My latest post at Middleweb is an interview with Steve Zemelman, as we chat about the topic of student civic engagement and civic action in and beyond the classroom. With the student-led marches and with Parkland students emerging as leaders of a gun control movement, this seemed like a good time to focus on Steve’s new book, From Inquiry to Action. Steve and I know each other through our connections with the National Writing Project. His book offers a wealth of ideas for classroom teachers.
Ready Player One could have been worse. A lot worse. It also could have been better. A lot better. Split the difference? It was an entertaining movie with, as my older son noted afterwards, “more holes in the plot than you could poke a stick through.” My younger son, who has read the book by Ernest Cline at least six times in the past two years, added, “The book was better.” I was more charitable with the movie than my three boys were, it turns out (which is usually the opposite).
We watched Ready Player One in 3D in the XD theater and that was a good move, as the immersive storytelling element of the movie — part of which takes place in a virtual environment known as The Oasis — was made livelier by the 3D experience. And Steven Spielberg sure knows how to pack a visual punch, and to allude to all sorts of 1980s pop culture elements.
If you don’t know the story, Ready Player One is about the world in the future where the collapse of energy and food resources has people living in the Stacks — literally, mobile homes and cars and such all stacked upward — with the only real ‘escape’ from the apocalypse is virtual reality in The Oasis gaming world, where endless smaller worlds can be created around themes. The story revolves around our teenage hero — Wade Watts — as he tries to find the hidden Easter Egg left behind by the creator of The Oasis. Finding the Egg will mean gaining ownership and direction of The Oasis.
The game design element of the novel is what lured me into the story years ago, and my youngest son loved the book when I passed it along to him. The movie captures some of that tension between real life, outside of technology, and the digital life we create and make for ourselves inside the spaces we inhabit. The use of avatars and digital identity, of ethics of shared virtual space, of commercialization of online experiences, and of the imagination in building worlds all emerge as themes of the story.
Elements of the game itself get buried in the movie by all of the 1980s pop references, though, and the potential to use the intricacies of game experience to drive the plot (sort of like Wreck-It Ralph did pull off) falls by the wayside in favor of a more typical good/bad battle.
I did appreciate that one of the underlying messages, made a bit too obvious by the end, is that collaboration and cooperation for a greater good are more powerful than profit and personal gain. The corporate loses. The collective wins.
Also, the new rule created by Wade and his friends in the end that The Oasis gets shut down every Tuesday and Thursday, in order for users to break from the technology and reconnect with friends and family (cue end scene of Wade smooching with Artemis, the real heroine of the story), seemed rather relevant to our modern times. Imagine if Facebook or Twitter decided that two days a week, no one could use the site?
I’m not sure if it was the story, the writing, or just the time in our lives where my youngest son (now 13) started to fade from our read-aloud time (which makes me sad), but reading the third book of Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series (The Ship of the Dead) by Rick Riordan took … forever.
Actually, after finally admitting that we would not be finishing it as read-aloud (despite starting it way back in October!), I dove in this weekend and read with gusto the second half of the book, and found it more enjoyable. Still, the plethora of Norse Mythology names — heroes, gods, places, objects — is mind-boggling and difficult to keep track of.
Once I got into the heart of the adventure — of Magnus Chase and his friends stopping Loki from starting Ragnarok, or the beginning of the end of the world by challenging the trickster God to a poetry duel of sorts — I was fine, although everything Riordan writes now feels like faint echoes of Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief. And the overuse of sarcasm in Magnus’ view of the world gets a little weary to me, as a reader.
I don’t see as many of my sixth grade readers devouring this series like some of the other Riordan adventures, although there are still a few diehard readers who will take up whatever he writes with a passion.
On a side note: I do appreciate how Riordan tackles the gender fluidity of one of the characters, whom Magnus has attraction to even as the character toggles (magically) from male to female, and I admire Riordan’s attempt to open the eyes of his readers to the larger world. I do wonder what some librarians, teachers and parents might think in some of our more conservative places, but maybe we won’t tell them … shhh. Let the kids read.
If, like me, you were blown away by The One and Only Ivan, then you will be swept up with the same magic in Wishtree, as writer Katherine Applegate weaves another powerful story told in such simple language.
Applegate gives voice to a neighborhood tree, called Red, whose long-view of the people and animals that inhabit her space provides her with deep compassion and love for the ways in which everything is connected. And what a voice she is. Red, a tree, is a character you won’t likely forget.
Red, a red oak, is also a Wish Tree, meaning it is a place where each year, people come to hang notes with their dreams and desires on her branches, in hopes that they might come true. She is a gathering point for the neighborhood, and in this story, Red also becomes a flashpoint for hate and intolerance.
An immigrant family is targeted. A word is carved on Red as a message to the family. Vandalism happens. A young immigrant girl feels abandoned and friendless, and Red works with the animals of her tree to give the girl her one wish from the tree: to have a friend. Meanwhile, the owner of the property where Red has her roots has decided the time has come for the tree to be cut down, for safety, and only a story from the past can save Red from the stump grinder.
Applegate artistically weaves these strands of story together with delicate writing, always guided by the calm, compassionate voice of Red. This novel would be a perfect read-aloud for elementary school, and the topics of how we welcome new families — particularly those who speak a different language or come from a different culture — is central to the theme of Wishtree.
As it is to the world outside our door. May we all be like Red.
