Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

The Red Pyramid introduces readers to Carter and Sadie Kane.  Fourteen-year-old Carter is home-schooled by his professor father as they travel the world studying ancient Egypt.  His sister, twelve-year-old Sadie, lives in London with her maternal grandparents.  Carter and Sadie see each other two days a year, one visitation day in both winter and summer.  The book begins on Christmas Eve, winter visitation day, as Carter and his father arrive late to see Sadie.  Dr. Julius Kane has arranged a Christmas visit to the Egyptian Collection at the British Museum.

Readers, and the Kane siblings, quickly realize that there’s more to Julius Kane than an advanced Egyptian education when their visit to the museum ends with an explosion, magical appearances, a fiery man making threats, and their father trapped inside a sarcophagus.  Later they learn that their father’s actions at the museum have released five ancient gods, two of which have taken up temporary residence inside Carter and Sadie.

The next 500 pages are mostly a sprint from death-defying explosions to attacks by mythical creatures to trips to the land of the dead to a run-in with an evil Elvis jumpsuit.  (Really, no kidding.)  Along the way are numerous lessons on ancient Egypt.  There are pharaohs and gods, legends and rules, and magical methods transportation.  Carter knows bits and pieces from traveling with his father, but Sadie learns at the same pace as readers do - only as other characters explain the details to the Kane siblings.

I’m torn on which direction this review should go, so rather than pick a side (while relaxing on Christmas vacation, no less), I’m going to stay right here comfortably riding the fence, give both sides, and let readers decide.

I have three (and a half) concerns with the first book of Rick Riordan’s new Kane Chronicles series:
  1. At 516 pages, it is unnecessarily long.
  2. My lack of background knowledge on ancient Egypt had me trying to keep all the gods and legends and rules straight rather than focus on the main characters’ and plot’s development.  At least with The Lightning Thief I had some knowledge of Greek mythology to draw from.
  3. It was easy to miss the changes in narrators between Carter and Sadie every couple chapters.
  4. (only half a concern) It requires readers to suspend their disbelief more than the average fantasy novel, but that’s less of a problem with young readers who are generally more eager to do so than grown-ups.
Now, a number of my students have read The Red Pyramid, and based on my observations and conferences with them, here’s how my concerns have translated to young readers:
  1. Doesn't matter.  More of a good thing.
  2. Doesn't matter.  Most kids have little knowledge of Greek mythology, too.
  3. Doesn't matter.  Kids apparently pay more attention to chapter headings.
  4. Doesn't matter.  Suspension of disbelief.  Not a problem.
I’m pretty sure I would have recommended this book to students regardless of my personal feelings.  The Red Pyramid moves at an incredible pace with each chapter offering readers another hair-raising adventure and there’s magic and battles galore.  Rick Riordan knows the formula to keep readers reading.  High action, flying-fast pace, amazing escapes, brave battles, and a sequel to come.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye by Colleen AF Venable

Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye is a new graphic novel series that focuses on events in Mr. Venezi’s Pets & Stuff.  Mr. Venezi might run a great pet shop, but young readers will laugh at how he mixes up his animals.  Right in the beginning of book #1 there are mice and a turtle in a cage labeled “Walruses” and there’s a goldfish in a rabbit’s water bottle in a cage labeled “Three-Toed Sloth."
In the first book, Hamster and Cheese, someone is stealing Mr. Venezi’s sandwich.  Now stick with me here - the hamsters, who think they are koalas, are worried because Mr. Venezi thinks they are stealing his lunch.  If it happens again, he’s getting rid of all the koalas.  So, logically enough, the hamsters are worried.  Now Hamisher the Koala … err, Hamisher the Hamster wants to hire Sasspants the Guinea Pig to solve the mystery.
Why Sasspants?  The G from her correctly labeled cage has mysteriously disappeared, leaving Guinea PI, as in Private Investigator.
The mystery unfolds with numerous suspects, a nearly purchased chinchilla, and some not-so-trustworthy goldfish eye witnesses.
In the second book of the series, And Then There Were Gnomes, a ghost is suspected in the pet shop, and both Hamisher and Mr. Venezi have their evidence.  When the mice start disappearing, there really is a mystery, ghost or no ghost, and Sasspants, Pet Shop PI is on the case.
Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye is a great new graphic novel series for readers ready to try out graphic novels for the first time and readers who have enjoyed books like Otto’s Orange Day and Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever from Toon Books.  Hamster and Cheese, And Then There Were Gnomes, and the third book, The Ferret’s a Foot, will move quickly off the shelves of school and primary grade classroom libraries.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New Christmas Newspaper Column

Isn't it easy to get sidetracked during the Christmas season?  Even with all the music and Christmas cards and Peace On Earth, Good Will To Men?  That's sort of the subject of my latest newspaper column.  Sometimes the message we need to hear, the one to get us focused back on more important things, has been in our ears all along.  We just need to listen.

Thanks for reading.  Here's my latest article.

No Christmas music until November 1.  That’s a family rule.  Unless it snows, of course.  Then all bets are off, all sanctions on Saint Nicholas end, and the family is free to rock around the Christmas tree at will.

For two months Christmas songs become the soundtrack of our family’s daily life, but within days their message fades into the background.  The music is playing, but any number of Jingle Bells may ring or Herald Angels sing, and at best I’m humming half a chorus every third song.

Still we add to the family Christmas music library.  In November, 2009 we bought “Give This Christmas Away” by Matthew West and Amy Grant.  Imagine my surprise when the calendar flipped to December 2010, and I finally heard the song.

Now I’d listened to it a bunch.  Even sang along.  But it took a year before I finally heard it.

“Give This Christmas Away.”  Really?

The song was written by Matthew West for a children’s Christmas movie.  The video features children around the world opening Christmas gifts from an international charity.  The gifts are simple - books, balls, teddy bears - but the children’s faces radiate pure joy.

Those simple gifts cause children to run and smile and cheer.  Mouths drop open in amazement.  Little hands clasp boxes as if they hold the world’s greatest treasure.  One boy in oversized sunglasses tosses a soccer ball repeatedly, the shininess of the new ball exceeded only by the brightness of his smile.

“That’s it?” I thought.  All that joy from those simple gifts? There are five beat-up soccer balls in our garage causing very little joy at this moment, but one new ball can make a boy bounce like he’s never seen a new ball before?

Maybe he hasn’t.

So, yeah, it took me a year to hear the song.  But now I’m wondering.  What it?

What if, this Christmas, we all decided, simply, to give?

What if we all donated outgrown winter clothes to a Keep Kids Warm campaign or provided one toy for Toys for Tots?  What if we all took one angel off the Angel Tree and bought a gift for a child in need or bought one prepackaged bag of food at the grocery store for the local food pantry?

And we’re all allotted the same 24 hours in a day.  What if we give some of that away?

Shortly after we moved into a new house I came home grumbling about the time I would have to waste that evening shoveling the recent snowfall.  We arrived home to a clean driveway, cleared by a mystery neighbor.  The time I'd “waste” shoveling was suddenly back into my evening schedule, but then I ended up outside anyway, with a neighbor, shoveling someone else’s driveway.

Giving is contagious, apparently.

Make a meal for another family.  Provide the neighborhood kids with hot chocolate on the next snow day.  Present an elderly neighbor with a tray of Christmas goodies or offer them a ride to church or the grocery store.

The song says, “Your life will be changed by the gifts you receive when you give this Christmas away.”

Giving can changes lives.  Maybe even your own.

Merry Christmas.

For more information about the song and artist, including the video, please visit Help Readers Too.

Friday, December 10, 2010

How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Vordak the Incomprehensible

I was immediately intrigued by How to Grow Up and Rule the World, as growing up to rule the world is the ambition of numerous youngsters.  As an educator, I feel it is my role to nurture my students' ambitions and encourage children in whatever career path they might choose.  I hoped that Vordak the Incomprehensible would prove to be Vordak the Invaluable as a resource for students showing evil tendencies.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is some excellent information here about evil lairs, evil organizations, minions, instruments of evil, and diabolically clever yet extremely slow-acting death traps.  But the more I read, the more questions arose.  So I decided to use my Twitter account to contact Vordak directly via his Twitter account.  Here is our correspondence, with occasional commentary and added information.

Reasonable enough.  I have a very similar memories.  (But I still can't find it on the map.)

Again, very reasonable.  Ice fishing is pretty big in these parts.

The links aren't live in these Twitter screenshots, but the information I referenced above is about a Wisconsin gentleman who survived a plane crash thanks to his cheesehead.  See for yourself here.

Oh, oh.  I didn't mean to aggravate a supervillain, but in the quest for literary truth and justice, I forged ahead.

I may be confused (or maybe not), but either Vordak is brave or he's nuts.  What's the word for "evil bravery" or "evilly brave"?

Well, Vordak is certainly confident in his encyclopedic knowledge of evil, and if he isn't going to rule the world on his own, he's certain to ride another evildoer's coattails.

Trustworthy and humble.  See for yourself at Vordak's blog.  I figured it was about time to wrap up our conversation.  It has stretched out over a week, and annoying a supervillain isn't high on anyone's to-do list, when ...

Right.  A few hundred suspects.  Put the most suspicious in a lineup and all that would fit in the room behind the mirrored glass would be Vordak and his helmet.  Seems my suspicions of annoying a supervillain were right on.  It was time to wrap it up.

And with that, the absolutely, positively, highest recommendation ever given to a book [whose author has launched thinly-veiled threats in my direction] on this website goes to How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Vordak the Incomprehensible!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Here There Be Monsters by HP Newquist

Before we begin, two quick thoughts:

1. At first glance, the cover of Here There Be Monsters led me to believe this was one of those fantastical nonfiction books that tell magical travelers how to avoid dragons, trolls, and ogres, complete with ornate maps and directions written in rhyming couplets.  It’s not.

2. Here There Be Monsters is just regular ole’ nonfiction, and generally, I dislike nonfiction.  That being said, I have been known - only on occasion, mind you - to read and enjoy regular ole’ nonfiction.  This is one of those occasions.

The full title is Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid.  The prologue begins by asking the reader, a school-aged youngster, to imagine being the late-night lookout on a ship.  You are suddenly drawn out of your drowsiness by a violent thump against the ship.  Then another.  You investigate and discover a giant eye peering at you from the depths, then arms and tentacles covered with suckers and claws groping the ship’s deck.  Eventually you and the crew fight off the monster and save the ship.

When you return to land, your story is dismissed as fantasy.  No one believes you.

Author HP Newquist goes on to explain that these legends, while many times exaggerated in the telling, were indeed based on the truth.  He details the names of scientists, their discoveries, and how each bit of information they learned invariably led to more questions.  One chapter outlines the events of 1870-1880, when there were dozens of sightings and numerous specimens that washed up on the world’s beaches.  Later he details similar events ninety years later during the 1960s.

Newquist does a great job of only giving readers the information scientists discovered as he recounts historical events.  It’s history on fast forward.  Instead of 500 years of scientific discoveries, readers get all 500 years in one book.  There’s anticipation as to what the next discovery will be without the decades of waiting.

As readers learn more about the giant and colossal squids (yes, they are two distinct animals), they are also presented with the fictional accounts that helped grow the legend of the kraken, novels like Moby Dick, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Peter Benchley’s Beast as well as movies like Disney’s adaptations of 20,000 Leagues and Pirates of the Caribbean.

All of this - the history, scientists, specimens, legends, and stories - are integrated nicely for an informational yet enjoyable read.  Rather than reading to learn more, I found myself reading to find out what the next discovery would be.  Would the mystery of the kraken / giant squid be solved?  Turns out it’s a mystery still being solved today.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

Bink is a short, wild-haired, peanut butter loving, crazy sock wearing, inquisitive, downstairs neighbor who enjoys eating pancakes.

Gollie is a tall, sensible-haired, lemonade loving, black sock wearing, adventurous, upstairs neighbor who enjoys making pancakes.

They’re perfect for each other.

Bink and Gollie’s first book is just three short stories.  In Don’t You Need a New Pair of Socks, these two seemingly opposite friends go roller skating to Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment where Bink gets a new pair of crazy socks.  Gollie says, “The brightness of those socks pains me.  I beg you not to purchase them,” but Bink can’t wait to put them on.  When Gollie’s dislike of Bink’s new socks conflicts with Bink’s desire for Gollie’s pancakes, Gollie suggests, “Perhaps a compromise is in order, Bink.”  That’s what friends do.

In P.S. I’ll Be Back Soon, Gollie goes on an adventure to the Andes Mountains in Chile.  She posts a sign on her door announcing her absence.  Bink knocks anyway.  Gollie, halfway up a steep incline yet curiously still on the other side of her door, tells Bink she cannot be disturbed.  Bink returns repeatedly, ignoring the signs on Gollie’s door.  One reads, “To Whom it may concern: Further interruptions will NOT be tolerated.”  When Gollie finally achieves her mountain climbing goal, Bink is able to join her on the mountain peak.

In Give a Fish a Home, Bink and Gollie realize the depth of their friendship when a goldfish named Fred threatens to come between them.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bink & Gollie, and judging from the laughter, so did the students and classroom teacher who listened to my read aloud.  I was nervous that the second and third graders wouldn’t really get it.  Would they understand what Gollie means when she says, “I long for speed.”?  Would they know what Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment was?  Would they catch that Gollie’s mountaintop adventure was imaginary?  Would the students recognize Golllie’s feelings when she says, “Furthermore, that fish is incapable of being a marvelous companion.”?

But I realized it didn’t matter.  Some got it, some didn’t, but everyone enjoyed the story.  If kids don’t understand “I long for speed,” they still see that Bink and Gollie are roller skating on the next page.  Even if kids would sooner recognize Wal-Mart than Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment, Bink still purchases outrageous socks inside.

Adults, you’ll love Bink & Gollie the first time you read it.  And even if they don’t understand everything the same way you do, kids will enjoy Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee's team effort just as well.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Art & Max by David Wiesner

Arthur is a lizard.  Sort of a pointy lizard.  Max is another lizard, but he’s more smooth-ish.  (Hey, I’m a reading teacher, not a herpetologist.)  At the beginning of Art & Max, Arthur is painting a portrait of another smooth-ish lizard when Max rushes up and says, “Hey, Art, that’s great!”

“The name is Arthur,” Arthur reminds Max.  Undeterred, Max announces that he too can paint.  Arthur isn’t excited about the idea, but he allows Max to paint as long as he doesn’t get in the way.  With his supplies and blank canvas ready to go, Max realizes he doesn’t know what to paint.

“Well … you could paint me,” suggests Arthur.  Needing no further encouragement, the blue, yellow, and orange paint flies off Max’s brush.  Directly onto Arthur.

No, that isn’t what Arthur meant when he said, “You could paint me.”

But that’s exactly what Max has done.  Arthur, now transformed into a Jackson Pollock-ish pointy lizard, is enraged.  He screams Max’s name and the now dry paint cracks, flakes, and bursts off of Arthur to reveal another artistic layer.  Chalk.  Max helps Arthur get rid of the chalk, only to reveal another artistic layer.  Layer after layer is removed, each revealing Arthur artistically rendered in another medium.  Eventually, after several artistic transformations, Arthur is left as the shell of himself.  He’s just a pencil outline.

It gets even worse for poor Arthur before it gets better, but Max’s final solution is both amazing and fascinating, even to Arthur.

David Wiesner has created another artistic gem.  What Flotsam did for photographers, what June 29, 1999 did for gardeners, what Tuesday did for herpetologists, Art & Max will do for art teachers*.  The story is simple, but Wiesner’s tour through several artistic media is what makes his latest book a must have for classrooms.

*Okay, I don’t know for certain that photographers, gardeners, or herpetologists necessarily benefited from Wiesner’s books, but art teachers, yes, get yourselves a copy of Art & Max.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Always Listen to Your Mother by Florence Parry Heide and Roxanne Heide Pierce

"Once upon a time there was a nice little boy named Earnest."  Oh, and how nice he was!  He always listened to his mother.  Always.  Always, always.

He ate his vegetables, even when they were the only things on his plate.  He played quietly, and when he was done, he picked up his toys.  He sat up straight and went to bed on time.  He helped with the household chores and even managed more difficult tasks (for kids anyway) like polishing, mending, and cooking.

What did Earnest never do?  The list is extensive: spill, whine, dawdle, talk back, get his own way, or have a good time.  But he was a nice little boy, there's no arguing that.

So when Earnest noticed a new family moving into the house next door, he asked his mother if he could go over.  His mother hoped he would meet another nice little boy.  "Mothers always want their children to meet other nice children.  They want their children to meet nice children who will be a good influence."

Earnest is greeted at the door by another nice little boy.  This boy introduces himself as Vlapid.  He has beady eyes, pointy ears, and spiky gray hair to match his grayish complexion.  And Vlapid always listens to his mother.  But when his mother looks like ... um, well ... you see, Vlapid's mother is ... ah, shucks.  Let's just try this:

So yes, Vlapid always listens to his mother (and Earnest is all too eager to help), but can you imagine what Vlapid's mother expects of him?

I bought into this book right from the start.  Earnest looks completely wholesome - suspenders, bow tie, right hand politely tucked into his pocket - while Vlapid, I think, may have a troll or two in his family tree.  At first I was disappointed that the book ended when it did, with only the promise of days spend together "influencing" one another.  I expected readers to see a slow transformation in Earnest.  Instead, they are left with the two boys together, smiling pleasantly, fishing.  But what comes next?  Does Earnest's mom invite Vlapid's family over for tea?  Does Earnest begin helping his mother like Vlapid helps his?

Maybe it's better this way.  While I love the idea of tea at Earnest's house, other readers will surely imagine a variety of other possible scenarios.  Leaving what happens to the discretion of the reader allows for as many creative endings as there are readers, and all readers will be satisfied.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Power Mothers Have

As my son plays football behind me - yes, he's in the house, throwing a ball which tends to bounce randomly off walls, shelves, furniture, and just now, me - his actions simply give me another example I could have used in my latest newspaper column.  (Printable version here.)  

Let's just hope he doesn't end up with a broken finger from playing football in the house ... like a certain boy - who shall remain nameless - once did thirty-ish years ago.

Mothers have the most incredible power known to humanity.  This power has been used every generation since the dawn of time, and its effectiveness is evident in our own children.

Having trouble with your children?  Blame your parents, not your parenting.  Our children’s behavior is entirely beyond our control.  They behave this way due to that incredible power mothers have heretofore refused to lay aside.

What is this ability able to sit dormant for 10, 20, even 30 years before bursting back to life, crossing generational divides to unleash its remarkable power?

The Mother’s Curse.

Every mother, at some point during motherhood, faces the choice.  The circumstances may differ, but the choice remains the same.  Every child will inevitably push their mother’s limits to this crucial crossroads when frustration and aggravation become exasperation.

It is at this moment when mothers must choose.  Do I want my child to one day grow into a happy, peaceful, joy-filled parent, or do I want my child to one day experience the same frustration, aggravation, and exasperation as me?

The choice is anything but easy.

This is the time when mothers the world over, throughout history, with no regard to religion or race, culture or creed, have unanimously uttered these words: “One day, someday, you will have a child.  Just.  Like.  You.”

My wife’s train recently rolled into that station.  One of our angels was in the midst of fulfilling her grandmother’s prophetic declaration when my loving, kind-hearted, peaceful wife began, “One day, and I hope I’m there to see it, someday, you will have a child.  Just.  Like…”

“Stop!” I yelled.  “Don’t do it!”

She stopped.  Not because I suggested it, mind you.  It was more of a shocked, did-you-just-rudely-interrupt-me-in-front-of-the-children hesitation, but she did stop.

Here she was about to continue the Mother’s Curse to another generation, to perpetuate the problem of childhood conduct, and in that moment I shared -- blurted, really -- my realization.

“Don’t do it!  Don’t continue the curse!”

She did not speak, and has yet to speak, those words that nearly passed her lips.

And thus began my quest.

Parents of today, the ability to change the world is in our hands.  We Generation X-ers, often criticized as cynical layabouts and unmotivated slackers, could rise up and accomplish what no generation before has even considered.  We could end the Mother’s Curse.

Hear me out!  No longer will beds go unmade.  Homework will be completed without asking.  “Please” and “thank you” will roll naturally off the tongues of the young.  Sass will be a thing of the past.

When our daughters say, “I hope you have a child just like you,” our grandchildren will respond, “Oh, Mother, kinder words may never have been spoken.”

Words once a curse will become a blessing.

Sure, as grandparents it might be satisfying to sit back, smirk and ask, “Having trouble with the children, hmmm?”  But as gratifying as that would surely be, this quest is for the good of humanity.

Break the Mother’s Curse!  It is time. No, it is PAST time.

Your silence is golden.  An ounce of patience is worth a pound of …

What?  Our kids?

Well, no, it wouldn’t actually apply to our children.  See, our mothers have already enacted the curse upon us, but together we could …

Ah, never mind.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems

Trixie and her beloved bunny have traveled down the block, through the park, and past the school to the Laundromat in Knuffle Bunny.  Trixie took her one-of-a-kind bunny to school in Knuffle Bunny Too.  In Knuffle Bunny FreeMo Willems tells how Trixie and her family embark on a much longer journey.  This time they are going to visit Oma and Opa in Holland.

The Knuffle Bunny series has been a family favorite for years.  The adults laugh at the marriage and hospital pictures on the title page and how Trixie helps her daddy with the laundry.  Our kids laugh when Trixie says, "Aggle flaggle klabble!" and "Wumby flappy?!”  They think it's hysterical when Trixie goes boneless.  (Good thing they've grown out of the habit of going boneless themselves.)  The adults laugh at the kids laughing, like when a friend of our daughter’s said, “Why is she washing goggles?”

So everyone was excited when Knuffle Bunny Free was released.

During their journey to Holland, Trixie and Knuffle Bunny experience all the joys of traveling long distances.  There’s the eagerness of the taxi ride to the airport, the uncertainty of airport security, and the excitement of boarding a real airplane.  There’s also the monotonous boredom of waiting in line, waiting at the gate, and waiting for the plane to arrive.  Finally Trixie and her family board a train for Oma and Opa’s house, arriving to welcoming hugs and cold glasses of chocolate milk.  But then...

Trixie's realizations in Knuffle Bunny, Knuffle Bunny Too, and Knuffle Bunny Free.

No, Knuffle Bunny is not in the washing machine.  No, Knuffle Bunny is not at Sonja’s house.  Worse.  Trixie’s daddy called the airline.

Knuffle Bunny is in China.

No way Knuffle Bunny is coming home this time, everyone thinks.  Mommy gives Trixie hugs, Daddy tells the story of his “Special Lamby,” and Oma got more chocolate milk and commented about how big Trixie was getting.  Not even the cafĂ©, the park, the carnival, windmills, feeding ducks, or Oma and Opa’s surprise can fill the Knuffle Bunny sized hole inside Trixie.

Eventually Trixie comes to a realization on her own about Knuffle Bunny.  And despite the amazing and miraculous final events of the Knuffle Bunny saga, Trixie knows that her realization is true.

“Really?” asks Trixie’s daddy.  “Really?” asks Trixie’s mommy.  “Blaggie Plaggie?” asks a new acquaintance.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

It's a Book by Lane Smith

There’s not much more to share about the book that isn’t available in my first or second posts, so I’ll just tack on my review here.  I think the book is absolutely hilarious, and I’m talking about the pages between the introductory Jackass and the concluding Jackass.

Are we really living in a world where some people have forgotten about books?  People certainly haven’t forgotten the importance of reading.  Try taking away someone’s texts or tweets or blogs.  That’s reading.  People read more today than ever before.  But there’s still value to books - the plain old, hard bound, paper and ink book.  Maybe I’m just biased … okay, I am definitely biased … but I think everyone should see the importance of books.  Even a Jackass.

Of course Lane Smith and Roaring Brook Press knew exactly what they were doing.  First, the book is a spot-on commentary on technology in today’s world and perfectly illustrates what happens when a great book grabs the attention of the reader.  Second, using Jackass in the manner they did guaranteed publicity and sales.

And there’s the rub.  I believe most teachers will find the book a great tool to use with students to spark discussions on technology, books, and reading in today’s world.  I believe most teachers will find it entertaining.  At the same time I also believe that most teachers will hesitate or flat-out refuse to use the book.  So while I highly recommend the book and think it’s hilarious, the choice to use it (and potentially defend it) is yours.

I find it extremely frustrating that a book with so much potential for classroom use will simply not find a home in classrooms, not because it doesn’t belong there, but because some people will think it doesn’t.  In the end it’s the teachers and librarians who will need to defend their use of the book to parents, principals, and school boards.  And at the end of the day, most teachers will simply say:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It's a Book by Lane Smith - Survey Results

A few days ago I set up a simple survey about It’s a Book by Lane Smith.  It is admittedly a very unscientific survey, but it gathered some information, and that was the intention.  (Here’s my original post and the survey.  Opinions are still welcome.)  Here is a summary of the results.

All the respondents were either teachers or librarians, but several people checked numerous boxes, like the teachers who are also parents.

Completed Surveys = 32

Was it funny?  Yes = 31  No = 1

Have you read the book?  Yes = 25  Read about it = 7

Should it be in a school library?  Yes = 11  No = 16

Should it be in a public library?  Yes = 28  No = 2

Teachers who would read it aloud to their class:  Yes = 1  No = 7  Yes, but edited = 16

Librarians who would read it aloud to a group: Yes = 1  No = 5  Yes, but edited = 2  Maybe = 1

Parents who want the book read in their child’s class:  Yes = 0  No = 4  Yes, but edited = 3

About half of the respondents left comments, and most of them focused on the use of the word Jackass.  Here’s a sampling:
  • I’ll use it as long as I don’t have to deal with any angry parents.  I already have enough to do.
  • Teaches them slang.  Throw it out!
  • Is that kind of book "commentary" really meant for younger kids? I don't think so…I think we should discourage the use of disrespectful language and labeling, which I think the use of the word jackass exemplifies.
  • The Jackass aspect ruins the book instead of making it better.  It wasn't necessary.
  • I feel that it is a funny premise, but it is divisive. It seems to miss its audience and therefore misses the point. I don't think most children would get anything out of the book other than "jackass." I love what he is trying to do, but I don't see how his message will get to the masses when teachers and school librarians can't read it aloud or stock it in their library.  Having the book in schools is a fight many librarians will choose not to start. I am sure they push the boundaries as far as they feel they can with many of their choices. There's no point in unnecessarily ruffling feathers WITH A PICTURE BOOK. Could he have gotten his point across any other way?  I think if he had chosen any other humorous joke, it would have made the point because he is LANE FREAKIN SMITH!
Thank you to everyone who took the time to respond.  Anyone who would like to share their opinions can still complete the survey or leave a comment below.  Thanks again.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's a Book by Lane Smith - Survey

There’s been a little buzz recently - or maybe it’s significant buzz, whatever - about It’s a Book by Lane Smith.  First, an introduction to the book thanks to the book’s trailer (or you could just keep reading):

And that’s it.  One plugged-in, tweeting, blogger type character is curious about this book-thingy that another character is holding.  He is only able to see the book through his technological frame of reference, and therefore is unable to understand its simplicity.  How do you use it?  What does it do?  How does it work?

Okay, that’s not it.  Not really, at least in the eyes of many.  The book trailer leaves out one little detail.  Here, the title page introduces the characters.

Now maybe you’re saying, “I can live with that.  Donkey, jackass, whatever.  Teachable moment.”  Or maybe you’re saying, “Oh for crying out loud.  Jackass?  Is that really necessary?”  Either way, you read through the book and notice all the technological terms that are so significant in our lives and our children’s lives today.  You see how Jackass can take a page from Monkey's book, Treasure Island, and rewrite it using only twenty-nine characters, emoticons included.  Then you witness his apparent transformation as the book completely captures his attention.

But when he promises to charge it up when he’s finished, Monkey and Mouse have had enough.  Mouse tells him on the penultimate page, just like the book’s trailer, “You don’t have to…” and completes his statement on the last page:

And now I’m curious.  What do you - teachers, librarians, parents, students - think?  Is the book worth all the hubbub, Bub?  Should it be used with students?  In libraries?  At home?

I’ve created a very simple, very short, very anonymous survey to gather some opinions.  Please take a moment - 90 seconds, tops - to share your opinion below, and be sure to click SUBMIT at the bottom.  After I’ve gathered some information, I’ll share my complete review and whatever findings I find.  Thanks in advance.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer

Hope is the perfect name for her.  Not Tulip.  Definitely not Tulip.  She nearly died after being born.  Her mother left her to be raised by her aunt.  She moves frequently, leaving behind the people she cares for.  But she knows Hope is the perfect name.  Her aunt Addie says a name like Hope is a lot to live up to and asks, “You think you’re up to carrying that name?”

Hope Yancey doesn’t just believe she’s up to it.  She proves it.

When Addie and Hope move from Brooklyn, New York to Mulhoney, Wisconsin to work as head cook and waitress at the Welcome Stairways restaurant, they do so to make a living, not necessarily to make a new life.  What they thought were new jobs turns out to be much, much more.

Shortly after their arrival, G.T. Stoop, the owner of the Welcome Stairways, announces his candidacy for mayor despite the fact that he has leukemia.  Lou Ellen, a waitress at the Welcome Stairways, is concerned about her baby daughter’s slow development.  Yuri, a recent immigrant from Russia, nervously busses tables and carefully navigates American culture with his broken English.  Hope is needed in the Welcome Stairways, and not just another good waitress.

