Book Review: I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf

I wish I could gently rip out every page of Grant Snider‘s new collection — I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf — and pin them up all around the house and the classroom, and celebrate the love of reading in Snyder’s colors, and wit, and gentleness. But, you know, then I would be both destroying the book (ack!) and maybe other people wouldn’t appreciate the sudden decor (but the people I love would appreciate the theme).

Snider, whose work as a cartoonist with a literary bent is someone I have been following for years with appreciation, dives deep into his love of books with every cartoon in this collection — some have been published elsewhere (his work is often in the New York Times, New Yorker, etc.) and at his blog site, but many of them here are ones I had never seen before. Like his other book collection – The Shape of Ideas — I can see myself coming back time and again for a little artistic rejuvenation and appreciation for the way he explores writing and reading at beautiful angles.

If you love books, you’ll love I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf.

Peace (in pages),

Adventures in AudioStory Creation: Risking It All For the King

Risking It All For the King

As my students were writing their own “Stuck Inside a Game” short stories over a few weeks time in our distance learning adventures, I was recording an audiobook of my own story: Risking It All For The King. I’d been sharing each episode as I recorded them but then gathered all SEVEN episodes in one place, in order from start to finish. It was fun to layer sound effects in with voice for an extended story. This was fairly new to me.

Peace (in story),

Book Review: The Boy, The Mole, the Fox and the Horse

Sometimes, the right book arrives at just the right time.

So it is with The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse, by Charles Mackesy. At a time when a slower-paced book is needed, to calm the mind if not the heart, this small book — with such beautiful and evocative sketches and watercolors by Mackesy — offers an antidote of love, kindness, friendship and philosophy.

The narrative thread is a lonely boy who meets a cake-loving mole, who then rescues a fox, who then meets the horse, and all four creatures wander through a landscape, asking questions of each other on a range of topics, from what it means to be a friend to what it means to take care of yourself to what it means to love someone else and more.

There’s a quiet gentle, enhanced by the drawings, to the wanderings, sort of like the original Winnie the Pooh stories (before Disney got its hands on it), and that layered simplicity on top of message complexity makes The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse shine, page after page after page.

I’ve read the book twice in a week, and then shared it with my student book talk yesterday, and showed some of the pictures through video. This book is for any age reader, and while sharing it was the right thing to do, I believe this is one of those books you squirrel away, and take out when the world seems off-kilter, and maybe a little scary, and you need some reassurance that there is a path forward and you find the path with the ones you love, and traverse it together.

See? Perfect book for the times.

Peace (wandering through),

Slice of Life: The End of Days

The title of this post is a little click bait-y. Sorry.

The other day, I received in the mail a copy of a new book by my writing project colleague, Michael Silverstone and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian. It’s entitled Teaching to Empower.

Michael sent me a copy of the book because I was one of many teachers Debbie and Michael reached out for vignettes from the classroom, around the theme of student or teacher empowerment, and I had forgotten most of what I had written.

So, I thumbed through the book and found my piece. In it, I had focused on our video game design unit, and how I entered into the world of game design, as a way to help students engage with technology and writing, after overhearing so many discussions about gaming, at the end of the school days, while waiting for the bus.

In fact, I’ve written many small pieces over the years about that particular period of the school day, of just waiting around, of boredom being interrupted by some interesting question or thought, of aimless chatter, or of how a line of discussion that starts one place and ends in another — all as we waited for the dismissal announcements over the loudspeaker.

Of all the things I’m missing now in the Social Distancing era, this end-of-days bus-waiting time (See? I told you the phrase would makes sense) doesn’t quite rank at the top of my worries, yet it’s emblematic of a periodic realization: I don’t quite know my students anymore. We’re in our tenth week of learning and teaching from home.

Honesty, I don’t really know how they are doing, other than how they look for a stretch of time on the screen. I try to read eyes, and gestures, and smiles, but the screens interfere with those moments. The technology masks the humanity. I don’t really know what’s shaking up their lives or what’s the newest, best, most exciting thing happening to them.

I’m in touch, but I’ve lost touch.

My piece in Michael and Debbie’s book reminded of this because it was such a celebratory moment of how eavesdropping in on student conversations helped me rethink the way I was teaching, and then guided me into some curriculum changes that made a huge difference for so many students (particularly my struggling writers).

I end the vignette with the idea of standing there, in the classroom, waiting, listening back in, with the reminder that you never know what you’ll hear if you don’t take the chance to listen. That seems quaint now, and so out of touch with the times. So it goes.

Peace (what we hear),

Graphic Novel Review: Bone (The Complete Collection)

Thirteen hundred pages of fantastic adventure. That’s what I dove into when I picked up my son’s massive book of Bone, by Jeff Smith. I’ve read parts of Bone over the years, but never in sequence (so I never really saw the larger story unfolding) and always out of context. Smith’s story is a classic, of course, and reading it from start to finish over 1300 pages gives you a sense of scope.

If you don’t know Bone, it tells the story of three cousins from Boneville — Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone – who begin the story on the run, driven from Boneville for some political scam (Phoney is always on a con or scam of some sort) when they stumble over the mountains, get separated and discover adventure that includes dragons, rat creatures, magic, a lost Queen and discovered princess, strange locusts, treasure found and lost, epic battles and more.

Told with humor and seriousness, Smith’s Bone book harnesses the power of graphic storytelling in so many ways, it’s hard to know what to focus on. There are allusions to classic stories and classic cartoons, to humous gags that are hinted at early and then re-emerge later, and somehow, Smith juggled it all over the course of more than a decade of writing and illustrating, and publishing in installments.

Given our time of staying inside during the pandemic, the discovery of my son’s Bone collection was a welcome site, and the hours spent with the cousins and their friends (and enemies) was a literary diversion that kept me deep in the story. Bone is worth a visit for readers of all ages. (Note: this huge book is costly – $40 at B/N. I think we picked up years ago at a book sale for cheap — what a deal!)

Peace (beyond Boneville),


Book Review: The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary

I could not help reading Laura Shovan’s The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary without thinking of my sixth grade students, now at home, and how our school is now closed (just like the Emerson Elementary is closing, but for different reasons) and traditions (like Step Up Day for us; Moving Up for the kids in the book) have all been rattled by the times.

This book’s premise is two-fold: each entry from the 18 kids of the classroom is part of a time capsule that will be installed on the grounds of the school, which is being demolished to make way for a grocery story; and each entry is written as a poem, with the 18 students represented on different days throughout the school year.

The result is a beautiful tapestry of stories — not just about the attempt to save the school through student protest and civic activism — but also of each student, as their home life and friendships and interests slowly emerge through the poems, and I appreciated the pace of the storytelling, how Shovan lets us settle in with the characters and watch many of them change over the poetic lens of a single year in fifth grade.

Not everything is knotted tight in resolution by the end, but that’s OK, too. We’ve come to trust the characters enough to wish them well on the next stage of their journey. And Shovan helpfully provides some valuable additions for the reader at the end — an overview of the many poetic styles used by her characters in their poems and a collection of writing/poetic prompts that one could use to write their own stories, told through poems.

Note: I was able to ‘meet’ Laura through her facilitation of the Water Poems Project at her blog and on Twitter, a recent daily water-themed poem project which I loved, and I bought her book because of that connection, and I am sure glad I did.

Peace (poetic style),


Book Review: Kent State

A wife of a teaching colleague sent along her copy of Kent State, by Deborah Wiles, many months ago, with a recommendation that I read it, and there it sat, until last week. I had not an inkling that the anniversary of the shooting of college students by the National Guard was even approaching, never mind the 50th anniversary (which is today), when I picked it up last week. I only had a gap in my reading list, and the book filled a need.

Talk about good timing for a book and a historic event.

I was immediately drawn in by the experimental use of voice in this well-researched book by Wiles, who taps into the concept of the collective Greek Chorus, of giving voice to various factions of the time and place, through use of font style, size and page placement. The way the page looks helps to tell the story. Although somewhat a free verse novel, the passages don’t read like poems, more like gathered voices standing on the page, arguing points about what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

We read/hear different student perspectives (the calm voice of sadness and the frustrated voice of anger; the Black voice of student protest wading into the racial contours of America’s response to the white college students killed by gunfire by the American government); the townspeople (irate businessman and scared mother of small children, the one who remembers the military helicopters most of all); and the National Guardsmen, too, explaining how young they were and how chaotic the college protest was for them.

These voices weave in and out of each other, as the story of Kent State unfolds over a weekend, starting with unrest on the campus over Vietnam and the federal and state government, leading to the shooting on campus that shocked and rattled the nation. Wiles explains at the end of the book how she spent a lot of time with oral biographies and with personal interviews, to capture the tension and confusion, the anger and regret, the voices of the times for her book, and her effort to be true to the event and the people shows.

There is no single point of view in Kent State, as there should not be although we often only know the story of soldiers killing college students, thanks in part to the song “Ohio” by Crosby Stills Nash & Young (a song that my band still plays).

This short but powerful book ends, as it begins, with a call to the reader (to us) to show empathy to all sides of the tragic event, and to be the one (you, I, us) who helps make the changes that make for a better nation.

We hope you’re
on fire
for change
for hope
for love

I would say this book is most appropriate for high school, but some upper middle school readers might enjoy it, too. It could easily find a home in a Social Studies/American History classroom, as an example of how to turn research into a work of experimental art.

Peace (today and every day),

Picture Book Review: Let The Children March

One of the many topics that come up when I read Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 is the role of young people in the civil rights movement. Although the novel never references the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the movie adaptation does, through the memory of some cousins of the Watson children, and so we spend time discussing how young people took the streets in protest, were attacked by police with fire canons and dogs, and were sent to jail by the hundreds.

Let The Children March, a picture book by author Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrator Frank Morrison is a powerful text companion to those discussions. With brilliant visuals and an engaging story (plus, a valuable timeline of 1963 in Alabama during the Civil Rights era), the book brings to the surface the courage of the kids who took to the streets, the wariness and worry of the parents who allowed the march (code-named D Day and Double D Day) to happen, and the movement leaders who accepted that children being arrested would create tension for the Kennedy White House to finally act against segregation.

The picture book centers on a narrator voice of a child who takes part in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, but it more of a universal voice, advocating for change against unjust rules and putting the self in danger to force confrontation against a police force that was part of the problem, not the solution.

I appreciate how Let The Children March gives those young marchers a voice, and also, explores the results of the march (which the scenes in the Watsons movie does not do because of the time frame). President Kennedy did get involved after getting pressure from the country and the world. Birmingham did end official segregation (if not racial violence, as the bombing of the church that forms the center of the Watsons novel shows. Change happened, even if the results of those actions are still something we continue to reckon with as a country.

Peace (for all),

Book Review: One Long River of Song (Notes on Wonder)

Luminous, is the word I would use to describe some of the essays in this collection by Brian Doyle, a writer I was not familiar with until reading One Long River of Song.

This book, which I borrowed from the library but now feel so entranced by it that I am probably going to buy a copy for myself, was mentioned somewhere in a review, caught my eye, and so I kept it on my radar (I have lots of books on my radar).

Lucky me. While Doyle apparently is well known in many circles as an essayist of renown, exploring spiritual matters (one of his gigs was with a Catholic journal, I believe), which sort of would turn me off from him if things veered too religious, the collected pieces here are full of humor, insight, reflection, quiet, family and more. The spiritual aspects are more a sense of shared humanity.

Yes, there is a deeper spiritual nature and some references to religious beliefs to Doyle’s pieces, but these elements allow him to step back and look at the larger world with, as the subtitle says, Notes on Wonder. From the natural world (he is particularly attuned to Hawks and birds, and a piece about hummingbirds to start the collection is exquisite) to the unanticipated pleasures of parenthood (he and his wife were told they would not have children, and then had three) to growing up in a bustling family (one essay about biking to the beach along the highway, only to be saved from near death by an older brother is touching), to conversations with friends and strangers that become small odes of intensive observation, Doyle is a writer of note.

I am sad to report that this collection, curated by his wife and put into context by a writing friend, David James Duncan, whose foreword is a moving piece of textual friendship, was published following Doyle’s death from brain cancer. And yet, even the later pieces, in which he writes about leaving this life, Doyle somehow finds the right words to touch your heart, to be grateful for what you have in the moment you are in. One particular late essay in which he imagines what his wife thinks of him, through his own strange wanderings and mutterings, is touching, funny, and so deep with humanity.

As part of my own reading life, I often take passages and sentences that I deem to be beautiful or enriching, and share them out elsewhere under a #smallquotes tag. It’s a way for me to remember my reading, and honor the writers, but also, in typing out the passages from the books, I learn more about how to be a writer myself. Doyle has been a wonderful teacher, in this regard, giving me so many beautiful passages and flowing sentences that I could have easily found dozens in this book.

I wasn’t aware of Brian Doyle when he was alive and a vibrant writer of novels, essays, poems and more, but this collection of pieces has brought him and his words into my world, into my heart, and for that, I am grateful.

Peace (flowing on the page),

Book Review: How To (Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems)

You’d probably be better off searching YouTube for how to really take a selfie, win an election, build a highway, charge your phone, cross a river, predict the weather, build a lava moat, dig a hole and the whole host of other both odd and common topics that pepper Randall Munroe’s recent book, How To (Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problem).

But it wouldn’t likely be nearly as much fun.

If you know Munroe’s work (through his xkcd comics and other books), then you know that his brain is wired with both logic and humor, and both are sure to get you laughing while you’re thinking. Or is it thinking while you’re laughing?

In either case, you’ll be doing both.

With math and science at his fingertips, and with plenty of his signature stick doodles to pepper the pages, Monroe tackles a wide range of issues with practicality and impracticality. If you are a teacher like me, you’ll quickly realize that this kind of expository/informational writing could potentially become a neat and interesting model for students to explore.

Nothing Monroe shares here is untrue (as far as I can tell) and much of it is written in clear, concise language (for the most part), and the illustrations connect to the text (if in funny tones) — so what if this kind of book becomes a sort of mentor text for teaching this kind of technical writing?

Even if not, this book is certainly worth your time. There’s even a final chapter on “How To Dispose of This Book.” You could send it to the Sun, bury it deep into the earth, put it beneath the ocean floor or just hand it over to a friend to read. Whatever’s easier.

Peace (stick people rule!),