19 08 2012

There’s Harry Potter, The Lord of the RingsThe Chronicles of NarniaThe Once and Future King, and countless other fantasy novels that can lay the claim to the “be all end all,” the best of the best, the one series that defines the genre.  I’m here today to ask people to consider Jeff Smith’s epic graphic novel series Bone for that title as well.

The world of Bone is every bit as detailed, well thought out, and endless in scope as Narnia.  It’s heroes, the Bone cousins (Fone, Phoney, and Smiley) are as fantastic as Frodo and Samwise.  The reluctant “Chosen One,” Thorn, is as compelling as Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Neo from the Matrix.  Plus, unlike most of those other stories, Bone also has some hilarious moments.

I haven’t finished the 9 book series just yet, but the first 6 books make up the first two of three trilogies that tell the entire story of Fone Bone, a marshmallowy looking creature who, along with his scam-artist cousin Phoney and his goofball cousin Smiley, stumble into “the valley,” a world of mythological monsters and medieval villages.

The cousins are separated at first, finding themselves in an ancient world on the verge of war.  A mysterious hooded figure is trying to awake evil spirits of the past, aided by the rat creatures, a vicious breed of carnivorous monsters.  The Bones are befriended by the last remaining humans in the valley, including Thorn, a beautiful, but sad heroine, Gran’ma Ben, and Lucious, the owner of the Barrelhaven Tavern.

As the story unfolds, more bad guys show up, twists and turns abound, and the characters become some of the strongest ever seen in the fantasy genre.

So far, I’ve read Bone 1-6.  They were the 80th, 81st, 83rd, 87th, 88th, and 90th books I’ve read this summer.  I have three more Bone books to read to finish Bone’s quest, but my quest to read 90 books in 90 days over summer break is over.  

Amulet Vol.1: The Stonekeeper

19 08 2012

If you want to learn how to write a good hook for a piece of fiction, see an example how to grab a reader’s attention and make them – force them to – command them to- want to read more, then read the first pages of Amulet Vol. 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi.

From the opening scene of this amazingly drawn graphic novel, you’re hooked.  You can’t wait to find out what happens, and, unlike a lot of fantasy stories, you don’t get bogged down in a bunch of exposition from there.  Kibuishi finds a way to weave the rules of his world and the lives of his characters into the story.

Emily and Navin have just lost their dad.  Mom has moved them away from everything they know, moving them into a giant, spooky house that you can feel must be loaded with secrets.  Right away you see, just outside of view of the characters, a ghosty, misty spirit lurking in the shadows.  Suddenly, things get real.

The children’s mom is eaten by the spirit, and the kids, giving chase to the creature, get sucked into some sort of alternate dimension where Emily’s new found amulet seems to be a source of power that can both help her and has the baddies after her.

The action is non-stop, the characters fun and interesting, and the world of Amulet is intriguing.  I can’t wait to read book 2.

This fantastic graphic novel was the 79th book I’ve read this summer on my quest to finish 90 books in 9o days over break.

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau

19 08 2012

I love picture book biographies.  The regular biographies, when well done, can be fantastic books, but let’s be honest here – sometimes they can be a bit dry and boring.  I can’t do dry and boring.

Picture book biographies, on the other hand, usually offer a really cool spin on certain aspects of a subject’s life, with awesome pictures.  This one, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau, is exactly that.  This book is about the marine scientist/inventor/television pioneer – Jacques Cousteau, and it skips all the boring stuff that puts you to sleep and just gets to the really interesting parts of Cousteau’s life.

First, that he was very sick and weak as a kid, but used water to strengthen his muscles, starting a life long love affair with the sea.  Second, that a chance gift of some goggles, started him on a quest to explore deeper and deeper and deeper in the world’s oceans, forcing him to invent equipment that no one thought possible to reach his goals.  Then, the desire he had to share what he was seeing under the sea and creating undersea cameras so that TV shows could be filmed, showing the whole world what he was seeing.  Finally, Cousteau’s desire to protect the oceans from mankind, who had polluted everywhere else in the world already.

In just 32 pages, Dan Yaccarino touches on all those aspects of Cousteau’s amazing life, leaving some readers with just enough information, but sending others (like me) right to Wikipedia to read more and to YouTube to watch Cousteau’s videos.  That’s the sign of a good book right there.

This one was recommended to me by some teachers I talk to on Twitter, and I’ll be passing the recommendation on to any kids who have any interest in sea exploration or marine biology.

This summer, I’ve been on a quest to finish 90 books in the 90 days we have off from school.  This book was #78.


Tons More Babymouse

19 08 2012

All summer long I’ve been slowly working my way through the Babymouse series.  Honestly, I’ve seen students reading these for years, and they’ve always frustrated me a little – I was of the opinion that they were baby books and had nothing of value for 6th graders.  Boy, was I wrong.

These books are fantastic for 6th graders.  They’re loaded with connections to other texts, to movies, to TV shows, to history, and to real life.  They’re all about imagination, living your dreams, and being happy with who you are.  What could be more appropriate for 12 year olds?

There are a few Babymouse books that never seem to be in at my local library – Like #4, Babymouse: Rockstar – would someone please return that already – but this week I just decided to read all the ones they had, even if they weren’t in the right order (order doesn’t really matter with this series).

First, I read Babymouse: The Musical, which is the 10th book in the series.  As the school drama coach, and a theatre major in college, this one was one of my favorites.  Babymouse’s little imaginings took her into some famous musicals.  The part I liked best was when she found herself in The Phantom of the Opera, because just last month I was in that famous Opera House in Paris.  It’s always fun when the books you read surprisingly connect with things you’ve done in life.

Next was Babymouse: Dragonslayer, the 11th book.  This one ties in all sorts of popular stories from fantasy – Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and, in a really fun way that is typical Babymouse, the Narnia stories.  This, I think, was my favorite Babymouse so far.

I had to skip a few books, but after Dragonslayer, I read Babymouse: Mad Scientist (#14).  This one was a clever way to introduce Jennifer and Matt Holm’s other graphic novel series – Squish.  In this story, Babymouse is working on a science fair project about amoebas, and happens to find Squish.  I’ve already read the first two Squish books, but I imagine kids reading this for the first time, then finding Squish in his own adventures will be pretty excited.

The 15th book, A Very Babymouse Christmas, was another fun one.  Not as clever as some of the other ones, but still a good book.

Finally, I read #9, Puppy Love.  This one is a hilarious look at Babymouse trying to find just the right pet for her.  Look for the scene in which we find out what happens to all of the past pets she’s had that have escaped.  Typical Babymouse right there.

I hope I can get my hands on the few Babymouse stories I haven’t read so far, but I know one thing’s for sure – I will be recommending these to kids in my class this year.  I judged these books by their cover early on, but I’ve learned my lesson now.

These five Babymouse books were the 77th, 82nd, 85th, 86th, and 89th.  I’m reviewing them here a little out of order, but I’m almost done with my quest to read 90 books in 90 days over break.  

Baseball Picture Books

19 08 2012

I love baseball.  What’s great about baseball is all the personalities, all the quirks, all the rich moments of history.  There’s so much there, and so much of it is woven into the fabric of American society from the mid 1800s to the 1960s and 1970s when baseball started to become more business than sport, more about money than being America’s past time.

One of the things I love most about the game is the fun stories that are hidden away.  Every player, more so than football and basketball in my mind, has their own story to tell.  Two of my favorites are Roberto Clemente and Larry Doby.

Clemente, by Willie Perdomo, is one of those books that shows you how some players were bigger than the game.  Roberto Clemente was the first Latin American superstar in baseball.  His story mirrors Jackie Robinson’s in many ways, and this book shows one of the most important – that he was a hero to other people, that he showed them that a Puerto Rican kid could grow up to be rich and famous, and that a hero is more than just someone who runs around a ballfield for a living.

Clemente was a hero in every sense of the word.  As a ballplayer, he did represent hope to a segment of society that had none of their own to root for.  However, off the field he was a true hero, giving his time, his money, and his life to help people who weren’t as fortunate as he was.  This book looks at Clemente through the eyes of a young fan who idolized the Pirates outfielder for all of those reasons.

Just as Good by Chris Crowe is the story of Larry Doby.  Who?  That’s what you’re probably asking, but Larry Doby was an African American player – the second ever to make it to the big leagues, the first in the American League, and the first to win a World Series ring.  He was just as good as Jackie Robinson, but Robinson gets all the glory.  Doby, who is also in the Hall of Fame, gets the star treatment in this picture book, and the author makes the case for Doby’s success was even more important for black athletes than Robinson’s was.

This story, also told through the eyes of a young fan, shows the impact Doby’s career had on young African Americans.  Unfortunately, Doby is a sometimes forgotten player in our history, but Crowe does everything he can to undo that for his readers.

These are the kind of books I love before heading on a road trip to see a ball game in Pittsburgh or Cleveland with my boys.  To look at a statue of Clemente or Doby is one thing, but to know their story is so much more meaningful.

Clemente was the 76th book I read this summer, and Just as Good was the 84th.  I’m getting close to finishing my quest for reading 90 books in 90 days over break.  


17 08 2012

The tagline for R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is, “Don’t judge a book boy by its cover his face,” and that’s a pretty good way to introduce this beautifully written story about a young boy named Auggie.

Auggie is the narrator of his own story, at least for the first few chapters, and he starts out by letting you know that he isn’t a normal 5th grader.  Well… on the inside he is – he loves to play his Xbox, he loves Star Wars, and he’s figuring out the world around him, just like any 5th grade boy.  On the outside, however, Auggie is not so normal.  He’s got some problems.  He was born with some serious disfigurements of his face, and even after 30+ surgeries, the way he describes his face is simply to say, “whatever you’re imagining, it’s worse.”

Auggie’s never been to school before.  He’s always been home-schooled by his mom.  Now, though, he’s going to a regular school for the first time.  Being the new kid is tough no matter who you are, but imagine being the new kid when you’re face makes people run away screaming.  No, seriously, that’s the kind of thing Auggie deals with sometimes when he goes out in public, and now he’s got to survive a middle school.

This is, to put it very simply, an important book.  I firmly believe that every middle school student, all their parents, every single teacher, and all the social workers, counselors, principals, and assistant principals should read this one.  The things Auggie copes with, the people around him – the good and the bad (and you’ll be surprised by who – in the book’s own term – Chooses Kind) people that he is surrounded by – and the way he handles the cards he’s been dealt are truly inspirational.

One of the things that makes this book so unique is that about a quarter of the way through, the narrator changes.  Suddenly Auggie’s overprotective big sister, Via, who is dealing with some major issues of her own as she starts her first year of high school, is telling the story from her perspective.  Then it switches again, giving us the story from the point of view of a few of Auggie’s classmates, some of Via’s friends, jumping back to Auggie every so often.

This is a quick read, partly because the language is so fluid that you fly right through, but also because you can’t put it down.  Wonder has built up a lot of buzz over the last few months, with teachers all over the world starting “Choose Kind” campaigns at their schools and “The Wonder of Wonder” book clubs for kids and teachers from different schools/states/countries to discuss the book with one another online.  I haven’t seen this kind of hype for a kids book outside of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – and while both of those are great books, this one is more.   Like I said, this book is important.

I’m on a mission.  I want to read 90 books over the 90 days of summer break.  Wonder was #75.  It was also the best one so far.  

Franny and Zooey

17 08 2012

If you Google J.D. Salinger right now, I bet you come up with two major things before you see anything about Franny and Zooey.  First, you’ll get tons of information about The Catcher in the Rye, his classic novel that is read by pretty much every single high school student in America AND the fact that he was a little bit kooky as far as public figures go.

The Catcher in the Rye has become THE book for teen readers.  Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in the story, is the perfect picture of a disaffected, angry-at-the-world, dropping out of society teenager.  When the story was written in 1951, teens all over the world could relate to Holden and his problems.  In 1989, when I first read the book, teens all over the world could relate to Holden and his problems.  In 2012, teens all over the world can relate to Holden and his problems.  Salinger’s book is brilliant, but that might just be part of the problem – he could never top it.

That book became so popular, so famous, and so well-respected, that Salinger couldn’t write anything else without it being compared to his first novel.  So, in 1965, Salinger walked away. He never published anything ever again.  People think he kept writing, well, they hope he kept writing for the next 45 years, but we don’t know, because he didn’t talk to anyone either.  After 1980, Salinger didn’t give any more interviews, refused to talk to the press, and lived a very private life until he died in 2010.

One of the few works that Salinger published between Catcher and his retirement was Franny and Zooey.  Franny is a short story about Franny Glass, a 20 year old college student who seems to have a nervous breakdown from dealing with the social pressures of college life.  In a lot of ways, Franny is a female (slightly older) version of Saliger’s most popular character, Holden Caulfield.  Zooey is a short novel, packaged in the same book, about Zachary “Zooey” Glass, Franny’s older brother.  Zooey is a 25 year old actor, and his story is mainly about his reaction to and conversations with his little sister during her breakdown.  Zooey also resembles Holden in a lot of ways.

Franny and Zooey, along with quite a few of Salingers short novels and stories, follows the Glass family – a fictional family that allowed Salinger to explore family dynamics from many different angles.  It’s a character driven book without much plot, but paints and amazing picture of two young people that college and post-college aged kids in 1961 could relate to, just as today’s 20somethings can find a little of themselves in both Franny and Zooey.

Franny and Zooey was the 74th book I read this summer as I try to read 90 books in 90 days.