Stargazing by Jen Wang is a lovely exploration of friendship and adolescent, of creative spirit and illness. Told with heartfelt humor and a tender touch, the graphic novel centers on Christine, and her new neighbor, Moon, as they forge a friendship.
Moon, in particular, is a complicated character, from a struggling Buddhist family (and Christine’s family is Chinese). Moon is never a follower, always unique and strong in her opinions, and her spirit of looking at everything from an angle shines throughout the story — including her tales to Christine about being certain she is a celestial being from the stars. All this by Wang draws us in, and then surprises us when Moon acts with unpredictable rage against another student at school.
Even Christine does not know what to think.
But it turns out, there is more to the story of Moon, and health issues have shaped the good (creative) and bad (anger) of her emerging personality. The second half of the graphic novel is about the two friends grappling with Moon’s diagnosis.
I want to note that the artwork here by Wang is perfectly attuned to the story of Moon and Christine, with the color shadings and hues contributing to the enjoyment of the story. This book would be good for upper elementary and middle school students.
Sometimes, when you come across a linguist — even if you love words and language — the insider-speech gets a little too much to bear. Not so with Gretchen McCulloch, whose book Because Internet (Understanding the New Rules of Language) is infused with focused curiosity, a sense of fun and academic research. Yes, it’s possible.
And what she is looking at is our fascinating times of what seems to be our ever expanding elastic language — where the immersive and social qualities of technology seem to be altering the ways in which we write and speak and communicate in different ways. As teachers, many of us know this just by listening and reading our students.
McCulloch notes a few times in her book that her examination here is merely a snapshot of the present, not a prediction of where language is going.
To the people who make internet language. You are the territory, this is merely a map. — from the dedication page, by Gretchen McCulloch
Still, it’s a fascinating dip into rippling waters.
What interested me the most was her look at the explosion of informal writing — particularly as she notes how social media and technology connections is tearing down the rules of formal writing, for informal communications (while formal rules still apply for formal writing) — and what she calls “typographical tone of voice” — a term that I love for its poetry.
In this section, McCulloch explores the expanded use of punctuation for meaning making, the use of font styles (no caps/all caps, etc), repeating letters for emotive resonance, abbreviations to connote kindness, the echoes of coding into our writing, the use of space between words and passages, and ways we project emotions and feeling into our writing when confronted with limited means.
I mean, wow. That’s a lot of intriguing lens on writing, and McCulloch navigates them all with a personable voice, a linguist’s ear for language, and a sense of both celebration and skepticism about what might or might not be happening with our language.
Later, she also explores memes and emoticons, and the way visual language is complementing written language, often in complementary and complicated ways. This book covers a lot of ground, but McCulloch is an able tour guide, pointing out the funny quirks as well as the emerging patterns.
I asked my high school freshman son if he wanted to read the latest edition in The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I was surprised, to be frank, when he said yes, thinking he had might have grown out of hte series. I joked that he could probably read it in 20 minutes. I think he did. I did, too.
Why was I surprised in my son’s remaining interest? The series is now going on 14 years — nearly as long as he has been alive — and any series of stories that lasts that long eventually loses its luster. In my sixth grade classroom, as an indicator, only one student this year pre-ordered the Jeff Kinney book. At one time, there were a dozen or more kids eagerly awaiting the arrival of the books, peppering me with questions about when they would get it in their hands.
I read somewhere that Kinney first presented a huge, massive book for publication, only to be told to break it into smaller stories which have become the backbone of the entire series, and it amazes me that he had this all planned out, and each year, in November, another Wimpy Kid book comes out, like clockwork.
And I still read them, too.
This latest — Wrecking Ball— is solid and reliable Kinney. Sort of light on plot (Greg Heffley’s family is doing some home renovations, which lead to predictable disastrous moments) but full of funny scenes and interactions, and lots of visual jokes in the illustrations. Twenty minutes in and I was done, a smile on my face but nothing too much deeper than that.
I was fine. Not every book I read needs to be some deep spelunking of self or the world. Sometimes, what we need is something to make us laugh, to giggle, to connect to a familiar character.
Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series does all that, and the series, even as it might be fading, sparked a revolution of comics becoming more integrated into novels, which in turn brought a whole new generation of readers (including the key demographic: boys) into the world of books. If Kinney does nothing else, he’s done that.
Oh, this is a lovely little book, full of small essays/musings on science and wonder, often complimented with beautiful drawings. Yes, Eating the Sun (Small Musings on a Vast Universe) by Ella Frances Sanders covers some ground, and some familiar ground, but in such a quiet and poetic way that you are drawn in.
The small essays are often no longer than a page and half, maybe two, but the way she weaves in science — about stars, about electrons, about plants and trees, about human biology, and on and on — with her own poetic observations is just a lovely reading experience.
I took this small book outside, on a beautiful end-of-summer day, and just sat with it for quite a long stretch of time, pausing now and then to think on what she was observing, and then moving forward again into the book. It’s that kind of experience. It feels light, thanks to her writing style and voice, but it’s deep when you pause.
Last summer, as part of our summer camp at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, we were exploring themes of immigration, and its impact on our region of Western Massachusetts.
We invited a historic re-enactor to come for an afternoon (we’ve had her as a guest before and she is great) to give a presentation about the Flu Pandemic of 1918, as immigrants were often blamed for the transmission of the virus into the United States (even though all evidence supports that US soldiers in World War I brought the flu to Europe and beyond).
It was an immersive presentation (see my post about the day at camp), with things to smell, things to touch, maps to read and the story of the world grappling with a pandemic that killed millions and forever effected many communities around the world. It was that bad.
So when I read about Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 by Don Brown, I saw the connection and took it out of the library. The book is wonderful, and difficult to take in — the scale of the tragedy is difficult to wrap one’s head around, particularly as the medical world not only didn’t know what was causing people to die and get sick, but also, that the world was not ready for the scale of death and sickness. This was both because the war was still raging and also because the medical field had not advanced enough to make sense of what was happening.
Brown effectively uses the graphic novel approach to tell the story of the Flu, but also of the people battling it — with nurses coming out as the main heroes of the tale. The nurses — and those who were quickly recruited to come nurses, as the war had drawn many from hospitals and clinics — went into communities, worked long hours and longer days, took care of the elderly and the very sick, sacrificed their own lives to support others.
Fever Dream has its lens wide – the world — and narrow — neighborhoods, and in doing so, Brown has successfully captured the scope of a pandemic, and reminded us that we always need to be on the lookout for the next one.
This book might be a little too intense for elementary students, and maybe even some middle school students. But high school students might use it for connection to understanding the modern global, connected world — both as a good thing (share ideas) and a dangerous thing (share disease).
Here’s a book about paying attention. The authors noted that an edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed about 40 words related to nature. Words like Fern, Kingfisher, Wren and Bluebell. This book —The Lost Words: A Spell Book— is a response, and what a response it is.
The Lost Words is one of the more beautiful books I have discovered in some time — it is oversized, requiring two hands to hold it, and it has gorgeous artwork and some amazing poems all connected, page by page, to the words that were decided to be taken out by the dictionary folks.
Each page here is a treasure, and a reminder that our words help us to understand our world. When we lose our words, we start to lose a sense of the spirit of nature. Writer Robert MacFarlane and Illustrator Jackie Morris seek to recover and rediscover those ideas, and give rise to seeing the world through fresh eyes, with poems (which they call spells) and pictures.
NOTE: For a writing marathon/party this afternoon, to celebrate Write Out and the National Day on Writing, we’ll be using excerpts from this historical fiction novel to inspire writing of participants. — Kevin
Reading The Wartime Sisters as someone who has been doing educational consulting work for the Springfield Armory National Historic Site for the past three years makes for an interesting web of connections to place and story.
Novelist Lynda Cohen Loigman, who grew up here in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, notes in her Author Notes that, like many of us who live here (including me), the Springfield Armory is often a forgotten part of our region’s history.
It has only been through many visits and by running summer camps for Springfield students and facilitating professional development for teachers through a partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Springfield Armory that I have come to more deeply appreciate the impact the Armory had had on this region, and also, on the country itself. Today, it is a museum. In its heyday, it was a manufacturing and innovative hub, one of two national armories (the other is in Harper’s Ferry).
The Wartime Sisters story is centered around two sisters whose complicated relationship and lives, and tragedies, revolve around the Springfield Armory in the time of World War II, when the Armory facilities were in highest gear with thousands of employees and a mandate by the government to produce more and more weapons. It’s also when women and immigrants flocked to the area for work, and for patriotic ideals, as a way to help the soldiers fighting overseas.
I’ve toured many of the old Armory buildings where the action takes place — including the Armory Commander’s house, now vacant and needing repair but still, with vestiges of the position the owners once held. I’ve walked through some of the manufacturing buildings, although many are now part of a community college. I’ve seen photographs of the gardens, the water fountains, even the swimming pool. We’ve taken students to the high elevation grassy overlook, the one that looks out over Springfield, where a huge and important concert takes place in the book. Armory Curator Alex MacKenzie, who helped Loigman with her research and spent time with her, has done presentations with our student and teacher programs.
And we’ve done whole units with students and teachers on the role of women in the Armory, and the way the war transformed society through work at the facility, bringing change to the communities even after the men returned home to reclaim their jobs. Like Loigman, I have listened to the oral history recordings of some of those women, and felt moved by their narratives. Also like Loigman, we have used the Armory’s own newsletter archives to tell the stories of the people, of where they came from, and how they lived their lives with the Armory at its center.
I would have enjoyed this book on its own merits, as a character study of two sisters and a community of women at a certain historical period of time. But the grounding of the Springfield Armory as the setting of the book, as a site with deep roots, made the reading of the book even more enriching for me. Loigman surfaces the stories of the people, using history as the door to show compassion and intrigue.
