Book Review: The Overstory

The entire first section of The Overstory by Richard Powers was pure magic. I was enthralled by the writing, as Powers sets up the “roots” of this story in character sketches of complicated people with complicated lives, all connected to the concept of trees and seeds and plants. I could not stop reading.

The middle and ending of the novel are strong, but not quite as strong as the beginning. Still, Powers does an amazing job of weaving the science of trees into the narratives of human lives, and the places where all things eventually connect together. You come away from this novel with a new appreciation for the trees in your yard, or the forests where you walk, or the invisible architecture of what’s below the soil, keeping us all alive. There’s more than meets the eye, Powers tells us.

I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending, but I don’t know what I would have done different (not that I am second-guessing a talented writer like Powers). I anticipated more of a reckoning of some sort, of how people and trees are connected to this Earth, and how we share a common cellular ancestry. But maybe that was not his point. Maybe it was the illumination of all living things, and the notion that trees contain more than we can ever think to know.

Which is probably true.

Peace (in all the stories),

NCTE Journal Review: What’s Next with Digital Tools and Social Media

The May 2018 edition of the NCTE journal – Voices from the Middle — arrived in the mail and immediately caught my attention. It’s part of a series of “What’s Next” themed editions of the journal (an edition about what’s next in reading was intriguing), and this one is entitled “What’s Next? Digital Tools and Social Media” and, if you know me at all, you know that is something I am interested in as a teacher and a writer (and a parent).

I was not surprised to Troy Hicks writing an introduction of sorts, as he framed the way technology is shaping our writing practices, and how our writing practices is shaping our use of technology. Yes, it goes both ways, and Troy has been writing and sharing and teaching us strategies about digital writing for many years now. (And Troy, thanks for the shout-out in your piece.) I was interested in the way Troy ended each section with an insight about digital writing, and what it means as we look ahead to teaching and writing.

In other articles in the journal, I appreciated the exploration of digital imagery as a connection to understanding and uncovering the inner lives of our students, the strategies for battling the fake news phenomenon, how infographics might extend writing practices and the use of argument, and the way technology might open more doors for students of color to have a voice in the world. There are solid classroom examples, and lots of resources, to explore in these pieces.

Overall, the theme from this wide range of writers and teachers is to remember that technology is a tool, not the thing. Students need to remain at the center of the learning and the writing, and educators — from the veteran teachers (like Chris Lehman’s piece about the imperative of pre-service teachers getting experience with digital literacies and Linda Rief’s piece about long-time teachers relying on students to teach us) — and the key to the work we all do to adapt to the changing world is, as the Cathy Fleischer notes, is “making this work sustainable” by connecting and sharing with other educators.

You can access a few of the pieces for free at the NCTE site, but many of the pieces are in the journal that comes with being a NCTE member. Since Troy’s piece is open and free, how about joining me in using Hypothesis to annotate his column?

Read and react to The Next Decade of Digital Writing by Troy Hicks

See you in the margins.

Peace (exploring what’s ahead),



Book Review: Creative Quest by Questlove

I am intrigued the curious spirit of Questlove, the drummer and one of the leaders of The Roots. He seems to have his fingers and mind into many things, all with what appears a desire to collaborate and make stuff (like music but not just music) and to reflect on and share out his experiences in hopes of inspiring others.

His latest book — Creative Quest — is an exploration (with co-writer Ben Greenman) of his ideas on how to be and how to stay creative in the world.

While the book itself is rather uneven (and could have used a better editor to tighten the text), Questlove’s voice comes through the mix as he talks about expanding the definitions and ideas of what an artist is, how the influx of technology can both help and hinder the creative spirit, how moving out of your comfort zone is as important as mining the treasures of that same space, how collaborating with others will give you new paths to follow even if they at first make your uncomfortable, and how remix and appreciative appropriation of others’ work can build into something new.

Questlove mentions that he enjoys the segments on The Tonight Show (his band is the house band for Jimmy Fallon) when they play with artists outside of their typical genre, and notes that when they do off-kilter music segments with toy instruments or other pieces, it forces them as a musicians to work in a different way. All good.

It’s nothing new but Questlove’s advice to follow your instincts and be open to the unknown ring true with me as someone who tries to do creative work each day, as a poet, as a songwriter, as someone who dabbles in media (thank you, DS106).

I do wish that the book had brought the reader deeper into the songwriting process of The Roots. He does share some stories of being in the studio with artists like D’Angelo and Tariq, his main partner in The Roots.  But mostly those stories are about finding a sound, as opposed to discovering through creative experimentation the song that needs to be written and sung.

Ah. Well. Maybe next time.

For now, I enjoyed Questlove’s journey into creativity with Creative Quest, and I hope his message of how nurturing and exploring a creative life can enhance all of our worlds is something that resonates. Find art. Make art.

Peace (sing it),

Book Review: Meet Me in the Bathroom (Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011)

This book may not be for everyone but it was fascinating for me, with an interest in music and music scenes and the way bands can flourish and disappear given the cultural moments. Lizzy Goodman  — in Meet Me in the Bathroom — conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with musicians around New York City just before, during and then after The Strokes hit the scene, causing ripples still being felt in rock and roll.

The story arc is familiar — a band (in this case, The Strokes) shakes off the dust of a stagnant music scene, creates excitement for audience and other musicians, companies come calling, other bands ride the wave, money impacts musicians in different ways, scene ends with a thud (sort of).

I can’t say I was ever a Strokes fan beyond casual listener. In fact, I am more of a fan of Vampire Weekend, one of the bands that came on the far end of the wave in New York City. They were not punk like The Strokes. Instead, Vampire Weekend merged global music and beats with a poetic sensibility.

What I liked about Meet Me in the Bathroom is the oral history format, as Goodman (who was part of the scene) explores the music of The Strokes and then all those who came after (or began during) the time they were suddenly “known.” Some of the bands I know and many I did not know.

Here is an incomplete list of bands mentioned (Note: + means I know and have listened while * means they are new to me)

The Strokes +
Interpol *
Jonathan Fire*Eater
The Killers +
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs +
TV on the Radio *
Franz Ferdinand +
The Hold Steady +
Vampire Weekend +
Regina Spektor
The Moldy Peaches
The National +
Dirty Projectors *
The Hives
Kings of Leon +
The White Stripes +
The Vines
Sonic Youth +

I am going to dive my way into YouTube and see what I can hear.

Peace (and rock and roll),


Graphic Novel Review: Raid of No Return (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales)

Another Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale (graphic novelist). Another tale, well-told. The latest in Hale’s popular series of non-fiction is entitled Raid of No Return, and it centers on the first mission by the United States after Pearl Harbor to bomb parts of Japan as WW2 began to escalate.

As with the other books in this series, the story is deep with research and uses the intersections of comic illustrations with text in powerful ways. Here, we learn about the men who were part of the Doolittle Raid, who pushed their aircraft to extremes to strike fear into the hearts of the enemies at the time. This all stems from the attack at Pearl Harbor and the United State’s entry into World War 2.

Actually, much of this story revolves around what happened after the raids on Japan, as the men of Doolittle’s squadron tried to get to safety when their aircrafts ran out of fuel or were shot down over Japan.

To be fair, this kind of story could be retold from Japan’s side, with a different narrative view. Hale hints at the atrocities of war from both sides. The surprise bombings by the US did kill civilians in Japan, and Japan’s search for the pilots ended up killing  250,0o0 Chinese lives people (some of whom helped shelter the pilots and bring them to safety). I can’t even fathom that kind of destruction of reprisal.

This book would be of interest to middle school and high school readers, although the dense and packed text and pages might make it a difficult read for some students. Hale does not flinch from the horrors of war in this book, but he also celebrates bravery and cunning and survival. The ending, which updates us on the men who survived, is heartbreaking in its emotional punch.

Peace (read it and live it),


Book Review: The Wild Robot Escapes

I had enjoyed Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot quite a bit, as Brown spun a story of a future time and a broken robot that comes to live and survive and thrive on an island with animals, until it is discovered and taken back to the factory.

The sequel — The Wild Robot Escapes — is also a solid yarn, where our robot, Roz, is back in action, but this time, she is trying to escape the farm where she works to get back to her island, and reunite with her adopted son, a goose named Brightbill.

Brown writes these stories in declarative sentences, an effect that over the course of the novel really brings the character of Roz to life, as she uses her robotic abilities to help others, and to find her way back home. Repeated declarative sentences creates a mechanical rhythm of sorts, although Roz is anything but robotic. And Brown inserts a narrator voice every now and then, too, as a sort of counter-balance. The result is effective story writing.

The world that Roz lives in one of our own possible worlds, where machines and robots and computers have become an overly integral part of the workforce, and where the tension between technology for good versus technology for bad plays out for Roz.

I could see these books being a huge hit for elementary students, although I suspect The Wild Robot Escapes might be seen as a little young by many of my sixth graders (even if the story has enough complexities to engage readers of any age, with a nice twist at the end). The illustrations are interesting, too, bringing a sort of metallic charm to Roz and her surroundings.

Peace (finds Roz),


Book Review: The Quest of Theseus (An Interactive Mythological Adventure)

I’m always curious about interactive books, and since my students work on their own interactive fiction stories, I’m always on the look-out for more mentor texts for the classroom. This book — The Quest of Theseus — is a new series for me, but it seems as if it is part of a set of mythological heroes, with the reader having agency to make decisions about the actions and lead the story into different elements of the hero’s tales.

Here, there are three main story paths (battle the Minotaur, go to the Underworld, or fight for the throne of Athens), with 39 different choices and 18 different endings.

While the writing is so-so and the action could have been given a bit more excitement, this interactive book was engaging enough to bring the myths of Theseus alive, and has me wondering about if I might get a few copies for the classroom.

Certainly, Theseus is one of the models for Percy Jackson, and we do cover Greek Mythology in the year. I see from the back cover that there are about seven more books in the series, including one for The Odyssey.


Peace (interact with it),


Book Review: The Art of Immersion in the Age of Digital Media

Quotes: The Art of Immersion

I had purchased The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the Way We Tell Stories by Frank Rose on my Kindle app during the first week of the first Networked Narratives, thinking that Rose’s text might be a nice dovetail to NetNarr. (Admission: this book review has been sitting in my draft bin … for some time. Interestingly, it still holds together with some of the projects I did in the second iteration of NetNarr)

Quotes: The Art of Immersion

I got caught up in some of other things — including some intriguing NetNarr projects — and only returned to Rose’s text later in the course itself. I’m glad I waited, for I think that our discussions in NetNarr helped frame what I read in the book. Rose examines the way that digital media, and the Internet in particular, is transforming the entertainment field, through technology and other elements of immersive storytelling. He brings years of reporting experience to his insights.

Quotes: The Art of Immersion

I’ll admit: I didn’t ‘deep read’ this book. I power-read it, slowing down in sections that caught my attention and interest, and then pulling out quotes that seemed to connect not only with my personal inquiry around the changing nature of digital storytelling but also in connection to some of the interactions I have with folks in NetNarr, CLMOOC and beyond around technology and composition.

Quotes: The Art of Immersion

Overall, Rose does a nice job of exploring all sorts of terrain, mostly from the entertainment standpoint. I, of course, am curious from the education standpoint, but there were plenty of places where those perspectives overlap. In particular, knowing a bit about where storytelling might be going (no one ever knows for sure) gives teachers a bit of an insight into the skills that might be needed for that kind of landscape.

Quotes: The Art of Immersion

The Art of Immersion is worth checking out, if only to get a glimpse of the world unfolding for our students, particularly those who are becoming interested in media production, where the tools are both complex and simple to use, and the possibilities for bending stories through different prisms, and for different audience experiences, is fascinating to think about.

Or, it is for me.

Peace (written in story),

PS — a little promo from Frank Rose


Book Review: Rebound

Gaw. I love the prose-poem work that Kwame Alexander is putting out into the world, and his latest — Rebound — is no exception. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, wrapping poetry and story around the life of a character (one we have met as an adult father in The Crossover, another great book).

Rebound tells the story of Chuck Bell, an inner city kid whose dealing with the grief of losing his father, and not dealing with it well at all. His mother sends him to stay in the summer with his grandparents, where he learns from his cranky grandfather lessons of life and learns to finally play basketball from his star athletic cousin, Roxie.

Alexander’s use of prose poems to tell this story works magic, as we skirt along the emotions of a young black male dealing with loss and getting caught up in trouble (Chuck even spends time in jail before grandfather gets him out) before reconnecting with his mother, whom he sees is grieving like him, and his friends, including the smart young girl who later becomes his wife (and mother of the boys in The Crossover.)

Rebound is magical, and I devoured all 414 pages of it in a single weekend, always letting Alexander’s writing pull me forward. I can see boys, and some girls, loving this book, too. It might even teach them about the power of free verse poems to tell a story.

Plus, Alexander is on a mission to bring literacy to everyone. I love his enthusiasm and insights.

Peace (rebound and in the net),

Book Review: Broad Band (The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet)

History, it’s said, is told by the ones who win. Which makes me wonder with discomfort why I, an avid reader of technology, never thought about the question of “Where are all the women?” whenever I have read histories of the Internet and technology in the past. Broad Band (The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet), by Claire Evans, sets the record straight, and does so with depth and storytelling. I’m glad to have discovered it.

Evans, a technology reporter, dives in deep to the many women whose work from the very beginning of technology and computers (stretching back to Ada Lovelace’s work with Babbage) paved the way for the way we interact and use the Internet (and other tools) today.

There were women doing the first manual card programming of mainframe computers — the women were called “computers” before a conference of men decided that “computer engineer” was a better term that would allow more recruiting of people into the field, and in doing that change of identity, they effectively shut the door on many women who did have advanced degrees in engineering because of cultural norms around who stays home with the children and who is the primary paycheck in the family.

There were women at the heart of the emergence of video game design, creating games that were built around storytelling and interactive choices, eyeing ways to engage girls in a time when boys were the rage. A section here about marketing of games via gender is fascinating. There were women creating safe social networking spaces before, and then as, the World Wide Web began to take hold, years before MySpace and Facebook and Twitter. There were women who devised the protocols of the Internet data packet transfer systems.

We often hear about The WELL in San Francisco, California, as one of the starting point of community networking, but in the same city, in another building, there was a collective of women with their own mainframe computer, programming it to gather and share resources about social services for families and organizations, as well a place to make connections over modems. Just like the WELL, in some aspects, but RESOURCE ONE was more attuned to the common good of the world. And mostly forgotten. I’d never heard of it.

And on and on it goes, and I appreciate that Evans researched and wrote this kind of book, as a sort of counter-balance to the male narrative of computers and technology. I am appreciative of the design capabilities of these women, and their vision for a more connected and more positive world with technology as another means to an end.

Peace (in the back pages),