Book Review: The Mark of the Dragonfly

You know a book has some lasting power when you get to the very last page of reading it aloud, and you and your listener (ie., my son) both have the same thought: I sure hope she is writing a sequel. Such was the case with The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson. The story is set in a place similar in some ways to Earth (or some version of Earth) where odd objects fall from the sky, some people (or versions of people) have special powers, two kingdoms are on the brink of war and exploration, and our hero, Piper, is a Scrapper trying to bring the lost Anna back home.

Of course, as in any good story, there is more to it than that, but I don’t want to give it away. The Mark of the Dragonfly hooks you quickly, immersing you into its world, and then pulling you into the action and motivations of Piper and the people she meets along the way of her journey.

Kudos go out to Johnson for creating a strong female protagonist in Piper, and in her companion, Anna, and for putting as much attention to character development as she did, without taking away from the action and adventure that moves the plot along. While my son and I had plenty of questions about the world where the story is set that Johnson hasn’t answered (yet?), we bought the premise of the land of Solace easily enough, and then raced through the second half of the book with every reading moment we had available.

It seems as if Johnson has set the stage for a sequel, but who knows? The book’s main plot does sort of resolve itself, and we remain fixed on Piper’s choices about where she goes now. And who can argue with a huge train, and all that it represents, as a significant setting for the novel. Plus, Piper’s own special powers, which I won’t reveal, open the door to some very interesting possibilities.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

 

Graphic Novel Review: Sailor Twain

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I hav dug them out to share out here. This is the last one.)

 

Story Summary: It is often said that the sea holds many stories. So, too, do rivers, and Mark Siegal expertly explores this watery storytelling terrain in his graphic novel, SAILOR TWAIN, which comes with the subtitle of “The Mermaid in the Hudson.” Weaving history, literature, and the lore of mermaids and sirens into a complex story of a riverboat captain named Elijan Twain, Siegel brings the reader below the surface into a beguiling mystery of magic that centers on the saving of a mermaid’s life by Captain Twain and all of the ramifications that eminate from that event. (Yes, Twain is a purposeful and overt nod to Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens is also referenced here, too). The powerful Hudson River, in the 1800s, is the setting for this book, and echoes of Greek myths resonate, too. Siegel sets up expectations one way, only to turn the story another way, and the reader is rewarded with an original graphic novel that fully uses the graphic format to tell its story.

Art Review: Siegel, the writer, also is the artist here and his black-white charcoal sketch drawings are detailed, and full of mystery, too. Close-ups of eyes, in particular, tell much about the souls and thinking of his characters. We’re brought into their actions by the looks on characters’ faces, which is a testament to Siegel’s skills as an illustrator.

More Information:

• Hardcover: 400 pages
• Publisher: First Second (October 2, 2012)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1596436360
• ISBN-13: 978-1596436367

Siegel has created and nurtured a pretty lively website about the book that is worth examining. See the site at http://sailortwain.com/

For the Classroom: Let me just say upfront that I believe this book is not appropriate for most K-12 classrooms. Not for the story content, but for the images of the half-naked mermaid and for the sexual escapades of one of the main characters (who believes having seven loves will cure him of the mermaid’s siren song that lures him beneath the water). While these elements certainly fit nicely into the story, it may not fit so nicely into the K-12 classroom. Which is unfortunate, since the story’s focus on the mythology of river lore and magic would be of high interest to many students. Still, for the university, this book might be a good example of how graphic novel storytelling can unfold along complex lines and stand up with a lot modern literature.

My Recommendation: I highly recommend this book, but with significant reservations about the nudity and sexual themes of a storyline. Therefore, I would not recommend this for young children. A teacher might want to consider it for a high school classroom setting, if they were to preview the book first. At the college level, however, I see it a solid example of graphic storytelling on many levels.

Peace (with references),
Kevin

In the News: Me, the teacher/writer

MassLive Article
The regional newspaper (for which I once worked as a journalist in my life before teaching) did a feature story on my role as a contributing writer for the collection, Teaching with Heart. I tried to raise the role of teacher advocacy in the interview, as best as I could, and I hope the message may resonate. The collection, by the way, is fantastic, with short essays by dozens of educators writing about poems that are important to them.

Read the article and check out the book (be sure to use the discount code at the bottom of the article)

Peace (on the page),
Kevin

In Praise of Silent Picture Books

The most recent Make Cycle for the Making Learning Connected MOOC is all about visual storytelling, with a focus on what is known as the “five image” story – using only visuals to relay a narrative. I’m still mulling over where to turn my camera lens, but it reminded me of how much I love “silent” picture books (or wordless picture books) where the story is told entirely in illustrations and art — no words.

One of my favorite writers/illustrators of this genre (is it a genre? Subgenre?) is David Weisner, whose books are so fun to read and explore and consider, and the absence of words is a brilliant stroke of creative expression, drawing the reader into the mystery of the stories themselves.

Read his picture book, Tuesday, or maybe Flotsam, and you will be hooked. Someone even made an animated version of Tuesday that is fun to watch, although I prefer the silent, page-turning book better.

By the way, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, is another outstanding story told entirely in pictures. It’s a powerful tale worth viewing/reading. Here’s an interpretation of that book:

Two graphic novels that my sons have loved over the years, and I do too, also tell a narrative in silence, and both are excellent stories. These two are Robot Dreams and  The Adventures of Polo.


So, given the CLMOOC idea of telling a story in five images, how can you write one of these kinds of books?

Of course, there is the traditional ways (pull out your artbook and get drafting) and there are ways to use technology to do it, too. Storybird is one site that is worth exploring. Here, you use artwork that the site provides to create books. While most users add words to tell the story, you could just sequence a series of illustrations to do a silent picture book.

I went in this morning and created this book — Dreaming of Something Better — and I admit, it was a bit of a struggle to tell a wordless narrative in five slides, with artwork that I did not create myself (although if you ever saw my artwork, you would be thanking me for sparing you). You both lose some agency as a writer and yet, you gain something, too. Stories of all sorts take place in your head as you look at the array of artwork. Inspiration has to come from digging around the bin of art.

What stories will emerge?

In this short picture book, I was going for a girl who feels left out of her family and sits in her room, dreaming of escape. The last frame/page in the story is key, as the artwork is an entirely different texture and feel, so that the shift represents the dream not the reality. If I had one more frame, I would have tried to show her back in bed or with a book. But I think it works as it is. (Or did I ruin it by explaining it?)

wordless book

Interestingly, Storybird normally allows you to embed the books in other sites, but it did not like that I didn’t use any words at all, and so it closed down the embed ability. Hacking Storybird?

What can you make?

Peace (no words needed),
Kevin

 

At MiddleWeb: A Look at Thriving, Not Just Surviving

Thrive-coverMy latest post over at MiddleWeb focuses in on Meeno Rami’s new book, Thrive. Reading her book about finding ways to stay invigorated and connected to teaching young people, even in the face of difficult days and situations, reminded me of a book that I used to read every summer when I began teaching. Sometimes, we need touchstone texts. Rami’s book is one of those.

Read my piece at MiddleWeb

Peace (in the text),
Kevin

 

eBook Review: The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies

Cover (CC BY { pranav }I am a big fan of Doug Belshaw, and his work via the Mozilla Foundation and on his own to shine a light on what it means to be a writer/composer/creator in the digital landscape. Belshaw thinks deep about what it means to be literate in this technological world, yet he offers an even eye on the world, too — being critical when criticism is needed and being a cheerleader when possibilities emerge.

Belshaw has now published an interesting ebook — The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies — that expands this thinking beyond his insightful tweets and weekly newsletter and short blog posts (with a few longer ones in the mix from time to time). He is involved in some interesting projects with Mozilla around digital literacies, including some mapping projects related to how we use the Web to learn, write, read, interact and more. What he wants to get a handle on, as do many of us, is how the influx of powerful and relatively cheap technology is changing our literate lives.

“As devices become cheaper and easier to use, the barrier to entry becomes less to do with technology and affordability and more to do with cultural and social factors. Digital literacies are not solely about technical proficiency but about the issues, norms and habits of mind surrounding technologies we use for a particular purpose.” Belshaw (45)

Belshaw’s ebook is an intriguing look  inside that shifting landscape, as Belshaw brings us on a journey to explore the difficulties of understanding digital literacies (or it is all just one larger Digital Literacy? This is one of the questions he tackles); how our sense of what has come before us in terms of literacy is shaping what is now in front of us, and maybe hampering our abilities to comprehend those changes; how memes are an interesting metaphor for the ways in which the spread of information and collaboration has taken hold in digital spaces; and how remixing content, in any of its many forms, is an act of purposeful composition that should be embraced and valued, and taught.

Belshaw helpfully breaks down his own view of digital literacies into eight main elements or lenses from which to view the digital world, and our own interactions:

  • Cultural
  • Cognitive
  • Constructive
  • Communicative
  • Confident
  • Creative
  • Critical
  • Civic

These eight elements become the threads of Belshaw’s analysis throughout the book, and I found these anchors to be useful as discussion pieces and reflective points in my role as a teacher. It certainly moves us beyond the harmful dichotomy of the Digital Native/Immigrant idea.

I  highly recommend The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies as an insightful look at how our world is in the midst of intense change, and how we can think of literacies at the heart of it all. If nothing else, put Doug Belshaw on your radar as someone to follow and learn from. The book is only available as an ebook, I believe.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

I’ve written warm words about Ben Hatke’s series of books about Zita the Spacegirl before, and I am going to keep on writing those kind of positive words until he proves he me otherwise with stories of his heroine, Zita, the young Earth girl with a heart of gold and more savvy, pluck and courage than most of those adult characters you find in these kind of science fiction stories. In fact, it’s her heart and compassion for others that makes Zita a hero to cheer for, and a fine girl role model for young readers of graphic novels. (My nine year old son practically ripped this book out my hands when I opened the package with it, and then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes reading it through, with a huge Thumbs Up review)

In the last part of a trilogy — The Return of Zita the Spacegirl — Zita is in deep, deep trouble — captured as part of a scheme to destroy the Earth, and it is up to all the friends and aliens who have populated the first two books of the series to come to Zita’s rescue, returning the favors they owe her for all that she has done to save them in other parts of the galaxy. Watch the stars float off in an attempt to spread the news of her capture, and you will understand. Listen, the story here itself is not all that original (hero gets captures, Earth in trouble, rescue mission ensues), but the graphic novels are driven by Hatke’s ability to conceive interesting characters and move the plot along. And his wonderful inviting artwork.

It’s been a few years since I read the very first book, so I was pleasantly being pulled back into old story lines and characters. You don’t need to have read the first two books, but it makes it easier to know why the leviathan that powers the planet needs to be saved, and why there is a giant mouse in a cage that needs to be saved, and where the boy came from and what he is up to. Add in a cat, a few pirates, and a talking skeleton who teams up with a living pile of rags to escape a dungeon (and a rock with eyeballs) and you get a little taste of the odd adventures of Zita.

As an aside, I really enjoyed Hatke’s insights at the book on where Zita’s story and character originated from (Hatke’s girlfriend-now-wife, it turns out) and how the story emerged over time into this series of graphic novels. Oh, and what book has sat on the top of the New York Times best-seller list? You got it! The Return of Zita the Spacegirl.

Peace (in the adventure),
Kevin

 

A Page from a Student Comic

Homer Figg comic
I’m writing more about a project in which my class constructed a graphic novel version of a novel we are just finishing reading. This page really blew me away with the sense of artwork. So, I am sharing it out, with little context. (More to come later …)

Peace (in the frame),
Kevin

PS — Bonus points if you can figure out the book …

Graphic Novel Review: Steve Jobs (Co-Founder of Apple)

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)

Story Summary: Not to be confused with the recent bestselling biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, this comic book version of the Life of Jobs by Bluewater Comics is like a whirlwind overview of the innovator’s highs (with some token nods to the lows). STEVE JOBS aims to present Steve Jobs’s life in an accessible format, and give this comic book’s length, there is a lot about Jobs that is not told. Mostly, STEVE JOBS celebrates Steve Jobs. We don’t get much of the ways in which he treated his employees and the people around him, but we do get a good sense of the ways that Jobs changed the way we look at and interact with technology. You get the impression that Bluewater rushed this comic biography into production to ride on the coattails of Isaacson’s book, and Jobs’s passing. (I found a few proofreading errors)

Art Review: There’s nothing special about the art here, to be honest. It’s fair, but not innovative. I suppose, as a reviewer, one would hope that a comic about someone obsessed with design would be more beautiful to read. It isn’t. I did like the layered text and images behind the main scenes, particularly towards the end when we encounter a sort of “highlights reel” of his life. The art there gave the book a bit of a mash-up feel.

In the Classroom: I am sure there are plenty of students in our classrooms who want to know more about Steve Jobs and who would be put off by Isaacson’s definitive biography, given its hefty size. There are other biographies floating around, too, and this comic by Bluewater might be a nice companion piece for students interested in the ways that Jobs and Apple have transformed personal computing.

More Information:

Paperback: 32 pages
Publisher: Bluewater Productions (January 10, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1450756727
ISBN-13: 978-1450756723

My Recommendation: I would recommend STEVE JOBS: CO-FOUNDER OF APPLE for its use in current events and biography of the moment, but not necessarily for the art of the comic. The writing could be stronger, and the illustrations, more interesting. But I suspect students with an interest in “all things Apple” won’t really care about those points.

Peace (in innovation),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Legends of Zita the Spacegirl

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)

 

Story Summary: Don’t tell my wife, but I am somewhat smitten with Zita, the spacegirl. You will be, too. In LEGENDS OF ZITA THE SPACEGIRL, writer/illustrator Ben Hatke brings us into the second adventures of the young Zita, who is fearless, brave and kind, too. And she can save the world! What’s not to like? LEGENDS OF ZITA THE SPACEGIRL picks up where the first book (Zita the Spacegirl) left off (and even provides a nice in-book play that retells that first adventure), and here, Zita is seeking to return home to Earth. Which is not easy, particularly when the galaxies are full of nutty aliens and strange accidents, and more than a few oddball obstacles standing in Zita’s way. There’s even echoes of The Prince and the Pauper here, as a robot stand-in for Zita almost completely takes over her life. Still, Zita is nothing if not determined, and resourceful, and the adventures in this story unfold at a quick pace for the intrepid heroine. And a bit of foreshadowing at the end by Hatke leaves no doubt that this is not the end of the story for Zita. That’s a good thing.

Art Review: Colorful illustrations are a hallmark in the Zita stories, and this second book does not disappoint. What I also love most are the very strange aliens characters that pepper most pages. They’re cute, but often dangerous, and yet, Zita rarely blinks in the face of it all. And speaking of Zita, Hatke has really created a smart-looking heroine whose expressions and movements are all emblematic of a great protagonist that you feel compelled to cheer for (see, I told you I was smitten).

More Information:

• Reading level: Ages 8 and up
• Paperback: 224 pages
• Publisher: First Second (September 4, 2012)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1596434473
• ISBN-13: 978-1596434479
In the Classroom: There may not be any overt connections to teaching with Zita the Spacegirl, but the fact that Hatke has created a strong female protagonist in a science-fiction graphic novel is something worth celebrating, and relishing, and this fact alone should open up some space on classroom shelves for readers of both genders.

My Recommendation: I highly recommend LEGENDS OF ZITA THE SPACEGIRL for the rich storytelling, colorful illustrations, and science-fiction setting. It’s a book told with humor and adventure and it is sure to engage boy and girls readers in elementary and middle school classrooms. There is no profanity or anything objectionable in either of the Zita stories (unless you have something against Star Heart scavenger aliens, and well, who doesn’t?).

Peace (in space and beyond),
Kevin