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),
Kevin

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),
Kevin

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),
Kevin

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),
Kevin

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: https://writeout.nwp.org/

Peace (reviewed and refuted),
Kevin

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),
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