Graphic Novel Review: The Brain (The Ultimate Thinking Machine)

This is the third or fourth book in the Science Comics collection from FirstSecond Publishing, and all of them have been fun, informative and densely packed with scientific information. For the casual youth reader, it might be too much information. For those readers interested in any of the topics (such as dogs, dinosaurs, coral reefs, etc.), the Science Comics collection is a gold mine.

This latest — The Brain: The Ultimate Thinking Machine by Tory Woollcott and Alex Graudins — is a prime example. (Note: I received this as an advance copy). Built around a story framework (Fahama, our young female protagonist, has been kidnapped by a mad scientist and she buys time asking questions about how the brain works), the book is jammed with fascinating intricacies of how our brains function and work, with quite complex vocabulary and concepts assisted by interesting comic work.

I really liked that the writer/illustrator chose a young Muslim girl (and her younger sister, Nour) without making a big deal about it, incorporating her as a character as if it were common to have someone like Fahama a main character. It’s not. Or not enough. It works like a charm here, since Fahama’s curiosity and humor and Nour’s bossiness and feistiness bring them to life.

Still, for some readers, seeing characters who look and act like them in a graphic novel will be a big deal, and one that we readers (particularly we teachers, who can bring these books to our classroom) should celebrate. And the book holds up on its own, with story and science.

This graphic novel is aimed at middle and high school students, although elementary students might find it interesting if a bit of complex reading. It’s the vocabulary and science concepts that push it towards older readers, in my mind.

Peace (reading it),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Hey, Kiddo

Compassion is a word that comes to mind after readingJarrett Krosoczka’s new graphic memoir entitled Hey, Kiddo. I’m not speaking of the compassion of the reader to his story — although one gets to know of his struggles and his family’s love for him despite the situation, and certain compassion is activated — but of Krosoczka’s compassion for his own younger self.

There’s a real spirit of fighting against the odds in this story, and of finding the people who will be there to support you along the way. If you are lucky. For surely, just as Krosoczka’s story shows how far he came with a mother with a heroin addiction and a father who did not reach out to him until his late teen years, there are so many kids — they’re in our classrooms if we look close enough — who are struggling without the support Krosoczka was able to get from his grandparents and extended family.

If you don’t know of Krosoczka, he is a talented storyteller and graphic artist, known mostly among my students for his Lunch Lady series. But he has also done other stories that reach an elementary audience. Hey Kiddo is very different in style and substance and depth (not to take away from Lunch Lady) — even my 14-year-old son, picking up my copy of the book, which I told him he really should read, asked: “He wrote the Lunch Lady? This seems … very different.”

What emerges from Hey Kiddo is the power of story, and the way he was able to use art and comics to find his way forward through his childhood struggles. It also points to the power of adults encouraging those talents. His grandparents — rough and endearing — were his vital support network, providing opportunities for his art (one birthday, he got a drafting table from them; another time, they surprised him with lessons at an art gallery that proved to be a critical juncture forward.)

I also appreciated the end notes, where Krosoczka writes about the writing of this story. How difficult it was to tell. How important it was to tell. And when he talks about his choices for the book’s artistic style – the reasons behind color hues, or the meaning of background images, or the rationale for frames spilling into each other — it is nearly a master lesson on making comics.

This book is more geared for middle and high school and adult readers, just in case you are in a school setting thinking of adding this to your library because of Krosoczka’s name and his previous work. While advanced elementary readers might be interested in his story, know that the references to drug abuse and other traumatic events are central to Krosoczka’s story. That said, there’s nothing here that does not reflect the larger world and nothing so graphic that even an elementary student would be alarmed by. Still, I ‘d suggest you read it first before bringing it into your classroom.

And of course, you should read Hey, Kiddo anyway. It’s that good.

Peace (between pages),
Kevin

PS — NPR Fresh Air has a nice piece, too.

