Over at the Nerdy Book Club

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A piece that I wrote about being a reader of “expected text” that then pushes you towards the “unexpected” got posted this morning at one of my favorite blog sites  — the Nerdy Book Club. Check it out, as  I make connections from the predictability of Scooby-Doo stories to books that move us in different directions.

Read The Expected/Unexpected Text

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Guys Read (The Sports Pages)

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Guys Read: The Sports Pages is the third in a series of collections put out by Jon Scieszka and company as part of an effort to keep boys reading with high interest stories, narratives and humor. I passed this one along to my middle school soon (who loves sports) and he read it in one sitting. It took me a bit longer, but still, I was impressed with the stories here that span sports (from football to hockey to wrestling) and the mix of fiction and non-fiction.

I found it interesting (as a Yankees fan in a Red Sox household) that the stories that open and close the collection center around the Red Sox (including a story about a kid wanting to doom Derek Jeter). There are a lot of big name authors here — Gordon Korman, Dan Gutman, Tim Green, etc.) that will be familiar to most readers of adolescent fiction, and Scieska’s touch is light and deft, and his introduction and ending are both very funny, enough to grab even the most cynical boy reader.

And over at the Guys Read website, which encourages reading, there is an entire page of recommended sports-related books that is worth checking out.

I’ve read all three collections, and found the first one with funny stories and this one, about sports, to be the best of the bunch. The second collection, about thriller stories, could have been better, and I found myself disappointed by it for some reason. So, I was happy that The Sports Pages was well-done, and will find a place in my classroom library and the hands of a few kids this year.

Peace (on the field),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Eye of the Storm

Writer Kate Messner dazzles the reader with her futuristic storm thriller, Eye of the Storm. Set in the years to come when Global Warming has created dangerous storms that wreak havoc across the world, the main character — Jaden Meggs — and her friends must try to thwart her own father and a mysterious relative (I won’t give it away) from using technology to create and nurture dangerous tornadoes as military weapons.

(Note: Kate gave a talk at TED about this book idea. I can’t find the video yet but here is a blog writeup).

What I liked about Eye of the Storm was the fast-paced action, the full immersion into a possible future where weather patterns disrupt all of society, and the development of Jaden as a smart, insightful, resourceful girl whose strengths in math patterns and meteorological awareness (is that a real phrase? It should be, right?) become the key to solving the problem. It occurred to me, too, how this kind of science-based fictional text might start finding more of a home in classrooms under the Common Core shifts, as a science teacher and an ELA teacher could easily join together to use this as a central text for reading, with many extensions out to informational text around weather patterns, Global Warming, and science/math ideas. (or maybe I am too immersed in Common Core these days?)

But, on a more important note, I am sure I can find some students who will eat this story up, and while it does fall into the outer bounds of the recent shifts into dystopian fiction, Eye of the Storm is something different. There’s less the dark end-of-the-world feel to it all, and more of a hopeful we-can-solve this element that I enjoyed (I am getting a little weary of the woe factor in recent fiction).

This was my first Messner book, but now I feel like I should get her most recent novel — Capture the Flag.

Peace (out of the storms),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Hologram for the King

I went into Hologram for the King not knowing quite what to expect. Would it be the Dave Eggers of years ago, writing in an brilliant, over-the-top narrative voice or would it be the recent Dave Eggers, whose Zeitoun and What is the What completely blew me away for the story and the writing? It turns out that Eggers is a more reserved writer than he was as a young gun (I’m not complaining but I do miss a bit of that energy), and now goes deeper into characters.

Hologram for the King is a modern story, of Alan Clay, who is in Saudia Arabia trying to make the deal of his life (pitching a large technology contract to the king) but instead, he is stuck in a Waiting for Godot-like parable of life. Eggers brings us into the complicated inner life of Clay, whose hanging on by a thread and navigating an unknown country, waiting for the king to arrive. I can’t say there is a whole lot of plot here. There isn’t. But there is something interesting about the inner journey of a single character, and Eggers does pull it off, with reserved writing and focus.

Peace (across the sea),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Drop Dead Healthy

I’m fan of A.J. Jacobs. I’ve learned a lot, and laughed a lot, with many of his books, which are focused forays into various themes in which Jacobs writes in the midst of the experiences. He’s read the encyclopedia. He’s explored outsourcing his life. He’s lived by strict biblical rules. And now, with Drop Dead Healthy, he wants to get healthy. He does, and over the course of two years, Jacobs explores many facets of our bodies, our visions of health, and dips his way into all of the alarming and contradictory research around various health claims.

