Book Review: Diary of a Young Naturalist

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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),
Kevin

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.

Book Review: Echo Mountain

I went into Echo Mountain, by Lauren Wolk, not quite knowing what I was getting into. That was a good thing, for once I stepped foot into the story of young Ellie and her family, living on an isolated mountain during the Great Depression, I was transported to time and place so thoroughly, I could barely put the novel down (and now need to get my hands on her Wolf Hollow, too, I guess).

The writing here is just beautiful, and while this book is a young adult fiction, Wolk never writes down to her readers. Instead, her prose brings us so thoroughly into Ellie’s world that it’s hard to shake loose from her story, in which her father is in a coma (which her family lays blame on Ellie, who takes the blame to protect her younger brother, whom she saved from the tree her father was cutting, only to have him run to save her and get crushed by the tree).

Meanwhile, Ellie falls in love with the mountain and its terrain, and all of its natural powers of beauty and allure, and danger, too. In particular, she is becoming a self-taught healer, with a mission to find a way, any way possible, to wake her father from his coma and save her family.

While on that mission to help her father, another story thread emerges, that of the old “hag” who lives farther up the mountain, in isolation and maybe with some magical powers of her own. When Ellie finally goes there to that hut, all sorts of story tapestries are being woven by Wolk, and remembered, and it was afterwards — when I was done with the book — that the “echo” of the title made complete sense as I saw the tale in its whole, and I nodded in appreciation to Wolk’s writing talents.

Little is given away in this story, until the moment it is needed, and yet, in doing so, Wolk reveals much of human nature and the spirit of survival, and the power of family and memory, of music and stories, of the ways we heal ourselves even when all seems lost. Echo Mountain is a place to visit, and learn from, too.

Peace (up and over and down again),
Kevin

Poetry Book Review: Slate Petals (And Other Wordscapes)

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I first stumbled on Anthony Etherin‘s poetry on Twitter. What caught my eye was the visual formats and sheer playfulness of his odd verses in tweets, including some crazy palindromes. I ordered his poetry collection — Slate Petals (And Other Wordscapes) — both out of curiosity and to support a fellow poet.

I enjoyed many of the poems here — gathered under different kinds of ‘scapes: Landscapes, Seascapes, Skyscapes, Mindscapes, Lorescapes, Endscapes, and then at the back, Formscapes, where Etherin returns to the poem to further explain his intentions with form, concision and constraint.

It was this last section that brought a deeper appreciation for what Etherin was going after. For while I enjoyed many of the poems as I was reading them, I had trouble wrapping my head around the different poetic forms he was both working in and hen breaking way from. Etherin, in particular, enjoys many forms of palindromes, and word and phrase reversals run through many of his verses.

His visual poems, too, are surprising on second view, with the knowledge of what he was doing with ancient texts, or cut up poems, or invented visual letters, and more. It seems everything he does is an invention, fueled by the curiosity that I admire in writers and poets. He even has a musical manuscript in which he has composed a song palindrome in the book, too, for harpsichord.

Here, for example, is a poem I saw before knowing the background, and I sat it with for some time, following the phases of the moon and trying to gather the underlying poem. In his back notes, Etherin explains how it is a visual sestina, using the six phases of the moon and end-word patterns.

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He also works with poems within poems, so that a new poem unfolds inside the larger poem, causing both intersections and dissections. In the book, he uses a lighter font color that draws the reader’s eye downward.

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(Note: these images are taken from his Penteract Press order site for Slate Petals)

Finally, I noticed references to a form of poem called the Aeliondrome, which I had never heard of. Of course not. Etherin invented the form, and although there is a two-page description and definition that goes deep into some mathematical permeations and thinking, I am still getting my head around the form, which involves a palindrome-like reversal not of letters (as palindromes do) but of number sequences, or word parts and phrases.

Even when I wasn’t sure what form I was experiencing, Etherin had my attention. That’s a good trick of any poet.

Peace (and form and pieces),
Kevin

Book Review: Amber & Clay

Amber and Clay | A Mighty Girl

Laura Amy Schlitz’s Amber & Clay is an epic, all right, and told with a variety of narrative styles — Greek poetry, traditional prose, artifacts — that bring us deep into Greek Culture in Ancient Athens, as the lives of Rhaskos (a boy born free who becomes enslaved) and Melisto (a girl of means who dies too young) are entwined by the magic of the Gods.

Clay is Rhaskos, whose talent with art and clay is enhanced with the help of Hermes and Hephastias, among others, and whose role as a slave in Athens fuels the story forward. Amber is Melisto, the wayward daughter of an aristrocratic family. As a young girl honoring Artemis, she is struck by lightning during an important ceremony, and then bound as a spirit to Rhaskos by his mother (a slave in Melisto’s family).

