Book Review: Little Poems

Little Poems by

I am a morning poet, writing small poems to start the day. There’s long been something about the concision of words and trying to create a scene out of a verse or two, or a haiku, that appeals to me. I’m not suggesting all of my poems are great or insightful or anything but every now and then … you know?

Little Poems — a collection of 300 or so small poems gathered by editor Michael Hennessy — is full of these little writings. There are dozens and dozens and dozens in here, so much so that when I was checking the book out of the library, the librarian opened it to the Table of Contents out of curiosity and began to cite the many poets in here, as I stood there, nodding in agreement.

From early poems by Sappho (Seventh Century BCE) to modern poets (Ocean Vuong, still writing wonderful poems), the gathering of verse here stretches over time and content, and style. All the poems here are under 14 lines. Some are magnificent. Some are mundane. Some are intriguing. Some, confusing.

Most of us experience literature for the first time in the form of a ‘little poem.’ Long before we’ve tasted our first solid food, we’ve heard a soothing lullaby spoken or sung by a parent, and before we start school, we have already begun to accumulate a storehouse of nursery rhymes. The sounds and rhythms of those little poems are embedded in memory, and we pass them down to the next generation. – Michael Hennessy, editor, Little Poems, page 17

I found myself slowing down to the handful of shape poems here — a form that interests me, particularly in light of how some digital tools might be used by poets to enhance a poem — and found the poems to be delightful in their visual nature, the way a writer imagines words as design.

Here is an audio interview with Hennessy about Little Poems via MixCloud.

Peace (and poems),

Book Review: Math Games With Bad Drawings

I’m not a math teacher but I do enjoy learning about different facets of mathematics, if only to be able to help my students when needed. And I enjoy games, particularly ones that challenge my learners.

So Ben Orlin’s Math Games With Bad Drawings is a treasure box of ideas, packed with 75 (and 1/4) challenges and games that are infused with math concepts but can be played mostly with paper, pencil and sometimes, dice (plus, a few need a few more pieces, easily found).

Orlin is a master at deceptively simple comics that are funny but insightful and are perfectly paired here with his sharing of the math games, and how to play them, along with variations and the deeper questions of why each game matters for mathematical thinking. He also gives fascinating histories of who invented the games and why. Plus, he’s  just a very funny writing.

Here’s one called Taxman. Here’s another called 101 You’re Out.

I’ve dog-eared about ten different games here that I know I can easily bring into my classroom for quick paired or group activities that will spark some interesting thinking of sixth graders. I highly recommend Math Games With Bad Drawings and another book of his — Math With Bad Drawings — is one I lent to my math colleague and then never saw it again (so, I know, it connected).

Peace (and fun),

Graphic Novel Review: The National Parks (Preserving America’s Wild Places)

History Comics: The National Parks cover

Now here’s a perfect book for the annual Write Out celebration of National Parks and public spaces that takes place each October. The National Parks (Preserving America’s Wild Places) by Failynn Koch is part of a series of “History Comics” by the First Second Publishing company, and this deep look at the formation of the National Park system is fantastic, fun, informative and provocative.

In this fast-paced historical tour of how the National Park System came to be, Koch does not turn her attention away from controversial elements of the park system’s history that includes the taking of land from Native American tribes through force and manipulation, the racism that encountered the “Buffalo Soldiers” who acted as the first protection force of public lands following the Civil War, and the much-too-slow rise of women leaders in the organization, mostly due to gender disparities build into the institutions of government. In many books in the past about the National Parks, these issues are either left out of the official narrative or brushed over. Here, Koch gives these topics ample room.

The book also explores the impact of many important historical characters, like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Marjorie Stoneham Douglas, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and many others who saw that only through activism and outreach could the general public really see the value of a system like the National Parks. And even those who are often celebrated (rightly) for their advocacy are giving nuances (such as Teddy Roosevelt’s inclination to still want to hunt animals on public lands and ignoring the interconnected lives of the forests themselves).

Koch spends ample time, too, on the debate that has long taken place between those who advocate Preservation (protecting lands from any significant human activity) and Conservation (allowing some operations to take place, such as logging, while protecting the space). We still see this taking place today, particularly when it comes to introducing animals like the wolf back into park lands or in fire reduction strategies.

In the end, this graphic history provides a rich insight into one of our country’s treasures: the complicated system of public spaces that are the National Park Service system. In the Write Out project (a free program which takes place each year in the Fall), we explore some of these issues through activities and collaborations, but this book would be a nice text to any classroom library (ideally, given the text complexity here, upper elementary to high school readers). Boy, I know I sure would love to have a class set of this book for our classroom work in Write Out.

