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The Arab of the Future

7 Oct

Riad’s Sattouf’s first autobiographical graphic novel, The Arab of the Future, opens simply.

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The Arab of the Future was followed this year by Arab of the Future 2. 

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Publisher’s Summary: In The Arab of the Future: Volume 1, cartoonist Riad Sattouf tells of the first years of his childhood as his family shuttles back and forth between France and the Middle East. In Libya and Syria, young Riad is exposed to the dismal reality of a life where food is scarce, children kill dogs for sport, and his cousins, virulently anti-Semitic and convinced he is Jewish because of his blond hair, lurk around every corner waiting to beat him up.

In Volume 2, Riad, now settled in his father’s hometown of Homs, gets to go to school, where he dedicates himself to becoming a true Syrian in the country of the dictator Hafez Al-Assad. Told simply yet with devastating effect, Riad’s story takes in the sweep of politics, religion, and poverty, but is steered by acutely observed small moments: the daily sadism of his schoolteacher, the lure of the black market, with its menu of shame and subsistence, and the obsequiousness of his father in the company of those close to the regime. As his family strains to fit in, one chilling, barbaric act drives the Sattoufs to make the most dramatic of changes.

Darkly funny and piercingly direct, The Arab of the Future, Volume 2 once again reveals the inner workings of a tormented country and a tormented family, delivered through Riad Sattouf’s dazzlingly original talent.

These are really great graphic memoirs that I would feel very comfortable adding to my 6th grade classroom library. What Persepolis did for Iran, Sattouf’s memoirs will do for the Middle East. In these days of suspicion and misunderstanding of the “other”, these graphic novels provide some insight.

A Successful Booktalk

15 Sep

Since school started, I’ve given a daily book talk. I’m trying to showcase different genre and topics. Yesterday, I thought I was taking a bit of a wild chance: a historical fiction novel in verse.

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Publisher’s Summary:In a haunting yet hopeful novel in verse, award-winning author Margarita Engle tells the story of Antonio Chuffat, a young man of African, Chinese, and Cuban descent who became a champion of civil rights.

Asia, Africa, Europe—Antonio Chuffat’s ancestors clashed and blended on the beautiful island of Cuba. Yet for most Cubans in the nineteenth century, life is anything but beautiful. The country is fighting for freedom from Spain. Enslaved Africans and nearly-enslaved Chinese indentured servants are forced to work long, backbreaking hours in the fields.

So Antonio feels lucky to have found a good job as a messenger, where his richly blended cultural background is an asset. Through his work he meets Wing, a young Chinese fruit seller who barely escaped the anti-Asian riots in San Francisco, and his sister Fan, a talented singer. With injustice all around them, the three friends are determined that violence will not be the only way to gain liberty.

I chose this book for several reasons: an interesting topic, a novel in verse (which my readers know I love), and a non-white main character.

My classes are majority minority, so I thought I might get some takers. But I didn’t know how they’d take to a novel in verse.

I shouldn’t have worried. As soon as I mentioned that Margarita Engle was the author, eyes lit up. Many of them had read another of her novels in verse, Mountain Dog.  And so, I was pleasantly surprised to see more students than I expected, add Lion Island to the “Next” list.

Happy Birthday, Neville Longbottom!

30 Jul

While the rest of the world is getting ready to celebrate Harry Potter’s birthday on the 31st, I am choosing to focus on Neville Longbottom, born on July 30th, one day before Harry, and who  COULD have been the Chosen One.

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies….

Dumbledore clearly points out that Neville was not physically marked by the Dark Lord and the stories clearly cast Harry in that role. But, where would Harry be without Neville? Probably dead at the hands of Voldemort.

As early as the first book, Neville, though a minor character, plays a big part. He tries to warn Harry about Malfoy’s plan to get them caught when they try to release Norbert. Later, he stands up to Harry Ron and Hermione when they try to sneak out to stop Professor Quirrell. The famous trio lost many points for Gryffindor, allowing Slytherin to win the house cup…until Dumbledore awarded Neville ten points for having the courage to do the right thing, putting Gryffindor’s point total past Slytherin’s.

