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A Trio of Oceanic Fun for All Ages

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe

Kraken Me Up by Jeffrey Ebbeler

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens

This year’s summer reading theme is “Oceans of Possibilities”, and it is loads of fun! Whether it’s the great activities or whimsical decor or the nifty reading challenges, there’s something for everyone here at the Joplin Public Library!

As a longtime fan of seafaring novels and fly fishing nonfiction (L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series, the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian, ocean fishing accounts by Thomas McGuane and Randy Wayne White, to name a few), I’ve loved this summer’s deep dive into books about waterways, sea life, and boat travel. I’m excited to share a trio of gorgeously illustrated children’s books with all-ages appeal that tie into the summer reading theme. I accessed electronic versions of these titles through the Libby app offered by the Library.

First up is the hilarious Kraken Me Up by Jeffrey Ebbeler. A graphic novel for early readers, it employs expanded visual supports to strengthen reading comprehension. With a mix of traditional comics panels and two-page spreads, the layout invites readers into the charming story of a little girl and her pet sea monster. There’s a pet show at the county fair, and you can see where that’s headed…

Kraken Me Up is a story of acceptance and understanding peppered with visual jokes in squid ink. Our mackintosh-clad heroine convinces her fellow contestants that there is more to each of us than assumptions based on outward appearances. The kraken’s huge eyes reflect its equally large emotions, including devotion to its tiny friend and sorrow at being misunderstood. Author/illustrator Ebbeler uses digital art to great effect adding nuance to accessible vocabulary for budding readers. Kraken Me Up is also available at the Library in print format.

Next up is a picture book biography of an unsung zoologist and shark specialist. Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist, written by Jess Keating and illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens, also tells a story of understanding as well as persistence. At a time when few women entered STEM fields, Eugenie Clark followed her lifelong interest in sharks (a misunderstood species in her opinion) to a career as research scientist advocating for them. She was the first to train sharks as well as to study caves of still, resting sharks (debunking the myth that they must keep moving to stay alive). Clark was a prolific author who also developed a shark repellent and explored the ocean through scuba and submersible dives.

Jess Keating conveys the facts of Clark’s life and highlights her tenacity with language that is accessible to young readers while creating vivid imagery, “Eugenie’s notebooks filled with sharks. They swam in her daydreams and on the margins of her pages.” Keating adds engaging, helpful sections after the main story. “Shark Bites” introduces nifty facts about the creatures in a colorful, two-page spread sprinkled with accent illustrations while “Eugenie Clark Timeline” offers a similar treatment of the scientist’s career. Throughout the book, Marta Alvarez Miguens masterfully uses color to create a little girl’s dream come true. From young Eugenie at an aquarium imagining herself to be one of the fish to adult Professor Clark studying sharks in their natural habitat, Alvarez Miguens brings them alive with vibrant hues conveying both motion and emotion as clearly as if readers were inside the pictures. Shark Lady is also available at the Library as an animated story on DVD.

A book that I would love to see as an animated story is The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs, written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe. A nonfiction title that looks and reads like a picture book, it packages information about coral reef restoration in absolutely stunning artwork.

Ken Nedimyer’s love of the ocean began as a child watching Jacques Cousteau on TV and snorkeling along the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. He studied biology and, as an adult, worked in aquaculture operating a live rock farm where rocks are placed on the ocean floor to provide habitat for mollusks, algae, sponges, and other invertebrates. While working with the live rocks, he noticed that portions of the coral were bleached and devoid of fish and sea urchins. A coral colony near the live rock farm spawned, leading to a growth of coral on it. Ken attached pieces of the new coral to various rocks producing more coral colonies. He eventually started a volunteer group, the Coral Restoration Foundation, to plant the new colonies on reefs around the Keys. The foundation now has an international scope.

Author Kate Messner’s concise, straightforward language incorporates relatable concepts such as describing attaching coral “with a careful dab of epoxy–just the size of a Hershey’s Kiss” or sea urchins as “the gardeners of the reef, tiny groundskeepers who control the algae”. Messner concludes her book with useful resources about coral reef death and restoration plus an immensely helpful illustrated glossary of coral reef structures. Messner’s text creates mental images that are the foundation for the gorgeous art of Matthew Forsythe who opens The Brilliant Deep with a mind-blowing two-page spread of pink and turquoise sea turtles, fishes, and sea stars swimming toward a tiny coral in the distance, haloed by white, resting underneath the words, “It starts with one.” Each page that follows is a treat of color and composition. Deep green ocean flanked with schools of fish and a crab peeking out in the foreground sparkles with a stream of multicolored gametes floating from a reef. A young Nedimyer glows green in the light of rows of fish tanks so lively you can almost hear their hum. Volunteer divers swirl upward through shifting blue as they hang coral on underwater “trees” of metal bars; Forsythe expertly uses texture to create their motion along with that of the water and fish surrounding them. The closing spread ends with the same words as the first, this time printed out on the bay where an older Ken Nedimyer looks out with hope to a yellow-pink sea and sky. Grab this book now and see the brilliant art for yourself!

I hope you have a chance to find these and other amazing ocean titles at the Joplin Public Library this summer!  Happy reading!

