Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Music. Writing. Art. Love. Resistance. Revolution.

These ideas all swirl around in the majestic novel by Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Set mostly in China during more than one revolution, the novel’s scope is large but its attention to characters and details makes it feel intimate as well.

We find ourselves drawn into the lives of one woman trying to find the stories of her relatives, and her own father, through their lives during the Cultural Revolution that uprooted thousands of families and the Tiananmen Square protests that turned violent.

Music swirls around the story, as the main characters are composers and musicians, and writers, and the concept of story itself as the central tenet for how we live our lives with meaning and love surfaces over and over again, as it should.

A Story

I found myself wondering more and more about Chinese society and culture, and how we often lose track of the lives of the people among the news of the politics and economics. So many Chinese families have paid the price for Revolution, for change, in such a relatively short time period, too.

Thien reminds us that the role of the novelist is to both peel back the layers of complexity, to show us the stories of people in the midst of that change. Yes, there is much suffering here, but there is also love and family and the desire to rise above your surroundings to create art that means something.

There is hope here in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. That’s a powerful message, always. Hope that days of turmoil and uncertaintly will get better, and that art – music and writing — will allow us to be remembered, and not forgotten. One can hope.

Peace (between the pages),



Book Review: Am I Here Alone? (Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live)

This collection of short essays by writer Peter Orner had me thinking a million thoughts about how we read and how we write. Wow. I picked up Orner’s Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by chance — it was on the library shelf next to something else I was looking at. I picked up Orner, and didn’t want to put it down. So I didn’t.

Orner, a novelist (but one I have not read or even heard of before), writes from a very different slant of reader. First of all, his eclectic tastes in authors and books gave me little center of gravity, but that wasn’t a problem. I wanted to know who these writers were that I didn’t know. I reveled in his stories of finding books in corners of used book stores. I wanted to know the stories of the stories, and the stories themselves.

Orner’s brilliant approach to these essays is to use various novels and writers and stories as a “way in” to think about his life, and life in general. Literature as a lens on our life. It’s hard to explain his technique in this book but Orner’s perceptions and voice are so strong here, it’s as if you pulled up a milk crate in his garage studio, plucked a book from his stacks and stacks, and started to talk over coffee about literature and life.

Even as you read about Orner’s connection to texts, you will begin to ponder your own. Or, at least, I did. That makes for a powerful and personal reading experience.

Peace (between the pages),


Book Review: Revenge of the Star Survivors

Middle school seems to make most students feel like wandering aliens on a strange and unforgiving planet full of odd customs and interactions. Novelist Michael Merschel uses that concept to full effect in his first book, Revenge of the Star Survivors. Our protagonist, Clark Sherman, moves into a new community when his father gets a new job and then immerses himself in Festus Middle School.

The narrative voice of Clark is that of an alien space explorer, as if he were not some middle school boy but rather an astronaut on a mission. Someone who has landed on some unknown world, gathering information about life forms and culture idiosyncrasies for his commanders (ie, his parents). His favorite television show — Star Survivors — gives his first-person narrative a frame.

This storytelling technique could easily get old, quick, but Merschel wisely moves us into emotional territory, creating a landscape of quirky characters set up against the concept of middle school bullying and confusion. As Clark navigates the unfolding middle school drama, he is both a target and ultimately, a protector. The story gets deeper and richer as it unfolds, and comes to a satisfying conclusion with heart and wisdom.

“I like to think that with real friends, hailing frequencies are always open.” — Clark

This novel would be a nice fit for middle school classrooms, but also for upper elementary readers looking ahead to what awaits them in that strange galaxy of the unknown.

Peace (here and beyond),

PS — Michael Merschel sent me a copy of Revenge of the Star Survivors to review after I responded to something he wrote over at Nerdy Book Club. I made no promises about the kind of review I would write, nor did he ask.

Book Review: On Tyranny (Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century)

So, I believe this book by Timothy SnyderOn Tyranny — should be required reading for everyone in America. Sure, that statement shows my political bias against the Trump Administration and its visible objective to slowly dismantle all institutions in order to build more power into the president’s hands … so what? I’m biased.

Snyder’s small book (in size and in length) is a powerhouse of ideas, drawing both on the history of the rise of Fascists, Nazis and Communists to remind us that American institutions, and Democracy itself, is always more fragile that at first appears. The “twenty lessons”  in On Tyranny are pivot points for individuals to make small decisions that have larger ramifications of the world.

What I pulled from this book, which I will be re-reading again and then sending off with my son to college with a “read this book!” message, is a reminder that people are what allow institutions to crumble and fall, through small actions that don’t seem consequential in the moment. Tyrants take advantage of those moments (or invent moments, such as “terrorist” emergencies that allow a usurping of the rule of law to change the nature of the state.)

Those of us who would think that the American institutions are strong enough to withstand the moment we are in still need to remain vigilant and active. Change happens suddenly. Elections have consequences.

But the people, and the community you are part of, have a voice, and power, too. Make sure we use it for the greater good of all. Read On Tyranny  and think.

Peace (let it be),


Book Review: Radioactive (A Tale of Love and Fallout)

This book … is luminescent. I bet other reviewers have used that word because, well, the cover of the book glows in the dark. I tried it in the dark closet. The book glowed.  Which is perfectly in tune with the theme of Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout about the life and work of Marie Curie.

I’m not sure how to categorize this book by artist/writer Lauren Redniss, and maybe I shouldn’t bother. With a mix of some amazing artwork that uses chemicals and light (she explains her process at the end of the book) and an evocative narrative that shifts from Marie Curie’s life, and loves, to the impact of her work on radium and other radioactive elements in the modern world (hello, atomic bombs), this book is packed with insights and information that could be a neat mentor for non-fiction writing.

Like many, I knew of Marie Curie’s name in the field of Science and I was familiar with some of her work, but Radioactive gave me the fuller picture of a woman struggling against the confines of the male-dominated society, and how her love and partnerships with her husband — and then later, her lover — gave her freedom to change the way we see the world. Her children and many of her grandchildren, and others down the family line, apparently continue to work in the fields of science.

One of the saddest parts of this story is near the end of her life, as Marie Curie suffers from radiation exposure from her years touching and studying isotopes. She wanders through her lab like a ghost, nearly blind and in pain, touching tubes and checking equipment, and making lab notes on her slow cancerous death like the scientist she is. Her spirit inhabits this book, and now my mind. She lives on.

Peace (glowing with wonder),

PS — thanks to Andrea Z for recommending this book on Twitter. What a find. I borrowed it through my library, as the cost seemed steep to me. But it is the size of a textbook.

Taking Lines for a Doodle Walk (Disrupting Thinking)

Disrupting Thinking Doodle Collage

All this week, as part of CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC) focus on doodling and drawing for deeper understanding and creative fun, I’ve been reading Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst.

Schools get hijacked ....

I would read some of the book, highlight salient points, and then circle back around to find a line or phrase that stood out for me about ways we can “disrupt” our schools to provide more avenues for learning for all of our students.

Gone underground ...

Beers and Probst focus primarily on reading, and press us educators to push back against the “testing climate” and find ways to spark the love of reading in our students.

Disrupting Thinking: Become More

I would then take that line or phrase for “a walk” in the Pencil app on my iPad and try to illustrate the scene.

Disrupting Thinking: sticky notes

I did this all rather quickly, so some came out better than others.

From the heart ...

But I like how the doodling and drawing forced me to not just reflect but also to internally defend why I had highlighted what I had in the first place.

Inside School/Outside School

Lots of teachers are reading Disrupting Thinking this summer in various online reading groups, I see, and my overall experience with the book itself was a positive one, although I suspect the use of the term “disrupt” is a marketing touch.

They're Reading

The two authors, whom I respect and who have have written important books about teaching, urge us educators to be more thoughtful in how we sustain rich reading lives for our students, as reading is a key to learning in all content areas (not to mention, a key to a creative life). Their emphasis on a framework they call Book-Head-Heart is a logical way to begin to get young readers to move what they are reading beyond test questions and surface knowledge, and more into connecting with their own lives and experiences (in our school, we call this “reading beyond the text”). I’ll probably write a longer review for Middleweb.

My Story

Do you doodle when you read?

Peace (think in disruptions),

On Summer Siesta: Graphic Novel Reviews

I was on family vacation last week and as usual, I brought a stack of books with me for the beach and beyond. Mostly graphic novels (with Magpie Murders thrown in .. that’s a good one for the summer). Here are some quick reviews of four graphic novels:

Secret Coders: Robots & Repeats
By Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

I believe this is the fourth installment of this series by the talented Gene Luen Yang (and Mike Holmes) in which the graphic story format weaves computer programming skills into the storyline. Sometimes, that works, particularly when the story pauses and the reader is invited to consider a solution to a puzzle or quandry. Other times, it feels a bit intrusive to the story. But I am enjoying this series very much, as the kids continue to figure out a mystery, with new twists and layers added each time. The Secret Coders series is a fun read, aimed at upper elementary and middle school readers.

Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869 (Book One)
by Alex Alice

This oversized book by Alex Alice is a sort of steampunk-infused tale of a young hero, Seraphin, whose engineer father is designing a ship that is powered by the elusive “aether” — an invisible but powerful atmospheric force that most don’t believe exist. There is palace intrigue, interesting characters, and plenty of danger here. While the plot echoes other stories (a mother goes missing, leaving a note for her son that sparks the adventure forward), the art is fluid and in motion. This is the first book of a series, apparently. It is a good one for middle school and high school students (although there is nothing inappropriate, and could easily hit the imagination of upper elementary readers)

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
by Ben Hatke

I am a huge fan of Ben Hatke, and this second book in his Jack series has only deepened my appreciation for his talents as a storyteller and artists. Hatke has taken the Jack and the Beanstalk into strange, new territory here, and I love that the story splinters and then comes back together in a way you might not suspect. He always has strong female characters, too. Mighty Jack’s story is not over, and the end of the novel brings another movie-like twist, reminding my son and I of another Hatke character that drew us into his world many years ago: Zita the Spacegirl (another series you should read). The Jack series is a solid read for elementary students, but middle school readers would probably enjoy it, too.

Cast No Shadow
By Nick Tapalansky and Anissa Espinosa

I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one. It’s set as a sort of teenage love story, but with one of the two teenagers with a crush being a ghost stuck inside a house. The story gets more complex as it moves along, though, with hints early when we learn that the main character was born without a shadow (hints of Peter Pan?). The more I read further, the more I liked this novel by Nick Tapalansky and Anissa Espinosa, as they weave humor and insight, and the strange entwining of history and the present, into a heart-warming tale of small-town goings-on. This book is aimed at high school, but middle school readers might find it interesting. There is nothing inappropriate for younger readers, however.

What have you been reading?

Peace (in pics and words),

Graphic Novel Review: Crafty Cat and the Crafty Camp Crisis

This second graphic novel in a developing trilogy by Charise Mericle Harper for younger readers is so cute and adorable, you want to hug it at times. I read an advanced copy of Crafty Cat and the Crafty Camp Crisis just as I was facilitating a summer camp last week and just as CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC) is about to launch for the summer. Talk about a nicely timed read.

Crafty Cat and the Crafty Camp Crisis is a lovely and gentle book, with an underlying message of artistic freedom, working with your hands, and tolerating the different personalities that school and camp force on you. The story is about Birdie, a young girl who loveslovesloves to do arts and crafts, and the tale is centered around the summer camp where she and her friend, Evan, attend. The crisis is .. well, you’ll have to read the story, right?

Let’s just say, not everyone gets along.

Birdie has a spirited imagination (the crafty cat is part of her dreaming mind, as a sort of super hero who helps her navigate the world) and a positive, can-do attitude. She would be great in CLMOOC!

The narrator’s voice — told through text boxes — is intriguing, as it interjects itself as part of the story (sometimes cheering on Birdie, sometimes questioning her actions) even as it tells the story. That narrative element gives the story a different kind of feel from many books where the narrator is removed from the action — and the technique is perfect for the audience (roughly second and third grade readers, and probably more girls than boys. Or am I stereotyping?)

I am not much of a naturally crafty person, although I do love to make and design stuff. I lean towards digital. But when I was a stay-at-home dad with my boys, we did crafts quite a bit, and I learned all about getting messy with glue sticks, stickers, pipe cleaners, glitter and more.

One thing I love here in Crafty Cat is how Harper provides pages of “how to” craft ideas at the end of the book. This allows readers to make the crafts — like Monster Headbands, for example — that Birdie makes in the book. We could all use more “making time” in our lives, right?

Peace (craft it with love),

Book Review: The Urban Sketchbook

I’m still trying to learn more about sketching. Recently, I took a break from writing for a week to do sketching from my couch, and I found it very enjoyable.

I am still not confident or comfortable with myself as a visual artist — I find myself falling back to words and text to understand and view the world — but I want to become better at sketching. I am interested in how different media forces you to have a different kind of perspective, and how different art changes the way we tell stories to each other (and ourselves).

So, of course, when I saw this book– The Urban Sketchbook — on the shelves of our public library, I had to grab it, take it home and peruse what was inside. If I had any doubts, the tagline on the cover had me before page one: Get Out. Walk. Observe. Draw. Lose Yourself. Create.

First of all, I didn’t even know that Urban Sketching was a thing. Of course, it’s a thing. Folks organize and gather together with sketchbooks in urban centers all over the globe and head out to the streets and city blocks to find scenes to sketch, some of which may be turned into more formal art. Most will not. Most of the art will remain in the books. There’s an informal warmth to sketching.

This book, a collection of ideas and resources by writer/illustrator Sergi Camara, is a fine introduction, touching on tools of the trade, the reasons why people sketch, the impact of social media on sketchbooks and collaboration, and more. There’s even an interesting introduction to the history of sketching.

I felt a bit like an outsider here, but the text and images and examples of sketching was very inviting, and I didn’t feel as intimidated by the art as I thought I might be.

I don’t live in an urban area. That didn’t matter. Carmara’s book gave me ideas on how one might view the world from different angles, with an eye for colors and lines and shapes and contours.

I’m still learning.

Peace (looks like that),


Letters to a Young Writer (A Review and An Interpretation)

Novelist (and teacher) Colum McCann (whose Let the Great World Spin was an excellent book) has put out a small tome entitled Letters to a Young Writer, in which he distills some of his teaching and advice to writers who are about to venture, or are already there, in to the world of stories.

His most consistent and best advice: Put your arse in the chair and write write write!

Along with that bit of truth, McCann circles the wagons on the power of words — in fact, he relegates worrying about plot to the second tier of writing, and instead, he celebrates how writers use language to uncover the world. His rebalancing here had me wondering about how I teach my young writers about stories, where I find my focus on plot and structure to be important. Maybe I don’t let them play with language nearly enough.

The book weaves through topics such as editing and revision, and getting unstuck, about observing the world with notebook in hand and how to use your red pen to remove unnecessary baggage from your writing, and what to do when you stare at a blank page. He acknowledges the discouragement of rejection of writing, and cheers on those who persevere. He’s funny, and thoughtful, and knows that true writers have the unrelenting urge to write, as something intangible in the heart.

I found his first chapter and his last chapter most moving here, as he captures all of the ways writers interact and make sense of the world, and themselves — and therefore, others, too. His short sentences in these chapters play like a poem, digging deep into the heart and soul of writing.

It was worth a remix of sorts, so here are pieces of the first chapter, as digital interpretation:

I might still do something else with the last chapter, where he widens his focus to the role of the writer in the larger world.

Peace (get your arse there),