Book Review: The Bridge to Neverland

For years now, I have been reading aloud the Peter and the Starcatchers series with my sons. As the older son grew out of it, the next one would find his place next to me on the couch to listen, and now, it is on to the third son. (Of course, the older boys hover around the edges of the read aloud, furtively taking in the stories). The series is a fresh, fun take on Peter Pan, but told with humor and action by Dave Barry (yep, that Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson.

I won’t go into the entire series here (there are main novels and a few off-shoot novels), but there is plenty of magic, adventure, interesting villains and heroes, and all of the echoes from the old Peter Pan books that allow you to connect these storylines with the old. And for read-aloud, they are among the funnest to share with an audience (even an audience of one).

Not long ago, my youngest son and I finished reading the latest in the series — The Bridge to Neverland — which transports the story from the early days of the story (which had been faithfully set in England around the turn of the century) to modern-day America. Here, a brother and a sister unwittingly discover the magical substance “starstuff,” are chased by the evil shapeshifting Ombra (who forms as a cloud of ravens in one of the strangest imagery I have seen), and use an invention of Albert Einstein to jump across parallel universes in order to call on Peter Pan to save the day.

OK, so that sounds plenty strange as I write it. But it works.

The Bridge to Neverland is interesting, although I did not find it quite as deep or as engaging as the rest of the series, in my opinion. It seems to try a bit too hard to bring the story forward into the modern day. And, since the book is published by Disney’s Hyperion, the use of Disney World as a narrative device, while interesting, seemed a bit too self-serving at various times. (And again, my sons and I talked about when and if the series will become a movie, which seems inevitable if Disney is bankrolling your books around a Peter Pan story, right?)

This year, I have an extremely strong reader in my class and I have turned her on to The Starcatchers books. She is devouring the series (which is no easy task, if you ever see the size of these books). It makes me happy to have put a story into someone’s hands that I have so enjoyed. You will enjoy them with your kids, too. Trust me. Find a place on your couch for a story to be told.

Peace (in the magic),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Women – A Celebration of Strength

I was a literacy professional development the other day and near the end of the session, one of my co-participants announced to our entire group that she had brought a box of free books (all ears perked up — these are teachers, remember) for all of us and she motioned towards a table towering with oversized books.  The books had nothing to do with the PD but I guess she must have been part of some advocacy group.

I ambled over there during a break and found dozens of shrink-wrapped Women: A Celebration of Strength.

Of course, I grabbed one off the table and removed the shrink wrap. Inside, I discovered an amazing text that celebrates the struggles and successes of American women throughout our nation’s history, told through colorful images, timelines, artifacts from history, and even pop-up art. (That’s right, the pages have three-dimensional pop-up artwork like a picture book). In some ways, this book reminds of the -Ology books (like Monsterology or Dragonology, etc.) that featured various ways to get at a text and made the reading of the information an immersive experience.

Later, at home, I spent about an hour going through Women: A Celebration of Strength and I was very impressed by the depth of topics and the writing. Thinking back, the educator who gave these out had mentioned someone’s name, saying you could get a box of ten of these books delivered to your school, for free. Did I write that name and information down? No! Now, I am kicking myself and wondering how to get that contact information so I can get some of these for my school and my wife’s school.

I know I am going to put this book front and center in my classroom next week, and guide a few of my girls towards it. Maybe a few boys, too.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

eBook Review: Cosmo’s Day Off


Perhaps my expectations are a bit too much for interactive ebooks being developed for the various mobile devices in our lives. Or maybe I made the mistake of experiencing The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore before really experiencing other ebooks and therefore, my bar has been set pretty high.

My seven-year-old son and I sat down on our iPad the other day to “read” through Cosmo’s Day Off. It was nice. It had elements where he could manipulate different elements of the screen. You touch something and it does something. You know the deal. The art was colorful. The story, eh, just so-so. In fact, afterwards, I asked my son what the book was about and he gave me this pretty blank look, as if he were wondering “did we just read a story?” instead of experiencing an app.

And that’s the difference, right? I want the technology and immersive reading elements to complement the story — in whatever form it is — and not supplant it. It’s like reading a picture book where the art is so wonderful and the writing so weak that you feel as if you are completely off balance. Cosmo’s Day Off is not quite like that, but it is missing something.

The story, such as it is, is that an alien named Cosmo has to get to work and he is late. He finally arrives to find out that it was a scheduled day off. Poor Cosmo. You can listen to the audio narration, or record and save your own (which is a nice element of this ebook, and my son loved that you could manipulate the pitch and tone of the voice. A little too much. I had to stop him at one point because I was getting tired of the shift from chipmunk voice to baritone rumble voice.)

Peace (in the books),
Kevin
 

Sharing the Page with Writers I Admire

Book cover

I still can’t believe it.

I opened up a package the other day and in it was a huge textbook, Modern Literature: Rhetorical and Relevant, and there, on page 505, is a graphic novel review that I did for The Graphic Classroom. The review is for the book After 911: America’s War on Terror, which I liked but found to have some shortcomings. What gets me is who else is in this textbook collection broken down into themes of social justice, identity,  global issues and more. I am squished in this tome with some of my favorite writers, such as Billy Collins, Dave Barry, Annie Dillard, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie, Marjane Satrapi and even Ray Bradbury.

Yikes!

To be honest, I almost turned down the request for the article because, eh, I wasn’t all that interested in being used by a huge publishing company trying to sell textbooks. But I wanted to get some good PR for my friend, Chris Wilson, at The Graphic Classroom, and I was able to work out a small financial deal from the company. At least, I told myself, I was getting paid for the writing gig.

If only I had known who else would be in the pages, I might not have resisted so much. (ha)

And then I was reading the foreword to the textbook (which I think is mostly targeted for California, but aren’t they all? Or Texas?), and I realize that one of the advisors behind the book is Kathleen Rowlands, who is the director of the Cal State University Northridge Writing Project. I am always happy to see writing project connections to any work I do. And I don’t even know her.

Finally, I started reading the textbook. I know. Who does that?  Who reads a textbook unless you have to? But there is some fine stuff in there, and while I mentioned a list of famous folks, there is an entire collection of some incredibly powerful student writing, poems and stories that showcase some amazing talent. Plus, there are comics and other non-traditional texts. That made me happy, too, to know some high school student somewhere has a chance to explore many kinds of text.

I can’t say I would run out and buy the book (it probably costs an arm and a leg) if I weren’t in it, but I am quite happy to have it on my bookshelves, knowing my words are sitting comfortably close to some wonderful writers. I hope they don’t mind a little riff-raff in the neighborhood.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

PS — a version of the review that I got published here is still over at The Graphic Classroom.

 

Book Review: Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading

Now, this is a book I can use, although I pilfered it from my wife’s collection of teaching resources.

Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading (by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke) may not sound all that alluring but this resource of more than 75 news and magazine articles tied to various reading strategies in the various content areas (science and social studies being the main focus) is a goldmine of great ideas and handouts. Daniels and Steineke cull through The New York Times, Rolling Stone magazine, Car & Driver, and more to gather up great examples of topics that can be used for teaching reading skills.

As we talk more and more about the shift to the Common Core, with its emphasis on reading and writing in the content areas, this book provides another bridge for English teachers like me to bring various genres of writing beyond the narrative into the classroom, and for content-area teachers to bring more reading and writing skills into their classrooms.  Plus, the push for more reading of informational texts (charts, maps, data sets, etc.) and expository/persuasive writing is front and center in the Common Core, no matter what state you live in in.

Here, Daniels and Steineke make that work accessible and fun, with many of the activities geared around collaborative work by students. They also provide multiple extension activities so that a lesson could last 20 minutes or become an entire unit of instruction.

I already have in mind four of the ideas here for my sixth graders:

  • A jigsaw activity that uses two articles around genetic cloning — of dogs and cats. The students learn to annotate their text in preparation for sharing out their findings to their partners.
  • An activity called Quotation Mingle, in which students are given small pieces of an article that has been cut up, and their job — like a detective parlor game — is to determine the theme of the article. In this case, Daniels and Steineke provide an article about girls, driving and texting (high interest? you bet), and a handout of quotes taken from the article.
  • There is a whole lesson around the science of Invasive Species that nicely connects to science and geography, with articles on Fire Ants, and Killer Bees, and Asian Carp, and more.
  • And there is a very interesting activity called “Country X” in which students are given maps to a mystery country and they need to make inferences and judgements about that country. This “reading” of maps is important, as is the reading of data, and it is something I am working more on with my students.

I’m bringing this book into my school to show my principal, in hopes he might purchase it for our school library. My wife wants her book back.

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

 

Poetry Book Review: Mirror Mirror (A Book of Reversible Verse)

I had never heard of Reverso poems before a colleague came in and dropped Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse in my lap, saying he thought I would like it “since they seem like those two-voice poems you like so much.” Well, the poems in this collection by Marilyn Singer had me hooked, and quick. She calls them “reverso” poems, in that you read the poem top to bottom for one meaning and then bottom to top for another meaning. The one thing that can change is the punctuations. But not the words in each line. The lines are the same, just flipped.

Got that?

In her lively picture book, Singer tackles fairy tale characters, cleverly twisting lines to show views and perspectives from opposite characters. Each page has both poems written, so you don’t really need to read from bottom to top (which might confuse some readers) and it did remind of that video The Lost Generation, where the text circles back on itself in an ingenious way to make a point about young people today.

Of course, I could not let the book go without trying my hand at it, too, right? So, here goes.  My poem is about writing.

I am embedding the poem as a podcast from top to bottom first, and then showing the poem, and then embedding the poem as podcast from bottom to top. That way, the audio at the top is heard first, and then you listen to the audio at the bottom and flip the text in your head. Reader, stay with me here, if you can. It’s fun stuff. (And before I forget to say it, get Mirror Mirror for your classroom and see what your young poets can do it with. I’m going to use it later this year, too).

Here is the poem read top-down.

 

These lines define me
by scribbling, scratching. Singing,
I transform symbols into meaning
with a simple gesture as smooth as ink.
Consider me
ever hopeful; a sign of my imagination
immersed in words.
I breathe in ideas.
I breathe out stories.

Here is the poem read bottom-to-top.

 

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Ghost in the Wires

Kevin Mitnick is a legendary hacker who pioneered the use of phone phreaking (gaining access to systems via the phone lines) and social engineering (gaining access to codes for phreaking by chatting with engineers, secretaries and others), and while he was imprisoned for his hacking, he claims never to have done it for profit. He was in it for the fun, the thrill of the activity, and he was energized by the cat-and-mouse games that went on. He was out to prove himself to the world. But the police and FBI were soon hot on his trail, and even though he used his knowledge of the government information system to go into hiding for a time, he eventually was caught.

Ghost in the Wires is Mitnick’s tale of how he came become such a notorious hacker. It’s full of interesting technical talk about the early days of computers, the lack of security at so many sites, and the high intelligence, perseverance and creativity it took for Mitnick and his friends to worm their way through various computer networks. At times, the book is a little too self-serving, and the writing could have been stronger. I was glad his co-writer, Bill Simon, resisted too much technical talk (which Mitnick apparently wanted) because that move makes the book accessible to a wider audience.