Graphic Novel Review: Spill Zone

It’s a strange world that Scott Westerfeld and illustrator Alex Puvilland have envisioned in Spill Zone. Something tragic has happened. Something so immense and unfathomable that whole cities are evacuated and left to ruin. But what exactly happened? If Westerfeld knows, he’s not telling. Not yet anyway.

The graphic novel, Spill Zone, is a fascinating entry into the world gone awry, as our teen heroine, Addison, seeks to make enough money to survive, and to protect her younger sister, who was caught in the midst of the catastrophic meltdown or explosion or whatever it was when it happened and now, she is strangely silent. Her doll, though, is even stranger, communicating to the sister in some form of mind-melding that hints at something larger unfolding.

The doll needs to recharge so periodically in the spill zone. When Addison goes back to the devastated city on her motorcycle, where she takes photographs of the strange new world to sell, the doll comes for a ride, too. The doll is an indication of something really strange happening.

The story here revolves around a business offer that Addison can’t refuse, although she should refuse it. The work brings her deeper into the city than she would normally allow herself to go — right into the heart of the very hospital where her parents were working when the catastrophe hit, and died (as far as we know) — and then, even weirder things happen as Addison makes her escape.

Spill Zone is the first book in a series (which I think played out as a comic, too) and my middle school son and I were both hooked. But, a word of caution: this is aimed more for high school readers and older, due to some language and content.

Peace (strange, indeed),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Stone Heart (The Nameless City)

You know a book has captivated your attention when you find yourself on the edge of your seat, wondering what will happen next, and then stare for a long time at the cliffhanger at the last page. Such was the case with the second book in The Nameless City trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks entitled The Stone Heart. (I wrote about the first book — The Nameless City — here).

Hicks has tapped into the very elements that make graphic novels so special to read and experience — using her artwork, historical research and development of characters, Hicks has created an imaginary world (based on Ancient China and the Silk Road) that feels alive and real. The artwork is really exquisite and detailed. Reaching the end of The Stone Heart is a disappointment but only because Hicks is still working on the third, and final, installment of the story.

Now we have to wait …

And what is this story? A city of mixed tribes and people that has two potential paths — war and conquest, or peaceful transition in which all tribes determine the future. For now, war has won out, or the prospect of war, and our two main protagonists — Rat, an orphan girl raised by monks in the Nameless City, and Kaidu, son of a Dao warrior — are faced with a dangerous task that may shape the Nameless City for years to come.

The mysterious backdrop to the story is a past people — the ones who first built The Nameless City and whose reign mysteriously came to an end  — and a hidden book that contains a power of great destruction, a book once protected by monnks that has now fallen into the hands of a young leader who has killed his father in order to ascend to power. He believes the book will forge his way forward. Others, like Kaidu and Rat, understand that the book was hidden for a reason and fear what it may unleash on the world.

The Stone Heart is an adventurous book that stays true to its historical (if fictional) roots of Asian culture. It continues the magic of the first book, and I am hopeful Hicks will bring the overarching story to a close with the third book with all the elements that has kept me reading (as well as my middle school son). The Nameless City series is appropriate for upper elementary, middle and high school students, with some violence as part of the plot of palace intrigue.

Peace (hoping),
Kevin

Book Review: The Poet’s Dog

The title is what caught my attention: The Poet’s Dog. Poetry. Dog. Book. I’m in.

But it was the story that kept me reading, devouring this short but sweet story in one sitting, and wanting to read it again. Then I realized that the author, Patricia MacLaughlan, lives in the town right next to mine, and I felt an even deeper connection. (I admit: I have not read her other books that have brought her much attention, including her novel Sarah: Plain and Tall.)

The Poet’s Dog has beautiful prose, with whispers of poetry everywhere, as the story explores the notion that dogs can talk to children, and to poets — both of whom have open ears and open hearts to the world. Here, a dog saves two children in a winter storm, and then the children save the dog from his sorrow, and in-between, we learn the real story of Teddy, the dog.

There are no wasted words in MacLaughlan’s book. Each sentence, each piece of narrative, is there for a reason, and I found myself in the poet’s house, huddled up amid the fierce winter storm, as the dog and children become part of each other’s lives with words and love. The ending, too, is very satisfying, if not too surprising, allowing us a glimpse into the kindness of the world, and the possibilities of poetry.

Dogs. Poets. Kids. Kindness. What’s not to love about all that?

Peace (after the storm),
Kevin

Book Review: Book Scavenger

Now, here’s a book with a cool story (and perfectly suited for read-aloud, as I did with my son) that comes with a perfect activity for all of us book-loving, game-loving fools of the world. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is a mystery story of sorts, as our protagonist, Emily, must solve a series of puzzles, found in books, to solve a larger mystery of a game set across the city of San Francisco. It all begins and centers on Edgar Allen Poe, but that’s about all I will say, so as not to give anything away.

Suffice it to say that Bertman has infused her novel with a love of books on many levels, with allusions all over the place to much-loved classics, and established Emily Crane as a heartfelt character. Her family moves .. a lot. Her parents aim to live in all 50 states, and then write a book about it (they already blog about it), and so Emily (age 12) never connects with other kids her age. She knows it is all temporary.

But James, a boy whose family owns the house where Emily’s family rents, is the first kid whose love of puzzles and challenges draws her into an unexpected friendship, as both kids try their hand at Book Scavenger, a website where people hide books and others find them, and collect points. Garrison Griswold, publisher and creator of Book Scavenger, has set in motion a new game, but then falls victim to a subway attack. Emily finds one clue and then game begins… and the story twists and turns, full of cryptic notes and odd discoveries.

Although Book Scavenger, the game and website, is part of a fictional novel, Bertman (and no doubt, her publisher) have created a real-life Book Scavenger site, where you can hide books and track the progress of those books being found. My son was very interested in this literary hide-and-seek game, and I am sure we will be doing some book hiding in our part of Western Massachusetts. Of course, we hope others in our area have read the book and followed the path to the website. (And you can track activity via the #bookscavenger hashtag on Twitter)

Now, the question is: what book shall we hide? And where?

Peace (hidden but in plain view),
Kevin

Book Review: Best American Non-Required Reading 2016

One “count on me reading it” book is often the latest edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading collection for a number of reasons:

  • I can often read pieces I missed during the year from publications like the Iowa Review or Granta or various chapbooks that would likely never be in my radar;
  • The collection is always curated by high school students from California and Michigan as part of the 826 Valencia (an organization started by Dave Eggers) and proceeds from the book purchase support the literacy work of the organization;
  • There is always a cool mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and comics, and other assorted odds and ends, and that mix is right up my alley as a reader.

While Eggers has mostly moved on from this project (yet still has his hand in the mix, I think), the venture remains in solid hands, and the high school students who spend a year as curators of material makes it always worth a look because it provides some insight into what is deemed important and interesting to at least one group of young literacy buffs.

The 2016 edition of Best American Non-Required Reading has the expected wide range of pieces, from an oral history of a Palestinian refugee’s life story to the conception of an amazing collection of mostly forgotten bird taxidermies on display in Iowa to the graphic story of a homeless man that shows the cyclical nature of despair to a studied history of the Black Lives Matter movement. There are always a few pieces that I skim through, but that’s to be expected in a collection like this.

Overall, I trust the judgment of the high school curators, and each year, my trust is rewarded with an enriching reading experience. This collection is no different.

Peace (read it and write it),
Kevin

Book Review: The Daily Show (The Book – An Oral History)

 

There was a time when my wife and I were regular viewers of The Daily Show … and then we weren’t. It had nothing to do with not liking Jon Stewart and his show — we did — but more that we didn’t want to pay a cable television bill that included the Comedy Central package. And then we had YouTube, made for our short attention spans and social media sharing.

But I always admired how Stewart and his crew battled the bulls$#t of politics, and brought a fairly progressive voice to the mix. This new book — The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History — is my kind of book (I am a big fan of oral histories), showing the genesis of Stewart’s vision for the show over the years as he found his voice (after taking over from Craig Kilborn) and how he used it with wit and smarts, shaping the way we talk about politics and share political rants and think about how the media plays a role in how we talk about politics.

Is that a good thing? Yes, and maybe no. “Yes,” in that the show made visible how a media outlet might respond to the “message” coming out of Washington. Reading over the Bush years and the wars it led us into, and how The Daily Show responded … it’s a reminder of how the Washington establishment at the time really dictated a message that most media outlets bought, hook-line-sinker.  And “No,” in that we may have put too much weight in Stewart himself to be the “voice of reason” from the progressive arena, and where did that take us? Right into Trump. (I’m not blaming Stewart for Trump, although that might make for a funny bit on the show.) Trump seems able to harness the worst but most effect elements of Daily Show-isms to create .. Trump Inc. (The fact that Trump hates Stewart is another reason to like Stewart).

This oral history book is comprised of a multitude of interviews from many of the people who worked on the show over the years, and Stewart himself. Ignoring some of the soap opera elements that come with any television production (romance, debauchery, conflicted vision), the most insightful elements for me was how attuned Stewart was to creating something that was comedic and serious, and with a message that would cut the heart of a truth (which might be variable, depending on your political lens). Hearing the “voices” of writers and producers and researchers, and many more from behind the scenes, gives power to the idea of how something comes into being over time.

David Remnick, in a piece about Stewart before he left The Daily Show, praised Stewart for “punching up” — for taking on those who were in political power and being unafraid to show fire and anger and zeal, and to hold Washington somewhat accountable.

I really liked The Daily Show (The Book), and The Daily Show itself. It’s fingerprints are all over television and social media, and the ways we use satire and humor. But I haven’t even seen anything with Trevor Noah as host of the show since Stewart left. Have you? Is he any good?

Peace (each day),
Kevin

Book Review: Al Capone Shines My Shoes

Al Capone Shines My Shoes the second in a series of three books (so far) by writer Gennifer Choldenko in which our protagonist, 12-year-old Moose Flanagan, is living on Alcatraz Island with his family. His father is a prison guard there, and Chodenko uses this closed community setting (with a prison filled with violent criminals) as an intriguing backdrop for Moose and his family and friends.

There a nice mix of humor, and insights about growing up, as well as prison intrigue, particularly when Moose and his friends have to stop a breakout attempt with their wits alone. But what sets this book, and the last one (Al Capone Does My Shirts) apart for me (and my son) is how Moose interacts with his sister, Natalie, who has autism during a time when autistic children were often sent to live “away” at state hospitals. Natalie is crucial to the plot from so many angles, and Choldenko treats her with respect even as the quirkiness of her autism makes her different from those around her.

Much of what Moose does in the story is hinged on protecting Natalie, including an ongoing and uncomfortable interaction with the most famous convict behind bars — Al Capone. I won’t give things away, but Choldenko does a nice job of not giving us too much Capone. What we see in Capone is both dangerous and curious, and Moose himself knows he is out of his league with something that started in the first book and continues as a thread here, with hints for the third book.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes is a perfect read for a middle school student, with rich characters and even richer setting. My son and I — we read it as a rad-aloud — are looking forward to her third book: Al Capone Does My Homework.

Peace (breaking in),
Kevin

At Middleweb: A Plethora of Writing Ideas

I recently reviewed this new book — The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers by Jennifer Serravallo – and I thought it covered a lot of ground in a fairly easy-to-use format. There are a wide range of ideas for the classroom on engaging young writers. I counted about 300 ideas in here. That’s a lot of possibilities.

