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Empire State by Jason Shiga

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Shiga, J. (2011). Empire State: a love story (or not). New York: Abrams Comicarts. ISBN: 9780810997479

Annotation: Jimmy is a twenty something nerd who is just trying to figure out how to be an adult.

Reaction: This was a super fast, enjoyable read. I liked the characters and could really relate to Jimmy’s restless feelings. I could recommend this to high school students, but I think those in or right out of college would appreciate it the most. Shiga does a great job of capturing that feeling of being 20-something “adult” with no direction for your life and utterly unprepared to take care of yourself. Even now, with a plan ahead of me, I vividly remember, and sometimes still feel, adrift, lost in the real world, especially because so many other people my age seem to have it all figured out.

I will admit that I was pretty confused for the first part of the book. Shiga doesn’t give the reader a lot of details to work with, so you have to really pay attention to what’s going on. It took me about a third of the way through to figure out that the story is told back and forth between the past and the present, which helped to alleviate a lot of my confusion. Thankfully, I was only reading for about … 45 minutes when I figured this out, so it’s good this is such a quick read.

I love the colors used in this book, all in shades of reds and blues, though I do not love the slouching hunched over characters. I know it’s a cartoon style that I seem to see a lot, but everytime I do, I turn into my grandmother: “Stand up straight! Stop slouching!”

Media Used: Drawn on copy paper with a yellow No. 2 pencil. Then inked over a lightbox with a series 222 seize 2 Winsor & Newton brush and lettered with a Micron 08 felt-tip pen. Colors applied digitally by artist John Pham.

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The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

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Sherman, D. (2011). The Freedom Maze. Easthampton, MA: Big Mouth House. ISBN: 9781931520300

Annotation: 13 year old Sophie lives the privileged life of a white girl in Louisiana in 1960, until she makes a wish for adventure and finds herself transported back to 1860 and mistaken for a slave.

Reaction: A friend of mine reviewed this so highly on Goodreads that I immediately looked for it at the library. I really enjoyed this. It reminded me a lot of The Root Cellar, which I read in 5th grade and was pretty scary to 10 year old me, even though I remember really enjoying it (clearly, since I remember the experience of reading the book, rather than the book itself, 18 years later).

At first I wasn’t sure how much I bought into the idea that white Sophie was mistaken for a slave in 1860 Louisiana, but I had to remind myself that light skinned slaves did exist, as Sherman mentions in her acknowledgements at the end. And looking back, Sophie learned much more by being a slave than she would have being accepted as a white family member (which does seem like a totally DUH moment when I say it like that).

I think Sherman does a great job of making Sophie’s journey and growth seem realistic and as relatable as a girl transported back to 1860 Louisiana can be. I will admit that it took me about half the book to really get into it, but thankfully, this book is pretty short, and even the slow beginning (which could have been attributed to the fact that I was reading it on my phone; the only “copy” the library had) was interesting enough to keep moving me along. I think I finished it in less than two days, once I really committed to reading it all the way through.

All the other characters are great, and I’m really glad Sherman avoids obvious stereotypes about Southern plantation owners and their slaves. She handles the abuse that slaves dealt with, severe beatings and rape, with humor in the case of the beatings, and grace and delicacy in the case of the rape. None of the abuse is graphic enough to disallow 11-13 year olds from this, for which I am thankful. (I’m also thankful that the Fairchild’s were fairly kind and lenient masters; I just do not think I could have dealt with any more abuse than is depicted.)

I think this would be a great book for teachers to use as a part of a pre-Civil War history unit in 5th or 6th grade, as my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Reker used The Root Cellar.

Norton Award winner
Prometheus Award winner
Mythopoeic Award winner
Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011
Tiptree Award Honor List

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The Extraordinary Mark Twain (according to Susy) by Barbara Kerley

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Kerley, B., & Fotheringham, E. (ill.) (2010). The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN: 9780545125086

Annotation: Mark Twain was a famous author and humorist, but his daughter, Susy, didn’t think “experts” had the full picture of the man. She set out to fix this by writing her own biography of her father and showing the world just what kind of man he was.

Reaction: The thing that I love most about Barbara Kerley’s books is the way they make me want to seek out more information about whoever she’s writing. Suddenly, I want to learn everything I can about people I either didn’t have much of an interest in before or people I didn’t even know existed! She also makes me want to read everything she’s written. I think this is why her books would be so useful in a classroom; her writing style engages the reader and gives him/her just enough information about the subject to be intrigued and want to learn more. I learned more about Mark Twain thanks to this book than I ever knew before and made me interested in learning more about his life and maybe even reading some of his books. These are things I never would have thought about doing otherwise, which is why I think her books are so successful.

I love the way Kerley incorporated Susy’s journal entries as a separate but connected part of the book as a whole, and I love how many quotes from primary resources she uses throughout. I also like the way she distinguishes between quotes from Susy and quotes from Twain by using different fonts for each, setting them apart from each other and the rest of the text. This was just such a fun spin on a regular biography, and as we all know, I LOVE sassy ladies and real girls and women who can show readers just what ladies are capable of, and Susy is right up there with the sassiest of the bunch. I love her, and the mention in the author’s note of her death at 24 made me really sad.

Fotheringham’s illustrations are, once again, delightful, and he does a great job of highlighting the especially funny bits of Kerley’s writing, such as the illustration of a young Mark Twain pretending to by dying just to get out of going to school.

I would use this as a part of a writing unit for 5th-9th grades, as an introduction to a biography writing assignment, which could easily be tailored to suit that wide age range. I would also use this in high school as an introduction to whatever Mark Twain books get read in English. I know this would have made me more inclined to enjoy Huck Finn when I was a sophomore.

Media Used: Digital Media

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Timeless Thomas by Gene Barretta

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Barretta, G. (2012). Timeless Thomas: how Thomas Edison changed our lives. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN: 9780805091083

Annotation: Gene Barretta takes readers on a fun tour of how Thomas Edison’s many inventions are still influencing modern life.

Reaction: I read this book in the hopes of using it for my LIBR271A-Picture Books for Older Readers class, but the text is clearly geared towards a younger audience than that class. It’s a great book for 1st-3rd graders, though. It introduces readers to Thomas Edison, his determined spirit, and some of his inventions, as well as showing how those inventions are still being used today. Barretta also includes some fun facts about Edison, like how he had a pet bear cub for awhile!

The art is colorful and cheery, and I love Barretta’s people. They remind me of characters from old cartoons, none of which I can think of now, of course. Though, once I knew he’s done some work with the Jim Henson Company, that’s all I could see. This is a good thing. I love everything from Jim Henson, and I think his experiences working with them positively influences his illustrations (or possibly the other way around!).

Media Used: Watercolor on Arches cold-press paper.

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Those Rebels, John & Tom by Barbara Kerley

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Kerley, B., & Fotheringham, E. (ill.) (2012). Those Rebels, John & Tom. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN: 9780545222686

Annotation: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were opposites in every way, but they shared a love for America. Together, they united the Continental Congress and led the colonies into freedom.

Reaction: From the duo that brought us What to do About Alice?, comes a look at how John and Tom met and became friends. With the same humor and informative text sprinkled with quotes from primary sources used in Alice, Kerley tells us about these two great men. Each set of pages tells the reader about John and Tom’s personalities, daily habits and hobbies and how different they are from each other. If John likes to play rough and box with other boys, Tom likes to read quietly to himself in his father’s library. John gets his hands dirty on his farm while Tom oversees the construction of his estate in Virginia. This juxtaposition really sets up how wonderfully they work together and how their opposite personalities complement each other.

This book was also fun to read after reading Worst of Friends, which tells the story of their falling out and eventually re-friendship. I would definitely hand both of these books to a kid to be read together, that way they get a complete picture of the amazing relationship between these two men.

Fotheringham almost solely uses shades of primary colors to illustrate this book, with some browns thrown in, and I love the effect. He also uses large exclamation points, question marks, “yay” and “nay” to highlight BOLD ejaculations and loud noises, which is a nice way to get across the chaos of that time without words or complicated pictures.

I would use this as a part of a 5th or 6th grade history unit.

Media Used: Digital media.

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Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

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TenNapel, D. (2010). Ghostopolis. New York: Graphix. ISBN: 9780545210287

Annotation: When Garth, a live boy, is accidentally sent to Ghostopolis, he and his dead grandfather must find a way to get him home before the evil ruler of Ghostopolis takes him prisoner.

Reaction: This book was a fun adventure, and I think 10-13 year olds would love it. The story is quick, entertaining and funny enough to keep even reluctant readers interested. In fact, I actually already have plans to let a co-worker’s son, who doesn’t read, borrow it! Plus, it has a great message about the importance of family and forgiveness.

The art is amazing, very crisp and clean, and reminds me a lot of an animated cartoon. TenNapel has a great style that I think would appeal to a lot of kids who spend a lot of time playing video games and watching TV. The colors are great. TenNapel stays within his panels, and the story flows really smoothly. I like the use of the black page border when the reader sees Vaugner, the evil ruler, in his castle.

This book is on my Top Ten Favorites list for this class.

Media Used: Drawn digitally using Manga Studio EX 4.

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The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

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Joyce, W., & Bluhm, J. (ill.) (2012). The fantastic flying books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9781442457027

Annotation: One day, a storm scattered of Morris Lessmore’s beloved books. He wandered and wandered until he found a magical place where books came alive.

Reaction: This book was heartwarming and made me so happy to read it. I love the quiet way Morris Lessmore tended to the books until he reached the end of the book of his life and the powerful message this book sends about the power of the written word. Books can change your life, and I think this book could turn kids into readers. I have every intention of buying this book for myself just as soon as I can.

The art in this book is beautiful and tells the story of Morris and the books’ daily life in a way that the text can’t. Joyce and Bluhm do a wonderful job of turning all the books into characters with their own personalities and including delightful little details, such as the old books walking around with canes at the end and the piano and life support machines that are made out of books. I also really liked the way the artists used black & white and color illustrations to symbolize the difference between people’s sad, lonely lives before discovering books, and the the joy and satifaction they felt after they found books.

I want to hang up the picture of the woman flying away with books in my house.

This book is on my Top Ten Favorites list for this class.

Media Used: Multimedia.

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