Saturday, February 28, 2015

Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook by Ellen Potter, Anne Mazer, Matt Phelan (Illustrator)

Good grief. I have 10 pages of notes on this book. Don't worry, I won't put you to bed with a long review, but the great phrases, advice, and lesson ideas had me paraphrasing oodles of sections. Speaking of "oodles," it is a word I've been hooked on lately. Go ahead, say the word. Now get a good gob of spit in the back of your throat and say it like a five-year-old blowing bubbles. My grandson reminded me of this fun bubble-spit game. This book advises to beware of certain "writing tics" such as my "oodles" fixation when I write book reviews (twitch, twitch). Using the same word over and over gives sentence structures excess baggage that threaten to annoy the reader and be repetitive. What is terrific about this book is that it gives clear instructions on how-to write, breaking steps into manageable bites that are marinated heavily with humor. Okay. That might be a bit much on the metaphor. I'll go back and reread the metaphor/simile chapter. Writing prompts are given at the end of chapters along with some thought-provoking asides on writing traps that teachers can avoid when teaching writing.

The book starts with the basics, some I recognized in our school's writing curriculum and others are advice from two authors that have spent years honing their writers craft. One of their criticisms of schools is that the focus is on the product and not the process and that product needs to be "good." This made me think of other subject areas that do focus on process. One of the strengths of STEM programming in schools is it focuses on the design process. I don't teach in the classroom but I do know that the creative writing units have suffered in the latest push toward nonfiction writing. Another criticism is directed toward teachers that praise descriptive writing while discouraging plain, direct writing. One of the author's is drawing from negative experiences her son had with classroom teachers that did not like his direct writing. More importantly, both authors stress not criticizing first drafts. They need to be messy and teachers need to point out the positive and guide the writing process. Later drafts can be critiqued. This book isn't directed at teachers, by the way. It is just what I got out of it as an educator.

Writing is hard work. Both authors reiterate this with Anne Mazer describing it at times as I slam "my head down on my desk and moan, 'This is hard!' Then I have a strawberry Twizzler and feel a little better." Both Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter use similar alternating voices that are funny and engaging. Students will like the short chapters and fast pacing. Some adult readers might want more depth on topics, but I personally liked the succinctness of the text.

The handbook had me reflecting on my own writing process of tooling out book reviews month after month. I've been doing this for three years and many of their processes apply to my nonfiction writing. I started writing reviews because I kept forgetting books during booktalks with students. When you read oodles (sorry, I couldn't resist) of books each year it is easy to forget them. What has changed is now I'm trying to study the writing craft and it is making me better at book discussions with classes. I now have the habit of reading on average two hours and writing one hour every day. I squeeze it in throughout the day in bits and pieces, doing the bulk on the weekends. The authors talk about developing habits and enjoying the process. What I really like is the freedom that comes just doing something for myself with no grade or criticism tied to it. In Journalism school they ripped our pieces up one side and down the other. It discouraged me and drowned my love for writing. Book review writing is resuscitating the joy that was there as a teenager and freeing me to experiment with voice. I'm not afraid in this forum. No more excuses for not writing!

5 Smileys

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Authors come up with an idea for a story and then create conflicts to propel the action forward. Here, the conflict begins when grandpa is killed after being struck by a car and his granddaughter, Theo, wonders how she can pay the bills and take care of her mother. As Theo's grandpa lay dying in the street he gives Theo some clues as to his money stash. At least, that is what it sounds like. Theo only has about $300 dollars to live off of in a week. Mom is mentally unstable and unable to take care of her daughter. Instead of finding cash when she follows her grandpa's clues, Theo finds a painting. She accidentally spills rubbing alcohol on it discovering a second painting that looks like a masterpiece beneath the top one. With the help of a friend, Theo does research on chemistry and master artists trying to discover if she has something real or fake. What she uncovers is a world of intrigue rooted in the Holocaust and her grandpa's past. While I sometimes struggle with this author's unbelievable plot elements, they are minor to the overall interesting story she has created in this book.

3 Smileys

Peter Pan: The Complete Adventures (Illustrated Peter Pan, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and The Little White Bird) by J.M. Barrie, F.D. Bedford (Illustrator), Arthur Rackham (Illustrator)

A third grade student came up to me this morning, "Do you have books on dragons? Mine, ran away this morning." "It did? What's its name?" I asked. "I don't know. It ran away. It's invisible and only I can see it. It's a bronze dragon." J.M. Barrie's book is a nostalgic look at childhood imagination that I get to interact with everyday in a school working with young kids. However, Barrie's Victorian narrator of "Peter Pan," has a satirical adult tone that contrasts with the play of children. "On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more."

The beginning of the novel shows that the Darlings are poor and Mr. Darling absurdly cares more about keeping up with his neighbors and maintaining appearances - to the point that he hires a dog for a nurse rather than not have one. Mrs. Darling loves her children and as the "custom of every good mother" she puts them to bed and replaces their naughty thoughts with good ones. Peter Pan enjoys secretly flying to the Darlings' window and listening to Mrs. Darling tell stories to her three children, Wendy, Michael, and Jon. He decides he wants a mother and sprinkles fairy dust on the three Darling kids so Wendy can fulfill the roll in Neverland.

Tinkerbell, a fairy, likes Peter Pan and is jealous of his fascination with Wendy. She tries to get the lost boys to shoot Wendy with arrows as she arrives in the magical place of Neverland. Wendy lives and pretends to be a mom to the boys tucking them in at night and reading stories. Meanwhile, the evil but buffoonish Captain Hook is bent on kidnapping Wendy for himself and his crew of pirates. He wants a mother too. He succeeds until Peter Pan rescues Wendy and battles Captain Hook. Wendy and her brothers return to their parents and she returns to Neverland to do spring cleaning for Peter Pan until he forgets about her.

In a scene where George is being hypocritical toward his son that doesn't want to take medicine, he takes it out on Nana by refusing to let her sleep in the kids room. Nana spends the nights in the three kids bedroom because Mrs. Darling knows that it protects them from Peter Pan. When Wendy hugs Nana to prevent him from putting her in the doghouse, George yells about not getting any attention. George "craves admiration" and wants to be known. In an ironic twist, George eventually gets media attention when he decides to sleep in Nana's doghouse until the missing children are found.

I found the Victorian narrator slowed down the pace and was irritating, but it is what gives the satirical tone. Peter Pan represents Romanticism and Barrie's desire for a simple past. Peter Pan is cocky and selfish, who doesn't want to grow up nor have responsibilities. Wendy is in love with him but he is incapable of loving anyone but himself. His pretend world is his reality where "lovely thoughts" are the impetus for flying. He is asexual and refuses to constrain his imagination, getting whatever he wants, and not connected to any love for other people or fairies. In this context Barrie subverts the notion of childhood as a way to attack common adult values and conventions. Peter Pan is a happy uncivilized anarchist and paradoxically admired and good. I like the odd Victorian writers, but this was not a favorite mainly because of the narrator. You'll have to decide for yourself.

By the way, Artur Rackham's gorgeous illustrations are in this edition.
5 Smileys

The Magic Thief: Home (Magic Thief #4) by Sarah Prineas

If you liked the trilogy then you will enjoy this book that revisits familiar villains and characters. Wizards magical stones are being stolen and Conn is being blamed for them. Of course, his dragon doesn't help literally dropping a stone into his hands during a wizards' meeting. The city is being run by teenagers, the Duchess Rowan and Underlord Embre, both friends of Conn. When Rowan forces Conn to be the High Wizard of the city, he rebels wanting his freedom. The author pokes fun at meetings while showing a teen that doesn't want to be tied down by responsibilities. Part of the character arc is Conn coming of age and learning to trust others. Growing up an orphan, his survival instincts make him unwilling to ask for help when he needs it and trust others. When he decides to hunt for the stolen wizard stones he uncovers a plot that lands him in a heap of trouble and makes him realize he must stop running away from those who care about him and responsibilities.

While I like Conn and the humor he brings to situations, I found the plot more predictable than the other books. There is a bit of repetition as Nevery and Rowan try to force Conn into the Ducal Magister position that he desperately doesn't want to fill. Crowe is back as a villain and his sidekick is obvious from the start. I found the use of letter-writing to give other characters point-of-view as a slow-down to the action. The characters tell what they are doing and it isn't shown making for a less than interesting progression of the plot. I didn't mind it in the trilogy and perhaps I have grown too familiar with the characters. Or maybe the lack of new characters kept me from just enjoying this on a surface level. A light, fun read.

3 Smileys

Fairest (The Lunar Chronicles #3.5) by Marissa Meyer

I admire Marissa Meyer's risk-taking by writing a book about the villain, the evil Queen Levana, in her Luna Chronicle series; however, it falls short in the end and failed to captivate me. When creating villains, there are those characters that are sympathetic or unsympathetic. Meyer tries to create a sympathetic villain that is shaped from a horrible event that happened in her childhood. What I found lacking was that Levana's progression from a self-centered child to a power-crazed woman are for the most part not unexpected nor engaging. She reacts in predictable ways and the character growth does not go deep enough into creating interesting causalities that define her actions.

The book opens with Levana preparing the funeral for her assassinated parents and is angry that her frivolous sister will be the queen versus herself. Levana is interested in politics and brilliant at manipulating most people with the exception of her sister, Channery. Her sister is only interested in tormenting Levana, but in conquering the opposite sex as well. Fifteen-year-old Levana is in love with a palace guard and forces him to love her back through magical manipulations. When Channery dies and Levana comes to power and does all she can to maintain it.

Meyer uses fairy tale elements from "Snow White" with Queen Levana being similar to the wicked queen. This adds a certain predictability in the plot. We know that the queen will not find redemption at the end of the story. This takes some of the tension out of the plot. Whereas, Meyer created humorous situations to balance this predictability in her previous books that comes from using an existing fairy tale structure, it is not evident in this one. The result is a dark plot with a self-pitying megalomaniac. I find unlikable characters fascinating, but it is hard to capture the pathos of their character and that seems to be missing here.

Good villains are the ones that think they are heroes. Meyer creates Levana as such who believes that she is saving her people by getting Earth's resources as her own planet can no longer sustain life. Levana does not recognize that her actions are oppressive, selfish, and manipulative in reaching her goal. She kills people that stand in the way of her reaching for ultimate power whether she loves them or not. She chooses might over negotiation and will not listen to voices of reason. She's motivated by hiding her true self behind an image of beauty. She is flawed and has a negative character arc following the "Snow White" fairy tale of a villain that chooses to be completely evil.

There are two kinds of villains. The all-powerful villain like Saron or the everyman villain like Golem in "The Lord of the Rings". The all-powerful villain is pure evil and is good for creating obstacles, but not very interesting as a character. The everyman villain like Golem tends to be more three-dimensional and lends a personal connection as the flaws are exposed to show how the character becomes corrupt. The problem with an all-powerful villain is the loss of redemption and the reader being able to connect with him or her. When the husband was around Levana, the possibility was there that she might redeem herself. When he's gone from the plot, the reader knows Levana is pure evil. This shift at the end is going to turn off some readers for the personal connection is gone. Perhaps it would have been better if Meyer had not followed the fairy tale structure so closely.

Another aspect that doesn't work is Levana's motivation and pathos are too predictable, resulting in a character that is not three-dimensional. Meyer tends to create strong female characters that are not stereotyped. Unfortunately Levana comes across stereotyped as the abused younger sister seeking a power position. She gets upstaged by more interesting minor characters such as her sister and husband. And frankly, there are not enough characters and dialogue to keep the action moving which she did so well in her first three books. For me, the conflict was not interesting enough and while I have really enjoyed the other books, this one fizzled.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Firefight (Reckoners #2) by Brandon Sanderson

Sometimes you can pick up a book in any series and it doesn't matter if you read it in order. This is not one of those books. Read book one, Steelheart, because the character arc progresses in each and the world building will be easier to visualize. Epics have taken over the world. They are humans corrupted by superpowers gained when the star, Calamity, appeared in the sky. In Steelheart, David Charleston's dad is convinced that the Epic Steelheart is good and can be a hero and save the city of Newcargo from corruption. When David's dad saves Steelheart's life, he exposes the Epic's weakness. Steelheart responds by killing David's father. David spends ten years researching how to kill Steelheart and joins a team, The Reckoners, that decides to take the Epic down. No one has ever killed an Epic until David kills Steelheart to avenge his father's death. That's the backstory to get you up to speed.

Book two begins with David trying to find a new purpose in his life. He's a hero to the people who call him, "Steelslayer." He has always seen the Epics as enemies and has never questioned killing them. In a series of incidents, he now wonders if it is possible for Epics to be good. Can they be changed? It doesn't help that he's fallen for one called, Megan. Like his father, David believes that the Prof, can be a good Epic. The Prof is the leader of the Reckoners who gifts his superpowers to other unmagical team members such as David. The only reason David killed Steelheart was because Prof gave him superpowers. David begins to question his early drive to kill all Epics and focuses on trying to help them control their destructive powers that make them oppressive, killing tyrants.

The Reckoners are being attacked in Newcargo by Epics sent by High Epic Regalia in Babylar or Babylon Restored, an old burough in Manhattan. Tia, David, and Prof decide to investigate Regalia and link up with another Reckoners' cell that has been doing research and surveillance on Regalia. They are concerned when they see that Regalia is in cohorts with Obliteration, an unstable Epic, that destroyed an entire city using his fire powers. An unpredictable plot ensues with David finding answers to his questions that he didn't expect.

Brandon Sanderson deals with conflict in unexpected ways that make his books page-turners. I just finished a different book where the author has things going wrong that are too obvious. Even though the tension is there the problems are solved too easily. Sanderson takes plot elements that look easy to solve but comes up with some strange twist. For instance, David is trapped in a submarine and tries to shoot his way out of the glass. Obvious solution, right? Well it doesn't work so he comes up with a completely unpredictable solution. I won't spoil the fun and tell you. The plot is stuffed with this technique for dealing with conflict that make his books such a blast to read. Sanderson digs deep and comes up with creative conflict resolutions.

Sanderson also plays with familiar tropes and puts his own twist on them. Think of how many stories or movies you've gone to that have the hero who has superpowers and saves the world. Many of those stories has an everyman character or ordinary person that the reader relates to. In Tolkien's books it is Samwise Gamgee. In Harry Potter, it is Neville Longbottom. These are the characters that average people can put themselves in the place of and therefore cheer them on. David Charleston is an everyman hero and that is one reason he is so appealing to me. He doesn't have any superpowers and when they are bestowed on him, he doesn't accept them. He uses his wits to deal with situations and is usually saved by others.

David's quest is dealing with the morality of what he does for a living. While in the first book he was coming to terms with killing people, he has accepted that he is an assassin. "But at my core, I was an assassin. Yes, I killed in the name of justice, bringing down only those who deserved it, but at the end of the day, I was an assassin. I'd shoot someone in the back. Whatever it took." Whereas before he just killed out of vengence because the Epics were "bad people," he now questions whether they can be changed. This reminds me a bit of the movie, "American Sniper," where the sniper justified his killings because the others were the enemy. How a person deals with the psychological toll of killing others is a varied and fascinating subject. "Ender's Game" is another book that explores this in depth. David seems to want more in life than just killing Epics. He is constantly changing which makes him a dynamic character that grows in each book.

The author's tone for the book continues with David's bull-headed, self-deprecating humor. He doesn't care if he makes a fool of himself and he continues to mess around with corny similes and metaphors. Here's one of the weirder ones: "...floated in the air, lit by fruit that dangled from the ceiling like snot from the nose of a toddler who had been snorting glowsticks." Here's a funny one: "I'll be as a buttered snail sneaking through a Frenchman's kitchen." Don't miss this series, it will call to you like the "ding on a microwave as it finished nuking a pizza pocket." Like I said, he's got some doozers.

4 Smileys

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore

We went to Hawaii for a week and I read eight books and decided to write the reviews when I got back. Great plan except this book is a blank slate or blank plate. I'm hungry. I had to go back and reread other reviews to remind myself what it was about. Like butter on top of a pancake, the characters and plot just went poof! sliding off and out of my memory. Hazel, the protagonist, is swept up in the hysteria of McCarthyism during the Cold War. Rumors have it that there is a Russian spy in Hazel's small town of Maple Hill and Hazel, an avid reader of Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, is the sleuth that is going to figure out the traitor. Suspect number one is Mr. Jones, the caretaker at the cemetery her parents own. She enlists the help of newcomer, Samuel Butler, a new boy that is smarter in school than Hazel. This causes her some insecurity as she is not confident in many things except that she is the smartest girl in her class. Now that someone smarter has come along, she's not sure how to deal with it. She changes throughout the story from accepting media whoop-la to one that learns to think for herself.

Hazel thinks highly of herself. She can be cocky and arrogant, but also strong-headed and daring. It isn't easy creating a character that is full of himself or herself and while the author does an okay job, I did lose interest when Hazel had negative inner monologues. The stereotypes of the bullies and crabby librarian with no-nonsense glasses and shoes that didn't like books out-of-order contrasted with the nice pretty librarian also fell flat. Hazel's mom sometimes would say something wise to Hazel, but then would make a petty comment about the pigeon-toed bully's sidekick that seemed inappropriate. The music teacher sometimes seemed like a ding-dong that didn't get the dynamics of her class but other times would cruelly laugh at Hazel and play favorites. There is one kind teacher, but I found myself put off more times than not. Perhaps if there was less focus on looks and superficial characteristics and the balance not so tipped toward the negative, I would not have kept losing interest in parts and skimming.

The story takes place in the 1950's and the author does a good job capturing small town life and the historical setting. Hazel builds a bomb shelter in a mausoleum as a way to deal with the Communist threats to her community. Her best friend has moved away and she is bullied mercilessly by two girls at school. Hazel is very impulsive and doesn't think before she acts causing quite a bit of harm to those in her path. But she also has a sensitive side and when she helps Samuel deal with his grief at the end it is a nice touch. I really liked this author's book "The Water Castle," but this one fell short for me. I'm gonna cut this review short as I feel like the runaway pancake. Hmmm, pancakes. I haven't had them in ages. Like I said, I'm hungry.

3 Smileys

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dead City (Dead City #1) by James Ponti

When Molly Bigelow drops a severed human finger into a zip lock bag thinking it is really cool, I couldn't help but think of my friend from childhood who had a spleen collection in her bedroom from all the animals she dissected in biology classes from high school and college. Nothing grossed her out. Nothing grosses Molly out either. She's not afraid of much. She helped her mom who was a forensic pathologist for the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner before dying of cancer two summers ago. Now Molly works with Dr. Hildago, a colleague and friend, who took over the Medical Examiner job. When Dr. Hildago and his intern Natalie reveal that there are zombies in the city, Molly gets to join a secret zombie terminator club at her school and be trained as a zombie-hunter.

Some zombies are harmless and others are criminal. It is the nasty ones that Molly hunts along with other gifted students from her school. A member of the fencing team at school, she can chop off body parts better than most, all the while giving an ongoing matter-of-fact humorous commentary. No one knows about her duel life. For the most part she is fearless. Zombies don't faze her. Jumping into water conduits and shooting over falls is all in a days work. She'll even speak out for zombie rights. Her only fear seems to be heights. Which she'll have to face. I'm not sure if she overcomes that fear as the ending leaves the reader bridge-hanging in this fast-paced, action packed novel. The narrator's sarcastic, self-deprecating voice is what really hooked me into the story. Molly is a strong female character that is a hoot with her deadpan delivery of inner monologues.

Molly had an unusual upbringing. While other girls went to dance lessons, Molly took Martial Arts, bird watching programs, or went to the Morgue every Friday with her mom who taught her to respect death and not be scared of it. Her older sister, Beth, likes to pick on her. The author captures their complex sibling relationship by showing how outspoken and smart Molly's older sister is as she embarrasses and harasses Molly. However, when an outsider criticizes Molly, then Beth sticks up for Molly with a mother-bear-fierceness. It's only okay if Beth calls Molly weird. No one else can. My brothers were like that with me. They could trap me under the covers, call me names, and torture me, but if anyone else tried, they'd lit off on that person with surprising ferocity.

The prologue made me twitchy that a zombie was going to pop-up in different action scenes. It adds tension because I know it will eventually happen, just not when. The author weaves in historical facts about yellow-fever and mining that is well-paced with the action. He also uses those facts to connect them with the zombie powers, as well as limitations, and their emergence in society. This book reminded me of "The Haunting of Derek Stone," by Tony Abbott, but with a narrative voice that is more funny than serious. Zombie jokes are littered throughout the plot such as Molly accidentally ripping off a zombie's arm and facing her team that laughs and says, "I'd give you a hand," Grayson offered, "but it looks like you already have too many." The rest laugh and high five each other as Molly fights the zombie alone. Obviously they are not too worried about her finishing it off. If you like gross-silly action, then you'll get some good laughs. The humor buffers the violence putting some distance between it - just think of Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner from Looney Tunes cartoons. The Coyote tries to eat The Road Runner who always outwits him usually resulting in The Coyote falling off a steep cliff and leaving an indent of his body after it hits the bottom and is driven several feet into the earth. He always gets up and tries again. Kind of like a zombie.

Molly is dealing with grief over the death of her mom, as well as being a new kid at a new school. The author explores the importance of belonging to a social group in school. Molly is excited to be a part of a group at school until she disagrees with them. Molly stands up to the group's leader when it is decided to exclude another girl that wants to join them. The result is Molly is kicked out of the group and forced to eat alone at lunch every day. When she becomes a part of the zombie team, it gives her a group of people like herself that are independent and willing to accept and celebrate differences in each other. The first group she was in had a leader that wanted to use the position as one of power and control over others; whereas, the social dynamics with the zombie hunters meant trust and respect for each other. Molly doesn't have a problem being different from others, but she is lonely and does want friends. She is headstrong and doesn't always think through her actions. The result is she endangers her team. Her character arc involves dealing with the loneliness of losing her mom and finding how she fits into her changing world. She learns the importance of teamwork and working together, but not without some hard lessons. A subplot explores the prejudices people have toward others that are different. Like zombies. The author manages to make the reader sympathetic toward zombies by contrasting ones that help humans versus ones that don't. Just because they are dead, doesn't mean they don't have human qualities. A story with a strong heart beat.

4 Smileys

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier by Ying Chang Compestine, Vinson Compestine

Diverse books are necessary to understanding different cultures; yet there are not oodles of choices out there. Some of my favorite multicultural books are written by those that grew up in the culture providing a unique and authentic perspective. Sometimes the books are hard to get from publishers such as Tim Tingle's book, "How I Became a Ghost," that captures the Native American storytelling and cultural mysticism. Kwame Alexander's Newbery medal book, "The Crossover," captures African American middle class and uses poetry to create a unique rhythm and look with text. Ying and Vinson Compestines' book captures Ying's experience growing up in Communist China under Mao Zedong and Chinese lifestyles during the 1960's and 1970's. During this time, communist China persecuted intellectuals and indoctrinated the masses. Ying came from a family of intellectuals and much of her story reflects her experience as she explains in an author's note. The wish fulfillment in this fictional tale is going to appeal to many readers as protagonist Ming Chen strives for a better life and becomes a hero in the process.

Set during the late 1960's, thirteen-year-old Ming is approached by three farmers that unearth a broken terra-cotta soldier. Ming's father is out-of-town collecting his paycheck from the Xi'an museum where he sends artifacts discovered by locals. Mao Zedong commanded the Chinese people to dig tunnels, store grain, and prepare for war against the Soviets resulting in unique items found in the ground. Two years later, people are still digging but the flow of artifacts have diminished to almost nothing, threatening the loss of Ming's father's job. Ming questioned the teacher why they were still digging for so long and no one had attacked from the Soviet Union. She responded by persecuting Ming for questioning the government policies. She'd yell at any student that talked to Ming and the result was a lonely boy bullied by a teacher and wishing he could move back to Xi'an, the town he grew up in before Mao began to rid the country of intellectuals. The teacher is a one-dimensional character that is a puppet to the government representing a type of person that can't think for herself. When Ming becomes a hero, then she is his best friend. She is a hypocrite and oppressive authority figure.

The terra-cotta soldier's head comes to life scaring the noodles out of Ming. The stone soldier tells Ming how to assemble his broken stone body fusing it into its previous grandeur. The soldier has flashbacks to the time he was a soldier for Emperor Quin and worked on building the Great Wall before joining the Calvary. The men that fought for China were allotted land by how many enemy heads they chopped off. It was one of the few ways to improve one's economic position in life. The author does a terrific job mixing the flashbacks with Ming's current drama that involves the Political Officer stealing the terra-cotta soldier from Ming.  The soldier does not talk to the Political Officer but listens to his plot to raid the Emperor Quin's tomb and blame it on Ming's father. In an Indiana Jones type adventure, Ming helps set traps and slow down the thieves. The fast-paced action interspersed with historical fiction and war is going to engage most readers.

Ming is an outcast at school and at the end he has become a hero and popular kid. Ming doesn't think about how two-faced his teacher is (like I did as an adult), but focuses on how proud his parents would be of him. The family units in Asia is generally different than Western family units because many generations live together and take care of each other. It is taboo to put a relative in a nursing home. Chinese women take care of relatives along with inexpensive help hired mainly from Philippino immigrants. The Taiwanese women I work with take their parents to every medical appointment and are expected in order to be "good" children. They are raised with the expectation of making their parents proud by providing for them. Many even give parents part of their income. The authors capture this Asian mentality in Ming's thoughts and also the desire to make lots of money. In a note in the back, the author, Ying has a picture of herself growing up in China before immigrating to the United States. The reader can easily visualize Ming's village and uniformed students. Food adds flavor to the story as well along with Eastern medicine. When the terra-cotta soldier uses acupuncture or presses a spot on Ming to bring him harmony in a stressful situation, it is an interesting and foreign response to me.

Ming's alienation in society is a common theme found in literature, but here his loneliness is driven by other students' fears of reprisals from the teacher. Harsh reprisals are also dealt to the terra-cotta soldier for not following strict military orders. The lack of freedom the common people have in their every day life and the brutal military discipline seems unjust. However, the soldier willingly accepts his fate, seeming to understand the need for obedience in war situations. The punishment didn't seem to fit the crime for the unit was not endangered. I wished the author hadn't foreshadowed what would happen to the soldier as it took some tension out of the plot for me. I found the contrasts on the subject of freedom interesting: The lack of freedom at school for Ming, the lack of freedom for the soldier in a unit, the lack of freedom for the people under communism. While Ming's motivation is to save his father, he ends up doing more in the process. While Ming can't change the culture he lives in he inadvertently does by discovering the Emperor's tomb for he has brought wealth on the village and improved life for everyone. He has freed the people to some extent from a harsh life and elevated the status of the downtrodden intellectual. In the end it is money, not laws that changes peoples lives in Ming's village.

