Solving The Kung Fu Puzzle
Now that I have two book-devouring kids, I find myself much more engaged with books and comics for the 10 and under age bracket (I guess you'd call that pre-tween?). My kids read comics along with text books without much distinction at this point which is probably due to the pretty decent selection of comics in the children's section of our local library. (The Sardine in Outer Space series was a recent favorite.)
So I was pretty interested in getting an opportunity to review the latest installment in the Manga Math Mysteries series. Number four is titled The Kung Fu Puzzle: A Mystery with Time and Temperature. I think any book, comic or otherwise, should be engaging on its own merits. Educational value shouldn't be an excuse for a boring book. Kung Fu Puzzle passed that test with flying colors with both of my kids (I thought it was pretty good too). In fact I think my youngest daughter's biggest complaint is actually nice praise for the book -- she was quite annoyed at its somewhat open-ended finish. I think she was hoping that the story went on longer.
The comic book is about a group of kids in a kung fu studio who help their instructor solve several mysteries left by the instructor's late father. None of the mystery here is particularly scary -- there's no "bad guys" -- which makes this book nice for any child who's still a bit sensitive regarding such subject matter. The comic incorporates a lot of visual use of clocks and works the use of time into the story in several ways, ranging from simply weaving it into the story dialogue to making it a key part of several of the puzzles left by the instructor's father for her to figure out. Those puzzles also incorporate temperature (both fareinheit and celsius!) too. The educational aspect of teaching about time and temperature in the book is done pretty organically -- the characters encounter and solve the puzzles pretty swiftly in the course of the book. If anything I was a bit surprised that there wasn't more of a "here's the puzzle, look at the back of the book for the answer" approach to things. Still, comics' panel structure lends itself well to letting young readers see how the characters encounter questions of time and temperature and at least get the chance to puzzle it out with them.
I don't pretend to be qualified to pass judgment on the educational value of the book -- I will note that it's written by Melinda Theilbar, a math teacher who won a VIGRE fellowship for PhD candidates likely to make a strong contribution to education in mathematics, so I'll defer to her expertise in the matter. Maybe more importantly though is that it's a pretty good story and features a young girl as the primary lead character which is always appealing to my daughters. It also has very solid art from Der-shing Helmer. The art has a bit of a generic feel at times given how much manga-influenced art fills cartoons and comics theres days, but its consistent quality is a good compliment to the story and the way that the various puzzles are incorporated into the visuals is actually quite good. One has to give Helmer a lot of credit for doing it in a way that doesn't break the fourth wall or otherwise interrupt the reader's immersion in the comic.
The publisher, Graphic Universe advertises this book as pitched at a third grade reading level and of interest to 8 to 11 year olds. Reading ability in kids does make a big difference in terms of what books they will enjoy at what age so your results will vary. I do think the subject matter is fine for any age, it's more a question of older kids not finding it interesting enough. I wouldn't see any problem with reading this to younger children, especially if you used it to help with teaching them about time and temperature.
The publisher provided a free copy of this book to ComixTalk for review purposes.