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.





Posted in Books, catastrophe, graphic novels, memoir, picture books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.





Posted in graphic novels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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!



Posted in graphic novels, memoir, war | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Season and Beyond

Autumn_leaves_sceenarioNovember 1 . . . Is it too late now for a great Halloween-based book?  Similarly, once this November’s national Native American Heritage Month is over, will it seem out-of-step to read about our country’s first peoples?  And just how strictly should we limit this reading to peoples of the United States, when tribal identities sometimes cross its borders?  Today I focus on two graphic works for teens that both celebrate and challenge the idea of books being “in season.”  While holidays may provide dramatic focus for some books, the satisfaction and insights contained in the best of these works extend well beyond any celebrated days or months.  Similarly, government borders do not negate the comparable experiences of native peoples in different countries.   So, here are two books to savor and recommend throughout the year, within the U.S.A. and beyond. 

Pumpkin1Pumpkinheads (2019) is a fun-packed, tenderhearted graphic novel about friendship and love, set during one last night at a yearly, elaborate “Pumpkin Patch and Autumn Festival.”  Its extensive grounds—illustrated on the book’s interior covers—contain a maze, petting zoo, and rides as well as a variety of seasonal food huts and stands. The novel’s central characters, high school seniors Josiah and Deja, are patch co-workers finishing their fourth, final year as “seasonal best friends.”  They will spend next year’s autumn at different colleges.  What these characters reveal to us and learn about themselves form the warm, wise center of this book, given engaging life by its best-selling author Rainbow Rowell and award-winning illustrator Faith Erin Hicks.  (I am heartened that none of these revelations centers on what once might have been noteworthy or controversial: interracial romance and bisexuality.  These story elements are just matter-of-fact givens in Pumpkinheads.) 

Pumpkinheads_DayRowell packs her story with the wordplay and crisp, character-specific dialogue her prose fans have come to expect. (I reviewed one of Rowell’s prose works here.)  For instance, chapter headings and food stand names are typically puns, often referring to  popular songs, films, or sayings.  The pie stand asks visitors to “give piece a chance,” while another chapter is bittersweetly titled “S’More Problems.”  Deja’s optimistic, outgoing personality is distinguished from hesitant, self-doubting Josiah’s through her many punning names for his long-time crush.  He has never actually spoken to this girl, a fudge-shop worker, whom Deja teasingly calls “Super Fudge” and “Elmer Fudge,” also noting that “Girls just want to have Fudge.”  Deja wants her shy friend to take this last chance to meet his “dream girl.”  What happens while and after he attempts this becomes  Pumpkinheads’ plot.


Rowell and Hicks make great, humorous use of the patch setting  throughout this book.  Josiah kindly calms a crying, frightened pre-schooler (whose sobbed “goooasteesses” probably refers to the zoo’s  escaped goat rather than any costumed ghosts), while another youngster who early on snatches Deja’s caramel apple pops up throughout the evening.  The times he appears as a background character, often unnoticed and not mentioned by Deja or Josiah, are just one way Hicks’ illustrations enrich Rowell’s storyline and characters. 

At other points, wordless pages and sequences of wordless pages nimbly advance the story, often when speed is apt—such as racing away from that goat or towards the apple snatcher.  The expressive faces of her cartoon-like drawings also wordlessly tell us how Deja and Josiah feel during some events.  For example, Josiah has a perturbed expression when a youngster at the s’mores booth mocks Deja’s plumpness.  Josiah grimly lets the boy’s marshmallow fall to the ground, while Deja watches, wide-eyed and appreciative.  In interviews  as well as in Pumpkinheads’  afterward, Rowell praises  Hicks’ work, while Hicks herself says how much she appreciated the freedom she had to “do my own paneling and pacing” for this book.

150 yearsVaried paneling and pacing are hallmarks of graphic anthologies such as This Place: 150 Years Retold (2019), foreword by Alicia Elliot.  This book has ten stories, created by twenty different indigenous authors and illustrators, which focus on significant people and events in the history of Canada’s first peoples.  Even though most written histories have omitted or distorted these experiences, Elliot points out that oral history told within tribes and families has kept this information alive.  Thus many more readers will now be introduced to the fierce determination of 19th century Annie Bannatyne, depicted with full color realism.  In another story, a more limited color palette keyed to the “Red Clouds” of supernatural windigos conveys the family and tribal history of Fiddler this-place-3Jack.  In “Nimkii,” which also features shamanism, a blue-green color palette communicates Inuit religion,  with some panel-free pages and unrealistic juxtaposition of images being used dramatically to show the supernatural.  A time-travel story initially set in the future, titled “Kitaskinaw 2350,” also omits some panels and uses non-realistic images to show its teen narrator’s first, shocked reactions to 21st century life.  The future, we hopefully learn, provides native peoples with much better experiences. 

