Review: Bluffton by Matt Phelan

Bluffton by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press
Publish date: July 23, 2013
obtained on NetGalley

Because I received this as an electronic advanced review copy via NetGalley, I read it on my iPad. I can’t wait to get my hands on a print copy not only to see the illustrations in color, but also to see the nuanced details that just can’t be replicated electronically. That being said – read it however you can get your hands on it.

This delightful graphic novel tells the story of a boy named Henry who lives in Muskegon, Michigan. Life was going along “as usual” until the summer of 1908, “The summer they arrived” (p. 2). Henry befriends a young Buster Keaton who arrived with his family and a group of Vaudeville Actors for the summer months. They return each summer to The Actor’s Colony at Bluffton, founded by Buster’s father Joe Keaton. This book is part historical fiction and part coming of age as the boys play baseball, fish for perch, and execute practical jokes carefully planned by Buster.

I love that a book that features actors – who depend largely on visual – using primarily illustrations. Phelan uses the graphic novel format to enhance the story, not detract from it. He uses just enough text to fill in gaps, but the rest of the story is told on the faces of the characters, the settings, and actions. I think what I’m looking most forward to about reading this in print form is the opportunity to slow down and really read the illustrations. I have a tendency to not read graphic novels slowly enough – this book made me want to go slower.

Matt Phelan’s Website: http://www.mattphelan.com/
Candlewick Publisher Page for Bluffton – there is a link to a flyer about the book including an interview with Matt Phelan

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Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

I came across this book during a conversation with my colleague and friend Jon Wargo (@wargojon). Jon and I have both taught a course titled “Issues of Diversity in Children’s and Adolescent Literature” at Michigan State University in the College of Education. Jon is a fantastic teacher educator who does work around gender and sexuality in education (among other topics). He and I have had a number of conversations about labels, in particular the ways that he sees the “alphabet soup” of LGBTQ can sometimes be prohibitive in terms of how we think of ourselves and others.

As Jon prepares to teach a new section of TE448 focused on gender and sexuality, Bill Konigsberg‘s new book Openly Straight was suggested to him as a possible title over on child_lit (a fabulous list serv). Conveniently, I had downloaded it from NetGalley the day before and so I could start reading it immediately. I read it in 2 days (maybe 3), it was one that I didn’t want to put down because I became so invested in the characters.

Here are some initial thoughts about Openly Straight (no spoilers):

  • the character development of Rafe. I LOVE character, it is my favorite literary element hands down. Rafe is complex and interesting. He is consistent enough that as a reader I felt like I knew him; but also changed and grew as the book went on in very believable ways.
  • This book really made me think about labels; something that Jon has made me more aware of as we have worked together. I finished the book 3 days ago and I’m still thinking about how labels impact our perceptions of others as well as ourselves. When I teach children’s literature, I bring up these concepts to students and we discuss them in terms of representations in books. The fact is – the are SUPER complex and multi-layered. This book reminded me of that in terms of my own self and also in terms of societal labels.
  • This book wasn’t all neat and tidy. There were times when I was uncomfortable because the characters were – I love this because it is real.
  • I strive to have students in my classes read books that can serve as both mirrors and windows. This book did that for me. It helped me not only think about friendships, parenting, gender, and relationships (all in mirror ways); but it also helped me to think about “window” experiences of out students, single-gendered school experiences, and frankly, male perspectives.

I’m still “chewing” on this book. I want to read it again. Jon is reading it as well, as are some other friends and I can not wait to talk with others about it. If you’ve read it, please share your thoughts, ideas and ponderings…

Openly Straight

Drama by Rain Telgemeier

I read this on NetGalley earlier this summer and loved it, so many great things including the fact that it’s about the drama kids who are not on stage. My 12-year-old daughter (and huge fan of SMILE) loved it as well. Her favorite part? “There were all kinds of kids and friends and people. Some girls liked boys, some boys liked girls, and some boys liked boys. That isn’t in books enough.”

One of the things that I love about Raina’s writing is how she captures the complexity of middle school kids, not an easy task! Check out author Raina Telgemeier at her website GoRaina.com and on twitter at @goraina. She is running a fantastic contest to celebrate the release of the book (specifics are here).

Happy (belated) Book Birthday to Drama!

See You At Harry’s

This past saturday I read See you At Harry’s by Jo Knowles. I noticed some buzz about this book over on twitter and requested to review it on NetGalley. I was not disappointed. I started Saturday morning and finished it this evening. Before dinner.

12-year-old Fern narrates this coming-of-age, contemporary realistic fiction story. She tells readers of her adventures, misadventures, growing pains and life growing up in a family who owns a restaurant. For me, it’s her voice makes this story. Fern often feels as if she isn’t heard, that she doesn’t always have a voice (though she surprises herself a few times). What Knowles has done so masterfully is to write Fern’s voice in an honest, believable way. To me, this is a fine line (I’m sure this is due in part to the fact that I currently live with a middle school girl).

Fern’s tales of trying to navigate life with family and friends transcends age, family structure and even birth order. She is often a parent to her youngest brother Charlie, is the friend and confidant of older brother Holden, and sometimes feels like she has two mothers when her oldest sister Sara tries to “help”. Fern’s friends Ran and Cassie are the kinds of friends I long for my own children to have; loyal, supportive, and caring. When unexpected tragedy strikes, Fern and her family struggle together to make sense of life. Suddenly Ran’s mantra, “all will be well”, that has always calmed Fern is in jeopardy.

I’m not going to say a whole lot more about the plot because it is impossible to do so without spoilers. However, there are phrases that will make you laugh, others times you will hold your breath, and plot turns that will surprise you – tears will be involved, so be sure to have kleenex.

My two favorite parts of this book:

  1. All of the children in Fern’s family are named for characters from books.
  2. The opening line of the book, “The very best day of my life, I threw up four times and had a fever of 103 degrees.”

Check out the following links for more information: