Graphic Novel Review: Crafty Cat and the Crafty Camp Crisis

This second graphic novel in a developing trilogy by Charise Mericle Harper for younger readers is so cute and adorable, you want to hug it at times. I read an advanced copy of Crafty Cat and the Crafty Camp Crisis just as I was facilitating a summer camp last week and just as CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC) is about to launch for the summer. Talk about a nicely timed read.

Crafty Cat and the Crafty Camp Crisis is a lovely and gentle book, with an underlying message of artistic freedom, working with your hands, and tolerating the different personalities that school and camp force on you. The story is about Birdie, a young girl who loveslovesloves to do arts and crafts, and the tale is centered around the summer camp where she and her friend, Evan, attend. The crisis is .. well, you’ll have to read the story, right?

Let’s just say, not everyone gets along.

Birdie has a spirited imagination (the crafty cat is part of her dreaming mind, as a sort of super hero who helps her navigate the world) and a positive, can-do attitude. She would be great in CLMOOC!

The narrator’s voice — told through text boxes — is intriguing, as it interjects itself as part of the story (sometimes cheering on Birdie, sometimes questioning her actions) even as it tells the story. That narrative element gives the story a different kind of feel from many books where the narrator is removed from the action — and the technique is perfect for the audience (roughly second and third grade readers, and probably more girls than boys. Or am I stereotyping?)

I am not much of a naturally crafty person, although I do love to make and design stuff. I lean towards digital. But when I was a stay-at-home dad with my boys, we did crafts quite a bit, and I learned all about getting messy with glue sticks, stickers, pipe cleaners, glitter and more.

One thing I love here in Crafty Cat is how Harper provides pages of “how to” craft ideas at the end of the book. This allows readers to make the crafts — like Monster Headbands, for example — that Birdie makes in the book. We could all use more “making time” in our lives, right?

Peace (craft it with love),
Kevin

Book Review: The Urban Sketchbook

I’m still trying to learn more about sketching. Recently, I took a break from writing for a week to do sketching from my couch, and I found it very enjoyable.

I am still not confident or comfortable with myself as a visual artist — I find myself falling back to words and text to understand and view the world — but I want to become better at sketching. I am interested in how different media forces you to have a different kind of perspective, and how different art changes the way we tell stories to each other (and ourselves).

So, of course, when I saw this book– The Urban Sketchbook — on the shelves of our public library, I had to grab it, take it home and peruse what was inside. If I had any doubts, the tagline on the cover had me before page one: Get Out. Walk. Observe. Draw. Lose Yourself. Create.

First of all, I didn’t even know that Urban Sketching was a thing. Of course, it’s a thing. Folks organize and gather together with sketchbooks in urban centers all over the globe and head out to the streets and city blocks to find scenes to sketch, some of which may be turned into more formal art. Most will not. Most of the art will remain in the books. There’s an informal warmth to sketching.

This book, a collection of ideas and resources by writer/illustrator Sergi Camara, is a fine introduction, touching on tools of the trade, the reasons why people sketch, the impact of social media on sketchbooks and collaboration, and more. There’s even an interesting introduction to the history of sketching.

I felt a bit like an outsider here, but the text and images and examples of sketching was very inviting, and I didn’t feel as intimidated by the art as I thought I might be.

I don’t live in an urban area. That didn’t matter. Carmara’s book gave me ideas on how one might view the world from different angles, with an eye for colors and lines and shapes and contours.

I’m still learning.

Peace (looks like that),
Kevin

 

Letters to a Young Writer (A Review and An Interpretation)

Novelist (and teacher) Colum McCann (whose Let the Great World Spin was an excellent book) has put out a small tome entitled Letters to a Young Writer, in which he distills some of his teaching and advice to writers who are about to venture, or are already there, in to the world of stories.

His most consistent and best advice: Put your arse in the chair and write write write!

Along with that bit of truth, McCann circles the wagons on the power of words — in fact, he relegates worrying about plot to the second tier of writing, and instead, he celebrates how writers use language to uncover the world. His rebalancing here had me wondering about how I teach my young writers about stories, where I find my focus on plot and structure to be important. Maybe I don’t let them play with language nearly enough.

The book weaves through topics such as editing and revision, and getting unstuck, about observing the world with notebook in hand and how to use your red pen to remove unnecessary baggage from your writing, and what to do when you stare at a blank page. He acknowledges the discouragement of rejection of writing, and cheers on those who persevere. He’s funny, and thoughtful, and knows that true writers have the unrelenting urge to write, as something intangible in the heart.

I found his first chapter and his last chapter most moving here, as he captures all of the ways writers interact and make sense of the world, and themselves — and therefore, others, too. His short sentences in these chapters play like a poem, digging deep into the heart and soul of writing.

It was worth a remix of sorts, so here are pieces of the first chapter, as digital interpretation:

I might still do something else with the last chapter, where he widens his focus to the role of the writer in the larger world.

