Friday, January 22, 2010

Book Review: How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell

"Long ago, on the wild and windy isle of Berk, a smallish Viking with a longish name stood up to his ankles in snow.

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, the Hope and Hier to the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans, had been feeling slightly sick ever since he woke up that morning."

Hiccup is the son of the Hairy Hooligans' Viking chief, and destined to take over that leadership from his father. But first, he - along with all the other boys his age in the tribe - must successfully complete an important rite of initiation: climb up into the dragon cave, locate the dragon nursery, bag a sleeping juvenile dragon for his lifelong companion, and get out. All without waking up the rest of the hundreds of dragons slumbering there, who will surely pursue the boys and ensure a rather grisly end to their quest. And then, he has to prove his mastery over this dangerous creature by training it. The problem is that Hiccup is not very much like his mighty Viking father, and not very like a typical Viking, for that matter. In fact, the other boys have dubbed him Hiccup the Useless, all except his loyal friend Fishlegs. Can he complete this quest, fulfill his destiny, and earn the respect of the tribe? Or will he end up a charbroiled dragon snack?

For Teachers and Librarians:
How to Train Your Dragon has been touted as the perfect book to reel in your reluctant readers. It's full of varied text and picture use throughout: maps, lists, songs, stat pages on dragons, rough drawings, even stray blots of ink strewn here and there. Several characters have their own unique text when they speak, making it easier to keep everyone straight. It has colorful characters with giggle-worthy names: Dogsbreath, Clueless, Fishlegs, and Snotlout, to name a few. The vocabulary strikes right at the readers' funny bones, adding just the right amount of mild bathroom humor that always seems to draw kids like a magnet - but not so much that the story is overshadowed.

Mixed in with all the laugh-out-loud moments, excitement, danger, dragons, and very uncivilized Vikings, your students will find a real hero's adventure complete with a quest or two, impossible odds, a main character you can't help but like, and a story that will keep the kids thinking (despite themselves) all the way through. You'll find themes of quintessential initiation rites of childhood; dealing with intimidation by peers, parents, and even teachers; finding the leader within; depending on good friends; discovering strength you didn't know you had; learning to adapt; among many others. This book can be used as a supplement to a study on early Vikings, Norse mythology, and/or even a fun language unit (due to the many bits of dragonese that will have your students in stitches). Use your imagination when it comes to this wildly imaginative book. How will you use this in your classroom?

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
How to Train Your Dragon will have your kiddos laughing all the way through, but they'll also be doing a good bit of thinking. What kind of person do they want to be? What is the "stuff" they're made of? Hiccup is faced with monster-sized odds, but finds a way to deal with all of it - and not all by himself. He learns to get help when he needs it, and to trust when his heart tells him to trust. He learns that the accepted way of doing things isn't always the only (or even the best) way of doing things. He learns to see himself for the important and unique person he truly is. You'll enjoy this one as much as your kids will - and it's even more fun when it's read out loud. Find a copy and get reading. You - and your kids - will be glad you did.

For the Kids:
How to Train Your Dragon is much more than a dragon training manual. It's more a story, really. In fact, the only training manual anyone knows about is very, very, erm...brief. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, his best friend Fishlegs, and the other boys his age must each sneak into a dragon nursery cave, steal a dragon, and scramble back out undetected. But it doesn't end there - then they have to train their dragons to do their bidding, and prove it to all the other Hairy Hooligans.

Dragons, however, are not a very nice lot. In fact, they're rather selfish, don't think much of anyone but themselves, and tend to make life as difficult as they can for their human captors. Hiccup (called Hiccup the Useless by his nemesis and ambitious cousin, Snotlout) and the rest of the Hairy Hooligans soon find they have a lot more to worry about than whether their little dragons follow their commands. Can Hiccup live up to the tribe's expectations that he become the next Chief of the Hairy Hooligans? Can he ever get his dragon to listen to him? And, can he save his people from the danger lurking deep below the water's surface?

For Everyone Else:
How to Train Your Dragon is a fun story, with a message subtly woven in. You'll find yourself cheering for this "smallish Viking with a longish name," pulled deep into the story as you laugh, commiserate, and think all the way through.

Wrapping Up:
How to Train Your Dragon is a book not to be missed. It's a rollicking adventure that will keep the reader giggling, cheering and pondering right on through to the end.

Title: How to Train Your Dragon
Author and Illustrator: Cressida Cowell
Pages: 216
Reading Level: Ages 8-12
Publisher and Date: Little, Brown and Company, 2004
Edition: 1st U.S. Edition (library copy)
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $4.50 (at
ISBN-10: 0-316-73737-2
ISBN-13: 978-0316737371

Author Spotlight: Cressida Cowell

Perhaps best known for her novel series chronicling the adventures of young Viking Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, author and illustrator Cressida Cowell credits her obsession with Vikings and the Dark Ages to girlhood history lessons at St. Paul's School with her American teacher, Miss Macdonald.

An avid book collector, Ms Cowell grew up mostly in Central London, England. After earning a B.A. in English Literature from Oxford, she worked briefly in Macmillan Publishing's fiction department, then extended her education further with a B.A. in Graphic Design from St. Martin's art school, and an M.A. in Narrative Illustration from Brighton.

She began her career as an illustrator, and was shortlisted for the Macmillan Prize for Illustration. Her first picture book, Little Bo Peep's Library Book, was published by Hodder Children's Books in 1998. She followed that work with other picture books.

Her first novel for 8-12 year-olds, How to Train Your Dragon, was first published in the United Kingdom in 2003, with the first 100,000 copies sold entirely by word-of-mouth. (Quite a lot of firsts...) In fact, the novel's popularity has grown to the point that it is now available in 27 languages, and has been adapted into a Dreamworks feature film set to release in March 2010.

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III's adventures, originally chronicled in How to Train Your Dragon, have since morphed into an 8 book series, currently. To see and hear Ms Cowell discuss the fourth title in the series, How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse, visit this Meet the Author page.

The Hiccup books were inspired by Ms Cowell's childhood memories of holidays spent camping with her parents, brother and sister "on a tiny island in the Inner Hebrides, bought by her father...cut off from the outside world but surrounded by an archipelago of other tiny, uninhabited islands," (see Amanda Craig link below) as well as by adventures with her parents that were very like the ones Hiccup and his fellow Viking boys face in the series. She says of the island,
"It was wonderful but intense, the kind of place where you might expect to see dragons sailing overhead."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

More Signs of Life

Part of me is a Highly Visual Person. Another part of me possesses a Slightly Warped Sense of Humor. And when you put those two parts of me together and hand them a camera, well, all I can say should know better. Highly Visual Me + Slightly Warped Sense of Humor Me + Camera-Weilding Me = a maniacal giggle fit to be sure, a blog post at the very least, or (usually) both.

If you've been around a while, and you remember my Signs of Life post way back in August 2008, and you were hoping for a sequel, your hope has become reality. If you're new here, go on and check the other post out, and then come on back here to Part Deux. We'll wait...

All caught up? Alrighty, then. Here we go:

While walking around at the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, DC, I chanced to inhale a cinnamon-y aroma too powerful to resist. I found myself following my nose until I came upon the source of that heavenly scent. Apparently, lots of other folks before me had done the same thing:

When we saw this one outside a restaurant in the next town over, we had to wonder: Should we stay, or should we go?

My kiddos (AKA my Funny Sign Partners in Crime) pointed this one out to me as we were headed into a restaurant across the street. My Inner-Ten-Year-Old Boy was in hysterics:

The person who named this street must have been thinking about the last thing he said to his chiropractor: "Doc, ya gotta help me. I got this awful pain in my..."

Seen on a bus in NYC last year. Lovely Girl especially enjoyed quoting this one all the rest of that day:

You know how sometimes, you dig into a snack that's just so fantastically good that your Inner Toddler clutches the container and shrieks, "MINE!" if anyone dares to ask you to share? Well, this company knows just how you feel, so they've conveniently printed up a warning right there on the box, efficiently warding off any would-be solicitors:

Now, wasn't that fun? (Careful. Don't let the friendly banter fool you. You're still not gettin' any of my soft pretzel...)

Friday, January 8, 2010

When the Imagined Goes Mainstream, Or: How Awesome It is When a Word Somebody Totally Makes Up Ends Up Used By, Like, Everybody

January 9th is Word Nerd Day. And if you go and research it, you'll most likely find - as I did - that though lots of folks list it as a holiday on their blogs and what-have-you, there isn't one single site that explains its existence, or origin, or anything. It seems that somebody just up and submitted it to Chase's Calendar of Events, and the good people there decided it was a great addition to their list of festivities, and voila! a holiday is born.

Whether it has a long and storied history (uh-uh) or a rather unspectacular back story (yup) makes no nevermind to me. What Word Nerd Day does do, is give me the excuse to talk about words. Not that I need one. But having a questionably valid excuse to do so is better than having no excuse at all.

So, where did this word, "nerd" come from? The earliest documented appearance of "nerd" in print came from none other than that most venerable Sage of Silliness: Dr. Seuss. I'll prove it. Go and dig out your beloved-and-quite-possibly-well-worn-copy of his 1950 book, If I Ran the Zoo. Flip to page 47, and you will see these words:

And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo
And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo,
a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!

You'll also see this:

But there isn't any other lexical explanation. The Sage of Silliness leaves the reader to his or her own devices there. It seems that, in the book, it was more of a name for a particular species of animal-person-thing, akin to "bear," or "alligator," rather than a description of a certain type of individual.

Then, the October 8, 1951 issue of Newsweek (page 28) wrote of its popular use as a synonym for "a drip" or "a square" in Detroit, Michigan. By the early 1960's, "nerd" was in common use nationwide in the United States, and had even hopped the pond to Scotland, where the Glasgow, Scotland Sunday Mail included the word in its regular column "ABC for Squares," defining "nerd" as "a square -- any explanation needed?"

Now, let's jump ahead to today, where - while "nerd" still clings to its initial geeky meaning - it has also morphed into somewhat of a badge of honor; one who is accomplished in and/or obsessed by whatever field the word is attached to, such as: computer nerd, science nerd, gamer nerd, art nerd, comic book nerd, music nerd, or my personal favorite...word nerd.

Blogger and novelist Wolf Gnards offers his definition of "word nerd" on his writing blog:
A Word Nerd is anyone who loves the written language and isn't afraid to admit it: be it literary classics or this month's Spider-Man comic.

Which brings us back to Word Nerd Day. And so, to celebrate those folks who love all things wordy or literary or bookish in any way, here are a few Websites You May Want to Wander To:

  • Word Nerd - Bethany Warner's blog, whose slogan is: "No pocket protectors here; just don't break the spines on books." She she blogs about books and writing and such, and refers to herself in her postings as "Word Nerd."
  • The Word Nerds - A site dedicated to "words, language, and why we say the things we do." Though the site ceased publishing weekly podcasts in April 2009, it still has an active forum that keeps the wordy ways and discussions alive.
  • Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing - Mignon Fogarty is your host for this most useful website. If you have any questions about using the English language in any way, chances are you can find the answers you need right there, or in her book. And, Grammar Girl is on Twitter.
  • Martha Brockenbrough - Author of books for kids and adults alike, she is a humor columnist, blogger, and one who can find the "funny" in the often staid world of grammar. You can find Martha on Twitter, as well.
  • - An online dictionary - launched in June 2009 - that is anything but ordinary. It is a database of (at last count) over 4 billion words gathered from such varied sources as multiple dictionaries, websites, books, magazines and newspapers. CEO Erin McKean points out that this site will give you not only definitions in text, but also relevant Flickr images, Twitter search matches, and user-contributed tags and comments. The site invites users to submit words, too. And, wordnik Tweets with the best of them.

Happy, happy Word Nerd Day, fellow word-lovers! May your day be deliciously lexical!


Friday, January 1, 2010

The Lexical Equivalent of "Off With His Head?"

January 1st. The very first day of a brand new year. A clean slate. A fresh start.

And, reasoned the PR department of Lake Superior State University, what better day to unleash a slew of words from the previous year that have, shall we say, out-lived their usefulness? Such was the thinking of the university's former Public Relations Director, Bill Rabe, and his colleagues, way back in 1975.

While gathered at a holiday party on December 31st of that year, Rabe and company came up with a whole host of words which had frequently appeared in media outlets and were endlessly spouted from thousands of lips, to the great chagrin of the partygoers. So, they compiled the lot into a "List of Words to be Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-use and General Uselessness," the goal of which was to purge said words from common usage and "out of public memory." The fruits of their labors ended up distributed by Rabe on New Year's Day, 1976. And so it was that January 1st has come to be known to many logophiles as New Year's Dishonor List Day.

The List was so popular in its inaugural year that LSSU decided to make it an annual New Year's Day tradition. Though Rabe retired in 1987, The List has lived on, catching yearly attention from such diverse outlets as The New York Times,,, and a fair amount of bloggers (including the likes of Library Boy and, ahem, me) as well as garnering thousands of submissions each year to LSSU's PR department. In fact, January 1, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the List's publication.

What kinds of words make the cut? According to the university's website, "Word enthusiasts target pet peeves from everyday speech, as well as from the news, education, technology, advertising, politics, sports and more." Some samples from 2009's list:
  • green
  • carbon footprint
  • maverick
  • bailout
  • iconic
  • staycation
  • game changer
  • desperate search

To add to the fun, readers can submit comments for any of the words on the list. For example, concerning this 2009 entry:
(a combination of characters meant to resemble a sideways heart, and which means "love" in text-speak), Andrea Estrada of Chicago had this to say:

Just say the word instead of making me turn my head sideways and wondering what "less than three" means.

If you're wondering about words that made the cut in previous years, the university has you covered there, too, with a Banishment Word List Archive that stretches all the way back to that original 1976 list. And for those wishing to search for a particular word, there is a handy Complete List of Banished Words, presented alphabetically, with a link next to each word that will take you to its corresponding banishment year list.

So, what words were folks sick of hearing/reading/seeing in 2009? Find out by visiting the 2010 List of Words to Be Banished. While you're there, you can submit your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Hoping to make your own lexical contribution to the list? It's too late to get your two cents in for the 2010 edition - submissions are accepted all year long, and then a committee makes a "final cut" in late December for inclusion in the New Year's Day list. But, it's not too early to get your submission in for 2011's List of Words to be Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-use and General Uselessness. Contributions can be made by either clicking the following: Submit a Word to Banish, or by emailing your submission to:

Enjoy the day, Word Enthusiasts!

New Year's Dishonor List Day (HubPages article by Brandon De Hoyos)