Review: DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD by Jennifer Mason-Black

Devil and the BluebirdBluesman Robert Johnson wasn’t the only musician to go down to the crossroads and make a deal with the devil. In Jennifer Mason-Black’s Devil and the Bluebird, 17-year-old Blue Riley takes her guitar and meets up with the red-haired woman in the red dress. Blue promises her soul for a chance to find her missing sister.

This sets Blue on a journey across America, alone, where she discovers the darkness awaiting young people living on their own, homeless and without means. She learns about human traffickers, shelters for abused women and children, families who reject transgender children, and those twisted individuals who simply enjoy harming others. Through all the ghosts and demons, Blue’s guitar and her musical instincts give her insights into when and who to trust.

The strengths of Devil and the Bluebird include a countdown aspect that drives the narrative hard, and the edgy twang of Mason-Black’s narrative voice. Some of her characters are unforgettably evil, while others are sympathetic as they struggle to decide what to risk and whether to be generous. Although this book is marketed as YA, it defies and transcends that categorization.

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Review: FUTURE SHOCK by Elizabeth Briggs

Future ShockElena Martinez remembers everything, but that doesn’t help her much. Her mother is dead, and her father is in prison. She lives in a variety of foster homes. Her tattoos might be a hint that she is tough and fearless.

When Elena and four other teens with hard lives are recruited for a mysterious corporate time travel mission, she has nothing to lose. If the group returns successfully, they will be richly rewarded. If they fail, oh well—just some more foster kids who didn’t make it to adulthood.

The mission is to travel ten years into the future, spend one day, and return to tell the Aether corporation about everything the kids see and experience. Will Elena’s perfect memory work if she is remembering the future? Is the Aether corporation’s mission as safe as promised?

Future Shock is a fast-paced adventure with memorable characters, plot twists and cliff-hangers, and cool speculation about gadgets and daily life in the relatively near future. This page-turner by Elizabeth Briggs gives us the first in a new series featuring a psychological intrigue and a gritty heroine.

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Review: THE MONKEES, Head, AND THE 60s by Peter Mills

monkees-book-coverBefore we get into this book, maybe we should consider the question “What is / Who are The Monkees?”

One way to answer the question is that The Monkees are four musician-actors: Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, and Davy Jones. Each band member was an accomplished musician and/or actor before becoming a Monkee. Micky Dolenz was a successful television actor. Davy Jones was a Tony Award-winning actor/singer. Michael Nesmith was a recording artist who wrote Linda Ronstadt’s hit record “Different Drum.” Peter Tork was a working musician in the folk scene and a close friend of Stephen Stills.

Another way to answer the question is that “The Monkees” was a television show that ran for two seasons but has continued to play in syndication for almost fifty years. Dolenz, Tork, Nesmith, and Jones played characters with their own names, and the plots revolved around their work as a band and how it kept being interrupted by a variety of distractions. The show was known for an instantly recognizable theme song, wacky plots, solid comedic performances, and catchy musical sequences. “The Monkees” was in many ways a pioneering example of how to merge music and video for mass audiences. (It’s no surprise that Michael Nesmith was eventually one of the brains behind MTV.)

Or we can look at The Monkees as a recording phenomenon. The Monkees have released numerous albums and many hit singles, mostly in the late 1960s, but their most recent album Good Times! was a top-20 Billboard release in the summer of 2016. On their first two albums, The Monkees did not play their own instruments. The vaunted Wrecking Crew and other studio musicians laid down the instrumental tracks while The Monkees provided lead vocals and some harmonies. For their third album, Headquarters, The Monkees insisted on playing their own instruments. From that point forward, Monkees albums used a mix of studio musicians and the Monkees themselves playing instruments, which is pretty much what every other recording act of the time did too, including The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

The Monkees can also be considered as a unique show business phenomenon. Yes, the four members were cast to play a band in a television show that used catchy songs as a cross-media marketing strategy, but they actually became a version of the band they played on television. The show ended decades ago, but various incarnations of The Monkees are still touring and making new music. They began as employees required to play themselves in scripts written by others; however, their personalities were so strong that when the show ended they could continue to be themselves as individuals and as Monkees whenever that suited them.


