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),
Kevin

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),
Kevin

Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon

Looking for a read-aloud packed with adventure and a little taste of steampunk? The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon by S.S. Taylor might be a perfect pick. My son and I were drawn in by the cover (art by Katherine Roy) and stayed for the story, which is set in some alternative time where, as steampunk often tells us, things went awry with computers and the timeline of “us” has changed.

The steampunk element is light here, though. Mechanical horses, and robotic limbs, undiscovered lands located off the map, and a crazy strange bird that has clearly been the result of some technological experiment … these are in the story, but the plot itself is very human-centered. A family of three children (Zander, Kit and MJ), orphaned after their famous explorer father has died in some other part of the world, discover a map. Each has a certain skill that complements the other. (It’s nice when that happens with orphaned siblings)

And we all know what happens when orphans discover a hidden map with secret codes left by a missing parent. Adventure, and the search for treasure and mysteries to their father’s increasingly mysterious death, lead the kids forward, even as they are being tracked by the government agents who want the map and who want to learn the whereabouts of a famous treasure hoard. Soon, the kids and their bird are on the run.

The tale is told well, with lots of character development and strange discoveries (what they find in the canyon is beyond gold) and the moral obligations of keeping secrets from a world bent on exploration of undiscovered lands and the harvesting of natural resources for its own gain. British Empire, anyone? Taylor, the writer, keeps us engaged with cliffhangers.

I would recommend The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon to middle school and upper elementary readers. It’s a solid read-aloud, if a bit lengthy. My son and I have the second book in the series (The Secret of King Triton’s Lair) waiting in our library for pick-up today.

We’re off on another adventure ….

Peace (off the map but in our world),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Ogres Awake!

So, this is not technically a graphic novel, per se. More like a graphic story. Ogres Awake seems to reside in that soft category between comic and graphic novel and picture book … in a good way.

This short book, appropriate for younger elementary students, is a quick read, and it comes from the creative minds of the same folks who wrote the fantastic Adventures in Cartooning series. We even see the return of the Knight and his Horse here, which makes for a welcome revisit to some fun characters.

The story revolves around some ogres, awakening from a nap, and the destruction they will certainly cause when they get up because ogres, as you should know, wake up very, very hungry. The Knight wants to ready the kingdom’s weapons and armies to battle the ogres. He envisions swordfights and dashing adventures on the battlefield. The King has other ideas … and so the soup gets put on the kettle.

There are some hilarious scenes with the Knight as he misunderstands what’s going on as the King enlists him. The Knight’s “battle” against the giant pile of potatoes that need peeling (For King! For Country!) is pretty hilarious, and the gentle humor that the writers have imbued in this story is sweet. Plus, the book’s use of the comic elements to tell the story — with panels and perspectives and more –makes Ogres Awake a nice addition to anyone’s graphic novel (eh, story) collection.

Finally, there is also the kind of added bonus we expect from Adventures in Cartooning crew: the inside covers of Ogres Awake features drawing lessons for readers to follow so that they can make the Knight in many poses (including, playing a tuba and boogie woogie-ing), Edward the horse, the gnomes of the King, and the Ogres.

Peace (with food not war),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Wonderbook (The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction)

Wonderbook cover

This book … is incredible. A real find for anyone interested in writing, or art, or teaching either. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction explores the craft of writing fiction through many lens. I spent part of an afternoon just flipping through to the illustrations, which are strange and wonderful to view, and informative as a way to conceptualize the writing process for fiction.

The theme is “imaginative fiction” but isn’t all fiction imaginative?

Writer/Illustrator Jeff VanderMeer, running on all cylinders here, brings a wide array of ideas to the forefront, from creating characters to mapping out imaginative stories to the revision process to much more. There are many intriguing interviews with published writers, exploring the minds of creativity. While Wonderbook may be more of a textbook for a storytelling class, I found it useful as a writer and teacher of young writers.

Yesterday, we used a map from the book for a writing prompt, in which students used the map as setting for an adventure story, and they were very intrigued.

Peace (on maps and beyond this world),
Kevin

 

 

Graphic Novel Review: Tetris (The Games People Play)

The other day, I found myself with a few dull minutes to spare while waiting for my son. What did I do to kill the time? Tetris on my Android phone. It’s amazing that this simple game still holds appeal in this modern age,  but it does. A new graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown not only explains the appeal of the puzzle challenge on the brain and psyche, but also explores the fascinating history of the game itself – from origin to launch to pop culture icon.

The appeal of Tetris has to with the psychology of games, and Tetris hits it on all cylinders. There’s the frontal cortex, trying to flip and slide the shapes while they drop. There’s the rush of finishing a line. There’s the quickening pace of action. The player hits a “flow.” It’s all part of the psychology of game design.

Then there’s the rich history of the game itself. Developed by Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov as a side project during the Cold War, in the early days of PCs and video game programming, his Tetris concept of interlocking blocks first took root in the old USSR. Then the game was smuggled out of Russia on floppy discs, and then the game became the object of a global bidding war between companies in Japan, Europe and the United States, even as the political structure of the USSR made negotiations nearly impossible.

You may remember Tetris as the anchor game on many early gaming systems — including Game Boy — but how it got there is an amazing tale of politics and copyright and deceit, and lots and lots of money. Box Brown weaves the tale wonderfully in this graphic novel, which could find a home in a high school classroom where gamers and historians collide.

Peace (block by block),
Kevin

PS — I received an early copy from First Second Publishing to review. The book is out in October.

