Graphic Novel Review: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

My fifth grade son let the first book in Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales  that I brought home from the library sit around for a few weeks. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the historical perspective, or the dense pages of graphics and text. I thought the title alone — One Dead Spy — would draw him in.

Then, he picked it up and wouldn’t put it down.

Soon, we were ordering the second book from the library — Big Bad Ironclad — and now he is clamoring for more from writer/illustrator Nathan Hale (yes, that’s his name) who writes his graphic novels with Nathan Hale (the figure from history) in the lead role, trying to stave off his execution as a spy by weaving out stories of history. It’s more lighthearted than that seems, I realize, even though Hale (the writer) chooses some pretty, eh, interesting stories to tell (the Donner Party, the start of the Civil War, etc).

But, the stories from history are alive and enriched by Hale’s use of the graphic novel medium, effectively using history as the springboard for some fascinating storytelling. Each page is rich with humor and information, and packed with drawings. These are truly novels, in graphic form.

There’s also a cool Q/A with Hale about making comics.

And Hale has started making some videos about the making of the books, which are pretty nifty.

Peace (in the tales),

At Middleweb: Connected Reading with Connected Learners

Connected Reading review comic

Over at Middleweb, I reviewed a new book about “connected reading” by Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks. They push our thinking about the ways that Connected Learning principles can take root with adolescent readers.

It is a thoughtful book that looks at classroom practice and the ways in which Turner and Hicks were doing the “connected reading” even as they were writing the book itself. (I am sucker for that kind of reflective writing)

Read the review of Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World 

The comic I share above was my way of putting connected reading practice into reality, as I mapped out how I came to review the book and then am asking readers at Middleweb to extend the conversation even further.

You can do the same.

Peace (in the read),

The Scent of Books and the Tangible Experience of Reading

I guess I have been more aware of the tangible nature of books lately, for whatever reason. It began with receiving The Marvels book by Brian Selznick and has kept in the back of my mind as I have been reading some Sheldon comic collections by Dave Kellett on my iPad with the Kindle app.

I’m noticing form and function as I read, and paying attention to the beauty with physical books, in contrast to the flexibility and accessibility of digital books. I’m no Luddite, of course. But I’ve never been an e-reader sort of person. I do use the Kindle app to read e-books when I need to, and appreciate some of its attributes of annotation and bookmarking. But it’s not my preferential reading experience, however. On airplane trips, I’d still rather lug around a huge novel than open up the app on my mobile device.

So, yesterday, when one of my students brought in a gift from parents — the new illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — the entire class surrounded her in wonder at this beautiful book that has amazingly colorful illustrations. She said her mom pre-ordered it back in February, and she has been waiting (not really patiently) for it arrive. She was so excited, hugging the book as if she never wanted to let it go.

At one point, she opened the book up and put her nose right down into the spine. She closed her eyes as she inhaled deeply. We all watched her, curious.

“I love the smell of new books,” she said, smiling but sincere. “There’s something about that new book smell.”

A friend was standing next to her. This friend is another book lover whose father, I know, collects antique books. This friend nodded, in agreement to the comment, but then added an ancillary thought of her own.

“And the smell of old books, too. There’s something mysterious about the smell of old books,” she said, almost wistfully, as if she was imagining herself wandering through an old bookstore. I thought of my own childhood adventures in old book stores and in libraries, about the undiscovered stories and yes, the scent of those collections still linger in my memory.

I nodded in agreement to both of them. In the back of my mind, I thought: no e-book reader will never get a comment about the sense of smell like that and the way that sensory experience provides an emotional connection to a book. (Should I say “never” here? Who knows what sensory experiences they might build into the e-reader in the future? I should know better, perhaps and yet …)

There sure is something tangible and experiential about physical books — the ones with the covers and the paper pages. It’s the scent of a shared love of stories, of the ideas of writers, of other readers before you, of characters that move you and settings that draw you in. It’s the sense of magic about to unfold, and I still believe that the reader-to-book experience doesn’t quite cross the lines in the age of digital e-readers.

Peace (under and inside the pages),

PS — Ironically, Apple announced that is now has interactive Harry Potter e-books available (no doubt, part of some marketing effort connected to the release of the illustrated book). While I admit to being intrigued to what those might look like, I’d be more apt to shell out the cost for the hardcover illustrated Harry Potter that my student owns.

Book Review: The Marvels

Recently, I wrote of receiving The Marvels, the newest book by Brian Selznick, in the mail and being taken aback by its physical presence. It’s a beautiful book, with golden pages and an delightful cover. The book has the weight of words and drawings. I couldn’t wait to read it with my son.

