Friday, January 25, 2013

Bird and Squirrel review

Book talk: Fun-loving Bird and paranoid Squirrel don't get along at first.  Then Bird injures his wing and accidentally destroys Squirrel's hoard of nuts. When faced with the possibility of starving to death or migrating south with Bird, Squirrel chooses the road trip.  When they get to know each other a little better...they really get on each others' nerves.  The road trip begins to sound like an awful idea.  If Squirrel hadn't left at least he'd be starving to death at home.  Now they're on the road and they have no food, no place to sleep, and no umbrella in the middle of a storm.  But what does bird think they need more than anything else?  A theme song!

Rocks my socks:  This is a fairly standard odd couple story but it is well executed.  From the acorn helmet that Squirrel wears to protect himself to the way Bird makes bee puns even as he's being stung.  Squirrel is so tightly wound and Bird is so zany that it's impossible not to find their annoyance with each other entertaining.  Even though I knew whenever Cat appeared he'd be foiled in some Wile E Coyote-esque way and appear more bedraggled the next time, it still cracked me up every time.  The spot-on facial expressions and bright artwork help convey a lot of humour as well.

Rocks in my socks:  Despite no tune being given, I got my own version of the Bird and Squirrel theme song stuck in my head.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to kids looking for a funny story 2nd grade and up.


James Burks has his own website with a portfolio, blog, and instagram pictures

Kids will enjoy this tutorial on how to draw squirrel

Source: School library

Bird and Squirrel On the Run! by James Burks: buy it or check it out today!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Memory and Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1) The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Farthest Shore (The Earthsea Cycle, #3)

My parents have a plastic santa head with a motion detector in it.  It is made to hang on a door so that when visitors arrive they are greeted with a "Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!" This is followed by music that was probably meant to be a cherry carol but is so warped and computerized that it ends up sounding like the theme song to some 80's horror-movie Christmas villain.

I don't remember when my parents got the Santa, but I do remember that dreaded music grating on my nerves every Christmas for years.  I wasn't alone either, but instead of getting rid of the darn thing my family turned our collective hatred of that music into a game.  We'd arrive home from Christmas shopping and duck down, dragging our bags and slowly opening the door.  We were like cat burglars contorting to avoid laser sensors in some museum heist, but if we failed the sound was worse than any mere alarm.

At some point the Santa disappeared.  I suspect that I may have even been the one behind it, although memory fails me.  Maybe he was simply lost, because while my mother was looking through the attic this year, she found him.

I kept the discovery a secret from my sister, then on Christmas morning I snuck out to put him up.  We all had a good laugh and enjoyed ducking to avoid him once more.  After all, the holidays are a time for tradition. Even if that tradition drives you crazy.

It was with this mindset that I decided to re-read A Wizard of Earthsea.  My mother read the trilogy to me when I was a child, but I was so young and my memory is so poor that I had forgotten everything about it except for a deep sense of love and comfort probably emanating from the warmth of my mother's arms and the sound of her voice just as much as the story itself.  I have been meaning to re-read it for a while now, but I was afraid that it wouldn't live up to my memory of it and that reading it again might therefore mar those lingering feelings of contentment that I associated with it.

I needn't have worried.

I found the exact copy that my mother read to me on her shelf, and sitting on my grandmother's wingback chair, eating my mother's snowball cookies, and surrounded by my family I felt perfectly content as I read it.

I was there less than a week and was busy with preparations and celebrations but I managed to find the time to read the first two novels and a bit of the third before I returned home, where I could pick back up with my own copies of the same editions. I worked in a used book store and I collected them as they turned up because just seeing those old cover illustrations brought back such happy memories.

Memory is a strong theme in the novels.  In the first, Ged's training largely consists of memorizing names and histories and he is stalked by the memory of a foolish mistake he makes in his youth. In the second, Tenar must memorize the twists and turns of the labyrinth while she struggles to remember her own past.  In the third, the major threat is literally a plague of forgetfulness.  Throughout the trilogy the importance of remembering the history of Earthsea and its traditions and the threat of forgetting is emphasized in various ways from wizards who change into an animal too often and forget who they are, to people who forget the existence of magic entirely.

This makes me wonder about today's age when there is so much talk of technology replacing the need for memorizing information.  If you see an actor that looks familiar you don't have to struggle to remember where you saw him, you can just check out his IMDB page.  If you forget the lyrics to a song it's incredibly easy to find them.  Education is turning away from fact memorization to project-based learning and meta-cognitive skills.  On the one hand, I agree that students shouldn't be made to memorize the postal abbreviations of all fifty states and I agree that project-based learning and meta-cognitive skills are important.  On the other hand there are benefits to memorization beyond information recall.

For example, many people would argue that there is no need to memorize poetry.  It's simple to look up a poem if you need to reference it, especially if it is in the public domain.  Yet I've found that when I memorize a poem I come to understand it in an entirely different way.  There's something comforting about the act of memorization and I feel a far deeper personal connection to poems that I have memorized.  Just because something isn't necessary doesn't mean that it has no value.

I don't regret that new technologies make information so accessible.  There are plenty of things I'd rather not commit to memory.  And I know the idea of memorizing poetry doesn't appeal to everyone.  But I believe it is important for people to commit something to memory that is meaningful to them whether it's song lyrics, baseball stats, or large chunks of Eddie Izzard's stand-up routines.  In an age when we don't need to memorize information it becomes all the more meaningful when we do.  To me there's something poetic in the act of memorizing poetry.  The most useless endeavors are often the most beautiful.

Above all, it's important that we don't stop studying what came before because we trust we can look it up if we need the knowledge.  Sometimes you don't know what you need to know until you know it.  We must keep the past alive in our memories from our shared history to personal family traditions.  After all, it was only by facing his mistake and confronting his past that Ged was able to move on with his life.  Running away from memories won't get you anywhere but tired.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Avatar Review

Book talk: The war is over, but Aang still has a lot of work ahead of him to maintain the delicate peace he and his friends fought so hard to win.  The Earth Nation is pocked with Fire Nation colonies that must be removed.  Everything goes well at first, but when a colony decides to fight back the two nations gear up for another war.

Rocks my socks:  The premise is a rare one for juvenile fiction: the politics of peace-keeping after a war.  Yang handles it with skill and makes it interesting and accessible.  Removing a long-standing colony is a complicated and messy affair.  The Fire Nation colonists have been there long enough to settle down and have children, sometimes even with members of the Earth Nation.  Yang thoughtfully develops one of these biracial children and her feelings on the issue.  The issue of imitating another's culture is handled deftly as well with Aang exploring his feelings about his fan club members dressing up like Air Benders.  Despite these weighty subjects the overall tone remains light and plenty of humor is peppered throughout, making it easy for children (and older readers) to digest.

Rocks in my socks: nothing

Every book its reader: Fans of the show will enjoy reading about Aang's continued adventures.  I haven't watched the original series myself, but I can tell you that Gene Yang is a big fan of the series so I'm sure it was safe in his hands.  For those who haven't seen the show, Yang gives a brief recap to bring readers up to speed at the beginning.  I'd enthusiastically recommend this to anyone looking for a humorous fantasy comic third grade and up.


Gene Luen Yang has his own website with a blog, bio, and more

You can get a behind-the-scenes look at the comic with this video

There are plenty of resources about Avatar online including the Avatar Wiki and Avatar the Last Airbender Online

Source: School Library

Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Promise parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang, Bryan Gurihiru, and Michael Heisler: buy it or check it out today!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mini Reviews: December 2012