Jacobs also brings us into the warm relationship he had with his grandfather (a legendary lawyer from New York) and his quirky, passionate aunt, who rails against modern society’s ignorance of health. Both of them pass away during the course of the two years that Jacobs was writing this book, and he honors their lives by situating them within the context of the larger story about living life to the fullest, and healthiest, and determining what is important. While I enjoyed the explorations of health, including all of the wacky experiments that Jacobs takes on (his poor wife!), the threads of his family held the book together for me in an emotional way.

I also appreciated Jacobs’ conclusions around what he learned, and the final scene of him holding the sticky hands of his son (munching on cotton candy) is touching.

Peace (in the health),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Content-area Writing

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We’re going to be using this book — Content-area Writing: Every Teacher’s Guide — in the coming weeks with some ELA teachers, as we explore the possibilities and the shifts of the Common Core in our state. Just like one of the other books by two of three authors that I use a lot – Texts and Lessons — this resource by Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman, and Nancy Steinke is pitch perfect for teachers who want to learn more about writing in the content areas, but don’t quite know where to start. (see my review of that book)

Daniels, Zemelman and Steinke give a nice overview of the importance of writing to learn, no matter what the class, and then offer up possibilities for the classroom. The book begins with a series of quickwrite activities, and then ventures into longer project-based options, and ends on an interesting chapter around writing for standardized tests. This structure, plus the breezy style of writing, makes the book very accessible for a wide range of audience. There is a lot of practical advice, including sections on “what could go wrong” for teachers to consider when implementing the ideas. There are helpful connections to real classroom examples, and then further connections to the science, math and social studies classroom experiences.

I think the book will be a hit with teachers in our professional development.

Personally, I enjoyed the project-based writing chapters (what they call public writing) and have become intrigued once more with the i-Search paper format, which has nice connections to research skills and inquiry writing by students. In fact, after reading Content-area Writing, I am now intending to start the year out with an i-Search project with my sixth graders in September, helping them early on in the year with some research and analytical skills that will hopefully set the stage for longer pieces as the year progresses. (The i-Search idea is built around choice, inquiry and writing). Last year, we didn’t get to research and essay exploration until the end of the year, which did not help my science and social studies colleagues out in their content-area classes all that much.

Peace (in the writing),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: The Last Book in the Universe

It seems odd to admit it, but I didn’t realize that Rodman Philbrick’s novel, The Last Book in the Universe, would be a dystopian book. Well, duh. It was the title that caught my eye, and also, I have enjoyed various Philbrick novels this year (our summer reading is The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg).

But I wondered what book would be the last book?

Set in a future after “the big shake” has decimated just about everything and everyone, society is splintered in a few protected areas, surrounding what is known as Eden, the home of genetically perfected society of people known as “proovs.” Yes, biblical and literary allegory looms large here. The main character is Spaz, and the plot revolves around his adventure is to get back home to his foster sister, who is dying of leukemia. Spaz, who is an epileptic, is joined by an old man, Ryter (say that one out loud), and a young boy who remains mostly nameless. Ryter has been writing a book, which is an unknown and forgotten art form, and he joins with Spaz to capture one last adventure (like Odysseus, he notes, to which Spaz asks, who?) before he dies.

Like Anthony Burgess has done in A Clockwork Orange, Philbrick has invented an entire lexicon for this world that has been almost destroyed, and it is survival of the fittest and quickest, and luckiest. And while Philbrick paints a terrible place, he laces his story with hope, and I won’t give away what we understand becomes the “last book” in the universe, except to say that the book has lots of action, thoughtful inquiry into modern day culture, and insights into the unspoken power of capturing our stories in words for the future.

Peace (in the last book),
Kevin

 

Book Review: A Long Walk to Water

Novelist Linda Sue Park explores the horrific impacts of the war in Sudan by making the experience personal, drawing the reader into the saga of a “lost boy” who was forced in 1985 to abandon his village when war broke out, and then walked first to refugee camps in Ethiopia and then to Kenya, before making his way to the United States. The main character in A Long Walk to Water is Salva Dut, and Park based him on a real person who decided to make an impact on the Sudan by creating a foundation that would provide villages with one thing they desperately need: clean water.

