Giving “experiences” rather than “things” is a trend this winter holiday season, making graphic literature a fashionable, two-for-one joy for the tween-and-up readers on your gift list. They can hold a volume in their hands, actively scanning between text and images, flipping back-and-forth between pages, as they mull over and revel in how a great graphic work builds its many layers of meaning. I have two sumptuous books to recommend this month, works that will move hearts and minds even as their rich imagery and high-quality production values satisfy hands and eyes. One will even tickle funny-bones as it is read and reread . . . . These recently published novels have already been acclaimed among this year’s potential award winners.
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (2018), written by M.T. Anderson and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, uses humor and the traditions of fantasy fiction to comment slyly on real-world politics and problems. Its central characters are elves and goblins, at war with each other for a thousand years, whose different takes on that history and mistaken ideas about one another mirror more than a few conflicts today. When elf Gawain, a timid historian, is drafted to be the ambassador to the goblin kingdom—and ordered to spy on the goblins as well, the fun begins. How Gawain interacts with his goblin host Werfel and his distant elven spymaster Lord Clivers is the central plot here, one packed with breathless action and escapes as well as scenes of daily goblin life and high court pomp. Goblin habits are, by human standards, often gross! Young readers and others merely young-at-heart will enjoy details there, including the behavior of Werfel’s affectionate pet—a flying, fishlike creature with tentacles. But it the way Anderson and Yelchin tell this story that makes this book such a gem.
Gawain is a hybrid graphic novel—one that intersperses pages of prose with pages of wordless images which themselves advance its story-telling. (I have written about other hybrid graphic novels, including works by signal practitioner Brian Selznick, here and here.) The delightful twist that Anderson and Yelchin add to this format is that their wordless sequences—almost all meant to be Gawain’s reporting back to spymaster Clivers—are “not exactly what [Gawain] sees. It’s whatever he pictures in his mind’s eye.” Readers only gradually realize that Gawain’s beliefs about goblins distort what he sees, making innocuous, if strange scenes—along with some disgusting ones—into more monstrous, sometimes terrifying ones. This is another comment on how enemies may misunderstand or demonize one another.
Award-winning illustrator Yelchin inventively styles these imagined views as Renaissance engravings, in the vein of Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts. There are more than 180 pages of black-and-white images in this 500 page book, with changes in perspective and distance advancing fast-paced action even as other scenes contain so many humorous, clever details that the eye lingers. Readers may well page back to see and savor more—I know I did. Yelchin gives characters here such distinctive facial emotions and body language that we empathize with these cartoonish characters’ woes even as their antics make us smile.
Award-winning author Anderson engages us by alternating Gawain’s and Werfel’s very different views of events with letters the chief elven spy Lord Clivers writes to his increasingly dissatisfied king. Each failure Clivers has to report has major, bizarrely funny consequences for this self-centered character, who bullied Gawain when they were young schoolmates. The secret “Order of the Clean Hand,” headed up by Clivers, takes on new meaning as the king responds with cutting wrath.
Anderson’s language will also delight those readers who appreciate the somewhat old-fashioned, formal language of traditional fantasy epics, also when appropriate switched out to other verbal styles. The “broken Elvish” some Goblin nobles try to speak is a hoot: one enthusiastically invites Gawain into her home by saying “I punch you with me house hard, many time.” The book trailer for The Assassination of Gawain Spurge, which concludes with Anderson and Yelchin pretending to bicker about their collaboration, captures the tone as well as the content of this work. This trailer will let you know if your young readers are ones who, among many others, would be happy to write their names on the embellished inner cover of this gifted volume, under the words, “This book belongs to . . . .”
Vesper Stamper’s richly-illustrated novel What the Night Sings (2018) is more serious in tone. Focusing on the Holocaust experiences and survival of 16- year old Gerta Rausch, a German-Jewish musician, this powerful work is both moving and uplifting. Illustrator/author Stamper, herself born in Germany but raised in New York City, shows in images and words how profoundly resilient the human spirit is. At first, a younger Gerta is sheltered by her musician father and the opera star who mothers her; Gerta does not even know that she is Jewish! But their family is betrayed, and Gerta and her father herded into concentration camps. He does not survive. Gerta is near death when victorious Allied troops rescue her as they liberate prisoners at Auschwitz. (Some prior knowledge of the era might be helpful for tween readers, though When the Night Sings may also serve as sobering introduction, raising important questions.)
Gerta slowly rediscovers her singing voice and finds love in a displaced person camp, later marrying and immigrating with her new husband to Israel. Simple sentences, each word aptly chosen, are rich with metaphor as they communicate teen-aged Gerta’s thoughts: She realizes that her musician father’s viola, which she has managed to save, “is a forest. It is a living tree. It is the heartwood of our family.” This refrain is also seen in images throughout the book, where trees shown first as abstract, barren roots, trunks, and limbs gradually thrive and blossom. Gerta herself is sometimes shown in impossible, symbolic juxtaposition to these backgrounds, rather than realistically.
Similarly, the butterflies that figured in the gardens of Gerta’s early childhood reappear later in this poignantly illustrated volume, in scenes which range from sorrow to hope and joy. Stamper depicts her characters’ many emotional and literal journeys in varied visual formats: quarter-page as well as full page or double spread illustrations, along with a dozen spot illustrations, all embody significant moments or emotions. Their muted palette of grey and sepia ink washes is as haunting as the sparse eloquence of Gerta’s religious husband-to-be Lev, also liberated at Auschwitz, who says, “The way I love you . . . It’s like music. It’s like praying.” Lev and Gerta relate to traditional Judaism in very different, yet ultimately complementary ways, as Stamper reveals through luminous words as well as images. I was not surprised to read in an on-line interview that she includes morning Bible reading and prayer as part of her daily creative routine.
Remarkably, What The Night Sings is Vesper Stamper’s first published book, begun as a student project for the graduate degree she earned in Illustration as Visual Essay. The novel’s stellar text is followed by a lengthy “Author’s Note” appreciative readers will welcome. It contains information about events in Stamper’s life leading to that degree as well details of her Holocaust research, including photographs. A relevant map, glossary, and suggested further resources conclude this hardcover volume, printed on high-quality, heavy stock paper, enhancing the depth of shaded illustrations and further distinguishing it as a special, “giftable” volume.
Comedy or tragedy—neither of these vast categories precisely “fits” the books I have discussed today . . . each book, upon reflection, contains some elements of both. The ways in which these particular volumes engage readers to think about their ideas and images, the characters and events they describe, will make them gifts of experience as much as sumptuous objects to be gift-wrapped in time for winter holidays. These graphic works will provide meaningful, enjoyable reading and rereading at any time of the year.