Back in School? That’s Fantastic

Woods titleHow excited are your students about schools beginning to open up for classroom lessons?  If their delight is tinged by a bit of uncertainty, given this past pandemic year of interrupted attendance, a recent graphic novel may provide engaging reassurance.  Its blend of fantasy with typical middle school events and issues offers a distanced focus on tween and teenage life—a storytelling step back from real-life school that matches how some kids now feel a bit new and strange in the classroom.  Certainly, The Wiernbook’s Be Wary of the Silent Woods, Book 1 (2020) will please all readers with its fast-paced action, detailed cast of characters, and aptly colored images.

You may already be familiar with some of author/illustrator Svetlana Chmakova’s award-winning graphic novels, in particular her four-book series set in fictional Berrybrook Middle School.   I reviewed its first two insightful, entertaining books—Awkward (2015) and Brave (2017)—here and reviewed the third book, Crush (2018), in this post The fourth volume, Diary, is a combination of related short stories and writing exercises that appeared in 2019 The images in this ruefully humorous slice-of-life series demonstrate Chmakova’s earlier experience as a successful writer and illustrator of manga.  The emotional wide mouths and cartoonish features typical of manga appear in Berrybrook School’s diverse cast of students and teachers and in this new book too.

Crush coverBut it is Chmakova’s incorporation of another of her successes—the setting of her urban fantasy series Nightschool: The Weirn Books (2009 -2010)—into Be Wary of the Silent Woods that sets it apart from the Berrybrook Middle School books.  In a recent interview, Chmakova revealed that she missed the fantastic world she had created in Weirn, with its older teen protagonists, and realized that nothing like it had been written for a middle-school audience.  The author/illustrator says that Be Wary of the Silent Woods is an offshoot rather than a continuation of the earlier adventure series, with “a different place, different time, and an entirely different cast of characters, and also a different vibe . . . more lighthearted.”

In its magic-filled New England town close by those silent woods,  supernatural beings, who coexist with humans, cope with daily difficulties in family and school situations that will feel familiar.  Tweenage narrator Ailis finds it hard to wake up in time for school, has a crush on older schoolmate Russ, and is best friends with her cousin Na’yah, with both girls routinely keeping an eye on Na’yah’s kid brother Deesh.  Yet the girls attend school at night, with a curriculum that includes spellcasting and creating defensive charms; Deesh attends “night care” rather than day care;  and Russ is a werewolf!  In this fictional world, Ailis’s family and many of her classmates are “weirn”—magic users who must learn how to use their supernatural powers, a fact that Ailis’ grumpy grandmother often points out.  Weirn are also notable because each has an “astral”—a pet-like supernatural creature bonded to it for life.  These ball-shaped creatures, unlike the daemons in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials universe, do not speak, but each has a distinct personality and acts about the same age as its weirn. 

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Astrals play an important role in the book as Ailis and her friends explore a seemingly abandoned house, discovering and ultimately defeating a long-lived, evil sorceress.  The astrals help the kids rescue themselves and a surviving victim too.  As this adventure develops, other weirn characters—“nerdy” Jasper and waspish Patricia—join Chamakova’s broad cast of characters.  Grandma also comes back into play, as Ailis discovers more about her family’s history with the sorceress.  The book’s subplots reveal background information about these characters that enrich and explain what has been their daily behavior.

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Each of the 200 page book’s six chapters ends suspensefully, with its final epilog similarly concluding with a hint that the sorceress is not yet dead.  This strongly suggests she will reappear in book 2 of the series, now scheduled for publication in 2021.  Appreciative readers can look forward there to more of Chmakova’s deft visual storytelling, with figures sometimes overlapping panels to unite their action.  At other points, wordless panels carry along some events or situations.  Color also is at times key to the narrative, with full color replaced by sepia to mark old memories and the mysterious epilog hued in subdued lavender and blues.  Chmakova also makes dramatic use of different colors for sound effect words, effectively altering their typeface size and shape to match the events they describe. 

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Eager readers who cannot wait for book 2 here may want to look at  Chamakova’s nine-part Halloween story, “The Town Tour,” currently on Instagram.  Although its central characters are Berrybrook Middle School kids, weirn youngsters also appear in this story.   Fans will also be happy to hear that Chamakova is at work as well on the next Berrybrook Middle School graphic novel.  It is the first of three new novels she is planning for that series.  Whether inside or outside of the classroom, works in both series are sure to provide satisfying reading.   

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Zooming Behind the Book Scene

 writer 1For most students, zoomed instruction has been a poor substitute for in-class learning.  Yet COVID-19’s simultaneous lockdown on author/illustrator visits to schools and bookstores has given readers a wonderful opportunity: an abundance of zoomed interviews with these creative people.  We can see and hear about how new graphic works were conceived and what their authors and illustrators especially want us to know about their work.  For instance, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to learn about a new novel that will especially appeal to tween/teen and older readers who enjoy scary fiction or are interested in African culture.   

after the rain title After the Rain (2021), written by John Jennings and illustrated by David Brame, is a wonderful adaptation of a short story by award-winning Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor.   Its brilliant colors, detailed pages, and strong storyline capture Okorafor’s acute observations about Nigerian and Nigerian-American culture.  I was interested to learn—in that zoomed interview with Jennings and Brame–that Okorafor herself, a long-time friend of Jennings, was involved in this book’s creation.  She provided the typical Nigerian cloth pattern featured on both its front cover and interior jacket pages as well as providing feedback on Jenning’s dialogue.   It was also interesting to hear Brame discuss how Jennings’ remarks influenced some of his illustration choices.  Multifaceted Jennings, himself a skilled illustrator as well as author and critic, won awards for the visuals in I am Alfonso Jones, reviewed by me here.)

 After the Rain explores the difficulties of belonging to two worlds—a situation familiar to many immigrant families and their kids.  Its central character Choma, a Nigerian-American woman, is a seasoned  Chicago police detective.  Yet the book opens in today’s rural Nigeria, where Choma is visiting her grandmother and great-aunt in their village.  Choma says “I rely on logic and evidence every day in my job.  I depend on it.  It protects me.” But how she co mes to grips with Nigerian traditions and beliefs in the supernatural is at this graphic novel’s heart.  Its gripping images capture and expand the escalating mystery, terror, shock, and slightly ambiguous resolution provided in the original Okorafor short story, titled “On the Road.”  (That work is available in the Okorafor short story collection titled Kabu Kabu.)

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After the Rain begins during a driving rainstorm, with Choma dashing towards the shelter of her grandmother’s small house.  Its blue-purple scenes yield to red-orange backgrounds when Choma,  later opening the door to an gruesomely injured boy, invites him into the house.  He soon runs off, but Choma cannot escape a growing sense of dread and horror.  In the next days, she feels as if she is being constantly watched and followed.  Angled, inserted panels focused on her face or on her entire body as well as whole pages wreathed in ominously entwined geckos or skull-laden flowers convey Choma’s terror.  The sickeningly sweet smell that haunts her is mirrored in the feathery black shadow creature readers see loom behind her on several pages, growing larger from one panel to the next.  Then, Choma’s emotions and experiences, rooted in Nigeria’s traditions about the supernatural,  are shown in surreal images where she meets the “Spirits, masquerades, ghosts, and ancestors” of her Nigerian heritage.  These figures themselves merge the novel’s dominant blue-purple and red-orange palettes.

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We learn in chilling, thrill-filled, and sometimes gory pages why those disembodied red hands figure so prominently on this novel’s cover.   And the puzzling behavior of Choma’s grandmother and great-aunt during Choma’s terrifying experiences “on the road” is explained before Choma flies back to Chicago.  Her heartfelt conversation with them also reveals how Choma is now finally able to look back and accept a violent act that took place in Chicago, years before she became a police officer.  As a very young woman, she had fought off and killed a man who attacked her.  Brame and Jennings depict this incident in swiftly-moving pages, with close-ups and some wordless panels continuing the breathtaking pace of the Nigerian scenes of terror.

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 Choma’s experiences with the supernatural in Nigeria have left her a stronger person, freed from the unacknowledged guilt that had haunted her.  As she replies to the taxi driver taking her to the airport, she is not merely “American” but “Nigermerican.  Some of me lives here.  Some of me lives there. . ..”    She does not voice the smiling realization that follows:  “ . . .and where those two parts meet is where I am whole again.”   Brame’s illustrations and Jenning’s action-packed in-flight conclusion are further evidence of Choma’s strength and wholeness.

As John Jennings explained by zoom and in an earlier interview, After the Rain is the first volume in a new line of graphic works published by the Abrams compnay.  This Megascope imprint is dedicated to works by and about people of color, with a heavy emphasis on science fiction and fantasy.   In addition to those forthcoming graphic novels, I am looking forward to its graphicairport history book for readers 12 on up about the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre.  Across the Tracks: Remembering Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre will be published in May, 2021. 

Nnedi Okorafor has herself written some comics for teens and adults, while her all-prose works rooted in Nigerian culture include the science fiction Binti trilogy for teens and a contemporary mystery for tweens titled Ikenga.  I had the pleasure several years ago of hearing Okorafor speak in person about her life and work, when she was an invited, honored guest at the University of Minnesota.   Perhaps this online interview, with its embedded link to a TED talk she has given, may substitute for that sort of still locked-down “behind the book scene” experience.

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Class Acts

Biden-Harris1What a class act the new Biden-Harris administration is!  President Biden and his team have brought purpose and hope these past weeks–including efforts that suggest how a return to U.S. classrooms will someday be safe for all.  With that hope, today seems a good time to catch up with a great, eagerly awaited middle-grade novel centered on school life. Aptly, author/illustrator Jerry Craft has titled this companion volume to his award-winning graphic novel New Kid (2019, reviewed by me here) Class Act (2020).

One need not have read New Kid, which focused on the seventh grade experience Cover class actof Black 12 year-old Jordan, to appreciate Class Act.  Yet having that familiarity will enhance enjoyment of this new volume, which follows Jordan into eighth grade at the prestigious, mostly-white private school, Riverdale Academy, that he attends just outside New York City.  Class Act  looks at and contrasts the experiences of comparatively light-skinned Jordan with those of his friends, darker-skinned Drew and Caucasian Liam.  By deploying three central characters, Craft nimbly shows not only how skin tone affects racial interactions and prejudices but how economic class is a factor in personal and institutional expectations.

Jordan comes from a comfortable and caring two-parent, middle-class family, while Drew is poorer, being raised by a loving grandmother who works long hours to support their two-person household.  Liam’s family is wealthy, and he definitely does not need the financial aid Riverdale provides the other two boys.  How teachers and students treat Jordan and Drew—based on cultural stereotypes about Blacks–is at times both painful and painfully funny.  One teacher pushes overwritten books about Black gang life at them, falsely assuming their personal experience with such dramatized situations, while other teachers either overemphasize or fail to recognize the boys’ need for financial aid.  A secondary minority character, whose father is the CEO of a successful business, has his wealthy background equally misunderstood.  Realistic, sympathetic girl characters in this book include accomplished yet lovelorn Ashley, who bakes sweet potato pies to attract Drew, and Alexandra, who uses puppetry to mask what she at first perceives as her weaknesses.

Class act group photoCraft is never didactic, using insight and humor to communicate all these events–particularly the situations he himself and his now adult sons experienced at private schools.  Compounding these problems is the learning curve any tween or teen has to master.  As Craft has Drew plaintively remark to Jordan at one point, ” Getting As . . . is so much easier than all the personal stuff. . . . I wish friendship came with a textbook.”  It is only when Liam visits both Drew and Jordan’s homes, after they have visited his home and met his relatively unhappy family, that the boys solidify their relationships outside as well as inside school.  It is a hoot how much they all appreciate the tasty meals offered by Drew’s and Jordan’s families, compared to the thin-crust, designer pizza the boys cannot escape at Liam’s fancy home!

