March Book Madness: I Am Arachne

Click to enlargeLast year, at our school, we had the wonderful illustrator and writer Mordicai Gerstein come in and work with kids around creating picture books. While he was here, he donated a few books for the library, and then the librarian in turn passed one of them along to me. It is called I Am Arachne, and Gerstein is the illustrator (and the writer is Elizabeth Spires). As part of my March Book Madness, I thought I would share some impressions of this collection of short stories inspired by Greek and Roman myths.

Told entirely in first person narrative, the stories here are a retelling of very famous myths and some not-so-famous myths. I did like that Spires began with the story of Arachne and Athena, and then used her very poetic touches to have Arachne begin to spin the stories for us. Spires must have some background as a poet because there are lovely sentences and passages here that really capture the characters in these tales. Long after you read the stories, you might still hear the voices of the narrators.

The 15 stories are short, but move along at a brisk pace, and this book would be a nice companion for a unit around Greek or Roman mythology (which is why the librarian passed it along to me.). Gerstein’s sketch illustrations are a nice complement to the stories, too. They are by nature, whimsical, and capture the mood of the stories.

Peace (in the myths),

March Book Madness: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

This is part of my March Book Madness series, and although I usually feature student projects, today I am sharing out my own review of a book that a lot of my kids have read: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. And it won a Cybil Award this year, too.

I read this book yesterday, in between my wanderings as a proctor for our last day of our state testing. The book has been sitting on my desk for weeks now, and I have even used the how-to instructions in the back of the book to have our entire class create little Yodas that now decorate my whiteboard. (I meant to take a picture and forgot. It’s cute. All those little Yodas.)

The story centers on sixth graders, and one boy who declares that his origami version of Yoda gives advice independent of him. A kid asks, and the Yoda replies. The book is told from the viewpoint of one main character, but he has “assembled” it as a case book — with smaller stories from various characters — to determine if Yoda is real, or just a fake. The story moves towards the main character getting up enough nerve to ask a girl to dance.

What I liked here was the “voice” of the writing. It felt as if Angleberger really captured the voice of sixth graders, with all of their quirks and social awkwardness, and also, their ability to still believe in something that is clearly at odds with reality (a finger-sized Yoda who gives advice.) The plot weaves its way towards a nice ending that nicely ties things up.

The illustrations along the margins of pages was a hoot, and the use of things like text messages, notes from the principal, and more, added to the playful feel of the story. I wasn’t sure of what to make of the character of Dwight, whose Yoda is at the heart of the story. He is socially out of touch, great at math but little else, and often the brunt of cruel jokes and comments by others. Aspergers?

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is strange, but entertaining.

Peace (of this I say),

PS — Here, the author explains how YOU can make an origami Yoda. Give it a try.

March Book Madness: Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles

book cover of   The Nixie's Song    (Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles, book 1)  by  Holly Black and   Tony DiTerlizzi
This is part of my March Book Madness series of posts. Mostly, I have been sharing out student work. But I also throw in my own reviews now and then, and here is one for Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi that I read aloud to my six year old son.

I’ll have to be sort of blunt: I didn’t like this one. And I don’t think my son did, either, although he enjoyed the illustrations of the giants, faeries and other enchanted creatures. But he wasn’t clammoring for me to cuddle up on the couch for read aloud (which is not like him) and I felt as if we needed to finish it just to finish it and move on to another book, and not to finish it because we were so engaged in the story.

And that’s disappointing because we both loved DiTerlizzi’s The Search for WondLa. That book had rich characters, an interesting plot with several story arcs and a setting that was full of wonder and surprises.

This book, which is an offshoot of the original Spiderwick Chronicles? Meh. We never really connected with the main character (although there was something there about this boy that I wanted to see further developed), the plot seemed strung together rather quickly, and it really felt as if someone had made a sequel to famous movie but only half-heartedly (as if, well, money for a follow-up were the reason, not the art itself). At least, it was short.

I admit that I picked this one up by mistake, thinking it was part of the original Spiderwick series. But I don’t think my son or I have much interest in reading more Spiderwick at this point in time. Enchanted creatures or not, the writing left me bored and dreaming of something better to read with my son.

