Book Reviews: Ship Breaker and The Wind-up Girl

Novelist Paulo Bacigalupi sees chaos in the future, with the seeds of that chaos planted in the decisions we are making — or rather, not making — around environmental issues right now. Two of Bacigalupi’s books that I have recently read — Ship Breaker and The Wind-up Girl — swirl around a future in which the world has been altered forever in a dystopian way by environmental neglect and powerful climate change. Both books have you wondering anew about what kind of world our grandchildren will inhabit, and if not a world as bleak as Bacigalupi lays out, will it be anything close?

Of the two books, I found Ship Breaker to be much more engaging in both character and story. The book is also for young adult readers, so I was reading it in class this spring. The story set in the future revolves around a boy named Nailer trying to survive in a world where oil rigs and ships lay scattered along the Gulf Coast as a result of a failed energy policy of the past (or, rather, our present), and ship breakers are teams who scavenge the hulls for precious metals and other re-useable parts. Honor and betrayal are part of life. Huge storms come in with very little notice. The work environmental is brutal. And a distinct class system has set in. I liked the pacing of the narrative, and also the development of the main character, who is dealing with a violent father while still laying out some hope for a future that will have Nailer sailing on the massive Clipper Ships he sees in the distance.  When opportunity arises, Nailor jumps into the unknown, and sets things in motion that ultimately pay off for him. (See Amazon video of Bacigalupi talking about the story development)

The Wind-Up Girl is for adults (with violence and sex), and is slightly different in its narrative tone. Here, the future is shaped by geopolitical events that have decimated many of the countries of the world, leaving only a few to survive on wits and science and the hoarding of environmental know-how. Bacigalupi weaves in the narratives of a handful of characters as a tightly-knit and controlled society of Thailand that slowly careens apart, and comes completely undone. One of the main prizes being sought is a seed bank, a massive archive of pure genetic seeds for food that won’t be riven with disease. The wind-up girl in the title of this novel is a robotic humanoid whose desire for freedom, after becoming the source for depravity by the powerful elite, becomes an all-consuming thing. Her quest for a better life, however, leads her into violence that unwittingly dismantles the entire society, and shakes the world at its foundation. Morality, technology, politics, revenge and the environment are all at the heart of this story.

Both books certainly make you ponder the future of our planet, and the stories did have me thinking of how much we take for granted that the government knows what it is doing. We place a lot of trust in those who are power to be foresighted in what they are doing. But sometimes, the most innocuous decisions are the ones that have the most far-reaching impact. (Inaction on climate change?) You just don’t always know it at the time. Bacigalupi takes that premise and runs with it, creating stark picture of the possible future to come. His writing is crisp, his characters are interesting and his settings are eerily familiar scenes of what-might-come.

Peace (in a better world than this),

“Meet the Book Characters” with iPod Podcasting

Yesterday, I pulled out our suitcase of iPod touches for the first time in my class (although it is not the first time they have used them — they did an interesting science project on cell mitosis with the touches) But I wanted to see if we could do some podcasting with the devices, using Cinch as our app. (It’s free!)

I have to say — it mostly worked like a charm. Even though I had to first “talk” through what they needed to do, since I could not connect the device to my board, they were on the app in minutes and podcasting around the room with ease. And the only glitch, which I realized later, is that some kids turned off the iPod before Cinch had a chance to finish its upload of files online, and it seems like a few of the files may be gone now (I had hoped they would sit in “pending mode” on the device until it powered up again but I guess not.)

I had them use an entry from their independent reading journals, in which they introduced a character from their book to me. Here, though, the audience changed — from me, to the world. They changed the introduction to “Dear Listener” and adapted the writing to fit the podcast of their piece.

We now have an “album” of character sketches at our class Cinch Page, and I have downloaded some of the podcasts into my Box account for easier sharing as a folder. I am pretty impressed by the audio quality, and by the confidence of my students to jump right into the technology.

The activity yesterday was to prepare them for tomorrow, when we will be doing more podcasting of their Poems for Two Voices with a partner which they have been working on in class. It’s going to be a bit tricky because I was hoping to find a way to connect two headphone/microphone sets to one iPod, but that didn’t work. So, we will have them huddle around a single microphone and go from there. They are surprisingly resilient when it comes to Mr. H’s Workaround Magic.

Peace (on the device),

Some final thoughts on Because Digital Writing Matters

We’re wrapping up our online discussion of the book Because Digital Writing Matters, collecting some final thoughts and mulling over where digital composition is going in the future. The discussions at our closed iAnthology site have been deep, probing and wonderfully illuminating as we teachers in the National Writing Project think about where we are and where we may be headed.

I used Cinch to record my own ideas as a podcast.

Peace (in the thinking),

Discussion “Because Digital Writing Matters”

We’ve been having a great discussion about the book Because Digital Writing Matters on a closed social networking space for National Writing Project teachers. Our session leader is Mary, of the Prairie Lands Writing Project, and her experience with the book has been quite helpful in guiding our inquiry.
I’ve been trying to use podcasts as my own reflections, via Cinchcast. This is what I have been thinking about in our online forum when it comes to the book (which is great), our concepts of digital composition and the elements of professional development. We’re only on Chapter Three right now.
Defining Digital Writing:

Using Technology for Writing Revision/Editing

The ecology of the classroom

Peace (in the talk),

Book Review: Practical Poetry (across the curriculum)

Just in time for the push of Common Core curriculum alignment by our state, and many other states, Sara Holbrook’s Practical Poetry: A Nonstandard Approach to Meeting Content-Area Standards is, well, practical and useful and full of interesting ways to merge poetry with math, science and social studies. I was lucky enough to receive this book from Lisa, thanks to a poetry contest she held at her blog (Effective Teaching Solutions), and the other night, as my son was in basketball practice, I dove in.

Holbrook is a poet who has gone into many classrooms to work with students, and her insights are valuable around the ways that poetry can engage and connect writers with various elements of curriculum, without making it boring. This is creative learning.

She notes that poetry is one of those topics that seem to be left out of discussions around curriculum change, particularly as we move into more expository writing (ie, the Common Core) and leave more narrative writing behind. But she lays out a strong case for keeping poetry alive and well in our schools.

She argues that writing poetry:

  • jogs the memory
  • demands keen observation
  • requires precise language
  • stimulates good communication skills
  • encourages good organizational skills
  • encourages reading fluency
  • helps us learn about ourselves and our world
  • is a powerful language all of its own

While she begins with a look at the Language Arts classroom, she then shifts gears into how to bring poetry ideas into math, science and social studies in meaningful ways. While she acknowledges that some might scratch their head on these connections, she patiently lays out her rationale for each subject area, gives specific lesson plans and provides many student and her own exemplars.

When it comes to math, for example, she notes that both mathematicians and poets have similar intent: “We look for patterns in the world. We attempt to find a pattern that we can apply in order to define the unknown. We first look at nature as a whole and then attempt to break it down into parts. We use symbols to represent the unknown while we are in the process of defining terms, and we use comparative techniques to communicate with one another (58).”

I love that.

In science, she does something similar, but with physics. “Poetry’s mission is to understand the universe — physics’ mission is the same. Both condition the mind to search for an answer, to stimulate imagination, to look beyond the status quo. The arts and sciences are intertwined more than either side seems to want to admit (92).”

Again, I love that.

And in the field of social studies, she notes that the lens at which we make sense of the social and political and geographical contours of our lives and the lives of others also connects with poetry.

“And nothing gets a poet’s pen twitching quite as quickly as a good controversy. At the heart of every change or conflict in the written history of the world has been some bothersome poet spouting off on one side or another. The personal quality of a poem makes all those dates and events not only more interesting but more memorable. Poems are letters and snapshots from the past – ‘original source documents’ ; they’re like reading someone else’s mail versus reading a telephone directory. And memorable is definitely an advantage when test time comes around. (128)”

Yes, she hovers around our testing society and what that often means for creative writing, and again, she strongly makes the case that poetry is another way to help students achieve on standardized testing by moving beyond the drill-kill methods. There are ways to meet curriculum standards AND still spark creativity in our students. We need to remember that.

My sixth  class will soon be moving into poetry and I am going to have Holbrook’s book of ideas right on my desk. I also will be bringing it to meetings I am sure we are going to be having next year as we re-configure our district’s curriculum map to align with Common Core. I don’t want to lose poetry, and Holbrook’s Practical Poetry may help me make my case.

Peace (in the poetry),


March Book Madness Ends; Now, Read

And so, I end the March Book Madness feature, where I have been trying to highlight both books that my students have been reading and the projects they created in an independent book unit. (and I tossed in a few of my own reviews here and there). Most of my students used Glogster; some went a more traditional poster route. All worked hard to show their understanding of the books and to create a visual recommendation of the book they had read.

Here are all of the Glogster Projects again. I hope you enjoyed it all. Now, go read.
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Peace (in the pages),

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),