From Cleopatra to Frida Kahlo to Harriet Tubman to Marie Curie to Junko Tabei to Malala Yousafzai, this book is packed with interesting biographical sketches of these women. It’s hard not to be inspired and to be at least optimistic in the face of this presidency that the power of women to make change in the world is not only set in motion but also has historical roots (I knew that already, but our sons and daughters and students need to be reminded of that).
Along with an engaging style of writing that shows these women in the positive light of rebels who refused to take no for an answer from the men in their lives (and a few who were supported by the men n their lives but looked down on by others in culture), and some beautiful illustrations that will take your breath away, the book includes short little advice pieces for readers, using questions about body image and bullying and social media and family to provide some advice based on the biographical piece just read.
The authors never say, this is what this particular woman would have done (they are not that presumptuous), but instead, say, this is what they might have done in this situation, given the obstacles they overcame in their lives. The message of the advice is always encouraging, positive and empowering.
I have two copies of this book, via our Scholastic account (I see it is not yet available via Amazon), and I aim to put them front and center for all of my students to explore. This book seems geared towards upper elementary to middle school readers, but there are plenty of edges to that reader span.
This is a big book. Hard to hold. It’s size dwarfs the other books on my pile. Just like New York City. Writer/Illustrator Julia Wertz’s “unconventional illustrated history of New York City,” as the subtitle of Tenements, Towers & Trash suggests, is larger than life, and is a captivating look at the quirks and curiosities of New York City.
Inside the covers, Wertz tells stories of the city far from the glossy brochures you might find about the city. Here, you learn about, through her visuals, how neighborhoods have changed over time, where all of the trash goes, where to find the “secret bars” of the city, how to discover the boat junkyards, and more than a few famous women of the city (including a murderess and an abortionist).
The oversized pages of this oversized book give weight to the stories of the city itself, and her drawings are dense with lines and details, all captured by her love of New York City. She is not a native of the city, and only lived there for a stretch of time, but she seems to have noticed so much about architecture and buildings, and had the drive to learn deep about the history of these places.
I could not help but imagine a collection of these books, documenting our urban spaces in graphic story forms, and how valuable that historical element would be in understanding how we shape our spaces, and how our spaces shape us.
A note for teachers: There is some profanity in here, particularly as Wertz’s voice as the narrator of the story comes through in the text elements of the page. The content inTenements, Towers & Trash is more appropriate for upper high school students, of this book were to be of value in the classroom. But teachers could also pluck pages from the book to use as exemplars for students doing their own graphic interpretations of their own communities.
Ok. So I am not sure if I completely enjoyed One Trick Pony or not. On one hand, the narrative and visuals feel compact on the page and so busy and dense with narrative jumps that I didn’t get a chance to breathe. On the other hand, there’s something interesting in this world-building that Nathan Hale (he, of the fantastic Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series) has created here.
The story revolves around a world (ours? Earth? our Earth?) where aliens are devouring all of the technology and metals, and the scattered tribes of people left on the planet are on the run from strange creatures doing the devouring. These creature are called Pipers, and there is some hints of The Pied Piper story that doesn’t ever really develop further.
Three youths, out on a secret expedition from their caravan community, discover a hidden trove of robots, including a golden robot pony (the “one trick pony”) that helps them to escape and then, sacrifices its life to save Strata, a young girl who adopts the horse and rides it, and the entire world. The pony becomes a hero.
What I write here is not a bad review. The book is intriguing. But I guess I prefer more space in stories, more room on the page, more quiet in the corners of my books. One Trick Pony is brimming with lines and shapes and words, and three or four different converging stories and characters, and Hale’s intricate drawings propel it all forward.
I think this graphic novel could be appealing to upper middle school and high school readers. Younger readers might find the story confusing, although they might be drawn in by the pony. Because … well… ponies.
I never really thought all that much of how designing a physical space or a physical object is really about the invisible art of telling a story. In Design is Storytelling, by Ellen Lupton, that fact comes to the surface — that the decisions we make in creating tangible objects or immersive experiences can have a narrative arc to it.
This book was a bit uneven for me, but I suspect I am not its target audience, either. (That seems to be museum geeks, designers and business thinkers). Lupton is a senior curator of Contemporary Design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (I didn’t even know that existed) and she brings a real museum-layout-theme thinking to this book. The prose felt a bit stiff to me, but many of the illustrations in here are helpful. (I guess, design IS story.)
She focuses her chapters on overarching ideas of Action, Emotion, and Sensation, and within there, she explores such things as Design Fiction and Narrative Arc of objects and space; creating fictional personas as you plan the design of something, particularly when a problem needs to be solved; and how multi-sensory design might inform the way something evolves over time. She explores building design, and app design, and business layout decisions (such as considering the concept of the Hero’s Journey within a typical IKEA store.) Colors, perceptions, interactions, touch … all these and more are explored here within the frame of experiencing stories.
I’m thinking more now of how museums work to consider layout of rooms and doors, and of the use of media in museums (sound, color, image, signs) that help a visitor navigate the “story” the curators are hoping to tell. I wonder about architects a bit different now, and the way that their work informs our interactions with buildings and space, and what narrative those design choices surface (or hide).
And I am thinking of a new 3D Printer Maker Club we have started at our school with our sixth graders. How can we get them to think beyond “making an object” to making objects as part of “telling a story” somehow? It seems to me, and it clearly visible is to Lupton here, that we can and probably should think of story as deeper and richer interactions with the designed world, and it all starts with narrative intentions.