But it is as a member of Dumbledore’s Army where Neville truly begins to shine. He was one of the first to sign up and surprised everyone by disarming Harry. He endured Bellatrix Lestrange’s torture with the Cruciatus Curse all the while encouraging Harry not to turn over the prophecy. In the absence of the three main characters, Neville takes on a leadership role and is the person who gets Harry back into Hogwarts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog and the overlooked, so I wanted to take the time to say, “Happy Birthday, Neville Longbottom!”.

Books to save your life

25 Jul

My dad died a year ago today.

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I got a little weepy at my niece’s high school graduation when I read in the program that she had won an award from the local Masonic Lodge. My dad was a lifelong Mason and he would have been so proud to see her get that award. I like to think he was looking down on her that day.

 As a book lover, I turned to literature for some help. Shortly after his passing, I read H is for Hawk  by Helen Macdonald. Last Christmas, my twin sister gave me They left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s memoir about coping with the houseful of mementos and memories her parents left after their deaths.

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Publisher’s Summary: After almost twenty years of caring for elderly parents—first for their senile father, and then for their cantankerous ninety-three-year old mother—author Plum Johnson and her three younger brothers have finally fallen to their middle-aged knees with conflicted feelings of grief and relief. Now they must empty and sell the beloved family home, twenty-three rooms bulging with history, antiques, and oxygen tanks. Plum thought: How tough will that be? I know how to buy garbage bags.

But the task turns out to be much harder and more rewarding than she ever imagined. Items from childhood trigger difficult memories of her eccentric family growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, but unearthing new facts about her parents helps her reconcile those relationships, with a more accepting perspective about who they were and what they valued.

They Left Us Everything
 is a funny, touching memoir about the importance of preserving family history to make sense of the past, and nurturing family bonds to safeguard the future.

I can think of many friends and colleagues, all middle-aged,  who might benefit from reading this book, who also have aging parents.

Earlier this year I read an excellent New Yorker article entitled “Can reading Make You Happier?” which was all about bibliotherapy. It turns out my local public library actually had the book mentioned in the article,  The Novel Cure  by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.

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In my pursuit of this topic, I also came across this gem:

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There are many other similar books out there. I hope that you can find some solace, support and hope in whatever books you choose to read.

Bad-Ass Librarians

21 Jul

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This button has been pinned on my ALA Conference lanyard since I picked it up in Boston in January. I would have moved it to my school lanyard, except that it has the word ASS on it and that is certainly a middle school no-no.

When I first picked up the button, I didn’t realize it was meant to promote Joshua Hammer’s book  The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. 

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During the school year, the book came up in discussion with a former school library colleague who was on the verge of retirement (and whose retirement party I will attend tomorrow).

Well, I finally read the book. It is about the librarians who saved the thousands of Arabic manuscripts housed in and around Timbuktu, bit it also gives background to why the effort was necessary.

Publisher’s Summary: To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

Alan Turing Decoded

9 Jun

As he did in his graphic biography Feynman

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Jim Ottaviani explores the life and work of another scientist in his newest work.

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The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded explores Turing’s youth, education and war experiences that lead him to

Publisher’s Summary: English mathematician and scientist Alan Turing (1912–1954) is credited with many of the foundational principles of contemporary computer science. The Imitation Game presents a historically accurate graphic novel biography of Turing’s life, including his groundbreaking work on the fundamentals of cryptography and artificial intelligence. His code breaking efforts led to the cracking of the German Enigma during World War II, work that saved countless lives and accelerated the Allied defeat of the Nazis. While Turing’s achievements remain relevant decades after his death, the story of his life in post-war Europe continues to fascinate audiences today.

Award-winning duo Jim Ottaviani (the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Feynman and Primates) and artist Leland Purvis (an Eisner and Ignatz Award nominee and occasional reviewer for the Comics Journal) present a factually detailed account of Turing’s life and groundbreaking research—as an unconventional genius who was arrested, tried, convicted, and punished for being openly gay, and whose innovative work still fuels the computing and communication systems that define our modern world. Computer science buffs, comics fans, and history aficionados will be captivated by this riveting and tragic story of one of the 20th century’s most unsung heroes.

The real focus of the book is Turing’s mind and how it was consumed with his theoretical ideas. It is written as interviews with Turing and various important people in his life. Each sheds light on different aspects of his life. Because I’d seen the movie,  starring Benjamin Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, I was able to easily follow the story, but I wonder if it would be as easy a path to follow if I hadn’t.

 

Keeping cool

5 Jun

We are having a heat wave. It was almost 100°F yesterday and will be so again today. What better way to pass the time, locked in the only room with air conditioning, than by reading about the Arctic.

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The title tells you what the book, by Peggy Caravantes, is all about: Marooned in the Arctic:The True Story of Ada Blackjack, the Female Robinson Crusoe.

Goodreads Summary:In 1921, four men ventured into the Arctic for a top-secret expedition: an attempt to claim uninhabited Wrangel Island in northern Siberia for Great Britain. With the men was a young Inuit woman named Ada Blackjack, who had signed on as cook and seamstress to earn money to care for her sick son. Conditions soon turned dire for the team when they were unable to kill enough game to survive. Three of the men tried to cross the frozen Chukchi Sea for help but were never seen again, leaving Ada with one remaining team member who soon died of scurvy. Determined to be reunited with her son, Ada learned to survive alone in the icy world by trapping foxes, catching seals, and avoiding polar bears. After she was finally rescued in August 1923, after two years total on the island, Ada became a celebrity, with newspapers calling her a real “female Robinson Crusoe.” The first young adult book about Blackjack’s remarkable story, Marooned in the Arctic includes sidebars on relevant topics of interest to teens, including the use cats on ships, the phenomenon known as Arctic hysteria, and aspects of Inuit culture and beliefs. With excerpts from diaries, letters, and telegrams; historic photos; a map; source notes; and a bibliography, this is an indispensable resource for any young adventure lover, classroom, or library.

Fortunately for those of us in the Pacific Northwest, we won’t have wait as long as Ada for relief. We will be back to normal May temperatures by Wednesday.

Small but vital reporters

23 May

In the late 80’s and early 90’s I loved listening to a CBC radio programme called Double Exposure. Satirizing contemporary Canadian politics, the show starred Linda Cullen and Bob Robertson, and focused primarily on the stars’ voice impersonations of Canadian political and cultural figures. One of my favorite segments has Cullen personifying “Victoria Penner, small but vital reporter”.

For a while, I’d considered journalism as a career, but hadn’t wanted to end up doing human interest stories on a small town paper and laughed as Cullen confirmed my decision to go into teaching instead. Of course, I wanted to be a famous foreign correspondent or at the very least, a substantial figure in Canadian political journalism. I didn’t think I had the killer instinct it would take to get ahead in, what was still, a male dominated career. Writing would be my avocation, but not my career.

With these memories swirling in my memory, I happily found myself reading two books about female journalists that would make a fabulous fiction, non-fiction pairing.

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Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter, by the amazingly named Beth Fantaskey, is set in 1920’s Chicago. Isabel is a small but intrepid newsie, who longs to be a reporter.

Goodreads Summary:It’s 1920s Chicago—the guns-and-gangster era of Al Capone—and it’s unusual for a girl to be selling the Tribune on the street corner. But ten-year-old Isabel Feeney is unusual . . . unusually obsessed with being a news reporter. She can’t believe her luck when she stumbles not only into a real-live murder scene, but also into her hero, the famous journalist Maude Collier. The story of how the smart, curious, loyal Isabel fights to defend the honor of her accused friend and latches on to the murder case like a dog on a pant leg makes for a winning, thoroughly entertaining middle grade mystery.

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Before the era of Isabel’s adventure, Nellie Bly was setting the standard for stunt journalism, when even fewer women worked in the news industry. Deborah Noyes’ Ten Days a Madwoman,  takes us to the start of Bly’s career and the first stunt that made her a household name.

Publisher’s Summary: Young Nellie Bly had ambitious goals, especially for a woman at the end of the nineteenth century, when the few female journalists were relegated to writing columns about cleaning or fashion. But fresh off a train from Pittsburgh, Nellie knew she was destined for more and pulled a major journalistic stunt that skyrocketed her to fame: feigning insanity, being committed to the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and writing a shocking exposé of the clinic’s horrific treatment of its patients.

Nellie Bly became a household name as the world followed her enthralling career in “stunt” journalism that raised awareness of political corruption, poverty, and abuses of human rights. Leading an uncommonly full life, Nellie circled the globe in a record seventy-two days and brought home a pet monkey before marrying an aged millionaire and running his company after his death.

Fiction/Nonfiction Pairing: The Great War

29 Apr

I’ve had the First World War on my mind since before the 100th anniversary of its start, almost two years ago. Quite a bit was done and written in the months just before August 2014, and there have been trickles since. This week, I’ve become enamored of a delightful pair of books that look at the Great War through a literary lens.