Class Act pieCraft also uses humorous visual elements to reinforce his plot and themes.  Confident, bossy seniors loom as literal giants over the sophomore students, while reluctant, sleepy students beginning the first day of school after summer vacation and other breaks—called “zombies” by Craft’s main characters–are literally depicted as zombies, with staring eyes, vacant expressions, and jerky body language.  Class Act continues its creator’s enjoyable tradition of using punning titles for each chapter.  While New Kid plays upon movie and TV show names, this companion volume plays upon kid lit book titles.  Jerry Craft even lampoons himself, with one chapter’s double pun, titled “Mew Kid” and supposedly written and illustrated by “Furry Craft.”  Of course, a cat is the main illustration there. 

class-act-race talkThis primarily full-color book also continues New School’s insertion of short, black-and-white comics supposedly drawn by artistic Jordan.  This character’s words and pictures in the comics sarcastically point out the racism he feels and sees at tony Riverdale Academy.  A visit from the Academy’s new sister school—a public school from an all-Black neighborhood–provides several chapters of further differences and misunderstandings between private Riverdale and the poorly-funded public school.  In our real life COVID times, such differences frequently determine how and when it is safe for students to return to classrooms rather than learning online.  Fictional Riverdale has ample space and, I suspect, state of the art air circulation systems, unlike its Bronx sister school, which even lacks books for many classes.  Riverdale would probably be among those private schools which this past year only briefly shut down classroom instruction.  Class Act‘s other visual storytelling elements include the effective use of rare, dramatically noticeable double page spreads (including chapter headings) and some pages in which the omission or changed size of panels appropriately heightens reader attention.

How much will your young readers enjoy Class Act?  This trailer for the book will pique and confirm their interest.  Jerry Craft’s interesting responses to frequently-asked questions about his books and writing are also available here at his website, while this interview with him details how real-life experiences led to his depiction of Riverdale Academy, with all its flaws as well as successes.  One need not—and should not—relegate reading of wise and funny Class Act to February’s serendipitous celebration of U.S. Black History month.

 

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Dark Nights and Brighter Days

conjunctionThis past week’s winter solstice, overlapping with the rarely seen  conjunction of planets Jupiter and Saturn, had me rethinking and rereading a similarly special, mysteriously meaningful new picture book, The Wanderer (2020).   As I mused about how we rejoice each year, anticipating the brighter days that reliably follow our darkest night, I wondered about what other predictable rarities, such as that planetary conjunction, might remain beyond our sight.  What might we do to explore and find such “unknowns”?   With The Wanderer, Dutch author/illustrator Peter Van Den Ende stirs such questions, providing answers that provocatively yoke real-life situations to imaginary ones.

wanderer titleReaders young and old will enjoy poring over his pen and ink, cross-hatched drawings.  These black and white images detail the adventures of a paper boat as it journeys across seas surrounding continents shaped like ours yet populated by strange creatures unlike any in our known world.  Fish with human hands and horses, tigers, and elephants with fins are just some of the chimeras Van Den Ende depicts.  Lavishly detailed in frequent full or double-page spreads, sometimes employing Escher-like patterns, his visual story shows some of these creatures helping the storm-tossed boat while others threaten it.  One huge fish even ominously stands on a stack of shipwrecked vessels!  Midway through the book, one of these hybrid, human-shaped creatures, along with a cat,  boards the boat, joining it on its adventures. Continue reading

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New Lights on Hanukkah

menorahDo your spirits need a lift?  In this time of raging COVID-19 and  President Trump’s outrageous behavior towards President-elect Biden, my heart has been gladdened by picture books casting new light upon Hanukkah.  One of these charming works is particularly well-suited for young readers whose families may celebrate Christmas as well as this upcoming Jewish holiday.  All these books emphasize human determination, generosity, and emotional connections, regardless of religious affiliation—or lack of any affiliation.  Their refreshing takes on Hanukkah, each deploying a child-friendly literary tradition in a new way, are comfortingly familiar even as they are engagingly different.

Nate GadolThe Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol (2020), written by literary luminary Arthur A. Levine and illustrated by the accomplished Kevin Hawkes, creates a new mythic character to represent Hanukkah, much as Santa Claus is a secular representative of Christmas.  In fact, in this picture book we discover that Nate Gadol and Santa are old friends!  This title character’s name comes directly from the supposed miracle that occurred at the end of an ancient fight for religious freedom, commemorated during Hanukkah.  When only one day’s holy oil was left in the main Jewish temple, it miraculously lasted eight nights.  World-wide, Jews now recognize the Hebrew words “Nes gadol haya shem”, meaning a “A great miracle happened there,” attached to the dreidel (spinning top) game typically played each Hanukkah night.  Nate Gadol echoes “nes gadol.”

NatedamIn this book, Nate Gadol is a magical character credited not only with the holiday’s original supposed miracle but also with dispensing gifts to good needy Jewish people.  Levine’s main story shows how the children of one 19th century immigrant family, the Jewish Glasers, receive winter holiday presents just like their Christmas-celebrating neighbors.  In his final “Author’s Note,” Levine, who is Jewish, does not view the children’s wish for presents as a “December dilemma, as many traditional Jews still do, but as just one part of Jewish-American history.  It is, Levine writes, just “a bit more mythology” added to a religious holiday, similar to Santa, his elves, and reindeer.  (Along the way, I also see that the supersized Nate Gadol is shown fixing some colossal problems, such as a burst dam, akin to the spectacular deeds of such American tall tale heroes as Paul Bunyan—a further link with traditional Americana.)

Hawkes’ richly-colored, painterly illustrations emphasize this connection with American history, depicting Nate dressed in clothing worn during the Revolutionary War.  Hawkes’ illustrations, gleaming with gold much like Nate’s eyes—”shiny as golden coins and. . . smile that was lantern bright,”—also complement the joyful receipt of gifts by Levine’s characters.  The immigrant Glaser children and parents are worthy of gifts because of their generosity to their fellow immigrants, the O’Malleys.  Packaged gifts are shown by the book’s end to be a new, delightful part of their American Hanukkah. 

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Generosity, compassion, and family feeling, however, remain more important than gifts, with the Glasers buying the O’Malleys needed medicine with money they might have spent on Hanukkah chocolate.  Mrs. Glaser also is shown earlier quietly giving up her own tiny bit of chocolate to her children.  Then, Nate Gadol steps in to magically reward these good deeds with those presents!  This brief, warm-hearted book will be best appreciated by young readers who already have some knowledge of Hanukkah and its traditions.

RuthiecoverSimilarly, some familiarity with Hanukkah will enhance enjoyment of Little Red Ruthie: A Hanukkah Tale (2017), written by Gloria Koster and illustrated by Sue Eastland.  This variation on “Little Red Riding Hood” proudly acknowledges its literary heritage in Koster’s opening dedication to her mother, “who gave [her] the gift of fairy tales once upon a time.”  In an interview, the author has explained that another of her favorite fairy tales, the “Snow Queen,” inspired the icy, snow-laden setting of “Little Red Ruthie.”  Her modern-day Ruthie is going to her Bubbe’s house (“Bubbe” is the Yiddish word for Grandmother) to again make potato pancakes, a traditional Hanukkah food, with her.  In fact, Ruthie’s recipe for these “yummy ‘latkes’ ” (Yiddish for pancake) concludes this playful, positive book.

Eastman’s full-color illustrations, created with computer graphics, aptly use red throughout the revised fairy tale.  Instead of a hood, Ruthie is bundled up in a scarlet, puffy down jacket, while interior scenes in Ruthie’s and Bubbe’s houses feature red décor and clothes.    Outdoors, red-tinged squirrels and birds stand out against the snowy confrontations between Ruthie and the wolf.  The exaggeratedly cartoonish features of that creature are a visual reassurance that Ruthie will triumph here.  Yet it is the way she tricks the wolf that is notable.

RuthiewolfUnlike some traditional Red Riding Hoods, Ruthie does not require rescue by someone else.  She reminds herself to be “brave as the Macabees,” the heroic warriors in the Hanukkah story, and she cleverly delays the wolf by playing upon his greedy appetite.  Being an “excellent reader” also helps Ruthie, as reading Bubbe’s note helpfully explains where her grandmother is and when she will return.  Determination, family feeling, and literacy—as well as the ability to prepare a delicious Hanukkah food, all the while explaining the holiday’s story—are the values and achievements extolled in this seemingly simple tale. 

YoungrabbicoverFamily warmth and connectedness are also extolled in There Was a Young Rabbi: A Hanukkah Tale (2020), written by Suzanne Wolfe and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler.  This picture book draws upon the cumulative rhyme tradition exemplified in “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” and, particularly at this time of year, in the traditional English Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” 

This picture book shows a young woman rabbi successfully juggling her synagogue obligations with preparations for Hanukkah, a religious holiday notably celebrated at home. So, watched and at times helped by her husband and elementary-aged children, the rabbi is both very busy as well as happy!  On single rabbiinteriorpages and on a few double-page spreads, we see images that add visual pleasure to such refrains as “There was a young rabbi who played dreidel to win.  She watched it closely as it started to spin. /The dreidel—it spun.  The rabbi—she won!  Kosher brisket she made.  At least ten pounds it weighed.”  For young readers unfamiliar with Hanukkah, some pages have a brief boxed fact in unobtrusive type at the bottom of the page.  Also, these readers will benefit from the short overview of the holiday provided on the book’s final page.  (Youngsters will have to learn elsewhere that some Jewish denominations still do not accept women as rabbis.)

rabbitableEvery reader will smile at Ebbeler’s cheerfully colorful, cartoon-like drawings, with grandparents whose features and big eyeglasses resemble the rabbi’s coming to celebrate one holiday night.  On another night, Hanukkah food and games are shared with a child guest, her wheelchair no obstacle to enjoying the menorah’s bright lights and holiday fun.  Reading this story book aloud, for those who do celebrate Hanukkah, might just become a new family tradition!

As the days grow shorter and the countdown to a new president looms ever larger, I needily relish these glimpses of holidays to come, of times when virulent disease will not keep cautious, concerned families apart on such festive occasions.  These books are indeed happy reading.

 

 

 

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Voting Rights and Wrongs

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The upcoming presidential election and its aftermath are hot topics!  In conversations and the news, questions about voting rights and wrongs are almost unavoidable.  A recent book titled Women’s Right to Vote (2020), written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Dylan Meconis, will bring perspective on this controversy to readers tween and older.  Part of publisher Random House’s “History Smashers” series, this entertaining, highly illustrated volume uses humor to reinforce its serious message about voting inequities and people’s fights to correct these injustices.  This new book expands on points made in some earlier graphic works about the voting discrimination faced by women and Black people, reviewed by me in this post as well as this one and here.

Women’s Right to Vote communicates this longstanding discrimination through humorously blunt words and clearly-drawn black and white images.  For instance, Messner titles two of her book’s ten chapters “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back” and “Listen Up, White House!”  At one point, she captions Meconis’s illustration of the grim-faced response of Supreme Court justices to the possibility of women’s voting with just one pungent word:  “Nope.” 

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Throughout this book, Meconis deploys expressive features as well as artful body language to complement and expand Messner’s information.  For example, when readers learn that rights advocate Abby Kelley Foster was pelted by rotten eggs and food, the illustration also shows Foster gripping an apple as though she is about to toss it back at her opponents!  Most of Meconis’ illustrations are single half or full-page drawings but she also includes a handful of double-page graphic novel episodes to deepen key historical moments.  This hybrid novel’s illustrations also include a number of photographs and a few contemporaneous newspaper illustrations. 

Facts which often have been omitted from the history of voting rights pepper this volume.  Readers may be surprised to learn about Queen Amina’s long, successful reign in 16th century Nigeria or how, until 1807, women voted in New Jersey because the law there did not forbid them from doing that.  Yet such individual facts are less significant than the ongoing differences of opinion within the women’s rights movement highlighted in Women’s Right to Vote.  Sad to say, an influential number of white women activists, including such prominent figures as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, did not believe Black or immigrant men, let alone women, should have the vote.  They argued against this, either out of racism or political expediency, and later, along with others, downplayed or separated the efforts of Black women activists from white women’s groups.  One of Meconis’ graphic novel episodes, featuring Frederick Douglass among others, portrays the complexity of activist views on this issue.  Some Black activists such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett formed their own groups to advocate for voting rights.

