Graphic Novel Review: Dragons Beware!

What sets graphic novels like Dragons Beware!  (a sequel to the equally wonderful Giants Beware! from a few years ago … this graphic novel comes out next month .. I received an advance copy) is easy to identify but not so easy to pull off: strong characters, solid writing and engaging artwork. If only every graphic novel hitting the shelves for young readers consistently had those three things ….

Luckily, writer Rafael Rosado and illustrator Jorge Aguirre have kept the character of the girl hero, Claudette, fearless and adventuress and in the midst of another mission, this time to secure her father’s long-lost sword — which just happens to sit inside the stomach of the most fearsome dragon in the land. Claudette, whose fully-drawn character will connect with readers of any age and any gender (even though I am happy we have a girl protagonist here), travels with her band of friends and family, including the kingdom’s princess, whose advice on solving problems through diplomatic discussions saves the day as much as Claudette’s bravery.

The quality of the writing never drops here, even with the minor characters (a ragtag band of princes follows Claudette’s team and it is like watching the Little Rascals on the page), and the artwork is magnificent. The publisher, First Second, takes full use of the oversized book to bring the dragon (and its children) to full repose, extending frames across double-pages to heighten the action.

Dragons Beware! will be a sure-fire hit in most elementary and even middle school classrooms, I suspect. I am hopeful a third book is in the future. Claudette and her friends deserve another adventure, and so do we.

Peace (in the lair),

Book Review: Fakes


For those who know me, this is my kind of book. Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts, a collection edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, is all about taking a genre and twisting it all around in an attempt to make something new and interesting. I first saw this book on a store shelf in the Library of Congress, of all places, and then ordered it when I got home.

The fiction in this book — which begins with a disclaimer to the reader and ends with a  contributors’ note and index, all finely fraudulent  — runs the range of all sorts of official-looking documents — from Last Will and Testaments, to Works Cited, to complaint letters, to personal advertisements — that open up to the door for the writers to explore genre, break genre and be creative. In doing so, they open up the reader’s eyes to possibilities.

The most powerful piece in here, for me, is Kevin Wilson’s “The Dead Sister Handbook: A Guide for Sensitive Boys (Laconic Method to Near Misses)” — which broke my heart while pulling me down into the world of self-help guides for kids. A brother trying to comprehend his sister is the center of this piece and all the while, you can feel the slope getting steeper and steeper.

Not every piece is as strong as that one, but given the ways in which we have come to twist genres and styles of writing, and the way the Internet allows us to freely share our versions of writing, Fakes remains an intriguing look at some possibilities. For more daily variety, I suggest you check out McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies, too. I get more laughs per post there in my RSS feed than anywhere else.

Peace (its not fake),


Book Review: Danger is Everywhere

Danger is Everywhere: A Handbook for Avoiding Danger is a nice satirical antidote to the wave of adventure books for boys and girls now flooding the market. Writer David O’Doherty and illustrator Chris Judge bring a hilarious view to the world of dangers all around us, using their foil — Docter Noel Zone — and his observation that everything is out to get you to give helpful “advice” on staying alive in a dangerous world.

I had this book recommended by a student, who told me “I have to read this. Your life depends upon it.” Oh, how right she was …

Don’t believe me?

How about now?


From the Page 9 Scorpion, to the Polar Bear Attack, to the Toilet Shark, to the Mailbox Octopus and beyond … well, you get the picture (and speaking of pictures, the illustrations here are very funny). The good docter (yes, he put an “e” in there to show he is not a real doctor) is on the case, even as he touts the eating and use of cabbage and investigates the theft of a garden gnome (Mr. Chomsky … inside linguistic joke?) from a neighbor he has a crush on.

By the end of this lighthearted help book, you will emerge as an official Dangerologist. Not that it will do much good when the Mailbox Octopus or the Piano Walrus come for you …

Peace (in the fun),


Book Review: My Near-Death Adventures (99% True)

My son and I took a chance on this for read aloud based only on the title. Death. Adventure. He was hooked. (He is a 10 year old boy). And My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp was a fine choice for our read aloud time, as it is funny, hyperbolic look at living in the time of lumber camps and Lumberjacks and how a boy is missing the father he never knew, so he searches the camp for another one.

DeCamp liberally uses hyperbole to tell this tall tale, but for me, it was the voice of the narrator — Stanley Slater — that comes through as a confused kid, a bit curious about the world, and trying to navigate that shifting space between childhood and manhood while surrounded by strong women working to keep the family together. It’s not easy for Stan.

My son got tired of the “I’m a whiz at …” phrase that Stan says quite a bit (he’d be quite the expert if everything he said was true) so I began to replace the phrase with others (Sorry, Alison).

I loved how she let Stan’s inner thoughts sneak out as mumbles that other characters would hear, as it makes for some hilarious interactions. And while Stan does not get what he wants (he never finds his father, who has abandoned the family, and he does not get to join the river run of logs), he does discover some things about life and some loose ends get tied up by the end of the novel that indicates that Stan and his mother will be OK, even if his “evil” Granny is still in the picture.

