Book Review: Lincoln’s Spymaster (Allan Pinkerton, America’s First Private Eye)

So, I realized the only way I really knew the Pinkerton name was through visuals of the Pinkerton ‘goons’ busting up labor riots with force and violence in the late 1880s and early 1900s. That’s part of the Pinkerton story, of course, but the origin of Allan Pinkerton as the first “spymaster” for the federal government during the Civil War is fascinating.

Samantha Seiple explores Allan Pinkerton and the origins of his detective company in Lincoln’s Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America’s First Private Eye, using plenty of rich primary sources to bring to light how undercover operations helped Lincoln’s efforts in the Civil War, not to mention Pinkerton’s thwarting of at least one or two assassination attempts on Lincoln’s life before John Wilkes Booth did the awful deed after Pinkerton left the government.

Seiple brings us right into the cloak and dagger operations, as well as showing how Pinkerton built up a business of spies that eventually led to the formation of the Secret Service and then the FBI. The use of primary images really helps show the reader the time and place of the stories woven here.

Plenty of rough characters come into play, too, from Rebel Rose Greenhow, during the Civil War, to Jesse James and his gang of bank robbers in the era after the war. Pinkerton is shown here as smart, tough, stubborn and dedicated to his job, at all costs. His own sons took over the company and helped steward it into a large investigative firm that is still around even today.

I suspect this non-fiction book will appeal to some of my students, and the storytelling is solid and informed. Pinkerton’s techniques of “tailing a suspect,” going “undercover,” and placing informants into enemy terrain are the stuff of spy stories, and most of these were first used in real life by Pinkerton and his detectives.

Peace (no longer undercover),


Book Review: Diary of Wimpy Kid (Double Down)

Eleven books into the Wimpy Kid series and Jeff Kinney still has the ability to make my inner middle school spirit laugh. Interest in the series has significantly dropped with my sixth grade students. Only one student ordered the book via our Scholastic account (two, if you count me, ordering one for my sixth grade son). Years ago, I could count a dozen orders or so.

But with Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down, Kinney continues to be funny and insightful to the inner lives of a middle school boy, and all sorts of pop references dot the story. It opens with a reference to The Truman Show movie with Jim Carrey, and a character who slowly becomes aware that others are viewing/reading their lives. Greg wonders if anyone is watching him life unfold.

Yes, Greg, we are.

I chuckled at the ways in which Greg finds a cool place in the Speech/Language pull-out class (because that was me in elementary school — working on my S sounds), and the taking up of French Horn to join the school band (in order to get invited to a party). Lots of sight gags and funny moments are in Double Down.

Look, it’s no literary work of art. It’s entertainment. My son read the entire book in one short session on the couch. I read it in an afternoon between doing dishes and the clothes wash. We were both entertained, and I see now that my son has dug out his collection of Wimpy Kid books to re-read (again). He reads deeper and much more complex stories than Wimpy Kid, but he still finds pleasure in the world of Greg Heffley, as imagined by Jeff Kinney.

Books are like that.

Peace (in the kid),

Graphic Novel Review: March (Book Three)


With phrases like “rigged” and “voter fraud” dominating our headlines in recent weeks of the presidential campaign, it’s informative to read US Sen. John Lewis’ final book in his graphic autobiography series in which Lewis details the Civil Rights Movement’s push to force the federal government to enforce laws that allowed black voters to register in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Civil Rights story puts the current events in perspective, particularly when you read about the violence and the unfairness of the voting system. Plus, the hate. You can’t escape the hate. Lewis’ story also reminds you of how far our nation has come, even if the headlines give us pause. And yes, it also is a call that we still have far to go when it comes to race, prejudice and injustice.

March: Book Three is the final installment in Lewis’ re-telling of his work as a young leader with the Civil Rights movement. The three books are framed around the famous Selma March that changed the way the nation saw the unfairness of the Alabama laws, and other states that were also discriminating against black voters. Like the first two books in this series, March: Book Three is a powerful piece of raw, visual storytelling. Lewis’ voice is front and center, as is his struggle to remain peaceful and true to his beliefs in the face of institutional violence. In the first Selma March, now called Bloody Sunday, Lewis suffered head injuries from a police officer’s baton.

Here, Book Three begins where the last book left off — with the bombing of the church in Birmingham where four girls were killed and dozens others injured — and ends with the Selma March. Woven in and out of the past is something more current — Senator Lewis watching Barack Obama becoming the first black president of the United States, something nearly unimaginable in the turbulent times of the 1960s.

