Anticipating or recalling those 4th of July fireworks? Colorful blasts have been part of “Independence Day” celebrations ever since the U.S. Declaration of Independence supposedly was signed on July 4, 1776. Yet our new country’s continued growth is the exception rather than the rule. More often, such attempts at statehood have fizzled. This is an apt time of year to look at some of the many other less successful ideas people have had for independent statehood. Readers tween and up will be entertained and sometimes moved by the thirty short-lived nations overviewed in the brand-new This Land is My Land: A Graphic History of Big Dreams, Micronations, and Other Self-Made States (2019). Its author Andy Warner and illustrator Sofie Louise Dam do a fine job of spotlighting the absurdities underlying many of these self-declared states while respecting the thoughtful, challenging visions underlying others.
Warner separates these political innovations into five categories, each given its own chapter. “Intentional Communities” are ones where “groups of people [chose] to radically remake their social structures,” while “Micronations” describe “tiny nations” whose names few people will recognize. “Failed Utopias” are grand “experiment[s]” whose failures were equally big, while “Visionary Environments” are accounts of the physical changes individuals have made, creating “wonderful and bizarre places” to “make their visions reality.” The last chapter, “Strange Dreams,” describes some “plans . . . and schemes” for new nations that never took shape at all.
Illustrator Dam provides helpful, color-coded world maps—showing the location of each new country—for each chapter as well as for the Table of Contents. Readers might choose to dip into this book continent by continent, so to speak, as well as chapter by chapter. I think This Land is My Land will be savored best when sampled in one of these ways, rather than being read straight through. Such small “sips” will give readers time to ponder these surprising bits of history, perhaps going on to find out more about the places themselves and the situations and ideas that inspired them. Only 2 to 4 pages are devoted here to each new nation, brevity which may satisfy some readers but leave others at different points craving more.
For instance, after reading about “Libertatia,” a 17th century intentional community on Madagascar where for 25 years pirates and freed slaves lived in equality and harmony, readers might well ask about other countries started by former slaves or other ways some pirates rebelled against convention. There are a wealth of possible topics to pursue here during long summer days! Similarly, the section about “Oneida,” the failed 19th century utopia in upstate New York that became a hugely successful silverware company, might inspire readers to look into other utopian communities or the origins of popular or local businesses.
Micronations such as “North Dumpling Island” near Connecticut have been founded by brilliant, wealthy eccentrics such as inventor Dean Kamen, while other micronations have been founded as tax dodges! Guilt and a father’s love inspired one visionary environment, the “Arizona Mystery Castle,” while razor blade tycoon King Camp Gillette’s strange dream of a New York city-state called “Metropolis” never took hold. (Millionaires do not automatically have political knowledge or even good sense—as many U.S. citizens today would attest.) Some new nations—such as “Auroville” in India—faded away after the death of an inspirational leader, while another Indian visionary’s plan, “Nek Chand’s Rock Garden,” survives today as a popular tourist attraction.
Sophie Dam’s illustrations support author Warner’ breezy tone in this book. Her cartoon-like line drawings and non-realistic color schemes are light-hearted, almost carnival-like, buoying up even the eventual failures or strange fates that befall most of the nations depicted here. Her playful treatment of panels—overlapping ones of different sizes, breaking through or omitting frames, and interjecting circular panels filled with characters congregating in surreal ways—is equally irreverent, as are some images here of traditional religious leaders and gay and lesbian nations. Some tween readers might have questions about those images and topics or about the book’s casual mention of other serious topics such as slavery. I wish the author or editor here had included a bibliography for further reading. While there are visual signposts—in the form of single or double splash pages—for each chapter and each new nation, there are no similar way signs for materials outside This Land is My Land. That omission is a failing.
Readers who have enjoyed Andy Warner’s quick-glimpses at national histories may relish his Brief Histories of Everyday Objects (2016), illustrated as well as written by Warner. I missed this best-seller, but it sounds similar in tone and scope to This Land is Mine. And, of course, young readers who do not know the musical allusion in that book’s title should have the chance to hear some version of Woody Guthrie’s classic song. It sounds more poignant this close to 4th of July, to easy summer days of cross-country travel for some but hard days and nights of immigrant detention for others.