Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (The Deep End)

I’m pretty sure, somewhere, in the past posts at this blog, there are fourteen other reviews of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid collection, starting with the very first one published 15 years year ago. I bought it for my eldest son; we read it together; we laughed at the hijinks; we bought the second one the following year. And so on and so on and so on, as each of my three boys grew up, we read the books each November.

Now my eldest son’s an adult, away from home, and my youngest is in high school, and still, I buy the latest Wimpy Kid book each November like clockwork. For a time, I did it because my students were still reading the series, and I am always trying to stay attuned to their interests. But I asked around the classes the other day, and no one said they were buying the new book, nor did many even know Kinney was still publishing them.

But I bought the newest one anyway, mostly out of habit, but also, because Kinney’s visual style and humor storytelling still makes me giggle at times, and who can beat that, really? Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End, the 15th book, is classic Wimpy Kid, although the opening scenes in which the family is stuck at home, isolated and going batty, suggests the social distancing of the Pandemic in an inferential way (not outright), as Kinney seems to be acknowledging the world beyond the book, and the lives of his readers.

Then, the story moves on, with Greg Heffley and his family hitting the road in an RV to go on a vacation trip, and as usual, all sorts of craziness begins to take hold as they visit different vacation stops, each progressively getting more nutty, with flare guns in National Forests, a wandering skunk, inner tube disasters, sewage tank problems, etc.

The “deep end” of the title refers to both the swimming pool that sets the scene for the final section of the book, in which the family’s fun at an RV camp pool leads to their RV going into the river and heading downstream fast, and the going off the “deep end” is Greg’s observation of his own situation of losing it. As per normal.

There are narrative consistencies that Kinney keeps anchored on throughout the series, right from the start — family, resilience, humor — and the fact that Greg is still a middle schooler after 15 years and 15 books might give one pause, until you realize that middle schoolers have the best and worst views of the world, and that makes them a perfect foil for a comedy series like The Wimpy Kid.

Looking forward to next November …

Peace (laughing along),
Kevin

Book Review: Ghosts of Greenglass House

Like the first book in this series by Kate Milford, Ghosts of Greenglass House slowly unfolds into a dense and multi-faceted story, and the reader’s patience is rewarded. At the heart of the Greenglass House stories is Milo, a 13-year-old boy whose keen eye and attention to detail helps to solve a mystery unfolding in his adopted parents’ hotel — The Greenglass House.

Milo, with help of a ghost companion, Meddy, is friends with two smugglers, who arrive in the dead of night to kick off the story, as they tell a tale of a botched robbery. Then, a group of visitors from a nearby isolated community — a safe haven place — arrive as part of a holiday tradition, but someone in their midst is a criminal mastermind. In fact, it is soon apparent that the hotel has become a sort of den of thieves.

The story then settles into a ghost story/locked room mystery, as Milo seeks to discover who is hiding who they are, and locate pieces of what could be a very interesting map of the community of Nagspeak where they live — a place full of epic stories of pirates and plunder and criminals, and a geographic conundrum where islands and waterways shift so much that a regular map is useless.

The casual reader, particularly if you have not first read The Greenglass House, might be confused by all these threads, but Milford rewards patience by the end, as Milo’s intriguing sense of deduction and reliance on his ghost friend, Meddy, solves the mystery, and more.

This is an interesting tale, aimed at middle and high school readers who love a solid mystery whose pieces only fit together by the end, and the house itself — with its amazing glass art windows and hidden spaces — is a fine setting for such a tale. Milo, also, is complex as a character, grappling with his biological past — his Asian roots means he stands out in the school and town where he lives — even as his adoptive parents show love and grace, always.

Peace (tinted and reflected),
Kevin

Picture Book Review: 16 Words (William Carlos Williams and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’)

“Williams saw poetry in his patient’s lives.” — from Author’s Note, 16 Words, by Lisa Rogers and Chuck Groenink

Of course, I know the poem, the famous short verse about the red wheelbarrow, the rain and the white chickens. You probably do, too. What I didn’t know was who poet William Carlos Williams was — in fact, I didn’t know he was a doctor who scribbled poems on his way to patients or typed out verse in between appointments.

And I didn’t know the poem that made him most famous (along with his apology poem to his wife for eating her plumbs) was inspired by a neighbor, friend, and patient — Thaddeus Marshall — from whose window Williams saw the wheelbarrow, the rain, the chickens.

We learn all this in 16 Words: William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow” picture book by writer Lisa Rogers and illustrator Chuck Groenink. I appreciate books about writers, and picture books in particular have a way of bringing us a bit closer to the people in focus. This book is written in beautiful minimal language (as befits the topic) and the illustrations are lovely, too, bringing us into the small community where Williams is a family doctor as he writes his poetry.

You can of course enjoy his poetry, not knowing much about him. Even Williams said he didn’t strive so much for deeper meaning but to capture the lives and world around him. We teachers may be overanalyzing his poems, but there is no doubt to his skill of minimal beauty — of the glimpses into what he saw, through short verse and descriptive language.

This picture book would be a perfect read aloud for any poetry unit, and a reminder that poets can be any of us, and all of us, if we just take time and attention to noticing what is around us.

Peace (and poems),
Kevin

Book Review: Duke (Dogs of World War II)

This is a book about a dog named Duke. I have a dog named Duke. How could I not read this? Kirby Larson’s novel for adolescent readers is less about Duke, however, and more about 11-year-old Hobie, who gives his dog up to support the effort in World War II, even as his father is flying Allied airplanes in Europe.

The Duke of Duke (Dogs of World War II) is a German Shepard, who comes home a hero, but not after Hobie regrets volunteering his dog for the war effort, particularly once he realizes that Duke and his new soldier friend are heading to the warfront in Asia. The novel follows Hobie as he grapples with the absence of his dog, and then his father, who is reported as a Prisoner of War, and helps his mother and sister at home.

The theme of the story emerges as things get worse before they get better and a kind uncle fills in as Hobie’s father-figure, as a well as the soldier whose life Duke eventually saves (and many more), letting Hobie figure out to be brave, and scared, all at the same time. Some side stories — such as the German immigrant family that moves into the neighborhood and the school bully who takes aim at Hobie — give depth to Hobie’s experiences as a fifth grader moving into sixth grade with uncertainty around him.

This book is a powerful narrative, aimed for upper elementary and middle school students, and if you have readers who love dogs and who are interested in World War 2, Duke is the book for them. Even my Duke approves.

Peace (among the heroes),
Kevin

Book Review: The Distance Learning Playbook

While I can’t say there is a lot of new thinking for me in The Distance Learning Playbook by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie, I can say that I appreciate the way the three of these respected educators have succinctly and structurally pulled together pedagogy ideas into the much-needed frame of a teaching shift into online learning.

My school district bought this book for the entire teaching staff, as some of us have started to teach with the Hybrid Model in the school and some of us (myself, included) are starting the year with Distance or Remote Learning before moving back into the building with students. All of us are grasping for ideas, strategies, and thinking on what teaching and learning looks like in the Pandemic.

At my school, we spent a few hours during one of our early Professional Development days, doing grade-level reading of the book and then jigsaw-sharing out with the entire staff. I then went back to the beginning of the playbook (since my grade level had a later chapter) and have read through it all, with appreciation.

Along with important information about community building, and teacher readiness and professionalism, and developing engaging tasks for online learning with fidelity and clarity, the later chapters around feedback and assessment in Distance Learning was helpful for my teacher brain. The book covers a lot of ground, but in a very approachable way, and it comes loaded with QR codes for about 50 videos of classroom teachers sharing experiences and strategies, and I still have to sit with the book and my phone to view them, but I appreciate knowing some teacher voices are in the mix.

There are also plenty of resources and charts and probing questions in each chapter, to allow for teacher self-reflection. In all, The Distance Learning Playbook helped me get my mind and my lesson planning ready for the first interactions with my new students, and is a resource I can turn to now and then for advice and strategies, and for that, I appreciate the authors and also, the leaders of my school district, for buying us the book.

Peace (distant but closing in ),
Kevin

Book Review: Keep Scrolling ‘Till You Feel Something

This book is a joke. I mean, you can’t even read the cover of Keep Scrolling ‘Til You Feel Something: Twenty-One Years of Humor from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency once you take the paper sleeve off. You have to hold the binding up to the light, and twist it a bit, just to realize, the entire thing … just a big fat joke. Sixteen books better than this one? Is that what it says? Only sixteen? ‘Cause I got a larger list going somewhere over here.

Skip over the 600+ pages of nonsense to read more about the contributing writers. Informative? Well, sort of, if you can get past all the insider jokey references to humor writers, about living in either New York or Hollywood, and a smorgasbord of deadpan verbiage. (say that last bit out loud in the voice of the Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef … now, THAT’s funny stuff) Even the final pages of Additional Contributors are a big joke. Email as someone to thank? I think not.

Then go on, go on and dig your way through the pages of this brick of a book. Don’t hurt yourself as you hold this behemoth of paper. It’s heft might hurt your wrists. Drop it on your foot and you’re for sure on a trip to the emergency room, signing away your life to the health care industry. I blame the editors.

Before you open the book up, though, it’s fair to ask: McSweeney? Who’s the heck is he? Or her? What’s that? You won’t find a good answer inside. Instead you get so-called Back Stories and Behind the Scenes malarky (I’m stealing that one back from Biden) that will provide little to no insight into McSweeney it/him/herself.

And just look at the writers here. Jake Tapper? Really? Are we to believe the lefty CNN guy is funny? Come on. Jake Tapper, who are you, really, anyway? Plus lots of names you never heard of. John Hodgman? Ellie Kemper? Mingled in with some people you may think you might have heard of once, but, you know, probably not. Given the joke that this book really is, the names are likely jokes, too. You could spend a few hours trying to crack the humor code, but why bother? You’re not going to laugh anyway.

It’s not that kind of joke book. The one that makes you laugh.

Last of all, why buy the book when all of this material is apparently online? For free. If you can find it. If you care to look. Yet the book costs a pretty penny, let me tell you, and the joke is on me, and you, if you spent your last penny on the purchase. At least, you won’t have to indulge again for another 21 years. If books are even around. Stories may be gone, too, for all we know.

Yep, Keep Scrolling ‘Til You Feel Something is a joke. And so is this review. I am full of malarky and loving it.

Peace (it’s in the book, next to the decorative gourds),
Kevin

Book Review: The Hyperdoc Handbook

This teaching book is now a few years old (2016) but The Hyperdoc Handbook (Digital Lesson Design Using Google Apps) by Lisa Highfill, Kelly Hilton and Sarah Landis was helpful for me in thinking further on how to integrate the concept of HyperDocs (a way to design a lesson or unit for independent inquiry and reflection for students with links and resources and places for sharing) into my remote and hybrid learning approach. I wrote about my initial foray into Hyperdocs the other week.

And plenty of National Writing Project colleagues and I have been engaged in Twitter discussions about the viability of HyperDocs, as well as the limitations. It is important to note, as the authors do repeatedly, that HyperDocs are not just some amped up worksheet to be given remotely to students. (See Deanna Mascale’s latest post on Hyperdocs for her university instruction) I also know there are criticism of this kind of approach, as being too prescriptive or narrowing in scope for learners.

The three authors of The Hyperdoc Handbook are experienced teachers and instructional coaches and technology advocates, and I appreciated the approach of screenshots and examples and the way they talk through the pedagogical rationale for Hyperdocs as a way to engage all learners in a guided yet independent inquiry process. They explore pedagogy and tap into the ways that well-designed Hyperdocs can extend the idea of Zones of Proximal Development, through layered choices and skills and expectations.

You don’t need buy this book to learn about Hyperdocs (I am one of those own-a-book people and I like to support teachers) and their website has plenty of examples and templates and more that you can examine and borrow, and hack, as the authors tell you in the book.  A blog post at the site even provides some useful thinking on remote teaching with Hyperdocs.

This week, in fact, I am going to use a HyperDoc with teachers as part of a professional development session on Project-Based Learning, in which teachers explore a theme for a short/tiny public service announcement (an idea borrowed from AJ Jacobs).