(via Macmillan Publishing site)

Peace (and Parks),

Book Review: Big Tree

Big Tree

Whenever Brian Selznick puts out a new book, I am always an eager audience. Ever since The Invention of Hugo Cabret blew my mind when it came out, I have kept an eye on what he is doing. Not all of his books have landed as emotional for me as Hugo, but they are never dull literary experiences.

His recent book — Big Tree — is another glorious Selznick work of art — with a mix of silent pencil sketch drawings and a story about two little tree seeds on a journey of a lifetime (or many lifetimes, perhaps, given the span of years that book covers). In his afterword, Selznick tells how the story was started as a possible movie script with Steven Spielberg and then later, become the Big Tree book.

Informed by science about plants, animals, and the ancient world, Big Tree follows a sister and brother seed of a Sycamore tree in the time of the dinosaurs through the modern day, and along the way, the two seeds have adventures that bring them into contact with all sorts of wondrous creatures, including mushrooms that act as “ambassadors” of the forest through the interconnected fungi networks; rockweed (seaweed) under the ocean, where the seeds are trapped inside a shell; and more.

If you know his books, then you know to expect meticulous, beautiful, evocative pencil drawing and the artwork in Big Tree is no exception, as the story unfolds both in texts and in artwork, and the way Selznick brings the reader into the story through his pencil strokes — where you flip page after page after page, like a stopmotion scene unfolding on paper — is an interesting experience. (See excerpt)

This book has a central environmental theme coursing through the narrative, about how all of us have an obligation and a means to do something positive for the planet, even if we feel small and insignificant in the larger world.

Peace (and Plants),


Thoughts On Nebraska (Deliver Me From Nowhere)

Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska by Warren Zanes

A friend of mine and I have both just finished a fantastic book about the making of the album, Nebraska, by Bruce Springsteen. Deliver Me From Nowhere by Warren Zanes is a deep dive and fascinating look into how the songs — recorded as demos and later released as they were — emerged from Springsteen’s self-imposed period of isolation after The River came out and before Born In The USA would make him a global pop star.

My friend asked about my thoughts, and this is what I wrote:

First, I have a new appreciation for Jon Landau. I’ve always considered him an extra part, someone who only wanted the hits and pushed Bruce in that direction. The book shows a more nuanced look at him, as a friend to Bruce and confidant. It’s key when Landau knows the tracks they recorded for what will become Born in USA are hits but then allows Bruce to shelve them for more than a year as he deals with what will become Nebraska. Landau seems to be the one friend that Bruce could turn to during that dark time.

Second, the response from the record company to Nebraska surprised me. I thought there would be push-back to the album, and its dark themes and raw recordings. Surprisingly, they could see the larger picture of an artist’s trajectory. I don’t think this happens anymore in the music field, where an artist is given creative space to do what they need to do.

Third, I was fascinated by the technical challenges of moving from the TEAC master cassette mix to something the record company could make and sell. They were in this moment of technology in the music studios, and the old equipment wouldn’t talk to the new. The frustrations that Bruce and his team had were interesting, and yet, Bruce kept on. He didn’t give up. He had that vision, and his people saw it through. I also kept thinking: if he loses that cassette tape he carried around in his pocket … or if the TEAC goes kaput …

Fourth, I didn’t know that Mike Batlan, his engineer, was always on the bedroom with him, a sort of corner technician, watching Bruce record. I would love to hear his story of the experience, and how he saw Nebraska unfold from inside the room but outside the creative art itself. I have had this vision of Bruce, alone, but he wasn’t alone. Mike was there.

Fifth, I know Nebraska was influential, of course, but the book really pulls back to look at how it completely reshaped the music landscape, making home recording not just a place for demos, but as a way to make albums, start to finish. It’s as much TEAC as TASCAM, too, but for musicians in the field, hearing what Bruce did and actually released, jumpstarted an entire world of music making that continues to this day (I am thinking of watching my son produce albums and release them on streaming services right from his seat at our dinner table over the years).

Peace (and Song),

PS  — here is something worth viewing

Graphic Memoir: Sunshine

Sunshine by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Jarrett J. Krosoczka  has done it again — crafting an intelligent, emotional and powerful graphic memoir from his own life. In Sunshine, Krosoczka tells the story of his time as a counselor at a summer camp for children with cancer and other serious illnesses in Maine.

Krosoczka packs an emotional punch here, that goes deeper than just sympathy with the stories he tells of being a high school student volunteer at this camp. There’s a serious undertone about how to approach people with different needs and how to humanize the terminally ill, particularly children. (read an excerpt:

As in his award-winning graphic memoir Hey Kiddo about his own difficult childhood, Krosoczka digs deep into the humanity of the experiences here in Sunshine, surfacing the childhood energy of those at the camp and the unsettling but ultimately life-changing experiences of the young adult volunteers. Krosoczka tells us that he thinks of his camp week (and other volunteer efforts) nearly every single day of his life, many years later. The graphic novel format brings the children and his experiences to interesting levels of reading experiences.

