What Are You Reading? December 15, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I’m catching up on my reading list and I finally got around to opening up Andi Watson’s Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula. it’s a fun black and white graphic novel with just a hint of romance. Watson is a comics author that is trying his hand at a longCover form graphic novel and he’s pulled off a brilliant balance between simple lines and illustrations and a charming story.

The book begins in the Underworld with Princess Decomposia dealing with her bedridden father (the king), his crazy neediness, all the kingdom’s business dealings, the responsibility of finding a new chef. She is crazy busy, trying to keep all the balls in the air, and stressed beyond her limits.

What I appreciate about Princess Decomposia (Dee to her friends) is that she is the quintessential caretaker to the entire underworld. As she walks from one end of the castle to the other she receives state papers, long letters, and updates about the political goings on. In addition, she spends her days negotiating with foreign dignitaries trying to balance her fathers wishes, the good of the kingdom, and peace.

On top of her more than stressful duties she must hire a new chef. She finally settles on one, Count Spatula. His first action, before even getting the job, was to take careDecomposia of the princess which is something no one else in the castle thinks to do. She has been running around all day, hasn’t eaten and feels lightheaded. He not only rushes to her side, he also pulls tea and muffins from his chefs hat and gets the job. But more importantly, he begins a friendship with the princess.

The illustrations are lighthearted and simple but that is not to say they are simplistic. Instead, Watson takes care to use very few lines to communicate emotion and humor. Although the counts face is not much more than a heart shape with a few lines, he is able to convey a full range of emotions. The other characters are less simply drawn but no less expressive.

Count Spatula is a good guy, even for a vampire, who loves sweets and has a flair for the dramatic. At one point he concocts a set of dessert that rains delicious lemon curd into the guests. His meals are a success, maybe too much of a success for the kind to be happy.

The king is taking an extended, hypochondriac-induced vacation from his royal duties but he is more than happy to direct the court from his bed. And Dee (princess Decomposia) is stuck trying to be both a ruler and a servant to her father. Eventually, with the thoughful council of Count Spatula she begins to delegate and gain some control over her life and her sanity. But, that isn’t what the king wants … he wants to have his cake, and eat it too.

The king decides the count has to go and so he sends her away for a day in the above world. When Dee decides to take the count with her, it leads to a terrible confrontation between the king (who not sick but is rather lazy and selfish) and the princess.

In the end, Dee is in charge of the kingdom and Count Spatula is in charge of the kitchen, but more importantly they are in charge of supporting and loving each other. This is a great story for emergent readers, readers are are just beginning to read graphic novels, and romantics alike.


What Are You Reading? December 8, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I just returned from a great Literacy Research Association (LRA) conference held on Marco Island, FL. Like many in my field I have few colleagues in my sub-sub-sub field (graphic novel reading) and LRA gives me a change to catch up on everything. It leaves me exhausted and invigorated.

So, I came into the office – it is something like 19 degrees outside and 87 degrees inside – ready to grade papers, talk to students, Ares-Cov-300rgband change my syllabus for next semester’s children’s and YA literature course to reflect the research I saw at LRA. But, before all that started, I found the latest in George O’Connor’s Olympians series in my mailbox!!!

 Like so many graphic novel readers I have loved this series since Zeus (Vol. 1) but truth be told Hades (Vol. 4) was by far my favorite and remains so today.

Ares: Bringer of War is another solid edition to the series. The color red runs throughout the book, beginning with the cover. In this book O’Connor does some interesting work delineating Ares and Athena early on. Athena (Vol. 2) is given a cool shade of blue-gray as her color and it reflects her appreciation for strategy as a way to enter into war with a clear and levelheaded strategy. She is not swayed by passion or emotion, or so she would have us believe.

Page 4

Ares on the other hand is the epitome of passion and madness of battle. The image of Ares and his sister Eris plunging into war provide a beautifully disturbing starting point for the story. The blue gray calm of the bottom left portion of the page is ravaged by Ares and Eris’s flaming chariot as it rips through the troops. The soldiers fear and confusion is apparent as their wide, white eyes that stand in shocked contrast to the rest of the page.

Ares: Bringer of War highlights the connections between the Olympian gods and the Trojan War. First as a comparison between Athena and Ares, then as a stage for the continued competition between Hara, Aphrodite and Athena (see Aphrodite: Goddess of Love). After all, it was the competition between these three which began the Trojan war in the first place!

And so it is with this volume that O’Connor provides us with another view of the gods and the whimsy they took with human life. The treatment O’Connor gives to Hara, Aphrodite and Athena is oneof the most interesting aspects of this book. Each one takes a champion in the war to represent their godly interests with no regard for the mortal himself. O’Connor provides a visual of the ways champions were mere puppets for the gods: Athena looming like a large shadow over Diomedes as she takes him into battle against Ares, and Hara feeding words of encouragement to her army through Stentor as she stands behind him.

Ares, like many of the gods of Olympus, lost a son in the battle for Troy, but unlike the other gods he truly grieves the loss. His grief becomes the catalyst for a short lived brawl between the gods, but the war rages on between the mortals well after the gods have lost interest.

 The lively images and playful treatment of some of the gods makes it a fun and exciting read. But as a retelling of the Iliad it lacks the coherence I have come to expect from O’Connor. Because he dips in and out of the traditional story, this volume might be confusing for readers who don’t know the Iliad, or the divisions between the the Greeks and the Trojans. Given the shortcomings of the text, I think this volume would be a great supplement Homer’s Iliad.

The battle of troy rages on even after the gods loose interest, except for Zeus and Ares. They remain to the bitter end. Ares understands his own nature, and in the end he realizes he is much like Zeus, his father. And this realization brings no relief to Ares or, as it turns out, to man.

Fabulous Graphic Novels Series

One of the first questions teachers ask me when I present my research on graphic novel readers actually reading graphic novels is what graphic novels are good to start with or appropriate for specific grades or types of readers. (Yes, I just wrote a single opening sentence using GN 3 times).

I always hesitate to provide a list because I do not know the students, or the content, or the school and so I feel like I would be giving my approval in a vacuum. On the other hand, I just finished presenting and listening to lots of super smart and dedicated teachers at the annual NCTE conference held here in Boston, MA. I came away with a better understanding of why teachers want the list. Teachers need a hand. They need materials vetted by experts who have a whole lot more time to dedicate to reading graphic novels so they can focus on the good books.

So, with the caveat that teachers need to read the books and decide what is best for their students, I give you ….


To kick off this month I am going to start with three of my favorite series; Lunch Lady, Squish and My Boyfriend is a Monster.


LLadyIt doesn’t get any better than the Lunch Lady series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Knopt Books for Young Readers).

There are nine books in the series thus far with more on the way, which is great news. Krosoczka uses a recurring cast of characters including Betty (Lunch Lady’s right hand woman and gadget maker), a trio of kids known as the Breakfast bunch, and the Lunch Lady herself to solve crimes, and bring baddies to justice using a wide variety of kitchen inspired, crime fighting gadgets (my favorite is Taco Vision, night vision goggles shaped like a hard shell taco that makes everyone’s head look like a taco shell).

Although a series, these can be read out of order and revisited often. Krosoczka uses the over the top yellow effectively throughout the books. The illustrations are cartoon-ish in representation of people with lots of slightly off centered angles to cue the reader that action is always around the corner. The panel transitions are expertly treated, especially in the chase scenes, where Krosoczka capitalizes on the incongruity of a Lunch Lady on a bright yellow Vespa chasing bad guys. In addition, Krosoczka’s tongue and cheek humor almost always lost on the characters but not on readers who are wise enough to know that a “spatu-copter” is never a good idea, bus drivers are always a little twisted, and anything that can go wrong will be put right by liberal application of gravy.


Squish coverAnother series that provides readers with puns and excitement is Jennifer and Matt Holm’s Squish (Randome House Books for Young Readers) graphic novels. They are the same team who created and continue to write the BabyMouse series.

I like both series and have introduced BabyMouse to many readers, but there is a special place in my reading heart for this amoeba. Squish is an everyman character – or more accurately, an every kid character. He eats too many twinkies, he reads comic books, goes to school and deals with life in the pond. There is a great balance between silliness and story. What I like most about these books is that the Holm’es don’t dummy down the language to make the texts more comfortable for young or struggling readers. There are some great vocabulary building words and concepts at work in the series that engaged readers will put in the effort to figure out, remember, and use in their everyday language.

The illustrations use bold black lines and bright green for defining characters and scenes. The paneling is fairly predictable with no great surprises. There are laugh out loud moments, especially when Peggy (a bit of a dim bulb) and Pod (a scientific genius) interact. What amazes me most about the illustrations is the complexity of emotions communicated by an amoeba’s facial expressions – given the fact that Squish doesn’t have a face.


For older readers, there is Graphic Universe’s My Boyfriend is a Monster series of graphic novels. Although billed as a series, they are more like a set of companions books, all dealing with young love between human girls and monster boyfriends.

All the books are authored and illustrated by different teams, but the general storylines are similar; a girl who doesn’t quite fit in becomes enamored with the new boy in town, who is brooding and mysterious. Love and weirdness ensues.

Although the stories are predictable they are still a delight to read. The use of fine line drawings, surprising use of full color pages, and completely over the top scary guys as villains makes these worth a read.

What They Read and How They Read It- Part 1

As a researcher I am often asked to describe my research interests in a short form,  sometimes referred to as our research  “elevator speech”, a snippet that communicates just enough to pique peoples interest and want to a) talk to us, b) hire us, or c) give us money to do more interesting research. Never get stuck in an elevator with teacher education folks!

My research is in two areas: What is read in schools, and how people read. If I were to make a Venn diagram of these areas it might have looks like this.1111

Except, that doesn’t represent the relationships as they actually exist. A friend of mine is working on her dissertation – She is making explicit connections about how children’s literature is used and thought about across different domains (library science, English literature, and education). Her work is important because she is illustrating that the more explicit we are about the multiple ways we think about literature, the better we are as educators.

So, if I were honest, the diagram would look more like this,

complexTherefore it is probably impossible – at least for me  – to separate out things like authenticity in representation, artistry, narrative, history, and literary merit.

I am writing about two books today; In Part 1 I’ll tell you about a lovely and brilliant and haunting graphic novel, in Part 2 I’ll tell you about a graphic novel series that isn’t just not great, but might be damaging. Why am I writing about them together? Because both graphic novels have American Indian characters, and represent vastly different portrayals of American Indian lore.

CoverJust to be clear. I am not, as far as I know, any sort of Native American, nor am I a scholar of Native American literature. On the other hand, I think and write and teach about multicultural literature in education and believe it is important to highlight the good literature, as well as recognize the not so good stuff that is still all too prevalent.

The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel (2013) by Drew Taylor, Michael Wyatt (Illustrator), and Alison Kooistra (Adapted by) published by Annick Press, Limited.

The basics of this graphic adaptation are these  – Pierre is a vampire who left Canada some 300 years ago for adventure but ended up becoming a side-show Indian for rich Europeans. He eventually contracted the measles and was “saved” from death by being turned into a vampire. The novel opens with his return to his birthplace where he rents a basement room from a broken family.  The divorce is still fresh in everyone’s mind – Mom took off with a White guy and left dad with a headstrong teenage daughter, Tiffany. She and her dad live with his mom on the reservation. The story is a perfect balance between teen angst (no one understands why Tiffany is dating the dumb-jock White kid who is cheating on her) and the creepy, self-hatred of a 300 year old vampire who scares the crap out of everyone by just hanging around and being really tall .

NW_P5But, as in all graphic novels, the story told in the words is not complete. The illustrations are clean and highly representational. The artist gets the most out of a very basic black and white pallet that includes shades of grey that allow for shadow and light to play at making the night alive and visible to me as a reader. The artist uses splashes of red around Pierre, but not so much that it become silly or predictable.NW_P43

The Native American culture, religion, and narrative traditions are bound together in this book with visual representations of stories, people and places. There are modern Native Americans wearing jeans, drinking tea, being kind and being jerks. There are also the stories from Pierre’s childhood in which he and his family are in buckskins. It is the modern and old representation that is an important aspect in this book. Far too often Native Americans exist only as museum pieces and not as part of the present.

This isn’t the perfect book. Tiffany’s father is flat and seems included to provide a source of tension for Tiffany to bounce off. Her grandmother on the other hand changes dramatically as the story progresses, from a oldster who peppers her conversation with random Indian words, to someone who truly understands the pain and hunger that Pierre is just barely controlling.


The tension in Tiffany’s life, the fact that she has her first White boyfriend at the very same time her mother of off with some anonymous White husband play out for the reader, but Tiffany seems unaware of the irony. Pierre plays a pivotal roll in her life, just as Tiffany does in his. He tells her stories from his own childhood of rebellion and mistakes in order help her understand the consequences of rash actions now on her future.

This book provides both creepy entertainment, beauty, and an authentic representation of a non-White culture that is alive and well in 2013.