My Near-Death Adventures is a fun read-aloud, and I almost forgot to mention one of the more interesting elements of this book. DeCamp uses the scrapbook idea to very funny means here, showing Stan’s collection of cutout images from magazines, complete with Stan’s doodling on the pictures, so that there are visual jokes to go along with the text. It is quite effective.

Peace (in the adventure),

Slice of Life: Books Read/Books Begun

(This is a Slice of Life post, in which we share out the events of the day. It runs through March and then every Tuesday throughout the year, and is facilitated by the folks atTwo Writing Teachers. You write, too.)

Yesterday was one of those literary convergence days, where a bunch of books I had been reading all came to an end, and then … I started a whole new bunch of books.


Book Read: I finished up a wonderful novel by Tony Abbott called The Postcard. It is a mystery story with a few layers of story going on, as a young boy discovers a postcard that opens up the truth about the mysterious past of his grandmother and his great-grandfather, with hidden stories uncovered by clues in found postcards. The Florida setting really helped tell the story here, and the intertwining narratives of the protagonist and that of the chapters of a short story that he finds weave together nicely.

Book Begun: I’ve been wanting to read A Wrinkle in Time with my son for some years but I know it might not interest him in the way it grabbed me as a kid. But a graphic novel version? That worked, and after reading a bit last night, he took the book to bed with him to read it alone. I guess I am all right with that. Not really. I wanted to read it with him, and remember why I fell in love with the story of Meg and Charles Wallace and the adventures through strange time and space. I guess this one may move into the “pleasure reading” category soon enough. By the way, the graphic novel version is well done.


Book Read: I pick up John Grisham novels now and then, just for the power reading of story and the mechanisms of a legal thriller. I won’t say his writing blows me away, but Gray Mountain does have a deep theme to mine, with a New York lawyer volunteering in a small Southern town, and launching into a fight against the coal companies whose greed and corruption impacts the poor people of the communities where the operations take place. Grisham uses his novel to make a point about the destruction of mountain with clear cutting, mineral stripping operations that have ripped the tops of mountains off and left the majestic beauty of some places forever harmed.

Book Begun: This is my second time around for Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, which is a historical novel built on the premise of an alternative past — what if most of Europe was decimated by the Plague, and Islam became the dominant culture of the continent, as the Mongolians and Arabians moved westward and northward as the most powerful forces on the planet? It’s a thoughtful, wide-canvas of a novel, and I remember being captivated by it years ago (way before 9/11 and way before the modern politics and wars and revolt of the Middle East … I wonder how my views of the story might be different now?)


Book Read: I’ve been reading Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading by Tanny McGregor with a group of reading teachers in my school district. It’s part of a PLC that takes place during professional development days. I really like McGregor’s style of writing and of teaching, where she uses a lot of props and objects to spark understanding of concepts like inference, schema and synthesis with students. This was a good choice for our PLC gatherings, which continue this coming Tuesday.

Book Begun: If you read this blog, you know I am always interested in the concept of gaming and game design for learning. Greg Toppo’s The Game Believes in You: How Games Can Make Our Kids Smarter is a deft account of how game elements can engage students on a different level. While Toppo so far seems to be exploring the gamification idea, I am hopeful he shifts into putting the tools of design into the hands of students, which is my primary focus.

What are you reading?

Peace (in the pages),



Slice of Life: When We Used to Fill the Book Bags

(Each day in March, a whole bunch of educators are writing Slices of Life — capturing the small moments. It is facilitated by Two Writing Teachers. You write, too.)

Write, Share, Give

I took my youngest son to the public library yesterday and it was there that I had one of those memory moments. Years ago, when all three boys were younger, I used to bring them to the library regularly, and we would spend at least an hour or so in the children’s section, reading stories, playing blocks, watching fish, and choosing books to bring home. It was not unusual for me to lug home a bag filled with 25 or more picture books. I’d drop the bag on the floor, and let the books spill out, and the kids would sit in the midst, reading or looking at the bounty of stories.

Now, when the older boys join me at the library, they go upstairs to the adult section or the video section (or the adult graphic novel section). My youngest is still content to sit on the floor, and I found him yesterday reading some Garfield books while I perused the shelves of the Young Adult fiction novels. I then wandered into the picture book area, and listened furtively as a father read a book to his toddler son. I said hello to the fish. I remembered.

Of course, we grabbed a few books to borrow but nothing like the past, and I guess that’s OK. Still, I often have those pangs of remembering how the library used to be our regular place for literacy (particularly on those rainy days), and now as I think about the three boys and their abilities in reading and writing (all very strong), I like to think that our visits to the world of books and the regular stacks of stories we brought home to read together have had an influence on them. I know that to be true (and worry about my students whose families never entered their library or brought books home or read aloud to them when they were younger.)

I’m being wistful with this Slice of Life, but I am also grateful that we live in a place that has such rich public spaces for anyone to borrow all kinds of books. Libraries remain the rich heart of literacy, and even though our visits are less frequent, I know my boys realize the library is there for them, whenever they need something to read or something to explore, and I know they value our library as much as I do. Of that, I am certain.

