Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola

Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships (Baltimore, #1)Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s dark and dingy but it has this throwback, homage feeling to it that really appealed to my sense of design. The story uses many archetypes and predictable twists and turns as there is a plague, and zombie-esque creatures and vampires, but really our hunter is fighting evil, and that never really goes out of style, does it? My favourite part is when the pretty sidekick (who just can’t seem to keep her blouse on her shoulders) escapes the onslaught of the zombies by hiding inside a submarine full of corpses. I’ll have to see what my secondary school readers think of it as they are always craving more brains….errr, zombies. More zombies! More zombies!

Baltimore reminds me more of something about the same age as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde then a modern day graphic novel. If you like fog and death, you’re going to love it.

Image result for baltimore the plague ships

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The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

The Jaguar's ChildrenThe Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Remember how when you studied Canadian literature we were referred to Margaret Atwood‘s book Survival? The Jaguar’s Children is a fine example of how this same theme is evolving in the year 2016 as our main character aims to travel to El Norte to escape the oppression of his homeland in Oaxaca, Mexico. I wish I could download this book into the brains of anyone involved in political discussions about free trade and immigration if only to offer a deeply personal perspective. This character-driven book offers masterful writing as Vaillant gradually reveals why his protagonist sacrifices all he holds dear for the hope of gaining access to North America. I particularly marvel at the way Vaillant invites the reader into the language and cultural history of the Zapotec through his family history.

Nominated for an Ontario Library Association Evergreen award, The Jaguar’s Children will leave you wanting more.

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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Medicine WalkMedicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Masterfully written. This is my first encounter with Wagamese but certainly not my last. I admire his ability to weave the novel as the background stories reveal themselves. This is a must-read in the Canadian canon. I think anyone would like this book but especially someone who feels connected to our home and native land or anyone who has had to make personal sacrifices for family members or anyone who has defined their own family outside of the traditional norm. As a secondary school teacher-librarian, I will recommend this book to the senior students in my building for the adult choices that our characters have to make.

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Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day (Every Day, #1)Every Day by David Levithan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you think that all young adult fiction is about dystopias and shallow relationships, give Every Day a try. I found it really impressive that Levithan could carry this unusual format through the entire book. At first I was quite worried that the days would become preachy as every new body protagonist A inhabits has an identity that is less about humans and more about Levithan’s need to celebrate diversity …and there were very few days that came across this way. It reminded me both of Orlando: A Biographyand also Black Like Me in its scifi but humanistic approach to becoming an “other”. I will highly recommend this book to the teens in my secondary school library.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An instant classic, The Girl on the Train is delicious from start to finish. With multiple narrators involved in the same crime, readers are sure to enjoy the twists and turns of reliability and complete dysfuntion that each voice brings to the tale. Each voice is female, and each suspect is male so I imagine that this will have wide appeal to women but nonetheless no one ends up looking heroic by the end.

I am sure to recommend this to the secondary students in my library as a good read. For style, author Paula Hawkins has taken a classic creative writing exercise of writing the same event in multiple perspectives and given it new life by extending it to a full novel. There are lots of sordid adult habits involving sloth, lechery and overindulgence, but nothing that an open-minded teenager couldn’t handle.

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Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rachel Hartman takes us further down the rabbit hole in Shadow Scale as the political game between humans, dragons and the world in between. Our deeply mysterious protagonist, Seraphina, gets caught up in the brewing wars and must learn to master her own telepathic powers in order to travel the kingdom and bring together all the other half-dragons. She begins with our beloved Abdo, whose childish behaviour acts as a foil to Seraphina’s more subdued and refined actions. Hartman’s mythology in the kingdom of Gorred becomes more integral to the plot and the reader has to really keep track of many characters as Seraphina quests for answers. The last third of the book is a deeply personal battle that Seraphina must fight within herself and it was my favourite part of the book. Dragon lovers around the world are calling out for more Rachel Hartman and Shadow Scale trip doesn’t disappoint. As a second novel in the series though, it relies heavily on the more accessible first book Seraphina and will require a patient reader to remember the more complicated aspects of characters and Gorred history. There are students in my secondary school library who were willing to mudwrestle to take this book home for the summer.