Like the other two books, this one is not appropriate for middle school readers (and certainly not for elementary students) due to violence and language, but it will resonate with high school readers, particularly those who know only the larger stories of the Civil Rights Movement. The March graphic novels give us the nitty gritty details of organization and resistance, and the slow shift of change. It also reminds us of the dedication of so many people who sought to change our country’s fabric. Many paid a terrible price for their work.

Note: Lewis is listed as one of the authors of the March series, along with Andrew Aydin. The artwork in the series was done by Nate Powell.

Peace (let it be),

Book Review: Plotted (A Literary Atlas)

I love the whole concept of this book, Plotted: A Literary Atlas. Illustrator Andrew DeGraff uses his skills as an artist and mapmaker to create an atlas of the imagination, drawn from famous literary works. Daniel Harmon provides some of the written context, but it is DeGraff’s wonderful evocative maps of books such as The Odyssey, Hamlet, Watership Down and more that are bound to draw you into the fictional worlds and let you wander.

One of the more bolder and pivotal maps, I think, is the literary map of Frederick Douglas, where DeGraff shapes the history of this great man from Slavery to Freedom to Advocacy, all through the path of the map that echoes of the path of the man.

And I found this video of DeGraff, sharing a video on how he made this particular map in stopmotion framing. I love the Internet!

Creating the Literary Map of “The Narrative of the Life ofFrederick Douglass” for “Plotted: A Literary Atlas”, by Andrew DeGraff from Andrew DeGraff on Vimeo.

Peace (along the lines, plotted),


Graphic Novel Review: Arab of the Future 2


It’s so difficult to read Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East by Riad Sattouf without the prism of the modern day tragedy unfolding in Syria. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. Maybe that’s the point.

Sattouf’s continued insightful exploration of his childhood in Syria, which is the focus of this second autobiographical graphic novel, provides context and insights into the underlying tensions that may now be ripping apart of the fabric of that country. Sattouf is telling his own story, and his family’s story, through the eyes of himself, as a child in the Middle East. Yet, his story has larger implications.

Sattouf’s first book (years 1978-1984) bounced the family back and forth between the Middle East and Europe. This second book (years 1984-1985) mostly is confined to his childhood in Syria (with one vacation jaunt to France, which provides a stark contrast to Syria), and through Sattouf’s young eyes, we start to see the tensions of politics; of moral, religious, and ethical fault lines; and of the Assad’s family’s looming presence over everyday life as the regime strengthens its grip on society.

The power of a graphic novel autobiography like this one is that it humanizes the experiences of everyday Syrians. Sattouf uses humor and insight, and compassion, even as he casts an honest eye at his own family’s struggle to fit in (he, for example, has a French mother, and he has blond hair … not stereotypical Arab) and survive within the confines of everyday life in Syria in the mid-1980s. The scenes of the school day are enlightening and horrifying, yet are tempered by the innocent eyes of his younger self.

Sattouf’s books — and I hope he keeps going with his story — have given me a deeper understanding of Arab life in the Middle East, and allowed me to see the world beyond the newspaper headlines. By providing us the perspective of child in a country, and an entire region, about to enter a period of immense change, Sattouf shared with us the gift of perspective and understanding.

What more can you ask for of any book?

Peace (in Syria and beyond),

Book Review: Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)

The first time I heard Bruce Springsteen’s name was in the weeks before he hit the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines in the 1970s. Our neighborhood was crazy about rock and roll, and someone knew someone who had a cousin who had heard about this rocker out of New Jersey who could put on a lights-out live show. His name was Bruce Springsteen.


Soon, we knew who he was, although his music never could compete with the Led Zep and Aerosmith landscape of my neighborhood. His sound wasn’t hard enough. There were no Bruce fans on my block. But Bruce was out there, and we knew about him. (Years later, I finally saw him live and saw what the fuss was all about … no other live show had that kind of energy and no other artist that I have seen had that kind of command on stage.)

Yesterday, after a marathon session, I finished reading Springsteen’s autobiography — Born to Run — and while I consider myself an avid fan these days, I realized that I never quite grasped the larger vision that Bruce has been pursuing over the past 30 years or so. The book brought to the light the narrative of America that he has been writing about and exploring, from the first guitar riff in Born to Run (when he decided to change his musical direction from his two earlier Dylan-like albums .. two albums I particularly like) right through the songs he is still putting out today (Wrecking Ball, etc.).

For an artist to have a vision and to stay mostly true to it over the course of time, particularly given the fickle nature of the world, is difficult. To be a pop artist (at least for a while) and stay true … that’s something we rarely see. Springsteen sought to tell the story of ourselves, through his characters, and himself, too, and as we all grew up, he tried to show how we adjust to the changing landscape. Many of his songs are short stories, told to rock and roll and chord changes. Some, like American Skin and Born in the USA, are often misunderstood.

The autobiography (written by Bruce himself … he’s a solid writer most of the time) explores his songwriting craft (a topic which I always find intriguing) and his life, but I was most attuned to where he was able to find his inspiration for stories, and how he took control of his career and his music (he owns the rights to all of his song and all of his albums … which is pretty rare). Bruce has his demons and his battles, but he seems to have now found happiness in his family, even as he is still driven by the need to write music and to perform in front of an audience, to connect to the energy of something larger than the music itself.

I still think his response to 9/11, with the album The Rising, was what the country needed at the time. It is a measures response, with song about loss and love and the toll these have on the human spirit. Bruce writes about looking at the New York skyline, and the missing towers, and then a fan yelling out the window that “we need you” as the undercurrent of the album. His performance of My City of Ruins on a televised event gave me pause.

Born to Run gives context for why Bruce felt the need to meet that call of that fan and why he needed to bring music to the world as reckoning of events and a comfort in the stories we needed to tell to try to make sense of the tragedy. I think we’re still telling those stories.


Peace (in the muse),


Graphic Novel Review: Ghosts

Raina Telgemeier does it again. Ghosts, her latest graphic novel for middle school readers (with lots of wiggle room above and below that readership), is another fantastic bit of storytelling that effectively uses the images of graphic storytelling to complement and enhance the story itself.

Ghosts is about family, and friendship, and ancestry, and culture. It is told with humor and compassion. It’s fun to read, too (always a key criteria). Telgemeier, whose books Sisters and Smile  and Drama and others are a hit with many of the girls in my classroom (and a few boys), brings a sense of wonder to her topics.

Here, the story centers on a family that has moved to the California coast because the younger sister (Maya) has Cystic Fibrosis, and her lungs need the cool ocean air. Her older sister, Catrina, worries about her and doesn’t like this place where the family has moved because of its cultural connections to ghost stories. Mexican roots run deep in this town, and soon, Catrina and Maya learn that ghosts are not only real here, but they are also deep connection points to family history.

I was taken by how thoughtfully and carefully Tegemeier approached Cystic Fibrosis, giving Maya a full and rich character even as the disease slowly hobbles her and has her wanting to meet the ghosts to learn more about death, which she knows is coming early in her life. That’s pretty deep, and Tegemeier’s Ghosts does a fine job of making that investigation part of the fabric of the story.

“It’s sad … but good,” a student of mine said, as she cradled Ghosts the other day before settling down to read quietly.

I agree.

Peace (be not afraid),

Book Review: Nine, Ten (A September 11 Story)

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about wanting to read some of the latest young adult fiction coming out about 9/11 in order to frame conversations with my students and my youngest son. I have started with this one — Nine,Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin. I’m glad I did. It’s the perfect kind of story — weaving together the fictional lives of four young people whose world was touched by the 9/11 attack.

There is a moment at the end of this story, where the characters’ stories finally connect (sort of like the movie Crash in this way) that had my eyes watering and my heart pounding. I won’t give the moment away. I’ll just say that Baskin ups her game with the ending here, bringing her story to a close that not only makes sense, but also creates a large understanding of the world … and the tapestry of ourselves.

Her writing style is engaging in this novel, and compassionate. Each of the four characters is facing different dilemmas and challenges — from being Muslim in America to losing a family member who acted heroic to coming to grips with changes in the family and school. I believed in these characters, and how the 9/11 event slowly draws them together. What more could you ask for a novel aimed at upper elementary and middle school readers? For a story for those readers born after the event?

When I was through with Nine,Ten: A September 11 Story, I continued to believe in the goodness of people, even in the long shadow of horrific tragedy. That’s a gift that only a book can give.

Peace (threads come together),

Middleweb Review: The World Peace Game

The most innovative idea that I came across this summer? How about John Hunter’s World Peace Game concept? The game is incredible and complicated and pushes all sorts of learning in all sorts of directions.

Hunter’s story of how he developed this intensive game that upped the ante for his fourth graders (and other assorted age groups as he brings the game elsewhere … including the Pentagon, where military leaders played it, too) as he asks players to help solve problems facing the world. His story is certainly worth a look, if only for discovering another way to re-examine our classroom spaces as something beyond testing and mandates.

Read my review at Middleweb of World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements by John Hunter.

Peace (not just a game),