Book Review: Hatching Twitter

I still remember the first time that someone tried to explain Twitter to me. It was Bud Hunt (aka Bud the Teacher), and he was visiting Western Massachusetts for the National Writing Project. We were all at dinner in Amherst and he started to talk up Twitter, which had only just launched from the ashes of the Odeo podcasting site. Bud talked about it as best as he could, and admitted he was struggling to explain why Twitter mattered. But he predicted tweeting would take hold and it would be important to teachers as a way to network and share resources.

So it is. Just the other night, I stumbled into the #Engchat conversation on Twitter (where Brian Kelly was hosting a conversation about using audio in the classroom and “writing for the ear”) and for the next 30 minutes, I was hooked into sharing and exploration of voice and audio with a boatload of other teachers around the world, expanding my knowledge and never leaving my home. It was more valuable than many elements of formal PD I have sat through over the years.

I thought back to Bud’s dinner table talk as I read Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal by reporter Nick Bilton. The story of Twitter has many twists and yes, many betrayals of friendship, as the platform moved into the mainstream from start-up mode. Bilton did extensive research and hours of interviews to get into the moment of Twitter’s emergence as a media powerhouse. Twitter began as an offshoot of Odeo, which I remember using as an early podcasting site, and grew up into something still emerging, right?

What struck me is how important the “creation myth” of Twitter became to the four founders of Twitter (Evan Williams, Noah Glass, Jack Dorsey, and Biz Stone). Each in their own way tried to shape the story of who “invented” Twitter, if Bilton’s book is to believed. Some of the four (Dorsey) were doing it intentionally, so as to gain a foothold back into leading the company forward. Others (Glass) got lost in the faded history of Twitter.

The other story that drove Twitter is the essential question of Twitter: is the status question told in 140 characters one about you/me (what’s your status?) or is it about the world (what’s happening?). What story are we all telling? That debate over a few words led to divisions within the company itself.

Hatching Twitter is one of those books that made me think of my daily media life a little different. We take technology for granted. But behind the tech that succeeds (as opposed to the multitudes that don’t), there is always a story of creation and there are always people shaping those creation stories. Bilton’s book about Twitter shows how messy that endeavor can become once the money starts flowing.

Peace (in the tweet),

Book Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish

Coming on the heels of finishing Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting with my sixth graders, I picked up Jennifer Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish merely on a whim as part our independent reading. I see it is on the New York Times bestseller list, and as a teacher, I love to discover new books I can recommend to my students. I was pleasantly surprised to see more than a few thematic overlaps between the two novels. Holm’s book explores the scientific element of tinkering with the aging process while Bobbitt uses unknown magic to explore the concept of living for forever.

Tuck Everlasting, of course, is a classic, and now in its 40th year, the book continues to resonate with young readers on many levels. The discussions we have in the classroom about the moral ambiguity of character’s choices and the desire for youth is always rich and deep. It’s beautifully written and I love teaching it.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is not in the same category, although it is a rather fun read. The story revolves around 11 year old Ellie, whose scientist grandfather discovers a way (via a certain jellyfish) to turn back the hands of time and become young again. The grandfather is now a teenager, living with Ellie and her mother, and the results are often funny. The plot revolves around Ellie helping her teenager grandfather recover his scientific notes from the company he has been booted out of.

It’s only at the end of the book, as Ellie considers the power and responsibility of science, that the deep questioning comes into play, and I was itching for Holmes to dig deeper than she did. The book is aimed at an upper elementary audience, and yet I think Holmes could have gone farther and still had the funny, entertaining story that she develops in The Fourteen Goldfish.

What Holm’s book does well is to show the power of scientific discovery and of asking questions, of being curious, of being open to the “possibilities” — as Ellie’s grandfather teaches her, even as Ellie herself begins to understand that some scientific discoveries come with a cost (the Atomic Bomb). Holm also name-drops plenty of scientists in the novel, sparking interest in the history of discovery.

Peace (in the life lived),

Book Review: Cool Careers in Video Games

I saw this book – Cool Careers in Video Games –  in our latest Scholastic Book order catalogue and used some of my “classroom points” to pick it up. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but given my students’ high interest in gaming, it makes sense to have it as a resource. I’m glad I grabbed it. The book is full of short non-fiction profiles of people in the video gaming industry, from writers to programmers to animators and more, with a nice balance of men and women.

The questions often have a focus on advice for students who are interested in gaming, and while most riffed on the theme of “follow your passion and dream,” there were a few who noted how math skills and writing/communication skills are critical.

What I most liked about the book (its former title apparently was Hot Jobs in Video Games) was the introduction overview of the world of the gaming industry, as it provides a handy progression of how a game goes from an idea to being published, and all the work that goes on in-between. And I like the glossary at the end, where there is a multi-page list of all of the different kinds of jobs and skills one would need to become part of that emerging job market.

As far as I can tell, you can only get Cool Careers in Video Games through Scholastic books.

Peace (in the game),


Graphic Novel Review: The Sculptor

I know it early in 2015, but is it too early to call The Sculptor by Scott McCloud my “book of the year”? I was sent an early review copy of McCloud’s novel by First Second Publishing, and it has not just blown me away. It’s story and imagery has stayed with me, lingering for the last few weeks in my mind. I’m almost ready to dive right back in and read it again, and if you know me, you know I rarely re-read books.

While the story has familar echoes — you sell your soul to the ferryman for some artistic element or edge in your life that you have long desired and never attained (think Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, or even Charlie Daniels Band’s Devil Went Down to Georgia) — the way that McCloud uses the graphic novel format and visual storytelling brings The Sculptor to a new level.

McCloud is very famous for his groundbreaking work about deconstructing comics and graphic novels as unique and innovative storytelling platforms, and sharing his knowledge with the world. His Understand Comics is a must-read for anyone interested in the storytelling possibilities of graphic arts.

For The Sculptor, it seems like he aimed to pull out all the stops, with whole sequences of art that will floor you, even as he weaves the story of his protagonist, David Smith, who literally gives up his life for his art, and gains the power to sculpt any material with his own hands.

And then, David finds love in the days before his time runs out (by the way, here, the Devil is not the nasty dude you might imagine him to be), and he races to create the great Art Project of his life before it is too late. I won’t give the story away, but the narrative power of writing and illustration packs a real emotional punch. The way McCloud uses the comic medium to bring the reader into the story is inspiring.


Note: this book is not for younger readers, and with some scenes of nudity and adult themes, it may not be suitable for even high school students. You should read it first before bringing it into your classroom. I hope some university class eventually uses it as a literature text, however. It’s that good, in my opinion.

Peace (in the story),


Book Review: The Girl on the Train

I know I’m a sucker when book publishers spend a lot of money to promote the message that “this is a book in the tradition of …” and then fill in the blanks. It doesn’t always live up to the hype (I’ve gone through a few “just like Game of Thrones” novels to much disappointment). Still,  I saw the hype over The Girl on the Train (in the tradition of Gone Girl) and used a gift card that I received over holiday break to get it. I figured, this isn’t costing me much.

It was worth every penny I didn’t spend.

The book is good, although the echoes of Gone Girl are a little too strong at times (someone missing, multiple voices, unreliable narrators). The narrative frame of views of something odd taking place (it’s a thriller) as seen from the commuter train, and then allowing characters to only chime in during the morning and evening commute times, gives the story a definite rhythm (like a train), building to the dramatic points at the end of the story. I won’t give it away. Promise.

Does The Girl on the Train hold its own? It does, and newcomer writer Paula Hawkins constructs a tightly-wound plot, bringing us into the heads of female characters with variable troubles and views on the world, even as things start to fall apart on them all (some, more than others).

Peace (on the tracks),

Book Review: Holes (a reader revisit)

I had forgotten just how brilliant the novel Holes is until I had a chance this past week to read it with my youngest son. It’s been more than 10 years since I picked it up, although I do see quite a few of my sixth graders continuing to read it on a regular basis.

Midway through, I said to my son, this book is an onion. He looked at me like I was nutty, so I had to explain how the onion reference in the story is like the story itself — layer upon layer, all related together. I mean, Louis Sachar’s construction of Holes is a thing to behold as a reader and I wish I had a visualization of how the story strands slowly come together.

I have the sequel - Small Steps — ready for read-aloud and yet, I am little reluctant. What if the magic doesn’t hold up? My son wants to see the movie of Holes, too. Again … will that ruin the beauty of the book? We’ll see. For now, I am grateful I had another chance to read Holes and just find wonder at the writing of it.

I found this diagram online — the mapping out of the characters, and items, and their connections to each other. Pretty nifty.

Peace (in the hole),


Book Review: The Boundless

Maybe it was because I had recently watched the intriguing movie Snowpiercer with my older sons, but as I read aloud the latest book by Kenneth Oppel — The Boundless — I had some strange reverberations of story. Both tales involve a large train that seems to carry humanity forward into the great unknown. Unlike Snowpiercer, however, the world is not at an end in The Boundless. But our hero here — Will Everett – is on the adventure of a lifetime as he seeks to avoid murderous thieves and make his way to the front of the train where his father helps run the seven-mile train barreling its way through Canada.

Oppel is a fine storyteller (Check out Airborn) and he is in fine form with The Boundless. There is just enough magic and the unexpected here to keep the fires of the story burning, and the relentless hum of the train in motion nicely partners with Will’s predicament, in which he finds an old friend and joins a traveling circus … all just to stay alive, even as a larger plot unfolds to steal something that has echoes of the Fountain of Youth.

The Boundless has good adventure, and solid characters, and the pace makes for a perfect read-aloud.

Peace (on the train),

Book Review: Best American Infographics 2014

Infographic on Infographics
I thought I would use the theme of Infographics to review a book about Infographics. The book is the second year of the Best American Infographics and like last year’s version, it is a wonderful read, chock full of amazing data representations. My infographic shows my interest level in the various articles in the collection. Not every scientific, I guess, but a good overview of what I thought as I was reading the collection (edited by Gareth Cook, with an introduction by Nate Silver).

What I like most is how surprised I am by some of the pieces, from the one where someone geotagged their cat as it wandered through their city block all day; to the way that a baseball looks for the batter, depending on the kind of pitch; to a map of every single reference to every single joke in the first seasons of Arrested Development; to the evolution of email in our lives; to the migration of birds and how the numbers are dropping; to whether a tweet was written by a human or twitter-bot. There are just too many cool infographics to even mention here.

But I did want to mention that the interactive infographics are online for perusing (Check out the drone attack/casualty chart … it will break your heart and open your eyes to the faraway battlefields).

I am also very curious about the free Map Stack tool that has been made available for anyone to use. It gets a whole page in the book, and the group that developed it got funding to give Map Stack away to journalists and others, to create data-centered mapping projects. I have no idea how to use it or why, but it seems worth the time to consider.

Peace (in the info),

Books Reviewed: The Bone Clocks and Non-Required Reading

After a rather long winter break, we’re now really back in the swing of things (or sort of). But over break, I read quite a bit of pages in the various down-time moments and figured I should share out a few observations.

First of all, each year, I get as a present the latest edition of Best American Non-Required Reading collection. Dave Eggers has stepped down (darn it) as editor of this collection, which is pulled together by high school students, but the stories and articles in here are as strong as ever. I did miss the “short pieces” section at the front of the book, where little tidbits were shared out. That has been eliminated. But the pieces here are strong, and the fact that purchasing the book contributes to literacy programs organized by Eggers and the 826 organization makes it worth the price of admission.

Eggers is replaced here by Daniel Handler (ie, Lemony Snicket) who adds just enough snark and humor in his introduction to get the reading off on the right foot.

Second, I read The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. You know, there are some pieces and passages here that will just blow you away with Mitchell’s rich writing and storytelling. And I get that Mitchell is after bigger game — of re-configuring the way we tell stories and the way we write/read fiction. He always pushes the envelope. That said, huge swaths of the middle of this lengthy novel had me wondering if I should keep with it. I did, and thankfully, the final section rewarded me again. I won’t even try to explain the story (which unfolds over time and involves a woman who gets involved in a group who  …. oh …. too difficult to summarize).

I’m waiting for the novel by Mitchell that just blows me away, and he always gives me just enough to keep hoping and coming back. I am still mulling over The Bone Clocks in my mind, so that’s saying something.

Peace (in the pages),

Book Review: Comic Squad

I’m always a sucker for graphic story/comic collections. One of my touchstone collections is the Flight series of graphic stories that just blow me away every time I crack the cover, and I love it when my students stumble upon the Flight books in my classroom. There’s that “what’s this?” moment that many have, and then they are lugging the book from class to class, coming in the next morning with the question, “Got any more of these?”

We bought Comic Squad: Recess for my son because he is a huge Lunch Lady fan, and of author/illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka, who is one of the co-editors and contributors to the collection of comic shorts here. My son read the collection in about, oh, ten minutes, and then I had a look. The mood and ambience in the collection is light and funny, with jokes planted on the pages between stories and a positive vibe all the way through. Love the remix/mashup page!

I liked the stories well enough, although I think they lacked real narrative depth that I like to see in this kind of book. Comics can and should push the envelope, even for young readers. It’s a wonderfully creative genre that has so many possibilities. I felt as if the stories here didn’t quite reach for the stars, and am hopeful the next collection (promised on the last page) takes a step forward. But that’s also me, being a bit too critical, perhaps. I understand this book is designed for younger readers (prob even younger than my son) and it will certainly get kids reading and maybe looking for further reading, which is part of the point of a collection like this (from a teacher’s standpoint).

And the hat nod to Nerdy Book Club in the opening dedication page? Nicely done.

Peace (in the comic),