Choose Own Adventure Books: Likes and Dislikes

As some of you know, I am in the midst of trying something new. Two of my classes of students have spent a week reading Choose Your Own Adventure novels, and now will begin writing their own. I was amazed at how many books they were reading, and I did an informal survey to gather some numbers.

CYO Adventure Reading Survey

I also asked them about what they were liking and disliking about the books.

Likes:

  • The reader makes decisions about the story
  • There are many different ways that the stories can end
  • It’s entertainment reading
  • You can always backtrack into the story and start over at another point
  • The reader is a partner with the writer
  • The reader is a character in the story

Dislikes:

  • Too many story branches end in death
  • It’s easy to lose your place, particularly if you want to go back
  • The jumping around the book can be confusing
  • The novels are too short
  • Lots of exaggeration, unrealistic adventure
  • Not all the endings were equally creative
  • Not enough choice (!)

I’ll admit — that last one threw me, but I was the recorder of the discussion here.

Peace (in the endings),
Kevin

Book Review: Moon Over Manifest

Now I get the fuss. I don’t know why I never got around to reading Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool when it came out. The book has been in our house, as my son read it and said he liked it. But after devouring and savoring Navigating Early, and knowing that I would have long gaps during state testing this week, I dug out my son’s Moon Over Manifest and brought it to school. It did not take long to get sucked up into the entwined narrative stories in the novel, something that Vanderpool did with such mastery in Navigating Early, too.

Here, the lively narrator — young Abilene Tucker — is sent by her father back to a town — Manifest, Kansas — as he goes off to work on a railroad. (There’s more to it than that, but I’ll let you read the book to find out more). Abilene works to find the connections that her father has to this small town, even as a local gypsy diviner tells the story of the town’s history and Abilene and two new friends try to uncover a past mystery of a German spy. Think of the story as a quilt, so that the narratives of the present and the past dance around each other, slowing weaving a tapestry of truths about the folks in the town of Manifest, and about Abilene’s life. That’s what Vanderpool does here and it’s a wonder to read and think about just how she pulls it off.

She does.

Moon Over Manifest also brings to life the idea of the idea of voice, as Abilene truly lives and breathes on these pages. It was one of those rare weeks where the large chunk of quiet time for state testing came in handy. In two days, I started and finished this book, and now Abilene and the town of Manifest remain firmly lodged in my head. That’s a good thing.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

Mapping Out Choose-Your-Ending Novels

The excitement around using Choose Your Own Ending novels in two of my classes continues (and some complaints from the other classes as to when they will get a chance to read them, too). Yesterday, many students began their second (or third) book, and I had them working in small groups to begin mapping out the storylines in one of their books. It was an interesting process, with lots of discussions and page-flipping. This lesson is to geared towards having them get a real sense of how the books were written, so that when they start writing their own next week, it will be easier to jump into.

Check out some of their maps:
Story Map3

story map2

Story Map

 

Peace (along the branches),
Kevin

Picture Book Review: Brothers At Bat

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Our house is gearing up for baseball, with all three boys playing in three different leagues (the oldest just made his high school team last week and the other two had Little League evaluations on Saturday). So, at the library, we’ve been bringing home all sorts of baseball-themed books. Brothers at Bat: The Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team by Audrey Vernick is a perfect companion to all the stats books and baseball cards, and resonated in our house of three athletic boys. The book centers on the Acerra family from New Jersey, and the boatload of kids they had (12 brothers and four sisters).

They not only literally had enough kids to field a team. They did. In the 1930s, there were more opportunities to create your own semi-pro baseball teams and hit the circuit, and the Acerra boys did that. This true story of the band of brothers playing baseball — with interruptions for military service and other factors of life — is nicely done, and Vernick did her own research by interviewing one of the surviving brothers. She really captures the spirit of family and the spirit of sports. And the illustrations by Steven Salerno were spot on, too.

Brothers at Bat is a book I would highly recommend for the start of Spring Training.

Peace (on the plate),
Kevin

PS — Vernick shared some silent footage of the brothers on her YouTube account. Interesting.

 

 

Book Series Review: The Baseball Card Adventures

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Given our boys’ interest in baseball, I am not sure why it has taken me so long to discover Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure series of books (which begins with Honus & Me). You’d think this series would have been a natural read-aloud fit for me over the years. My middle son has read a few, but it with my youngest son (8) that we have really dove into the series with great gusto and interest. In less than three weeks, we have devoured Honus & Me, Jackie & Me, Babe & Me,  Shoeless Joe & Me, and Mickey & Me. Next up: Abner & Me.

The stories revolve around a boy, Joe Shoshack, who discovers that he can use baseball cards to travel back in time, and begins a series of adventures to meet famous players and/or attempt to change history. The structure of the books is fairly consistent throughout the series, which is great for discussing writing a novel with my youngest, and Gutman does a nice job of bringing those old ballplayers to life for us. I really have appreciated the Reader’s Note that Gutman leaves at the end of the books, where he talks about his research and about the lines he has drawn between fiction and non-fiction.

I am also enjoying how YouTube is part of our reading experience. When we were reading about Honus Wagner’s famous baseball card, we gathered up some information about the auction that brought in so much money for the rare piece of baseball memorabilia history. When we read about Jackie Robinson and racism, we watched  a short documentary about the legendary ball player who changed history. When we were thinking about Babe Ruth’s “called shot,” we pulled up television footage to actually watch Babe in action at the plate as he hit that homerun (the results were inconclusive, we agreed.) And I now have Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary in our Netflix streamining account, ready to go.

I might soon tire of Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure series, but my son is fully intrigued. And he is considering entering a local writing contest, where the prompt has them imagine going back in time 50 years. He has this idea now to use the Gutman books for the model for his story, finding a famous ballplayer from 1963 and writing about using one of his baseball cards to travel back to meet him. I love that.

Peace (on the ball),
Kevin
PS — here is a cool video of Gutman being interviewed by a kid.

 

 

Book Review: Good Prose (The Art of Nonfiction)

What I wouldn’t give to be in the room as writer Tracy Kidder and editor Richard Todd hash out ideas for books and magazine articles, and go through the entire process from start to finish, when they read out the work together in a final run-through before publication. In reality, it would probably be boring. I know that. But as captured in their new book — Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction — the partnership between writer and editor is so pitch-perfect, and so collaborative, that one feels sad to realize that that not every writer probably has that kind of relationship with an editor.

While Good Prose does center on advice for writing non-fiction — ranging from topics of telling the truth to structural decisions around longer narratives to the ways writers use language for effect — I found the sections where Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer (for Soul of a New Machine, about the very beginning of the computer revolution), and Todd, his editor and a writer himself, share words about their relationship as collaborators over four decades, and offer an insider’s glimpse into the way Kidder writes, to have been the best parts of an excellent book.

I should note a few things here. First, I have met Kidder before. He lives in our neck of the woods, and when he was doing research for his book, Hometown, he was sitting in the same meetings and watching the same news unfold as I was, in my role as a newspaper reporter. I won’t say he would know me if he saw me (he wouldn’t) but I have had a keen interest in Kidder for a number of years, as one often does with local authors who have won the Pulitzer Prize. That said, I have not always found his writing to be my style. There’s something about his books that removes the reader from the emotional center of the story, in my opinion. Even the book I thought I would love – Among Schoolchildren — didn’t quite touch me the way I thought it would. I did enjoy Mountains Beyond Mountains, however, and I realized as I read Good Prose why that is: Kidder injects himself into a first person narrative in the story of Dr. Paul Farmer. By doing that, he brought me, the reader, into the story with him. He closed the gap between reader and story. And I have met Richard Todd, too, as he is the father of a friend of mine, whose son (Todd’s grandson) is one my son’s best friends. We’ve never spoken more than a few words, however, and I never even knew he was Kidder’s editor.

My own difficulties with connecting to Kidder’s writing (and most people have nothing but praise for Kidder’s style) were not an issue here, as the vignettes and stories of researching and writing stories forms the heart of this book, and the two men do a fantastic job (Todd, in particular, has a fantastic way of telling a story with humor and English-style reservation, it seems to me). The craft of non-fiction goes deeper than I imagined, and I admire the kind of research and writing/revising/rewriting that Kidder undergoes to pull together a story from his notes. He admits he can spend a year or more rewriting draft after draft, trying to get it right. Todd’s role as arbiter of ideas, supportive friend, attentive reader is a crucial part of this relationship, as he guides Kidder forward along various paths.

