Now that it is summer vacation time in North America, more of our young people’s teachable moments will take place outside of school. Graphic works can play a part in the lessons they learn—especially in areas often given shorter shrift in today’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) focused curriculum. Today I look at two recently-published graphic works which will entertain and instruct a range of school-weary readers. These books focus on life lessons that extend beyond the classroom—and impart this wisdom in creative ways both old and new.
Veteran author/illustrator James Sturm has given us Birdsong: A Story in Pictures (2016). Sturm’s end notes link this wordless book to the Japanese storytelling tradition of kamishibai, which once delighted children throughout Japan. (Kamishibai is the focus of my March, 2014 Gone Graphic and is also mentioned in the June, 2014 and June, 2015 posts.) While Birdsong is being marketed by publisher Toon Books for early readers, appropriate for grades K -1, I agree with the reviewer who felt its wordless pages have “an almost universal appeal,” not limited to any age range.
Empathy and kindness are taught in Birdsong, which shows cruel children who are magically transformed into monkeys. Captured and then themselves put on heartless display, the unhappy young simians with help escape to the countryside. There, with their new awareness, they show kindness and generosity towards the turtles and birds they once tormented. Birdsong’s full-color pages also encourage imaginative thought and storytelling skills, as each left-hand page is left blank, save for a decorative side border. Readers can and will be inspired to “fill in” these blanks, with their own versions of who the magician is who transforms the children, how they are captured, and what leads one captor to free them. Imaginations will also be fueled by thoughts about what kinds of lives and adventures the pair will now have. Will they remain monkeys, or will they ever again be human?
Also, readers could be asked when this story takes place. How modern, ancient, or perhaps timeless is its setting? The child protagonists could be wearing medieval play costumes and the magician could be a modern hermit dressed in ragged clothes . . . . The carnival barker might be wearing an old-fashioned, 19th century barker’s bow tie and hat, while the audience could be wearing unfashionable clothes or garments that are up-to-date with mid-twentieth century styles. Geographically, Birdsong’s landscapes might be Western . . . but they could also be Asian, too. The wildlife Sturm selects—a tiger and those monkeys—enhances the mysteries there. Furthermore, while the children, carnival barker, and some audience members are Caucasian, the side-show audience is multi-racial and the magician’s angry features leave some doubt about his ethnicity. Tellingly, the one facial close-up Sturm draws—still using the minimal, semi-realistic style for which he is known—is of the two imprisoned, sad monkeys, their eyes glistening . . . perhaps with unshed tears.
Limiting each page to one image makes Birdsong accessible to even pre-readers, but its appeal is definitely more widespread—not only to multi-age readers but also to other artists. In White River Junction, Vermont, where James Sturm lives, one musician has composed a piano score to accompany a community “showing” of Birdsong. Another performance artist and musician has created a kamishibai version of the book, accompanied by a half dozen words and his own musical phrasings. Perhaps this wordless book will inspire a summertime theatrical activity in your neighborhood! It might also spark further interest in the relatively small but rich tradition of wordless books, the focus of Gone Graphic’s April, 2015 post.
The relationships between performance, art, and community are key plot elements in the fast-paced, frequently-funny Original Fake (2016), written by award-winner Kirstin Cronn-Mills and illustrated by E. Eero Johnson. Its narrator, high school junior Frankie Neuman, is a visual artist who feels unappreciated in his family of extroverted dancers and singers. When Frankie gets involved in law-breaking “performance art,” helping a world-renowned artistic prankster leave satirical, often scurrilous art pieces in public places, Frankie finally feels powerful and successful. An extra ego boost is the attention paid to his own anonymous public art works—pieces designed to erode the social standing of his self-centered sister Lou. But how unhappy does that younger teen deserve to be? What kind of relationship does Frankie really want to have with her? And what will his relationship with his exuberant parents be, now that their quiet son is mysteriously staying out all night, disobeying rules and being questioned by the police?
Original Fake addresses substantive emotional as well as social issues. Besides the question of artists’ rights to trespass on and use city or private property, Frankie also experiences his first real crush and heavy petting. He has to puzzle out his relationship with beautiful, untrustworthy Rory and figure out what kind of relationship he wants to have with her cross-dressing, reliable cousin David. Gender identity, gender fluidity, and sexual orientation are also broached in how Frankie and Lou’s parents dress and perform. But do not conclude that these thorny issues make Original Fake a solemn or heavy-handed book!
Frankie’s wry voice, the over-the-top puns, and the outrageous nature of some of the book’s art pieces pack lots of humor into this novel. The cartoon-like features and body language Johnson uses in illustrations further the work’s semi-serious nature, setting the visual tone at a different level than more realistic images would. Original Fake’s bright spirit is also promoted by the bold, orange-and-black color scheme used throughout it. Besides the paint “trails” introducing new chapters and shifts in scene, colorful brushstrokes often bedeck page edges, drawing readers back to the plot and character-centric art. The innovative format Cronn-Mills and Johnson have chosen for their collaboration is also effectively entertaining.
Original Fake is part of a new trend—the hybrid novel, part text and part graphic novel. (The February, 2014 Gone Graphic focused on this trend.) Some of Original Fake’s graphic pages illustrate the text, while others take the place of traditional prose. Near the work’s conclusion, seven graphic pages effectively convey Frankie’s surreal dream, as he works through his thoughts and emotions, both painful and painfully funny. The book’s happy conclusion is also presented in a color-saturated image, accompanied by words seemingly painted in bold brushstrokes.
Unlike Birdsong, set in the nonspecific countryside, Original Fake has a very specific urban location—mine! Minneapolis, its suburbs, and landmarks are named as well as detailed by Mankato-dweller Cronn-Mills and Minneapolitan Johnson. It is lots of fun to read about such familiar streets and sights. One way to select some summer reading might be to look for books set in your own community, state, or region. As performance artists—real life ones such as Banksy, referenced in interviews by Cronn-Mills—and Original Fake’s fictional ones know, looking outward is a great way to look inward, too. I hope you can make the most of summer’s teachable moments, whether planned or spontaneous.