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The Great War: Stories Inspired by Items from the First World War is a collection of modern stories, written by an amazing array of  contemporary YA authors (David Almond, Michael Morpurgo, John Boyne, AL Kennedy, Marcus Sedgewick, Adele Geras,Tracy Chevalier, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Sheena Wilkinson, Ursula Dubrovsky, Timothee de Fombelle) and illustrated by Jim Kay.

Publisher’s Summary:A toy soldier. A butter dish. A compass. Mundane objects, perhaps, but to the remarkable authors in this collection, artifacts such as these have inspired stories that go to the heart of the human experience of World War I. Each author was invited to choose an object that had a connection to the war—a writing kit for David Almond, a helmet for Michael Morpurgo—and use it as the inspiration for an original short story. What results is an extraordinary collection, illustrated throughout by award-winning Jim Kay and featuring photographs of the objects with accounts of their history and the authors’ reasons for selecting them. This unique anthology provides young readers with a personal window into the Great War and the people affected by it, and serves as an invaluable resource for families and teachers alike.

In a powerful collection, eleven internationally acclaimed writers draw on personal objects to bring the First World War to life for readers young and old.
That collection of short stories would pair nicely with this collection of biographies of 12 men and three women, who participated in the First World War, and who later gained fame in other ways.
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In the Fields and Trenches:The Famous and the Forgotten on the Battlefields of World War I is written by Kerrie Logan Hollihan and published by the Chicago Review Press.
Publisher’s Summary: When it started, many thought the Great War would be a great adventure. Yet, as those who saw it up close learned, it was anything but. In the Fields and the Trenches traces the stories of eighteen young idealists swept into the brutal conflict, many of whom would go on to become well-known 20th-century figures in film, science, politics, literature, and business. Writer J. R. R. Tolkien was a signals officer with the British Expeditionary Force and fought at the Battle of the Somme. Scientist Irène Curie helped her mother, Marie, run twenty X-ray units for French field hospitals. Actor Buster Keaton left Hollywood after being drafted into the army’s 40th Infantry Division. And all four of Theodore Roosevelt’s sons—Kermit, Archibald, Quentin, and Theodore III—and his daughter Ethel served in Europe, though one did not return.In the Fields and the Trenches chronicles the lives of heroes, cowards, comics, and villains—some famous, some not—who participated in this life-changing event. Extensive original material, from letters sent from the front to personal journals, brings these men and women back to life. And though their stories are a century old, they convey modern, universal themes of love, death, power, greed, courage, hate, fear, family, friendship, and sacrifice.
Together, these two books give readers a glimpse into the impact of The Great war on ordinary lives.

Lizzie Borden: Sifting Fact from Fiction

20 Apr

I first learned about Lizzie Borden in 1975. I remember sitting with my mother and sister, watching the TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery.

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Up until that point, she’d always been Samantha from Bewitched,  and my mom made a big deal out of her change of roles, and this movie. In retrospect, I can see it as the made for TV movie that it was, but it has colored my view of Borden’s guilt.

A much more evenhanded presentation of the facts can be found in The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century by Sarah Miller.

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 Goodreads Summary: In linear narrative, Miller takes readers along as she investigates a brutal crime: the August 4, 1892, murders of wealthy and prominent Andrew and Abby Borden. The accused? Mild-mannered and highly respected Lizzie Borden, daughter of Andrew and stepdaughter of Abby. Most of what is known about Lizzie’s arrest and subsequent trial (and acquittal) comes from sensationalized newspaper reports; as Miller sorts fact from fiction, and as a legal battle gets under way, a portrait of a woman and a town emerges.

The book opens on the morning of the murder and takes us through Borden’s arrest, imprisonment, trial and the acquittal. In these days of Law & Order  in all it’s incarnations, it is interesting to see the lack of  forensic evidence and clear police procedure we have come to expect. Miller’s story is engaging, unfolding like a thriller and full of newspaper reports about the sensational “trial of the century”. There are actual photos of the murder scenes and other photos and diagrams. Additionally, Miller has numerous sidebars that give us a clearer glimpse into life in Fall River, MA in August 1892.

Middle grade readers on up will find this a fascinating read.

 

 

Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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