Thursday, February 10, 2011

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld--Google Maps

Bibliography: Westerfeld, S. (2009). Leviathan. New York, NY: Simon Pulse.

Summary: It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.

Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way...taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever (Simon Pulse).

Tool: Google Maps

Google Maps is one of the best means to visually re-tell a piece of literature. I love books that include maps--it makes for a much richer reading experience when one is visually able to track Taran's search for the oracular pig Hen Wen across the mystical Prydain (Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three) or to trace triangular trade as African slaves are exchanged for colonial cash crops which are exchanged for manufactured European goods which are then exchanged for slaves (Marc Aronson's Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Spice, Magic, Sugar, Food, and Science).

In this map, I wanted to visualize two things: 1) how Deryn's and Aleksandar's re-imagined 1914 Europe relates to the Europe we recognize today, and 2) how images can be incorporated into and thus enhance the map. Because Leviathan is already illustrated, it seemed best to utilize artist Keith Thompson's original images in order to stay as true to Deryn's and Aleksandar's journey as possible. Google Maps is a bit tricky--users can only stream in images; they cannot upload them. To do this, find your desired image online, open it in a new web page, and copy and paste the address of the new page (it should have nothing but the image on it) into your post on your map. To learn more about creating your own map, this YouTube video is a great introduction: "How to Create a "My Map" in Google Maps.

Using Google Maps to visually engage readers was a project initiated by Jerome Burg as part of the Google Certified Teachers program, which is designed to help educators get the most of innovative technologies. See Google Lit Trips for more information and to explore some pre-existing projects.

Click on the pushpins to view Deryn's and Aleksandar's adventures.

View Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld in a larger map

Review: Leviathan is brilliant. While Scott Westerfeld has already proven his aptitude for science fiction in the critically acclaimed Uglies series, Leviathan shows that he is able to write beyond generic dystopia and artfully blend science and historical fictions into a prime example of steampunk literature. For the uninitiated, steampunk is an offshoot of science fiction in which the characters inhabit a Victorian, steam-powered universe. Westerfeld takes this genre a step further by bringing in genetic engineering, and the science behind his Darwinist “beasties” and their symbiotic relationships is both enthralling and concurrent with Darwin’s theories on the transmutation of species. Westerfeld has clearly done his research.

The Leviathan is more than just a scientific creation, however; it is the setting for a rollicking adventure tale. Both Deryn and Aleksandar are exuberant characters, and the fast-paced plot—-full of large-scale air battles, royalty on the run, and secret missions—-reads just like a penny dreadful, a sensationalized novel of adventure and, often, violence made popular in the late Victorian era. Which, of course, is exactly what Westerfeld intended.

His desire to create a modernized early twentieth-century novel is made concrete by Leviathan’s illustrations. Novels during this time period—-even those written for adults—-were heavily illustrated, and Leviathan includes a black-and-white picture in every chapter. Drawn by Keith Thompson, these images are an amalgamation of Victorian detail and a contemporary, almost manga-esque style, and they are invaluable in helping readers appreciate the machines and beasts of Westerfeld’s re-imagined historical Europe.

If Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson met today over some very highly-caffeinated coffee, Leviathan might be the result. Grades 7+.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman--Timetoast

Bibliography: Heiligman, D. (2009). Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ leap of faith. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Summary: Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary treatise on evolution, in 1859. Even today, the theory of evolution creates tension between the scientific and religious communities. This same debate raged within Darwin himself and played an important part in his marriage: Emma’s faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on his controversial theory.

This biography of Charles Darwin takes a personal look at the man behind evolutionary theory. His children doubled as scientific specimens, and his wife’s religious convictions made him rethink how the world would receive his ideas. What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant man, a radical science, and a great love (Henry Holt and Company).

Tool: Timetoast

Timetoast is an incredibly easy-to-use timeline tool that results in a clean presentation. Simply create a new timeline, and add your events. Each event requires a title, date, and description, and the user can choose whether or not to upload images. Because each event has a character count, users must be thrifty with their words in the descriptions, and each date must be exact--no approximating allowed. For example, rather than "Summer 2010," users must specify "June 21, 2010," which means that some information is going to be a little debatable. Other than this minor setback, Timetoast is a great tool to use with biographies (see below), histories, "About Me" projects, etc. Run your mouse across the final product to pull up events, and click on them to read the descriptions.

