Graphic Novel Review: March (Book One)

I know a bit about John Lewis just from my various readings about the Civil Rights, and even into the modern day. Lewis is one of those who led the floor fight on gun control this past year. But this first in a series of biographical graphic novels about John Lewis’ life, called March, was a powerful reminder of why change was needed in our country to end legal segregation and how brave the people were who fought for those changes.

Lewis, who remains an influential Congressman in the United States House of Representatives, was at the forefront of student demonstrations in Nashville and communities around the South, particularly as part of the protests to test the limits of the Jim Crow laws at lunch counters.

The overarching narrative of this series of graphic novels is the March on Selma, but this first book is more about Lewis as a young man, growing up on a farm and beginning to not just notice the racial injustice of the world. He also begins to see his won part in bringing it to an end. Or at least, trying to.

March (Book One) is a powerful story, written well and drawn in black and white ink. I’d be tempted to bring this in as part of our work around Civil Rights with our reading of The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 but some of the language in this graphic novel has me a little antsy about that for my white, suburban classroom of sixth graders. Instead, I might pick and choose some sections, particularly where it connects to the lunch counter protests and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which gets references in some of the primary source materials we read in class around the Civil Rights Movement.

I since read the second March book (I believe a third is just out) and found it just as engaging, if not more, than the first book. Even though I know how the Selma March ends and how its legacy ripples into the present, I am curious to go deeper into John Lewis’ story, to better understand the man and his deeds, and the fabric of our country.

Peace (let it be so),
Kevin

Book Review: The Black Reckoning

(This review has been in my draft bin since Spring)

Now, this is how you write the last of a trilogy. John Stephens began this story of three siblings and three books of magic with The Emerald Atlas, which my son and I read and were hooked, and the series has now come to a close with The Black Reckoning.  In between, there was The Fire Chronicle. The series is called The Books of Beginning, due to the mythology of the three books themselves — one of which transports people through time; another of which brings people back from death; and the third, which is the center of the last book, gives power to the Keeper over the Land of the Dead.

While there are so many echoes of other stories here — from Harry Potter to The Lightning Thief and beyond — Stephens keeps the narrative fresh and fast-moving, spending ample time on the development of characters — the three children: Kate, Michael an Emma. All are changed by the experiences of the books and Stephens brings the story to a satisfying close with a few twists in the end to keep it from becoming too predictable.

If you have readers looking for an adventure, get them started on The Emerald Atlas. They will surely be hooked for the trilogy. I have a student waiting, somewhat impatiently, for me to finish The Black Reckoning so he can dive in to the story. He’ll be happy to see me today.

Peace (in the story),
Kevin

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Just imagine about the boatloads of young readers this summer sitting down to read … a full-length play. That’s the text format of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the latest story set in J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry. I am both pleased with the decision to use the drama/theater format, and also, I am a bit worried that it will turn kids off from the book (my son started it and stopped, saying he didn’t want to read a play).

Still, the book is a great opportunity to expose readers to the ways in which live productions are created (the book is script to the play now on stage, and is labelled Special Rehearsal Edition Script) and written, and sustaining the story throughout an entire book-length play forces the reader to imagine the stage itself, with actors and props and effects. I know many of us do this with novels, too, but here, it is explicit, with stage direction as text.

Does the story hold up?

Sort of. The beginning feels a bit slow, with many familiar themes emerging, as Harry and Ginny are now parents, and one of their boys, Albus Severus Potter, is off to Hogwarts. Albus feels different from the family, and finds a friend in Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy.

The two boys get themselves into a world of trouble soon enough, and the return of Voldemort might be imminent, as a result. I won’t go into the story too much, so as not to ruin it, but suffice it to say that the second half of the book found its footing and was quite entertaining, I think, as it broke away from echoes of the past Harry Potter tales.

As a father, I was particularly attuned to the tension that Harry feels with Albus, and the difficulties that the son and father have with each other, acknowledging the imperfect resolution of their relationship at the end of the story. I’m not sure how much that theme will resonate with young readers. One never knows.

This new book doesn’t quite match the storytelling flair of other books in the series, in my opinion, but then, that probably wasn’t the intention of publishing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as a play in the first place. In fact, Rowling is not even the listed playwright (that would be Jack Thorne). Instead, the book is “based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling,” although she clearly was integral to the development of the project (as noted by her presence in the back pages of the book). This fact is listed in huge letters on the cover, so the publisher was not trying to pull one over on the audience.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is worth the read, if you come in with realistic expectations. And who knows? Maybe some readers will use the script and start planning their own productions. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Peace (in all worlds, magical and muggle),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Secret Coders (Paths & Portals)

I found this second book in the Secret Coders graphic novels series by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes more enjoyable than the first, which was fine but felt a bit flat to me. Maybe I needed to know the characters a bit more, and here, in Secret Coders: Paths & Portals, the characters and story get more developed.

As with the first book in this series, the story integrates Logo programming language, as the protagonists — Hopper, Eni and Josh — discover a portal to an underground “school” beneath their existing school (Stately Academy), and the place is full of programmable “turtles.” The school janitor is actually the professor of this Bee School, now closed but once a fertile space for young people to learn computer programming.

The story revolves around the kids learning about programming, and making the turtles do some tasks, as the principal of the regular school uses the Rugby team to steal a turtle and discover what the kids and the janitor/professor are really up to. At the end of each section, the reader is asked to consider some simple programming logic before moving onward.

There’s always the danger in books like Secret Coders that the “teaching” will get in the way of the “story,” but the writers’ sense of humor and lively illustrations provide a nice balance. Yes, you learn some basics of Logo programming. But not at the expense of an entertaining read. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in the Secret Coders books, and wonder where I can get my own Secret Coders t-shirt that the kids rock in the book!

Peace (code it for all),
Kevin

At Middleweb: Assessing Student Digital Writing

I posted a book review over at Middleweb that explores the difficult terrain of assessing student digital writing. It’s an area I know I continue to struggle with. This book — edited by National Writing Project colleague Troy Hicks and featuring a number of National Writing Project educators — seeks to show a variety of paths (via protocols) to look at digital writing, mostly from the view of process of creating as opposed to evaluation of the final product.

Read my review of Assessing Students’ Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely

Peace (we’re all looking),
Kevin

Book Review: Inventology

My wife picked up an advanced copy of Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World by Pagan Kennedy at a conference for librarians (you should see the bags of books she brought home), and I was intrigued. I was quickly sucked into Kennedy’s interesting exploration of how inventions come to invent, and how their creative visions of the world, particularly imagining the future, help pave the way for progress through tinkering.

Kennedy explores through stories many inventions, but she also takes a step back to provide the larger picture of how ideas come to be, from the synergy of crowds feeding off shared ideas, to solving problems that aren’t even problems yet, to random discoveries by inventors with attentive vision, to the ways that education and political systems can encourage or discourage the fertile minds of inventors.

My big take-away is that we need to do more to give people — I am thinking of students — the possibilities for exploration on their own terms, and anticipate that there just might not be immediate results or maybe they will never get results. Most invention ideas go nowhere in the short run, but sometimes, those nowhere ideas lead to something else, and then …. who knows. It might lead to an idea that can change the world.

Inventology is worth a look for anyone interested in the mindset of inventors, and also, for anyone wondering how to set the stage for the next generation of inventors. The question of how we, as teachers, give that kind of creative space to students in this era of standardized learning and testing is a critical one, but I see gains in Maker Spaces in libraries and engineering programs in elementary schools and more.

The next leap forward is probably already underway …

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Book Review: The State of Play (Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture)

“… video games are a complex and rapidly evolving form, where different qualities intertwine and influence each other in subtle, often surprising ways. A progress, critical approach to games and their place in culture does not preclude the appreciation of them as the rich and wonderful pieces of entertainment they are. But if our understanding of them is to move beyond the simple escapism, games must be held up to the same standards and allowed the same scrutiny as any other form of creative expression. “ — Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, editors, from introduction to The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture

This rather uneven collection of essays — The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture — is nonetheless an important look at how video game culture reflects both the good and the bad of this still-emerging form of popular culture entertainment. Tackling topics like Gamergate head on and exploring issue of gender and race, the writers here go deep with insights. And many of them are game developers themselves, as the subtitle suggests, and so, reading their insights from the other side of the console, so to speak, is an intriguing element of The State of Play.

One of the more intriguing essays here is from Hussein Ibrahim, whose piece entitled “What It’s Like to Always Play the Bad Guy: On the Portrayal of Arabs in Online Shooters” does what it says — it gives Ibrahim a platform to explore the culture of video game design that always seems to pit denizens of the Middle East as the enemy terrorist with guns and bombs.

“The problem is, the ‘authenticity’ (of games like Medal of Honor) is only on one side. As an American, you get to relate to the hero defending his country from terrorists threatening your freedom. As an Arab, you get to relate to the guy who wants to blow up your city, and that’s all,” Ibrahim writes. “Often, it seem more time is spent making sure the guns in the game are authentic than on accurately representing the culture I belong to.”

Interestingly, Ibrahim plays those very games, and finds himself feeling “Indifferent (about the portrayal), which is unsettling.” He then notes an event in which someone noticed a map in Modern Warfare had a saying from Allah hanging in a virtual bathroom. An uproar ensued among Middle East gamers (Ibrahim says there are “several million” players of the franchise in the Middle East) and the map was later revised, the Allah engraving removed. He wonders why this event (the engraving) caused more uproar than how Arabs are used as villains.

“… I guess we have all grown a little numb,” he notes.

Another interesting essay — “A Game I Had to Make” by developer Zoe Quinn — explores a game designer’s quest to make a game for themselves, to understand a confusing world. In this case, the game in question — Depression Quest — is designed to help a player deal with depression. Writing in second person, Quinn tracks the development of the game and the release into the world. She never expected the kind of splash her game received.

“You have inadvertently become a beacon for the cause of depression,” Quinn writes. “A massive conversation has begun around the game, sometimes positive, sometimes negative … you’re happy that a lot of people feel like they can talk about this enormous, invisible thing (depression) they have always been unsure of in the public eye.”

In “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird,” Ian Bogost explores how such a simple app game became so popular (before the developer, overwhelmed by the success, pulled the game from the Apple App store). Bogust’s exploration of game design, and the ways in which Flappy Bird both ignored and followed the “rules” is intriguing, particularly when he dips into how games reflect culture, and vice versa.

“In game design circles,” Bogost writes, “we sometimes wax poetic about the elegance and simplicity of a design, the way complex emergent behaviors arise from simple rules and structures … The best games are not for us (or for anyone), but instead strive to be what they are as much possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.”

The State of Play is a needed book, in that it steps back from video games and examines the ways in which culture and gaming are meshed together, warts and all. NOTE: there are some themes and language in here that might not be appropriate for classrooms, so you might want to read it first before bringing it in for students to read or use.

Peace (beyond the game),
Kevin

Book Review: The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

 

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

It’s not easy to bring a sprawling, creative series of books that bustle and brim with incredible doses of imagination to a close.

But Catherynne M. Valente does a pretty decent job with The Girl Who Raced Fairlyland All the Way HomeSuffice it to say that if I tried to summarize the plot here, you would be completely confused (I’m not sure exactly what happened all the time, either) but the gist of the book is that the protagonist, September, does indeed find a sort of “home” by the end of this book, which began many books ago with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

September has become Queen of Fairyland, and in order to keep her crown, she must go off on a race and find the Heart of Fairyland in order to keep her crown. All other past royals who ruled Fairyland (including a quite happy talking Stone) want to regain the crown, too, and duels and mishaps happen. The race is called The Cantankerous Derby, and that it is.

What strikes me is how true Valente has stayed to her vision of Fairyland and imagination itself, and how every page in every book in the series provides the reader with places to pull the fabric of reality aside, to see another world of strange creatures and odd ideas, and September trying to figure out her place in one world while hoping to return, and then leave, the other world.

As always, the language in this last book in the series is challenging and interesting, as Valente writes like no other writer in the young adult market that I have come across. It’s not just the vocabulary. It’s syntax and sentence structure, and the periodic way the narrator is suddenly there, right by the reader’s side, giving advice and inserting herself into the story. It all works together like a magic reading spell.

I was hooked from the first book, but I know this series is probably not for everyone. Maybe hidden worlds are not made for everyone. Maybe only some readers can enter through those passageways. Good luck, Rachel.

Peace (there and back),
Kevin

Book Review: The Trials of Apollo (Hidden Oracle)

Well, Rick Riordan is at it again, taking on mythology to weave a story of action and adventure. And he succeeds again at spinning a solid story (and start to a yet another new series of books) with The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle. If the title isn’t self-evident, the god Apollo has been cast down to Earth as a mortal by Zeus, and he must earn his godhood back by performing heroic deeds.

If you like Percy Jackson and all of the other Riordan books about Greek, Roman, Egypt and Norse mythology, then you are sure to enjoy this one. I’ve had a handful of students loving the book, and as a read-aloud book with my son, I enjoyed it for what it is. I’m finding the narrative voice of his characters a little too much the same, but that’s my own critical reading, I guess.

Actually, I don’t want to review the story here. Rather, I want to note a subversive element that Riordan is working into his stories these days. Let’s note that, in my estimation, the target audience for these books is probably nine year olds to 13 year olds.

The subversive element (which perhaps is the wrong choice of words) that I am noticing began with Nico di Angelo, the son of Hades, in the Heroes of Olympus series, and continues with Apollo in this one. Riordan is making visible the gay sexuality of some of his characters, and while it did not make me or my son uncomfortable (if you knew the community we live in, you’d know why … diverse families are part of the fabric of our city), it did strike me as a daring move by Riordan, given the size of his youthful audience.

Now, let me be clear. There is nothing risque about what Riordan is doing. In fact, there is a tenderness to it. And Riordan does not make a big deal out of Nico being a gay character in this story (in an earlier book, we learn that that he had a crush on Percy Jackson). But here, Nico has a male partner (Will) in Camp Half-Blood. The two hold hands and show love openly. And Apollo, as Gods are oft to do, is clearly bisexual. He has loved and cast away female loves of the past as much as male loves of the past, and those memories haunt him.

In particular, Apollo recalls multiples times in the novel how Hyacinth was one of his “true loves.” Apollo regrets how his own jealous actions led to Hyacinth’s brutal death, and how the flowers he created from Hyacinth’s spilled blood is a reminder of that love between God and man.

Now, Riordan could have ignored this sexuality element of Apollo’s mythology, but he hasn’t. I can only imagine the discussions going on with publishers. I may be wrong. Perhaps the turning tide of acceptance makes this homosexuality element a non-discussion point.

But I doubt it.

I admire that Riordan has not flinched from that part of the mythological stories, particularly in these controversial days of awareness of gay rights and equality. Still, I can’t help but think that some parents (and maybe teachers, even), if they bother to read what their kids are reading (as many are no doubt reading Riordan on a regular basis), might feel different about the move, given the conversative political and strict religious views of parts of the country.

I remain hopeful that the storylines will spark a discussion that can lead to understanding of lifestyles. Maybe a young reader, confused about their own sexuality, will see themselves in the story and find a path forward themselves. It may take writers like Riordan to plant seeds of compassion in young readers with literature, and the flowers may yet bloom in years to come. Adults are always more difficult.

Peace (is not a myth),
Kevin

Book Review: The Perfection of the Paper Clip

Here’s a book that will force you to look at all of the odds and ends on your cluttered desktop (sorry, I am sure yours is nice and tidy but mine rarely is) and wonder about the stories behind the objects that we use everyday with a single thought as to their origin: the paper clip, staplers, Scotch tape, Post-it sticky notes and more. The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius and Stationery Obsession by James Ward is a delightful romp through the mundane elements of the office, and while sometimes the chapters feel a bit too obsessive (look, the title gives you fair warning, right?), the uncovering of the stories is impressive and intriguing.

The book is rich with Ward’s humorous take on life (he runs the Boring Conference … which seems intriguing in its own way, right?) on the objects we often take for granted, and plays up the spoils of competition among inventors and manufacturers.

Actually, I found the opening chapters about the invention of the “pen” itself, and all of its various evolving natures over time (from quill to ball-point to space pen and beyond) to be rather fascinating, for some reasons. Maybe it is the hold-out for tactile writing elements or maybe it is the unending drive by engineers to keep perfecting an object even as they try to find a market to buy what they are inventing.

The Perfection of the Paper Clip is a nifty ride through the objects on your desk. You’ll never staple a paper, write a note to a lover, tape that ripped letter back together or file things away in that filing cabinet again without some story coming to mind. It’s already happening to me.

Peace (in the stick of the story),
Kevin