Graphic Novel Review: Supernova (Amulet #8)

The first thing I did when I got the very last page of the newest Amulet book — Supernova — by Kazu Kibuishi (one of my favorite graphic novelists) is rush to my 14 year old son and proclaim: “There’s only going to be one more book in the Amulet series!”

He wasn’t quite as excited and depressed as I was, even though he has been reading the Amulet series nearly his entire life. The first book came out in 2008, when he was four. His older brothers, now at college, devoured the books, and re-read them with passion. Every time a new one came out, they would battle over who got to read it first. The youngest son, the one still left in the house, ended up with the entire series to peruse and read without squabbling.

I was excited to read that a ninth book will be coming down the road (it usually is a few years) and depressed that the series would be coming to a close. The Amulet storyline — of multiple protagonists on multiple worlds caught up on a struggle between the shadow creatures and Stonekeepers, who wear amulets of ancient magic) — is intricate but accessible, and Kibuishi’s artwork will sometimes take your breath away with its beauty.

The newest book — Supernova — continues in that tradition, with a fast-paced story that follows a handful of main characters, all working their way back to each other (for the last book, no doubt). Kibuishi does not bring you up to speed at the start of new editions, but if you have read the story, you are immediately transported back to the worlds, to the adventure, to the moral and ethical decisions facing the young heroes — most of all, Emily, the main protagonist and newest Stonekeeper for whom the fate of many worlds rest.

My young teenage son, the one at home, has been reading Supernova, too, but it was a student in my classroom, who saw an extra copy I put out, who captured the excitement that I have for the Amulet books. She nearly skipped over to me when she saw it, nearly bubbling with surprise, and asked: “Can I borrow that book?”

You bet, I said, and she left the classroom with a huge smile, hugging the book. Now, that is a moment worth savoring.

Peace (among worlds),
Kevin

Writing for the Reading Zine: In Praise of the Locked Room Mystery

Summer Library Zine Project

It was early in the summer when I saw a little notice at the local library about a reading book Zine they were putting together, and if anyone wanted, they could submit something. Of course, I figured: I’ll make a comic! So I did – I created one about locked-room mysteries, as I was reading Waste of Space by Stuart Gibbs.

I sent it in and forgot about it.

Locked Room Mystery Comic

Well, I got an email last week, saying the Zine was out, and that I had won a free movie pass to a local independent movie place, and a copy of the Zine was waiting for me. I went and perused the tiny stapled publication, and I absolutely love the variety of art and writing. They way they call it a Literary Magazine is also a nice gesture.

I even saw a neighbor’s 10-year-old daughter had a short story in there — a lovely piece about the sun and the moon — so I congratulated her for her writing, and she beamed.

I love the simplicity of Zines and the connection to the library as a public space.

Peace (zine-ing it),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Waste of Space (Moon Base Alpha)

Stuart Gibbs sure knows how to hook adolescent readers in. His various series of books — Fun Jungle, and Spy School, and Moon Base Alpha –– are all fun to read, with fast pace and quirky characters that will remind a reader of Carl Hiassen in a good way.

Waste of Space, the third book in the Moon Base Alpha series, is a closed room mystery, in which our narrator — Dashiell Gibson — has to solve an attempted murder in a space station on the moon. There is no way for anyone to arrive and no way for anyone to leave. Whoever attempted the murder by injection of cyanide is still on Moon Base Alpha.

There’s plenty of tension on the moon station, as families mix with astronauts and engineers, and what seemed to Dashiell as a fun adventure becomes something more dangerous, even to the point where he himself gets attacked on the moon’s surface.

And so the narrative line goes, as Gibbs adds humor, squabbles, and even strange alien interaction (in way that doesn’t seem overly forced, as he has been setting the stage for the encounter and its aftermath in the series), that provides for quite a satisfactory ending.

This book is perfect for middle school readers, and even elementary readers will enjoy the story. Gibbs gets a huge thumbs-up from me, and from many of my students.