I’m deep into the design stage of curriculum for the start of our school year (which begins remote and then becomes hybrid, with independent learning days for students in the weekly schedule). I see some possibilities here for my students, although it is important to acknowledge that Hyperdocs as nothing new, really, but more of a way to organize resources for student inquiry and exploration. Webquests, websites, blog posts, etc, all are in the same family. The book is helpful in its range of examples, visuals and testimonials from other educators.

As mentioned, a Hyperdoc (which does NOT have to be a Google Doc or product) is definitely more than a glorified worksheet. It’s more like an anchor or docking point, leading students to other activities and resources. That’s important to remember.

Peace, (linked),
Kevin

Book Review: Long Story Short (100 Classic Books in 3 Panels)

Three Panel Review of Three Panel Comics

It seemed appropriate for me to make a comic with three panels as review art for a book of comics of three panels (for the most part) of classic novels. Artist Lisa Brown uses whimsy and brevity for her small collection that summarizes classics like Moby Dick, The Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Flies, and more.

As both an avid reader and a lover of comics, as well as an appreciator of popping the balloon of pretension, I thoroughly enjoyed Brown’s small book and humor, and insights, too, that come from trying to find the most important thread from which to spin a comic piece of art. Long Story Short is a fun diversion and witty companion the serious novels of the so-called “literary canon.”

Note: there are references to sex and death in here (it’s a theme of many novels, as you might know) so if you are teacher wondering about the possibility of using this book in the classroom, you might want to pick and choose pages from Brown’s book, or at least, give it an entire read (you should anyway) and determine appropriateness for your students.

Peace (in three frames),
Kevin

 

Graphic Book Review: The Machine Never Blinks

From the prison thought experiment of the Panopticon (where every cell is visible to the guard) to today’s video street surveillance that uses face recognition algorithms, people have long and rightly worried about how to protect their privacy. In this graphic non-fiction book — The Machine Never Blinks: A Graphic History of Spying and Surveillance by Ivan Greenberg and Everett Patterson — the steady erosion of our privacy in public spheres is made evident and alarming.

Greenberg and Patterson have a progressive agenda here — it’s that the government should never be trusted with our data and that citizens must act against invasion of privacy and remain vigilant against such intrusions — and the stories of generations of spying on citizens is nothing new. Gathered in this one book, the collective stories become a powerful indictment of how technology has increased the pace of our loss of privacy and data — some of which we have willingly given up (social media, etc.) and some of which we have allowed our government to do in the guise of safety.

I’m not convinced the graphic format is the right format for this topic, however. In this book, the pages are crammed with text, reducing the reader’s ability to absorb the visual information. Which is why one would use a graphic novel format in the first place. I wish they had done more to leverage the use of the visuals on the page. In too many frames, it’s just people talking with speech bubbles or overflowing text boxes. I understand there is a lot of information to get out, but  better use of symbolic visualization and experimental art would have helped make the point, in my opinion.

And the point of the book is important and for those of us concerned about privacy and data, The Machine Never Blinks is another look at the topic. This book would appropriate for high school students but might be too dense with concepts and vocabulary for younger readers.

Peace (pushing back),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Kids Who Are Changing the World

We bought copies of this book for teacher-participants in a spring professional development that connected history (Shays Rebellion, which took place as a resistance here in our area and led to the Constitutional Congress) to modern civic engagement projects with students. Kids Who Are Changing the World is a beautifully done book, with impactful stories of what the title says — young people who saw a problem and then worked to address it.

Inside, you can find dozens of examples of activism on issues of the environment, health, politics and more, with kid-friendly language and stories and images. There’s also plenty of advice for young readers on how to proceed with their own ideas for change in the world.

I enjoyed this book so much that I ordered a class set for my classroom, and intend to use it as a launching pad for some local civic engagement projects with my sixth graders later this year. I’m hoping they will be inspired by the many stories — many of which focus on neighborhoods and local communities.

I appreciated the many links to online resources, some of which are sites set up by the kids in the book and others, related documents and information that might help inform my students on a wide variety of issues.

Peace (changing the world),
Kevin