Book Review: The Lemonade War

A big and crucial push for our school around literacy is more home-school connections around reading and writing. Families have to be involved in the literacy lives of their children. With that in mind, our school decided to give every students a book to read over this summer, with helpful hints to parents on the importance of reading aloud and suggestions for how to use the book at home. The committee chose one book for the entire school. We are reading The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, a book I had heard about before but had never opened. (My son had read it and gave it a shrug when I asked if he liked it. A shrug means he read it but would not read it again, nor recommend it much to friends).

The story of The Lemonade War unfolds around two siblings — Evan and Jessie — as they compete against each other for earning the most money. These two are locked into a sibling rivalry that neither of them really likes. The problem is that Evan, going into fourth grade, is not a strong student while Jessie, a second grader, is highly intelligent, but has some asperger’s qualities about her. And she is jumping over third grade to enter fourth grade, in the same class as her older brother.

I liked the book fine enough, I guess, but the one thing that kept gnawing at me as I reading the book — and it was something that I could not shake loose — was the believability of the ages of Evan and Jessie. There is no way these two kids are that young. The dialogue, the inner thoughts, the actions — it all pointed to kids who are older by at least a year or two. I could not buy it and that annoyed me to no end as I was reading. I know plenty of second and fourth graders (even gifted ones, like Jessie) and I am sorry — Davies did not capture the kids I know here.

But, the theme of siblings fighting and then resolving a difficult problem — coupled with a broken marriage and friendship issues — is a worthy point of talk for a school-wide book. I sort of wish we had gone with something with more adventure and exciting plot, though, so that the summer reading didn’t feel like so much of a … eh … school assignment. I wonder how my boys did with this book? I guess I will find out in a few weeks when the new year begins.

Peace (in the war),


Book Review: How Angel Peterson Got His Name

Before I give you my thoughts on Gary Paulson’s look at growing up, I want to share a story.

When I was around 12 years old or so, a bunch of friends and I created this very elaborate bicycle jump park in the woods near us. It had ramps, jumps, obstacles and all of the wild things you can do with rocks and logs and a few boards. Pretty cool. One day, a friend of mine finagled a jump that was higher than we had seen before. And he put it right at the bottom of a hill. And he dared me to jump it. Well, what I was supposed to do? I took up on that dare. I remember being at the top of the hill, looking down, and thinking: maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Too late. My friends were waving their hands, shouting. I took off, and quickly that thought of “maybe this isn’t such a good idea” came floating into my head.

I hit the jump perfectly, as it turned out. The air below me was incredible. What I didn’t count on was my front tire of the bike coming off in mid-air. Time really does slow down, did you know that? I could see the tire falling and thought, Shoot (well, take away the o‘s and add an i and you get the idea), and the bike came crashing down, skidding to a sudden stop as the front forks dug into the sand. My head kept moving, though, thanks to Newton’s Laws of Accidental Physics, and my mouth slammed into the handlebars. Blood flowed. And part of my front tooth was now gone. I staggered back home with a broken bike, a broken tooth and … a story to tell for the next few years.

I bring this bit of personal history up because while I was laughing out loud as I was reading How Angel Peterson Got His Name, I was also nodding my head and thinking: yep, I can see that happening. Getting trapped in a pickle barrel that you want to send over a small waterfall? Yep. Putting on skis and tying rope to a fast car to beat a world record? Yep. Making a glider out of an old WWII Army kite and trying to fly? Yep. In my mind, those narratives (which are true stories of Paulson’s childhood) are all plausible. Kids, particularly boys, are pretty dumb when it comes to impulsive “what if” events, and are aleways ready to do anything for a thrill. It helps that Paulson and his crew had no television and very little other entertainment in their lives. They were on their own (we were, too, although I am not as old as Paulson) and made their own fun. Sometimes, that was dangerous.

I have to admit: it’s hard for me to see my own kids doing some of the things that go on in this book, although my middle son loved this collection of stories. I don’t know if that worries me or not, you know? He hasn’t come home with a chipped tooth yet. But he and his friends are so … safe. As a parent, I like that. I want them as safe as possible. As a fellow boy, well, I want to build him a giant ramp and dare him to go down it at top speed … just to see what happens.

How Angel Peterson Got His Name is a wonderful collection and a fairly quick read, and it would be be perfect for the upper elementary or middle school boy who might be a bit reluctant to read non-fictional text.  (I am already thinking how to use a chapter here for some narrative writing). Paulson will surely draw those readers in (maybe drag them in) with his hilarious adventures and character sketches of his childhood friends.

I have no idea if girls would even find it funny.

Peace (in the daring adventures of childhood),


eBook Review: Playing with Media by Wesley Fryer

(I recorded this review as a podcast, too. Take a listen)

There are plenty of people writing about interesting projects that connect technology with learning but one of the small few whom I have consistently looked to for guidance and inspiration over the years has been Wesley Fryer and the posts he shares at his blog, Moving at the Speed of Creativity. His work around digital storytelling (see the Storychasers project) and use of audio podcasting for learning, in particular, have opened up a lot of possibilities over the years. For the past few months, I have been watching from afar as Fryer has been putting together an ebook about using media for learning (see his blog post about his experiences of publishing an ebook). Now the ebook is out, and I have to say, Fryer does an outstanding job of balancing practical knowledge of various elements of technology with the deeper understanding of the rationale behind bringing such tools into the classroom.

The ebook — Playing with Media: Simple Ideas for Powerful Sharing — is, as the genre suggests, only in digital format, and as usual, Fryer takes full advantage of the possibilities, embedding video tutorials, audio files, and hyperlinks galore that will have you moving in and out of this resource with ease and interest.  Using his own young family as the source for many of the projects here, Fryer’s use of digital stories and other media projects showcase how voice and creativity and technology can come together in powerful ways. The result is a rich learning experience that should open new doors for exciting work in the classroom, particularly for those educators who are still struggling with getting that first step moving forward. Fryer is a patient, wise guide.

One of the themes of Playing with Media is that technology and media tools can tap into students as creative composers. Fryer notes that he purposely chose the word “playing” for the title of this book because he wants teachers to understand that exploration and creativity are crucial to the path of learning. I couldn’t agree more, and I think if educators can see the world of emerging tools through that lens, they may be more likely to “play” themselves and allow students time and space to do the same. The aspect of “play” allows for the possibility for small failures and unexpected pathways. That’s OK. That’s part of the experience.

Another theme that comes up a number of times here is the “Ethics of Minimal Clicks,” which Fryer articulates throughout various chapters. It seems obvious to me now in hindsight, but for new users of technology, the fewer the number of clicks, or steps, that one has to do to set up and use a blog, or a wiki, or a podcast, or work on a video, the more likely that activity will make its way into the classroom. I applaud Fryer for laying out such a simple, yet powerful, idea in such clear terms. A witty phrase helps, too. Using this “Ethics of Minimal Clicks” as a sort of structural underpinning of much of the content, the book examines such sites as Posterous for blogging, Wikispaces for wikis, and Cinch for podcasting. The ease of use should make it rather effortless for teachers to bring students into the world with technology.

Two other topics stuck out with me, too: audio and video.

Fryer focuses in on the power of audio, and podcasting, and how the use of student voice for a variety of projects can transform not only writing but also publishing. As Fryer notes, audio can be done rather cheaply (using Audacity for recording and Audioboo for hosting, for example), yet giving voice to student stories and opinions and publishing those thoughts to the world is transformative for many classrooms. When it comes to video, Fryer advocates the consideration of “no edit” video production. Instead of getting bogged down in using MovieMaker or iMovie for editing, students can create videos quickly in a “no edit” mode that basically comes down to “what you shoot is what you get” and then you move on. I like that idea because it makes a video project a little easier to manage. And it paves the way for the possibility of a larger, more careful video project, too. Getting your feet wet is sometimes half the battle — for teachers as well as for students.

There are plenty of books out there that are tapping into the tools of the 21st Century, and Fryer’s ebook should join the mix of some of the more useful and interesting out there right now. His engaging writing style, inclusion of very useful resources and tutorials, sharing of authentic examples and explanations of the pedagogy behind the technology make for an enjoyable and productive read. I highly recommend Playing with Media: Simple Tools for Powerful Sharing for any Kindle, Nook, iPad or whatever your device might be.

(Note: I was given an advanced copy of the ebook from Fryer to read and review. But the ebook is now available for sale on in the US Kindle Store, UK Kindle Store, and DE Kindle Store, and on Barnes & Noble for the Nook eReader and should be coming soon on Apple’s iTunes iBookstore too.)

Peace (in the learning),


Fake book/Fake review

Inspired by something that was shared on Twitter recently, I created this cover to a fake book, and then began soliciting fake book reviews from friends at various sites. It’s a quirky, fun activity, and if you want in, just add your own fake review as a comment to this post. (I created the cover following the steps at this blog site, but it was relatively simple.)

Tread Lightly follows in the vein of recent literary nonsense that, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, has no right occupying the shelves of even dying or near-dying bookstores (I’m talking to you, Borders). That said, the premise of the book is startlingly simple: a tire mark in the dark night leads the protagonist on a frantic search for his dog. The problem is, he never finds the dog nor do we ever learn more about the tire track. And where the elephant comes from is anyone’s guess. It may be that the most interesting element of this tome is the cover. – Kevin


Tread Lightly is a brooding examination of the impact of tire treads on dust, mud, and the human heart. Millertime chronicles a near-fatal obsession with tire treads, taking the reader on a journey of the senses. He reveals the sensuality of the smell of rubber, both burning and otherwise, and the despair at finding dog poo inhabiting that sacred space. A must-read in this reviewer’s humble opinion. – Andrea (via Google Plus)


Autumn has ended… The winter holds a mystery that challenges sleuth Bud B. Light.  Only the spring thaw will allow the clues to surface in a small pool hall pub, yet Light must tread lightly as they lead to small town power. Will Light tread light enough, or will he become the next mystery? — Jennifer C. (via the iAnthology Network)


Tread Lightly is an interesting and fascinating murder-mystery book.  There’s a serial killer on the loose in the rural areas of Virginia and it’s Doc Robinson’s job to put all of the murders together and create a profile of the killer and find him (or her) as soon as possible, before Virginia loses more of it’s hayseed beauties responsible for the cow milking and chicken feeding.  Will he do it?  How many more cows and chickens will be affected by this dangerous debauchery?  We’ll tread lightly to find an answer. — Jennifer S. (via the iAnthology Network)


This fascinating series of vignettes linked only by the common thread of tire tracks deserves a place on every library’s shelves. Who knew that lives could be linked by tire treads? Despite the somewhat lengthy and sometimes tedious descriptions of the tire tracks, this novel ends with a twist that puts all seven characters in the same place at the same time. — Martha (via the iAnthology Network)


Anything but… Parents can not Tread Lightly when they constantly bash the basketball coach due to the fact they don’t like him, his coaching style, or the relationship he builds with the athletes. This modern tale revolves around a basketball coach that built a program to become competitive only to be dismissed from the school he was working for due to parent pressure. Jack D. Aniels is a young coach who believes in his philosophy and somehow gets his athletes to buy into it. However, the parents don’t take too kind to Mr. Aniels and want him fired. What happens with Mr. Aniels after being dismissed sends shock waves through the community and sends the local school district reeling for answers as too what to do next. To any sports nuts out there, this is a must read. It is Miller-time! — Jeremy (via Google Plus)

Peace (in the snarky reviews),


Book Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland ….

This novel gets not only a rave review here, but also the award for the longest dang title that I have come across this year. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catheryn Valente is a magical story that apparently began as a story-within-a-story of another of Valente’s adult novels. This book unfolds with magical twists that echo other famous stories and it comes packed with more than a few obscure English words that had me wishing for a dictionary (or an app for that). I read this book as read-aloud with my six year old son, and while some of the vocabulary had us both scratching our heads, the story itself kept us coming back for more, and more, and more, and I thank my friend, Donalyn Miller, for the recommendation on Twitter.

I won’t give the tale all away, except to say that the protagonist — a complicated yet engaging girl named September, whose mother is a mechanic and whose father has been sent off to war — makes her way to Fairyland with the help of the Green Wind (on the back of a leopard), and she must deal with all sorts of conflicts in order to steer her way to the end of the tale, where the gears of Fairyland and the real world come together. September’s nemesis, the Marquess, wants to pull the gears asunder, dividing the intersections of magic forever. The ending is really quite wonderful, and Valente wisely leaves open the doorway to future stories of September and Fairyland (although what that title would be is something to think about). Woven like a tapestry of fairy tales and stories of magic, with periodic intrusions by the narrator/writer, The Girl was a wonderful diversion from the summer heat for my son and I.

What more can you ask? Oh, and add in a dragon known as a wyvery, whose grandfather is a public library … yep … you read that right … and a witch whose magical power comes from a spoon … yep … and a herd of migrating bicycles ….. sure … and you should get a little taste of what is in store.

As I put down the book for the last time (and then lent it to my nieces for read-aloud at their house), I imagined all of the young readers I have had in the past who would devour this story and whose imaginations would be enriched by the tale and the words, and the technique of this writer. I’ll be on the lookout for them this coming year.

Peace (in the fairylands of imagination),


Book Review: The Information


It seems like a long time ago that I started The Information:  A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick. It was. I kept picking it up and putting it down, again and again.  Week after week, there it was. It was stubborn, and so was I, and yet, we found some way to finish our dance. Finally.

I loved the beginning of this book, in which Gleick tracks how primitive cultures used talking drums and other means to disperse information over long distances, and how those methods slowly made their way into such advancements as Morse Code. Information leads to knowledge, perhaps (this isn’t always clear because we don’t always make sense of the information we have or even know it is information), and the more disperse the information, the more likely the possibility that knowledge will also spread. I also loved the ending sections, where Gleick brings us into the modern age of technology and social networks, and the conundrum that we have of having so much information that we don’t know what to do with it. Very interesting.

The middle of the book … I got bogged down with the science of genomes carrying information, and other obscure mathematics that I know are important but I just could not sink my teeth into. I mentioned in a post on Google Plus the other day that here is a book I wish I could remix for myself, so that I could create a powerful tome of ideas. But of course, I would need to know what to leave out, right? I would need more … information.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, for the first few chapters and the last few chapters, and for skimming in the middle. I don’t often skim, but here, I had to. I didn’t give up, either, because I know Gleick is on to something important here, giving our concept of “information” a biography of its own as we try to find some ground to stand upon in this age of boundless and seemingly endless information and data. Gleick gives us one way to at least begin to understand it all.

Peace (in the info),

Book Review: The Internet is a Playground

coverJesus — David Thorn must have a lot of time on his hands. Actually, he admits it. He had tons of time on his hands as he worked at a design company, so he began visiting chat rooms and created a website where he wrote for the sole purpose of enraging people and engaging them. Thorn then unleashes his own wicked sense of humor that comes at the expense of any fool who emails him or mentions him (wait a sec — that could be me) in his uproarious book The Internet is a Playground.

This collection of his actual correspondences (from his website:  with nincompoops and fools willing to engage him in an email battle of wits had me laughing out loud, and then hiding the book when my older sons asked what was up.  The chapters that are “profiles” of assorted idiots weren’t as entertaining to me. Yeah, this is not a book for kids. And it may not be a book for most adults either, particularly if your radar for vulgar and non-PC writing is on high alert. You will be offended. That was fine with me, but it may not be with you.

Thorn skewers so many people, and unfolds such incredibly funny fake narratives and cutting jibes, that you just have to dive into his head and go with him. I found myself uncomfortable with what he was writing on more than one occasion, but what the hell … that’s what books are supposed to do, right?

Still, you buy this book at our own peril. And you write about him at your own peril, too. (gulp — I liked the book, David. I did.)

Peace (on the playground),

Book Review: Rules of Play

One of the visitors to our recent Game Design Camp — Bryant Paul Johnson — lent me his copy of Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, and while I won’t say it is an “easy summer read,” I can say that it is a book worth skimming and reading the summary sections if you have any interest in the ideas of play and gaming and design. Rules of Play is more a textbook than anything, but I found it pretty fascinating to jump into the theories of how we play, and how game design can tap into those elements of our personality.

It begins with the sentence: “This book is about games; all kinds of games.” And then it digs pretty deep. I really enjoyed the handful of narratives from folks who have designed games, as they “talked us” through their iterative process that begins with an idea, is developed slowly through trial and error and game playing, and then shifting into publishing. One section around the development of a Lord of the Rings board games was pretty fascinating.

The book delves into such topics as games as systems, the mechanics of how we play, games as cultural rhetoric and more. While the cost of Rules of Play may be somewhat prohibitive (about $30), Google Books has a version of it online as an ebook that provides enough of the text to make it worth a read. I found it useful in my own exploration of game design for learning.

Peace (in the play),

Book Review: The Throne of Fire

I’ve written before about my wonder at how in the heck Rich Riordan can write and publish so many books. And I have worried that the pace of publishing might diminish his appeal. Well, not quite yet. I just finished up the second of the Kane Chronicles series — The Throne of Fire — as a read-aloud with my son, and we both enjoyed it quite a bit. This series is not on the same scale as The Lightning Thief series, but perhaps that is because I am used to Riordan as  a writer now.

This book follows brother and sister Sadie and Carter Kane as they try to save the world from Chaos. Steeped in rich and odd Egyptian mythology, the book follows the Kanes as they try to re-awaken the Sun God, Ra, from his self-imposed slumber in order to find balance in the world as the evil spirits of Chaos begin to rise. They somewhat succeed, but at some terrible costs that set the stage for more books in the series.

As we were reading the book, I kept imagining that in Riordan’s mind, there will be a slow convergence of the stories unfolding here in the Kane Chronicles and in his new Lightning Thief spin-off — The Lost Hero, which I liked immensely, and which I see will have a sequel on the stands in October (see!) — in which the protagonists of both storylines slowly come together. I kept imagining characters here as having shadow stories in the other book, and in The Lost Hero, there are characters — including Percy Jackson — who have gone missing. Maybe they are stuck inside another cultural mythology? If it comes true, remember that I wrote it here first.

Peace (in the book),

Graphic Novel Review: Level Up

The Secret Origins of Level Up

(click on this image to go to the comic explaining the genesis of the story, shared with Wired Magazine.)

I know it seems odd to be reading a review of a graphic novel when all I have been talking about is gaming for the last week, but Level Up takes the idea of gaming and puts it at the heart of a intriguing story. Created by writer Gene Luen Yang  and illustrator Thien Pham (Yang also did the fantastic American Born Chinese), Level Up tells the story of young man — Dennis Ouyang — whose parents dream of a future that he doesn’t want. At least, at first. What he wants to be doing is gaming. All day. All the time. What his parents want him to be doing is learning to become a doctor. All day. All the time. The conflict is there in those set of dueling expectations and lost moments of connections between parents and son, and this story has some slightly odd twists that could only be pulled off in a graphic novel, including a quartet of strange sprites who appoint themselves his guardian angels.

The conflicts of obsession and family in Level Up calls attention to both the addictive aspects of gaming as well as the notions that outsiders have about gaming that it is “a waste of time.” If we watch someone spend hours playing games, is it a productive activity? One thing that I struggle with as a parent is that when my sons play video games,  I feel as if I want to lean into their heads and hear what is going on, just to validate my saying “yes” to their request to play games. This is a similar struggle that I have as a teacher thinking through the possibilities of my classroom. How do I know there is learning going on? So much of gaming is internalized, and to be honest, we don’t quite understand the processes of the mind when kids are immersed in gaming worlds. Or at least, I don’t. Even though I see the value of gaming, my first instinct to my sons is always “no, go outside and play.”

And yet … gaming brings something to the table. Something creative, and something inventive, and something different, too. That’s the exploration I am doing — trying to figure that out.


A similar struggle emerges in Level Up on a larger and more complex scale that also deals with the immigrant experience and Asian family dynamics. In the end, Dennis is able to use his fine-motor skills honed by years of gaming to make his own entry into the medical world, fulfilling both his parents’ dream for him and finding his own satisfaction. If only every gamer found that kind of calling in the world of adults ….

Peace (in the games),