Peace (in the stars),
Kevin

Book Review: We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices

This collection of stories, poems, visual art and letters to children is a powerful antidote to the times we are living in.  We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, features work by more than 50 gifted authors and illustrators and the collection has clear and powerful messages for young readers and children: Don’t be frightened of the current political system — help make the future a better place for all of us as others have done in the past — we adults are here for you when things get difficult.

I have to admit, I was both encouraged and worried about the overt political message of this collection. From the opening page, this is, as the title says, a book of resistance.

I was encouraged because I know many children need a path forward through these dark times, particularly those young people who are the targets of racism and immigration policies and who, if not the target, worry about those messages on others. I was worried because this book is so anti-Trump, it would be difficult for many educators to make the decision to bring this into the classroom, where balance is often requires.

Although, to be fair, that “balance” is a likely a controversial statement. No classroom is fair and balanced in its politics. The classroom culture is shaped by students, and by the teacher guiding the conversations. A classroom is impacted by the larger school, which is impacted by the larger community culture of the town or city in which is sits.

Nothing is neutral.

So, as I read We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, I kept shaking my head in agreement and reading further into each new story or poem or letter or reflection, feeling my heart beat to the words on the page, and I kept wondering: how can I bring pieces of this powerful text into the classroom?

How can I work into my classroom Kwame Alexander’s poem, A Thousand Winters, about how to keep a young black daughter safe; or Ellen Oh’s Words Have Power about first and second generation American immigrants and the discrimination they face as they hold on to their culture; or Jacqueline Woodson’s amazing Kindness is a Choice, which is about what it says it is about; or Tony Medina’s short story One Day Papi Drove Me to School about separation of family from the viewpoint of a child; or Hena Khan’s How to Pass the Test when anti-Muslim fervor hits the playground.

How? Oh, I’ll find a way. You should, too.

Peace (in the world),
Kevin

Book Review: Endling (The Last)

I admit: I’m a sucker for a fast-paced adventure story with world-building and magic at its center. Katherine Applegate’s latest book — Endling (The Last) — is a fine example for middle school and upper elementary readers, with a foot solid in the Hero’s Adventure frame and enough strangeness to captivate a reader.

A previous Applegate book, The One and Only Ivan, is still one of my all-time favorites, and while the writing here in Endling is not quite as strong as that novel (where the voice of Ivan the gorilla still sits with me, years after having read the story), the story of what may be the last creature of its kind in a strange world has a powerful draw.

This is the first book in a series (called Endling, I believe) and the characters who have banded together — the two human children and three magical creatures, plus a horse — undergo their trials and tribulations, all set up with the grief that the main character and narrator — a dog-like diarne named Byx — must deal with as she seeks to find more of her kind (after her family is slaughtered and she is the last dairne, as far she knows).

I appreciate how Applegate cleverly uses the titles of the sections and chapters to weave the narrative nearly in reverse — the first section is called “The End Begins” and the last section is called “The Beginning Ends.” The plot moves along at a nice pace as the band moves from place to place, and a map at the start of the book gives the reader a better sense of the world Applegate is building.

I’ll be looking out for the second book so that I can continue the adventure.

Peace (beyond this world),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Cardboard Kingdom

There’s a poignant moment in Chad Sell’s The Cardboard Kingdom, a graphic novel collaboration between Sell and writing friends, in which the father of a character in the book (about the imaginary adventures of a neighborhood of kids) sits down on the bed and admits to an error of judgement.

“Sometimes, it is hard to accept what you don’t understand,” the father tells his son, as an apology.

While this graphic novel, perfect for elementary and middle school students, is a bit heavy-handed at time with its stories of diversity and acceptance, The Cardboard Kingdom has a huge heart, capturing the way kids can invent worlds and accept others into those spaces of play (although sometimes, the path can be a little rough.)

