In School or At Home–Go Graphic!

As this new school year begins so uncertainly, with COVID-19 affecting where and how youngsters learn their official lessons, I have a new resource to recommend.  Ivan Brunetti’s Comics: Easy as ABC! The Essential Guide to Comics for Kids (2019) will delight and instruct young readers regardless of location, working equally well in school or at home.  That flexibility is spotlighted in the coda to this graphic work’s subtitle: For kids, parents, teachers, and librarians!   Veteran author/illustrator Brunetti’s guide has already won the prestigious  Eisner Award for 2020’s Best Publication for Early Readers.  It was also numbered among Booklist’s Top 10 Art Books for Youth in 2019. 

Yet Comics: Easy as ABC! is not just for young artists already comfortable and confident in their abilities.  Beginning with “Doodles” and “Basic Shapes,” Brunetti assures readers that “There is no one right way to draw—the fun is finding your own way of drawing.”  Fun is a key element in this book.  Its illustrations are playful, and its comments wryly funny.  Bits of advice come not just from Brunetti but from a host of other successful comics creators: these include Roz Chast, Neil Gaiman, Kevin McClosky, Jeff Smith, James Sturm, and Chris Ware.   Sometimes they good-naturedly poke fun at themselves and each other.  I particularly enjoyed Chris Ware’s “Pro-tip #66: Get a PILLOW!” with its illustration showing a big-headed Ivan Brunetti at his drawing board, sitting on a tiny pillow!  Some elementary-age readers will get the joke here, while the youngest users of Guide may casually skip over it, focused more on Brunetti’s brisk directions and many opportunities for step-by-step drawing practice.

In this way, Comics: Easy as ABC! is versatile in the range of young people it informs and entertains.  K/1 grade kids will find it worthwhile, with its “show ‘n tell” sections on balloons and lettering and on pages and panels, while more skilled readers may move into more advanced sections such as “Point of View,” “Short Strips” and “Find Your Voice.”  “Comics Language”—identifying the “lines, bursts, and squiggles that indicate emotion or heat”—will help budding cartoonists according to their skills.  This combination of flexibility with specificity fits into the targeted approach publisher Toon Books takes in all its publications, with Level 1 books aimed at K/1 readers, Level 2 aimed at grades 1 and 2, Level 3 at grades 2 and 3, and Toon Graphics—the imprint of Comics: Easy as ABC!—officially targeting grades 3 to 6. 

I am generally not a fan of such targeting, as I fear it may limit youngsters’ opportunities, but the high quality of Toon Books’ verbal and visual storytelling is remarkable.  I am a fan of this publisher. (In past posts here, I have reviewed its Level 1 Birdsong and the Level 3 Written and Drawn by Henrietta, as well as the Toon Graphics Hansel and Gretel.)  I find it admirable that Toon Books is so acutely aware of stages in child development and reading, yet produces works which are rich enough to offer inflection points into other stages—in either direction.    For instance, while Brunetti at his Guide’s beginning suggests readers take hold of their pens to begin drawing, I can imagine youngsters at home or in school scrambling for well-used crayons instead. 

Adults in either setting will appreciate the Guide’s concluding pages, addressed to “Parents, Teachers, Librarians,” which demonstrate “How to Read Comics with Kids.”  Once again, although Toon Graphics books ostensibly target grades 3 to 6, this helpful section begins with advice suited to pre or emerging readers, with such illustrated suggestions as “Keep your fingertip under the character who is speaking.”  Teachers and librarians also may find the core curriculum- aligned guide to Comics: Easy as ABC! (downloadable here) helpful.  And youngsters themselves along with the adults supervising them  will appreciate the “Further Resources” as well as “Selected Bibliography” showcased on this book’s last page.   There are some free on-line resources for both younger and older kids included there.  I expect those will be of particular value for in-home learners.

As for me, I continue to be an “all-ages” consumer of graphic works.  I am looking forward to my just requested library copies of Ivan Brunetti’s Level One Toon books, Word Play (2017) and 3 x 4 (2018).  Writing this review, I realized the wealth of that publisher’s books I have yet to explore.  One new work in its Graphics imprint debuts in just a few weeks: Black Heroes of the Wild West (2020), written by James Otis Smith and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  I recognize the name of only one of the three heroes featured on its cover and am now eager to see that work, too. 


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Lifting Spirits

depressed figuresPandemic dangers and safety limits . . . uncertainties about the shape of the upcoming school year—it remains hard to be upbeat when these woes press us down.  Low spirits, of course, affect kids as well as adults.  Two recent picture books remind us how family and home can inspire us, lifting spirits when daily annoyances loom large,  as well as when disaster strikes.  Young readers with siblings will especially appreciate these books, though their similar “messages” and strong visuals will appeal to readers of all ages, even ones (like me) who do not have brothers or sisters.

LiftLift (2020), written by the award-winning team of author Minh Le and illustrator Dan Santat, employs tender humor to depict its sister-brother relationship.  Fans of their earlier picture book Drawn Together (2018, reviewed by me here) will not be surprised at how smoothly Santat’s full-color illustrations move the story line along.  In fact, many of its scenes and pages are entirely wordless.  We see Iris, the early elementary-aged narrator, delight in pressing the elevator button in her apartment building and then observe her frustration when her toddler brother discovers this button!  This is just one of the ways in which his impulsive joys and terrors affect her daily life.  Cartoonish facial features, through Santat’s slyly funny exaggeration, add “punch” to characters’ emotional reactions throughout the book.  These insightfully detailed everyday scenes soon merge with Lift’s charming fantasy elements.

lift outer spacePressing the button of a discarded elevator keypad she finds, then opening a closet door, Iris enters the worlds of her dreams—or, as she wishes, “anywhere but here.”  We observe her in a fantastic, tiger-inhabited jungle and later in outer space.  Close-ups and several double-page spreads convey her surprise and joy in these amazing situations.  I particularly appreciated the shifts in perspective in some outer space panels, capturing the vertiginous nature of gravity-free floating.  Of course, her brother’s needs and wants soon interrupt these pleasures.  How Iris comes to realize that sharing her imaginative adventures with him can enhance these experiences becomes another kind of journey here.

lift last imageHas Iris found a literal portal into other worlds, a nod to such classic chapter books as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, with its magical wardrobe, or is she imagining these journeys?  Is there a connection here between the ragged stuffed toy tiger her brother carries or with the solar system mobile in her room?  The drifting snowflakes at Lift’s end, harkening back to her brother’s favorite snow-filled picture book, leave both possibilities open.  Regardless, young readers may enjoy seeing and hearing Santat and Le read this book aloud at minute four of a 50 minute-long  online interview with them.  The rest of the interview focuses on their creative process, individually and together.

The Shared Room coverWhile Lift deals with everyday frustrations and annoyances, The Shared Room (2020) deals with disaster.  It has a much different, more somber tone than Lift.  Author Kao Kalia Yang and illustrator Xee Reiter depict the lingering, emotionally devastating  aftermath of a young girl’s accidental drowning.  How her two elementary school-aged brothers, her younger sister, and their parents cope with this loss—moving from silence to shared remembrances, from denial to acceptance—is the heart of this touching volume.  Their family photographs and videos provide the path that finally draws them onward.  Their home itself is also part of this path.  When one  brother finally moves into what had been the dead girl’s room, having it become a “shared room,” filled with good as well as now sad memories, it is the culmination of that long emotional journey.  Such journeys in these pandemic days may be all too familiar to some readers.

Shared room interiorReiter effectively shifts between close-ups and long-distance views, as we follow this story, which begins in summertime tragedy but emotionally concludes during a bleak Minnesota winter.  Her close-up, full-page head shots of the lost sister, seen here brightly smiling, and later of her grieving brother are particularly moving.  Reiter’s illustrations parallel Yang’s perceptive observations about the impact and changing nature of grief.  The book’s final image, with the family silhouetted against a glowing fireplace, family photos placed on and above its mantelpiece, captures Yang’s eloquently simple conclusion about the feelings the parents and children now share: “[T]hey are keeping each other warm, their little girl’s memory like the fire before them, a melt in the freeze of their hearts.”

I recently wrote about Yang’s acute take on another loss, the death of a neighbor from old age, in this review of A Map into the World (2019).  I recommend that gentle picture book, illustrated by  Seo Kim, to you.  Both A Map into the World and The Shared Room specify the Hmong heritage of their characters, while Lift’s characters are of non-specified Asian-American heritage. 

Beekle coverHaving enjoyed two books illustrated by Thai-American Dan Santat, I was happy while blogging here to catch up with his Caldecott award-winning picture book, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (2014).  As you will see either when holding this book in your hands or observing Santat reading it online hereBeekle is another spirit-lifter.  It is noteworthy that Santat wrote as well as illustrated this beguiling story about youngsters and first friendships.  This October I am looking forward to reading Kao most beautiful thing coverKalia Yang’s upcoming, autobiographical picture book The Most Beautiful Thing, illustrated by Khoa Le.  And, while I do not know the overall tone of her other forthcoming picture book, Yang Warriors,  I am happier just knowing it is scheduled for Spring, 2021.  Meanwhile, I intend to keep my eye out for the small, immediate joys that can offset the bigger uncertainties we now face.   





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Laws and Orders

Justice for George FloydThe death here in Minnesota of George Floyd has sparked world-wide protests against police brutality and racism, with people demanding new laws and orders to protect every person’s civil rights.  History has shown that “law and order” political leaders such as President Trump at best too often have limited understanding of the injustices perpetrated under the guise of law.  Today I look at two graphic works that spotlight such injustices—bittersweetly showing both how far U.S. laws have come in righting wrongs and how much further such laws have yet to go.  Young readers late elementary age on up may find the historical perspectives here on civil rights and wrongs of particular benefit, putting today’s protests and related violence in fuller context.  These powerful books examine not only specific laws and legal orders but the attitudes about these rulings—what President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 described as “the fabric of our nation.”

Lewis 1Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act that year is recounted near the end of March, Book Three (2016), the concluding volume in the graphic autobiography of U.S. Representative John Lewis.   As a young man, Lewis actively participated in the 1960s civil rights movement, often in leadership roles, and since 1987 has represented Georgia’s Fifth District in the U.S. Congress.  The longtime African-American activist collaborated with writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell on this award-winning trilogy, (begun with March, Book One [2013] and including March, Book Two [2015]).  I have discussed the first two books in depth in previous blog posts.  Volume Three continues to portray the charged events in Lewis’ life through remarkable grey-toned, black and white images which complement and extend the verbal account. 

March 3 parentsOften, wordless panels or pages convey the emotions of those opposed to civil rights for African-Americans as well as those struggling for them.  In Book Three’s prologue, such wordless pages also capture the pain and horror of the parents of the four young Black girls slain in in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church.  Their emotions are juxtaposed with the cruel excitement later that same day of murderous white teenagers and of the terrorizing white police officer who traced and killed a Black teen.    The officer was never indicted. 

The graphic format is particularly effective in demonstrating how, even after laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are finally passed, such individual and social prejudice often harmfully continue. Such March arrestattitudes impede legal reforms of institutional racism.  It is this reality, along with the differences of opinion within the civil rights movement itself, which I believe will provide particularly valuable insights for readers seeking context for current protests and reactions to protest.  Those who feel overwhelmed by the ongoing nature of racism—institutional as well as personal—may be heartened by Representative Lewis’ assessment of today’s civil rights protests.  Comparing these to the 1960s movement, he has said elsewhere, “This feels and looks so different.  It is so much more massive and all-inclusive. . . . [with] people from all over the world taking to the streets . . . to speak up, to speak out . . . . It’s another step down the very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”

March trilogyAs with the other two volumes, March Book Three bookends Representative Lewis’ account with the ground-breaking inauguration of African-American President Barak Obama.  March, Book Three may be read on its own (and has indeed garnered separate awards, including the prestigious National Book Award for Young People’s Literature), yet if younger readers are up for only one volume of the trilogy, I would suggest Book One.  The account there of Lewis’ boyhood will appeal to youngsters in ways that Book Three’s enumerating civil rights activists and opponents may not.

They called usThe ways in which U.S. laws and orders have unjustly denied rights to other minority groups, again institutionalizing racism, is key to another powerful graphic autobiography: George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy (2019).  It focuses upon how, after Japan’s December, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II, Japanese-Americans’ lives changed drastically.  Presidential Order 9066, issued in February, 1942, had Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese swiftly isolated as “enemy suspects,” removed from their homes, and interned in bleak, often faraway guarded camps.  More than 110,000 people were uprooted and imprisoned in this way, merely because of their racial heritage.  Then 4-year old George Takei’s family was among them.

soldiers arrestCo-written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker, this award-winning book was first newsworthy because of adult George Takei’s prominence in popular culture.  As every Star Trek fan knows, this actor played Lieutenant (later Captain) Hikaru Sulu in that 1960s TV series and its movie offshoots!  Takei has also been prominent as an activist for gay rights.  Yet They Called Us Enemy stands fully on its own merit as a powerful work.  (Similarly, the musical play Takei helped create in 2008 about his family’s WW II experiences, Allegiance, in which Takei also appeared, won accolades before its Broadway run was cut short.)

enemy communityMost of this 200-page autobiography recounts the experiences of young George Takei during the four years he and his family spent in two internment camps. Readers will appreciate the grey-toned, black-and-white drawings depicting not only the terrible uncertainties of forced relocations but also the ways in which Japanese-American families pulled together to establish supportive communities within the harsh internment camps.   There were childish hopes and pranks (including one about a live “dinosaur” that turned out to be a pig), along with family love and pride.  These temporarily offset the unfair, bewildering regulations and casual cruelties of some guards and neighboring ranchers.   

enemy pigWe see most of these events through young George’s eyes.  Yet as adult George looks back at those years, he also notes the consistent kindness shown by some people outside the camps, who risked arrest to bring books and other aid to the imprisoned Japanese-Americans.  Illustrator Becker’s consistent use of a style typical in Japanese manga (comics) —for instance, exaggerated mouths and eyes to convey strong emotions—unites the viewpoints of child and adult George.  This doubled perspective is important to our understanding both of the strength shown by Takei’s parents and the bigotry Japanese-Americans continued to face after the war, when they were released from the camps.  Close-ups juxtaposed with medium and long-distance panels maximize the emotional “punch” of the incidents recounted here.   

Enemy fatherThey Called Us Enemy also includes relevant events in adult George’s life.  We see his work as an actor involved with civil rights issues, which led to a memorable backstage meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, and how Takei always strove to take roles—such as Sulu on Star Trek—which were not just stereotypes.  Takei also shows how court decisions about the World War II internment remained important to him and his family.  Not until 1988 did the U.S. government offer an official apology and attempt restitution for Presidential Order 9066 and its subsequent, hurtful wartime rulings.


Citizen 13660Wondering what to read as follow-ups here?  The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has some suggestions.   I also recently learned about Citizen 13660, a graphic memoir created by Japanese-American artist Mine Okubo about her World War II internment.  It was first published in 1946!  I am looking forward to having a copy of this work’s 2014 reissue in my hands later this month.  (This memoir as described may be appreciated best by readers teen on up.  Readers of all ages, though, will be interested in images from Citizen 13660, online in the Mine Okubo Collection hosted by the National Japanese American Museum.) 

RunIt will be a longer wait for an announced sequel to the autobiographical March trilogy.  Titled Run, this graphic work first scheduled for 2108 publication has been delayed again until September, 2023.  Representative Lewis and Andrew Aydin are Run’s authors, but its illustrator is comics award-winner Afua Richardson, with input from March illustrator Nate Powell.  I just hope that Representative Lewis’s health permits him to continue with this multi-book project.  Meanwhile, daily and weekly news about current protests for civil rights—and the possible changes they may bring to U.S. laws and local government orders—is full of articles and opinion pieces for eager, concerned readers.    



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Outdoor Art with Heart

6082845_040620-kgo-chalkwalk-redo-2-img_Image_00-00-29,04Heartfelt messages to neighbors and neighborhood heroes have brightened many of today’s pandemic city views.  Drawing with chalk, kids have decorated sidewalks, driveways, and even walls with scenes and words to celebrate people and events such as birthdays and graduations.  Before COVID-19, these occasions would have sparked parties or other large gatherings.  Nowadays, outdoor art with heart is one way kids and families are marking these milestone events.   

But outdoor art is not new!  Today I spotlight three picture books that show it as a typical part of childhood for many kids.  One book is a current award-winner I was happy to reread, while another is a biography of a prominent outdoor artist who encouraged and worked with young chalk artists.  There are also works adding perspectives on outdoor art that will interest teen and older readers.  I note one of these possible resources. 

ThomsonBill Thomson’s wordless picture book Chalk (2010; 2012) is a joyful ode to imagination.  His realistic, hand-painted acrylic images show us  three kids as they walk through a rain-splattered playground, discovering a bag of chalk.  Magically, the images eagerly created by this diverse bunch come to life!  That is fine for the host of butterflies one girl draws, but next one of her pals draws a picture of the playground equipment’s large green dinosaur. . . .  There is suspenseful action as Thomson provides a humorous, plot-driven solution to the looming disaster.  Angled views, shifting perspectives, and inserted close-ups advance the book’s well-paced story line.  Chalk, available in hard copy and e-book formats, may also be viewed online here.   Readers can now also enjoy the online video Thomson recently made on COVID-19’s “Draw with Chalk” Day.  It shows how he uses a driveway’s black background as part of the dinosaur’s head he draws there.      

HaringAcclaimed artist Keith Haring (1958 – 1990) never “outgrew” chalk drawing or other kinds of outdoor art.  The lively picture book biography Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing (2017), written by his sister Kay A. Haring and illustrated by Robert Neubecker, shows how Haring as boy and adult maintained his own interests and chosen methods.  He was enthusiastic and determined even when teachers and others questioned his choices.  Haring’s distinctive, non-realistic style (often called “pop art”) was recognizable on neighborhood and subway walls long before people knew his name—and long before anyone gave him permission to draw on these public sites!  Haring believed art belonged everywhere because it benefited people, drawing communities together.  One of Haring’s communities centered on the fight against AIDS.

The successful Haring also invited kids to work with him on outdoor art projects.  Some of these are shown at the book’s end, where pieces by Haring used within this KeithHaringTheBoyWho_2627-1486589521biography are distinguished from Neubecker’s vibrant, cheerful illustrations.  Haring’s solo and collaborative works with hundreds of kids—including large pieces on walls and buildings—can also be seen online  .  Readers might also enjoy the online video of Kay Haring reading this biography aloud.  The book’s effective refrain—“but he just kept drawing”—is particularly moving when spoken with her sisterly love and pride.

Yang 1Haring’s belief in outdoor art’s ability to connect people and communities is powerfully realized in A Map into the World (2019), written by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrated by Seo Kim.   Its tender story line depicts a year or more in the life of an artistic preschooler.  We see her welcoming new twin brothers, delighting in seasonal changes, and observing the life of the elderly couple who live next door.  When the wife there dies, this preschooler learns about death and grief too.  After a while, the young chalk artist spontaneously sketches a vibrant sidewalk path for her widowed, grieving neighbor.  Depicting the highlight events of her year, she tells the now-reclusive old man that it is “A map into the world.  Just in case you need it.”  Illustrator and author work in wonderful harmony here, as from slightly above the young girl’s head, we see the “teardrops” with which she  begins this path—teardrops that then “splatter like sunshine” outward to the broader neighborhood.

Yang 2A Map into the World is rooted in real life.  In interviews, Yang has explained how it stemmed from her growing family’s experiences in 2015-2016.  Their grieving neighbor, Bob, touched by this heartfelt gesture by Yang’s preschool child, agreed that it would make a fine book.  Yang recalls that “He laughed and cried, saying ‘You’d be making a weed into a flower.’”   A Map into the World, winner of the 2020 Minnesota Book Award for Children’s Literature (among other accolades), connects communities in another way.  It is the first literary picture book to depict the experience of Hmong-Americans. 

kimYang’s decision to use several Hmong words (defined in the book’s front matter) along with Kim’s delicate digital renderings of traditional Hmong garb and foods and a boldly colorful Hmong “story cloth” are further cultural statements and cross-currents.   Story cloths depicting Hmong life and history as refugees are important records within that traditionally oral culture.  (This oral heritage is central to Kang’s non-fiction book for adults, The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father [2016].)   Kim’s decision to use many double spread images here advances the narrative deftly, especially in combination with her judiciously sparse use of close-ups and overhead views. 

Most beautifulHaving “met” Yang’s neighbor through this book and accounts of its publication party, I was saddened to read that he died at age 92, just last month.  Even sadder, though, is Yang’s report that COVID-19 kept her and her family from visiting Bob during his last weeks.  Better news: Yang’s second picture book, The Shared Room (2020), illustrated by Xee Reiter, will debut on June 9 in an online webinar.  It deals with the death of a sibling.  In addition, Kao Kalia Yang has another picture book, The Most Beautiful Thing, illustrated by Khoa Le, scheduled for publication this coming October.  It is non-fiction about her grandmother, being a refugee, and learning Hmong culture.   

art chalkBefore autumn, though, for summer fun you might have time and opportunity to look further into the world of chalk art.  Tweens on up will be dazzled by some of the creations on view in Tracy Lee Sturm’s The Art of Chalk: Techniques and Inspiration for Creating Art with Chalk  (2016).  But if that book is not readily available during the pandemic, there are online histories of sidewalk drawing, including today’s resurgence.  Perhaps you and your young chalk artists will join or are already are part of an  Instagram community devoted to chalk art.  I look forward to the creations there as well as ones in my own neighborhood!






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Asian – American Heroes, Hopes, and Hurts

facesThis is an important time to look at graphic works depicting Asian-American heroes, hopes, and hurts.

The Covid-19 pandemic has spread some virulent ideas along with its deadly virus. Once-common stereotypes and fears about Asian–Americans, in particular Chinese-Americans, have flared since President Trump began invidiously describing this global outbreak as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu.”  These attempts to distance himself from the deadly results of his own lack of leadership have incited physical attacks against Asian-Americans as well as verbal assaults.  (Ignorant bigots often mistakenly assume any Asian-American is of Chinese descent.)  As one Korean – American writer eloquently wrote recently, she now too often hears The slur I never expected to hear in 2020.

So, today I describe some graphic literature by luminary author/illustrator Gene Luen Yang.   In earlier posts, I have discussed his award-winning novel American Born Chinese  (2006),  rooted in his own experiences growing up in California, as American born chinesewell as his set-in-China historical duology, Boxers and Saints (2013).   I have also examined the first two collected volumes of Yang’s visionary comic book series about a young Chinese Superman.  Today, I have the pleasure of overviewing that recently completed series, as well as a brand-new work by Yang, Dragon Hoops, and of describing a forthcoming work by him I highly anticipate.  That volume, Superman Smashes the Klan,  is a collection of his most recent three comic books about America’s Superman, and will be published next month.  I was also delighted to discover, through a recent webinar  featuring Yang and Vietnamese – American author Minh Le,  Le’s brand-new graphic novel about a tween superhero, Vietnamese – American Tai Pham.  Titled Green Lantern Legacy, it is iIlustrated by Malaysian born Andie Tong.  I have so many delightful, worthwhile books to spotlight for you today!

Yang’s adventures of China’s Superman, teenaged Kong Kenan living in today’s Shanghai, are completed in volumes 3 and 4 of this “New Super-Man” series.  These superman3volumes collect issues 13 through 24 of the comic books, illustrated respectively by Billy Tan and Brent Peeples.   New-Superman Volume 3: Equilibrium appeared in 2017, and includes a bonus story written by award-winning Canadian-Japanese Mariko Tamaki, while the fourth volume, New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, appeared in 2019.  In these volumes, Kenan continues to discover his superpowers as he acquires the sometimes painful self-knowledge that comes with young adulthood.  Along with verbal jabs between friends in that Chinese Justice League, there are colorful, dramatic battles with supervillains, some drawn from different Chinese traditions.  Some double spread pages splay out the multiple, simultaneous conflicts of these battles, while canny illustrators use other double spread pages to capture just one dramatic moment. Kong Kenan’s first use of his freezing super-breath is an example of that.  Another is Kenan’s pained acquisition of super hearing, with sounds large and small—depicted in circular “snapshots’–assailing him from all directions.

china leagueThere is humorous, true-to-life sibling snark between some of those Justice League superheroes and their non-superhero sisters, while the budding, sometimes sappy romance between China’s nerdy Batman and its Wonder Woman entertains us even as it exasperates their super-pals!   Chinese mythology also appears in the possible futures facing the Chinese Justice League heroes.  Will Wonder Woman learn to control her anger enough to stop morphing into the gigantic Green Snake of legend?  Will the newest member of this Justice League, a superpowered Aqua man escaped from North Korea, resist the temptation to wreck vengeance as his mythological father’s “Dragonson”?  And, most importantly, will an “enlightened” Kong Kenan drop his recent destructive pursuit of perfection to accept and appreciate this flawed world’s “goodness that is—is so, so good”?

superman4Within these last two collected volumes, we see the once-selfish, boastful Kenan learning about and adopting some Taoist ideals.  The harmony of balanced, opposing forces—the yin and yang of Taoism—is modeled by his martial arts teacher and life guide, Master I-Ching.  He and his views are the opposite of the “Fu Manchu stereotype,” a mask worn by his villainous opposite, who says his enemies constructed this “mask out of their own fears.”  Certainly, this 19th and 20th century image of a Chinese – American criminal mastermind is one of the stereotypes underpinning President Trump’s fervent proclamations about the “Chinese virus.”  In a blog post , Gene Luen Yang has examined some historical “Fu Manchu” comic book images and explained the significance of Kong Kenan’s final, transformed costume.  Yet we really do not need this explanation to understand how the new costume’s “S”—now formed by the black-and-white yin-yang symbol—marks Keenan’s new maturity and self-awareness.  The comics’ dialogue and descriptive word boxes are enough to convey this.  The deeper bronze skin tones used for Chinese Justice League figures in this fourth volume might also reflect their personal growth as Asian individuals distinct from the original Justice League characters.   

Personal growth and acceptance of life’s complexities are also prominent in Dragon Hoops (2020), illustrated as well as authored by Yang and colored by Lark Pien.  Dragon hoops This non-fiction novel, Yang’s first lengthy foray into this genre, focuses on the basketball players and history of the Dragons, the basketball team of Cardinal O’Dowd High School in California. Gene Luen Yang taught computer science there for 17 years, and the book has autobiographical elements.  To his surprise, as ruefully unathletic Yang learns more about these young people and their coaches, he becomes enthusiastic about sports.  He recognizes its transformative power in people’s lives and comes to see how its complexities mirror those of his own life, after talking with and researching African – American, Sikh, and female players who have dealt with negative stereotypes and discrimination. Yang is also inspired by the way that, as he tells the team, “[E]ven though you don’t really know if you’re gonna win or lose . . . . [Y]ou step out anyway.”  This inspiration leads Yang to accept the risk of leaving teaching to become a full-time author/illustrator.  He will take the rare opportunity just offered to write Superman comics!  

The probable misdeeds of one gifted coach, accused of abusing students, also impact Yang as a parent as well as an author, leading him to tell his children that hoop 2there are not always clearly “good guys and bad guys.”   Similarly, Dragon Hoops includes this coach even though Yang in the book considers omitting him because of his checkered past.  Much is communicated by the visuals here: the body language and facial expression of the now elderly coach and those who welcome him at the school confound Yang’s expectations.  Dragon Hoops’ illustrations also enhance its storytelling with shifts in focus, panels of different sizes and shapes, apt double spread images, and many dramatically large, varied sound effect words during ball games.  Crucial points during those games are also spotlighted by how Yang sequences illustrations.  One tie-breaking moment is in suspense until readers turn the page to find a huge “SWISH” on one side of a double spread, with a ball having just gone through a hoop on the other side.  Victory for the Dragons! 

The forthcoming Superman Smashes the Klan, written by Yang and illustrated by the Japanese illustration team known as Girihuru, is fiction, but this book is based Klanon real life in several ways.  First, it is a revisioning of a 1946 Superman radio series titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”  In that sixteen-episode series, Superman aids a Chinese – American family, the Lees, who are being attacked in Metropolis by a Ku Klux Klan like organization. Gene Luen Yang was excited to learn of this early connection between Superman works and the fight against anti-Chinese bigotry.  He was also excited to learn that the radio series’ popularity had a dampening effect on the real Ku Klux Klan!  This trailer for Superman Smashes the Klan, narrated by Yang, whets readers’ appetite for the book.  Meanwhile, I would point readers to Yang’s own creation of a 1930s to 40s era Chinese – American superhero, in a graphic novel illustrated by Sonny Liew titled The Shadow Hero (2014)I reviewed that book here.   Eager readers will also find exciting, satisfying reading about another Asian-American superhero in the just-published Jade Lantern Legacy (2020).

Thirteen-year old Tai Pham’s warm, close relationship with his grandmother does not include knowing she is Earth’s Green Lantern, one of many interplanetary peacekeepers.  He only knows her as his Vietnamese – American community’s strong Jade“heart,” offering support along with sharp words and advice in her family-run store.  Not until her sudden illness and death, when Kim Tran’s jade ring “chooses” him as her superhero successor, does Tai learn about the immigrant woman’s secret strengths and adventures.  The discovery of a grandparent’s hidden talents and a new connection to old traditions also figured in author Minh Le’s award-winning picture book, Drawn Together (2018, drawn by Dan Santat and reviewed by me here).  In that sense Le’s focus on this cross-generations relationship is not a surprise.  But the brilliant ways in which the author, illustrator Andie Tong, and colorist Sarah Stern connect this family story to the long comic book history of Green Lantern superheroes, to contemporary tween – age life, Vietnamese culture, and to refugee and immigrant experiences past and present,  are purely delightful!

The novel’s two plot elements—a local community trying to save its neighborhood legacy 2from a greedy housing developer, with that rich investor here also turning out to be an evil “Yellow Lantern” overlord—are (with minor variations) typical comic book or TV stories.   But Le’s character development and dialogue add appealing freshness.  Tai Pham’s older sisters offer him pop culture advice as well as moral support, while school friends salt their sympathy with snark.  Visual elements support these scenes.  Tai’s more dramatic college-age sister sports a shock of maroon hair, while a seemingly life-or-death fight between Tai and schoolmate Serena, first shown with close-ups on their angry faces and threats being exchanged, turns out to be a cut-throat ping-pong game! Andie Tong’s fast-paced zooming out and then back into this game, including a few wordless panels, is funny and believable.  The pace and “look” of Green Lantern appearances and disappearances on other worlds or in different dimensions is similarly breathless and dazzling. 

Vietnamese culture in this book is also communicated through a blend of verbal and visual storytelling.  The legendary properties of jade, colorful lanterns, long tunics, and connections with spirits of the dead are some of the Vietnamese items legacy 4and beliefs that smoothly fit into Green Lantern comic book lore.  And the way in which the book’s color palette shifts to reds and oranges not only for dreams or nightmares but for the dangers Kim Tran faced years ago as a refugee and, later, as an immigrant are significant in several ways.  They are part of the human suffering,  often preyed upon by criminals, that fictional Green Lanterns combat.  Yet Kim Tran’s flight from Vietnam, and her later struggles, also show the heroism this character displayed in every day life, confronting dangers apart from her duties as a daring Green Lantern.  Tai’s grandmother is representative of individuals that Minh Le has described elsewhere as “the actual heroes that walk among us.”  The final, wordless two pages of Green Lantern Legacy signal that similar threats still exist today, in the real world. 

We see a family at home, its ethnicity suggested by the woman’s hajib, the first page concluding with a panel focused closely on her fearful face.  In response to refugeesknocking, she has partly opened the apartment’s door.  The next page shows gently smiling Tai Pham, his friends Serena and Tommy, and John Stewart (a Green Lantern off-duty and out-of-costume) each carrying bags overflowing with food to welcome these new arrivals.  It is their heroism and hope, rather than the hurt these “new to the neighborhood” folks may have encountered, that conclude the novel.  We readers young and old need this positive message, to combat the virulent distrust and anger political leaders such as President Trump and other groups continue to spread about people whose looks and heritage differ from theirs.  Asian – Americans are in the foreground of this blog post, but so many of us other Americans still make up its kaleidoscopic background.








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Pandemic! One Hundred Years Later

Fever season coverOne hundred years from now, what will people be reading about today’s Coronavirus pandemic?  While the full dire impact of Covid-19 is still unfolding, such a long-range perspective on pandemics can inform and possibly comfort some of us.  Such stories can tell us how people have survived and then forged onward.  For this reason, today I look at Don Brown’s graphic history of the 1918 influenza epidemic, Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 (2019).  Readers tween on up will best appreciate this fine work, with its century-long perspective on that global tragedy.   


fever season numbersAward-winning author/illustrator Brown deploys delicate watercolor paintings to illustrate this 100-page volume, organized as “A Tragedy in Three Acts.”  Act One details the relevant events of January – July, 1918, while Act Two covers August – December, 1918 and Act Three focuses on 1919.  As this chronology unfolds, readers learn the scope of that pandemic, which ultimately affected a third of the globe, killing about 650,000 people in the United States and 50 million world-wide.  Brown uses color very Fever year--worry is worse than diseaseeffectively to convey these somber events: sepia tones dominate, with bright orange-red highlighting the most emotional scenes or dismaying facts and mistaken beliefs.  Similarly, Brown’s visual composition dramatizes the narrative, with double page spreads conveying wide-scale and significant events, and close-ups on faces or people that dramatize individual accounts.  At times, Brown wisely chooses wordless panels to portray the passage of time or someone’s mounting realization of the pandemic’s effects.  Shifts in perspective on the same page similarly may convey changes in time or mood as well as movement to a different person’s viewpoint. 

Fever year 2 onions Readers will note similarities between people’s responses back then and today to the massive effects of a pandemic.  Uncertainties about its origin and how to treat, slow, or stop the disease occurred both then and now. Like President Trump, some 1918 leaders ignorantly   declared that the outbreak would last only two weeks!  The 1918 flu also saw the outbreak of unreasonable fear or anger, along with the courage of first responders and volunteers in the news today.  For instance, today some Chinese and other Asian-Americans are being heinously attacked just because Covid-19 began in China.  In 1918, the flu was falsely labelled the “Spanish flu” only because Spain, neutral during World War I, announced its outbreak before nations-at-war were willing to reveal their own vulnerability.  The 1918 flu most likely began, as Brown shows, in the United States, in Kansas pig farm country close to an Army base.  Brown also briefly dips into how since 1918 our understanding of that flu’s real origin has changed over the years and finally been scientifically verified.  

Fever year closedAs an author, Brown zooms in and succinctly conveys poignant individual accounts. The exact number of afflicted thousands might be difficult to remember, but it is hard to forget these words of a graveside mourner, speaking about the flu: “It didn’t last too long . . . . It was a whole lifetime.”  Brown’s sketching of facial features, abstractly rather than realistically detailed, captures emotions well, as does his brief outlining of body language.  These visuals liven not only hospital and graveyard scenes but also episodes depicting the spread of the disease and mistaken as well as useful methods to halt its spread.  Today’s readers will recognize the empty, shut-down streets and centers of 1918’s cities world-wide.

Readers will also learn interesting, sometimes surprising facts.  For instance, as a native New Yorker, I did not know that most of its many “No Spitting” signs—still spittingevident in the 1960s and 70s—began as 1918 flu warnings!  Young readers may be surprised at the number of celebrities who survived the 1918 flu, including teen-aged cartoonist Walt Disney, an ambulance corps volunteer.  Less entertainingly, some readers will be surprised to learn that African-American nurses were segregated in the Army, only fully employed there and elsewhere once the flu dangerously increased the need for nurses.  Today’s news is filled with accounts of brave nurses and doctors of all backgrounds, imperiling themselves to treat flu victims. 

The Unwanted Bob Brown Fever Year concludes with a short Epilogue, summing up its three Acts and extending the third with the flu “curtain calls” that appeared sporadically between 1920 and 1922.  Source notes and a thorough, useful bibliography round off the volume.  Satisfied readers here may want to look next at Brown’s award-winning graphic non-fiction work  about Syrian refugees, The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees (2018).  I myself am interested in Izzy Frinklooking at some of the prose-only historical fiction Brown has also written.  His first prose novel, The Notorious Izzy Fink (2006), about a 13-year old immigrant in early 1900s New York, facing a possible docked ship cholera outbreak among other dangers and problems, sounds particularly intriguing.


Happy reading as you stay well!

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And the Winner Is

New Kid NewWhat a thrill!  Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid (2019) recently won the prestigious 2019 Newbery Medal for the year’s most distinguished contribution to children’s literature.”  With this award, the American Library Association placed graphic literature fully in the mainstream of children’s literature, a view some of us readers already held.  (I had reviewed Craft’s novel about middle schoolers earlier, also referring to it here.)  But the ALA awards review is not the only yearly major spotlight turned on graphic works for young readers.  Having just last month watched the 92nd annual E 1Academy Awards ceremony, I wanted to bring the “Oscars of the comics world”—the Eisner Awards—to your attention.  These awards are named in honor of comics luminary Will Eisner, the U.S. author/illustrator often credited with coining the term “graphic novel” for his longer works.  (His fans world-wide have begun a tradition of honoring Eisner every first week in March.  That is right now!)   The Eisners have many award categories, including three specifically for kid lit.  So today I take a look at relevant winners of the 2019 Eisner Awards, announced in 2020, with works appealing to a range of young readers as well as us charmed adults.

Author/illustrator Jen Wang won double recognition in these awards.  Los Angeles-based Wang was declared 2019’s “Best Writer/Artist,” with her graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker (2018) chosen as the Eisners’ “Best Publication for Teens” ages 13-17.   If you have not already read this twelve chapter, full color work, Dressmakeryou are in for a treat!  Wang’s Cinderella-like tale follows young dressmaker Frances’ transformation into a couturier, achieving her heart’s desire by aiding 16-year old Prince Sebastian fulfill his own hidden wish to dress in gorgeous, elaborate women’s garb.  The cartoon-like features of the pair collaborating in this Belle Epoque adventure capture a full range of emotions—surprise, elation, despair, bewilderment, and finally joy.  In an interview, Wang described Sebastian as “genderqueer,” but said readers might also interpret him as trans or as a “cis” male crossdresser.  Certainly, a fairy-tale romance between Frances and Sebastian blossoms at the book’s end.  Astutely, Wang realized that questioning gender identity and one’s roles in life are especially compelling issues for teens.  She describes and shows in the novel’s  “Process Notes” how she changed her first drawings of Frances and Sebastian as adults into their teen-aged selves. 

dressmaker interiorWang makes extensive, effective use of non-verbal storytelling, with wordless double and multiple-page episodes.  In these scenes, alternating close-ups with mid and long-distance views and juxtaposing panels of different sizes on the page effectively convey actions ranging from mere seconds to hours.  For example, the stumble that Frances—wearing high heels—takes into veiled Sebastian, accidentally uncloaking his true identity, is told in this wordless way.  Later, Sebastian’s despairing moments as well as his and Frances’ final, triumphant reunion also are conveyed in wordless scenes.

StargazingSuch wordless storytelling is also key in Wang’s most recent graphic novel, Stargazing (2019), colored by Lark Pien.  This funny, touching story of middle-school friendship between two girls, the daughters of Chinese immigrants to America, is rooted in Wang’s personal experience.  She herself felt the pressure to succeed that one set of parents imposes on their daughter Christine, while—like her other main character, Moon—Wang as a child also had a brain tumor discovered and successfully removed.  But K-pop music was not as important to the author/illustrator as it is to the 13-year old characters in this ten chapter work!  These tunes feature at home as well as in the many middle-school scenes in the book. Music wafts visually across pages in the form of air-borne banners displaying song notes and lyrics.   Music is one link between the girls whose personalities are so different, one shy and the other outgoing.  Stargazing was published after the 2019 Eisner awards were announced.  These awards (as well as others given throughout the year) may help readers to spot such upcoming works by successful authors. 

Divided earth 3The Eisners may also prompt some book lovers to reread or catch up with past favorites.  This was my experience with author/illustrator Faith Erin Hicks’ The Divided Earth (2018), colored by Jordie Bellaire, which won the 2019 Eisner Award for “Best Publication for Kids (ages 9 – 12).”  The Divided Earth is the final volume in a trilogy I began reviewing here, with its first stellar volume, The Nameless City (2016).  This new Eisner spotlight reminded me to catch up with the middle book, The Stone Heart (The Nameless City #2, 2017) and then enjoy the conclusion of tween-age Kai and Rat’s adventures in The Divided Earth (The Nameless City, #3).  In this volume, the friends risk and divided earth interiorsuffer much before they succeed, with adult help, in bringing a fair peace to the Nameless City.  Sound effect words in different shapes, sizes, and colors add “oomph” to the struggles and battles there.  These include individual combat as well as full-scale warfare. There is humor as well as tender emotion in parent-child reconciliations at the end of the book’s main action, as well as in the final, “three years later” reunion of now teen-aged, fully-grown Kai and Rat. I appreciated how this postscript shows the pair as friends within a larger city community, rather than as an inevitable romantic couple.


Lettering in different shapes and sizes is also important in Johnny Boo and the Ice Cream Computer (2018), winner of the 2019 Eisner Award for “Best Publication for johnny boo 2Early Readers (up to age 8).”  This is the 8th book in author/illustrator James Kochalka’s whimsical series about a ghost, beginning with Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World! (2008). I was unfamiliar with these books until reading about this year’s Eisners.  I can see how Kolchaka’s fantastic “takes” on ghosts, silly monsters, and ice cream would appeal to some early readers, but I also know that some publishers, such as Toon Books, provide this audience with even more varied, serious fun.  Some Eisner Awards outside of these three “kid lit” ones may also be relevant for folks involved with young readers.

NLFor example, this year’s award for “Most Promising Newcomer” went to author/illustrator Lorena Alvarez.  Her depiction of the imaginative, possibly supernatural experiences of a Latin American elementary-aged girl named Sandy are vividly captured in Nightlights (2018) and its sequel, Hicotea: A Nightlights Story (2019).  The dreamlike “ghost” in Nightlights is not as friendly as Johnny Boo, but Sandy’s strength is as memorable as her fear and creativity.  In Hicotea, Alvarez depicts Sandy’s perceptions of her school trip to a nearby wetland.  Readers elementary age and up will appreciate both the Catholic school snark and routines and the Hicbrightly colored, surreal images in these graphic works.  The illustrations are lush!  Another relevant Eisner award this year is the winner of “Best U.S. Edition of International Material,” Penelope Bagieu’s Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World (2018), a work best appreciated by readers tween on up.  I first reviewed Brazen here and am happy to spotlight it again during this official Women’s History month.  In addition, the 2019 “Best Painter/Mutimedia Artist (Interior Art) Award” went to Dustin Nguyen, for his achievement on Descender (2015-19).  This SF series, written by Jeff Lemire, features a boy robot in a brutal future.  In its collected volume format, Descender has already appeared on several “best graphic books for teens” lists. 

50358040._UY630_SR1200,630_Looking ahead, finalists for the 2020 Eisner Awards will be announced in April. You might read some of these works to see how your predicted winners match up with the official ones, to be announced in July at California’s Comic-Con gathering.  Further exciting news: October will see the publication of Jerry Craft’s Class Act, the sequel to his Newbery Award winning New Kid.  Looking forward to Class Act makes me feel like a winner myself!








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On Fire

kangaroo fireBlazing sights and sounds dominate the news.  Very young readers may have “tuned out” the U.S. impeachment firestorms, but the vivid, heartrending images of Australia’s animals burned in that country’s worst-ever firestorm season are unforgettable.  These wildfires sparked just as California’s recent blazes came under control . . . for now.  Incredibly, some political leaders in both countries still deny the impact of climate change on increased wildfires.  With Australia’s firestorm season still only half over, today is an apt time to spotlight the impact of fires on people as well as animals.  (I also have a personal interest here, with good acquaintances in Australia and a son in California.)  So today I look at relevant picture and chapter books aimed at young readers and a memorable graphic novel that will appeal best to readers teen and up.

Wildfire MaurerEarly elementary readers will appreciate the simple text in just-published The World’s Worst Wildfires (2019).  Author Tracy Nelson Maurer also serves this audience well by providing historical as well global examples of wildfires notable for their duration, scope, and impact.  Firefighting is briefly mentioned here, but it is not the focus of this primarily photograph-illustrated book, part of “The World’s Worst Disasters” series.  

Little SmokeyLittle Smokey (2019), on the other hand, is all about firefighting!  Author/illustrator Robert Neubecker’s vividly colored drawings heighten the adventures of a team of anthropomorphized airplanes, each with its own role in curtailing wildfires.  Neubecker’s storyline shows how a “young,” small plane perseveres, discovering her place on this team and along the way earning the name “Little Smokey.”  The cartoon-like features of people as well as airplanes here belie the relative sophistication of Neubecker’s visual storytelling: double spread pages emphasize dramatic moments while inserted panels and panel-free, montaged images move the action along briskly.  Planes swoop and swerve, dive and dash.  Rich, dense color is achieved by combining watercolor with digital illustration atop the initial pencil drawings. 

FurgangFans of The Little Engine Who Could will enjoy this book’s resulting straight forward story line and clear-cut characters.  Little Smokey, with its retro Golden Book look, also holds potential for a range of audiences.  I think it would work well as a tale read-aloud to preschoolers, while its extensive back matter about types of wildfires and wildfire equipment, personnel, and prevention will interest older or more able readers.  Those kids could enjoyably gravitate to Kathy Furgang’s more informative, photo-illustrated Wildfires (2015), perhaps also joining tweens and teens in absorbed reading of another National Geographic, Thiessenphoto-rich book, Mark Thiessen with Glen Phelan’s Extreme Wildfire: Smoke Jumpers, High-Tech Gear, Survival Tactics, and the Extraordinary Science of Fire (2016).  Thiessen often writes compellingly from the tense viewpoint of endangered firefighters in this 110 page volume.  Yet both Thiessen and Furgang also point out how new growth occurs after wildfires and how “controlled burns” can contain some wild blazes.  These books will satisfy readers seeking the “whys” and “hows” of wildfires, but other graphic works address the emotional scenes—the “wows” and “oh, nos”—current in recent news. 

BishopStirred by images of Australia’s animal burn victims, readers will appreciate Nic Bishop’s Marsupials (2009).  This award-winning author/photographer’s amazing close-up photos of healthy marsupials, primarily from Australia, is a comforting follow-up to those wildfire scenes.  Bishop’s clearly-written text, with essential facts highlighted in colored print, will work well for readers later elementary age on up.  A more playful overview of marsupials is Expecting Joeysavailable in What to Expect When You’re Expecting Joeys: A Guide for Marsupial Parents (and Curious Kids) (2012).  Readers of all ages will appreciate the expressive features of illustrator Stephane Jorisch’s cartoon-like illustrations, but—while some readers will enjoy author Bridget Heos’ word play and jokes—other readers may find her wording at times too A for Animals“cute.”  Both books provide more information about well-known Australian animals, those spotlighted in wildfire news, than author/illustrator Frane Lessac’s A is for Australian Animals (2017).  That colorful alphabet book—showing creatures in their natural habitats—is a better choice for readers wanting to know about the breadth and location of the continent’s species.

rooBig Red Kangaroo (2013), written by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Grahame Byrne, personalizes the typical experiences of this largest, widespread kangaroo species through the life of a fictional male called “Red.”   I really enjoyed Saxby’s lyrical language—for instance, when these nocturnal creatures wake up “the night orchestra begins.”  I also appreciated how she supplements this account of Red and his family’s experiences page-by-page with italicized factual information.  Byrne’s somewhat abstract, roo2somberly colored charcoal illustrations, appropriate for their nighttime setting, convey emotions through animal body language and features. Byrne makes consistent, effective use of double page spreads to dramatize and give context to the details Saxby describes.  Readers see and understand more about the animal lives disrupted or cut short by wildfires, in Australia known as bushfires.

FriesSimilarly, as author/illustrator Brian Fies writes in the Afterword to his graphic novel A Fire Story (2019), his book is about not just his family’s experiences but those of “thousands of people who lost everything, and hundreds of thousands who were affected less directly but still traumatically.” The firestorm described in this memoir took place in Northern California on October 9, 2017.  Fies, a professional cartoonist, coped at first by hand-drawing his impressions in a much shorter, 18 page version of A Fire Story, posting this online on October 13 and 15, 2017.  It immediately went viral.  It was even made into an animated video by Fies’ local public TV station.  Readers will be intrigued to see how the  original, powerful web comic, reproduced in the Afterward, has been only slightly altered but significantly expanded in the recently published 140 page edition.

fire-story-p017Teens on up will best appreciate this memoir, with its emphasis on the firestorm’s impact on adults and families with young adult children.  Fies includes the experiences of five other individuals or families, some poor or wealthy, as well as his own middle-class household.  Beginning with the dramatic announcement, “On Monday, My House Disappeared,” Fies uses color to highlight the different stages and impacts of the fire storm.  Physical destruction is coded orange or red, while immediate emotional trauma appears against yellow backgrounds.  Dealing with the frustrating paperwork and hard choices in subsequent weeks and months is often signaled by blue.  How does one cope firestory9with the loss of a lifetime of photographs and memorabilia? Fies effectively uses lists to bullet point such information, while overhead shots are one of the many effective visual techniques he employs to show the scope of the fire and its resulting physical confusion.  Another technique highlighting significant moments or realizations is the centering of just one image on a panel-free page.  The few photographs scattered throughout the book are effective codas, highlighting how insightful and dramatic the drawn narrative is, belying any assumptions about Fies’ cartoonish drawing style.  The faces here show anger and anguish, impatience and annoyance.  

There is as well, though, humor in A Fire Story, sometimes rueful or bitter, as Fies and others deal with the unrealistic “help” offered by well-meaning people and the fies faceignorance some officials display.  Sometimes, Fies even laughs at himself, as his own expectations change.  There is also warmth and hope here, as Fries depicts his young adult children stepping in to help their parents and the kindness offered by both by neighbors and strangers from nearby communities.  A Fire Story ends hopefully, with its author standing on bare ground, near burned tree stumps, watching his new home about to be built.  In a boxed aside, he notes “Even if you lose the place and the stuff, home can still be the memory and hope and promise of those things.”  The facing, final page visually confirms this realization, containing as it does only a centered image of flowers blossoming out of dirt.

worldImpressed by A Fire Story, I now intend to catch up with Brian Fies’ earlier  graphic books: the award-winning memoir Mom’s Cancer (2005;2006) and the award-nominated Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (2012), centered on ideas spawned at world fairs from 1939 onward.  Having enjoyed Big Red Kangaroo so much, I will also be on the look-out for Claire Saxby and Graham Byrne’s other collaboration on Australian animals, Emu (2015; 2016).  First, though, I shall probably catch up with an early work by Greg Egan, one of my favorite nonfiction prose writers.  His The Big big burnBurn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America (2009) describing that president’s establishment of the National Park system is a tonic I need right now, as we face the conflagration that is President Trump’s impeachment and presidency.  I need that reminder that disaster can be followed by restorative and transformative public policy.





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On the Brink

map 2On the brink of a new year, I have been thinking of medieval explorers at the brink of unknown seas or lands.  “Here be dragons or lions,” their mapmakers warned.  As we enter 2020 here in the U.S., the little known, troubling terrain ahead is more political than geographical, with outcomes still to unfold from the impeachment of President Trump.  Moral compasses seem mislaid, and legal landmarks are in dispute. 

This Was Our PactThat is why this is an apt time to spotlight two recent graphic novels about journeys into the mysterious unknown.  These engrossing books, so different in tone and style, will energize readers as we forge ahead into the new year.  Readers tween and up will revel in the buoyant prospects risk-takers encounter in This Was Our Pact (2019), already on several “best books of the year” lists.  With similar if opposite impact, readers will be moved and provoked by the just-published graphic retelling of Joseph Conrad’s classic novella, Heart of Darkness (1899; 2019).  Both books are memorable– hard to put down before the end and full of discoveries on rereading, too.

lanternsIn fantasy novel This Was Our Pact (2019), author/illustrator Ryan Andrews ‘s adventurous tween age characters set out to discover the truth about their town’s autumn equinox festival and legend, its “old song.” Do the lanterns set afloat in the local river each year really become stars?  The boys’ pact is to find out, disregarding family or community rules, yet the band of five bikers quickly dwindles to one, Ben, the teller of this tale.  When tagalong Nathaniel, the neighborhood science “nerd,” catches up to Ben, the two boys dubiously renew the pact, hurrying to catch up to the drifting lanterns.  There is wry humor in their true-to-life remarks to each other, as both boys test their new relationship.  Ben is the white boy with glasses while Nathaniel has darker skin and a puff of black hair.  

bridgeReferences to NASA, with high-tech wind farms and a Baptist church in the background, set this night time adventure in today’s United States, yet Andrews—who lives and works in Japan—obviously has drawn upon the art and traditions of that country to create this tale of unexpected friendship and partnership.  double wide wordlessSeasonal festivals, floating lanterns, and stories about friendly as well as unfriendly spirits in animal form are venerable aspects of Japanese culture.  Journeys alongside and across gracefully arching bridges, such as those Andrews draws here, are also integral to traditional Japanese landscapes, often seen in wood-block prints.  In an interview, Andrews explains how this work began as a graphic adaptation of a Japanese adventure novel he himself loved as a boy.  The novel’s many wordless frames and passages, some double wide across two pages, reinforce the importance of visual images here, as does Andrews’ consistent use of limited color.  Most of the book has blue backgrounds, but scenes of conflict and possible danger are colored red and characters’ recollections are shown in yellow. 

 These characters include a talking adult bear and a witch whose familiars include an outsized dog and crows—all drawn, as are the boys, with humor and cartoonish verve rather than realistic accuracy.  Their interactions with Ben and Nathaniel dominate the plot and the novel’s hopeful, open-ended conclusion too.  When the boys become lost, they do not realize that the absent-minded, cranky witch will expect immediate payment for the map they request.  Her demands are more humorous than truly threatening.  The boys also do not believe that the bear’s tale of their community’s equinox lanterns turning into fish, caught each year by his family, can be true.

bear PactYet the possibility of multiple truths, of different belief systems coexisting in harmony, and of genuine friendship despite such differences, is one of the “messages” here.  And that is subtly conveyed, I believe, by a different kind of map.  In the sixth of the book’s eight chapters, we see how the boys’ labelling of star constellations differs from the bear’s labelling of those same stars.  Each contains references to their own community and beliefs.  Noted but not dwelt on by the bear, this difference sets the stage for events at the novel’s conclusion.

 In several wordless pages there, we see the bear catch a huge bagful of equinox lantern fish, just before they fly off into the sky to become stars!  Both he and the boys, helping each other along the way, have had their opposing beliefs observed and upheld.  The witch’s earlier remark, that “There’s often more truth to those old songs and stories than folks realize,” was correct.  The boys and bear agree that meeting in another year would be great.  Nathaniel’s sharing of his mother’s rice krispie treats amusingly seals their pledge.

These positive outcomes make the book’s fantastic conclusion a hopeful one, rather than a foolhardy, dire choice.  Rather than realistically turning back homeward, Ben and Nathaniel decide to continue their quest.  The last two pages show them on their bikes, captioned with the words:  “Never turning for home.  Never looking back.”  Whether the reader takes this renewed pact literally or—as Ben has explained the pact to Nathaniel in the book’s opening–as a metaphor for not giving up, these words are an expression of confidence in the future, a belief in the ability to survive and thrive in the unknown.  A map may be useful but it need not be one’s own.  As Andrews himself recently described this book, begun back in 2013 as a web comic, “it is a story about friendship and giving people a chance, especially when other people won’t.  It also shows us how different cultures can interpret the same event in their own unique way.”

Kuper HeartSuch optimism and peaceful coexistence are not found in Peter Kuper’s graphic adaptation of Heart of Darkness (2019)!  As this award-winning author/illustrator explains in his book’s introduction, Kuper was interested in how some of today’s current events—“corruption in our highest offices, rampant xenophobia, racism at home and abroad”–match up with Joseph Conrad’s story, set in 19th century Africa, at a time when Belgium’s King Leopold cruelly ruled the Congo.  Its narrator, the British sailor Charles Marlow, tells listeners (and us readers) about his earlier journey in the Congo (not identified by name there), when his job was to find and help the mysteriously powerful, successful ivory hunter Kurtz.  We do not hear from any of the native people Kurtz commanded there.  These omissions are one reason acclaimed African novelist Chinua Achebe called Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a “deplorable” and racist work.  Kuper wanted to rectify these omissions.   He explains that he researched Congo photographs from the 1890s and early 1900s  so that his drawings would accurately depict natives’ typical features and traditional dress then as well as local flora and fauna.

heart chainsAs a result, Kuper’s depictions of chained, beaten, or beheaded African natives are brutally accurate in their detail.  Readers may remain mystified as to what Kurtz, before he dies, means when he utters his last words, “The horror!  The horror!” yet Kuper’s illustrations show us much of the horror perpetrated by Kurtz’s racist, colonizing sense of superiority.  The words Conrad has Kurtz utter—“Exterminate all the brutes!” are reproduced here in one of Kuper’s stunning visual interpretations, a hollow-eyed Kurtz holding up a map of the African continent, seemingly about to squeeze or dash it into oblivion.  This image is indicative of how little Kurtz or other colonial Europeans value African people and distinct cultures.

Heart finalAt another point, when Marlow is describing how Kurtz was sane but “his soul had gone mad,” that he had “kicked the very Earth to pieces,” Kuper draws a fevered Kurtz seemingly tearing apart a map of Africa.  This takes place while Marlow is actually carrying the dying man back to Marlow’s boat, now sailing down river back toward known territory.  Throughout the book, Kuper sometimes juxtaposes images in surreal ways that reflect Marlow’s chaotic thoughts and feelings as well as Kurtz’s.  Kuper uses doublewide pages and overlapping panels of different sizes as well as panel-free pages here  to great effect.   Different depths of grey background help us distinguish storytelling Marlow from the past actions he is narrating in this black-and-white graphic novel. 

Conrad 3As in This Was Our Pact, a river and maps are important plot and thematic elements in Kuper’s Heart of Darkness, but the tone and significance of these elements are completely different here.  Confronting good, Ben and Nathaniel hope while Marlow , confronting evil,  despairs.  Kuper’s Heart of Darkness might be read either before or after reading Conrad’s novella itself.  (Besides being available in libraries and book stores, Heart of Darkness is also on-line for free here. ) But this powerful  graphic adaptation also stands on its own.  Besides inspiring readers to turn to Conrad, it might also interest them in Peter Kuper’s earlier graphic novels, some reviewed by me here and here. 

What will today’s map look like in 2020?  Will the coming year bring us here in the U.S. closer to a hopeful pact, one grounded in reality as well as fantasy, or have us saying our own version of “The horror!  The horror!”   Time will tell.





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Get Sets for the Holidays!

book setHanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa—whichever winter holidays you celebrate, sets of graphic books make great, generous gifts for young readers.  Tweens in particular can take delight this holiday season not only in some sets already packaged by publishers but also in “customized” sets you put together just for them.  Today I spotlight a few prepackaged sets but focus on possible ways to customize your own graphic gift sets for tweens. Some concluding suggestions will especially please fans of R. J.  Palacio’s prose novel, Wonder (2012).     

OlympansBefore that, fans of Rick Riordan’s myth-based prose novels and other readers may relish author/illustrator George O’Connor’s books about the Greek gods.  Six of these twelve volumes—Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Aphrodite—are available online as a boxed set (2014).   O’Connor visually dramatizes these action-packed tales through shifting viewpoints, close-ups, and full-color illustrations.  He also provides interesting, helpful end-page information about the myths effectively portrayed within each book.  To see if this set would be right for your young reader(s), you can read a brief online excerpt of each book in the series here.

Raina setPopular graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier  (whose works I have reviewed here and here) has book sets available in stores as well as online.  Her best-selling memoirs Smile, Sisters, and Guts comprise the most recent boxed set (2019) on store shelves, but The Raina Telgemeier Collection (2018), containing the novels Drama and Ghosts along with Smile and Sisters, showcases the breadth of Telgemeier’s interests. 

School trippedYou can also create your own graphic gift set!  Tweens who once devoured Jennifer and Mathew Holm’s early reader Babymouse graphic novels might relish the duo’s new series depicting Baby Mouse’s middle school adventures.  Tales from the Locker currently has three books in print: Lights, Camera, Middle School! (2017, reviewed by me here), Miss Communication (2018), and the recently-published School Tripped (2019).  These entertaining books are hybrid novels, weaving graphic pages with prose as the Holms again deploy humor to address common middle school concerns.   


Sunny diceThe Holm siblings also now have a third book in their semi-autobiographical graphic novel series about Sunny, a tween girl in the 1970s.  Sunny Rolls the Dice (2019), about role-playing games and the stereotypical roles of boys and girls, is a smartly funny follow-up to Sunny Side Up (2015, reviewed here) and Swing It, Sunny (2017).  Readers will appreciate how contemporary many of Sunny’s concerns seem even as 1970s gaming details and décor convey an earlier era.  A gift of all three volumes or of the last two would be a fine present for fans of Sunny or of the Holms’ other series.

New KidGraphic gift sets need not be limited to specific authors.  Similar themes could link your selections. The Holms’ Sunny Side Up, which touches upon an older brother’s substance abuse, might be paired with Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s award-winning graphic memoir Hey Kiddo: How I lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction (2018, reviewed by me here).  His mother’s addiction fuels this author/illustrator’s riveting memoir.  On the other hand, being new and “different” in middle school is addressed by two recent, Operaticespecially fine graphic novels:  Jerry Kraft’s New Kid (2019, reviewed by me here) looks at how race and class affect Black 7th grader Jordan Banks, while Kyo Maclear and Byron Eggenschwiler’s Operatic (2019,  reviewed here) has gender identity and sexual orientation as a strong secondary plot element.  What powerful gift sets these pairings might provide! 

Physical difference, of course, is key in R. J.  Palacio’s prose novel Wonder (2012). Its central character, 10-year old Augie Pullman, was born with severe craniofacial deformities—differences that at first glance frighten or dismay others. Palacio’s moving story of Augie’s 5th grade year was so popular that Palacio wrote spin-off Wonderstories about its secondary kid characters, collected in Augie & Me: Three Wonder Tales (2015); a book of sayings representing its main schoolteacher, 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Precepts (2016); and a picture book illustrated by Palacio herself, We’re All Wonders (2016). The original novel was made into a successful movie (Wonder, 2017) and even has led to community-wide events, some organized as part of an international Choose Kind” movement. Now, with a new graphic novel, White Bird: A Wonder Story (2019), Palacio turns again to her first career as an illustrator to create a memorable, moving work—one that will touch older readers as well as tweens.

White BirdIn White Bird, it is religious difference that falsely and fatally sets people apart. Julien, a thoughtless bully throughout most of Wonder, and whose actions are explored in Augie and Me, asks his French-born grandmother Sara about her past. White Bird, told mainly from her viewpoint, shows us some of what French Jews (among others) experienced at the hands of Nazis and other anti-Semites during World War II. As a Jewish teenager then, Sara went to school with another Julien—a boy mocked by many classmates because polio had left his body twisted and lame. Yet this Julien is kind and brave, as is his family. He rescues Sara and, later, he and his family endure much to keep her safe. Along with some other French non-Jews, they offset the horrors of the Holocaust. Those are mostly alluded to rather than shown in White Bird. (The book does include extensive, well-chosen back matter about the Holocaust, including a suggested reading list and bibliography.)

White bird 3Aided by inker Kevin Czap, Palacio uses pastels for daily life, with some fearsome scenes depicted solely in sepia. Teenage Sara’s most joyful moments, including those experienced with her Julien, blossom into vivid color. Scenes set in fields of bright bluebells are luminous as well. Such scenes support elderly Grandmere’s remark to her grandson that “those were dark times. . . but what has stayed with me the most . . . is not White bird 2the darkness . . . but the light.” The titular white bird here signals at different times hope, the imagination, and what Palacio depicts as the soul’s immortality. Similarly, she effectively employs wordless pages to convey very different feelings: young Sara’s fearful imagining of her captured mother’s last days and her bittersweet vision of rescuer Julien’s final moments in 1944. She sees him as his soul runs and then flies free from his polio-wracked, now fatally wounded body. White Bird is narratively strong enough to stand on its own, apart from its Wonder predecessors, but what a great gift set this graphic novel would make paired alongside one or two of those prose books!

Alternatively, you might pair White Bird with a graphic work about today’s refugees. Palacio has Grandmere at the book’s end plaintively note current TV news Illegalabout refugee children being separated from their families and the use of “camps” for unwanted refugees. These reports, as a trailer for the book shows, painfully remind her of the Holocaust. This graphic novel’s final image, of protesters with signs saying “Never Again,” gives new currency to that phrase once used mainly about Nazi genocide. Illegal (2018), written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, is just one book about the plight of today’s refugees which might be part of such a thematic gift set. Some other possibilities are listed here.

Whatever gift choices you ultimately make—whether “Wonder-full” or not—I wish you wonderful winter holidays!



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