Book Review: The Journey of Little Charlie

Once you get Charlie’s voice in your head — and it takes a few pages for the rhythm to settle in, for writer Christopher Paul Curtis pulls you right into young Charlie’s vernacular speech of the South during slavery, where Charlie is a poor white child whose father has just died and Charlie is left to cover his father’s debt — you’ll never lose Charlie again.

In The Journey of Little Charlie, the story centers on the boy, as big as a man but still learning about the meanness of the world, as he accompanies a slave catcher to the north on a mission to find and return some runaways. Charlie does not want to be there but his hand is forced by his situation.

And time and again, we see the world through the boy’s eyes, a world full of injustice and cruelty, and Charlie’s own discomfort with things, but also, his inability to do much about it. He’s a boy, after all, in man’s world, and the man he is following — Cap’n Buck — is not one to be trifled with.

Without giving the story away, Charlie is faced with a moral choice, a tangled situation in which the boy must become a man, sooner than one would hope, and the decision Charlie makes impacts many in the Cap’n’s orbit. Curtis, a master storyteller, pulls it all off by diving deep into the head and the heart of Charlie.

Once you’re with Charlie, you won’t ever forget Charlie.

Peace (in the escape),

Book Review: Pop Charts (100 Iconic Song Lyrics Visualized)

This is a nifty and fun book of visual information. Artist Katrina McHugh began creating one-page visualization of pop music songs, with a nature theme, as a side project to keep her artistic spirit going. The result became this book — Pop Charts: 100 Iconic Song Lyrics Visualized, with the tag of “A Collection of Diagrams for Music Lovers.”

She even offers up the idea of making her charts a readers’ guessing game — can you identify the song from her art? I may have got about 60 percent of them correct, but each of her pieces of art are pretty interesting, as she uses a collage style method to layer in visual cues to iconic lyrics.

Can you guess this one?

Or how about this one?

This book is a great example of how visuals can project information in interesting and meaningful ways. Connecting the visuals to memory of pop song melodies (for your brain starts to sing songs with identification of the lyrics) and writing is pretty nifty conceptual art.

McHugh explains in the liner notes that she chose the nature theme for all 100 of her diagrams because she began noticing how lyric writers use nature in different ways, as metaphor and story and more. Animals, landscapes, water all run through these pieces, connecting the 100 to the whole.

Peace (in the way pop looks),

PS — The answers: Fire and Rain by James Taylor and Sitting on the Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding.

PSS — I lent this book to my band and no one liked it as much as I did. Just a heads up.

Graphic Novel Review: All Summer Long

Any book dedicated to “the weirdos and the part-time punks” and features a guitar-playing kid on the cover has my attention.

Hope Larson’s All Summer Long lives up to the dedication, focusing in on 13-year-old Bina, whose friendships are changing as summer vacation begins and who must navigate those changes while staying true to herself. In graphic novel format, the story unfolds over the course of the entire summer. The graphic story format works best during the boring moments, when Bina is alone, listening or playing music. The art captures the quiet moments in ways a traditional novel might not be able to.

Punk rock helps the summer move along, if rather slowly for her, and Bina is never far from either her headphones nor her guitar. Often, both. Her best friend and neighbor, Austin, has been acting strangely this summer, putting some distance between their friendship as he, too, navigates the world of being a 13 year old boy becoming influenced by peers and attracted to girls, but not Bina (maybe), and needing some space from their year-long close friendship.

When Austin goes away to soccer camp, Bina connects with Austin’s older sister, in a complicated friendship, and home life for Bina is unsettled, too, as an older brother is about to adopt a baby. The story told through the long weeks of the summer show Bina struggling to stay true to her passions even as adolescence and teen-hood begin to put pressures on her to conform.

Luckily, she’s confident enough in herself to resist the conformity and to be herself, and visiting a show to see her newest favorite unsigned band, where the lead player tells Bina to drop everything and just start a band, is the advice she needed. The book ends with Austin and Bina finding a friendship balance, laughing together. As the new school year begins, Bina begins to put up posters, seeking other girls to rock out with.

Think Bikini Kill or Sleater Kinney or L7. That’s what I heard in my head as Bina played her guitar.

This graphic novel is geared towards upper elementary, middle and high school readers. And, of course, to all of us weirdos out here. Maybe that’s you, too.

Peace (in the muse),


Book Review: Just Write: Here’s How!

So you want to write novels? You’d be hard pressed to find a better guide than novelist Walter Dean Myers, and here he is, with Just Write: Here’s How! to give you some advice.

Interwoven with his own story of growing up poor in Harlem and finding a way out of poverty through the power of writing, and of using his stories to find his own voice, Myers provides plenty of helpful tidbits here about how to approach writing a novel.

In fact, his “six box” outline for fiction (focused on character) and “four box” outline for non-fiction (focused on research) are as good as a design as I have seen, particularly as Myers shares examples from his many powerful books for teenagers, and how he goes about doing both research and daydreaming about story and structure.

The book is written for a young audience, with Myers being realistic about the life of a writer — the amount of rejection one gets, the work of revision, the abrupt shifts in story construction, the ability to take criticism and feedback — and also extols the virtues of telling stories for others.