If you are writer, or wish to learn more about the art of non-fiction, (or teach non-fiction writing) I’d suggest you go no further than Good Prose. It will invigorate you, and remind you that the act of writing — writing well, anyway — is a craft all unto itself, with decisions that will stake out a path forward for the story. The amount of dedication (and, as Kidder reminds us, sheer luck) it takes to succeed is difficult, but a worthy journey to undertake if you need to tell the story.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind

“Why is this written like a poem?” was my son’s first question as he scanned the book that we were going to do as read-aloud. He always flips through the books we are going to read together, scanning the pages for clues of the story. Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind by Gary Ross (with illustrations by Matthew Meyer) was not what we expected when we ordered it through our library’s loan system, but that’s OK. It is different for us, so used to reading novels together, and this verse-style picture book for older readers about a boy who decides to catch the wind one night and fly away worked just fine for us. (See excerpts from the book at NPR)

With echoes of Seuss (the character’s name alone had my son asking about it as he remembers Bartholomew from the Oobleck and other stories), the story takes off as the boy soars in the sky, with his bed sheet as a sail, and goes off on adventures, making new friends, cavorting with pirates and then getting stuck inside a canyon with other flying wayfarers (including Amelia Earhart) before finding a way out. As most stories of adventurers do, Bartholomew makes his way home by the end, changed by his experiences and appreciative of things he did not appreciate before.

I wish there had been more illustrations from Myers, whose depictions were a wonderful addition to the couplets of the story by Ross. There is a high level of vocabulary in the verse here, which is not a bad thing but something to know, and I wonder how the story might have been different if told in prose. I never really answered my son’s question about why the book is written as a poem, other than to say that the writer chooses and the reader reads, and maybe the poem style was how the writer best saw the story in his head. (I later found an interesting backstory by Ross, who is a Hollywood director, on how he came to write the story.)

As it is, the book was a nice different kind of reading for us (we’re back with a novel), and so I appreciated the surprise of it in form and content. I’ll let the next wind carry it back to the library so that some other adventurous reader can enjoy the journey.

Peace (in the very big wind),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Three Times Lucky

The back story of Three Times Lucky grabbed me (baby gets washed up during a Hurricane and then grows up to be adoptd child detective in small town where everyone knows everyone’s business … or so they think). And I liked the character of Mo, the girl who helps solve the mystery in her town. She’s all spunk and intelligence. But I wasn’t all that engaged with the writing, for some reason. It rang false to me (I say this as a a northerner not attuned to southern dialect, so take that comment for what it is — it still felt like I was reading stereotypical dialogue). And I could not ever shake that feeling as I read the story, even as I wanted to find out how it all ends.

It ends well, and Mo’s intuition and detective skills rise up to the surface, redeeming the book for me. Writer Sheila Turnage wisely brings another storm into focus as the plot thickens, and Mo and her best friend try to solve a kidnapping, a murder and an old robbery. You cheer for Mo, a “rising sixth grader” with a huge heart and worry about her birth mother whose presence is only felt in the message-in-a-bottle missives that Mo sends forth into the world from her adopted home.

Peace (in the mire),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: The Future of Us

The hook to Jay Asher and Carolyn Macker’s book – The Future of Us – is intriguing. Two teenagers log into AOL in the mid-1990s, only to discover something called Facebook bookmarked on their computer, which allows them to view their futures through Facebook status reports and friend  networks.  They are lurkers in their own futures.

Built on the science fictional concept that what we do today changes our futures tomorrow (so be careful what you say and which friendships you make and break), the novel balances the angst of the high school years with worries about the futures ahead of us. As Emma and Josh, two best friends from childhood now having a strained relationship as teenagers, view the future through the lens of Facebook, they scrutinize every move, every word, every relationship, in hopes that they will be happy someday. (They also make snarky observations about the future where everyone shares every little thing to the whole world.)

We never do learn why the AOL CD-ROM they use provides them a glimpse into Facebook (nor do they ever really use AOL for anything other than looking at Facebook), but the cultural and pop references (the emergence of Dave Matthews, for example) in the lives of Josh and Emma brought me right back to those mid-1990s, and I remember distinctly the first time I sat down at my friend’s computer and logged into AOL, and began an online conversation with a stranger around William Gibson’s novels about the future. It was eye-opening that a computer would connect me to a community.

The plot of The Future of Us moves along at a nice clip, alternating between the first person narratives of Josh and Emma. It’s nice that they come to understand one of those universal truths of life that Saul Bellow once used for his own famous novel: Seize the Day. Live in the day, not in the future or past.

Peace (in the here and now),
Kevin