A Trio of Non-Fiction in Teen

The Chalk Art Handbook: How to Create Masterpieces on Driveways and Sidewalks and in Playgrounds by David Zinn

Everything You Need to Ace…in One Big Fat Notebook series, various authors

The LEGO Castle Book: Build Your Own Mini Medieval World by Jeff Friesen

It’s spring!  Or, at least it finally feels like it.  Flowers and trees and shrubs are blooming around town, and possibility is in the air.  Here in the Library’s Teen Department, the latest crop of books has as much variety and promise as the flowers outside.  Take a look at these non-fiction titles just waiting to be discovered!

For middle school and high school students who are wrapping up the semester and preparing for finals, try a title in the Everything You Need to Ace…in One Big Fat Notebook series from Workman Publishing.  Created by the editors of the popular educational game Brain Quest and written by authors with experience in the given field, each book is like borrowing the notes of the organized, thorough student in class.  

Each title in the series breaks down key concepts into important, easily understood components covering the subject.  The books are laid out like school notebooks with lined pages, handwritten fonts, and color-coded highlighted sections.  Doodles illustrating complex topics are scattered throughout as are mnemonic devices, definitions of key terms, and quizzes for review.  Compact-yet-thick, these titles easily fit into a backpack and are far easier to carry than most textbooks.

Disclaimer: the Big Fat Notebook series, while an amazing resource, is not a substitute for actually paying attention in class!  It is fantastic for review, confidence building, and reinforcement of concepts before exams or in smaller bites during the semester.  The series covers major subjects–computer science/coding, math, science, world history, American history, English language arts for middle school and pre-algebra/algebra 1, chemistry, biology, and geometry for high school.  They are super helpful and accessible, great for middle school and high school students plus adults wanting to catch up on these subjects.  (Where were these when I was in eighth-grade algebra?!)

To let off steam after studying, break out some LEGOs and try The LEGO Castle Book: Build Your Own Mini Medieval World by Jeff Friesen.  Written for LEGO enthusiasts, this straightforward, concise title begins with a history of castles and a tour of their architecture then moves to building different types of castles and landscaping a medieval village from LEGOs, ending with instructions for 6 “master builds” (even a dragon).

The book’s layout is clean and clear, with color photos of completed and in-progress builds throughout.  The brief text provides just the right amount of context for background; text in the builds sections is designed to look like manuals from LEGO sets, showing important phases along the way.  Builds and book are designed for LEGO fans with some experience plus access to the variety of bricks listed (a few specialty ones).  I was pleased to see a quick guide to the variety of bricks used (including color photographs showing individual bricks/plates with their official numbers) and a discussion of economical sources for purchasing the bricks needed.

Also, I was excited that the builds were grounded in history.  Author Jeff Friesen identifies major types of medieval (European) castles with photos of completed LEGO versions and interesting text.  He also depicts the main parts of the castle and the community within its walls and how to construct them, tossing in handy tips along the way such as using minifigure accessories as turret finials.  He reminds readers that castle life was real life a thousand years ago, discussing topics like the role of castle builders, the cost and building process, and how castle architecture is tied to its defense.  The LEGO Castle Book is great for teens, adults, or upper elementary ages with a passion for LEGO; pair this with David Macaulay’s classic Castle for a fantastic dive into the subject.

Looking for a different creative outlet?  Try The Chalk Art Handbook: How to Create Masterpieces on Driveways and Sidewalks and in Playgrounds by David Zinn for some outdoor fun.  Zinn has been creating delightful, amusing chalk drawings around his Michigan hometown for years and shares his enthusiasm and expertise in this guide to accessible outdoor art.

Zinn’s tone is warm and encouraging with a light sprinkling of dad humor.  He offers basic techniques and advice for drawing 2-D and 3-D illustrations on outdoor surfaces such as concrete, asphalt, and brick.  Viewing this art form as both an opportunity to stretch skills and to bring joy to the community, he emphasizes a respectful approach (ask permission, use media that will wash away, etc.).  Color photos of his completed and in-process artwork illustrate his tips and techniques.  His advice is concrete (no pun intended) and accessible although geared toward teens who have some drawing experience and skill.  He assumes a base level of drawing knowledge which could be frustrating for someone trying it for the first time.  

He invites artists to consider basic creative components before starting–what will you draw?  How many?  How will your creature(s) move around?  What is happening in the picture?  Then he moves to more detailed information about dealing with the drawing surface at hand.  Zinn identifies various paved surfaces (concrete, macadam, paving stones, etc.) giving hints about turning their natural, imperfect states into part of the picture–pits and holes in concrete become the eyes and ears and nostrils of a hippo, a manhole cover becomes a cookie about to be eaten by a monster.  As he notes, art tells a story, and depicting emotion is key even if it’s a small component, “Eyebrows are powerful things. Always use them wisely, both in your drawings and on your own face.”

The Chalk Art Handbook is packed with tips for creating whimsical, thoughtful drawings to delight artist and neighborhood alike.  It serves as encouragement and inspiration to teens with drawing experience and/or an interest in sidewalk art, including 3-D illusion pictures.  Everybody can win when public art is shared because “More art in more places brings more people more joy”.