As the story progresses, we come to learn that the trial of Socrates in Athens (and his death sentence) will play a large role in Rhaskos’ decisions that eventually free him, with the help of Melisto as his guiding spirit.

I appreciated the story, and the ways the story was told, and Schlitz’s talent for recreating Athens in all of its glory and follies (the sentencing to death of Socrates for being wise and questioning is long been viewed as a monumental mistake of hubris by the leaders of the city) is admirable. She weaves in voices of mortals and gods with verve and characters, and brings the loose ends together by the close of this novel.

As someone interested in writing, I also thoroughly enjoyed her author’s notes, where she writes about the struggle to balance verse with prose, and how her characters helped her find a way forward. She also explains how she used her research and historical records to underpin the story of these two young people, whose trajectories collide just when they need to, with the help of the magic of the gods and something akin to love.

Peace (pray the Gods hear),
Kevin

Book Review: The Anthropocene Reviewed

The Anthropocene Reviewed (Signed Edition): Essays on a ...

John Green is a talented writer, and is curious about many things. Both of those skills come to the surface often in the short essays that make up Green’s non-fiction collection entitled The Anthropocene Reviewed, one of the first books I have read that was written during the Pandemic and is not afraid to make that time period of writing very visible (and which I appreciated).

Subtitled “Essays on a Human-Centered Planet,” this collection of writing spans the observational world from Halley’s Comet to Diet Dr Pepper to sunsets to Piggly Wiggly stores to The Mountain Goats to the world’s largest ball of paint. That just scratches the surface of the pieces here, which originated in one form or another with Green’s podcast. (Green is also the well-known author of young adult fiction like The Fault In Our Stars and often does video-blogging with his brother, Hank).

Green never shies away from his own struggles with mental illness, and seeks to understand the ways the complexities of the modern world challenge and stress him out to exhaustion (at times) and breakdowns (at others), and how he finds comfort in the small moments of the world, too, and the people around him. This balance between explaining the larger picture of a world of complexity and noticing the moments one needs to survive become the emotional pivot points of these essays.

What is the Anthropocene? It’s the name for our current geological age that we humans are in right now as we impact the planet with all of our use and misuse, with all of our potential for good and all of our potential for harm. Green uses this term to frame his thoughts on what it means to be a human right now, and not just right now, but … right now … in the midst of a Pandemic, which he never shies away from (and hopefully, those references won’t make this collection only pieces for these days … I appreciated the references to how our lives were disrupted by Covid).

Green’s writing voice, too, is like a friend, as if the reader and writer were having breakfast and Green poses a question, and then invites you in to follow the thread of the answer. Each chapter ends with Green giving something a rating of one to five stars (playing off the need in the modern world to rate everything as social practice). So, for example, viral meningitis gets one star while the beauty of sycamore trees gets five stars.

I give Green’s book five stars.

Peace (in the world we live in),
Kevin

Graphic Memoir Review: Almost American Girl

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha [in Booklist] | BookDragon

Robin Ha’s memoir of moving to America from South Korea as a child, and not knowing a lick of English, is a testament to not just perseverance, but also, to each person finding some way forward. Ha’s graphic memoir — Almost American Girl — is part of the new and appreciated wave of new diverse voices in the field.

Ha’s single mother brought her unexpectedly to Alabama when Ha was a child, and she knew no English or much about American culture, and so, she struggled with loneliness and language, until years later, when Ha stumbled upon a group of other teens making comics and stories at a comic book store. This changed everything for her. These scenes reminded me of the groups of young people I used to see huddled around comics at our local comic store when my eldest son was younger and we visited the comic store regularly. The clusters of kids I noticed there are also what encouraged me to integrate comic making into my sixth grade classroom.

For Ha, the connection to art gave her anchor and friendship, and her story reminds us, as teachers, that we need to find and nurture the passions of our young people, and show patience and compassion to immigrant students making their way through the American landscape.

One element that surfaces early and remains is Ha’s love and frustration with her mother, whose a strong personality for the most part but then Ha begins to see her mother with more compassion and fragility.This emerges in the story slowly but powerfully.

The artwork here is fine, and I love that Ha was able to bring some of the comics and graphic arts she made as a kid into the story.

Peace (in the panel),
Kevin

Book Review: Wink

I had seen Wink, by Rob Harrell, in a few lists of “best of” book lists from last year and finally got a chance to read it during our class Independent Reading time at the end of the year, and I admit: I really enjoyed it.

Harrell, a comic strip/graphic novelists, uses his own childhood story of a rare eye cancer to inject his main middle-school-student character, Ross, with authenticity, as Ross goes through the same ordeal. The book is prose but has lots of funny doodles and a running Ross-created comic called BatPig that is hilarious and insightful, capturing the anxiety of Ross as he goes through treatment.

