Book Review: Math With Bad Drawings

I admit it upfront: it was the reference to stick figure drawings more than the math that got me interested in this book when I first saw the cover. But, truth be told, it was the math ideas and concepts, and Ben Orlin’s wonderful sense of humor and explanations of those ideas, that kept me reading on to the end.

Math with Bad Drawings (Illuminating the Ideas that Shape Our Reality) covers a lot of mathematical ground, and some of it went beyond me but most of it I found really intriguing and I learned a lot from Orlin (a math teacher, turned stick figure artist, who — it turns out — lives in the same city as I do). You can even follow Orlin’s blog, where he posts his comics and ideas.

What I enjoyed about the book — other than Orlin’s simple but funny drawings — was the expanded notion of math as a guiding principle and underlying force in our world, and the ways in which Orlin surfaces those ideas. Yes, we are covering probability, statistical analysis, number theory, logic, and even the weird underlying math of the Electoral College, and more, but Orlin — who knows his audience is likely neither math teachers nor math fanatics — uses clear explanations, connecting math to the real world as much as possible, and when all else fails, letting us know when we’re moving into geeky esoteric mathematical principles. At least, the reader is forewarned.

In an early chapter, Orlin introduces a strategy game called Ultimate Tic Tac Toe, which I brought into my sixth grade classroom as a challenge activity, and many of my students really enjoyed the game, which expands the game board and tweaks the rules to make an otherwise predictable game much more challenging. (You can even play a version of it online — against a computer or with a friend. Neat.)

via Wikipedia


Math with Bad Drawings is a recommended read for anyone interested in learning math beyond the textbook, even writers and teachers of young writers like me, and you’ll come out the other side of the text with an expanded knowledge of theory and practice, and a few ideas for making stick people drawings. So, you know, win win win.

What are the odds of that?

Peace (beyond numbers),


Graphic Novel Review: Illegal

I’m not sure I have read quite so powerful a graphic novel in some time as I did with Illegal, by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and illustrator Giovanni Rigano. Aimed at upper elementary and middle school readers (and maybe high school), this heart-felt graphic novel follows Ebo, a young boy refugee on the run from Ghana, Africa, to Europe, where he hopes to find his sister and start a new life.

Such is the story of so many people these days, and Ebo’s journey is both harrowing and hopeful. Along with his older brother, Kwame, Ebo is determined to survive his trek across the Sahara Desert and then the balloon boat ride to Europe. It’s a trip of travails and tragedy, one made visual and visceral by the use of the artwork in this story. It will pull you in and tug at your heart, particularly one specific scene on the ocean just before a rescue. It will make you wonder about the headlines and stories you read about those who don’t survive the journey, and those few that do.

It will make you consider, too, the people in the so-called Migrant Caravans making their way north from Central America to the United States border, and the desperate need for a better life, away from violence and poverty, that propels such a journey. Illegal will remind you, as the authors do in their note to the reader, that “…every person is a human being.”

An additional small black-and-white graphic interpretation of an real interview with a woman who made a similar journey as the fictional Ebo is a powerful use of the graphic novel genre, bringing us into the face and story of Helen, who left Eritrea for Europe and had her own journey of desperation. This small piece helps to ground the larger story in the real world, and makes you weep for those who face such danger just to find a safer place to live, with a future, for themselves and their families.

Peace (in the world),

Book Review: Soul Mining (A Musical Life)

Autobiographies of musicians intrigue me because they pull back a layer on something behind the engineered musical tracks we hear that first caught our attention. Consider Daniel Lanois’ book – Soul Mining (A Musical Life). You may either not know or only be vaguely aware of Lanois, but his impact on the musical landscape for much of the 1980s and 90s is undeniable.

Mostly, he did this as a producer/engineer of Peter Gabriel (So), U2 (Joshua Tree), Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball), Bob Dylan (Time Out of Mind), Chris Whitely (Living with the Law) and many others, including his own French Canadian-influenced solo albums (Acadie).

