Review: Copper by Kazu Kibuishi

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In our middle school library, which is heavily frequented by boys, there are a few authors whose books never seem to touch the shelves before being checked out again. Chief among them are graphic novelists Jeff Smith (the Bone series), Doug TenNapel (Cardboard, Bad Island), and Kazu Kibuishi (the Amulet series).

I’m always hoping these guys will release another dang book — so when I realized that I’d somehow missed Kibuishi’s 2010 collection of his webcomic Copper, published by Scholastic, I ordered it right away.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this slim volume with a cute boy and his neurotic-looking but equally cute dog on the cover. What I got was a fantastic collection of short stories and one-page vignettes that demanded more time to read than I’d planned.

Copper is a boy — or is he a man, rendered small to reflect his childlike spirit? — whose sole companion is his dog, Fred. Copper is brave in a a reckless sort of way, and he is also recklessly optimistic. He wants to believe that crazy things are possible. Fred is cautious, worried, and battling an existential crisis. Copper wants to go check things out, and Fred wants to wait and see. The bright-eyed boy tends to get his way, and the result is a quiltwork of adventure and misadventure, both real and imagined.

I tried to read it as a kid and found myself thinking about Calvin and Hobbes, especially in the scenes where Copper and Fred dream themselves into wild escapades. (They seem to have plenty of wild waking adventures as well, and I spent a good portion of this book wondering what was real and what was dream.) If I follow that line of thought, Copper is a grown-up Calvin who has absorbed the best of his tiger friend’s philosophical maturity… and Fred is Hobbes crossed with a healthy dose of Eeyore.

Reading it as an adult, I was drawn in by the surprising depth of emotion captured in the short pieces. Copper often seems chipper and carefree, but his dreams are haunted by a sad girl trapped in a bubble, and his nights and days are painted over a backdrop of loneliness and a yearning for something more. Fred, meanwhile, is wrestling with his sense of his own mortality and his fears that no one cares enough to even notice him. Is Copper’s audacity really a frantic attempt to get to an adult life he fears he’ll never have? Is Fred’s reticence really a half-conscious attempt to slow the march of time? A better mainstream cartoon for comparison might be Family Guy, with its moral underpinning in the forms of canine Brian Griffin.

What you’re wondering is, is this book right for middle school guys (or high school guys, or….)? I submit that the answer is yes. It isn’t necessarily written “for” my rampaging hoards of eleven-year-old boys, but they’ll pick it up and they’ll read it. They won’t understand all of it — they’ll possibly miss the deep stuff entirely as they rush to soak in the gorgeous imagery and daring exploits. But I think seeds will be planted, and if they return to Copper as an older teen, as a man, as fathers — why, I think they’ll find that it’s a pretty dang literary work of sequential art.

(Speaking of art: hands-on types will love Kibuishi’s “behind the scenes” section at the end of the book. It was accessible, entertaining, and illuminating — a great resource for the budding graphic artist.)

Review cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Posting

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Well, if you don’t have the password to read my protected posts, you’re probably thinking this is about the most boring blog you’ve ever seen, huh.

Usually I get bored and write (or do other online time-wasting) a lot during the summer, but this summer the opportunity for boredom never really hit me. I was really busy with a lot of different stuff, and thought several times of things I ought to be writing, but never did. In fact, I even slacked off on my weekly reading updates. Oops. 

If you are not a scary creeper person — if I know you in real life, or you’re a mom who likes reading about other peoples’ families, etc. — you can leave a comment (making sure to include your email, which won’t be published or shared) and I’ll happily send you the password to the other posts. They’re mostly just pictures of my little boy and recaps of things we’ve done, and I would love to share them with everyone, but you know how things are these days. I’m trying to save him some privacy. 

And if you have any ideas of something you’d like me to write about, comment with that, too. I tend to do well with assignments… 

Building a Better Yearbook

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Last year I took over as the yearbook advisor (adviser? This is one of these words whose ambiguous spelling haunts me) for our middle school.

I love graphic design and bookmaking and yearbooks. I do. And I was once the editor of our school yearbook — our middle school yearbook, when I was in eighth grade. (I started to do yearbook in high school, but the story of that disaster is a whole blog post unto itself.) So sure. Definitely qualified.

Well… let’s just say that we ended the year with a yearbook. And honestly, it’s not bad. Some people even thought it was good. I love the cover art, I love that there are few enough mistakes that no one has brought any to my attention yet (I’m not so crazy as to assume there really aren’t any), and I love that we got it done on deadline.

But there are so, SO many things that I would have done differently. Fortunately I get that chance this year. Some of my thoughts as I forge ahead:

  1. I still am not sure what to do about my staff, but at least I have my applications in hand. I have too many good 8th graders applying and too few good 7th graders, too many girls and too few boys. I can take them all and have an enormous staff; I can cut some excellent applicants in favor of a smaller, more manageable group. I haven’t decided and I’ve had months to do so. Sigh.
  2. I’m not going to ask the staff about the theme. I know what our theme is going to be, I know approximately what the yearbook is going to look like, and I’m not interested in reopening a yearlong debate with fourteen-year-old girls. They’ll still have creative control of their own pages, within reason, but I’m seizing creative control of the cover, dividers, etc.. Someone may complain now, but they’ll thank me in May.
  3. REALLY hoping I can have my yearbook staff at least 1-2 times a week during Advisory… please oh please… will make such a big difference in terms of communication and organization.
  4. I want to highlight some of the previously overlooked groups and activities in the school. There’s a lot going on that gets skipped in the yearbook due to other, “bigger” organizations and lack of pages. But I think I can address that this year.
  5. I need to figure out how to teach rudimentary design to really young designers — specifically the idea of working off a grid instead of plopping down pictures willy-nilly. Last year, I was really in the “let’s just get it done” frame of mind. This year, I want to get it done well. I want them to have learned something by the time they finish it. I want them to have designed something that they’ll be proud of when they graduate high school.
  6. Definitely going to be more conscious of and deliberate about photography. I’m going to do some direct instruction on photography, and now that I’ve unraveled the mystery of the yearbook cameras we’ll have much better equipment. Last year’s photography was a fiasco. This year, I’m going to be proactive and protective.

Speaking of photography! We have one big D-SLR with some good lenses that will probably rarely be in anyone’s hands but my own. Then we have a set of Nikon CoolPix cameras that are sturdy and surprisingly good. I found the Nikon interface a little confusing, so I took the newest one with me on a family vacation to master it before trying to teach its use to students. I’ll tell you what; for a smaller digital camera without the ability to swap out lenses, the CoolPix was pretty impressive! I loved playing with the epic (yes, epic) zoom capabilities; when other people reached for binoculars to spy on distant sea lions, I grabbed my camera instead.

Here’s an example. Check out this sunset photograph I took on August 7 in Bandon, Oregon:

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You may not realize it, but there’s a boat in that picture. Here, I’ll circle it for you:

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See it yet? You can click on the photograph to enlarge it, if that will help.

Anyone who has ever tried to photograph the moon knows that objects appear much smaller through a camera lens. I could see that boat with the naked eye, but it certainly wasn’t clear — just an obviously manmade object, moving slowly along the horizon. I decided to use my camera to get a closer look.

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From this vantage, I had about as much detail of the boat in my camera as I did with just my eyes. So I zoomed in closer. (By the way, none of these pictures are cropped or zoomed in after I took them. They are original files straight from the camera.)

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I love this picture, but I knew I could see more because I hadn’t even started to play with digital telephoto yet.

I kept zooming and got this:

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Look at the detail, kids. Look at that. Just look at it. Wow.

And the thing is, I think I could have zoomed in until I saw the people on the boat, if I’d had a tripod. The problem with super duper zoom is that you can’t keep the subject in your viewfinder without steadying the camera, and in this case I had the added problem of a drifting subject. This is one of several different shots I took, each with the boat careening out of view, except this one.

So yeah. I’m pretty happy with these cameras. I think we can do some really good work with them this year. I’m especially looking forward to some good sports and performing arts photography.

And no, Nikon didn’t tell me to write this. But if someone from Nikon reads this and wants to adopt my yearbook staff and give us new gear, I’d be delighted to review it. ;)

Anyway, wish me luck with my yearbook staff and with doing a good job with yearbook on top of my other responsibilities. This is my year when I’m going to kick things up a notch, or at least when I’m going to try. Lots of ideas, lots of blank slates…. whee!

 

Review: Dangerous by Shannon Hale

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8585924(Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire)

When you think of authors who write “books for guys,” the name Shannon Hale probably does not come to mind. Better known for her more feminine offerings (Princess Academy, Goose Girl, Ever After High),  Hale is one of the big names in the middle grade to YA fantasy market. But her latest book, Dangerous, is a departure from the land of fairy tale and into a world in which Joss Whedon and Michael Bay would find themselves at home.

The protagonist of Dangerous is Maisie Danger Brown — yep, Danger is literally her middle name — the only child of a pair of eccentric scientists. Despite having been born with only one arm, Maisie dreams of being an astronaut and is elated when she wins a scholarship to an elite space camp run by a goofy, “mad scientist” character. It quickly (I’ll come back to that) becomes clear that there is more going on than teen education at the space camp. Maisie and her companions end up accidentally absorbing alien technology, develop superhuman abilities, and stumble into their own version of a Fantastic Four comic book.

Dangerous is a casserole of “team of superhero” stories with a bit of an Ender’s Game aftertaste. The bulk of the book deals with the kids being pursued by various agencies (commercial, scientific, political) who want to harness their superpowers for their own purposes. Maisie, who is scientifically brilliant but who has little experience with other people her own age, finds herself trying to navigate the tricky waters of friendship, destructive peers, romance, betrayal, and sacrifice at the same time that alien technology uses her mind and body as a playground. In the end, as is expected in this sort of story, the fate of the world is in her one hand.

This novel is populated with interesting characters of both genders and several ethnicities. One of my favorites is Dr. Dragon Barnes (yes, Danger and Dragon; Hale was clearly having fun here) who works for the “mad scientist” and whose devotion to her, and later Maisie, is truly touching. Plucked from a group home into adventures with extraterrestrial technology, he provides wisdom and a parental sort of love while Maisie’s own parents are out of the picture. (Maisie’s parents are fun characters, too, although as an adult reader I wished they had been a bit more fleshed out.) There’s an odd dynamic between Maisie and her male best friend, Luther, that will probably irritate many readers but is an excellent strike for those who believe that girls and boys can, absolutely, be Just Friends. Most of the other kids in the book are a little one-dimensional, but since they (spoiler alert) seem to exist mostly as filler and/or cannon fodder, that didn’t strike me as much of an issue.

The best part of this book, in a lot of ways, is Wilder. He’s a formidable character with complicated motivations, mysterious and alluring and funny and powerful and utterly untrustworthy. Up until the very end of the book it’s near impossible to decide whether he belongs in the Justice League or the Legion of Doom. His emotional ties pull him in two different directions, and ultimately (from an adult perspective, anyway) the question of how his story will eventually end is much more interesting than the requisite-to-YA-books-with-female-protagonists romance between him and Maisie.

Earlier, I mentioned how quickly the gist of the plot solidified. If I have a criticism of this book, it is about the pacing. Obviously, the important part of the story occurs after the superpowers are acquired — but when weeks of the long-anticipated space camp are zipped through in a matter of paragraphs, I find myself disoriented and struggling to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In Ender’s Game, we understand the characters and their motivations better for having read chapters full of practices, tests, and dormitory skirmishes. Dangerous fast-forwards through all of that, and I missed it.

Many reviews of this book focus on the thinness of some characters and the plot holes left after, I presume, paring the book down to its essential comic book plot line. I agree that Dangerous leaves something to be desired for the adult reader, but as a book written for young teens, I think it’s very successful. And although the protagonist is a girl who suffers the misfortune of losing her heart, the violence, action, intrigue, and technology will captivate male readers. Fans of The Avengers and X-Men will find plenty to enjoy in this novel.