am tempted to not summarize it, but you need to understand what it is like.  I will try.  My apologies for not doing this splendid book the justice it deserves. 
We hear the story as travelers tell it to each other in the dining room of an inn in France in 1242.  A\t first the story seems like it might be exaggerated, but gradually it becomes clearer and clearer.  Jeanne is a peasant girl whose life is saved by her dog which is then martyred but returns as a mysterious ghostly hound.  Jeanne herself has visions of the future.  Jacob is a Jewish boy whose entire community was destroyed by the King’s soldiers.  He discovers that he can heal any wound.  William is a moor from Africa who was raised by monks and has remarkable physical strength.  The three kids find themselves travelling together and soon draw the ire of the king by trying to prevent a public burning of books.  In the story, the three kids grow closer together, the king unleashes his army, and the kids work several miracles in the service of justice and mercy.
I know nobody reads a book because it contains important themes, but this one looks at making space for differing religious perspectives, contains a serious exploration of why God lets bad things happen, and also addresses themes of redemption and forgiveness.  There are some beautiful passages of dialogue which utterly fail to answer any of the questions these themes raise. And that is what makes this book ring authentic.     
“There are some people in this world who have magic in them.  Some of these people, it turns out, are children” says the inquisitor who has been following the children with the intent to turn them over to the authorities.  A few pages later, reflecting on their mostly unsuccessful attempt to save books form being burned publically by the king, Jacob says, “We saved five books.  How many worlds did we save?”
This book contains an excellent story that will make you think.  There is nothing here that would cause the book tobe challenged.  I think it could work as a read-aloud in fourth or fifth grade and as a book to be studied in middle school or even high school.  Regardless, you need to read it right away.  No sense in waiting any longer.  Go get a hold of it. 

Zentner, Jeff (2016) The Serpent King.  New York: Crown

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Opening Lines:  “There were things Dillard Wayne Early Jr. dreaded more than the start of school in Forrestville High.  Not many, but a few.  Thinking about the future was one of them.”
            Dill’s dad is a former snake-handling preacher who is in jail for distributing pornography and because of this, Dill is an outcast among his fellow students.  Fortunately he has two friends who are also outcasts.  Lydia plans to be a fashion designer in New York, and because of this, her fellow students in Forrestville High look down on her for not being like them.  Dill’s other friend is Travis, who loves fantasy novels and wears a cloak and carries a staff with him. Each one of these high school students have dreams, secrets, and fears and they all care for each other.  One reason I love this sotry is that it is an excellent depiction of what real healthy friendship looks like.  (Of course you will also encounter bullying, injustice, physical abuse, intolerance, horrible parents, awesome parents, and all the stuff that goes along with being a teenager.  This story slowly grabs hold of you and then becomes irresistible.  Parts of it make you want to yell at the book.  Other parts of it will leave you smiling to yourself. 
            This book is for high school students.  There is some vulgar language here, a reference to masturbation, and senseless violence.  There is also real love, transformation, and redemption.  There is hopelessness and hope.  One of my favorite quotes from the book is this one, “And if you are going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” (327)
            If you buy this, and if you read it, you will be glad you did.  

Lathan, Jennifer (2017) Dreamland Burning. New York:  Little Brown.
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Opening Lines;  “Nobody walks in Tulsa.  At least not to get anywhere.  Oil built our houses, paved our streets, and turned us from a cow town stop on the Firsco Railroad into the heart of Route 66.  My ninth grade Oklahoma History teacher joked that around these parts, walking is sacrilege.  Real Tulsan’s drive.
     “But today my car is totaled and I have a one o’clock appointment with the district attorney at the county courthouse.  So I walked.”