Book Review: The Secrets of Solace

My son and I stumbled into The Mark of the Dragonfly at our local library by sheer chance. The cover caught my eye. Sometimes, that’s enough. But the story kept us intrigued, as writer Jaleigh Johnson wove a tapestry of a world that was as immersive fiction, as if Johnson had stumbled into the lands only to tell us the story. In this place, magical and mysterious objects fall from the sky in a meteor scrap fields — things from other planets, perhaps. There is a lot not yet known in this story Johnson is telling of this place.

Now comes The Secrets of Solace, and while this young adult novel (we have an advance copy thanks to my wife, a librarian who visited a conference and came home loaded with books) is not a true sequel to The Mark of the Dragonfly, it is still set in the same world, and the war that had begun in the earlier book is now the backdrop for The Secrets of Solace.

PictureJohnson has not just woven a world out of imagination, she also pays keen attention to character development. Here, we have Lina, an archivist apprentice, who is hiding a secret from her people: the discovery of an airship buried deep in their mountain stronghold. Another character, Ozben, is a prince in hiding, and together, Lina and Ozben must solve the mystery of this ship in order to bring an end to the war that threatens to unravel the entire world.

With mystery and adventure and solid writing, Johnson hooks the reader early with character backstories and then steps on the gas with thrilling adventures, and once you know the ship, you will never look at your car or an airplane the same way again.

Peace (in all the worlds),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: March (Book One)

I know a bit about John Lewis just from my various readings about the Civil Rights, and even into the modern day. Lewis is one of those who led the floor fight on gun control this past year. But this first in a series of biographical graphic novels about John Lewis’ life, called March, was a powerful reminder of why change was needed in our country to end legal segregation and how brave the people were who fought for those changes.

Lewis, who remains an influential Congressman in the United States House of Representatives, was at the forefront of student demonstrations in Nashville and communities around the South, particularly as part of the protests to test the limits of the Jim Crow laws at lunch counters.

The overarching narrative of this series of graphic novels is the March on Selma, but this first book is more about Lewis as a young man, growing up on a farm and beginning to not just notice the racial injustice of the world. He also begins to see his won part in bringing it to an end. Or at least, trying to.

March (Book One) is a powerful story, written well and drawn in black and white ink. I’d be tempted to bring this in as part of our work around Civil Rights with our reading of The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 but some of the language in this graphic novel has me a little antsy about that for my white, suburban classroom of sixth graders. Instead, I might pick and choose some sections, particularly where it connects to the lunch counter protests and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which gets references in some of the primary source materials we read in class around the Civil Rights Movement.

I since read the second March book (I believe a third is just out) and found it just as engaging, if not more, than the first book. Even though I know how the Selma March ends and how its legacy ripples into the present, I am curious to go deeper into John Lewis’ story, to better understand the man and his deeds, and the fabric of our country.

Peace (let it be so),
Kevin

Book Review: The Black Reckoning

(This review has been in my draft bin since Spring)

Now, this is how you write the last of a trilogy. John Stephens began this story of three siblings and three books of magic with The Emerald Atlas, which my son and I read and were hooked, and the series has now come to a close with The Black Reckoning.  In between, there was The Fire Chronicle. The series is called The Books of Beginning, due to the mythology of the three books themselves — one of which transports people through time; another of which brings people back from death; and the third, which is the center of the last book, gives power to the Keeper over the Land of the Dead.

While there are so many echoes of other stories here — from Harry Potter to The Lightning Thief and beyond — Stephens keeps the narrative fresh and fast-moving, spending ample time on the development of characters — the three children: Kate, Michael an Emma. All are changed by the experiences of the books and Stephens brings the story to a satisfying close with a few twists in the end to keep it from becoming too predictable.

If you have readers looking for an adventure, get them started on The Emerald Atlas. They will surely be hooked for the trilogy. I have a student waiting, somewhat impatiently, for me to finish The Black Reckoning so he can dive in to the story. He’ll be happy to see me today.

Peace (in the story),
Kevin

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Just imagine about the boatloads of young readers this summer sitting down to read … a full-length play. That’s the text format of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the latest story set in J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry. I am both pleased with the decision to use the drama/theater format, and also, I am a bit worried that it will turn kids off from the book (my son started it and stopped, saying he didn’t want to read a play).

Still, the book is a great opportunity to expose readers to the ways in which live productions are created (the book is script to the play now on stage, and is labelled Special Rehearsal Edition Script) and written, and sustaining the story throughout an entire book-length play forces the reader to imagine the stage itself, with actors and props and effects. I know many of us do this with novels, too, but here, it is explicit, with stage direction as text.

Does the story hold up?

Sort of. The beginning feels a bit slow, with many familiar themes emerging, as Harry and Ginny are now parents, and one of their boys, Albus Severus Potter, is off to Hogwarts. Albus feels different from the family, and finds a friend in Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy.

The two boys get themselves into a world of trouble soon enough, and the return of Voldemort might be imminent, as a result. I won’t go into the story too much, so as not to ruin it, but suffice it to say that the second half of the book found its footing and was quite entertaining, I think, as it broke away from echoes of the past Harry Potter tales.

As a father, I was particularly attuned to the tension that Harry feels with Albus, and the difficulties that the son and father have with each other, acknowledging the imperfect resolution of their relationship at the end of the story. I’m not sure how much that theme will resonate with young readers. One never knows.

This new book doesn’t quite match the storytelling flair of other books in the series, in my opinion, but then, that probably wasn’t the intention of publishing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as a play in the first place. In fact, Rowling is not even the listed playwright (that would be Jack Thorne). Instead, the book is “based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling,” although she clearly was integral to the development of the project (as noted by her presence in the back pages of the book). This fact is listed in huge letters on the cover, so the publisher was not trying to pull one over on the audience.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is worth the read, if you come in with realistic expectations. And who knows? Maybe some readers will use the script and start planning their own productions. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Peace (in all worlds, magical and muggle),
Kevin