Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

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Ok, all you book nerds (that includes me). Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is the read aloud just for you. A high-spirited tale of a mysterious game designer (Mr. Lemoncello) and his new public library in his hometown, and a group of 12 years locked inside the library for the weekend with a game of “who can find the way out,” this book references more books than you could shake a stick at. It almost calls for some sort of literary bingo game as you read it aloud.

While there are definitive echoes of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and a host of other classic stories, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library holds its own, if only for the sheer fun of reading the story. I enjoyed how board games and game design were baked right into the plot itself. And what book nerd (again, like me) isn’t drawn in when a new library is the setting for a mystery and adventure, and where the characters learn teamwork and wits are the key to winning the game set in motion by Lemoncello. Plus, add all the cool technology inside the library (and not at the expense of the books), and you have a solid read from start to finish.

Get out your bingo boards and read Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. You won’t be disappointed.

Peace (in the game),
Kevin

Book Review: Dairy of a Wimpy Kid Hard Luck

Jeff Kinney continues to generate a lot of excitement with his Wimpy Kid series of books (it helps that Scholastic is “all in” with its promotion, too). The excitement is visible at school, where I have a line of students waiting to read one of our classroom copies of the new Hard Luck. And it is evident at home, where my two youngest sons wrestle over the books. It’s not unusual to see a line of Wimpy Kids books all over our couch as my youngest reads them yet again.

I finally got a chance to read Hard Luck. It has a typical Wimpy Kid storyline — Greg is feeling socially left out and must navigate the weirdos of his world — and some very funny scenes for anyone who spends any amount of time in a school building during the day (inside jokes about the change of french fries to sweet potato fries, etc.). The writing isn’t all that deep but I suspect readers of Wimpy Kid don’t really care. They’re there for the jokes and the visual puns and the “voice” of the Greg Heffley, which Kinney has honed over the years.

I read Hard Luck in a single sitting and found it to be a nice diversionary entertainment. For many of my reluctant readers, though, Kinney is often a lifeline to books, and even if I wish the stories went deeper and even as I bemoan the influx of inferior copycat books (illustrated as comics — you know what I am talking about), I am appreciative of the fact that these kids are reading, and reading out of interest.

Peace (in the kid),
Kevin

shhhh …. Get Invent to Learn Kindle eBook for Free

I saw this notice in one of my many emails. Today (Friday) and then again on December 2, a Kindle version of the fantastic Invent to Learn by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager— which gives not only an overview of the Maker’s Movement in the classroom but also, practical advice on how to get students inventing and making — is FREE.  I did a positive review over at Middleweb. You really should get this book. And it’s FREE as a Kindle download. Just saying …

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Peace (in the make),
Kevin

Bringing Home Knowledge … Tons of Books

Books from Boston NCTE
There are many things to like about an educational conference like NCTE. Sure, the collaboration and sense of community, and shared knowledge and expertise is all wonderful. But there is also … the free books that publishers hand out in the Exhibition Hall, and this year, my wife and I took home many, many bags of free books (we drove this year so we just kept dragging bags to the car). Plus, we got a few bookmark packs, tattoes, and even a “graphic story” builder pack.

My students will love perusing the pile.

Peace (on the pages),
Kevin

 

Book Review: I am George Lucas

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My wife came home from a Librarian’s Convention with the observation that publishers have now gone completely overboard on non-fiction books. I suppose that is the case (thanks, Common Core!). It’s not a bad thing to have some solid non-fiction but her impression is that good fiction titles have suffered as a result.

I Am George Lucas is part of that growing non-fiction trend aimed at elementary students. Particularly, boys. The biography (not autobiography, oddly enough, given the title, which is misleading. While Lucas provides a quick opening introduction, the rest of this short book is a standard biographical account of Lucas) is a quick read, aimed at third and fourth graders. There’s not a lot of meat in these bones, so to speak.

But for those interested in the life of the man who envisioned Star Wars and Indiana Jones and a few other classic movies (I’m not sure American Graffiti will ring in the heads of young readers), this book does the trick of hitting the key moments of Lucas’ life, growing up with no real focus until college, when he realized that he wanted to make movies. We see his partnerships with Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and others, that opened doors for Lucas that would otherwise have been shut.

You come away from the book with a sense of not only the vision of Lucas but also the drive and courage to stand up to Hollywood at times (he could have used some more outside voices for editing the most recent batch of Star Wars movies, in my mind, but critical views of his movies are almost nonexistent here). I like that they show how Lucas is using his wealth to push filmmaking forward and his work around philanthropic issues, such as education.

I am George Lucas is not a classic, but it is readable and informative.

Peace (in space),
Kevin

Book Review: Treasure Hunters

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I have a mixed view of James Patterson. It seems to me that sometimes he mails it in and given his output as a writer, who can blame him? But the cover to Treasure Hunters (created with illustrator Chris Grabenstein) caught my eye as I was searching for a read aloud for my 9 year old son. In the style of Patterson’s Middle School series of illustrated novels, Treasure Hunters is a fine adventurous ride that my son and I both enjoyed.

The story is about a family who lives on a boat and makes their way as a hunters of lost treasure at sea. It opens with a storm, and the father being lost, and then we learn that the mom had been kidnapped by terrorists, and so it is up to the four kids (or Kidds, as the family name goes) to continue with the treasure and hopefully, find dad still alive and maybe even rescue mom. Along the way, the four siblings meet pirates of all kinds of ilk, rub up against secret agents, discover and lose and then rediscover the Greciun Urn that inspired Keats, and learn a few surprising things about their mom and dad.

