Book Review: Frank Einstein and the Anti-Matter Motor

“What? Another science fair story! Ahh….”

That was my son’s initial response as we started to read aloud Jon Scieszka’s new Frank Einstein and the Anti-Matter Motor. We had just finished reading aloud Science Fair, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (thumbs up) and had watched a viewing of the movie, Frankenweenie, in the neighborhood (thumbs up but an odd thumbs up).

It was just by chance that all three stories had a science fair competition at the center of the plot, but it does feel like the push for fiction for middle readers into STEM areas is falling on some common narrative tropes. The “science fair” is one of those I am seeing a lot (as is my son).

He got over his initial response, though, as we dove into Scieszka’s story of a young inventor (Frank), and his pal (Watson), creating robots who can sort of think for themselves and then a scientific energy-creating breakthrough called the Anti-Matter Motor (combine water with anti-water). A nemesis in the form of Edison wreaks havoc. The illustrations by Brian Biggs were a big hit, as they complemented the text and provides some scientific drawings of ideas in the head of Frank Einstein (My son later noted, “Did you notice that Frank and Einstein makes …. Frankenstein?”).

I hate to say it, but I wasn’t all that fond of the writing here and I found the plot development too predictable. Written in the present tense, the story never went deep enough for me. Maybe I am more critical than I need to be, even reading through the eyes of my fourth grader. Sorry, Jon Scieszka — I love the work you do to instill reading habits in young readers, particularly boys, and I notice this book sits on top of the New York Times list for young readers. My son, though, liked it well enough, and wondered when the second volume was coming out. (next year, it seems).

Maybe that’s all that matters … (or anti-matters)

 

Peace (in the science),
Kevin

Book Review: What If?

There’s a reason this gem of a book is sitting on top of the New York Times book list these days. What if? (Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions) by Randall Monroe (he, of xkcd comic fame) had me laughing, and thinking, and wondering about the world in new ways. The premise is that, at Monroe’s website, folks submit scientifically based absurd questions and he tackles some of them from a scientific standpoint.

The clash of serious and absurd, and Monroe’s engaging voice and comic interpretations, makes for an incredible read. Some of the issues that he tackles here include: could you swim in a pool where they cool spent nuclear fuel rods? Or what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? How about if you drained all the oceans on Earth? What would this place look like then? (interestingly enough, this is a question one of my won students asked me the other day as we were discussing the oceans. I need to bring this chapter in for her). Or, could someone really live on an astroid like the Little Prince?

Man, I could go on, but you need to get it yourself. What If? will keep you not only pondering life’s mysteries, but also pondering who the nuts are who come up with these questions (the answer: us.)

Peace (in the questions),
Kevin

Book Review: The Fire Chronicle (Books of Beginning)

 

The Fire Chronicle is the second in a trilogy underway by John Stephens, and my son and I are completely hooked on the story of three siblings with a powerful destiny ahead of them to reshape the world (or save the world, it’s not yet clear) with three books of power.

The first novel, The Emerald Atlas, mostly tells the story of the eldest sibling, Kate, as she discovers how to move through time. The Fire Chronicle gives us the story of the middle child, Michael, as he becomes the Keeper of a book of great power of life and death. In fact, life stories is the great magical power that Michael gains as the Keeper, but it comes with a cost to his identity and memory and more. You know, “With great power comes great responsibility” and all that.

As with the first novel, this one is packed to the brim with adventure, interesting characters and multiple story-lines that bounce and weave back and forth before merging together, and then pulling back apart by the end (to set the stage for the last book). Stephens does a nice job of digging into the heads and hearts of the siblings, too, allowing their insecurities, family bonds, betrayals and secrets to guide the story forward.

For my son and I, the last page of The Fire Chronicle was one of those reader moments: Now we have to wait until next spring to get the last book in the series, The Black Reckoning, (which we suspect will focus in on the youngest and most unpredictable sibling, Emma), and we can’t wait that long! But we will. I already pre-ordered the book, and no doubt, we will get surprised when it arrives in the mail for us to dig into.

Peace (in the fire),
Kevin

Book Review: Life Itself

I remember reading about the blogging that film critic Roger Ebert was doing as he neared the end of his life, writing with depth about art, mortality and, yes, life itself. But I never got around to his blog, alas, and then, he was gone, succumbing to cancer. His memoir – Life Itself — is an interesting read, bringing us back into his life and career in the media business and then into his struggles with cancer itself. The disease took away his voice, and most of his jaw, but not his ability to write and say what he wanted to say.

Ebert does not make his life story a sad story. Instead, he brings honesty and raw emotion to his view on what makes a life worth living, and along the way, his words teach us something about how to look at the world through films, and therefore, through art. The book is a bit inconsistent, though, and you can tell these chapters were stitched together from blog posts and musings of Ebert over the years. Still, his pieces pack a lot of power. I found more than a few similarities between Ebert’s entry into journalism to my own (covering high school sports, asked to do art reviews, etc.) but of course, his accomplishments on his own and with Gene Siskel far outweigh my own pop culture reference points.

I had bought the book for my sons, both of whom love movies and have more than a passing interest in the business, but this book is more a biographical sketchbook than a dive into how to view a movie. Which is fine. I learned a lot about Ebert as a writer and thinker, and a person, than I knew before, and I came to understand the courage of not giving in until your last breath, to know that words may still carry you forward even when all else seems dark. That, in essence, is Life Itself.

And you may know that a documentary on Ebert is now out, too, based on the book.

 

Peace (in life),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Shadow Hero

As much as I enjoyed the story and art of The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew, what I truly most enjoyed about this book is the explanation of how the book came to be. (You may know Yang’s name from his wonderful American Born Chinese and/or Boxers & Saints)

After the main story ends, Yang gives an overview of the origin of the story of the The Green Turtle, one of the first superheroes created by an Asian-American artist Hank Chu, and his battles with publishers to create an Asian-American superhero. He actually failed in this fight, according to rumors that Yang chased down, and his original Green Turtle comic – published during the Golden Age of Comics — is interesting in that Chu always hides the face of his hero, so the reader can’t discern racial identity.

Let me have Yang explain:

Yang and Liew decided to invent the “back story” of the Green Turtle in The Shadow Hero, providing insights into Chinese-American culture, racial prejudice, and the myth of The Green Turtle superhero, who has been mostly forgotten in comic circles. Until now.

Following Yang’s piece of writing, the two provide the very first comic of The Green Turtle, as a sort of interesting time travel twist. You can get the sense of what Chu was after with his creation, and see how he pushes up against the publisher’s restraint against an Asian-American comic book superhero. It’s a fascinating lesson in history.

The story in The Shadow Hero is solid, inventive and engaging, with plenty of action and humor, and a bit of tame romance. I would say this book would work fine for upper elementary, middle and high school students.

Peace (in the story),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Amulet (Book Six: Escape from Lucien)

I don’t know the epic tapestry that writer/illustrator Kazu Kibuishi has in mind for his Amulet series but I am along for the ride right until the very end. The latest in his series of intriguing graphic novels in the Amulet series — Book Six: Escape from Lucien – is another powerhouse example of storytelling, bringing us action and character development and various story threads that weave in and out.

The most difficult part? Remembering the stories in the intervening years between Amulet books. I should have read the fifth one to get my mind inside the story but instead, I jumped right in. Which is interesting in itself. Kibuishi, a gifted artist and writer, does not provide backstory. You’re in right with the first few pages, and I had that experience of my memory kicking in as I read — Oh yea, that’s who Emily is …. That dude looks familiar …. why is this character acting like this? Who is the Elf King again? Who wants to be Elf King? Oh yeah … and so on.

It would be too complex for me to give the story away in a review, but suffice it to say that Amulet is turning out to be a classic graphic story that makes other stories pale in comparison, and is a perfect series for middle school and upper elementary readers. The difficulty is the cost for the books. I suspect that somewhere down the line there will be an Amulet Omnibus. But the story is still unfolding.

This is actually one of those series that I have not yet brought into my classroom, for fear that the books will disappear from my shelves. My sons read the Amulet books regularly so I keep them at home. Sorry, kids. (Might be time to save up my Scholastic book points and get a class set, though).

Peace (in the power of story),
Kevin

Comic Review: Copper

If this collection of Copper webcomics/comics from Kazu Kibuishi had only contained comics, it would have been enough. More than enough, in fact, as these short graphic stories, told in single page comics, for the most part, of a boy (Copper) and his dog (Fred), are so well done and so entertaining, that Copper rises up to one of my favorite comics.

But Kibuishi, the writer/artist behind the incredible ongoing Amulet graphic novel series (another review of the latest in that series is coming soon), goes the extra mile, providing about 10 pages at the end of the book to discussing his process for creating graphic art, complete with looks at his studio space and a “comic in process” as he shares how an idea makes its way to the page. This kind of insight from an artist of Kibuishi’s caliber is incredible.

As for the Copper collection itself, the book is a treasure trove of imagination as Copper and Fred go off on all sorts of adventures, have deep discussions and ponder life in many ways (sometimes in the most unusual situations, such as inside a ship they build together or jumping across a valley of mushrooms or inside a cave).

Upper elementary and middle school students would eat Copper up, I think, particularly if they are hooked on the Amulet series. I see now that you can access many of the webcomics online at his site, for free. So, what are you waiting for? Get reading!

 

Peace (in the frames),
Kevin

Six Word Book Reviews (My August Reading Pile)

I’ve been away on a sort of blogging vacation, toning down some online work to re-center some gravity (which I do every August). But I’ve been reading a boatload of books, and instead of a review for every book, I figured I would just create six word reviews (making it challenging for me but perhaps easier on you).

Read Aloud Books with my Son

The Emerald Atlas

Literally, magical adventure on every page.

The Night Gardener

The Night Gardner

Creepy tale. No one is safe.

Breadcrumbs

Friendship and perseverance conquers bad magic.

Punished!

Punished

Playing with language makes fun story.

My Own Reading

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Modern Pop

Fast-moving, engaging history of cultural soundtracks.

Help Thanks Wow

Deeply reflective, but light on humor.

Book I Abandoned

The Magicians

Too much of nothing going on.

I realize none of these reviews do fair justice to the books. I would highly recommend The Night Gardener for its writing and depth (and expect it to see in some book award lists), and The Emerald Atlas for its action and adventure (we are now reading the second book in the series). Yeah Yeah Yeah! is a phenomenal look at pop music over time but the book is huge and reads at a quick pace, and I need to revisit it in the future to keep absorbing pop culture in waves. The Magician did nothing for me, even though I enjoy the writer in other venues and I know the series is getting high marks (so it must be me). I wanted to like it but could not.

Peace (in the pages),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Mark of the Dragonfly

You know a book has some lasting power when you get to the very last page of reading it aloud, and you and your listener (ie., my son) both have the same thought: I sure hope she is writing a sequel. Such was the case with The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson. The story is set in a place similar in some ways to Earth (or some version of Earth) where odd objects fall from the sky, some people (or versions of people) have special powers, two kingdoms are on the brink of war and exploration, and our hero, Piper, is a Scrapper trying to bring the lost Anna back home.

Of course, as in any good story, there is more to it than that, but I don’t want to give it away. The Mark of the Dragonfly hooks you quickly, immersing you into its world, and then pulling you into the action and motivations of Piper and the people she meets along the way of her journey.

Kudos go out to Johnson for creating a strong female protagonist in Piper, and in her companion, Anna, and for putting as much attention to character development as she did, without taking away from the action and adventure that moves the plot along. While my son and I had plenty of questions about the world where the story is set that Johnson hasn’t answered (yet?), we bought the premise of the land of Solace easily enough, and then raced through the second half of the book with every reading moment we had available.

It seems as if Johnson has set the stage for a sequel, but who knows? The book’s main plot does sort of resolve itself, and we remain fixed on Piper’s choices about where she goes now. And who can argue with a huge train, and all that it represents, as a significant setting for the novel. Plus, Piper’s own special powers, which I won’t reveal, open the door to some very interesting possibilities.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin