Book Review: How to Write Short

I’m tempted to write a six word book review for this one. But Roy Peter Clark’s How to Write Short (Word Craft for Fast Times) is worth more than just  few words, even if I break from some of the very suggestions Clark lays out concisely and with humor in this book about writing in the modern age of short texts.

Clark, a newspaper man who works with journalists and others on the craft of writing, covers quite a bit of ground here, giving very specific advice and mentor texts about the art of writing short, using everything from Tweets, to photo captions, to six word memoirs, to marginalia, to listing, texting and more. He is also a talented writer.

His premise is that a good writer can pack a mighty punch in just a few words, if one is careful with their word choices and sentence creations. He also notes that we live in a world where updates and short texts are coming to rule how we get and share information, and having a working knowledge of this kind of writing is a key part of being literate. Of course, Clark also warns that writing short has its pitfalls, of losing depth to brevity, and the lack of nuance. A writer has be a good writer, even if the text is small.

Clark ends each (short, of course) chapter with some helpful “Grace Notes” that offers ways for the reader to become a writer in the form or format or genre that he has been discussing, and I found these a great source of ideas for writing activities. In short (ahem), How to Write Short is a powerful advice guide, with wit and humor (although there is a bit too much of Clark talking about his friends and networks and he almost works a bit too hard to show off his charm in his own writing) that will get you thinking of how to write and how to teach writing.

The book reminded me of this Ignite piece that I presented at NCTE a few years ago, on this very topic (here, I fall into what I criticized Clark about — showing off. Sorry.):

Peace (yep),


Book Review: The Island of Lost Maps

Miles Harvey subtitles this book “A True Story of Cartographic Crime,” which has nice evocative hook to it. Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps is a journey into the small field of map collections, but Harvey expands his scope to look at how maps have changed our perception of the world and how the increasing value of maps has given rise to a new kind of criminal: the map thief.

The book revolves around a history of mapmaking and Harvey’s journalistic pursuit of Gilbert Bland, whose crime of map theft landed him in prison, but not allegedly before raiding many library collections with an exacto knife and pure guts. Bland then sold the maps on the market and was only caught when another library patron senses something odd about the man, sitting at the table, perusing an old map collection.

Harvey does a good job of bringing us into the world of map collecting, and of the many ways that mapmakers created visions of the known and unknown world that shaped the Explorers of Europe during the age of discovery. Where Harvey goes a bit too far is in describing his own “map making” as he tries to piece together the life of Gilbert Bland, who refused to talk to Harvey and remains, even at the end, a bit of a mystery. Harvey uses the map metaphor for his own journalistic exploration, and while that metaphor can work, he often goes a bit too far.

Still, the way maps shape our lives is a fascinating story, and The Island of Lost Maps (besides having a wonderful title) does the job of filling in some of the gaps of the field quite nicely.

Peace (on the edge of the world),

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),