Peace (in the book chronicle),

March Book Madness: Just Kids

Just Kids (trade paperback)

The brackets for basketball are out, but I am still plugging away at my own March Book Madness, where I am featuring book reviews and posters from myself and from my students.  Today, I am writing about Just Kids, the memoir by rocker/poet Patti Smith. This book won the National Book Award and I was very curious to see what the fuss was about. Although I am a musician and I write songs, I don’t know all that much about Smith, other than bits of her music here and there.

Just Kids covers the early years of Smith’s entry into the art world of New York City and it centers its heart around her relationship with photographer/artist Robert Mapplethorpe. I know of Mapplethorpe from my time living in Connecticut, when his photography show generated significant (negative) publicity at the Wadsworth Atheneum art museum in Hartford. The images were strong, and unsettling, and the show sparked controversy over whether or not they were pornographic or not.

Smith and Maplethorpe lived together and they were each other’s muse for much of their time in New York as they tried to find a foothold in creating art for a living while barely surviving from day to day. He helped her, and she helped him. The memoir captures this time together, and Smith is indeed a lovely poet. This book has so many beautiful lines about love, friendship, music and art — particularly the ending, where she writes about Maplethorpe slowly dying of AIDS as she is carrying her second child into the world. Her remembrance is moving and touching, and her connection to Maplethorpe is so strong, the reader can’t help but feel the loss, too.

What I found so interesting, too, is Smith’s world as an emerging artist before she found rock and roll. Her paths crossed with all sorts of folks, from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, to William Boroughs, to poet Allen Ginsberg, to others whose names meant little to me but I have a feeling they were influential to many. She lived for some time at the famed Chelsea Hotel, where artists scratched out a living. Her neighbor was the famed Harry Smith, whose recordings and collection of Americana music in the deep south are still looked at as an important archive of music in our country.

I felt jealous, even with all the turmoil. You can just sense the possibilities for art in the world around her, and her writing captures the spirit — both the highs and the lows — of something emerging during that time, as if it were a wave that she was desperately trying to catch as an artist, and then, she does, and everything (including her relationship with Maplethorpe) changes.

Just Kids is a gem.

Peace (in the art),

Slice of Life: A Roald Dahl-ish Day

Slice of Life 2011Yesterday was World Read Aloud Day. I had never heard of it until Donalyn Miller tweeted about it. How can you go wrong with reading out loud to students? I carved out some time our day yesterday with all four of my classes and pulled out a Roald Dahl collection. From there, I entertained my students with some craziness that only Dahl could conjure up.

I read out parts of The Twits, and then James and the Giant Peach, and then The BFG and finally, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My kids loved it, and the section from The BFG went over the best — it’s the part where he is telling the girl about how he collects dreams in glass bottles and then blows them gently into people’s heads at night.

At home, I read aloud a lot to my kids, although the oldest has mostly lost interest (except for when he pretends to be petting the dog but is really listening) and the middle son comes and goes on the couch. But the six year old is now at the perfect age. We just finished up, as fate would have it, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (see my review and a review by a student of mine), and have now moved on to a Spiderwick Chronicle book.

I love the closeness of the experience of reading a book out loud. I love how he reads me chapter titles now (which he couldn’t do just a few months ago), how we both get excited about the story, and how telling him stories is activating all sorts of things in his brain. I’m already feeling wistful that he will be last one in the house to sit for long spells with me. But I have a few more years with him, and I have my kids at school, too, who still love to hear a good story read out loud.

Peace (in the book),

March Book Madness: Feed

Feed (2002), M. T. Anderson

This is part of my March Book Madness series, which mostly includes student work. Periodically, I am going to include my own book reviews, too. Today is one of those days.

It’s not often that I admit that I don’t know what to make of a book. But here, with Feed by MT Anderson, I am not sure now if I liked it or not. I had heard great things about it, and I wanted to like this tale of the future world, but there was something about the writing and the characters that kept jarring me as a reader. I almost abandoned the thing at least twice. But I couldn’t. Something kept drawing me back.

The story is set in the future, where people have “feeds” installed in their minds (sort of like an internalized RSS built around interests and likes, and run by commercial entities. Imagine lots of spam cramming into your head along with important information. That would be your feed.) People “chat” each other up; get hacked into by others; go “mal” by messing with their feeds; and are connected to some internalized network of information flows.

It’s a chilling prospect, as Anderson imagines it, and the plot centers around two teenagers — one (Titus) who takes the life of the feed for granted and the other (Violet), who is slowly dying from it and wants to see life for what it is.

Anderson’s skewering of corporate America, and our increasing dependence on technology for information, is bitingly satiric. That’s what kept me coming back, I think. During the reading of the novel (which I read in class during our silent reading — this is not a book for middle school kids, by the way), I also remember reading articles in Time Magazine that seemed to echo in reality the world that Anderson had created. I can’t recall now the articles, but they sort of jolted me. Here were hints of things to come around information technology that could (only could, not will) lead to the kind of world that Anderson envisions. (Gosh, I wish I could remember the articles.)

What I didn’t like was Anderson’s stilted writing, and I never really connected with the characters. I wanted to. I kept waiting to feel some emotional response to their plight of living in this world, and trying to make sense of it all. I just couldn’t do it. It’s very possible that that distance was Anderson’s design all along — to show how technology removes us from each other. I was so removed, I felt like removing the book.

What I did find interesting is all of the invented language that Anderson uses here, as the kids talk in future slang influenced by products and commercialization. When one character gets a verbal tattoo from Nike, and begins injecting the word “Nike” into everything he says, I wondered how far off that might be. (far, far off, I hope).

Peace (without the need for feed),

Yertle the Turtle and Middle East Politics

Yertle the turtle

Some days, things just fall into place nicely. Yesterday was one of those days, as the celebration of the birthday of Dr. Seuss allowed me to have discussions with my class about allegory of stories, the art of picture books, and mature themes that can reside just below the surface of even the most silliest of stories.

I’m talking about Theodore Geisel’s Yertle the Turtle and its connection to the uprisings and political movements of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries in the Middle East/Northern Africa region.  Here is a story about a turtle king who cares only for his glory, and expanded influence, and does so on the backs of his subjects (literally) until one of them (a little turtle named Mack) gets so fed up, he revolts. Of course, he revolts in typical Seussian style: he burps and that burp topples the king.

Here is an excerpt:

Then again, from below, in the great heavy stack,
Came a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack.
“Your Majesty, please… I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving!” groaned Mack.

“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There’s nothing, no, NOTHING, that’s higher than me!”

In class, we talked about the connections between the modern political landscape and this story, which was written in the aftermath of World War II and was more of indictment on European countries with despotic rulers whose people were suffering. We also noted how the protests in the Middle East might seem like a good thing, but really, the uncertainty there will be unfolding for years to come. “Pay attention,” I told my kids.

Our discussions then moved on to other Dr. Seuss books: The Lorax as an indictment of corporate greed and environmentalism (brought to light yet again by the recent $18 billion ruling against Chevron for its mess in the Amazon Rain Forest); The Sneetches (racism and acceptance); and The Butter Battle Book, which took aim at the Cold War mentality of more bombs, bigger bombs, better bombs.

You know that moment when you see something in your students’ eyes — that moment when they see something different now — well, that was our Dr. Seussian moment yesterday. These books that always seemed to them to be little children’s books suddenly were something bigger — maybe a little scarier, too — and for me, as a teacher, those are moments of discovery worth savoring.

What did you do to celebrate Dr. Seuss?

Peace (in the world of little Macks),

Book Review: The Search for WondLa

I had never heard of this book — The Search for WondLa — and took a complete gamble on it based almost entirely on its cover (I know, that’s strange coming from someone who fancies writing so much). I bought it as a read-aloud for my six year old son and myself, and boy, we just completely fell in love with this book. It’s the first of a trilogy and now we have to wait it out … and keep an eye out.

In a nutshell, this book focuses on what used to be Earth and a young heroine, Eva 9, who must venture out of her protected underground sanctuary in search of other possible humans on the planet, now called Orbona. There’s action, good character development (including some tender exchanges between Eva and the robot who raised her) and lots of mystery as to why Eva is the only human here (which is not answered in this first book).

Many young readers probably know writer Tony DiTerlizzi from his Spiderwick Chronicles (although oddly enough, my son and I know him from the wonderful picture book, Jimmy Zangwow Out of this World Moonpie Adventure.) He has a fanciful imagination, and while there are one too many adjectives here in this book (even my six year old remarked on it), I found myself wondering where the adventure was heading and cheering on the remarkable girl main character.
Looking at WondLa Augmented Book

As an added bonus, the publishers have set up an Augmented Reality site as a companion to the book. It took me two computers to get it set up (my old PC seemed reluctant to be augmented) but once we had it going, the book works with the computer to open up series of a three-dimensional maps, which I found amusing and interesting. My son was fascinated by it.

Halfway through the book, I already knew which of my students I would be handing this to when I got back from vacation (I have a set of twin girls who read everything, all the time, and they will just love this book. I bet they read it in one night.).

In another strange twist, it turns out that an acquaintance/friend of mine — the graphic novelist Bryan Paul Johnson — helped with the coloring of the artwork here. Bryan has graciously worked with kids at my Webcomic Summer Camp and, we found out, lives in the lower level of the house where my band practices (yep, small worlds collide). It’s nice to see his name there in the acknowledgments in this fine book.

Peace (in the reality of the book),

Book Review: The Imperfectionists

I graduated from college with no idea about what I wanted to do with my life. Well, I knew I wanted to write, but what kind of prospects are there for an untested writer in this world? I had gravitated towards journalism, mostly out of desperation for work, but once into the world of newspapers, I was hooked.

I loved the newsrooms, even with the cranky editors and odd-ball personalities. I loved hearing the roar of the presses, rumbling in the bowels of the building. I loved the deadline pressure, of writing with clarity. I loved my role as an eye on the community I covered. I loved how the newspaper was a meaningful part of the world, and how I was part of the newspaper that shone a light on that world. (OK, so I hated some of the way things were run and how some reporters became favorites of some editors, and I hated how some of my stories would get butchered by copy editors. It wasn’t all love and roses.)

I immersed myself totally into the history of journalism, devouring books about great reporters as if some of their qualities might rub off on me, and I took an avid interest in trade magazines, such as Editor & Publisher. And it soon became clear to me in the early 1990s, as it should have been clear to newspaper publishers (but apparently, was not), that the Internet was going to wreak total havoc on the profitability of newspapers (which mostly had monopolies in many cities and towns and which were incredibly profitable for many years). When the model of income is based almost entirely on advertising, and when you have the only game in town, you get lazy. And when you are lazy, the world can shift suddenly and dramatically. The Internet did that to newspapers.

As many colleagues of my former newspaper tell me, I got out of journalism to become a teacher just at the right time. Lay-offs have followed, cut-backs have ensued and the old newspaper where I cut my teeth as a writer is little more than a shell of itself these days. I can barely stomach reading it, when I do read it. It’s like watching someone you know and once cared about die a slow, painful death.

Which is exactly what Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists nails perfectly, as this wonderful debut novel sets its sights on a newspaper in Europe, and then performs the magic of delving deep into the people around that newspaper’s orbit — from reporters, to editors, to readers, to publishers. In the characters here, I saw many people I knew, including myself. The slow decline of the newspaper industry is laid bare in the tales of the people whose lives are pinned to writing and publishing the news.

Look at this passage, which comes near the end, as the publishing group that owns the newspaper makes the decision to fold the operation.

Newspapers were spiraling downward. Competing entertainments abounded, from cellphones to video games, from social networking sites to online porn. Technology was not merely luring readers; it was changing them. (245)

Rachman, who was a foreign correspondent himself, has a perfect ear for the voice of his characters, in all of those strengths and foibles.  The chapters here are like short stories and each one could sit on its own. Woven together, however, the chapters are pitch-perfect.  Like many in the real world, I hoped that the book might find some way for the newspaper to survive, so that these characters might endure. They don’t. The newspaper closes and their lives are uprooted. Just like in real life.

Peace (on the front page),

Glogging about Books: The Collection

Yesterday was the deadline for my students to finish up their independent book projects, which included creating a poster about their book. This year, they had the choice of using or creating a traditional poster. About 85 percent chose Glogster, but I have to say, some of the traditional posters are spectacular, too. It’s a good reminder that content and creativity is what’s important, not the platform (virtual or otherwise).

As I’ve mentioned, I have had many conversations about “design” around the Glogs. Colors, animation, flow, fonts and busy-ness were common words the last few days as I met with students. It’s fascinating how many will “get it” when they step back and how many get so locked into their original vision of the posters that they have a hard time disentangling themselves from that vision.

I’m thinking that since there are so many good posters, I might spend the month of March sharing them out, one or two a day — a sort of Glog a Day project. Until then, here is our growing collection of books that might interest you and your students. There is a wide range of levels here, as I teach inclusion classes, and they chose books based on their own interest (with slight pushes and recommendations from me).

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Peace (in the sharing),