Of Mice and Middle School

bm_curtsyBabymouse is growing up!   I recently learned that the perky heroine of twenty graphic novels for young kids started this school year as a middle schooler.   Yet the safe haven that school provides this fantasy character is not what students actually experience these days in our gun-riddled culture.

61mXgcWu7WL._SX394_BO1,204,203,200_Lights, Camera, Middle School! (2017) is the first in a new series about the wise-cracking, imaginative rodent, who daydreams in pink.   Her earlier (mis)adventures have ranged from  supposedly being Queen of the World (Babymouse # 1, 2005) to being an Olympic champion who Goes for the Gold (Babymouse # 20,  2016).  Along the way, these best-selling humorous books have won numerous awards, including a prestigious Eisner Award in 2013 for best graphic publication for early readers. 

51kzuE5aRpL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In the new series, labelled “Babymouse Tales from the Locker,” Lights, Camera, Middle School! describes how Babymouse’s  joining Film Club is part of her adjustment to that new environment.  Her difficulties, while humorous, are very real.  As she says early on, “The hardest subject in middle school . . . was friendship.”  The second book in this series, Miss Communication, dealing with social media in middle school, will be published in July, 2018.   To distinguish these books, written  for older readers, from the first series,  the sister-brother  team of author Jennifer L. Holm and illustrator Matthew Holm has explained that “We switched up our procedure a bit . . .  [from] a traditional graphic novel.”  Matt Holm describes the new look as “more like an illustrated chapter book.”   Since this book includes graphic novel sequences, however,  I would call this work a hybrid novel.  I first discussed that graphic trend here in 2014, and recommended another hybrid novel here in 2016.  (Using the term “hybrid novel” in a search will help you and tween or teen readers find works which similarly mix pages of prose with graphic novel sequences.)

In the narrative of Lights, Camera, Action! Jennifer Holm displays the insights into character and command of dialogue that figure in her award-winning all-prose 7novels for tweens.  (I mention some of these Newberry Honor books in a review article here.)  Babymouse comes to understand how her outrageous demands as director of the Film Club’s movie epic “Au Revoir, Locker” have alienated the cast and crew.  We see her salvage her friendships even as we enjoyably witness how Club members translate her grandiose schemes (for the Eiffel Tower . . . and elephants, too!) into middle school “work-arounds.”  Babymouse’s interjecting bits of French into conversations  shows how she wishes to be sophisticated, while bold face type conveys the natural rhythms of her less affected speech.  Her kid brother Squeak and grandfather are also memorable characters in this Babymouse work, along with Wilson the weasel, George the giraffe, Lucy the bat, and catty Felicia Fuzzypaws. 

Illustrator Matt Holm’s graphic novel sequences in this book carry the storyline along with witty impact.  I particularly enjoyed the pages in which Babymouse imagines being attacked by a monster in her locker.  Small panels overlapping a 20larger one communicate her race to escape, while the use of dark background and a shift in perspective  show her terror as a horde of angry lockers pursue and surround her!  Then the school bell rings, and our heroine is back to safe reality.   At other points, single illustrations complement the author’s words tellingly.  For instance, a zombie-like teacher filling a blackboard with homework assignments humorously explains the words “And everywhere you turned, someone was trying to eat your brains.”  Despite Babymouse’s misgivings and some actual failures, her middle school really is a safe environment in which to learn and grow.   The Holm siblings do a great job of communicating this positive message in a way that engages readers of all ages, not just their targeted audience of 8 to 12 year-olds.

02And yet—while I definitely recommend the new Babymouse series, looking forward to its next volume—its wholesome portrayal of middle school contrasts so vividly with school images recently in the news.  I cannot get those out of my mind.  Schools today are not the safe environments portrayed by the Holms . . . but not because of any of the situations Babymouse fears.  This past Valentine’s Day saw the single-shooter slaughter of unarmed high school students and staff.  Parkland, Florida has now been added to the litany of school shootings which in recent decades has included WDICFmiddle and even elementary schools.  Without school guards, metal detectors, or police officers, Babymouse’s school settings resemble those of more innocent eras, not today’s wary fortresses.  The Mouseketeers of my own youth might have fit into Babymouse’s carefully framed and expertly crafted world.  I may bring this up to Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm when they visit the Twin Cities later this month.  The celebrated creators of Babymouse and other memorable characters will be here to accept their well-deserved Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota.

51DbIURoEuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Such thoughts led me to see if any graphic novels or comics have dealt with school shootings.  As a result, I am now waiting for mail delivery of the hybrid novel Jamie’s Got a Gun (2014).  Written by Canadian educator Gail Sidonie Sobat and illustrated by Spyder Yardley-Jones, it is told from the point-of-view of a teen as he plans a shooting.  Will that tragedy be averted?  I will need to read the book to find out and evaluate it overall.  I decided to pass on the DC Comics series Hard Time (2004 – 2005), as its treatment of a school shooting is framed for adult readers, ones especially interested in odd superpowers. 

41AOTY4hZbL._AC_US327_QL65_My literature search turned up many more all-prose novels focused on school shootings.  Some are already downloaded or now on my library request list.  Violent Ends: A Novel in Seventeen Points of View (2016), edited by Shaun David Hutchinson, sounds particularly interesting.  Its seventeen chapters, written by seventeen different authors including Hutchinson himself, deliberately exclude the viewpoint of its teen-age shooter.  Instead, the book portrays the views of the six people he killed 51wIBOX79UL._AC_US327_QL65_and the five he injured.   Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (2014), told in a single day as a teen prepares to shoot someone else and himself, is also now on my reading list.  It includes the would-be shooter’s meetings with four individuals who have shown him kindness, including a home-schooled girl and a teacher who himself survived the Holocaust. After finishing all these emotionally-intense books, I suspect I will be happy to return to the humor-filled, sharp-eyed  but warm-hearted school corridors of the Babymouse books!



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In War and Peace

africanWhat happens when peacetime resembles war?  I will be pondering this question in coming weeks as we celebrate Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month here in the U.S.A.

This year there will be a special focus on the experiences of Black combatants in wartime and its aftermath.  The centennial of World War I (1914 – 1918), once optimistically called “the War to End All Wars,” has spurred this focus.  Certainly, explosive graphic novels such as The Harlem Hellfighters (2014)  (discussed by me here in a bk_harlem-hellfighters2014 omnibus review of graphic literature about World War I) call dramatic attention to how U.S. discrimination against Blacks followed them onto the battlefields of France.  This work follows members of the all-Black 369th Battalion—real-life members and some fictionalized amalgams—before, during, and after the Army service for which they had volunteered.  A short video interview  of the novel’s author Max Brooks, showing documentary footage of the events he and illustrator Caanan White vividly bring to life in their book, is well worth seeing. 

I was pleased to learn, while updating my 2014 review, that in 2015 Sergeant Henry Johnson, one of the Hellfighters, was finally posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.  France had ph_harlemhellfighters (1)acknowledged Johnson’s bravery with its Croix de Guerre, its highest military honor, back in 1919.  I was also interested to learn that Hollywood star Will Smith is again planning to produce a dramatized version of the Hellfighters’ saga, this time working with TV’s History Channel.  In 2014 Smith had previously  optioned Brooks’ book for a movie version, a failed plan.    

Similarly, just as World War I did not “end” all future conflicts, President Woodrow Wilson’s promise that winning the war would make the world “safe for democracy” was broken many times—particularly for Black soldiers who fought in that war and their descendants.  One has only, in some instances, to look out the window or 61FJgSzab-L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_watch the news on TV or Facebook to see how wartime violence—with armed, uniformed officers often pitted against unarmed civilians—has become commonplace in today’s so-called peacetime.  Too often, these incidents feature White officials firing upon Black citizens, a reflection of U.S. society’s ongoing racism.  Today I spotlight an amazing new graphic novel that powerfully epitomizes and gives context to this epidemic of violence: I Am Alfonso Jones (2017), written by Tony Medina and illustrated by Stacey Robinson and John Jennings.  Their book also shows how and why the Black Lives Matter movement is a response to this epidemic.

Early in the novel, fifteen-year old Alfonso Jones—bright, funny, loving, and hard-working—is shot to death in a mid-town Manhattan department store.  The White off-duty police officer moonlighting there as a security guard says he thought the coat hanger Alfonso was holding was a pointed gun!  Pictures by illustration I_Am_Alfonso_Jones_Spread_2partners Robinson and Jennings show how such a mistake was visually impossible, while Medina’s insightful commentary explains how the officer’s stunted, racist outlook provoked him to a fatal, kneejerk reaction.   Believing all Black teens are dangerous, that Blacks are inferior “savages,” and hearing from another customer that there is a Black man with a gun, Officer Whitson in a fearful instant slays Alfonso.  This senseless tragedy could have been avoided.  As the boy’s grieving mother eloquently says, if Whitson’s schooling and “broader reality. . . movies, TV, whatever. . .”  had been different. . . “maybe he would have seen my son as a teenager, as a person, as a citizen, as an American, as a human. . . .”    

Medina, an award-winning author, creates such believable teen-age characters that Alfonso’s death, after only thirty pages, is profoundly moving and disturbing.  We see the humor and energy, the nervousness and affection that Alfonso brings to his bike messenger job, his school activities, and his crush on classmate Danetta even as he asks her to go with him to buy his first real suit.  There, while he is trying I_Am_Alfonso_Jones_Spread_3on coats for her, his life’s hopes end in a volley of bullets!   But that is not where the novel ends.  For another 130 pages, we follow the Harlem teen’s journey as a ghost—on an intangible subway train joining the spirits of  other, real-life Black victims of senseless violence.  Mrs. Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Michael Stewart, Anthony Baez, and Henry Dumas were each slain in different recent decades in New York City history.  Now, as fictional characters, they join Alfonso to journey back and forward in time and place, visiting past injustices and following along as Alfonso’s friends, family, and community grieve and protest his death.  

This narrative framework—potentially unbelievable and melodramatic—remains grounded in human warmth and loss.   Medina’s wise words and savvy characterization and Robinson and Johnson’s powerful images keep the book real.  Ghost Alfonso responds with bewilderment and anger to his death and then poignantly returns to typical teen-age responses as he observes life going on without him.  We see through his envious eyes a school production of “Hamlet” he had hoped to join which now features a former rival. Instead of a traditional production, it is now a hip-hop version.  Shakespeare’s “to be or not be” is retold in the rhythms of “What is a life/What is a lie/When your dis-ease/Causes another to die?”  There, as elsewhere in the novel, animated facial features and gesturing, fluid figures enhance the written word.

DH7bgsVVYAEiqhZEntirely wordless pages also advance the story here.  As the book opens, before we really know who Alfonso is, we silently witness the first bullet to strike the teen.  We are “hooked” by this two page sequence, paced so deftly by Robinson and Jennings with techniques they then use throughout the book.  They move deftly between long distance and close-up views, breaking panel frames to great effect and sometimes eliminating panels altogether to create a sense of motion or time.  I Am Alfonso Jones deserves the many accolades it has already garnered from writers, graphic artists, and reviewers.   It is, I feel, a sure contender for awards in the coming year.   A teachers’ guide to the novel is also available at its publisher’s website.

51lcHAEqhdL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_What else will I be reading or rereading this coming Black History month?  Once I stop feeling devastated by I Am Alfonso Jones, I might 41SH-I-BHxL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_catch up with the all-prose looks at unwarranted White police  violence in All-American Boys (2015) by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely or The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas. (A movie adaptation of that best-seller will reach theaters later this year.)  I have already read and can recommend Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down (2015), dealing with similar issues.   

51mi3lieBWL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_First, though, the stand-out visual storytelling in Alfonso will have me catching up with the graphic novel adaptation of one of my favorite contemporary classics, Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979; 1988; 2004).  That haunting, award-winning novel about time travel to the slave-holding American South, illustrated by Alfonso’s John Jennings and adapted by Damian Duffy, just last year became an acclaimed best-seller as Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (2017).   Both versions depict the cruel, warlike violence typical in the supposedly peaceful South.   



