Open Up the Heartstrings — Considering Music

Three events have me thinking deeper about music this week. Though separate, they all connect.

First, I finished reading Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes, which is a wonderful rumination on the power of music (and in Sheffield’s case, Karaoke) to create meaning in the phases of our lives. Second, I have been culling together a bunch of old recordings for a site I am creating at Bandcamp to share out some of my music. Finally, my friends Luke and Joel were musing on tracks this week as Luke wrote about ballads and Joel responded with a look at Smashing Pumpkins.

Sheffield’s book is the second of his that I have read in the past six months (the other is Love is a Mix Tape — another keeper). I read Sheffield all the time in Rolling Stone magazine, but I wasn’t sure if he could sustain a book. He can (at least three books, even), and I am grateful for the way he brings his pop culture lens and thinking about music to how he views life. You’ll have to read Sheffield’s book to get the whole story, but he married young, had tragedy and found love again when he thought it would never happen. Through it all, Sheffield uses his love of music as the lens to see life, and even when he is talking about bands that I don’t know, I am right with him, nodding my head and knowing what he is talking about. Music is one of those things that connects us to the past, he notes, but also connects us to the present moment while still guiding us into the future.

The past is what has been present in my head this past week as I have been culling through tracks recorded with two previous bands over the last 10 years. I’ve been pulling aside songs that I wrote or co-wrote in hopes of bringing a little light on them. A few of them I consider to be gems, captured nicely in the recording studio. A few had been gems that got lost and muddled in the studio. A few surprisingly became gems in the studio. But listening to the tracks is like walking down the path to where I was in time. I’m still writing songs for my current band, and maybe some day we will venture into the studio (although both of the former bands broke up as soon as we were done with recording — so the few of us still left from those previous bands are a little studio-shy, to say the least). But putting on headphones and listening to music I wrote, performed with bands from another time, has been a reminder of how music is, and was, a fabric in my life, weaving the stories of who I am together over time. Sometimes, I forget that and have to be reminded.

Finally, Luke blogged the other day about ballads as a sort of emotional anchor, and then he shared out the tracks he was writing about, too. I am always interested in what songs are other people’s lists, and I was surprised to see Radiohead right at the top. I’d quibble with a few of Luke’s choices (Not a huge fan of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, for some reason, although I could listen to Flea any day) and love that a few are new to me. It’s interesting that Luke’s lens here is ballads, which tug at our heart in ways that stories and words don’t do.

And it occurred to me … what ballads would be on my list? Here are a few, although I am not sure they all fall under the “ballad” banner (see above for the video playlist of most of the songs here. Some are different versions than I remember but still capture the gist of the song):

  • Marc Cohn: True Companion (from his debut album). Years later, I can still listen to this track and the way the piano deepens with those low notes and the opening voice, and then how the strings swell in. And Cohn sings about finding that person who seems to make your life complete. I hear this song and my own heart beats a little faster.
  • Scott Hamilton — The Very Thought of You (from The Beginning) — Jazz saxophonist Scott Hamilton plays with such an easy and swerve of sound that he often becomes the background when I am cooking or writing. Background is not the right word, though, since his sentiment floats up and out. This track is a favorite because Hamilton floats over the sparse rhythm track.
  • Indigo Girls — You and Me of the 10,000 Wars (from Nomads, Indians, Saints) — There was a time … when I was deep into the Indigo Girls, particularly around a period of relationship breakups that seemed to be more 0f a norm than I would have liked. I sank into Emily Salier’s lyrics and voice to get me through, and even today, I can’t hear some of those songs without remembering …
  • Seal — Prayer for the Dying (from Seal) — I was stunned when I finally found this album, in one of those “where has this sound been all my life?” kind of moments. His voice and the production (sometimes, over the top, but mostly, just along that edge) gives a feel here that still has me stop in my tracks when the song and album come on. I need to listen. I don’t think Seal ever reached these heights again.
  • Chris Isaac – Wicked Game (from Heart Shaped World). One on hand, the slide guitar gives it a feel of too much country (or maybe that is my wife talking in my head). But we play this one my band, and I only do a little back up vocals. Listening to the lead singer belt this one out while I am in the room can give goose pimples because he mostly nails it (it’s hard to hit Isaak’s vocal range). This song, and the video, is forever etched on my mind from the first time I heard/saw it. It’s definitely one where the feel of the video (so sultry and sexy) matched perfectly with the feel of the song.
  • Jakob Dylan — This End of the Telescope (from Seeing Things) — I seem to be one of the only people I know who has enjoyed Jakob Dylan’s solo efforts over the years. This track muses on our place on this planet, and how perspectives shift over time. It reminds me of times of confusion and trying to find focus, and how powerful friendships can be during the times of personal turmoil.
  • Joan Armitrading — Everyday Boy (from What’s Inside) — I have no idea how I got my hands on a Joan Armitrading disc during a certain time period where I was deep inside myself, but this song and the lyrics stuck with me over time. Then, I sort of let it go. Joan had done her job for me. So, here, listening again as I write this post brings up a lot of the past, and that brings us back to how music does something for our hearts and minds that few other kinds of composing and performance do (Sheffield’s point).
  • And finally, every track on The Swell Seasons album, Strict Joy. I guess they have broken up (figures) but this collection of songs, sung with heart-breaking harmony is an amazing headphone experience. It’s not the same when I play it out on speakers — the richness of the language and the depth of the singing get lost in the air. But put this one with headphones, and you transported deep into the heart.

What songs hit your heart?

Peace (in the muse),


Comic Review: Unearthed Comic

Tell me that comic didn’t give you a chuckle? Of course it did. Sara Zimmerman‘s science-based funnies are hilarious and her collection of comics is available in her latest volume, Unearthed Comics: Unearthing Science. Zimmerman brings a lot of wit and wisdom, and science, to her comics and that makes the classroom a perfect place for a collection like this, although you might want to scan the content first. I wouldn’t say there is anything over-the-top but that might depend on your own values.

Like anything, read it yourself first to determine appropriateness for your students. Plus, that way, you get the chuckles before they do.

I downloaded her collection into my iPad and every now and then, I open it up in the Kindle app, read a few pages, and get back to work with a smile on my face. If that isn’t the role of a good comic strip, I don’t know what is. Sara’s comic is worth your time, and she shares out her strips at her website and in an email newsletter format (and via Twitter). I am now going to get her first collection of comics ….

Peace (in the frame),

Graphic Novel Review: Mal and Chad – Belly Flop

I’ve become a big fan of Stephen McCranie’s Mal and Chad series of books ever since he skyped into my classroom and taught my students about drawing and storytelling. So, I am biased with this review. But even if I had not had the pleasure of Stephen’s company, I would be a fan of Mal and Chad. The books (three, so far, I believe) center on a boy, Mal, and his dog, Chad, through adventures and misadventures as Mal uses his technology skills and navigates the awkward stages of friendship with a girl, Megan.

There’s plenty of humor built into the stories — visual and textual — and the books are accessible and relate-able to elementary and middle school kids (and I suspect a few high school students wouldn’t mind picking it up). The artwork has a Manga-feel to it and McCranie conveys a lot through the expressions of his characters. Some of the “silent” panels pack the most powerful emotional punches, particularly as Mal gets shunned by other kids in his school. That’s a credit to McCranie’s art skills and understanding of graphic stories.

What sets Mal and Chad apart, though, is its heart.

The center of all the stories — including this one, Belly Flop — is Mal’s desire for good friendship and his willingness to do what it takes to become a true friend.  His intentions are always right on, even if the results almost always end up in slapstick comedy. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and we the readers are right there with him. I’m always amused when Chad, the dog, kicks in with some dialogue, particularly when he is puffing up Mal with positive comments. Chad is Mal’s one-dog cheering section, and yet, it never falls into the cloyingly annoying phase, as it could. It’s genuine (well, as genuine as it gets with a talking dog.)

Belly Flop centers on a few storylines that come together, as Mal invents a Weather Cube that goes awry. Meanwhile, he gets invited to Megan’s birthday party, where some powerful glue on a gift undoes all of Mal’s ideas for impressing Megan and he ends up belly-flopping into a stream (thus, the nickname kids give Mal and the name of the book). So, he tries out for the Talent Show, only to have the audition fall apart when the Weather Cube goes crazy and unleashes a powerful storm. Mal races out to find Chad, to make sure his dog is safe, and finds himself in danger. Only Megan can save Mal … and she does.

See? Heart. That’s what storytelling is all about, and Mal and Chad is full of heart.

Peace (in the tale),
PS — the trailer

Book Review: Spirit Animals

Scholastic is making another push into what appears to be a lengthy book series, and I feel mixed about it. Spirit Animals begins with this first book, Wild Born. Here, there is the story of 12-year-old kids connecting with mythical animals that arrive during a special celebration and then the four set off on an adventure to save their world from evil forces brewing all around them. Sure, we’ve read this tale before. Many times. I’m not complaining, but I have to admit that my son liked this one better than I did, as we did it as a read-aloud together. I did enjoys the cover of the book. It’s very attractive and eye-catching. And I appreciated that writer Brandon Mull added complexities here and there in the plot and character development, such as competing storylines so that you are never quite certain which group is the real bad side.

But I can’t escape the feeling that there’s a marketing genius at work, though. I mean, you can’t go wrong with connecting animals with young heroes when it comes to young readers. Everyone loves powerful animals. And that’s what rubs me the wrong way with Spirit Animals. It feels like marketing more than storytelling.

I felt the same way about Scholastic’s 39 Clues series, although my older son loved those books and read them as they came out. Maybe it’s just me and a natural apprehension when a big company enters the room. Like 39 Clues, the Spirit Animals series has a web-based platform for students to “play the game” as they “read the book.” I let my son go to the site and set up an account, but looking over his shoulder from time to time, I can’t say that I was all that impressed with what I saw. He lost interest after about 15 minutes. Yet I don’t think he every got to the Quest part of the site, so maybe we didn’t fully experience the “play the game” element.

I remember sitting in a conference session at NCTE last year, where “transmedia books” was the topic, as represented by some publishing companies, including Scholastic. But I had to walk out midway through the presentation because their vision of “transmedia” was setting up a companion website for kids to “play” with the story and characters but it was clear that what they really meant was to “sell” more books in a series. Now, listen, I know publishers are in the business of selling books but I feel odd when kids are targeted through games and online portal spaces that are branded with by a company. Maybe I am being too critical of Scholastic here. I know they are trying to navigate the changes in the way kids read. I just feel a little put off by it all.

Peace (in the stories),

PS — the trailer:


Book Review: Mister Max – The Book of Lost Things

My son and I sort of stumbled on this book by Cynthia Voight by accident. We were in-between read-aloud books and my wife had picked Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things at a conference. It was the back cover that had me interested: “The trouble began with a mysterious invitation.” I read that blurb out loud to my son and he responded, “Well, now we have to read the book.”

So, we did.

The story — which lays the ground for at least one sequel, due out in 2014 — is about young Max Starling, whose parents are actors. The mysterious invitation is for the family to pack up and spend time in Kashmir as a teaching and traveling theater group. But when his parents go missing, Max is on his own (with help from his grandmother, a smart librarian who lives next door). Max embarks on finding independence, as he holds out hope that his parents are OK.

Much of the story involves Max solving problems — not as a detective, a label he does not like, but as a solutioneer — someone who finds creative solutions to problems, allowing him to earn enough money to live on while he ponders what might have happened to his parents. (You have to suspend reality here, as Max never goes to the police to inform them that his parents are missing. I would hope my kids would inform the authorities if my wife and I suddenly were gone.) The characters here are well-drawn, and Cynthia Voight is a writer with much talent, laying different pieces of different puzzles here and there, and then expertly pulling them together by the end, only to leave yet another mystery to untangle (thus, the sequel).

Mister Max was a perfect read-aloud and my son had a lot of questions about characters and foreshadowing, and those “aha” moments when Max figured something out. We thoroughly enjoyed the story, and appreciate how the random discovery of a book like Mister Max can light up a reading life.

Peace (in the mystery),

Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

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),

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),

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 …

3d-invent-to-learn hodgson

Peace (in the make),