Graphic Novel Review: Tales of Sand

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)

Story Summary: Surreal is the only way to really describe TALE OF SAND, which is a graphic novel based on a “lost” screenplay by Jim Henson, of Muppet fame, and his writing partner, Jerry Hujl. The screenplay was found collecting dust in the Henson archives and was given over to the very talented graphic novelist Ramon K. Perez, whose vivid illustrations tell the tale of a stranger known only as “Mac” set in motion on an adventure in the American southwest. I can’t even begin to do the story tangents justice here, except to say that the narrative shifts from scene to scene, from danger to danger, just like particles of sand blowing in the wind of chance and imagination. (Think Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone, and you will be in the right ballpark.) There are hints of old Westerns, and rampaging football players, Arabs in the desert, the continuing image of an unused cigarette, bombs and guns, and elaborate champagne dinners, and so many oddball twists that it seems clear to me that only a graphic novel could capture that kind of energy of story. (And it is even clearer why Hollywood kept turning down the screenplay.) In fact, once you buy into the surreal nature of the story, TALE OF SAND becomes magical, unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Art Review: Perez is a master of surreal imagery, and the oversized nature of TALE OF SAND provides him with a large canvas from which to work. There are overlapping images, colorful splashes contrasted with pencil sketches, multiple storylines unfolding in adjacent frames, and yet through all that craziness, Perez keeps the reader completely focused on the travails of Mac, with his square jaw that echoes of Clark Kent and eyes betraying confusion over his predicament of being caught up in something outside of his control. Perez immerses the reader in the story with the visuals, and if you stay with it, the artwork becomes the main narrative device. (I particularly loved how the savage football players talked in x’s and o’s, like a football play handbook).

More Information:

• Reading level: Ages 8 and up
• Hardcover: 152 pages
• Publisher: Archaia Entertainment; 1 edition (January 31, 2012)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1936393093
• ISBN-13: 978-1936393091

In the Classroom: This book might have value for upper high school students, or university students, around the ways that surrealism can be used in narrative writing, and how art connects to story. Also, for those with an interest in Jim Henson, the introduction and ending of TALE OF SAND provides inside information about Henson’s work and the development of this story. Those small pieces of writing gives the book some historical weight, particularly now with the pop cultural resurgence of The Muppets.

My Review: I was fascinated by TALE OF SAND and completely dove into the surrealistic nature of the story. I RECOMMEND this book for upper level HIGH SCHOOL students, but teachers should know there is one scene that shows the naked chest of a woman near the end of the story. I don’t think middle school readers would follow the narrative with any interest, given its surreal format.

Peace (with Henson),
Kevin

Comics Collection Review: Zits (Sunday Brunch)

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)

Story Summary: With all of our focus on graphic novels, it is easy to lose track of the power of the daily comic strip. The connections between art and words and character coupled with the confines of just a few panels is something magical when done right (and painful when done wrong). SUNDAY BRUNCH: THE BEST OF ZITS SUNDAYS by the partnership of Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman is a massive collection of comic strips featuring a the growing teenager, Jeremy, and his two befuddled parents, Walt and Connie, as they weave their ways around life. The comics have perfect pitch (at least, to me, as a parent of a teenager) but what sets this collection apart from some others are the guest narratives of other comic strip writers and artists as they talk about their own inspirations. These short narratives are interspersed throughout the book by comic strip colleagues, and the personal writing provide a wonderful lens into how comics played a part in nurturing writers and illustrators. It’s interesting to see how subversive comic strips were for so many of them – tales of flashlights under covers abound. Add to that the little annotated notes that Scott and Borgman put beneath most of these comics to explain where the ideas for the jokes and art came from, and you have an insider’s view into the world of newspaper comic creations. And you can laugh while you learn.

Art Review: What sets the comic strip Zits apart from most of its brethren is the art, and I was really fascinated by the explanations for some of the experiments that Borgman (the primary illustrator, although the book gives some nice insights into the partnership between the two collaborators) provides as he works all sorts of echoes of modern art into a comic strip. There’s also some nice commentary on the impact of the shrinking comics sections on artists, and what that has meant to how an illustration perceives their canvas.

More Information:

• Paperback: 256 pages
• Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing; Original edition (November 1, 2011)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1449407978
• ISBN-13: 978-1449407971

In the Classroom: I have lots of comic collections in my classroom. Calvin & Hobbes remains a hit. When we talk about having variety of reading materials, we should consider comic collections as another way to draw kids (particularly, boys) into reading. SUNDAY BRUNCH: THE BEST OF ZITS SUNDAYS is a great collection that would fit nicely in the bookshelves of a middle or high school classroom. From a teaching perspective, the narratives around the impact of comics on writers and readers might open up doors of discussion around the kinds of reading and writing that your students do outside of school. What are they reading that we never see? It’s worth finding out.

My Recommendation: I highly recommend SUNDAY BRUNCH: THE BEST OF ZITS SUNDAYS for middle and high school classrooms, and for the teacher with teenagers in their lives – either sitting there in that desk or lounging around at home.

Peace (in the frames),
Kevin

Book Review: How About Never? Is Never Good For You?

I suspect I am like a lot of readers of The New Yorker magazine. On the day it arrives in the mail (usually a Tuesday or Wednesday), I flip through the pages to read all of the cartoons, either chuckling and sharing with my wife, or scratching my head to figure out just what the heck the joke is. I end up at the last page, where the Caption Contest takes place (my neighbor recently won) in order to see if I could have done better (not likely).

I then move on to articles and forget the cartoons. But Bob Mankoff’s whole professional life is constructed around cartoons, and the editor of cartoons at The New Yorker has a fantastic new book out that explores his life as a cartoonist and brings us into the inner workings of how cartoons get chosen by the magazine. The book — How About Never? Is Never Good For You? — is jam-packed with cartoons and comics, as Mankoff shows off his own work (which I now recognize by the dot style of drawing) and a host of other artists whose work I read every week.

Mankoff even promises to show a reader how to win the Caption Contest, and then admits that that promise was a ruse to get you reading his book. His style of writing is like his style of cartooning — witty, sly and engaging, in a voice that let’s us know that while he takes his job seriously, he’s not above poking fun at anything and everything, including himself. And after all that, he does in fact give some insider views on the Caption Contest. So, there.

As I was reading the book, though, it occurred to me many times just how difficult it would be to make a living making cartoons. So many get rejected. So few get published. And yet, you have to make a handful every week, knowing that you will be lucky if one gets chosen. Mankoff tries to solve some of this years ago when he co-founded the Cartoon Bank, which is now part of the New Yorker family. The Cartoon Bank is a data-base of comics that can be purchased for use, allowing some income stream for artists. Mankoff has that kind of sensibility to support artists.

Peace (in the cartoon),
Kevin

Over at MiddleWeb: Review of Create Compose Connect!

c c c kevinI wrote up a review of Troy Hicks and Jeremy Hyler’s new book at MiddleWeb: Create Compose Connect (Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools). I find the book useful in a lot of ways, particularly as it shows ways to enhance learning with technology with some specific projects.

Peace (in the review),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Writing On the Wall (Social Media – the First 2000 Years)

It really is true: there’s nothing new here. Not with Twitter. Not with Facebook. Not with blogging. Not with any of the social media that we keep saying has “upended” traditional media. In this fascinating look at social media over the past 2,000 years, Tom Standage digs deep into our historical roots to show how the flow of information along social lines has been one constant thread through various phases of civilization.

Writing On the Wall is a fascinating read (and I heard about it from a book review column a friend of mine does at the Boston Globe, where her focus was books about social networking), starting off with Cicero in Rome, asking friends and allies to make sure they sent news of politics and government via notes, complete with comments, delivered by friends, and then moves into the use of pamphlets and scrolls and the printing press and more communication systems from the past that eerily echo the present.