Stories of young people and cancer are, of course, serious business, and can often get stuck under a dark narrative cloud. There are dramatic moments here, as Ross struggles with difficult questions of why this cancer happening to him, of how his friends are either coming in close or drifting apart, and how it is affecting his family. His mother died earlier of cancer, too, and his father, during one of the more powerful scenes, tells Ross how he, the father, barely held it together after she died.

Ross is also the victim of some cruel social media posts by classmates, as he and his cancer is turned into memes that spread like wildfire and make him feel powerless. Only his best friend, Abby, holds him together until a dramatic confrontation with the meme-generating students during a lunch.

And then there’s the rock and roll. Ross decided he wants to learn to play guitar, which leads to a Talent Show, in which all of Ross’ anger and frustration at the world is let loose in an amped-up punk rock performance with Abby and another friend that startles everyone in the audience (he even destroys an old guitar on the stage in class Hendrix fashion). In music, Ross finds release.

This book is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students, for sure.

Peace (on stage),
Kevin

Book Review: The 99 % Invisible City

The subtitle to Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt’s The 99 % Invisible City says a lot about what to expect from within its pages: “A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.”

Inspired by their 99 % Invisible podcast, the authors here explore a menagerie of ideas about urban spaces that are intriguing, interesting and make you want to open your eyes and really see the world as you wander your nearest city (including the one you might live in). The use of “design” as a lens is really helpful, too.

I appreciated the scope of the short pieces here and how they are grouped under general themes like “Conspicuous” and “Architecture” and “Urbanism” and then broken further into ideas like “Identity” and “Liminal” and “Interventions.” Taken together, the book lives up to its claim of helping us notice the things we either take for granted or fail to notice because they are so visible.

So, we learn about fire escapes, and traffic signals, grassroots gardening and viral signage, sidewalk markings and emergency exits. Seriously, the topics are wide-reaching and yet, ordinary on the surface — only to be revealed as interestingly complex just below.

You won’t see the city streets the same way again, and that’s a good thing.

Peace (watching our step),
Kevin

Book Review: The Cabinet of Calm (Soothing Words for Troubled Times)

Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times ...

Sometimes, you find a book. Sometimes, the book finds you. The Cabinet of Calm (Soothing Words for Troubled Times) by Paul Anthony Jones is one of those books. I can’t even recall when or where I first saw it mentioned but since buying it in January, it has been a constant, regular reading text for the last seven months.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so slowly, over so many months. It’s unlike me. But with each chapter, arranged alphabetically, focused on a single word — some lost to time, some whose meanings have changed — about surfacing through hardship or finding a path forward or becoming inspired, I didn’t want to rush the book.

So I didn’t.

Passage to Port (Cabinet of Calm quote)

Instead, I wrote small poems after reading nearly every chapter on nearly ever word from January through July. I found Jones’ explorations of words inspiring, and with my starting of the reading of the book in the depths of the Pandemic (January) and moving through the possibility of better and more normal times (vaccines), I kept returning to the book, finding new ways to think about how words and language can give us some comfort.

This back and forth between reading and then writing became a ritual of sorts, although I didn’t do it every day and sometimes, the book was just sitting on my counter, untouched, for stretches of time. Paul Anthony Jones has the ability to sift through language, and cultural meanings, and his curation of these words in this bound “cabinet” is something I intend to come back to when I need to.

Another day, I will share out my entire collection of poems inspired by The Cabinet of Calm. Until then … read on, and find your own ways to comfort the anxieties and inner voices of the Modern Age. Maybe a word inside the cabinet might help you, too.

Peace (gathering it up),
Kevin

Book Review: The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book

The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book: An Interactive Guide to ...

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I saw The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book (An Interactive Guide to Life-Changing Books) on the shelf of the public library. It was a chance check-out, done on a whim, and how glad I am that I did.

This text is in the form of a phone book (perhaps a generational splitter for readership, but who knows) and is a collection of codes, so that when you call the main phone number, and enter a code, you can hear another reader give a story or review of a book that is listed in the phone book.

Get it?

There are also prompts throughout the book (such as shout out your local independent book store or tell of a book you read as a child, etc.) with an invitation to add your voice to the telephone book. So each reader has the opportunity to be part of the book.

How cool is that?

There are also narrative transcripts in this physical book, taken from the audio files of readers, that tell stories of how books did transform their lives, and how certain books left imprints on their past, present or perhaps, future trajectory. I loved that sense of voice in these mostly-anonymous stories of books.

Oh, and did I mention all of the playful “advertising” throughout the book? They are funny, insightful and a bit tricky, calling on memories of stories and characters in famous books. Those have codes to call into as well.

The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book | Book by Logan Smalley ...

All in all, The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book is a reader’s delight on many levels, and it inspires the reader to ‘call in’ and join the mix of book lovers.

Peace (on the lines),
Kevin

PS — wanna try it out? Call 774 325 0503 and use the code 5490 to learn about American Born Chinese, the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang