Friday, December 23, 2011

Manga Friday: The Dotter of Her Father's Eyes

Author: Mary Talbot
Illustrator: Bryan Talbot
Hardcover: 96 pages
Publisher: Dark Horse (February 2012)
Rating: 3 out of 5

In short: 
This graphic novel is an intersection of two coming of age stories: one that of Lucia, the daughter of author James Joyce, and the other, Mary (Atherton) Talbot, daughter of Joycean scholar James S. Atherton.

My thoughts:
The good: Bryan Talbot is an experienced artist who can clearly bridge the transitions between the two overlapping stories. The artwork helps to alleviate the somewhat jarring back and forth of the story line, similar in intent to what Gene Luen Yang did in American Born Chinese. Also, in looking at his other graphic novels, Talbot has chosen an appropriate "voice" for his illustrations to enhance his wife's memoir as well as the biography of Lucia.

The awkward: Mary Talbot is an academic writer and this is her first foray into the graphic novel genre, which makes the rhythm of the story difficult to follow. It's not often that I have to continue to reread several pages in a graphic novel. I think some of the story threads would just cut off with an unnatural breath and then the next person's story would continue. Perhaps that was the intent - to leave the reader discombobulated as a way to mirror the tone of heartbreak in the pieces. I think that's a worthy intent, I just may have a harder time "selling" it to my reluctant middle school readers.

The one kernel of hope in the story is that like Adeline Yen Mah Fallen Leaves and Dave Pelzer A Child Called It, Mary Talbot has survived and thrived despite her family life.

Source: ARC supplied by Net Galley(dot)com for an honest review

Friday, December 16, 2011

Manga Friday: The Girl Who Owned a City

Author: O.T. Nelson, adapted by Dan Jolley
Illustrator: Joelle Jones; coloring Jenn Manley Lee
Publisher: Graphic Universe (April 2012)
Paperback: 128 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5


After a virus wipes out everyone over 12 on Earth and turns them to dust, 10-year-old Lisa must take care of her younger brother and figure out how to survive in this new world. Not only does she have to feed and house them, but she needs to keep the roving gangs from looting her hard-won supplies. 

My thoughts:
This is a graphic novel adaptation of a 1975 novel by O.T. Nelson. Because of that, the story line is a bit dated in that tween and teen readers are a much more sophisticated lot, and although they like to read about paranormal, the characters need to be realistic, and they want their stories to reflect some kind of learning on the part of the protagonist. 

Still, the quality of the illustrations by Joelle Jones lends modern elements to a 37-year-old story, and the timing is right to join the dystopian YA market that is always looking for the next Katniss, but for me, the test of a good graphic novel is 1) will I be able to "sell" it to my reluctant readers and 2) will it make them want to read the longer novel that the GN stemmed from?

 What seems to date this character is that in recent dystopian YA novels, authors have been using the YA novel as a platform to teach social mores and ethics through their characters. The selfishness and 2-dimensional aspect of Lisa and the fact that she doesn't seem to grow or learn from her mistake bothered me until I realized that she's supposed to be 10-11. A 10 year old is not able to make the kinds of unselfish decisions asked for in this situation. However, since she's not drawn like a tween character, readers will accept her as older than she really is. Since teens like reading about characters that are their age or older, this is a great "sell" for YA readers, although I'm not sure if they will be willing to read the 204 page original novel.

To recap: the illustrations are enough to sell it, and even at 132 pages, it's a good deal for dystopian and GN buffs. 

Source: ARC provided by Net Galley (dot) com for an honest review

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tween Tuesday Review: A Leaf Can Be

Author: Laura Purdie Salas
Illustrator:  Violeta Dabija
Publisher: Millbrook PR Trade (February 2012)
Hardcover: 32 pages
Rating: 5 out of 5

In short:
A leaf can be many things, like a "frost catcher. . .moth matcher. . .pile grower. . .hill glow-er." Follow the whimsical text and captivating pictures through the many things a leaf can be.

My thoughts:
There is nothing better than lilting poetry packaged in an "eye-candy" picture book that immerses the reader in color and joy, except an "eye-candy" poetry book that also doubles as a teaching tool and makes science fun and approachable for reluctant tween readers. This book is a great way to learn. Not only does it pair poetry with pictures for a sensory overload experience, but it provides additional information about a leaf's function, usefulness and scientific properties as well as a glossary of key vocabulary words with kid-friendly definitions that don't compromise the "scientificness" of the words.

The book is set for a release in February and it would make a wonderful Valentine's gift to tide readers over until the leaves start to reappear in spring.

Source: This ARC was supplied by Net Galley(dot)com for an honest review.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Manga Friday: The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen

Title: The Last Dragon
Author: Jane Yolen, author; Rebecca Guay, illustrator
Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Dark Horse (2011)
Rating: 4 out of 5

Tansy, the village healer's headstrong daughter comes across some fireweed, a dragon's bane, and an ancient plant that only shows up when a dragon is near. Her father, curious of the implications of the plant in a world that has been free of dragons for hundreds of years goes off into the forest in search of any sign of a dragon and promptly disappears. As other animals and babies disappear from the little village, chaos ensues in the village of Meddlesome and Tansy is forced to try and save the village.  Enter Lancot, tall, blond, muscular, and only mildly heroic. Can the two of them save the village? 

My thoughts:
The writing is simple and a wonderful companion piece for Guay's lush watercolor illustrations. This is an easy sell for reluctant readers and graphic novel enthusiasts of all ages, and readers really can't go wrong with two prolific professionals in Jane Yolen (author of Owl Moon and my favorite The Devil's Arithmetic) and Rebecca Guay. 


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: Antiquitas Lost by Robert Louis Smith

Title: Antiquitas Lost: The Last of the Shamalans
Author: Robert Louis Smith
Illustrator: Geof Isherwood
Paperback: 615 pages
Publisher: Medlock Publishing (2011)
Rating: 5 starts

Two heroes - two worlds - connected by strange birthmarks from a dying race. Elliott is at his dying mother's bedside in New Orleans as Princess Sarintha of Harwelden is kidnapped by a serpan warlord. 

Elliott's grandfather asks him to go to the basement and look around, and what he finds there is a portal to another world. In New Orleans he was a scrawny teen and easy prey for the neighborhood bullies. In Pangrelor, he is the prophesied hero who will save Pangrelor from destruction. And so the journey begins in the "Heart of the Traveler."

My Thoughts
Smith does what my favorite fantasy authors do (Anne McCaffrey, J.R.R. Tolkien): he creates a fantasy world without being an imitation. In Pangrelor there will be no dragons, dwarves, elves - common creatures often imitated, but never to the richness and depth of the classics. His story is not original, but it's comfortable in its familiarity. 

Young unheroic hero dropped into an unfamiliar and warring world, possessing a power that he/she is unaware of, an ancient prophesy - it's all in this book, thank heavens. After all, that is what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy novel. 

So in this story we have the original, we have the new, and major bonus - we have the spectacular illustrations of Marvel Comics legend Geof Isherwood. I just want to share one with author notes below, generously provided by the publisher with my thanks. The illustrations alone will sell the book. 

This is a great Middle School book that can span to the adult realm - for fantasy hard cores and reluctant readers alike.

Elliott arrives in Pangrelor
In this illustration, Elliott has just arrived in Pangrelor and
met Marvus and Jingo, with whom he will form a close
bond. Marvus and Jingo belong to a diminutive race of
primitive hominids called gimlets, and Geof and I had many
discussions regarding how they should look. For example,
we had a lengthy back-and-forth regarding the appearance
of their ears, and eventually settled on the shape you see
here. Geof also fleshed out their garments and boots,
which they have shared with Elliott in this scene. To the
right, Geof improvised the six-legged lemur to add to the
sense of otherworldliness.

While I'm sharing, here's more from the author himself on Pangrelor vs. Middle Earth

Smackdown: Pangrelor vs. Middle Earth
By Robert Louis Smith,

In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published the first of a breathtaking series of books that would go on to become some of the most influential novels of the 20th century. As anyone who has ever read The Lord of the Rings knows, Tolkien's books are so imaginative and unexpectedly powerful that his fantastic tale still captures our imaginations more than a half century after its original publication. These stories gave birth to the modern fantasy genre, and it is perhaps inevitable that so many contemporary fantasy books replicate aspects of Tolkien's writings. So pervasive is Tolkien's influence that the Oxford English Dictionary offers a word for it: Tolkienesque. Perhaps this is why we see so many fantasy tales that feature elves, dwarves, wizards, magic rings, and magic swords. The presence of these features is, in many ways, what we have come to expect from a modern fantasy novel.
But over the course of 57 years, these constructs of classical Northern European (or Tolkienesque) fantasy fiction have been imitated to the point of monotony. In tome after tome, we see elves and dwarves wielding magical swords or speaking in Northern European conlangs (fictional languages) as they follow some particular heroic quest. And let's be honest. Although there are many wonderful and imaginative novels that feature these elements, no one has done it as well as Mr. Tolkien.
When I sat down to write Antiquitas Lost, I promised myself there would be no magic rings, magic swords, elves or dwarves. A major goal was to create a fantasy novel where the creatures and setting were fresh. Pangrelor, the fantasy world described in Antiquitas Lost, is envisioned as a pre-industrial, medieval society with beautiful artistic accomplishments set in a savage and magical natural environment -- the Renaissance meets the Pleistocene, with magical beings and crypto-zoological creatures. Devoid of elves and dwarves, Pangrelor is inhabited largely by creatures that we are familiar with, but different from the usual fantasy fare -- gargoyles, Bigfoot creatures, Neanderthal types, Atlanteans and dinosaurs, to name a few. These differences give Pangrelor a much different feel       from Middle Earth and the countless, adherent worlds that have followed. Hopefully the reader will find this refreshing. Over time, I have come to think of Antiquitas Lost as more of a "North American" tale, with many references to new world mythologies, as well as a hint of Native American influence.
Although Antiquitas Lost is not immune to Mr. Tolkien's sweeping influence, it is unique in many ways. When you take your first journey to Pangrelor, it is my sincere hope that you will experience a hint of the joy that accompanied your maiden voyage to Middle Earth, and that you will connect in a meaningful way with this unprecedented new cast of characters as you explore an altogether unique fantasy destination.
© 2011 Robert Louis Smith, author of Antiquitas Lost: The Last of the Shamalans

Author Bio
Robert Louis Smith, 
author of Antiquitas Lost: The Last of the Shamalans, has numerous degrees, including psychology (B.A.), applied microbiology (B.S.), anaerobic microbiology (M.Sc.), and a Medical Doctorate (M.D.). He serves as an interventional cardiologist at the Oklahoma Heart Institute. He is married and the father of two young children. He began writing Antiquitas Lost in 2003 while studying at Tulane University in New Orleans.

For more information please visit and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter

Source: given by the publisher for an honest review

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Interview: Hiro Mashima Talks About His Popular Manga Creations

School Library Journal has a great interview with Hiro Mashima and I'm sharing the interview link here.
Interview: Hiro Mashima Talks About His Popular Manga Creations

Hiro Mashima is the author of the Rave Master series, and although I buy and collect a lot of manga and graphic novels, Rave is the only complete series that I have. My middle boy got his first Rave Master for his 13th birthday and we've been hooked! That son is already 19 and the Rave Master books are starting to fall apart because they are also a great series to give to my reluctant readers.

In the above interview he talks about his process, always insightful and informative.

And just to prove that I'm not joking about our obsession with Rave Master, this is just what I grabbed from the shelf - not even close to all of them.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hunger Games FEVER

I've been pushing Hunger Games on reluctant readers for several years, so although I was not happy with the actor choices for the movie, after seeing this trailer, I can't resist - I'm not a Twihard, but I now have Hunger Games Fever - may even be caught camped out in the movie line.

Release date: March 23, 2012

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Picture Book Month: No Ke Kumu 'Ulu - Teaching through Place-Based Literature

Today's theme is Folk and Fairy tales, so I would be remiss to not talk about at least one Hawaiian folk tale. Hawaiians are an oral culture, so the mo'olelo (the stories) are numerous, so this is just one.
Kawehi Avelino's tale is about Kū, a Hawaiian deity who took the form of a human in order to live a   normal life. He works hard as a human to support his family, but things begin to change and there is famine across the land. In order to save his family and his community, Kū sacrifices himself by leaving his family and goig on a journey through the earth. The tears of his grieving wife at the spot where he disappears sprouts and the first breadfruit tree is born. This tree grows and multiplies so that his family and his people can escape the famine.

What it looks like in the Middle:
Each region has its own indigenous culture and as middle school students struggle with their own identity, finding picture books that tell their story, with pictures of people that look like them is very important.

This book is a bilingual legend about this place and about how our ancestors were able to live on these islands. It can be used to introduce legends as a genre for writing workshop, but it also is a way to talk about values of our culture. This particular book exemplifies values like kuleana (responsibility) and lokahi (working together), but it also talks about what Hawaiians valued (water, land, community, family).

Students also learn important Hawaiian vocabulary through this book, but the real value is in the uplifting of a people through the honoring of their own place-based literature. Scour the small bookstores and local museums for these gems within your own community.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Picture Book Month: Math Curse

Even middle school math students want to be read to. Today's theme: school
Math Curse by the hilarious Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith bring the magical and manic back into mathematics. Mrs. Fibonacci announces in math class that "you can think of almost everything as a math problem," and the next day, our poor narrator is afflicted with a "math curse" that changes how she views every facet of her day. Soon, everything is a math problem, from the real questions ("How many quarts in a gallon?") to silly nonsensical calculations.  

What it looks like in the Middle:
This book brings back the wonder, and curiosity into mathematics. Math should be fun and problem solving should be this hilarious. It's a great book to read aloud in algebra or pre-algebra, especially before the word problems that haunt as as adults. "Two trains leave a station going towards each other. . ."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash -Cause & Effect

Trinka Hakes Noble's hilarious use of flashback and deadpan storytelling paired with Steven Kellogg's hilarious, chaotic illustrations make the story of a fiasco on the farm an enjoyable read, even for older kids and adults.  A girl returns home after an excursion to a farm and when her mother asks her about her day she slowly unrolls her day of chaos that didn't get exciting until the cow started crying. 

What it looks like in the Middle:
My own children loved this book, as all boys do, but in the classroom, this is a great way to quickly model cause and effect. The fact that the story is told backwards is even more effective for teaching cause and effect.  
Why was the cow crying? 
Well the farmer hit a haystack that fell on her.
Why did the farmer hit the haystack?
He was distracted by the pigs that had overrun the bus.

The illustrations and all the side stories within those pictures just brings the idea of cause and effect home for the students. It's a fun romp and a less intimidating lesson when this book is used.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Sweetest Fig

Chris Van Allsburg's Monsieur Bibot is a very sadistic French dentist who is given a pair of magic figs as a form of payment by an impoverished patient. The fruit has the power to make dreams come true, according to the old woman, but he scoffs at the idea until after eating the first one, he realizes that his dreams have indeed come true.

Bibot makes plans for the second fig, including ditching his abused terrier for a string of Great Danes when in a twist of irony Bibot's relationship with Marcel (his terrier) changes drastically.

What it looks like in the Middle:
This picture book with its sepia-toned illustrations and its extreme angles lends mood and tone to this story, which can be a lesson by itself, but I like to introduce irony with this book.

As we're going through the story, and as the students are immersed in the illustrations, they are asked to make some predictions, and at the end they get to "see" irony and are able to define it in a student-friendly way.

When we follow this up with a classic middle school short story like Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," they get the concept of irony faster by doing some ground work ahead of time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Picture Book Month: Books with Voice

What it looks like in the Middle: Middle school is a great time to perfect voice in student writing. Not only do middle schoolers have a lot to say as they struggle to find their own identity, but they have attitude coming out of their pores. These children's books are full of voice and are a great way to model voice in mini lessons.

I especially love Olivia who epitomizes the middle school attitude. She's sassy and brilliant, and oh so original. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Picture Book Month: Heroes

What it looks like in the Middle: 
This is a short mini lesson used before the students leave for Veteran's Day weekend.

On November 1, 2011, Japanese-American veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team received Bronze Stars. They also received Congressional Gold Medals on November 2 for their contributions during World War II.

Soon after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, all Japanese (both Japanese nationals and their American children) living in America were relocated to internment camps. When Japanese Americans were allowed to volunteer with the 100th Infantry Battalion, they were able to remove their status as "enemy aliens" and prove that they loved America too. These young men, AJAs (Americans of Japanese Ancestry), volunteered even when their families remained in the internment camps.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States armed forces. For my students in Hawaii, the story of the 100th Battalion is often a personal story of a relative, so I like to start our conversation on honoring all our veterans with Ken Mochizuki's Heroes.

This story takes place in the Vietnam-era 60's and the protagonist, Donnie, often must play the enemy in games because his friends say he looks like one of the enemies. Donnie's father and uncle, both decorated soldiers are reluctant to step in and help, but in the end when they do come out in their uniform and medals, it is not to boast or help Donnie lord it over his friends. Like the brown-shaded pictures, this message is more earthy and subdued and dignified.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Picture Book Month: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

In this hilarious book on commas, students are "shown" through illustrations how the same sentence, with different punctuation can lead to humorous misunderstandings.

What it looks like in the Middle:
Yes, this is a cute book to review comma rules, and it's possible to assess students on the type of comma rules, but I use it to help students visualize the power of punctuation by creating their own pages with their own base sentence and illustrations to show the two different meanings based on punctuation alone. For an extra challenge, I select a comma "rule" that they need to show with their base sentence and illustration.

These pages are shared with 2nd grade reading buddies to teach them about punctuation. I find that if the students can teach it to someone else, then they own that knowledge.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

The story goes that a mysterious man, "Harris Burdick" dropped off some illustrations with a Boston publisher over 25 years ago and promised to return with the accompanying stories. Mr. Burdick was never heard from again. Chris Van Allsburg's book shares these somewhat dark and mysterious illustrations with the original captions, leaving the reader to fill in the story.

What it looks like in the Middle: (Thanks Shawna)
Hundreds of school children have written  short stories for these illustrations, and 14 authors just published their own stories for these illustrations, but in the middle, our students treasure group work and drama, so this is a great book to do just that.

Students are shown one illustration on the elmo to study closely and then they're given the caption. As a class we brainstorm what could have happened 2 seconds before and 2 seconds after this illustration. I try to choose one that will bring out a lot of discussion, but not so juicy that it limits the ones I use for the group work.

In smaller groups, they are given just one illustration with the caption. They talk about what they think is going on and what happened 2 seconds before or 2 seconds after. Once they get an idea, they come up with their tableau where they become the picture 2 seconds before or after.
From Miller & Tysen's musical "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick"
The other students get to see the illustration and the frozen tableau and they talk about what they see and get to "tap" characters (their classmates who are either animate or inanimate objects) and ask questions to try and understand what the group's story is about.

Individually, the students can then write a caption for their new piece, write a lead, write a 5 minute story, etc. - depending on what we're working on.

There's a really funny video on Amazon that interviews some of the 14 authors about their take on Harris Burdick. Too hilarious.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Picture Book Month: Pairing Up Children's Books with Social Studies

A book like Warriors Don't Cry for 8th grade is powerful because it's a memoir from someone who lived through and journaled their way through integration. She lived history. Another advantage is that the events are fairly recent and many of the participants are still alive so there are numerous primary resources out there so that students are immersed in multiple perspectives and after the fact reflections.

The front loading children's book was Ruby Bridgesbut during the reading of Warriors Don't Cry, I like to bring in more children's books for additional perspectives and to supplement some of the Jack Daws photos that they're using in social studies. If you are able to team with the social studies teacher, they can actually use these books in social studies.

Aaron Reynolds and Floyd Cooper tell the story of Rosa Parks' arrest through the eyes of a young boy riding with his Mama on the same Montgomery, Alabama bus.

What it looks like in the Middle:
 The marble that he plays with and his Mama's strong chin hint at a deeper message and a growing awareness in the boy that middle school students will be able to talk about as they're learning about the struggles that the Little Rock 9 students are facing in Warriors Don't Cry.

Summary: Poet Nikki Giovanni writes this tribute to Rosa Parks by writing about her courageous act as well as the events that followed it.

What it looks like in the Middle:
When Rosa is waiting for the police to come, she is thinking about the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and a question that comes up in our discussion has to do with the idea of her "tiredness." What are some of those daily struggles during this time that were so overwhelming and how did people react? How would you react?

Another interesting conversation around this children's book is just about Bryan Collier's cut-paper illustrations. "Reading" the illustrations leads to inferring through perspective, angle, and meaning-making just around the art.

Summary: This book by Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander chronicles the events preceding, during and following the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

What it looks like in the Middle:
James Ransome's collage type illustrations based on historical photographs as well as things like pull out pages really are the key to the book. His illustrations juxtapose in a haunting way with the sing song quality of the writing.
We talk about the pictures, the anger, the confederate flag, the cut up technique of the collage method and how it shows tone in a piece. Although it's not through writing, the tone conversation is a good seque to our mini lessons on creating tone in student writing.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Picture Book Month: Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Summary: In this Mem Fox gem, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a little boy who lives next to an old folks' home.  His favorite resident is Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper because she also has four names. When Miss Nancy loses her "memory," Wilfrid interviews the other residents in order to help Miss Nancy find her memories. He presents her with objects that help her to remember.

What it looks like in the Middle:
I present this children's book when I introduce character baskets as a possible way to present their individual summer novels. Like this book where Wilfrid uses objects as symbols to try and help Miss Nancy make some kind of connection to her lost memory, character baskets offer up physical objects as symbols for themes and concepts in the book. Students are tasked with finding "metaphors" (objects) that they place in a basket and use those objects to explain their symbolism with the story.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Picture Book Month: When I Was Young in the Mountains

Cynthia Rylant reminisces about her childhood in Appalachia in this poetic and touching book.

What it looks like in the Middle:
Sometimes picture books are used as models for writing and writing starters. This is a powerful one with its simple prompt "When I was young. . ." I have had great success with this prompt from students in the Middle as well as younger students, older students and even teachers in our summer writing institutes.

I team this book up with the Hawaiian poet Hina Kahanu's "When I was young in the Islands" from Bamboo Ridge's Growing Up Local

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Picture Book Month: Ruby Bridges

Summary: The year is 1960, and six-year-old Ruby Bridges and her family have recently moved from Mississippi to New Orleans in search of a better life. When a judge orders Ruby to attend first grade at William Frantz Elementary, an all-white school, Ruby must face angry mobs of parents who refuse to send their children to school with her. Told with Robert Coles' powerful narrative and dramatically illustrated by George Ford, Ruby's story of courage, faith, and hope is now available in this special 50th anniversary edition with an updated afterword!

What it looks like in the Middle:
The courageous story of Ruby Bridges is a great picture book to front load historical facts about the civil rights movement. It immerses students into the study of Brown v. Board of Education and the personal toil and sacrifice it took on some African American students.

This is one of the books I use before we read our class novel Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the high school students that tried to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Celebrating Picture Book Month in the Middle

"I have always believed that literature begins in the cradle -- the poems we say to the babies, the stories
we tell them -- prepare them to become part of the great human storytelling community. We humans are
the only creatures in the known universe who make and remake our world with story."
- Jane Yolen from her Picture Book Month essay

Dianne de Las Casas is hosting a Picture Book Month site for the month of November, so I thought I'd concentrate on some of my favorite Picture Books that we use at the Middle School. We may have a different intent in bringing them into the classroom, but I think that it works because it continues to connect us to the "great human storytelling community."

Summary: Vashti is a frustrated artist who is ready to give up in her art class when her teacher challenges her to just make a dot, then sign it. When her teacher honors Vashti's efforts and helps her to see her work from a different perspective, Vashti is inspired to push herself and with practice and confidence, her dots do become great pieces of art. At the end when she meets a young, frustrated artist Vashti is able to turn around and become a mentor for this young child.

What it looks like in the Middle:
I love to start the year off with this book, read it aloud, then ask my students why I read it. What does this story have to do with this class and what I expect from you?

That's usually all I need to ask. Some of what the students get from the book about the coming year:
  • Just do it (in this case, since it's English, just write)
  • When you write it, put your name on it, own it
  • Don't edit yourself ahead of time
  • Work will be honored and published
  • Push yourself to do better
  • Mentor others

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Is Toni Morrison's Beloved Appropriate for My 14-Year-Old?

I have three sons, two of which have grown up to be aliterate readers(they know how to read, they choose not to read). I know they can read with comprehension. I made sure of it. We may not have had much, but we were rich in books. The kids went to the library regularly. We all read. We did read alouds even when they were teens. This did not make them lifelong voluntary readers. That has nothing to do with me.

But my youngest is a voracious reader. That too has nothing to do with me. At 14, he has gone through the YA books and finds their predictability too one-dimensional. He read the Hunger Games Trilogy and doesn't need to read the other dystopian novels. He doesn't want to read paranormal. He does not gravitate towards the same kind of readings that I can "sell" to my reluctant readers. All of my tricks for book recommendations don't work on him.

I wanted to challenge him, so as a former AP English teacher, I decided to look through some of my old book lists and I created a challenge list for him with a short synopsis of the storyline. I told him we'd read it together and talk about it, but I wanted him to choose books he had never read before.

He chose Beloved and right away I got the same panicky feeling I got when I assigned it to my AP students. Did I really think this through? Was I going to be able to steer the students away from the horror and shock enough to really have valuable conversations about why Morrison may have chosen to tell this particular story in this particular way? Was it appropriate for this particular group of students? Did I really want this for my son? Should I have protected him a little while longer?

Beloved  has a history of being challenged in the schools, but isn't that why it SHOULD be read?  Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go actually created a tongue-in-cheek list of the top 10 "unsuitable" books for teens and Beloved is on it. These are really his list of books that kids should read because people will say that they're too young to read them.

 I remind myself that we are going to read this together. I can guide him. I trust my ability to see the worth of this book. This is a boy that can talk to me about Jem's frustration and "crying anger" at the injustice in the Tom Robinson verdict. He can tell me that Scout's confusion stems from her being too young to understand.

Is 14 too young? Will he tell me if he is bothered by something? Can we talk it out? Am I helping to challenge his thinking or am I simply exposing him to the horrors of a world that we wish were fictitious?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief: Graphic Novel

Authors: Rick Riordan; adapted by Robert Venditti
Illustrator: Attila Futaki; Jose Villarrubia
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Hyperion Books (October 2010)

My thoughts: 
The original Riordan book is a fast read for reluctant readers and they easily get sucked into the series, but the movie, for those kids that need the visual stimulation of a big screen event, this was a total flop, especially for those of us who invested time and effort into reading the series.  Everyone expects directors to change the story a little to make the time frame, but changing key facts is a NO-NO.

This version is a great starting point that feeds the need for pictures, but still synthesizes Riordan's text in a satisfying way.

Like many graphic novel adaptations, it's sometimes a killer to wait for the next book, so please - get on it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How To Bake a Perfect Life

Author: Barbara O'Neal
Paperback: 398 pages
Publisher: Bantam Books (2011)

Rating: 4 out of 5

If you're looking for a light read, chick lit, recipes interspersed, multi-generational romance, this is a great book to hunker down with. Try to eat ahead of time and let it sweep you away.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Cirque du Freak Volume 5: Manga version

Author:  Darren Shan
Artist: Takahiro Arai
Paperback: 195 pages
Publisher: Yen Press

Now that I have absolutely no time to read anything besides my graduate class materials, I thought that I would drown in all the YA books coming out that I won't be able to read in the next three years. Three years in YA time, that's like one generation.

Now that we have no local bookstore (our Borders stores closed around the island), I can pretend that there are no YA books, but when the local elementary school had a book fair, I couldn't resist. Instead of gobbling up all the books, though, I was selective and just bought graphic novels and manga, my true way into the hearts of reluctant male readers. Plus, with school on fall break, I can slip in twenty minutes to finish a manga and then go back to statistics.

My thoughts:
Cirque is a great series for reluctant readers, but it does go a little long for kids that don't have the reading stamina. Don't judge that awful movie as an indication of the series, the producers didn't have faith in the readers.  The manga versions are a great bridge, and volume 5 is the most exciting in the series, both in manga form and in written form.

Our little half vampire protagonist, Darren is in Vampire Mountain at the Trials of Death. This story has challenges, betrayal, fighting and death in a fast-paced package.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Forever (Wolves of Mercy Falls, book 3)

Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Hardcover:  400 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press (July 2011)
Rating:  5 for the series

In this last book in the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy, Sam waits for Grace to shift for the spring and Sam, Cole and Isabel fight to keep all of the wolves safe as Isabel's father goes through plans of eliminating the pack by helicopter.

For those YA readers who are enamored by the paranormal books out there, but don't necessarily want the more sexually charged nature of vampires, this trilogy is a worthy read. At the center is the model relationship between Sam and Grace who prove book after book that they are willing to sacrifice and fight for each other. I think it's a healthy relationship, but I'm more enamored by the angst ridden Cole and Isabel who don't have enough love for themselves to really connect with someone else.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Water Wars

Author: Cameron Stracher
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire (Jan. 2011)
Reading level: YA
Rating: 5 out of 5

Siblings Vera and Will live in a dystopian future somewhere in the midwest where people have done so much damage to the earth that the clean water sources have been dried up and remaining sources of water are controlled by governments and the Bluewater corporation. Vera befriends a wealthy teen, Kai, who promises something the kids can only dream of: enough clean water to drink so that their perpetual thirst is satisfied. But when Kai and his father, a water driller, is kidnapped, Vera and Will set out to rescue them. Along the way they are befriended by pirates, captured by environmental terrorists and imprisoned by the shady Bluewater corporation.

My thoughts:
Reluctant readers who enjoyed Hunger Games will enjoy this fast-paced plot. It's a fast read with a feisty female protagonist, and the adults are just sidekicks to the teens.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Title: Leverage
Author: Joshua C. Cohen
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile (Feb 2011)
Rating:  5 out of 5

Danny, a sophomore star on the gymnastics team is one narrator and Kurt, a massive, scarred, stuttering fullback is the other voice. Through them we see the seamy side of high school, of sports, of drugs, of bullying. This is a realistic, gritty look at a group of boys who all hold different kinds of pain and humiliation, and who are swept up in a society that allows bad behavior and turns an apathetic eye on the real struggles of man/boys to survive in a sometimes horrific world.

My thoughts:
This book is so raw my heart bleeds for these boys, even the ones who I want to despise. What makes this book so realistic is the emotional ineptitude of these boys who, unlike girls, don't rely on relationships and group talk to solve their problems. They don't have that skill, and as a society, I think we perpetuate the expectation that our boys will be strong, silent men, both physically and mentally. We hold our athletes, even our high school athletes up on a pedestal as if they were somehow more heroic than the boy on the math team, or the boy who may not excel in sports, but is an avid reader, or a video game afficianado.  It breeds a social class of the haves and have nots. For boys on the outs, it's especially dangerous because we as parents don't always know how to cue in on the unsaid issues. For some of us parents, we want our child to be the sports star, the popular one. We invest time and money on private coaches. We enjoy the limelight. This book calls us on that.

I think this is a hard hitting, satisfying book for high school males, even reluctant readers should try and tackle it or even listen to it as an audiobook. Half way through the book, I told my own son that if this book did not have a satisfying ending for me, I was going to be REALLY irritated! But as I finish the book I realize that as a mother of boys/men and as an educator, I really need to look at this book as a wake up call to those of us who make our livings by working with young people. This book keeps us on our toes. Now what do we do about this?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Black Jack, Volume 2

Author: Osamu Tezuka
Softcover: 303 pages
Publisher: Vertical, Inc. (2008)
Genre: Manga
Translation: Camellia Nieh
Rating: 5 out of 5

My thoughts:
Tezuka, labeled as the "father of manga" on his website, develops a complex character in Black Jack. He is arrogant and brash, but he's also sensitive and patient. Volume 2 introduces Pinoko, a girl that he pieced together like Dr. Frankenstein and who introduces herself as his wife even though he clearly sees her as a daughter. Volume 2 also allows the reader to see a more humanistic and vulnerable side of Black Jack. I'm liking this series. It's complex and philosophical.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Black Jack, Volume 1

Author: Osamu Tezuka
Softcover: 288 pages
Genre: medical manga, series
Publisher: Vertical, Inc. (2008)
Translation: Camellia Nieh
Rating: 5 of 5

From the back cover:

From the creator of Astro Boy and Kimba comes the epochal work that has been the God of Manga's most popular series among adult readers in Japan and most anticipated stateside release in recent years. Black Jack chronicles the travails of an enigmatic surgeon-for-hire who is more good than he pretends to be. 
My thoughts:
I judge the worth of a Hawaii public library by the young adult section, so when I visited the Kaimuki public library, I was impressed by their manga collection. Manga, even softcover ones, are very pricey, and this library had a large collection. This series caught my eye because of its distinctive black and grey cover in a market where many of the manga assault the readers in color. Volume one has a simple four square panel that opens up in the middle like one of those children's paper games, but inside the opening is a drawing of an open heart in surgery. It seems like every cover will have a close up of some surgical procedure.

The story is a Robin Hoodesque story of an unlicensed surgeon who will come in and do impossible surgeries for a huge cash reward. Others balk at his fees, but when faced with the impossible, everyone seeks him out. Despite his seeming greed, he does have a heart of gold.

Although it is fiction, Tezuka, who died in 1989, actually finished his medical training but decided to concentrate on manga instead. This series was originally written in the 1970s and it is only recently being released in America, but the medical storyline has a physician's realism to it which makes this appealing to adults, kind of like House in manga form.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

On The Jellicoe Road

Author: Melina Marchetta
Audiobook: narrated by Rebecca Macauley
Listening Length: 8 hours  53 minutes
Publisher: Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd (February 9, 2009)

Summary from Product Review:
Taylor Markham is now a senior at the Jellicoe School, and has been made leader of the boarders. She is responsible for keeping the upper hand in the territory wars with the townies, and the cadets who camp on the edge of the school's property over summer. She has to keep her students safe and the territories enforced and to deal with Jonah Griggs - the leader of the cadets and someone she'd rather forget. But what she needs to do, more than anything, is unravel the mystery of her past and find her mother - who abandoned her on the Jellicoe Road six years before. The only connection to her past, Hannah, the woman who found her, has now disappeared, too, and he only clue Taylor has about Hannah and her mother's past is a partially written manuscript about a group of five kids from the Jellicoe School, 20 years ago.
Third time's a charm for me. I tried to listen to this book a couple times before, but this is not an easy book to start and stop because the listener gets snippets of the multiple story lines. It took me two hours of uninterrupted time until I felt comfortable enough to stop the audio book and not feel like I was totally lost.

If you have patience, or a long flight, car drive, etc., once you get into this story and all the intersection and mystery, it is a very worthy read. I enjoyed the romance mixed with intrigue. It was like putting a large 1000 piece puzzle together without the sample picture of what it's supposed to look like.  

I really don't have much time to read anymore with my new teaching position and starting my doctoral work, but I'm glad I didn't give up on this book. It was worth the wait.


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