Saturday, May 28, 2016

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great

by Jessie Hartland 
2015 / 216 pages

What makes a something a really good read?

Sometimes it's the writing – some writers can turn anything into a page-turner. Sometimes it's the subject – newspaper accounts often lack artistry, but the facts themselves grab and keep our interest.

And sometimes it comes down to the purpose of the piece. I've reviewed novels that didn't cut it as entertainment, but that was okay, because their main purpose was education. And this packaging of education as fiction made learning much more enjoyable than this same material would have been, had it been in textbook form. So, for learners, these novels would be really good reads.

Now Steve Jobs: Insanely Great as a graphic novel biography is only middling. But if read to a different end, well, this is an absolutely fascinating account of the tech industry's development from the 1960s through the 2000s.

As a biography

I picked this up because I am a bit of an Apple fan based solely on the fact that my two Mac desktops both lasted twice as long as any of the five PCs that preceded them. I appreciate the quality. And that had me curious about the man who started it all – surely there must be lots to learn from a man who turned his home-based business into one of the biggest companies on the planet!

But as it turns out, in Jobs' life there are more examples of what not to do than examples worth imitating. He was a genius, undeniably, but genius is something you either have or don't. He was driven, and I think most of us could benefit from being a little more driven, but not like Jobs. He abandoned his young daughter for a time because she got in the way of his pursuits. So yes, he was self-absorbed, and also impatient; he smoked pot, and invented and sold a device which stole from the phone company. I'm not trying to say Jobs was some sort of horrible person. It's only that I generally read biographies for examples who will challenge and encourage me. And this is not one of those sort of biographies.

As a tech industry history

For a generation that grew up with the Internet, and smartphones, and Netflix, it might be hard to imagine a world without computers. But when Jobs was born, personal computers hadn't yet been invented, and business computers were the size of buildings even though their computing power wouldn't match today's most basic calculator. 

In this account of Jobs' life we also get an insider's look at the development of the personal computer and all the technology it spawned. As we go from decade to decade, author Jessie Hartland occasionally interrupts the story to provide a two-page spread on the technology of that time. For the 1960s, it was the record player, transistor radios, rotary phones and black and white TVs with no remote controls! And what a leap we see, in just a decade – in the 1970s there are color TVs, now with remote controls, and the first video game consoles have been invented. Invention after invention, we see it all progressing forward to our modern day.

You might have to be a bit of a geek to like this, but that's all it would take – just a smidge of nerdy DNA – for anyone to enjoy this as a history of the tech industry.


There is passing mention made of Jobs' interest in Zen mysticism, and as noted earlier, it shares that Jobs also smoked pot. So this is not one for young readers. But the style of the pictures, and the large amount of text means they wouldn’t pick this up anyway.

Graphic novels are often a great means to grab reluctant readers, but I will note this is not that sort of graphic novel. It is much more book than comic, with lots of text, and the illustrations, while helpful, are not the eye-catching, action-packed sort of visuals that will draw the casual reader in.


So who would love Steve Jobs: Insanely Great? I’d recommend this to older teens and adults who have an interest in computers and technology. For them, this will be really fun, informative, and readable. I know I enjoyed it immensely.

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RELATED REVIEWS: other graphic novel histories

Saturday, May 21, 2016

5 fun "Toon Books" for reluctant readers

It's a fact: comics are under-appreciated.

We'll read our kids picture books and think it a great way to get them started reading. But what are picture books but an enticing pairing of words with pictures? And isn't that a good description of comics too? That's why I'm a big fan of good comics - the best can be used to hook readers, even reluctant readers, in much the way that picture books do.

Now some of the bias against comics - particularly in school libraries - is due to the relatively small supply of great comics books. Archie Double Digests and Superman are not great literature! But there are good ones out there. With that in mind, here are a few very fun comics (aka graphic novels) for kids who are just learning to read. Students in Kindergarten through maybe Grade 2 will really enjoy these.

These are all "Toon Books," a brand that has a good number of good books. But I did want to note that not everything they touch turns to gold. Among their others Toon Books are some boring books and, more troubling, quite a number showcasing a bratty hero or heroine. For example, Maya, from Maya makes a Mess, knows she knows better than her parents, and Patrick eats his Peas is actually about how Patrick tries tricking his mom so he doesn't have to eat his peas. It's not the end of the world if your child finds one of these other Toon books at the library and reads them - this is still a kinder, gentler sort of brattiness than happens in many other books. But it sure would be a shame to waste money buying lousy books when there are so many good ones to get!

Like these....

Benjamin Bear in Brain Storms!
by Philippe Coudray
27 pages / 2015

Benjamin Bear is a series of fun one-page comics that all present humorous solutions to problems. One example: Benjamin wants an apple but it's too high on the tree. So he kicks the tree, sending a shower of apples falling to the ground. So, of course, he stacks these up so he can stand on them to reach the apple that was just out of reach before.

There are 27 of these one-page comics in the book, and Benjamin is the star of most of them, but he also has a rabbit friend making appearances, as well as a lady bear friend. They are charming, and silly in just the sort of way that kids love. I'd recommend them from 3 (though they won't get them all) to maybe 9. There are two others to enjoy: Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking (2011), and Benjamin Bear in Bright ideas (2013).

The author Phillipe Coudray has also teamed with his brother Jean-Luc to co-author a similarly-themed book, A Goofy Guide to Penguins (2016), in which there are 30 one-page comics, all about penguins. It’s another very fun one.

You can pick up Benjamin Bear in Brain Storms! at here or here.

Little Mouse Gets Ready
by Jeff Smith
28 pages / 2009

The best way to describe this would be as a 28-page joke. I don't want to spoil that joke, but the set-up involves a mother mouse telling her "Little Mouse" that he needs to get ready, because they are going to the barn. So Little Mouse gets busy, buttoning, and pulling up his socks, and figuring out how to get his shoes on. The illustrations are cute, Little Mouse is just like a little kid, so any child who still has problems with buttoning their shirt will sympathize with this little guy as he puts in the tough work of getting them all done right. So that's the ideal age range, maybe from 3 through Grade 1, but after that kids would see this as just a "baby book."

The only downside is that it doesn't stand up to repeated use - kids will enjoy reading it the first few times, but afterwards, when they see the joke coming, it does lose some of its charm. So this would be better as a library pick-up, rather than as a purchase.

That said, if you do want to buy it, you can get it at here, or here.

We dig worms!
by Kevin McCloskey
30 pages / 2015

This is as boy a book as you'll find – a book about all sorts of worms, from small to one that is ten feet long (and there's even a bit on the gummy sort).

We learn that worms have no eyes or nose, and that they have cold blood. We learn they do important work, eating, leaves and bugs and bringing air to plant roots. We even get a peak inside worms and see they have 5 hearts!

And there are oodles of other facts about worms. It's a book any little boy would find fascinating, all the way up through Grade 2.

You can pick it up at here and here.

Otto's Backwards Day
by Frank Cammuso
28 pages / 2013

This is a clever story about palindromes - words that are the same backwards as forwards, like the name "Otto." It's also about a little self-absorbed boy named Otto, who thinks birthdays are all about the presents (and who cares about the people!?). In other words, this bratty little boy has it all backwards! 

When Otto is told by his Dad that he has it all backwards, he ends up in a backwards world, where everything is "topsy turvy." It's fun to visit a world where you get in trouble for picking up trash, and where Otto has to ask the Ogopogo's three questions and if he gets them right Otto will face his wrath. It's all mixed up, with backwards spelling, and a robot friend who can turn into just about anything, so long as it is a a "kayak" or a "race car." By the end, Otto learns his lesson and realizes that the best part of any birthday is the people you get to spend it with.

Lots of goofy fun, with just one caution: there is an instance of "pottyesque" humor - in the backwards world everyone wears their underpants on the outside, so Otto has to as well. There is nothing immodest about it - only silly in a way that might not be the sort of thing we want to encourage among some more rambunctious boys.

Otto has another adventure, in Otto's Orange Day. It's fun too, but features a genie, and I don't quite know what I think of genies – an all powerful, supernatural being – for this preschool to Grade One level. Hmmm...what do you figure? Otto uses his wish to turn everything his favorite color, orange. He likes the orange world at first, but it turns out orange lamb chops are not that good, and when he wants to change things back he realizes there is a problem: the genie only gave him one wish!

You can pick up Otto's Backward Day at here, or here.

