Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld

Here is a book that just sort of arrived on my doorstep … ok, well not my doorstep as much as the pile o’ books that gathers in the area under

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Image by G. Struble

the mailboxes near my office at Boston university School of Education, waiting for me to come and collect them. I enjoy the sight and allowing the books to pile up because it feels like christmas when I do rip into them.

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland, colors by Hilary Sycamore was one of the books in my latest stack. I can’t tell you if I ordered it or if it was sent to me by the fine people at FirstSecond publishing but in any case, I’m happy it made it’s way to me.

The cover (seen here) is oddly creepy-ish and tough. I want to stay with this idea of creepy-ish and toughness existing simultaneously. Creepy elements include the red-eyed wolf with it’s open maw hovering behind the girl, as if it will chase her at any moment. The malevolent intent of the wolf seems clear and barely contained. The small but highly saturated areas of red – the wolf’s eyes, mouth, as well as what appears to be the spill in the bottom quarter of the cover – frame the image of the girl on the motocross bike.

If you want to read a complete and mind-blowing treatise of how illustrators can use these kinds of colors, hues, and shapes to effect readers’ meaning making, pick up Molly Bang’s Picture This (1991, Chronicle Books).

Back to the cover. The other creepy element is the doll on the back of the bike. For an instant, I thought it was a child riding without a helmet, or possible without a neck. But after looking at it for a while (horror mixed with curiosity) the visible pupil-less eye, tiny nose, and disheveled hair reminded me of a Raggedy Ann doll. Which was sort of still weird.

Then there is the girl, or more exactly, the young woman. She’s sitting astride a motocross motorcycle wearing full crash pads, holding a camera and looking right at me. Daring me. Daring me to what, I am not sure. But, this is a woman who does not suffer fools.

Let’s get some important stuff clear. This books is about a young woman, Addison, who is raising her younger sister, Lexa, alone. They are survivors of some sort of horrendous toxic spill or alien invasion, or opening of a portal into an unwelcome world. The Zone is off limits with the National Guard manning barricades to keep people out and the things that exist in the Zone in. Lexa no longer speaks as a result of the spill and so Addison ventures into the Zone to take pictures of what is left. She sells the pictures to take care of herself and Lexa.

The Zone is alive and weird. Deeply off. Familiar objects made strange by a distortion, ill suited colors, and Addison’s wary, warning narrative. She’s seen all this before. She hates it. She’s drawn to it. She is captured by it and repulsed by her own fascination.

The book passes the Bechdel Test … lots of female characters talking to each other about many things not related to men. As a matter of fact women drive the plot by breathing life into the structure of the book and acting to move the story forward. Westerfeld, a noted White male, does what many White male writers attempt and fail. He creates a strong female protagonist and allows her to be a wholly complex, imperfect, active agent in her life and the life of those around her. In addition, he creates minor characters who gave me the sense that they existed before these pages and will continue to exist after I closed the book. There are Whites, Blacks, Asians, men and women all living in a fragile and suspect world.

The end of Spill Zone is frustrating to me, as a reader. Like many dystopia novels it is part of a series. The end of this first book is a cliff hanger that leaves me wondering and worried for Lexa and Addison, And possibly, the world.

The book should come with the following directions – Pick it up, read it. Put it down, walk away. Return and repeat.

Amplifying #Own Voices

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I recently spoke to a group of graduate students at Boston University about representations of Native Americans in children’s and YA literature. I was once again reminded of the importance of this work because so many of these students had heard of only one book by a Native author (Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutly True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

I highlighted this excellent graphic published by Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison (link here) and then spoke about Ghosts, a graphic novel we can all just skip.

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Although I began the evening by addressing some of the multiple problems in Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts (see Debbie Reese, Yuyi Morales and my blog post), I didn’t stop there. Instead, I took advantage of the time and promoted books and authors who, in my opinion, got it right.

I read from Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost, and gushed over The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, and talked about Sherman Alexie’s other books. As I talked and answered questions I noticed something important – people were on their screens. Ipads were out, cell phones were on, laptop screens were up and eyes were no longer directed towards me.

Now, usually academics HATE it when electronics take center stage while we are talking. It usually means we have lost the audience, their attention drawn to FaceBook, or shoe shopping or the latest poll numbers. But, as I walked them through what it means to be a mis- and under represented person, spoke about how to read for authenticity, and mentioned blogs to be checked, I didn’t mind seeing the distraction.

Because, I knew what they were doing.

They were ordering books.

They were putting their dollars where it matters.

After my a few people expressed concern and disappointment that they had never heard of the books I mentioned. In addition, they expressed worry that when they looked for books about non-White, straight, male or cis-gender, able people they were unsure whether or not the book was “good” or not. Some felt unsure about purchasing books when they might not recognize authentic representations vs familiar stereotypes and tropes. In other words, they WANT to read the good stuff but right now in their development they aren’t sure about what is the good stuff. Fair enough.

Introducing the 2016 Amazon-Hack-a-Thon for children’s and YA literature!

Here’s how it is going to work. People are going to suggest children’s and YA books that provide authentic representations – not stereotypes and tropes! No smiling slaves or lesbians getting shock treatment! People on the autism spectrum who are not freaky-math-geniuses. Mexicans who aren’t gardeners. Asian women who are not submissive. Non-White, straight, male, and able people who exist for themselves and not as simple props in the story, there save White people with wisdom!

Where was I? Oh … Right.

  • First step, books. Go here to suggest books.
  • Second step, read. Go HERE to see the list of suggested books. Read one (or more).
  • Third step, write. Return to the list of suggested books and follow the included Amazon link or find it on your own. At that point, if you feel like it, write a positive review. You can also cross-post your review on GoodReads if you are a member.
  • If you see another positive review that you agree with, click on the YES button next to “Was this review helpful to you?”

Your review doesn’t have to be long or intricate. Instead, write a paragraph about what the book made you think about, how it made your feel when you read, what it reminded you of, or what surprised you. Focus on what you liked, how the book challenged you or made you think. Then publish it to Amazon or Goodreads.

Repeat.

That’s it. Please share this post widely. Maybe we can catch the attention of other readers. Maybe we can help authors by getting the word out about their books. Maybe we can get publishers to notice when those books get more sales. Maybe we can amplify each other’s voices.

Digger by Ursula Vernon


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My professional reading practices have changed in the last year. I am slowly working through a subset of all the graphic novels published in the last 10 years or so. I read, graphic novels with female protagonists that might show up in a k-12 classroom almost exclusively .

That means I’m reading within genres I’m usually not interested in and books that I wouldn’t usually open. Although it might not be exactly what Gene Luen Yang had in mind when he started Reading Without Walls but it has opened my eyes to lots of new authors or at least authors I didn’t know about. Besides that, it has changed the patience I have for books.  I tend to stick with them past the first 10 pages, even if I am NOT in luuuuvvvvv with the book.  

DiggerOne of the books I would never had picked up, if not for this project, is Digger: Volume One by Ursula Vernon, published way back in 2005. Originally a web comic Digger, a no nonsense wombat, ends up tunneling into Lord Ganesh’s temple and talks to the resident statue. The black and white graphic novel begins as a fairly traditional “stranger in a strange land” story.

The true strength of the book is in the characters. Digger is both kind and snarky, giving a genuine portrait of a hard working wombat who is trying to figure her way out of a very weird situation. There is also a hyena sort of thing (who Digger names Ed), ShadowChild who recently emerged from an abandoned egg, a slug who listens to the leaves, and a whole bunch of librarians and resident temple rats. 

Vernon provides us with a long list of interesting and individualistic characters that have a wonderful assortment of flaws and charms. There are no easy tropes in this book, instead the book is a great representation of a hero’s tale. Digger works hard at understanding how her new world works and how she can get back home. Digger 2007-02-13-compassion

I have to admit, I didn’t love this graphic novel in the beginning. It was a difference in taste. I tend to prefer graphic novels that stretch the reader, creating lots of open space between the images and the words for me to figure out. In the beginning of this books there seemed to be too much that is both shown and stated. I think Vernon’s over reliance on Digger’s narration made it hard for me to get into the book. For instance, there is a terrific series of panels where Digger and ShadowChild are trying to retrace her steps back to Ganesh’s temple. The route is marked by a series of statues whose large and pointed tongues point (quite literally) the way to the temple. The images, along with her progress, made it clear, but Vernon chose to include a verbal explanation which, for me, was unnecessary.

Because of my commitment to reading graphic novels with female protagonists I kept reading well past when I would usually let this book go. And, I am glad.

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The book passes the Bechdel test early and often with many named female characters talking to each other, almost exclusively about something other then a man. In fact this book shows a series of strong female, male and non-gendered characters moving through an interesting landscape, evolving and revealing more about themselves and the world they live in with each step. Once I became accustomed to the symmetry between the images and the words, I began to enjoy the story. There are many interactions between the characters that made me laugh, and then think, and then laugh again. Vernon takes on many philosophical ideas without preaching.

I have to say, I strongly encourage people to pick this Hugo award winning series and begin reading, and keep reading because it is well worth the time.

 

Death Vigil

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I have been trying, once again, to get into comic books. And again, I have had limited success. There is just something so unsatisfying about the length of the form. It is as if I am only getting a single bite of the story and then I have to direct my attention elsewhere. I know many readers – both kids and adults – who love the compact form but for me, there is not enough time to get lost. And, in order for me to put up with some of the issues I have with reading (in general) I need to get lost.

To combat this issue I have turned to collected volumes. That way I get the feel for comic book arcs but they have enough “there” there (to quote Gertrude Stein) for me to get into.

DeathVigil_vol1-1Death Vigil, Vol 1 by Stjepan Sejic (Image Comics). This comic follows a happy/merry troop of dead heroes who defend the world from darkness and evil, all with the help of The Grim Reaper (Bernadette). Yeah. I know. It sounds really odd but the mix of horror, action and goofy-pun ridden sarcasm works well.

This is a comic book series that Sejic writes, draws and paints, all with equal parts blood and guts, and happy family. I’ve never seen his work or at least I didn’t recognize it when I started reading, but I am now a big fan. Let me be clear – this is a YA and Adult comic series! This volume collects the first 8 comic books and stands on solid ground as a graphic novel (This isn’t always the case). Although girly-goth characters, especially in comics, are fairly popular and often a disappointment (lots of cleavage and butts and not much else) Sejic creates a collection of both men and women who care deeply about each other and defending man-kind. Oh, and death.

Passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Interesting characters that stay with you. Beautiful images (with a lot of bloody ick! so just be aware) and a story line that held my attention so much so that I am pre-ordering the second collection.


Sq Girl

I have seen the comic books and heard about the character of Doreen Green, a mutant who has the power of squirrels, for a while. I thought it was about time I pick it up and give it a shot.

Once again, not a big fan. Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of most Marvel/DC stuff so for it to impress me there needs to be a lot of work.

In general the comic if fine. It’s fun, sort of tongue in cheek hero stuff. I mean, how serious can a superhero be when her super powers include talking to squirrels, being super strong, and having a huge tail.

This is collection follows Doreen as she tried to balance life as a new college student and saving the world. Her roommate, an African-American woman with a cat and a knitting fetish, soon finds out Doreen’s secret identity and becomes an ally.

In general, the puns and ironic self-reflection quickly wear thin and after that there isn’t much here. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and as with many of the DC/Marvel comic books, this is another overly Marvel-centric.

What Are You Reading? January 19, 2015

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Timmy Failure

I am reading the third Timmy Failure book by Stephan Pastis, We Meet Again, with my 9 year old son. The books are a terrific series that are getting better over time.

The basic premiss is a simple one – Timmy is an odd kid who lives with his mom and his polar bear named Total with whom he runs the greatest, but as yet unknown, detective agency. The agency is called Total Failure Inc.

What makes these books so terrific is the Timmy’s absolute and unwavering confidence in his own abilities as a world class detective, even though he has never come close to solving an actual case. He is one of the most unreliable and completely self-deluded narrators I have seen in literature. And it is this strong and completely ridiculously wrong-headedness that makes Timmy so lovable.

After the second book, Now Look What You’ve Done, my son Alex characterized Timmy as “sort of sad but going on anyway, the best he can.”

The supporting characters include Timmy’s best friend Rollo Tookus who cares about grades, Molly Moskins who cares deeply about Timmy, and Corrina Corrina (AKA The Beast, The Wedgie, and World Wide Enemy of Da Goodness) who is Timmy’s arch nemesis. She is unaware of her status.

totalThe sketches used throughout the books add a sense of innocence to Timmy and highlight the weird, self deluded nature of the narrative.

Also, the pictures make me laugh. Some of the best pictures are illustrations that align with the text, such as images of Señor Burrito (who happens to be Molly’s girl-cat) as she sits at the table and puts her paws in Timmy’s tea while he interrogates Molly.  Senor B

Pastis doesn’t overuse these visuals, instead he drops them in sporadically but often enough so we learn to expect and relish the craziness that is the world of Timmy Failure.

I asked my son what he’d say to the author if he ever got a chance to talk to him. He responded, “Thank you for writing such an awesome series. I love how Timmy tries and fails so hard. Oh, and TACOS!!!”

That pretty much sums up the books nicely.

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In addition to the Timmy Failure series, I have been rereading some graphic novels in preparation for starting a new research project. I’m looking at the representation of women and girls in graphic novels, especially those that feature female protagonists. I’m developing an online form and database in an effort to crowd source data about these books.

One aspect I am looking at in regards to graphic novels is what is known as the Bechdel Test, named for Alison Bechdel author of Dykes to Watch Out For, Fun Home, and  Are you My Mother. In brief, the Bechdel Test simply highlights if women appear as functioning characters in movies and books. There are 3 elements – 1) Are there 2 NAMED female characters; 2) Do they speak to each other, 3) about something other than men?  That’s it.

I went back and looked at a few graphic novels I have in my “might use in class’ pile. Nonewere selected specifically for female protagonists but the results are interesting none the less:

1. Sidekicks by Dan Santat. Fails on the first part of the measurement. Although there are a few women who speak, none are named.

2. The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Passes all parts. There are multiple named women including Hua Chu (Hank’s mother), Red Center (Hank’s love interest), Red’s sister Green, and Mrs. Olson (Hua works for her). All of these women speak, some have conversations with each other about things other than men.

3. Bird and Squirrel by James Burks. Fails. Also fails in another important way … the misrepresentation of Native people and culture. Not only is there only one named female character, she is the “chief’s” daughter. The story centers around Bird and Squirrel landing in a snowy land filled with vaguely Inuit-type penguins who are, of course, in need of saving. The penguins wear face paint, carry spears, have a ‘medicine’ man who lives in a glowing green cave, sees visions and says things like “I listened to the wind”. In a word, this is an awful misrepresentation of some sort of unspecified native culture with a dash of White male missionary privilege tossed in for good measure.

 

 

 

 

What Are You Reading? July 7, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Adding my voice to Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki’s  Unleashing Readers on their great Monday-reading-palooza.

I’ve been catching up on reading that I put off during the teaching year. That means I am reading lots of children’s and young adult books, but it also means I am reading books for me … just me … BWA-HAHAHAHAHA!!!! I revisited Augusten Burroughs DRY, which feels like visiting an old friend who got me through some rough patches. I am also reading exciting academic works such as  Eliza Dresang’s Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age which is  helping me understand reading graphic novels is new ways.

In addition to the reading, summer for academics means it is the season to write. I’m working on revising articles that I hope will be in press soon, as well as a chapter based on work I started on this blog, as well as new articles based on projects that are slow but fruitful, such as looking at representations across Lambda and Stonewall award winning LGBTQ YA books.

But, enough about me. Lets talk books!

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I have to admit a shameful secret – I had never read any of the How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell books. None. Not one. After seeing the second movie ***** SPOILER ALERT ***** and once again being amazed and impressed with the darkness and loss the movies have as part of the over all ethos I wanted to go back to the source material. In both movies something bad happens … Hiccup looses a limb in #1, and a parent in #2. This kind of emotional hardship isn’t seen in most movies today and my sons appreciate movies that don’t talk down to them and pretend life is nothing but rainbows and sparkles of goodness. But, maybe that’s just our family. ***** END SPOILER ALERT *****

I read this with my nine year old son and we were both surprised – in a good way – with the differences between the book and the movie. We discussed the departures from the book, especially the characters – we especially missed the twins and their outrageous craziness but liked the expanded adversarial relationship between Hiccup and Snotlout. When talking about Astrid, my son put it best, “Yeah, she’s cool and all but really? Do we need kissing? We’re kids!”.

The best part of the book? Toothless talks! Well, technically, all dragons talk and Hiccup is able to interpret them for us. Getting the view of the world from the dragon’s perspective was a terrific reading experience. Understanding dragons from thier own point of view allowed for a much more complex story and made Toothless’es act of bravery MORE impressive. He’s a droll little lazy dragon who takes bribes and doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do. In addition, the more than giant dragon called The Green Death is terrific and scary all at the same time.

We are planning on reading the rest of the books as the summer rolls on.

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Annie_update

In celebration of a long lived life, I re-read Nancy Garden’s 1982 Annie on My Mind.Ms. Garden (May 15, 1938 – June 23, 2014) was a trail blazer if there ever was one. I’d like to say her book, written in a series of flashbacks by a college freshman at MIT was the beginning of a new era in YA literature featuring healthy, mutually loving relationships between lesbians, but it was not. It still stands out as the exception, rather than the rule and is a book I recommend to teachers, parents and readers alike.

The book cover has been changed over the years. The original featured a rather dower set of girls on the Staten Island ferry to the current one with a romantic photo of two girls looking at the rings that exchanged as Christmas gifts. But, what is most important is what happens inside the book or, perhaps, what does NOT happen. No one dies, goes insane, gets electroshock or sent to a camp for reprogramming. It isn’t that the romance progresses without a hitch, rather it is that the problems are surmountable, the issues are real, and the solutions are within reach if the girls are brave.

As for the test of time – the book holds up because the story is good and the characters are real.

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Plat_Frog

Thank you Jarrett J. Krosoczka for writing Platypus Police Squad: The Frog Who Croaked. I am a huge fan of his Lunch Lady series (see previous post) so I was excited to download the audiobook and start in on it. The story is complex with lots of twists and turns and reads like a great version of noir mystery. Read by Johnny Heller, the audio book  reminds me of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep but without all the drugs, sex and blood  and with more illegal fish.

In this piece of kids noir detective Rick Zengo is the new kid in the squad and Corey O’Malley is the old vet who needs to show him the ropes. They have some  trouble messing as a team but that quickly gets dealt with as they have bigger fish to fry. Yes, they happen to be platypuses, but don’t let their bills fool you, this is a hard hitting, action packed detective story. Although it isn’t as awesomely goofy as Lunch Lady, it still has loads of puns and lots of word play. This is a more serious book that requires the reader to track the story and remember loads of small details that become more important as the story progresses.

A great read aloud for some classes. I also highly recommend the audiobook.

 

 

What Are You Reading? June 9, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I’ve been enjoying the end of the semester bustle of Boston University and the beginning of the summer away from BU.

Happy to add my voice to Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki’s  Unleashing Readers!

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Scorch Rogue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I finally had time to finish Gina Damico’s Croak trilogy. I heard the author talk about the series back in December and I felt intrigued. I started the series with Rogue (the last) and enjoyed it but felt a bit lost. I picked up the other two and re-read them all.

Lex is having trouble with adolescence.  She’s aggressive and out of control, getting into fights and breaking noses and other bones. Her twin sister has no such tendencies and her parents don’t understand where the violence comes from. But Mort, Lex’s uncle, understands all too well. He understands because he was the same, in so many ways, he was the same.

Mort is an agent of Death, he is a cloaked grim reaper and he is now in charge of Lex’s summer vacation. It is a great series, Croak building to Scorch which answers many questions and introduces new characters and issues.  Finally, Rogue answering all the questions that can be answered and leaves the ones that can’t be. The beauty in the series is that it isn’t all nice and happy. People die, Lex makes mistakes, people forgive her. Mort never gives anyone all the information, least of all the reader. There are heroes and villains and lots of running around barely getting out in time to get into even more of a mess.

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Maus

Although I  review, read, recommend, and think about graphic novels most of the time now, I only began reading the medium a few years ago.

I read Spiegelman’s Maus early on in my exploration of the medium. I didn’t like it. I felt he made fun of the Holocaust. I mean, cats and mice? Is there a more tired metaphor? The insertion of his mother’s suicide seemed so random and, self aggrandizing.

The horror of more than six-million murders played out in black and white, simple animal drawings. The books received a Pulitzer and I didn’t understand what all the huff was all about. Simply said, I didn’t understand.

I have, in the few short years since beginning my study, read and reread Maus. Each time the reading takes longer. Each time I read fewer pages at a time. I spend more time thinking about it. Each time I read these books I understand more, but still, I don’t understand the horror at all.

RoseAnother series that I read every once in a while is Jeff Smith’s Bone. I’m not a big fan, although I understand why it is popular. The series is fun, silly and sometimes exciting. My favorite is The Great Cow Race, probably because Grandma is such a interesting character, and that is the thing. I’ve never been very interested in Bone or his cousins. Instead, I have wanted more than the small backward glances Smith provides to how Grandma, a queen, became an old lady running a race with cows.

Rose gives all those details. The book is definitely a part of the Bone series with the same bright colors, the same  strange mix of characters that are realistic representations and highly unlikely fantasies. People, dragons, and rat men are all present. There is a hint of the origin story of the Lord of the Locust – which will be the next book I read.

What are you reading Monday? March 17, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Feeling like I’m on a roll here. For the second week in a row I am adding my list to Jen’s from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers!

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GrasshopperI finished Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. It is a wondrous read the is at once completely banal and full of everyday adolescent angst filled emotional subjects like love, sex, and identity, as well as end-of-the-world-threatening, megalomaniacal, out-of-control, mad science gone wrong. The narrator, Austin, presents these topics in the same tone. Or, should I say he alternates between  overly and underly (it’s a word) dramatic tone and neither ever seems quite appropriate. And yet, it is always right.

Austin may or may not be bisexual, or gay, or something. He loves his best friend Robbie (who is gay), who loves Austin and whom Austin might be IN love with but he’s not sure. Austin is sure that he is in love with his girlfriend Shann (who is not gay). The idea of Robbie and Shann kissing makes Austin horny – of course, life makes Austin 16 year old horny.

The book is filled with intertwining and complex relationships such as Austin’s boss – who is also Shann’s step-father and the brother of the megalomaniacal, out-of-control, mad scientist, who is dead but still makes a rather important appearance. There is a fair amount of history, and some geography and …  The important thing about this book is OH MY GOD JUST READ IT!!!!!!!

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In prep for my children’s lit class this week I am also re-reading 

manfish Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne, Éric Puybaret.Manfish-dream

The illustrations provide a sense of peace and beauty, as well as respect for the ocean.

But the true beauty of this biography is being able to follow Cousteau as a boy who was curious about film making and oceanography. This is a terrific example of an interesting, beautiful non-fiction pciturebook. 

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A-River-of-WordsI am also rereading A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant. I used to say I was not a poetry person. I think that is not an accurate  description. I think I am a very picky poetry person. It can be a difficult genre for me to read, but then I will find someone who plays with words in a way I understand, who paints pictures and reveals new ways of seeing the world that I can share in. One such poet is Carlos WilliNYT2008102115061160Cams.

I want to love this book because it brings poetry into the hands of kids. I want to love this book because it is a stunning example of mixed-media illustrations. I want to love this book because it explains how this poet was also a doctor and how not giving up poetry helped him be a better doctor. But, it is a difficult book for me to read. Although the illustrator does offset the prose into beige text boxes, the actual poetry is often presenting as part of a tableau that confuses written text with illustrations. I can view these pages as pieces of art but the pleasure of reading is more often lost to me.

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The mixed-media creates a jumbled and confusing reading space for me that I find exhausting. I want this book to be truly multimodal so that I can hear the written prose and poetry while taking in the illustrations. Then, I could truly love this book.

What are you reading Monday, March 10, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YATrying to get back into the blog swing this week so I am adding my list to Jen’s from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers.

To begin with I have been rereading George O’Connor’s  series about the Greek gods of mythology, The Olympians. I  wrote a teacher guide for First:Second on the series (I’ll link to that as well) and I wrote a blog post (Go here for that ….) featuring Hades.

Olympians-Poster-color-e1392443488972The basics about the whole series are — great color, exciting stories, seriously weird characters, and so much more variation that I expected. I terrific set for most classrooms, just be sure to read them before putting them on the shelf – there are references to sex, very short skirts on some of the men, and extra-marital affairs seem to be had by all. The vocabulary is no joke either! Also, terrific author’s notes about O’Connor’s research.

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My partner and I have been reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel with our younger son. I traveled a bit last week and so I missed out on the middle part. I’m not a big fan of the Wimpy Kid books for my own reading, I just don’t like or hate Greg enough to care what happens. I think the books are heavy handed and moralistic (not what I look for in a book). But, and this is important, both our sons have loved this series … and so I read the books and try to connect with my boys.

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I read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell … Click here for that post … I started reading Fangirl after that on the recommendation of a student in my children’s literature class. Fangirl is a BIG book, and has lots of stuff going on, including twins going to college and making mistakes, roommates, roommates ex’s, new love, fanfiction, a book withing the book, and plagiarism. Did I mention it was really-really long?

I can imagine it being a great read for YAs who read big books about people having feelings but somehow it didn’t stick with me. I can’t put my finger on my issue, but I am pretty sure it was me and not Rainbow.

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JourneyJourney by Aaron Becker is so fantastic I keep going back to it. It is one of those wondrous, rich, complex wordless picturebooks that holds all the possibilities of the world inside the covers.

A girl begins the story by taking a large red crayon in hand and creating a door that begins the journey. The detailed pen and ink with watercolor drawings are breathtaking. Taking the time to read all the tiny bits and pieces, to see the questions and the connections across the story was and continues to be an engaging process.

This book is so deserving of the Caldecott honor! In addition Aaron Becker has a terrific web page that includes a documentary about the making of Journey (StoryBreathing), a book trailer, and links to his blog, and other cool things like signed prints (just in case anyone wants to send me things for my office walls).

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I am currently reading Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle thanks to my friend Kristin. The book is weirdly wonderful, just the kind of thing I love. The characters and story stay with me when I am not reading it. In fact I think I can hear it calling me from the other room. I’ll write more about it when I am done.

  Grasshopper

The Olympians – A Serious Series

George O’Connor is a history guy who has created a series the retells/recalls/reillustrates the Greek mythologies of The Olympians published by First:Second.

So far there are six in the series … Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. Each is a little different, depending on the stories O’Connor chooses to tell, and each relies on the others to fill out the complex and interrelated mythology.

Olympian fam treeAnd what an interrelated  mythology it is! Luckily O’Connor gives the reader this handy-dandy family tree at the beginning of every book. I refer to it often to check and see if I am creeped out by Hades in general, or specifically because he is kidnapping and wooing his niece!!!! And by wooing I mean sweeping down in his big chariot of death and taking Persephone to the underworld and telling her he is going to marry her because Zeus said he could.

The gods marry each other at an alarming rates. They also have affairs with each other, with other immortals, with mortals, and with various and sundry animals. They scheme and plot and generally act like middle school children with too much time and power.

Hades coverO’Connor uses color to evoke mood and set tone effectively throughout the series, but I think he is at his best in Hades. The tale O’Connor tells is also the story of hoe Persephone came to the underworld. I was familiar with the deal she strikes with Hades – she gets a set amount of time on earth in exchange for living with him as his wife/mistress/companion for the rest of the time. But this tells how that deal came about in the first place.

As it turns out Persephone is a surly teenager who pretty much looks like this when she talks to her mother, Demeter.

Hades-14

The image (p. 14) of Persephone having a total hissy-fit at her mother while her friends look on is the perfect illustration of her world. Demeter is a concerned mom who made mistakes as a teen-god and wants to protect Persephone. (Demeter also happens to be the god in charge of all the things that grow and feed the piddly mortals on earth).

More important than the look of scorn from Demeter and general fed-upness from Persephone (I have a non-deity friend with a head strong daughter, and they look like this a lot) is the assault of perky color O’Connor uses to illustrate the world at this moment. The ground Demeter walks upon is a violent verdant landscape. The brush in the background is a rich thicket of dark green foliage. Even the clouds reflect a tinge of light green from Demeter’s handywork.

Hades 22Here, in contrast, O’Connor gives use Hades and Persephone just after he snatches her from that same field and goes to the underworld (p. 22). Hades is darkness and shadows that swaollow light and give back nothing. Notice Persephone’s blue dress is not little more than a muddy, slightly tinted purple color. The background of the panel is a rich darkness bounded by the bright white gutter that sharpens the contrast.

The stark color shift helps set up the tenor of the story. As Demeter searches for her lost daughter, the rich and plentiful earth suffers from her neglect. When we do see some color in Hades’ underworld it is because of Persephone. The earth is dimmer, becoming a shadow because of Persephone’s absence. The underworld is become less drab because of her presence. O’Connor uses color to tap into our visual sense and tell part of the story.

There are 6 books thus far in the series with more to come. My favorites are Hades, Zeus, and Athena, although Aphrodite is fabulous, and Hera is a whole new way of looking at the story of Hercules. Oh! And Poseidon gives more details about the extended family.

Forget it. I love them all.