The pace is quick and the story is finely illustrated, with great humor and suspense. The chapters are short, but most end with a cliffhanger that had my son forcing me to “keep reading” each time I tried to stop. Patterson’s talent for telling stories is on display here, even if the characters are a bit one-dimensional. But with a title like Treasure Hunters, you don’t go there for the depth of the characters — you go there for the spirit of adventures, and this book delivers nicely.

Peace (on the oceans),
Kevin

 

At MiddleWeb: Teaching Visual Literacy and Considering the Heart of Nonfiction

I am writing fairly regularly over at MiddleWeb these days and I like to point folks to what I have been up to lately.

If you have time, check out the review I did for the new book, Finding the Heart of Non-Fiction by Georgia Heard. I really enjoyed this book, on a few levels (including the production values of the book itself).

 

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And I just added a new blog post about teaching the reading and writing of diagrams with my sixth graders. Check out how I went about this teaching of visual literacy and what they were learning, and why.

Student Diagrams

Peace (on the web),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: The Titan’s Curse

I’m sorry to say this, but even knowing the story of The Titan’s Curse (part of the Lightning Thief series by Rick Riordan), this graphic novel version of that novel is a confusing, narrative mess. If you never read the book … well, let me just say that it is unlikely you would have made it to the end of this graphic novel version. Which is too bad. The Titan’s Curse is a good story, with the introduction of Nico diAngelo and the emergence of goddess Artemis as a force to be reckoned with, and the start of the hunt for lost god, Pan, by Grover.

But this graphic version of that story has few narrative anchors to let the reader know what is even going on. Sure, the visuals and illustrations are fantastic. You can see a lot of effort and creativity went into the art production of the book. If only some of those production costs were siphoned off to make the story flow and readable, but I fear that is not really the case here. The writing gets way short thrift to the artwork.

What’s interesting is that they probably could have fixed this problem with a few conveniently placed text boxes, bringing the reader up to speed on the sections and scenes. Instead, we jump from scene to scene with very little glue to hold the story together, and some of the characters — who are clearly defined in the novel — look so much like each other, so figuring out which one is Thalia and which one is Bianca, etc., requires more effort by the reader than should be expected. Particularly if your audience is middle school readers, which this is.

I’m all for challenging texts — and for graphic novelists using the parameters of the canvas to tell a story in a different way — but give me a chance to comprehend what I am reading. This version of The Titan’s Curse fails on that account.

Peace (in disappointment),
Kevin

 

Book Review: House of Hades

I’ve just finished up House of Hades with my nine year old son, and like the other books that writer Rick Riordan has put out in his Heroes of Olympus series, the sense of action, intrigue and adventure fuels the tales of Percy Jackson and his demigod friends as they seek yet again to save the world. This time, the mission is to close the Doors of Death in Tartarus before the Earth goddess Gaia arises and destroys the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, and anyone associated with either.

There’s a predictability to the books that I have come to expect: the demigod youths split up, set off on different missions, come close to death, find impossible tasks, figure out a way to persevere, and then accomplish what they need to accomplish, come back together as a team, and plan for the next mission which will require them to split up (in the next book). There’s enough action and adventure in House of Hades, though, that I don’t mind, and my son doesn’t care — maybe he likes that predictability — because he is so attuned to the action going on in the story.

I’m more intrigued with a few of the minor characters that Riordan has developed over the course of the last few books in this Heroes of Olympus series. Sure, there is Percy Jackson — the anchor of Riordan’s books – and Annabeth, of whom I have written about before, and Jason (son of Pluto) and more. But four characters that I have enjoyed watching develop slowly are:

  • Leo — The Greek son of Hephaestus, he is the consummate tinkerer and I have come to appreciate his skills more and more as I have become more involved in the Maker Movement. Leo is always remixing his world, taking parts from here and there, and pulling them together to make something new. There’s a great scene in House of Hades where Leo is falling from the sky, but has enough wits about him to create a modified flying machine to save himself. Talk about a Make!
  • Hazel — A Roman daughter of Pluto, she is emerging as one of the more powerful demigods in the group, particularly as she pulls in more magical abilities and finds confidence in her abilities. Hazel ability to control the Mist was a key component here, but I suspect it may be more important as the series moves on.
  • Frank — A Roman son of Mars with family roots also in Chinese mythology, Frank also emerges as a different character in this book after he is tested and survives. His lifeline is a small piece of wood, literally, and if it burns to ash, Frank’s life is over. But he is now learning how to find confidence in strength and power, and to tap his arguing fathers (Greek and Roman personalities at war in his head) to emerge as the protector soldier he is destined to be.
  • Nico — Now here is another character who has been around since the first series and has always been somewhat of a mystery. Nico is a child of Hades (and distant brother to Hazel). He’s not really part of the demigod team here, and yet, his skills at navigating the Underworld prove important on many levels. Interestingly, we learn more about his stand-off nature and how his unrequited and hidden love for Percy Jackson has eaten away at Nico for years. (Percy has no idea). My son and I had an interesting discussion about boys liking boys in one of the more dramatic scenes where Jason befriends Nico, who finally admits to his sexual orientation. It’s daring for Riordan to put that in the story, I think, although it is a small section that only gets briefly references to later on.

Overall, House of Hades finds a solid place in the Heroes of Olympus series, and as my son turned to the back pages of the book, he found what he was looking for. The next book — The Blood of Olympus – comes out in the fall of 2014. We’ll be waiting.

Peace (in the myth),
Kevin