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Sometimes, Black activists refused to accept their exclusion from officially all-white groups and their events, joining in the protest marches organized by these organizations.  These strong, at times bitter differences among people otherwise seeking similar political changes will resonate with today’s readers.  We are well aware that supporters of each of this year’s presidential candidates frequently have different goals and priorities motivating their support.  How to identify and change systemic racism is just one of these differing points within and between these groups.   

Women’s Right to Vote also catalogues the ways in which police here in the United States and in Great Britain consistently overlooked violence against women protesters, sometimes themselves brutalizing protesters during events and after arresting them.  Most judges upheld then-current laws, fining and imprisoning some protesters.  This long history of government officials perpetuating or sanctioning violence against protestors, however non-violent, also resonates today, in daily news and the presidential campaign.  In the book’s final chapter, “The Fight Goes On,” Messner highlights this relevance by concluding with photographs of current, diverse women legislators, subtitled “the changing face of leadership.” She and Meconis also discuss how some laws about voting registration, filing, and location continue to limit or hinder people’s right to vote.

It is my strong hope that former Vice-President Biden will become our next president.  If that does not come to pass, Women’s Right to Vote—with its accompanying lengthy timeline of protests and eventual legislative change—is a heartening reminder that progress towards justice and inclusion eventually does occur.  That this book is just one among a spate of volumes published this last year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, legalizing the voting rights of all U.S. women, is another heartening reminder of progress.  If the aftermath of the election is contested, we may also benefit from the perspective on social and political change offered by this book.

Appreciative readers of Women’s Right to Vote will definitely enjoy Messner and Meconis’ other volume in the History Smashers series:  The Mayflower (2020).  It is both very light-hearted and informative.   I look forward to their upcoming volumes in this series:  Pearl Harbor (2021), The Titanic (2021), and The American Revolution (2021).  

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Graphic Insights into Racism

Since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last May, public outcries have re-focused attention on the injustices that a few years ago triggered today’s Black Lives Matter movement.  For readers tween and up, that movement’s emotional center and origins are embodied in the enormously powerful graphic novel I Am Alfonso Jones (2017), reviewed in depth by me here.  Its author Tony Medina and illustrators Stacey Robinson and John Jennings are outstandingly effective in depicting the truncated life of fictional New York teenager Alfonso, using magical realism—the narrative device of Alfonso’s ghost and the spirits of other actual, unjustly slain Black people—to highlight his and others’ losses. 

Sad to say, the long and difficult process of transforming insight into social change continues to inspire noteworthy graphic works.   Artists world-wide quickly responded to the slaying of George Floyd.  Yet it is a different instance and kind of racism on May 25, 2020, the very day that Floyd died, and the graphic work this incident inspired, that is my focus today. 

“It’s a Bird” (2020) is a fictional graphic short story rooted in the emotional rather than physical violence its author Christian Cooper experienced while birdwatching in New York City’s Central Park, just hours before George Floyd’s death.   A white woman, asked by Cooper to restrain her dog, tapped into racial stereotypes and years of police violence against Black men, falsely telling police that an African-American man was threatening her life.  In reality, this phone call was a threat against Cooper!   In his story springing from this exchange, 57 year-old Cooper added characters and transferred his experience to a younger man.

Readers tween on up will empathize with the teenaged central character in this expertly-crafted story, illustrated by Alitha E. Martinez and colored by Emilio Lopez, which is accessible online for free as part of DC Comics new Represent! series.  This digital series, according to its editors, “is designed to showcase and introduce creators traditionally underrepresented in the mainstream comic book medium . . . highlight(ing) both new and familiar voices.”  Christian Cooper is both a new and a familiar voice in comics, since before he left that industry twenty years ago for science writing, he was a successful comic book editor.  One of his projects was Marvel Comics gay superhero Northstar.

Readers of “It’s a Bird” will appreciate how, in a few words, Cooper establishes the loving if-prickly relationship between protagonist Jules and his thrifty father.  Jules would rather grudgingly use heirloom binoculars than lose his expensive new Playstation. He does not believe his father’s remarks that those binoculars are said to have “special powers”—ones that kept Jules’ grandfather safe during the Korean War and later civil rights protests.  Jules doubts this supposed luckiness, sarcastically referencing heroic super powers such as Superman’s “x-ray vision.”  To Jules’ amazement, after his encounter with a neighborhood bigot and then that biased dog owner, the binoculars do turn out to have a kind of x-ray vision.  Each time Jules views a bird through them, he also astonishingly sees the translucent head of a Black person unjustly killed by police.  Each of these circular framed shots is followed by a full-scene depiction of that death, grimly colored in red and black. 

As in I am Alfonso Jones, with such scenes this short story deploys magical realism as a significant plot element.  Its final page, with Jules viewing a large image of all those slain people flocking together, each with the wings of angels or superheroes, might similarly be either a real or imagined vision.  We are left with the initial uncertainty of observers within traditional Superman tales, who wonder, “Look! Up in the sky. Is it a bird? Is it a plane?  No, it’s Superman!”  The title of Cooper’s birdwatching tale makes ironic, ambivalent use of that well-known pop culture refrain.  Cooper further acknowledges its impact with the few words displayed at the page’s top:  “Up in the sky.”  This is a powerful blend of verbal and visual storytelling by Cooper and illustrator Martinez.   In addition, the effective absence of panels on that final page, intensifying its drama, also occurs at several points throughout the short story.  At other points within its ten pages, unframed images overlap panels, enhancing a scene’s tension.  

Jules’ growing, oppressed awareness of this history of racial violence is shown in close-ups of his increasingly disturbed features.  In an interview, Alitha E. Martinez, the daughter of immigrants from Honduras and Curacao, has said that Jules’ expression is one she saw on her own young son’s face, after his first encounter with racism.  This story’s merger of disturbing fact with engaging fiction culminates in its back matter. 

This includes a page devoted to Christian Cooper’s Central park experience; a page apiece for Amadou Diallo, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the other victims depicted and mentioned by name within “It’s a Bird;” and a final page listing six other Black people slain unjustly by police.  That page ends with ellipses to indicate the ongoing status of this institutionalized violence. This week’s court decision assigning no criminal blame in Breonna Taylor’s death, many would say, is another instance of institutionalized violence being deemed acceptable.  On these back matter pages, the brutal information given about each victim is visually highlighted by boldly-colored text against a black background. 

Reading Cooper and Martinez’ “It’s a Bird” has left me looking backwards as well as ahead.  I will keep an eye out for more works in DC’s Represent!  series as it grows.  I also want to catch up with the award-winning Black Panther: World of Wakanda, (2016 -2017), illustrated by Martinez and written by Roxanne Gay, now available in a one-volume collection.  The recent, cancer-caused death of Hollywood’s Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman adds new poignancy to this 21st century iteration of the Black superhero who originally appeared in 1960s comic books. 

Readers might, in honor of birdwatching Christian Cooper, a board member of the New York Audubon Society, want to look at a fine graphic biography of that groundbreaking ornithologist himself:  Audubon, On the Wings of the World (2016, 2017), reviewed by me here.   The national Audubon Society itself just spotlighted “It’s a Bird” in its on-line magazine.   In response to Christian Cooper’s experience, the Audubon Society also recently held an on-line Black Birders Week.  

Finally, readers might avoid potential confusion by keeping in mind that there are two fine graphic works titled “It’s a Bird”!   Both have autobiographical elements.  Author Steven T. Seagle also references Superman throughout his full-length, semi-autobiographical novel, It’s a Bird . . . (2004; 2010; 2017).  Illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen, that award-winning graphic novel, reviewed by me here, focuses on the impact of an incurable genetic disease, Huntington’s Chorea, on Seagle and his family.  

 

 

 

 

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In School or At Home–Go Graphic!

As this new school year begins so uncertainly, with COVID-19 affecting where and how youngsters learn their official lessons, I have a new resource to recommend.  Ivan Brunetti’s Comics: Easy as ABC! The Essential Guide to Comics for Kids (2019) will delight and instruct young readers regardless of location, working equally well in school or at home.  That flexibility is spotlighted in the coda to this graphic work’s subtitle: For kids, parents, teachers, and librarians!   Veteran author/illustrator Brunetti’s guide has already won the prestigious  Eisner Award for 2020’s Best Publication for Early Readers.  It was also numbered among Booklist’s Top 10 Art Books for Youth in 2019. 

Yet Comics: Easy as ABC! is not just for young artists already comfortable and confident in their abilities.  Beginning with “Doodles” and “Basic Shapes,” Brunetti assures readers that “There is no one right way to draw—the fun is finding your own way of drawing.”  Fun is a key element in this book.  Its illustrations are playful, and its comments wryly funny.  Bits of advice come not just from Brunetti but from a host of other successful comics creators: these include Roz Chast, Neil Gaiman, Kevin McClosky, Jeff Smith, James Sturm, and Chris Ware.   Sometimes they good-naturedly poke fun at themselves and each other.  I particularly enjoyed Chris Ware’s “Pro-tip #66: Get a PILLOW!” with its illustration showing a big-headed Ivan Brunetti at his drawing board, sitting on a tiny pillow!  Some elementary-age readers will get the joke here, while the youngest users of Guide may casually skip over it, focused more on Brunetti’s brisk directions and many opportunities for step-by-step drawing practice.

In this way, Comics: Easy as ABC! is versatile in the range of young people it informs and entertains.  K/1 grade kids will find it worthwhile, with its “show ‘n tell” sections on balloons and lettering and on pages and panels, while more skilled readers may move into more advanced sections such as “Point of View,” “Short Strips” and “Find Your Voice.”  “Comics Language”—identifying the “lines, bursts, and squiggles that indicate emotion or heat”—will help budding cartoonists according to their skills.  This combination of flexibility with specificity fits into the targeted approach publisher Toon Books takes in all its publications, with Level 1 books aimed at K/1 readers, Level 2 aimed at grades 1 and 2, Level 3 at grades 2 and 3, and Toon Graphics—the imprint of Comics: Easy as ABC!—officially targeting grades 3 to 6. 

I am generally not a fan of such targeting, as I fear it may limit youngsters’ opportunities, but the high quality of Toon Books’ verbal and visual storytelling is remarkable.  I am a fan of this publisher. (In past posts here, I have reviewed its Level 1 Birdsong and the Level 3 Written and Drawn by Henrietta, as well as the Toon Graphics Hansel and Gretel.)  I find it admirable that Toon Books is so acutely aware of stages in child development and reading, yet produces works which are rich enough to offer inflection points into other stages—in either direction.    For instance, while Brunetti at his Guide’s beginning suggests readers take hold of their pens to begin drawing, I can imagine youngsters at home or in school scrambling for well-used crayons instead. 

Adults in either setting will appreciate the Guide’s concluding pages, addressed to “Parents, Teachers, Librarians,” which demonstrate “How to Read Comics with Kids.”  Once again, although Toon Graphics books ostensibly target grades 3 to 6, this helpful section begins with advice suited to pre or emerging readers, with such illustrated suggestions as “Keep your fingertip under the character who is speaking.”  Teachers and librarians also may find the core curriculum- aligned guide to Comics: Easy as ABC! (downloadable here) helpful.  And youngsters themselves along with the adults supervising them  will appreciate the “Further Resources” as well as “Selected Bibliography” showcased on this book’s last page.   There are some free on-line resources for both younger and older kids included there.  I expect those will be of particular value for in-home learners.

As for me, I continue to be an “all-ages” consumer of graphic works.  I am looking forward to my just requested library copies of Ivan Brunetti’s Level One Toon books, Word Play (2017) and 3 x 4 (2018).  Writing this review, I realized the wealth of that publisher’s books I have yet to explore.  One new work in its Graphics imprint debuts in just a few weeks: Black Heroes of the Wild West (2020), written by James Otis Smith and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  I recognize the name of only one of the three heroes featured on its cover and am now eager to see that work, too. 

 

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Lifting Spirits

depressed figuresPandemic dangers and safety limits . . . uncertainties about the shape of the upcoming school year—it remains hard to be upbeat when these woes press us down.  Low spirits, of course, affect kids as well as adults.  Two recent picture books remind us how family and home can inspire us, lifting spirits when daily annoyances loom large,  as well as when disaster strikes.  Young readers with siblings will especially appreciate these books, though their similar “messages” and strong visuals will appeal to readers of all ages, even ones (like me) who do not have brothers or sisters.

LiftLift (2020), written by the award-winning team of author Minh Le and illustrator Dan Santat, employs tender humor to depict its sister-brother relationship.  Fans of their earlier picture book Drawn Together (2018, reviewed by me here) will not be surprised at how smoothly Santat’s full-color illustrations move the story line along.  In fact, many of its scenes and pages are entirely wordless.  We see Iris, the early elementary-aged narrator, delight in pressing the elevator button in her apartment building and then observe her frustration when her toddler brother discovers this button!  This is just one of the ways in which his impulsive joys and terrors affect her daily life.  Cartoonish facial features, through Santat’s slyly funny exaggeration, add “punch” to characters’ emotional reactions throughout the book.  These insightfully detailed everyday scenes soon merge with Lift’s charming fantasy elements.

lift outer spacePressing the button of a discarded elevator keypad she finds, then opening a closet door, Iris enters the worlds of her dreams—or, as she wishes, “anywhere but here.”  We observe her in a fantastic, tiger-inhabited jungle and later in outer space.  Close-ups and several double-page spreads convey her surprise and joy in these amazing situations.  I particularly appreciated the shifts in perspective in some outer space panels, capturing the vertiginous nature of gravity-free floating.  Of course, her brother’s needs and wants soon interrupt these pleasures.  How Iris comes to realize that sharing her imaginative adventures with him can enhance these experiences becomes another kind of journey here.

lift last imageHas Iris found a literal portal into other worlds, a nod to such classic chapter books as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, with its magical wardrobe, or is she imagining these journeys?  Is there a connection here between the ragged stuffed toy tiger her brother carries or with the solar system mobile in her room?  The drifting snowflakes at Lift’s end, harkening back to her brother’s favorite snow-filled picture book, leave both possibilities open.  Regardless, young readers may enjoy seeing and hearing Santat and Le read this book aloud at minute four of a 50 minute-long  online interview with them.  The rest of the interview focuses on their creative process, individually and together.

The Shared Room coverWhile Lift deals with everyday frustrations and annoyances, The Shared Room (2020) deals with disaster.  It has a much different, more somber tone than Lift.  Author Kao Kalia Yang and illustrator Xee Reiter depict the lingering, emotionally devastating  aftermath of a young girl’s accidental drowning.  How her two elementary school-aged brothers, her younger sister, and their parents cope with this loss—moving from silence to shared remembrances, from denial to acceptance—is the heart of this touching volume.  Their family photographs and videos provide the path that finally draws them onward.  Their home itself is also part of this path.  When one  brother finally moves into what had been the dead girl’s room, having it become a “shared room,” filled with good as well as now sad memories, it is the culmination of that long emotional journey.  Such journeys in these pandemic days may be all too familiar to some readers.

Shared room interiorReiter effectively shifts between close-ups and long-distance views, as we follow this story, which begins in summertime tragedy but emotionally concludes during a bleak Minnesota winter.  Her close-up, full-page head shots of the lost sister, seen here brightly smiling, and later of her grieving brother are particularly moving.  Reiter’s illustrations parallel Yang’s perceptive observations about the impact and changing nature of grief.  The book’s final image, with the family silhouetted against a glowing fireplace, family photos placed on and above its mantelpiece, captures Yang’s eloquently simple conclusion about the feelings the parents and children now share: “[T]hey are keeping each other warm, their little girl’s memory like the fire before them, a melt in the freeze of their hearts.”

I recently wrote about Yang’s acute take on another loss, the death of a neighbor from old age, in this review of A Map into the World (2019).  I recommend that gentle picture book, illustrated by  Seo Kim, to you.  Both A Map into the World and The Shared Room specify the Hmong heritage of their characters, while Lift’s characters are of non-specified Asian-American heritage. 

Beekle coverHaving enjoyed two books illustrated by Thai-American Dan Santat, I was happy while blogging here to catch up with his Caldecott award-winning picture book, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (2014).  As you will see either when holding this book in your hands or observing Santat reading it online hereBeekle is another spirit-lifter.  It is noteworthy that Santat wrote as well as illustrated this beguiling story about youngsters and first friendships.  This October I am looking forward to reading Kao most beautiful thing coverKalia Yang’s upcoming, autobiographical picture book The Most Beautiful Thing, illustrated by Khoa Le.  And, while I do not know the overall tone of her other forthcoming picture book, Yang Warriors,  I am happier just knowing it is scheduled for Spring, 2021.  Meanwhile, I intend to keep my eye out for the small, immediate joys that can offset the bigger uncertainties we now face.   

 

 

 

 

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Laws and Orders

Justice for George FloydThe death here in Minnesota of George Floyd has sparked world-wide protests against police brutality and racism, with people demanding new laws and orders to protect every person’s civil rights.  History has shown that “law and order” political leaders such as President Trump at best too often have limited understanding of the injustices perpetrated under the guise of law.  Today I look at two graphic works that spotlight such injustices—bittersweetly showing both how far U.S. laws have come in righting wrongs and how much further such laws have yet to go.  Young readers late elementary age on up may find the historical perspectives here on civil rights and wrongs of particular benefit, putting today’s protests and related violence in fuller context.  These powerful books examine not only specific laws and legal orders but the attitudes about these rulings—what President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 described as “the fabric of our nation.”

