Book Review: Book (My Autobiography)

You know those moments when serendipity hits?

I had one of those moments yesterday, as I brought my son to the library and stumbled, just as I was thinking of creative non-fiction that would make sense in my classroom, on Book: My Autobiography by John Agard (illustrations by Neil Packer). There the book was, just sitting on a bookcase, with the word “Book” facing me. I picked it up and was immediately lost in the story. Took it home. Kept on reading. Kept on thinking.

Book tells the story of the book, in a very creative narrative style, bringing us Book as the narrator of the book through the ages. It begins with:

My name is BOOK and I’ll tell you the story of my life.”

And from there, it moves briskly through ancient times of writing across cultures, through the refinement of paper, to moveable type to the Age of eBooks. The voice is poetic, and funny, with enough research behind the story of Book to provide multiple in-roads for discussions about various cultural advancements (Egypt, China, India, Sumar, etc.). The text is also complimented with rich illustrations and a handful of poems about reading and writing and books as physical objective manifested with imagination.

Book is my kind of book.

As I was reading, I was remembering an old unit I used to do around the printing press and newspapers (it was a Student Teacher project). I had this activity where students created their own moveable press device for printing text. And as I read further, I could see timeline constructions, argumentative writing, and mapping activities and more as I read this story. Mapping the changes of how we write and how we read … that’s a perfect text for the kinds of discussions we have in our classroom on a regular basis, to be honest.

As it happens, this year’s class parents are asking about how they can give a “gift” to our grade from fundraising money they have, and they wondered if a book set might be possible … so I see this as one possibility. (Cost might be prohibitive, though, as it is only in hardcover right now).

It also has been reminding of me this cute video from a few years ago (which is a version of the picture book). The video is a trailer for It’s a Book by Lane Smith:

Peace (in the love of books),
Kevin

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Old School)

(Note: I wrote this review a few months ago and then it sat in my draft bin, so some of the time references are past now.)

I’m not sure how Jeff Kinney taps into the experience of my kids, but every Wimpy Kid book seems to have done it. With his latest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School, Kinney touches on a push to pull back on technology in our lives in order to reconnect with family and community (which Greg Hefley, our protagonist, has qualms about, in a funny way) and a school trip to a week-long outdoor camp adventure (with very funny results and a new connect with dad).

So, we just had a discussion about lessening our technology in our home AND my youngest son — still a fan of Wimpy Kid books and Jeff Kinney — just came back from a week-long school trip … to an outdoor camp adventure facility.

Weird, right?

Listen, Kinney’s writing is fun and engaging, but won’t be pushing any deep literature thinking. However, his use of visuals to help tell the story continue to be a mentor text on how simple illustrations can impact a story. You want to know who is carrying around Kinney’s books in my classrooms? Mostly the boys. Mostly the boys who don’t like to read. They sit and read quietly with Kinney’s books, though. (Some girls, too. But mostly, the boys.)

So, yes, it would be nice to see them choosing deeper stories with larger themes. But to see them reading? That’s a deep “thank you” to Jeff Kinney. One step at a time. My job is to keep moving them forward from that book to this book to that book to this book. And if we can laugh along the way, I’m all for that.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

Book Review: Thing Explainer

Cover of the book Thing Explainer

What Randall Monroe pulls off in Thing Explainer reminds me a bit of what Dr. Seuss did with his early books for young readers: he purposefully uses a minimal amount of words to explain the complicated world (although Dr. Seuss sought to teach young people how to read with The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham).

In the case of Thing Explainer, Monroe limited himself to 1,000 common words, and no more (he lists them at the end of the book). That may seem like a lot, until you realize the complexity of the world he is explaining — such as computerized data centers that make up cloud computing, and the space stations, cells, and the human body, and more.

What Monroe brings to these explanations is his witty sense of visuals and webcomic ability, which are always on display at his xkcd webcomic, but here, his visuals are given full pages (the book is oversized, and I would probably recommend going with the physical book over a digital book, but that’s just me). He may only use stick people, but those stick people are hilarious in their poses and verbal asides, and they fit in perfectly with Monroe’s visual design of our modern world, told in simple language.

It’s fun learning.

My students are in the midst of expository writing right now, and I might see if I can get a few of Monroe’s drawings out of the book and up onto my classroom walls. The pencil one in particular is very interesting and inviting, and it would surely draw the attention of my students (we’ve been doing diagram drawing all year long for creative writing).

Monroe also created a “simple writer” website, for trying out yourself how to explain something in few words, using his database of common words. I popped this entire blog post into it, and discovered many words above and beyond the complexity point.