Review: Charles Darwin: both the man and his theories on natural selection have been misunderstood and hotly debated since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. In Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, Deborah Heiligman provides a human connection to the scientist by writing a unique biography not on his life but on his 43-year marriage to his wife, Emma. Using the Darwins’ personal correspondence, diaries, and Charles’s observational notebooks, Heiligman examines the relationship between a self-proclaimed agnostic naturalist and a devout Christian and how their mutual love and respect enabled them to create a strong partnership despite their differences in religious beliefs.

While the book chronicles 43 years, the first half of the Darwins’ marriage receives the greatest treatment; indeed, the publication of The Origin of Species warrants only a few chapters. This organization is probably due to the couple’s acceptance of each others' differences after so many years, whereas in the beginning of their relationship, acceptance took more work and more worry, resulting in more story. The information is presented chronologically in short chapters using a simple narrative style (Victorian quotations aside), making it easy, and therefore enjoyable, to absorb.

The subject matter is not altogether serious. Because Heiligman uses the Darwins’ personal prose as the foundation of her research, she is able to inject much of their humor into their biography, which is integral to her goal of separating the man from the myth. In the first chapter, for example, Charles, newly returned from his historic voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, makes a pros and cons list entitled “Marry/Not Marry: This is the Question.” On the “Marry” side, he writes, “better than a dog anyhow.” (A photograph of this list, along with others, is included in an insert.) Admirably, Heiligman rarely attempts to “get at” her subjects’ hidden motives: she provides facts and primary sources and leaves conjecturing to her readers.

While intended for a young adult audience (and winner of the YALSA-ALA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award, as well as being a Printz Honor book and a National Book Award Finalist), the story should be appealing to adults as well. By focusing on the marriage rather than the man, Heiligman succeeds in personalizing Charles and Emma beyond mere theories and convictions, and by the end of the book, readers feel that they have just spent a rather pleasant afternoon playing backgammon and conversing with their new friends, the Darwins. Grades 8+.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins--VoiceThread

Bibliography: Collins, S. (2008). The hunger games. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Summary: In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—-and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love (Scholastic Press).

Tool: VoiceThread

VoiceThread is a mixer tool that enables users to create a mult-media presentation with images, video, and audio. The user creates individual slides, much like PowerPoint. Unlike PowerPoint, however, these "slides" can be uploaded images or video, and the user can then record commentary using different "identities." Because I wanted to focus on the audio feature of this tool, I only created one slide. Although you can upload your own audio into VoiceThread, I used its recording tool, which worked without any hiccups. VoiceThread is a good tool to showcase different points of view, e.g. here I give examples of what high school students are saying about The Hunger Games.

Review: Before her foray into children’s and young adult literature, Suzanne Collins was a screenwriter for television, and it shows in The Hunger Games. Her writing style is choppy, almost crude, with minimal punctuation and few lengthy descriptive passages. For a book about reality television, however, these simple sentences enhance the story, allowing the reader to focus wholly on the action rather than being distracted by stylish language and grammatical structure. Reading The Hunger Games is exactly like watching trashy TV: serialized shows are designed to pull the viewer in, and you cannot stop watching, and you must find out what happens next, and just look at what those rowdy Jersey Shore kids are up to now!

Except that The Hunger Games isn’t trashy—it’s legitimate literature, and the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, must kill children in front of millions of viewers or be killed herself. A far cry from watching Snooki’s and the Situation’s GTL (Gym, Tan, Laundry) routine on MTV. Collins has said that this book evolved from a mindless channel-flipping session ( While half of the channels featured reality programming, the other half focused on actual reality—footage from the Iraq War--and the two melded together to form Collins’s bloody, heartrending, impossible-to-put-down commentary on the effects of war and violence on children and teenagers.

If you pick up The Hunger Games, make sure that you also have immediate access to the sequel, Catching Fire, and the surprising and controversial conclusion, Mockingjay. Grades 7+.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Ghost and the Goth by Stacey Kade--iMovie

Bibliography: Kade, S. (2010). The ghost and the goth. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Summary: The Ghost: It’s not my fault that I was born with it all—-good looks, silky blond hair, and a keen sense of what everyone else should not be wearing. My life isn’t perfect, though, especially since I died. Run over by a bus of band geeks—-could there be a worse fate? As it turns out, yes—-I’m starting to disappear, flickering in and out of existence. To top it off, the only person who can see or hear me is Will Killian, TOTAL loser boy, and he refuses to help!

I need to get control of my afterlife, and fast, before I’m dead AND gone for good. If I can get Will to talk to me, I might have a chance. But that means trusting him with my secrets...and I don’t trust anyone, living or dead.

The Goth: My mom thinks I’m crazy. My shrink wants to lock me up. Basically, my life sucks. And that was before the homecoming queen started haunting me. Alona Dare was a pain when she was alive; dead, she’s even worse.

Yeah, I can see, hear, and touch ghosts. With just a few weeks of school left, all I want to do is graduate and get out of here, find some place with less spiritual interference. But with a dead cheerleader who won’t leave me alone, and a violent new ghost who wants me dead...I’m screwed.

Alona and I might be able to help each other...if we can stop hating each other long enough to try.

Yeah, right (Hyperion).

Tool: iMovie

iMovie is not a Web 2.0 tool, but I felt it deserved a post because so many educators are using it (and its PC equivalent, Windows Media Player) both in and out of the classroom. The book trailer for The Ghost and the Goth began in an educator workshop, "Becoming Steven Spielberg...," taught by EISD instructional technology coordinator Carl Hooker (Follow him on Twitter @mrhooker). The workshop utilized the movie-making software Adobe Premiere Elements, and when I tried to open my project later in Adobe Premiere Pro, I found that transferring it from one program to another had dismantled it. My video and audio clips were there, but my complete book trailer had been disassembled.

Undeterred, I took the carnage that had been my project and decided to teach myself how to use iMovie. After the complicated Adobe programs, learning iMovie was like going to Hogwarts--magical.

While users can make movies from their own video clips, of course, I decided, in the spirit of both Web 2.0 collaboration and true fan-made trailers, to find all of my material online. All of the video clips are edited from other posts on YouTube, and nearly all of the audio (AFI's "Miss Murder" excepted) is available on various creative commons sites (See Freeplay Music as an example). Making this book trailer has been the most fun, albeit the most time-consuming, project I have made for stories from the cloud, and I highly recommend the above Apple how-to site for people with questions about iMovie. Just make sure that your video clips are converted to MPEG format before you begin your project. I recommend Media Converter, a free online video and audio converter that can convert files uploaded from your computer or imported directly from YouTube, Facebook, etc.

Review: Maintaining a narrative with two speakers is tricky--the reader may simply skim through a weak account to get to the next--but Stacey Kade performs the job well with her debut novel, The Ghost and the Goth. Both Alona's and Will's perspectives advance the main storyline while maintaining a separate plot unique to each character. Kade also sets up each character's story differently so as to retain readers' interest: Will's family secret, for example, is revealed almost immediately, while Alona's remains a mystery until almost the last chapter. This distinctness emphasizes the dichotomy between the characters: the goth lets his friends (and the audience) in, while even as a ghost, the homecoming queen is hesitant to reveal anything that conflicts with her public image. Watching such classic stereotypes--although, of course, Will and Alona are more than that--attempt to overcome their differences is hilarious.

Kade's paranormal universe has a few minor weak points--Alona must perform acts of kindness in order to keep from disappearing, for example--but is overall convincing and sticks to the standard lore. (Note to self: stay away from Ouija boards!) The mystery of who the violent, new ghost is and why he or she is after Will stays tight, and the fast-paced climax is both disturbing and cathartic. Despite the quirky concept and cute cover, the novel deals with some mature topics, such as death, suicide, alcoholism, and parental abuse. The themes of accepting others for who they are and telling the truth about yourself are universal, however, and this book should hit home for a wide range of readers. Because of its realistic issues, it may even be a good gateway book for enticing readers to get out of the paranormal romance rut and explore other genres. Grades 8+.