      Rowan is about to begin her summer internship. When the workers renovating her family’s carriage hours discover a body (and leave the worksite immediately, fearing the authorities will investigate their immigration status) Rowan is the one who calls the police.  She starts to wonder whose body it is and how it came to be hidden in her carriage house.  From there this excellent novel splits.  We follow one story concerning Will Tillman, a white teenager growing up in Tusa in 1921 who inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to a race riot that he will try desperately to prevent.  Rowan’s story continues as she finds out more about the body and also navigates race relations in today’s world as a mixed-race daughter of professional, upper middle-class parents.  After Rowan witnesses a car versus pedestrian accident that seems racially motivated, the two stories come together in an incredibly powerful conclusion.
      This story has enough going on in it thematically and is well-written enough that would be a good book for a high school English class to pair with something like To Kill a Mockingbird.  It would also make a fine addition to a classroom library.  And you would really enjoy reading this one. At the very least, put it on your summer reading list.

Balliet, Blue (2013) Hold Fast. New York:  Scholastic.
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Opening Lines:  “It was the bitterest, meanest, darkest, coldest winter in anyone’s memory, even in one of the most forgotten neighborhoods in Chicago.”

Warning:  This is a really good book, but you are going to have to be patient.  There is a long wait for the payoff.  Things get desperate quickly and for a long time the mystery doesn’t get solved.  I found that frustrating when I first read the book.  It is not until the last third of the book that things start to come together, but when they do it is worth it.  And then it is totally satisfying. 

            The story is about a family.  Summer and Dash are the parents, and Early (a girl) and Jubilation (a boy) are the kids.  Dash disappears abruptly from his life, gone without a trace.  Thugs break into their house, threaten them and ransack the place.  Summer, Early, and Jubilee go on the run and soon find themselves in a homeless shelter and also find out that the FBI is looking for their dad, and that Early may hold the key to finding him,.This is not just a mystery of a missing dad and an unknown crime – the book also explores the second mystery of why there are thousands of homeless people suffering lives of crushing desperation and at the same time, thousands of foreclosed buildings sitting empty.

            Balliet’s writing is, as usual], filled with clues and cyphers, and evey now and then an amazing quote that will really grab you.  One quote that grabbed my attention was this one: “Reading is a tool no one can take away.  A million bad things may happen in life and it’ll still be with you, like a flashlight that never needs a battery.  Reading can offer a crack of light on the blackest of nights.” (p 166).

            This one is probably best suited to high school, though advanced middle school readers could also read it.  It would work as a read-aloud, but I think is best suited to be part of your classroom library.


Gansworth, Eric (2013) If I Ever Get Out Of Here.  New York:  Scholastic
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Opening Lines: 
“Cut it off,” I yelled.
“Shut up, or my dad will hear you,” Carson Mastick said.  “He’s not that drunk yet, and I’m gonna have a hard enough time explaining how you came down looking like a different kid than the one that went upstairs.”  For ten minutes he had been farting around, waving the scissors like a magic wand.  Now he yanked the long tail of hair from my neck and touched the scissors an inch from the collar.

            Lewis Blake has grown up on the reservation.  High school has been torture to him so far.  Nobody ever talks to him.  Kids bully him, and his family is so poor they have a hole in the roof of their kitchen.  Then he meets George Haddonfield, who is a new kid, and what’s more, George lives on the base – his dad is a soldier and his Mom is from Germany.  They hit it off, bonding mostly over music, especially the Beatles and Paul McCartney and Wings.  George invites Lewis over and Lewis is impr3essed with how nice George’s family is, but Lewis can never reciprocate.  He likes in a ramshackle dwelling on the reservation, his mom works long hours cleaning other people’s houses and never has any energy to clean her own, and his Uncle Albert who Lewis shares a bedroom is a little, well, off.  He has other things to worry about too.  George is getting friendly with a girl, what if he gets a girlfriend.  And on top of all that, Lewis gets bullied constantly by Evan Rediger, whose father is so rich and powerful that no one will listen to Lewis when he reports what he is going through. 

            This is a book that is remarkably real to some kid’s high school experience.  It has some vulgar words in it and some honest conversations about difficult topics. It is also a book that shows what real friendship is like and a book in which the bullies and the corrupt do not always win in the end.  It is also a book that says a lot about poverty and what it is like to be an outcast because of your culture.  This would be an excellent book for your classroom library (though you would want to read it first).  I could also be a fantastic read aloud or better still, a book to be studied in class.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Sports Books About More Than Just Sports

Feinstein, John  (2017)  Backfield Boys  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017.

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            Opening Lines:  Tom Jefferson was staring into the rapidly setting sun, hands on hips, wondering what to do next.  It was just a game of touch football on a November afternoon, but he didn’t want to lose to the private school kids.
Tom “Bull’s Eye” Jefferson and Jason “White Lightning” Roddin have grown up in New York City as  friends since the early grades, partly based on their common love of football.  Tom is an excellent quarterback and Jason a remarkably fast wide receiver.  When they both get recruited to attend a prep school in the south that is known for its alumni who went on to play pro ball, they leap at the chance.  But when they get to the school they find it a much different place than they imagined.
The trouble starts when Tom is assigned to be a wide receiver and Jason is assigned to train with the quarterbacks.  When they bring up the mistake with the coaches, they are met with stubborn belligerence and punishment for questioning authority.  They had signed up to room together but find that they have been assigned other roommates.  Based on some of the comments from the coaches, they begin to wonder whether the problem might be that Tom is African-American and Jason is Jewish. 
Tom and Jason enlist the help of some new friends, including Jason’s roommate who, despite his stereotypical name Billy-Bob, is eager to help fight the discrimination; and also two local reporters.  With the reporters’ encouragement, Tom and Jason start to find out more about the school they are attending, including some interesting connections between the founder of the school and David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan.
While author John Feinstein is known for skillfully weaving together sports and mystery, this book proves he can also tackle social justice issues in realistic and inspiring ways.  This book models critical questioning and engages readers in thinking about social justice issues ranging from the prevalence of concussions in football to racist responses to interracial dating and systemic discrimination and how to combat it.  Feinstein includes a bit of civil rights history, religious discrimination, and even some presidential politics in the mix as well.  The final product is a highly engaging sports mystery that will get readers thinking about civil disobedience and working for justice. 
This would work best for middle school and high school.   Excellent book.
(Note, this review was originally written for the ALAN Review and appears on their webpage)

Crutcher, Chris (1995) Ironman.  New York:  HarperCollins.

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Opening Lines:  October 10.  Dear Larry [King],  At 4:30 each morning I waken to your voice.  I lie transfixed until five – when I haul my aching body out of the sack for another in a series of infinite workouts – listening to the wise men and loons of yesterdays airways deliver opinions on everything from the hole in the ozone to antidepressants (Dick Cavett and Patty Duke swear by them; Scientologists swear at them) to racism (You smell out racial prejudice like my dad smells out democrats) to the most effective methods to forever rid oneself of fat globules and cellulite (there aren’t any) to the whereabouts of Elvis (Jeffrey Dahmer ate him).
            This may be the best book I read in 2017.  Bo is an angry triathlete.  He became a triathlete when an argument with the track coach cased him to quit track.  His anger keeps getting him in trouble at school and he is close to being kicked out forever  His last chance is to take an after-school anger management class taught by Mr. Nak, an Asian transplant of a teacher form Texas – kind of a Japanese-American Cowboy.  In the anger management class, Bo meets a girl named Shelly, who is training for American Gladiator.  He also meets a collection of misfits who seem ready to disagree about anything with the slightest provocation.  There is lots in here about bigotry, generalizations, fear of what is different and learning to get along – but the most important part of the story is just that it is a really good story. 
The main conflict in the story really gets rolling when we realize that Bo’s Dad is trying to sabotage his chances of completing and Ironman run.  And, like most of Crutcher’s work, this book is not afraid to dig into some pretty deep territory. 
At one point in the book, Mr Nak has confronted Bo’s father and ends up explaining that he works with high school kids partly because, when he was drinking one night, he was driving his kids home and he flipped the car, killing his kids.  Bo’s father responds

“’So you figure you can pay for your sins working with other people’s children?  That’s admirable, but…’
Nak’s smile is humorless ‘You don’t pay for that kind of sin, sir.  You beg the universe to teach you the quality of mercy, is what you do, so you can get from one day to the next.’”

Of course, that quote doesn’t mean much when you don’t know the whole story behind it, so you may just have to take my word for it.  Ironmanis a powerful book about anger, friendship, romance, letting go, and triumphing.  You should read it.   

It would be a great book to study in high school, or to add to a high school library.  But it is important to know that there are some references to sex, though no explicit description, and that there are some vulgar words, though they are used sparingly.  I would argue, however, that the strong message of the book offsets those less savory aspects of it. 

Bauer, Joan (2016)  Soar.  New York:  Viking.

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Opening lines:  “I am probably twelve years old.  That’s what the doctors think.  I could have been born anywhere, but it was most likely Indianapolis, Indiana – at least, that’s where I decided I was born, because that was where I was found.  Specifically I was found at Computer Partners Ltd. In the snack room, right by the coffee pot.”
            In the times we are living in, there is a lot of excellent YA Literature that is giving us a chance to see into the lives of those who are victims of injustice, those whose lives are derailed by war, refugee status, misunderstanding, and struggle.  But sometimes we need a story about baseball and hope. 
Jerimiah was abandoned as a baby in an IT company breakroom.  He was found by a socially awkward computer programmer who eventually adopted him.  As he grew, his heart began to fail.  He received a heart transplant, but has to avoid too much exertion until his body fully accepts the heart.  Jerimiah’s favorite thing in the world is baseball.  So when Walt needs to take a temporary assignment in Hillcrest, Ohio, and when Jerimiah finds out that the town is obsessed with baseball, her persuades Walt to take him along.  Jerimiah dreams of managing a middle school team.
  When they arrive, he makes fast friends with Franny. Who lives next door, and soon finds out that Hillcrest’s baseball program is being dismantled because of a steroids scandal.   Will Jerimiah give up on his dream or find a way to bring baseball back, the way it is supposed to be.
 This is a great baseball book.  It is also a great story about a kid overcoming physical challenges.  But in this story, baseball doesn’t serve as a path to glory and victory so much as it is a path to community and restoration.  It reminds me of Jason Reynold’s Ghost in that way. 
This would make an amazing middle school read-aloud, or it could be studied as part of a sports unit.  It also would be a decent book to read aloud to a phys ed class in ten minute bits while they are stretching out in the beginning of class. 
Nothing offensive here. 

Sakai, Stan (1987) Usagi Yojimbo: Book 2 Samurai.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics

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Sakai, Stan (1989)  Usagi Yojimbo, Book 5.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics

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Opening panels::  This is from page 3, the first dialogue, just after Usagi duels against a rhino.

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Usagi is a rabbit who trains with a discredited Sensai (who is an anthropomorphic lion) and becomes a samurai, then when the feudal lord he works for is killed, Usagi becomes a masterless samurai or Ronin who wanders the countryside writing wrongs and fighting corruption, bullying, and evil. 
Usagi is an honorable rabbit, avoiding violence whenever possible, but fighting for the poor and against those who are dishonorable.  Part of the joy of these books, though, is that Sakai has crafted a world which is a wonderful place to spend time in. It is detailed, often beautiful, and besides the anthropomorphic animals who live within an feudal Japanese culture and seem to be the dominant life form, there are also these cute little tiny brontosauruses that pop up everywhere (sort of like rabbits do in our world).

Sakai also has a delightful sense of humor.  In book 5, Usagi encounters Lone Goat and Kid, a clear reference to the classic series of comics about Lone Wolf and Cub.  Throughout the books I found myself chuckling when Usagi beats incredible odds against him, usually through cleverness and hard earned skill, and those who have done wrong to others, get what is coming to them.  It is nice to spend some time in a world where justice prevails and the little guy comes out on top.

Plus, there is something awesome about a rabbit in samurai armor.

And yes, you are right.  This book is maybe a stretch in terms of being related to sports.  But I would encourage you to read it and correct me if I am wrong, but Usagi’s system of honor looks to me an awful lot like good sportsmanship.  These books could be read by a middle school phys ed class and would lead to a great discussion of sportsmanship that goes beyond the usual lip service it receives.
These books would be ideal for fourth grade and up.  These is some violence here, but nothing gory.  In a couple of the stories, Usagi does drink Saki (wine), but never to excess and he seems to usually prefer tea.  Sometimes the bad guys are shown to be drunk, but the story dose not dwell on it.