I did, and I have to admit: The Marvels, though it has lots of charm, does not quite hold up to Selznick’s previous books — The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. Those books showed intricate storytelling, fusing the image elements of his books (which shine in The Marvels, too) with the text. Both were like literary puzzles for the reader to wonder about, as he brought the fictional ends together to tell a single story.

Here, in The Marvels, there is again a mystery, and things are not what they seem, but my son and I were less taken in by the story itself, for whatever reason. I won’t give the plot away, but the novel is loosely based on a real event and people, and their story of an unusual life. I was interested but not intrigued. That’s all the difference in the world, right?

I can sing long praises for his drawings, of course, because they are an art form unto itself, but I wish the story text had been stronger to hold it all together. It’s still a book worth checking out, as is anything Selznick does. It’s not bad. It’s good. But it’s not great. Given his past few books, this one just didn’t rise to my expectation level. Maybe that is me, the reader, more than him, the writer.

Until next book …

Peace (on the pages),

Slice of Life: A Little Bit Goes a Long Way

(This is a piece for Slice of Life, a weekly community writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers.)


I found this in my email bin this morning, and I was quite happy. You see, I have started to contribute each month to support a few artists that I like via Patreon, which is a crowdsourcing site that puts into practice something I like to believe in: your audience will not only find you if you do creative things, but they will also help support you in order to support your art. (I did a book review last week on Cory Doctorow’s book — Information Doesn’t Want to be Free — in which this idea was a central tenet of how artists can survive, and thrive, in the digital age.)

At Patreon, I pitch in a dollar each month to support a few folk — including Audrey Watters and her insightful pieces about education and technology; David Finkle, and his work on creating comics about teaching called Mr. Fitz; and Dave Kellett, whose Sheldon comics I love to read every day for their wit and humor. It was Dave who sent out some free ebook gifts as thanks to his supporters. Audrey and David Finkle often send out material that we get to see first, or works in progress.

A dollar doesn’t sound like much, but if a lot of people pitch in a dollar, it can make the difference between an artist making art or flipping pancakes for a living. Kellett, for example, wanted to remove advertising from his website for Sheldon, and so the Patreon campaign is designed to replace the income from ads through direct support from fans.

I was happy to support Sheldon Comics even without the ebooks but now … now, I need to get these on my iPad for pleasure reading …

Peace (in the giving and in the receiving),


At Middleweb: Forging Partnerships

in it together cover 150

My latest column over at Middleweb is an interview with my Western Massachusetts Writing Project (and musician) colleague, Michael Silverstone, and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian, about their new book, In It Together, that looks how to establish and build school partnerships with families and organizations in order to enrich the learning lives of all students.

Here are a few quotes that I think speak to what they are talking about:

… expending energy in the direction of collaboration leaves you with more energy than you started with. It’s kind of a paradox. I’ve come to know that isolation depletes my energy sooner or later. I’ve had supremely satisfying times in my own little classroom world, but after a while, going solo gets draining. — Michael Silverstone

Tapping into the experiences of our families greatly helps us in building these connections, and the possibilities for doing this are wonderfully endless. For example, some students might have a parent or sibling who is deployed, and others might have a family member who fled their home country. Both groups have depth of knowledge on this topic of study and can greatly help our instruction to come alive. — Debbie Zacarian

I think the Q&A format brought out some interesting insights from Michael and Debbie that is worth a read as the school year begins and we look to the community of our classroom and beyond for support and inspiration.

Check out the piece at Middleweb.

Peace (making connections),

Book Review: Information Doesn’t Want to be Free

Information cover final web

I realize the irony here, that I paid top dollar for Cory Doctorow’s book — Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age — when I probably could, with just a bit of searching and tinkering, find a free and pirated version of the book somewhere and be reading Doctorow’s engaging missive about copyright law and information flow in mere minutes of a search.

I could of done that, but I didn’t.

Here’s why:

  • First off, I want to support McSweeney’s, Dave Egger’s publishing arm that also supports youth writing programs around the country with its 826 Valencia network.
  • Second, I want to support Doctorow as a writer, although I suspect he is doing just fine without my meager money … this is a principle thing about supporting artists at work.
  • Third, I like the tangible feel of a book in my hands (and this one traveled with me from my sons’ baseball games, as its short chapters were perfectly tuned into the breaks between innings.)

And it turns out that my move to avoid the free, pirated copy of the book is right in line with Doctorow’s ideas around the Information Age, and how artists can still find and reach an audience that is willing to pay for art, even if it is freely available elsewhere. This is part of his point: in the age of the Copy, how do musicians and writers and artists still make art that is meaningful and make a living at it, too?

Amanda Palmer’s foreword (coupled with her husband, Neil Gaiman’s companion forward) continues to resonate with me in context to Doctorow’s ideas around copyright and publishing, and how innovation is always bound to upend the status quo, and the status quo is always going to fight that change with lawyers and money and political influence.

Palmer writes about her time as a street performer in Boston (she was one of those lovely painted statue people that we gawk at) and her observations of passersby, and how while many would ignore her, the few that observed and appreciated her art, and put some money into her collection bin, was more than enough to sustain her with a regular income.

“Like clockwork, people were generous. Nobody asked them to be. I just stood there, literally silent, waiting for them to tip me out for the weird, loving act of randomness I was making to humankind …. People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don’t have to force them. And if you force them, they don’t feel as good.” (Palmer, page xiii)

Doctorow not only shows how the current system of stifling customers from access on their own terms to the art they love is stifling art creation itself, he also shows how a revamping of copyright law might be one of the fixes. He also freely and open admits that not every artist will find a niche and that there is no real “fix it” for all of the disruption. But a closed system of art, he argues, is bound to fail on many levels and leave media industries crumbling.

Instead, he argues for the idea of “blanket licenses” (such as are used in bars and music establishments for the use of playing copyrighted music by cover bands and the jukebox and karaoke machines) that would compensate artists and publishers for media on the Internet while broadening reach to different audiences. He notes that while the publishing industry has traditionally taken advantage of the complex analytics to pad their own pockets, this age of information is also the age of data analysis, and that there should be a way to determine fair use of media, set up a payment system with ISP providers and provide compensation for the creators of art.

Will this work? I have no idea. It sounds good on paper, if I understand it right. Reality might be different. Remember hwo has the money and power right now. It’s not you and I, alas. But Doctorow has a phrase of words that has stuck with me since finishing the book.

“Think like a Dandelion.” (Doctorow, page 142)

What he means that since there is no turning back the clock on copying — and in fact, copying movies and music and more will only get easier as time moves on — an artist needs to find a new way to think about distribution. Instead, he suggests, think of art as the dandelion, which produces thousands of seeds that it lets loose into the world, in hopes one or two or a few will find a nurturing bit of soil on which to plant itself.

“There are lots of people out there who might want to buy your work or compensate you in some other way — the more places your work finds itself, the greater the likelihood that it will find one of those would-be customers in some unsuspected crack in the metaphorical pavement.” (Doctorow, page 143).

Of course, the publishing companies would see the dandelion in another way: as a weed that needs to be eradicated or controlled, right? Such is the world right now. Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free (title reference is to the idea that information doesn’t want to be free — it’s data — but people want to be free to make their own choices about technology and art) is another way forward.

Peace (taking root),

Reflected and Refracted: 90 Years of New Yorker Cartoons

Nothing brings “context” more into focus than sitting down and reading (or maybe standing up and reading .. that works, too … don’t drive and read, though .. that’s just dangerous) a set of cartoons from the 1920s. While some of the cartoons might have resonance over time, finding that universal funny bone gag that stands above the time in which it is written, most will have you scratching your head, wondering about what was going on in the world that made this particular sketch and caption funny.

Or am I putting my confusion on you?

That was what came to my mind, anyway, as I was reading The New Yorker’s 90th Anniversary Book of Cartoons last night (with some funny subtitles, such as “Sequentially Paginated for Easy Access” and “A Special Section of Radio-Friendly Cartoons” as the editors play up and make fun of the book format in a digital age). I was on a bench, at a sports field, as my son played ball, laughing and giggling, with some adults nearby, glancing over at me. A few kids wandered by, curious.

I kept giggling.

The book is really a magazine and not a book, anyway, and it covers a lot of ground — moving through each decade of cartooning from the 1920s to the present in the esteemed magazine, with a funny introduction by New Yorker Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff.

Mankoff writes, of the collection, that it “nicely represents the evolving comic imagination of our cartoonists during those decades, as it reflected and refracted the desires, conventions, and modes of thought of the times.” (Mankoff, page 3)

I like that phrase of “reflected and refracted” as a reason why cartoons work as commentary, and also, his phrasing explains why some cartoons don’t necessarily resonate outside of their times. Sometimes, it takes a collection like this to remind us of how things have changed, even if it often feels as if the world remains static. Of course, there are always those cartoons, too, that just don’t work for a certain reader, no matter what. I blame the cartoonist.



Even so, I enjoyed the art and the writing, and the wit of play, in this New Yorker collection of cartoons, and decided (as a research reader of one) that Charles Adams’ cartoons hold up the best over time, hands down.

Maybe that’s just me.

Peace (in the ‘toon),

When Analog Trumps Digital (And a book is more than a book)

For all my writing and teaching and wondering about the ways in which the digital world is changing the way we write and compose, there are still many moments when the digital can’t hold a candle to the non-digital.

This week, I got a reminder of that. In the mail. Snailmail.

Brian Selznick’s new book, The Wonders, arrived in a box and wonder is right. I haven’t even read the book yet (it’s next on my pile, though) but already, I am entranced by it in ways that no Kindle or ebook format could ever do. It’s the tangible qualities of The Wonders that has me eager to dive in. My eyes pick up its presence every time I walk by the counter where I have it sitting.

It’s begging to be read.

Like his two other books that I loved — The Invention of Hugo Cabret and WonderstruckThe Marvels is clearly a work of art as much as a work of storytelling, with Selznick’s distinct drawing style moving one story along while the text moves a second story along, and I suspect they will converge together. But it is the physical book itself that has me fascinated right now.

From the cover itself, with its golden fonts, to the page bindings that are dipped into some golden gloss that reflects movement in the room, to the feel of the book (it’s heavy, as if indicating some story worth its weight in gold), and the way you can flip through the book and feel as if if you are submerging into the story. You physically hold The Marvels and there is no doubt that you are holding a book! You might need a literary sherpa to help carry it, but dang it, it’s a book you’ve got, not an app or a file.

A book.

And there is something wonderfully powerful about this realization that a physical book itself, one you hold in your hands — paper and words and ink — can still stir that kind of excitement in a reader.

Yes, the ability to embed media, and add links to other content, and bookmark with notes, and all of the other whizbang options of digital books is fascinating and interesting. But …. I still yearn for this kind of experience, too, and it feels like a dying ember of publishing — exciting readers with the design of a book. This publisher figured it out, and I (at least) am willing to pay a bit more to own a book that is art in and of itself. Now, I can’t wait to dive into the story and immerse myself into the entire experience.

(And part of me wonders, will Selznick and his publishers turn this story into a digital book? I don’t believe he did that with his other two (unless you count the movie version of Hugo, and the audio version where he worked to use soundscapes to tell the silent story of the images in his book), and yet, how much pressure there must be to do that, right? I’m not even saying that would be a bad thing, if done right. See The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore for how this can be done with style.)

Peace (in the book),

Reading about Writing about Writing about Reading

Reader writer writer reader

I remember the first book I encountered about a writer writing about writing. It was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and then I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which led me to Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek by Annie Dillard, and then onward into the world of authors unveiling the art of writing. (Stephen King’s On Writing is a more recent one in the mix.) It was a magical experience for me to find those kinds of books as a young writer, and I continue to devour these “let’s pull back the covers and show the inside” stories even today.

I am most intrigued about the relationship between writer and reader, and the narrative gaps between them. And I am conscious of this, as best as I can, when I am using technology and digital media to create a piece of writing. The role of the reader, I think, is changing, becoming more assertive, more part of the “story of the story.” Mulling over how an image replaces text, or how a video disrupts the narrative flow, or the well-place/misplaced hyperlink, or the use of an audio to add a layer of sound … these are all part of our emerging world of writers in the digital spaces, right?

The question of how far does the writer go and how much space does the reader need/want is one of those running rails that always seems to hover over my keyboard when I am trying to create something that I hope will find an audience. When I am working on short-form writing, in particular, I am keenly aware of the reader and work to find a balance between the gaps. Of course, there is a lot of unknowns in the writer’s perceptions, too.

This week, I came across an insightful piece about writing in The New Yorker by writer John McPhee, who shares stories about his life as a staff writer and teacher of non-fiction writing but he also helpfully narrows his piece to the art of “omission.” What to leave out. The dictate of the Green # (see article for reference). Not just for publishing reasons (we need more space so get cutting) but also, for the sake of the reader engagement and involvement. Parse your story down and let the reader build it up.

McPhee cites Hemingway, of course, and others, and he says that consideration of the reader does a writer well.

“The creative writer leaves white space between chapters and segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Let judgment be in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.” (John McPhee, New Yorker, Sept. 14, 2015)

Taking his advice, then, I bid you leave.

Peace (_______in the gap________),