Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 2)

I use the term Booktoss as a way to communicate to the Literary Gatekeepers (read that as adults with money to spend on books) that we need to be willing to see the problems with books and toss some of them aside. There are always books I want to keep, and hold, and reread, and share. Those are the ones I pass along to parents, teachers, librarians, and most importantly children. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are authors who don’t find it necessary to tear down, dehumanize, objectify, or rely on tired stereotypes about mis- or under-communities for their books.


NotYourPrincess_Cover#NotYourPrincess:
Voices of Native American Women

Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, published by Annick Press

This book is a collection of poetry, essays, and interviews, as well as visuals that include photos, paintings, and collages. Each page or two brings another voice, another  face, another story to the reader.

This is marketed as a YA collection and I think that makes sense for the content. Authors take on many facets of being Indigenous women with an unflinching gaze at the rest of society. At times the images and stories were hard to read, some were funny, some showed a wariness, while others illuminated a way of being and seeing the world. The essays and poetry were fairly easy to read which makes this a great collection to give to older struggling readers and ESL readers.

I did look up the Lexile rating for the book and was surprised to see it set at 910, which loosely translates, to a sixth grade reading level. Remember, reading levels have NOTHING to do with the content, nor with images. They only measure word, sentence and paragraph length, punctuation, and familiarity of words used. My own estimate would have put this collection around a 3rd or 4th grade level, so I was surprised by Lexile’s measure. One reason may be the formatting and grammar in the poetry might be skewing the measure. Another reason may be the use of tribal names such as “Dane Zaa/Cree” (p. 43), and “Haudenosaunee” (p. 65), and even the use of indigenous languages.

Should that affect the reading level? I am not sure. I must admit that as a reader who is unfamiliar with many of the Nations and languages in the collection I had to make a choice – to take the words as they came and assign little meaning to them, or to take the time to look them up, make note, try to understand the regions, tribes, nations and history. I choose the latter and I believe the reading experience was better for it.

This is truly a multimodel text. The images are integral to this collection. They are not separate from the words. Instead, both interact in familiar ways and I found myself using the same kinds of strategies and skills I use to read graphic novels. Many of the photos feature Indigenous women looking directly at the reader, along with narratives that directly address the reader, thus breaking the 4th wall. This is a powerful choice to make, to draw the reader in and now allow the comfort of detachment.

The book can be found here, at Annick Press. I plan on using it in my children’s literature class to show the kinds of poetry that abounds today and to help my students learn the skills they need to read across cultures.

Buy #NotYourPrinces. Support #OwnVoices.

Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 1)

Booktoss means we, the Literary Gatekeepers, need to be willing to see the problems with books and simply toss them aside. Then there are the books I want to keep, and hold, and pass on to kids and teachers. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are great authors that don’t need to tear down, dehumanize and objectify one community in order to make a point.

For this first iteration Books: Keep or Toss I will be looking at two graphic novels set in China; The Only Child by Guojing and The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff. There will be spoilers, so … gird your loins.

Only Child Cover

Book to Keep:
The Only Child by Guojing

Some will argue this is a wordless picturebook. I don’t care. I am claiming it as a graphic novel, in the same way I openly claimed Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Some might say, “But Laura. I thought you said graphic novels are book length narratives written in the comics medium and comics utilize images AND language to deliver a unique story.”
At this point I’d have to shush you, and open the book because it is gorgeous, and magical, and sad, and heartbreaking, and beautiful. So, stop quoting me at me and look at the book!

The Only Child begins with a short author’s note Guojing describes the isolation she “experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China”. The book reads as if it is an expression of that isolation, but at the very same time it communicates love for family, a respect for a child’s imagination, and the possibilities of magic.

The story centers around a little girl in an industrial city who’s parents leave for work in the morning, and she is left to entertain herself in their apartment. Her only companion is a small, toy elk that she takes with her throughout the book.

interior Only Child

The entire book is drawn with very fine lines – pencil or charcoal – that give a depth to the objects and spaces. The paper is thick, almost luscious and gives the book a physical heft it deserves. Guojing’s paneling is and image placement is deft, and provided me with a clear idea of what was real and present in the girls life, and what was not. Take a look at the series of panels on the left page … the little girl is actively engaged in keeping herself entertained. But, each time she engages in play she ends up with a sense of time simply passing.

Now, look at the facing page (right side). The girl has settled in and is looking at a photo album. Her small hand signals a change in point of view for the reader. We are no longer looking at her play in the apartment. Rather, we are now oriented, as we hold the book, as a co-reader as she holds the photo album.

The book progresses. Things happen. Tension builds as she leaves the apartment, gets on a bus to see her grandmother, and gets lost in the woods. I’m not going to give any further details of the story but I will share the exchange I had with my 12 year old son after he read The Only Child.