Young readers of this anthology may see or be shown the ways in which the experiences of U.S. tribes parallel inside thisplace 3those of Canadian first peoples.  Beyond broken governmental promises and pervasive social  stereotyping,  both countries have had long histories of harmfully separating youngsters from their families, ostensibly to help them acquire job skills and the country’s dominant language.  This Space: 150 Years Retold will stir readers’ hearts as well as minds—a   relevant, worthwhile, and interesting book to explore during this November’s national Native American Heritage month—as well as at other times too!


MoonshotOther graphic works drawing upon indigenous culture and history include Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, volume 1 (2015) and volume 2 (2017).  Both books contain tribe-specific stories ranging across North America and will engage tweens and teens.  Enthusiastic readers of Pumpkinheads have a variety of follow-up choices.  While Pumpkinheads is Rainbow Rowell’s first graphic novel, she has written issues of Marvel Comics monthly series Runaways, featuring super teen and tween-agers.  There are currently four collected volumes of these (2018-2019), and I myself will now be taking a look at the first volume, Runaways: Find Your Way Home (2018).

nameless cityNew fans of Canadian Faith Erin Hicks’ illustrations will appreciate her Eisner Award-winning collection of self-authored stories, The Adventures of Superhero Girl (2013; 2017, updated edition), which I reviewed here  The adventures of teen heroes in Hicks’ Nameless City trilogy (2016 – 2018) are also captivating and thought-provoking.  I reviewed and recommended  its first volume, titled simply The Nameless City (2016), when it was first published.  Furthermore, Rowell and Hicks have said that they would be happy to work together again.   While a novel-length sequel to Pumpkinheads is not probable, a short-story featuring Deja and Josiah remains a possibility! 



Posted in Books, graphic novels, story collection | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It Takes Guts!

GutsIt takes guts to face one’s fears!  But this effort is worthwhile . . . even if the results may take time. 

This realization is the focus of author/ illustrator Raina Telgemeier’s new graphic memoir Guts (2019, color by Braden Lamb), where the punning title also refers to the anxiety-produced stomach problems Raina experienced in 4th and 5th grade.  Many young readers may already know this popular, award-winning artist’s earlier memoirs, Smile (2010) and Sisters (2012), but each memoir stands on its own.  One need not have read about Raina’s many teeth problems (in Smile) or how she and her younger sister struggled to get along (in Sisters) to appreciate the insights and rueful humor in Guts.  Yet first-time readers here will surely want to read more by gifted, empathetic Telgemeier.  Her other works include two original graphic novels aimed at tweens and teens, including one I reviewed here, as well as graphic adaptations of four Baby Sitters Club books.  Aspiring authors and illustrators will also find tips in Telgemeier’s recent “how-to” book, Share Your Smile: Raina’s Guide to Telling Your Own Story (2019).   

guts sickGuts begins wordlessly, with Telgemeier showing us how she and her mother suffered after they both caught younger daughter Amara’s stomach bug.  Cartoonishly expressive eyes and green features in this full-color work convey the discomfort of their nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Boldly-lettered, vividly-colored sound effects accompany some of these scenes.  Yet Raina comes to realize that the fear of puking or having diarrhea—her anxiety over this—is another sort of illness that she has acquired.  Anxiety literally causes her pain as well as debilitating worry, affecting her actions at school as well as with friends.  She is so afraid of catching another stomach bug!  When medical tests all prove negative, the 5th grader at first wonders, “Can you be sick even if you are not sick?  Can you be healthy even if you hurt?”  Learning about anxiety, the symptoms it may cause, and how to deal with these situations becomes this book’s emphasis. 

Therapy is an enormous help.  The sympathetic, non-judgmental coaching Raina receives from her therapist permits Raina to handle the battery of anxious fears she has—ranging from puking in public or failing at school to death and war.  (In interviews, Telgemeier has explained how learning as a kid about the nuclear Guts circle sickbombing of Japan, described in Barefoot Gen, a Japanese graphic novel, affected her.)  Visually, the artist effectively depicts the impact of all these worries as a looming, encircling set of fears.  Yet learning how to ground herself physically, breathing and thinking through one anxiety at a time works for young Raina.  It helps her with cope not only with physical distress and her concerns about this but later with worries about puberty and its body changes.  These grounding techniques also become a way to handle the stress of her best friend’s seeming abandonment—a situation Raina at first literally experiences as “a total punch in the guts.”   Throughout Guts, we sometimes see events from Raina’s visually limited viewpoint—adding immediacy to these situations—as well as from broader perspectives.

