Infographic Chart: Books, Read (2021)

Books Read 2021

I’ve read some great books this past year … and grappled with a few duds … but mostly, it was good. I still use Goodreads for keeping track but I do keep wondering if it might be time to abandon ship and move to a more open source platform that gives me more flexibility and privacy. I know there are a few out there that seem interesting. Or I may stay with Goodreads (or, Amazon, which is why I keep thinking I want to leave). Maybe I’m a lazy reader tracker …

Peace (in pages),

Book Review: Daughter of the Deep

Rick Riordan pulls off a nice writing trick — of using Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to propel a new story forward into the future in Daughter of the Deep, his latest adventure novel for middle school readers.

In this new book, Ana Dakkar is our hero, a high school freshman pulled into action early in the story (in true Riordan form) by experiencing disaster and uncertainty, and then coming to grips with the legacy of an ancestor (Captain Nemo himself) before taking command of The Nautilus, a living submarine, that has been waiting a long time for her to arrive.

I have to admit: I had to shake off Percy Jackson’s voice in my head at the start of the story because anytime I read Riordan, I hear Percy, but soon enough, I was along for the ride with Ana, a hero in her own right, and it became a fun adventure, full of cool scientific technologies and serious family squabbles, and moments of near disaster that Ana, as an unexpected hero, has to navigate through.

Reading this novel certainly brought back memories of Nemo and the Nautilus to my head — I remember reading Verne’s book (not always easy reading, if I remember, but cool enough to keep my youthful focus) and watching movie adaptations over the years. Riordan wisely pulls out the most interesting elements from Verne’s story and weaves that into his story here (and writes an interesting piece at the start about why he wrote Daughter of the Deep).

Riordan should be admired for the work he has been doing in supporting a new generation of writers who explore cultural myths and stories in adventure- and character-packed novels in recent years with his Rick Riordan Presents … imprint. And here, Ana is Bundeli-Indian American, and it’s not just a throwaway cultural reference — there’s an important and clear line back to Nemo himself, and Ana’s character and actions are connected to her heritage at times. It’s not a hammer on the head. It’s just infused into the story. As it should be.

Middle school readers of adventure stories will enjoy Daughter of the Deep, but it would also be good for upper elementary and high school readers.

Peace (in the sea),

Book Review: The Look of the Book

I still love wandering book stores, letting the covers of books catch my eye. The reduction of book covers to thumbnails on the screen — like vinyl record covers of yesteryear — brings with it some sense of loss.

In The Look of the Book (Jackets, Covers and Art at the Edges of Literature), Peter Mendelsund and David Alworth offer up an appreciation and an artistic aesthetic to the power of the decisions that grace the covers of books.

Both men are from the field of design and writing, and they bring a wonderful sense of “insider” information to the table for this book, which is packed full of examples, anecdotes, interviews and observations about the power of what we see when we look at the cover of a book, and how the cover works on so many levels to draw us into the story.

While they peruse the historical landscape of book design, they don’t ignore the moment we are in, where, as they remind us many times, people search for books on Google and then order books from Amazon, and where the role of the cover to catch your eye may be diminished, even if books are still going strong and seem to mostly weather any innovation that comes pop culture’s way.

This is also just a beautiful book to read and to hold, and to peruse, and yes, it’s cover is interesting, with artistic collage of book covers that appear to be layered just beneath the raised surface of material. The phrasing in the subtitle of “edges” of writing and publishing and telling stories through words and visuals was a common theme, and one that intrigued me.

I came away from The Look of the Book with new appreciation for the collaboration and teamwork that goes into book design, and loved the look at covers never approved, and how font, and space, and color, and image, and more, all play a coordinated role in the marketing of books (from the business perspective) and the inferred sense that inside the cover is a work of art, worthy of the cover.

Peace (beneath the cover),

Graphic Novel Review: Cold War Correspondent

Here’s another deep look at history through the graphic novel lens of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales (is it really the 11th book?), and Cold War Correspondent brings us right into the terrible heart of the Korean War (probably one of the least understood military campaigns in modern times).

What’s most fascinating (for me, at least, as a former newspaper reporter) is the lens here, as it is told through the eyes of Marguerite Higgins, a female journalist who embedded herself with troops in some of the more brutal skirmishes of the Korean War of the 1950s. Higgins was an award winning reporter for New York Herald Tribune, and constantly had to argue her place in the war with generals and admirals and others who could not believe a woman should be allowed on boats and in barracks with me.

She persisted.

And the stories Higgins told of soldiers and the battle front made headline news and won her prestige and respect, and her work opened a lot of doors for many other women who were also fighting gender discrimination in the field of journalism.

As with other books in this series, the historical period is told with seriousness and humor, making use of the panels on the page (although some pages are crammed a bit too much with information at times). This graphic novel would be a good fit for a military- or history-obsessed high schooler or advanced middle school reader. There’s a high level of violence and death, as it is war, after all.

