Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Now, here is a novel with quiet power. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is not just the story of a young Texas girl, growing up in the late 1800s and realizing that she has a desire to become a scientist. The novel tells the tale of the social confines that hemmed in girls for so long while also celebrating the independent spirit that pushed against those walls to (eventually) force change and gender equality (still underway, right?).

To put it like that, however, steals away the real power of the writing here, as Kelly does a masterful job of bringing us into the mind and world of Callie Vee, who connects with her rather aloof, mysterious grandfather, who has made his fortune with a cotton gin and pecan farm and now intends to spend the rest of his life observing nature, documenting science and if possible, discovering a new species of plant in the world. Calpurnia, armed with a notebook, joins him in his scientific inquiries in rural Texas, even as her family is getting her ready for the age when she should be attracting a husband for her ordained future as a housewife.

Calpurnia has no interest in that at all.

She wants to be a scientist in a world and age when few women were allowed those opportunities. Luckily, she has her grandfather and that connection with him grows stronger throughout the book as he does his best, in his own way, to educate her in the sciences. As writer, Kelly does a fine job of bringing this Texas family from 1899 to life, and it’s nearly impossible not to root for Calpurnia to break free of the gender constraints and follow her inner voice that seeks to make sense and understand the natural world around her.

I started reading this book only a whim. Someone donated it to my classroom and it has been in the bookshelf for a year. I was intrigued by the title itself (Yes, Darwin’s theories play a role in shaping Callie Vee’s view of the world), and I am glad that I took the plunge. Calpurnia’s voice has lingered with me for days after putting down the book. (Oh, and I see there is a sequel: The Curiosity of Calpurnia Tate. I wonder what Callie has been up to.)

Peace (in change),

Graphic Novel Review: Cleopatra in Space (Target Practice)

This graphic novel has bandied about our house for nearly a year. I don’t know why it took me so long to read, but I know my youngest son had read it a few times and said he liked it. I think that’s why it took me so long … I couldn’t find the book and only recently did I find it during a “clean the bedroom or else” sweep.

I’m glad I did (find the book).

Cleopatra in Space, by Mike Maihack, is a series of graphic novels about, yes, THAT Cleopatra as a budding teenager who gets herself zapped not just into the future (where she is destined to change the fate of the Universe) but also to an entirely new galaxy altogether (where many of the character are intelligent cats).

The mechanics of her transformation from Ancient Egypt (ancient to us, anyway) to outer space is less important than knowing that Maihak is attuned to character development and to using humor to tell a full-on action story. We don’t get a ton of backstories to the friends that Cleopatra is making but I suspect that might be coming with other books in the series. The artwork is colorful and engaging, and the story moves at a solid pace, without sacrificing characters and plot gaps.

Cleopatra is no fool and she’s pretty handy with her laser gun, too.

This is just the first book in the series (entitled: Target Practice) but I am intrigued and want to know more about this feisty heroine. This book is well-suited for boys and girls in the elementary and maybe middle school years. The boys won’t be turned off by a girl as protagonist because of the sense of adventure and action, and the girls will be excited to see someone their own age as the hero of a graphic novel story. Win-win.

Peace (connecting across time),

Book Review: Who Is Jeff Kinney?

I can answer the question in the title of this small book for you rather easily enough: Jeff Kinney is the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. If you teach in an elementary/middle school, or have young readers at home, ’nuff said. This short biography — Who is Jeff Kinney? — gives more details about Kinney’s life as a budding and aspiring cartoonist/novelist, and how his hard work and vision for story eventually paid off.

Who Is Jeff Kinney? is a quick read, but it could be a solid companion piece for those readers who want to know more about how Kinney and his series became the blockbuster that it is. Kinney seems like a regular guy who loved to draw, but realized that his drawing ability would not likely get him far. He turned that weakness into a strength with his books, though, and got a few breaks along the way.

What I found most fascinating is how Kinney worked hard for a handful of years to gather together stories and drawings, with no publisher in sight, and when he was done, he had a mountain of ideas from which to work from (which is why he can publish a book a year now). Also, the first iteration of Wimpy Kid were aimed at adults, not children (I’d love to see some of those) but the publisher who took a chance on Kinney (all the way to the bank) saw a market for young boy readers, so Kinney reworked his ideas for a younger audience.

This biography is written by … his younger brother, and so it is rather flattering (not that I have any dirt on Kinney or anything … he seems like a genuinely nice guy and who couldn’t like a guy who used his fortune to open a bookstore in his hometown?).

Peace (in the bio),

Graphic Novel Review: The Nameless City

The city is named over and over, and no conqueror can name it for long.

The Nameless City is, as noted, a place without a name. Or rather, a place with many names, designated by those who have invaded it over time and who have called it what they wanted to call it because they held the power. But those who live in the Nameless City — the ones who wait out the invasions and the subsequent transitions of power over time — know better and call their city Nameless.

Told beautifully, and with great depth, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks (and art by Jordie Bellaire) is a fascinating story of what seems to be city of the past, somewhere in Asia, in which politics and ambition, and intrigue, play out even as the story focuses on a young boy named Kaidu (whose father is part of the invading force now governing the city and fearing for the next invasion) and Rat, a young girl of the streets of the Nameless City.

What makes the Nameless City so ripe for invasion is its location and a strange history of its original founders, who dug tunnels in the ground and carved out the mountainsides, and whose language is a mystery to those who live in the city (setting the stage for a future story, no doubt).

The book has it all: humor, adventure, friendship, danger, courage, and flow. This story flows naturally, moving the narrative along in ways that only graphic novels can, particularly when we see the city through the eyes of Rat, who prowls along the roofs of the city buildings, leaping like a superhero from building to building, and over rivers. The use of art to show us up high, and then down low, and the action of the leap … that is an experience of graphic storytelling. Rat’s a headstrong, powerful girl, and she teaches Kaidu a few things about life.

I’ll be honest, too. As I read this first installment of The Nameless City, the place that came to my mind was Afghanistan, for some reason. Perhaps it was the narrative of subsequent invading forces and the native population finding ways to live and survive through each turn of events by becoming invisible and patient, until some start advocating violent rebellion. The Nameless City could be anywhere, or nowhere, but the ideas of who owns the heart and soul a place is at the center of Hicks’ graphic story, and that idea remains an important one throughout time, even beyond the graphic novel.

Even today, on the world stage.

I’ll be curious to see where Hicks and Bellaire take the story of Kaidu and Rat in the future, as this is the first of a trilogy from First-Second publishing. It’s well worth your time, and the book is appropriate for the upper elementary and middle school classrooms.

Peace (in the flow),

Slice of Life: Pay Attention to the Abundance

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16I’ve been reading, by chance, perhaps the most appropriate, and best, writer for an event like Slice of Life: Annie Dillard. Her new book of essays — In Abundance — is a collection of pieces from her various books and a few new ones thrown into the mix, but any reason to return to Tinker’s Creek with Dillard is well worth my time. Yours, too. She reminds us to see the world. Really see the world. To take notice. To be there, in the moment of nature.

So I went out into my backyard, with Annie on my mind after finishing up The Abundance, to see what I might see and notice, and make note of. Excuse me for this attempt to steal her style of writing. I’ll do my best.

Our fire pit has long been bruised. Before we arrived to reside in this house, someone — the former owner, we are told by neighbors, who watched with fascination on the event itself —  took a sledgehammer to the fire pit, slicing off chunks of red brick. What’s left is still a place for fire, but it’s as if the brick are now reluctant at its task. Air comes in through gaps. Pieces are crumbling. Bricks keep getting smaller and smaller through the years. The New England winters take their toll. So do kids’ playing. I find pieces of the fire pit through the yard in summer, cursing as I avoid them with the mower. Someone used it as a baseball, probably, or part of the landscape of a rescue scene with Legos. I imagine one of these days, I will come outside and find in amazement that nothing is there where the pit was but some red dust, as if the whole of Mars had come for a visit, and maybe stayed for Smores and drinks. The place to build the fire will no longer be there. Just faint memories of nights under the stars, red embers in the fire pit.

