Book Review: The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard)

I’m not sure if it was the story, the writing, or just the time in our lives where my youngest son (now 13) started to fade from our read-aloud time (which makes me sad), but reading the third book of Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series (The Ship of the Dead) by Rick Riordan took … forever.

Actually, after finally admitting that we would not be finishing it as read-aloud (despite starting it way back in October!), I dove in this weekend and read with gusto the second half of the book, and found it more enjoyable. Still, the plethora of Norse Mythology names — heroes, gods, places, objects — is mind-boggling and difficult to keep track of.

Once I got into the heart of the adventure — of Magnus Chase and his friends stopping Loki from starting Ragnarok, or the beginning of the end of the world by challenging the trickster God to a poetry duel of sorts — I was fine, although everything Riordan writes now feels like faint echoes of Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief.  And the overuse of sarcasm in Magnus’ view of the world gets a little weary to me, as a reader.

I don’t see as many of my sixth grade readers devouring this series like some of the other Riordan adventures, although there are still a few diehard readers who will take up whatever he writes with a passion.

On a side note: I do appreciate how Riordan tackles the gender fluidity of one of the characters, whom Magnus has attraction to even as the character toggles (magically) from male to female, and I admire Riordan’s attempt to open the eyes of his readers to the larger world. I do wonder what some librarians, teachers and parents might think in some of our more conservative places, but maybe we won’t tell them … shhh. Let the kids read.

Peace (in the face of the end),

Six Word Slice of Life: Reading Days

(For this month’s Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I am aiming to do Six Word Slices most days, with some extended slices on other days.)

Context: It was a typical March day here in New England. Drizzling rain. Some sleet. A cold that seeped into the bones, staved off by tea and coffee. A perfect day to get some deep reading done. Which I did. Lots of it (Finished Magnus Chase: Ship of the Dead, and Vinyl Me, Please, and started Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8.) It was great.

Six Word SOL Reading

Peace (in stories),

Book Review: Wishtree

If, like me, you were blown away by The One and Only Ivan, then you will be swept up with the same magic in Wishtree, as writer Katherine Applegate weaves another powerful story told in such simple language.

Applegate gives voice to a neighborhood tree, called Red, whose long-view of the people and animals that inhabit her space provides her with deep compassion and love for the ways in which everything is connected. And what a voice she is. Red, a tree, is a character you won’t likely forget.

Red, a red oak, is also a Wish Tree, meaning it is a place where each year, people come to hang notes with their dreams and desires on her branches, in hopes that they might come true. She is a gathering point for the neighborhood, and in this story, Red also becomes a flashpoint for hate and intolerance.

An immigrant family is targeted. A word is carved on Red as a message to the family. Vandalism happens. A young immigrant girl feels abandoned and friendless, and Red works with the animals of her tree to give the girl her one wish from the tree: to have a friend. Meanwhile, the owner of the property where Red has her roots has decided the time has come for the tree to be cut down, for safety, and only a story from the past can save Red from the stump grinder.

Applegate artistically weaves these strands of story together with delicate writing, always guided by the calm, compassionate voice of Red. This novel would be a perfect read-aloud for elementary school, and the topics of how we welcome new families — particularly those who speak a different language or come from a different culture — is central to the theme of Wishtree.

As it is to the world outside our door. May we all be like Red.

Peace (and wishes),

Book Review: What Would She Do? (25 True Stories of Trailblazing Rebel Women)

This might be the perfect book for our times. What Would She Do? (25 True Stories of Trailblazing Rebel Women) does what it says — it gives us stories of some amazing women who fought against stereotypes and prejudice and brought women, and the world, a little bit further along.

From Cleopatra to Frida Kahlo to Harriet Tubman to Marie Curie to Junko Tabei to Malala Yousafzai, this book is packed with interesting biographical sketches of these women. It’s hard not to be inspired and to be at least optimistic in the face of this presidency that the power of women to make change in the world is not only set in motion but also has historical roots (I knew that already, but our sons and daughters and students need to be reminded of that).

Along with an engaging style of writing that shows these women in the positive light of rebels who refused to take no for an answer from the men in their lives (and a few who were supported by the men n their lives but looked down on by others in culture), and some beautiful illustrations that will take your breath away, the book includes short little advice pieces for readers, using questions about body image and bullying and social media and family to provide some advice based on the biographical piece just read.

The authors never say, this is what this particular woman would have done (they are not that presumptuous), but instead, say, this is what they might have done in this situation, given the obstacles they overcame in their lives. The message of the advice is always encouraging, positive and empowering.

I have two copies of this book, via our Scholastic account (I see it is not yet available via Amazon), and I aim to put them front and center for all of my students to explore. This book seems geared towards upper elementary to middle school readers, but there are plenty of edges to that reader span.

Peace (in the world),

Graphic Book Review: Tenements, Towers & Trash

This is a big book. Hard to hold. It’s size dwarfs the other books on my pile. Just like New York City. Writer/Illustrator Julia Wertz’s “unconventional illustrated history of New York City,” as the subtitle of Tenements, Towers & Trash suggests, is larger than life, and is a captivating look at the quirks and curiosities of New York City.

Inside the covers, Wertz tells stories of the city far from the glossy brochures you might find about the city. Here, you learn about, through her visuals, how neighborhoods have changed over time, where all of the trash goes, where to find the “secret bars” of the city, how to discover the boat junkyards, and more than a few famous women of the city (including a murderess and an abortionist).

The oversized pages of this oversized book give weight to the stories of the city itself, and her drawings are dense with lines and details, all captured by her love of New York City. She is not a native of the city, and only lived there for a stretch of time, but she seems to have noticed so much about architecture and buildings, and had the drive to learn deep about the history of these places.

I could not help but imagine a collection of these books, documenting our urban spaces in graphic story forms, and how valuable that historical element would be in understanding how we shape our spaces, and how our spaces shape us.

A note for teachers: There is some profanity in here, particularly as Wertz’s voice as the narrator of the story comes through in the text elements of the page. The content inTenements, Towers & Trash is more appropriate for upper high school students, of this book were to be of value in the classroom. But teachers could also pluck pages from the book to use as exemplars for students doing their own graphic interpretations of their own communities.

Peace (along city streets),

Graphic Novel Review: One Trick Pony


Ok. So I am not sure if I completely enjoyed One Trick Pony or not. On one hand, the narrative and visuals feel compact on the page and so busy and dense with narrative jumps that I didn’t get a chance to breathe. On the other hand, there’s something interesting in this world-building that Nathan Hale (he, of the fantastic Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series) has created here.

The story revolves around a world (ours? Earth? our Earth?) where aliens are devouring all of the technology and metals, and the scattered tribes of people left on the planet are on the run from strange creatures doing the devouring. These creature are called Pipers, and there is some hints of The Pied Piper story that doesn’t ever really develop further.

Three youths, out on a secret expedition from their caravan community, discover a hidden trove of robots, including a golden robot pony (the “one trick pony”) that helps them to escape and then, sacrifices its life to save Strata, a young girl who adopts the horse and rides it, and the entire world. The pony becomes a hero.

What I write here is not a bad review. The book is intriguing. But I guess I prefer more space in stories, more room on the page, more quiet in the corners of my books. One Trick Pony is brimming with lines and shapes and words, and three or four different converging stories and characters, and Hale’s intricate drawings propel it all forward.

I think this graphic novel could be appealing to upper middle school and high school readers. Younger readers might find the story confusing, although they might be drawn in by the pony. Because … well… ponies.

Peace (crowded and dense),

Book Review: Design is Storytelling

I never really thought all that much of how designing a physical space or a physical object is really about the invisible art of telling a story. In Design is Storytelling, by Ellen Lupton, that fact comes to the surface — that the decisions we make in creating tangible objects or immersive experiences can have a narrative arc to it.

This book was a bit uneven for me, but I suspect I am not its target audience, either. (That seems to be museum geeks, designers and business thinkers). Lupton is a senior curator of Contemporary Design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (I didn’t even know that existed) and she brings a real museum-layout-theme thinking to this book. The prose felt a bit stiff to me, but many of the illustrations in here are helpful. (I guess, design IS story.)

She focuses her chapters on overarching ideas of Action, Emotion, and Sensation, and within there, she explores such things as Design Fiction and Narrative Arc of objects and space; creating fictional personas as you plan the design of something, particularly when a problem needs to be solved; and how multi-sensory design might inform the way something evolves over time. She explores building design, and app design, and business layout decisions (such as considering the concept of the Hero’s Journey within a typical IKEA store.) Colors, perceptions, interactions, touch … all these and more are explored here within the frame of experiencing stories.


I’m thinking more now of how museums work to consider layout of rooms and doors, and of the use of media in museums (sound, color, image, signs) that help a visitor navigate the “story” the curators are hoping to tell. I wonder about architects a bit different now, and the way that their work informs our interactions with buildings and space, and what narrative those design choices surface (or hide).

And I am thinking of a new 3D Printer Maker Club we have started at our school with our sixth graders. How can we get them to think beyond “making an object” to making objects as part of “telling a story” somehow? It seems to me, and it clearly visible is to Lupton here, that we can and probably should think of story as deeper and richer interactions with the designed world, and it all starts with narrative intentions.

Peace (designed to last for love),

1000 Books and Reading

Goodreads Tally 2017

The other week, I noticed I had passed a milestone of sorts on Goodreads. I had tracked 1000 books , read and done. Now, of course, I have read many more than 1000 books in my lifetime, but I’ve been pretty diligent about keeping tabs on books I am reading with my Goodreads account (and thus, I felt more than a bit strange about it once Amazon took it over, but I have not yet noticed too much of an Amazon intrusion).

Goodreads also spits out data from the year behind (particularly if you take part in their reading challenge. I do the challenge, usually aiming for 100 books in a year). The graphic above is from my 2017 reading, which I find interesting and amusing.

One hundred thirty five books in a year and one thousand books since joining the site itself (I don’t remember how many years ago now) are pretty cool milestones, but nothing stands still so I’m off to read my next 1000 books or so. Don’t wait around. It’ll take me some time to do that.

Peace (in the pages),

Graphic Novel Review: The Time Museum

Time travel is surely a familiar and sometimes overused plot device with science fiction writers and many graphic novelists. I don’t mind the use of time this way, as long as the story doesn’t get so folded in on itself that you lose your balance. In The Time Museum, writer/illustrator Matthew Loux utilizes the time travel concept, too, but he does so with humor, focus, and a keen eye for character development.

The story revolves around protagonist Delia Bean, an outcast of sorts in her school. She finds adventure and self-confidence when she stumbles into her uncle’s Time Museum, a sort of bastion of science and discovery of artifacts from the past and the future that is built on the concepts of time travel itself.

Delia emerges as a leader of a small band of other youthful time travelers (in training), and along with some fantastic adventures (set as ‘trials’), Delia and her companions meet and then must confront a mysterious traveler in time who seems bent on some nefarious project, and the kids must work together to save a future London from disaster.

There’s a manga-look to the artwork here by Loux — with big emotional eyes to characters to express emotions — and the pace of story is swift, and fun. There’s a lot of light-hearted humor in this graphic novel, and I suspect it would appeal nicely to middle school readers.

Peace (in time),

Remember the Struggle: Read March

Last night, my wife and I watched the new David Letterman show on Netflix, as he talked to Barack Obama. It was a relief of sorts to know we did once, not that long ago, have a president who could articulate a thought and an idea or two. It was a love fest between Letterman and Obama, which was fine for us but would have been annoying to anyone who thought Obama didn’t do nearly enough.

There is a segment in which Letterman meets up with Congressman John Lewis, the legendary civil rights leader who became an influential politician, on the Selma Bridge, as the two men talk about race and America and politics. The walks and protests — now known as Bloody Sunday — across the bridge is a pivotal moment in US history.

It reminded me that re-reading the March graphic novel trilogy, which is co-authored by Lewis, might be in order, particularly as we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. today.

If you have not read March, you need to. It’s a powerful use of graphic storytelling, bringing to the surface the tension and the energy and the madness of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of Lewis, who protested and ended up in jail dozens of times (included a few times as congressman) and whom Trump ridiculed at one point in a tweet for being all talk, no action. What an idiot.

Read March, and remember.

Peace (every day),