Hope establishes herself as a talented waitress in the restaurant, a true friend, and as the summer progresses, a staunch supporter of G.T. Stoop for mayor.  She becomes friends with Braverman, the assistant cook, and a number of others as they work together on G.T.’s mayoral campaign.  Throughout it all Hope maintains … hope.  Hope that G.T. will win.  Hope that Lou Ellen's daughter will get better.  Hope that she can make a difference.  Hope that someday she will meet the father she never knew.  She’s even prepared the story of her life in scrapbooks for the moment her father arrives.

Joan Bauer has created a story full of characters that readers will enjoy, care for, and admire.  There are teenagers who work for goals larger than themselves and individuals who place the wellbeing of others above their own.  Hope Was Here is filled with people who learn and know what faith, hope, and love can do.  Readers will cheer the characters’ achievements and share their disappointments.  Readers will feel their joys, their sorrows, and all the emotions in between.

The I-94 welcome sign on the Wisconsin-Illinois border.
Finally, and I know not all readers share my Cheesehead bias, but nevertheless, don’t hold it against Hope when she describes her entrance into Wisconsin as “Green rolling hills.  Cheese billboards.  Grazing cows.  Basic bovine boredom.”  She hadn’t been enlightened yet!  And just a scant 122 pages later Hope says,

“You think all teenagers care about are musicians and movie stars?
Spend some time in Wisconsin.
We’ll blow your socks off.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hope Was Here: Our Original Project Outline

This is the original outline we created that lists government, election, and political topics by chapter in Hope Was Here.  We included both the key terms and how they appear in context.  Additional resources are available at Joan Bauer’s website.  Since this is primarily a book review website, I’ll try to keep from giving away too much at the end.  (But to be honest, I’m not overly confident.)

Chapter 2
Banner "Reelect Our Mayor - Eli Millstone - The Only Man for Mulhoney"

Chapter 3
Campaign buttons reading "Vote for Eli Millstone" are worn by eight men at the restaurant.  Their request to hang a "Vote for Eli Millstone" poster is refused, Hope decides she doesn't like Eli Millstone because of the men’s behavior, even though she's never met him.

Chapter 4
An Eli Millstone float appears in the town parade.  People around the float wear Millstone t-shirts.  Later, G.T. announces he's running for mayor.  He says he doesn’t have an exploratory committee.  He gives his platform, or reasons why he's running.  Eli Millstone challenges him about taxes.  Millstone mentions the issues and says he is running on his record.

Chapter 5
The town charter says anyone who is a resident, age 30, and a U.S. citizen can run for mayor.  G.T. has a petition to be signed.  The Election Board says he needs 200 registered voters to sign the petition for him to officially be on the ballot.

Chapter 6
The Students for Political Freedom Coalition helps get signatures.  Rumors say that the Real Fresh Dairy funded Millstone's campaign

Chapter 7
Student Adam Pulver tells G.T. about his uncle.  He is a spin doctor and has helped two congressmen win seats in the last two elections.  "My uncle is a genius.  The last guy he worked for was behind thirty-five points in the polls.  Uncle Sid found the button of the district and his candidate won."  Later, Sid Vole says, "The whole messy game of politics is about trust."

Chapter 8
"To spin or not to spin.  That was the question."  Suddenly the tax assessor's office is closed, and the Election Board says that fifty-five names had wrong information on the petition.  G.T. is off the ballot.

Chapter 9
After an extension, more signatures get G.T. back on the ballot.  "We've got ourselves an official horse race now," says Eli Millstone.  He is asked "When will you be releasing the names of your campaign contributors?"

Chapter 10
G.T. gives speeches and is burning up the campaign trail.  Campaign slogans are suggested.  Students for Stoop is started with a website and newsletter.

Chapter 11
Students are encouraged to write letters to the Mulhoney Messenger.  Editorials about the tax assessor's office are published.  G.T. says "Give the mayor a message for me.  Tell him that lies and dirty tricks never win in the long run.  Tell him that fear is no way to govern people.  He can refuse to meet with me from now until Election Day, but I will not be silent!"  The Real Fresh Dairy cancels their advertising in the Mulhoney Messenger and Cranston Broom, dairy owner, announces his support of Eli Millstone.

Chapter 12
G.T. doesn't want to see the list of his campaign contributors.

Chapter 14
The Students for Stoop newsletter is called propaganda.  Attempts are made to create publicity.  In her speech Hope mentions being a citizen, the campaign, being part of the political process, being an honorable personfighting for the truth, and playing games with people's trust.  She mentions being sold down the riverdishonesty behind closed doors, the public eye, and being trustworthy.

Chapter 17
School starts.  Hope is in a Political Science class.  Claims are made that the sheriff was paid off to turn his back.  Polls show one candidate is seven points ahead.  A person says, "If you hear a lie long enough it starts to sound like the truth."  Posters reading Stop Stoop appear.  It is Election Day.

Chapter 18
There are no signs of election tampering.  Eighty-five percent of registered voters in town voted.  (How does that compare to most elections?) The Election Board investigates the official books. Numerous voters listed claim they never even registered.  There is a protest outside Town Hall.  A resignation is requested.  The winner takes the oath of office.

Chapter 19
Numerous appointments occur, fines are levied, and investigations begin.  "Politics isn't about powercontrol, or manipulation."

Chapter 20
The current mayor’s term continues.

Chapter 21
An acting mayor holds office.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hope Was Here: Our Conversation with Joan Bauer

Having learned from a government official in Madison that mayoral elections in Wisconsin are always in the spring, and having read about the fall mayoral election in Hope Was Here, the students were eager to contact author Joan Bauer.  Our correspondence follows.  The emails have been slightly edited, and for privacy’s sake, specific names of students, teachers, and places have been eliminated.

From: Brian
To: Joan Bauer
Subject: The Election in Hope Was Here

Mrs. Bauer,

Our fourth and fifth grade class used Hope Was Here as the basis of our government project.  The reading teacher - me - would come in each day and read a chapter or two aloud.  The classroom teacher, Ms. B., would then follow up with lessons and research about campaigns, finances, taxes, issues, polls, or whatever election information was included in the book that day.

It was a wonderful unit, and as any great book will do, the discussions extended way beyond the intended subject matter.

To follow up we invited our local mayor to talk about her election experiences.  She told us that she was elected in the spring.  She was unsure, but she believed that mayoral elections throughout the state were held in the spring.

That got us to wondering, we did some digging, and here's what we learned.  Nonpartisan elections in the state of Wisconsin, including mayoral elections, are held in the spring.  A regularly scheduled election for mayor would never occur in the fall.  However, if there was a vacancy that occurred before June 1, the city's common council may order a special November election to fill the vacancy.

And now we have a bunch of questions.  Did you know that?  Did you choose to put the election in the fall anyway so it would better fit the plot?  Do you have any connection to Wisconsin?  If so, what?  And if not, why did you choose to send Hope and Addie to Wisconsin and not, say, Iowa?

Thank you for your time and for your wonderful book.  And please know we aren't trying to correct you or point out errors.  We are just genuinely curious.

Brian Wilhorn and 23 interested 4th and 5th graders

Deep breath … wonder if everything is politely stated … another deep breath … and … click … SEND.  It took a week - and the longer it stretched, the more convinced I became that we’d just completely irritated a Newbery Honor winning author - but finally the response came.

From: Joan Bauer
To: Brian
Subject: RE: The Election in Hope Was Here

Dear Mr. Wilhorn --

Hello to you and your class.  I'm delighted to hear how you and your students have dug into HOPE WAS HERE.  What a great way for them to learn about government.  I'm impressed.  And, I must tell you, that I didn't know about the spring mayoral elections in Wisconsin.  I did a great deal of research about local politics, but I missed that one.  Thank you so much for letting me know.  Now, that brings me to the other part -- had I known, what would I have done?  I'm not sure because so much of the story takes place in the summer as Hope and Addie move to town.  I needed Hope not to be in school so I could show her full-out at the diner, and then there is the build-up of the election into the fall.  It would have been quite a challenge to change it to spring.  But all of this is fascinating to think about.

Thank you for digging down so deeply -- you are giving your kids a stupendous gift.  My best to you and your 23 interested 4th and 5th graders.

Here's to hope!
Joan Bauer

Do you know what an email like this can do to a room full of nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-olds?  Teachers, I’m sure you can imagine.  These students just learned that research can uncover information even an author missed.  They asked a question and successfully found the answer.  Maybe most significantly, they experienced the incredible feeling that comes when an important somebody takes the time to acknowledge and validate a child’s efforts.

From: Brian
To: Joan Bauer
Subject: RE: The Election in Hope Was Here

Dear Mrs. Bauer,

Our students loved learning that an author would respond so personally to their questions.  Thank you.

Would it be okay to share your response with others?  The mayor who spoke to our class was curious to know if we'd learn more after her visit, and the person I talked to at the Government Accountability Board, Elections Division in Madison was curious to know as well.

Finally, I hope our email didn't have a "Gotcha!" tone to it.  That was never the intention.

Thanks again for a wonderful book, the gracious response, and your willingness to share with students in a little Wisconsin town 1/10 the size of Mulhoney.


Our second response was quick in coming, and it was every bit as gracious and kind as the first.

From: Joan Bauer
To: Brian
Subject: RE: The Election in Hope Was Here

Dear Brian --

Please share this response -- I think it's wonderful that your mayor and other government officials are interested.  It just makes me realize how right it was for me to put Hope and Addie in Wisconsin.  And as for your concern about a "gotcha" -- I truly didn't feel that at all, so please don't worry.  I'm delighted by your enthusiasm and impressed by how you brought so many facets of the book to life.  One interesting thing that's happened with HOPE WAS HERE is that the State Department translated the story into Russian after I visited the country of Kazakhstan a few years ago.  And now it's being circulated in both Kazakhstan and Russian.  HOPE has been translated into many languages, but the Russian edition has special meaning for me.  In case your kids are interested, the Russian word for hope is (I'll spell this out phonetically) na*deer*ja.

Warmest wishes,