Bigger Than Life? Tall Tales and “Fake News”

00THISLAND1-superJumboWe Minnesotans love tall tales—especially ones about Paul Bunyan.   Kids read about how his huge feet supposedly stomped out our 10,000 lakes and how the giant chopped down thousands of trees with one ax stroke.  The communities of Bemidji and Brainerd boast the largest statues of this lumberjack and his blue ox Babe, but other Minnesota towns also will be celebrating on June 28, now officially Paul Bunyan Day.  It is not clear which city official or marketing professional dreamed up this holiday, which might even have begun in Maine, our state’s biggest competitor for Bunyan fame

51sISSsccoL._SY417_BO1,204,203,200_While individual states stake claims to particular tall tale heroes, such folk lore figures are found throughout America’s landscape.  This phenomenon provides one lens through which to view a recent, highly-anticipated graphic novel, Cathy Malkasian’s Eartha (2017).   Its titular central figure—the gentle giant Eartha—is as good-natured and righteous as Paul Bunyan and all his kind.  She charges off to help others and fight villains as unselfishly and quickly as any legendary hero.   Yet if we use only this lens we will distort author/illustrator Malkasian’s creation, which contains a more complicated world-view than the typical tall tale. 

As award-winning Malkasian notes at her website, her graphic novels “explore characters and ideas . . . . They can be disturbing, sad, silly, confusing, and even subtle.”  Or, as Malkasian wryly notes in her author biography on, her books are “intended for adults, despite any information to the contrary.”  I would unreservedly add teens (and some mature tweens) to readers who would appreciatively read EarthaHowever, a potential confusion of the appropriate audience for Malkasian’s graphic novels may come from her distinctive visual style, choice of genres, and economical storytelling.  Taken together, they might erroneously suggest that Eartha is a work for younger readers.


In this graphic novel, pencil drawings in muted colors emphasize emotions in the features of softly-shaded, cartoon-like characters. This expressiveness extends to the talking cat which is a major character in this fantastic saga, set on a world divided between the rural community of Echo Fjord, Eartha’s home, and the City Across the Sea.  Folks still plow with oxen in Echo Fjord, which until recently has94edeaeba76cc3a4cb9f780302034929._SX1280_QL80_TTD_ been the destination and resting place for physical manifestations of city-dwellers’ unrealized dreams.  When Eartha bravely sets out for the City, she takes a rowboat.  The highest level of technology in Echo Fjord is its massive drain pipes, while the City—with its stone and off-kilter stucco buildings reminiscent of 19th century Europe—deploys broadcast and aeronautical technology typical of the 1920s and ‘30s.  Malkasian depicts a world outside of conventional time and history, where even the moon seems part of a fairy tale, oblong in shape over the Fjord but looming round over the City and its seaside. 

EARTHA-09This fairy tale mode—with its presumptive audience of younger readers—is   further suggested by the many wordless panels Malkasian uses to convey action.  Shifts in perspective among these finely detailed images as well as their sequence are telling.  For instance, when she sets out for the City, we see low, close views of determined Eartha as she drops into and wades along the reservoir leading to a drainage outlet.  The giant hero fills each of these panels.  When Eartha then slides into its long chute to reach the sea, we see her from behind and at a distance.  Next, close-ups show Eartha straining to row the boat she luckily finds, struggling too not to capsize it. As she rows onward, side and overhead views drawn from a distance dramatically show how even enormous Eartha is dwarfed by the sea’s vastness.

Furthermore, dialogue when used is relatively brief.  Although such style is  characteristic of picture books and other graphic works for younger readers,  the flaws and problems of the City-dwellers are ones that bedevil adults (including lust and emotional longing)—and the city-wide crisis that has cut short their dreams is one endemic to the 21st century.   Malkasian critiques aspects of human nature and satirizes social trends in ways that—given that Eartha was completed before President Trump’s election—eerily echo today’s headlines, sound-bites, and Tweets.


City dwellers’ greed and need for social status are shown in their willingness to trade all belongings, including mementos of their loved ones, for what now substitutes for money in their world: biscuits stamped with the latest news!  These supposed bulletins are all just four words long, and absurdly juxtapose nouns and verbs to describe disasters such as “Corn accident mauls has-been.” The wealthiest citizens are the plumpest, prominently gorging on biscuits in public as they loudly bemoan the news they compulsively swallow.  These characters do not see the irony in the City’s biscuit-news motto, displayed under its largest radio receiver, “The World in a Bite.”  They are like many people these days (such as President Trump) who cannot stay away from social media and 24-hour a day news stations.  In a recent interview, Malkasian confirmed this inspiration, saying “I’m really worried about addictive technologies and social media.  I’m really concerned about what it’s doing to people’s brains and outlooks.” 

635879102861483913-60292387_aa odyssey tweetIronically, given our president’s charges about official news organizations spreading “fake news,” it is those Tweet-like cookies which are phony.  That gigantic radio receiver does not work!  The cookies are the brainchild of a successful (if unhappy) baking magnate whose minions terrorize City dwellers as they bilk them of their possessions.  The rule of law in the City has become “Acquisition is Justice.”  As the United States’ chief executive today uses his business experience to gauge and set public policy, along the way tweeting unsubstantiated accusations about people and groups, the absurdities in this novel begin to seem frighteningly less fantastic and more probable.

Eartha2_0715In Eartha, Malkasian resolves these problems with a fairy-tale like dovetailing of several plots, revealing connections and family relationships that aid gentle giant Eartha in her quest.  She is able to help free the City from its web of deceitful news and return triumphantly to Echo Fjord and her true love Maybelle, to a world where now not just acquisition but “everything mattered.”  These are the feel-good, if ambiguous, last words on the novel’s last page, depicting a snoozing Eartha as she pillows snoring Maybelle and their noisily slumbering friend Old Lloyd.  They are content, even if readers are left to wonder about the ultimate impact of epitaphs, with their supposed end-of-life insights, that now blanket City streets in paper bulletins.  Will people there take these sometimes cryptic messages to heart, and strive for more authentic goals than social prestige and wealth?   We do not know for sure.  It is a kind of hopefully uncertain ending that will resonate best with older readers.

51zsCBNqxYL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_For those seeking more clear-cut conclusions and purely humorous tales, this month readers young and old might relish several 51PJPpHreQL._SX408_BO1,204,203,200_delightful picture book additions to Paul Bunyan’s legend: The Bunyans (1996; 2006), written by award-winning Audrey Wood and illustrated by David Shannon, details the adventures of Paul, his wife Carrie McIntie, and their two enormous children.  Minnesota author Marybeth Lorbiecki posits a different, bigger-than-life true love for Paul in Paul Bunyan’s 51OPs+iIH4L._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Sweetheart (2007; 2011), illustrated by Renee Graef.  There, gigantic Lucette Diana Kensack’s part – Ojibwe heritage is added to the tale.  And another Minnesota author, Phyllis Root, creates a “little” sister for Paul in Paula Bunyan (2009), illustrated by Kevin O’Malley.  Little Paula is only as tall as a pine tree!

Happy Paul Bunyan Day—and happy reading each and every day!



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Today’s Tomorrow

help-mayday-SOS (2)“May Day! May Day! May Day!” 

That desperate radio call for help—once the best way for airplanes to signal disaster—is such an appropriate beginning for this May 1 blog post.  Today’s inspiration is neither the traditional spring holiday nor the nineteenth century workers holiday also celebrated on this date.  Instead, my focus is a gripping new science fiction novel—a vibrant, heart-pounding view of one possible, calamitous future already facing ordinary people in developed nations.   Tween and teen readers will “get” the problems spotlighted so effectively in Decelerate Blue (2017).  These dangers were around before Donald Trump took political office, and—after we survive his presidency—we will still have to confront these emerging threats.

images (4)What will today’s tomorrow look like?  Author Adam Rapp and illustrator Mike Cavallaro see speed and consumerism dominating our world, with government forces regulating all aspects of daily life and social institutions.  In this dystopia, only “Brief Lit” is taught in schools, and people must speak with contractions but without adjectives.  The most popular movies are fifteen minutes long, upright beds encourage faster waking-up, and older folks whose heart rates are too slow are sent to isolated “reduction colonies.”  Shopping at megamalls is considered a civic duty!  Big business is so important that corporate logos, touting the speed of their products and services, are everywhere—even branded onto the bodies of animals. 

People’s activities are monitored by computer chips welded into their arms and by hidden cameras, while armed guards with “speed pits” (pit bulls augmented with cheetah genes) round up and imprison any dissenters.  Decelerate Blue shows us this possible future through the experiences of fifteen year old rebel Angela, her loving but conforming parents, and the underground resistance movement Angela discovers.  Angela’s grandfather, her high school literature teacher, and her first sweetheart, a girl named Gladys, are also important characters.


More than fear causes people to follow this future’s rules.  Conforming ensures that one will continue to receive all the social benefits provided by the “Guarantee,” an unspecified social contract enforced by law officers and upheld by institutions such as schools, hospitals, and those ever-present cameras and computer chips.  This contract’s benefits are constantly referred to in the combined greeting/benediction uttered in casual as well as formal conversations: “Go. Guarantee. Go.”   Are these supposed benefits worth the stressful, inflexible limits of the Guarantee?  This question—dramatized so effectively in the novel by Rapp, an award-winning playwright and novelist—gains more significance in light of this novel’s origins. 

Decelerate Blue-int-9-thumb-550x773-566704

In interviews, Rapp has said he completed its first draft in 2006, inspired by watching people walk New York City streets, eyes glued to their smart phones, not seeing others or traffic.  Even back then, he doubted whether being “linked in” was worth the dangers and social disconnect.  Nowadays, with enhanced “constant surveillance and crowd sourcing,” in a U.S.A. where George Orwell’s dystopic 1984 is so relevant, the dangers of how government guarantees are implemented have only grown.  Rapp thinks that “this is a critical time for our culture.”  He also explains his choice of audience, readers tween and up, noting that this age group is at “a critical time for the survival of empathy.  Teenagers and college students are at a stage in their lives where they’re forming their own thoughts.”  The situation becomes truly dire when no time or space is given for teens—or anyone—to get in touch with their own thoughtsPlaywright Rapp reveals that his dystopia’s rule that utterances begin and end with the word “Go” is adapted from theater practices. This cue by stage managers to technical staff, though “incredibly controlling,” is really needed for plays to succeed.   

DB29Award-winning illustrator Cavallaro (whose work was also reviewed here in April, 2013) wholeheartedly committed himself to Rupp’s completed story.  In a radio interview, Cavallaro explains that he was inspired by this dystopic vision of a world where “people talk the way they text right now . . . preventing deeper human connection.”  He effectively uses angular lines and irregularly shaped panels to communicate the conflicts between and within people here, and several sequences of wordless pages effectively dramatize both breathless, danger-packed action and the imaginative reveries only possible in the resistance movement’s literal underground hideoutSome of these sequences, such as a nightmare Angela experiences, employ whole page and double-page spreads filled with swirling maelstroms as well as jagged actionShifts in time and space are conveyed clearly even without words.  Other sophisticated graphic techniques Cavallaro employs include varying close-ups with mid and long-distance views and shifting perspectives from high to low angles.  

blue-decelerate-kissIt was Cavallaro’s decision to use black-and-white drawings throughout the work, without any shading, to indicate the stark demands and limited choices of this near-future.  Author Rapp also agreed with the illustrator’s choice to use full-color at just two points—when Angela and Gladys first kiss and at the startling, ambiguous conclusion of the book.  Rapp admits that his original conclusion spelled out the result of Angela’s final choice more clearly, but he was persuaded by Cavallaro to make the book’s conclusion more open-ended.  What really is the result of Angela’s desperately taking an overdose of “decelerate blue,” the pill designed to help resistance fighters cope with limited  oxygen in their underground society?  How are we to interpret this final version of the repeated image of clasped hands forming a heart?  Readers will have much to think about and discuss here. 

decelerate-blue-full-colorSimilarly, as one reviewer has noted, the alternative society this resistance movement devises has its own problems, in some ways placing demands on members not unlike the strictures of the corporate, speed-obsessed sunlit world above.  I myself was disconcerted by the rebels’ proposed plan to take their doses of “decelerate blue” all at once, in a transforming community celebration.  I did not immediately think of the Jonestown mass suicide, as that dismayed reviewer did, but the cult-like aspects of this ceremony did strike me.  This too will provide food for thought.

Nonetheless, I strongly recommend this engrossing, fast-paced graphic novel, which makes us care not only about its ideas but its characters.  We can empathize not only with Angela and her associates but with her well-meaning but wrong-headed parents, whose loving impulses have some clearly destructive as well as ambiguous consequences.  And some of Rapp and Cavallaro’s extrapolation of future norms is ironically funny when it is not frightening!  That humorous touch is evident in Cavallaro’s current work-in-progress, a graphic novel he has authored as well illustrated, titled Vulcan Celestial Supply Shop: The Hound of Hades.  I look forward to the publication of this mythological mash-up in September, 2018.   It will be one of the tonics I take to counteract the current political scene as, in small ways, I work to make today’s tomorrows more hopeful.

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April Hopes and Promises

46936500-spring-flowers-picturesEven experienced gardeners may be fooled by hopes raised by fine April weather.  Colorful buds promising full flowers can still be savaged this month by thundering rains, high winds, or even a sudden frost.  Similarly, children and others may be lulled by the appearance and expectation of parental concern.  After all, that is what every child deserves as well as needs.  Yet some abused children refuse to admit or even recognize that a parent is harming them!   Some abusive parents also do not acknowledge or perhaps understand the havoc they wreck.   (One might make similar observations about the relationships between some political leaders and their followers.)   

Today I am going to highlight two recent, remarkable graphic novels about the immediate or lingering effects of child abuse, each with its own distinctive and dramatically different visual style.  I will also touch upon another now-classic graphic novel addressing this topic—a work emphasizing positive recovery—which helped kindle my interest in graphic novels back in 1995, with its first publication.  Needless to say, these works are best suited for readers teen and up.  With adult guidance, some tweens might also appreciate these novels.

61qLreipjhL._SY418_BO1,204,203,200_Belgian illustrator/author Brecht Evens’ Panther (2016, translated by Laura Watkinson and Michele Hutchinson) is so pretty that its terrors sneak up on us.  Bold colors and multiple patterns taken from varied artistic traditions gradually reveal that young Christine’s imaginary playmate Panther is much more than a substitute for the pet cat who dies in chapter one.  Panther seemingly represents Christine’s half-understood awareness of the sexual abuse her father is apparently inflicting on her.  At first a (to us) suspiciously obliging playmate, changing storylines at young Christine’s every fantastic whim, this creature has an unnatural ability to literally change his spots and clothing which becomes increasingly more ominous.   It parallels her father’s refusal to give images (1)Christine a key to lock her bedroom, saying she is too young even as he says at bed time that she is “getting to be a big girl.”  Christine’s terrified expression at that point solidifies our growing unease with Evens’ shifting palette.  The cool, calm blues and soft reds of Christine’s everyday world no longer signal safety as we see objects there transformed into the hot tones and swirling images of Panther-dominated experiences. 

panthere_012Panther himself darkens into deep black and white as he lulls Christine asleep, directing her to count backward from one hundred.  By the book’s conclusion, what had been abstract overlays of multiple patterns, including some suggesting voyeuristic eyes and full-lipped mouths, are transformed into an abstract image of a rampaging black and white creature entering and then exploding out of Christine’s bedroom bureau.  This seeming last page is really itself a physical overlay, opening from the book’s central spine to reveal two elaborate pages of full-colored details from the many stories Panther has spun to ensnare Christine.  The easily-overlooked nature of this double spread sums up the techniques and hidden depths of incest here.

PANTHERinterior_14The final pages of Panther confirm our worst fears, as this sly figure introduces new characters into so-called playtime.  He tells Christine, “Here’s a game! If you stroke Giraffe, he changes shape.  You want to try?”  The eyeless, phallic-shaped depiction of Giraffe leaves little to the (mature) imagination here.  Strange versions of other, once familiar stuffed toys also appear as Christine is nightmarishly held down just before a starkly-centered, black-and-white game of “doctor” appears to take place.  Evens has said that his goal with this book was to “swing . . .  a pendulum between desirable fun and absolute horror.”  Using colored ink and markers, gouache, black ink, and crayons, he notes that his work here was influenced by “all kinds of children’s stories” but was specifically a “reaction to. . .  the modern ones, where monsters are funny.”   On both counts, Evens’ graphic novel is a gorgeously disturbing, unforgettable success.


Just published in English,  Pretending is Lying (2017; 2007) is a memoir by Belgian illustrator/author Dominique Goblet that examines the long-term effects of 519chyVseUL._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_emotional as well as physical child abuse.  Goblet worked with translator Sophie Yanow to communicate here the difficult memories that she first began sketching out in 1995.  Goblet also had her sometime romantic partner, author Guy Marc, write his “side” of some of their shared life together that she then went on to illustrate.  The extent to which adult relationships figure in this memoir (including a page with nude figures in bed) make it more suited and meaningful for older teen readers. 


download (4)Using mainly pencil and charcoal on sepia or yellow-toned paper, Goblet’s palette is much more subdued and her drawing style looser and sometimes more angular than Brecht Evens.  As she depicts how her alcoholic father was and remains an emotional bully and batterer, even mistreating his dog and ghost-faced second wife, Goblet varies the size and shape of letters in ways that make them shout or shriek.  Now a parent herself, Goblet has a distant and uneasy relationship with her father.   As we see, he has not changed, and Goblet rightly fears his interactions with her four-year old daughter.  It is difficult to stand up to him when he begins to bully this child too.  Goblet’s episodic depiction of her involvement with Guy Marc and with her daughter’s father also seems linked to the emotional upheavals of her childhood.  Yet, while her blowhard father is emotionally abusive, we see in one shocking episode that it was Goblet’s mother who was physically abusive.

Pretending-Is-Lying-3-727x1024Stressed both by her drunken husband’s meandering complaints and a young Dominque’s irritating play noises, her mother orders her up to the attic, not it seems for the first time, as Dominque wails, “[N]ot the attic.  Nooo, not the attic!!”  In stunning juxtapositions, we then see images of the televised car race crash her father is watching while we hear her mother’s announcement, “THAT’S WHAT WE HAVE TO DO WITH NASTY LITTLE GIRLS LIKE YOU . . .WE HAVE TO STRING THEM UP!!! . . . PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!!’  When we next see young Dominque, her face in tears and arms roped up to the attic ceiling, we hear not her whimpers but the televised reports of the crash.   Even though a few pages later her mother apologizes to young Dominque, holding her on her lap and promising this punishment will not happen again, it hard for us (and perhaps Dominique Goblet herself) to believe her.  

That these parental betrayals linger is highlighted by the four page, red-penciled prologue Goblet added to the first versions of her memoir.  It depicts her and her daughter, this child believing after a tumble scrapes her knees and tears her Pretending_is_Lying_for_web_6_medium (1)leggings that Goblet “can do magic.”  Yet all Goblet actually has done is reverse the leggings so their holes are out of sight!  Such trust and love for a seemingly all-powerful parent emphasizes what is crushed when mothers or fathers abuse their children.  The effects may well last years, just as the amorphous grey images of past loves “haunt” pages in this memoir.  Has the adult Goblet overcome her assorted traumas?  In her acknowledgments, perhaps crediting all the emotional abuse her mother herself experienced, the author/illustrator includes thanks to “. . . my mother, for whom I have lots of love and who, I hope, will consider this book an homage.”  Goblet does not mention her father.  And the possibility of stable romantic love remains unknown, just like the condition of an injured bird in the memoir’s last pages, set free only to fly out-of-sight.

410ubuSyojL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_My attentive husband’s noting new arrivals in a university library led me to the final book in today’s posting.  The Tale of One Bad Rat (1995; 2010), by acclaimed British illustrator/author Bryan Talbot, is both more forthright and more hopeful about the facts of child abuse and about survivors’ ability with help to overcome this trauma.  Its central character has been sexually abused for years by her father and emotionally abused by her mother.  Since its initial publication, this moving, award-winning account of 16 year-old runaway Helen has been reprinted in more than a dozen countries and used in multiple child abuse centers and literacy programs.  Yet it is this novel’s artistry rather than didactic contact that makes it so memorable and satisfying for readers in any context.   

3091103904_4ae1234f20_z (1)Many wordless panels, along with succinct dialogue, communicate Helen’s physical and mental travels as she arrives in London, living homeless there until her inner demons drive her almost by accident to the Lake Country district made famous in part by her favorite childhood author/illustrator, Beatrix Potter.  As Helen says to herself at one point about the sexual abuse she suffered for years, “I just can’t seem to get Dad out of my head.”  Yet she succeeds—through emotional support, books about abuse, and talking about and confronting her parents—in finally doing just that.  At first unable to permit any physical touch, Helen at this book’s end is able to hug those who have helped her.  The healing, peaceful environment of the Lake District is also a boon here, as are the animal tales created by Beatrix Potter, herself a survivor of emotional abuse.  These tales are what in part inspired Helen to rescue and make a pet of one of her school’s lab rats. 


Color often codes situations in this re-readable graphic novel, with red spotlighting flashbacks to abusive scenes and current nightmares and deep gold indicating inner thoughts.  Initially suicidal, Helen learns to reject the shame and guilt she has felt about her past.  When her pet rat is killed, she imagines herself accompanied by a larger version of this friend.  Unlike Brecht Evens’ panther, however, this imaginary construct is supportive.  Signs of artistic Helen’s self-acceptance and ability to move on include her bidding farewell to imaginary “Rat” and creating her own, fable-like version of her experiences in a homemade, illustrated picture book, itself titled “The Tale of One Bad Rat.”  This title is, of BadRat3course, an homage to Beatrix Potter’s many small masterpieces, such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

This April, anticipating springtime holidays celebrating both rebirth and freedom, I find it good to remember that human spirit and fellowship can triumph over adverse circumstances.  Such determination and reminders are important not only on the individual level but as people band together to achieve community and other political goals.  Not all April hopes and promises are false!


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Going Nuclear

imagesGoing nuclear?  A recent, award-winning picture book; another acclaimed, older picture book; and some classic and in-progress graphic novels remind us just how terrible this military choice has been.  These works center upon the World War II atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Last month’s visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe to the U. S., along with President Trump’s ongoing, careless remarks about expanding our own and other national nuclear arsenals, solidified my focus for today’s blog post.  In fact, I almost ‘went nuclear’ myself contemplating any presidential directives or government policies that might emerge from such recklessness. 

ypl-stelson-sachikoSurvivors of atomic bombing eloquently testify to its horrors.  Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (2016), written by Caren Stelson, recently won a Silbert Honor Award among other accolades for its sensitive rendering of Sachiko Yusui’s experiences.  Six years old in 1945 when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Sachiko remarkably survived this attack but has been affected lifelong by it and its aftermath.  A city in ruins and chaos; family deaths; radiation sickness and later cancer; and social stigma within Japan are all described here.

Stelson’s book skillfully interweaves Sachiko’s impressions and beliefs with clear, thorough sidebars that place these experiences within historical context.  These even-handed accounts satisfied me as an adult reader even as I perceived how useful they would be for tweens and teens.   Similarly, the front and back material here–including maps, timelines, a family tree, and a glossary—are useful, visually-striking aids for all readers.  Those of us interested in book “backgrounds” will also appreciate the author’s Preface and end Note, explaining what inspired Stelson to write the book, how she interviewed now-elderly Sachiko in Japan, and how she has remained in touch with Sachiko and her peace initiatives.   (Stelson is, as I am, a Twin Cities resident, and her first meeting with Sachiko here in 2005 at a local Peace Garden event heightened my interest in her author’s journey.)

Striking words and photographs propel the pace of this biography, which appropriately emphasizes events in 1945 day by day before moving post-war to monthly and later yearly accounts.  Powerfully short, percussive sentences detail Sachiko’s experiences.  Even before the atomic bomb, frequent air raids on Nagasaki led to “Nights turned to nightmares.”  Fearful school officials had shut down her school, disappointing Sachiko, who had looked forward to starting first grade.  She was instead playing house on August 9, 1945 when

51xh2gefusl         An eerie, blinding light burst in the sky.  Reds, blues, greens spiraled.  Hot,       deafening, hurricane-force winds roared, and at the center of the explosion, a giant fireball flamed, hotter than the surface of the sun.