Krosoczka is a true master of this genre (and other graphic stories) and Sunshine is well worth the time.

Peace (and Wonder),

Book Review: The Unteachables

The Unteachables - Susan Uhlig

I saw the cover. The Unteachables. By Gordon Korman.

OK. I’m in.

And it was another good one by Korman, who knows how to spin a story by focusing on characters. Here, the so-called “unteachables” is a class of behavior and special education students who are deemed unmanageable, and the teacher they get, Mr. Kermit, doesn’t care.

Or so it seems.

Nearing retirement, and never having outlived a scandal years ago involving a former student who now runs a popular car dealership with his smiling face all over the advertising billboards of town, Kermit bides his time towards early retirement in the classroom by passing out worksheets, ignoring the students, and working on crossword puzzles, killing time.

The situation can’t last, of course, and it won’t, as Kermit slowly unfolds out of himself with the arrival of a new teacher next door (the daughter of the woman he once wanted to marry), stepping up to defend the students he doesn’t even really know when the moment seems right, and then coming to grips with his past, and future, as a teacher.

His students, the unteachables, also start to believe in themselves, and in their teacher, and the story plot moves forward at a steady pace, with a nice mix of humor and seriousness, towards an event where the students have to prove themselves are not “unteachable”,and maybe, if they can pull it off, save Mr. Kermit’s job.

As usual, Korman does a nice job with developing the stories of the students, from the boy who drives his grandmother with increasing dementia around town, hoping she will remember his name; to the former star athlete on crutches who realizes what social popularity really is all about; to the student who is not even a registered student at the school but who wandered into the classroom and stayed; and more.

The Unteachables reminds us that there is, in fact, none of those “unteachable” kinds of students in our schools, but reaching out to them, and making a positive impact on their lives, depends upon the shared humanity of us all — that it’s imperative that we find the stories that define us. That includes teachers.

Peace (teaching it forward),

Book Review: Observe, Collect, Draw!

Observe Collect Draw Visual Journal - AbeBooks

I can’t remember how long it has been since I read Dear Data and then joined other friends in CLMOOC in making Data Postcards over an extended period of time, but Stephanie Posavec and Georgia Lupi made data collection and representation into a meaningful activity, connected by sharing and friendship. (Wait — I checked — five years or so).

After getting involved in a February drawing exercise, with daily “F” themes, one of the reference texts was Observe, Collect, Draw! (A Visual Journal) and I ordered it from the library just to see what it was. What it is is another fun and engaging book from Posavec and Lupi, and this book is a series of invitation to observe the world through data collection and make art.

After an introduction to data in general, the book moves into pages of specific prompts and engaging ideas, coupled with templates or blank spaces for making your own data set art works, and I found it a lovely experience (but this was a library book, so no drawing took place – I did one activity on my iPad that I will share another day).

Some examples of the invitations for data collection include: What My Camera Sees, Sounds Around Me, My Inbox, My Swearing, Distractions, Being More Kind, Weather Mood, and more.  Some of the data collection activities can be done in one sitting. Some can stretch over a period of time.

Interview: Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec on "Observe Collect Draw ...

I find these kinds of books to be intriguing, for the ways they encourage you to observe the world through different angles, and notice closely. Data in this case is observational, and personal, in that a person take part in their experiments is really trying to uncover the layers of a life lived, and represented through color and shape, font and sequence, and more.

I highly recommend reading both books, and then breaking out the art supplies.

Peace (and Data Points),

Book Review: 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl Book ...

Sarah Ruhl’s collection — 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write — has one of the longest subtitles I have come across in some time: On Umbrellas, and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms Children and Theater. And the length of that subtitle made me laugh before even opening to the first essay (in which her children interrupt her essay writing and with that, I was laughing again and, as a parent who writes, hooked).

I suppose that maybe I should have been familiar with Ruhl’s name as a modern playwright but, eh, I am not. Theater is rather unfamiliar terrain for me. I think that unfamiliarity may have played to my advantage, though, as Ruhl’s masterful short essays here bring us deep into the backstage of theater and production, and into motherhood, and into noticing with a childhood wonder at the world’s twists and turns.

I suspect that playwrights naturally observe at the world through a different angled lens, noticing human interactions and the way the unfolding of our days might be framed by curtains and lights and the relationship of audience/observer to actor/participant. Yes, this is all metaphor, and Ruhl is careful in how she constructs these short essays, using metaphor when needed but also, by being a careful observer of the creative spirit.

She writes of theater, but the essays are really about living a full and curious life. I’m sure I won’t be the first review to say that I was glad she found the time to write the essays she didn’t have time to write, and that she shared her often crowded space with us, if only briefly.

Peace (short but sweet),