4 Smileys

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd

I had to take a graphic design class for my journalism degree. I would have loved reading this book first. Not only is it a great introduction to the subject, but it backs up the information with beautiful visuals. I remember trying to study the tiny black and white images in my textbook at the University of Minnesota. Chip Kidd explains how graphic design is about solving problems. How it involves using content and form to create visuals that communicate messages. How content is what is being communicated while form is how it looks. How form is not only visuals, but typography. Confused? You won't be if you check out this book. It shows it much better than I'm saying it. If you want to learn or have to teach the basics about graphic design then I recommend this book.

Content is the most important aspect of graphic design and the form follows it. Form is how things look on the page. The author uses examples involving size, scale, inversion, placement, juxtaposition and more needed to design unique looks that impact not only the message, but give an emotional impact. His section on colors reveals how they create moods. I remember when Northwest airlines had these red, orange, and yellow colored seats that they found through surveys increased the anxiety of people that were afraid of flying. My dad is an architect and growing up he would always point out "good design and bad designs." He hated when faucets or showers had the hot and cold switched claiming it was bad design because it didn't comply with the norm.

This author points out designs in book covers which I have never thought of before in terms of graphic design. He uses his own examples of the many books he's designed and others. I liked his analysis of R. J. Palacio's book, "Wonder," a story of a boy whose face is horribly deformed. The design shows only part of a kid's face implying that the reader has to fill in the nose and mouth using his or her own imagination. I only recognized one of the author's book cover designs which was Michael Crighton's "Jurassic Park."

The content portion covers topics such as illusion, metaphor, visual flavor, and type design to convey topics. Content is the hardest part of graphic design. In his examples of designing book covers, he explains how he used the content of the book to convey a message. The form section I mentioned already, but there is another section devoted to typography. This shows how the first four letters of the alphabet changed from Phoenician to Greek to Roman to Latin to Modern English. He covers types of topography and what they convey to the audience. Sans-serif is a type of topography that is a bolder way to get a point across to readers; whereas, italics is used for emphasis. 

The end of the book has 10 projects for readers to do that are interested in graphic design. He has one page that is a collage of tickets from his trip to Japan. It made me realize how little I look at the visuals around me and think in terms of putting them together to create a piece of art. One of the projects is using typography to create a font specimen or your own logo. A good book for the creative soul.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus

Civil disobedience is a conscious effort to disobey laws that one disagrees with in society. The protagonist, Espen, lives in Norway when the Germans occupy his country and force the Norwegian King and government officials to flee. The Norwegians formed a Resistance group meant to undermine and protest the Nazi's, while other Norwegians decided to join the German Reich. Espen, along with many others in his town of Lilleby, choose civil disobedience in the form of nonviolent actions such as feeding prisoners of war, smuggling newspapers, acting as couriers, wearing paper clips or red hats to signify unity, or refusing to sit next to a German on public transportation. This form of resistance was a way to feel in control of what was clearly an uncontrollable situation, to instill national pride and counteract Nazi propaganda. Espen never hesitates to join the resistance although he does romanticize it at first. He pretends he is a hero or some important spy. As he gets more and more dangerous missions, he learns real fear and as a child, he still makes many mistakes endangering the life of himself and his family.

Margi Preus captures the culture and customs of Norway from the myths, food, and cross-country skiing to the language. The children's story of a troll splinter in the eye as a way to explain why some Norwegians chose to side with the Germans even though it was wrong reminded me of "The Snow Queen" fairy tale and the boy that sided with the evil Snow Queen because he got an evil glass splinter in his eye. When Preus describes cross-country skiing and scraping off wax, it brought back many memories of cross-country skiing in Minnesota. The day would warm up and the skis' wax would have to be scraped off and changed in order to get it to glide. Except Espen is not on a recreational ski trek, he is being hunted by the Gestapo and fleeing for his life; thus, adding tension during an exciting climax.

The plot has Espen playing soccer and bonding more closely with his teammates when the Gestapo decide to take over the team. In protest, the players quit. Espen's soccer captain is quite involved in the Resistance which is how Espen becomes involved in it. There are not too many twists and turns. In fact, it is easy to predict what the villain will do. What I liked best was the details on daily living and the friendships forged between characters. Preus creates some imagery with darkness and light from the blinding snow on a sunny day to the blinding blizzard in the dark of night. Both times involve major moral decisions by characters. The imagery is also tied into the theme when Espen's father says that people become "snow-blind to ...basic human decency, but behind the temporary blindness, ...they knew ...the right thing to do." Espen has learned from his parents that to turn away from human kindness is never right even if it means risking one's life.

The story is written in third person from Espen, Ingrid, and Askel's point of view. Some parts are slow, particularly Ingrid and her journal writing. I see how it was supposed to advance the story in an exciting climax, but it was slow getting there. Humor is balanced with dark elements. When Tante Marie tells Espen to get something in her drawer she wants to give him, he jokes: does she want to give him her false teeth or the compass? Askel, the Norwegian boy that joins the Germans, is a one-dimensional villain and flat; he is your typical Gestapo bully that uses the Nazi ideals as a platform to rationalize his need to use violence on other people. He puts down others to build himself up. His mother is his foil, but I would have preferred a look into why Askel was so full of hate. The suggestion is because his father died fighting in the war, but it isn't explored in depth. He's also too casual about his first kill. The other Norwegian boy that joined the Germans, Kjell, has more depth as he struggles with honoring his past friendship with Espen and adopting the violent methods of the Gestapo. The author tries to balance German soldiers that turned a blind eye, to those that were violent. The end has an interesting author's note, photos, timeline, and activities for code breaking and making invisible ink. A nice enjoyable story that will be hard for me to remember in the future.

3 Smileys

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

Anastasia Romanov's mysterious survival of the Bolsheviks' execution of her family has been a celebrated urban legend. When the Romanovs' graves were found two bodies were missing and many believed it was Alexei, Marie, or Anastasia. Movies and books popped up periodically romanticizing and fueling rumors during the 20th century. Even imposters claimed to be the duchess beginning in the 1920s. The story of the last Tsar's brutal family's murder captured the public's thirst for unsolved mysteries. Today the graves have been found and DNA evidence tells the answers. What this book shows is how clueless Nicholas, the last Tsar of Russia, and his wife, the Empress Alexandra were to the plight of their people.

The author, through meticulous research, shows how at every major turn the Tsar either made the wrong decision or no decision. How he gave his wife power to run the government and she in turn sought the help of a holy man Rasputin. He took advantage of Alexandra's belief in mysticism and the miraculous to further advance his desire for a depraved lifestyle. He talked her into replacing all the cabinet members causing instability during the war. This is just one of many examples. Call them the royal odd couple; completely devoted to each other and utterly incompetent at ruling their enormous empire. They were not only insulated from reality, but they refused to believe facts even when solid evidence was brought forth. Further complicating matters was their son's hemophilia that they hid from the public and that Rasputin had the most success treating. The author reveals the royals' antisemitism, brutal suppression of disgruntled peasants, and poor leadership leading to the fall of the empire. Intermixed with the royals story is the depiction of the peasants desperate conditions, the resulting worker strikes, and the rise of Lenin and communism. Inserts give personal stories written by peasants detailing daily life and factory work. It is astounding how unaware and unempathetic the Romanov's were to their people. The children were victims of their father's poor decisions and brutal actions at suppressing strikers. He earned the nickname, "Bloody Nicholas" and his entire family paid with their lives as the populace sought revenge.

Fleming does a great job ratcheting up the tension. This is a book where you know the outcome; yet the suspense as to what happens next is not known. I've studied some Russian history, but she presents the royal family in wonderful detail. She draws out their last days scrutinizing how up to the very last minute they had no idea that circumstances were so dangerous. The royals were under house arrest because Nicholas didn't flee the country when there was a revolution. Nicholas seemed to think he was untouchable because the tsars were ordained by God and therefore holy. Nicholas ruled over 130 million people and owned one-third of the land. His family dynasty had been in control for 300 years. It is easy to see why he lived in a bubble and was completely out of touch with the social unrest. However, even when there was a revolution, he refused to believe it. There were 870 noble families that represented 1.5% of the population and owned 90% of the wealth. They didn't speak Russian because it showed a lack of breeding and their belief in their superiority was unshakable." It was one of their downfalls.

The family Romanov was an autocracy. They had absolute power with no checks or balances. The people in the government were ones that told the tsar what he wanted to hear versus the truth. If he didn't like what a person told him he could fire them at whim. Workers respected and worshiped Tsar Nicholas until their faith kept getting eroded. It began with Bloody Sunday when a group of peaceful protesters tried to talk to Tsar Nicholas and were gunned down by soldiers. Later, when Nicholas did give them a presence in the government it was undermined by a series of laws he passed so that they had no voice or power. Then World War I broke out and the government sent the peasants to war with no food, clothing, or guns. They ran out of guns after a few months. The people were suspicious of Empress Alexandra because they were fighting the Germans and she was of German heritage. To make matters worse, Nicholas put her in charge of his government during the war while he acted as Commander-in-chief at Stavka where the war was in progress. Alexandra replaced cabinet members willy-nilly based on Rasputin who wanted people hostile to him out of office (which was almost everyone.) At a time when stability was needed for war, it was upended. Fed up the peasants overthrew the government and installed a democracy. Nicholas abdicated but then Lenin came in with communism and military might toppling the peasants.

One of the inserts has a factory worker explaining how the initial workers strikes happened when 60% of the factory workers taught themselves to read. The peasant said that he never read a book that awakened his class consciousness, but it did teach him "how to think." The peasants wanted the government responsive to their needs and books revealed a different way of life. The working class mustered their courage to march on the palace peacefully and speak to the Tsar. They got a priest to help represent them, but it resulted in Bloody Sunday with hundreds of people gunned down in the streets. Nicholas thought the peasants should be grateful to him, not asking for improved conditions. He had no empathy, living an extravagant life in his palace with 500 servants.

When the family was shot they thought they were being moved to a new location. The girls had sewn millions of dollars of gems in their dresses so that when the bullets flew the girls didn't die right away because their gowns acted as bullet-proof vests. Even Rasputin has a bizarre end. There are so many kooky facts sprinkled throughout the text that it kept me going until the end. I'm not sure who I'd recommend this book to in an elementary setting. It would have to be someone interested in the Anastasia mystery and familiar with Russian history and a high reader. The text is clearly written but is more for middle school and high school. Some sections are dense with facts and I could see a young reader giving up on it. That said, I'm glad I have it in my library. Sometimes I'll come across a 5th grader interested in this type of nonfiction text. The end gives the most current information on the Romanov family and has an excellent bibliography, primary sources, and notes. I can see why it won a Sibert award in 2015.

5 Smileys

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Grimjinx Rebellion (The Vengekeep Prophecies #3) by Brian Farrey

The final conclusion to the Vengekeep Prophecies series is loaded with action and returning characters. Read the first two books before tackling this one or you won't have enough background to fully enjoy it. Jaxter and his family of thieves are back saving the Five Provinces from being destroyed. Aubrin, Jaxter's sister, has been kidnapped by the Palatinate because she is a powerful seer. When Jaxter and his family make a plan to free her, they uncover a plot to unleash monsters on the Provinces and overthrow the ruling High Laird. As the people go from one greedy tyrant to another, Jaxter and his friends form a rebellion in hopes of saving the people.

This final book tries to achieve an epic conclusion that sometimes works and other times doesn't. While there is plenty of action and humor, Jaxter's growth as a character is a bit convoluted or I was just too dense to figure it out right away (it was a waning-brain-power Friday). In previous books Jaxter learns to defeat magic with science and rely on his brains to solve problems. He continues to do that in this book and I thought his arc was about choices and consequences. But this isn't really the case, because Jaxter doesn't struggle much with choices and consequence, he just plows forward like a bull in the ring. He's impulsive and loyal to his family. They come first and his decisions are fast when it comes to helping friends. The result is not an indecisive character with thinks through all his options. He never listens to Aubrin who just gives half-finished, vague prophecies that add to the tension. Of course, when monsters are trying to kill you it's hard to sit down and have a chat about a prophecy. Like the first book, I appreciate how the author turns the prophecy trope upside down. He is showing the fallacy of prophecies and their unreliableness; that prophecies represent choices and no one can predict another person's choice. And that is really Jaxter's arc. He can change the future by making his own choices.

Jaxter's family is somewhat of a twist on the Robin Hood legend. Robin Hood frees the oppressed, steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He is a symbol against tyranny and greed. The High Laird of the country's current government is a poor leader and an ensuing coup puts a new corrupt group in power that is just as greedy placing high taxes on the general population and making life miserable. The new group uses monsters to intimidate people and take their money. The royal family in the form of the Dowager represents the old government that once freed the Provinces from a tyrant ruler. While the people didn't exactly like the High Laird, they'd prefer him over the new rulers and their monster military. Like Robin Hood, this series captures a human desire for justice and equality. While Jaxter's family supports the Dowager and royal family, they have always tried to stay out of politics. They are heroes to the oppressed masses because they are neutral for the most part and use unofficial networks when getting things done. They rely on other thieves and have no ties to the corrupt government. Even the Dowager has no political role in the government. She has chosen to not be a part of it. Not until the end does the Dowager take a political stance and even then it is to form a new government elect, not become a ruler.

The female characters are strong and Jaxter's mother is a hoot. Aubrin manipulates Maloch into doing what she wants by crying. When he leaves, she gives Jaxter a devious look and says, "See this face! It is a weapon!" To which Lupa responds, "I fear your cuteness arsenal." Nanni, Jaxter's grandma, forces Uncle Garax to apologize with some fierce earlobe pulling. When she sets off explosives and has smoke wafting off her head along with a blackened face she asks, "That tinder jack is powerful stuff! Where can I get some more?" Later, she's being chased by the enemy with her skirt hiked up and not to worried because she has time too wave to Jaxter. Much of the violence is toned down with humor and is more silly than scary.

In the first book I could relate to Jaxter's clumsiness, especially when he accidentally burnt down a house. I have started a few too many kitchen fires in my days. In this book Jaxter has come along way. He starts a fire on purpose as a diversion and not by accident. Instead I found myself relating to  the Dowager's miserable grasp of languages. I have said a few inappropriate things in Chinese living in Taiwan. The Dowager is always messing up the par-Goblin language adding terrific humor. When she tries to curse she says, "prudent soup." When she tries to name the new government she calls it "naive" instead of "wisdom." The author has continued his wonderful made-up words for swearing or monsters or other exclamations. The gags lope along throughout the entire plot. Great series.

3 Smileys

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sidekicked (Sidekicked #1) by John David Anderson

This novel pays homage to conventions of superhero fiction novels, as well as pokes fun at the genre. I am a newbie when it comes to reading comic books or graphic novels, but I have seen oodles of movies over the years and I did hear Stan Lee speak this summer, learning a bit more about common comic book tropes. Stan Lee created: The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-man, Thor, Iron Man, to name a few. Lee was one of the creators that influenced a new type of superhero in the mid-twentieth century that had weaknesses as well as strengths. His characters were not always handsome or affable and had moments of depression. Women characters sometimes played the most prominent role. Spider-man was a teenager with pimples who was a worrywart. Other characteristics of the comic superheroes were that they were adults with sidekicks that teenagers were meant to identify with; hence, Batman's sidekick was Robin or The Human Torch's sidekick was Toro.  The sidekick was supposed to appeal to the adolescent, although I've never met a kid that wanted to be Robin and the author plays on this notion with his main character, Andrew (Drew) Bean, and others of the H.E.R.O team that hate being novices or sidekicks to the adult superheroes. What's fun about this book is that Drew has a self-deprecating, sarcastic inner monologue that pokes holes at common superhero conventions and themes, such as alienation from society, but it also embraces familiar tropes found in well-known comic book characters. Author, John David Anderson, puts his own spin on the familiar in this genre, creating thirteen-year-old Drew who is dealing with alienation and loneliness but tied to middle school issues such as dating girls, feeling inept, disillusionment, divided loyalties, and having no authority. While the plot had enough complexity and twists, it is the character development that held my interest most.

Drew is in middle school and a part of a school environmental club, H.E.R.O, that conceals a secret facility below the first floor classrooms that operates as a training ground for kids with superpowers. The members of the team have cool physical powers. One can turn into granite. Another can produce electricity. A third can walk through walls. Another has super strength and acrobatic skills. Drew? Well, he has hypersensitive senses that can hear or smell scents from miles away. When he finds himself dangling over an acid pool, he mocks the superhero conventions and his less than spectacular superpower: "I can't believe I left my utility belt at school. Again. Not that I could reach anything on it. It's just a comfort thing. Like forgetting your watch or not putting on underwear. Without my utility belt, I am basically harmless. With it, I am at least somewhat potentially threatening." Once in a while the inner gab goes on too long, but for the most part it shows his growth as a character. As the action moves forward, he learns how his superpowers are invaluable to the team in different ways whether picking locks, sniffing out danger, or following the scent of a person.

All of the members of H.E.R.O. are sidekicks and connected with a mentor that trains and teaches them until they are ready to go off on their own to be a superhero. Drew's hero is the famous Titan that put away the villainous Dealer and henchmen. For some mysterious reason, the Titan refuses to mentor Drew and spends most of his days drinking at bars. When Drew is almost killed, he confronts Titan only to be told to "save himself." He learns to deal with his insecurities and isolation with the help of his friend, Jenna. She too struggles with the same issues although the first person narrative limits the reader from getting inside her head. The two have a discussion about good and bad decisions and how they boil down to choices and consequences. The debate shows how the two are ambivalent about the morality of killing a person and what defines loyalty. When the Dealer comes back from the dead and reenlists the help of his previous henchmen the city becomes terrorized. The Dealer hunts down the superheroes who first put him in jail and as the sidekicks mentors start to disappear they decide it is time to take action on their own.

Drew says that the hardest part of being a super is "keeping the secret." This isolates the superhero making them feel alienated from others. Middle school is a time when students are becoming more self-conscious, develop a stronger sense of what is right and wrong, learn to be more independent, and need to belong to a social group. Drew and the other sidekicks have to lie to family members and friends so no one knows when they've been involved in a battle involving villains and superheroes. They are unsung heroes and the seduction of fame and wanting to be special is very real for some of them. Just like Clark Kent was the nerdy, inept reporter by day, Drew is an inept middle schooler. Marvel Comics created teenage superheroes that felt ambivalent toward society and alienated from it. The sidekicks are alienated from other middle schoolers unable to tell them or their parents about their powers.

Gavin and Drew are both interested in Jenna. Drew is insecure with his skinny arms and looks compared to the buff Gavin. The two don't get along as a result. When Drew talks to police about a break-in at his home the officer asks if anyone has a grudge against Drew. He thinks of the villains trying to kill the sidekicks and Gavin who can secrete lava rock, but got injured by some "goon's beam-blasting eyeball." When Drew finally responds to the policeman he says that people don't care about him one way or the other to which the officer humorously responds, "Right. Looks like not much has changed since I was in middle school." When circumstances push Gavin and Drew together and Gavin saves his life, the two learn to work as a team and swallow their differences. Much of this story has to do with friendships, as well as the disillusionment of being a superhero.

In an exciting conclusion, Drew finds his potential as a hero and becomes more confident in his abilities. I did have some questions about the plot such as not being sure why the mayor was a target and how the bee villain fit in to the overall scheme. Some spots are slow and I the prologue confused me (I was thinking the narrator was pretending with a friend), but it comes together and takes off by the end. The world building is solid and the super human powers explained well. Superheroes oftentimes have their hearts broken and Drew does a few times and he is not the only character that struggles with disillusionment. Titan is disenchanted with the superhero gig while Jenna questions the morality of it. Rocket and Mr. Master's want to protect the sidekicks like a parent from getting hurt. Loads of humor and action layered with themes make this worth your while. Another good superhero book is "Steelheart" by Brandon Sanderson. Grab your mask and settle into your favorite reading spot with Drew, a.k.a. "The Sensationalist."

Interesting article on comics in EBSCO database:
Trushell, J. M. (2004). American Dreams of Mutants: The X-Men—“Pulp” Fiction, Science Fiction, and Superheroes. Journal Of Popular Culture, 38(1), 149-168.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's Guide (Continuum Contemporaries) by Philip Nel

I found this on the shelf in our library and saw that Philip Nel wrote it. His critiques and analyses of children's literature are interesting and understandable which is why I grabbed it. Because only books 1-4 are covered in this reader's guide, it feels incomplete. The last two chapters I skimmed as well because are somewhat outdated looking at reviews. The copyright is 2001. Of course, if you want a snapshot in the midst of Pottermania, then it gives just that. As in the past, I liked Nel's analysis as I knew I would. His writing is clear and well-supported. The beginning gives personal background information on Rowling and shows how her early activism can be seen in the books, as well as, having to deal with a mother that had multiple sclerosis.  Rowling was influenced by different authors growing up and Nel shows their influences in the Potter novels. The different people who influenced her life over the years also make an appearance in various characters and these are pointed out.

While I appreciated the mystery elements when I first read the series I didn't tie it into activism. The power that the characters wield comes through "unofficial networks" while the media or government officials tend to be corrupt. As the books continue Nel points out how the question of power becomes more complex as characters explore the morals of power positions and the exercising of authority. When Harry chooses not to kill Pettigrew after learning he killed his parents, there is the morality of Harry's choice that makes his decision more complicated and wrought with emotion.

I particularly liked how Nel articulated the ambiguity of the characters in the books. It is one of the appealing aspects and gives characters more complexity. Even Severus Snape, who seems like a one dimensional villain, shows depth by the last book. There is no index in the book and it is short, only 96 pages. If you are teaching the books or having a book club then it would help with discussions.

3 Smileys

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame

An oldie moldie. But goodie. Ew... we have some really old books in our library. First published in 1898, "The Reluctant Dragon" shows how Kenneth Grahame was influenced by Victorian writers with voice. The humorous and stuffy narration reminds me of Lemony Snicket in his Series of Unfortunate Events, Lois Lowry in "The Willoughbys", and Pseudonymous Bosch in his Bad Books series, poking fun at Victorian narrators. "The Reluctant Dragon" starts out like a fairy tale, "Long ago..." and ends happily ever after. Graham creates a pastoral setting that has parents who are shepherds raising a boy who is given no name in the story. The boy has an idyllic life where the narrator says, "his parents were very fond of him, and rather proud of him too, though they didn't let on in his hearing and ...treated [him] more or less as an equal with his parents." He solves their problems and gets to read for they supplied  "...the practical knowledge, and he the book-learning." A familiar trope in children's books is the wish for power. Children have even less power than adults so it is a prevalent theme. The boy gets responsibility and authority over the adults who do not talk down to him. The Victorian age gave rise to children's book and was a time when content shifted from being mostly didactic and condescending to a celebration of the innocent and imaginative child.

This book parodies the legend of St. George and the Dragon where the dragon is vicious and St. George cuts off its head rescuing the villagers. This short story with its high vocabulary is layered with meanings and satire. The shepherd father of the boy runs home to tell his family he spied a dragon in a cave. They boy reacts with no fear and says that he'll go talk to the dragon and sort it out. The dragon is a peaceable fellow who loves poetry and refuses to fight. The boy tries to convince the dragon to flee because he knows that the villagers will want the dragon killed. He tries to hide the dragon and makes friends with it. Their friendship is one of the forces that pushes the action forward.

The boy fears are realized when the villagers discover the dragon and they hail St. George to come and slay the dragon. The villagers dangerous views  and their mob mentality is prejudiced toward the dragon just because he is different. The boy seeks an audience with St. George to convince him to give up the quest. The boy heroically stands up for the dragon convincing St. George that killing it is a senseless deed; however, St. George is duty bound to fight the dragon and tells the boy to figure out a solution. The boy comes up with the brilliant idea of staging a mock fight. Both dragon and St. George ask the boy to figure out a solution which he does; thus giving Boy control over everyone's destiny. This empowers the young reader into what it is like to making his or her own decisions and grow toward independence. The three agree on the solution and in the end everyone is happy. The boy wants a fight. The dragon wants to recite sonnets. And St. George doesn't want to kill anyone. The ending provides a typical fairy tale wish fulfillment fantasy where the characters get what they want and are happy with it.

Fairy tales leave out motivation, rounded characters and background explanations. "Long ago..." there was a boy who lived with his parents that were shepherds. That's all that is needed and then the conflict is introduced. The fairy tale traipses from one crazy event to another and I think it is the sheer simplicity and headlong rush into action that makes it so popular with kids. There is usually a moral and it requires use of one's imagination. The boy and the dragon bond through telling each other stories and using their imagination. The boy doesn't have prejudices toward dragons like adults. Here the fairy tale pokes fun at the attitudes of the villagers by revealing their quick judgement of the dragon and is used to question the world around them. It puts the child in control, as well as, subverts the existing St. George and the dragon legend.

This mocking of prejudice and convention is central to the story. The pretend fight shows that appearances are deceiving and that the villagers misguided. St. George doesn't even like to kill dragons; his intentions bound only by duty rather than bloodlust. The adults give the boy responsibility and the dragon is more interested in performance than being violent. At the end he draws all the attention away from the boy and St. George adding to the irony of the situation, creating sympathetic characters, and adding to the plot's tension.

This pastoral work creates a nostalgia for a simple and innocence past. The idyllic setting and happily-ever-after ending establish a utopia that doesn't really exist in the real world. Characters can be presented as pure representations of feelings and somewhat unsophisticated. The boy does not think about the dangers to himself at confronting the dragon when his dad first tells the family about it. He does feel pain that his dragon friend might get killed and through a series of solutions grows as a boy. However, there is no real sense of danger and shows self-preservation above all else. If you are looking for Smaug, then you'll be disappointed with this Shakespearean sonnet-spewing dragon. But if you want some smart satire and humor, then I highly recommend it. As a read aloud you could have some good discussions. And phew! Yes, I ordered a new book to replace the library's 1966 copyrighted one.

5 Smileys