I enjoyed the Audible.com version of this book.  It is really important to have the continuity of Mandy Williams’ voice to enhance my experience of Seraphina’s first person narration.  It was just excellent.

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A Game for Swallows and I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached

A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to ReturnA Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return by Zeina Abirached
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is such an important book because the voice of young Zeina is so authentic. She doesn’t know that life inside Beirut in the 1980s is unusual as it is as it has always been. The richness of her black and white cartoon-style drawings reinforces the stark contrasts of home life and war. The chronicles of Zeina’s everyday life where city’s infrastructure works intermittently, is juxtaposed with the comic events of her family and neighbours. This book must be in every school library for its art and its voice.

I Remember BeirutI Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this follow-up to A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return, Zeina takes us into a non-sequential look at the details of her life growing up in Beirut. She isn’t always the young voice represented in A Game for Swallows as her teenage self is developing. She expresses a hunger for new music, and freedom and contrasts this with self-deprecation and humility. Zeina also talks about coming out of the war and realizing with shock that there is a ‘normal’ worth fighting for. Told in the same black and white cartoon style, this book is a great accompaniment to A Game for Swallows, but relies on the reader having read them in order for context.

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Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

Saga, Volume 1Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find it amazing how quickly Brian Vaughan’s characters can be developed in this short graphic novel. As usual, Vaughan’s visual aesthetic does not disappoint. However because there are about 4 pages of nudity and sexuality that are outside the limitations of my secondary school library’s audience, I cannot include it in my collection. Too bad because it’s a really good story and I look forward to reading the next volume.

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Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper JungleGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andrew Smith ‘s book Grasshopper Jungle came highly recommended to me as a secondary school teacher-librarian as something that would connect with those elusive, hard-to-read teens. Scientifically it checks a number of those ‘should-I-buy-it’ boxes: involves issues of gender-identity, bullying, marginalized characters, and it’s all set in a dystopian crisis.

I am a lover of the bizarre, characters on the fringe, and science fiction but this book did not connect with me. For one, the language is more like poetry as the main character, Austin, speaks wildly and tangentially connecting present-day with military experiments, family history, and far beyond. The rhythm of the poetry is continually interrupted by the action scenes of escaping giant man-eating praying mantis, and vice versa. It’s a science-fiction novel that is continually interrupted by the sexual appetite of a 16 year old boy whose bisexual tendencies are causing major friendship fiction. There are really only 2 characters who develop: Austin and his boy/friend Robby who star in the action of having to save their families from certain doom. We are left wondering about Austin’s brother/parents who are in a Germany military hospital; and Austin’s girlfriend Shann who is sidelined by her own concern for her family and a surprise pregnancy. Smith’s description wants to be cinematic but never quite achieves this. The book is both bleak and hopeful and only a strong reader is going to ‘get it’ although many will enjoy the sex-filled, swearing-filled, action-packed nature of the book. This book is not for the faint of heart and I’ll need major convincing to pick up another of Smith’s books.

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Book trailer:

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

We Are WaterWe Are Water by Wally Lamb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often describe Wally Lamb as a writer who really gets in the heads of women so I was pleasantly surprised to see him prominent male characters in We Are Water. Like his other books, this novel delves into some heavy topics of neglect, abuse and the perpetual cycles of both. No character is perfect and each offers many facets. The issues didn’t speak to me personally as much as in She’s Come Undone or The Hour I First Believed, but I thoroughly enjoyed Lamb’s writing especially the historical subplot of the family home. There are many scenes of adult behaviour that I will caution the students in my secondary school library about, but overall Lamb presents complex issues and tests the limits of what any family can deal with.

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CanConnectEd2015: Transliteracy and the teacher-librarian

This week I’ve been attending the Connect conference in Niagara Falls for the first time and as a representative of the Ontario School Library Association Council.  It also gives me a chance to speak about my M.Ed. capping paper on how teacher-librarians are in the ideal position to facilitate transliteracy. I mean, we really do have a very unique perspective….and we are generally non-threatening (unless I’m tired and hungry).  If you don’t have a teacher-librarian in your school, I hope you have someone who is working tirelessly to integrate pedagogy with cross-curricular happenings.

In many ways I need to percolate ideas, and since I wrote that paper I’ve been trying to walk the walk.  So, in my humble opinion, the best of the presentation is in the last few slides where I get to talk about pushing the boundaries of literacy in multiple modes with a) the help of some awesome governing documents by Canadian school library experts and b) some strategies I’ve tried and had some success with this year.  The entire logic thread though is built on the premise that we (as educators in the year 2015) are redefining text and reading.  If you can get your mind around that switch, then you’re ready for more! (insert trumpet flourish)

Here is the presentation in full:

It is set to flip through the slides every 5 seconds so you might not get the opportunity to see the full Miwa Matrayek video at the beginning.  Here is the link to that video in full:

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)Cinder by Marissa Meyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As much as I wanted to get into this book about a Cyborg with way more problems than Cinderella (who the book loosely resembles), I had trouble with the world-building and the flow of unfolding the politics of this fantastic setting. I had trouble understanding why she wanted the respect of her really mean stepmother. The unintentional relationship that forms between Cinder and Prince Kai seems too natural given the differences in their statuses. There’s barely enough time to realize that Cinder’s true identity will give her an edge in her battle of wills against the threatening Lunars, before she’s asked to make big life decisions. As the reader, I felt more confused by the local politics. Maybe Meyer has too many subplots or maybe she was asked to cut out 100 vital pages, but I felt leaving dissatisfied. I’m not sure that I will pick up the next one.

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The Bear by Claire Cameron

The BearThe Bear by Claire Cameron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The UGDSB has just chosen this book as our board-wide novel for secondary students and author Ms. Cameron will be visiting schools in May 2015. After reading this terrifying novel, I am nervous about the problematic areas in Cameron’s choices. As a parent, I can only describe the first 2/3 of the books as horrific, as main character Anna, 5 years old, attempts to care for her 2 year old brother in the wilderness of Algonquin Park after a trauma happens to Anna’s parents and the two children are left on their own. Nothing could be scarier except…trying to find food, and exposure to the elements, and the confusion of being suddenly alone. Every minute of Anna’s narration is heartbreaking. As a secondary school librarian, I hope the teens who pick up The Bear won’t be turned off by the narrative voice, and won’t be scared to ever go camping again. There are many issues to explore about wilderness, survival, bears and PTSD so I’m hoping the book will open avenues to inquiry. There is nothing explicitly horrific that I fear censorship on, only that the power of the imagination leads the reader to a dangerous place of what could be around the next corner for Anna with every turn of the page. Having said that I devoured it in 48 hours of my busy life, so I’m hoping teens will have the same reaction.

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The Silent Summer of Kyle McGinley by Jan Andrews

The Silent Summer of Kyle McGinleyThe Silent Summer of Kyle McGinley by Jan Andrews

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my first read of the 2014-15 Ontario Library Association’s White Pine picks for this year and based on this book alone, I’m very hopeful. Like last year’s Old Man by David A. Poulsen, our main character Kyle McGinley has a very unusual relationship with his estranged father. Here the similarities end though, as Kyle’s father was neglectful and abusive before abandoning his son when he was only 8. Having moved around the foster system ever since, Kyle finally lands with Jill and Scott in a rural location which allows him the peace and quiet he needs to begin healing. Kyle takes his need for silence to a whole new level by refusing to speak with his new wards. However, the threat of his father’s return catapults him once again into turmoil. This book is a fast read of only 198 pages but it is rich in symbolism as Kyle wrestles with noise and silence, hope and despair. Andrews’ characters are very believable and her unique style of creating Kyle’s inner voices allows for some very creative interpretations of his emotional story. I would highly recommend this book to any student but I will urge reluctant male readers to pick it up the most.

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Reading in a Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins and Wyn Kelley

Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom

Jenkins and Kelley offer an optimistic alternative to Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains which is filled, as Jenkins claims, with “contemporary anxieties” (p. 10).  The book offers instead this explanation: “As a society, we are still sorting through the long-term implications of these [media] changes.  But one thing is clear: These shifts point us toward a more participatory culture, one in which everyday citizens have an expanded capacity to communicate and circulate their ideas, one in which networked communities can help shake our collective agendas.” (p. 7) I would like my library learning commons to reflect this ideal where there are always activities happening for staff and students and each of our school community members feel that they have a voice. The Canadian Library Association’s Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons (2014) insists that one of the key steps for implementation is to “foster a collaborative school culture of inquiry and participatory learning in both physical and virtual environments” (p. 23).   That’s a tall order in a secondary school where departments act as silos preventing cross-curricular collaboration from happening.

 

My favourite English department assignment at my school is a novel study where students explore contexts of the author, protagonist, setting and date of release.  In building in student choice, each one is able to research a context (or two) that relates both to themselves and to their chosen novel. The notion of exploring contexts in literature is similar to the chapter by Kolos and Nierenberg on negotiating cultural spaces (pp. 153-157) where Aurora high school students learned how to effectively protest to their local government.  This cultural negotiation, fitting into spaces where you haven’t fit in before, seems to be a requisite to developing a participatory culture and is highlighted in the Flows of Reading digital accompaniment to the book.  It particularly stands out in the video clip  

http://videos.criticalcommons.org/transc oded/http/www.criticalcommons.org/Member s/ebreilly/clips/rockabillies-in-tokyo/v ideo_file/mp4-high/rockabillies-in-tokyo -mp4-mp4.mp4

where Japanese rockabilly fans are dancing in Yoyogi park in Tokyo.  Having lived and worked in Japan for 3 years, I was often hit with cultural negotiation experiences where I had to fit in to the dominant culture and after a while I was allowed to sit cross-legged during tea ceremonies and the sushi would stop arriving at the table still breathing for the sake of my comfort.  Having to work through the awkward feelings of feeling out of place is a life lesson that everyone should experience.

One of my biggest epiphanies from this book is the idea that students are learning to negotiate cultural spaces between home and school in their discourse.  “While the Discourse of formal schooling is fairly well aligned with the home discourses of middle-and upper-class kids who want to achieve academic success will need to learn to “code switch”, to cross communities and alter speech, behavior, style of dress, and so on” (p. 161).  Of course, I understood the complexities of how public education’s expectations don’t match those at home, but I’ve never read the dilemma put so eloquently before.  It speaks to the same surprise I had when during the “Reading and Negotiation” chapter when a cosmetology class read two different novels. That would never happen in my school!  In my school, novels are for English classes and for pleasure reading.  Perhaps I need to negotiate reading into these foreign places.

A few years ago Dufferin County, where I grew up and where I teach, was threatened by a Megaquarry taking away some prized farmland.  A few teachers and I organized a debate where the stakeholders were allowed to come and talk to our students for 30 minutes each on their perspective.  We had five speakers in total including representatives from First Nations, Gravel Watch, a professor of Environmental Science, the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Task Force, and of course, the company that had purchased the land for mining.  We had to prep our students on the issues and how to ask succinct questions that used appropriate language for the presenters and audience as did the students in Aurora High School (p. 163).  The debate outside our school went on for months and after an environmental impact report was released, the company withdrew their mining application and the megaquarry was defeated.  I can’t say that our school’s debate had a direct effect on this decision, but the youth participation in this issue was extraordinary. In a twisted way, I wish I could recreate this excitement over a local issue every year in order to see the students become so invested in a topic that affects environment, economy, food, politics and culture.  The true learning was that these students mattered, and this small rural community mattered on a provincial, if not national, scale.  Truthfully, other than for communication and public relations, we didn’t need technology to reach our goal.  We needed a forum for negotiation and that was in my library learning commons.

There are moments in this book that remind me why I became a teacher…pre-library, pre-technology, I wanted to be a teacher so that I could have enlightening conversations with students. Jenkins and Kelley are asking educators to simply harness the teachable moments that come with honouring student voice, give it an authentic forum for expression,  and give students choices that reflect their own expression, and that in doing so any common text can be relevant to current generations of students.

References

Canadian Library Association. (2014). Leading learning: Standards of practice for school library learning commons.

Jenkins, H., & Kelley, W. (Eds.). (2013). Reading in a participatory culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Reilly, E., Mehta, R., & Jenkins, H. (2013, February 19). Thinking about subcultures. Retrieved from http://scalar.usc.edu/anvc/flowsofreading/3_6_thinking-about-subcultures?path=3-negotiating-cultural-spaces

 

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