(After unwisely consulting the Ouija board, the spirits have informed me that the sequel, Queen of the Dead, is due out in June.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Crank by Ellen Hopkins--Wordle

Bibliography: Hopkins, E. (2004). Crank. New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Summary: Kristina is the perfect daughter: gifted high school junior, quiet, never any trouble. Then she meets the monster: crank. And what begins as a wild ride turns into a struggle for her mind, her soul--her life (Margaret K. McElderry Books).

Tool: Wordle

Wordle creates randomized "word art" using a system based on the number of times a word is entered. For example, in the poem "Alone" below, "alone" and "quite" are both used four times, while all other words are only used once or twice, resulting in the following image. This system makes Wordle an effective tool to examine theme: just copy and paste in a poem, a presidential speech, a news article, etc., and the text is broken down to a visually telling image revealing the main ideas. Because Wordle is randomized, however, users do not have very much control over the resulting image other than font and color scheme, so if it generates an image that you like, you should stick with it.

Here is the original poem from Crank used to create the above Wordle:

The verse novel genre has always seemed a bit ostentatious—write a series of poems about a series of events that happen to a series of characters, and call it a novel? We didn’t call Rita Dove’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-award winning Thomas and Beulah a novel; we called it poetry. Hesitantly flipping through Ellen Hopkins’s Crank, at first I saw only poetry, and angst-ridden poetry at that.

Crank, however, goes deeper than your “I am alone in a crowded room” teen fare. While many of its poems can stand alone (see “Alone” above; pun not intended), Hopkins brings them together to create a cohesive and, surprisingly, plot-driven and even suspenseful whole.

Although Kristina’s eventual pregnancy feels like a hasty add-on, because her story is loosely based on Hopkins’s daughter’s addiction (she is currently raising her daughter’s child), it is understandable that she would include it. Also, because this is a novel about drug addiction and not teen pregnancy, Hopkins spends most of the book chronicling Kristina’s/Bree’s descent into madness and desperation. Pregnancy is just an afterthought for the narrator; so, too, should it be for the reader.

Foremost in her/their mind(s) are smoking crank, sexing boys, and somewhere, sometimes, saving Kristina. Both Kristina and Bree, her alter ego, have beautiful, distinct voices, and because the poetic medium allows for a more poignant expression, limiting distracting explicatory passages, the reader is really able to feel the speaker’s blissful highs and staggering lows. Whether or not they are suffering from addiction, teenagers will relate well to Hopkins’s poetry and Kristina’s emotional rollercoaster, and I recommend having both sequels, Glass and Fallout, on hand.

The audiobook, read by Laura Flanagan, is also highly recommended. Grades 8+.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare--PikiStrips

Bibliography: Speare, E. G. (1958). The witch of Blackbird Pond. New York, NY: Laurel-Leaf Books.

Summary: Orphaned Kit Tyler knows, as she gazes for the first time at the cold, bleak shores of Connecticut Colony, that her new home will never be like the shimmering Caribbean islands she left behind. In her relatives’ stern Puritan community, she feels like a tropical bird that has flown to the wrong part of the world, a bird that is now caged and lonely. The only place where Kit feels completely free is in the meadows, where she enjoys the company of the old Quaker woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond, and on occasion, her young sailor friend Nat. But when Kit’s friendship with the “witch” is discovered, Kit is faced with suspicion, fear, and anger. She herself is accused of witchcraft (Laurel-Leaf Books)!

Tool: PikiStrips

PikiStrips was a very frustrating tool to use, and the only reason I persisted in finishing this comic strip was because I had already put so much effort into it that I needed to see a final product. The idea--"creating comic strips from your photos"--is appealing, but PikiStrips does not execute it well. First, do not use this tool in Internet Explorer. It is very finicky and does not save changes unless you constantly refresh the page. I recommend using Firefox or Chrome. Second, the tagline is an exaggeration: users can certainly upload their photos into PikiStrips, but the tools to alter them are so crude that is is impossible to manipulate photos into something that looks like a comic strip. The images used in The Witch of Blackbird Pond are free clip art images, not altered photos. Third, PikiStrips's speech bubble function is nearly impossible to control (notice that there no speech bubbles below), changing shapes, sizes, and inputted text at random. Bottom line: Unless you have infinite patience, use a different tool for your visual storytelling project.

a comic strip!

Review: In a discussion of Newbery award-winning books and how the standards for children’s literature have evolved over the years (see, for example, the word “scrotum” on the first page of Susan Patron’s 2007 winner, The Higher Power of Lucky), a friend argued that The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare was nothing more than a sexist relic from the Fifties. Upon reading this book, however, I must disagree. Kit Tyler is a highly intelligent character, and she engages the audience immediately in the first chapter--in which she garners her first accusations of witchcraft by plunging into the frigid Atlantic to retrieve a child’s doll...and stays afloat.

While Kit does end up with the romantic interest (which is the reasoning behind my friend’s argument), she chooses to be with him because she loves him rather than because of the status and escape from hard labor that another marriage proposal (which she declines) could provide. This book is about women who make their own decisions and deal with the consequences. Speare examines and juxtaposes the traditional roles of women throughout their lifetimes by using the characters of Prudence, a child determined to be educated; Kit, a young woman determined to find freedom from society’s rules; and Hannah, an old woman determined to live according to her personal religious mores.

Younger readers may stumble over some of the political plotline, e.g. the royalists versus the freemen and the colonists’ fight to preserve their charter. Recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond to readers who enjoyed the romance of Twilight but need a strong-willed, independent-thinking female protagonist. Grades 5-8.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman--PhotoPeach

Bibliography: Gaiman, N. (2008). The graveyard book. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Summary: Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead.

There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy—an ancient Indigo Man beneath the hill, a gateway to a desert leading to an abandoned city of ghouls, the strange and terrible menace of the Sleer.

But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family… (HarperCollins Publishers).

Tool: PhotoPeach

PhotoPeach is an easy-to-use slide show tool that creates pan and zoom effects. Users simply upload JPEG files, select music (users may upload their own music; however, creative commons music is provided by the site), and add captions, if desired. Like Animoto, if you want text in your actual image--in addition to the provided captions--then you will have to create slides in PowerPoint and save them as JPEG files. The only downside to this tool is that there is no option to edit font. Its simplicity, both in presentation and ease of use, however, make PhotoPeach an excellent tool for beginners to visual storytelling.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman on PhotoPeach

Review: Neil Gaiman, a sort of Renaissance man of letters, garnering critical acclaim for his comics and criticism, screenplays and song lyrics, poetry and prose, has returned to the genre of children’s literature with his Newbery award-winning The Graveyard Book. Complete with eerie black-and-white sketches by long-time collaborator Dave McKean, The Graveyard Book presents an intriguing twist on the traditional bildungsroman: what if a human boy was raised by ghosts, spending his childhood surrounded by the dead in a decrepit English cemetery?

This premise, combined with the surprisingly gory first chapter, is enough to pique readers’ interest, and the book begins promisingly. Because the graveyard is old enough to have inhabitants dating back to the Roman occupation, the supporting characters are all rather eccentric and enjoyable--take, for example, the 18th-century Mr. and Mistress Owens, Bod’s adoptive parents, and the medieval Liza Hempstock, drowned and burned for witchcraft. The narrative is simple and contemporary in order to place a greater emphasis on the various historic dialects spoken by the inhabitants: “Your duty, ma’am, is to the graveyard, and to the commonality of those who form this population of discarnate spirits, revenants and suchlike wights...” Each chapter presents a new adventure for Bod—-whether getting kidnapped by ghouls or attempting to go to public school with a name like Nobody Owens—-and each adventure leaves him a little more mature.

In his obvious delight in creating Bod’s whimsically macabre environment, however, Gaiman seems to have forgotten the central plot of his novel (remember the gory first chapter?), and his hasty attempt to create one in the final two chapters of the book is contrived and disappointing. Although the boy growing up in the graveyard is a first-rate idea and the graveyard itself comes alive through Gaiman’s excellent characterization, the author is unable to move the main plot along with any creative conflict, instead relying on such weak machinations as “self-fulfilling prophecies.” He should have stuck to the basic coming-of-age story.

Long-time Gaiman fans will enjoy The Graveyard Book, although it is unlikely that it will be as highly regarded as his other work, despite its status as “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” (John Newbery Medal). If you are reading Gaiman for the first time, however, start with Stardust for children and Neverwhere for teenagers/adults. Grades 5-8.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton--VUVOX

Bibliography: Hinton, S. E. (1967). The outsiders. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

In Ponyboy’s world, there are two types of people. There are the Socs, the rich society kids who get away with anything. Then there are the greasers, like Ponyboy, who aren’t so lucky. Ponyboy has a few things he can count on: his older brothers, his friends, and trouble with the Socs, whose idea of a good time is beating up greasers like Ponyboy. At least he knows what to expect—until the night things go too far (Penguin Books).


The collage feature in VUVOX provides a unique interface for creating visual presentations along a sliding horizontal strip that the user can either play or scroll through manually. Users can upload images, audio, and video to their collages and add/modify text. While this tool is an appealing visual medium, it does have several problems: 1. The horizontal canvas that the user creates on appears smaller when published as a final product, making the original images slightly awkward onscreen (see the first example of text "Greasers are almost like hoods..." below), and 2. VUVOX often experiences server outages, resulting in an ability to save. On The Outsiders collage, scroll through it manually to get the best effect. VUVOX is not recommended for beginners.

Hinton’s The Outsiders is now considered a classic and for very good reason. Prior to its publication in 1967, the genre now labeled “YA” was nonexistent—-there were no books for teenagers about real teenagers. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published 16 years earlier, was written for an adult audience, and other materials were mere adult propaganda, sterile and unrealistic—-think Gidget. An 18-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, however, knew exactly what life was like for small-town teenagers—-emotional turmoil, family upheaval, socioeconomic conflict—-and she depicted this reality in her first novel, The Outsiders.

Regardless of its landmark legend, The Outsiders is first and foremost a good book. As the first-person narrator, Ponyboy Curtis has a sometimes-painfully lucid voice: at no point in the novel is the reader unaware of or confused about Ponyboy’s feelings. This aching clarity forces us to experience his pain and rage and bewilderment head-on, but it also allows us to exhilarate in the rush of the rumble or stammer bashfully in front of the pretty, red-haired cheerleader. Through Ponyboy, the audience meets such equally three-dimensional characters as his friends Johnny and Dallas, his brothers Darrel and Sodapop, and the tragic figure of Cherry. The plot is fast-paced and concise with little or no subplot to drag down the main storyline, and the ending, while not so clean as to be unrealistic, provides a margin of hope for the characters we have come to identify so much with.

Hinton provides an action-packed punch, yet it is the novel’s quiet moments that have resonated so strongly with readers over the years. How Ponyboy reacts to and in between conflicts shows the audience both what he is made of and what we can be made of. The Outsiders reminds us that there is honor among the lawless, that beauty can be found in the least likely of places, and that the same sun sets over all of us.

“Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.” Grades 7+.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Born to Rock by Gordon Korman--Blabberize

Bibliography: Korman, G. (2006). Born to rock. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Summary: Leo Caraway--president of the Young Republicans club, 4.0 GPA, future Harvard student--had his entire future perfectly planned out. That was, until the X factor. As in Marion X. McMurphy, aka King Maggot, the lead singer of Purge, the most popular, most destructive band punk rock has ever seen. As in Leo's biological father.

At first, Leo is horrified to find out his real father is punk rock's most notorious bad boy. Not only is he not a punk rock fan, but he believes the X factor (the Maggot blood in his veins) is a dangerous time bomb just waiting to explode. And sure enough it does--when Leo stubbornly defends the unlikeliest of people, thereby getting himself falsely accused of cheating on a test.

Because of the blemish on his record, the once-star pupil finds his scholarship to Harvard taken away. So he accepts a job as a roadie with Purge's summer revival tour, all the while secretly hoping to convince King Maggot to pay his tuition. But life on the road is even crazier than Leo bargained for, and before the summer is over, he will finally discover the surprising truth about his dad, his friends, and most important, himself (Hyperion).

Tool: Blabberize

Blabberize is a crude tool used to create simple, often humorous videos. To make a blabber, simply upload your image, draw in a mouth, and insert your 30-second audio. The result is an animated, flapping mouth cheerfully blabbing away. There are some tricks to using Blabberize successfully. First, know that the call-in option (in which you use your phone to record your audio) is no longer available. Second, if you are using a Mac (or a PC, just to be on the safe side), Blabberize often has trouble recognizing your microphone. The best solution is to download a free recording tool (I highly recommend Audacity. Find it at, record your audio and save it as a WAV file, and upload it into Blabberize. Third, in order to embed your blabber, you must convert it into a downloadable video, which Blabberize does free of charge in an MPEG format. Blabberize would be a good tool to use with elementary students if the teacher has set up and is manning Audacity.

Review: Born to Rock is good, simple fun. Going on the road with Leo is like watching a comedy that doesn’t need to rely on bathroom humor for cheap laughs. Gordon Korman is comical without being malicious, which is refreshing when so much popular humor today depends on putting others down—think Saturday Night Live. That being said, Born to Rock will still appeal to the YA audience because Leo is both the representative Typical Teenager and gets to live like a rock star. Of course, being a roadie on the equivalent of a Sex Pistols reunion tour may not be quite as glamorous as it sounds...

Korman’s characters are well developed in addition to being entertaining. Leo is a very personal narrator, letting the reader in on his secrets from the get-go. He has a lot to learn over the course of the novel, however, and the reader makes discoveries right alongside him. Young Republicans may not be quite so conservative, hardcore Goth girls may have more Gap clothes in their closet than they might at first be willing to admit, and punk rock legends may be getting that perfect high from...Google.

While the ending seems slightly contrived, it is a humorous finish to an overall enjoyable reading experience and is appropriate for both male and female readers. When asked to describe Born to Rock, a girl once told me, “It’s like Meg Cabot…but about boys.” Grades 7+.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl--Animoto

Bibliography:  Garcia, K., & Stohl, M. (2009) Beautiful creatures. New York, NY:  Little, Brown and Company.

Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she’s struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps, and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.

Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.

In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything (Little, Brown and Company).

Tool:  Animoto

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The Southern gothic genre, an early twentieth-century literary phenomenon popularized by such authors as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, is characterized by its use of horror and supernatural elements as mechanisms to examine/criticize existing social constructs. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, however, were probably absent in lit class the day it was covered. Beautiful Creatures is billed as a Southern gothic, and while it does have gothic elements --decrepit mansions, mysterious girls, Byronic heroes--in no way can this novel be classified as anything beyond paranormal romance.

Ethan Wate, the narrator, is filled with social criticism, however, all of it directed toward the caricatures inhabiting his small town, which is so hackneyed that the authors may well have named it Podunk in their first draft. It is doubtful, for instance, that employees of the United States Postal Service open and read recipients’ mail, even if the postal worker in question is “Suth-en.” Also, despite the sub-Mason-Dixon Line environment in which Ethan’s fellow townsfolk delight in Civil War reenactments, ethnicity does not seem to be an issue, and it is not until approximately ¾ of the way through the 563-page tome that readers are informed that a main character is African-American. To leave out such a detail in such a setting is just poor storytelling. To say that Ethan’s hoodoo-performing housekeeper is a woman of color isn’t racist--it helps the reader flesh out her character. Indeed, it seems that in their concentrated effort to avoid the Southern stigma of racism, Garcia and Stohl have instituted just about every other stereotype of Southern culture, resulting in an almost offensive portrait of a region and its people.

Admittedly, it is refreshing for this genre--that would be paranormal romance, not Southern gothic--to have a male narrator and a supernatural female love interest. Rather than the weak-willed heroine typical of these novels, Ethan has a funny and enjoyable voice when not dogging on Gatlin's resident simpletons, and Lena is a woman with her own agenda and greater problems outside her relationship. Beautiful Creatures would have been far more enjoyable had it been marketed strictly as a YA romance without the added literary expectation. I suppose that is the fault of the publisher. For readers who are still hungry after devouring the Twilight saga and the Blue Bloods series, this first book in the Caster Chronicles is a good recommendation, despite its floundering attempt to ingratiate itself into a genre far more complex than what Garcia and Stohl deliver. Grades 7+.