Tippy and the Night Parade
by Lilli Carré
32 pages / 2014

This is a nice one for girls. The story begins with Tippy's room in a big mess. Her mom wants to know how it happened, but there's a problem: even Tippy doesn't know. There's a snake under the bed, a pig in the sheets, a turtle on the carpet, and bats flying overhead. How'd they all get there?

Tippy and mom get to tidying up, and Tippy heads to bed, still wondering how her room got so messy. That's when we see how it happened - Tippy, it seems, is a sleepwalker, and so off she goes, on a trip through the woods, picking up friends here and there, before they all head back and she tucks herself back into bed with a zoo's worth of animals to keep her company. It is a quiet little story, that might be perfect as a bed time story to girls from 3 to 8.

You can pick it up at here, and here.

RELATED REVIEWS: other good children's comics for reluctant readers

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther

by Steven J. Lawson
145 pages / 2013

This is a book that every Protestant minister should read. Why? Because it uses the story of the first Protestant minister, Martin Luther, to show what Protestant ministers should be doing with the word of God.

This book is by no means a complete biography of Martin Luther. It does not deal with any of the flaws that are sometimes mentioned with regard to his life. What it does do (very well) is show how God used Luther to redirect His people back to His word.

And how was Luther equipped, and how did he equip others, to do that? First of all, he had, in the words of the title of Chapter 2, "A Deep Conviction about the Word" - its verbal inspiration, its divine inerrancy, its supreme authority, its intrinsic clarity, and its complete sufficiency.

A deep conviction about God's word is not effective unless one also knows it deeply, and Luther did. Chapter 3 portrays the second key characteristic of Luther's approach to the preaching of God's word - his "Relentless Drive in the Study." First of all, he humbly followed wherever God was leading him through His word. Second, he stressed going back to the Bible rather than any commentaries - reading through the Bible himself twice a year. Third, Luther departed from much earlier interpretation of God's word by sticking to the clear meaning of the text rather than spiritualizing it. Finally, he emphasized the reading of the text in the original languages, and the need for the work of the Spirit to work with God's word.

Next, Lawson shows the structure and content of  Luther's sermons: concise introduction, biblical exposition, a stress on God's law, the exaltation of Christ and His work on the cross, personal application, and the invitation of the gospel. This is similar to the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism - sin, salvation, service. Luther's sermons were also delivered powerfully, with an indomitable spirit, fervent intensity, accessible speech, and colorful expressions.

Finally, Luther preached with full disclosure of the truth, confident assertions of Scriptural wisdom, determination in the face of opposition, undaunted courage, and a daring defense of Biblical teaching.

Lawson concludes with an exhortation to continue the Reformation by emulating his high view of the Scriptures, a high view of God, and a high view of the pulpit. If you believe that Lawson's view of Luther gives us a good way to see the value of the kind of preaching that Luther preached and promoted, you can get his book at here and here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Farm Team

by Linda Bailey
illustrated by Bill Slavin
32 pages / 2006

I'm a Canuck living in a house full of American lasses, so every now and again, I hit my daughters up with a dose of good ol' Canadian culture. And boy was this a goodie!

The Farm Team is about a bunch of chickens, pigs, sheep, and one cow, who love hockey and want to bring the championship trophy back home. For the last 50 years, the Bush League Bandits have always come out on top, but this year the Farm Team has a great goalie and they think they have the right stuff to get it done.

But the Bandits are cheaters, and when the score gets tight their porcupine drives for the net and punctures the Farm Team's porky goaltender. How's the Farm Team going to handle it with their best player injured? Never fear, coach Clyde (a Clydesdale) will think of something!

Parents could use this book to teach children a little about sportsmanship – the Farm Team are great examples of hardworking and clean playing sportsmen sportsanimals – but the real value of this book is in just how fun it is to read out loud. There's lots of action, some good twists (what's the Farm Team going to do when the Bandits' new star player is an enormous bear?!?), and some very fun play-by-play dialogue to shout out. It's the kind of book that is so well written it made it easy for me to become quite the performer. My kids loved it, and even my wife, who was busy making supper as we read, really got into the action.

So a good dose of Canadiana and a great big heaping of fun.

You can get The Farm Team at here and here and if you use one of these links Amazon will send a small tip our way, at no extra cost to you.