Peace (get your arse there),
Kevin

Graphic Book Review: The Shape of Ideas

I have long been a huge fan of Grant Snider, who puts out regular Incidental Comics that makes you pay attention to the creative mind and imaginative sparks that come with writing. This collection by Snider — entitled The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity — is a perfect curation of some of his work, ranging along themes of Inspiration, Improvisation, Exploration, Frustration and Elation.

 

I see Snider as a visual poet, using visual and word puns to challenge the viewer to think about what it means to find and nurture ideas that often seem elusive. His graphic art reminds us of the “work” that goes into making art.

He even left the last page of his book as a blank art canvas, as an invitation to draw. I love that.

While there is some repetition of ideas here, Snider’s exploration of the creative mind through comics and graphics will surely make you contemplate the wistfulness of creativity, and perhaps inspire you to make your own. I’m happy if my purchase of his book allows Snider more time to make art. I also support him through Patreon.

You can even glimpse some of the art in his book through a link off his site.

Peace (elusive and wandering),
Kevin

Literacy Collaboration: The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon

Here’s a neat project just finishing up, in which Juan Felipe Herrera (United States Poet Laureate) and artist Juana Medina were “slow writing” a picture book story, with input from second and third grade classrooms around the country. I say “slow writing” because the story had been unfolding one chapter at a time, over months, and the book apparently has just been completed.

There are five chapters, and an epilogue, and the prompt for one of the chapters gives you a nice taste of the story and the characters: How does Catalina use the poetry book to unleash her neon powers and save her familia?”

Herrera and Medina used input from elementary students who responded to the prompt (via a teacher submitting ideas with an online form) as the spine of the next part of the story. Then, they give credit to the schools where the ideas were submitted from.

Cool, right? You bet it is. I hope they do it again.

Check out The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon.

Peace (writing it forever),
Kevin

Book Review: Minds Made for Stories

Thomas Newkirk‘s idea that story is everywhere, in everything, is not all that new, but his framing of the issue in the Common Core-infused world of the US education system is worth noting. Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational Texts is Newkirk’s, well, story of how he came to see stories in the anchors of all texts.

“The hero of this story is narrative itself –how it comes to our aid as we sort out the welter of information that is available, as it undergirds our belief that our world is comprehensible, and meaningful, and one in which our actions have consequences. Narrative is there to help us ‘compose’ ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base.” — Thomas Newkirk, Minds Made for Stories, p. 5

Newkirk refers to many of those before him, including Peter Elbow, James Moffett and others, whose work and insights about writing has informed the teaching and thinking of writing in the past 50 years. Here, Newkirk argues that “narrative” is not a genre, and that the Common Core classification breakdown of writing into the three rungs of Narrative, Information/Expository, Argument/Persuasion is faulty categorization system, in that it fails to acknowledge that all texts have a narrative beneath them.

He advocates the direct teaching of noticing these stories, in all sorts of texts in the world of young people, and by noticing the frames of narratives, young people will be more apt to compose their own, breathing life into arguments and into informational texts, which often take on the lifeless role of teacher-as-audience assignments.

In one example, he breaks down the box score of a baseball game, to show how one can ferret out the true story of the game from just the mere numbers. In another section, he praises the role of Miss Frizzle and the Magic School Bus series for the way is uses story to contextualize science themes. He does the same with many picture book authors, too, such as Eric Carle. We lose that sense of underlying story in the content fields as students get older. Why is that?

This book  is part of our framework for a summer camp we are now designing in a partnership between my Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and an urban middle school in Springfield. Our program is even called Minds Made for Stories. All that we are planning to do during our free summer camp (we are being supported through a grant from Mass Humanities) will be done through the lens of story, through historical documents, a social justice mindset and a larger community project.

I appreciated Newkirk’s insights. The reminder of how powerful a role stories can play in our lives, in school and certainly beyond school, is always welcome in this day and age of standards, testing and information overload. We need stories to make sense of the world, maybe now more than ever.

Peace (tells the story),
Kevin

Book Review: Horizon

I am always on the look-out for adventurous and exciting books to read-aloud with my son. He’s 12 but still enjoys having me read, and I am holding on to that with all I’ve got (he is the youngest). I’ve had mixed results with special series that get put out by Scholastic over the years, even though we get a good deal through the book club.

I have to say: Scott Westerfeld’s Horizon is a pretty fun read, with lots of action and adventure, and a brimming mystery that had my son and I talking about the possibilities of What the heck is going on in this story?

Horizon is centered around a plane crash, in which a handful of kids survive (while everyone else is gone, apparently dead) in the middle of a jungle where not everything is as it appears to be. In fact, clues around them suggest that they may not even be on Earth. But if not, then where? I won’t give it away (and I don’t have much to give away, to be honest) but it has that sense of Lost, in that we experience this strange place through the eyes and stories of the young protagonists.

So, yeah, we’re ready for the second book. Apparently, the books in the series will be written by different authors, a common Scholastic We hope someone is hard at work writing it.

