Book Review: Spy School

A few years ago, after reading some Carl Hiaasen with my class, I saw the book Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs in the book store. The cover had the same sort of style as Flush and so I picked it up. It was a fun read, certainly influenced by Hiaasen’s style of humorous writing and focus on hijinks and the environment, albeit with the setting of a zoo, of sorts. Still, it was a fun, fast read, with lots of chuckling on our part. I guess some students liked it too because Belly Up went missing from my classroom library not long after I put it there.

Darn kids.

So, when I saw that Gibbs had another book out (and a sequel), I kept it on my radar. Finally, my son and I dove into Spy School as a read-aloud and as soon as it was done, we were searching for Spy Camp. My son is nine years old, so spying as the source for stories has great appeal (that Gibbs, he knows his audience). The novel tells the story of Ben, who gets invited to join a super-elite school for young spies-in-training, only to find out things are not what they appear to be and suddenly, the hunt is on for a mole in the espionage establishment.

There’s plenty of action, and pretty decent characters, as Gibbs establishes some of the ins and outs of the spy agencies, and puts Ben’s life in danger more than a few times. Luckily, Ben has a protector of sorts in Erica, a beautiful girl whose espionage skills would rattle James Bond on a good day. She’s a one-person wrecking crew of smarts and skills. And Ben is smitten (my son wasn’t all that interested in that element of the story).

Spy School is a good, adventurous read for middle school kids, particularly boys. Gibbs has found a solid topic to build some novels off, and my son and I are going deep undercover … to read.

Peace (this blog post will self-destruct in five seconds),

Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk is another amusingly, bizarre book by Neil Gaiman that was such the perfect read-aloud on our wintry day that we are tempted to read it again (although I think my son and wife might save it for their boys’ book club). A fast-paced, quirky adventure in which a dad goes out to get the milk and returns with a whopper of a story involving aliens, volcanoes, hot air balloons and time traveling nonsense that will have your head spinning. (in a good way).

Coupled with fun illustration, Fortunately, the Milk is a riot. Not very deep in terms of characters or plot, perhaps, but still a rollicking adventure. I also thought it interesting how Gaiman and the publisher used font sizes and styles to denote parts of the story as the narrative moves in and out of the present (kids talking to dad) to the past (the story that dad tells), and the ending reminded me a bit of that last scene in The Usual Suspects but that’s all I will say.

On a day when snow was falling and my son and I were cuddled up on the couch, we were fortunate to have Fortunately, the Milk handy and my admiration of Gaiman as a writer continues to grow.

Peace (in the tale),

Ongoing Thoughts: It’s Complicated (the social lives of networked teens)

I am reading danah boyd’s excellent new book, It’s Complicated, and making notes as I go via Goodreads as a sort of comment trail of my thinking of her ideas. So far, it is a great read, with lots of her insights drawn from extensive research around teenagers over multiple years time. She really has a critical eye for what kids are doing, and how adults perceive what kids are doing (often through the wrong lens).

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked TeensIt’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd

I am going to check in here now and then as I read this book by the fabulous researcher, danah boyd. Her extensive research and background in social media and the lives of teenagers should make for an interesting read. As a father, and a teacher, and someone who tries to harness technology for storytelling and writing and composing, I am always intrigued by what kids are doing, or not doing, or doing without thinking of what they are doing. I am hopeful that boyd’s work will shed some light for me and for others.

View all my comments on It’s Complicated

Peace (in the reflections),

Book Review: Tua and the Elephant

Tua and the Elephant is a beautiful little novel, and it was such a nice change of pace from my read aloud with my son of action and adventure stories that have a lot of noise but very little depth. Which is not to say that action and adventure are not part of this story in which a little girl, Tua, sets out to rescue an elephant, even as she is being chased by two seedy men who have abused the elephant and want it back. Set in Thailand, this small novel gives such a flavor of setting and character, and moves with humor and humanity, making it a perfect read-aloud for home or the classroom.

Tua is smart and determined, and her heart is what drives the story forward from the first page to the last. You can’t help but root for Tua and care about the young elephant she is intent on saving. Finding a gem like Tua and the Elephant (I saw it on a table at the book store, and was captivated by the cover, and picked it up) is such a refreshing thing, reminding me of the power of story told with compassion and understanding.

Tua lives in our hearts now, too.

Peace (in the story),


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: