Book Review: Al Capone Does My Homework

We were about five chapters into the third “A Tale from Alcatraz” book by author Gennifer Choldenko when my son announced that “this might be one of those books I want to read myself.” In other words, our read-aloud pace for Al Capone Does My Homework was not keeping up with his interest, and he wanted to know what happened with Moose Flanagan and his family and friends on the prison island of Alcatraz.

One one hand, I am always happy to put another book into his hands. At 12 years old, he is still an avid reader and I want to keep it that way. On the other hand, I too was deep into the story and knew I would miss the read-aloud experience (not to worry, we have a stack of read-alouds ready to go). He took it, read it in a night, and gave it to me, and then I read it over the course of two or three weeks (in-between some other books).

Once again, Choldenko does a marvelous job of creating a story that goes deeper than you first expect, as the story revolves around arson, youth pressure, family (including his older sister, Natalie, whose autism is treated with honesty and compassion by the writer), and the strangeness of living on an island full of the most notorious prisoners in the US system at the time of the setting. (Moose’s father is a warden for the Alcatraz prison).

Capone is mostly in the background here, but his presence is felt, rumbling at the edges of the story. Moose and Natalie and his friends are skillfully constructed by Choldenko, and my son and I will keep our eyes out for a fourth book, if it ever comes.

Peace (on the island of the world),
Kevin

At Middleweb: Empowering Students as Digital Leaders

My latest column over at Middleweb is an interview with Jennifer Casa-Todd, whose new book — Social LEADia — closely examines ways in which technology and social media can help empower young people in the larger world on issues that matter to them. The book has many short profiles of young people doing pretty amazing things, and Casa-Todd helps explain how teachers can help foster those shifts.

Read the piece at Middleweb

Peace (and change),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Refugee

I picked up Refugee by Alan Gratz with an eye towards my sixth graders (my seventh-grade son read it before I did), and I quickly found my heart and mind tumbling into the uncertainty of the three characters here as they each navigated an escape from their homeland. I teared up at the end, too, when Gratz effectively pulls all three story threads together in a way that I won’t give away in this review.

You need to read this book.

Refugee focuses on three stories: a Jewish boy escaping Nazi Germany, a young girl leaving Cuba for the United States as part of one of Castro’s boat-lifts, and a Muslim boy trying to make his way to Germany after his country of Syria has been reduced to rubbles by the current Civil War. Each story, from a different time. But the narrative arcs that Gratz spins brings each character’s story closer and closer to each other.

The terror, the uncertainty, the fear, the setbacks, the dangers, the hope … the reader experiences and lives all of these emotional entanglements through the eyes of these three characters, so much so that I am not sure I can use Refugee as a class novel, as I had hoped when I started the book. The brutality of the Nazis, in particular, is too intense. Gratz doesn’t pull punches. I don’t think I am being too protective of my sixth graders, although I wonder how much of the ugly world I should expose them to.  The world is ugly, after all. I’m never completely certain how far to go, to be honest.

I really appreciated what comes after the end of the novel, in his author’s note section, where Gratz shows the three maps of the three journeys of his refugee characters, and then he writes for a few pages about his research and where the stories emerged from, in regards to the world — in both the past and the present. He then goes on to share some organizations that help refugee children in the world, using the book as a platform for reaching out.

All in all, this book is amazingly powerful, and its narrative arcs and sympathetic characters will pull you deep into the experience beyond the newspaper headlines. It does what a good book should do: transforms your view of the world, and leaves you with some hope amid the horror.

Did I mention you should read this book?

Peace (let it be),
Kevin

Book Review: The Quest to the Uncharted Lands

After reading The Mark of the Dragonfly and The Secrets of Solace, and loving both, I was all gung-ho to read aloud The Quest to the Uncharted Lands to my son. All three books are set in the same imaginary world of Solace. We started to read Quest in summer, got about a third of the way through, and there it sat for weeks and weeks. He wasn’t all that interested. I couldn’t believe it — Jaleigh Johnson is a solid writer, creating imaginary worlds and stories that connect with each other in interesting ways, and you can sense her love of inventing gaming-style worlds — so I kept asking, Can I read now?

No, he kept saying. Not now.

Finally, I gave up (sigh) and said if he wasn’t going to listen to the story, I was going to read it myself. OK, he replied (I think he was worried he was hurting my feelings), and yesterday, I finally had time to devour the rest of the book, and again, I was deeply immersed in the world that Johnson has created in her literary imagination. Most of all, and the reason I keep coming back, is that her characters are so alive in this fictional world.

This third story is an adventure story with a strong girl protagonist (Stella Glass) who sneaks onto an airship about to explore uncharted lands beyond the mountains. On board, she meets another hidden child, a boy (not quite a boy) named Cyrus, who is trying to return to his own lands beyond the mountains and has the ability to save the ship from storms and from sabotage. For someone on board is intent on destroying the ship before it crosses the mountains.

The story races ahead with action, adventure, intrigue and never loses sight of its characters. The Quest to the Uncharted Lands is definitely a book I can put into the hands of my sixth graders, and although the other two books are somewhat connected, there is no need to read them in any order. I suspect Johnson has some grander design here (or is that my hopeful reading?), but you can enjoy each book on its own.

I love her map at the start of each book, and I was intrigued by a post on Johnson’s site about where she writes about the landscape and where inspirations for her world came from. This map of Solace has been expanded west in the new book.

As for my son, I worry that the female protagonist turned him off. He denies this. Maybe he just isn’t up for fantasy adventures, or the story itself didn’t connect with him. We just got Rick Riordan’s new Magnus Chase book in the mail this week, and he has indicated he wants me to read it aloud to him. He’s a boy at age 13, so this is still a huge thing — letting your dad read aloud to you. So I am holding on to the ability to do so as long as possible, as we head off on another adventure together.

Peace (on an adventure),
Kevin

Book Review: The Playbook (52 Rules to Aim, Shoot and Score in this Game Called Life)

Sports can be a common metaphor for life. Eh, I mean, Life. Just look at how the late writer Frank Deford carved out this niche for decades, with his essays that used sports as the hook for writing about something much larger than the “play of the day.”

Writer Kwame Alexander’s The Playbook (52 Rules to Aim, Shoot and Score in this Game Called Life) explores that terrain with gusto and brilliance and high energy, combining his own narrative story as a young athlete (his game was tennis) with his poetry on themes such as perseverance and resilience, teamwork, character and more.

Interspersed with Alexander’s narrative and poetry are quotes from famous athletes — from Michael Jordan to Simone Biles to Andy Roddick, coupled with some pretty interesting images by photographer Thai Neave.

The result is a sort of quilt of ideas, a mishmash of media with a single message on finding yourself in the face of adversity and coming through by working through the barriers of life. As a result, this book is nicely in tune to middle schoolers, particularly those with an interest in sports.

I handed this book to one of my students as soon as I got it. This student has difficulty concentrating but loves sports, and is only vaguely interested in reading novels. He loved this book, though, and thanked me afterwards for lending it to him.

Peace (take a shot),
Kevin

PS —

Book Review: Streampunks (YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media)

Robert Kyncl is no neutral party here. He is one of the executives at YouTube (YouTube Chief Business Officer) so his title of his book has to be taken with a grain of salt (as catchy as it is). Even so, Streampunks (YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media) is an interesting look behind the curtain, a way to see how the Google YouTube corporate structure is working to find new personalities to anchor video watching as people shift away from network television and other traditional media.

I read with a critical eye, as it is easy to see Google as supporting the development of YouTube only to make money off our eyeballs, but I still appreciated Kyncl’s analysis of the transformation of entertainment that has emerged from the notion of anyone can post and publish video, anytime. More and more, we see YouTube personalities making their way into the mainstream (for good or for ill, and Kyncl is open about both, citing PewDiPie’s problems as just one recent example while also noting how Vlog brothers John and Hank Green have used the platform for good in the world).

One pervading message in Streampunks is that more and more of those entertainers hosting their own YouTube Channels are finding niche audiences around the world, giving rise to massive viewership for such interests as watching other people play video games, doing make-up, unboxing packages, and more. It’s another version of the long tail.

The important points that Kyncl raises here is that many of these YouTubers doing this work would never have found a platform on network television or in the movies or in music because they never would have been given a chance (Kyncl’s story of Justin Beiber’s rise is a good example of this as is the reach of Lilly Singh, aka IISuperwomanII), and that YouTube has created a place for cultural representation and communities of interaction between performer and audience. In fact, success on YouTube relies heavily on the personal touch, which video can provide in a way no other media really can.

Kyncl does write pretty honestly about the challenges of such open spaces, too, of ways that trolls bring negativity and how comments can become places of vitriol (when I ask my students about places they have seen the Internet as a negative experience, the overwhelming response is always YouTube comments). He says YouTube needs to do more to reach an even more diverse talent pool, and notes the efforts by YouTube to highlight diversity of personalities and cultures, and seek out new voices.

What I found most intriguing here is his profiles on some of the talent who are earning a solid living off video, and the work ethic those folks put into what they are doing, feeding the audience with new material, engaging always with comments and questions, and nurturing a vision for their material that fills some sort of gap. Kyncl makes it clear that almost no YouTube video comes out of nowhere, and goes viral. Most of those videos now come from a careful long-term plan by the creators, slowly building audiences until something catches with the general public, and then riding that wave to the next level of stardom.

As a teacher, and as a father of sons who dabble in video production, this insider’s look was valuable, as is trying to understand the YouTube phenomenon from an insider like Kyncl, who does have a long-standing vision for streaming video (he helped lead a project at Netflix as it was transitioning to streaming) and putting more opportunities in the hands of everyone (while making a bundle of money in advertising for Google, of course).

I’ll leave you with Kyncl’s book dedication:

To the kid out there filming a video on a smartphone who will one day become the biggest entertainer in the world

Peace (on the air),
Kevin

Book Review: Blind Spot

Some books just pull me and leave me lingering. I’d put Teju Cole’s Blind Spot in that category. A mix of intriguing photographs from different parts of the world, combined with small essays that are inspired by the photographs, or the taking of the photographs, this book by Cole is a wonder to experience.

What struck me most was the construction of the essays, and the way I had to “read” into the photographs to understand the slant that Cole brought to his writing with each small piece. And small, they are. For the most part, the essays are a paragraph or two. The ideas he can pack in just a small bit of writing is amazing, and inspiring, and has me thinking of ways photography might better inspire insightful writing.

There’s no one narrative thread through these pieces (there are more than 150 pieces here), except Cole has an eye for humanity, for struggle, for hidden stories, for a sense of place off the beaten path where life shows itself in different ways. He weaves in personal narrative — an eye injury is part of the underpinning of many of his stories — yet finds balance with the global view.

Some of his sentences are so beautiful, so poignant, they could be framed as art. I had read and enjoyed Cole’s Known and Strange Things, but Blind Spot is very different, on so many levels.

I borrowed Blind Spot from the library, but I am thinking now that this might be one of those books I splurge on at some point and get my own copy. I can see myself returning to these essays and photos from time to time, learning more about how to write, how to use images to see the world, how to explore deeper topics.

Thanks to Terry E for recommending Teju Cole, including Blind Spot, a few months ago …

Peace (goes deep),
Kevin

100 Years From Now … State of the Book

Books (stories) of the Future

I mentioned the other day how I use Book: My Autobiography as a read-aloud with my sixth graders at the start of the year as a way to introduce creative non-fiction and a history lesson around the evolution of stories and books over time.

A writing prompt in their writing notebook afterwards asks them to consider the world 100 years into the future — 2117 — and sketch out and explain some ideas about what stories will look like and/or how stories will get delivered to readers. In other words, what will books be like in 100 years?

The picture above is my example — I envision Tattoo Stories which can be shared and remixed with others.

Stories of Future Collage

My students have a range of ideas, including:

  • Embedded story contact lens for your eyes (and/or wearable glasses that do the same thing)
  • Holographic characters who act out the story in front of you (and other variations of virtual and augmented reality concepts)
  • A device that you sit in and punch in information about protagonist and antagonist character traits, and a story gets created into some form, in the moment
  • Books and stories that float nearby, and move along with you as you walk around, so you always have new stories in reach
  • Story microchips inserted into your mind so that you can active a tale at any time
  • Portable personal libraries that appear when you need a book from the shelves and disappear when you don’t need it
  • Foldable books that can easily — no matter the size — fit into the corner of your pocket
  • Story cars, busses and trucks — the entire vehicle is a moving story of some sort and the driver is the reader

Who knows. I suspect we will still have good ol’ book with us, too. I hope so.

Peace (thinking forward),
Kevin

Stealing/Borrowing/Remixing Music

I spent part of the other morning re-reading a comic book from Duke University that resonates with my own interests around music, composition and remix.

Entitled Theft: A History of Music, the book explores copyright law and music composition through the ages. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. The book weaves in lots of humor and visual creativity as it shows the path of “borrowing” other people’s music for remix over time.

What’s great is the book is free for download, or for reading online. You can also purchase a copy, but the intent of the university’s Center for the Study of Public Domain is to educate the public, so the book is free for educational purposes.

What becomes clear pretty quickly is how much we always have borrowed from each other, and how legal codes over time have moved to protect the original artists even as those codes tried to balance the possibilities of moving art in new directions. This is the conundrum of the current musical scene, where hip hop artists build new songs out of samples of old songs. Or used to. Now, it costs a lot of money to do that, with lawyers jumping all over the samples.

This is not necessarily a bad thing — it is forcing rappers and others to hire musicians who can play instruments (listen to Kendrick Lamar) or learning themselves how to play (listen to D’Angelo) so that they are making all of the music. But that has changed the nature of hip-hop, too. It’s all very intriguing, I think.

I appreciated this history lessons here and I need to come back to Theft for a second, deeper read. I think I need to get it into my Kindle for a better reading experience, though.

The book may not be good for my classroom — the vocabulary and concepts are beyond the sixth grade — but I can see pulling out some pages for times when we talk about digital writing and remix in the classroom, and how the current music scene is just a glimpse of the debate that has been raging since Plato’s time (he argued against remix).

Peace (in frames),
Kevin