Graphic Novel Review: Supernova (Amulet #8)

The first thing I did when I got the very last page of the newest Amulet book — Supernova — by Kazu Kibuishi (one of my favorite graphic novelists) is rush to my 14 year old son and proclaim: “There’s only going to be one more book in the Amulet series!”

He wasn’t quite as excited and depressed as I was, even though he has been reading the Amulet series nearly his entire life. The first book came out in 2008, when he was four. His older brothers, now at college, devoured the books, and re-read them with passion. Every time a new one came out, they would battle over who got to read it first. The youngest son, the one still left in the house, ended up with the entire series to peruse and read without squabbling.

I was excited to read that a ninth book will be coming down the road (it usually is a few years) and depressed that the series would be coming to a close. The Amulet storyline — of multiple protagonists on multiple worlds caught up on a struggle between the shadow creatures and Stonekeepers, who wear amulets of ancient magic) — is intricate but accessible, and Kibuishi’s artwork will sometimes take your breath away with its beauty.

The newest book — Supernova — continues in that tradition, with a fast-paced story that follows a handful of main characters, all working their way back to each other (for the last book, no doubt). Kibuishi does not bring you up to speed at the start of new editions, but if you have read the story, you are immediately transported back to the worlds, to the adventure, to the moral and ethical decisions facing the young heroes — most of all, Emily, the main protagonist and newest Stonekeeper for whom the fate of many worlds rest.

My young teenage son, the one at home, has been reading Supernova, too, but it was a student in my classroom, who saw an extra copy I put out, who captured the excitement that I have for the Amulet books. She nearly skipped over to me when she saw it, nearly bubbling with surprise, and asked: “Can I borrow that book?”

You bet, I said, and she left the classroom with a huge smile, hugging the book. Now, that is a moment worth savoring.

Peace (among worlds),

Writing for the Reading Zine: In Praise of the Locked Room Mystery

Summer Library Zine Project

It was early in the summer when I saw a little notice at the local library about a reading book Zine they were putting together, and if anyone wanted, they could submit something. Of course, I figured: I’ll make a comic! So I did – I created one about locked-room mysteries, as I was reading Waste of Space by Stuart Gibbs.

I sent it in and forgot about it.

Locked Room Mystery Comic

Well, I got an email last week, saying the Zine was out, and that I had won a free movie pass to a local independent movie place, and a copy of the Zine was waiting for me. I went and perused the tiny stapled publication, and I absolutely love the variety of art and writing. They way they call it a Literary Magazine is also a nice gesture.

I even saw a neighbor’s 10-year-old daughter had a short story in there — a lovely piece about the sun and the moon — so I congratulated her for her writing, and she beamed.

I love the simplicity of Zines and the connection to the library as a public space.

Peace (zine-ing it),


Book Review: Waste of Space (Moon Base Alpha)

Stuart Gibbs sure knows how to hook adolescent readers in. His various series of books — Fun Jungle, and Spy School, and Moon Base Alpha –– are all fun to read, with fast pace and quirky characters that will remind a reader of Carl Hiassen in a good way.

Waste of Space, the third book in the Moon Base Alpha series, is a closed room mystery, in which our narrator — Dashiell Gibson — has to solve an attempted murder in a space station on the moon. There is no way for anyone to arrive and no way for anyone to leave. Whoever attempted the murder by injection of cyanide is still on Moon Base Alpha.

There’s plenty of tension on the moon station, as families mix with astronauts and engineers, and what seemed to Dashiell as a fun adventure becomes something more dangerous, even to the point where he himself gets attacked on the moon’s surface.

And so the narrative line goes, as Gibbs adds humor, squabbles, and even strange alien interaction (in way that doesn’t seem overly forced, as he has been setting the stage for the encounter and its aftermath in the series), that provides for quite a satisfactory ending.

This book is perfect for middle school readers, and even elementary readers will enjoy the story. Gibbs gets a huge thumbs-up from me, and from many of my students.

Peace (in the stars),

Book Review: We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices

This collection of stories, poems, visual art and letters to children is a powerful antidote to the times we are living in.  We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, features work by more than 50 gifted authors and illustrators and the collection has clear and powerful messages for young readers and children: Don’t be frightened of the current political system — help make the future a better place for all of us as others have done in the past — we adults are here for you when things get difficult.

I have to admit, I was both encouraged and worried about the overt political message of this collection. From the opening page, this is, as the title says, a book of resistance.

I was encouraged because I know many children need a path forward through these dark times, particularly those young people who are the targets of racism and immigration policies and who, if not the target, worry about those messages on others. I was worried because this book is so anti-Trump, it would be difficult for many educators to make the decision to bring this into the classroom, where balance is often requires.

Although, to be fair, that “balance” is a likely a controversial statement. No classroom is fair and balanced in its politics. The classroom culture is shaped by students, and by the teacher guiding the conversations. A classroom is impacted by the larger school, which is impacted by the larger community culture of the town or city in which is sits.

Nothing is neutral.

So, as I read We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, I kept shaking my head in agreement and reading further into each new story or poem or letter or reflection, feeling my heart beat to the words on the page, and I kept wondering: how can I bring pieces of this powerful text into the classroom?

How can I work into my classroom Kwame Alexander’s poem, A Thousand Winters, about how to keep a young black daughter safe; or Ellen Oh’s Words Have Power about first and second generation American immigrants and the discrimination they face as they hold on to their culture; or Jacqueline Woodson’s amazing Kindness is a Choice, which is about what it says it is about; or Tony Medina’s short story One Day Papi Drove Me to School about separation of family from the viewpoint of a child; or Hena Khan’s How to Pass the Test when anti-Muslim fervor hits the playground.

How? Oh, I’ll find a way. You should, too.

Peace (in the world),

Book Review: Endling (The Last)

I admit: I’m a sucker for a fast-paced adventure story with world-building and magic at its center. Katherine Applegate’s latest book — Endling (The Last) — is a fine example for middle school and upper elementary readers, with a foot solid in the Hero’s Adventure frame and enough strangeness to captivate a reader.

A previous Applegate book, The One and Only Ivan, is still one of my all-time favorites, and while the writing here in Endling is not quite as strong as that novel (where the voice of Ivan the gorilla still sits with me, years after having read the story), the story of what may be the last creature of its kind in a strange world has a powerful draw.

This is the first book in a series (called Endling, I believe) and the characters who have banded together — the two human children and three magical creatures, plus a horse — undergo their trials and tribulations, all set up with the grief that the main character and narrator — a dog-like diarne named Byx — must deal with as she seeks to find more of her kind (after her family is slaughtered and she is the last dairne, as far she knows).

I appreciate how Applegate cleverly uses the titles of the sections and chapters to weave the narrative nearly in reverse — the first section is called “The End Begins” and the last section is called “The Beginning Ends.” The plot moves along at a nice pace as the band moves from place to place, and a map at the start of the book gives the reader a better sense of the world Applegate is building.

I’ll be looking out for the second book so that I can continue the adventure.

Peace (beyond this world),

Graphic Novel Review: The Cardboard Kingdom

There’s a poignant moment in Chad Sell’s The Cardboard Kingdom, a graphic novel collaboration between Sell and writing friends, in which the father of a character in the book (about the imaginary adventures of a neighborhood of kids) sits down on the bed and admits to an error of judgement.

“Sometimes, it is hard to accept what you don’t understand,” the father tells his son, as an apology.

While this graphic novel, perfect for elementary and middle school students, is a bit heavy-handed at time with its stories of diversity and acceptance, The Cardboard Kingdom has a huge heart, capturing the way kids can invent worlds and accept others into those spaces of play (although sometimes, the path can be a little rough.)

The kingdom of The Cardboard Kingdom is the neighborhood, and Sell uses the art of the graphic novel to transform the kids (the book is broken up into chapters showing different character perspectives) into heroes and villains, with help of discarded cardboard boxes and other items that are refashioned by imagination.

Sell worked with ten other writers to tell the stories, and this range of voices shows. We meet a boy who is drawn to dress in women’s clothes as part of his character, and see his mother grapple with asking questions of sexual orientation (done gracefully). We see a girl struggling against her grandmother’s view of what a girl is expected to be (demure and polite). We see a boy whose father and mother are divorcing and fighting, as he struggles to understand why. We see a bully who is himself being bullied.

There’s a lot going on here in The Cardboard Kingdom but it is all done with grace and love.

Peace (beyond the box),

Book Review: The Card Catalog (Books, Cards and Literary Treasures)

Let me admit up front: other than the introductions, I didn’t read much of this book. I perused the images of the cards from books in the Library of Congress catalog system. It sort of seems appropriate that I would do that, given the nature of the book.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures is published by the Library of Congress, and while I am sure the text for each chapter is a dive into history, I found myself enjoying the flipping of pages so I could “read” the notecards on all sorts of books. Seeing the handwritten notes and the typed information was a sort of Wayback Machine. Most libraries are now searched digitally, but this book reminds us of the long period where the art of curation was found in little notecards of information.

