I first heard about Blockhead from the manager of the children’s section at my local independent bookstore: “There’s another Fibonacci book coming out this spring, too.” I was worried for a tiny little minute that someone else had had the same idea I had. Would there be enough room in the market for two Fibonacci books? I was relieved when my internet search revealed that the book in question was very different. It was an illustrated biography for a slightly older audience. I was really curious and interested.
About the same time I was finding out about Blockhead, its author was learning about my book. We got in touch and, in the way things often go in this business, I now consider Joseph D’Agnese a friend. We sent each other copies of our books; he hosted me on his blog during my launch week; and I am returning the favor.
I have one advantage over him in my part of this virtual tour: I got to read his book before this post. So, instead of only an interview, I can offer my informed opinion. I enjoyed this book a lot and I think it has serious kid appeal. Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci is an interesting hybrid between picture book biography and fable. D’Agnese, a freelance writer who used to edit a math magazine for kids, wanted to write about Fibonacci and the relationship between Fibonacci numbers and nature. The problem was there is no evidence that Fibonacci knew about this connection. So D’Agnese imagined a scenario in which Fibonacci does see the connection. In D’Agnese’s story, the young Fibonacci faces pressure from his schoolmaster and his father who aren’t sure he is applying himself to his lessons with sufficient diligence. What kid can’t relate to that?
It may be that I have more appreciation for D’Agnese’s text than the average reader; I know intimately the potential pitfalls involved in writing about: a) someone who lived so long ago (when names were not like our names) and b) a sequence that solved a number problem with more than a few convoluted conditions. I am referring here to the Rabbit Problem. Take my word for it, D’Agnese handles these problems with ease. Blockhead is a delightful tale about an important mathematician, his world travels, and his breakthrough ideas.
Come back tomorrow for the interview.
I went back to Davis Magnet School today to facilitate the writing of captions. If you remember, I went out with second graders earlier this month as they photographed their neighborhood for a unit called Davis on the Map. Today, I sat with groups of four or five at a time at a kidney shaped table and we talked about proper nouns, active verbs, capitalization, spelling, and pronouns. We learned words: official, baptismal, peel, kiln, convince, unresolved and Jamaica. We had to consult dictionaries, the internet (which was slow and ineffective – ha!), and the teacher’s notes.
As the teacher and I worked with each group writing captions, the other students spent time going from one center to another. One of the centers was dedicated to books that were related to our unit. I added a work-in-progress of mine to the pile and invited the students to read it and make comments. Once our caption writing work was done, I talked with three students about the manuscript. One girl expressed her observations in the form of “text to self connections and text to text connections.” This particular manuscript is missing an ending so I asked them to give me their ideas and, of course, they had some good ones. I love interacting with my audience!
Wolfsnail update: A new review of Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator went up on Maggie Reads, the blog of a librarian in the northeast part of the state. I really appreciate the kind words about the book and the recommendations for its use with kids. She also mentioned Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature.
Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature received a positive review in Publisher’s Weekly.
“Besides being eye-catching, the photographs ought to prove invaluable for visual learners (spiral patterns in a pinecone are darkened for visibility). Kids should be left with a clear understanding of the pattern and curious about its remarkable prevalence in nature.”
Read the whole review here. Scroll about three-quarters of the way down the page.
Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site recommends Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature for teaching math concepts in elementary grades. Calling it “a great general exposure to patterns for the youngest students and a clear introduction to this crucial pattern for slightly older students,” Rebecca Hurst added our book to the Picturing Math guide for using picture books in teaching math. It appears in the patterns chapter, which is one of the sample chapters available online.
“This book uses exquisite photographs and perfectly chosen text to explain the concept of patterns in nature, specifically Fibonacci numbers, in such a way that even a kindergartner can understand. Hey, I bet I could read this to PRESCHOOLERS and they would get it!
There’s not too much text, it’s simple enough for an easy reader; but each word is obviously perfectly chosen to explain a mathematical concept for any reader.”
I am so glad she likes it and will share it with her library’s readers. Jennifer’s post is tagged as a Nonfiction Monday post. This week’s host is Great Kid Books. Check out the round-up of reviews here.
I knew this book before I started reading it. My mother lent me her copy and I had her recommendation. It also appeared on several Best Books of 2009 lists. I shunned it for a while. Mom’s recommendation came with a warning. It wasn’t easy to read. (“I don’t know how anyone who read this book could send one more soldier into Iraq,” she said. This was just after President Obama decided to send 30,000 more into Afghanistan.)
