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26. Midwestern Investigative Report: NerdCampMI 2016 – Day One

nerdcampThere are advantages to living in New York City. Good museums. Lots of books and readers.  The sweet morning aroma of hot garbage on the street to greet you at the break of day. Consumed in such a heady aroma it can be easy to forget that there are disadvantages to the city as well. Living in the center of the universe is all well and good but one has a tendency to forget that there is a UNIVERSE outside of that center. Pull yourself away from the gravity and you discover all sorts of interesting things.

This brings us to NerdCampMI.

Unfamiliar?  Here’s a quick description of the conference from its website:

“Day 1 is much like a traditional education conference.  We have scheduled speakers to get you all fired up about teaching reading and writing in the classroom.  For more specifics on day 1, please visit the page by clicking the link to your left.

Day 2 of nErDcamp is designed differently than your typical conference.  It’s an (un)conference with a focus on literacy in learning.”

What they don’t mention is that this is very much a school-based event.  Which is to say, school librarians (a few) and school teachers (the bulk) attend this event en masse.  This makes a great deal of sense, of course.  Prior to the creation of NerdCampMI and the corresponding Nerdy Book Club, there was a need for a large scale site dedicated to people working within the educational system.

Now like a lot of folks in NYC I’d heard about this phenomena. Phenomenon? Phenomeniacal? At any rate, it was like pulling teeth finding people who’d been. In spite of the fact that the con tends to pull in 1500 attendees, the majority appear to come from the Midwest.


And yet, this wasn’t everyone.


Now I’m a public, rather than a school, librarian. That means that my contact with teachers is entirely reliant on this blog. Yet I’d never met a teacher who had attended, though I had met the occasional author.

It was time to rectify the situation.  Oh ye folks around the country who hear about NerdCamp from time to time and think, “You mean Nerdcon? No? Camp? Wait, is that the huge thing in Parma, MI?” I am here to report and tell all.

Once, long ago, oh best beloved, I ran a conference. It was the Kidlitosphere Conference and I led it out of the main branch of New York Public Library. It was, insofar as I can recall, a success. With the exception of one Skype session, all the tech worked. It was free, like NerdCamp. There was a lot of swag, like NerdCamp. But there were significantly less people.  If we’re looking at the number of children’s literature bloggers in the country vs. the number of teachers in the country, that’s par for the course, but my point is that my con was pretty small and relatively easy. It was also not an unconference, an element that I feel ups the difficulty factor tenfold.  So when I walked in yesterday morning for Day One (Day Two is the unconference part and that’s actually happening right now) I didn’t quite know what to expect.  I expected registration.  I did not expect the epic-ly long swag line.



Nor did I expect that my favorite children’s bookstore BookBug would be the one selling titles.  Hooray, Bookbug!  Hooray too to the fact that they were carrying my picture book. I was not expecting that.



We all filed into a large gym where bleachers served as the seats for the massive group in attendance.


Once we were all seated we were ready for a series of small talks from a variety of different speakers. Each one spoke no longer than about 5 minutes apiece. And each one had a very specific topic they wanted to address.

Colby Sharp was the one who officially started off the day, but not with a long history of Nerdy Book Club and its accomplishments, as you might expect. Instead, he started in almost immediately with the story of Heidi, a small girl who lost all her books in a fire. After she thanked the audience members for replacing her library it was time for the first speaker.

Educator Kathy Burnett came up to the music of “My Shot” from Hamilton. Knowing her audience, she began her talk with a shout-out to Gilmore Girls.  And let that be a lesson to you, oh future speakers.  Mention GG at the top of any speech to librarians or teachers and the response is instantaneous.



Proving that my generation is now the one in charge of the universe, Kathy also made statements like “I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and I DID those chest exercises” (which got a lot of appreciation) followed up with knowledge that by reading V.C. Andrews you learn to avoid powdered donuts. But for the most part she spoke on a personal level about how books were a way to escape from the world when she was a child and her teachers became her surrogate parents.   The speech ended with “I Rise” by Maya Angelou.  It got a standing ovation.

By the way, I’m soliciting guesses on the background behind the speakers.  I’m going to say that the high school was doing a production of The Wizard of Oz.

Teri Lesesne was next and she began by referencing a Richard Peck article about censorship, which was the focus of her talk. She talked at length about “censorship in all its forms” including disinvitations of authors to schools. The Phil Bildner and Kate Messner incident was mentioned (someone clapped during it and without missing a beat Teri said, “You can’t clap. This is timed.”). She then urged everyone to read Kate Milford’s continuing dialogue with the teacher responsible in some way for her disinvitation. There was an interesting moment when Teri said something along the lines of, “Gatekeeping is an insidious form of censorship”, which I am paraphrasing and which made me wish she had a lot more time to unpack that statement.  I wouldn’t make “gatekeeping” a dirty word, necessarily, but I’m open to learning more about why some people think it is. In relation to this, Teri talked about books that are simply not purchased for libraries. Of course there are differences between public librarians and school ones.  I guess I’d never thought much about school librarian issues of this sort.  It reminded me of that recent debate between Roger Sutton and Daniel Jose Older about the librarian’s role and when you do and don’t deny a kid access to a book. Teri ended by quoting Liberian peace activist Leyman Gbowee: “You can never leave footprints if you always walk on tiptoe”, stressing finally that every kid should see that they’re not alone.

Raina Telgemeier followed and hers was a very personal talk. Raina discussed a time when she was young and was “the artist” in class. She was quiet and had a hard time making friends, so her art was a way to stand out. Then she met a boy named Shawn who could also draw. They could both do TMNT and The Simpsons. Naturally she had a huge crush on him. And so if you read her best known book Smile, he’s the boy in it (this is where I wish that Shaun were Shaun Tan, by the way). In the intervening years lots of girls have since written and asked if she married “Shawn”, or (at the very least) if he knows he was immortalized. Raina points out to them that most 36-year-old men do not seek out her art on their own. Fast forward a little.  Raina was still friends with Shawn (not his real name) on Facebook.  Then, last year, he got Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Raina wanted to help out in some way, but since Shawn and his family are quiet, private people she was limited in what she could do. Then she learned he was in hospice. Near the end, he just wanted people to share memories of him. So she told him at long last about the book, his role in it, and she sent him a copy with a letter of thanks. He loved it, and his nephews were thrilled that a book they already knew had their uncle in it. Shawn passed away in April of this year and Raina attended his memorial a few weeks ago. There she learned that apparently an item on Shawn’s bucket list was to become a character in a comic book. Mission accomplished.  It was a nice heartfelt speech.

Now because I don’t know my average famous teachers, the name Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) was unknown to me.  No longer.  A grade teacher in WI, some speculation was made later as to whether or not she has copious experience with Poetry Slams.  Such was the energy of her talk. Pernille dove right in, recounting that it was exactly 4 seconds into the new school year (last fall) before a kid in her class loudly declared how much they hated reading. You know the type.  “You say reading and they cannot wait to say loudly how much they hate it . . . because this is how they identify.” These students beg you, “please don’t tell me I just haven’t met the right book yet, because that’s what ALL the teachers say.” This is, to Ms. Ripp’s mind, a pernicious problem, “because when they hate reading . . . then it just doesn’t matter what kind of strategies I am trying to teach them.” Nothing matters. “When they hate reading then that is all they can think about”. Then everything in school is attached to something they hate. “And I get it. Why would you want to do something more of something they despise.” Her advice to combat this?  When you get a kid who says they don’t like to read, don’t say “no you don’t”. Try asking, “Why?” “We won’t know until we ask. A question is all we need.” Asking and talking and digging is important. “Hating reading is not their end destination.” One of her more controversial statements was that if a reading program is making even one child hate reading then that program should be ended. Interesting!  Another good line regarding generations of people who don’t like to read, “Along with their genetic heritage they will also pass on their hatred of school and books.” A great talk.

Also very good? Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) .  Shared a NerdyBookClub post that she wrote last November, The House That Reading Built which you should probably read rather than allow me to summarize.  Just the same, part of what I liked about it so much was its acknowledgment of socio-economic status and disparity.  “I grew up clinging to the lowest middle class rung”. In the piece Donalyn explains how both she “grew up on her library card”, as did her husband. I appreciated that she acknowledged her white privilege in spite of class burdens and took time to mentions how so many children of poverty, disproportionately of color, grow up without easy access to books. As she then pointed out, diversity in publishing isn’t just about the publishing itself. Publishing more diverse authors and illustrators only takes us so far if children do not have access to these books. Book access is the gamechanger for our children. It means that all books should accurately reflect their experiences and the experiences of children with different stories to tell and give access to “the promise” that literacy provides. The division and hatred scrolling across our screens these days can fill us with impotence and despair. Literacy, therefore, is the way to help all of us write a different story.

Then there was a special guest in town.  Three guesses who it was and the first two don’t count.


Yep, peeking above that podium there is special guest Kate DiCamillo. And the crowd, naturally, goes crazy. In an interesting twist Kate told a very fun story about an incident from her youth involving a wishing bone (how William Steig!), a girl next door with purple lipstick, and a pony.  It had a lot of good lines too like the fact that the girl next door was named Beverly Pagoda and, “I was forever trying to impress her and I had yet to succeed.” Also, “It was summer. I was 8-years-old. My heart was a small motor humming in my chest.”  I liked that she said that the art of writing is what Raymond Chandler called “being at your station”. Of course as she was talking about what you can’t find in a writing manual, one could not help but think that should she ever want to write one, she could potentially write the children’s book version of Bird by Bird.

Then it was time for my session.  Did I not mention I was speaking at this event?  Oh yes!  And look at my cohorts:



Travis whipped that one up.  Isn’t it nice?

Mind you, I’m a bit shaky on reading schedules so this is what I saw when I looked us up.  Mine is the one that says “Nibling” on it:


Oh no!, thinks I.  I’m speaking about 9/11?  Then I looked at the top of the page.


Oh!  That makes more sense.

By the way, this was in our room on the wall.  I adored it.


I recap my talk but I’m absolutely terrible about that sort of thing.  Fortunately my panelists were enormously talented bloggers so I’m just going to hope that one or both of them write it up themselves and I’ll be able to link to it here.

For the next session, it was a tricky choice (as you can see from the form).  In the end I decided to sit in on “Author Jeopardy”, hosted by the writer Erica Perl.

SessionIt was a nice crew of authors too.  There was author Melanie Conklin who’d written Counting Thyme.  There was The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib author, Adam Shaughnessy. There was the writer behind Gertie’s Leap to Greatness (Kate Beasley) who is from Georgia and is damned adorable. She had cute shoes and mentioned (on an unrelated note) that her family farm has 120 miniature cows.  Extra points to Adam then for jumping in to ask, “Is that where those school milks come from?” Nice.  Kelly Barnhill was there to discuss The Girl Who Drank the Moon.  At one point the conversation turned to Skype visits and Kelly said she would occasionally have the kids talk to her new puppy Sirius Black or her truly disgusting guinea pig Günter. Which, right there. That’s a book. Erica S. Perl herself talked about her upcoming The Capybara Conspiracy, calling it a book, a novel, and a play all in one. Author John David Anderson of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day is actually the author I’m reading right now at this exact moment in time.  And, if I might say so, his latest book has a KILLER first chapter.  He described it as “The Holy Grail meets Stand By Me meets Mr. Hollin’s Opus meets . . . . cheesecake.” And finally there was YA author Aimee Carter who has written her first middle grade book in a series.  The book was actually very interesting to me.  It’s called Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den and damned if it doesn’t look a lot like those books that came out around the time Harry Potter was hot.  We haven’t seen a book like this in a long time.  I’ll be watching its progress with interest.

The audience was pretty big and when they asked questions they asked good practical ones, how the authors connect with kids when they Skype into a classroom.

This left the final session of the day and it was a tricky choice. Do you want to see Raina Telgemeier draw from audience suggestions or Kate DiCamillo in conversation with Mr. Schu? For me, I wanted to see the aforementionedTeri and Donalyn in action. Their topic:

Taking CARE of readers: Choice (and community), Access, Response, Engagement

And what happens? I walk in and hear them asking the audience a question: Who was the first Latino to win a Newbery? Due to the fact that like a Pavlovian dog I cannot not listen to a question about children’s literature trivia without needing to be the one to answer it RIGHT NOW, I put my hand up like a fool and declared “Paula Fox” loud and proud. Which won me a bag of goodies by accident.  Oops. I just wanted to answer it SOOO MUCH!!

The gist of this final talk was about the nitty gritty aspects of getting kids to identify as readers. Folks talk so much about getting the skill set down but they don’t spend much time discussing how to get kids to the self-identify as reading kids.

LoveSecretSniperFirst off, the two presenters gave us their “reading audiobiography” over the years, in brief.  And somehow or other, Teri managed to find a real Fabio cover called Love’s Secret Sniper for the talk. Extra points for that.

These days, the two women are now what you might call Free-Range Readers, reading whatever interests them. In fact, they aren’t afraid to recommend the occasional adult book.  For example, at one point they gave a shout out to The Unpersuadables by Will Stork, which sounded absolutely fascinating.  In this book the author examines why it is that otherwise intelligent people are so willing to discount research. Donalyn has seen firsthand that you can tell people how reading is important and yet they won’t believe it even if you have the fact at your disposal.  Why is that?  Turns out, people will jettison beliefs to be part of a group that is important to them. Ignorance is tribalism in these cases, where the deniers of one thing or another find supportive friends. That is FASCINATING! I always love it when a person applies an adult book to the world in which we live and work.  Now I have to find this book.

Going back to the reading autobiography, creating one can be a great thing to do with students.  When they hand them in to you (the teacher) and you look at them, can you identify the engaged readers and the ones who aren’t engaged “yet”?  And really, do books belong to me or do I belong to books or is it some kind of symbiotic relationship?

So how do we best demonstrate our love of reading to our kids (both to your students and, I’d say to your own kids). Donalyn says that passion is key. But if you don’t like reading, they won’t either.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.14.43 AMThis led to another book recommendation: Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books by Carlsen and Sherrill. The book examines the common experiences in building readers in the early grades through high school. It’s out of print (pub date 1988)but you can actually just download the entire text. The truth is that when it lists all the factors that make a reader, they sound awfully familiar.  Owning books, sharing them with friends, setting time aside for it, teachers reading aloud, discussions, and receiving help from librarians all are there.

Then we got into the nitty gritty of it all.  Stand back for . . .

Factors Affecting Reading Identity

They are . . .

  • Time
  • Role models at home and school
  • Access to books
  • Choice of reading materials
  • Diversity.

I won’t delve into what all was said about these points, but Teri and Donalyn did say that their slides will be up on SlideShare and that they’ll post a link on their Twitter accounts soon.

Actually, I will latch on to one of their points, and it’s something I was thinking about a lot at this conference.  As Donalyn was careful to point out, diversity is more than just a hashtag. In her talk she gave the history of #WeNeedDiverseBooks (or #WNDB) with Teri also mentioning that it includes body image and socioeconomic status (YES!). And Teri said straight out that it’s not enough to get all the Pura Belpre and CSK titles in your school or classroom library. Donalyn: “The broader our collections are the more likely we are to invite readers into the communities we are trying to build”.

Since I didn’t attend that many discussions, it’s possible that We Need Diverse Books and diversity in general was covered in other sessions too.  Still, I was a bit disappointed to find that only one of the first speakers of the day (Donalyn again) mentioned it at the start of the conference.

Now let’s bring it back a bit. Let’s talk about outside perceptions of NerdCampMI. One concern that I’ve heard from others about the conference in the past is how white it is. White in terms of the speakers and the books and authors and the attendees.  So let’s unpack that.

First off, it’s true that very few people of color were attending the conference as attendees.  There were some, but even from my group shots you can pretty much see that it was somewhat white.  I don’t know how NerdCampMI organizes or if they make tweaks each and every year.  Nor do I know what goes on behind the scenes.  If I were to guess, I’d say that reaching out to teachers of color is definitely slated for the old To Do list.  As for the books, there were authors of color like Tracey Baptiste, Minh Le, and others, and there were speakers like Kathy Burnette.  Again, efforts have been made in those areas, but there’s some room for improvement.  Fortunately, as Donalyn proved, there’s clearly the inclination and the drive to be inclusive.

This is, as I say, just a recap of Day One.  For the Day Two unconference you’ll need to look for someone else reporting from the scene.

Many thanks to Colby Sharp and Travis and Minh for letting me present and visit NerdCampMI for the first time.  Thanks to the people I met and the sessions I attended.


6 Comments on Midwestern Investigative Report: NerdCampMI 2016 – Day One, last added: 7/13/2016
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27. Monday Review: NEVER MISSING NEVER FOUND by Amanda Panitch

Synopsis: Suspense stories that deal with kidnapping and imprisonment (consider that your trigger warning) don't always put an equally weighty focus on the aftermath of the trauma. This particular thriller suspensefully covers both the dramatic... Read the rest of this post

0 Comments on Monday Review: NEVER MISSING NEVER FOUND by Amanda Panitch as of 7/13/2016 4:55:00 AM
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28. Review of the Day: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

InquisitorsTaleThe Inquisitor’s Tale or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
By Adam Gidwitz
Illuminated by Hatem Aly
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
ISBN: 978-0-525-42616-5
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 27th

God’s hot this year.

To be fair, God has had some fairly strong supporters for quite some time. So if I’m going to clarify that statement a tad, God’s hot in children’s literature this year. Even then, that sentence is pretty vague. Here in America there are loads of Christian book publishers out there, systematically putting out title after title after title each and every year about God, to say nothing of publishers of other religions as well. Their production hasn’t increased hugely in 2016, so why the blanket statement? A final clarification, then: God is hot in children’s books from major non-Christian publishers this year. Ahhhh. That’s better. Indeed, in a year when serious literary consideration is being heaped upon books like John Hendrix’s Miracle Man, in walks Adam Gidwitz and his game changing The Inquisitor’s Tale. Now I have read my fair share of middle grade novels for kids, and I tell you straight out that I have never read a book like this. It’s weird, and unfamiliar, and religious, and irreligious, and more fun than it has any right to be. Quite simply, Gidwitz found himself a holy dog, added in a couple proto-saints, and voila! A book that’s part superhero story, part quixotic holy quest, and part Canterbury Tales with just a whiff of intrusive narration for spice. In short, nothing you’ve encountered in all your livelong days. Bon appétit.

The dog was dead to begin with. A greyhound with a golden muzzle that was martyred in defense of a helpless baby. As various pub goers gather in the year 1242 to catch a glimpse of the king, they start telling stories about this dog that came back from the dead, its vision-prone mistress (a peasant girl named Jeanne), a young monk blessed with inhuman strength (William, son of a lord and a North African woman), and a young Jewish boy with healing capabilities (Jacob). These three very different kids have joined together in the midst of a country in upheaval. Some see them as saints, some as the devil incarnate, and before this tale is told, the King of France himself will seek their very heads. An extensive Author’s Note and Annotated Bibliography appear at the end.

If you are familiar with Mr. Gidwitz’s previous foray into middle grade literature (the Grimm series) then you know he has a penchant for giving the child reader what it wants. Which is to say, blood. Lots of it. In his previous books he took his cue from the Grimm brothers and their blood-soaked tales. Here his focus is squarely on the Middle Ages (he would thank you not to call them “The Dark Ages”), a time period that did not lack for gore. The carnage doesn’t really begin in earnest until William starts (literally) busting heads, and even then the book feels far less sanguine than Gidwitz’s other efforts. I mean, sure, dogs die and folks are burned alive, but that’s pretty tame by Adam’s previous standards. Of course, what he lacks in disembowelments he makes up for with old stand-bys like vomit and farts. Few can match the man’s acuity for disgusting descriptions. He is a master of the explicit and kids just eat that up. Not literally of course. That would be gross. As a side note, he has probably included the word “ass” more times in this book than all the works of J.M. Barrie and Roald Dahl combined. I suspect that if this book is ever challenged in schools or libraries it won’t be for the copious entrails or discussions about God, but rather because at one point the word “ass” (as it refers to a donkey) appears three times in quick, unapologetic succession. And yes, it’s hilarious when it does.

So let’s talk religious persecution, religious fundamentalism, and religious tolerance. As I write this review in 2016 and politicians bandy hate speech about without so much as a blink, I can’t think of a book written for kids more timely than this. Last year I asked a question of my readers: Can a historical children’s book contain protagonists with prejudices consistent with their time period? Mr. Gidwitz seeks to answer that question himself. His three heroes are not shining examples of religious tolerance born of no outside influence. When they escape together they find that they are VERY uncomfortable in one another’s presence. Mind you, I found William far more tolerant of Jacob than I expected (though he does admittedly condemn Judaism once in the text). His dislike of women is an interesting example of someone rejecting some but not all of the childhood lessons he learned as a monk. Yet all three kids fear one another as unknown elements and it takes time and a mutually agreed upon goal to get them from companionship to real friendship.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, religion doesn’t usually get much notice in middle grade books for kids from major publishers these days. And you certainly won’t find discussions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, as when the knight Marmeluc tries to determine precisely what it is to be Jewish. What I appreciated about this book was how Gidwitz distinguished between the kind of Christianity practiced by the peasants versus the kind practiced by the educated and rich. The peasants have no problem worshipping dogs as saints and even the local priest has a wife that everyone knows he technically isn’t supposed to have. The educated and rich then move to stamp out these localized beliefs which, let’s face it, harken back to the people’s ancestors’ paganism.

Race also comes up a bit, with William’s heritage playing a part now and then, but the real focus is reserved for the history of Christian/Jewish interactions. Indeed, in his wildly extensive Author’s Note at the end, Gidwitz makes note of the fact that race relations in Medieval Europe were very different then than today. Since it preceded the transatlantic slave trade, skin color was rare and contemporary racism remains, “the modern world’s special invention.” There will probably still be objections to the black character having the strength superpower rather than the visions or healing, but he’s also the best educated and intelligent of the three. I don’t think you can ignore that fact.

As for the writing itself, that’s what you’re paying your money for at the end of the day. Gidwitz is on fire here, making medieval history feel fresh and current. For example, when the Jongleur says that some knights are, “rich boys who’ve been to the wars . . . Not proper at all. But still rich,” that’s a character note slid slyly into the storytelling. Other lines pop out at you too. Here are some of my other favorites:

• About that Jongleur, “… he looks like the kind of child who has seen too much of life, who’s seen more than most adults. His eyes are both sharp and dead at the same time. As if he won’t miss anything, because he’s seen it all already.”
• “Jeanne’s mother’s gaze lingered on her daughter another moment, like an innkeeper waiting for the last drop of ale from the barrel tap.”
• “The lord and lady welcomed the knights warmly. Well, the lady did. Lord Bertulf just sat in his chair behind the table, like a stick of butter slowly melting.”
• “Inside her, grand castles of comprehension, models of the world as she had understood it, shivered.”
• And Gidwitz may also be the only author for children who can write a sentence that begins, “But these marginalia contradicted the text…” and get away with it.

Mind you, Gidwitz paints himself into a pretty little corner fairly early on. To rest this story almost entirely on the telling of tales in a pub, you need someone who doesn’t just know the facts of one moment or the next but who could claim to know our heroes’ interior life. So each teller comes to mention each child’s thoughts and feelings in the course of their tale. The nun in the book bears the brunt of this sin, and rather than just let that go Gidwitz continually has characters saying things like, “I want to know if I’m sitting at a table filled with wizards and mind readers.” I’m not sure if I like the degree to which Gidwitz keeps bringing this objection up, or if it detracts from the reading. What I do know is that he sort of cheats with the nun. She’s the book’s deux ex machina (or, possibly the diaboli ex machina) acting partly as an impossibility and partly as an ode to the author’s love of silver haired librarians and teachers out there with “sparkling eyes, and a knowing smile.”

Since a large portion of the story is taken up with saving books as objects, it fits that this book itself should be outfitted with all the beauties of its kind. If we drill down to the very mechanics of the book, we find ourselves admiring the subtleties of fonts. Every time a tale switches between the present day and the story being told, the font changes as well. But to do it justice, the story has been illuminated (after a fashion) by artist Hatem Aly. I have not had the opportunity to see the bulk of his work on this story. I do feel that the cover illustration of William is insufficiently gargantuan, but that’s the kind of thing they can correct in the paperback edition anyway.

Fairy tales and tales of saints. The two have far more in common than either would like to admit. Seen in that light, Gidwitz’s transition from pure unadulterated Grimm to, say, Lives of the Improbable Saints and Legends of the Improbable Saints is relatively logical. Yet here we have a man who has found a way to tie-in stories about religious figures to the anti-Semitism that is still with us to this day. At the end of his Author’s Note, Gidwitz mentions that as he finished this book, more than one hundred and forty people were killed in Paris by terrorists. He writes of Medieval Europe, “It was a time when people were redefining how they lived with the ‘other,’ with people who were different from them.” The echoes reverberate today. Says Gidwitz, “I can think of nothing sane to say about this except this book.” Sermonizers, take note.

On shelves September 27th.

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1 Comments on Review of the Day: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, last added: 7/7/2016
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29. Review: ‘Shadoweyes’ is a true transformative superhero

It’s a rare occasion that you can use words like sweet, thoughtful, and gentle to describe a science fiction superhero story taking place in a brutal, dystopian urban battleground, but thanks to Sophie Campbell’s Shadoweyes from Iron Circus Comics, that day has arrived. Set in a cluttered and decaying city of the future, Dranac, Campbell introduces […]

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30. DC Reborn Week Five– Ranking the Rebirth Books & Round Up

SupesBannerAlex Lu and Kyle Pinion round up this week's Rebirth reviews and rank the first month of releases!

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31. DC Reborn Review: GREEN LANTERNS #2 fails to reignite a flagging franchise

BannerGreen Lanterns struggles to make us care about its rookie lanterns and high-stakes

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32. DC Reborn Review: GREEN ARROW #2 Continues Percy and Schmidt’s Hot Streak

BannerGreen Arrow continues to be one of the most surprising pleasures of the Rebirth line

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33. DC Reborn Review: AQUAMAN #2 Lacks a Solid Hook

BannerThe King of the Seas needs some narrative momentum or risks becoming another forgettable take

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34. DC Reborn Review: SUPERMAN #2 enacts a perfect blend of action and sentimentality

BannerTomasi and Gleason continue to excel with the family dynamics of Superman

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35. DC Reborn Review: BATMAN #2 Unveils an Intriguing Conspiracy in Gotham

BannerKing and Finch's second outing keeps up the momentum of the first with some key reveals

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36. Review: Wandering Star, A Timeless Classic, Returns To Print

wandering star 6Dover Publications is mostly known for two things: papercraft books (including coloring books back before they were cool), and reprinting lost literary treasures, mostly in the public domain. That reprint model changed a few years ago, when Drew Ford, then an editor at Dover, started a graphic novel line, reprinting many forgotten classics from the […]

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37. Review of the Day: Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan

FreedomOverMeFreedom Over Me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life
By Ashley Bryan
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 978-1481456906
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 13th

Who gives voice to the voiceless? What are your credentials when you do so? When I was a teen I used to go into antique stores and buy old family photographs from the turn of the century. It still seems odd to me that this is allowed. I’d find the people who looked the most interesting, like they had a story to tell, and I’d take them home with me. Then I’d write something about their story, though mostly I just liked to look at them. There is a strange comfort in looking at the faces of the fashionable dead. A little twinge of momento mori mixed with the knowledge that you yourself are young (possibly) and alive (probably). It’s easy to hypothesize about a life when you can see that person’s face and watch them in their middle class Sunday best. It is far more difficult when you have no face, a hint of a name, and/or maybe just an age. Add to this the idea that the people in question lived through a man made hell-on-earth. When author/illustrator/artist Ashley Bryan acquired a collection of slave-related documents from the 1820s to the 1860s he had in his hands a wealth of untold stories. And when he chose to give these people, swallowed by history, lives and dignity and peace, he did so as only he could. With the light and laughter and beauty that only he could find in the depths of uncommon pain. Freedom Over Me is a work of bravery and sense. A way of dealing with the unimaginable, allowing kids an understanding that there is a brain, heart, and soul behind every body, alive or dead, in human history.

The date on the Fairchilds Appraisement is July 5, 1828. On it you will find a list of goods to be sold. Cows, hogs, cotton . . . and people. Eleven people, if we’re going to be precise (and we are). Most have names. One does not. Just names on a piece of paper almost 200-years-old. So Ashley Bryan, he takes those names and those people, and for the first time in centuries we get to meet them. Here is Athelia, a laundress who once carried the name Adero. On one page we hear about her life. On the next, her dreams. She remembers the village she grew up in, the stories, and the songs. And she is not alone in this. As we meet each person and learn what they do, we get a glimpse into their dreams. We hear their hopes. We wonder about their lives. We see them draw strength from one another. And in the end? The sale page sits there. The final words: “Administered to the best of our Judgment.”

FreedomOverMe1I have often said, and I say it to this day, that if there were ever a Church of Ashley Bryan, every last person who has ever met him or heard him speak would be a member. There are only a few people on this great green Earth that radiant actual uncut goodness right through their very pores. Mr. Bryan is one of those few, so when I asked at the beginning of this review what the credentials are for giving voice to the voiceless, check off that box. There are other reasons to trust him, though. A project of this sort requires a certain level of respect for the deceased. To attain that, and this may seem obvious, the author has to care. Read enough books written for kids and you get a very clear sense of those books written by folks who do not care vs. folks that do. Even then, caring’s not really enough. The writing needs to be up to speed and the art needs to be on board. And for this particular project, Ashley Bryan had a stiffer task at hand. Okay. You’ve given them full names and backgrounds and histories. What else do they need? Bryan gives these people something intangible. He gives them dreams. It’s right there in the subtitle, actually: “Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life.”

And so the book is a work of fiction. There is no amount of research that could discover Bacus or Peggy or Dora’s true tales. So when we say that Bryan is giving these people their lives back, we acknowledge that the lives he’s giving them aren’t the exact lives they led. And so we know that each person is a representative above and beyond the names on that page. Hence the occupations. Betty is every gardener. Stephen every architect. Dora every child that was born to a state of slavery and labored under it, perhaps their whole lives. And there is very little backmatter included in this book. Bryan shows the primary documents alongside a transcription of the sales. There is also an Author’s Note. Beyond that, you bring to the book what you already know about slavery, making this a title for a slightly older child readership. Bryan isn’t going to spend these pages telling you every daily injustice of slavery. Kids walk in with that knowledge already in place. What they need now is some humanity.

FreedomOverMe3Has Mr. Bryan ever done anything with slavery before? I was curious. I’ve watched Mr. Bryan’s books over the years and they are always interesting. He’s done spirituals as cut paper masterpieces. He’s originated folktales as lively and quick as their inspirational forbears. He makes puppets out of found objects that carry with them a feeling not just of dignity, but pride. But has he ever directly done a book that references slavery? So I examined his entire repertoire, from the moment he illustrated Black Boy by Richard Wright to Susan Cooper’s Jethro and the Jumbie to Ashley Bryan’s African Folktales, Uh-Huh and beyond. His interest in Africa and song and poetry knows no bounds, but never has he engaged so directly with slavery itself.

Could this have been done as anything but poetry? Or would you even call each written section poetry? I would, but I’ll be interested to see where libraries decide to shelve the book. Do you classify it as poetry or in the history section under slavery? Maybe, for all that it seems to be the size and shape of a picture book, you’d put it in your fiction collection. Wherever you put it, I am reminded, as I read this book, of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! where every lord and peasant gets a monologue from their point of view. Freedom Over Me bears more than a passing similarity to Good Masters. In both cases we have short monologues any kid could read aloud in class or on their own. They are informed by research, and their scant number of words speak to a time we’ll never really know or understand fully. And how easy it would be to turn this book into a stage play. I can see it so easily. Imagine if you turned the Author’s Note into the first monologue and Ashley Bryan his own character (behold the 10-year-old dressed up as him, mustache and all). Since the title of the book comes from the spiritual “Oh, Freedom!” you could either have the kids sing it or play it in the background. And for the ending? A kid playing the lawyer or possibly Mrs. Fairchilds or even Ashley comes out and reads the statement at the end with each person and their price and the kids step forward holding some object that defines them (clothing sewn, books read, paintings, etc.). It’s almost too easy.

FreedomOverMe2The style of the art was also interesting to me. Pen, ink, and watercolors are all Mr. Bryan (who is ninety-two years of age, as of this review) needs to render his people alive. I’ve see him indulge in a range of artistic mediums over the years. In this book, he begins with an image of the estate, an image of the slaves on that estate, and then portraits and renderings of each person, at rest or active in some way. “Peggy” is one of the first women featured, and for her portrait Ashley gives her face whorls and lines, not dissimilar to those you’d find in wood. This technique is repeated, to varying degrees, with the rest of the people in the book. First the portrait. Then an image of what they do in their daily lives or dreams. The degree of detail in each of these portraits changes a bit. Peggy, for example, is one of the most striking. The colors of her skin, and the care and attention with which each line in her face is painted, make it clear why she was selected to be first. I would have loved the other portraits to contain this level of detail, but the artist is not as consistent in this regard. Charlotte and Dora, for example, are practically line-less, a conscious choice, but a kind of pity since Peggy’s portrait sets you up to think that they’ll all look as richly detailed and textured as she.

Those old photographs I once collected may well be the only record those people left of themselves on this earth, aside from a name in a family tree and perhaps on a headstone somewhere. So much time has passed since July 5, 1828 that it is impossible to say whether or not the names on Ashley’s acquired Appraisement are remembered by their descendants. Do families still talk about Jane or Qush? Is this piece of paper the only part of them that remains in the world? It may not have been the lives they led, but Ashley Bryan does everything within his own personal capacity to keep these names and these people alive, if just for a little longer. Along the way he makes it clear to kids that slaves weren’t simply an unfortunate mass of bodies. They were architects and artists and musicians. They were good and bad and human just like the rest of us. Terry Pratchett once wrote that sin is when people treat other people as objects. Ashley treats people as people. And times being what they are, here in the 21st century I’d say that’s a pretty valuable lesson to be teaching our kids today.

On shelves September 13th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc: Interested in the other books Mr. Bryan has written or illustrated over the course of his illustrious career?  See the full list on his website here.


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38. Review: Retrofit offers tons of excellent comics by women

Bear, Bird, and Stag Were Arguing In The Forest and Other Stories by Madeline Flores Flores offers three philosophical shorter works that come together well in their examination of knowing yourself, living purposefully, understanding where you stand in the universe, seeing the potential in yourself, and lots of other good things, but without being heavy. Instead […]

0 Comments on Review: Retrofit offers tons of excellent comics by women as of 7/2/2016 1:53:00 PM
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39. Review: Retrofit offers tons of excellent comics by women

Bear, Bird, and Stag Were Arguing In The Forest and Other Stories by Madeline Flores Flores offers three philosophical shorter works that come together well in their examination of knowing yourself, living purposefully, understanding where you stand in the universe, seeing the potential in yourself, and lots of other good things, but without being heavy. Instead […]

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40. Review: Rebecca Roher’s tender family memories are a pleasing meditation on loss

For many people, the earliest experience of human loss that pierces their emotions and affects their everyday existence is the death of a grandparent, and that of a grandmother, I have found, anyway, seems to pack a particular wallop. Some grandmothers participate in a kid’s life as a kind of back-up parent, others as a […]

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41. Monday Review: THE VANISHING THRONE by Elizabeth May

Synopsis: The first book in this trilogy, The Falconer (reviewed here), was one of those surprise reads for me—as a combination of historical fantasy, faeries, and a dash of steampunk and romance, I wasn't sure I would like it. I've read a lot of... Read the rest of this post

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42. REVIEW: SNOTGIRL #1 Will Blow Your Nose Off!!!

snotgirl_lgAlex Lu takes a look at SNOTGIRL #1, the first ongoing comic from SCOTT PILGRIM writer Bryan Lee O'Malley that introduces the singular Leslie Hung on art!

1 Comments on REVIEW: SNOTGIRL #1 Will Blow Your Nose Off!!!, last added: 6/24/2016
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43. Podcorn Podcast 06/22/16 — Dive into DC Rebirth with SUPERMAN & BATMAN Audio Reviews!

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44. DC Reborn Review– Like Land and Sea, We Stand Divided on AQUAMAN #1

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45. DC Reborn Review– ACTION COMICS #958 Turns the Volume Up to Eleven in the Most Metal Superman Story Yet

ACBannerThe world has been reborn. Last month’s release of DC Universe: Rebirth #1 kicked off a new era of storytelling for the publisher.  The house that gave us Batman and Superman is looking to make up for the mistakes of the New 52 canonical reboot, reinstating old plot points that were erased from their timeline and even bringing back […]

3 Comments on DC Reborn Review– ACTION COMICS #958 Turns the Volume Up to Eleven in the Most Metal Superman Story Yet, last added: 6/23/2016
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46. DC Reborn Review– WONDER WOMAN #1 Hits a Home Run for Long-Time Fans

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3 Comments on DC Reborn Review– WONDER WOMAN #1 Hits a Home Run for Long-Time Fans, last added: 6/22/2016
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47. DC Reborn Review– THE FLASH #1 is Loaded With Visual Wizardry

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48. DC Reborn Review– DETECTIVE COMICS #935 is Definitely Beautiful, But is it Overwritten?

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1 Comments on DC Reborn Review– DETECTIVE COMICS #935 is Definitely Beautiful, But is it Overwritten?, last added: 6/23/2016
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49. DC Reborn Week Four– The Round Up and Buy Guide!

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50. DC Reborn Week Four– The Round Up and Buy Guide!

WWBannerAnother week, another round up!

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