Category Archives: comic

Middle Grade Readers and Informational Books

The Common Core recommendation for a greater percentage of informational reading in schools has created quite a bit of buzz these days. Since, like many of my middle grade colleagues, I already use a lot of informational material as a 4th grade teacher, I am hopeful that this new emphasis will only be a good one.

For example, when doing an author study of E. B. White I enrich our readings of his iconic children’s books with excerpts from his essays (especially “Death of a Pig“), letters, interviews, and even his obituary. And because I’m a big fan of the judicious use of primary sources to give kids a taste of what it was like back in time, I love leading my students in “translating” a bit of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source journal from some of the original Mayflower passengers, during our Pilgrim unit in which most of the reading is informational in nature. (For more about this see my book Seeking History: Teaching with Primary Sources in Grades 4-6.)

As for independent reading, I find my 4th graders gravitating to a wide variety of informational books.  Some have intriguing topics, some have unconventional formats, and some are just captivating for other reasons. Here are several new and forthcoming 2012 informational books that I feel are going to be very successful with my middle grade readers and yours too, I hope:

Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert by Elaine Scott

This is a clear and compassionate look at the circumstances and most of all the people involved in this riveting event. Caring, thoughtful, well-researched, this is a take that is perfectly calibrated for middle grade readers.

Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman

A quirky, captivating, and original look at the iconic president. Middle grade readers are going to love Kalman’s ability to pull out intriguing facts on the man, her warm regard for him, and her absolutely unique and wonderful paintings.

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close

What a wonderful way to look at the creations and the creating process by the artist himself.  Simply and clearly told by Close himself, in this book children are going to be engrossed in both his words and his art. Of particular note is the section where they can mix and match parts of his different portraits to create new and unique ones.

Temple Grandin:How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery

This is an excellent biography for middle grade readers about a unique woman.  Clear and without sentimentality, but still empathetic, this account of Temple Grandin’s life and her autism is done just right for this age group. In addition to showing how her autism actually accentuated Grandin’s particular sensibility for animals and thus led her to her life work with them, this book also gives young readers an age-appropriate view into the way the meat they eat comes to them.

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

This memoir of the author’s 1970s childhood in China offers young readers a personal take on a particular time and place. Eight stories tied together by family are delightfully presented in a graphic novel format.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos  by Jason Chin

A fascinating consideration of the development of these unique islands using a representational and imagined island. Well-researched (with the sources all clearly indicated at the end), simply told, and beautifully illustrated Chin gives a good sense of this remarkable region that fascinate us today as it did Darwin so long ago.

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Filed under Charlotte's Web, comic, In the Classroom, Nonfiction

Interview with Michael Chabon

I first learned of Michael Chabon’s love of comics by way of his Pulitzer Prize winning adult novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  So I got a total kick out of his new picture book, The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man and was delighted to be given the opportunity to interview the man himself for HarperCollins’ Page Turner blog.  Among other tantalizing tidbits is a teaser about another project.  Check out the interview here.


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Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

The quaint Hudson River village of Cold Spring, where I just spent a month, is deserted on weekdays and so I couldn’t help wondering about the Orthodox Jewish couple, the woman with her hair covered by a scarf and the man in a formal-looking white shirt and black pants, I saw on the otherwise empty Main Street one morning.  I got my answer a little bit later when, on a walk along the river, I heard cheerful voices and looked out to see the same pair, waving at me as they paddled about in kayaks.

While no kayaks show up in Barry Deutsch’s remarkable graphic novel Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, plenty of other things do — a pig, a witch, some nasty bullies, a wise step-mother, knitting, and that sword.  I knew nothing about this book, but after reading Betsy Bird’s rave review, I requested it pronto. (Thank you, Jason Wells at Abrams, for sending it so quickly!)  I’m not sure I can add much to Betsy’s review other than to say — it is all that and more.  This graphic novel is bright and fun and clever, the characters real and multi-faceted, and the art spectacular.  Deutsch uses comic vernacular perfectly — expressions, movement, panels, speech bubbles — all in the service of his warm, wise, and wonderful story.

It is the story of Mirka who wants to fight dragons.  While  I’m not going to reveal if she gets to fight anything I will say that how she gets that sword is exciting, smart, and fitting.  Kids are going to snap this one up, I promise you, boys and girls alike.  Some will go for the delightful Mirka. Others will eat up the adventure.  There will be those who will especially enjoy the relationships in her big family.  Others will appreciate the peek into Orthodox Jewish life.  It is a book that can be entered and enjoyed in these ways and multiple more, I have no doubt. Superb.

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Gene Luen Yang’s Prime Baby

I moved from the Midwest to a New York City suburb when I was in high school and in addition to learning that my in-University City-fashionable mini-skirts were dowdy as hell in Dobbs Ferry, I was dismayed to discover that the major newspaper of the area DID NOT HAVE A FUNNY PAGE.  The daily paper still doesn’t, but for a brief and lovely time the weekend Magazine did contain a few serial comics by a bunch of wonderful graphic novelists.  One of my favorites of these was Gene Luen Yang’s Prime Baby now out in book form.

It is the story of Thaddeus who is none too happy with his attention-hogging baby sister.  A sardonic, isolated, and book-smart (if not people-smart) eight-year-old seeking the right sort of attention from his parents and peers, Thaddeus is a cranky, but endearing protagonist.  And when he determines that his little sister has something to do with a bunch of aliens…well, read this witty graphic novel to find out if this is all about sibling jealousy, math nerditis, singalongs, or world domination.

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Reflecting on the Noughties

Wanting to comment on Betsy Bird’s post about the last ten years I went looking for a moniker and found the Noughties.  Nope, not the Naughties, but the Noughties as in noughts, the 2000s.  While not as familiar perhaps to zero-using Americans, it feels less cumbersome than other indicators (even if it got me thinking of Enid Blyton’s Noddy).

So  anyway, Betsy does a stellar job looking back over these past ten years.  I just want to consider a few of her points and add a couple of my own.

The Rise of the Children’s Book Phenomenon

I’m not sure I totally agree with Betsy on this one.  Setting aside Harry Potter and Twilight for a moment (as I think they stand out in a significant, but different way), the enthusiasm for a series like Wimpy Kid seems not so terribly different to me than the enthusiasm in earlier times for Goosebumps and the Babysitters Club.  What has changed is that we now have a critical mass able to read, write, promote, rant, and otherwise communicate on the Internet, a more populist, if you will, way for authors and readers to connect. And so you’ve got Jeff Kinney moving back and forth between virtual and actual comic, to give one example. My guess is that if the same environment had been available in the heyday of Stine and Martin that things would have been very similar (especially with Stine). As for Philip Pullman’s trilogy, while I love it (he’s up there with Carroll in my personal pantheon of favorite authors), it doesn’t fit for me either in this category.  Rather, it seems very much a part of a traditional of grand children’s books in the tradition of Lewis.  A wonder, but not a phenomenon, at least not as I see it.

That said, I do agree with Betsy about Harry Potter and Twilight.  Most of all about Harry Potter.  That series did indeed change the landscape of our tiny world of children’s publishing in signficant ways.  It caused the New York Times to start a separate best seller list for children’s books and then series books (which caused quite a stir at the time). A remarkable fandom grew and thrived in the ever-developing Internet — the Leaky Cauldron being only the most prominent of a number of fan sites — and, of added significance, Rowling interacted with those fans in smart and careful ways.  The savvy release of the books (starting with the fourth one) was absolutely groundbreaking.  Twilight and its sequels definitely thrived in this new environment and I would guess there will be others down the line.

The Rise of YA Fiction

I agree with Betsy on the signficance of this.  And like her I would note the synergy as the authors and books moved fluidly from print book to website to youtube to television to film.  It is a form or term that seems to be in the process of being redefined — no longer for ages 12 -18, but for true young adults — those out in the world, but still maturing and enjoying these books.  I am very curious about what will happen as the young fans of these books grow up and come into the world of publishing.  I’m guessing they will help shape the world of YA literature in interesting new directions.   I’d love to see YA get its own division in publishing houses, one not part of children’s or adults.  A place where crossover books like Octavian Nothing, The Book Thief, and others would be properly promoted as being for true young adults — teens and twenty-somethings alike.

The Rise of Blogging and Other Online Media

To me this is the most significant aspect of the past ten years.  Not just blogs, but fan sites, author sites, and so much more.  Readers of all ages feel comfortable emailing and communicating with favorite authors in a way that was rare in the previous century.  (In 1995 Scholastic gave me a modem and an AOL account to help launch what was probably the first publisher Internet site — Scholastic Network.  They soon moved from AOL to the Web and never looked back, but I remember running their author and book bulletin boards and it was a new world indeed.)  Facebook, twitter, and more — all very exciting stuff.  Who knows what is next?

The Life and Death of the Children’s Periodical

Betsy notes the passing of The Riverbank Review and Kirkus. Having been published in both I see them as distinctly different situations.  The Riverbank Review was a beautiful journal, filled with lovely articles, columns, and reviews.  It was, to my mind, in the tradition of the small and elegant literary magazine. Over the decades and centuries these come and go.  Some get the financing to keep going and some don’t, sadly.  Now I don’t know how many similar journals focused on adult books similarly bit the dust in the last decade, but I have to wonder if it is any more or less than in previous years.

Kirkus, to my mind, is different. For one thing it was purely a review journal and secondly it was for all books, not just children’s books.  To me the end of Kirkus is part of a bigger trend involving traditional print book review publication. That is, newspapers have been getting rid of their stand-alone book review sections too.  And what with the rise of the online unmediated reader reviews (say those of amazon and bloggers) it will be most interesting to see where reviewing in general will go.

The ebook or Lack Thereof

I think this is another area that is rising and we have to wait to see what happens.  Just last week one of my 6th grade Book Bloggers showed me the Kindle she got for Hanukkah.  College textbooks are starting to become available digitally (which is great because they’ve become outrageously expensive, I think).  As technology makes comics, animation, book trailers, and multi-media (think of Scholastic’s Carman series combining book and video) easier and easier to do I see more and more movement into the digital place.  This doesn’t mean print books won’t be there too, just that the playing field is shifting.

And now in brief, a couple from me:

Self-Publishing

This seems another very signficant development. I mean, what about Eragon?  I remember Christopher Paolini on adbooks promoting his self-published book and reading the first chapter on his website (now long, long, long replaced by one by his publisher).  More recently, reporting about a HarperCollins preview this fall, Betsy noted several originally self-published books they were featuring.  It sure seems easier than ever to publish your own book and it seems evident that the major publishers are paying more attention to those that sell.

The Continuing Evolution of Literary Nonfiction

I’m very impressed with the stellar nonfiction coming out these days and am hopeful that more is on the way.  This year, in particular, has been a great one for this genre.

Interesting times. Interesting times.

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Filed under Children's Literature, comic, Harry Potter, Philip Pullman, YA

Revisiting: Little Vampire

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At a recent HarperCollins preview I learned about the latest vampire-classic mash-up: Little Vampire Women.   Yes, Louisa May Alcott, who was no slouch herself when it came to a thriller, is collaborating with one Lynn Messina on a new edition of Marmee’s girls’ story, the undead meeting up with pickled limes this time round.

The title immediately made me think of Joann Sfar’s Little Vampire which is another species entirely.  I fell in love with the little fellow some years ago in the graphic novels Little Vampire Goes to School and Little Vampire Does Kung Fu! and was delighted when First Second reissued them and an additional story (Little Vampire and the Society of Canine Defenders) in one volume.  An excerpt from the school one can be read here.

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Coming Soon: Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn

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Matt Phelan‘s The Storm in the Barn is a beautiful, moving, and singular graphic novel, the story of eleven-year-old Jack Clark, his family, and his town during the 1937 Dust Bowl in Kansas.  Phelan’s palatte, sparse text, lines, and dusty images evoke the time and place perfectly.  It is a tricky thing to tell a tale that is both ultra-realistic and tinged with the supernatural, one that is both fable and historic.  Go too far in one direction and the story becomes overly moralizing; go too far the other and it just falls flat.  Phelan straddles the line perfectly. The atmosphere is thick with dust, with sadness, with pain, with wonder and, finally with hope.  Jack is a moving protagonist, worried about real things, inquisitive, scared, and ultimately brave.  This is an Americana story — the images harken back to the iconic photographs of Dorothea Lange, there are references to that very American literary fairy tale, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.  Keep an eye out for it this fall — it is a wonder.

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Filed under Children's Literature, comic, graphic novel