What kinds of reading will you do this summer? “Summer reading” can have very different meanings. Will yours be hummingbird sips of brief pieces, pages of mainly light-hearted material scanned in between other outdoor activities? Or will you and yours chow down on long, possibly serious works—books you have not had the time to read until school was out and work put aside? Today’s Gone Graphic looks at both possibilities for readers ages tween on up. I also explore how that first kind of summer reading can lead into the second, and take a look at some graphic novels which illuminate painfully serious current events—ones I fear will extend beyond this coming summer.
I just loved Penelope Bagieu’s recent Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World (2018). The 29 mini-biographies in this 300 page book first appeared separately, as weekly digital comics in the French newspaper Le Monde—making each piece just the right length for a refreshing summertime mental “sip.” (Montana Kane provided the English translation here.) For print publication, author/illustrator Bagieu added a double spread splash page at the end of each bio, wordlessly commenting on high points in the account. And what remarkable life stories Bagieu zestfully depicts: spanning the globe, ranging from ancient times to the present, spotlighting some lifelong rebels but also others who first “rocked out” as grandmothers or who now are still teens.
A few figures may well be familiar to readers: world-circling journalist Nelly Bly; actresses Margaret Hamilton and Hedy Lamarr; entertainer Josephine Baker; astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison. But Bagieu has researched so thoroughly that fresh, sometimes surprising details are revealed in her portrayal of their lives. And other subjects here will probably be unknown to many readers. Ancient Greek gynecologist Agnodice, Apache warrior and shaman Lozen, and Syrian activist Naziq al-Abid may well be unfamiliar. In an interview, Bagieu has said that “I realized I did know a lot of super awesome brave women. . . . But since they’re not labeled as ‘heroes,’ they don’t have books or movies about them. . . . [so] I just felt like I wanted everybody to know about them too and fix that injustice!”
Some of the heroes I discovered here for the first time include Afghan teen rapper Sonita Alizadeh, who today rocks out against forced child marriage, and American Frances Glessner Lee, the crime miniaturist who influenced legal forensics and also inspired fictional TV sleuth Jessica Fletcher! The life stories of 17th century African Queen Nzinga and 20th century Alsatian volcanologist Katia Krafft were among my other revelations. (Current nightly news about Hawaii’s volcanic eruptions make Krafft’s heroism especially poignant.)
Bagnieu’s words as well as images are wise, witty commentaries on these brazen women, beginning each bio in girlhood but then succinctly zooming in to highlight signal events and anecdotes. When Clementine Delait, 19th century entrepreneur and Bearded Lady is asked whether people can touch her beard, she replies, “What’s wrong with you?” Despite having a physical oddity, Clementine is the one here with healthy personal balance and space. She asserts herself to achieve love, success, and happiness. Transgender pioneer and reluctant celebrity Christine Jorgensen replies to her detractors, “Kisses, haters.” These verbal, humor-laced jabs have visual parallels. Fluid lines depict expressive faces and active bodies with minimalist, cartoon-like verve throughout this book. Its main biography pages, each organized in six to nine panels, also support and reflect this informal, “dashed off” style, with many panels omitting background details and even borders. This style enhances the blocks of color Bagnieu uses here, limited to a varying four- or five-color palette, which add further punch and unity within each bio.
Careful readers will particularly enjoy the visual ‘call and response’ relationship between each brief biography and its concluding splash page. For instance, Animal Whisperer Temple Grandin’s girlhood experience of autism is summed up in this way: “She doesn’t get jokes but always finds Waldo in a matter of seconds.” Grandin’s splash page is subtly two-toned, with her crouching figure hidden (like Waldo’s) within a herd of cattle, similar to those helped by her innovative animal husbandry designs. The foregrounding and fierce look of Queen Nzinga as she watches European ships approach her domains of Ndongo and Matamba sum up her battle-ready, triumphant spirit. Similarly, the skewered perspective Bagnieu uses to depict Frances Glessner Lee peering into one of her forensic miniatures conveys her personality with humorous pizzazz. Is Chinese Empress Wu Zetian really dropping the heads of executed enemies from a high bridge? The black silhouettes there are suggestive, rather than definitive, as is information about that 7th -8th century figure.
In these and a number of splash pages, Bagnieu opens up her palette to include more colors. At other times, as when a stage spotlight shines on anguished rapper Sonita Alizadeh or as lighthouse keeper Giorgina Reid stands stalwart in the snow, a reduced palette conveys the woman’s intensity.
Reading these brief, buoyantly told biographies may lead to more extended reading. I know that Bagnieu’s highlighting of Finnish painter Tove Jansson, creator of the comic strip Moomins (now also found in picture books), has led me to order Jansson’s autobiography from the library. I was tantalized by the ways Bagnieu linked some Moomin characters and plots to Jansson’s life experiences. Readers young and old may similarly want to learn more about explorers such as Wisconsin-born Delia Akeley or Australian athlete Cheryl Bridges. Some of these explorations may lead into serious terrain, such as the child abuse Bridges experienced or the torture endured by the Central American rebel sisters known as “Las Mariposas” (the Butterflies). Bagnieu’s illustrations there just suggest with thin lash marks and torn garments what these women suffered. Other, lengthier accounts may offer more details for those seeking to learn Dominican history.
(It is noteworthy that this U.S. edition of Brazen omits the 30th biography included in other nations’ print editions—an account of the bandit queen of India, Phoolan Devi. Her childhood rape was considered too disturbing for tween readers here. Yet Phoolan heads the list of “Thirty More Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World” in this edition’s back matter. Delving into that list may also lead to extended and possibly serious summer reading—“chewable” stuff.) Bagnieu’s own autobiographical end note, delightfully continuing the book’s graphic format, may further inspire readers to look at her other, longer graphic works. I enjoyed Bagnieu’s full-length biography of 1960s-70s pop star Cass Elliot, California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (2015; 2017), already lauded as a 2018 ALA Best Graphic Novel for Teens. It is an engaging look at Elliot’s serious ambitions and problems.
My own summertime reading plans include “chowing down” on a graphic work long on my “to be read” list. Message to Adolf, Part 1 and Part 2 (2012 – 2016) is the second translation of a five volume fiction series by Japanese manga master Osamu Tezuka, published in Japan in 1983 -86, and originally translated into English as Adolf. These books set mainly in Germany follow three different characters named Adolf, one Jewish and another Adolf Hitler himself, in the years before and during World War II. Tied together by a Japanese character seeking to solve and avenge his brother’s murder, their combined 1300 pages will not be light reading, I think, even if the books are currently being marketed as a “political thriller” for adults.
War, anti-Semitism, and related complex issues also figure in two other lengthy works tied to troubling current events. The recent actions of Israeli military forces against civilians, many unarmed, in Gaza bear examination in many ways, including looking at past events there. Graphic journalist Joe Sacco does just that in Palestine (1996; 2001; 2007), winner of a 1996 American Book Award, and Footnotes in Gaza (2009), another multiple award winner. (I previously have discussed Sacco’s work briefly here and here.) These books’ respective 300 and 400 pages are not quick or light reading, but the thorny questions they raise—and Sacco’s artistry—deserve close scrutiny. To whom does Gaza belong, and how should it be defended? American Jews, including myself, do not speak with one voice on these issues.
Ironically, while war and violence in Gaza strike children as well as adults, Sacco’s books are best absorbed by readers who are mature tweens or older. I have just begun to look at books about Gaza for younger readers, noting that picture book The Story of Hurry (2014), written by Emma Williams and illustrated by Ibrahim Quraishi, is one work with a child’s eye view of life there. Perhaps you readers have others to recommend?
Whether you sip frothy fare or settle in for a less quickly-digested literary “meal,” I wish you and the young people in your life rewarding reading this summer!