This book has everything going for it that Mirka's first adventure does: a great female protagonist, seamlessly integrated facts about Jewish culture, epic knitting scenes, and a heaping dose of humour.  In this adventure Mirka narrowly saves her town from being destroyed, then ends up having to deal with a doppelganger who is better than her at everything and keeps stealing her food to boot.  I love Mirka for her flaws more than her strengths, and it's nice to see her make this same realization about herself.  Mirka is a great protagonist because she is so relatable, and I think plenty of kids (and adults for that matter) will be able to identify with Mirka as she doubts herself and the way her passion for sword fighting far surpasses her skill at it.  Everyone can certainly enjoy the humour peppered throughout (my favorite was when the troll reveals his collection of magical objects including a mustache of doom, white out of despair, and hair tie of unexplained plot significance.)  This is a comic for anyone who has ever dreamt of fighting enemies with swords and got grounded for trying to do so.  Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite by Barry Deutsch: buy it or check it out today!

My sister bought me this for my birthday and it cracked me up.  Flipping through its pages was like having a conversation about my favorite movies with an interesting stranger at a party.  Plus it has a foreword by NPH.  The book is a series of paintings that depicts great showdowns in film history.  Despite the theme involving fights everyone depicted is incongruously cheery and adorable, which is where a lot of the humour comes from.  He even manages to make A Clockwork Orange look cute! A lot of the paintings also made me laugh out loud when I saw who Scott pitted against each other: Spinal Tap vs. tiny Stone Henge, the Titanic vs. the iceberg, Willy Wonka vs. all the children.  There were some that I didn't recognize, but that's just something for me to look forward to.  As I watch more movies and look back at this book, I'll recognize more and more.  It's the gift that keeps on giving.  The Great Showdowns by Scott C: buy it or check it out today!

B Cover
This is the text of the poem that Sarah Kay presented in her fabulous TED talk.  This version is sparsely illustrated and would make a wonderful gift, or something nice to keep on your shelf for when you need a little inspiration yourself.  From her declaration that she is "going to paint the solar systems on the back of her [daughter's] hands, so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, 'Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.'"  to he reassurance that "rain will wash away everything, if you let it."  This is a poem for mothers and daughters to read and enjoy together.  B by Sarah Kay: buy it or check it out today!

I really enjoyed this installment of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, even though it took me a year to get through.  It's interesting, but not exactly a page-turner.  Still, I enjoy reading this series to get a glimpse of what's going on in the world of science news and I found myself referencing things I learned in these articles throughout the year. Like any collection of articles or stories there were ones I enjoyed more than others and some I enjoyed at first but went on for longer than my interest.  Overall it was a great collection though and I'll probably be starting the next one soon.  The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 edited by Mary Roach: buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Raven Boys Review

Book talk:   On St. Mark's Eve the spirits of those who will die in the next year march along Corpse Road.  Of course Blue had never been able to see them.  Her gift is to increase the psychic abilities of others without being able to experience them herself.  Which is why she was once again by the old church on St. Mark's Eve helping someone else record the names of unfortunate souls she could not see.  That is, until she saw him.  That night everything changed.  There are only two reasons why a non-seer like her would see a spirt on St. Mark's Eve: she's either his true love...or his killer.

Rocks my socks:  I love the characters in this novel from Blue: the sensible one in a house full of psychics to the group of Raven Boys: so called because of their private school's mascot.  The four Raven Boys have a special bond and it's this group chemistry that kept me reading more than anything else.  There's Gansey, the leader of the pack; Ronan, who knots his ties "with a method best described as contempt;"  Adam, who is described as "a sepia photograph;" and Noah, who looks "like his body had been laundered too many times."  Gansey is obsessed with finding the body of a lost Welsh king that he believes is hidden on a magical ley line.  He pursues this quest through meticulous and passionate research that warmed the heart of this librarian.  The boys clearly care about each other, but they're so different that they seem to be constantly on the verge of breaking apart.  So many stories focus on romantic relationships to the exclusion of all else that it's refreshing to read a story with such an interesting group dynamic at its heart.  Along the way Stiefvater managed to throw me a curveball and I'm so rarely surprised by well-written plot developments that I take great pleasure from the times that I am.

Rocks in my socks:  While I enjoyed the novel and the way it ended, I don't feel like it lived up to the promise of the beginning.  Three things are repeatedly mentioned at the start: that Blue's fated to kill the one she loves, that Gansey is supposed to die within the year, and that Gansey is obsessed with a Welsh king.  Yet after the beginning these story lines fade. The romance is barely present, Gansey's impending doom is never revealed to him and rarely mentioned, and only the quest for the king remains.  I'm not really disappointed because the book became more about the group dynamic I enjoyed so much, but I still feel like the story didn't match the set-up.  This is the first book in the series though, so it's possible those elements will pick up more in the next books.  I also didn't love the way all the teachers were depicted as resenting their rich pupils, although I'm more than a bit biased on the subject.  Still, this sloppy characterization smacks of cliche.  Hopefully the next book will include at least one teacher that actually likes teaching.

Every book its reader:  More than anything else this book reminded me of The Likeness by Tana  French, but that's an adult novel so not necessarily helpful for recommending it to students.  I'm sure the supernatural aspects of the story will be a big selling point for many. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of supernatural fiction--I'm more of a straight-up fantasy girl, but I loved this novel anyway because of the group dynamic.  So people who may not usually go for supernatural fiction but love character-driven novels and boarding school stories shouldn't let the psychics deter them.


Maggie Stiefvater has her own website with a page for the book.

There's an animated trailer for the book over at Maggie Stiefvater's YouTube page

Source: School Library

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Amulet Review

Book talk:  When Emily's family moved to a decrepit house in the middle of nowhere she knew her old life was over.  But she never expected that a new life full of danger and excitement was about to begin.  While exploring the house, she discovers a mysterious amulet.  It gives her more power than she ever dreamt of having, but it comes at a cost.  Now she's stuck in a strange new world where she's expected to use that power to prevent the evil elf king from taking over.  The fate of her family and both her worlds is in her hands.  But is she strong enough to wield the amulet without falling prey to it herself?

Rocks my socks:  My students have been raving about this series for years and I can see why.  Kibuishi's world-building is intricate and engrossing but it's slowly revealed so that it doesn't bog the reader down with exposition at the beginning.  Like with Copper, his artwork is beautiful and his use of color helps create the perfect atmosphere for each scene.  His imaginative landscapes are populated by a diverse cast of characters that are thoughtfully portrayed and nuanced.  There's humans, elves, sentient robots, talking trees, and humans that have caught a disease that makes them look like animals (one of my favorites is a bounty hunter fox that reminds me of the Disney Robin Hood.)  The protagonists are good but not perfect and the villains are frightening but not entirely evil.  The question of who is good and who is evil is constantly being examined as characters betray and save each other and their motivations are revealed.  The main character is a girl who is incredibly powerful and an excellent role model as she struggles to wield that power for good and not let it overtake her.  Her younger brother finds his own way to shine instead of the tired sibling rivalry dynamic.  Even more rare: Kibuishi does not fall into the Useless Adult Syndrome trap so common in juvenile fiction and instead comes up with believable reasons why these children are drawn into the fight and creates adult characters that attempt to help and defend them, including their mother.  The series only gets better as it progresses and the world and character building continues allowing it to explore deeper questions.

Rocks in my socks: absolutely nothing

Every book its reader:  I hardly need to recommend this to my students as I can barely keep it on the shelves.  I absolutely love this series and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone of any age, but fans of fantasy comics, strong female characters, narratives with meat to them, and layered characterization will be particularly likely to enjoy this series.  Third grade and up.

Scholastic has an interactive page for the book where you can ask characters questions and make them dance in a conga line.

You can find Kazu Kibuishi at Bolt City where you can read his blog, find out more about his projects, and read the excellent web comic Copper

You can find a trailer for Amulet book one on YouTube that includes a mini tour of his studio, as well as a longer tour of his studio, a great animated trailer for book four that also serves well as a general introduction to the series, and more if you search for Kazu Kibuishi

Source: school library

Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi:  Buy it or check it out today!