The earth shuddered.

Sachiko shot up into the air.

She slammed down into the ground.

Stones, tiles, branches, leaves rained on top of her.  Piled up.  Pushed her down.  Buried her.  Dirt poured into her nose and mouth. 

Photographs, including one of the family’s treasured “grandmother bowl” which miraculously remained intact, illustrate these and other vividly detailed experiences. In side bars, wartime propaganda posters also show how each enemy dehumanized the other, while photographs are again important as Stelson recounts how global proponents of peace and non-violence influenced Sachiko. Mahatma Gandhi, Helen Keller, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are her idols.  In late adulthood, she became a spokesperson for peace.  Sachiko’s words are the book’s telling epigraph:  “What happened to me must never happen to you.”

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, three days earlier on August 6, 1945, has also led to 519y0ma5pl-_sl500_sx424_bo1204203200_a memorable body of works by survivors.  The simpler, shorter text of Junko Morimoto’s picture book My Hiroshima (1992; 2014) makes it more accessible to younger, elementary school readers than Sachiko’s biography. Yet this author/illustrator’s sparse words combine eloquently with her powerfully drawn images, moving readers of all ages.  

 She uses color and image placement to great effect, with subtle hues and delicate lines reflecting daily life before the bombing.  Darker hues and rougher figures with greater shading convey the devastation brought by the A-bomb, a drawing of its fiery flare immediately contrasted with a black-and-white, double-spread photograph of decimated Hiroshima.  One double spread, wordless illustration—a three-layered view 6675612-3x2-940x627of the bomb mushrooming in a bright blue sky, bracketed top and bottom by darker flurries of explosively whirling, broken bodies—is stunning in design and execution.  Some of these images in rearranged order appear in an affecting 2012 interview with Junko Morimoto.  Available on-line, this ten minute talk updates us about Junko’s life as an adult, including her ongoing efforts to promote peace and nuclear disarmament.  As part of these efforts, My Hiroshima is currently taught in all of that city’s elementary and junior high schools. 

I blogged here in April, 2014 about Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s powerful, ten volume graphic novel Barefoot Gen (1975 onward; 2004 –2010).  Strongly autobiographical, the brutal black-and-white drawings of this renowned series depict 51yu5wf4tbl-_ac_ul320_sr226320_its author/illustrator’s experiences as a six-year-old (here named “Gen”) when the A-bomb hit.  He saw and heard his father and brother die in its immediate aftermath, pinned under remnants of their wooden house as it burned.  Keiji and his mother were unable to rescue them.  This scene, along with the burned, mutilated bodies of other survivors, figures on the final pages of volume one, A Cartoon History of Hiroshima.  Volume two, The Day After, continues to depict the horrific physical aftermath of the attack, along with showing the ways in which survivors helped or refused to help others.  The blunt, bold-lined images and stark narrative here make this classic series, translated into several languages, best suited to readers tween and older.  Later volumes dealing with post World War II Japanese society would similarly be of most interest to these older readers.

Barefoot Gen had a powerful impact on Raina Telgemeier, another impressive graphic novelist I blogged about recently.   In her September talk in the Twin Cities, she mentioned that Nakazawa’s series would figure in her next book, a graphic autobiography. In a recent interview, Telgmeier has explained further, noting that she was a ten-year old in fifth grade when she first read Barefoot Gen.  She reveals, “I went 692663-_sx540_through a nightmare of depression after that and felt it was my responsibility to tell everybody about this book and relay what had happened [in Hiroshima].”  She was even more horrified when a few years later the U.S. became involved in wars in the Middle East.  Fortunately, Barefoot Gen still later also had a positive impact on Telgemeier.  She says that it taught her that comics “were one of the most powerful mediums to tell a story.  I still carry that philosophy with me, that comics can do so much.” 

I look forward to reading Telgemeier’s autobiography, now a work in progress, when it finally appears in print.  There is no date set yet for that.  In just another week, though, on March 7,  another graphic novel related to atomic energy in Japan is scheduled for 61ikvjx9m6l-_sx354_bo1204203200_publication.  Rather than bombs, it deals with nuclear power plants.  In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northern Japan to have three dangerous melt downs.  Results of the radiation spewed out then are still being analyzed and debated.   Author/illustrator Kazuto Tatsuta says that Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Nuclear Power Plant (2015; 2017) is about daily life during the clean-up rather than the melt-downs themselves.  Since nuclear power plants are a controversial topic world-wide, I am curious to see how and if this graphic novel remains as neutrally focused as its creator claims it is.  Whether the topic is atomic bombs or atomic power plants, it is hard not to “go nuclear” when considering all the moral issues, political problems, and practical dangers these scientific achievements pose. 


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Carrying a Torch for Miss Liberty

30690905-2148252c-240Watch out for the acetylene torch! 

This Valentine’s Day, “carrying a torch” holds new meanings for me.  Besides being an old-fashioned term for infatuation, it brings literal torches to mind.  I am a student in a course in “Balanced Sculpture,” with the help of an able instructor learning to create my own versions of Alexander Calder’s now-classic  mobiles and stabiles.  This involves my wielding and welding with an acetylene torch, among other metalsmithing tools.  Some sculpture pieces are riveted together, another technique I have learned.  My Rosie-the-Riveter mother and machinist father would have been both proud and bemused at this return to our working-class roots.  

Coincidence and current events, though, also bring a specific, iconic torch to mind—the one proudly on display on New York’s Ellis Island, upheld by the Statue of Liberty.   As a New York City native, I was used to seeing Lady Liberty, her monumental form just part of the city skyline.  I did not even visit this national landmark until well into adulthood, returning to New York City with my husband and young son as sightseers.  Even though I was the grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants whose ocean voyages ended at Ellis Island, I had not felt a pull to visit its immigrant inspection buildings, now a museum, until then.   But chance and the nightly news have me rethinking this scenery.   