Park alternates the story here of Salva’s survival with the life of Nya, who lives in a village in Southern Sudan in 2008 and whose job in her family is to walk across the desert for hours every day to a pond to fetch water. Later in the book, the threads of the stories weave together nicely as the organization that Salva has created (through public speaking before donors and connections to schools and community groups) comes to Nya’s village to dig a well that will change the lives of her, her family and surrounding villages forever.

The narrative of the “lost boys” who were forced to walk for months, and sometimes even years, to get away from the violent war zones that overtook much of the Sudan (including Darfur) has been told before (I still hold up Dave Eggers’ What is the What as required reading to my adult friends). But Park’s book is appropriate for middle school students, particularly those who are studying or who have interest in modern-day African politics. (Since the publication of the book, the Sudan has become two countries, splitting down ethnic and political lines that form the backdrop for A Long Walk to Water.) Park does not mince words or minimize the suffering of her characters. But by focusing in on the stories of an 11-year-old boy and young girl whose lives slowly come together, Park astutely balances tragedy and triumph, and focuses in on humanity rising above violence.

The inspiration for the book — Salva Dut — created the organization, Water for Sudan , to raise money for wells, and it seems like it continues to do that work.

Peace (in the world),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Louie Licks and the Wicked Snakes

HOt off the press

It’s always a pleasure when a fellow teaching friend writes and publishes a book. I am all for celebrating on their behalf. So I was happy to learn  that Gaetan Pappalardo (part of the National Writing Project network and a regular contributor to Edutopia, and whose online motto is teach.write.rock) had finally gotten his children’s novel — Louie Licks and the Wicked Snakes: Battleaxe — out for sale. Gaetan writes a lot of great pieces about the connections between music and writing, and how to use that interest in music in the classroom. His short (self-published, I believe) novel builds on that idea of music having powers beyond what we hear, but the book does it with humor, adventure and even some wacky science fiction built in.

I’ll admit: I am a sucker for stories that use music as the anchor. Here, the narrator — Louie Licks, an elementary student whose fame with his guitar is already legendary (if you go to his school) — shares with us his incredible adventure when his electric guitar gets stolen right before a gig at a breakfast at his school. The thief (disguised first as a milkman) is trying to tap the power of the guitar (you’ll have to read the book to understand what that is all about), and it is up to Louie and his drummer friend, Grady (my brutha!), to save the day by saving the school … and possibly the world.

Gaetan writes with flare (and the illustrations by Amy English are cute), and the voice of his young protagonist comes through loud and clear. I particularly liked his interactions with his little brother, whom Louie has nicknamed “Grunge.” The oddest character is Louie’s dead grandmother, who arrives at opportune moments to help Louie out of jams. (The guitar was hers before it was Louie’s.) There is also an entire part of the story that revolves around farting, so you know the boys in class will be chuckling over the passing of gas.

A bonus is that Gaetan, who is a musician himself, has set up a website where Louie and his bandmates have recorded some of their music. Take a listen to Louie Licks and the Wicked Snakes.

Peace (in the power of music),
Kevin

 

Book Review: On Writing

I’ve been through my fair share of Stephen King in my lifetime, and I have mostly enjoyed his stories. There are plenty of critics who take pot shots at him from a variety of angles, but I have found that if I go into his novels with the mindset of “story” and maybe “scary story,” then I am fine. He hits all the right notes when he is on his game. When King’s On Writing came out, I bookmarked it but then never got around to picking it up until now.

It’s an intriguing look inside the mind of a popular writer, and there’s plenty of voice that comes through here, too, including his own pot shots right back at his critics. King has a lot to say about writing, but what I found the most interesting, to be honest, is the earlier sections where he talks about how broke into the world of writing. Mostly, it was through the support of his wife, Tabitha King (a writer in her own right), and On Writing does come across as sort of love letter to her. Never underestimate the support and ear of your spouse. There are also many threads of the horrific accident that happened to King one day, as he was walking down a rural road and was struck by a truck. Talk about mortality check.

The middle sections of On Writing go deeper into the art of writing, as King sees it, and those sections work fine, but the best piece of advice is this: read. A lot. Read a lot of books, and pay attention to style, development of ideas, character voice. If you want to be a writer, you need to notice the craft of writing, and you do that by reading.

Oh, yeah, and avoid using too many adverbs. King doesn’t like that — he thinks it is a writer, cheating. I’m sort of with him on that idea of avoiding too many flourishes and instead, stick to the story.

If you have any aspirations to be a writer, or if you are fan of King, or heck, even if you want a good read, On Writing is worth your time. (Check out some excerpts if you are interested.)

Peace (in writing),
Kevin