Peace (in the stacks),

Book Review: The Everything Store

I’ve been reading a selection of books about the wave of technology companies dominating our landscape, mostly as a way to better understand how they came to be and who are the people behind the ideas. So, Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon fit that theme nicely.

Amazon (or should I say, as the company always insists?) is an amazing story of one man, with a grand idea, who is slowly but methodically enacting his vision of a one-stop online store for anything. Jeff Bezos and his organization is also characterized as being pretty ruthless in its practices, using its power to wield more power against smaller and bigger companies, at least according to Stone. It sees a market. It takes the market.

I won’t go through a full review of Stone’s book here, except to notice on interesting thing, as a writer and a teacher of writing.  (And to note, Stone has come under fire by Amazon folks for way he describes the company, but I found it pretty balanced in both praise and criticism.)

There is an intriguing section in the book where Bezos orders an edict to his managers: no more Powerpoints in meetings. Instead, Bezos requires all of his managers to write narratives of their plans for their divisions, and each meeting starts out with a shared reading of those narratives. Stone says that Bezos believes that writing is a way of thinking, while Powerpoint is a glossed-over version of explanation. The reaction from his staff is mixed and miffed, now that they had to recall all of the writing skills they learned back in school for real life.

You think Bezos ever attended a National Writing Project Summer Institute?

Even if you don’t admire Amazon for its size and scope, or maybe even Bezos for way he runs his company, you have to admire him for understanding the potential of an idea, and to put it down into writing as a way to better understand it.

Peace (in the store),

Slice of Life: Saying Sensei

(This is for Slice of Life, a writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers. Each day, we are looking at the small moments of life and writing. You write, too.)

saying sensei

(Check out the Word Map for Sensei)

I am doing a read-aloud of a novel entitled Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz with my son. We’re both liking it (although the story starts with a ritual suicide by the protagonist’s uncle as part of a Samurai code ceremony and this unnerved me more than a little bit.) But there is a word in the story that I keep mispronouncing. Maybe you have your own arsenal of words that whenever you see it, you say it wrong.

My current word trouble is “sensei.” I don’t know why this one causes me so much difficulty. When I read it in my head, I hear it just fine. Sens-ay. When I read it out loud, it comes out Sens-eye. I suspect it has do with the spelling of the word. My son called me on the carpet last night. Again.

Him: Dad! (sigh). You said it wrong. Why do you do that?

Me: I did?

Him: Yes. It’s sens-aye. You said sense-eye again. Why are you doing that? It’s so frustrating!

Me: Sorry.

I pause to look at the word. I’ve paused to look at that same dang word many times now. I’ve seen Karate Kid (both versions) enough times to know how it sounds. I put my finger on the word. I keep reading, and when I run into the word, I slow my voice down, carefully pronouncing each syllable. Se-ns-ei.

Him: Dad!

Me: What? I said it right. Right?

Him: Now you’re reading too slow!

Me: (sigh).


This reminds me of a time when I was about seven years old, and I found I was saying the word “very” wrong. Somehow, without my even knowing it, I began saying vurrry (maybe I watched some British show?). A friend finally pointed it out to me (in blunt terms: why are you saying that word like that?) and it was like a punch in the stomach. What? What am I doing? I could not believe it. Then I said “very” out loud and sure enough, it was all wrong.

I practiced that word by myself, mostly because I did not want to be embarrassed in front of peers. I said “very” many times. Very Very Very Very. Now I find myself doing it with “sensei.” Sensei Sensei Sensei.

Me: I’ve got it now. Sensei.

Him: That sound right. Now, can you keep reading?

Me: Hai!

Him: Dad!

Peace (in the pronunciation),

Slice of Life: It’s Allegorical

(This is a post for the Slice of Life, facilitated by Two Writing Teachers throughout March and every Tuesday during the year. You come write, too.)

Yesterday was the birthday of Dr. Seuss. Theodore Geisel has local connections to our area (Springfield, Massachusetts, is right down the road) and so we often do play up celebrations around the author. Yesterday, with all of my sixth grade classes, I read aloud The Butter Battle Book. Only a handful had ever heard of it before, and a few had read it.

The Butter Battle Book is not his best book — I still vote for The Lorax just about any day of the week — but it does give me a chance to do a mini-lesson around “allegory” — a pretty complex literary term for sixth graders. But after discussions around the Cold War, and global geopolitics both of the past and present, we dove into the story of the Yooks and Zooks who hate each other because of how they butter their bread.

Reading the picture book, playing up the voices, asking questions, sparking discussions — it reminds me that we don’t do enough to use picture books for mentor texts in the upper grades. I use them, but I could probably do it even more.

We were hoping to do an All-School Read-Aloud for Read Across America Day yesterday (and Wednesday is World Read Aloud Day), but snow moved in (surprise) and we had a two-hour delay, so that community reading will happen this morning. I am trying to find my copy of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Anyone borrow it?

Peace (in the book),