The Plant Hunters

29 06 2012

I don’t read much non-fiction.  I really should, because whenever I do, I really enjoy it, but I very rarely pick up a non-fiction book.

Each year I read a few non-fiction books about the countries I’m going to visit with Minooka TAP, and I read a few books every year about teaching, but other than that…  not a whole lot.

However, in the group of teachers and school librarians I follow on Twitter The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth by Anita Silvey was getting a lot of buzz.  People were talking about it like it was about real life Indiana Jones’s, so I was intrigued.  I ask my students to read several non-fiction books each year, I’d better put my money where my mouth is.

The last time I had the thought that I’d better put my money where my mouth is, it was because I told all my students in Japan that they should try weird foods, step out of their comfort zones, and not be afraid of something new.  “Just taste everything once,” I said, trying to encourage them to be adventurous, “if you don’t like it you don’t ever have to eat it again.”  Little did I know that I’d have to follow through on that request when they handed me a bucket of soy sauce flavored grasshoppers.  So, I ate a bug.  It was awful.

Now, realizing that I ask my kids to read non-fiction, when I don’t do it myself, I had to step up.  Reading this book was way better than eating a bug.  Actually, this book was fun.  I read the whole thing in one sitting, and learned a lot about plants, flowers, and the explorers who discovered and cataloged them.

It really was a lot like a whole bunch of real life Indian Jones characters.  These botanists fought their way through jungles, swam crocodile and piranha infested waters, were chased by pirates and native warriors, survived storms and wars, and even outran jungle cats to live another day.  Who knew that plants could be so exciting?

Reading this book really changed the way I look at flower gardens, the forest preserve near my house, and the medicines on my shelf.  Thanks to some brave botanists, the world is a different place.

I’m trying to read 90 books on 90 days this summer.  This was book 31.  

The Lord Buddha

28 06 2012

I’m lucky enough that I get to travel the world with my students each year.  One of the best ways we prepare for those trips is by readings stories and books from that area of the world.  This year, getting ready for our Japan trips, we read Hachiko Waits, The Old Man Mad About Drawing, The Master Puppeteer, The Big Wave, and a whole bunch more.

However, this year I also found some great books while I was on my trip that helped me better understand what I was seeing.   I already wrote about Barefoot Gen, which gave me a whole new understanding about what I saw in Hiroshima, but another book I picked up in Japan was The Lord Buddha.  

I bought this one at a Buddhist temple outside of Tokyo to help me understand who Buddha was and a little more about that religion.  It’s a picture book biography that tells the life story of Buddha, from childhood til his death.

This is the 30th book I’ve read this summer.  I’m shooting to read 90 books in 90 days.  

Barefoot Gen

27 06 2012

Every once in a while you read a book that hits you hard, beats you down emotionally, or gives you a metaphorical punch in the gut.  Barefoot Gen is one of those books.

The main character of this moving graphic novel is Gen Nakoaka, but really it’s Keiji Nakazawa, the author of the book.  You see, just like Gen (the character), Nakazawa was in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 – the day the U.S. dropped an atom bomb.   This first volume (out of 10) focuses on the weeks before the bomb, and how Gen’s family is affected by Japan’s war against England and America.  His oldest brother enlists in the army, another brother is sent out of the city to work for the government farms, his father and mother are trying their hardest to keep the family together and properly fed, and his sister and younger brother are slowly starving.

In front of the Peace Bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park, a group of Japanese 6th graders interviewed me to practice their English and ask me about my thoughts on world peace. I said it was a good idea.

The book is a history lesson rolled up into a personal narrative, with funny moments, touching bits, and a whole load of horror.   It was especially moving to me, considering the fact that I bought it in the Hiroshima Peace Museum, just a few hundred yards from the spot where the bomb exploded 67 years ago.

With the brand new book in my backpack, I strolled through Hiroshima, past the A-Bomb dome (one of the few buildings that survived the blast), the Peace Memorial, and groups of young Japanese school kids practicing their English by interviewing American tourists about their wishes for peace in the world.  It was a moving, emotional day.

Minooka TAP students in front of Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome.

We can argue all day about whether or not America should have dropped the bomb, but that’s not the point.  It happened and we can’t change it, but we should understand how it impacted regular people.  This book humanizes the tragedy in a similar way that the Maus books, Anne Frank, The Book Thief, and Number the Stars gave faces to the Holocaust victims – Gen becomes a face for the tragedy on the other side of the war – an innocent boy, who endures countless horrors through no fault of his own.

This is the 29th book I’ve read this summer.  I’m shooting for 90 books in 90 days over break, and I’m sure that the next 9 Barefoot Gen books will be among the ones I read this year.  

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

26 06 2012

I have a special place in my heart for funny books.  My favorites have always been the books that make me laugh.  I distinctly remember a book I read in 5th grade called Upchuck Summer that had me rolling on the floor and sharing the hilarious parts with my friends.   I loved SuperfudgeRamona the Brave, and the poems of Shel Silverstein.

As I got older, I kept reading funny stories like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Catch-22, and books by Christopher Moore.

Lately, as a teacher, when I read kids’ books, the ones I seem to enjoy most are the clever, funny ones.  The Origami Yoda books, Peter and the Starcatchers, the Whimpy Kid books, and The True Meaning of Smekday are some of the best I’ve read recently.  You can go ahead and add The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy to that list.

The Hero’s Guide actually has four heroes.  They’re all Princes Charming.  You see, the bards (old fashioned musical storytellers) didn’t quite get those old fashioned stories right – the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty focused on the damsels in distress, but not the heroic princes that saved them.  These four princes now have something to prove, so they set out for adventure, eventually teaming up to form the League of Princes Charming and fight an evil witch, a simple giant, a scary dragon, and a band of evil bandits.

Prince Charming is really one of literature’s most famous characters, but no one knows anything about him (or them), not even his real name.  This book is a hysterical spin on those old fairy tales, giving depth, character, and charm to all four Princes Charming.

I highly recommend this one to any fans of comedy, fantasy, or adventure books.

This summer I have a quest to read 90 books in 90 days.  This was #28.  


11 06 2012

With the movie that came out last fall, Tintin has become a popular character here in the U.S., but he’s not new like many people think.   In fact, Tintin’s first appearance, in the comic section of a French newspaper, was in 1929.  That makes Tintin just a year younger than Mickey Mouse, five years older than Donald Duck, and nine years older than Superman and Bugs Bunny.   Just for good measure, that also makes Tintin old enough to be Charlie Brown’s dad (debuted in 1950), and Calvin’s (from Calvin and Hobbes) grandfather (Calving started in 1985).

Actually, the animated movie that everyone reading this should see, is the 6th Tintin story to be released as a movie.  The other ones aren’t very good, and aren’t in English, so I can’t recommend them.

I was first introduced to Tintin almost by mistake.  I run a program called Minooka TAP, a group of teachers that takes 8th grade student on summer trips to foreign countries to study history and culture.  We prepare each group for almost two years before we actually travel, and a lot of that prep work is done by reading all sorts of stories, poems, articles, and websites to get an much information crammed into our brains as we can.  Last year, our group traveled to Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, and Morocco.  We read some books set in each of those countries, but I was having a hard time finding anything set in Morocco.  Finally, I found a book called The Adventures of Tintin: The Crab with the Golden Claws.  Part of that story took its hero, Tintin, through a marketplace in Morocco as part of a wild chase scene.  Since we were going to spend some time in one of those marketplaces (a medina) and the book had some great illustrations of one, I bought it.

That day in Morocco was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, but I felt a little better prepared, because of Tintin.  On top of that, it was a fun, action packed story (with a lot of comedy thrown in).

I’ve been meaning to read more Tintin books (there are 24 all together) ever since, but I finally found some time to this week.

The first one I read, Tintin in America wasn’t great.  It was different from the other Tintin book I read, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.  Then I realized that a lot of supporting characters that I loved were missing.  This was only the third Tintin book, so the author, Herge, hadn’t figured everything out quite yet.  On top of that, all the American characters were kind of stereotypes and a little racist.  There was a Chicago gangster, a tribe of Native Americans, and an evil businessman.  Also, the story felt disconnected, as if a whole bunch of unrelated things kept happening to Tintin and they didn’t fit together.  If you like Tintin a lot, I recommend it, because you can catch glimpses of who the character became, but if you’re not a big fan, just skip the early books.

Next, I read Cigars of the Pharaoh, which I liked a lot more.  It was full of action, and introduced some of the characters like Thomson and Thompson, that became regulars throughout the rest of the series.  You can tell that Herge did a lot of research on the settings (India and Egypt) to make the story as realistic as possible.  This one is a lot of fun.

That story continues into The Blue Lotus, which is set during a time right before WWII, when Japan was trying to take control of China. Tintin finds himself in the middle of some political problems between the Japanese and Chinese.  Some of the bad guys from Cigars of the Pharaoh carry over into this book too.   I really enjoyed most of this book.  It’s only 62 pages, but that’s a little to long for the story.  I enjoyed the first 50 pages and the last 3 pages a lot.  There were about 10 pages there near the end that just didn’t work for me.  Overall, thought, it’s well worth reading.

I’ve already reserved the next three Tintin books at my local library.

These three books put me at 27 books for the summer.  I’m trying to read 90 books in the 90 days of vacation.

Fake Mustache

11 06 2012

There are a couple of websites that I keep finding great book recommendations from: Twitter and Goodreads.

I’d never used Twitter before this summer, because I figured I connected to enough people through Facebook.  However, to make a long story less long, last year I read a great book for teachers called The Book Whisperer.  The author of that book, Donalyn Miller, has a blog that I started following online.  Near the end of this past school year, she blogged about a challenge that she gives her students (and, of course, does herself) – to read 90 books in 90 days over summer break.

If you’re reading these blog posts on my site, you probably already know that I’m working on that 90 book challenge too.   Fake Mustache, by the waywas the 21st book I read this summer.

Anyway, on her blog, Donalyn Miller said that she’d be tweeting each time she finished one of her 90 books.  She also said that a whole community of readers would be on there, using the hashtag #bookaday, to inform the world as they read their 90 books.

I decided to start a Twitter account (@mcliterature), and connect with some of these folks.

The coolest stuff started happening.  I made online Twitter friends through our shared interest in good books.

I started following Donalyn Miller on Twitter, and even participated in a Twitter discussion about graphic novels in the classroom.  That led me to some great books like Babymouse, Squish, and Smile – which I might not have ever read if it hadn’t been for all those Twitter people suggesting them.

So, I read a few Babymouse books and Squish (they’re by the same authors), and when I finished, I tweeted to the #bookaday folks that I was done.  Next thing you know it, my messages were being re-tweeted by Matt Holm (the guy that draws both Babymouse and Squish).  So, I started including him in my tweets each time I read one of his books, and this led me to a few other folks, who started talking about books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Big Nate, Diary of a Whimy Kid, and the Origami Yoda books (all of which aren’t quite graphic novels, but tell the story with both pictures and words).

I had just read The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and The Return of Darth Paper, so I had a lot to say about stories like that.  It turns out that Tom Angleberger had another book, Fake Mustache.   I read that one, and loved it so much, that when I tweeted about finishing my third Tom Angleberger book of the year, I raved about all three books.

About a day later, Tom Angleberger himself, who had seem my tweet, messaged me and recommended I read his other book, Horton Halfpot.  Then we actually went back and forth, messaging one another for a little while.  During the conversation, he (and I know it was in a fun, joking way) even called me #mynewfavoriteenglishteacher.

Now, I’m not saying Matt Holm, Tom Angleberger, and I are all best buddies now, but it’s so cool to connect with these authors in such a personal way.  I’m really loving Twitter for that.  I’m hoping maybe we can read a few of their books in class next year and get them to answer a few questions from the class.

Anyway – on to Fake Mustache.  This book is hilarious.  It’s the story of a 7th grader named Lenny Jr. who goes with his friend Casper to a local novelty shop, where Casper purchases a very realistic fake mustache.

The next day, a small man (or is it a tall boy) who looks a lot like Casper with mustache that looks a lot like the one Lenny Jr. saw him buying robs a bank.  Then another bank gets robbed, then other strange events start happening.  Lenny’s not positive, but he thinks that Casper’s behind it all, when a man named Fako Mustacho steps onto the scene.

Fako, who may or may not really be Casper, has plans for world domination, and there’s something about that mustache that’s allowing him to brainwash the whole world.  Well, except Lenny Jr. and washed up television star Jodie O’Rodeo, formerly of The Jodie O’Rodeo Showdeo, and they have to figure out a way to stop him.

I laughed through the whole book, and can not recommend it more.  I can’t wait now to get my hands on Horton Halfpot – I mean, how can I not read it, the author himself recommend it to me?

Babymouse: Beach Babe

10 06 2012

The third Babymouse book is just as good as the first two.  In addition to Babymouse’s usual real-life problems and the imaginary worlds she escapes into, this time there’s a sentimental side to the story too.

It’s the last day of school and Babymouse and her family head to the beach for their family vacation.  Babymouse spends a great deal of her time looking for a playmate out on the beach, ignoring her little brother Squeak.   Over time, she realizes that the playmate she was looking for was right there in front of her the whole time.

Most of Babymouse’s usual cast is missing in this one, as the book focuses on her family instead.

So far, this is my favorite of the Babymouse books.

This is the 24th book I’ve read this summer.  I’m doing pretty good on my quest to read 90 books in 90 days over break.