Twenty-first Century Genius

genius-007Two graphic novelists were among the twenty-three creative people recently awarded an annual MacArthur “Genius” grant, with its hefty prize money.  The MacArthur Foundation “celebrates and inspires the creative potential of individuals through no-strings-attached fellowships.”  I was delighted to see that novelist Gene Luen Yang, the current U.S. Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, was one winner. (I had discussed Yang’s great works in Gone Graphic posts for August, 2013; March, 2014; September, 2014; and February, 2016.)   But who was Lauren Redniss, the other graphic novelist being acclaimed by the MacArthur Foundation—and what were her works like?  I knew nothing about her! 

Today I am going to describe the three awesome Redniss books I just finished reading.  Teens or tweens interested in graphic works, art, biography, or in these books’ topics will revel in these gorgeous non-fiction volumes. Older folks will be fascinated, too!  Redniss’ deserved acclaim as a twenty-first century “genius”  also showcases and extends some techniques already familiar to fans of literature gone graphic. 

61yotly9i4l-_sx361_bo1204203200_Redniss is an art professor who has been praised by the National Book Foundation for “marrying the graphic and visual arts with biography and cultural history.”  Redniss herself recently said,  “I think I am drawn to people who are undaunted by hardship.  It puts things in perspective.”  Her first two books are unconventional biographies of extraordinary people, dancer Doris Eaton Travis and scientist Marie Curie, boldly showing and yet also at times just hinting at how they felt about the dramatic course of their lives.  Her third book shifts further into science, focusing on weather and climate change.

Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies (2006; 2012) primarily uses collage to document the life of its  subject, who lived to the remarkable age of 106.  Sepia-hued as well as full-color photographs, old newspaper clippings as well as hand-lettered text, are juxtaposed with physical mementos of Doris Eaton Travis’ life.  Born in 1904, thanks to her “back-stage mother,” Doris began performing on vaudeville stages as a four year-old, and after fame in the Ziegfeld Follies she and her siblings appeared in Hollywood’s silent movies. 

d1a839bce638bdb522c1ec0e8e32b825Redniss documents the different ways family members handled success and its loss, into and through the 1930s and 1940s, as the  Great Depression and World War II impacted their lives.  Giddy, silly, saucy, and even some sad images mark the passing decades.  Her sisters and brothers faltered, some just having plain bad luck, while Doris went on to a new career and success as a dance instructor, working with the Arthur Murray chain of dance schools.  Her passion for dance continued throughout her long life and her lengthy, complicated second marriage.  Along the way, this trouper entered college as a 77 year old “freshman,” and became a college graduate at 88!  The volume’s final pages include photographs of 100 year-old Doris onstage as well as of her musing about her life.  

Redniss frequently uses double-page spreads in this book (and her others), often shifting the background color and images to great dramatic effect.  Black is a frequent background color, also used on pages that mark transitions. A number of such spreads are wordless, communicating solely through the juxtaposed images.  What readers “see” here sometimes depends on how carefully we look at pages and remember others.  The cracks apparent on one close-up of a doll’s-head are telling at a low point in Doris’ family life; the tin soldiers one brother loved to play with as a child say something else about him when they re-appear at the end of his life, as he takes shelter with Doris and her husband. 


White, hand-written text, sometimes irregularly spaced, also contributes to the immediacy and rhythm of Redniss’ impressions of Doris’ life.  Another technique Redniss uses to convey emphasis and emotion, highlighting events or brief statements, centurygirl-131is to isolate them in the center of otherwise empty or nearly empty pages.  The left hand side of one such spread states in black letters on a white page:  WITH STRENGTH IN NUMBERS AND A SOLID PEDIGREE, THE EATONS SEEMED UNSTOPPABLEThe facing right-hand white page shows Doris with one of her brothers, with these ominous words as follow-up: BUT TIMES CHANGED. Redniss’ ability to identify and use apt words from interviews as well as printed sources is another storytelling strength she brings to this book (as well as her others). 

51tm3cpkybl-_sx351_bo1204203200_Print materials also complement images in Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout (2010; 2011), another breathtaking biography, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.  Here Redniss uses collage to show how Marie Sklodowska (1867 -1934) battled discrimination against women in science to become the degreed research partner (and later wife) of Pierre Curie.  Together, the couple in 1903 earned a Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of radioactivity.  After Pierre’s death, Marie Curie in 1911 earned an astonishing second Nobel Prize for her further work on the radioactive element radium. 

Yet these were not Marie Curie’s only accomplishments and struggles.  She (and Pierre) developed cancer and other  diseases through exposure to radioactive elements; they persevered with their research despite this, just as Marie persevered even after Pierre’s shocking, traffic accident death—researching, rearing radioactive-660x453her daughters, finding and losing another, somewhat scandalous love, and even contributing to France’s frontline efforts during World War I.  Radioactive uses text deftly chosen from letters, journals, and other written accounts to tell a profound love story as well as a history of science.  Moreover, the “fallout” of its subtitle extends beyond Marie Curie’s lifetime into the present day, as the book details the negative as well as positive results of the Curies’ discoveries.  Redniss interposes accounts of nuclear bombs and accidents at nuclear power plants, as well as advances in nuclear medicine, smoothly into the book.

Collage and the placement of images and text for dramatic effect again figure prominently in this book’s blue-rich, color saturated pages.   Photographs, maps, and a crypt rubbing as well as original drawings hold our attention in its page-turning narrative.  At one point, we literally have to turn the page to find the answer to this question about widowed Marie’s new love, scientist Paul Langevin:  “Who wouldn’t rejoice in the union of Paul and Marie—a coupling of giants?” At the bottom of the next double-spread of vivid, contrasting colors  is the answer, “His wife.”!  

blue_radioactiveFor the rich blue shades predominant here and the sometimes eerie images,  which often seem to glow and resemble half-developed photographs or x-rays, Redniss used a specialized technique–cyantope printing.  As she explains at the end of Radioactive and in a related TED Talk, this chemical process depends on exposure to ultraviolet light.  For Redniss, cyanotypes were a method evoking and paying tribute to Marie Curie’s work with radioactivity.  Redniss goes on to explain how she manipulated the resulting blue images to add or change colors.

61agsqhveul-_sx372_bo1204203200_-1Similar thought went into Redniss’ choice of graphic techniques for her award-winning third book, Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, and Future (2015).  Her author’s note explains that she selected copper plate etching (and its contemporary offshoot, polymer plate etching) as a tribute to the centuries of records kept by weather-studying scientists and artists.  Master printers helped Redniss produce black and white prints, which she then hand-colored. The beautiful and totally wordless chapter 7, titled “Sky,” was hand-drawn by  Redniss, using colorful oil pastels. 

Double page spreads again dominate in this engrossing volume, which moves from unusual weather events to typical climatic conditions, from how individuals challenge themselves in extreme environments (such as distance ocean swimming) to how communities fare in extraordinarily harsh climates, such as the Arctic Sea’s Svarlbard islands. Color is extraordinarily important in this volume, whether vivid or pale.  We are awed by the intense orange-reds of deserts and forest fires and entranced by the dim greys of gallery-1445870542-tandl-p28-29polluted city fog and Arctic “snow blindness.”  Redniss illustrates the latter in four double spread pages, where we peer into soft grey-tones, attempting to make out the faint shapes there just as a snow-blind person might struggle to see in white-out conditions.  Black is again used effectively as background to a typeface Redniss created herself for this book.

In this history which ranges from eras in which weather was worshiped to ones in which humans, both deliberately and inadvertently, change weather events  and climate, Redniss continues to weave a strong narrative.  Diaries, letters, and personal interviews combine with newspaper accounts, official documents, and Redniss’ own words in this volume.  Attempts to predict the weather are both detailed precisely and slyly mocked, as in the pages devoted to the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  This good-natured laughter is one kind of humor in Thunder & Lightning. How much—and yet, how little—thought people seem to have given to climate change may confound readers, causing rueful and dismayed laughter, even as we marvel in appreciation or dismay at related images.   On issues where there is reasonable debate, such as whether humans should deliberately manipulate the environment, Redniss presents the conflicting viewpoints through entertaining anecdotes and images.


Twenty-first century genius Lauren Redniss is a master of some techniques you may have seen before in graphic works.  For example, collage and found objects figure in memoirs by Ozge Samanci (reviewed here in August, 2016), by Lucy Knisley (July, 2016 review), and in novels by Jennifer L. Holm and Elicia Castaldi (September, 2015 review).   Extended wordless passages also have a long history and other contemporary, excellent practitioners—such as Brian Selznick, Shaun Tan,  Peter Kuper, and Erik Drooker.  (See the Gone Graphic postings for November, 2015; April, 2015; and February 2014 for details.)  Level-headed Redniss herself demurs at being labelled a “genius.”  Possibly she might be more accepting of this label if “genius” meant nowadays what it did in 17th and 18th century England—the spark of creativity inside every person. 

lr-nyt-13However one feels about such labels, I am glad the MacArthur Foundation award drew my attention to Lauren Redniss’ gifts.  I intend to catch up with her earlier “Opt-Art” pieces for the New York Times, some cached at her website.  And I definitely will look for her next graphic novels.  Redniss has said that she is now at work on a book about an Apache tribe in Arizona, focusing on three generations within one family.  I am eager to see how she portrays those lives and that history. 



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