Cold War Correspondent sheds light on the Korean War, and how close the United States and its allies in South Korea were to losing the Korean continent to the Soviet Union-backed North Korea in one of the Proxy Wars that unfolded in the aftermath of World War 2.

Peace (now more than ever),

Graphic Novel Review: Major Impossible (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales)

I’ve enjoyed many of the books in writer/graphic novelist Nathan Hale’s series about history, told with historical precision but balanced with a light humorous touch (and plenty of meta moments that break the fourth wall as if it wasn’t there). I found the latest book — Major Impossible — about the soldier/explorer Major John Wesley Powell … to be good but maybe not quite as good as the others in the series.

I’m trying to put my finger on why, and I think it because I had trouble keeping track of the many members of Powell’s crew in this story of exploring the Colorado River/Grand Canyon, and there was much repetition in story — boats in the water, boats out of the water, repeat — although you could argue that is what the crew did for much of the exploration of the unknown (unless you were native, then it was already well-known terrain, something Hale definitely acknowledges).

Still, even with that complaint, I found the story interesting, well-researched, human-focused (we learn about Powell himself, and his brother, through flashbacks) and full of dangerous moments. Powell’s passion for charting the territory and using scientific equipment of the time — while searching for mollusks, his passion — gave him a real dimension. And he did it all with just one arm, as he lost the other in a battle during the Civil War.

If you know this series, you know the overall storytelling device hinges on the hanging of the historical Nathan Hale, who stalls his own execution by telling stories of the past. This has been going on for about nine books now. The executioner, with mask and all, is a funny foil to Hale, and other characters at the scene of the impending execution inject humor and asides into the historical stories, sometimes even butting into the story in the comic itself. The panels are dense with text at times, potentially making this a bit difficult for younger readers. But middle and high school readers would enjoy the story.

Two other things to note: a short bonus comic at the end, based on the letters an even earlier explorer, James White, is hilarious. And the last few pages show the writer/cartoonist in his own sketches, sitting by the Grand Canyon as inspiration, and I found that really sweet and moving, a way to connect the writer to the story.

Peace (down river),

Book Review: Campfire Stories (Tales from America’s National Parks)

Campfire Stories Book | Parks Project | National Park Gifts

We bought this book for educators who took part in a Professional Development course through a partnership between Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and then the Pandemic hit, and so we only recently were able to get the book to those past participants because the Springfield Armory was closed up. (We also sort of forgot about the books).

And I finally, too, got my own copy of Campfire Stories: Tales from America’s National Parks, edited by Dave Kyu and Illysa Kyu, and how happy I was to immerse myself in the stories of Acadia, Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountains, Zion, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.

Each section opens with an introduction by the Kyus (a married couple) about the park and then they share the research they have done to surface stories of the places, collected from library archives, and oral storytellers, and interviews with Native American elders and more. The editors purposely avoided the dominant stories of these places — the official stories, crafted by park officials — in order to explore other narratives, many from the margins.

This approach – to spend time with forgotten voices — works very well, as the collection of short essays, stories, poems and more bring the reader into the spaces from different angles, always with the awe and inspiration that each of these National Parks bring. I was almost disappointed that they only were able to do this work for six parks, but what a collection of parks!

The Kyus also framed these as “campfire stories” — thus, the title — meaning they chose narratives that could, and maybe should, be read aloud. I know as I read the stories, I could hear the voices of the writers and oral storytellers, and poets, in my my mind. The editors chose their pieces wisely.

This book was a nice addition for me to the Write Out celebration from October, reminding us all how to explore our natural spaces, and our National Parks, through story, remembering that the dominant narratives we often hear and read about spaces is merely the surface of something deeper, and richer, and discovering those voices makes for a grand adventure.

Some quotes:

Peace (in the wild),

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Big Shot)

Big Shot: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (16) by Jeff Kinney ...

There’s a comforting regularity in the arrival of a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book each November and sixteen books in (!!) and sixteen years later (!!), I’m still reading Jeff Kinney’s hijinks of his beloved character, Greg Heffley, the ever-lasting middle schooler.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Big Shot, the newest in the series, is right on par with the rest of the books — not overly deep in terms of plot and character development, but always packed sky-high with visual jokes and puns, and tons of story guffaws that are always worth my time as a reader.

And since all three of my boys took part in a variety of youth sports — baseball, basketball, track, soccer, etc. — over the years, Kinney’s story arc here about Greg joining a youth basketball club, and all that entails with competition and physical fitness and parents’ expectations, had me laughing, as usual. There’s even the pressure from Greg’s mom to get him involved in anything other than screen time (sounds familiar) and so, basketball, it is.

Not that Greg is any good at it. He’s not, and he knows he’s not, and even as his team heads to a strange tournament, where the team that loses the most games keeps playing in the championship (classic Kinney), you can’t help but root for Greg. Of course, he shoots the basket at the end of the final game, into the wrong net.

I’ve written a review of these books just about every year, as I started them as read aloud when my boys were young. While interest in the books has waned among my sixth graders over time, this year, when I offered my copy of Big Shot to the class, I had a handful of readers, eagerly asking to borrow it.