For a lover of books and of local history, what more can one ask?
Kevin’s NOTE: Author Catherine Stier, who wrote this picture book, is going to be a featured guest on the Write Out video chat on Tuesday night, Oct. 15, from 7-8 p.m. EST. More information about the chat and how you can join us in Zoom, if you want, is available at the Write Out website (look under Scheduled Events category).
I’ve had the pleasure of spending quite a bit of time in the past few years with National Park Service rangers through collaborative projects (including running youth summer camps at the Springfield Armory Historic Site) and let me tell you, they are some of the nicest, most curious, adventuresome folks I have mingled with.
One of my ranger friends from Connecticut’s Weir Farm National Historic Site recommended If I Were a Park Rangerby Catherine Stier for our work with the Write Out Project (which launched yesterday, and runs in conjunction with the National Day on Writing next Sunday), and I really appreciated this picture book, and I find it a perfect fit for most elementary classrooms.
Stier captures the work of those folks who greet visitors and who sustain the National Park system, itself a wonder of both open spaces and urban history. In this picture book, readers learn about the many ways one might come to work for the National Park Service, and what a typical day might be if you were a ranger. With lively and inviting artwork from Patrick Corrigan, If I Were a Park Ranger will inform, educate and invite you to explore the many spaces around you (and not just park service spaces, either, but city blocks and suburban fields and woods).
The picture book aptly represents all of the many facets of historical artifacts connected to spaces, ecological and environmental awareness, public ownership of public lands, and the ways in which visitors and those working for the National Park Service are partners in preservation of lands and stories.
These topics, and more, are all central to the Write Out project now underway this October, connecting writing and history to place-based learning and connected opportunities for students and teachers. Learn more about Write Out (it’s free!) and sign up for information and news about the project at the website.
Friendship is surely one of the trickiest areas that sixth graders navigate through, as they begin to leave elementary school behind and step into the middle school world (even at my school, where our sixth graders are still physically in an elementary building).
Writer Shannon Hale, with illustrator LeUyen Pham, dive into this world of young girls with compassion, humor and confusion in their two graphic novels — Real Friends and Best Friends (which just recently came out).
Both books are based on Hale’s own life as a young girl with significant anxiety issues that made her entry into friendship circles trickier than most, fraught as they are with shifting allegiances, cultural connections and more. In these two graphic novels, we come to understand how the world is viewed by young girls, and as a male teacher of sixth graders who often has to untangle friendship issues between girls (and boys), I found these books highly entertaining and highly informative.
The first book — Real Friends — is set in elementary school and the second in sixth grade, the start of the middle school years. Shannon is the main character and narrator, and many of the characters from the first book come back in the second book — Best Friends — and there are plenty of unresolved issues among the characters, which Shannon (author, and character) reminds us is natural — sometimes, friendships don’t survive because people who think they are good friends, real friends, are not made for each other, and it all falls apart. That may be true for school friendships more than anything.
I was attuned to the way the young Shannon, particularly in Best Friends, is driven by a need to be in the loop with pop culture, from the music that her peers are listening to, to the television shows they watch at night. Today, it would be the apps that people use and the YouTube channels they watch. The technology changes, but the desire to fit in remains as strong as ever for many adolescents.
An author’s note at the end of Best Friends was beautiful, as Shannon Hale writes of where her story came from, how one teacher helped her see herself as a writer when others did not, and how anxiety still lingers for her, today, and that understanding it and having strategies for it was the thing that has helped her cope with the crazy world unfolding around her. All good lessons, bound up in two entertaining graphic novels.
National Public Radio did a nice piece on Hale and Pham (who are close friends) that I found informative.
Leave it Avi to bring forth another powerful historical fiction story that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The Button Waris set in Poland, during the time between Soviet occupation and the German occupation during the first World War.
The story centers around a group of young boys whose small town is first in Soviet hands, and then is in German hands, and then is caught up in the violent struggle between the two military forces, neither of which has much regard for the civilian population. As always in war, it is the civilians who suffer the most, and that is true here, too.
Patryk, 12, is the narrator here, the hero of sorts, who joins his group of friends in what begins as a midnight dare — steal buttons from the coats of Soviet troops in a contest to see who can get the most unique, the most valuable buttons off the soldiers — but which becomes increasingly more dangerous when the Germans arrive, and the button stealing puts the boys into danger, and death.
Avi does not let us flinch from the story, building the narrative around the moral choices of Patryk, as one of his friends, Jurek, slowly becomes more and more maniacal and more pressuring on the group of boys, always upping the ante. Friendship, betrayal and war are the landscape of The Button War. No one escapes this story unscathed, and we readers understand that Patryk, on the run by the end of the book, will live with the echoes of this time period for the rest of his life.
The story is based in a real place, with real events, and Avi’s masterful writing enriches the experience on many levels. This book is geared towards a middle and high school classroom, I would say, although some more advanced and interested elementary readers might enjoy it, too.