The Trouble with Peer Editing (and Some Ways to Fix It)

peer-review-gone-wrong

A student came to the writing center upset and confused by the feedback from a peer editing session. Please don’t let this happen.

I learned the hard way about some of the pitfalls involved in inviting students to perform peer-review of each other’s writing. It seems like such a good idea. Weak writers can learn from their peers who are stronger writers. Talking to each other about writing seems like a good way to spend some student-centered class time. Students can speak to each other about writing-related issues in their own language, which might be more accessible than how I say things. Young writers can garner individual attention for their writing more efficiently than if their teacher is the sole source of feedback.

So why does peer editing tend to be so ineffective? Why does it frequently cause more problems than it solves while not making much difference in students’ writing ability? I think it comes down to this: Young writers are motivated by feedback that it is individualized, relevant, and supportive, and peer review rarely synergizes those three elements and sometimes doesn’t achieve any of them.

motivational-feedback

Peer review of writing operates on a problematic paradox. Writing is personal while peer review is social. When we require students to take their personal words based on their personal ideas and personal experiences and subject them to “constructive criticism” from others, we’re asking for trouble. The social constructs in a classroom are complex, especially in middle school and high school. Putting a student’s writing out there as the agenda for social transactions is emotionally dangerous. From a learning perspective, stronger students don’t gain much from their weaker peers. When weaker writers are paired with other weak writers, we have the blind leading the blind. Either way, the weaker writers usually know how they are being pigeonholed, which does little for the confidence necessary in developing writers.

Peer editing usually takes one of two forms. Sometimes students are paired up or divided into small groups, and then they read each other’s papers with the expectation that they will provide comments or corrections. Another format frequently used is a writer-of-the-day format where one student’s writing is read by a larger group of peers who then discusses it while the writer listens and presumably learns from the classmates’ comments.

To my chagrin, I’ve lived through horrific examples of each of these. Too many times I’ve seen students emerge from those pass-around sessions with a few misspelled words circled and a vague “Good job” scribbled across the top. Too often these kinds of sessions default to grammar and other mechanical issues that are easy to define in terms of correctness. Larger issues of clarity, organization, development, and appeal are more difficult for students to articulate to one another so they receive little attention. Sometimes students think it’s OK to use this situation to score points against those not in their social group or with less social capital. Not much learning about writing happens from any of that.

I’ve also seen critique sessions with larger groups dominated by a student wearing a mental beret who, deeming herself The Best Writer in the Class, rips into other students’ writing with withering commentary. These sessions require immediate interventions and some follow-up one-on-one talks with the students involved. Even when the verbal comments are more appropriate, the student whose work is under consideration is frequently so uncomfortable that she doesn’t learn very much.

Despite these difficulties, peer editing is worthwhile, and it can work!

Here are three things I’ve learned about peer editing that teachers can roll out easily and use immediately.

Replace criticisms with suggesticisms. After a negative class workshop session like the one described above, I made up a new word.

Suggesticism (noun): A criticism paired with a suggestion.

I announced that I was imposing a new rule. Henceforth, criticism of other students’ writing would be replaced by suggesticisms. We would no longer allow a criticism without an accompanying suggestion.

I explained that a criticism might sound like this: “The metaphor in your third line—‘green as Mountain Dew puke’—is gross and offensive.” A suggesticism, however, works like this: “The metaphor in your third line—‘green as Mountain Dew puke’—is gross and offensive. Would you consider trying ‘green as a lime rind’ instead?”

This might be the best idea I’ve ever had. As I said above, student writers are motivated by feedback that is individualized, relevant, and supportive. Using suggesticisms definitely improved that motivation. In addition, suggesticisms require those giving comments to move beyond merely recognizing what they don’t like in a piece of writing to articulating at least one better way of doing it. Student writers frequently end up with numerous ideas about how to revise a passage or some aspect of their writing. The added positivity was a plus for all concerned, and it was a kick to see how the new word became part of our classroom culture.

suggesticismIn general, peer review works best when students are fairly homogenous in ability. In a homogenous class, some of the social factors are mitigated when students see writing from other students that has common ground with their own writing. If a class isn’t particularly homogenous, peer review may not be the most effective revision activity for those students.

Empower writers to retain control of their work. Too often peer review sessions require writers to hand over control of their writing to others who may not have the compassion or competence to deal with it responsibly or respectfully. A brilliant colleague developed a technique based on the work of Peter Elbow which allows each writer to maintain control of his own work and decide what is discussed by his reviewers.

The student whose work is being considered develops a set of questions to guide reviewers, and reviewers respond only to those questions posed by the writer. Students are encouraged to create questions focused on specific issues and avoid mere mechanical concerns that can be cleaned up in later drafts. Here are examples of successful specific questions from my colleague Russ Anderson:

  • What do you think about the transition to 3rd person POV at the end of the story? Is it awkward?
  • What did you think about the leaf being able to notice things or being somewhat portrayed as having feelings like a human?
  • In the second to last paragraph, do you think my example about texting and driving is too off topic?
  • What do you think are the top 3 words used by teens today? Would you agree on the words I chose?
  • Do you think the two short stories connected well with the main idea of the first 3 paragraphs?
  • Did I maintain Holden’s voice throughout the story?
  • What difference would it make if I had names for the characters?

The responses to these kinds of questions generate thoughtful revisions, all while keeping the writer in control of his work.

If you experience frustration with peer editing sessions that are somewhere between unproductive and hostile, please know you’re not alone. The learning that is possible from this activity is valuable, but it can be difficult to bring to light because of the inherent social factors. I hope these suggesticisms are useful to you and your students.

Your comments and perspectives are always welcome here. Thank you for reading.

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2016: My Year in Books

2016-coversWarning: This post may be of no interest to anyone but myself. Here is my annual reflection on what I read in the past year, with a Top 16 for ’16, a list I may find myself disagreeing with by tomorrow.

2016 was a tumultuous year, no doubt about it, but it also brought me out-sized portions of inspiration, laughter, friendship, and optimism. The books I read were all a part of that.

To be honest, as I look back at the 197 books I read this year, I can’t even remember some of them. Others though keep reminding me of important truths and perspectives different from my own.

I read several books about music this year, especially rock and country music. That music has always been important to me, so when I have a chance to understand it better through a book, I usually jump on it. Bruce Springsteen is a heroic figure for me, and his 2016 autobiography Born to Run tells his story with courage, charm, and his unmistakable voice. One of the highlights of my year was meeting Bruce at an event in Chicago to publicize the book. If I had to pick one favorite book for 2016, Born to Run would be it.

bruce

I had the chance to meet and exchange a few words with Bruce Springsteen in Chicago on November 28, 2016.  I told him I thought his book was really good and that I hoped he had more books in him.  Bruce said, “Thanks,” and “God bless.”

My country underwent some strange political contortions in 2016, and I tried to gain some perspective on all that through reading. The most helpful were Hillbilly Elegy and The Presidents Club. Both books helped me understand some of the currents in this country that are working their ways to the surface and how the presidency interfaces with all of that.

I’m always on the search for appealing humor books. I don’t like humor that is overly crass, and I like when writers see things in quirky ways and tell about them in surprising language. The most satisfying humor writers for me this year were Carrie Fisher and Bill Bryson.

Throughout the year, and especially in late summer, I tried to keep up with the best picture books of the year. Almost a third of my favorite books of the year are picture books. I admire the inventive ways that writing and illustrating come together to spark the imaginations of the youngest readers.

After posting something like what you’re reading here—and thank you for sticking with this–I sometimes get comments or questions about how (and why) I read so much. Many others read much more than me, so I’m not a record-setter or anywhere close. In fact, I’m kind of a slow but persistent reader. With that in mind, here are five ways I read:

1. My phone is usually with me, and I always have something interesting loaded on the Kindle app. While standing in line at the post office on Saturday others were mildly seething, but I read seven or eight pages of a book. Finishing that book might take me weeks or months, but who cares.

2. I get daily emails about e-book deals. When a book that interests me pops up, I buy it, usually for just a couple of bucks. I take my Kindle when travelling, and those books are my airplane and hotel reading.

3. I almost always have an audiobook going in the car. I tend to like nonfiction for audiobooks.

4. I don’t watch much television. I’d rather read.

5. I read several books at the same time. My attention span is zilch, so I like to bounce around between books. I usually finish all of them eventually. If I were only reading one at a time, I would bounce between that one book and piddling around doing something besides reading.

Although some of these books were published earlier, here are my Top 16 for ’16 in no particular order:

1. Jennifer Niven: All the Bright Places
2. Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell: Writing with Mentors
3. Cammie McGovern: A Step Toward Falling
4. Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic
5. Pat Conroy: Beach Music
6. J. D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy
7. Frederik Backman: A Man Called Ove
8. Jennifer Mason-Black: Devil and the Bluebird
9. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
10. Candace Fleming: Giant Squid
11. Jolene Thompson: Faraway Fox
12. Sierra DeMulder: Today Means Amen
13. Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs: The Presidents Club
14. Salina Yoon: Be a Friend
15. Sherman Alexie: Thunder Boy, Jr.
16. Brendan Wenzel: They All Saw a Cat

Here is the complete list of books I read in 2016 in roughly the order I finished them:

1. Mike Sewall: The Pitch That Killed
2. Cammie McGovern: A Step Toward Falling
3. Lindsay Mattick: Finding Winnie
4. Troy Andrews: Trombone Shorty
5. Liniers: Written and Drawn by Henrietta
6. Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic
7. Sarah Vowell: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
8. Margarita Engle: Enchanted Air
9. Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell: Writing with Mentors
10. Stephen Savage: Supertruck
11. Stan Lee: Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvel Memoir
12. A. E. Hotchner: The Good Life According to Hemingway
13. Stephen King: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
14. Ramin Gameshram: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
15. Rachel Isadora: I Hear a Pickle
16. Salina Yoon: Be A Friend
17. Kelly Starling Lyons: Ellen’s Broom
18. Steve Sheinkin: Most Dangerous
19. Bob Woodward: The Last of the President’s Men
20. Bill Bryson: One Summer: America, 1927
21. Ryan T. Higgins: Mother Bruce
22. Birgitta Sif: Where My Feet Go
23. Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely: All American Boys
24. Anthony Doerr: Four Seasons in Rome
25. Sierra DeMulder: Today Means Amen
26. David Denby: Lit Up
27. Rick Bragg: My Southern Journey
28. Randy Wayne White: The Sharks of Lake Nicaragua
29. Peter H. Reynolds: Going Places
30. Nikki Grimes: Poems in the Attic
31. Kelly DiPucchio: Gaston
32. Trudy Ludwig: The Invisible Boy
33. Chris Butterworth: How Did That Get In My Lunchbox: The Story of Food
34. Suzanne Lang: Families, Families, Families
35. Kathryn Gibbs Davis: Mr. Ferris and His Wheel
36. Andrea Beaty: Rosie Revere, Engineer
37. Lynne Cox: Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas
38. Kathy Parks: The Lifeboat Clique
39. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore
40. Amy Cuddy: Presence
41. Miranda Paul: One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
42. Susan Lynn Meyer: New Shoes
43. Danah Boyd: It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
44. Pat Conroy: The Great Santini
45. William Shatner: Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man
46. Audrey Vernick: The Kid from Diamond Street
47. Rick Steves: Travel as a Political Act
48. Hervé Tullet: Let’s Play
49. Carrie Fisher: Wishful Drinking
50. John Brandon: Citrus County
51. Kwame Alexander: Booked
52. Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor: Trapped!: A Whale’s Rescue
53. Irin Karmon and Shana Knizhnik: Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
54. Randy Wayne White: Deep Blue
55. Mark Holtzen: A Ticket to the Pennant: A Tale of Baseball in Seattle
56. Jennifer Niven: All the Bright Places
57. Jess Keating: Pink is for Blobfish
58. Jane Smiley: Twenty Yawns
59. Ken Mochizuki: Baseball Saved Us
60. Kathryn Lasky: Georgia Rises
61. Nancy Churnin: The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game
62. Julie Murphy: Dumplin’
63. Lisa Brown: The Airport Book
64. Thomas Newkirk: The Art of Slow Reading
65. Sherman Alexie: Thunder Boy Jr.
66. Benjamin Alire Sáenz: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
67. Eric Weiner: The Geography of Genius
68. Mark Pett: The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes
69. Chris Bachelder: The Throwback Special
70. Lisa Mantchev: Strictly No Elephants
71. Andrew Smith:100 Sideways Miles
72. Michelle Markel: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead
73. David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street
74. Tara Sullivan: The Bitter Side of Sweet
75. Terry Jennings: Waylon: Tales of My Outlaw Dad
76. Barb Rosenstock: Dorothea’s Eyes
77. Pat Conroy: Beach Music
78. Milan Kundera: The Festival of Insignificance
79. Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train
80. Julie Falatko: Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book)
81. Don Brown: Aaron and Alexander
82. Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy: The Presidents Club
83. Lauren Roedy Vaughn: OCD, The Dude, and Me
84. Ted Kooser: The Bell in the Bridge
85. Pat Conroy: The Death of Santini
86. Bruce Bohrer: The Best Seat in the House
87. Amy Krouse Rosenthal: Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
88. Jo Knowles: Still A Work in Progress
89. Neal Shusterman: Unwind
90. Adam Rex: School’s First Day of School
91. Elanna Allen: Poor Little Guy
92. Jon Agee: Lion Lessons
93. Hannah E. Harrison: My Friend Maggie!
94. Maria Gianferrari: Coyote Moon
95. Hudson Talbott: From Wolf to Woof!
96. Giselle Potter: This Is My Dollhouse
97. Bill Slavin: Who Broke the Teapot?!
98. Lori Haskins Houran: Next to You: A Book of Adorableness
99. Anne Hunter: Cricket Song
100. Diana Murray: City Shapes
101. Cale Atkinson: Explorers of the Wild
102. Aaron Becker: Return
103. Dave Keane: Who Wants a Tortoise?
104. Akiko Miyakoshi: The Storm
105. David Litchfield: The Bear and the Piano
106. Stacy McAnulty: Excellent Ed
107. K. G. Campbell: Dylan the Villain
108. Matty Long: Super Happy Magic Forest
109. Daniel Bernstrom: One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree
110. David Barrow: Have You Seen Elephant?
111. Evan Turk: The Storyteller
112. Adam Lehrhaupt: Chicken in Space
113. Kyle Mewburn: Hill & Hole
114. Alex T. Smith: Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion
115. Shane Peacock: The Artist and Me
116. Ame Dyckman: Horrible Bear!
117. J. J. Austrian: Worm Loves Worm
118. Mark Sommerset: Baa Baa Smart Sheep
119. Dan Santat: Are We There Yet?
120. Mo Willems: The Thank You Book
121. Philip C. Stead: Ideas Are All Around
122. Jeanne Birdsall: My Favorite Pets
123. Eugenie Doyle: Sleep Tight Farm
124. Katrina Goldsaito: The Sound of Silence
125. Antoinette Portis: Best Frints in the Whole Universe
126. Minh Le: Let Me Finish!
127. Mahak Jain: Maya
128. F. Isabel Campoy: Maybe Something Beautiful
129. Steve Goetz: Old MacDonald Had a Truck
130. Bob Boilen: Your Song Changed My Life
130. Erin Hagar: The Inventor of Lego Toys
131. Torben Kuhlmann: Armstrong: Mouse on the Moon
132. Dan Richards: Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?
133. Patrick Downes: Come Home, Angus
134. Lucy Ruth Cummins: A Hungry Lion, or a Dwindling Assortment of Animals
135. Brendan Wenzel: They All Saw a Cat
136. Sean Ferrell: The Snurtch
137. Rebecca Kai Dotlich: The Knowing Book
138. Pat Conroy: The Pat Conroy Cookbook
139. Bill Bryson: Neither Here nor There
140. Ron Fournier: Love That Boy
141. Andrew Smith: Winger
142. Susan Verde: The Water Princess
143. Jolene Thompson: Faraway Fox
144. Kate Beaton: King Baby
145. Heidi Schulz: Giraffes Ruin Everything
146. Benedikt Groß: ABC: The Alphabet from the Sky
147. Mac Barnett: How This Book Was Made
148. Jim LaMarche: Pond
149. Cynthia Rylant: Creation
150. Oliver Jeffers: A Child of Books
151. Vera Brosgol: Leave Me Alone
152. Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy
153. Raina Telgemeier: Ghosts
154. Mary Roach: Grunt
155. Lauren Stringer: Yellow Time
156. Debbie Levy: I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
157. Drew Dernavich: It’s Not Easy Being Number Three
158. Gae Polisner: The Memory of Things
159. J. D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy
160. Candace Fleming: Giant Squid
161. Philip C. Stead: Samson in the Snow
162. Jason Carter Eaton: How to Track a Truck
163. Norman Messenger: An Artist’s Alphabet
164. Maribeth Boelts: A Bike Like Sergio’s
165. Jory John: Penguin Problems
166. Deana Martin: Memories Are Made of This
167. Jon Klassen: We Found a Hat
168. Kelly DiPucchio: Dragon Was Terrible
169. Joyce Sidman: Before Morning
170. Kate DiCamillo: Raymie Nightingale
171. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
172. Kurt Cyrus: Billions of Bricks
173. James Howe: Big Bob, Little Bob
174. Bill Clinton: Giving
175. Garrison Keillor: The Old Man Who Loved Cheese
176. Dave Barry: Best. State. Ever.
177. Demi: The Shady Tree
178. Katie Kennedy: Learning to Swear in America
179. Kaitlin Ward: Bleeding Earth
180. Tommy Wallach: Thanks for the Trouble
181. Randy Wayne White: Seduced
182. Candice Millard: Destiny of the Republic
183. Peter Mills: The Monkees, Head, and the 60s
184. Elizabeth Briggs: Future Shock
185. Carson Ellis: Du Iz Tak?
186. Jennifer Mason-Black: Devil and the Bluebird
187. Michael Tackett: The Baseball Whisperer
188. David Hepworth: Never A Dull Moment: 1971–The Year Rock Exploded
189. Garrison Keillor, Editor: Good Poems
190. Barbara McClintock: Lost and Found: Adele and Simon in China
191. A. S. King: Still Life with Tornado
192. Anna Kendrick: Scrappy Little Nobody
193. Pat Conroy: The Lords of Discipline
194. Robison Wells: Dark Energy
195. John Lewis: March Book Three
196. Fredrik Backman: A Man Called Ove
197. Carrie Fisher: The Princess Diarist

My first reading goal for 2017 is to finish Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton.  And a tempting book club invitation came my way today.  It never ends.

I wish you a happy reading year in 2017!

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Review: NEVER A DULL MOMENT: 1971 by David Hepworth

David Hepworth’s Never A Dull Moment: 1971 claims that 1971 was the most important year in rock history. While many fans are sentimental about specific years or time spans, Hepworth makes the case that no other year has produced so much influential, memorable music or generated so many currents that rippled through what came after.

1971Let’s begin with a list of some of the albums released in 1971:
Carole King: Tapestry
The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East
Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers
Led Zeppelin: IV
Jethro Tull: Aqualung
Carly Simon: Carly Simon and Anticipation
The Who: Who’s Next
John Prine: John Prine
The Beach Boys: Surf’s Up
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Black Sabbath: Masters of Reality
Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilson
The Doors: L. A. Woman
Isaac Hayes: Shaft
Van Morrison: Tupelo Honey

On that list are some of the best-selling albums of all time, including work that influenced what would become blues-rock, heavy metal, country-rock, and folk-rock. Some of these albums are from established bands; others are by newcomers. And it’s just the beginning.

Here are some songs released in 1971 that have stood the test of time, although they were not on albums as distinguished as those above. (Get ready to hum.)
Neil Diamond: “I Am … I Said”
Elton John: “Tiny Dancer”
Jackson Browne: “Doctor My Eyes”
America: “Ventura Highway”
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: “Power to the People”
John Lennon: “Imagine”
Don McLean: “American Pie”
Yes: “Roundabout”
Badfinger: “Baby Blue” and “Day After Day”
Rod Stewart: “Maggie May”
Al Green: “Tired of Being Alone”
Janis Joplin: “Me and Bobby McGee”
Ringo Starr: “It Don’t Come Easy”
Paul and Linda McCartney: “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”
James Taylor: “You’ve Got a Friend”
Bill Withers: “Ain’t No Sunshine”
The Jackson 5: “Never Can Say Goodbye”
Sly and The Family Stone: “Family Affair”
Stevie Wonder: “If You Really Love Me”

Whew. Those albums and those songs seem like they should be a decade’s worth of music, but they all arrived in 1971.

Never A Dull Moment: 1971 isn’t a book of lists. It’s a book of stories. The stories and personalities blend to create a vivid picture of that year in music. Hepworth takes us through 1971 month by month, telling about the most important recordings and happenings from each flip of the calendar. By examining in more detail some of what was going on, we see the recordings in a context as rich as the individual records. For example, Motown was changed forever by the 1971 work of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Then the first big rock concert staged for a cause was George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh with Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Badfinger, and Leon Russell. Rock journalism also took a big step forward as something separate from entertainment journalism with Rolling Stone‘s “The Beach Boys: A California Saga” cover story about the darker side of the band. Mick Jagger got married in a frenzy, and Stevie Wonder was introduced to new musical technology. All of these events wrap around the music to provide insights into the culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Any discussion of rock music in 1971 requires a balanced view of the British and American scenes, and Hepworth handles that masterfully without any obvious bias toward one side of the Atlantic or the other.

Some of the smaller moments are the most memorable, including juicy bits such as Cat Stevens introducing his then-girlfriend Carly Simon to her future husband James Taylor, and John Prine’s first record deal growing out of a serendipitous late-night prowl with … Paul Anka.

1971 was also the beginning of what Hepworth calls “heritage rock” as the first generation of rock stars attempted to figure out how to look forward and backward at the same time. 1971 was the first post-Beatles year. George and Ringo did the Bangladesh concert while John and Yoko did their thing, and Paul and Linda did theirs. The Rolling Stones were re-tooling but created Sticky Fingers, their first record conceived as an album rather than as a song collection. The Beach Boys had their distinctive sound but wanted to move beyond songs about girls, cars, and surfing with Brian Wilson largely sidelined by mental problems. Bob Dylan reunited with The Band. And Elvis Presley went on tour for the first time in almost fourteen years.

In addition to the rock veterans, some newcomers were making impressive stirrings: Kraftwerk, The Eagles, Roxy Music. 1971 also saw the emergence of Alice Cooper, Cat Stevens, David Bowie, and Rod Stewart. Think about it. That’s an amazingly diverse group of artists to be surfacing at the same time.

Never A Dull Moment: 1971 is an absorbing, fascinating, thoroughly satisfying romp through twelve months of glorious music, dynamic personalities, and raucous goings-on.

I can recommend the audiobook version of Never A Dull Moment: 1971 narrated by Hepworth himself. His British accent with a touch of the Liverpudlian is charming and energetic. Hepworth never seems to be reading as he enthusiastically tells the tales of this remarkable year.

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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.

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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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Review: HILLBILLY ELEGY: A MEMOIR OF A FAMILY AND CULTURE IN CRISIS by J. D. Vance

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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