I wrote in my review:

Flip through the book to find a ton of great ideas — helping students engage more with their own writing process; organizing ideas for short and longer fiction and non-fiction pieces; structuring assignments for all learners, or providing structure for student collaboration opportunities.

See what you think. Read the review over at Middleweb.

Peace (in books),
Kevin

Book Review: Best American Infographics 2016

I have a few favorite books that I put on my “wish list” each holiday season, and Gareth Cook’s Best American Infographics has been there since he started the collection a few years ago. Sure, we’re living in the world of Infographics now — with charts and maps and data grids everywhere you look — but there’s something about the story underneath the cream of the crop that makes this kind of curated book a joy to read.

And it is a joy. Visually, certainly, as the graphics here in Best American Graphics 2016 are wonderfully diverse and artistically rendered. But also, the short pieces that explain the rationale and the reasoning behind the visualization of the data bring to light how we can “see” the world different when we put it at another angle.

Interestingly, the opening pages to the book were a familiar sight to me – those of the postcards in the Dear Data collection, which I was in the midst of reading when I received the Infographic collection. We’re using Dear Data as inspiration for a postcard project now in the CLMOOC postcard club.

Other interesting data stories here that caught my attention here included Flowing Data’s What Americans Do All Day? (demonstrated by clusters of activity based on times of the day);  Fallen.io’s Human Toll of World War II (with its devastating reality check of the impact of war); FiveThirtyEight’s How to Hack Science (which shows how skewed data can show you want you want to see); Kevin Ferguson’s The Essence of a Western (in which he distills entire movies into a single frozen frame of light and shadows); and Atlas Obscura’s Literary Road Map (literally, a map tracking routes from famous American road-trip books, like On The Road.)

And there is the stunning A Galaxy of Trees by Nature. Wow. Three trillion trees are on earth. This map sought to show them all on a map visualization. Wow.

Some of the Infographics are online interactives, and some are just static points in time. Another interesting tidbit: the entire cover design of the book itself is an infographic, too (by designers Mark Robinson and Thomas Porostocky) so that you can unfold the cover and see an infographic wrapping up the book about infographics.

Sometimes, data can be a beautiful thing to behold. And read.

Peace (beyond data but not beyond visualization),
Kevin

Dear Data: Personal Connection through Data Collection

Dear Data: To Draw is to Remember

Infographics done right fascinate me, particularly if they tell a story from the data. Cold data analysis … does nothing for me. In the amazing book Dear Data, graphic designers Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi document a year of postcards between themselves, sharing personal data in hand-drawn styles. Their 52-week journey of documenting and share is a reminder of how we might be able to uncover insights into ourselves, and each other, by paying more attention.

In fact, over at the Connected Learning MOOC community, a number of us are using Dear Data as a launching and inspirational point for sharing Data Postcards in the coming year. Some of us sent out Resolution Data postcards in January and “love” is the theme of February, and we are using Lupi and Posavec’s work as our starting point, to some degree.

This is my workspace the other day, as I was working on my data postcards, which I sent to different parts of the world. I sort of cheated by not doing every one by hand, but this is how I got it to work for me.

Making Data Postcards for CLMOOC

The two developed weekly themes that they built their data collection on, from the opening theme of “clocks” to observing urban animals (week 34) to a week of distractions (week 44) to a week of goodbyes (week 52, of course). Along with sharing the postcards, the two write about their experiences, from the difficulties of coming up with data representations to the celebration of sharing to insights they gained about their personal worlds through such an endeavor.

I also appreciated the insights at the end of the book, where the two outline some suggestions for others, such as:

  • See the world as a data collector
  • Begin with a question
  • Gather and spend time with your data
  • Organize and categorize it
  • Find the main story that the data tells
  • Share the data and the story

We don’t need to leave it to our machines and our computers and vast programming ventures to gather our world. We can do it ourselves. Lupi and Posavec show us the power of connections between people, and how to humanize the data, as a means to strengthen insights and understanding through a very visual means.

What’s your data?

Peace (it’s not just numbers),
Kevin