Here is my copy of the first Monkees album, signed by Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith.

Although I’ve tried to be objective here, I’ll admit I’m a long-time fan. Although others are more fanatical, the first album I owned was that first Monkees album. I had a Monkees lunch box and trading cards. I’ve met Mike and Micky, and they signed an album cover for me. I took my four-year-old daughter to a Davy Jones concert. I’ve followed everything they’ve ever done.

I understand that it can be hard to take the Monkees seriously. After all, they were built for fun. But as time went along, their catchy pop tunes made room for more sophisticated music, and their skills as actors led to the 1968 film Head, a movie that is symbolic, abstract, visually challenging, musically interesting, and different from anything else I’ve ever seen.

British author Peter Mills makes Head the critical focus of his new book The Monkees, Head, and the 60s. Mills understands The Monkees extremely well, and he does a great job of explaining how their recording, visual, and live performance careers overlap and support each other, even to this day.

Delving into Head is an unenviable task for a critic. To be honest, some of the explication of the film and soundtrack makes for labored reading, but it’s a complex subject. To be even more honest, the book’s title promises a little more than it delivers. Yes, it’s thorough on the band and the movie, but it doesn’t illuminate the entire decade of the 1960s. In fairness, Mills does an excellent job of explaining how The Monkees went from being a popular culture phenomenon to a platform for criticizing popular culture. The book makes clear that The Monkees had important things to say about war, television, fandom, money, and more.

If you’re interested in The Monkees or pop culture, you should get your hands on this book.

Before closing, let me make my case for The Monkees being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They clearly have enough hits, so what’s the holdup? The Monkees are criticized for not playing their own instruments on their records, and for being a manufactured band created in a casting call rather than one that sprang up organically from neighborhood garages.

Let’s break that down a bit. While it’s true that The Monkees did not play instruments on their first two albums, that was not unusual for the time. The Byrds, for example, did not play their own instruments on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and other records. The Beach Boys did not play their own instruments on “Good Vibrations” and many other hits. Both bands are in the Hall of Fame. The use of session musicians was the business model of the time. Studio time is expensive, and tracks could be laid down more efficiently with professional session musicians. The Monkees, however, took the accusations of inauthenticity personally and insisted that their third album, Headquarters, be 100% performed by them. Their next album was also mostly them. After that, they had more freedom, and they played on their own albums but also used session musicians for some tracks.

It’s also true that The Monkees came together in sort of a test tube. They met each other not as working musicians coming together with a common vision of music they wanted to make but as actor-musicians cast in a television series. But they went far beyond simply playing their roles. They became The Monkees and continued to make music after the series ended. Nothing like that happened with The Partridge Family, not to mention The New Monkees, a failed attempt to recreate the Monkee magic.

I could write about The Monkees for a long time, and I’m happy to engage in discussions about them here. For now though, I hope you’ll watch Head (available below or on Youtube) and then delve into this new Peter Mills book!

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Quick Reviews of Seven 2016 MG/YA Books

Here are a few titles that I’ve enjoyed recently. Those most likely to appeal to older students are near the top, with those geared toward younger readers toward the end.

The Memory of ThingsThe Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

“It’s like I’m here, solid, but I’m not connected to anything. I’m completely untethered.”

Amid the chaos of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Kyle and other New Yorkers are fleeing the area around the World Trade Center when he thinks he sees enormous wings in his peripheral vision. When he turns back to quickly investigate, he finds a disoriented girl coated in ash wearing a pair of enormous wings. He takes her to the apartment he shares with his father, a New York City police officer, and his uncle, a disabled New York City police officer. When Kyle asks the girl for her name, she has no answer and no memory.

Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things is a completely satisfying novel, but more significantly, it’s an important book. Kyle’s narration reveals a young man trying to keep it together in unprecedented circumstances. His voice alternates with the girl’s awakening perceptions delivered in verse. This puts those of us who remember 9/11 right back in the strangeness of those first days after the attack, and gives those who are too young to remember a feeling for that period.

The Memory of Things is a book about loss, memory, love, and hope, and reminds us that even in the darkest days there are people whose impulse is to help those around them.

“How everyone was terrified but calm.”
His voice caught.

“Everyone was helping everyone,” he said.

Thanks for the TroubleThanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach

I can’t remember a book that starts with such an engaging voice as Thanks for the Trouble. The plot set-up is also compelling. A boy and girl meet in the lobby of a posh San Francisco hotel. Zelda appears to be sad, although she has a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills. Parker is a thief who is unable to speak. And one of them might be immortal. So there you go. This book is funny, quirky, surprising, and wise with traces of John Green, Jennifer Niven, Matthew Quick, and Anne Rice.

I somehow missed author Tommy Wallach’s first book, We All Looked Up, but I’ll be into that one soon with the hope that it’s as satisfying as Thanks for the Trouble.

Bleeding EarthBleeding Earth by Kaitlin Ward

Blood is oozing from the earth. No one knows why it’s happening or if it will end. As Lea, her friends, her girlfriend, her parents, and her community deal with the rising blood, the rest of the planet is also facing with what may well be the “bloodpocalypse.” Gory and violent, Bleeding Earth is not for the squeamish, but it delivers suspense, authentic relationships, and a premise that evokes Poe, Macbeth, Revelations, and The Stand. My favorite sentence: “I just like the outdoors, and blood or not, it feels good to be away from my house.”

Learning to Swear in AmericaLearning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

Yuri is a 17-year old Russian physics genius brought to Pasadena, California to help the United States government figure out what to do about a massive asteroid expected to decimate the Los Angeles area in seventeen days.

Yuri can do the math involved in solving the problem, but navigating the California suburban social scene is a little trickier. He’s a scientist. He’s Russian. He’s a lot smarter than everyone else. And the fate of the world is in his hands.

Learning to Swear in America is fast-paced, entertaining, and sure to especially satisfy readers who like science and math. I picture this being the favorite YA fiction book of kids on scholastic bowl.

The Bitter Side of SweetThe Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

Amadou and Seydou are two young Malian brothers enslaved on a cacao farm on Africa’s Ivory Coast, the origin of much of the world’s chocolate trade. When another kidnapped worker arrives, the first girl among the enslaved children, her “wildcat” tendencies challenge the overseers and lead to horrific consequences for the children.

Although clearly written for younger readers, author Tara Sullivan masterfully conveys the brutality of the children’s situation without being graphic. Terrible things happen to the main characters, but much of it happens “off stage,” which makes The Bitter Side of Sweet no less dramatic but a little more palatable. The novel reads like an adventure story with cliffhangers, near-misses, and chases, but all of it is against the backdrop of an international travesty.

Readers of all ages will come away with an understanding of what child slavery is like in Africa and why much of the world’s cocoa trade is dependent on the harsh treatment of its workers, many of them children.

Still a Work in ProgressStill a Work in Progress by Jo Knowles

Still A Work in Progress, the seventh novel from Jo Knowles, begins with Noah and his middle school crowd caught up in friendship, families, who-likes-who, and smelly stuff. It’s all charming in a Wonder Years kind of way. But after a mention or two of the Thing That Happened, we know that all is not right and something is lurking.

Noah’s older sister Emma is militantly vegan. Their parents tread lightly where Emma’s eating is concerned. Noah has no choice but to go along, but his mind is mostly on other things. A girl seems to like him. One of his friends is acting weird. Another friend suddenly has a girlfriend. Curly, his school’s hairless mascot cat is in trouble for catching mice and displaying the carnage.