Using SimpleWriter

 

Peace (in the thing, explained),
Kevin

 

Audio Letter 3: Dear Mimi Ito

mimiquote

This is the third and final “audio letter” that I created as a reader response to Participatory Culture in a Networked Era.  The letters use a quote from the three writers of the book as an inroad to a reflective response. The first audio was to Henry Jenkins. The second, to danah boyd. And this one is to Mimi Ito.

Peace (in thinking out loud),
Kevin

 

Audio Letter 1: Dear Henry Jenkins

After finishing up Chapter 4 in Participatory Culture in a Networked Era as part of a slow-read with Digital Writing Month folks, I felt this impulse to respond in voice to the three writers as they talked through complex issues of learning and literacy.That led to the idea of three “audio letters” to the writers — Henry Jenkins, Mimi Ito and danah boyd — and the first is here, to Henry.

henryquote

I took a quote from the chapter and built my response around the ideas in the quote. I’ll share out my audio letters to Mimi and danah in the next two days.

Peace (thinking),
Kevin

Book Review: Airborn

This book — Airborn by Kenneth Oppel —  has been kicking around my house and classroom for years now. Long ago, I had started it as a read-aloud for my oldest son (now a high school senior but then, in elementary school) and the vocabulary was too dense for him at the time, so we put it aside. My middle son later found it when he was in middle school, read it, and then devoured the next two books in the series.

He then proceeded to pressure my youngest son (now in fifth grade) to read Airborn this past summer. There was resistance (maybe due to brotherly recommendation), and I put Airborn on my “maybe to read aloud” pile of books. Well, let’s just say that my youngest son and I finally read this story with a steampunky theme  — airships replace airplanes as main modes of travel — and we were very quickly knee-deep in the adventures of protagonist Matt Cruse in a tale that involves air pirates, the beauty of airships, friendship across economic lines and a mysterious flying creature that lives in the clouds.

Oppel does a fantastic job with character, which means the story gets off on a sort of slow pace as he sets the stage for Matt Cruse and his friend, Kate, before kicking the plot into high gear with a pirate attack and an emergency landing on what seems to be a deserted island. Ingenuity, friendship, sacrifice … all the themes are here.

Peace (in the adventure),
Kevin

PS — Since the time I wrote this review, and let it sit in my blog bin (I seem to have a fair number of book reviews hanging around in there), we have read the two other books in the series — Skybreaker and Starclimber.  They were good, too, but not as good as Airborn, I don’t think.

Digital Access and Equity: What if THEY is all of US?

What if they is us?

I am in the midst of reading Participatory Culture in a Networked Era with the Digital Writing Month community and thoroughly enjoying the format (discussions among Ito, boyd and Jenkins) and the topics, which connect nicely to my own diving into Connected Learning.

Chapter Three of the book centers on access and equity issues (under the academic guise of “genres” — at least, in my mind) and as I was reading, this comic began to form in my mind. It’s a bit metaphorically simple: the locked door and no access to the inside from those on the outside.

But it was tagline that seemed most important to me: What if they is all of us?

What if we (us teachers, us adults, us) are the ones closing that door on different elements of our population? What if we are doing it inadvertently? What if we don’t even know the door has been closed? Who’s waiting out there, wondering?

And then, of course, the ancillary question: how do we break that door open wide so no one feels left out? Pass me that sledgehammer won’t you?

access issue

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Book Review: Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer

It’s hard to escape the voice of Percy Jackson in the new series launched by Rick Riordan that moves away from Greek and Roman mythology and into Norse myths. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: the Sword of Summer is the kick-off point for some new adventures, and my sixth graders are all over this book right now. I read it aloud with my 11 year old son, and he loved it, too.

I liked it.

But Riordan’s style of writing and sense of voice with his main character, Magnus Chase, is so similar to Percy Jackson — with sarcasm and teenage humor and tenacity tinted with doubt — that I wondered aloud to my son if maybe Riordan isn’t pulling some sort of narrative trick on us — transforming Percy into Magnus in a new mythology. Heck, even Annabeth Chase — my absolute favorite character from Riordan’s growing archive — makes a visit, as she is Magnus’ cousin.

My son scoffed at me, as if I were crazy. But … we’ve been wondering about this ever since reading The Red Pyramid stories, too. How can Riordan NOT be pulling these stories together sometime in the future?

So, here’s what to like about Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: the Sword of Summer: the pace of the plot moves quickly; there is plenty of humor and references to past Riordan stories; we learn a whole bunch about a relatively unknown and untaught mythology (who knew a giant nutso squirrel protects the tree of the worlds?); and this one kicks the series into high gear in an engaging way.

You know what I had the most difficulty with? Reading aloud all of those Norse names for the Nine Worlds. My tongue got tied more than once.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin