Graphic Memoir: Sunshine

Sunshine by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Jarrett J. Krosoczka  has done it again — crafting an intelligent, emotional and powerful graphic memoir from his own life. In Sunshine, Krosoczka tells the story of his time as a counselor at a summer camp for children with cancer and other serious illnesses in Maine.

Krosoczka packs an emotional punch here, that goes deeper than just sympathy with the stories he tells of being a high school student volunteer at this camp. There’s a serious undertone about how to approach people with different needs and how to humanize the terminally ill, particularly children. (read an excerpt:

As in his award-winning graphic memoir Hey Kiddo about his own difficult childhood, Krosoczka digs deep into the humanity of the experiences here in Sunshine, surfacing the childhood energy of those at the camp and the unsettling but ultimately life-changing experiences of the young adult volunteers. Krosoczka tells us that he thinks of his camp week (and other volunteer efforts) nearly every single day of his life, many years later. The graphic novel format brings the children and his experiences to interesting levels of reading experiences.

Krosoczka is a true master of this genre (and other graphic stories) and Sunshine is well worth the time.

Peace (and Wonder),

Book Review: The Unteachables

The Unteachables - Susan Uhlig

I saw the cover. The Unteachables. By Gordon Korman.

OK. I’m in.

And it was another good one by Korman, who knows how to spin a story by focusing on characters. Here, the so-called “unteachables” is a class of behavior and special education students who are deemed unmanageable, and the teacher they get, Mr. Kermit, doesn’t care.

Or so it seems.

Nearing retirement, and never having outlived a scandal years ago involving a former student who now runs a popular car dealership with his smiling face all over the advertising billboards of town, Kermit bides his time towards early retirement in the classroom by passing out worksheets, ignoring the students, and working on crossword puzzles, killing time.

The situation can’t last, of course, and it won’t, as Kermit slowly unfolds out of himself with the arrival of a new teacher next door (the daughter of the woman he once wanted to marry), stepping up to defend the students he doesn’t even really know when the moment seems right, and then coming to grips with his past, and future, as a teacher.

His students, the unteachables, also start to believe in themselves, and in their teacher, and the story plot moves forward at a steady pace, with a nice mix of humor and seriousness, towards an event where the students have to prove themselves are not “unteachable”,and maybe, if they can pull it off, save Mr. Kermit’s job.

As usual, Korman does a nice job with developing the stories of the students, from the boy who drives his grandmother with increasing dementia around town, hoping she will remember his name; to the former star athlete on crutches who realizes what social popularity really is all about; to the student who is not even a registered student at the school but who wandered into the classroom and stayed; and more.

The Unteachables reminds us that there is, in fact, none of those “unteachable” kinds of students in our schools, but reaching out to them, and making a positive impact on their lives, depends upon the shared humanity of us all — that it’s imperative that we find the stories that define us. That includes teachers.

Peace (teaching it forward),

Book Review: Observe, Collect, Draw!

Observe Collect Draw Visual Journal - AbeBooks

I can’t remember how long it has been since I read Dear Data and then joined other friends in CLMOOC in making Data Postcards over an extended period of time, but Stephanie Posavec and Georgia Lupi made data collection and representation into a meaningful activity, connected by sharing and friendship. (Wait — I checked — five years or so).

After getting involved in a February drawing exercise, with daily “F” themes, one of the reference texts was Observe, Collect, Draw! (A Visual Journal) and I ordered it from the library just to see what it was. What it is is another fun and engaging book from Posavec and Lupi, and this book is a series of invitation to observe the world through data collection and make art.

After an introduction to data in general, the book moves into pages of specific prompts and engaging ideas, coupled with templates or blank spaces for making your own data set art works, and I found it a lovely experience (but this was a library book, so no drawing took place – I did one activity on my iPad that I will share another day).

Some examples of the invitations for data collection include: What My Camera Sees, Sounds Around Me, My Inbox, My Swearing, Distractions, Being More Kind, Weather Mood, and more.  Some of the data collection activities can be done in one sitting. Some can stretch over a period of time.

Interview: Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec on "Observe Collect Draw ...

I find these kinds of books to be intriguing, for the ways they encourage you to observe the world through different angles, and notice closely. Data in this case is observational, and personal, in that a person take part in their experiments is really trying to uncover the layers of a life lived, and represented through color and shape, font and sequence, and more.

I highly recommend reading both books, and then breaking out the art supplies.

Peace (and Data Points),

Book Review: 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl Book ...

Sarah Ruhl’s collection — 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write — has one of the longest subtitles I have come across in some time: On Umbrellas, and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms Children and Theater. And the length of that subtitle made me laugh before even opening to the first essay (in which her children interrupt her essay writing and with that, I was laughing again and, as a parent who writes, hooked).

I suppose that maybe I should have been familiar with Ruhl’s name as a modern playwright but, eh, I am not. Theater is rather unfamiliar terrain for me. I think that unfamiliarity may have played to my advantage, though, as Ruhl’s masterful short essays here bring us deep into the backstage of theater and production, and into motherhood, and into noticing with a childhood wonder at the world’s twists and turns.

I suspect that playwrights naturally observe at the world through a different angled lens, noticing human interactions and the way the unfolding of our days might be framed by curtains and lights and the relationship of audience/observer to actor/participant. Yes, this is all metaphor, and Ruhl is careful in how she constructs these short essays, using metaphor when needed but also, by being a careful observer of the creative spirit.

She writes of theater, but the essays are really about living a full and curious life. I’m sure I won’t be the first review to say that I was glad she found the time to write the essays she didn’t have time to write, and that she shared her often crowded space with us, if only briefly.

Peace (short but sweet),

Book Review: The Cartographers


Novelist Peng Shepherd pulls a nice trick with her book – The Cartographers — in that she maintains elements of mystery and surprise in a book that has a single old map at the center of the story. Even as a lover of maps, I didn’t think a single map could fuel an entire story. But here, it does.

And I won’t give the story away, but The Cartographers is an engaging tale that begins with a suspicious death, the discovery of an old road map with an odd marking, and a threading of a deep backstory into the present, all the while keeping a focus on Nell, the main character at the heart of the story. Nell’s father’s death is the event that sparks the tale, but it is also her search for her mother, or a memory of her mother, that propels the plot.

There are plenty of twists and turns, and the writing keeps it all moving forward. Focusing in on a collection of characters with a love of maps — from the old, dusty troves of ancient maps to a modern, algorithmic software program — Shepherd allows us to see how powerful maps can be on our imagination, and our perceptions of reality (or misperceptions, too).

It would give the main story away to share Peng Shepherd’s Author’s Notes at the end of the book, but the story she tells there of a real event that inspired her thinking about this fictional story is really quite fascinating — it’s a story of a map that signaled one thing, only to lead to something else altogether, where the map became a path forward in a place that was never real, until it was.

The Cartographers was a fun, lively read.

Peace (off the edge),

Book Review: The Storyteller’s Handbook


What to say about The Storyteller’s Handbook? It’s glorious, and packed with the most strange and wondrous illustrations, and very few words, and all in the service of sparking stories for the reader. (And an introduction by Neil Gaiman doesn’t hurt to set the stage for something magical unfolding in the pages).

It’s impossible not to look through this collection of art by Elise Hurst and not wonder about what happened before the moment, in the moment and then beyond the moment, and so, as a tool for sparking writing, The Storyteller’s Handbook does a fine job.

Every one of the 52 illustrations has something intriguing, and as I was wandering through, I began to wonder if there were narrative threads connecting some, if not all, of the illustrations together (or maybe it is just that I was mesmerized by Hurst’s artistic vision). She plays with scope and dimensions, of turning the mundane into something extraordinary, of placing the fantastical within a jar to looked at and then released.

All that, and more. See Hurst chat about the book in this short video:

At the book’s website, there is even a detailed Teacher’s Guide to use with the book in the classroom, and it is packed full of interesting ideas, prompts and activities (including a scavenger hunt!).

Peace (and Stories),

PS — I am sucker for stories of how books came to be, and Hurst gives an evocative telling of where she came up with the idea for The Storyteller’s Handbook:

Book Review: Musical Tables (Poems)

You can read this entire collection of poems within an hour. Billy Collins, whose work I have long admired and enjoyed reading, turns his attention here to the concept of “small poems” — short verse, of just a few lines.

“I love the suddenness of small poems. They seemed to arrive and depart at the same time, disappearing in a wink … The small poem is a flash, a gesture, a gambit without the game that follows. There’s no room for landscape here, or easeful reflection, but there is the opportunity for humor and poignancy.” — Billy Collins, Musical Tables, pages 139-140

Like Collins, I also am immersed in small poems, writing them just about every morning from either a prompt off Mastodon, Twitter or blogs, and find that elements of capturing an idea in a confined universe of space and words opens up creative doors for poetry. Mine are hit or miss, and some I come back to later to tighten up but most are part of my morning routine — writing over a cup of coffee before getting ready for work at school. But I enjoy the routine and the form.

So I was excited to learn that Collins was also a fan of small poems and Musical Tables gathers together many of his pieces. It’s funny to see his small poems on the printed page of a book because there is more white space in this published collection than inked out words.

There are some gems here that I really enjoyed — his poems about writing poems, a favorite theme of mine, are witty and funny — and his observational style that is the center of so much of his poetry, along with his slanted humor, comes through. I laughed at times, for sure.

BUT — I wasn’t blown away here, and too many of the poems truly seem like throw-aways, something he might jot down on a sticky note in any other time and file away as an idea for something to be developed. Many in the collection here lack a real center or substance, in my opinion.

In fact, I find the small poems that people write and share on Mastodon and Twitter with the #smallpoems hashtag are more interesting and provocative pieces of art, and for the most part, Collins’ work in this book never really rose to that level, for me, anyway.

However, his interview on National Public Radio is fascinating, as he talks about small poems and the ways they allow a writer a path to expression in ways that longer poems may not.

Peace (in little text and lots of space),

Book Review: Poetry Unbound (50 Poems To Open Your World)

I’ve been listening to Padraig O’ Tuama in my ears a few times per week since the Pandemic with his wonderful Poetry Unbound podcast, where he explores a poem through various lenses and celebrates the art of writing with heart and compassion. It’s a beautifully produced podcast.

O’ Tuama has just released a book with the same name — Poetry Unbound (50 Poems To Open Your World) — and like the podcast, the book explores poems, but through his insightful and personal own contexts, giving each poem a short introduction (some read like prose poems) and then a longer essay on the poems.

His curation of poetry — some of which are featured in his podcast but then recast here through slightly different analysis — is enlightening, and most of these poems are ones I would not have come across before. His work as conflict mediator in Ireland through the times of trouble there gives him a certain perspective on tension on the page, and of love and resilence, as does his own personal life as a gay man who grew up in a conservative Catholic culture.

I tried to read this book slowly, letting each poem simmer as O’ Tuama’s analysis dug in, deep, and settled into my head. I found a deep appreciation for  all the writers here, and what they achieved and hoped to make resonant with a reader like me, and I am appreciative to O’ Tuama for finding these pages of verse, and bringing them to the page and to my earbuds on a regular basis.

This is a book I highly recommend, whether poetry is your thing or not.

Peace (within pages of poems),

Book Review: This Is What It Sounds Like (What The Music You Love Says About You)

This Is What It Sounds Like Cover

Give me a book about music, and I am a happy reader.

This new book by Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas goes beyond that. This Is What It Sounds Like is a tour de force, a well-written invitation to think about our choices in the music we listen to and that we love in the moment and over time, and Rogers (who is the primary voice here) is the perfect tour guide.

Rogers’ background is impressive, beginning as someone who helped build recording studios, to a stretch of time as a producer/engineer with Prince, to a producer of many other artists, to her time now as a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Ogas is a published author of books about the brain and the way we think.

The book weaves in and out of Rogers’ stories in the music recording field, but finds it anchors in some key areas as the book explores why we love the music we do, why everyone’s tastes in music will be different, and how we can expand our ideas of not just what art is but how art provides an opportunity to enrich our lives.

The chapter titles give an overview of the topics of music listening:

  • Authenticity
  • Realism
  • Novelty
  • Melody
  • Lyrics
  • Rhythm
  • Timbre
  • Form and Function
  • Falling In Love

In each section, the reader is given insights on the listening to music that is intriguing, with “Record Pulls” — the sharing of songs with others that gives an insight to someone else on your own personality. The songs we share with others say something about ourselves, and Rogers believes in the idea of “Record Pulls” to shine a light on not just our listening but aspect of our personalities. (You can even join the online Record Pull that they have set up at their website:

All in all, this book was beautifully written (a few sections veer deeper into brain science, in relation to music, but it was definitely approachable to the general reader) and the insights had me thinking in new ways on songs and artists and music that have defined who I am for years.

I highly recommend This Is What It Sounds Like. Plus, you can listen in to the Virtual Jukebox of songs referenced in the book.

Peace (and song),

Graphic Novel Review: 5 Worlds (Book One: The Sand Warrior)

It’s nice to see a female hero in the graphic novels for middle school readers. This first book in the 5 World series (which I only found out about through a Scholastic Book order) is a satisfying read on many levels. 5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior is a fast-paced adventure in which our protagonist — Oona Lee — must summon powers she does not know she has in order to start the process to save the worlds.

The story is rather complicated in a summary retelling, but I was not confused during the reading of it (except for all of the odd names of planets and such). While a familiar story arc ensues, I still was rooting for Oona Lee and her friends, and even when I figured out the twist facing her (it has to do with family), I thought the writers (lots of them, apparently) pulled it off quite nicely.

The concept of sand as power, and of how some, like Oona Lee, can summon the sand as magic, and then how that magic can transform a sand dancer into a sand warrior, worked just fine. I appreciated, too, the world building here, and the variety of strange characters — all with important back stories that you can see might unfold in later chapters of the tale.

This book would appeal to girls and boys, in equal measure, and that shows the power of a good graphic novel, where the colorful art matches perfectly with the story on the pages. I’m looking forward to where the story goes from here — there are now five books in the series, I see.

Peace (in magic and sand),