His connection to Brian Eno and the aesthetic of “space” in music is something still very apparent today. I was just listening to the incredible new album by The National and found myself as listener in the gaps of words and sound, and knew that this an enduring influence on the part of what Lanois (he is not involved in The National, as far as I know) and others brought to the table with their sound explorations.

This autobiography brings forth insights into how Lanois began to hear and experiment with sound — he had a lot of freedom as a kid, which he attributes to forced imagination and making creative outlets for amusement, and his mother essentially let him and his older brother turn part of the house into a recording studio when he was at a young age (one of his first recordings he did was for Rick James, which is strange to think about). He also is very organized and detailed, making intricate notes on everything in the studio as a producer, and some of his journal pages shared here in the book are rich with thinking and complexity.

“Keeping track of arrangements and ideas on paper has always been part of my work process. Remembering is just another word for choosing. The world turns the same way for everybody but different people choose to see different things.” — from Soul Mining (A Musical Life), by Daniel Lanois, page 13

I was struck by his curiosity. He’d pack up and move someplace in a minute if the instinct struck him. One time, he moved to a remote location in Mexico. Another time, he bought an abandoned theater in California, and created a space for artists to record and perform. Most of all, as a producer and engineer, Lanois always seemed deeply in tune with the artists he is trying to capture — combining his vision for music production with the depth of the musicians and songwriters he works with.

Give Lanois a listen, and pay attention to the space in his songs and the way pieces are layered together to create a rich cushion for voice and words. His artistry behind the board is undeniable. Soul Mining brings that vision to the forefront.

Peace (in sound and design),

PS — I was sent this book rather unexpectedly by my musical friend, John, and I will be passing it along to another musical friend.

Book Review: A Velocity of Being (Letters to a Young Reader)

Some books, you just know you may never want to part with. Ever.

This is one of those books. A Velocity of Being (Letters to a Young Reader) featured dozens of letters written by adults of all walks of life — musicians, writers, poets, media makers, business people, etc. Edited by the wonderfully talented Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings) and Claudia Bedrick, this book is just one gem after another … turn the page and you can’t stop reading.

As Povova writes, the book is …

a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading. — via Brain Pickings

The format caught my eye early on, via Brain Pickings website (which I read regularly and periodically support), where Popova has written about the book’s progress over the last year or two (after working on it for eight years, I guess). To secure dozens of writers and then to secure dozens of illustrators (the art is as fabulous as the letters — see this post to see some of the illustrations), and then to gather them all up into a book that could only be described itself as a work of art … well, that has my attention in the days of digital books. This is one book you need to hold in your hands.

As someone who shares out “small quotes” each morning from books I am reading over at Mastodon, A Velocity of Being has fueled enough mornings for a month or two, and maybe more. Every page seems to have some sentence, some passage, some ideas that rings out for me.

The question is: will young readers read it?

That question has me thinking. I have about 75 sixth grade students. I can’t buy them each this book. (I’m a public school teacher). But what if I made a copy of a page for each student — thinking about what I know of them as readers and making as best a match as possible — before the end of the school year — a letter to a young reader that gets into the hands of a young reader? I like that possibility.

Hmmm …

Peace (read it over and over and over),


Where Art, Writing and Inspiration Meet: Graphic Novelist Jarrett J. Krosoczka

A Visit by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

We had the pleasure of bringing graphic novelist Jarrett J. Krosoczka to our school yesterday. He gave presentations to four different grades about his work as a writer and artist, and shared his writing process and passions for making books. Krosoczka is the creator of the very popular Lunch Lady series, and his recent book is Hey, Kiddo.

His origin story of the Lunch Lady series was interesting. He told of going back to his old elementary school as an adult, and spending time with a lunch lady who used to serve him lunch, only to realize that she had a whole life outside of the school building (shocker). He wanted to write a picture book about the cafeteria staff, only to realize that one small strand of that book — a lunch lady as an undercover agent, whose mission is to protect the school and students — should be its own book, and that the comic format of a graphic novel was the way to tell that story. It took eight years from that spark of an idea to publication of the first book, he told the students.

Meanwhile, in preparation for his visit, students across our school have been working on projects, including graphic novel stories, in art class to recognize and celebrate our own lunch staff and other support staff workers in the building. During one of the sessions with Krosoczka, the staff from the cafeteria was brought in, and celebrated, with students performing a rap and short opera they wrote for them as appreciation.

My sixth grade students met him at the end of the day, after a long morning of state math testing, so it was a nice counterpoint to that to hear Krosoczka describe how he came to love reading, and then making, comics, and how it was his passion for art and writing — and lots of persistence in the face of rejection, particularly for his first picture book — that got him to where he is today, as the writer/illustrator on dozens of books.

It’s one thing to teach students the art of writing; It’s another to hear a writer tell of their experiences. Krosoczka wove the two strands together, and hopefully inspired young writers to write (and draw).

Peace (on the page),

Buried in the Feldgang: A Poem from a Quote from a Book from an Idea

Quote: The Art of Is

I am forever overlapping
you; your notes cascading
upon me; where shadows
loom, you hold the light

We meet in the middle,
at the bridge – at the break –
at the moment of unexpected
surrender to the moment of
story and song

I am melody: nothing, but
for the harmony that spans
its wings beneath

Note: this is a #smallpoem, written in the margins of a community feldgang, with this line as anchor:

“Making art, whether you do it solo or in a group, derives its patterns from everything around us, in an interdependent network.” — Stephen Nachmanovitch, The Art of Is

Others have been leaving poems, too, in the book we are reading together in NowComment, and finding them in the margins of the text is a beautiful moment — a dance along the contours of Nachmanovitch’s ideas, made visible for shared experiences.

Peace (along the margins),

Book Review: The Stars Beneath Our Feet

I had just finished The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore and was perusing the comments at Goodreads (I try not to read comments until after I have read the book) and noticed that while many adults were praising the story (which I liked well enough), one young middle school reader wrote the opposite. And her response has me wondering if too many of the books coming out now with cultural diversity are becoming one-trick ponies.

This is some of what this young reader – her name is Lola — wrote:

I don’t see what everyone else sees in this book.

Perhaps that is because I have read so many, many, many books featuring characters dealing with the loss of a loved one? I want to say that is probably the case, but the truth is I constantly read these books and I tend to enjoy them as a general rule.

So what happened? The writing is lovely. It drew me in from the start. I was curious about the story and I certainly could not complain about the cool cover. But it took time for me to understand why there was tension between the characters,

Someone died. Who died? Oh, his brother. Really, how? Well, you’ll have to wait until I’m ready to share that part. Oh, come on, I’d like to understand now, not later. But I’m not ready to share that with you! And what’s up with his father, what’s going on? It’s complicated…

I felt confused a lot. And even when I wasn’t anymore, when the hero finally decided to shed some light on issues, I realized there is absolutely no plot and the little boy is just wandering around, making connections, pretending to be okay, trying to live on after the tragic death of his brother, doing mundane things like buying gifts, ….

Her comments had me thinking to many of the novels I have been reading in the past year or so, since a wave of frustration and lobbying for more diverse books finally began to take hold. There does seem to be a trend now of African American protagonists, from urban communities, dealing with the tragic loss of someone close, with the story of the loss only hinted at until something dramatic happens to bring a sense of understanding to the character.

That’s The Stars Beneath Our Feet. And I enjoyed reading this book, and I was rooting for Lolly (Wallace) as he struggled to deal with the loss of his older brother to gang violence, and resist efforts from his brother’s friends to recruit him into the gang life, and how the building of cities with Legos helped him to understand himself, and others around him.

If our stories are now becoming too predictable — I have also been reading On The Come Up by Angie Thomas, and the echoes of the same storyline are already ringing true, even as I am really enjoying the story and the main character — then we are doing a disservice to young readers, who deserve a variety of narratives — a variety of cultures and protagonists and events, told in a variety of forms — in their reading lives.

