Creating an Infographic: The Books We Read

Books We Read Jan2013
This infographic — the first one I have made — captures some of the data gathered from my four classes of sixth grade students. We were tallying how many pages they have read since the first week in January. It was interesting to have them guess, and talk about strategies for guessing, on the total number of pages they have read as a sixth grade. Some thought the number as low as 200 (really? with more than 70 students reading over eight days?) Others thought tens of thousands of pages (really? same facts as before). A fair number did guess 10,000 pages, which is pretty close to the mark.

As I was making the infographic, I realized that I could also do some averaging “per student” so I included that there. Obviously, some students read more than others in this independent reading unit. But I was interested to see how the numbers turned out, and will be interested to hear my students’ reactions, too.

Peace (in the books),
Kevin

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

I know it’s not fair to compare the powerful The Fault in Our Stars by John Green to Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, but how can I not? It’s not that the plots are similar. But the way that Green pulls the reader into the heart and mind of a character struggling with illness (or in the case of wonder, a birth deformity) follows a similar path, and I could not help comparing in my head the three novels and how it was affecting me — my heart. Green’s novel has been praised for its honesty of character, and I agree. Hazel, the narrator whose battling terminal cancer, is alive with voice in this book, and her truthfulness and toggling between seeing life for what it is and wishing it held out more for her and the people around her is touching.

Still, I felt a bit of a detachment from Hazel, and from her friend, Augustus, whose life force holds the story together. I’m not sure why I felt this detachment because I did care about Hazel and I did admire the way that Augustus believed in living to the fullest, and was touched by the love that he had for Hazel. But unlike the main character in Wonder, where I wanted to reach out and hug and protect  August (almost the same character name — odd, right?) because his inner voice was so authentic, and so powerful  — and in Out of My Mind where you just want to scream out to the world on behalf of the forced-silent Melody — here, I didn’t quite feel that emotion.

Green is clearly a gifted writer (this is the first book of his that I have read) but I felt as if I was being manipulated as a reader through the use of cancer as the plot device. Maybe this is because my own family has been touched by cancer, and its impacts, and I needed that detachment as a reader. I’m not discounting that. I’m happy that I read The Fault in Our Stars and I understand the high praise it has garnered (and might garner more in the coming weeks). For me, though, I found it missing something I can’t quite describe.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

 

Graphic Novel Review: Stickman Odyssey (books 1 and 2)

I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Stickman Odyssey, although I seem to remember a long time back seeing some of the frames by writer/illustrator Christopher Ford at his online site. I thought it would be yet another retelling of The Odyssey, which I can certainly live with but there often seems to be a lot of them out there. Ford takes his stories, told in characters who are little more than stick figures, in directions that echoes the ancient texts but keeps an original storyline going. With lots of humor and character.

In brief, the story in the two books (Book 1 and Book 2, The Wrath of Zozimos) is about the main protagonist hero — Zozimos — who is an exiled prince who seeks to return home to retake his lands. But of course, there are all sorts of adventures and mythical creatures and obstacles in his path. He hooks up with a band of friends, with various strengths and weaknesses and stories unfolding of their own, and Ford weaves an epic tapestry of comic art here in The Stickman Odyssey. The books really do honor the myths while building on them with humor and invention. Ford is able to this because he pays attention to character development, which you sort of have to do when everyone is a stick figure (the books are subtitled: An Epic Doodle). He imbues the characters with identity, and those weakness and strengths of character carry the plots along at a quick pace.

I enjoyed The Stickman Odyssey stories, but I had trouble finding the books in my house, as my three sons were also reading and enjoying the stories, too. By the way, we all agreed that the second book was a bit more exciting than the first book, but it may be that we got to know the characters a bit at that point.

Peace (in the sticks),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Let’s here it for the fans of old libraries, the mysteries of books, and the intersections of old and new technology! Booya! Writer Robin Sloan has woven these elements together in his debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, in a wonderful way that mostly keeps the pace and interest going (although the ending is a bit of a letdown). The story revolves around the narrator, Clay Jannon, who is skirting on the edges of the web design business in San Francisco when he takes a job as a clerk at an old bookstore. It’s an odd place, built more vertical than horizontal, with shelves reaching up high into the air.

And while the place has only a few customers each day, the regulars are an odd sort, who return and take out ancient texts from deep and high in the shelves — books that seem undecipherable to Clay, until he discovers a secret society and enlists his new girlfriend, a woman who works at Google, to help him break an ancient code and discover what the society — and his bookstore boss, Mr. Penumbra, a kind man with a heart like Yoda — has been seeking. With a mix of humor and acknowledgement of the programming power of Google, plus a love of old books, Sloan has crafted a fun and engaging story that mostly holds together.

This is a book for the hands of friends who love old bookstores and books, and I have just the right person in mind, too. He used to work at a bookstore, and loves a good mystery. If you are that kind of person, then check out Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Prepare to be pleasantly engaged and entertained.

Peace (in the stacks),
Kevin

 

Book Review: I Funny

Prolific writer James Patterson and friends are at it again. First, they (Patterson, along with illustrator Laura Park and writer Chris Tebbetts) put out the two Middle School (Worst Years of my Life) series that combine angst about surviving middle school with comedic, graphic-novel drawings and the wild imagination of its main character (Rafe), and now they have put out I Funny about angst in middle school peppered with humor and graphic drawings. (This time, Patterson hooked up with writer Chris Gragenstein but kept on Park.) Actually, I was initially thinking this was just the third book in the earlier series but that is not the case. I Funny is its own story.

Here, the narrator is Jamie Grimm, a wheelchair-bound middle schooler who yearns to be funny. As in, as a stand-up comic. Humor has become Jamie’s weapon against the realities of life, and we don’t learn why he is in the wheelchair until the very end of the book, when he finally confesses to a friend the whole story of the tragic accident that not only cost him use of his legs, but also ended up killing his entire immediate family. He now lives with his adoptive relatives, and life is difficult, to say the least.

I liked how the book puts Jamie’s physical and emotional struggles front and center, but in particular, Patterson and company really humanize Jamie as he struggles for some sense of normalcy in a life torn asunder by tragedy. It was also wise to have a new friend who sets time limits on Jamie for talking without joking, so that honesty and emotion is part of their friendship and relationship. Jamie is so wrapped up in his armor of humor that he has trouble relating to the real world. His entry into a stand-up comedian contest opens up doors for him, and gives him new confidence, but he also has come to come to terms with his life and his wheel-chair bound world.

The narrative arc here closely resembles the other two middle school books — a boy character dealing with a difficult situation that only comes to light late in the book. The illustrations by Park are funny, and complimentary to the story, and the plot is brisk in I Funny. What it lacks is a certain depth, although it certainly hints at that when Jamie finally tells his story to his new friend. There is an emotional wallop to the moment that we, the reader, feel, as does Jamie.

My middle school son really liked this book, and I suspect a few of the boys in my class will also find it interesting. (and I am sure they will be attracted to the cover design.) thought it was fine, but not great, mainly because it felt too much like old, familiar terrain. Jamie seems like a cousin to Rafe, the main character in the other middle school stories by Patterson. (or, I wonder, is that because Park illustrated both? Am I being swayed by the art more than the story? Possibly).

Peace (in the story),
Kevin

 

 

Graphic Novel Review: Cardboard

There’s a real creepy undercurrent to the latest graphic novel by Doug TenNapel. Cardboard tells the story of a single father’s gift to his young son of a magical cardboard box, which animates and brings to life whatever the recipient creates. Cam, the boy, and his unemployed dad, a down-on-his-luck kind of guy who has not yet come to grips with the loss of his wife, don’t quite believe the story (as told by a sort-of carnival barker who lays out a few rules for using the cardboard that Dad ignores, to his peril, of course). Still, Cam and his dad create a cardboard man anyway, who springs to life as a boxing champion named Bill. Then, in a burst of inspiration, dad creates a cardboard machine that can create other cardboard creatures (which is against the old man’s rule), and suddenly, the story is full gear.

The strange part of the story takes hold when Cam’s neighbor — Marcus, a boy with zombie-like eyes and a mean streak a mile long — decides to steal the cardboard machine and begins to create his own creatures. Needless to say, the entire plan by Marcus goes awry, with the cardboard creatures creating an entire city underneath the ground and staking out their own independence. Cardboard replicas of Marcus and others start appearing, too, with maniacal eyes. Told you. Creepy. Cardboard then becomes a story of good versus evil, as Cam and Marcus join forces to put a stop to the cardboard kingdom.

The story is engaging and the artwork is pretty interesting. I haven’t read any of TenNapel’s graphic novels before, but he clearly has a good sense of creating a world within a story, and using the image to tell the story. I imagine some of my students will be intrigued by the book cover, which shows Cam staring into the massive eyes of a cardboard giant.

Peace (in the box),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Under Wildwood

This sequel to Wildwood by Colin Meloy (and beautifully illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis) is another tour de force that completely and utterly sucked in my 8 year old son and I as we experienced it as a read-aloud. In fact, after reading the first Wildwood to myself and then as read-aloud to my son, I think this is one of those books whose words and whose story needs to be your lips to treasure and experience with others. Where Wildwood introduced us to Prue and Curtis, and the imaginative land of the Impassable Wilderness just outside of Portland, Under Wildwood continues the saga when Prue goes back to the wilderness (Curtis had remained at the end of the first book, joining in with a band of bandits), and is given a prophecy that will drive the story into the third and final book (I hope he is writing that right now. You hear me, Meloy? I HOPE YOU ARE WRITING IT RIGHT NOW!). We also meet Curtis’ sisters, who are on their own adventure on the outskirts of the Impassable Wilderness.

I won’t go into all of the fascinating twists and turns of Under Wildwood, except to say that there is plenty of action and suspense to keep even the most reluctant reader satisfied and calling out for more, and plenty of depth of characters here that keep getting more complex as the story weaves itself together in various strands.

Meloy (he, of The Decemberists rock band) toys with interesting vocabulary here, tossing out words even I had to look up or stop to think about from time to time. While my eavesdropping wife made fun of way that Meloy writes (“He’s that writer who uses big words just to use big words. Show-off.”), my son was not put off on it and instead, it gave us plenty of conversations about how to read unfamiliar words. One of the more fascinating elements is when Prue and Curtis get trapped underground, and encounter an entire civilization of moles at war. (Thus, Under Wildwood. Get it?)

I highly recommend this book for read-aloud, and for middle school independent readers seeking an adventure. You won’t be disappointed.

Peace (in the wilds),
Kevin

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading: My Goodreads Challenge Stats

goodreads3
For the past few years, I’ve been using my Goodreads account to not only keep track of the books I have been reading, and not only to gather recommendations from my friends, but also, to be challenged to read. Sure, numbers don’t tell the story (so to speak), but I do like the Reading Challenge that you can set for yourself on Goodreads.

For 2012, I first set my goal of “books to be read this year” at 60, figuring that would be a manageable number. But midway through the year, sometime in summer, I realized that 60 books was not enough. So I bumped it up to 100. This week, I finally got to 100 when I completed Under Wildwood with my son as read-aloud. (review, coming)

goodreads 1

I like that Goodreads also keeps some stats on the reading. The screenshots above show the books that I read but also, tracks how it compares to the last few years. Honestly, I am not sure I would have even realized how much I have been reading if not for Goodreads. I read twice as many books as last year!

And check this out:

goodreads2 pages

This shows the page totals, and that number of pages that I read in 2012 (32,000 pages!) is pretty astonishing to me. Some of the earlier years are not quite legitimate because I wasn’t as diligent with Goodreads as I have been in the last two years.

So, now I am thinking of 2013. 105 books? You bet. What about you?
Peace (in the stats),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Siri and Me (A Modern Love Story)

 

This is a difficult book to categorize. It’s not quite a graphic novel, but there are graphic novel parts sprinkled through chapters. Siri and Me: A Modern Love Story by David Milgrim (who lives in my city but I don’t know him) seeks to capture the allure of technology, our reliance of our mobile phones and the advancements of interactive software with humor and criticism. Milgrim, whose parody book Goodnight, iPad is so fun to read and watch, has an eye for what technology is doing to us, as people.

Mostly, in Siri & Me, it is disconnecting us from each other. The main character — Dave — is lonely, and introverted, and only finds comfort in the interaction with Siri on his phone. Ironically, Siri works on her own to severe Dave’s attraction to her and manipulates Dave’s life (via his phone, of course) in order to get him to meet real people, and find real love, in the real world. The scenes where Dave meets his friends in coffee shops is particularly telling — everyone is tweeting, or texting, or shooting videos — of them drinking coffee. It’s the “ever on” generation. You’ll recognize those people anywhere these days. Maybe even you. Or me.

Milgrim’s short book is a brisk read that ends well (Siri sacrifices herself for real love) and reminds us to turn off our devices once in a while and take a look around. Human interaction still remains the most vibrant connections we can have.

Peace (writing on my computer — I know! — ironic, right?),
Kevin