Book Review: The Last Wild

For all the truth around “not judging a book by its cover,” I admit that sometimes it is the cover that attracts me to a book. So it is with Piers Torday’s The Last Wild. The cover was so intriguing, and the novels’ name, too, that I just had to pick it up when I saw it out at the NCTE convention. I’m glad I did, as my son and I just finished it as a read-aloud, and now we can only wait for the sequel to see how the story ends.

The book is set in a dystopian future, where animals have been killed off by disease (called “red eye” or “berry eye”) and all humans are now huddled around some city centers to avoid contamination. The protagonist, Kester, is a boy who has been stuck inside a children’s boarding “school” for six years, following his mother’s death and his father’s work as a scientist and vet. Kester is mute, unable to talk, but he narrates for us in a loud voice and soon discovers that he has the ability to “talk” silently with insects and, yes, animals.

Because not all the animals are dead, and they have come to break Kester out of his school (jail) so that he can lead the last wild (a group of animals) towards a cure for the disease that has ravaged the world. Torday’s book is full of adventure, and difficult choices, and a re-imagining of the world where man has done nature wrong, and now it is time to fix the problems, and save the animals. Quirky characters, and evil antagonists, abound here.

I’m glad the cover the caught my eye. We thoroughly enjoyed The Last Wild, and wait for the next book.

Peace (in the wild),

Graphic Novel Review: Jellaby

There is no way you could not fall in love with Jellaby. Not just the graphic novel of the same title, but the monster/creature/alien/thing that forms the heart of this new graphic novel series by Kean Soo (with a great introduction by Kazu Kibuishi).  Jellaby centers on a young girl, Portia, whose a bit lost and lonely in a new place and who discovers in the woods near her house an oversized, yet clearly young, creature that is also lost and lonely. She names the creature Jellaby, and Soo’s artistry really brings Jellaby to life with huge eyes, small wings and a large heart.

The story is a riff on the “Can I have this dog that followed me home – please please please?” idea but Soo has created a real believable world with Portia and Jellaby and then later, her new friend, Jason. The two kids are on a quest to find a portal back to Jellaby’s home, and the perfect cover for transporting a monster on a train is Halloween. This graphic novel — subtitled “The Lost Monster” — is the first part of a larger story of the three friends (and I’ve seen some of Soo’s work in the Flight collections so I know he has a flair for storytelling with heart).


You know what I appreciated?

At the end of the novel, Soo writes a bit about where the story comes from and explains some of the artistic elements. For example, the book is completely dipped in purples and pinks. As I was reading, I thought: that’s a pretty clever way to establish the mood of the story, and it does. Our visual senses see the world of Jellaby through the colors that Soo uses. I was thinking, how smart. But it turns out Soo used that colors because it was cheap, and he had figured that when/if the book ever got published, the publishers could easily turn the purple to black. But the publisher liked the purple and pink hues, and so it was kept. Interesting.

Peace (in the story),

Graphic Novel Review: True Stories of World War II


True Stories of World War II
This collection of short graphic stories (very short) by Capstone Press — True Stories of World War II —  shines the light on the heroics of some soldiers from the Allied side of the equation, bringing forth some stories that of regular people in irregular times that might otherwise get lost to the history books. The introduction notes how the leaders and generals get all of the headlines but that it was the regular people on the battle fronts that paid the highest price for freedom and victory.
Here, we read about a US soldier’s grim trek through the Bataan Death March, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, a freedom fighter in France who barely escapes with her life after saving the lives of many; and survival at sea after a battleship gets torpedoed by the Japanese.

I was pleased to also witness the tale of Jacqueline Cochran, who was a pioneering woman aviator who convinced the US military (over strong objections) to allow woman to fly aircraft during the war. The male-dominated military would not allow combat missions, but the scope of the efforts of these valiant women who paved the way for equity in the armed forces is a story that we should not let be forgotten. I had never heard of Cochran before, and the story here had me doing some searching around about her, and she was an amazing woman: fearless, confident, brave. She was not ever in the history books that I remember reading.

The artwork in this collection is just so-so, and some of the writing is weak, unfortunately. The amount of space dedicated to each of the stories makes it difficult to bring these heroes completely alive. It’s barely a taste of those who sacrificed in the war. For some young readers, though, the graphic stories might be enough to pique their interests about the generation that changed the world and lived through times we can’t quite imagine.

Peace (in the book),

PS — you can view a sample of the book in Google Books.


Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Peculiar, indeed.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (!), is such an interesting piece of art, and I mean art in the finest sense. Riggs has created a creepy, setting-driven story that adds a sci-fi twist (that I won’t give away) to propel the discovery of a very odd school and its inhabitants in motion. What I find most interesting is how Riggs uses real “found photographs” for this novel (the sequel just came out) and a question looms at the end of the book like a chicken and egg question:

Did the photographs inform the story or did the story lead to finding the photographs?

Happily, Riggs has a short piece at the end of the novel where he tries to answer that question, explaining how he poured through thousands of “found photos” as he worked on the novel, and his answer to the question is: a little of both. Some photos he found changed the flow of the novel while in other cases, he was looking for something rather specific. When we talk about ways in which media interact with writing, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a fine example of a story where those two ideas meshed together nicely. The characters don’t feel all that forced by the odd photos that abound here.

I was struck early on by the establishing of the setting, too, and the feeling of creepiness that settled on me. Not in a bad way, but in a very interesting way. I needed to keep reading, if only to figure out what was going in. I thought the voice of the narrator, Jacob (a boy whose grandfather has died in a mysterious way and whose past leads Jacob into strange terrain) was authentic and real, even as the narrative fabric of the story falls apart on him and reality is questioned.

Peace (in the beautiful oddness of the world),

Graphic Novel Review: Defend until Death (Nickolas Flux)

Here’s one of the better character names that I have come across in some time: Nickolas Flux. Isn’t that a cool name? He’s the young hero of a series of new graphic novels from Capstone Press that ties into history. Nickolas is a kid who has an odd ability to suddenly, and unexpectedly, get zapped into the past (it has to do with a science experiment gone awry), right at the juncture of major events in history. He also gets zapped back into the present before any danger happens to him. Convenient, right?

Defend Until Death tells the story of the Battle of the Alamo, and I want to give kudos to the writer and publisher for giving young readers both sides of the story. Nickolas (zapped from the stands of a high school football game) first finds himself in the ranks of the Mexican Army, with General Santa Anna, as they march into Texas to reclaim lands stolen from them. The start of the story is sympathetic to the march towards the Alamo.

At least, for a few pages.

Then, Nickolas is in the Alamo itself, hanging out with Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, and the story’s perspective turns very pro-American, as the fort is overrun and the defenders perish as Santa Anna’s forces overwhelm the outnumbered Texans. Nickolas gets to back to his football game just as the fort falls and Bowie is about to die.

The story, aimed at elementary students, has a quick pace to it, and multiple historical perspectives, and there are small text boxes on the bottom of many pages that gives interesting historical tidbits about the scenes played out on the pages. Also, as with most of these Capstone books, a section at the end gives even more historical details about the theme of the story, so here, we learn more about the Alamo and the fate of the Mexican-Texas-United States dispute.

Peace (in the fight),

Movie Review: The Watsons Go to Birmingham

I finally got the time to watch The Watsons Go to Birmingham movie last week with the two classes who read the book earlier in the school year. The DVD had been sitting on my desk but finding the time was difficult. Still, I wanted to see what the folks at the Hallmark Movie Channel did with a book that I love reading and teaching, and students were eager to see the movie version, too. So, we did.

I could quibble with some of the changes made to the Christopher Paul Curtis story and some of the casting choices and other things, and we did quibble in our post-movie class discussions, but I understand a bit about the need to make changes to a novel to fit the screen. The one thing I was disappointed in but wasn’t surprised by was the removal of the vision the kids have of each other in times of danger, of each becoming the savior of the other in times of trouble. We talked a lot about that missing element in class. Oh well.

Overall, I enjoyed what they did with the story. Most of all, I was very much pleased with how the producers brought in archival footage from the news of the day (1964) in Alabama, as it really sets the tone and stage for the unfolding of the story as the Watsons visit the south. The scene of the famous church bombing is chaotic and emotional, and I found it hit the right notes for my students to feel compassion and fury, and to understand Kenny (the narrator) a bit more as he searches for his younger sister.

Also, I give high praise to the movie folks for making the Children’s March a secondary storyline, with the Watsons’ cousins telling how they are marching with other children in protest. The book never mentions the Children’s March. The movie uses that event in a way that gives the story a different emotional feel, particularly when Byron (the oldest brother, a troublemaker) sees it as an opportunity for him to make a difference and make his parents proud of his actions.

Overall, the movie fits in nicely with the teaching of this powerful story of growing up in the era of civil rights and racism, and how our families are the center that holds us together. The movie gets that right, time and again.

Peace (in the past),
PS — an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis about the adaptation of the book:

Book Review: Lincoln’s Grave Robbers

My co-teacher wandered in and saw Lincoln’s Grave Robbers on my desk. He picked it up, “Is this fiction?” and when I replied, “It’s all true,” he looked closer at it. Such is the tale that writer Steve Sheinken digs up and tells in this book, and it is a crime story of stealing the bones of Abe Lincoln that is almost too strange to be true.

The story, from the late 1800s, is of counterfeit operations and jail time, and a noted crime boss who wants his best engraver freed from jail so that he can keep making fake money. The plan is to steal Lincoln’s bones and ransom them back to the government in return for the jailed companion to be set free. Needless to say, things go awry, and Sheinken gives a nice sense of place and history, including old photographs and drawings to bring the reader into the time and place.

I admit: I don’t always like Sheinken’s writing style, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. It doesn’t flow for me. But he certainly has an eye for historical stories (Bomb was fascinating, too, although the writing didn’t always work for me there, either) and storytelling presence. I really love how he uses primary documents to help tell his stories, and I suspect lots of teachers could turn to Sheinken’s books as examples of non-fiction writing that packs a literary punch while still remaining fairly true to the historical record.

The crook never did get Lincoln’s body but they certainly tried. In a time when news moved slow, a core group of supporters of Lincoln’s memory remained vigilant and ensured that the physical legacy of Lincoln would be free of a robbery attempt that still baffles the imagination.

Peace (in the bones of history),

Book Review: Floors

I’ve read some of Patrick Carman’s older YA fiction and found it intriguing, particularly in ways that he (more than many others) is tapping into the transmedia aspects of publishing. Books like Skeleton Creek are creepy and visceral and oddly entertaining, particularly when part of the story unfolds as videos. So, I was anticipating a good story when my son and I picked up Floors, for slightly younger readers, but wow … I really loved the book, and its sequel (Three Below) and the third book is sitting on our book pile as the next one in the read-aloud queue. (I also met Carman at the Dublin Literacy Conference years ago and he seemed like a nice guy happy to be writing stories for a living and thinking even then of ways to push the boundaries of book publishing).

Floors is about a New York City hotel that is unlike any other hotel you have ever imagined, and about about a boy named Leo who comes to own the Whippet Hotel in the first book after being given it by the eccentric owner and Leo (and later with his friend/brother, Remi) explore the strange subterranean elements in the second book and … not yet sure what happens in the third book (The Field of Wacky Inventions) but I am sure it will be just as entertaining. If you are catching some resemblances to another boy and a chocolate factory, that is intentional as Carman riffs off the Dahl idea of a building with lots of secrets and magic and inventions.

You never know what will happen when a door opens in the Whippet Hotel. And just to know, ducks are more important than one would think. My wife thought too much was happening in these stories but my son and I disagreed (although some of the characters could use more depth), and as a read aloud, the Floors books are perfect — with lots of action, humor, villains and the unexpected. My son and I also agreed on this: Floors would make an excellent movie.

Peace (in the book)


Book Review: Nick and Tesla’s High Voltage Danger Lab

Check out the cover, right? It’s pretty cool. This book — Nick and Tesla’s High Voltage Danger Lab — is co-written by a science teacher (‘Science Bob’ Pflugfelder) who brings the ethos of Making, Learning and Exploring right into an unfolding mystery story with the two siblings — 11 year-olds Nick and Tesla — tinkering in their role of childhood detective. The story involves the two kids coming to live with a nutty uncle for the summer, only to discover something odd going on in a nearby house.

Curiosity, and a desire to recover a failed rocket, drive the story forward. And while the plot is fairly predictable for this kind of novel, there’s plenty of humor and action to keep the reader engaged. What makes this book particularly cool is not just the way that science and experimentation and engineering are brought into the story (the kids build things to help them solve the mystery) but that the step-by-step schematic plans and drawings for all of the experiments and devices are written right into the book itself. (Note to self: my son wants to build his own electromagnet now).

I think this book would fit in nicely with a shift towards Maker Spaces in our schools, connecting stories to engineering, and back again. There’s even a good site for teachers and parents, with some downloads and videos (and I see another book is being  published, too.)


Peace (in the tinkering plotline),

Book Review: Best American Infographics 2013

Wow. I was completely absorbed and blown away by this new collection of infographics from the “Best American” series. With an insightful foreword by editor Gareth Cook (whose name I recognize from the Boston Globe) and an introduction by David Byrne (he, of Talking Heads fame and beyond), the collection of visual stories told with data as infographic is a deep dive into new ways to think not just about reading, but also about writing and expressing ideas.

“We now find ourselves in a golden age for information graphics,” Cook writes, but then he also explains the long history of using graphics to relay information, pulling out a census map from the Civil War that documenting populations of slavery in each state of the United States — a map that Lincoln kept handy and referred to often.

The Best American Infographics 2013 is chock full of amazing information (including the glimpse at that map), and yet both Cook and Byrne remind us that data gets tilted when brought to view in the visual. What the artist leaves out, and how they portray the data, and which lens is deemed most important, all work in the mix of telling the stories. I’m connecting those ideas in my head to work we do in our classrooms around argument and persuasion, and the need to pull more visual information into our stories and essays and writing.

Here, with infographics ranging from “Feelings that Cannot be Expressed in English” to “A Better Food Label” to “Who Reads Erotica” to “Where Twisters Touch Down” to “American Education Gets a Grade,” this collection touches on a wide range of topics, grouped around the concept of You, Us, the Material World and Interactive Infographics. I encourage you to check out the online links to the interactive infographics. You’ll be blown away by the real-time carbon animation, Bear 71 (you can even put yourself in that one), and the wind chart …. it’s all just stunning.

I also enjoyed, as I always do, the vignettes of the artists and number crunchers explaining where the data came from, what the intentions were, and the artistic choices they made when creating each infographic. Those kinds of reflections are valuable not just in understanding what someone else has made (and it is), but also to begin the shift towards the idea of: How do I best build my own infographics of value?

This is a book I am going to return to, and hope that the series continues next year.

Peace (in the data),