Graphic Novel Review: The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

What a find! I am thankful to some friends on Twitter who recently surfaced Isabel Greenberg’s mesmerizing and delightful The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Rich in storytelling and packed with intense artwork, this graphic story within stories is steeped in layers of mythology.

The story itself revolves around the time before our own history began, when Greenberg’s imagined cultures were full of explorers and traditions, and the skies ruled by a mercurial god and his two offspring. A linking narrative thread is the roaming of a Nord man on a quest, and how the magnetic pull of love brings two worlds together, and how those two worlds also keep these lovers apart. You’ll have to read to understand.

Along the way, we have spiteful god interference (as well as helpful god interference), mad kings and kingdoms, long pages of art and no text, and a hearty stew of ancient creation myths woven together, and echoing into the present, by Greenberg, a writer and artist whose talent brims on every page. There’s also a sly narrative voice underneath this all — sort of like a winking at the reader, mostly in the form of the wise man.

Meanwhile, the illustrations and graphic design in The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a joy to view, a pallet of mostly deep blacks and contrasting whites, thrown off now and then with splashes of color that surprise your eyes and bring you deeper into the story.

This graphic novel might be appropriate for high school, but there is some nudity here and there — nothing not in use of advancing the story — that might give a teacher pause, particularly for any students below high school age. The content itself would be accessible at an earlier age, however. And teachers could easily use sections of this book to teach about creation myths as well as the art of the graphic novel. It’s that good.

NPR has a link to read parts of the book. Check it out.

Peace (across oceans and time),
Kevin

Book Review: Towers Falling

How do write about tragedy for a young audience? This is what writers of young adult fiction often grapple with. In Towers Falling, novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes does a masterful job addressing this dilemma by having her young narrator — Deja, who lives in a homeless shelter in New York City with her family as our story unfolds — learn about the 9-11 attack just as the audience does.

Set more than a decade after the attack on the World Trade Center, the novel follows Deja and her friends as they learn more about what happened on that terrible day. It turns out that, although Deja is a New York City native, she doesn’t even know there had been an attack at one point.

She has been kept in the dark. And there is a reason for that.

I won’t give the story away except to say that the novel does not shy away from the discovery of the horror of the day itself, but  it is Rhodes compassion for Deja and her family that is the powerful guiding force, allowing the reader to be amazed, scared, compassionate and educated right alongside with Deja as her eyes are opened to the world in a new way. You may tear up at times, particularly when Deja and her friend, Ben, visit the new memorial, only to be stunned by its sadness and its beauty.

This novel is rich with character development and with the weaving of the historical record into the fabric of a family affected by the 9-11 events. There may be some references that might be a bit too much for elementary students — when Deja sneaks a viewing of the videos of 9-11, she is forever haunted by the images of those who jumped from the towers, the same as me and maybe you — but Towers Falling is a powerful book for middle school students, those who were born after the event and may wonder how New York City survived. It is through the stories of those like Deja that we grapple with the past.

Peace (please),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Sci-Fu (Kick It Off)

So, strange title, right? Sci-Fu. But Yehudi Mercado’s new series — Sci-Fu — is a fun ride into the hip hop world of Brooklyn, with a slight detour into a world of battling robots. Plus, there’s an ice cream truck.

So, you know, weird title captures the strange book that this is, and that’s perfectly OK because Sci-Fi is a fun read, with lots of visual elements, likable protagonists, and a Sunday Morning sugar-cereal feel to the narrative.

I really enjoyed how Mercado captures the love of hip hop and rapping here, as the main hero — Wax — and his buddy are emerging street rappers, and throughout the story, this hip hop element is consistent, right down to the main conflict as Wax faces a huge robot in order to save Earth.

This book — Sci-Fu: Kick It Off — is the first in a series, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of the story (one of the character got left behind in another world, when she discovers her true identity as a hero).

This graphic novel is completely appropriate for elementary students, and is aimed at middle school readers. It’s fun, entertaining and comes with a Spotify hip hop playlist with some old school rappers so young readers have a bumping soundtrack to listen to while enjoying the story.

Peace (on the page),
Kevin

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (The Meltdown)

Has it really been 13 years of Diary of a Wimpy Kids books? I guess so, and Jeff Kinney keeps going with onward his story. The 13th edition — The Meltdown — is another amusing, yet light, story (sort of, but not really) in which character Greg Heffley continues to struggle against the world.

Here, in this latest edition, the first half of The Meltdown is just a collection of gags and jokes about winter (although Kinney’s drawings are still quite funny) with almost no discernible narrative to hold it together. The pages breeze by. It’s only in the second half, when the frame of a neighborhood snow-fight, and the mayhem that ensues among the kids, comes to the surface as a structure, of sorts.

I have a fair number of boys in my classroom who are currently reading The Meltdown right now as an independent book, and while I know these books are way below our sixth grade, I never make a peep about. They are reading books. Let’s celebrate that fact. These reluctant readers are reading books. Meanwhile, I have a pile of other books ready to recommend for when they are done with the latest adventures of the Wimpy Kid.

Like a scattered few others before him (J.K. Rowling comes to mind as does Suzanne Collins), Kinney has gotten kids reading in a time when more and more young people — and alas, it seems to be mostly boys on this trend — are losing interesting in the power of stories on the pages of books. Whether this is due to video games as immersive alternatives, decreasing attention spans, over-scheduled outside activities or whatever, books and reading seem more like an endangered species than every before. We all need to get more books into their hands, and go from there.

Peace (in books and beyond),
Kevin

Picture Book Review: The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story)

I am at in the middle in our Digital Life unit with my sixth graders, and the one component that I am adding to and beefing up in the last few years is a “critical digital media” component, with a focus on the veracity of news. I’ve been searching for a good book that might introduce the topic in an interesting way, and came across the perfect picture book and tale: The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story) by Darcy Pattison and Peter Willis.

This true story of fake news takes place not too too far from where I teach (Nantucket is a few hours east and then a ferry ride) but I know plenty of kids know where Nantucket is and some have even visited or vacationed there (my wife and I had our honeymoon there).

The book centers on 1937, when an elaborate spoof of the public — the newspapers, some department stores and a few locals were all in kahoots on it — unfolded in the newspapers, first locally and then nationally. It had to do with the sighting of a monster in the fishing waters of Nantucket, and the curiosity and fears that came from it. The newspapers printed “authentic” accounts of sea monster sightings and spun the story from different angles.

Finally, the collaborators let the public in on their joke — an elaborate stunt by a local balloon maker getting ready for Thanksgiving Macy’s Parade. The monster was inflatable.

The picture book story is helpful for framing a discussion about Fake News because it points to gullibility of readers, responsibilities of the media outlets, and the way businesses use these elements to market products or information. I’ll also reference the use of radio in the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 (a year after the Nantucket incident).

Cut to modern day and the political use of news items and news outlets as rhetorical arms. Our work in the classroom is to make visible as much of the fake news phenomenon as possible and give them strategies for considering source and material for what we call “news” these days.

All in all, I recommend The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story)While its reading audience might be younger than my sixth graders, I am always bringing different picture books to the classroom, and this one is a gem.

Peace (real, not fake),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Brain (The Ultimate Thinking Machine)

This is the third or fourth book in the Science Comics collection from FirstSecond Publishing, and all of them have been fun, informative and densely packed with scientific information. For the casual youth reader, it might be too much information. For those readers interested in any of the topics (such as dogs, dinosaurs, coral reefs, etc.), the Science Comics collection is a gold mine.

This latest — The Brain: The Ultimate Thinking Machine by Tory Woollcott and Alex Graudins — is a prime example. (Note: I received this as an advance copy). Built around a story framework (Fahama, our young female protagonist, has been kidnapped by a mad scientist and she buys time asking questions about how the brain works), the book is jammed with fascinating intricacies of how our brains function and work, with quite complex vocabulary and concepts assisted by interesting comic work.

I really liked that the writer/illustrator chose a young Muslim girl (and her younger sister, Nour) without making a big deal about it, incorporating her as a character as if it were common to have someone like Fahama a main character. It’s not. Or not enough. It works like a charm here, since Fahama’s curiosity and humor and Nour’s bossiness and feistiness bring them to life.

Still, for some readers, seeing characters who look and act like them in a graphic novel will be a big deal, and one that we readers (particularly we teachers, who can bring these books to our classroom) should celebrate. And the book holds up on its own, with story and science.

This graphic novel is aimed at middle and high school students, although elementary students might find it interesting if a bit of complex reading. It’s the vocabulary and science concepts that push it towards older readers, in my mind.

Peace (reading it),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Hey, Kiddo

Compassion is a word that comes to mind after readingJarrett Krosoczka’s new graphic memoir entitled Hey, Kiddo. I’m not speaking of the compassion of the reader to his story — although one gets to know of his struggles and his family’s love for him despite the situation, and certain compassion is activated — but of Krosoczka’s compassion for his own younger self.

There’s a real spirit of fighting against the odds in this story, and of finding the people who will be there to support you along the way. If you are lucky. For surely, just as Krosoczka’s story shows how far he came with a mother with a heroin addiction and a father who did not reach out to him until his late teen years, there are so many kids — they’re in our classrooms if we look close enough — who are struggling without the support Krosoczka was able to get from his grandparents and extended family.

If you don’t know of Krosoczka, he is a talented storyteller and graphic artist, known mostly among my students for his Lunch Lady series. But he has also done other stories that reach an elementary audience. Hey Kiddo is very different in style and substance and depth (not to take away from Lunch Lady) — even my 14-year-old son, picking up my copy of the book, which I told him he really should read, asked: “He wrote the Lunch Lady? This seems … very different.”

What emerges from Hey Kiddo is the power of story, and the way he was able to use art and comics to find his way forward through his childhood struggles. It also points to the power of adults encouraging those talents. His grandparents — rough and endearing — were his vital support network, providing opportunities for his art (one birthday, he got a drafting table from them; another time, they surprised him with lessons at an art gallery that proved to be a critical juncture forward.)

I also appreciated the end notes, where Krosoczka writes about the writing of this story. How difficult it was to tell. How important it was to tell. And when he talks about his choices for the book’s artistic style – the reasons behind color hues, or the meaning of background images, or the rationale for frames spilling into each other — it is nearly a master lesson on making comics.

This book is more geared for middle and high school and adult readers, just in case you are in a school setting thinking of adding this to your library because of Krosoczka’s name and his previous work. While advanced elementary readers might be interested in his story, know that the references to drug abuse and other traumatic events are central to Krosoczka’s story. That said, there’s nothing here that does not reflect the larger world and nothing so graphic that even an elementary student would be alarmed by. Still, I ‘d suggest you read it first before bringing it into your classroom.

And of course, you should read Hey, Kiddo anyway. It’s that good.

Peace (between pages),
Kevin

PS — NPR Fresh Air has a nice piece, too.

Graphic Novel Review: Supernova (Amulet #8)

The first thing I did when I got the very last page of the newest Amulet book — Supernova — by Kazu Kibuishi (one of my favorite graphic novelists) is rush to my 14 year old son and proclaim: “There’s only going to be one more book in the Amulet series!”

He wasn’t quite as excited and depressed as I was, even though he has been reading the Amulet series nearly his entire life. The first book came out in 2008, when he was four. His older brothers, now at college, devoured the books, and re-read them with passion. Every time a new one came out, they would battle over who got to read it first. The youngest son, the one still left in the house, ended up with the entire series to peruse and read without squabbling.

I was excited to read that a ninth book will be coming down the road (it usually is a few years) and depressed that the series would be coming to a close. The Amulet storyline — of multiple protagonists on multiple worlds caught up on a struggle between the shadow creatures and Stonekeepers, who wear amulets of ancient magic) — is intricate but accessible, and Kibuishi’s artwork will sometimes take your breath away with its beauty.

The newest book — Supernova — continues in that tradition, with a fast-paced story that follows a handful of main characters, all working their way back to each other (for the last book, no doubt). Kibuishi does not bring you up to speed at the start of new editions, but if you have read the story, you are immediately transported back to the worlds, to the adventure, to the moral and ethical decisions facing the young heroes — most of all, Emily, the main protagonist and newest Stonekeeper for whom the fate of many worlds rest.

My young teenage son, the one at home, has been reading Supernova, too, but it was a student in my classroom, who saw an extra copy I put out, who captured the excitement that I have for the Amulet books. She nearly skipped over to me when she saw it, nearly bubbling with surprise, and asked: “Can I borrow that book?”

You bet, I said, and she left the classroom with a huge smile, hugging the book. Now, that is a moment worth savoring.

Peace (among worlds),
Kevin

Writing for the Reading Zine: In Praise of the Locked Room Mystery

Summer Library Zine Project

It was early in the summer when I saw a little notice at the local library about a reading book Zine they were putting together, and if anyone wanted, they could submit something. Of course, I figured: I’ll make a comic! So I did – I created one about locked-room mysteries, as I was reading Waste of Space by Stuart Gibbs.

I sent it in and forgot about it.

Locked Room Mystery Comic

Well, I got an email last week, saying the Zine was out, and that I had won a free movie pass to a local independent movie place, and a copy of the Zine was waiting for me. I went and perused the tiny stapled publication, and I absolutely love the variety of art and writing. They way they call it a Literary Magazine is also a nice gesture.

I even saw a neighbor’s 10-year-old daughter had a short story in there — a lovely piece about the sun and the moon — so I congratulated her for her writing, and she beamed.

I love the simplicity of Zines and the connection to the library as a public space.

Peace (zine-ing it),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Waste of Space (Moon Base Alpha)

Stuart Gibbs sure knows how to hook adolescent readers in. His various series of books — Fun Jungle, and Spy School, and Moon Base Alpha –– are all fun to read, with fast pace and quirky characters that will remind a reader of Carl Hiassen in a good way.

Waste of Space, the third book in the Moon Base Alpha series, is a closed room mystery, in which our narrator — Dashiell Gibson — has to solve an attempted murder in a space station on the moon. There is no way for anyone to arrive and no way for anyone to leave. Whoever attempted the murder by injection of cyanide is still on Moon Base Alpha.

There’s plenty of tension on the moon station, as families mix with astronauts and engineers, and what seemed to Dashiell as a fun adventure becomes something more dangerous, even to the point where he himself gets attacked on the moon’s surface.

And so the narrative line goes, as Gibbs adds humor, squabbles, and even strange alien interaction (in way that doesn’t seem overly forced, as he has been setting the stage for the encounter and its aftermath in the series), that provides for quite a satisfactory ending.

This book is perfect for middle school readers, and even elementary readers will enjoy the story. Gibbs gets a huge thumbs-up from me, and from many of my students.

Peace (in the stars),
Kevin