Book Review: The Hate U Give

If this book doesn’t win a slew of awards this literary season, I don’t know what will. A debut novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a powerhouse of a story, gut-wrenching in its emotion and evocative in its experience. While often marketed as a way to understand the anger and frustration of the Black Lives movement, this novel is so much more than that. It’s a window into the lives of young black lives whose stories are often forgotten in literature, and in those very same news stories.

The story here does seem all too familiar. A young black man is shot and killed by a police officer. The officer is defended in the media, an the dead man is labeled a thug and drug dealer. The protagonist of the novel — Starr — was not only at the scene at the time of the shooting, but she knew the victim since childhood. She’s a witness, determined to keep her friend’s humanity in focus.

What happens in the aftermath of a shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in an inner city neighborhood is what swirls around The Hate U Give (titled after a reference by rapper Tupac Shakur) but what really gives the story resonance is Starr herself, who struggles both with the aftermath of the shooting, the Grand Jury testimony that inflames the community, and the way she straddles two worlds that constantly tug at her identity. She lives in the urban neighborhood but goes to school in a suburban mostly-white school.

I appreciated Starr’s voice here, and lingered over the ways that she both struggles and rises to the occasion when needed, and how her family — despite all the violence around them — closes in with protective spirit when needed. Starr’s family does not give up on their neighborhood, even though the reality of their situation forces them to move.

The book is driven by the echoes of a violent act, yet the story is tinged with hope, too, as Starr rises from it all, a character we can believe in and root for in all of her complexities of a black young woman in America. A novel like this transports you beyond the headlines. It brings you into the lives of people living in the places where that violence, and injustice, is threaded into the fabric of daily living.

Peace (let it be),

Games, Learning, Literacy: Week Two (Digital Identity)

James Paul Gee Quote4

I’m off on a new reading adventure, diving into James Paul Gee’s book — What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy — with discussion prompts by my friend, Keegan. This reflection is centered on Chapter Three in the book.

The topic of digital identity and digital persona and how we project both who we are and who want to be (or at least, want to be seen as) is an intriguing topic made relevant by the ease of identity flux in online spaces and video game environments.

Gee’s critical look at how video game players use identity to bridge the span between real life (who I am in the real world) with gaming (who I am in this immersive world) to a third aspect (how decisions I make in this immersive world pushes against my real world identity) is pretty interesting. I am particularly attuned as a teacher to that third piece — of how one world overlaps with the other — in what he calls “projective identity.”

James Paul Gee Quote5

I appreciated how Gee brings this look at video games back to how it might have importance in the classroom. He uses a science classroom as an example, showing how we want our learners to imagine themselves as scientists when learning about science. They take on the identity of a scientist, and that overlap between what they know of science and what they think a scientist may know (and how that is made visible) is a key element of learning through hands-on work and playfulness.

I think this does happen in many areas, such as history (read like a historian for multiple perspectives) and math (explain your answer in terms someone else might understand) and Language Arts (write a story from a perspective of the character, paying attention to voice). But Gee notes that we don’t always make this visible to students, even though many already do this in the games they play outside of school.

James Paul Gee Quote6

As always, Gee gives us a lot to chew on.

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Peace (across identities),


At Middleweb: Disrupting Thinking (book review)

My latest book review at Middleweb is a look at Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, who explore ways to counter the shrinking interest in reading by our students.

Disrupting Thinking Doodle Collage

I’ve written smaller pieces about this book since reading it this summer (and even did some chapter visualizing as I was reading the book as part of our doodle theme in CLMOOC), but here is my “official” review.

Head to Middleweb to read the review of Disrupting Thinking

Peace (learning),

Graphic Novel Review: Japanese Notebooks (A Journey to the Empire of Signs)

What a lovely discovery. Japanese Notebooks is hard to describe, as writer/illustrator/graphic novelist/manga creator Igort shares his fascination with Japanese culture and Japanese art through a dream-like book that mixes illustrations, art and photographs.

Igort’s artistic vision is stunning and beautiful, capturing his life as a European immerses himself in Japan’s world of manga and animation. The book unfolds with all sort of threads, and Igort warns the reader early on that this is how he intends to tell his story. Even with the strange narrative lens, where linear sequence is less important than the heart of his stories, Japanese Notebooks is sure to capture your attention.

“This book is the story of chasing a dream, and surrendering upon finding that dreams cannot be grasped.” – Japanese Notebooks, Igort, page 7

At its core, it tells of a graphic novelist exploring his inner world of creativity through the lens of a culture that has long fascinated him. Through Igort’s passion, we learn of Japanese poets, artists, writers, animators and more. He found much success, starting with his manga series Yuri.

