Peace (in lit),
There are many things to like about an educational conference like NCTE. Sure, the collaboration and sense of community, and shared knowledge and expertise is all wonderful. But there is also … the free books that publishers hand out in the Exhibition Hall, and this year, my wife and I took home many, many bags of free books (we drove this year so we just kept dragging bags to the car). Plus, we got a few bookmark packs, tattoes, and even a “graphic story” builder pack.
My students will love perusing the pile.
Peace (on the pages),
My wife came home from a Librarian’s Convention with the observation that publishers have now gone completely overboard on non-fiction books. I suppose that is the case (thanks, Common Core!). It’s not a bad thing to have some solid non-fiction but her impression is that good fiction titles have suffered as a result.
I Am George Lucas is part of that growing non-fiction trend aimed at elementary students. Particularly, boys. The biography (not autobiography, oddly enough, given the title, which is misleading. While Lucas provides a quick opening introduction, the rest of this short book is a standard biographical account of Lucas) is a quick read, aimed at third and fourth graders. There’s not a lot of meat in these bones, so to speak.
But for those interested in the life of the man who envisioned Star Wars and Indiana Jones and a few other classic movies (I’m not sure American Graffiti will ring in the heads of young readers), this book does the trick of hitting the key moments of Lucas’ life, growing up with no real focus until college, when he realized that he wanted to make movies. We see his partnerships with Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and others, that opened doors for Lucas that would otherwise have been shut.
You come away from the book with a sense of not only the vision of Lucas but also the drive and courage to stand up to Hollywood at times (he could have used some more outside voices for editing the most recent batch of Star Wars movies, in my mind, but critical views of his movies are almost nonexistent here). I like that they show how Lucas is using his wealth to push filmmaking forward and his work around philanthropic issues, such as education.
I am George Lucas is not a classic, but it is readable and informative.
Peace (in space),
I have a mixed view of James Patterson. It seems to me that sometimes he mails it in and given his output as a writer, who can blame him? But the cover to Treasure Hunters (created with illustrator Chris Grabenstein) caught my eye as I was searching for a read aloud for my 9 year old son. In the style of Patterson’s Middle School series of illustrated novels, Treasure Hunters is a fine adventurous ride that my son and I both enjoyed.
The story is about a family who lives on a boat and makes their way as a hunters of lost treasure at sea. It opens with a storm, and the father being lost, and then we learn that the mom had been kidnapped by terrorists, and so it is up to the four kids (or Kidds, as the family name goes) to continue with the treasure and hopefully, find dad still alive and maybe even rescue mom. Along the way, the four siblings meet pirates of all kinds of ilk, rub up against secret agents, discover and lose and then rediscover the Greciun Urn that inspired Keats, and learn a few surprising things about their mom and dad.
The pace is quick and the story is finely illustrated, with great humor and suspense. The chapters are short, but most end with a cliffhanger that had my son forcing me to “keep reading” each time I tried to stop. Patterson’s talent for telling stories is on display here, even if the characters are a bit one-dimensional. But with a title like Treasure Hunters, you don’t go there for the depth of the characters — you go there for the spirit of adventures, and this book delivers nicely.
Peace (on the oceans),
I am writing fairly regularly over at MiddleWeb these days and I like to point folks to what I have been up to lately.
If you have time, check out the review I did for the new book, Finding the Heart of Non-Fiction by Georgia Heard. I really enjoyed this book, on a few levels (including the production values of the book itself).
And I just added a new blog post about teaching the reading and writing of diagrams with my sixth graders. Check out how I went about this teaching of visual literacy and what they were learning, and why.
Peace (on the web),
I’m sorry to say this, but even knowing the story of The Titan’s Curse (part of the Lightning Thief series by Rick Riordan), this graphic novel version of that novel is a confusing, narrative mess. If you never read the book … well, let me just say that it is unlikely you would have made it to the end of this graphic novel version. Which is too bad. The Titan’s Curse is a good story, with the introduction of Nico diAngelo and the emergence of goddess Artemis as a force to be reckoned with, and the start of the hunt for lost god, Pan, by Grover.
But this graphic version of that story has few narrative anchors to let the reader know what is even going on. Sure, the visuals and illustrations are fantastic. You can see a lot of effort and creativity went into the art production of the book. If only some of those production costs were siphoned off to make the story flow and readable, but I fear that is not really the case here. The writing gets way short thrift to the artwork.
What’s interesting is that they probably could have fixed this problem with a few conveniently placed text boxes, bringing the reader up to speed on the sections and scenes. Instead, we jump from scene to scene with very little glue to hold the story together, and some of the characters — who are clearly defined in the novel — look so much like each other, so figuring out which one is Thalia and which one is Bianca, etc., requires more effort by the reader than should be expected. Particularly if your audience is middle school readers, which this is.
I’m all for challenging texts — and for graphic novelists using the parameters of the canvas to tell a story in a different way — but give me a chance to comprehend what I am reading. This version of The Titan’s Curse fails on that account.
Peace (in disappointment),
I’ve just finished up House of Hades with my nine year old son, and like the other books that writer Rick Riordan has put out in his Heroes of Olympus series, the sense of action, intrigue and adventure fuels the tales of Percy Jackson and his demigod friends as they seek yet again to save the world. This time, the mission is to close the Doors of Death in Tartarus before the Earth goddess Gaia arises and destroys the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, and anyone associated with either.
There’s a predictability to the books that I have come to expect: the demigod youths split up, set off on different missions, come close to death, find impossible tasks, figure out a way to persevere, and then accomplish what they need to accomplish, come back together as a team, and plan for the next mission which will require them to split up (in the next book). There’s enough action and adventure in House of Hades, though, that I don’t mind, and my son doesn’t care — maybe he likes that predictability — because he is so attuned to the action going on in the story.
I’m more intrigued with a few of the minor characters that Riordan has developed over the course of the last few books in this Heroes of Olympus series. Sure, there is Percy Jackson — the anchor of Riordan’s books – and Annabeth, of whom I have written about before, and Jason (son of Pluto) and more. But four characters that I have enjoyed watching develop slowly are:
Overall, House of Hades finds a solid place in the Heroes of Olympus series, and as my son turned to the back pages of the book, he found what he was looking for. The next book — The Blood of Olympus – comes out in the fall of 2014. We’ll be waiting.
Peace (in the myth),
I have to admit: I was somewhat familiar with the making of the first Atomic Bomb but I did not know how much spying, sleuthing and Cold War calculations went into the push during World War II to build the bomb that forever changed the world after the United States dropped the results of scientific discovery on Japan. Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin came to me for free from the Scholastic Book Club (thank you!) just as a colleague was asking me if I had ever read the book.
That is enough of a kismet moment for me to read something. This oversized book for upper middle and high school students has a fast-paced narrative that begins with the discovery of a Soviet spy in our midst and ends with both regret and relief that the Atomic Bomb did what it was meant to do — end World War II. It also began the arms race that has forever put the entire world on edge, even as the Cold War thawed. Look to Iran and North Korea, and Pakistan, and beyond for evidence of how the work at Alamos made us all see the world in a different light.
In Bomb, Sheinkin does not shy away from this lens, although much of the non-fiction narrative is geared towards the race that the American scientists were in against their counterparts in the Soviet Union (ostensible, allies, but not to be trusted) and the Nazi Regime in Germany, where all indications were that Hitler was determined to build and use the first Atomic Bomb. Military efforts to slow down the Germans, kidnap their scientists, and beat them to the bomb, while stalling the Soviets and their own spy networks here in the United States, became a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
Even knowing how the story ends — with hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians killed in an instant and a legacy of fallout and radiation for generations to come — Bomb keeps up the pace, which should help keep readers involved in the story that has significant historical value, of only to question science in the corner of the military apparatuses of governments.
Peace (in the world),
It will be no surprise to readers here that I love comics, particularly comics that treat teaching, learning and writing as fodder for fun. This collection from the comic strip Foxtrot — entitled Math, Science and Unix Underpants — had me laughing up a storm through the house, even in places where the jokes were a little too geeky even for me. If you don’t read Foxtrot, by Bill Amend, the stories center on the family that includes a younger brother who is whiz at math and science and technology. He’s the kid who looks forward to that difficult math test and who hacks the family computer (the iFruit) on a regular basis.
There is no connected story theme to this collection, other than plenty of guffaws around science experiments gone awry, math problems as inspiration for mayhem, and computer nerdiness galore. The comics here stretch back years, so there are some outdated jokes about outdated technology. I didn’t mind. For me, it was enough to be laughing out loud. I am actually going to photocopy a bunch of these gems for my classroom.
You can even find this collection on Google Books now. How cool and nerdy is that?
Peace (in the frames),
This book by Mary Amato must have been written for someone like me. I am a huge sucker for novels that have a musical theme weaving into the story line, and Guitar Notes is all about the friendship between two high school students dealing with the pressures of life. The guitar notes of the title has a double meaning — not only is it the music that Tripp and Lyla begin to write together but it is the series of notes they leave for each other in the school music room as they begin to develop a deep friendship through the story.
Tripp is a sarcastic child whose mother has taken away his one treasured possession — his guitar — until he gets his grades back up. Unfortunately, he is still dealing with the loss of his father. Lyla is the perfect child, whose cello playing prowess comes from her mother, another parent who has died in the near past, leaving Lyla in the shadows of her mother’s musical legacy. A shared practice space in the music wing of their school — Tripp has the room on odd days, Lyla on even days, and he becomes Mr. Odd and she, Ms. Even — brings these two together.
There is a surprising, emotional twist near the end that almost had me in tears as I was reading quietly next to my son. If you believe in the power of music to heal and connect, then read this book. If you don’t, well, read this book, too. At one point, Lyla and Tripp as talking about songwriting as a means of understanding the world.
“I used to think that in order to write a song, I’d have to hear it in my head, and then I’d sit down with a pen and write it out in notation,” Lyla said, after Tripp has inspired her to pick up the guitar to write songs, “But your way, of just playing until you find something by accident, makes a lot of more sense. It’s like every song is a series of accidents.” (p. 154)
And Tripp has what he calls his Thrum Theory — that people are connected on deeper levels than they know.
“I think every soul vibrates at a certain frequency,” Tripp tells Lyla. “It’s sort of like each soul has a sound that is its signature — and your soul wants to feel the vibrations of this sound. I think the vibrations of my soul and the vibrations of this guitar match each other, which is why it feels so right for me to play it.” (p.206)
I mean, that is beautiful, right? I loved this book, Guitar Notes, and highly recommend it.
And, the songs that Tripp and Lyla write? The lyrics are in the back of the book and Mary Amato has recorded the songs, too.
Check out this video as she explains the process of writing and recording and sharing out the songs.
Peace (in the resonance),