I figured a book that took a close up look at the war in Iraq wouldn’t be an easy read. I did wonder what would set it apart, however, from any book about any war. War up close is awful. Any war. Even World War II, which was the “good war,” fought by the men of the “greatest generation.” The latest book I read about World War II was Thread of Grace, a novel, by Mary Doria Russell. Resistance fighters in the hills of Italy ambushed German soldiers, townspeople were rounded up and murdered after sheltering and feeding resistance fighters and bureaucrats who forged papers for and fed fleeing Jews died at the hands of American liberators who mistook them for who they appeared to be.
I don’t have any close up experience with war. The closest I get to knowing real soldiers is high school classmates (including the much younger sister of my best friend from high school), a cousin who is an officer in the Air Force, and friends from graduate school (also officers, at least one of whom helped write the new counter-insurgency manual).
Mostly, all I know about Iraq is what I hear on the news. Each of the 12 chapters in The Good Soldiers begins with a quote from George W. Bush. The narrative that follows is often an excruciating minute-by-minute unfolding of events that exposes the Washington rhetoric for the wishful and wrong-headed thinking that it is.
In order to do what they do, soldiers must be true believers. The lieutenant colonel who leads the batallion Finkel writes about clings to his mantra “It’s all good,” long after he knows that he’s in a fight that he finds all-but-impossible to comprehend. It is not what he trained for, and even though he doggedly pursues the new counterinsurgency strategies (endless and exhausting meetings with local police commanders and the like, re-taking the local gas station from the insurgents, and trying like hell to re-start a sewer project that had ground to a halt because of corruption and lack of security), he finally has to acknowledge that sometimes being a true believer can be awfully close to “jackassery”.
This war, as Finkel writes it, puts a lot of men and women (soldiers, contractors, Iraqi interpreters, Iraqi police, Iraqi civilians) in such awful situations. Many die. Many suffer physical and emotional injuries. Many soldiers have days when they can believe this suffering has a purpose. That purpose, however, is elusive. “Creating security for the Iraqi people.” What security?
Finkel does a masterful job of putting the reader where the soldiers are — whether that’s in a humvee, a dark (alcohol-free) bar, an army rehab hospital, a meeting with General Petraus, or the barracks. He drew from firsthand observation, military surveillance videos, military reports, transcripts of speeches and congressional hearings. The organization he brings via narrative makes this book extraordinarily readable, but Finkel still manages to convey the terrifying chaos of war. Even in the midst of the cruelty and horror, Finkel also lets us see the strength, courage, steeliness, naivete, grace, humor, and integrity of the human beings who are fighting and living with the consequences of this war.
For me, a good novel is peopled by characters so real you feel you know them. This was how it was with Ray and Jose, the teenagers at the center of Paul Griffin’s Ten Mile River. The boys, who met and bonded during a stint in juvenile detention, have cobbled together a life on the margins in New York City. They steal food, grills, and cars, but they also share scarce food with a passel of mutts, wrestle and make jokes about body smells, noises and haircuts. Ray meets Trini during a trip to the braid shop for his weekly haircut. Though smitten, he introduces Trini to Jose and watches helplessly as they get together. Trini’s aunt Yolie, the big-hearted proprietor of the braid shop, offers the boys the closest thing to hope and normalcy they’ve seen for a while. Despite Trini’s urging and Yolie’s offer of honest work, the boys can’t quite extricate themselves from their thieving associates.
The narrative power of this slim volume is strong. I didn’t want to put it down; I devoured it in two sittings.
Luckily, I had Griffin’s the orange houses to pick up next. In it, I met the unforgettable Mik Sykes, Jimmi Sixes, and Fatima. I swallowed this one in a single sitting/lying down. Mik can’t hear well and likes to let the world fade into the background. Jimmi is a mentally ill vet and street poet. Fatima is a refuge from a failed African nation with a talent for folding paper. Griffin brings them together in a powerful story of friendship.
If I were teaching high school English or facilitating a book group with young adults, I would suggest these books. Griffin is a skilled writer who has spent enough time with adolescents in tough circumstances to pick up the lingo, to see through their tough outer shells, and to examine their deepest desires.
I am glad I met Griffin at the recent Mississippi Library Association conference. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his work.
My friend, Hester Bass, wrote an extraordinary picture book biography of Walter Anderson, a great American artist who did most of his work in Mississippi. Publisher’s Weekly called the The Secret World of Walter Anderson, published by Candlewick Press, “a powerful tribute to the lengths artists will go for their passions.” A starred reivew in Kirkus said it was “a gorgeous chronicle of a versatile southern American artist.”
The story is illustrated by E.B. Lewis; an additional 8-page author’s note gives more details about Anderson’s life and includes photographs of his paintings, linocuts, and decorations on pottery. I interviewed Hester last month at the Writing and Illustrating for Kids conference put on by the Southern Breeze regional chapter of SCBWI. Click on the play button below to hear why Hester wrote the book and to hear her read an excerpt.
Hester is heading to Mississippi next week for a brief tour that will include stops in Jackson and Vicksburg. She’ll be signing books at the Mississippi Museum of Art on Saturday, Nov. 14; Lemuria bookstore on Sunday, Nov. 15; and she’ll be doing a school visit at my kids’ school, Power Academic and Performing Arts Complex, on Tuesday, Nov. 17. You can catch her in Vicksburg at Lorelei Books on Monday, November 16. Click on Hester’s website or on the venue’s links to check times for the public events. Hester, who once delivered singing telegrams, is an engaging performer and her book would make an excellent gift for the kids, teachers, and art lovers on your Christmas list.
Please let me know if you like the video interview. I am experimenting with using more video on my blog. I’d like to use more video to show my work process with photography. Let me know what you think.
I have long been captivated by stories of the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in a rural Mississippi county with a complicated history of oppression, racism, protest, mass movement, individual courage, profound change, and unmet expectations. My sister Emilye Crosby, a professor of history at Geneseo College in Geneseo, New York, wrote a book about this history, A Little Taste of Freedom. A few years ago, shortly after her book was published, I attended a conference in our hometown with Emilye and met Hasan Jeffries, a young academic working on a history of Lowndes County, Alabama. About a month ago, Emilye gave me a newly minted, newly signed copy of Hasan’s book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. I devoured it.
This book tells a complicated story, but it is one well worth digging into. The African Americans of Lowndes County, with on-site support from members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formed an independent political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. One of the SNCC organizers was Stokely Carmichael and the party’s symbol was a black panther. The work that went into party formation, voter registration, candidate recruitment, voter education, and campaigning galvanized African Americans who had for years faced terrible violence at any press for equal treatment under the law or push for economic opportunity.
The education efforts around local government could serve as models for engaging civics lessons today. Unfortunately, the lesson — completely learned — includes the limitations of representative democracy, the human flaws of elected officials, and the endurance of economic inequality. Dr. Jeffries has written an important book. It provides context for decisions about whether to work within the two-party structure or form an independent party, how class and social stature affect people’s willingness to form alliances and take risks, and for the much better known, but perhaps as poorly understood, Black Panther Party that Carmichael later led.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Jeffries and Emilye were both in Mississippi for an oral history workshop and the three of us had lunch together. He shared stories of his many research trips to Lowndes County, how each one led to more information, a different group of people, and a different take on the same events. He will be back in Mississippi in October at The Fannie Lou Hamer Institute at Jackson State University. A reading/signing will be held Wednesday, October 7, at Lemuria bookstore in Jackson.
One of the books G picked up at ALA was WWW: Wake. Well, actually, he saw it at ALA and ordered for his Kindle. After he finished it, I read it. I found it interesting. The main story involves Caitlin Decter, a teenage math whiz who has been blind since birth. When she tries an experimental procedure to restore her sight, what she first sees is a visual representation of the world wide web. Alongside Caitlin’s storyline, the book also introduces a group of researchers who are working with a bonobo chimpanzee, a Chinese blogger who is concerned when his government shuts down the internet, and an inanimate intelligence that reaches out to Caitlin through her unusal “websight.” I have to admit the science started to get a little beyond me (Zipf plots, Shannon Entropy, and cellular automata), but it was fun to think about. (Reading the book on an electronic device, it would have been interesting if I could have clicked on one or more of the scientific concepts and/or the websites mentioned in the text.)
It was the kind of book that I wanted to keep reading past my bedtime and that pulled me back in after breaks. At one point, near the end of the story, I was reading in my bed and starting to get sleepy. I was holding the “book” in my left hand and I found myself reaching up with my right hand to turn the page. My hand hit the Kindle. It was one of those strange experiences when my brain went back to its usual behavior when reaching the end of a page — instead of hitting the next page button.
I found it hardest to read the sections about the artificial intelligence that reaches out to Caitlin. I couldn’t understand it so I found myself skimming. Also, I couldn’t believe that I had reached the end of the story when the book ended. When I said to G that I wondered why the other story lines hadn’t been resolved, he told me the book is the first in a trilogy. Ah.
WWW: Wake reminded me a little of Little Brother because it has modern technology as an integral part — a character, even — of the book. G says he’ll add his bit later.