I take out the compost to the bin, which sits beside the crumbling fire pit, and notice how winter slows down everything. Somewhere in there, the worms are in slumber. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of worms call this black bin their home. They’ve buried themselves deep. The rich, black compost is their thick blanket against the chill. Who could blame them? Our bed is still piled high with layers of blankets and we have the warmth of the house. The worms have very little. Only decomposed material. Soon, though, the worms will stir, and no doubt be hungry, and our melon rinds and banana peels, and coffee rinds and tea bags, will nourish them as a welcome to Spring. Some worms will end up in our garden, a mass relocation effort with the goal of food for our mouths, too. In this way, we and the worms eat together at the same table.


On the windward side of the fire pit, where it almost touches the compost bin, I notice two abandoned brown and striped husks dancing in the wind. They look like bugs, dead from winter, but they are not. They are what the bugs left behind. One little thread connects each to the brick wall, and it feels that if I were to touch them, they might fall. Maybe even fly, they seem so light and airy. I resist the boyhood temptation to crush the husks, even though it reminds me of the bubble air pouches that come in valuable deliveries. You unpack the valuables, fair enough, and first turn your attention to the bubble wrap. Pop. Pop. Pop. Can anyone really resist that popping? You make the air whoosh, snap, pop. It’s an unlikely Zen moment. I’m tempted, yet I resist the husks handing on the wall, although I do wonder who stayed in there last and where have they gone to now? Were they ugly bugs now made beautiful by change? Or were they beautiful to begin with? The husks just keep dangling, with no clue for me to discern.


I wander by the fence and notice the push mower. We only use this mower a few times each year, before the grass has really come in. Unlike our neighbors, we don’t use anything on the grass in our yard to help make it grow or be luxurious, so our backyard becomes the unexpected by early summer, with weeds and grasses and flowers and a wonderful wildness about it. The few tufts of grass clumps, and wild onions, that are first to emerge from the soil aren’t enough for the larger mower, but this push mower does the job. Come summer, the mower by the fence will be overgrown with vines and weeds, so that it becomes a sculpture of the wildness of the backyard. It will be nearly impossible to move, so strong are the plants holding it in place. Now, however, the mower seems naked, vulnerable even. The weeds of last summer have long died off. The snow has melted. The grass is still quite some time from growing. It waits, patient. I am not. I move on.


A flash of color catches my eye. One of the first flowers of winter, or spring, of whatever this in-between zone is that we find ourselves in these days. One day it is cold and the next day, warm, and none of us seems to really know what kind of jacket to wear in the morning. Will we be cold because we underdressed? Or warm because we overdressed? Make up your mind, Sun. This flower doesn’t seem to care one way or another, for it has forced its way up to the sun, and opened itself to the warmth of the world. It may not last long, this flower, resisting the last vestiges of winter. While it’s here, though, it teaches us of the beauty of reaching for the sun and of the possibilities of wonderful things happening all around us, if only you remember to pay attention.

Peace (and thanks to Annie Dillard),

Book Review: Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps

This collection of invented maps is quite an exploration, showing you the world in ways that you would never have imagined. It includes The Map of Stereotypes; Maps of Internet, YouTube and Gaming; Maps of Literature, Music and Sports; The Map of Separatist Europe; and dozens of others.

I came aware of Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps after the Boston Globe printed a full page, color version of the Gaming Map, which I hung in my room during our game design unit. I went out and found the book, and the level of detail and perspectives is pretty intriguing in lots of ways. Slovakian artist Martin Vargic (who is only 18, if I have my information right) is behind these maps, and his first map of the Internet went viral a few years ago.