That’s something to think about, even as we can celebrate the diversity of books now on our shelves. Read The Stars Beneath our Feet, for sure, and put it on your classroom shelf, but also be attuned to other narratives. Be diverse in culture as well as in stories. We want as rich a tapestry as we can make, and read.

Peace (in the pages),

Digging Ever Deeper Down into The Art of Is

Book nibblers

Terry has us tunneling into the book The Art of Is by Stephen Nachmanovitch, a book with the tantalizing subtitle of “Improvising As A Way of Life” that caught my attention. The introduction has my attention, for sure, as Nachmanovitch weaves in the concepts of improvisation to all sorts of ideas — music, art, text, collaborations, etc. I like the scope of it.

We’re inside NowComment as an annotation space (contact Terry if you want an invite), I am working to make art out of my reading experience. The comic above is a play on Terry’s invitation on Twitter and Mastodon, about “nibbling” at the edges of the work.

I then made this comic on my first reading start, trying to reframe the cover of the book as a piece of art and trying to explore the strange wording of the book’s title.

Comic reading

I’ve also been writing poetry — some of it found right inside the book —

found poem inside The Art of Is

Who knows where this improv will lead … following threads takes faith that the unraveling leads to understanding.

Peace (inside, outside, beyond),


Novel-in-Verse Review: Siege (How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution)

It’s possible this book wins the award for longest title in my reading activities this year. Siege (How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution) by Roxanne Orgill is a free verse narrative of … well … what the title tells us — the historical time in Boston just before the full onslaught of the American Revolution unfolded and tensions were running high in Boston.

Siege spins the story through a multitude of voices — and this use of voice in free verse is its most effective trait. While I do enjoy free verse books, the poems where never quite captured my fancy, for some reason. I was intrigued, though, by how the poems represented both the powerful (on both sides of the military standoff) and the common people caught in the middle of escalating violence.

Washington is the reluctant general, in some ways (as history has shown) and he railed against the restraints he was given as he sought to build up a military force to face the British. Food was scarce as disease was not. Gunpowder, the key to winning any battle, was in low supply.

The most intriguing storyline here, for me, was Washington begging his former secretary — Joseph Reed — who had returned to Philadelphia after his stint with Washington ended, only to be on the receiving end of many letters from Washington himself, giving full account of the chaos of turning regular rebels into an army, and calling on Reed to leave his family and return to Boston. There is something in the humanity of the two men that comes alive in the poems in the book.

Siege would be a solid entry into a middle or high school shelf, and of particular interest to those history geeks who love to learn more of the minute and human aspects of the time before the start of the American Revolution.

Peace (on the hill),

Novel-in-Verse Review: Voices from the March on Washington

Let me begin with one of the first poems in this intriguing collection of free verse narratives of fictional characters who are making their way to Washington DC in August 1963 to protest for Civil Rights.

For All, 1963

If you contend the noblest end
of all is human rights, amend
the laws; The beauty of the sun
is that it shines on everyone

In Voices from the March on Washington, by J. Patrick Lewis and George Ella Lyon, the poetry sings the stories of the people who gathered to be part of the 250,000 protesters.

The poets here invent some fictional characters — a white teenager from the midwest, a young black girl from the south, a lawyer from the north, a Japanese internment survivor from the West — and brings their voices into a mix that will remind you of how far our country has come, and how far it has yet to go.

I started this book, thinking it would be a non-fiction collection, and so was pleasantly surprised to find myself immersed in poetry of all stripes. The poems dig deep, from those who are not sure why they are on the bus, to those on the bus being attacked with objects against glass windows, to those doubting whether MLK’s famous words are enough, to those making connections between races in ways that would have been impossible in the communities from which they departed. All are changed by the experience.

So is the reader, and this book is appropriate for any upper elementary to middle school classroom.

I’ll leave you with this last poem from the book:

Last Impressions
black without white
a moonless
a life
white without black
p. 97

Peace (as poems heal),