I led a writing prompt last week at our National Writing Project iAnthology space, asking folks what they were reading. I took cover images and created this as a gift back to those who were writing with me:
Peace (on the shelves),
Now here is a book with some sass! The Periodic Table of Elements with Style, by Simon Basher and Adrian Dingle, is an interesting mix of informational text about the periodic table of elements mixed with fictional stories, as told from the viewpoint of the elements themselves as a way to provide insights into each elements. I didn’t realize it until I turned the small, square book over, but this is one of a series of books in science that the two have done that keeps the theme of light-hearted informational text going.
Here, each element has a funny little drawn image that reminds me a bit of Pokemon, and the text is manageable and lively. Take this opening to Arsenic (one of the Nitrogen Elements), as an example:
“Make no mistake — I am a deadly element. A murderer’s delight and a master of disguise. One minute I’m a grey-colored metal, the next a yellow-colored non-metal, and my furtive ability to hide with ease and avoid detection makes me a favorite choice of the poisoner.” (86)
Or how about Calcium?
“They call me ‘The Scaffolder’ because I make up a large portion of the parts that hold you together — your skeleton and teeth.” (26)
Each element page includes not only the short, accessible text (although you can see some vocabulary words that might need dissecting), but also the year it was discovered, the density of the element, as well as the melting and boiling points. From a science perspective, the book is an engaging informational text. From the literacy perspective, the book nicely demonstrates how we can weave in fictional, point-of-view writing with science information, with some fun art thrown in. I could see this book being a nice mentor text for a science class activity around literacy. Which is exactly what the Common Core is requiring us to do, right? Bring literacy into the ELA classroom and bring content-area learning into the ELA classroom.
Peace (on the table),
I reviewed this ebook by Lee Ann Spillane — Reading Amplified – over at the Middleweb site. I enjoyed the media components as much as the content of the book.
Peace (in the book),
Yesterday, I shared out the infographic that I created using data from my students’ reading journals on how many pages they had read in the first week of our independent reading. It was really a way to capture the overall reading, excite them into thinking about data and books, and (for me) a way try out infographic creation. A few folks have asked how I went about doing it.
First, of course, I needed data. I had thought of using a massive chart in the room, having students track page each day. But that seemed cumbersome, and maybe a bit too distracting. So, instead, on the day I was collecting their reading journals for review, I had them write down the number of pages that they had read over the past week, or if they did not have access to every book they had read, they could “guestimate.” Those numbers ranged from 20 pages in a week to one student who read 1,000 pages in a week. (And I made no judgement on quality of books, either. It was all raw pages.)
Next, I used my calculator to come up with overall tally (almost 10,000 pages), and did some averaging: number of pages per student for the week and number of pages per student per day. Again, I was seeking interesting information that could be part of an informational display. I thought about adding the numbers of most and least pages read, but then realized that would make my slow readers feel bad about their fluency rates, so I abandoned that.
Now that I had my data, I needed a way to make the infographic. Of course, you can make an infographic in just about any platform. Powerpoint or Keynote work fine, and I realized later that Glogster would work well. But since I was exploring my own use of something new, I did some searching around. There plenty of tools now for creating infographics, although some are more “canned” than others. I went with Piktochart because it seemed flexible enough for my needs. And I found it easy to use. It was mostly Drag-drop, and replace text in their samples, and tinker with colors and design. A click of a button and I had downloaded it as an image file, and then uploaded it into Flickr, where I shared it here and at my classroom blog (which I will share again to the classes today).
Easy. (By the way, Piktochart has a handy resource on how to go about creating an infographic, including the thinking steps one should do.)
Peace (in the info),
This infographic — the first one I have made — captures some of the data gathered from my four classes of sixth grade students. We were tallying how many pages they have read since the first week in January. It was interesting to have them guess, and talk about strategies for guessing, on the total number of pages they have read as a sixth grade. Some thought the number as low as 200 (really? with more than 70 students reading over eight days?) Others thought tens of thousands of pages (really? same facts as before). A fair number did guess 10,000 pages, which is pretty close to the mark.
As I was making the infographic, I realized that I could also do some averaging “per student” so I included that there. Obviously, some students read more than others in this independent reading unit. But I was interested to see how the numbers turned out, and will be interested to hear my students’ reactions, too.
Peace (in the books),
I know it’s not fair to compare the powerful The Fault in Our Stars by John Green to Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, but how can I not? It’s not that the plots are similar. But the way that Green pulls the reader into the heart and mind of a character struggling with illness (or in the case of wonder, a birth deformity) follows a similar path, and I could not help comparing in my head the three novels and how it was affecting me — my heart. Green’s novel has been praised for its honesty of character, and I agree. Hazel, the narrator whose battling terminal cancer, is alive with voice in this book, and her truthfulness and toggling between seeing life for what it is and wishing it held out more for her and the people around her is touching.
Still, I felt a bit of a detachment from Hazel, and from her friend, Augustus, whose life force holds the story together. I’m not sure why I felt this detachment because I did care about Hazel and I did admire the way that Augustus believed in living to the fullest, and was touched by the love that he had for Hazel. But unlike the main character in Wonder, where I wanted to reach out and hug and protect August (almost the same character name — odd, right?) because his inner voice was so authentic, and so powerful — and in Out of My Mind where you just want to scream out to the world on behalf of the forced-silent Melody — here, I didn’t quite feel that emotion.