The kingdom of The Cardboard Kingdom is the neighborhood, and Sell uses the art of the graphic novel to transform the kids (the book is broken up into chapters showing different character perspectives) into heroes and villains, with help of discarded cardboard boxes and other items that are refashioned by imagination.

Sell worked with ten other writers to tell the stories, and this range of voices shows. We meet a boy who is drawn to dress in women’s clothes as part of his character, and see his mother grapple with asking questions of sexual orientation (done gracefully). We see a girl struggling against her grandmother’s view of what a girl is expected to be (demure and polite). We see a boy whose father and mother are divorcing and fighting, as he struggles to understand why. We see a bully who is himself being bullied.

There’s a lot going on here in The Cardboard Kingdom but it is all done with grace and love.

Peace (beyond the box),
Kevin

Book Review: The Card Catalog (Books, Cards and Literary Treasures)

Let me admit up front: other than the introductions, I didn’t read much of this book. I perused the images of the cards from books in the Library of Congress catalog system. It sort of seems appropriate that I would do that, given the nature of the book.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures is published by the Library of Congress, and while I am sure the text for each chapter is a dive into history, I found myself enjoying the flipping of pages so I could “read” the notecards on all sorts of books. Seeing the handwritten notes and the typed information was a sort of Wayback Machine. Most libraries are now searched digitally, but this book reminds us of the long period where the art of curation was found in little notecards of information.

Here you will find replicas of the original notecards in the LoC catalog for books like W. E. DeBois (Souls of Black Folks), James Joyce (Ulysses), Orville Wright (Stability of Airplanes), and Edward Lear (The Complete Nonsense Book). In many cases, we see the original cover art of the books situated next to the card from the catalog. It’s fascinating.

Another interesting area of the book is the design pages, showing how the physical aspects of a catalog works, and was engineered, complete with schematic drawings. This is real library geekiness, but even a breezy read of The Card Catalog will spur appreciation for the work of librarians, even in this digital age.

Get thee to your public library and breathe in the air of books!

Peace (page after page),
Kevin

Book Review: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now

Jaron Lanier is a well-known name in Silicon Valley, and I’ve enjoyed some of his books in the past. His latest — Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — is not as strong as some of his other books, and he gets too cute with his explanatory acronyms at times, but the book has merit for informed reading.

I won’t go through all his arguments, but it boils down to this observation from a technology evangelist from inside the technology industry (with a decidedly humanistic approach to technology):

Companies like Facebook and Google that have created algorithms that sell user personal data to third party companies (See Cambridge Analytica controversy) have created a toxic atmosphere that feeds on negativity because the powerful emotions of negativity — anger, sadness, frustration, isolation — fuels interaction, and interaction with the technology leads to profit for companies.

The only way companies will get the message to change their course is for users to stop using the technology. In fact, Lanier argues that this current business model is unsustainable in the long run, and that if Facebook and Google don’t consider other models of profit, they will be doomed. Until then, though, the degradation of experience will continue.

Unless you make a choice to stop.

Lanier argues that we make that choice, and quit. Not the Internet itself. Not the connections we make. But quit the social networking systems that don’t value users as people, and whose algorithms (now set in motion and running rather autonomously) nurture dissent and friction. He cites examples from Black Lives Matter to the revolution in the Middle East and more, as examples of how the use of social media begins positively and then quickly turns negative when the algorithms amplify negativity for engagement.

He also acknowledges that everyone’s situation is different, and quitting for one person might be easier than for another. His final message is, be informed and make an informed choice.

Interestingly, Lanier is not entirely pessimistic. He believes there is still time to change things for the better. He offers up some different solutions, including the idea of users paying a small fee to use social networks, but also, the idea of social networks paying users for any content that engages people on the same network. So, you would pay (creating a new financial system for companies) and they would pay you to write and create interesting content.

Would it work? I don’t know.

Will people really quit in numbers enough to effect change? I don’t know.

Is the current system sustainable? I don’t know but I don’t think so.

Peace (through networks),
Kevin