20170222_094853-1For reasons unknown to me, a human-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty adorns a lakeshore driveway near the Minnetonka art center hosting my class.   A quick literature search reveals just how often Lady Liberty has been physically recreated for civic or commercial purposes.  There are even other Liberty replicas here in St. Paul and Duluth I have not seen.   I may not learn the story behind that Minnetonka statue unless I feel pushy enough to knock on a door and ask!   But it is the immigrant experience with Miss Liberty that came to mind again just last night,  as I and my husband engaged with a different art form.

We attended a moving performance of Promise Land,  a play created by the local theater ensemble Transatlantic Love Affair, staged at the Guthrie Theater.  In the words of its directors, this production “tell[s] the story of two people finding their way in this country, searching for home away from their homeland.”  In other words, immigrants.  A post-play discussion revealed that this play was first conceived a handful of years ago, becoming part of the Guthrie’s announced season schedule last year.  It is only bittersweet coincidence that the new Trump administration’s stance on immigration makes Promise Land’s themes so topical. 

web_showpagebanner_promiselandThis is certainly not the first time that fear and racism have shaped U.S. immigration policy.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is just one instance that comes to mind.  Yet this is the moment when I, my friends, and family can take action to protest such bigotry, such beliefs so antithetical to American ideals and values.  This is the moment when we can add our voices to ones that question whether the Trump administration is acting against the U.S. Constitution, even as we recognize that its creators were flawed individuals who themselves variously upheld slavery.  

At one point in Promise Land, as the assembled actors peered out into the audience, recreating the awed response of immigrants viewing America’s shore line for the first time, I imagined their viewing the Statue of Liberty.  The harsh realities the play’s central characters, a young brother and sister, encounter align with the sweatshop dangers that typified New York City immigrant life, even though there were other official ports of entry.  The reality of America was so often less golden than the streets or mythical mountain that figured in immigrant dreams.   Harsh work conditions and rapacious individuals too often took advantage of immigrants. 

030126552e9d94ee487de7287826c285In Promise Land, though, it is not an acetylene torch that accidentally causes harm but a factory boiler that explodes.  Or, to recast this in terms of current events, it is the massive machinery of government, misused or overused, that is currently damaging American values and people’s lives, not individuals whose hopeful eyes still light up at the sight of Miss Liberty.  These would-be immigrants are “carrying a torch” for her and the U.S.A. that will shine brightly long past Valentine’s Day . . . if U.S. policy under President Trump’s administration does not extinguish their dreams or further tarnish our lawful ideals.   

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Emancipation and Inauguration–Days Old and New

Old scroll paper with pen and ink.Three award-winning picture books are my focus today.  Read on.

Life-altering changes brought by the stroke of a pen or the tick of a clock—the beginning of African-American History month brings many thoughts to mind.  One is how the official dates we commemorate, such as Emancipation Day on April 16 or the Presidential Inauguration on January 20, note only legal changes.  The real transformation in people’s lives is often a much longer and messier process, if it occurs at all.  Along the way, we may also find ourselves celebrating other dates, such as June 19 (Juneteenth), the day in 1865 when African-Americans in Texas finally learned of their freedom.

Similarly, many Americans and others world-wide right now have found more to celebrate in January 21, a day of massive protests against President Trump, than we did in his January 20 inauguration.  Ironically, while African-American History month is about reclaiming and naming little-known or unknown events and people, it is the marchers-filled-the-streets-from-sidewalk-to-sidewalkmassive amount of information already available about President Trump and his views which galvanizes our opposition to him.  Inauguration has not transformed the belligerence, prejudice, and ignorance of world events and their complexity he displayed as a candidate.  With one stroke of pen last week, rather than officially free a race this president essentially outlawed the immigration of a religious group from seven countries!  I despair of his interest or ability to probe beneath the surface of events, to learn about the silenced or hidden stories which impel the fine books I am highlighting today.  President Trump’s superficial and narrow-minded outlook makes it even more important for us to discuss such books ourselves and bring them to the attention of young readers.  

61ojalfobdl-_sx456_bo1204203200_ Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan (2016); Freedom in Congo Square (2016), written by Carole Boston Weatherford and Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie; and My Name is James Madison Hemings (2016), written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Terry Widener all examine lives shaped by the U.S. laws and “best” business practices of their time—in other words, slavery.  I have little doubt that President Trump, so boastful of his past use of legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes and now deploying business “savvy” and self-interest to guide his administration, might prior to 1865 himself have owned slaves.  If this pernicious system benefited his “bottom line,” why not?  I see little in the “prosperity Christianity” our 45th president espouses or his non-existent history of civic involvement that would have allied him with abolitionists.  This thought makes the premise of author/illustrator Ashley Bryan’s remarkable picture book even more chilling.

Freedom Over Me is multiple award-winner Bryan’s moving meditation on a routine business document—an 1828 estate sale offering Bryan found among a collection of pre-Civil War, slave-related documents he purchased years ago.  Along with farm animals and equipment, as just more items to be sold, eleven slaves are listed solely by name, gender, and price.   In interviews, Bryan explains he imagined the ages of these people, visualized them with the faces of his own family and friends, and then contemplated not only what jobs they might have had on a small cotton plantation but also what their hopes and fears—their dreams—might have been.  In Bryan’s words, they then “told me . . . [their] dreams.”  Bryan wrote free verse poems to accompany his dramatic, profound visual depiction of the lives lived and longed for by these eleven people as he sensitively imagined their plight.

freedom-over-me-9781481456906-in03Each person is depicted twice.  A frontal, full-page facial portrait is first, heavy pen and ink lines shaping water-colored features, with this portrait displayed against a collage of contemporaneous documents (ads, newspaper headlines, laws).  The muted tones of these pages’ backgrounds are recreated for the page-long accompanying poems, each titled by the slave’s “official” name, and describing that person’s life on the plantation.  How much that life thwarts the dreams that slavery distorts but does not destroy is evident in Bryan’s second portrait of each slave-for-sale.


Vivid colors there depict the many strands of past life, present hopes, and future ambitions that a second accompanying poem describes.  Some images are realistic but others are expressionistic in their swirled layering of scenes or juxtaposition of elements.  Each of these “Dreams” poems, displayed on its own vibrantly-colored page, contains the hidden or imagined African name the enslaved person might have prized, one connecting him or her to heritage and skills denied and demeaned by U.S. law.  Readers can observe how music is so important to each person and within their community of slaves.  Expressions such as the “song of my hands,” “our songs and stories,” and “bodies [used] to beat out rhythms” are tellingly frequent.  Frustated and furious, metalworker Bacus finds voice in another way, with a “heavy hammer . . .” [sometimes] serving, “striking the note,” while earth tiller Mulvina recreates in her dreams “African song patterns” in Christian hymns that offer a different kind of comfort: “ He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  

61mefqp4fwl-_sx387_bo1204203200_In Freedom in Congo Square music is also foregrounded as a force which sustained and united slaves.  This picture book, though, highlights one specific historical location.   As the Foreward by historian Fredi Williams Evans and Author’s Note by Carole Boston Weatherford explain, Louisisana retained French laws specifying Sundays as holy days of rest.  Even slaves were exempted from work on Sundays, able then to pursue their own interests, including small money-making projects.  Congo Square in New Orleans, today on the National Register of Historical Places, was a place where slaves from surrounding areas congregated on Sunday afternoons to sell or trade their wares and produce.  Just as importantly, they could sing, dance, and share news—all activities that briefly liberated their spirits. 

81hq15vjglOrganized by days of the week, Weatherford’s rhyming couplets detail the labor and harsh treatment slaves endured as they anticipated Sunday’s respite.  On one page, she writes “The dreaded lash, too much to bear.  Four more days to Congo Square.”  This daily countdown is illustrated by single and double page illustrations populated by elongated, often angular figures posed in moments of emblematic labor.  Even in sleep, their servitude weighs on them.  Christie depicts plantation nighttime with even more grim simplicity, positioning rows of stick-like slaves within stark, hull-like houses—a visual reminder of how shackled prisoners were brutally transported on slave ships from Africa.   

freedom_in_congo_square_spread_13-for_chelseaAs Sunday nears, Christie’s illustrations show the impact of increasing anticipation.  Figures unbend and facial features become more apparent.  And—oh—what a transformation Sunday itself brings!  As people leap and sway in rhythmic curves, playing musical instruments and dancing, Weatherford’s words themselves curve and bend across doublespread pages.  The book’s intense color palette brightens along with people’s spirits.  One doublespread illustration stands out in particular, featuring musical instruments and tribal masks against a background patterned as a tribal woven cloth.  A glossary at the back of the book will help younger readers of this book, which does not stint in language or approach to the complexities of slave life in the United States.

51fay1ckqsl-_sx377_bo1204203200_This complexity—and the fallibility of more than one president—is also on display in My Name is James Madison Hemings.  As Jonah Winter explains in his Author’s Note, this book is based on an 1873 newspaper interview with Hemings, who claimed and is widely believed to have been one of President Thomas Jefferson’s six children with his slave, Sally Hemings.  Winter used details from this interview as he imagined what James Madison Hemings might have thought and experienced as a child and teen, telling this fictionalized biography from that young person’s viewpoint.  “How could a father enslave his own flesh and blood?,” when voiced by the child himself, becomes an even more damning and perplexing question for readers.

Emotionally-distant Jefferson is literally a half-seen or distant figure in most of Terry Widener’s illustrations, painted in soft, quiet colors that convey a past lit by daylight and dim candle or firelight.  These somber colors also reflect bemused James Madison’s 1113-bks-asim-2-master180life of work and limited opportunity.  Although he was spared harsh field labor, he received no formal education, becoming a woodworker and learning to read only through the kindness of one of Jefferson’s legitimate adult daughters.  Jefferson, author of the stirring words “all men are created equal,” nonetheless listed his children with Sally Hemings as possessions—along with livestock and equipment—on his plantation documents.  He only granted these children freedom in his will, after his death.  While we know from his newspaper interview that James Madison Hemings became a successful carpenter, readers may wonder along with him whether his “father would [ever have been] proud” of his son’s achievements.

Similarly, I can know President Trump’s thoughts and feelings about more recent events only through his words and deeds.  For me, these remain dismaying.  So far, for instance, he has not explicitly apologized for ignorantly describing Congressman John R. Lewis, civil rights leader and hero, as “All talk, talk, talk—no action or results.”  If I 51gyekjadal-_sx346_bo1204203200_thought this president had the patience and interest to read it, I would recommend to him the three volume graphic autobiography of Congressman Lewis, March (2013 – 2016), written by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell.  (March, Book 1 was reviewed here in November, 2014.  I reviewed Book 2 here in May, 2015.)  March, Book 3 [2016] recently won prestigious American Library Association awards in addition to the 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  This trilogy is such further fitting reading—for President Trump, for anyone–for African-American History month!  Realistically, though, I would be heartened just to learn that our new president is reading and listening to reports from legislative leaders and heads of government agencies, giving serious consideration to any edicts he signs and messages he sends.

I wonder what news the upcoming Presidents Day—this year observed on Monday, February 20—will bring.  Officially held in honor of Washington and Lincoln, what celebrations or protests will mark this holiday during the first year of the Trump Administration?  Will other days in the coming month—for better or worse—prove more memorable?



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Vantage Points: Staring into 2017

download-3Two new graphic works have helped me deal with my thoughts and feelings about the recent presidential election.  How could so many people have voted for Donald Trump, when so many more of us are dismayed and frightened at his rise in political power?  For us, the hopefulness of New Year’s Day is overshadowed by the looming prospect of President-elect Trump’s inauguration on January 20.  We –along with many people around the globe–fear what his formal ascent into office will bring.  From our point of view, he is so unfit to govern.

417ynaja9tl-_sy410_bo1204203200_Fittingly, the books that have given me further insight and perspective on the recent past and this new year are ones that emphasize physical  vantage points.  Brendan Wenzel’s picture book They All Saw A Cat (2016) will hold appeal for all ages, pre-readers on up.  The Gaze of Drifting Skies:  A Treasury of Bird’s Eye Cartoon Views (2016), edited by Jonathan Barli, will enthrall detail-loving readers tween and older.  Both books are also vastly enjoyable in themselves—without any thought given to current politics!

they-all-saw-a-cat_int_dogsmalThe charming, colorful pages of They All Saw a Cat use line, color, and perspective to show how dramatically viewpoints differ in the natural world.   Author/illustrator Wenzel creates thirteen vignettes spotlighting different ways a cat is seen.   Where a growling dog sees a thin, cringing cat slinking away and a fox giving chase perceives a fearfully fluffed-up cat racing away, a terrified mouse has an entirely different view.  Its predatory feline foe looms large, with out-sized teeth and claws, all against a blood-red background.  Another potential victim, a fish, views they-all-saw-a-cat_int_mousesmallthe seemingly enormous eyes of the cat through the watery, soft-focused lens of a fish bowl.   These differences and others are united by the image and refrain of “The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws. . .”

they-all-saw-a-cat_int_fishsmallThrough a bee’s multifaceted eyes, the cat is a series of dots, while to a flea riding its rump the cat seems a savannah of gigantic grass.  I  particularly like the double page spread that opposes the below and above ground views of a worm and a bat, each apprehending and creating images that rely on senses other than sight.  The upside-down view of the worm, sensed through vibration and shown as multiple straight lines, has a symmetrical counterpart in the dotted, right side-up view theyallsaw4-300x123echolated by the high-flying bat.  The scientific facts underlying these colorful pages may for young readers provoke discussion and possibly research. (One flaw here is Wenzel’s omission of back matter pages, providing basic facts and perhaps offering further resources.) 

This picture book ends in satisfying flourishes, with several pages reinforcing our awareness of the viewpoints of others.  A delightful image of the cat drawn as an impossible composite of the book’s differing perceptions is followed by a double-spread featuring all the characters, including the young boy for whom the cat is a pet.  Finally, we see that even the cat has its own limited perspective: peering into a pool, the feline sees only a wavering, watery version of itself.  Readers are taken out of ourselves to think about how others see the world and themselves.


Applying this lesson to President-elect Trump, I have somewhat more understanding of the vastly different views of people who voted for him.  But I still find it impossible to empathize with Trump himself, even if I grant him his own distorted world view.  I feel too much like the mouse, aware that I am by background and belief prey to the increasing number and scope of predators that a predatory President Trump brings with him.  I do not have the ability of some other prey, such as the high-flying bird in They All Saw the Cat, to soar above and away from my seemingly small and ineffectual enemies.  And what will happen once that bird lands and is perhaps within their grasp . . .?

61ynpxifl-l-_sx398_bo1204203200_I am also fearful that impatient President Trump’s view from the White House will remain as distorted as it has been from the 66th floor of his New York City penthouse.  From great heights, whether literal or metaphorical, others do indeed seem small and insignificant.  It takes time and patience to perceive and recognize all that is unfolding below.   That is one of the tenets that fueled the cartoon fad spotlighted by editor Jonathan Barli (himself a graphic designer and historian) in The Gaze of Drifting Skies: A Treasury of Bird’s Eye View Cartoons.

As Barli explains in his introduction, this fad flourished in late 19th through mid-20th century newspapers and magazines, at its peak from 1900 -1920.  Readers then had the time and inclination to pore over panoramic views, which typically lacked a visual focal point but through visual details implicitly commented on their subject matter.  Some of these popular cartoonists poked fun at human nature, while others were more pointedly critical about contemporary life and nostalgic for less-hectic times.  At their most popular, bird’s eye view cartoons were drawn as full page or even double-page spreads, typically in black-and-white.  Color only became standard well into the 20th century.

s-l400-1Barli divides his 176 page book—meant to be savored slowly—into seven chapters: Small Town U.S.A., The Big City, The Battlefields, Abroad, Back Home, Lands of Fantasy, and Once Again, in Color.   (Omitting a Table of Contents with this information is a flaw here.)  Readers who peruse cartoons such as “The Joys of Spring” or “The Skating Season Opens” for the many actions they depict will smile and wince with delight.  In other crowded scenes, such as “The 5:15” or “Anything to Satisfy Them! . . .  The Bicyclists,” the expressions on individuals’ faces also reward careful viewing.  Fans of Dr. Seuss will note with delight how his four cartoons here, aptly placed in the ‘Lands of Fantasy’ chapter, are filled with very active and expressive cats, fish, turtles, as well as other, less easily-identified critters!   In this chapter, Seuss fans will also enjoy Arch Dale’s “The DooDads Meet the Sea Serpent.”

With the Christmas shopping season just over, I note the frequent appearance of its hectic events—along with other holidays—as bird’s eye view topics.   Some of my other tumblr_ofpilrzufh1qif71to1_1280favorites in this compendium include (for their distinctive takes on the fad) “A Ball’s Eye View of a Home Run” and “Worm’s-Eye View of Us—A Fire.”  I also enjoy the vertiginous, angled perspectives in “The March Wind” and “Their First Day Back Home,” the latter cartoon also making effective use of shaded drawing, atypical for this fad.  Careful or return readers will note the different drawing styles of specific artists (though having to turn often to the back page list of illustrations for full artist names is another design flaw here). 

Would President-elect Trump take the time to see what is happening in “The G-L-O-R-I-O-U-S Fourth!”?   Or would he not notice in this cartoon (by Johnny Gruelle, later a children’s author and illustrator) the several blazes either in full flame or just starting as fire crackers explode?   What explosive impact might President Trump’s impatient, opinionated take on patriotism have on our country as he avowedly works to “make American great again”?  Much of the world is watching, wondering, and worrying. 


A first step still to be seen would be President-elect Trump’s willingness to plan for reports and prepare for high-level meetings and contacts.  Will he move past aptly-named tweets and casual penthouse-level views to see the whole picture in depth?  Or will he continue dangerously to accept and promulgate superficial, sometimes inaccurate information, ignoring details and differences?   One memorable bird’s eye cartoon here by Harrison Cady (another children’s book illustrator and author) is titled “A Quiet April First at Tinkham’s Corners.”  Close perusal, though, shows just what tomfoolery and minor disasters are actually taking place on that April Fools Day.  All great fun . . .  on the page, at least, enhanced by the gap between cartoon title and content.  But if the U.S.A. ends up with a president who never reads beyond titles or headlines, the savage joke may be on us. 

As we stare into 2017, let us continue to look far, wide, and deep—and encourage others to do the same.  Different viewpoints should not blind us to real dangers. 


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