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).

(Note: if you use an RSS reader, you might get a “flash error message” for this post in your reader. Just go directly to the presentation and you should be fine to view it.)

Go directly to the Independent Book Collection
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Peace (in the sharing),

Peeking Inside Reader Response Journals

We’re in the midst of an independent reading unit and this weekend, I finally got around to reading through the student reading journals. I’ve been pushing hard for them not to summarize what they have read, but to take a step deeper into reflection and make predictions, judgments, connections and more as they are reading.

While a few still can’t seem to make that next step (a predictable few, unfortunately), most of my students have used the models from earlier in the year for their reading responses. They are asking questions of the writer, wondering about the motivations of characters, analyzing setting, and connecting the stories and characters with their own lives. For me, this demonstrates good evidence of active reading.

Here are some sentences that I pulled out of the journals:

  • A connection I am starting to make is that all things we do affect everything. (SkyClan’s Destiny).
  • She (the librarian) found him (cat) huddled up in a tiny ball, in the library book return box. When I read that, my heart sank. (Dewey the Library Cat)
  • I think the concept here in this novel are like problems in the real world, so it helps me to understand the book better. (City of Ember)
  • From what I’ve heard, Tom, the main character, may be a bit of a devious person. (Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
  • A lot of people could relate to this scene, where you get mad at someone and you say stuff you later regret. (No Small Thing)
  • I want to save this quote because it reminds me of how my dog sleeps because when he sleeps, he looks dead with his tongue hanging out. (Eggs)
  • … his name, Smoke, leads me to say that he is not a very good influence. Just by the name, the author expresses to us how he is bad. (Scat)
  • He is adventurous, like me. He is courageous, like me. He is fast, unfortunately — not like me. (Fablehaven)
  • I found an error (in the book). It says Ron’s bike is a YZ80. It says it would not start because of a dead battery but it’s a kickstart. Kickstarts never need a battery. (Dirt Bike Racer)
  • I am really getting a good picture of it in my head. (Swindle)
  • This book is giving me good ideas for my own writing (Maximum Ride: School’s Out Forever)

Peace (in the reflecting),

Books Reviews: The Red Pyramid and The Tiger Rising

The Red Pyramid

One of these books — The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan — I read aloud to my six year old and the other — The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo — I read as part of our independent reading unit in the classroom (Yeah, I read with my students and talk through what I am thinking as I read).

Boy, I wanted to like The Red Pyramid more than I did.  I dove in, all ready. The book never really delivered, which was hugely disappointing (particularly since the thing is more than 500 pages long). It occurs to me that Rick Riordan may have taken on one too many writing tasks in the past two years. Along with his book, which is the first in his Kane Chronicles, he launched an offshoot series of The Lightning Thief with the book The Lost Hero and has contributed to the 39 Clues series.

It’s not all bad. The Red Pyramid tells the tale of two children who are blood descendants of Egyptian Pharaohs, and who must save the world from destruction by using new-found magical powers, and allegiances to an array of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Like his use of Greek Mythology in The Lightning Thief, Riordan grounds the story is Egyptian Mythology. But it seems to much. There are more names to follow than you can imagine. I kept hoping Riordan provided a glossary at the back of the book (which would have been quite helpful).

There are sure glimmers of a good story here, as the kids (bi-racial siblings who spent their childhoods apart and drawn into adventure in the aftermath of their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance) tell the story in alternating chapters in their own voices.

Unfortunately, all to often, the story got bogged down. We wanted more excitement! More adventure! More, eh, clarity of story! Even so, my son and I are looking towards the next installment of the Kane Chronicles, which comes out in May. There was enough here to make it worth a possible dive back into the Kane kids and the world of Ancient Egyptian magic.

Meanwhile, I just finished a short, but beautiful book by Kate DiCamillo entitled The Tiger Rising. DiCamillo is a wondrous writer, and if you read The Tale of the Despereaux (the book, not the movie) or The Magician’s Elephant or any of her other books, you know she has a talent of weaving stories together.

Here, she brings us into the world of Rob, an adolescent now living in a run-down motel in Florida with his father. Rob’s whose mom died (is this a theme or what?) and his father refuses to grieve, or let Rob grieve. So all of his sadness and emotions are locked down tight (in a “suitcase” that Rob imagines he drags around with him). Into this world comes spunky and thoughtful Sistine, a girl of Rob’s age who has her own problems: her father cheated on her mom and they have come to live in Florida, too. Like Rob, Sistine is completely out of place.

The tiger is an animal they find caged up in the woods. It’s the property of the owner of the motel, where Rob’s dad works in a low-paying job, and Sistine is determined to free the tiger, much to Rob’s initial dismay. They eventually do free the animal, only to have Rob’s father shoot the tiger and kill it. That tragedy finally opens the door for Rob and his father to grieve over their own loss of mother and wife.

This is not necessarily a tidy book (and not as strong as The Tale of the Despereaux either), but that untidiness is a good thing to me, as a reader. Not everything gets put in its place by the end. The story risks the artifice of a “lesson learned” as opposed to a “story told” and I feel that DiCamillo found a certain balance.  Sistine still feels abandoned by her father. Rob still is an outcast. But Rob and his father do finally find each other, and Rob has found a true connection with a new friend, Sistine. The language here in The Tiger Rising is lovely and the pacing, just perfect.

I quickly passed this book on to a student, who has since passed it on to her sister.

Peace (in the books),

Book Review: Sergio Aragones’ Mad View of the World

Image of MAD's Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragones: Five Decades of His Finest Works

Anybody who says Mad Magazine was for just kids didn’t ever read it.  Or didn’t read it carefully. I was reminded of this recently when I bought a book that featured five decades of the drawings and cartoon work of Sergio Aragones, who is the master of creating biting, funny critiques of all sorts of topics with pictures but very few words. (The book is MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragones: Five Decades of His Finest Work). In fact, you have to read his work on a whole other level than you might expect, interpreting every nuance of every space of his comics.

Sergio has called his brand of art “pantomime humor” and in a short interview that introduces this collection, he talks about how this style came about partly because he immigrated to the United States from Mexico, and struggled with language. He decided that his art would not be fixed in an oral language tradition, but in the realm of visual literacy. His “outsider” status also allowed him to fix a critical eye on American culture, which informed much of his wacky insights.

And Mad Magazine was a true home for Sergio and his offbeat vision of the world, allowing him freedom to explore not only fun topics (video games, cell phones, mothers, etc.) but also some pretty serious social topics, too. (Later, he also created the Groo graphic novel series, which my older son just loves.) I went through and highlighted just a few topics in this hardbound collection that might surprise the casual reader:

  • Illegal Immigration
  • Racism
  • Gun Control
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Terrorism
  • Education
  • Double-speaking rhetoric
  • Airport Security
  • Summer Camps

OK, so that last one isn’t quite in the league as the others, but still, Aragones skewers everything and everyone and comes across as pretty balances in his humorous looks at our lives.

One of the things that I loved about his work with Mad Magazine, too, is that he was charged with doing all of the little cartoon drawings in the margins of the pages. These are tiny masterpieces of art, really, and often ignored. Luckily, in this collection, he has replicated dozens of these margin artworks onto a poster. You realize quickly that literacy is not just words, not just written language, but also art. One small image by Sergio Aragones packs a lot of punch.

Is this book appropriate for the classroom? Eh, no. Not at all. Too much nudity and too much content that might offend most sensibilities. But you could pick and choose from this collection, I suppose, and talk about telling a story with no words. Aragones is a master at that (did I say that already?)

Peace (in the toons),

Book Review:The Best Technology Writing 2010

Some people have pilgrimages that they go to every year — some place in the world that strikes their fancy or addresses some need they have for the year. Me? I have a few book series that I look forward to each December into January of each year, and one of my anticipated series has become The Best Technology Writing series put out by Yale University Press. This year, the editor is Julian Dibbell and the collection, as usual, is very strong and interesting and certainly food for much thought. What I like, too, is that this is not a cheerleading manifesto or love letter to technology. It’s an exploration of the good and the bad and the unknown as technology infuses all of our lives.

Here are some of the articles collected in this book:

  • Evan Ratliff writes an interesting piece (from Wired) about slipping away from the grid and trying to hide in an experimental piece done with the magazine. His task was to remain hidden from the prying eyes of technology (credit cards, electronic records, etc/) but still live a sort of life for an extended period of time. The article, “Vanish,” brings us both Ratliff’s reflections while “on the run” while also giving us his rich, reflective perspectives of how connected to the electronic world we really are. He really has to work to stay hidden. Meanwhile, the article also keeps track of the many Wired readers who were trying to track him down through crowdsourcing and databases and GPS systems, and how they eventually did find him.
  • Lawrence Weschler profiles the artist David Hockney and his passion for creating art on his iPhone. The article, from The New York Times Review of Books, goes into the concepts of artistry changing in this modern age, and how mobile devices can both limit and expand what we consider art, and what we consider art distribution.
  • “Handwriting is History” by Anne Trubek, from Miller-McCune, was a fascinating look at the history of handwriting and how technology is changing those perceptions of how we write with our hands, scribbling on paper. I am one of those people whose mind is more connected to my keyboard because my fingers keep up better than when I am trying to write with pen and paper. Trubek explores this idea of the mind connected to how we write.
  • David Carr’s column from The New York Times entitled “The Rise and Fall of Media” is not quite a postmortem on newspapers and magazines, but close. Or least, newspapers and magazines as we have traditionally known them. Carr ponders what is happening to media these days and wonders where it is going in this Age of Disruption.
  • The book ends with a Tweet by astronaut Michael James Massimino as he orbits the planet. “From orbit: Listening to Sting on my ipod watching the world go by — literally.”

And that is just a small bit of what is in this book. If you have an interest in technology in the bigger picture — the wide angle lens, so to speak — then I would recommend this book collection.

Peace (in the books),