Here you will find replicas of the original notecards in the LoC catalog for books like W. E. DeBois (Souls of Black Folks), James Joyce (Ulysses), Orville Wright (Stability of Airplanes), and Edward Lear (The Complete Nonsense Book). In many cases, we see the original cover art of the books situated next to the card from the catalog. It’s fascinating.

Another interesting area of the book is the design pages, showing how the physical aspects of a catalog works, and was engineered, complete with schematic drawings. This is real library geekiness, but even a breezy read of The Card Catalog will spur appreciation for the work of librarians, even in this digital age.

Get thee to your public library and breathe in the air of books!

Peace (page after page),

Book Review: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now

Jaron Lanier is a well-known name in Silicon Valley, and I’ve enjoyed some of his books in the past. His latest — Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — is not as strong as some of his other books, and he gets too cute with his explanatory acronyms at times, but the book has merit for informed reading.

I won’t go through all his arguments, but it boils down to this observation from a technology evangelist from inside the technology industry (with a decidedly humanistic approach to technology):

Companies like Facebook and Google that have created algorithms that sell user personal data to third party companies (See Cambridge Analytica controversy) have created a toxic atmosphere that feeds on negativity because the powerful emotions of negativity — anger, sadness, frustration, isolation — fuels interaction, and interaction with the technology leads to profit for companies.

The only way companies will get the message to change their course is for users to stop using the technology. In fact, Lanier argues that this current business model is unsustainable in the long run, and that if Facebook and Google don’t consider other models of profit, they will be doomed. Until then, though, the degradation of experience will continue.

Unless you make a choice to stop.

Lanier argues that we make that choice, and quit. Not the Internet itself. Not the connections we make. But quit the social networking systems that don’t value users as people, and whose algorithms (now set in motion and running rather autonomously) nurture dissent and friction. He cites examples from Black Lives Matter to the revolution in the Middle East and more, as examples of how the use of social media begins positively and then quickly turns negative when the algorithms amplify negativity for engagement.

He also acknowledges that everyone’s situation is different, and quitting for one person might be easier than for another. His final message is, be informed and make an informed choice.

Interestingly, Lanier is not entirely pessimistic. He believes there is still time to change things for the better. He offers up some different solutions, including the idea of users paying a small fee to use social networks, but also, the idea of social networks paying users for any content that engages people on the same network. So, you would pay (creating a new financial system for companies) and they would pay you to write and create interesting content.

Would it work? I don’t know.

Will people really quit in numbers enough to effect change? I don’t know.

Is the current system sustainable? I don’t know but I don’t think so.

Peace (through networks),

Book Review: Light the Dark (Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process)

This book — Light the Dark — is a fantastic tour of the creative mind, as a few dozen writers talk about where their inspiration comes from, important moments that spurred them on, and the books and poems and passages that helped inspire them.

Each small piece comes with a quote from a source of the writer’s inspiration and beautiful woodcut illustrations that draw you into the text. I read this collection over two months, dipping in now and then to savor the writing about writing (which I am admittedly a sucker for).

The stories remind us that we find our inspiration far afield sometimes, and in unexpected places, too. Some novels, some poems, some small passages have the ability to resonate for years to come, in creative ways. Here, the writers — such as Junot Diaz, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Roxane Gay and a slew of others, ending with Neil Gaiman — explore their inner creative terrain.

The result is a journey into the imagination and power of writing. What else might you want out of a book?

Peace (reading in),


Book Review: Finding Mighty

The calls for more diverse books, more diverse characters and more diverse writers has certainly paying off with a slew of amazing stories for audiences of all ages, providing different perspectives on experiences. I’ll put Sheela Chari’s Finding Mighty in that category, although her story would clearly hold up even without this talk of diversity.

Finding Mighty is a mystery story, of sorts, with a small group of urban New York City youths searching for hidden diamonds. The setting is the city itself, with Parkour being part of how young people navigate the landscape. Graffiti art and family history, and a rotating narrative view of different characters all provide tension and atmosphere that moves this story along.

While one of the main characters, Myla, is Indian-American and the other, Peter, is African-American, (and one of their friends is white with Netherlands roots), this range of ethnicity is part of the fabric of the story itself. Chari addresses the difficulty of assimilation and retaining cultural connections, but only in service to the story. We understand these characters better as a result as they develop friendship and kinship, and perhaps, we come to understand each other, too.

I enjoyed the ways the kids put together the clues they find, and how the family histories are part of the mystery, and the way that the city itself was nearly a character — with subway trains and tracks, the old Aquaduct water system as part of a map,  historic houses, and more. It’s all woven together nicely.

This book is very appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students.

Peace (on the street),