TRICKSTER: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection

Trickster Cover

Maybe I should not have been surprised but I was. I made assumptions based on nothing more than a topic, and I was wrong. I recently had the pleasure of reading, marveling, studying, and reread Matt Dembicki’s Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection three times before I discovered he’s a White guy. I had assumed he must be Native American because, well,  because it is a great collection of Native American stories that doesn’t pander or insult or generally make me cringe!

While thinking about blogging about this book I was confronted by a few problems. You see, it is a collection of Trickster tales, Native American folktales where the story might not start at the beginning, may not progress in a chronological order, and sometimes the end was simply where the story stopped but there was no conclusion. Some stories meander, some have morals, some seem scary, but most are thoughtful and make me laugh out loud.

The individual stories are short, disruptive in the brevity of language and the wide array of artistic styles. The stories follow each other, bouncing from an almost creation story about Coyote disrupting the arrangement of  stars in the sky, to a tale of a mean crow kicking sea anemones,to a Choctaw tale about how rabbit got a tiny tail. And many other stories, all providing another tale, another style, another look at the world.

Trickster P5

Coyote and the Pebbles
by Dayton Edmonds, art by Micah Farritor (p. 5-18)

Raven the Trickster Story  by John Active, art by Jason Copland (p. 19-32)

Raven the Trickster Story
by John Active, art by Jason Copland (p. 19-32)

Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale  words: Tim Tingle, pictures: Pat Lewis (p. 79-88)

Rabbit’s Choctaw Tail Tale
words: Tim Tingle, pictures: Pat Lewis (p. 79-88)

The collection is substantial in heft with thick, smooth glossy pages. The array of stories and illustrations make the books a dense experience. Each time I sat and wrote or started thinking about writing the book took on the characteristics of a black hole; all my ideas hovered on the edge and lingered there as time passed, and I continued not to write.

Where to start . . . That was my issue. How do I talk about a book that contains more than what is seen between the covers? Alex, my 8 year old son, and I read many of the stories together. I could write about the stories he loved, or the conversations about the illustrations we had, but then I’d have to talk about his unique life. But that is not my place, his is not my story.

I could address my own connections to the book, but then I’d have to go into race, ethnicity, gender, age, learning, reading, and identity. All the stuff that just doesn’t seem pertinent to the book, but seems so important to my own read of the collection (damn you Louise Rosenblatt).

I read the book again but this time I read it all, from the table of contents to the end pages . Yes, I was going to write about a book without reading EVERY SINGLE WORD of the front and back matter.  I admit this in much shame.

Turns out, Matt Dembicki who put this beautiful, infuriating book together is a White guy. I assumed he was Native American … ’cause it’s a book about Native stories that was done well. I was shocked and amazed (and ashamed) by my own assumption. Then, I read the Contributors pages and I noticed some things that helped. All the story tellers were Native American – they all identify tribal affiliations. Another note, there are 6 women and 18 men. On the other hand, is almost impossible to assign race/ethnicity to the illustrators as none of them identify themselves, and only 2 of the illustrators are women.

What impressed me most was the egalitarian way in which credit was given and the way Dembicki writes about the understandable challenges of getting storytellers to participate in the project, “I wanted the stories to be authentic, meaning they would have to be written by Native American storytellers (p. 225)”. He knew what he knew and he knew what he didn’t know. That always impresses me. Finally, he got a bunch of storytellers and a bunch of illustrators and the storytellers — the experts in Native American storytelling — selected the artists to work with. Dembicki continues “The point wasn’t to westernize the stories for general consumption, but rather to provide an opportunity to experience authentic Native American stories, even if it sometimes meant clashing with western vernacular” (p. 225). There is was. This is why the book works … it isn’t about making the stories Western, it is about telling Native stories to a wide audience.

Ishjinki and Buzzard  by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)

Ishjinki and Buzzard
by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)


Ishjinki and Buzzard by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)

I love that. Because, that is exactly what the collection, as a whole, does. It upsets the status quo of children’s literature, of folk tales, of the Western ideal of story and Native Americans. There is love and death and lies and sometimes the good guy does not win. Sometimes there is not winning or losing, there is simply a story. Sometimes there is gross stuff about gross animals and old men being gross (my son especially appreciated those). Some of the artwork is breathtaking and should be in a museum, some is silly and belongs on a bubble gum wrapper.

Who should read this collection? I can’t think of anyone who should not read it. It is great for novice readers and experts alike because of the wide array. But, take it in small pieces instead of the entire work all at once. Give the illustrations room to elaborate, to challenge, to push, and to compliment the written stories. And then go back for me.