Timely Questions

Free Clipart Of A bell hourglass and happy new year bannerAt the start of a new year, in our sometimes Kafkaesque world, it is good to realize that not all tales from the inner city are bad.  What exactly do I mean by that remark?  I hope you will be amused that it contains the titles of two new graphic story collections I am about to discuss.  Today I look at works by master storytellers Peter Kuper and Shaun Tan, whose award-winning achievements I have reviewed before.  Some earlier works by both artist/illustrators are discussed here, while more of Shaun Tan’s bravura efforts are described here and here.   Both men have won acclaim, in part for their wordless or nearly wordless storytelling.

51aOrXNMYUL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Words, though sparsely used, are integral to Peter Kuper’s Kafkaesque: Fourteen Stories (2018).  On the book’s frontispiece, Kuper describes this work as a “conversation with [Franz] Kafka.’’  This Czech author (1883 – 1924) wrote such powerful novels and stories depicting the absurdities of government and cruel circumstances of people’s lives– including The Trial, The Castle, and The Metamorphosis—that his name has become a synonym for nightmarish bureaucracy—“Kafkaesque.” 

With this new book, containing some stories that first appeared in his collection  Give It Up! and Other Short Stories (1995), Kuper interprets Kafka’s insights in a boldly dramatic way.  He has drawn on black-inked scratchboard, scratching away parts to achieve white highlighted images, to capture Kafka’s bleak—and sometimes bleakly funny—view of what Kuper sees as “the basic human condition.”  Kuper also sees (as do I) connections between situations in Kafka’s stories and today’s Trumpesque “political and environmental climate.”   Teen and older readers engaged by these challenging topics will appreciate Kuper’s storytelling here. 


It is hard for me to single out a favorite, though “A Little Fable,” its mouse-like protagonist trapped in a maze, lingers in my mind.  An overlapping panel and a close-up dramatize this rendition of life’s diminishing choices for this character (and possibly for any living being).  Yet this character is trying his best, as is the narrator in “The Helmsman.”   There the central character’s attempting to maintain his position at a ship’s helm is undercut by other crewmembers who cannot or will not question the person who has mysteriously asserted authority over them all. 

Such resignation to authority also dominates the main Kafkaesque_PG100character in “Before the Law,” even as we see him initially questioning the guard who will not let him enter an important government building.  Kuper’s making this seemingly powerless figure a Black man adds another layer of meaning to this “conversation with Kafka.” The years-long fictional exchange here, portrayed in a two-page double spread swirl of images, ends ironically, with the guard’s revealing that this entrance was always meant for the now dying, too patient character.  He never tried to force his way past the guard.  Readers may well wonder about our own life choices and whether or when it is wise to delay action.  Like most of the stories in Kafkaeque, these are only five or six pages long.

Screen-Shot-2018-09-28-at-9.00.56-AMTwo of Franz Kafka’s best-known short works, though, receive lengthier interpretations.  Kuper devotes 22 pages to “A Hunger Artist” and 45 pages to “In the Penal Colony.” These sobering, thought-provoking stories about what spectacles people watch and what measures our judicial systems consider to be justice raise  multifaceted questions.  They touch on human nature in general but are also highly relevant to today’s social media-driven world and to current issues in U.S. judicial reform.   Here, as is typical in Kuper’s work, panel size and shape vary to emphasize the mood of each story element.  Similarly, Kuper’s exaggerated abstraction of facial features and body language dramatizes his sympathy with Kafka’s nightmarish views. 

51CnCw7WUqL._SX387_BO1,204,203,200_Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City (2018) is more varied in tone than Kafkaesque, but it too contains dark elements as it explores the relationships among animals and supposedly superior human beings.  The 25 prose poems and short stories here are Tan’s “sister volume” to his earlier collection of 15 illustrated short pieces, Tales from Outer Suburbia (2009).  In both these works, it is the illustrations that will speak most eloquently to readers of all ages.  Tan’s stories in this latest volume, though, seem geared to a tween on up audience.


42003999_2243539082600047_5087192158705599834_nAs he has explained on his website and in interviews, Tan’s fascination with animals, the ways in which humans see them and ourselves as somehow totally separate and yet sometimes close allies, led to this new volume, in which animals appear in surprising ways inside cities.  This unifying concept also helped the internationally acclaimed Australian artist to explore further another personal fascination—just how the human imagination works.  Tan sometimes used his dream images as springboards; at other times, newspaper articles led him to experiment with different media to lungfish sculpturesinspire the final visual piece, in each instance here a full-color painting.  Sometimes Tan photographed real-life places, gaining naturalistic details, while at other points, his own drawings or “doodles” were his visual inspiration.  One illustration—of a deer on the upper floor of a skyscraper—even early on was a diorama, populated by stand-up figures Tan made!  The author built clay-and-plaster models for another painted illustration here, that of fish with almost human faces. 

fox medium rgbGiant snails on a city bridge; a leaping fox in a sleeper’s bedroom; in an echo of Kafkaesque legal systems, a bear with its lawyer lumbering up courthouse steps—these eerie images are memorable and thought-provoking.  Yet it is Tan’s longer works centering on dogs and cats that also touch one’s heartstrings.  A series of 13 wordless, double spread paintings depict the bear medium rgblong history of human-canine interaction while also referencing the devotion of dogs to their humans.  The short poems that accompany these paintings highlight the sad reality that dog lives are so much shorter than human ones—people will inevitably experience the loss of this bond.  As Tan writes, “And when you died I took you down to the river.  And when I died you waited for me by the shore.  So it was that time passed between us.”

26413336._SY540_In a parallel twist on this theme, Tan illustrates a cat loss story with a painting of a literally absurd but emotionally-true situation.  Just as the death of their cat has rescued a woman from frozen emotions, allowing her to shed tears as she grieves with other bereft cat “owners,” we see a giant cat rescuing its people.  The woman and her young daughter sit on the now gigantic cat’s head, kept safely above a sea of crashing waves.  Her newly-found ocean of tears will not capsize this mother with grief.  Tales from the Inner City is full of such moving images, sometimes provoking sentimental as well as sharply-questioning responses.

Appreciative readers of these latest works by Peter Kuper and Shaun Tan will want to check out Kuper’s graphic version of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece novella, The 514+M03talL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Metamorphosis (2004).  It already appears in some high schools’ curriculum.  For an overview of Kuper’s works, including the more light-heartedly satirical “Spy vs. Spy” pieces he has created for Mad magazine, readers can browse the author/illustrator’s website.  Shaun Tan’s website has interior links to his creative process for each of the Tales from the Inner City, as well as other works.  Tan’s fans will also enjoy this brief video he made recently.

As we question ourselves and set goals for the new year, reading about such creativity is one empowering and inspiring step towards the future.   Figuring out how to make the coming year less Kafkaesque remains a collective as well as an individual challenge.









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Great Graphic Gifts

images (13)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.

519W0nbxbZL._SX362_BO1,204,203,200_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. 

Brangwain4-300x289Gawain 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.

unnamedAward-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.

Brangwain25Anderson’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 . . . .”

51apVucNFPL._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_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.)

download (16)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 30YA-WTNSreappear 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 download (17)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 29YA-WTNSreaders 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.



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Happy Holidays? Family Woes and Wins

b49d978ca1e231df6fe97cd7757a7770--christmas-puppy-santa-christmasSanta Claus may not be this season’s biggest holiday myth.  A more troubling fantasy here in North America may be the myth of the perfectly happy, affluent family—one celebrating its winter holidays with big smiles in a bright, cheerful home filled with presents.  The many ads and other images featuring such families can be a far cry from what some kids and teens actually experience.   Today, I look at two graphic works—one a personal memoir and the other a novel—that vividly depict real-life family problems as these play out during holidays as well as ordinary days.  Addiction is the main problem in both books.   Readers teen and up will appreciate how the central figures in these works cope with and survive family woes and, in one case, even win a bright future. 

51jfyUWZ6hL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Author/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka dedicated his recent memoir Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction (2018) not only to his grandparents and mother but to “every reader who recognizes this experience.”  Teens who know 41 year-old Krosoczka only as the successful author/illustrator of funny picture books, chapter books, and the humorous   “Lunch Lady” series of graphic novels may be surprised to learn about his difficult childhood and adolescence.  Krosoczka has mentioned this, though, in a 2012 TED talk about his becoming an artist.  The insights in that talk  are fleshed out in his moving memoir, already short-listed this year for a National Book Award.  

Krosoczka’s mother Leslie was a heroin addict, unable to care safely for her son.  From the age of three onward, Jarrett was raised in Worcester, Massachusetts by her parents, his grandfather Joe and grandmother Shirley Krosoczka.  Jarrett’s Christmas memories include his bewilderment at being separated as a three year-old from his mother and his pained confusion after a holiday visit with her the 07McCormick-facebookJumbofollowing year.  Throughout this memoir, which follows Jarrett through high school graduation at age seventeen, holidays figure prominently: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Mother’s Day are fraught with meaning and tension.  Traditional Mother’s Day cards suit neither the love and disappointment of his relationship with mother Leslie nor the complicated devotion grandmother Shirley provides. It is sometimes hard for bitter-tongued Shirley to see beyond her own needs and beliefs, as when she dismisses the portrait teen-aged Jarrett has labored over for his grandparents’ 45th wedding anniversary gift.   Her saying “It doesn’t look anything like us.  You’re not that good” is terribly hurtful to him. 

Expressive facial features and body language communicate this pain effectively  here and throughout the book.  The author/illustrator understands much about his grandparents that is unstated in words but revealed in images.  During Jarrett’s account of his grandparents’ “backstory,” Shirley’s changing expression as she struggles as a young mother with a growing family of five children  is  tellingly 56bb4fd1862b432884cf4cdaf256adedspotlighted by its placement on a double spread page with a black background.  Such double spreads highlight other emotionally significant moments in this eight-chapter, 300-page work.  We also see how some parental patterns have unintentional influences.  Shirley and Joe themselves drink heavily, leading to household arguments.  On a lighter note, Joe’s affectionate hello to Jarrett, “Hey, Kiddo,” is echoed by Leslie in some of the letters she writes to her son when she is (unbeknown to him) in prison. Jarrett Krosoczka as author does a great job capturing and reproducing the rhythms of everyday, idiosyncratic, and sometimes profane speech. 

Timestamps throughout the memoir are effectively made through bits of contemporaneous songs and through actual memorabilia (family photographs, wedding and graduation announcements, newspaper clippings) that introduce each chapter.  One memento is a handmade, obviously cherished Christmas tree 654958884ornament.   Readers never lose track of where we are in this memoir, while Krosoczka catches us up on subsequent events in an affecting final “Author’s Note.” The following “Note on the Art” is where we learn the origin of the book’s limited color scheme—a tribute to his grandfather Joe.  Krosoczka at age 41 concludes his heartfelt memoir with images supporting his recognition that Joe and Shirley were “two incredible parents right there before me the entire time.  They just happened to be a generation removed.”  I myself find it moving that this echoes the dedication of his first published book, Goodnight, Monkey Boy (2001).  Even back then, the 23 year old author/illustrator acknowledged “Grandma and Grandpa, the best parents a kid could ask for.”

51t8sQjyemL._SX382_BO1,204,203,200_David Small, a Caldecott Award-winning children’s book illustrator, won further acclaim and awards in 2010 for his own painful graphic memoir, Stitches (2009), detailing his youth and dysfunctional family life in 1950s America.  Small’s new graphic novel, though, titled Home After Dark (2018), is a fictional work set in the same time and milieu, but based on experiences told to the author/illustrator by a friend.  This harshly poetic book is a breath-taking achievement! 

The story of its central figure, thirteen and later fourteen year-old Russell, is told primarily through pen and grey wash images, with sparse narrative.  Multiple page sequences abound homeafterdark2-e1537285215138with no words at all.  Russell is abandoned by  his mother and later by his alcoholic father, set adrift in a small California town.  This community is rife with school yard bullies, racist attitudes towards Asian immigrants, homophobia, and sexual stereotypes that make “girl” a slur when spoken to or about any teen age boy.  Russell cannot even escape in sleep, as his fears and experiences transmogrify into frightening dreams.  One dream transforms his limited understanding of the town business men’s Lions Club into a circus where Russell finds himself thrown into an actual lion’s cage.  In a devastating image, Small draws the terrified teen crouched inside the lion’s wide-open jaws.    

Spoiler alert and warning: another teen takes his own life here.  And Russell then runs away, living dangerously on his own in an attempt to apologize for his failure to stand up for that boy.  All this plays out against a Christmas prologue, seen in the 10 minute book  trailer read by Small himself, which serves to highlight how far Russell’s existence is from any holiday cheer or televised dreams. 

20180724_SMALL_D_630Yet there is also some hope here.  Russell, who near the book’s conclusion says “I am nobody’s son,” is taken in by the Chinese immigrant family whose trust he has already betrayed once.  The final page and image is of Mrs. Wah, calling Russell into their house, with the welcoming words that “Supper is ready.” For a teen who has despaired of life, summing up his biggest, seemingly insurmountable problem as his wish “to live without hurting anyone,” a second chance in that circumscribed, pre-Internet world now seems possible.  Teen readers might want or need to talk about this book with others, for background insight into the era as well as discussion of the novel’s events and ideas.  Home After Dark is well worth that commitment of time and energy for readers ready to explore the many issues, including alcoholism, it addresses. 

61INu+9TYuL._SX391_BO1,204,203,200_I plan now to decompress from Home After Dark by reading as many of the ten Lunch Lady graphic novels as are available in my local library!  I have only personally read her adventures in a series of compilation volumes, the Comics Squad books, which Jarrett Krosocska contributed to as well as co-edited.  (I reviewed one a few years ago here.)   After that, I think I will be ready to 51rDDfX6nxL._SX382_BO1,204,203,200_reread my own copy of David Small’s searing memoir, Stitches.  I will also remember to count each and every win as any woes arise.  Fine graphic literature is definitely in my win column, along with family and friends, for whom I feel fortunate and remain grateful.

Wishing you good reading and holidays free of stress and frenzy. . . .






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After the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

9d7ecd1c-9bf5-4ee7-91c5-8765ec949d36-GTY_1054421328What do we tell school-aged children who see, read, or hear news about this past weekend’s massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue?  You already may have had to deal with initial reactions, but I have some print resources to offer—suggestions which may be helpful, depending on the ages and maturity of the children and your relationship (parent, teacher, librarian) to them. 