In fact, as would be clear if you dive into his vast bibliography of fiction, Myers seeks to give voice to teenagers in difficult situations, often facing long odds and even often, facing difficult choices. And he walks the walk — often working with incarcerated youths, helping them find their own voice as writers in hopes that writing forges a path forward for them.

This book is helpful in many ways, making visible the architecture of stories, and always focused on the development of characters that a reader might believe in and root for.

Peace (in stories),




Book Review: Math With Bad Drawings

I admit it upfront: it was the reference to stick figure drawings more than the math that got me interested in this book when I first saw the cover. But, truth be told, it was the math ideas and concepts, and Ben Orlin’s wonderful sense of humor and explanations of those ideas, that kept me reading on to the end.

Math with Bad Drawings (Illuminating the Ideas that Shape Our Reality) covers a lot of mathematical ground, and some of it went beyond me but most of it I found really intriguing and I learned a lot from Orlin (a math teacher, turned stick figure artist, who — it turns out — lives in the same city as I do). You can even follow Orlin’s blog, where he posts his comics and ideas.

What I enjoyed about the book — other than Orlin’s simple but funny drawings — was the expanded notion of math as a guiding principle and underlying force in our world, and the ways in which Orlin surfaces those ideas. Yes, we are covering probability, statistical analysis, number theory, logic, and even the weird underlying math of the Electoral College, and more, but Orlin — who knows his audience is likely neither math teachers nor math fanatics — uses clear explanations, connecting math to the real world as much as possible, and when all else fails, letting us know when we’re moving into geeky esoteric mathematical principles. At least, the reader is forewarned.

In an early chapter, Orlin introduces a strategy game called Ultimate Tic Tac Toe, which I brought into my sixth grade classroom as a challenge activity, and many of my students really enjoyed the game, which expands the game board and tweaks the rules to make an otherwise predictable game much more challenging. (You can even play a version of it online — against a computer or with a friend. Neat.)

via Wikipedia


Math with Bad Drawings is a recommended read for anyone interested in learning math beyond the textbook, even writers and teachers of young writers like me, and you’ll come out the other side of the text with an expanded knowledge of theory and practice, and a few ideas for making stick people drawings. So, you know, win win win.

What are the odds of that?

Peace (beyond numbers),


Graphic Novel Review: Illegal

I’m not sure I have read quite so powerful a graphic novel in some time as I did with Illegal, by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and illustrator Giovanni Rigano. Aimed at upper elementary and middle school readers (and maybe high school), this heart-felt graphic novel follows Ebo, a young boy refugee on the run from Ghana, Africa, to Europe, where he hopes to find his sister and start a new life.

Such is the story of so many people these days, and Ebo’s journey is both harrowing and hopeful. Along with his older brother, Kwame, Ebo is determined to survive his trek across the Sahara Desert and then the balloon boat ride to Europe. It’s a trip of travails and tragedy, one made visual and visceral by the use of the artwork in this story. It will pull you in and tug at your heart, particularly one specific scene on the ocean just before a rescue. It will make you wonder about the headlines and stories you read about those who don’t survive the journey, and those few that do.

It will make you consider, too, the people in the so-called Migrant Caravans making their way north from Central America to the United States border, and the desperate need for a better life, away from violence and poverty, that propels such a journey. Illegal will remind you, as the authors do in their note to the reader, that “…every person is a human being.”

An additional small black-and-white graphic interpretation of an real interview with a woman who made a similar journey as the fictional Ebo is a powerful use of the graphic novel genre, bringing us into the face and story of Helen, who left Eritrea for Europe and had her own journey of desperation. This small piece helps to ground the larger story in the real world, and makes you weep for those who face such danger just to find a safer place to live, with a future, for themselves and their families.

Peace (in the world),

Book Review: Soul Mining (A Musical Life)

Autobiographies of musicians intrigue me because they pull back a layer on something behind the engineered musical tracks we hear that first caught our attention. Consider Daniel Lanois’ book – Soul Mining (A Musical Life). You may either not know or only be vaguely aware of Lanois, but his impact on the musical landscape for much of the 1980s and 90s is undeniable.

Mostly, he did this as a producer/engineer of Peter Gabriel (So), U2 (Joshua Tree), Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball), Bob Dylan (Time Out of Mind), Chris Whitely (Living with the Law) and many others, including his own French Canadian-influenced solo albums (Acadie).

His connection to Brian Eno and the aesthetic of “space” in music is something still very apparent today. I was just listening to the incredible new album by The National and found myself as listener in the gaps of words and sound, and knew that this an enduring influence on the part of what Lanois (he is not involved in The National, as far as I know) and others brought to the table with their sound explorations.

This autobiography brings forth insights into how Lanois began to hear and experiment with sound — he had a lot of freedom as a kid, which he attributes to forced imagination and making creative outlets for amusement, and his mother essentially let him and his older brother turn part of the house into a recording studio when he was at a young age (one of his first recordings he did was for Rick James, which is strange to think about). He also is very organized and detailed, making intricate notes on everything in the studio as a producer, and some of his journal pages shared here in the book are rich with thinking and complexity.

“Keeping track of arrangements and ideas on paper has always been part of my work process. Remembering is just another word for choosing. The world turns the same way for everybody but different people choose to see different things.” — from Soul Mining (A Musical Life), by Daniel Lanois, page 13

I was struck by his curiosity. He’d pack up and move someplace in a minute if the instinct struck him. One time, he moved to a remote location in Mexico. Another time, he bought an abandoned theater in California, and created a space for artists to record and perform. Most of all, as a producer and engineer, Lanois always seemed deeply in tune with the artists he is trying to capture — combining his vision for music production with the depth of the musicians and songwriters he works with.

Give Lanois a listen, and pay attention to the space in his songs and the way pieces are layered together to create a rich cushion for voice and words. His artistry behind the board is undeniable. Soul Mining brings that vision to the forefront.

Peace (in sound and design),

PS — I was sent this book rather unexpectedly by my musical friend, John, and I will be passing it along to another musical friend.

Book Review: A Velocity of Being (Letters to a Young Reader)

Some books, you just know you may never want to part with. Ever.

This is one of those books. A Velocity of Being (Letters to a Young Reader) featured dozens of letters written by adults of all walks of life — musicians, writers, poets, media makers, business people, etc. Edited by the wonderfully talented Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings) and Claudia Bedrick, this book is just one gem after another … turn the page and you can’t stop reading.

As Povova writes, the book is …

a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading. — via Brain Pickings

The format caught my eye early on, via Brain Pickings website (which I read regularly and periodically support), where Popova has written about the book’s progress over the last year or two (after working on it for eight years, I guess). To secure dozens of writers and then to secure dozens of illustrators (the art is as fabulous as the letters — see this post to see some of the illustrations), and then to gather them all up into a book that could only be described itself as a work of art … well, that has my attention in the days of digital books. This is one book you need to hold in your hands.

As someone who shares out “small quotes” each morning from books I am reading over at Mastodon, A Velocity of Being has fueled enough mornings for a month or two, and maybe more. Every page seems to have some sentence, some passage, some ideas that rings out for me.

The question is: will young readers read it?

That question has me thinking. I have about 75 sixth grade students. I can’t buy them each this book. (I’m a public school teacher). But what if I made a copy of a page for each student — thinking about what I know of them as readers and making as best a match as possible — before the end of the school year — a letter to a young reader that gets into the hands of a young reader? I like that possibility.

Hmmm …

Peace (read it over and over and over),


Where Art, Writing and Inspiration Meet: Graphic Novelist Jarrett J. Krosoczka

A Visit by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

We had the pleasure of bringing graphic novelist Jarrett J. Krosoczka to our school yesterday. He gave presentations to four different grades about his work as a writer and artist, and shared his writing process and passions for making books. Krosoczka is the creator of the very popular Lunch Lady series, and his recent book is Hey, Kiddo.

His origin story of the Lunch Lady series was interesting. He told of going back to his old elementary school as an adult, and spending time with a lunch lady who used to serve him lunch, only to realize that she had a whole life outside of the school building (shocker). He wanted to write a picture book about the cafeteria staff, only to realize that one small strand of that book — a lunch lady as an undercover agent, whose mission is to protect the school and students — should be its own book, and that the comic format of a graphic novel was the way to tell that story. It took eight years from that spark of an idea to publication of the first book, he told the students.

Meanwhile, in preparation for his visit, students across our school have been working on projects, including graphic novel stories, in art class to recognize and celebrate our own lunch staff and other support staff workers in the building. During one of the sessions with Krosoczka, the staff from the cafeteria was brought in, and celebrated, with students performing a rap and short opera they wrote for them as appreciation.

My sixth grade students met him at the end of the day, after a long morning of state math testing, so it was a nice counterpoint to that to hear Krosoczka describe how he came to love reading, and then making, comics, and how it was his passion for art and writing — and lots of persistence in the face of rejection, particularly for his first picture book — that got him to where he is today, as the writer/illustrator on dozens of books.

It’s one thing to teach students the art of writing; It’s another to hear a writer tell of their experiences. Krosoczka wove the two strands together, and hopefully inspired young writers to write (and draw).

Peace (on the page),

Buried in the Feldgang: A Poem from a Quote from a Book from an Idea

Quote: The Art of Is

I am forever overlapping
you; your notes cascading
upon me; where shadows
loom, you hold the light

We meet in the middle,
at the bridge – at the break –
at the moment of unexpected
surrender to the moment of
story and song

I am melody: nothing, but
for the harmony that spans
its wings beneath

Note: this is a #smallpoem, written in the margins of a community feldgang, with this line as anchor:

“Making art, whether you do it solo or in a group, derives its patterns from everything around us, in an interdependent network.” — Stephen Nachmanovitch, The Art of Is

Others have been leaving poems, too, in the book we are reading together in NowComment, and finding them in the margins of the text is a beautiful moment — a dance along the contours of Nachmanovitch’s ideas, made visible for shared experiences.

Peace (along the margins),