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Celebrating a New Year

download (2)Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

These words from a Tennyson poem are one traditional New Year’s refrain—but they are just wishful thinking this January 1.  For many of us, taxed by President Trump’s gross misstatements as well as his policies, it may well be November 6, 2020 before we can officially “ring out the false, ring in the true.”  But I believe that persistence between now and then is itself worth some celebratory bell-ringing, that there can be as much value in continuity as there is in change.  Reading a recently published chapter book, The River Bank: A Sequel to The Wind in the Willows (2017), foregrounded this idea for me.  Today I look at this charming illustrated work along with some comic book series, all for upper-elementary age and older readers.

61GhHbKyKjLAward-winning author Kij Johnson has written a wonderful sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s classic animal fable, The Wind in the Willows (1908), creating female characters Beryl Mole and Lottie Rabbit, who join his male protagonists–brave Water Rat, loyal Mole, wise Badger, and reckless Toad—in new adventures.  In The River Bank, Beryl and Lottie establish their own peaceful home and routines along that shore, and later also triumph over motor cycle accidents and kidnapping by criminal weasels!  Illustrator Kathleen Jennings provides delicate, character-rich line drawings in full-page and many spot illustrations that highlight the story, reinforcing and enriching its early 20th century setting.   


I myself truly appreciated The Wind in the Willows only as an adult, with an adult son, as I have explained here.   Johnson, however, appreciated it as a child.  During her Iowa girlhood, as she recently said, Johnson imagined what female characters 1020023121might have done had they existed in some of the literary classics she loved.  The Far Bank and similar rewritten classics, she adds, “build a story that opens up the ignored, forgotten, or blocked-off passageways in the original.  It’s a mark of our affection for a work that we labor so hard to understand and, perhaps, to redeem it.”   Johnson’s pitch-perfect recreation of Kenneth Grahame’s poetic, high-flown language is one of the marvels of this sequel, which may be enjoyed on its own, without ever having read The Wind in the Willows.  But readers will experience more joy and meaning from such luminous phrases as “an animal lives in the long now of the world” if they have already read Grahame’s work.  I suspect that young readers who pick up Johnson’s book first will make their way soon to the original.

51kv+Ij95gL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_So, in a new year valuing continuity as well as change, I will point out the welcome, continued publication of comic book series with racially and culturally diverse heroines and heroes.  Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American, Muslim Ms. Marvel, reviewed here , here, and here, had Volume 8: Mecca (2017) just published on December 27—in time for new year’s reading!  Volume 9 is scheduled for publication in July, 2018.  Lunella Lafayatte, the African-American pre-teen Moon Girl, reviewed here, has since appeared in Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Volume 3 517Uf3FBRXL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_(2017).  Volume 4 will be published in a few weeks and Volume 5 is set for July, 2018 publication.  Other characters in that Marvel comic book universe have called nine-year old, science-loving Lunella “one of the smartest people” in their world!  While its sales figures are not super high, a troubling trend, devoted fans of this comic book series are discussing ways it would make a great animated film or TV show.  Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino American Spiderman, also continues to be published, appearing in his own series and as a side character in other related titles. 

61Maubji3rLGraphic novel luminary Gene Luen Yang also continues to bring his talents to the inventive continuation of comic book heroes.  This congressionally-appointed National Ambassador for Children’s literature, working with Malaysian illustrator Sonny Liew,  first reclaimed and reinvented a minor 1940s comics figure  in the graphic novel The Shadow Hero (2016), reviewed here  and here.  This book pays tribute to the Chinese-American author’s background.  Now he is reinventing Superman!  Yang was first invited by DC Comics in 2014 to write a series about the traditional version of this iconic character.  This led to a nine-issue series (#41-50), illustrated by John Romita, in which Superman has lost many of his powers and his Clark Kent identity is no longer secret.    But it is Gene Yang’s more recent, ongoing creation of an alternate universe Superman in the New Super-Man series that I find inspirational.  In these years in which our president asserts that the U.S. is better off having less global involvement and fewer immigrants, Yang’s Superman is a Chinese teenager living in Shanghai! 

61Hr6dcxWMLSeventeen year old Kong Kenan is thrilled to receive Clark Kent’s superpowers.  He and all his acquaintances know all about those powers and other U.S. A. superheroes because, as Kenan remarks, “Everybody knows who Superman is.” Today we live in a globalized world, as is evident in the trans-national advertising, clothes, and activities in illustrator Viktor Bogdanovic’s detailed depiction of cosmopolitan Shanghai, a Chinese commercial hub.  This fusion of cultures is also evident in inker Richard Friend’s  lettering, which is color-coded to show how English is incorporated into the everyday speech of China.  We learn that characters’ black-lettered words here stand in for their Mandarin language, while the light-blue words are English words and phrases now current in China.

New Super-Man Volume 1 (2016- ): Made in China (2017)  and New Super-Man Volume 2 (2016-  ): Coming to America (2017), collecting issues 1 through 12,  are intriguing for a number of reasons. Kong Kenan at first is not likeable at all!  We watch how this boastful bully, quick to taunt as well as to grab, learns to be a kinder nsm33jpgand more thoughtful person, even as he deals with the political and physical battles linked to his new superpowers.  As a member of the new “Justice League of China,” Kenan becomes friends with its teenaged Bat Man, Wonder Woman, and female Flash only when he learns to control his verbal jabs as well as his impulsive actions.  As Kenan thinks to himself, “A numb lip is the price of friendship.”  Writer Yang’s dialogue here is fresh and fun—with fast retorts and interplay among the teens, with the slightly-older reporter Lan Laney (the Lois Lane of this series), and between the young superheroes and two sets of apparent supervillains.    We also wonder about the true motives of the government official, Dr. Omen, in charge of the League and about who is behind the mask of one head villain, Flying Dragon General.  How bad can he really be if he at one point saves Kenan and also often talks about “Truth, Justice, and Democracy”. . . the same words we have heard Kenan’s working class father say?  That mystery, and the mystery of Kenan’s mother’s possibly accidental death are subplots throughout these volumes.

Kenan’s difficult relationship with these authority figures extends to another one, Master I-Ching, the martial artist whose wisdom includes lessons about how to control and use superpowers.  Here author Yang brings in another China-specific 735fc1e4dc9f8d665e18d48c66c59fde9c154aed_hq (1)but also global element.  This teacher’s name refers to the Chinese classic Book of Changes, the I Ching, known and used world-wide as a mystical way to guide daily life and also see into the future.  Master I-Ching explains this system’s use of trigrams, an eightfold series of three lines in the shape of an octagon.  Careful readers will see that such octagons are also part of the symbols on costumes worn by the Justice League of China. In visuals as well as story lines, the New Super-Man comics being authored by Gene Luen Yang incorporate some diverse traditions which now unite people around the world.  I look forward to the June, 2018 publication of New Super-Man Volume 3: Equilibrium, collecting issues 13 through just issued #18 of this series.

NSM_Cv21_5a2b34dd345443.16597466Will the nationalistic anti-globalism of Donald Trump have a negative effect on the continued existence or growth of diverse and multi-cultural superheroes?  A market-place opinion piece just the other week raised this specter.  Yet I believe along with others that the audience for these well-written works, in which diversity is not merely cosmetic but is integral to the story and art, remains strong.  I am also heartened to see that issue 21 of the New Super-Man is already scheduled for publication in March, 2018.  It bodes well for the new year–particularly if parents, librarians, and teens continue to buy and order these works.

Happy 2018!  Enjoy our intriguing new superheroes and the new–as well as the original–versions of our literary classics.  We have a lot to celebrate and maintain, even as we work for change.


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States of Mind

Thinking and AwarenessWhat is your state of mind right now?  Festive . . .  as you think of upcoming winter holidays?  Fearful . . . as you contemplate current political events and crises?  Or are you calm and content because you enjoy a few minutes with book “news” such as this?

My mind recently has been in another state—literally as well as figuratively.  I spent the first part of October in New Mexico 956a74a8_original (1)and jelled some of my thoughts about that visit in an article posted here the other week.  So when I learned that some of this year’s best book lists featured sights and authors I had encountered in New Mexico I let that coincidence shape today’s Gone Graphic.  Here are some great new (as well as a few older) picture books for you to enjoy and share with the young people in your life.   All have that Southwestern connection. 

frida-kahlo-and-her-animalitos-9780735842694_lgFrida Kahlo and her Animalitos (2017), written by Monica Brown and illustrated by John Parra, is a wonderful addition to works about that Mexican painter.  Its vivid acrylic colors and flat, folk art style—typical of the tradition to which world-renowned Kahlo (1907 – 1954) brought her own vision—won this book two awards.  It is on both the New York Times and New York Public Library’s 2017 Best Illustrated Books for Children lists.  Brown’s gentle text communicates the facts of Kahlo’s life, including how important pets were to her, while Parra’s cheerful illustrations convey how these creatures inspired her.  Some of Animalito’s first pages, though, show young Frida with pets she famously had only as an adult, which surprised me.  Brown in her Author’s Note explains her debatable decision to emphasize insight into Kahlo’s spirit over the purely factual. 

10 07 Museum Hill a (2) (1)While I was in Santa Fe, its Museum of Spanish Colonial Art hosted a photography exhibit about Frida Kahlo as well as a gallery of works inspired by her paintings.  Along with Animalitos, its gift shop offered young readers the sumptuous Frida (2002), written by Jonah Winters and illustrated by Ana Juan.  Winters’ text is simpler than Brown’s and does not 51FmtZtJX8L._SY430_BO1,204,203,200_mention Frida Kahlo’s troubled marriage to artist Diego Rivera, alluded to in Animalitos.  Yet Frida is appropriate for young readers or listeners and is a visual treasure trove for all ages.  It is filled with Mexican folk motifs found in many of Kahlo’s own paintings—including the skeletal images detailed so well by author/illustrator Duncan Tonitiuh in his award-winning Funny Bones: Posada and his Day of the Dead Calaveras (2015), reviewed here last year.  

Other Santa Fe museum visits also yielded picture book treasures.  Gift shops associated with the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and that artist’s studio-home in nearby Abiquiu introduced me to author/illustrator Jeanette Winter’s My Name is 51hDTkfeBCL._SX404_BO1,204,203,200_Georgia:  A Portrait (1998; 2003).  I preferred Winter’s deft first-person text, sometimes using quotations from O’Keefe herself, over the ‘storytelling’ done in two other picture book biographies also for sale there.  With images extending past the borders of each page’s centered image, Winters intimately depicts O’Keefe’s life-long journey from Wisconsin to the Texas plains, to New York City and then to the New Mexico landscapes she found so imaginatively fertile.   I had delighted in Winters dual biography of two real-life heroes,  Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan (2014), and her award-winning Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afganistan (2009), both reviewed here last year, but I had not caught up with  her back list of books about famous artists.

51lgjx8c2kL._SX496_BO1,204,203,200_Now Winters has a new award-winner to add to that globe-spanning list.  The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid (2017) is already a Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2017. Winters’ swooping images on single and double-spread pages capture the curves and swirls of the nature-inspired, unconventional buildings designed by that successful Iraqi architect.  Sand dunes, sea shells, and even galaxies all stirred Zaha Hadid (1950 – 2016), who successfully battled cultural prejudice against professional women in her native country as well as general bias against women architects.  In an interview, Winter has said that she hopes this book will reach children who “want to make things and [the] hands of girls who think the odds are so overpowering.”  She is “writing for children with big dreams.”  Her simple, forceful text, sometimes employing Hadid’s own words in italics, supports Winter’s goals.  (An aside: Winter has been inspirational in her personal life, too.  Author/illustrator Jonah Winter is her son—what a talented family!)

downloadI myself found further picture book inspiration at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native American Arts.  Surprisingly, it was not the display of wonderful contemporary books but the reissue of a 1942 classic that wowed me.   The Slim Butte Raccoon (1942), written by Ann Nolan Clark and illustrated by Andrew Standing Soldier, a Lakota tribal member, was one of four “Just for Fun” animal tales.  Its winsome black-and-white drawings of raccoons in rural garb, participating in human events, along with contemporaneous Lakota farmers, illustrate for me what reads as a fable about the dangers of assimilation.  The raccoon hero learns that it is better to be a raccoon than to try to be a human!  Despite Raccoon’s best intentions, misunderstandings and biases remain on both sides, erupting when he takes melons from a field.  Ann Clark’s simple text is powerful and subtly pointed. 

download (1)Yet I realize I am reading this book out of context and without much knowledge about the history of Native American picture books.  I am waiting for my library copy of  Rebecca C. Benes’ Native American Picture Books of Change (2005) and used copies of the other “Just-for Fun” books—about the Pine Ridge Porcupine, the Prairie Mouse, and the Wahpeton Hen—to increase my understanding here as well as provide reading satisfaction. 

513XDroSjGL._SX371_BO1,204,203,200_Meanwhile, as winter holidays approach, I take pleasure in recommending several other New Mexico-related books.  Picture book luminary Tomie De Paola’ s The Night of Las Posadas (1999; 2001), stems from Hispanic tradition as it details a miraculous Christmas pageant taking place just outside of Santa Fe.  Grandma’s Latkes (1996), written by Malka Drucker and illustrated by Eve 616Z1MWAT0L._SY473_BO1,204,203,200_Chwast, is a traditional retelling of the Hanukkah story within a warm-hearted, intimate family setting.  It even contains a recipe for those holiday potato pancakes or “latkes.”  Author Drucker was one of Santa Fe’s rabbis for more than fifteen years.  True Brit—Beatrice 1940 13087981(2011) by Santa Fe author Rosemary Zibart (whom I had the pleasure of meeting last month) is a middle grade novel, illustrated by George Lawrence,  rooted in local as well as global World War II history. 

Happy reading—and happy holidays!



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Holy Lands

956a74a8_original (1)

One Navajo, one Jew: two distinct “holy lands.”

Our recent ten day sojourn in Santa Fe, New Mexico reminded me of how culture and personal vision determine which particular portions of Mother Earth we hold sacred.  Writing from the small adobe house we were renting, I was also struck anew by how these views may clash.

10 06 Pecos kAt Pecos National Monument, only ruins remain of the large pueblo that once housed 2000 people, traders as well as foragers, farmers, and hunters.  These ruins include kivas, the circular and ancient Indian underground sites for religious ceremonies.  From the 16th century onward, invading Spanish soldiers—accompanied by proselytizing Catholic priests—did not care that this land was worshipped by generations of pueblo dwellers as well as the hogan-dwelling Navajo.  (The nearby “Four Corners” region, the intersection of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, remains the site centrally sacred to the Navajo.)  Spain and its priests tore and twisted these ancient, sacred bonds—a rupture bitterly epitomized for me by one fact, repeated in local museum exhibits: Pueblo dwellers froze one winter for lack of firewood, while Catholic missionaries forced them to craft 600 wooden crosses. 

imagesEven as I reread Willa Cather’s achingly beautiful Death Comes for the Archibishop, with its depiction of the powerful faith and dedication of its central characters’ 19th century real-life inspirations, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Bishop Joseph P. Marchebeauf, I could not forget the suffering inflicted by their proselytizing predecessors—cruelties that led Native peoples across the Southwest, in 1680 C.E., to rebel violently.  Even as I visited the cathedral Archibishop Lamy built, where colorful Penitente-style Stations of the Cross and a statue 10 05 sf kof Saint Kateria Tekawitha remind us how some Native peoples adopted and have upheld strong Christian beliefs, other Santa Fe sights and sounds counterbalanced that perspective.  On Indigenous Peoples Day (formerly Columbus Day), Santa Fe’s central plaza was filled with tribal leaders, dancers, and drummers—with prayers spoken, danced, and drummed for ancient, non-Christian gods.  Many local crafts also testified to those ancestral beliefs and traditions.


10 09 Indig Peoples Day c

As a Jew, I cannot escape the parallels here with modern Israel: the ways in which jerusalemthe Jewish state has taken and continues to usurp lands once owned by Palestinians.  Reclaiming its “holy land”—holy according to Judaism’s sacred books—Israel has exiled some Palestinians and shunts others into restricted areas even more tightly guarded than the “Indian reservations” of the U.S. old Wild West.  It is this volatile, toxic situation that today breeds suicide bombers and hair-trigger Israeli army guards, and brings weapons instead of worship to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which is also sacred to Muslims.   

510iAbLLsHL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I am not alone in seeing these painful parallels between Israeli policies and the brutal, ethnocentric colonization of North America.  One notable commentary about this is Michael Chabon’s award-winning novel The Yiddish Policman’s Union (2007).  This speculative work is set in an alternate-history Alaska, where a Jewish state sanctioned by the U.S. government has displaced the Native Tinglit from their ancestral lands.  While the novel’s narrator, a Jewish detective, is able to solve its central murder mystery, with Biblical prophecies about Israel revealed to be part of the plot, the underlying tensions among Jews, Tinglits, and the powers-that-be remain unresolved.  At the novel’s end, as the Jews’ 60 year-long mandate in Alaska is set to expire, readers are left to wonder whether another diaspora, more armed conflict, or both will occur.  As in today’s real-life Israel, there are a plethora of possible outcomes to consider and negotiate—none of them easy or wholly satisfactory.

Can one’s personal vision transcend such earthly divisions and conflicts, reflecting an appreciation of Mother Earth’s sanctity not linked to any religion or culture?  Does one have to have ancestral connections to land to find it holy?  Our visits last images (1)month to Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keefe Museum and to this artist’s former studio-home in nearby Abiquiu provided life-affirming, humanist answers.  We saw in intimate detail how this Wisconsin native, who also had found inspiration in city canyons, adopted New Mexico’s austere desert landscapes as her ultimate spiritual home.  O’Keefe’s secular art works are paeans of praise as sincere as any prayers. 

