November 1 . . . Is it too late now for a great Halloween-based book? Similarly, once this November’s national Native American Heritage Month is over, will it seem out-of-step to read about our country’s first peoples? And just how strictly should we limit this reading to peoples of the United States, when tribal identities sometimes cross its borders? Today I focus on two graphic works for teens that both celebrate and challenge the idea of books being “in season.” While holidays may provide dramatic focus for some books, the satisfaction and insights contained in the best of these works extend well beyond any celebrated days or months. Similarly, government borders do not negate the comparable experiences of native peoples in different countries. So, here are two books to savor and recommend throughout the year, within the U.S.A. and beyond.
Pumpkinheads (2019) is a fun-packed, tenderhearted graphic novel about friendship and love, set during one last night at a yearly, elaborate “Pumpkin Patch and Autumn Festival.” Its extensive grounds—illustrated on the book’s interior covers—contain a maze, petting zoo, and rides as well as a variety of seasonal food huts and stands. The novel’s central characters, high school seniors Josiah and Deja, are patch co-workers finishing their fourth, final year as “seasonal best friends.” They will spend next year’s autumn at different colleges. What these characters reveal to us and learn about themselves form the warm, wise center of this book, given engaging life by its best-selling author Rainbow Rowell and award-winning illustrator Faith Erin Hicks. (I am heartened that none of these revelations centers on what once might have been noteworthy or controversial: interracial romance and bisexuality. These story elements are just matter-of-fact givens in Pumpkinheads.)
Rowell packs her story with the wordplay and crisp, character-specific dialogue her prose fans have come to expect. (I reviewed one of Rowell’s prose works here.) For instance, chapter headings and food stand names are typically puns, often referring to popular songs, films, or sayings. The pie stand asks visitors to “give piece a chance,” while another chapter is bittersweetly titled “S’More Problems.” Deja’s optimistic, outgoing personality is distinguished from hesitant, self-doubting Josiah’s through her many punning names for his long-time crush. He has never actually spoken to this girl, a fudge-shop worker, whom Deja teasingly calls “Super Fudge” and “Elmer Fudge,” also noting that “Girls just want to have Fudge.” Deja wants her shy friend to take this last chance to meet his “dream girl.” What happens while and after he attempts this becomes Pumpkinheads’ plot.
Rowell and Hicks make great, humorous use of the patch setting throughout this book. Josiah kindly calms a crying, frightened pre-schooler (whose sobbed “goooasteesses” probably refers to the zoo’s escaped goat rather than any costumed ghosts), while another youngster who early on snatches Deja’s caramel apple pops up throughout the evening. The times he appears as a background character, often unnoticed and not mentioned by Deja or Josiah, are just one way Hicks’ illustrations enrich Rowell’s storyline and characters.
At other points, wordless pages and sequences of wordless pages nimbly advance the story, often when speed is apt—such as racing away from that goat or towards the apple snatcher. The expressive faces of her cartoon-like drawings also wordlessly tell us how Deja and Josiah feel during some events. For example, Josiah has a perturbed expression when a youngster at the s’mores booth mocks Deja’s plumpness. Josiah grimly lets the boy’s marshmallow fall to the ground, while Deja watches, wide-eyed and appreciative. In interviews as well as in Pumpkinheads’ afterward, Rowell praises Hicks’ work, while Hicks herself says how much she appreciated the freedom she had to “do my own paneling and pacing” for this book.
Varied paneling and pacing are hallmarks of graphic anthologies such as This Place: 150 Years Retold (2019), foreword by Alicia Elliot. This book has ten stories, created by twenty different indigenous authors and illustrators, which focus on significant people and events in the history of Canada’s first peoples. Even though most written histories have omitted or distorted these experiences, Elliot points out that oral history told within tribes and families has kept this information alive. Thus many more readers will now be introduced to the fierce determination of 19th century Annie Bannatyne, depicted with full color realism. In another story, a more limited color palette keyed to the “Red Clouds” of supernatural windigos conveys the family and tribal history of Fiddler Jack. In “Nimkii,” which also features shamanism, a blue-green color palette communicates Inuit religion, with some panel-free pages and unrealistic juxtaposition of images being used dramatically to show the supernatural. A time-travel story initially set in the future, titled “Kitaskinaw 2350,” also omits some panels and uses non-realistic images to show its teen narrator’s first, shocked reactions to 21st century life. The future, we hopefully learn, provides native peoples with much better experiences.
Young readers of this anthology may see or be shown the ways in which the experiences of U.S. tribes parallel those of Canadian first peoples. Beyond broken governmental promises and pervasive social stereotyping, both countries have had long histories of harmfully separating youngsters from their families, ostensibly to help them acquire job skills and the country’s dominant language. This Space: 150 Years Retold will stir readers’ hearts as well as minds—a relevant, worthwhile, and interesting book to explore during this November’s national Native American Heritage month—as well as at other times too!
Other graphic works drawing upon indigenous culture and history include Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, volume 1 (2015) and volume 2 (2017). Both books contain tribe-specific stories ranging across North America and will engage tweens and teens. Enthusiastic readers of Pumpkinheads have a variety of follow-up choices. While Pumpkinheads is Rainbow Rowell’s first graphic novel, she has written issues of Marvel Comics monthly series Runaways, featuring super teen and tween-agers. There are currently four collected volumes of these (2018-2019), and I myself will now be taking a look at the first volume, Runaways: Find Your Way Home (2018).
New fans of Canadian Faith Erin Hicks’ illustrations will appreciate her Eisner Award-winning collection of self-authored stories, The Adventures of Superhero Girl (2013; 2017, updated edition), which I reviewed here. The adventures of teen heroes in Hicks’ Nameless City trilogy (2016 – 2018) are also captivating and thought-provoking. I reviewed and recommended its first volume, titled simply The Nameless City (2016), when it was first published. Furthermore, Rowell and Hicks have said that they would be happy to work together again. While a novel-length sequel to Pumpkinheads is not probable, a short-story featuring Deja and Josiah remains a possibility!