In fact, Standage argues that the media empires that are now starting to fade (ie, newspapers) are the anomaly of history — in that the power to curate information and spread it out fell into the hands of a relative few (ie, publishers and editors and reporters) — and that if you look before and after that blip in time, you can see how prevalent the impact of widespread information is by “the people.”

And all of the same arguments back when Plato was railing against written text (as inferior to oral tradition), and when the Church was railing against Martin Luther and the Reformation Movement, and when the elites in the Arab world were worried about coffeehouse gatherings, and when the King of England was railing against Thomas Paine, and … well, it goes on and on, this railing against the power to publish being put into “the wrong hands” and what information might do to us. Sure, some of what gets published in any space is lies, distortions and more, but when the flow if open and moving, a reader has a better chance of judging veracity and weighing the impact of information, and good will prevail.

Right?

Standage writes:

“…social media is not going away. It has been around for centuries. Today, blogs are the new pamphets. Microblogs and online social networks are the new coffeehouses. Media sharing sites are the new commonplace books. They are all shared, social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds, rather than having to squeeze through the privileged bottleneck of broadcast media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age represents a profound shift — and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.” (page 250)

Peace (on the wall),
Kevin

PS — here is a talk that Standage gave to Google about social media:

 

 

Book Review: There Will Be Bears

The only time I went hunting for real, I was a teenager with a friend on his family’s farmlands. We each had shotguns and we were looking for deer. At some point, a flock of geese flew over us and I raised the gun, pulled the trigger and took a life from the air. It was a perfect shot (right through the neck) but I remember the feeling of dread, and the tiring hour spent trying to find the bird (we had no dog), and then the realization that “Since I shot it, I need to eat it” as we brought the goose back to his house, where his mom helped me dress it and cook it. The meat was gamey and I hated every bite. I never went hunting again.

I was remembering this story as I read the novel There Will Be Bears by Ryan Gebhart, in which the protagonist, Tyler, is coming of age and is determined to join his aging grandfather on an Elk Hunt in the Grand Tetons. Tyler’s life is a muddle, with his family’s finances causing stress and difficulties, and his best friend is his grandfather, Gene. But, his grandfather is ill with kidney failure, and as the day of the hunting trip nears, his grandfather is shipped to a nursing home.

The two decide to break out of the nursing home and go on the elk hunt anyway, against the wishes of Tyler’s parents and the doctors. Oh, and there is a grizzly bear with a mean streak roaming the elk hunting grounds, and Tyler’s fears and trepidations grow even as he refuses to give up on his rite of passage in his family. The story pushes towards a climatic moment in which the elk are hunted, the bear appears and Tyler realizes some important thing about life.

There Will Be Bears is a solid tale, told well, with the reader burrowed down into the confused head of a teenage boy. This book doesn’t take a stand on hunting, and in fact, keeps an emotional balance, thanks to the strong character of the grandfather (who turns out to have a story of two of his own, including his status as grandfather).

Peace (in the hunt),
Kevin

Slice of Life: A Reader’s Book of Days

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(This is part of the Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. We write about small moments on Tuesdays. You come, too. Write with us.)

Since January, I’ve been reading the same book, page by page, with the aim of finishing it up at the end of January. That’s right. One page a day, for the entire year. It’s so unlike me — the one who cranks through reading and writing — but The Reader’s Book of Days by Tom Nissley is designed this way, as each page is a calendar day filled with news and information about the literary world that has taken place on that single day.

I love how each page is like a message in a bottle, and I can’t help but imagine the painstaking research that went into this book by Nissley. There’s very little in terms of boring events, and his own writing style in crafting the vignettes on the page (typically, about five or six small stories) is engaging, light-hearted and enlightening on a variety of levels.

How A Reader’s Book of Days Was Made from WW Norton on Vimeo.

I’m sharing this book out because reading it is like a cousin to Slice of Life, where small portraits of writers and books and characters and intrigue from the literary world inhabit each day. It’s a wonderful book, and one that I use as a sort of nightly appetizer before digging into a novel or non-fiction book that is the main read. A Reader’s Book of Days settles me in, bringing me into the spirit of the book.