It’s now making the rounds.

Peace (swishing it),

Book Review: Slow Down (50 Mindful Moments in Nature)

Slow Down, by author Rachel Williams and illustrator Freya Hartas, is a lovely book that uses single moments in nature to remind us to pay attention to the small moments of the world around us.

From the moment a bee pollinates a flower, to a Kingfisher diving to get a fish, to a squirrel burying an acorn, to a fox reaching for berries on a bush, to a spidering spinning a web –  each page in this oversized picture book is a glorious ode to animals and insects and plants and life. Hartas’ drawing are just beautiful in their muted coloring and Williams text brings you into the moment, first with some background and then step by step.

Slow Down: 50 Mindful Moments in Nature written by Rachel ...

The subtitle of the book (50 Mindful Moments in Nature) shows the intent here — of slowing down to notice things — and the audience is both adults and children, and I can see Slow Down being used as read-aloud in younger grade classrooms. I spent quiet reading time perusing it, and appreciated that whatever page I landed on, I not only learned something but also paid attention.

Peace (from the outside in),

Book Review: Subpar Parks

Store - Subpar Parks - Amber Share Design

Amber Share was looking for some artistic direction as an illustrator and designer when she began to notice some one-star negative reviews left on sites for our National Parks. It intrigued her that anyone would leave a negative review for such national treasures and this inquiry began her work on Subpar Parks, first as an Instagram feed and then as a book.

The new book features Share’s lovely illustrations of different parks with the terrible reviews featured (with reviewer names and identifications left off), and then her snarky response to the observations of those who bothered to write a review. She clearly loves our National Parks and can’t fathom a negative experience, but then turns that into art.

Subpar Parks — Amber Share | Letterer Illustrator Designer ...

Some favorites of mine from the book:

  • “It looks nothing like the license plate.”  (Arches National Park)
  • “A hole. A very, very large hole.” (Grand Canyon National Park)
  • “A green statue and that’s it.” (Statue of Liberty National Monument)
  • “Mountains not nearly tall enough.” (Gates of the Arctic National Park)
  • “Don’t even get to touch lava.” (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park)

But the book is not all snark and pushback.

Share has done her time in National Parks as a visitor and she has done her research, too. Each chapter on a park (the book is divided into regions of the United States) comes with interesting information and anecdotes, as well as connections to the native heritages of the land, and she adds helpful advice from park rangers on when best to visit and where, and what to remember about a given site.

Subpar Parks: National Parks and Their One-Star Reviews ...

I thoroughly enjoyed her illustrations — muted colored hues as her palette and soft, evocative artwork that captures the essence of the places as a contrast to the words of the negative reviewers. She has a real cohesive style that connects the pieces together in an engaging way. You see our National Parks from a new view.

Subpar Parks 6 - The RV Atlas

I’m tempted to give this a subpar review, just to keep with the theme of Share’s work, but I won’t, since Subpar Parks is a fun and interesting and informative read all around. Five stars.

ALSO: Did you know Write Out 2021 is kicking off tomorrow (Sunday, October 10)? It’s a free, place-based, online activity for teachers, students and the public. Write Out is a partnership between the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. More info:

Peace (reviewed and refuted),

Book Review: Diary of a Young Naturalist

Buy Diary of a Young Naturalist: WINNER OF THE 2020 ...

Dara McAnulty has a keen eye for the natural world and a passion that spills out and over every single entry in his book, Diary of a Young Naturalist. In writing about nature, he is also writing about himself, a teenager on the autism spectrum whose writing voice brings us into his unique observations.

As a teacher, I was attuned to McAnulty’s descriptions of how difficult it often was for him as a functioning autistic student to be in a traditional school setting, where his autism made the general level of noise, the connecting with other students, and the rigid systems of school a daily and difficult challenge, and I admired how he (with his mother’s help) found a path forward for himself.

His exuberance of learning and knowledge and love of the natural world comes through whenever he brings us out on forest trails or when he is helping professionals with tracking birds or even just sitting in gardens, observing both the larger patterns of the world or the tiniest moments of wonder. His own realization that writing (first as a blog, then a journal, then this book) helps him to make sense of patterns amid the noise resonated with my own writing heart, too.

McAnulty, who continues to write and publish, demonstrates how finding a passion and following those threads, through action and writing and more, can instill meaning in a young life, and forge a direction forward. This book is a call for all of us to not only observe the natural world, but to care for it, too, and in doing so, maybe be more attuned to each other, in all of our different perspectives.

Once you “hear” McAnulty’s voice on the page, you won’t forget him, and you may be inspired to slow down and make your own notes on the wildlife, the foliage, the insects, the world. Anyone can be a naturalist. You just need to be ready for it.

Peace (under leaves and woods),

PS — Do you have nature-curious kids in your classroom or your family? Consider joining in the Write Out project that kicks off on Sunday and runs for two weeks as a collaboration between the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. All activities and resources are free.