Graphic Novel Review: Fever Year (The Killer Flu of 1918)

Last summer, as part of our summer camp at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, we were exploring themes of immigration, and its impact on our region of Western Massachusetts.

We invited a historic re-enactor to come for an afternoon (we’ve had her as a guest before and she is great) to give a presentation about the Flu Pandemic of 1918, as immigrants were often blamed for the transmission of the virus into the United States (even though all evidence supports that US soldiers in World War I brought the flu to Europe and beyond).

It was an immersive presentation (see my post about the day at camp), with things to smell, things to touch, maps to read and the story of the world grappling with a pandemic that killed millions and forever effected many communities around the world. It was that bad.

Armory Camp: Scent of History

So when I read about Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 by Don Brown, I saw the connection and took it out of the library. The book is wonderful, and difficult to take in — the scale of the tragedy is difficult to wrap one’s head around, particularly as the medical world not only didn’t know what was causing people to die and get sick, but also, that the world was not ready for the scale of death and sickness. This was both because the war was still raging and also because the medical field had not advanced enough to make sense of what was happening.

Brown effectively uses the graphic novel approach to tell the story of the Flu, but also of the people battling it — with nurses coming out as the main heroes of the tale. The nurses — and those who were quickly recruited to come nurses, as the war had drawn many from hospitals and clinics — went into communities, worked long hours and longer days, took care of the elderly and the very sick, sacrificed their own lives to support others.

Fever Dream has its lens wide – the world — and narrow — neighborhoods, and in doing so, Brown has successfully captured the scope of a pandemic, and reminded us that we always need to be on the lookout for the next one.

This book might be a little too intense for elementary students, and maybe even some middle school students. But high school students might use it for connection to understanding the modern global, connected world — both as a good thing (share ideas) and a dangerous thing (share disease).

Peace (and health),
Kevin

#WriteOut Book Review: The Lost Words (A Spell Book)

Here’s a book about paying attention. The authors noted that an edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed about 40 words related to nature. Words like Fern, Kingfisher, Wren and Bluebell. This book —The Lost Words: A Spell Book — is a response, and what a response it is.

The Lost Words is one of the more beautiful books I have discovered in some time — it is oversized, requiring two hands to hold it, and it has gorgeous artwork and some amazing poems all connected, page by page, to the words that were decided to be taken out by the dictionary folks.

Each page here is a treasure, and a reminder that our words help us to understand our world. When we lose our words, we start to lose a sense of the spirit of nature. Writer Robert MacFarlane and Illustrator Jackie Morris seek to recover and rediscover those ideas, and give rise to seeing the world through fresh eyes, with poems (which they call spells) and pictures.

I’ll share two online resources connected to the book, which is sponsored in part by the John Muir Trust. First, there is a Lost Words Explorer Guide, which is loaded with learning activities, and then there is a more generalized guide to connecting nature to writing.

This book would be perfect for any elementary classroom and yet, has enough detail and passion to find a place in a middle school classroom, as well.

Peace (found),
Kevin

 

#WriteOut: Making Connections to ‘The Wartime Sisters’

NOTE: For a writing marathon/party this afternoon, to celebrate Write Out and the National Day on Writing, we’ll be using excerpts from this historical fiction novel to inspire writing of participants. — Kevin

Reading The Wartime Sisters as someone who has been doing educational consulting work for the Springfield Armory National Historic Site for the past three years makes for an interesting web of connections to place and story.

Novelist Lynda Cohen Loigman, who grew up here in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, notes in her Author Notes that, like many of us who live here (including me), the Springfield Armory is often a forgotten part of our region’s history.

It has only been through many visits and by running summer camps for Springfield students and facilitating professional development for teachers through a partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Springfield Armory that I have come to more deeply appreciate the impact the Armory had had on this region, and also, on the country itself. Today, it is a museum. In its heyday, it was a manufacturing and innovative hub, one of two national armories (the other is in Harper’s Ferry).

The Wartime Sisters story is centered around two sisters whose complicated relationship and lives, and tragedies, revolve around the Springfield Armory in the time of World War II, when the Armory facilities were in highest gear with thousands of employees and a mandate by the government to produce more and more weapons. It’s also when women and immigrants flocked to the area for work, and for patriotic ideals, as a way to help the soldiers fighting overseas.

I’ve toured many of the old Armory buildings where the action takes place — including the Armory Commander’s house, now vacant and needing repair but still, with vestiges of the position the owners once held. I’ve walked through some of the manufacturing buildings, although many are now part of a community college. I’ve seen photographs of the gardens, the water fountains, even the swimming pool. We’ve taken students to the high elevation grassy overlook, the one that looks out over Springfield, where a huge and important concert takes place in the book. Armory Curator Alex MacKenzie, who helped Loigman with her research and spent time with her, has done presentations with our student and teacher programs.

And we’ve done whole units with students and teachers on the role of women in the Armory, and the way the war transformed society through work at the facility, bringing change to the communities even after the men returned home to reclaim their jobs. Like Loigman, I have listened to the oral history recordings of some of those women, and felt moved by their narratives. Also like Loigman, we have used the Armory’s own newsletter archives to tell the stories of the people, of where they came from, and how they lived their lives with the Armory at its center.

I would have enjoyed this book on its own merits, as a character study of two sisters and a community of women at a certain historical period of time. But the grounding of the Springfield Armory as the setting of the book, as a site with deep roots, made the reading of the book even more enriching for me. Loigman surfaces the stories of the people, using history as the door to show compassion and intrigue.

For a lover of books and of local history, what more can one ask?

Wartime Sisters passages

Peace (in the past),
Kevin

An interview with Loigman:

#WriteOut Picture Book Review: If I Were a Park Ranger by Catherine Stier

Kevin’s NOTE: Author Catherine Stier, who wrote this picture book, is going to be a featured guest on the Write Out video chat on Tuesday night, Oct. 15,  from 7-8 p.m. EST. More information about the chat and how you can join us in Zoom, if you want, is available at the Write Out website (look under Scheduled Events category).

I’ve had the pleasure of spending quite a bit of time in the past few years with National Park Service rangers through collaborative projects (including running youth summer camps at the Springfield Armory Historic Site) and let me tell you, they are some of the nicest, most curious, adventuresome folks I have mingled with.

One of my ranger friends from Connecticut’s Weir Farm National Historic Site recommended If I Were a Park Ranger by Catherine Stier for our work with the Write Out Project (which launched yesterday, and runs in conjunction with the National Day on Writing next Sunday), and I really appreciated this picture book, and I find it a perfect fit for most elementary classrooms.

Stier captures the work of those folks who greet visitors and who sustain the National Park system, itself a wonder of both open spaces and urban history. In this picture book, readers learn about the many ways one might come to work for the National Park Service, and what a typical day might be if you were a ranger. With lively and inviting artwork from Patrick Corrigan, If I Were a Park Ranger will inform, educate and invite you to explore the many spaces around you (and not just park service spaces, either, but city blocks and suburban fields and woods).

The picture book aptly represents all of the many facets of historical artifacts connected to spaces, ecological and environmental awareness, public ownership of public lands, and the ways in which visitors and those working for the National Park Service are partners in preservation of lands and stories.

These topics, and more, are all central to the Write Out project now underway this October, connecting writing and history to place-based learning and connected opportunities for students and teachers. Learn more about Write Out (it’s free!) and sign up for information and news about the project at the website.

Peace (exploring it),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Real Friends and Best Friends

Friendship is surely one of the trickiest areas that sixth graders navigate through, as they begin to leave elementary school behind and step into the middle school world (even at my school, where our sixth graders are still physically in an elementary building).

Writer Shannon Hale, with illustrator LeUyen Pham, dive into this world of young girls with compassion, humor and confusion in their two graphic novels — Real Friends and Best Friends (which just recently came out).

Both books are based on Hale’s own life as a young girl with significant anxiety issues that made her entry into friendship circles trickier than most, fraught as they are with shifting allegiances, cultural connections and more. In these two graphic novels, we come to understand how the world is viewed by young girls, and as a male teacher of sixth graders who often has to untangle friendship issues between girls (and boys), I found these books highly entertaining and highly informative.

The first book — Real Friends — is set in elementary school and the second in sixth grade, the start of the middle school years. Shannon is the main character and narrator, and many of the characters from the first book come back in the second book — Best Friends — and there are plenty of unresolved issues among the characters, which Shannon (author, and character) reminds us is natural — sometimes, friendships don’t survive because people who think they are good friends, real friends, are not made for each other, and it all falls apart. That may be true for school friendships more than anything.

I was attuned to the way the young Shannon, particularly in Best Friends, is driven by a need to be in the loop with pop culture, from the music that her peers are listening to, to the television shows they watch at night. Today, it would be the apps that people use and the YouTube channels they watch. The technology changes, but the desire to fit in remains as strong as ever for many adolescents.

An author’s note at the end of Best Friends was beautiful, as Shannon Hale writes of where her story came from, how one teacher helped her see herself as a writer when others did not, and how anxiety still lingers for her, today, and that understanding it and having strategies for it was the thing that has helped her cope with the crazy world unfolding around her. All good lessons, bound up in two entertaining graphic novels.

National Public Radio did a nice piece on Hale and Pham (who are close friends) that I found informative.

Peace (among friends),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Button War

Leave it Avi to bring forth another powerful historical fiction story that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The Button War is set in Poland, during the time between Soviet occupation and the German occupation during the first World War.

The story centers around a group of young boys whose small town is first in Soviet hands, and then is in German hands, and then is caught up in the violent struggle between the two military forces, neither of which has much regard for the civilian population. As always in war, it is the civilians who suffer the most, and that is true here, too.

Patryk, 12, is the narrator here, the hero of sorts, who joins his group of friends in what begins as a midnight dare — steal buttons from the coats of Soviet troops in a contest to see who can get the most unique, the most valuable buttons off the soldiers — but which becomes increasingly more dangerous when the Germans arrive, and the button stealing puts the boys into danger, and death.

Avi does not let us flinch from the story, building the narrative around the moral choices of Patryk, as one of his friends, Jurek, slowly becomes more and more maniacal and more pressuring on the group of boys, always upping the ante. Friendship, betrayal and war are the landscape of The Button War. No one escapes this story unscathed, and we readers understand that Patryk, on the run by the end of the book, will live with the echoes of this time period for the rest of his life.

The story is based in a real place, with real events, and Avi’s masterful writing enriches the experience on many levels. This book is geared towards a middle and high school classroom, I would say, although some more advanced and interested elementary readers might enjoy it, too.

Peace (not war),
Kevin

Book Review: The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life

I’m a sucker for books about writing. And add in an author who is part of the National Writing Project and you have my interest. So I grabbed a copy of The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life by Stephanie Vanderslice, and dove in. I’m glad I did.

With a folksy, honest, funny voice on the page, Vanderslice seeks to surface the ins and outs of a writing life, weaving in her own stories as a teacher and writer as well as setting forth some very practical advice on how to approach writing, how to publish writing, how to see yourself as a writer (no matter what other people say).

Among her pieces of advice:

  • Make time to do the writing, regularly
  • Invest in the revision process (and be ready to revamp)
  • Network network network
  • Be teachable as a writer — be curious about everything
  • Be methodical if you want to get published
  • Resilience is key
  • Believe in yourself, even if no one else seems to

My eldest son’s friend is a budding novelist and upon finishing this book, my first thought was: I need to give this to Sam. So I will. And I hope the practical advice here will be inspirational, and that the realistic advice (writing as a profession is hard) will leave him clear-eyed about where he is heading with his stories. And perhaps the long list of resources at the end — with notes on agents, publishers, etc. — will be most valuable of all (although, he may already be on this.)

NWP Radio recently did an interview with Stephanie, who notes her previous work as a site leader in the Writing Project (Great Bear Writing Project in Arkansas) as influential to her as a writer and educator.

 

Peace (writing it, daily),
Kevin

 

Two Books. Two Gimmicks. One Worked. One Didn’t.

From Mead Art Museum: The Bookcase

I’m not one to complain about experimental fiction. While I love a traditional text as much as anyone, I am also eager to discover the ways an inventive writer can pull me along into stories and characters from some new way — either from the writing approach or from a format approach.

I finished two books, both of which are fairly non-traditional. Each has a gimmick (I don’t use that pejoratively here) involving photographs, but only one of the books really worked for me as a reader.

First, there was feast your eyes by Myla Goldberg. In this novel, the story unfolds as the text of a photographer exhibit, but you never see the photographs the texts are referring to. Only the exhibit information, and various journal entries and interview transcripts as a daughter tries to understand her mother. The absence of the images might seem odd, given the structure of this book, but it actually works because the reader has to imagine the photos, and how the photos work with the story. It’s as if we readers are in the darkroom with the main character, slowly developing the images as we dive into the story itself. This worked for me.

Second, there was Guest Book (Ghost Stories) by Leanne Shapton. This experimental text is built on a quilt of sightings of ghosts, with each small section centered on the semblance of a story. Shapton uses images, captions, architectural layouts, and other assorted media to hint at the spirits wandering the world. I wanted to like it. I really did. But I found the use of different media here distracting. I don’t mind odd, but a non-traditional book has to have a story running through it, and I never really found that here, which was disappointing to me. Here, the gimmick overtook the story.

Writing these kinds of texts — and reading these kinds of texts — is difficult, and worthy of experimentation. Sometimes, a writer pulls it off (Goldberg). Sometimes, they don’t (Shapton). I should note that Guest Book seems to have garnered a lot of positive reviews on Goodreads and other places (I think I first read about it in New York Times Books), so it may be that the book just didn’t work for me.

Peace (reading it),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: They Called Us Enemy

For the past few years, I’ve been involved in a growing partnership between the National Writing Project and the National Park Service (I work closely with the Springfield Armory National Historic Site). One of the regional partnerships in California involves the Tula Lake National Monument, but I didn’t quite realize — until I read George Takei’s  graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy — just how big a role the Tula Lake site in California played in the terrible ordeal of internment of Japanese-American citizens in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

It’s not that I haven’t been educated about the historic site from various projects and sharing out by NWP colleagues from the Tula Lake partnership. Their work to surface stories of those who were segregated from society in one of the most awful legislative actions in modern times (and something I know I never learned about in any of my history classes) has been powerful and eye-opening.

(See more about the partnership between Tula Lake and the Bay Area Writing Project)

In fact, the focus on stories dovetails nicely with the upcoming free, connected Write Out project in October, which seeks to connect place to stories, particularly those stories that have been suppressed or hidden by time and historians, or just by our own ignorance or denial. Write Out is hosted by the NWP/NPS partnership.

Takei’s graphic memoir brings all of that past to the present, and the use of the graphic novel format is a powerful narrative tool. Takei, who is best know for his role of Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek and as an activist on social media, recounts his own childhood experiences of being rounded up, unexpectedly, and sent off to three different internment camps with his family, including the first stop where they lived in a horse barn stall.

The last camp they end up in is Tula Lake, where bitterness and rebellion, and in-fighting among those held captive against their will, is the most tense and violent of the scenes here, particularly as Takei’s father emerges as a leader of groups, seeking calm and peace in order to protect families.

Takei’s father is the real hero here, and Takei’s flashbacks to arguments they had and Takei’s own later understanding of what his father was going through becomes the emotional center of They Called Us Enemy. Stalwart, smart and compassionate, his father is forever trying to keep his family together in hopes that confinement will not last, and that they will be able to rebuild a life after the war is over.

Early scenes on the train where Takei and his family are shipped to the next internment camp linger with me, too — of the armed guards and of the forced closing of shades when the train goes through towns, so that the United States citizens won’t know who is passing through in their midst on the way to confinement camps.

And the book’s storylines such pledges to renounce US citizenship (which would later lead to deportation), of persecution of immigrants seeking and building a new life in America, of government overreach and reaction, of camps where families are held behind barbed wire for unknown periods of time, and more echo with today’s times, too, unfortunately.

Will we never learn?

George Takei visits NWP teachers during a summer institute — from The Current

 

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Guts

Guts continues the talented Raina Telgemeier’s storytelling into the minds, hearts and lives of middle school students, using her own experiences as anchor. Telgemeier is a favorite of many of my girl students, and some boys (but not many), and I am already seeing Guts being carried around.

And the topic of this latest graphic novel is apt. It’s all about the hidden troubles of anxiety in young people, and how debilitating it can be, and how mysterious anxiety is for young people and the adults who care for and love them. In Guts, Raina (the main character, built on Telgemeier’s own struggles with anxiety) comes across as a normal, quiet, creative young girl, but inside, she grapples with fears of the world around her, particularly being anxious over certain foods and a fear of sickness.

The result is stomach troubles, loss of school, family confusion and an inability to express what’s going on. Eventually, therapy and friendships help Raina begin to deal with her anxiety, as she soon realizes that many people have secrets about the things they fear or worry about. Some can deal with those worries easier than others. Some, like Raina, bottle it up until they any longer can.

As with her other wonderful graphic novels — Smile, and Sisters, and Drama, and Ghosts — Telgemeier’s graphic art style is engaging and her writing is spot on, capturing the humor and stress of adolescence in a meaningful way that gets to the heart of the characters. Storylines of friendships, of family change, of puberty all feed into the confusion that Raina is having with understanding her world.

As a teacher, I have witnessed the impact that high anxiety can have on my students, and I’ve worked with guidance counselors and families on strategies. I’m working right now on this issue, as a matter of fact. I’ve read up to better understand some of the root causes, although every case is different, and how I, as a caring adult in the classroom, can be sympathetic and helpful when an anxiety attack comes on. I’m still learning. This book helps.

A helpful author’s note at the end of the book relates Telgemeier’s own struggles with anxiety, and her path to finding some balance in dealing with it. She notes that this is only her own story, but that she hopes readers might find understanding or parts of their own story in hers, and that this might help forge a path towards healing. What more can you can ask of a book like Guts?

Peace (breathe deep),
Kevin