This book would be challenging in content and construction for students, and some adult themes emerge later in the book.

Peace (through our lens),



Games, Learning, Literacy: Week One

James Paul Gee Quote

I’m off on a new reading adventure, diving into James Paul Gee’s book — What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy — with discussion prompts by my friend, Keegan (who once led me into Minecraft with Networked Narratives). This is our first week of responses, and we read the first two chapters.

A few things stand out for me:

  • Gee’s work has had a lot of influence on thinking about literacy and video games, so I have seen some of his video presentations and read smaller pieces, but never the book itself. It’s a bit dated now (2003, and updated 2007) but it seems so far that Gee’s ideas and insights still stand up.
  • Gee’s defining of terms such as affinity spaces (a favorite of mine in relation to CLMOOC), Semiotic Domains (a new one for me), and literacies and learning already has me thinking of my teaching and my own learning.
  • I appreciated that he approached the topic from the standpoint of a father wondering what his son was doing when playing video games, and then as he immersed himself (perhaps more so than most of us would do), he began to uncover the variety of skills and literacies needed to play these games but also the invisible literacies in the design itself (which is where I am most interested).
  • I am curious/confused about this Semiotic Domain concept, and how people immersed in a system of some sort share commonalities of learning and more.  What is this concept? Well, “Semiotic domains as described by Gee (2003) refers to a variety of forms that take on meaning such as images and symbols, sounds, gestures and objects.” It also refers to “… distinct collective consciousness shared by people with similar interests, attributes or skill sets …” — from You can tell there’s a lot to unpack there.
  • The elements of multimedia composition coming together into the video game medium/format is undeniable, and finding ways to showcase those elements seems important, particularly as I work with my students in a few weeks on our own video game design project.

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I’ve been reading the book on the Kindle and then using my highlights and notes for sharing of some quotes. This kind of curation works most effectively for me in my busy life for finding and keeping some anchor points. This third quote nearly goes in the direction of immigrant/native, which would have turned me off (even remembering the 2003 publication date), but Gee straddles the line and makes it more about adults needing to pay more attention to what kids are doing.

James Paul Gee Quote3

Come join the conversation. Keegan has an open invitation. Let’s learn together.

Peace (game on),


Book Review: Al Capone Does My Homework

We were about five chapters into the third “A Tale from Alcatraz” book by author Gennifer Choldenko when my son announced that “this might be one of those books I want to read myself.” In other words, our read-aloud pace for Al Capone Does My Homework was not keeping up with his interest, and he wanted to know what happened with Moose Flanagan and his family and friends on the prison island of Alcatraz.

One one hand, I am always happy to put another book into his hands. At 12 years old, he is still an avid reader and I want to keep it that way. On the other hand, I too was deep into the story and knew I would miss the read-aloud experience (not to worry, we have a stack of read-alouds ready to go). He took it, read it in a night, and gave it to me, and then I read it over the course of two or three weeks (in-between some other books).

Once again, Choldenko does a marvelous job of creating a story that goes deeper than you first expect, as the story revolves around arson, youth pressure, family (including his older sister, Natalie, whose autism is treated with honesty and compassion by the writer), and the strangeness of living on an island full of the most notorious prisoners in the US system at the time of the setting. (Moose’s father is a warden for the Alcatraz prison).

Capone is mostly in the background here, but his presence is felt, rumbling at the edges of the story. Moose and Natalie and his friends are skillfully constructed by Choldenko, and my son and I will keep our eyes out for a fourth book, if it ever comes.

Peace (on the island of the world),

At Middleweb: Empowering Students as Digital Leaders

My latest column over at Middleweb is an interview with Jennifer Casa-Todd, whose new book — Social LEADia — closely examines ways in which technology and social media can help empower young people in the larger world on issues that matter to them. The book has many short profiles of young people doing pretty amazing things, and Casa-Todd helps explain how teachers can help foster those shifts.

Read the piece at Middleweb

Peace (and change),


Book Review: Refugee

I picked up Refugee by Alan Gratz with an eye towards my sixth graders (my seventh-grade son read it before I did), and I quickly found my heart and mind tumbling into the uncertainty of the three characters here as they each navigated an escape from their homeland. I teared up at the end, too, when Gratz effectively pulls all three story threads together in a way that I won’t give away in this review.

You need to read this book.

Refugee focuses on three stories: a Jewish boy escaping Nazi Germany, a young girl leaving Cuba for the United States as part of one of Castro’s boat-lifts, and a Muslim boy trying to make his way to Germany after his country of Syria has been reduced to rubbles by the current Civil War. Each story, from a different time. But the narrative arcs that Gratz spins brings each character’s story closer and closer to each other.

The terror, the uncertainty, the fear, the setbacks, the dangers, the hope … the reader experiences and lives all of these emotional entanglements through the eyes of these three characters, so much so that I am not sure I can use Refugee as a class novel, as I had hoped when I started the book. The brutality of the Nazis, in particular, is too intense. Gratz doesn’t pull punches. I don’t think I am being too protective of my sixth graders, although I wonder how much of the ugly world I should expose them to.  The world is ugly, after all. I’m never completely certain how far to go, to be honest.

I really appreciated what comes after the end of the novel, in his author’s note section, where Gratz shows the three maps of the three journeys of his refugee characters, and then he writes for a few pages about his research and where the stories emerged from, in regards to the world — in both the past and the present. He then goes on to share some organizations that help refugee children in the world, using the book as a platform for reaching out.

All in all, this book is amazingly powerful, and its narrative arcs and sympathetic characters will pull you deep into the experience beyond the newspaper headlines. It does what a good book should do: transforms your view of the world, and leaves you with some hope amid the horror.

Did I mention you should read this book?

Peace (let it be),

Book Review: The Quest to the Uncharted Lands

After reading The Mark of the Dragonfly and The Secrets of Solace, and loving both, I was all gung-ho to read aloud The Quest to the Uncharted Lands to my son. All three books are set in the same imaginary world of Solace. We started to read Quest in summer, got about a third of the way through, and there it sat for weeks and weeks. He wasn’t all that interested. I couldn’t believe it — Jaleigh Johnson is a solid writer, creating imaginary worlds and stories that connect with each other in interesting ways, and you can sense her love of inventing gaming-style worlds — so I kept asking, Can I read now?

No, he kept saying. Not now.

Finally, I gave up (sigh) and said if he wasn’t going to listen to the story, I was going to read it myself. OK, he replied (I think he was worried he was hurting my feelings), and yesterday, I finally had time to devour the rest of the book, and again, I was deeply immersed in the world that Johnson has created in her literary imagination. Most of all, and the reason I keep coming back, is that her characters are so alive in this fictional world.

This third story is an adventure story with a strong girl protagonist (Stella Glass) who sneaks onto an airship about to explore uncharted lands beyond the mountains. On board, she meets another hidden child, a boy (not quite a boy) named Cyrus, who is trying to return to his own lands beyond the mountains and has the ability to save the ship from storms and from sabotage. For someone on board is intent on destroying the ship before it crosses the mountains.

The story races ahead with action, adventure, intrigue and never loses sight of its characters. The Quest to the Uncharted Lands is definitely a book I can put into the hands of my sixth graders, and although the other two books are somewhat connected, there is no need to read them in any order. I suspect Johnson has some grander design here (or is that my hopeful reading?), but you can enjoy each book on its own.

I love her map at the start of each book, and I was intrigued by a post on Johnson’s site about where she writes about the landscape and where inspirations for her world came from. This map of Solace has been expanded west in the new book.

As for my son, I worry that the female protagonist turned him off. He denies this. Maybe he just isn’t up for fantasy adventures, or the story itself didn’t connect with him. We just got Rick Riordan’s new Magnus Chase book in the mail this week, and he has indicated he wants me to read it aloud to him. He’s a boy at age 13, so this is still a huge thing — letting your dad read aloud to you. So I am holding on to the ability to do so as long as possible, as we head off on another adventure together.

Peace (on an adventure),

Book Review: The Playbook (52 Rules to Aim, Shoot and Score in this Game Called Life)

Sports can be a common metaphor for life. Eh, I mean, Life. Just look at how the late writer Frank Deford carved out this niche for decades, with his essays that used sports as the hook for writing about something much larger than the “play of the day.”

Writer Kwame Alexander’s The Playbook (52 Rules to Aim, Shoot and Score in this Game Called Life) explores that terrain with gusto and brilliance and high energy, combining his own narrative story as a young athlete (his game was tennis) with his poetry on themes such as perseverance and resilience, teamwork, character and more.

Interspersed with Alexander’s narrative and poetry are quotes from famous athletes — from Michael Jordan to Simone Biles to Andy Roddick, coupled with some pretty interesting images by photographer Thai Neave.

The result is a sort of quilt of ideas, a mishmash of media with a single message on finding yourself in the face of adversity and coming through by working through the barriers of life. As a result, this book is nicely in tune to middle schoolers, particularly those with an interest in sports.

I handed this book to one of my students as soon as I got it. This student has difficulty concentrating but loves sports, and is only vaguely interested in reading novels. He loved this book, though, and thanked me afterwards for lending it to him.

Peace (take a shot),

PS —