Stop by the Library for these and many more titles blooming this spring!

The Great Gatsby: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by K. Woodman-Maynard, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m not a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Being introduced by way of forced dissection of a lesser known novel in literature class did not help.  I’m amazed that I kept reading American literature after that, I was so turned off by the experience.  I shudder recalling it.

This is a redemption story, however.  Thanks to author and illustrator K. Woodman-Maynard’s illustrated adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I’ve remembered the importance of second chances and have been reminded that looking at things from someone else’s perspective can open the door to understanding.

Instead of presenting a literal, paragraph-by-paragraph depiction of Fitzgerald’s work, Woodman-Maynard blends a dreamy, evocative art style with passages of text to capture the mood of the novel.  Using a combination of watercolor and digital media, she brings the story to life concisely, accessible to a 21st-century audience without sacrificing its tone or message. 

Her art is ethereal–a wash of watercolor, usually one or two colors each spread save for the party scenes, flowing across the page and shaped by light inkwork.  I felt as if I were part of the privileged dreamscape inhabited by Gatsby & Company, following the crowd from one mansion to another in search of the bigger picture.  

Shapes flow around the panels much as the watercolor does.  Draperies and table linens and fashionable clothing swirl and dip and twirl in a perpetual breeze.  A scene in the first chapter describes two women lounging in a solarium on a spring day, “buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon.  It was as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”  Woodman-Maynard takes them on that flight, the women and the draperies on enormous French doors air swimming in circles until the ladies float gently to rest on a massive couch.  Swirls and waves and circles appear throughout–as clouds, ocean surf, tree branches, champagne bubbles, garlands of paper lanterns.  Text floats, too, in clouds and on the surf, and is found hanging in trees, wrapped around furniture, plastered on buildings, and looming in the shadows.

Colors are muted, thin in places, with even the bolder shades feeling somehow languorous.  Yellow pops up in party scenes and times of gaiety or when the characters remember happy times or try to forget their current emptiness.  Yellow pairs with blue when possibilities appear, when there is promise and hope.  Red and pink and blue and purple populate the bulk of the panels, shifting in depth and tone along with the narrative.  Blue and green bookend the story on the cover, the title page, and the last panel.  Grey and brown permeate scenes with characters outside the privileged social circle.

The Great Gatsby: A Graphic Novel Adaptation blew me away with its aching beauty.  It made me want to try the original novel–something I never thought I would do.  I almost didn’t pick up Woodman-Maynard’s adaptation because of my negative experience with the original.  I’m very glad that I did, and I’m glad to experience the novel from a different perspective.

Graphic novel adaptations (including manga, Japanese-style comics) of literary works have the ability to engage readers without completely divorcing them from the text or veering drastically off-course with the story.  They can enrich literature for students and everyone else by making it easier to visualize the plot, characters’ inner thoughts and motivations, and a variety of other story elements.  Readers can discover new ways of interacting with the text which, in turn, can enhance understanding of setting, tone, symbolism, and more.

Woodman-Maynard’s take on The Great Gatsby is a valuable tool for high school and college students, and it offers an accessible entry point for adults to enjoy graphic novels or literary works.  I read it using the Libby app which provides easy enjoyment of the text with full-screen, two-page spreads in an uncluttered viewing area.  There’s no intruding dashboard or progress marker blocking the art; those appear at the reader’s convenience.  The Library has a growing collection of illustrated literary works in both electronic and paper formats.  Whether it’s through Libby and Hoopla or on the shelves, there are titles for adults, kids, and teens to explore.  Happy reading!

Fun in the Snow for All Ages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian

The Snowflake: Winter’s Frozen Artistry by Kenneth Libbrecht and Rachel Wing

The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder by Mark Cassino with Jon Nelson, Ph.D.

The National Weather Service (NWS) defines a white Christmas as “having one inch or more of snow on the ground on Christmas morning”.  According to NWS climate information from 1981-2010, southwest Missouri has an 11%-25% chance of experiencing a white Christmas this year.  As I’m writing this (in mid-December), the temperature has broken the record high for this date, and the forecast so far points to above average temps for the holiday weekend even with Bing Crosby in heavy rotation on the radio.

On the chance that wintry fun appears in the near future, here are some titles tailor-made for snow days!  Try them for backyard STEM activities.  These illustrated non-fiction books are great for individuals and multi-generational groups wanting to discover more about snowy weather.

Natural history photographer Mark Cassino and physicist Jon Nelson have teamed up to create The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder, a closeup of the building blocks of winter fun.  Winter fun starts with snow, and this book starts with an introduction to snowflakes–how they are formed, how they grow (spoiler alert–water vapor is a key player in both processes), then on to their structure and how to identify them along with intriguing facts sprinkled throughout.  The authors also give tips on how to capture a snowflake yourself and view it before it melts.

The Story of Snow incorporates crisp, clear line drawings with actual photos of snowflakes, a particularly helpful effect for showing their growth cycle where enlarged photos detailing the snowflakes’ structure sit next to tiny dots indicating their actual size.  Almost mono-chromatic in a wash of blues and greys, the pages look icy and steely without dulling nature’s amazing variety.  Cassino’s photographs highlight their delicate specimens; the photos are sharp with the snowflakes appearing to be made of glass or metal.  Presented in picture book format, the text works well for early-to-middle-elementary readers (although it would benefit from a glossary); it lends itself well to read-alouds for the younger set or to being used in a group.  Nelson and Cassino have provided a book just the right length for a multigenerational activity inclusive to little ones.  You can find The Story of Snow in the easy non-fiction section of the Children’s Department.

In that same section, you can find a biography of the pioneer of snowflake photography.  Snowflake Bentley, written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian, won the 1999 Caldecott Medal recognizing the “most distinguished American picture book for children” for its lively, hand-colored woodcuts evoking the snowy outdoors of rural Vermont.  Flipping through the pages, you can feel the cold’s sting, smell the woodsmoke, see the detailed texture of woolen yarn balls rolling on wooden, farmhouse floorboards.  Each woodcut conveys motion and stimulates the senses.  Illustrator Mary Azarian lives not far from Bentley’s home and captures the essence of 19th century farm life in Vermont’s “snowbelt” where the annual snowfall is close to 120 inches.  Through her artistry, it’s easy to feel the beauty in winter that Bentley did.

Born in 1865, Wilson Alwyn “Snowflake” Bentley lived his life in snowy Vermont and was fascinated by nature, especially weather.  He was a home educated, citizen scientist who studied snowflakes for over 40 years.  He pioneered photomicrography (photographing through a microscope), producing the first successful photograph of a snowflake in 1885.  Bentley’s life is a study in perseverance, determination, and vision.  Starting as a teen, he drew and then photographed hundreds of snow crystals each winter persisting through failures until he succeeded in capturing the images and sharing them with others.  He would stand in the snow for hours at a time to catch snowflakes for his photos.  Bentley’s good cheer–his belief in natural beauty and his determination to share it with everyone–runs through the book and is infectious!  This charming title is a fun romp for independent readers or for read-alouds with all ages.  Pair it with a paper snowflake activity or actual snowflake spotting for fun over winter break!

The husband and wife team of Kenneth Libbrecht and Rachel Wing pick up where Wilson Bentley left off.  In their book, The Snowflake: Winter’s Frozen Artistry, they blend art and science to create a gorgeous look at the life of snowflakes (technically known as snow crystals).  Libbrecht, a physics professor at Caltech who served as the official snowflake consultant on the movie Frozen, and Wing, a park ranger with a geology background, wanted to understand more about how snow crystals form.  The result is a family hobby that has taken them and their children snowflake hunting on three continents.  They even grow snow crystals in their own lab to study and photograph, creating shapes not found in nature!

Wing and Libbrecht have honed their photomicrography skills and sprinkle amazing closeups of snow crystals throughout their book.  Using different backgrounds and lighting techniques, they create spectacular works of art ranging from the iciest blue through the rosy shades of a winter sunrise.  The crystals’ intricate beauty is obvious in the photos, and it becomes clearer in the text.  The authors share their curiosity and excitement to discover how nature works in hope that it will inspire others to see nature’s beauty for themselves.  Book chapters divide that exploration into topics that are manageable for understanding–a brief history of snow crystal study, snow crystal formation and identification, weather needed for snowfall, snow crystal symmetry, etc.  Sidebars offer activity ideas such as “Snowflake Fossils” (preserving snow crystals in super glue on microscope slides) and designing a scientifically accurate paper snowflake.  Wing and Libbrecht use concrete descriptions to help readers understand how snowflakes are made and function.  The Snowflake: Winter’s Frozen Artistry provides great accessible information for citizen scientists, nature enthusiasts, and families looking for a fun, outdoor adventure.  Not ready to commit to snow crystal hunts on three continents?  No worries–you can have a delightful time scouting for snowflakes at a level adapted to your situation.  You can find this adult non-fiction title as an ebook through the Library’s Hoopla service.

I hope you are able to enjoy some quality reading and listening time during the holiday season.  Come on over and check out a title (or 2 or 3).  Happy reading!

Illustrated Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Poe: Stories and Poems, a Graphic Novel Adaptation, by Gareth Hinds

Steampunk Poe, illustrated by Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac

Halloween’s almost here, and I can’t wait!  October’s put me in the mood for spooky reads despite the fact that the scariest thing I can handle are the sharks in Finding Nemo.

Edgar Allan Poe is the answer.  He’s a master of suspense, originator of chilling mysteries, and definitely meets any seasonal wish for an eerie atmosphere .  Although many of his works are considered horror classics, I am able to read “The Raven” and still sleep at night.

Searching for Poe’s works, I ran across a surprising variety of different versions–films, retellings, audiobooks, graphic novels–including a concept album by the Alan Parsons Project.  (Who knew?)  There’s certainly more than one way to interact with a text.  Sometimes an unexpected approach to a story or poem–especially a classic–can open the door for a skeptical reader.

To that end, here are two visual adaptations to enjoy.  Think of it as Poe prepared two ways: lightly illustrated and fully drawn.

In Steampunk Poe, Croatian illustrators Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac sprinkle the book with full-color art emphasizing the shadowy world of Edgar Allan Poe’s works.  Dark browns, greys, and greens pair with lots of black and highlights of oil-rubbed bronze to reinforce the steampunk aesthetic.  Steampunk–the sci fi subgenre depicting advanced technology as if it were based in 19th century steam-powered machinery–lends itself to Poe’s creepier stories.  Basic and Sumberac populate their illustrations with plenty of gears, cogs, wheels, and pulleys, particularly as frames.  And, they punch up red as an accent to great effect.  In the final image for “The Masque of the Red Death” (one of my favorites), a giant Death hooded in a primitive gas mask, wearing a blood-soaked white gown and ermine-trimmed crimson robe towers in front of a full moon playing a colossal puppet master to the distant, fog-shrouded city below.

Steampunk Poe serves up Poe’s original stories and poems in an easier-to-read format without changing any of his text.  The usual suspects appear along with a few unfamiliar titles (“The Spectacles”, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, “The Conqueror Worm”).  Pages have plenty of white space plus double-spaced text which can increase accessibility for many readers who might be turned off by tissue-thin paper filled with microscopic fonts.  Trust me, the adage “you eat with your eyes” applies just as much to the consumption of books as it does to food.

Artist Gareth Hinds provides a visual feast for readers in Poe: Stories and Poems, a Graphic Novel Adaptation.  His mixed media illustrations evoke the macabre horror of seven of Poe’s best known works without stooping to gratuitous gore.  Each entry has its own style down to the texture and color scheme.  The final panel of “Annabel Lee” reads like a Roz Chast cartoon with extra-vibrant hues.  A sky the color of a KC Royals jersey offsets the luminous, white sand castle shrine punctuated by seashell mermaids and grottos, all of it the life’s work of the narrator who has built his final resting place in front of the sepulchre doors.  “The Cask of Amontillado” depicts the ossuaries of the Paris catacombs, skulls and femurs stacked everywhere, with long, deliberate brushstrokes covering a gritty surface reminiscent of a trowel scraping mortar.  Texture is key in “The Tell-Tale Heart” where grainy stippling depicts the descent into murderous madness, growing rougher as the thumping heart grows louder.  The book ends with “The Raven”, Edgar Allan Poe himself as the narrator accompanied by pencil drawings blended to a fuzzy, dreamlike patina.  Just when it seems this is a straightforward rendering, a closeup of the bird reveals skulls and claws and bony hands hidden in its feathers.  Hinds throws in more visual treats as the poem progresses, culminating in a pair of exquisite two-page spreads you absolutely have to see for yourself.

Hinds is skilled at engaging students with Western classics via graphic novels.  Here, he adds valuable resources that help make Poe more easily understood. A three-page “Author’s Note” includes a brief biography of Poe plus background information on each selection.  “The Poe Checklist” outlines a series of icons used at the start of each title to identify recurring motifs in the text.

If you’re new to the mysteries of Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy universe, these titles are a great place to start.  They’re equally great access points if you read Poe because you had to the first time around.  Whether his stories and poems are in words or pictures (or both), Poe’s tales can make your flesh crawl and your spine tingle.  Either book would be great for adults and for teens in upper middle school and older.  Although both titles use Poe’s original texts, each version offers possibilities for students wishing for a less painful way to read an assigned classic.  You can discover these and other spooky tales at the Library or through our electronic resources.  Happy reading!

Almost American Girl, written and illustrated by Robin Ha

Area schools have been in session for a week or so now, and the air around the Library’s Teen Department has been filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation all month.  There have been a lot of butterflies, whether it’s the start of band camp or sports practice or middle school or senior year.

Middle school is usually a fraught topic every August–people going there for the first time, people hoping to start over in a new grade, people leaving it to navigate the uncharted waters of high school.  There’s a lot at stake in middle school even in the best of circumstances.

Now imagine the shock of going back to middle school then heading out on a family vacation at semester break only to discover that the “vacation” means starting over at a new school in a new country where you don’t speak the language or understand the culture and the only people you know are the surprise step-relatives you’ve just been introduced to.  Plus, you weren’t able to say goodbye to your friends and they (along with all of your clothes and possessions) are half a world away.

That’s exactly what happened to Robin Ha, author and illustrator of Almost American Girl.

Ha is now a cartoonist based in Washington, D.C.  When she was in eighth grade, her mother took her on a short trip to Alabama which turned out to be a permanent move to a house full of strangers.  Ha’s mother married a divorced father of two saddled with a failing fish market, living with his brother’s family (including their traditional Korean mother).  It was a far cry from the life Robin and her mom had carved out for themselves in Seoul, South Korea–except for many of the conventions and attitudes embraced by their new family.

The book follows Robin’s experiences navigating the challenges of middle school, of learning a new language on the fly, and of unexpected, seemingly arbitrary relationships.  Robin’s eighth grade year unfolds chronologically with interspersed flashbacks to her life growing up in South Korea.  Narrative tension isn’t compromised because the memories are connected to experiences after the move.  Prompted by Robin’s meltdown after chafing under the in-laws’ treatment, the chapter “The Leap of Faith” unfolds the difficulties Robin and her single mother endured trying to thrive in a rigid society; the chapter ends with her mother convinced that “Whatever America is like, it will be better…” even if that translates to racism, poverty, and exclusion.

Almost American Girl follows its author’s inner and outer journeys.  It’s a beautifully drawn coming of age story that’s honest and real.  It embraces the pain and delight of adolescence, bringing readers along on the emotional roller coaster ride without being heavy-handed–a meaningful, immersive experience told in a muted palette of blues and tans and purples and reds that grows brighter and deeper as Robin’s wisdom and inner strength grow.

The book is also a love letter to comics fans, celebrating teens who draw and doodle and color and who recognize the transformative power of art.  It’s for everyone who survived adolescence (in whole or in part) thanks to comic books, manga, art supplies, and pads of paper.  Find your niche, and chances are good that you’ll find friends; with any luck, you’ll find some very good ones.

Read Almost American Girl even if you aren’t an adolescent.  (Especially if you aren’t!)  Give it to a teen who’s interested in contemporary, coming of age stories or manga and anime or Korean culture beyond K-pop or who could use a gentle affirmation.  Read it because it’s lovely and because (spoiler alert) stories can have happy endings.

You can find this title in the graphic novel section of the Teen Department or as an ebook through the Library’s OverDrive service.

Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! by Veronica Chambers, illustrated by Rachelle Baker

Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb!

written by Veronica Chambers, illustrated by Rachelle Baker

You know the feeling you get when you hear the ice cream truck coming?  The anticipatory thrill, the bounce-on-the-balls-of-your-feet excitement when you hear the music from down the street?  That’s how I’ve felt while waiting to get my hands on this week’s book!

Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb!, written by Veronica Chambers and illustrated by Rachelle Baker, brings the vibrant boldness of its subject to every page.  Even the warm mustard endpapers signal the energy, the vitality of her story.  Chambers and Baker deliver a picture book biography of Shirley Chisholm that is every bit as action-oriented as she was.

The daughter of immigrants from Barbados and Guyana, Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up to become the first Black woman to run for U.S. president.  Chisholm was a voracious reader who earned academic honors in high school as well as college scholarships.  She graduated from Brooklyn College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1946 and earned a Master of Arts in education from Columbia University in 1952.  Chisholm, an early childhood educator, ran for a seat in the New York State Legislature in 1964 and won.  She served until 1968 when she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and won, becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress.  Her campaign slogan in that race, “Unbought and Unbossed”, became the theme of her 1972 campaign seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.  Chisholm served in Congress until her retirement in 1983 and was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus.

Shirley Chisholm was a doer, an activist who broke barriers and sought to improve conditions for families and communities.  Veronica Chambers introduces Chisholm to new audiences by capitalizing on her life of action, “Some words, when they connect with the right people, become…magical.  That’s the way it was with Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and verbs.  She understood, almost intuitively, how and why verbs are not just words about being, but doing.  Verbs are words that move the world forward.”

On each page, Chambers highlights a portion of Chisholm’s life, highlighting in color and capital letters a verb related to the brief text.  The verbs anchor each page’s main thought, illustrating its point as effectively and vibrantly as Rachelle Baker’s artwork does.  Chambers chooses her verbs carefully, and they offer a fantastic starting point for further conversation.  They follow Chisholm on her life’s journey and, in addition to obvious choices (dreamed, campaigned, represent, voted, announced, inspired) the verbs reflect her rich experience (honor, listen, earned, help, challenge, convince, planted, pave).  Chambers ends the book with a powerful two-page spread showing a portrait of Chisholm paired with a page full of verbs each in a different, brightly-colored font.  In it, she issues her readers a challenge, “Shirley Chisholm accomplished so much, because she chose her verbs carefully…It’s your turn now. What verbs will you choose?”

Rachelle Baker captures Shirley Chisholm’s energetic spirit in brightly colored illustrations which give off a feeling of motion on every page.  Rich browns and tans ranging from caramel to mahogany to ebony join with piercing blues, lush greens, mustard yellows, and lively oranges to form a palette of saturated colors bursting with activity.  Baker’s art pulls you in as you read.  On the page highlighting a famous Chisholm quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”, I could almost hear the chair dragging across the floor as she pulled it behind her.  I caught myself looking twice to see if her hand really did wave to her neighbors outside the corner store.  Baker created her art digitally on an iPad Pro with spectacular effect so that it lives and breathes and moves on the page.

Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! opens the door to an unexplored chapter of American history.  It’s a catalyst for important conversations about representation, perseverance, service, and inspiration.  It would be a great read-aloud for pre- and early-readers while independent readers might enjoy it on their own.  I couldn’t wait to read this book, and it was well worth waiting for–I hope you have a chance to read it, too!

Joplin High School Cartoonist Club titles

This was almost the shortest book review submitted here: “Read them!  They’re wonderful!”  Because that’s all you really need to know about the books published by the Joplin High School Cartoonist Club.

It’s easy to gush about the delightful results of local students’ creativity and hard work.  And, it’s loads of fun to see a new batch of artwork every year then watch audiences enjoy it, too.  Forgive my shameless fangirling, but these books are the most consistently fun, intriguing, surprising series I’ve read in a long time.

The JHS Cartoonist Club, helmed by sponsor Seth Wolfshorndl, is in its thirteenth year and has grown tenfold from a starting group of five students.  During the school year, club members meet to learn new drawing techniques, stretch their creativity, and explore storytelling through pictures as well as words–all while having fun in the process.  Each spring the Club publishes a new volume in its two ongoing series.

Clash of Champions, perhaps the more visible of the series because it plays out annually on the Club’s Facebook page, is the culmination of a lengthy comics tournament.  Beginning in the fall, club members create teams of characters who are matched against each other, bracket style, in weekly duels.  Members draw panels of “smack talk”, comics which are designed to show how and why a particular team would win a duel. Each duel’s outcome is voted on by club members.  The last team remaining at the end of the tournament wins.

Volume 8 of Clash of Champions showcases the 2019-20 school year’s tournament which was completed prior to the pandemic shutdown.  In it, 16 teams and 41 creators showcase their talents during a storytelling battle of epic proportions.  Introductions come first via the “Team Gallery” where characters’ poses hint at their personalities and where readers discover the artists behind the teams.  I love how the gallery pages are bordered in what looks like an embossed metal frame that lends a goth-steampunk vibe at the start.  The team names alone made me want to keep reading: Krankenhaus Hoodlums, Beam Battalion, Sparkle Sqawd, The Four Crustmen of the Apocalypse, and Why Not?   The battle panels reflect a wide range of aesthetic influences (from anime to He-Man to 1960s beach party movies) and a variety of media (inked-in pencil sketches to digital drawings).  After the winner is declared, the final chapter gathers fan art that club members have made of each others’ work.

There’s no playing favorites in the competition although I’m a fan of the smack talk segments.  For me, the best part of Clash is following the growth of the artists, watching their work develop over the semester, seeing who is on their game and who is challenged by the deadline in any given week.  A black-and-white format can sometimes lay bare too much when compared to the distraction of color, but here it’s an opportunity to learn and to appreciate the skill involved in creating new material quickly.

Scribbled Stories takes a different approach to self-expression and storytelling.  Club members submit tales with subjects and characters of their choice.  Although Scribbled Stories publishes an issue annually, every four years the issues are gathered in a single volume.  The students choose a theme for the bound volume and often reflect the theme in their submissions.

Also published in the 2019-20 school year, Volume 3 of Scribbled Stories collects works from 2016-20 under the theme of surrealism and shows off a new twist.  This time the Cartoonist Club collaborated on a story and main character.  Club artists made a cast of minor characters and brainstormed a plot which became a script written by Mr. Wolfshorndl.  Pages of the story were assigned to the students, and the result is a rollicking, action-packed spin through dreamland amid a host of artistic styles.

It’s the variety, ingenuity, and scope of the work that pulled me into Volume 3.  The “Character Sketches” section highlights a cast including a monocled soap bubble sporting a top hat (Mr. Fancy Bubbleman), a talking cup of coffee (Joey), and a rosy-cheeked doll who looks Rainbow Brite-meets-Chuckie (Surrealist Sophie) and is anything but boring.  Scripts of the student-submitted works are witty and poignant, thought-provoking and heart-breaking.  Although “Wake Up” uses only one word, it conveys the horror and pain and isolation of a person consumed by screen time.  “Just for One Day” explores memory and loss by arranging photographs comic-panel style with brief, superimposed text.  “Nightfall/Daybreak” spins a myth of the sun and moon with poetry in words and pictures.  There is so much to see and enjoy here!

I highly encourage you to try the fun, awesome comics by the Joplin High School Cartoonist Club.  Whether it’s Clash of Champions or Scribbled Stories or both, read them!  They’re wonderful!

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frane Lessac

Pictures have such power!  Bright and bold or quiet and soft, the stories they tell vary as widely as those told by words alone.  What happens when powerful pictures and beautiful text meet in the same book?  Magic!

Traci Sorell creates magic with her first children’s picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga.  A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she introduces Cherokee culture with a trip around the seasons giving thanks.  Otsaliheliga is a Cherokee expression of gratitude, akin to “we are grateful”, and Sorell infuses every page with the feeling.  Beginning with uligohvsdi, autumn, her sparse prose describes the natural world and ceremonies and food and art and games and music and history and agriculture–so much that is wonderful about life–in language welcoming her young audience. Sorell’s writing has a quiet beauty about it.  Her words have a rhythm that mirrors nature, “As bears sleep deep and snow blankets the ground…When showers fill streams and shoots spring up…Every day, every season.”

Veteran illustrator Frane Lessac takes Sorell’s text and punches it up all the notches without compromising its delicate delivery.  Lessac uses gouache on paper to create scenes full of zip and vigor that burst from the page in an explosion of color.  Her bold sunset on the book’s cover blends the spectrum of orange in ways that only nature can.  Inside, a summer garden invites you to dig in the rich, brown soil brimming with energy and to pick deep green and red vegetables under a sun so bright you expect the people on the page to break a sweat.  An interior scene bathed in shades of salmon and coral exudes the warmth of winter family visits and warm soup served with buttery bread while outside the window the cold weather gear of cousins feeding the birds pops against the snow.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is tender and affirming.  A smiling elisi, grandmother, rocks a tiny, new family member amongst the fall leaves while others gather buckbrush to weave baskets.  Three generations brave the winter cold to honor an uncle who has died.  Extended family embrace a relative departing for military service.  Groups of children play a rollicking round of stickball in the summer heat.  The bold illustrations reinforce the text.  It’s a delight to read and to view.

It’s also an engaging introduction to contemporary Cherokee culture and a good OwnVoices title for little ones.  Key Cherokee words appear throughout, and each is presented written in the Roman alphabet, phonetic spelling, the Cherokee syllabary, and English.  The book includes helpful resources at the end–a brief glossary, an enlightening note from the author, and information about the Cherokee syllabary.

From the moment I saw it on the shelf, I couldn’t wait to read this title.  I wish I had had the opportunity to immerse myself in it as a child.  There’s something new to see with every visit, and I love the warmth and security found within the pages.  Traci Sorell has become a new favorite for me among picture book authors.  I can’t wait to see what she does next, and I can’t wait to find more of Frane Lessac’s illustrations!  I hope you have a chance to explore their work, too.

A Pair of Comics–Classics and Cats

Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels by Lisa Brown

Cats of the Louvre by Taiyo Matsumoto

I had a chance to reduce my “To Be Read” (TBR) pile by a handful of titles over the holidays, including some comics and graphic novels. Two of the books took an interesting approach using art to comment on other creative works.

Author and illustrator Lisa Brown’s Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels left me in stitches. I love her ability to distill hefty literary works into a trio of illustrated boxes and a sharply-penned sentence. C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe becomes “Don’t take Turkish delight from strangers.” Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is boiled down to “It’s all fun and games until you have a kid.” Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle shows all the gory details of sausage making with a single word in each panel, “DON’T. EAT. MEAT.”

Brown’s pen is equally sharp when it comes to illustrations. She uses india ink on paper then colors digitally with a muted palette of earth tones, grey, and dusty blues, reds, and olive greens. When she uses a bright color–as she does for The Scarlet Letter–it’s with great effect. Picture two panels in drab browns and blacks except for the pop of white collars and a bright red “A” on the subject, “Adulteress” for Hester Prynne and “Apostate” for Rev. Dimmesdale. The payoff is in the last panel bathed in a bright red background with a white “A” for “Aftermath” above Pearl’s blonde hair and bubblegum-pink dress.

Long Story Short packs volumes (and massive spoilers) in only 65 pages. There’s a lot to take in, including amusing cross-references to other chapters. (In case you’re wondering, it’s “horror” for The Jungle.) The book’s well worth a return trip or two or three if only to catch all of the little touches. While it’s no substitute for reading an assignment, Long Story Short works as a humorous accompaniment. Give this book to a favorite English major or someone who appreciates dry wit; suggested for high school and up.

If I were giving the same treatment to my second selection, it would sound something like this, “Paintings are real. Life is surreal. Also cats.” Cats of the Louvre by Taiyo Matsumoto is not about a feline photo shoot or real-life museum cats. It is a gorgeously illustrated, surreal meditation on time and the nature of art itself.

The narrative structure–calling it a plotline is a stretch–weaves multiple stories into a surreal tale following a group of cats living in the museum’s attic, an art conservator restarting her life after a loss, a little girl who has lives in a painting, and a night watchman searching for his sister who mysteriously disappeared in childhood. Each story threads its way through the world of the Louvre where characters intersect with each other and with the art. Dialogue and visual metaphors point to Matsumoto’s thoughts on time’s fleeting nature and art’s immediate and lasting beauty.

Matsumoto’s black and white inkwork looks a lot more like a sketchbook (a refined, very accomplished one) than a graphic novel for a commercial audience. Panel lines appear hand-drawn, slightly uneven and varying in thickness while his shading and crosshatching lend the stories a hazy, dreamlike quality. He creates charming, lifelike cats who take on a slightly disturbing human appearance when the story is told from their point of view. (The effect is not nearly as bad as those in the recent Cats movie.) Adding to the surreal experience are loads of extreme closeups of everything–eyes, faces, hands, paws, paintings, architecture, desktops, papers, art supplies. Even two large cat eyes look out from the book’s spine.

Reading Cats of the Louvre is like stepping into a hushed, contemplative funhouse. It’s weird. It’s surreal. It’s overflowing with metaphors and symbolism and hidden commentary and deep thoughts. It’s not meant to be pigeonholed. There is more than meets the eye; it will reward readers who come with an open mind. A good benchmark might be The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; if you like it, try this title.

Originally a manga (Japanese comic) series, this single-volume, English edition of Cats of the Louvre is accessible as a whole or with a pause after each chapter. Like other manga, it’s meant to be read from right to left and the book begins at what Western books identify as the back cover. Give this title to teens and adults who like the surreal and have the patience to travel over 400 pages of it.  Happy reading!