Yet this genius of abstract art was privileged by more than talent.  She had the wealth she and her husband, world-renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz, had earned to secure her isolated comfort and privacy, purchasing and renovating a large adobe homestead.  And that comfort, though simple in lifestyle, was maintained throughout O’Keefe’s long life in New Mexico through the willing labor of her Pueblo neighbors and companions.  They, on the other hand, had and still keep control of their property only according to rigid, centuries-old Spanish land grants.  Ironically, as I learned on our tour, those documents require non-blood relatives to vacate their home if a lineal descendent no longer lives there.  Family feeling and history are not, according to New Mexico law, bonds holy enough to secure those plots of Mother Earth.

crane-petroglyph-josh-ewing-1920x1080_wide-f4117ba36b6977379cab7e1a004619232a6ac7ed-s2500-c85 (1)Nor is such legislated cruelty or the desecration of sacred sites confined to outdated laws or past events.  The looming crisis at Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, which contains burial and archeological sites sacred to the Navajo and other tribes, is just one example.  As recently as last month, President Trump threatened to remove  Bears Ears from the list of official national monuments, land protected by law from purchase and development.  Tribal leaders are prepared to fight such a decision in court and through on-site demonstrations as well.  They will agitate and demonstrate much as displaced Palestinians have in the past, when peaceful resolutions to such conflicts were still probable outcomes.  Of course, as seen on current newscasts, the possibility of violence at U.S. demonstrations is becoming a new “normal.”  U.S. citizens need to keep our own Native American challenges in mind, averting and mending wrongs, even as we question Israel’s policies on land use and access. 

61nvAR96seL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I am ruefully aware, though, that I reflect here as the privileged past   tenant of an unencumbered, “Airbnb” adobe house, luxurious by many standards.  I and my husband were tourists in this land holy to some people and underdeveloped according to others.  Similarly, as a diaspora Jew I do not live with the daily struggles and stresses of life in Israel, with the different challenges inhabitants face.  That in fact is one criticism that some Israelis have levelled at a new anthology I find moving and insightful about Israel’s largest internal conflict: Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation (2017).  Its editors, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, include Palestinian authors among other international voices, inviting first-hand accounts of sacrilege as well as the sacred.  Unfortunately, these experiences seem twinned, regardless of which holy land one venerates or visits.  Conflict continues to profane our better instincts and the beauty, if not the sanctity, of Mother Earth. 

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Korean Tales

40937628-Map-of-Location-of-Korea-and-Flags-Stock-VectorNorth Korea remains forefront in U.S. news, as both countries’ boastful, ambitious leaders toy childishly with nuclear threats.  We here in the U.S. can only hope and work within our political system to avert such disaster.  Novels such as Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son [2012] confirm how our freedom to protest still contrasts vividly with the brutal silences imposed in North Korea.  But that all-prose masterpiece is written with adult and possibly older teen readers in mind.  Which works—in particular, graphic works—aimed at younger audiences bring deeper understanding of North and South Korea, their culture and people, while at the same time offering reading pleasure?  Which works show that—regardless of politics or frightening headlines—Koreans and folks in the U.S. are more alike than different?  This feels like an apt moment to spotlight a delightful, brand-new graphic novel and to revisit an acclaimed, sometimes controversial graphic novel series.

51avYkrw60L._SX398_BO1,204,203,200_Where’s Halmoni? (2017)  is the first book that artist Julie Kim has authored as well as illustrated.  It charmingly brings to life the Korean folk tales her immigrant parents carried with them to the United States.  Its clever, vivid storytelling deftly combines words with images in whimsical as well as dramatic ways, as Kim depicts the fantastic adventures of two Korean-American children visiting their grandmother, their “Halmoni,” in her home.  I think Kim is too modest in her blog, writing that she “thrives on telling little stories with lots of big pictures.”  This graphic story book will satisfy readers of all ages, even though it is clear that youngsters ages 5 through 9, the apparent age of characters Joon and Noona, are its target audience.

webLandscapeLooking for Halmoni, whose aromatic red bean soup they smell but who is also mysteriously absent, this brother and sister pass through a marvelous doorway into a magical world—one where the landscapes echo those of traditional Asian art and creatures from Korean folklore. Careful readers will find additional pleasure in observing that these landscapes and creatures—including goblins, a tiger, and a fox—also harken back to Halmoni’s household decorations.  This is just one way that Kim’s full-color illustrations silently enhance her storytelling.  Others include her figures’ expressive body language and boldly drawn facial expressions, including the eye-to-eye glares Joon exchanges with that mythological tiger.  The book’s wordless double page spreads also  communicate moods ranging from tranquil mystery to energetic conflict, while  telling close-ups emphasize key moments in Joon and Noona’s adventures.  They encounter Korea’s legendary, very hungry rabbit, pacify friendly goblins with the remaining snacks in Joon’s backpack, and defeat that fierce tiger by winning a game of “rock, paper, and scissor”!  When the tiger proves to be a poor loser, the sly fox comes to their rescue. 


Readers will be intrigued by Kim’s smartly unconventional choices in presenting dialogue.  While Joon and Noona speak English, the creatures they meet speak Korean, written here in the Hangul characters used in Korea.  It is fun figuring out what is being said during these clearly-illustrated, well-paced encounters!  We can double check just how spot-on our translations were by referring to the “What did they say?” page that follows the story’s satisfying conclusion, when the children are back in Halmoni’s home, being served some of her delicious soup.  On the next page, Kim explains the origins of her creatures in Korean folklore, adapted here to reflect her own vison as a Korean American artist. This delightful book does not end here, though.  Not mentioned by any early reviewers, Kim includes an almost wordless bonus feature on its interior covers.  Front and back, they show Halmoni installing and using that magical door into wide-ranging fantasy land.  Perhaps that is one answer to the question, “Where’s Halmoni?”

Teens on up will gain further insight into experiences U.S. readers and Koreans share—along with some of our cultural differences—when they read an award-winning graphic novel trilogy by author/illustrator Kim Dong Hwa. I first reviewed this South Korean’s Colors trilogy (The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven [1992; 2009]) here in 2013.  Its first volume was singled out as one of YALSA’s Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens and one of Booklist’s Top Ten Graphic Colors by Kim Dong HwaNovels for Youth. Its author has explained that his lifelong fascination with how girls transform into women, his mother’s own life, and the high value Koreans place on mother-daughter relationships inspired him to create this series.  It is set in rural, 20th century Korea, but its insightful depictions of how a hard-working, widowed mother and her daughter interact—as well as how both boys and girls handle the physical changes of adolescence—are relevant and dramatically effective today.  Unfortunately, this trilogy also received some notoriety—unjustifiably, I believe—in 2011 as the second most frequently challenged book for young readers in the United States!  It is sex that drew the ire of its critics.

colorTri_01As I have noted, the close, loving relationship between Ehwa and her mother, who runs a tavern to support them, is depicted in acute, sensitive detail, as is village life in general. The psychological development of Ehwa and her playmates, ages seven to thirteen in The Color of Earth, is also handled deftly.  Believable situations lead them from discovering the physical differences between girls and boys, to first menstruation and wet dreams, onward to first innocent “crushes” and the realization that adults experience such emotions, too.  In The Color of Water, Him Dong Hwa includes teen masturbation and adult sexuality.  In The Color of Heaven, he further develops his life cycle approach towards emotional and physical development by depicting 17 year old Ehwa’s wedding night and the sexuality of village elders, whose bodies sometimes fail to “rise” to their desires.

Colors by Kim Dong HwaThroughout the trilogy, Kim uses symbols in words and images to represent sexual feelings and emotions.  Randy men are beetles, children becoming adolescents resemble new butterflies, while specific emotions and people are associated with individual kinds of flowers.  These connections, often rooted in Korean folklore, are noted by asterisks in the text, with brief, helpful explanations then given at the bottom of the page.  Kim conveys the joy of Ehwa and her husband Duksum through images of waves, clouds, and bright sunshine as well as partial glimpses of their nude bodies. 

color-earth-05Throughout these books, Kim uses a range of black-and-white line drawings to show village settings and outdoor scenes in skillful, realistic detail.  One’s eye lingers on the page to absorb their intricate, satisfying patterns, textures, and details.  Yet at other times this veteran illustrator employs some non-realistic visual conventions—such as “cat tongues” on the faces of mischievous kids and “stitched” mouths on the faces of embarrassed characters—typical of both manhwa (Korean comics) and manga (Japanese comics).  (Unlike manga, Korean comics are published and read “Western style”—front-to-back and left-to-right.)  Kim also varies panel and image size to great effect, using double-page and one-and-a-half page spreads for dramatic emphasis. 

I agree with this Korean author/illustrator who, in an interview said that, while some “Korean . . .  cultural background from the book will be unfamiliar and exotic . . . Americans are equipped with sufficient knowledge and willingness to learn.  In kingsejongaddition, no matter where and when a life takes place, there are similar things happening all over the world.”   Besides your local library, bookstore and schools, the web offers many resources to acquire more knowledge about Korea.  One current opportunity offers interactive challenge and fun for the young people in your life.  The Sejong Cultural Society, based in Chicago and since 2004 dedicated to advancing awareness of Korean culture, sponsors an annual writing competition based on its on-line folktales or novel.  The deadline for current submissions is February 28, 2018!   Let’s engage in such peaceful connections, even if our current leaders insist on foolishly hawking issues and differences that threaten war.



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Hurricane Times

images (3)Cartoonists around the globe responded swiftly to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  Some artists focused on the political or scientific conflicts that swirled around these storms, while others focused on the disasters’ human dimensions.  Now Maria has entered the fray.  I am certain that these hurricanes will in time inspire longer graphic works, but this seems an unfortunately apt moment to look back as well as ahead, revisiting a graphic novel and a comic book written in response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. It too was a brutal category 5 force storm.  First discussed in my December, 2013 blog post, these works yield relevant insight into this past month’s devastation and what hurricane survivors may experience in the months ahead.   So today I am reproducing part of that earlier post,  originally titled “Weathering the Storm.”  Readers tween and up will be most absorbed by the details and language in the following works.  They will also best appreciate the web-based sequel to one book I discovered while writing today.

61+Cofw2lDL._SY498_BO1,204,203,200_Artist/illustrator Josh Neufeld began A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (2009)    after serving as a Red Cross volunteer with victims of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.  In his Introduction and Afterword to this non-fiction book, Neufeld provides statistics about the impact of the devastating storm.  He explains how he chose to “tell the story from the perspective of a range of real people . . .” as well as describing “certain key experiences” about “evacuating the city, facing the flooding, being trapped in the Superdome or Convention Center, and losing all your possessions.”   Neufeld interviewed and kept in touch with seven adults who had lived through Katrina, vividly recreating their different personalities and experiences before, during, and after the storm.  An underemployed Black counselor living with her extended, female family; a White, ‘Yuppie’ husband and wife; an Iranian-born shopkeeper and his Black, working-class buddy; a middle-class Black teenager, son of a pastor; an upper-class, gay White doctor: these are the real people whose lives Neufeld dramatically captures, the “beating hearts and souls of A.D.,” to whom he dedicates this book.


We come to know and care about these people through Neufeld’s sharp, skillful renditions of their words, deeds, and emotions.   A.D. opens with a section about “The Storm” itself, zooming in from outer space with boldly-drawn, then    finely-detailed views of New Orleans.  We see Katrina’s dramatic impact on the cityscape, sometimes in powerful double spread images, before we ever meet its citizens.  But how quickly we ADimage1 (1)come to know them!  Abbas and Darnell’s initial, cheerful determination that they can ‘wait out’ the storm is captured in their sparkling fist-bump, Darnell saying “Bro, we are all set.  It’s gonna be just like ‘Survivor’!” Yet too soon we see in dramatic double spread images how shaken they and others are by Katrina’s incredible devastation.  In the center of one dark-grounded double page, Darnell and Abbas are shown in chest-high muddy water, imagining lighter-colored snakes and alligators swirling around them.  A few pages on, the real danger of mosquitos to them is suggested by another, atypically humorous double spread, with one page’s tiny “G’night” ironically facing the other’s image of a giant, buzzing mosquito.  The next morning, the men are covered in bites.


Neufeld uses double spreads more often to convey painful realizations and realities.  He depicts from an overhead, distant perspective the horde of homeless victims waiting to shelter in the city’s Convention Center.  In close-up, Neufeld later shows the anguished faces of these people, with their escalating, rumor-fueled fears captured in three word balloons widely-separated across the pages:  “There ain’t gonna be no buses comin’!”  “They gonna open the floodgates and drown us!”  “THEY BROUGHT US HERE TO DIE!”   The two-tone contrast used throughout A.D. heightens the impact of such scenes.  (The reason for shifting from one color combo to another, though, is not clear.)   In smaller panels, color contrast also conveys Denise’s silent, bleak anger as her extended family is turned away from its promised shelter. Her articulate bitterness bursts out later, during Katrina’s immediate aftermath, in a word balloon superimposed over a desolated neighborhood, when she remarks, “This isn’t my life.  This is the life of someone I wouldn’t even want to shake hands with.”  Neufeld then shows us Denise herself, her hand covering a probably tear-filled face, as she goes on to say, “I think a big part of me was swept away in that hurricane.”

A.D.’s concluding section, titled “The Return,” updates readers about its protagonists and New Orleans’ efforts at recovery through 2008.  That remains a mixed success.  As Denise, now successfully employed full-time notes, “I am home.  But it’s not over.”  A large panel depicting the FEMA trailers that were supposed to be temporary shelters contains Denise’s final remark: “We’re not all home yet.”   That is the last, powerful image in Neufeld’s book.  Yet he and his seven protagonists have remained in touch; A.D’s Afterward describes some of their activities through 2010.

There are even more recent updates.  In blog posts, New Yorker Neufeld describes how—after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy blasted the Northeast—some of the seven contacted him to see how he had weathered that storm.       Neufeld himself was active in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, some focused on book collections, with projects extending into November, 2013 For the 10th anniversary of Katrina, in 2015, Neufeld also interviewed six of the seven A.D. survivors he had profiled for a web-based graphic feature article.   In it, they discuss their lives during the past decade and their views about New Orleans’ future.  Readers will appreciate this finely-crafted update, as well as how Neufeld depicts the physical changes an added ten years have brought to these folks!  I also found Neufeld’s own September, 2017 blog post   detailing similarities he sees between current hurricane news items and A.D. sadly fascinating.

51pzi7GylmL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Another graphic work springing from Hurricane Katrina further shows how monumental storms bring out both the best and worst in people.  Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story (2010), written by Mat Johnson and drawn by Simon Gane, with Lee Loughbridge providing grey tones and color and Pat Brosseau the lettering, is a well-done fictional crime caper.  Its central plot is a bank heist made possible by the chaos Katrina causes.  The book’s events include episodes of violence—with dramatically lettered sound effects such as “BANG,” CREEACK,” “BRAKA BRAKA,” and “BOOM”—typical in action-packed comic books.  Similarly, its ex-con hero and its villains—a brutal mercenary soldier named Colonel Driggs and a self-satisfied, snobbish bank manager—are familiar types we have met before.  (Ex-con Dabny, the book’s hero, has only broken the law once before, to raise money for his young daughter.  This former customs inspector gets involved in the heist when an old cellmate asks for a ride.)    Yet the fast-paced action, expressive drawing, shifts between wide and close-shot images, and dramatic use of a limited, dark color palette elevate Dark Rain beyond a typical crime comic.  It tells its tale so very well.  Sophisticated readers may anticipate much of its outcome, including Dabny’s romance with a strong-willed woman he rescues and his reunion with his daughter, but seeing how the story lines develop and how characters cope with Katrina’s dangers and difficulties hold our attention enjoyably.

DRGNK.HC #1.final.qxpNearly half of Dark Rain’s focus is on the hurricane’s impact on its protagonists and the ordinary citizens of New Orleans and neighboring communities.  Some of these communities welcome refugees, while others turn them away.  Poor, Black citizens of New Orleans, already an underclass in ‘the Big Easy,’ fare worst in the days following the storm.  Yet Johnson and Gane also show how some characters defy stereotypes and expectations.  Young gang members help the ill and elderly suffering outside the Superdome, even as their gang clothing and rough appearance cause more conventional citizens to fear them.  Katrina’s ‘dark rain’ is brightened by the goodness of some people, even while it foils some of the worst aims of Colonel Driggs and his mercenary force, itself ironically named “Dark Rain Security.”

Dark Rain interior page

One character in Dark Rain remarks about a wrecked neighborhood, “It ain’t right.”  Dabny replies, “Not a matter of right or wrong.  It’s a hurricane.  It’s a flood.  It’s not a question of right or wrong, it just is.”  Yet Dabny’s view of natural disasters—a view many nowadays, including most scientists, share—has not always been the dominant one.  Cultures world-wide have created myths or used religion to explain the occurrence of torrential rains and floods.

Clashing views about the origin and solutions to natural disasters continue today, in 2017, with at least one cartoon about Hurricane Harvey already drawing controversyDoes Default-ImageSmall_12one wait for rescue by heavenly messengers or pitch in and help one’s neighbors?   In the weeks and months ahead, people’s patience and goodness—and government leaders’ savvy and sincerity—will undoubtedly continue to be tested in these matters.   Relief for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has been dangerously slow and frustrating.  These are tests we can ill afford to fail, particularly as other political disasters loom with growing, frightening frequency.  Unfortunately, it seems that diplomatic wisdom remains in shorter supply right now than political trumpery.





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