Glass Shark

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams. Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 9781626724136.

It says something about the power of art and storytelling (and a lot about Lily Williams) that she can make a complex idea like a trophic cascade (the drastic changes in an ecosystem resulting from the disappearance of an apex predator) clear and compelling to a young audience. As she shows, even though sharks can seem scary, they are absolutely necessary to the health of the oceans. They keep their prey populations in balance which in turn keeps their food sources in balance, and so on and so on, which extends to populations on land as well. The book ends with steps ordinary people can take to protect sharks that are vulnerable to extinction, from buying sustainably caught fish to creating their own shark art.

Femme Fatale

Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan. Candlewick Press, 2016. 9780763672331.

In Depression-era New York City, young Snow’s mother dies. Her heartbroken father marries a star from the Follies who promptly sends Snow to boarding school. When her father dies in suspicious circumstances, Snow returns. After discovering the majority of the estate will go to Snow, her stepmother becomes increasingly unhinged and Snow has to flee for her life.

This is less of a retelling of Snow White than a gorgeous remix of its ideas. The magic mirror is now a stock market ticker tape, the dwarves are a gang of homeless street kids, and the glass coffin is a beautiful department store window. The illustrations are gorgeous blacks, whites, and grays with a judicious use of color that really draws the eye, and each image has a wonderful sense of motion and character.

Radical Compassion

Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness by Darryl Cunningham. Bloomsbury, 2011. 9781608192786.

After picking up Challenger Deep, I wanted to revisit one of my favorite books on mental illness, Psychiatric Tales. It was the first book by Cunningham, and was several years in the making. His art and storytelling are still developing, but his talent absolutely shines through. He writes about his experiences as a psychiatric nurse, each tale dealing with a person with a different type of mental illness — the symptoms, the effects on people’s outlook, and how their lives are changed. He especially highlights how stigma can make the experience far more difficult. His compassion and kindness tint his straightforward tellings, and then in a final chapter he talks about how he, too, dealt with mental health issues that changed his career plans. A bittersweet aspect of the book for me is that since Cunningham is in the UK, all of the people he works with are getting medical care, no matter their income or background. This is not a given for people in the US, especially for those with mental illness and dementia.

Browsing Reference

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Centenary Edition, Revised by Ivor H. Evans. Harper & Row, 1981. 0060149035.

Brewer’s Dictionary of 20th Century Phrase and Fable. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991. 0395616492.

Sarah: There was a small bookcase in the dining room when I grew up…
Gene: This is another of those “when Sarah was growing up” books?
S: Uh huh. One of the things my dad would do when my brother and I asked kid questions during mealtimes is he’d say, “Let’s find out!” and grab a book off a shelf. And we’d look up the answer. We had the compact Oxford English Dictionary and this. I’m sure there were other books, but those are the two I remember. That’s a really happy memory for me, approaching questions like that. I hope I can pay that forward.
G: That’s nice.
S: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is one of those things for when you read a phrase or hear a phrase and need to know what it means and where it’s from. Later in life I learned that some people look down their nose at Brewer’s idea of phrase origins, so maybe it isn’t super-reliable? I have two editions, one is the one I grew up with and the other is more modern, called 20th Century Phrase and Fable. The old one leans more towards classical stuff.
G: So what do you look up in this?
S: Someone says, “That’s like the Sword of Damocles,” and you look it up to find up what it means.
G: (reading) “impending evil or danger”
S: And then it tells you the story of Damocles so you get the meaning and the context. This is good when you’re a kid and don’t know what anything means. (laughs) Because this is not individual words, you can’t get this from a dictionary. There might be an entry based on a word sometimes, though, like here’s a section on “deaf:” deaf as an adder, deaf as a beetle, deaf as a post, deaf as a white cat, none so deaf as those who won’t hear.
G: So they have phrases with the word deaf, and fables.
Continue reading “Browsing Reference”

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, illustrations by Brendan Shusterman. HarperCollins, 2015. 9780061134111.

As a book blogger, I hope I can bring you some value in my writing: helping you find a hidden gem or highlighting the best new stuff. So it feels weird to write about a book you probably already know is really good. The book, published three years ago, is widely-acclaimed, by a well-loved YA author, and won the National Book Award. It’s not new and it’s not hidden, but it is a gem. Challenger Deep ended up on my phone when I was taking screenshots of my library’s eBook platform for a presentation and needed to borrow a book. Before I knew it I was completely sucked in.

The chapters are short and propel you along quickly through two parallel stories. In one, fifteen-year-old Caden is beginning to suspect something might be wrong, but he can’t articulate what or why to his family. Strange ideas keep nagging at him, he feels connected in some profound way to everyone and everything, and he’s afraid that a kid at school wants to kill him. These thoughts become more persistent, the illusions and emotions become more heightened, and he develops physical symptoms: his artwork becomes abstract and uncontrolled (the art in the book is drawn by the author’s son, who is the inspiration for the book), he walks for hours and hours every day, and he never wants to eat. In the other story Caden is aboard a pirate ship crewed by teens with similar problems. Reality warps from moment to moment and analogy, metaphor, and even puns become real as the ship heads for the depths of the Marianas Trench.

The spoiler/not spoiler (the information is on the book jacket and in every review) is that Caden is struggling through the onset of schizophrenia. The chapters on the ship explore his experience through metaphor and may be the reality that Caden is living at his lowest points. The chapters set in real life show Caden’s perspective as he copes as best he can while his friends and family are frightened and bewildered by the changes in his behavior. The chapters begin to overlap as Caden responds to treatment, and the “real life” chapters show him regaining his perspective and sense of humor. My favorite character was the ship’s figurehead/fellow patient who forms a deep connection with Caden and gives him advice about his future. As Caden himself points out, people’s experiences with schizophrenia and its treatment are very individual: this is only one story and can only really show one experience. But I think it’s invaluable for humanizing this experience.

Croooooow! (Wise cracker)

Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner, photographs by Andy Comins, art by Guido de Filippo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 9780544416192.

Crows are so cool! Crow Smarts follows current research in the field on New Caledonian crows and puts it in context with other animal behavior, theories about the brain, and the complexities of animal use of tools. There’s also the funny story of a kid crow learning from its parent how to use a stick to get a juicy grub, as observed by the author. The book is entertaining, engaging, and I learned a lot.

I had heard bits and pieces about crow intelligence, but I had sort of lumped all of them together. Turns out New Caledonian crows are unique even among their clever relatives: they not only use tools, they design tools by carefully snipping twigs and pandan leaves and are able to solve multi-part puzzles like using one tool to retrieve another tool to grab a treat, and bending a piece of wire into a hook to pull up a tiny bucket. (There’s a pretty amusing chapter on some captive New Caledonian crows in a behavior lab in Oxford going through different tests of reasoning and problem solving. They are more successful than human children!) New Caledonian crows have straighter beaks (so it’s easier to hold tools), forward-facing eyes (better depth perception for tools), and no competition for the grubs that burrow in tree trunks (yum).

There’s great information on whether or not big brains are evolutionarily advantageous (only sometimes, as they require a lot of extra food), the overlap in brain processing for tool use and language use, and how both humans and crows live socially and are flexible in what they eat, which encourages cooperation and may have evolved at the same time as tool use.

Every Scientists in the Field book includes the background of a scientist that will broaden your idea of who can go into science fields. This one has a scientist who didn’t start college until he was 30, one who is also an artist and sketches in his field notes (he contributed illustrations for the book), and a local New Caledonian grandfather who captures and re-releases the crows, and is learning about their behavior along with the scientists.

Let’s cheat a bit, and flip to the end of the book: Turner’s bibliography is a long list of articles from peer-reviewed science journals and not, as is the case in many science books for kids, a list of other science books for kids.

Travels of a Brooklyn Boy

Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-the-Biggest Cities in the World by Todd Barry. Gallery Books, 2017. 9781501117428.

Sarah: I recently read The Not-Quite States of America, too, so this is my year for “Not Quite” books. Todd Barry is a working comedian, really well established. I wouldn’t say he can work wherever he wants, but he does mention several times in the book that he opened for Louie CK at Madison Square Garden.
G: Right. He’s not super famous, but he’s been in a lot of movies.
S: People know him.
G: You would recognize him instantly. But it feels like he’s a comedian’s comedian.
S: I can see that.
G: One of the things people kept saying to him that he interpreted as “this show may not go well” was, “I’m a little worried you’re too smart for this audience.”
S: Yes. And he might be a little to smart for any audience. This is about his year of going to secondary markets, as he calls them. Not the big towns, but the next ones down or the college towns, partly because he likes playing those venues but also because he likes finding indie coffee shops…
G: Coffee shops that make him feel like he’s still in Brooklyn.
S: Yes! Which is kind of hilarious. He lives in Brooklyn and tries to have the same experience everywhere. Continue reading “Travels of a Brooklyn Boy”