“What’d you think?” I asked when he returned the book to me.
“Yeah. Good.” He said in typical 12 year old fashion as he headed to the fridge.
“Can I get more words?” I pushed.
“Great drawings. The clouds were amazing. The kid was cute.”
“Did you laugh? Cry? Anything?”
He looked at me, rolling his eyes and sighing, “Well, yeah. All of that. What do you think I am, some kind of monster?” The implied dumb-ass was clear. Of course he had all the feelings. How could he not?

I highly, insistently, and obnoxiously recommend this wordless graphic novel for a microcosm level look at the ways the Chinese one-child policy affected a generation.

UndertakingBook to Toss:
The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

This graphic novel also begins with an authors note. But, instead of a note from the actual author, it is an excerpt from The Economist (July 26, 2007about a cultural practice in China called “corpse brides” wherein brides are procured for unmarried dead men.

According to Amazon Undertaking is about “Deshi, a hapless young man living in northern China, is suddenly expelled from ordinary life when his brother dies in an accident. Holding Deshi responsible for his brother’s death, his parents send him on a mission to acquire a corpse bride to accompany his brother into the afterlife, in accordance with an ancient Chinese tradition that has many modern adherents” (https://www.amazon.com/Undertaking-Lily-Chen-Danica-Novgorodoff/dp/1596435860).

Yeah. Many.

The salacious nature of the term “corpse bride” set off a warning flag. The term predisposes the reader towards a “Isn’t China just so weird and different”? stance that I have seen far too many times. Anytime I see cultural practices used as plot devices I’m skeptical.

bad-guys.jpgNovgorodoff’s characters are drawn as caricatures of people but even given this more abstract and absurdist style she relies on some tried and true racist and sexist tropes.

Deshi meets up with a bride merchant (pictured) who is actually has a “fu manchu” mustache which, if you have ever seen any evil Asian characters immediately signals he is up to no good. In fact, he convinces Deshi that to be a real man and a good son he must find a kill a young woman to be his brother’s corpse bride.

lilychen_1.jpg

Eventually, Lily is introduced into the story. Deshi decides Lily is the girl for his brother and convinces her he’ll help her escape marriage her father has arranged. She is drawn with ridiculously thin arms and legs and a huge bobble head. In one scene she sits on a riverbank in supplication before she catches a fish with her bare hands to cook for Deshi. She is looks physically delicate and yet she can catch a fish with her bare hands, gut it and cook it over a campfire, all before Deshi has figured out how to kill her.

Much of the book is spent with Deshi trying and failing to kill Lily while they travel the countryside to “escape” her life on the farm. One night, by the light of a campfire, he climbs on top of her and starts strangling her. She wakes, touches his face tenderly, and they have sex. The whole thing is bizarre.

The combination of racist and misogynist tropes, the exoticism of China, along with the rape and forgiveness storyline make this a graphic novel one to toss. Toss it and move on with your reading life.

 

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


MONDAY logo 2015
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. 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” narrative. It takes a bit of time to get into this story and to appreciate the odd mix of a very stoic character dealing with fantastical elements in a non-nonsense manner.

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. The book, with all it’s charm, basically comes down to a 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 dialogue that simply explained what was clear from the images. The explanation, 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.

digger-2

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 and religious ideas without preaching.

Although this is a very female-centric book, there are issues with some of the characters as I reflect on the way race and ethnicity play out. Ed (the hyena character) speaks in an odd manner, mostly because he was shunned from his “tribe” and has spent so long alone. Yeah, honestly, a warning signal goes up when I read the word “tribe” and the character that comes from a “tribe” is shown to be … not as sophisticated. Ed wears a loincloth and a necklace of odd-shapes stones. He speaks English in an oddly formal and yet stilted  manner. In one scene, after Digger has slept for many hours in Ed’s cave, he offers Digger a warm cup of something,

“Is warrior herbs. Is make hunter’s water strong! Smell for miles! Digger-mousie marks territory now, all people know is fierce mousie, respect mark. Digger-mousie new, need respect to win territory”

2007-03-13-wombat41-cooperLater on in the book Digger is being hunted by Ed’s old pack-mates who have the same sort of stilted,awkward speech pattern. They wear loin clothes, carry spears, have painted faces and feathers. It is not clear to me what indigenous community is supposed to be represented here but it gives me pause.

I encourage people to pick this Hugo award winning series. I worry that in order to gain a strong, complex female protagonist the book provides am indigenous trope. It is worth a read, and a discussion.

Death Vigil

MONDAY logo 2015

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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How-to-train-your-dragon-the-dragon-book

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.