What I love most of all is how the maps turn our view of the world as a piece of geography into something different. The world takes on many layers when we see a vision of the globe spinning in different themes, with different data, with different perspectives. This really is what maps can be about, if we allow ourselves to dream of the world in different ways.

I have hung the Map of Sports and the Map of Music in my room, and my students get their faces close, reading the fine details with wonder, and I appreciate that the book has some larger, fold-out maps that one can take out of the book itself. I would bring the book in, but there are some maps that are just not appropriate for the classroom.

Peace (here are the coordinates),



Graphic Novel Review: Coral Reefs (Cities of the Ocean)

The First Second Publishing company, one of my favorite sources for interesting graphic novels, has started up a new educational graphic novel series around science. Called Science Comics, the books are designed to help readers dive deep into scientific ideas.

I just finished reading one of the first in the series, called Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean, and it is a fantastic example of how graphic novels can impart important information in a fun and engaging way, with humor mixed in with facts in a very visual way. Author/illustrator Maris Wicks works as a program manager at the New England Aquarium, so she is well versed in all things related to the oceans.

The book introduces us to our narrator, a little Bony Fish (known scientifically as Osteichthyes .. lots of content-area vocabulary in here), with big glasses, whose witty and funny and curious about the world. The reader, entertained by the narrator, comes to learn about such concepts as classification of animals (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species), the impact of pollution and global warming on the seas, and a wide array of creatures who live in the ocean.

But, as the title suggests, we also learn a whole lot about Coral Reefs, which are amazing structures that have a vital importance to the world as home to many fish and plants, and other smaller beings who helped filter our air and water for the rest of us, even though we rarely show our appreciation.

We learn about Coral as a living creature, and how Coral Reefs are formed, and the symbiotic nature of Coral and other creatures. We also learn about the fragile nature of Coral Reefs in the era of Global Warming. It’s not all gloom and doom, as Bony Fish gives us suggestions for what we can do to protect our oceans, even if you live nowhere near it.

The artwork here is very engaging, and integrates complex information in ways that should hold the interest of any reader interested in the ocean and Coral Reefs. Unlike some content-area graphic novels out there in the world (and I have read more than my share) that seem thrown together to make a buck off the graphic novel movement, Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean seems more like an act of love by someone who is deeply immersed in the ocean, as Wicks is.

A likely target audience would be upper elementary into middle school, although younger readers would still get a lot out of the book, even if some of the vocabulary was too dense.

Peace (in the sea),

Slice of Life: Of Zooks and Yooks

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16This is a sort of deja vu slice, since I think I have likely written about what I do for Dr. Seuss Day and Read Across America Day (they were both yesterday) at least once or twice in past Slice of Life. But I still enjoy digging out my Seuss The Butter Battle Book to share with my sixth graders on that day.

The real lesson for literature is Allegory (a term none were familiar with) and history (The Cold War) but any reason to bring out a Dr. Seuss book is fine by me. Not many have had The Butter Battle Book read to them (a few had watched the video version at some point) and I made sure my reading style projected both the absurdity of the tale (butter? bread? Yooks? Zooks?) with the sharp political commentary of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race.

I even found a great chart online that connected the symbolism of the book with geopolitics of the Cold War age, which led to long discussions in each class about the Berlin Wall, for example, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

You can’t go wrong with Seuss.

Peace (let is be now and into the future),

Book Review: Mo’ Meta Blues (The World According to Questlove)

I can’t say I am a diehard Roots fan (I have the album they recorded with John Legend … it’s very good), but what I have heard, I have liked. And I know that Questlove (Ahmir Thompson), the drummer and co-founder of the Roots, seems to often be at the center of musical circles and an insightful writer about culture from the hip-hop viewpoint.

His memoir (a format he liberally plays with here) is called Mo’ Meta Blues, and it is a rich journey into more than just his personal history in music (The Roots are now Jimmy Fallon’s house band). It is also an insightful look into the history of hip-hop, with a Philly perspective, and of modern Black music and Black identity.

Music has the power to stop time. When I listen to songs, I’m transported back to the moment of their birth, which is sometimes even before the moment of my birth. Old songs, rock or soul or blues, still connect with me because the human emotions in them, whether jealousy or rage or hope, are recognizably similar to the emotions that I’m feeling now. (Ahmir Thompson, Mo’ Meta Blues, page 272)

I appreciate the humanity and humor Questlove brings to his story, and the way he shows us a band that often struggles to find an identity in the changing pop culture landscape and then keeps true to its heart and reforges its identity, time over time, and yet still clings to a vision of music as a powerful force in nature. They’re after bigger game than the next hit. It’s a bumpy ride for the Roots, and yet, they remain a viable force on many levels.

Peace (in roots),


Book Review: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Since late December, I had been slowly sharing out thoughts from the new book by Henry Jenkins, Mimi Ito and danah boyd called Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. We chose the book as a slow-read after Digital Writing Month unofficial ended in November, hoping to continue the conversations and keep our own participatory elements alive and active.

I’m not sure it all worked as we had hoped (this vision of multiple entry points with various conversations emerging and unfolding), but maybe it is too early to make that assessment. There was some activity here and there, and Terry Elliott offered up multiple entry points for folks to “participate” in the conversations. A few did. Some may be doing it still. Some may still enter in. It’s an open invitation.

You come, too.

But I figure I needed an artificial ending point for myself with the book itself (and I wrote this post a few weeks ago but kept it in my draft bin), while still hoping to keep open the connections with other people reading it and learning from it, too. The last page of a book does not mean the last thoughts of a book. Much of what Jenkins, Ito and boyd talk about in Participatory Culture in a Networked Era rattle in my head. I am still hoping to find more people to talk about it with.


So, here are some take-aways from the book on my end:

  • Just “hearing” the discussions and debates and diving deeper by these three thinkers around Connected Learning and Participatory Culture is intriguing. The book is framed around main ideas, with an introduction by one of the three, and then edited transcripts as the three bandy about the ideas. I felt like I was in the room at times.
  • By the end, they agree that the defining of Participatory Culture is still in flux. I still have troubles grasping a definition. It anchors on the ideas of people being to come together based on common interests, and creating ideas or things together, with experts helping novices. I feel like those ideas are important.
  • I wish there had been more about classroom experiences, but these three are more researchers, and it seems as if much of their research has been done in out-of-school programs. This makes sense, as kids gather around interests in after-school programs or online spaces. But I keep coming back to the question of how to make sense of this in my classroom, and how to use Participatory Culture concepts to engage students in meaningful learning and literacy moments.
  • The discussion around ways that commercial enterprises and corporate culture have sort of hijacked “participation” for financial gain and status in the world of Social Media is something that I appreciated, and certainly do talk about with my students. It’s about empowerment and filtering, and having agency to decide when to participate. The three authors have strong ideas, culled from their research.
  • Talking about what kind of elements help nurture a Participatory Culture had us thinking of how technology platforms (Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, etc.) either encourage or hinder Participatory Culture. Most of the sites I use on a regular basis seem less than ideal. There are pieces that invite participatory ideas, but there are also walls to a seamless experience.
  • We found it interesting that our open invitations to discussions, of trying to create a small pocket of Participatory Culture around the reading of the book, didn’t seem to gather any reaction or comments from the three authors of the book. Maybe they didn’t even know we were talking about them. Or maybe they are keeping removed from the discussion around their book. Who knows? But it seemed counter to the theme of participation, of narrowing the line between reader and author.
  • I still don’t get the cover art. I am not sure why I keep wondering about it. I guess I find it interesting and intriguing …. but it is strangely odd.

This book is well worth your time, even if you don’t connect with discussions. I think it makes for a richer experience to read with others in online spaces, and explore and create, but the book is worth your time one way or another.

Peace (on pages),