I’m treading dangerously close to spoilers here. By the time Still A Work in Progress delivers its poignant conclusion, we’re left with important lessons about silent illnesses, the power of addictions, and the importance of supporting not only those with devastating conditions but also their siblings and other family members.

Jo Knowles is a treasure among YA/MG authors. She consistently writes important, satisfying books that explore the tricky balancing act of adolescence. Each of her books reminds readers that perfection is an impossible standard, but if we reach out to those experiencing tough times, together we can get to higher ground, to places where, as Noah says, “We’re all relieved to be laughing together again. It doesn’t matter why.”

GhostsGhosts by Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier aimed high this time and ended up creating a graphic novel masterpiece.

Catrina’s family moves to a new town where the air will be healthier for her sister, a cystic fibrosis patient. This town is passionate about its ghosts, which unnerves Catrina but is actually kind of a comfort to her sister. These are not zombie ghosts; they are spirits of the departed. Take a look at the cover. You will see the different attitudes in the sisters’ faces as they confront the ghosts.

Ghosts masterfully shows how graphic novels can use the conventions of comics to explore profound issues and render them accessible to young readers.

Thank you for reading. Your comments are always welcome.

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Today in Cubs-Mania

Wrigley Field:  August 16, 2016.  (Photo by Abby Anderson)

Wrigley Field: August 16, 2016. (Photo by Abby Anderson)

As one who lives in perpetual Cubs-mania, I should have been ready for this. I can’t focus. I can’t concentrate. Today I can only think about a baseball game that will be played later tonight. And I’m not alone.

What I like best about this postseason is seeing and hearing Cubbie nation come alive. I love seeing people, buildings, and homes decked out in Cubs logos and W flags and emblems. Random strangers greet each other on the street with “Go, Cubs,” and with the weather being so nice, we can hear celebrations from the neighborhood and downtown when something good happens in a game.

Because the Cubs and Indians have been around so long, there is a lot of history presented in the broadcasts and news coverage. The years 1908, 1945, and 1948 have loomed large in this epic World Series featuring two classic teams with long-suffering fans. How great was it to see Eddie Robinson from the 1948 Indians at the game on Tuesday night? Ryne Sandberg posted a picture of himself and Andre Dawson yesterday on Instagram. Eddie Vedder led a sing-along with the late Harry Caray on the video board at Wrigley Field on Sunday.

I have friends who are fans of other teams: White Sox, Cardinals, Red Sox, Yankees, Mariners, Dodgers, Tigers, etc. They have been great. Baseball fans, regardless of their allegiances, understand that this postseason has been quite a tale, and the ending will be written tonight.

Cubs fans just need to remember to breathe for the next twelve hours or so. That won’t be as easy as it sounds.

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hillbillyJ. C. Vance made it out. Raised in the hillbilly culture of Appalachia and a transplanted hillbilly culture in Ohio, Vance had the help of generous grandparents who force fed him education, and he eventually ended up at Ohio State and Yale Law School.

Hillbilly Elegy is part memoir and part sociology. The memoir sections feature fascinating characters–some tragic, some inspirational, and some “lunatic,” to use Vance’s own word. The more analytical sections reveal the author as a thoughtful conservative. Although some of his perspectives have what I consider unsavory implications, he makes his case based on credible personal experience and research, not reactionary posturing.

Please understand that when I write “hillbilly,” I do not mean it at all condescendingly. “Hillbilly” is a term that I’ve used to describe some of my own upbringing, and I mean it endearingly. While some of my many relatives live way off the grid and others have risen to the pinnacles of art, business, and other professions, most of us are arranged somewhere in between. What we have in common are ancestors who were simple folk with strengths sometimes used in productive ways but who also went off the rail from time to time with effects that rippled through the generations.

J. D. Vance puts a fine point on his examination of hillbilly culture: When families fail–and many hillbilly families fail–children often perpetuate the failure into the next generation. Drugs and alcohol abuse exacerbate the problems. Combine that with a stubborn refusal to accept help and an enthusiastic willingness to fight anyone over any perceived slight, and we have a culture that is its own worst enemy in many ways. But this fine point also shows the way out: Focus on the family structure and the children, one at a time if need be. Every child who finds her or his way out is more likely to be a productive citizen and a responsible family member in the next generation.

Reading this book during election season helps explain how the political perspectives of the hillbilly culture led to the creation of the candidacy of someone like Donald Trump. Hillbillies don’t like being told what to do, and they don’t like people who act like they’re better than everybody else. When hillbillies see someone who talks back to power in colorful, direct language, and then ridicules those they consider to be stuffed-shirt (and pantsuit) politicians, they see someone they can relate to. The issues matter less than the style, and they came out to vote, many for the first time, giving Trump their ballots while the multitude of other more traditional Republican candidates split the rest of the vote.

This book is a paradigm-shifter for me. I will see and understand some things differently because I read Hillbilly Elegy.

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Six 2016 Nonfiction Picture Books for Your Consideration

Here are my thoughts on a few nonfiction picture books from the first half of 2016. These reviews first appeared on Goodreads in slightly different form. I hope this post is helpful to those choosing books for young readers.

Pink Is For Blobfish: Discovering the World's Perfectly Pink AnimalsPink Is For Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals by Jess Keating

With a title that works from every angle, Pink is for Blobfish is an excellent nonfiction picture book, especially for animal-loving young readers. While pink is usually considered a pretty color, some denizens of the wild with pink coloration defy that stereotype.

Jess Keating’s book is bright, humorous, and engaging. Readers will learn weird facts about each animal, along with details about its habitat, diet, and enemies. My favorite weird facts: naked mole rats do not get cancer, and the only habitat of the pink land iguana is a remote volcano in the Galapagos.

Pink is for Blobfish is a book that students will read, re-read, huddle over, and discuss.


Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to LeadHillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel

Although a little too gushy for my taste, Some Girls Are Born to Lead makes the important point that Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent a lifetime challenging expectations and assumptions about the roles of girls and women in American society and beyond. This will also provide young readers with an overview of the main events of her life, beginning in Park Ridge, Illinois, two train stops down the line from where I live.

A Birthday Cake for George WashingtonA Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram

I cannot separate my thoughts on A Birthday Cake for George Washington from the controversies surrounding it and A Fine Dessert, published in 2015. I’ll admit that when I read A Fine Dessert, my uh-oh radar did not go off. Yes, I noticed that a couple of pages dealt with slavery, and the slaves seemed happy enough in the brief episode involving them. Call it ignorance or whatever you want, but I gave the author and illustrator benefit of the doubt that even in the misery of slavery, individuals could be at least somewhat happy for a little while. Then the firestorm broke, and I asked some people smarter than me what I had missed in my reading. They patiently explained it to me, and I came away wiser.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington is way different. This is an entire book filled with page after page of text and pictures of slaves who seem to regard their lot as nothing more than just another occupation. They seem focused, satisfied, and yes, happy about serving George and Martha Washington. This is not a brief episode in a larger work. The slaves’ blithe existence is the created world of A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

Although I can’t begin to fathom the editorial approach that thought this was OK, I don’t think the author and illustrator were overtly trying to be racist. My guess is they were aiming for upbeat and ended up being stone tone deaf. The result is a book that is not acceptable for young readers. Impressionable young readers are likely to come away from A Birthday Cake for George Washington thinking that slavery doesn’t seem all that bad. We can’t have that.

I don’t think this book is intentionally offensive.  It’s  just careless and insensitive.  And the story is actually kind of boring.

The Airport BookThe Airport Book by Lisa Brown

Because air travel can be a little overwhelming for those unaccustomed to the frenzied routines of airports, Lisa Brown’s The Airport Book is a welcome resource for the youngest travelers. Its engaging pictures will help impose some understanding on and bring order to the seeming chaos of today’s airports. Those children who read this book before traveling will have a light-hearted framework for understanding what they see and experience during an airport visit, from checking baggage, to waiting in security, boarding through the jetway, and actually flying. Although the book follows one family through the airport, there is a little bit of a Where’s-Waldo feel as various individuals pop up in different scenes. An older lady keeps asking her husband questions like “Do you have the tickets?” A man in a yellow hat and suit “curiously” appears on several pages. And there is a joke likely to be lost on youngsters as a limo driver waiting for his clients holds a sign saying “Earhart.” I was glad to see Lisa Brown include a passenger in a turban boarding the plane without other passengers freaking out. Anyone traveling with children will do themselves a favor by enjoying The Airport Book several times before departure.

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith HoughtonThe Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick

Audrey Vernick and Steven Salerno bring us another excellent nonfiction baseball picture book.

Edith Houghton, the kid from Diamond Street in Philadelphia, liked to say, “I guess I was born with a baseball in my hand.” By the time she was ten years old, Edith was the starting shortstop for the 1922 Philadelphia Bobbies, a professional women’s baseball team. As a member of the Bobbies, she barnstormed across America and toured Japan.

I’m extremely glad that Audrey Vernick continues to unearth these historic baseball treasures. Not only does she preserve little known niches of baseball history, but Vernick finds the angles most likely to captivate young readers. Steven Salerno’s artwork evokes the 1920s with caricatures just this side of being cartoons and scenes colored in tones similar to postcards of that era.

Can you tell I like everything about this book?

The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the GameThe William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game by Nancy Churnin

Here is yet another excellent nonfiction picture book about one of baseball’s lesser-known figures. William Hoy was a deaf major-league player from the turn of the last century who was known for his strong, accurate outfield throws and his prowess in stealing bases.

With bright colors and easy-to-discern facial expressions, The William Hoy Story effectively conveys a range of emotions, as well as important messages about perseverance and physical differences.

Thanks for reading!

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Five Fun Podcasts for English Teachers

As part of my self-directed professional development, I subscribe to numerous podcasts, but these are the five that provide regular combinations of fun and information for my English teacher soul. The links here point to the iTunes page for each podcast, but downloads are also available from each podcast’s web page.

writers almanac“The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor”: This is how I begin most days. Garrison Keillor, one of America’s great storytellers and narrators, relates the most interesting literary birthdays and historical anniversaries associated with each day of the year. As he tells the stories behind the people and occasions, Keillor somehow moves the part of the mind that gets things churning for writers. Each episode ends with Keillor reading a poem. His choices include both contemporary and classic works, and he makes each poem sound like a neighbor relaying to us the most intriguing parts of his day. And all of this happens in about five minutes on a daily basis, which is a small miracle if you think about it.

write life podcast“Write Life: A Writers Week Podcast”: Writers Week at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois is a week-long celebration of writing that has featured well over 200 professional writers, more than a thousand students, as well as faculty and staff members from every department in the school. (Disclaimer: I was involved in developing and planning Writers Week from 1995-2014.) “Write Life” is a podcast extension of this highly successful program. The “Write Life” format includes students interviewing a writer, most of whom have been Writers Week guests. Even though the “Write Life” podcast is fairly new, the impressive list of guests includes Chris Crutcher, Jennifer Niven, A. S. King, and Sierra DeMulder. The energetic student interviewers ask different questions than adults tend to ask, and listeners can tell the featured guests enjoy the spontaneity of interacting with young people. Most segments end with the students and guest playing some kind of game, usually a word-association activity. “Write Life” has also put out a couple of “Throwback Thursday” episodes that include faculty members introducing clips from past guest presentations, including Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Harry Mark Petrakis, and Daniel Ferri. (Another disclaimer: I introduced the Harry Mark Petrakis clip for the seventh episode.) Everything about this podcast will be inspiring to English teachers, from thoughtful authors communicating directly with their readers to students who comfortably engage with authors they clearly admire. Kudos to Fremd English teachers Gina Enk and Russ Anderson for their production of the “Write Life” podcast.

yarn“The Yarn”:  For the first season of “The Yarn,” Colby Sharp and Travis Yonker took listeners through a series of fascinating interviews with many of the people associated with developing the graphic novel memoir Sunny Side Up by Jenni Holm and Matt Holm. This season’s episodes have focused on one author talking about his or her newest book and usually reading a bit of it. Colby and Travis know all the sweet spots when it comes to children’s literature, so they choose writers and books that teachers will not only find interesting, but their questions help the authors illuminate aspects of their books that teachers can put to use in classrooms. Recent guests include Hervé Tullet, Lindsay Eagar, and Salina Yoon.

botn“Books on the Nightstand”:  Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness provide those of us with bookish inclinations a weekly podcast that readers (and maybe only readers) will enjoy. Each episode includes Ann and Michael discussing something about reading, books, reading lives, authors, or publishing. (Both hosts work for Random House.) They are thoughtful readers and articulate in their conversations. In addition to the featured discussion topic, each episode also includes an audiobook recommendation, as well as other recommendations of new books (“Two Books We Can’t Wait for You to Read”) or older books (“Don’t You Forget about Me”). I can’t keep track of how many excellent books I’ve read because they were recommended on this podcast. Michael and Ann have friendly voices, and after listening to this podcast regularly for a couple of years, it’s easy to start thinking of them as book pals. (At last year’s NCTE convention, I asked the folks at the Random House booth if they knew Ann and Michael. They all said yes and talked about how nice they are.) English teachers and other book lovers will find kindred spirits in “Books on the Nightstand.”

no such thing“No Such Thing as A Fish”:  OK, this one has nothing to do directly with our classrooms, but I still love it. “No Such Thing as A Fish” appeared in a recent ilovenewbies blog post about podcasts, and it’s now one of my favorites. This UK-based show features the same four clever fact-finders in front of a live audience. Each panelist presents a unique fact, which they all then discuss and dissect for a few minutes. Recent facts: In Utah, you cannot wear a hat in your driver’s license photo, but you can wear a colander on your head. For a penny, you rent a bee for a month. In Japan, making a human pyramid higher than five tiers is illegal. This podcast always has me chuckling within the first ninety seconds, and the banter is always funny. The humor here (or humour) is different from American humor—it’s not as crass and blunt and more based on fun wordplay, which appeals to the English teacher in me.

If you’re a fan of any of these podcasts, feel free to say what you like about them, as well as any other recommendations for enjoyable podcasts. As always, thanks for reading!

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My Top Ten Merle Haggard Songs

  1. merle banner

When I heard earlier today that Merle Haggard had passed away, I felt just terrible. I loved that guy. The best way I can think of to celebrate Merle is through his music, so what follows here is a collection of videos featuring my favorite Merle Haggard songs.

I was lucky enough to see Merle Haggard three times. I also had a near-miss when I was a kid. My mom had tickets for us to see him with Marty Robbins, but they were a no-show. (Marty Robbins was one of my mom’s favorites.)

The first time I saw Merle was in 1991. Reba McEntire was scheduled to play a concert at Pheasant Run in St. Charles, Illinois. When a bus crash killed several members of her band, various country stars volunteered to do fill-in shows as benefits for the families. Although I wasn’t interested in attending a Reba McEntire concert, when the replacement show was headlined by Merle Haggard, I jumped on it. Along with Lorrie Morgan and Sawyer Brown, Merle did a brilliant show. Wearing a flannel shirt and vest, he looked like he’d just stepped out his fishing cabin, slung on a guitar, and started belting out some of the best country songs ever written.

The second time was at The House of Blues in Chicago. I can’t remember when it was but sometime after 1991. It was standing-room-only and we were right down front. Not only was Haggard a great singer-songwriter, but he was also a searing guitarist and a show-stopping entertainer. All of that was on fine display that night.

merle hatThe final time was in 2005 when Merle toured with Bob Dylan. The tour came to the Auditorium Theater in Chicago with Amos Lee as the opening act. Amos Lee was good. Merle was terrific but a little subdued in a shortened set. Although I’m not sure Merle Haggard should have been the opening act for anybody, he kept taking off his hat and bowing humbly. When Rolling Stone asked him if he’d spent any time on the bus with Bob Dylan, Merle said, “Bob doesn’t hang.”

The words that come to mind for me today when thinking about Merle Haggard are integrity and literary artistry. These are the songs that formed my impression of someone who I never met but I’ll definitely miss.

1. “Sing Me Back Home”

2. “That’s the Way Love Goes”

3. “Mama Tried”

4. “Kern River”

5. “Silver Wings”

6. “If We Make It Through December”

7. “Big City”

8. “Okie from Muskogee”

9. “Daddy Frank”

10. “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star”

Thanks, Merle. I would’ve fixed your flat tire any time.

Please add a shout-out to your favorite Merle Haggard songs!

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Jacket-medThe ways teens use social media spawn a lot of myths. Here are a few:

• Using social media makes teens vulnerable to bullies and sexual predators.
• Many teens are addicted to technology.
• The “digital native” generation has intuitive expertise in using technology.
• The Internet is an equalizer for disenfranchised social groups.
• Google is a more reliable source of information than Wikipedia.

Using research, interviews, and common sense to tackle these misperceptions, Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens provides thorough, relevant, and fascinating insights into how adolescents actually engage with social media.

Guess what?

• Teens are no more vulnerable to bullies and sexual predators online than they are offline.
• “Addiction” isn’t an accurate way to describe most adolescent tech usage, and if kids are addicted to anything, it’s their friends, not their phones.
• Those described as “digital natives” may have more familiarity with technology, but they do not understand how to use it critically and productively. They need help with that from adults who do know how to make technology work for us.
• The Internet doesn’t do a good job of pulling in disenfranchised social groups. (For example, Siri struggles with some Middle Eastern accents and others, and most facial recognition software is less accurate with dark skin tones.)
• Wikipedia’s parameters and protocols for posting accurate information far exceed those of Google.

As Boyd writes, “[T]he mere existence of new technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems. In fact, their construction typically reinforces existing social divisions.” Because adults tend to use technology differently from teens, we blame the phones for causing problems and the kids for being screen-based time-wasters. But maybe the problem isn’t the technology; maybe it’s us.

As parents, we put the phones in kids’ hands so that we can communicate with them, but we are also more reluctant these days to let kids wander and play outside, and many kids are scheduled to the nth degree. So with restricted time and roaming ability, how do kids hang out? Online. At night.

Many teachers tend to believe the Internet is full of junk information while textbooks and encyclopedias are full of valuable information. So, we restrict the ways students can learn online and require them to use print material, which is no more or less likely to be accurate than online information. Some educators are also less comfortable with asynchronous or “crowdsourced” learning than they are with teacher-centered learning. So, again, the technology is restricted, causing students to go online without the guidance of teachers. That’s a missed opportunity, folks.

To be fair, Boyd recognizes that some teens do not handle things well: “Not all youth are doing all right, just as not all adults are. Technology makes the struggles youth face visible, but it neither creates nor prevents harmful things from happening even if it can be a tool for both. It simply mirrors and magnifies many aspects of everyday life, good and bad.”

It’s Complicated clarified my thinking on many issues, and I highly recommend it for teachers and parents, especially those in a quandary about how young people interact with social media.

The entire book is available online here.

Boyd, Danah.  It’s Complicated:  The Social Lives of Networked Teens.  New Haven:  Yale                 University Press, 2014.

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