This book is a nice fit for older elementary and middle school students. There are some scenes of injury and death, but nothing too gruesome.

Peace (in another world),
Kevin

Book Review: Some Writer

I am resisting the urge to say …. well … Ok … this is Some Book. Really, Some Writer is a fantastic non-fiction cross between picture book and biographical story that expertly weaves in the life of writer E.B. White with fantastic primary sources, often in the form of artistic collages.

Like many, I am sure, I know of White’s work as the author of the marvelous Charlotte’s Web. But I also remember reading The Trumpet of the Swan, and even Stuart Little, to my older sons as read-aloud books, and wondering at the inventive spirit of White’s stories. Some of the vocabulary and syntax always seemed a little more adult-like in the Swan and Stuart, but I never felt that way with Charlotte’s Web.

White, of course, made his name not just as a children’s novelist, but as a writer in the New Yorker magazine, where he wrote funny small pieces and sketches of characters and places for decades. My first encounter with White beyond my own childhood reading of Charlotte’s Web was Strunk & White’s famous Elements of Style book, which is sort of a bible for writers. I wanted to be a writer, so it became a regular reading.

In Some Writer, Melissa Sweet has not just done her homework, but she has brought White’s words and experiences to life in a book that should appeal to readers of any age. From White’s life-long journal entries, we find a curious and funny soul, noticing the world through attentive eyes. We find drafts of stories (including a fascinating series of drafts of the first lines of Charlotte’s Web, where White struggled to write the perfect opening).

It’s another in a line of new non-fiction that shows just how creative one can get with telling a story of another’s life, and here, Sweet’s gentle guiding voice and collages do just that. It’s a lovely reading experience.

Peace (written on the Web),
Kevin

 

If the Web is the City, Are Apps the Gated Suburbs?

I’ve recently read, with interest, a book by Virginia Heffernan entitled Magic and Loss: The Internet As Art, and it seems to mesh quite nicely with some of the exploration that had been done in the Networked Narratives experiment. As the title suggests, Heffernan proposes that we view the Internet itself as a huge canvas of realistic art, and then she dives into elements like design, text, images and more to explore these ideas through a networked lens.

In the chapter on Design, she notes that because the Web is both a commercial space and a collaborative space, it has become a messy sprawl of links, images, advertisements, and more. As a result, the experience of many users is far from ideal.

“The Web is haphazardly planned. Its public spaces are mobbed, and urban decay abounds in broken links, ghost town sites, and abandoned projects. Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary. Bullies, hucksters and trolls roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble dominates major sites.” — Magic and Loss, page 45

Heffernan then goes on to develop the metaphorical supposition that this messy reality of the Internet gave rise to the closed and contained experience of Apps, which pulled us away from the Internet and created a sort of Gated Community. She talks about this as the “online equivalent of white flight.”

“The parallels between what happened to Chicago, Detroit, and new York in the twentieth century and what happened to the Internet since the introduction of the (Apple) App Store are striking.” — Magic and Loss, page 45

Is this true? Does the metaphor hold?

I guess I had never really considered the connections but she raises some intriguing points. So, as we talked about the nature of “civic imagination” in Networked Narratives and built our own “Arganee World,” we also considered what we meant by public spaces. A further point of discussion might have been how to “design elements” can play a larger role in the permanence of online spaces, and is connected directly to how much a user invests in the experience.

I guess one of the larger questions remains: What do we give up when we move into any gated community? What do we trade for our security? There is a certain beauty in the chaotic mess of the Internet — the expected discovery or connection — as well as some real ugliness — trolls and negative comments and attacks — and we cede some authority to app developers when we move into the app on our mobile device.

During one summer’s CLMOOC, we explored the idea of the Internet as Public Sphere. I wrote about it here and here and here.

Peace (in all spaces),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Anatomy of a Song

Here’s a book that hit a number of buttons for me. It’s about music. It’s about songwriting. It’s an oral history project. It’s an inside look at how creative people are creative. Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits by Marc Meyers is apparently a riff off a Wall Street Journal column he wrote, diving deep into songwriting by interviewing the writers, producers, engineers and musicians behind some iconic music. (I didn’t know WSJ had a music column, did you?)

I really enjoyed Meyer’s approach here, as he brings the voices behind the scenes up in the mix, so to speak. I knew most of the songs, but not all, and he stops at REM’s Losing My Religion, arguing that 25 years have to go by before one really knows if a song reaches iconic status. I’m fine with that.

It’s intriguing to hear the stories behind the songs, of where the inspirational lines may have come from or where the melody or harmony originated, and the process that goes into the writing, recording and engineering of songs that become the soundtrack of our lives.

Anatomy of a Song covers quite a bit of ground — there are 45 chapters, sort of like a 45 spinning on your old record player — from Lawdy Miss Clawdy by Lloyd Price to You Really Got Me by the Kinks to The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff to Heart of Glass by Blondie to Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper and more. You might quibble with his selection, but I didn’t mind.

Peace (inside the songs of our lives),
Kevin