Lewis 1Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act that year is recounted near the end of March, Book Three (2016), the concluding volume in the graphic autobiography of U.S. Representative John Lewis.   As a young man, Lewis actively participated in the 1960s civil rights movement, often in leadership roles, and since 1987 has represented Georgia’s Fifth District in the U.S. Congress.  The longtime African-American activist collaborated with writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell on this award-winning trilogy, (begun with March, Book One [2013] and including March, Book Two [2015]).  I have discussed the first two books in depth in previous blog posts.  Volume Three continues to portray the charged events in Lewis’ life through remarkable grey-toned, black and white images which complement and extend the verbal account. 

March 3 parentsOften, wordless panels or pages convey the emotions of those opposed to civil rights for African-Americans as well as those struggling for them.  In Book Three’s prologue, such wordless pages also capture the pain and horror of the parents of the four young Black girls slain in in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church.  Their emotions are juxtaposed with the cruel excitement later that same day of murderous white teenagers and of the terrorizing white police officer who traced and killed a Black teen.    The officer was never indicted. 

The graphic format is particularly effective in demonstrating how, even after laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are finally passed, such individual and social prejudice often harmfully continue. Such March arrestattitudes impede legal reforms of institutional racism.  It is this reality, along with the differences of opinion within the civil rights movement itself, which I believe will provide particularly valuable insights for readers seeking context for current protests and reactions to protest.  Those who feel overwhelmed by the ongoing nature of racism—institutional as well as personal—may be heartened by Representative Lewis’ assessment of today’s civil rights protests.  Comparing these to the 1960s movement, he has said elsewhere, “This feels and looks so different.  It is so much more massive and all-inclusive. . . . [with] people from all over the world taking to the streets . . . to speak up, to speak out . . . . It’s another step down the very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”

March trilogyAs with the other two volumes, March Book Three bookends Representative Lewis’ account with the ground-breaking inauguration of African-American President Barak Obama.  March, Book Three may be read on its own (and has indeed garnered separate awards, including the prestigious National Book Award for Young People’s Literature), yet if younger readers are up for only one volume of the trilogy, I would suggest Book One.  The account there of Lewis’ boyhood will appeal to youngsters in ways that Book Three’s enumerating civil rights activists and opponents may not.

They called usThe ways in which U.S. laws and orders have unjustly denied rights to other minority groups, again institutionalizing racism, is key to another powerful graphic autobiography: George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy (2019).  It focuses upon how, after Japan’s December, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II, Japanese-Americans’ lives changed drastically.  Presidential Order 9066, issued in February, 1942, had Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese swiftly isolated as “enemy suspects,” removed from their homes, and interned in bleak, often faraway guarded camps.  More than 110,000 people were uprooted and imprisoned in this way, merely because of their racial heritage.  Then 4-year old George Takei’s family was among them.

soldiers arrestCo-written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker, this award-winning book was first newsworthy because of adult George Takei’s prominence in popular culture.  As every Star Trek fan knows, this actor played Lieutenant (later Captain) Hikaru Sulu in that 1960s TV series and its movie offshoots!  Takei has also been prominent as an activist for gay rights.  Yet They Called Us Enemy stands fully on its own merit as a powerful work.  (Similarly, the musical play Takei helped create in 2008 about his family’s WW II experiences, Allegiance, in which Takei also appeared, won accolades before its Broadway run was cut short.)

enemy communityMost of this 200-page autobiography recounts the experiences of young George Takei during the four years he and his family spent in two internment camps. Readers will appreciate the grey-toned, black-and-white drawings depicting not only the terrible uncertainties of forced relocations but also the ways in which Japanese-American families pulled together to establish supportive communities within the harsh internment camps.   There were childish hopes and pranks (including one about a live “dinosaur” that turned out to be a pig), along with family love and pride.  These temporarily offset the unfair, bewildering regulations and casual cruelties of some guards and neighboring ranchers.   

enemy pigWe see most of these events through young George’s eyes.  Yet as adult George looks back at those years, he also notes the consistent kindness shown by some people outside the camps, who risked arrest to bring books and other aid to the imprisoned Japanese-Americans.  Illustrator Becker’s consistent use of a style typical in Japanese manga (comics) —for instance, exaggerated mouths and eyes to convey strong emotions—unites the viewpoints of child and adult George.  This doubled perspective is important to our understanding both of the strength shown by Takei’s parents and the bigotry Japanese-Americans continued to face after the war, when they were released from the camps.  Close-ups juxtaposed with medium and long-distance panels maximize the emotional “punch” of the incidents recounted here.   

Enemy fatherThey Called Us Enemy also includes relevant events in adult George’s life.  We see his work as an actor involved with civil rights issues, which led to a memorable backstage meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, and how Takei always strove to take roles—such as Sulu on Star Trek—which were not just stereotypes.  Takei also shows how court decisions about the World War II internment remained important to him and his family.  Not until 1988 did the U.S. government offer an official apology and attempt restitution for Presidential Order 9066 and its subsequent, hurtful wartime rulings.

 

Citizen 13660Wondering what to read as follow-ups here?  The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has some suggestions.   I also recently learned about Citizen 13660, a graphic memoir created by Japanese-American artist Mine Okubo about her World War II internment.  It was first published in 1946!  I am looking forward to having a copy of this work’s 2014 reissue in my hands later this month.  (This memoir as described may be appreciated best by readers teen on up.  Readers of all ages, though, will be interested in images from Citizen 13660, online in the Mine Okubo Collection hosted by the National Japanese American Museum.) 

RunIt will be a longer wait for an announced sequel to the autobiographical March trilogy.  Titled Run, this graphic work first scheduled for 2108 publication has been delayed again until September, 2023.  Representative Lewis and Andrew Aydin are Run’s authors, but its illustrator is comics award-winner Afua Richardson, with input from March illustrator Nate Powell.  I just hope that Representative Lewis’s health permits him to continue with this multi-book project.  Meanwhile, daily and weekly news about current protests for civil rights—and the possible changes they may bring to U.S. laws and local government orders—is full of articles and opinion pieces for eager, concerned readers.    

 

 

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