What more can you ask for?

Peace (in the book of books),
Kevin

Book Review: Wildwood Imperium

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You know that feeling you get when a beloved series ends and you can’t quite believe the story is over? That the literary hang-over I am feeling this morning after finishing a read-aloud of Wildwood Imperium (the third book in the Wildwood Chronicles) with my son yesterday. Sure, author Colin Meloy left a few hints that another book might be possible (as any good author would do) but for the most part, the loose ends of this engaging story about the Impassable Wilderness on the outskirts of Portland, where all sorts of strange magic happens and the most unlikely of children becomes the bravest heroes of all.

Oh, Wildwood, we will miss you.

Wildwood Imperium is the third book in the series and is not for the feint of heart. It has multiple storylines, and a rich vocabulary, and a style all of its own, with engaging characters and a treacherous villain (whose actions will surprise you), and the threads that come together to tie up the story are heartfelt and resonate with a respect for the environmental world and the unseen stories in our lives.

If the Wildwood Chronicles does not become a movie some day, it would be a shame. Unless the movie sucked, then it would be a shame. But my son and I both agree that the series, if done right, could be a powerful storytelling experience. Meanwhile, I have two students who eagerly read the first two books this fall and who are waiting, hoping, that I will lend them this third one. Of course, I will. Of course.

Peace (in the woods),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: D-Day (24 Hour History)

D-Day

Some events in history do unfold rapidly, and a new graphic novel imprint from Capstone Press seeks to use that as a the theme of a series of graphic novels under the banner of “24 Hour History.” It’s an effective structure for a book like D-Day, where so much happened in such a short amount of time, but which impacted the way World War II played out.

This graphic historical narrative, D-Day, is suited for middle and high school readers (although, interestingly, the Capstone site suggests an elementary grade level – I don’t agree, given the vocabulary and content here). Less a novel than a history lesson, the book begins with an introduction to World War II and then quickly moves into the planning and launching of Allied Forces into France as a move to turn the tide of the war and push Germany back through deception and overwhelming force.

The artwork is nothing to write home about here (ie. rather bland and boring), but with the use of maps, timelines and geographic narrative devices (telling the story of each landing point) along with a few personal stories (which could have been stretched out a bit more, I think), D-Day is an effective piece of graphic non-fiction story that could easily be part of a classroom World War II collection. The writer even gives us some perspectives from both sides of the confrontation, although it is clear the Allies are the heroes here. The stories do not mince words about mistakes that were made and sacrifices given by soldiers in the name of war and liberation.

The use of the 24 hour time frame allows the narrative to move at a rapid pace, as the reader shifts from landing point to landing point, with a clock face read-out on the corner of the frames. It is also helpful that the back of the book has short biographies of some of the main leaders on both sides of the battle, as well as a handy list of additional resources about World War II.

Peace (in the landing),
Kevin

Book Review: The Memory Bank

Such a sweet book. The Memory Bank is a delightful story that begins with a hint of Roald Dahl (terrible parents, neglected kids) and veers into more Roald Dahl (a factory of dreams and memories, an innocent child will lead the way to understanding) and none of those echoes of Dahl is a bad thing, in my book (if I were to write it).

The story revolves around the wonderfully named Hope Scroggins, whose little sister has been left behind by their parents. Hope has been told to forget her sister, Honey, but she can’t, and thus begins an adventure into the factory where dreams and memories are held and documented, even as a band of outlaws is trying to upset the whole enterprise with juvenile shenanigans (like jamming one of the machines with lollipops).

There’s a gentle flow to The Memory Bank and it is jam-packed with wonderful illustrations, including whole sections (reminiscent of Brian Selznick’s work) where the narrative is told entirely in wordless images, one flowing after another until a new chapter of writing begins. It’s very effective.

The Memory Bank will remind you about what’s important in life, with a little adventure thrown in for good measure.

Peace (in the memories),
Kevin