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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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.

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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.

It’s Monday … What are you reading?

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From Teaching Mentor Texts

“It’s Monday! What are you Reading? is a meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journeys. It is a great way to recap what you read and/or reviewed the previous week and to plan out your reading and reviews for the upcoming week. It’s also a great chance to see what others are reading right now…you just might discover the next “must-read” book!

Kellee Moye, of Unleashing Readers, and I decided to give It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? a kidlit focus. If you read and review books in children’s literature – picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, young adult novels, anything in the world of kidlit – join us! We love this meme and think you will, too. We encourage everyone who participates to visit at least three of the other kidlit book bloggers that link up and leave comments for them.”

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I’m going to give this a shot. I read a lot of graphic novels but I also read everything from picturebooks to YA novels. This will give me a chance to talk, in brief, about those books as well.

Scaredy Squirrel prepares for Holloween by Mélanie Watt from Kids Can Press

Scaredy

I have long been a huge fan of Scaredy Squirrel. He is a total hypochondriac, pretty OCD, and generally anxious to a degree that makes me feel pretty good about myself. This Halloween edition is a mix of surprisingly helpful advice on things like carving pumpkins, and silly stuff like “The apple: A Scary Fruit”. I’m usually not a big fan of themed books, but this one is pretty funny.

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If You Could be Mine by Sara Farizan from Algonguin Young Readers

IfYouCouldI have been searching for lesbian stories in YA novels for a while now. There are simply not enough out there so anytime I find one, I read it. I have been disappointed more times than not at the quality of writing, the flat characters, or the general sense of disgust at yet another doomed romance. It feels like no one wants lesbians to be happy. So, it was with great trepidation that I started If You Could be Mine.

It is all of those things I just complained about – a doomed lesbian teen romance. But, it is so much more. The characters are alive and breathing. The setting, modern Iran, reads less like a ravel log and more like the authors back yard that she is letting us see for awhile. And, although the romance is doomed, the characters are, amazingly, not.

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FANGBONE! by Michael Rex from Putnam Juvenile

Michael Rex Fangbone 1

I’ll be blogging about this one soon. Let me just say … AWESOME!!! Full of silliness, honor, dodgeball, and gnarly big toes that must be kept safe. Enough said ….

What They Read and How They Read It- Part 1

As a researcher I am often asked to describe my research interests in a short form,  sometimes referred to as our research  “elevator speech”, a snippet that communicates just enough to pique peoples interest and want to a) talk to us, b) hire us, or c) give us money to do more interesting research. Never get stuck in an elevator with teacher education folks!

My research is in two areas: What is read in schools, and how people read. If I were to make a Venn diagram of these areas it might have looks like this.1111

Except, that doesn’t represent the relationships as they actually exist. A friend of mine is working on her dissertation – She is making explicit connections about how children’s literature is used and thought about across different domains (library science, English literature, and education). Her work is important because she is illustrating that the more explicit we are about the multiple ways we think about literature, the better we are as educators.

So, if I were honest, the diagram would look more like this,

complexTherefore it is probably impossible – at least for me  – to separate out things like authenticity in representation, artistry, narrative, history, and literary merit.

I am writing about two books today; In Part 1 I’ll tell you about a lovely and brilliant and haunting graphic novel, in Part 2 I’ll tell you about a graphic novel series that isn’t just not great, but might be damaging. Why am I writing about them together? Because both graphic novels have American Indian characters, and represent vastly different portrayals of American Indian lore.

CoverJust to be clear. I am not, as far as I know, any sort of Native American, nor am I a scholar of Native American literature. On the other hand, I think and write and teach about multicultural literature in education and believe it is important to highlight the good literature, as well as recognize the not so good stuff that is still all too prevalent.

The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel (2013) by Drew Taylor, Michael Wyatt (Illustrator), and Alison Kooistra (Adapted by) published by Annick Press, Limited.

The basics of this graphic adaptation are these  – Pierre is a vampire who left Canada some 300 years ago for adventure but ended up becoming a side-show Indian for rich Europeans. He eventually contracted the measles and was “saved” from death by being turned into a vampire. The novel opens with his return to his birthplace where he rents a basement room from a broken family.  The divorce is still fresh in everyone’s mind – Mom took off with a White guy and left dad with a headstrong teenage daughter, Tiffany. She and her dad live with his mom on the reservation. The story is a perfect balance between teen angst (no one understands why Tiffany is dating the dumb-jock White kid who is cheating on her) and the creepy, self-hatred of a 300 year old vampire who scares the crap out of everyone by just hanging around and being really tall .

NW_P5But, as in all graphic novels, the story told in the words is not complete. The illustrations are clean and highly representational. The artist gets the most out of a very basic black and white pallet that includes shades of grey that allow for shadow and light to play at making the night alive and visible to me as a reader. The artist uses splashes of red around Pierre, but not so much that it become silly or predictable.NW_P43

The Native American culture, religion, and narrative traditions are bound together in this book with visual representations of stories, people and places. There are modern Native Americans wearing jeans, drinking tea, being kind and being jerks. There are also the stories from Pierre’s childhood in which he and his family are in buckskins. It is the modern and old representation that is an important aspect in this book. Far too often Native Americans exist only as museum pieces and not as part of the present.

This isn’t the perfect book. Tiffany’s father is flat and seems included to provide a source of tension for Tiffany to bounce off. Her grandmother on the other hand changes dramatically as the story progresses, from a oldster who peppers her conversation with random Indian words, to someone who truly understands the pain and hunger that Pierre is just barely controlling.

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The tension in Tiffany’s life, the fact that she has her first White boyfriend at the very same time her mother of off with some anonymous White husband play out for the reader, but Tiffany seems unaware of the irony. Pierre plays a pivotal roll in her life, just as Tiffany does in his. He tells her stories from his own childhood of rebellion and mistakes in order help her understand the consequences of rash actions now on her future.

This book provides both creepy entertainment, beauty, and an authentic representation of a non-White culture that is alive and well in 2013.

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SUMO by Thien Pham

Cover art from SUMOI’ve been talking and thinking about starting to write a blog based on my dissertation work for a while. Thanks to the inspiration of lots of colleagues, including Kristin Mcilhagga at Children’s Literature Crossroads, Sterg Botzakis at Graphic Novel Resources and the Nerdy Book Club, I am ready to start.

When trying to decide on a book to start with I took the advice of very smart people and chose a book that I love. A book that I admire. And a book that I, as a reader, have returned to over and over.

Simply put, I love  Thien Pham’s SUMO (First Second
December 2012).

The book tells the story of Scott, a college football player with no prospects of going pro, who has been recruited to train as a Sumo wrestler in Japan. He meets a Asami (the coaches daughter), cooks some soup, wrestles, and worries about his future.

Pham uses short, asynchronous chapters that provide an intimate and unsettling sense of Scott at a crossroads between choices he made in the past and decisions he faces now.

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At first the disjointed sequence that Phan employs to tell Scott’s story confused me until I realized this approach illustrates the complex connections across time. The colors  saturate the slick, slightly pigmented pages and drew me into the slow pace of story. Throughout the book the notion of simplicity is reinforced with both the text and the images.

Pham uses three colors; dark orange for his time in the dojo, periwinkle for the past in America, and green for his time outside the dojo in Japan. These vignettes, although not sequential, provided an intimate look at Scott moving through his life, from the end of his college football career to the beginning of his Sumo training, and into the unknown.

sumo_blue_1Pham’s line drawings are expressive and detailed enough to give emotional depth to characters, even when the dialogue does not. Pham uses Scott’s physical presence beautifully in this book. While Scott’s huge physique, including his square head, is the norm in the training dojo, it is clearly out of place in the bar with his friends. But, when he is relaxed and walking with Asami he is somehow less imposing.

The written text, especially the dialogue while his is in Japan, is sparse. Again, the use of few words can be mistaken for telling a simple story but when the written text is integrated with images a depth of story becomes apparent.sumogreen_1

The words and pictures in Pham’s book provide scintillating  pieces of a story when considered separately, but when integrated, the book as a whole leaves me thinking, worrying, and somehow, hopeful.