Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Warriors: Into the Woods

I'm posting a graphic novel review every Tuesday in November.

You may notice a dearth of reviews of animal books on this site. Very observant of you...I can't stand them. Aside from Where The Red Fern Grows, I avoid them at all costs. Still, when I see tons of students carting around books from a series about wild cats, it's my job to check them out. I suffer for them.

Warriors is a series of novels that focus on the lives of four clans of feral cats. There seem to be a million different spin-off series, complete with mythologies and terminology. I didn't think I would be able to invest that much energy in a cat series, until I stumbled across a manga version. I randomly selected Into the Woods, which tells the love story of two felines, Sasha and Tigerstar. These star-crossed lovers (I am giggling to type this about cats) come from different worlds: Sasha is a housecat and Tigerstar is a rebellious clan leader. The majority of the story involves them catching prey and dropping it in front of each other. Not particularly gripping, but I think it would be fun for readers who are already engrossed in the series. This graphic novel is clearly the origin story of two favorite characters, and I can see where readers would be interested, as the cats' personalities are very appealing. Who doesn't love a rebel or a good girl gone bad?

The illustrations are fairly standard...they remind me of the comic books I used to read at my orthodontist's office when I was younger. Still, all of the characters are distinguishable (a feat when there are many cats on a page) and the text is easily followed. One detail I liked is that when humans are speaking, the font changes so readers know that the rest of the book is written in the cat language.

Would I add it to my classroom library? Yes, because there is a strong interest and I know that the book would not sit on the shelf for long. However, I would only add it if I could get it for a good price (the story itself is only 87 pages and the rest of the book is a preview of one of the novels) and if I could get the other two books in the series, as the story continues.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

You Don't Even Know Me



Sharon G. Flake tops the list of authors my students clamor to read. Who Am I Without Him?, her short stories from the point of view of girls, ranks among the most borrowed (and most "permanently borrowed") in our library. I finally got to read You Don't Even Know Me, Flake's companion from the male perspective.  

Flake is unmatched when it comes to writing in the voice of unborn teens, probably from her past as a youth counselor. The short stories in this collection are captivating, and I'd like to read almost all of them as full-length novels. They tackle a plethora of issues, including teen pregnancy (and marriage), sexual abuse, HIV, difficult family relationships, and lots of growing up.
My favorite short story, "The Hood", chronicles a sweltering summer day in North Philly. I was particularly taken with a troubled character named Elliott. He is described as having sad eyes and proclaims that everything gets blamed on him. His uncontrollable desire to set things on fire foreshadows that there will be a lot more blame for him in the future. Even when I couldn't relate to the protagonists of all the stories, I was eager to learn more and I know it would be the same for my students.

In my opinion, the poems in this book were just filler. While some were thought provoking, most added nothing to my reading experience. For example, the entire text of "Sixteen" is "My ride/My boys/My game/My girl/My world." I would have preferred that those pages were used for another amazing short story. Now I've officially read all of Sharon G. Flake's books and can join the rest of the legions waiting for her next work.


 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jellaby

I'm posting a graphic novel review every Tuesday in November. Check out the rest here.

Something I love about graphic novels is their ability to delve into dark topics in few words, connecting with some of the readers who most need to explore these themes. An undercurrent of loneliness runs throughout Kean Soo's Jellaby. Portia is a brilliant child who is an outcast at school and lives alone with her workaholic mother, not knowing what happened to her absent father. It is in this isolation that she stumbles upon a purple monster who is at times needy, sweet, and protective. Namely, everything she needs in her life.

Jellaby inspires Portia to be more courageous and she tentatively moves towards a friendship with Jason, another bullied and solitary child. They unite to take Jellaby into Toronto, in order to bring him to the Halloween Fair from which he came. Unfortunately for readers, that's about as far as the plot extends in this first volume. Although the characterization is important, as soon as the story gets moving, the book is over. Since Jellaby is such a quick read, I would recommend having the second volume handy because readers will want to continue the story immediately. Sadly, the third volume will not be published, and in fact, the first volume has gone out of print. While the prices for used copies on amazon.com are astonishing ($9,924?!), the book itself was easy to find at my local library. It's worth seeking out.

Jellaby is adorable, all rounded edges and big eyes. In another world, he'd be a beloved character, available in plush and animated form. Instead, fans will have to content themselves with poring over Soo's wonderful illustrations. His color palette of purple, black, and white adds to the solitary mood, with more orange occurring as Jason and Portia become better friends. I am interested to hunt down the second volume, to learn if the colors get brighter as their friendship grows, if the allusions in the character names hold significant meaning, and what awaits the trio in Toronto.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

13 Gifts

Tara Brennan has always been an outsider, moving to different schools, blending into the background. The one time she tries to fit in with the popular crowd, she gets caught stealing a goat and is sent to live with her younger cousin’s family for the summer. For Tara, it’s just one more move that she needs to survive, but the residents of Willow Falls won’t let her slide by unnoticed. She quickly falls in with a crew of quirky friends and meets Angelina D’Angelo, a mysterious old woman who tasks Tara with collecting thirteen gifts before her thirteenth birthday, in order to protect her soul.
13 Gifts is the third novel in Wendy Mass’ series about Willow Falls. Having not read 11 Birthdays or Finally, I was initially overwhelmed by the eccentric cast of characters. Everyone has a quirk, from Rory (of Finally fame) who is dating a movie star, to Leo and Amanda (of 11 Birthdays) who can only communicate with each other via chalkboards that they wear around their necks. The temptation is to put 13 GIFTS aside in favor a book that is easier to follow. Don’t give up-- this sweet story is satisfying and will make readers want to catch up on the rest of the series.

Willow Falls is a special place, similar to Stars Hollow of The Gilmore Girls. All of the community members are connected and open, which is the perfect setting for Tara to gradually come out of her shell. Mass never hammers the theme of friendship; she shows how being included and accepting the help of others makes a huge difference in the life of a lonely girl. Tara’s insecurities will be instantly relatable to middle grade readers who will enjoy the innocence of a first crush and the satisfaction of pulling off a big project.

Wendy Mass’ books are extremely popular with my sixth grade students, who trade and recommend the titles to each other. I highly recommend reading the first two Willow Falls novels before starting 13 Gifts so you can fully appreciate Tara’s adventures in this strange but wonderful town.

This review was cross-posted at Young Adult Books Central.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Dodgeball Chronicles (Knights of the Lunch Table)

I'm reviewing a graphic novel every Tuesday in November. Check out the other reviews here.


Frank Cammuso's The Knights of the Lunch Table is a series that my students will wear down to nubs. I am so thrilled to have stumbled upon them because I can already imagine how they will look in a few months: pages falling out, scuffed edges, and full of other proofs of love.                                                                                              These graphic novels are a clever take on the tale of King Arthur, complete with a castle-shaped middle school, a locker that can only be opened by our hero Artie, and a science teacher named Mr. Merlin. What's best is that the allusions are not forced upon readers; if they don't get the references, they will still love the story. Plus, building background knowledge of the basic plot and characters of a classic is always useful.

In The Dodgeball Chronicles, when Artie transfers to Camelot Middle School, he instantly makes enemies of a group of bullies called "The Horde". Fortunately, he also makes a few tight friends (hooray for casual diversity!) and decide that the best way to resolve their conflicts is with a dodgeball match. Of course. There is a lot of action and laughs for readers with shorter attention spans.
Cammuso's illustrations are attractive and the lettering and layout are easy to follow. I was frequently reminded of the Bone series in the best possible way; those books are constantly being replaced because they are worn out or "lost". Personally, I found The Dodgeball Chronicles to be much smarter and funnier than the Bone series. Let's celebrate another excellent series of graphic novels for middle school students!


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

At several points while reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I thought to myself, “I am so grateful that there are people with brains like Laini Taylor. What a gift to have an imagination that can create such amazing characters and worlds.” Make sure you clear some room in your calendar when you pick up this novel, because you won’t be able to do anything until it’s completed.


Karou has always been a little bit odd: as a Prague art student, she draws monsters that she claims are real, she is always off on exotic and secretive errands, and her blue hair seems to grow naturally. Her smirk belies the fact that everything she says is true. She was raised by chimaera, monsters who are in an epic war against seraphim, also known as angels. The closest thing she has to a father is Brimstone, a disgruntled creature who hoards teeth and grants wishes. When Karou comes face to face with the handsome seraph Akiva, their history tells them to fight, but their instincts won’t let them.

While this may sound like a common paranormal romance plot, Taylor elevates these elements with her gorgeous prose. Daughter of Smoke and Bone gave me the impression that Taylor has traveled widely, for her descriptions of Prague, Morocco, and Boise are all accurate and gorgeous. On the other hand, the alternate world Elsewhere is just as beautifully written, so maybe Taylor is just an immensely gifted writer. Scratch that. It is obvious that Taylor is immensely gifted. Each sentence feels like it was polished lovingly before being handed to the reader. When I read lines like, “A trill of laughter, the scent of cinnamon and donkeys, and color, everywhere color”, I am beside Karou in the Marrakesh market. The lush and dark imagery in the novel make for a perfect autumn read.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is told in three parts and it is a testament to Taylor’s skill that while I wanted to find out what would happen next, I was always sad to leave part of the novel behind. While the final section of the book does not match the suspense and mystery of the earlier parts, it does answer many of my questions and sets the reader up for an agonizing wait for a sequel. As I eagerly await news on when it will be published, I will be busy reading everything else that Laini Taylor has ever written.

This novel was given to me for review by Young Adults Books Central. Read this and other reviews at http://www.yabookscentral.com/.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Feynman

Feynman should be required reading in all physics classes. I realize I don't have much credibility in making this pronouncement, as the person who just had to ask, "Is physics math or science?" Anyway, I didn't know anything about Richard Feynman before reading this graphic novel and I was missing out.

Feynman was an incredible character: Nobel prize winner, physicist, safe cracker, drummer, and fortunately, a raconteur.
Jim Ottaviani did extensive research in order to write this book, as so much of the text comes from Feynman's own work and speeches. These efforts give the reader a well-rounded picture of Feynman the man, flaws and all. In addition to his genius, the authors show his womanizing and his internal debate over the consequences of his creations. Overall, he seems like a person with whom you would like to share a meal.

I appreciate that Ottaviani did not shy away from the mathematics involved in Feynman's work. Sometimes I followed along, occasionally I just enjoyed the illustrations. A challenge that Feynman took on in his later years was to simply explain his work to a friend, which evolved into The Feynman Lectures on Physics. For what it's worth, this is the most I've ever attempted to understand anything like this. Don't judge me.

As an illustrator, Leland Myrick faced the challenge that all of his characters are real people of whom photographs exist. His drawings are realistic, while still beautifully capturing the abstract depictions of Feynman's mind.

I wish this was the first in a series of graphic novels about historical figures because Ottaviani and Myrick are an incredible team. Older teens will enjoy Feynman and feel like I do, eager for more.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Meanwhile

I'm reviewing a graphic novel every Tuesday in November. Check out the first review here.

Are you reading the blog Stacked yet? It is really fabulous and has been a gateway to so many new books this year. Among the gems is Meanwhile, a graphic novel by Jason Shiga. Part Choose Your Own Adventure, part "Sliding Doors" for kids, this book is all about making decisions.

On the first page, Jimmy has to choose between buying chocolate or vanilla ice cream. From there, the reader follows tubes and tabs which lead him through a variety of adventures with Professor K and his bizarre and destructive inventions. The cover promises 3,856 possible stories and I believe it. Meanwhile is the most inventive book I have ever read, and the best part is that although I spent a good amount of time exploring it, I did not even begin to crack the depth of it. This is a book that my students will devour.

Even more impressive than the book is the author: Jason Shiga has a degree in pure mathematics, has invented board games and card tricks, and written many comic books. I am so grateful that there are minds like this in the world, challenging what we think about how books should be read or how stories should go. I appreciate all the clever details of Meanwhile, like the laminated pages and the fact that you can't cheat and backtrack, like I always used to do in Choose Your Own Adventure books. In life, you don't get to keep your finger in the page and remake your choices, and in Shiga's world sometimes a chocolate ice cream cone can lead to the best or worst day ever.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Real Live Boyfriends

Dear E. Lockhart,

I just finished Real Live Boyfriends and am so sad because I have now read all your books. Even worse, I have to deal with the fact that there will be no more Ruby Oliver books. I hate not being able to look forward to what the wonderfully neurotic Ruby will do once she reaches college. Would you consider writing a novel about a student who lives in the same dorm as Ruby? That way I could still get updates on her and know that she is transitioning to the real world smoothly.

I loved the increased maturity we saw in Ruby in this book. She's still loony, but shows a bit more judgment when dealing with Noel and Gideon and all the other boys in her life. I guess she'd have to be mature, with her parents absolutely falling to pieces (I am so grateful that my mother is nothing like Ruby's). I also like that it felt like Ruby already had one step outside of the Tate universe, not feeling so much angst about her former friends and her reputation. You beautifully captured the feeling of senior year and grappling with the future, while still remaining funny and brilliant.

Please write quickly...I am eagerly awaiting your next novel.
Thanks a bunch,
Miss K



Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bad Island

Bad Island is a graphic novel about a family vacation gone horribly awry. The father plans a boat trip, although no one is very excited by the prospect. While the mother is concerned with her prized orchids, teenage athlete Reese would rather play football, and daughter Janie is preoccupied with caring for her pet snake.

A storm strands them on an island full of dangerous creatures and secrets. The family takes this news far more calmly than I would. Rather than panicking, they try to work together and use their strengths to survive. The book belongs to Reese, who starts out wanting to run away from home, and ends up a hero. I wish I knew more about why he was planning to run away, whether it was typical teenage rebellion or something more. Still, I liked that Reese was able to use his existing skills, rather than suddenly developing new ones, in order to help his family.

Doug TenNapel's illustrations are engaging and convey action and emotion well. Especially impressive is the use of color, richly saturated and slightly menacing. The varying panel sizes also helped move the narrative along.

This is a graphic novel I would recommend to parents with an adolescent who is slightly driving them crazy. Are there any of those out there?! There is a message of gratitude and familial love, but it is never cloying.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dork Diaries

Even before being chosen to judge for the Cybils, I decided to post reviews of graphic novels on every Tuesday in November, starting with Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell.

This book was loaned to me by a 6th grade neighbor, and it's a book I've been eager to read for awhile. I put it on the Amazon wishlist for my former school, but it never got picked up. After having read it, I'm glad that other books were donated instead of this one. While the format and cover make it seem like a female version of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, the reality is that it's a pale imitation.

I think my disappointment lies in the fact that the Wimpy Kid books are genuinely funny, the illustrations look realistic to a (talented) young adult, and the series does not seem to pander to the audience. Dork Diaries contrasts in every way. It feels like it was written by an adult who feels that writing "OMG" and referring to Tyra Banks, "I just LOVE that girl!" will appeal to young girls. Judging by the popularity of the series, maybe it does. Still, I prefer to recommend books with stronger writing, that still contain all the fun slang and even more relevant pop culture references. The illustrations in Dork Diaries are beautiful, but unrealistic for the age level. They also vary in style greatly. I went to the author's website to see if there were multiple illustrators and found that there were. I also noticed that the protagonist's name was misspelled (Nicki instead of Nikki) in several publicity sections of the website. My readers deserve better.

I did enjoy the subplot with Nikki spray painting a found hearing aid to create a fake cell phone. This felt like the most authentic aspect of the story, something that probably happened to someone in the author's life. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel was a let-down. I'm leaving the sequel unread and removing it from the wishlist.