Green is clearly a gifted writer (this is the first book of his that I have read) but I felt as if I was being manipulated as a reader through the use of cancer as the plot device. Maybe this is because my own family has been touched by cancer, and its impacts, and I needed that detachment as a reader. I’m not discounting that. I’m happy that I read The Fault in Our Stars and I understand the high praise it has garnered (and might garner more in the coming weeks). For me, though, I found it missing something I can’t quite describe.
Peace (in the book),
I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Stickman Odyssey, although I seem to remember a long time back seeing some of the frames by writer/illustrator Christopher Ford at his online site. I thought it would be yet another retelling of The Odyssey, which I can certainly live with but there often seems to be a lot of them out there. Ford takes his stories, told in characters who are little more than stick figures, in directions that echoes the ancient texts but keeps an original storyline going. With lots of humor and character.
In brief, the story in the two books (Book 1 and Book 2, The Wrath of Zozimos) is about the main protagonist hero — Zozimos — who is an exiled prince who seeks to return home to retake his lands. But of course, there are all sorts of adventures and mythical creatures and obstacles in his path. He hooks up with a band of friends, with various strengths and weaknesses and stories unfolding of their own, and Ford weaves an epic tapestry of comic art here in The Stickman Odyssey. The books really do honor the myths while building on them with humor and invention. Ford is able to this because he pays attention to character development, which you sort of have to do when everyone is a stick figure (the books are subtitled: An Epic Doodle). He imbues the characters with identity, and those weakness and strengths of character carry the plots along at a quick pace.
I enjoyed The Stickman Odyssey stories, but I had trouble finding the books in my house, as my three sons were also reading and enjoying the stories, too. By the way, we all agreed that the second book was a bit more exciting than the first book, but it may be that we got to know the characters a bit at that point.
Peace (in the sticks),
Let’s here it for the fans of old libraries, the mysteries of books, and the intersections of old and new technology! Booya! Writer Robin Sloan has woven these elements together in his debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, in a wonderful way that mostly keeps the pace and interest going (although the ending is a bit of a letdown). The story revolves around the narrator, Clay Jannon, who is skirting on the edges of the web design business in San Francisco when he takes a job as a clerk at an old bookstore. It’s an odd place, built more vertical than horizontal, with shelves reaching up high into the air.
And while the place has only a few customers each day, the regulars are an odd sort, who return and take out ancient texts from deep and high in the shelves — books that seem undecipherable to Clay, until he discovers a secret society and enlists his new girlfriend, a woman who works at Google, to help him break an ancient code and discover what the society — and his bookstore boss, Mr. Penumbra, a kind man with a heart like Yoda — has been seeking. With a mix of humor and acknowledgement of the programming power of Google, plus a love of old books, Sloan has crafted a fun and engaging story that mostly holds together.
This is a book for the hands of friends who love old bookstores and books, and I have just the right person in mind, too. He used to work at a bookstore, and loves a good mystery. If you are that kind of person, then check out Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Prepare to be pleasantly engaged and entertained.
Peace (in the stacks),
Prolific writer James Patterson and friends are at it again. First, they (Patterson, along with illustrator Laura Park and writer Chris Tebbetts) put out the two Middle School (Worst Years of my Life) series that combine angst about surviving middle school with comedic, graphic-novel drawings and the wild imagination of its main character (Rafe), and now they have put out I Funny about angst in middle school peppered with humor and graphic drawings. (This time, Patterson hooked up with writer Chris Gragenstein but kept on Park.) Actually, I was initially thinking this was just the third book in the earlier series but that is not the case. I Funny is its own story.
Here, the narrator is Jamie Grimm, a wheelchair-bound middle schooler who yearns to be funny. As in, as a stand-up comic. Humor has become Jamie’s weapon against the realities of life, and we don’t learn why he is in the wheelchair until the very end of the book, when he finally confesses to a friend the whole story of the tragic accident that not only cost him use of his legs, but also ended up killing his entire immediate family. He now lives with his adoptive relatives, and life is difficult, to say the least.
I liked how the book puts Jamie’s physical and emotional struggles front and center, but in particular, Patterson and company really humanize Jamie as he struggles for some sense of normalcy in a life torn asunder by tragedy. It was also wise to have a new friend who sets time limits on Jamie for talking without joking, so that honesty and emotion is part of their friendship and relationship. Jamie is so wrapped up in his armor of humor that he has trouble relating to the real world. His entry into a stand-up comedian contest opens up doors for him, and gives him new confidence, but he also has come to come to terms with his life and his wheel-chair bound world.
The narrative arc here closely resembles the other two middle school books — a boy character dealing with a difficult situation that only comes to light late in the book. The illustrations by Park are funny, and complimentary to the story, and the plot is brisk in I Funny. What it lacks is a certain depth, although it certainly hints at that when Jamie finally tells his story to his new friend. There is an emotional wallop to the moment that we, the reader, feel, as does Jamie.
My middle school son really liked this book, and I suspect a few of the boys in my class will also find it interesting. (and I am sure they will be attracted to the cover design.) thought it was fine, but not great, mainly because it felt too much like old, familiar terrain. Jamie seems like a cousin to Rafe, the main character in the other middle school stories by Patterson. (or, I wonder, is that because Park illustrated both? Am I being swayed by the art more than the story? Possibly).
Peace (in the story),