61PEhqQXqSL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_Two graphic novels published by the Anne Frank House in cooperation with the Resistance Museums of Friesland and Amsterdam help explain some of the causes—and horrible results—of 20th century anti-Semitism, unfortunately still pertinent today and so dramatically obvious this past weekend.  A Family Secret (2007) and its sequel The Search (2007), both written and illustrated by Eric Heuvel (originally in Dutch) explore in well-researched and well-crafted form the origins and consequences of anti-Semitism made public policy by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi forces—not only in Germany but in the countries German forces conquered, often with the help of many complicit citizens there.   The results of voting a bigoted despot into power and then going along with increasingly biased laws are dramatized in these novels in ways that will engage and enlighten young readers, even as they resonate loudly for adults.  With an election facing us here in the United States in another week, it is important to remember that many of the most bloodthirsty political leaders of the last 100 years have, around the globe, gained power first as elected officials.

51LOD5LG3ML._SX368_BO1,204,203,200_Heuvel’s two graphic novels focus on the lives of two girls—German Jewish refugee Esther and Dutch Protestant Helena—neighbors from ages twelve through sixteen, starting in 1938, when Esther and her family arrive in Amsterdam.   A Family Secret follows the girls through 1942, while The Search concentrates on events in their lives from 1942 onward.  All these events are made even more immediate by being told through a contemporary, framing lens:  We readers discover these stories at the same time that Helena’s twelve- or thirteen-year old grandson Jeroen does, going through mementos in his grandmother’s attic.  It is through his curiosity and persistence that we not only learn about these past events but that Helena discovers that Esther (but not her parents) survived being arrested!  The Search gives most attention to Esther’s (and other Nazi victims’) experiences under the Nazis and in World War II’s aftermath.  Esther’s having found safety and a new life in the United States takes on poignant, new meaning now, just days after the Pittsburgh massacre. 

download (15)Helena’s family’s reactions to the Nazi invaders runs the gamut: her father is a Dutch police man who dutifully if reluctantly follows Nazi orders to arrest Jews, while one of her brothers  is active in the illegal Dutch resistance movement.   We learn of Dutch individuals who aid Esther while others chase the bewildered, lone girl away.  Some of their Amsterdam neighbors protest Nazi cruelty while more accept it, either out of reluctance to question authority, fear, or their own mistaken, anti-Semitic views.  Through Esther’s accounts, we learn the ways in which these Dutch reactions are akin to some German ones, though the author and his museum expert sources  do an excellent job further spotlighting how economic hardship and scapegoating of Jews in Germany  contributed to Hitler’s election and continued support there.


Drawn in the “clear line” (ligne claire) style popularized by Tin Tin’s Belgian creator Herge, the sharply drawn features of characters here, while cartoonish, are readily understood, reinforcing the emotional power of the lives and events Heuvel recounts.  Body language in these images is also drawn tellingly.  These full-color books use color effectively as well , dropping briefly into grey shades to depict some Nazi brutalities witnessed by the younger Esther in Berlin.  Grey shades also introduce some of what Esther eventually  discovered, and now Jeroen is learning, about the total impact of the Holocaust.  These visuals support the clear ways in which Heuvel through verbal transitions also keeps the different time periods distinct.


When I wrote about the Paris terrorist attacks, including one on a kosher grocery store, back in 2015 and at another point addressed the plight of refugees, including Holocaust survivors, I did not imagine I would be responding in just a few years to a massacre at a United States Jewish synagogue.  As a Jew, seeing how members of other minority groups have been increasingly assaulted and stigmatized recently, and knowing what I do about the long history of anti-Semitism, that was indeed a failure of imagination.  Such failure is a luxury that none of us– regardless of religion, ethnic identity, or political affiliation—can really afford these days.  

I hope these suggestions can help you and young readers with their questions.  I plan to return soon to the Gone Graphic I was originally prepared to post this November.

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Beyond Halloween Thrills

halloween-props-017Heralding Halloween, plastic ghosts and ghouls materialized on some front porches back in September.  This horde will rapidly increase–adding movie monsters, comic book creatures, and graveyard trappings—as October 31 approaches.  Yet the truly terrifying may not be what we see but what we can only imagine and dreadfully anticipate.  This psychological truth is the reason that one graphic novel has haunted me for several years, since I first read it.    Today I want to spotlight the chills found in Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods (2014), an eerie masterpiece with a profound understanding of mayhem and mystery, far beyond the jolly trick-or-treating or “haunted houses” of Halloween.  Readers tween on up with a taste for the macabre will greatly appreciate this multiple-award winning work.   

61vN8LI0tzL._SX421_BO1,204,203,200_This collection of five stories—one first created as a web comic by Canadian author/illustrator Carroll—is effectively bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion that are themselves scary tales.  The introduction addresses a child’s fear of what monsters might lurk in the dark, while the conclusion reminds us that, even if Red Riding Hood escapes a wolf many times, the hungry wolf still only needs “enough luck” to find her “ONCE.” Here Carroll explicitly addresses the darkness underpinning many fairy-tale happy endings.  Her story “A Lady’s Hands are Cold” is also a variant of a familiar tale, that of  Bluebeard, the husband who marries woman after woman only to murder them.  The other stories depict human or supernatural evils linked to everyday rather than fairy-tale events. 

In “Our Neighbor’s House,” three children left alone by their father follow his admonishment to go to their neighbor for help.  The suggested outcome is dire.  In through-the-woods-1“His Face All Red,” a jealous man kills his brother, but the slain man mysteriously reappears.  (This is the only story with a male protagonist.)  “My Friend Janna” shows what happens when the accomplice of a fake medium truly sees—or thinks she sees—real ghosts.  “The Nesting Place,” the longest piece here, follows a young, recently-orphaned girl who goes to visit her adult brother and his fiancée.  Beginning with the words “Belle’s mother had told her about monsters,” this story shows the horrifying, surprising ways the girl discovers some truths underlying that message.  Yet these thumbnail plot sketches do not convey how and why this book is so powerful.  It is Carroll’s visual artistry, an integral element in her storytelling choices, that makes Through the Woods such a memorable work. 

Her bold, consistent use of color unites and highlights these stories.  Red and orange add dramatic punch, often against stark white or forboding black backgrounds.  Some of these single and double spread pages are tellingly silent, permitting suspense to build in the ominous absence of any words.  At other times, garish incidents are recounted on pages inked in shades of grey.  Often, Carroll graexc_52427701_9781442465954-1.in36dramatically positions any words and just one image in the center of a page, as a result making the surrounding, extensive black or white background another significant factor in the story’s emotional tone.  This may be seen in the opening images, where a small blue figure is centered in a looming black forest, with a disproportionately large, blood-red sun dominating the stark white sky.  The technique of creating a suspenseful, ominous tone is also evident in “His Face All Red,” as the bewildered killer travels deep underground to see what if anything has happened to his brother’s body.

Carroll also uses lettering and distinctively-shaped word balloons to great effect.  Hand-drawn letters vary in size and capitalization in ways that enhance the action through-the-woods-ghost--500x311on the page, while word balloons trail like smoke or a mysterious, ghostly melody across pages and through scenes.  At several points in this volume, notably in  ”A Lady’s Hands  Are Cold” and “In Conclusion,” word balloons have appropriately startling, blood-red backgrounds instead of the more typical white or black.  In an interview,  Carroll has described the influences on her strongly-lined drawing style for this book, where she typically used hand-held pen and brush to create images on pasteboard but created the rich colors digitally, after uploading her work to the computer.

Carroll also explains in another interview her long-held interest in horror stories, along with her belief that “You have to have ambiguity in horror, otherwise it’s really boring.”  Through the Woods’ tales end on a note of terror, with unexplained and horrible events intimated or sometimes partially revealed, but the final horror 81ExymD1oGLnever fully displayed, just suggested.  For instance, we learn on the last page of “Our Neighbor’s House” that the neighbor “IS NO MAN,” but we are not shown or told what kind of creature he is.  Similarly, on the final pages of “In Conclusion,” we see only the wolf’s frightening eyes and teeth, not his full face or figure.  What we imagine here, what is unknown, looms larger in the imagination just because of what we do not see.  In the same way, the final terrifying page of “The Nesting Place” is especially horrible because we see only an ambiguous bit of what is now monstrous in young Belle’s life.

51nDDM+zl3L._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_For those who savor  Through the Woods—or for those shy of horror or readers a bit too young for Carroll’s full-on macabre ambiguity—Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015), written by Marika McCoola and illustrated Emily Carroll will be a lower-stress treat.  Carroll had fun, as she notes on the book’s flyleaf, drawing that Russian folk tale’s “old crone full of riddles, rocks, and countless pointy teeth,” but the novel itself is about conquering one’s fears and resentments.  Specifically, this fantasy graphic novel deals in an upbeat way with a young teen’s learning how to be part of a blended family with a stepmother and stepsister.  

51qhSKW+nSL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_I myself am eagerly awaiting a library copy of the recent graphic version of Laurie Halse Anderson’s award-winning novel, Speak (1999).   That powerful work about rape and recovering from rape has been reissued with illustrations by Emily Carroll as Speak: The Graphic Novel (2018).   Author Anderson wrote the script for this release, coordinating with Carroll through their editors, and praises the illustrations.  Anderson notes that Carroll’s “ability to create tension is masterful.”  The author adds that Carroll’s art gives readers “more perspective on the intensity of the emotion” the main character experiences.  Anderson pays tribute to Carroll, eloquently summing up her contribution her by saying,  “The addition of the art turns a haunting melody into a resonating chord.” 

As more people these days speak out about their varied experiences of sexual violence, and we come to understand that its perpetrators include people from all walks of life, readers young and old will find new relevance in works such as Speak and Speak: The Graphic Novel.  We need to continue to try to understand how and why these criminal acts occur and what their aftermath involves.  Real life horrors extend beyond Halloween.


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Immigrant Generations

Back-to-SchoolHave you been busy calming your young people’s new school or classroom jitters?  In my senior citizen circles, this duty falls to grandparents as well as parents and school staff.  It can be even more frightening or puzzling for students new to a country as well as a school—and more complicated for the families and other adults who want to help them.  (These difficulties are now exponentially worse for folks affected by President Trump’s immigration policies mandating zero tolerance and family separation.)  Today I look at two picture books and a graphic novel full of wise, loving insights into the problems and joys of immigrant generations within families.  While these three recent works are about Vietnamese and Thai immigrants to the United States, their sharp observations extend beyond any one ethnicity or particular national borders.

61EiotQ+ZoL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_Drawn Together (2018), written by Minh Le and illustrated by award-winning Dan Santat, is a gorgeous, heart-warming picture book.  Vietnamese-American Le and Thai-American Santat call upon their own experiences of being unable to converse with grandparents who did not speak English to spotlight how  communication between generations may occur in other ways.  The loving grandfather in this book may not be able to offer school advice, but he and his elementary-aged grandson do come to a profound understanding.  They bridge their language gap through making art—a resolution capsulized in what we finally realize is this book’s punning title.

At first, wordless, full-color panels show through the pair’s slumped figures and sad faces how awkward they feel during an afternoon visit.  Their cultural differences are epitomized in a two page spread by the very different lunches they eat as well as the first words they speak.  Not reading Thai script, I assume that—when the boy asks, “So. . .  what’s new, Grandpa?”—this gentleman is asking something similar.   A comparable lack of communication occurs when they sit down to watch TV.  It is when the bored boy pulls out his paper and colored markers that the two finally connect.  Grandfather brings out his own inkpot, brush, and sketch pad to reveal “a DRAWN_6world beyond words” where they metaphorically “see each other for the first time.”  The boy draws himself as a colorful wizard while the grandfather inks himself as a traditional Thai warrior as they joyfully depict themselves together battling and defeating a fierce dragon.  Santat then shows them racing across a bridge towards one another, each assuming the previous colors of the other, as they next realize—“happily . . SPEECHLESS” in a smiling hug—that words no longer need be a barrier to communication.  (Le’s cunning word play is again evident, with “speechless” now used in its positive sense.)

Vietnamese-American Le, noting his tale “resonate[s]. . . across cultural experience,” was pleased to have Santat “translate” this story in personally meaningful ways with Thai imagery and script.  In an interview, Santat explains DRAWN_8that this was his first effort to depict his own culture and that he lavished time and effort in learning and using traditional ink-and-paintbrush techniques.  Readers of all ages will appreciate the visual richness here, with those detailed black-and-white drawings complemented by kid-colorful block images, both styles merging to convey the book’s satisfying, sumptuous “messages” about family and art.  A brief, kid-friendly video showing Santat at work on Drawn Together will further delight its appreciative readers.

51a8tUURKNLPicture book A Different Pond (2017) has won multiple awards for its Vietnamese-American creators, author Bao Phi and illustrator Thi Bui.  This quietly luminous, poignant work is semi-autobiographical, focusing on a typical event in Phi’s boyhood in 1980s Minneapolis (now my own hometown).  Unlike the unquestioned affluence depicted in Drawn Together, where a large-screen TV and ample food and art supplies are shown, Phi’s immigrant family was working-class and hard-pressed for cash.  The grandson in suburban Drawn Together is dropped off and picked up by his mother in a shiny car.  Bao Phi’s mother, though, rides a bicycle to her multiple, inner city jobs. And the central event in A Different Pond is an early morning fishing trip Phi and his father take not for sport but for food.    As his father explains in the book, “Everything in America costs a lot of money.”  This is particularly true for immigrants with low-paying jobs, a situation familiar also to illustrator Bui.  On the book’s frontispiece, she dedicates the book “For the working class. . . .” while author Phi writes that it is “For my family, and for refugees everywhere.” 

9781623708030_int03Bao Phi’s cash-poor family is rich in other ways.  His gentle father’s steadfast kindness yields a smile rather than anger when the boy cannot bear to hook a minnow for bait.  Bao Phi instead is praised and feels proud for efforts he can contribute. Father and son talk together comfortably about fishing in Vietnam.  Neighborhood acquaintances interact in friendly ways with the pair, and the hard-working parents unite at night over family dinners with all five kids.  They tell stories as “Mom will ask about their homework.  Dad will nod and smile. . . .”  It does not matter that, as the adult Phi poetically recalls, “A kid in my school said that my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river.  Because to me his English sounds like gentle rain.”  Education is regularly valued and supported in this close-knit immigrant family—throughout the year, as well as on those momentous opening days. 

Illustrator Thi Bui uses cool blues to depict the quiet pre-dawn hours of this fishing venture, when father and son skirt past a “No Trespassing” sign, carefully holding hands as they climb down to the river to catch the family’s dinner.  With minimal, distinct lines, Bui subtly depicts a variety of strong emotions on faces and in body language.  In less skilled or thoughtful hands, such minimal renderings might have 9781623708030_1_f7578been one-note cartoons.  She uses warm yellows, reds, and oranges to show the warmth of family life inside the Bui family apartment.  In an interview, Bui explains how she included typical Vietnamese refugee elements, such as fish sauce stored in an old jar and a no-frills grocery store calendar, to personalize the family’s minimally-furnished apartment.  Such typical elements also adorn the book’s end papers.  I myself especially like the book’s final page, which shows the sleeping boy, colored with the book’s indoor, golden tones, surrounded by the cool blues of the “faraway ponds” of the family’s shared dreams.

513JR8lzdGL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Thi Bui is both author and illustrator of her remarkable graphic family history, The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir (2017).  Nominated for multiple national awards, this moving saga of the Bui family’s escape from war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s and their life in the U.S. will be appreciated by readers teen and older.  Its framework of the adult Bui’s birthing and parenting her first child, together with the politics and mention of wartime violence, make this saga less engaging for tweens.  Its life lessons—communicated in black, white, and subtle gradations of orange—are complex and sometime sad ones. 

images (10)Unlike the contented son in A Different Pond, Thi as a girl dreamed about escaping her life.  Generations of family violence and abandonment had shaped her father into a bitter man.  Her mother’s personal goals had been set aside to meet their growing family’s needs in wartime.  As the war escalated,  their background as teachers endangered the pair rather than helping them in what is in now North Vietnam.   Father Bui’s strengths combined with those of Thi’s mother enabled them to flee Vietnam and survive as refugees, but they paid a  high price.  Among other losses, their degrees were useless in the U.S., and the pair took on multiple minimum-wage jobs.

As the adult Thi writes of her parents near the end of this book, “They taught us to be respectful, to take care of one another, and to do well at school.  These were the 7 (1)intended lessons.  The unintentional ones came from their un-exorcized demons. . . and from the habits they formed over so many years of trying to survive.”  These words appear on a page alternating a large close-up of child Thi’s sad face with an image of her studying and then mid-distance views of her solemn parents, their separate, weary images in frames yoked together by a mysterious trail of smoke.  Their children’s success in school is never enough to please these parents and calm their fears.  Their harrowing experiences escaping Vietnam as “boat people” and then living in a refugee camp have left indelible psychological marks on them and, to a lesser extent, their children.

14-the-best-we-could-do-lede.w710.h473 (1)The Best We Could Do ends on a hopeful note, though, with Thi Bui coming to understand and value her mother still more and accepting that her relationship with her psychologically-damaged father will remain limited.   The  author/illustrator concludes this insightful, moving memoir with an image of her now 10- year old son, one harkening back to her own girlhood dreams of escape.  Both figures are shown as swimmers.  While young Thi only dreamed of being free, she thinks her son can actually “be free.”  Her family’s  intergenerational chain of emotional harm, exacerbated by being refugees, finally has been broken.

f1edfc91-c1a9-4084-9935-9e5c6a2c80ec_1472660482083 (1)As you absorb news accounts of refugees seeking safety in the U.S., or as you work to calm new school year jitters for the youngsters you know, using your own life lessons to guide them, perhaps thoughts of the refugee stories reviewed here may offer some illumination . . . for yourself and others.     Perhaps your family has its own immigrant or refugee stories to draw upon.  A library-based website I recently discovered may offer further resources.  It lists kid and teen books (not necessarily graphic ones) about refugees by more than 100 communities of origin as well as by book setting and theme.



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At Play

playscheme (2)With school supplies already on store shelves and in newspaper ads, autumn is looming!  It is a good time to remember how valuable unstructured play and long summer days can be for our young people before they head back to school.  Two new graphic novels spotlight the joyful growth that sheer play and unhampered summer days may bring to tweens and young teens.  The exuberance and charm of The Cardboard Kingdom (2018) and All Summer Long (2018) will bring smiles to adult faces as well as their intended young audiences.

51J47VzqXdL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Do not throw away those cardboard boxes!  You may find, as author/illustrator Chad Sell has, that youngsters want to create creature costumes that imitate or spin off the ones devised by the sixteen kid characters in The Cardboard Kingdom.  This series of interlocking graphic short stories, written by ten collaborators along with Sell as the sole illustrator, features bright colors and boldly-drawn, cartoon-like figures to tackle some serious issues.  Yet this book is never heavy-handed or didactic, mingling humor and lots of imaginative action into neighborhood playtimes that in Sell’s words “tell meaningful, emotional stories rooted in the characters’ own struggles.”  Or, as collaborator Barbara Perez says, “Some of the characters are based on very real parts of each of us.” 

Differences flourish in the suburban neighborhood of The Cardboard Kingdom.  The first story, “The Sorceress,” wordlessly and slowly reveals that the kid whose costume resembles a Disney villainess is actually a boy.  Jack later in the book tells his mother that this character is “WHAT I WANT TO BE. . .MAGICAL AND screen-shot-2018-06-18-at-1-59-45-pm (1)POWERFUL AND AMAZING.”  Wordless panels or pages are employed effectively throughout the book, with some other kids challenging their traditional gender identities or roles.  The girl neighbor Jack assumes will happily play an endangered princess storms off to return as a competitive knight, while in “The Prince,” Miguel daydreams of being the princess rescued by that handsome hero.  Yet Miguel is satisfied when the Prince suggests that Miguel become the “Royal Rogue,” his compatriot in “the many adventures ahead.”  Crayon-wielding Miguel draws a whole wall full of pictures of these adventures. 

Throughout The Cardboard Kingdom, Sell uses such childlike, seemingly wax-crayoned drawings of events as a joyful, unifying technique.  These imperfectly filled-in drawings mirror nearby images, rendered more expertly, as they carry the images (8)narrative along.  Another visual element unifying the book’s fourteen stories is how Sell depicts children’s shadows.  These reflect how the characters imagine themselves rather than the actual outlines of the cardboard costumes they wear.  The short, angular forms cut out of cardboard or discarded cloth for their dramatic play become long, elegant swirls or dangerously large bodies, armor, and weapons.  Sell pays further tribute to childhood imagination by frequently drawing scenes where the neighborhood kids appear both in their home-made costumes and—above their heads or nearby—as the fantasy or fairy tale characters they pretend to be. 

cardboard-kingdom-p191_2Other kids learn to creatively cooperate rather than compete.  “Alchemist” Alice and “Blacksmith” Becky, after humorously trying to outdo each other for “customers” eager for fantasy weapons, join in a new business venture—the pretend “Dragon’s Head Inn.”  Other kids learn how to cope with family expectations or problems.  Dismayed and subdued by her grandmother’s disapproval, loud Sophie reclaims her natural exuberance as the “Big Banshee.”  Seth arms himself against his parents’ separation, including the potential danger his father now poses, by assuming an imagined, costumed identity—the watchful, protective “Gargoyle.”  Even the somewhat older neighborhood bully, Roy, intrigued by all the fun he sees in cardboard kingdom play, ultimately joins in.  There is also room for kids less inclined towards active play, with the “Scribe” bonding with “Professor Everything” over reading comic books.  

The “Mad Scientist,” daughter of Dominican immigrants, brings elements of that country’s folklore to the traditional fantasy and fairy tale adventures these The-Cardboard-Kingdom-1-e1527954230242characters enact.  There is also room for younger brothers and sisters in these playtimes, in a neighborhood of wide-ranging ethnic and racial diversity.  If this diversity seems aspirational rather than realistic, these aspirations leave us feeling hopeful rather than doubtful.  After a grand adventure involving all sixteen kids, the book’s final scene shows the children exiting a school bus on  their first day back to middle school.  Their fantasy shadows hover overhead, representing the psychological and social growth they have achieved during a play-filled summer. 

61ZaUnlZH3L._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_The cast of characters in Hope Larson’s All Summer Long is smaller but no less engaging.  We meet 13-year old best friends and neighbors Bina and Austin on their last day of 7th grade.  They have always spent summer days together.  Bina is dismayed that this summer Austin will be attending a month-long soccer camp.  Even after he returns, Austin does not want to spend as much time as before with a girl best friend who is not a “girlfriend.”  Humorous mishaps involving baby sitting and a longer, painful argument occur as Bina discovers how to fill her summer days, unstructured save for some required reading.  Bina comes to realize how essential music and guitar playing are to her, gaining confidence in her abilities, as she learns to trust a new friendship and reestablishes a strong connection with Austin.  While Austin is a secondary character here, Larson does not slight how he overcomes doubts and peer pressure to figure out who and what he values, once the unstructured half of his summer provides opportunity for this growth. 

Family relationships, including teasing ties to older siblings, are important in this graphic novel which features mixed-race and gay families as social norms needing no comment.  Larson’s palette of blacks, whites, and shades of orange supports the 9780374304850.IN02“rightness” of this attitude.  Bina is depicted in orange and Austin in white.  No attention drawn to the fact that Bina’s mother is a different shade of orange, her father white, or to the seemingly unexceptional reality that her white-appearing brother is married to an orange-colored man, one of a few characters drawn with typical African-American features.  Apart from those characters, we have only a few hints about which ethnicities or races are represented by the novel’s many orange figures.  (One hint is the Asian name displayed outside a pharmacy.) 

ASL004 Another storytelling technique Larson uses throughout this book’s eight chapters to engage us with Bina’s summer of self-discovery is the unusual use of boldfaced words representing actions as well as sounds. In varied typefaces, we are told that boldly-drawn, cartoon-featured Bina has begun to “FLOP,” “SLIIIDE,” and “STARE” during her emotional adventures.  Visually enhanced by differing perspectives and alternating close-ups with more distant views,  these adventures conclude with Bina’s first week in eighth grade.  With new self-confidence to counter lingering doubts, she has decided to form her own musical band.  Readers appreciative of Larson’s insights into these teenage mishaps will be pleased to learn that she is planning two sequels to All Summer Long.  She says they will “follow Bina’s “musical journey from. . . starting a band, to navigating the music scene”  and also feature other characters introduced in this graphic novel.  

Before Labor Day, enjoy and promote summer play!  Some young (and not so young) pic1 (1)readers may enjoy the opportunities Chad Sell provides to color some images from The Cardboard Kingdom.  There are also directions created by Kostas Ntanos for making some of the book’s costumes.    Others may want to discover what other creative projects using cardboard abound in library books and bookstores.  And, of course, Bina’s tuneful thrumming and eager listening suggest a world of musical possibilities.  




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