RainaWordless images again come to the forefront towards the conclusion of Guts, when Raina is handling stress more effectively, making new friends as well as retaining her oldest one.  A joking—rather than worried—“FARRRRRT” in the memoir’s final sleep-over image captures Raina’s changed attitude.  She now has a more comfortable, accepting and self-aware attitude towards her body and possible problems.  She also realizes that other kids have their own worries, often akin to hers.  As Telgemeier has her younger self say admiringly to a formerly disliked girl, “You’ve got guts.”   A final Author’s Note helpfully updates readers with how the adult Telgemeier handles stress and her sensitive stomach.  

Just as Guts concludes with Raina and friends looking forward to 6th grade and middle school, readers will finish this sympathetic and hopeful book looking forward to reading or rereading more graphic works by Telgemeier.   I know that out of respectful curiosity I plan to look at her “how-to” book, Share Your Smile.






Posted in graphic novels, memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking Forward to History

historyA new school year brings serious fun to students! Young athletes and mathletes, robotics teams and academic decathlon squads, science fair and history day entrants are just some of the young folks who gear up each year for fun.  But competitions are just one outlet for serious play.  Books complementing the curriculum offer all kinds of hijinks!  Today I look at two graphic offerings that will tickle history buffs . . . and possibly create some new history fans, too.  One is an ongoing series of funnily fantastic hybrid novels (part prose, part graphic) aimed at elementary school kids, while the other is a longer graphic novel that will seriously charm tween and teen readers.

Time Twisters 1Neil Armstrong and Nat Love, Space Cowboys (2019) and Amelia Earhart and the Flying Chariot (2019) are recent additions to the “Time Twisters” series begun last year by author Steve Sheinkin and illustrated by Neil Swaab.  These books join the duo’s Abraham Lincoln, Pro Wrestler (Time Twister #1, 2018) and Abigail Adams, Pirate of the Caribbean (Time Twister #2, 2018).   The history mash-up “hook” here is obvious in the series label as well as each eye-popping individual title.  These books are more than one-note jokes, though, as award-winning author Sheinkin brings top-notch writing and research skills to these light-hearted forays.  Sheinkin and illustrator Swaab also smoothly interpolate graphic passages into the longer prose sections, advancing the plot of each book visually, with both wordless and humorously-worded scenes. 

abe2Though these books may be encountered out of sequence, readers will most enjoy them in order, since the series follows the ongoing adventures of 9-year old step-siblings Abby and Doc.  At first, these 4th graders dislike what they and classmates call “boring history.”  Yet in Abraham Lincoln, Pro Wrestler, several magical encounters with Lincoln before he becomes president begin to change their minds about history.  His down-to-earth good humor and hokey jokes, along with Lincoln’s own desire for a dramatic change, surprise Abby and Doc almost as much as their discovery of a magical time portal—a large box containing just a few text books– in the school supply room.  

lincolnboxThat box is a great metaphor for the factual details Sheinkin highlights to bring history to life.  (Lincoln really did wrestle and tell jokes.)  Swaab’s cartoon-like black and white drawings capture the energetic flailing of surprised characters as they tumble in and stumble out of the box, the first of the series’ unexpected time portals.   Sheinkin’s pitch-perfect capture of school routines furthers the humor here.  Of course, Lincoln’s lack of picture ID would deny him entry back into their school!  Lincoln reappears in the series’ other books, acting as a kind of guardian as other historical figures fantastically take their own turns at escaping some of the best-known, often least enjoyable aspects of their lives. 

Abigail AdamsFor instance, Abigail Adams resents the fact that—as one of our country’s earliest First Ladies—she is often most remembered for drying laundry inside the half-built White House.  Sheinken foregrounds her strong interest in women’s and human rights by showing how she eagerly, temporarily becomes Abigail Adams, Pirate of the Caribbean.  The loving, bickering relationship she shares with her president abigail2husband is central to the action-filled plot.  He even  learns to follow her ultimately famous advice to “Remember the Ladies.”  This book, along with others in the series, concludes with author Sheinken separating sometimes surprising fact from fiction in an afterward titled “Un-Twisting History.”  


Nat LoveIn the later books, Abby and Doc’s amazed classmates and teacher  read along in their history text book as time-twists change events moment-to-moment.  This technique is particularly engaging as Sheinkin and Swaab show how Nat Love, a famous 19th century Black cowboy, uses his lasso to rescue the first moon mission!  By the end of Neil Armstrong and Nat Love, Space Cowboy, the once history-averse characters are asking for “MORE HISTORY!”  The length of books in Ameliathis series, each having 20 or so short chapters,  is just right, including enough dramatic detail,  character-driven dialogue, and humorous images to gain and hold our interest, too.  Amelia Earhart and the Flying Chariot, which takes that historical figure along with Abby and Doc back to the earliest Olympic games, is similarly engaging. Swaab’s images and apt lettering of sound effects continue to detail the past while dramatizing time twists.

Queen of the SeaAuthentic, unusual (to us) details of 16th century British life are just one strength of the recently published Queen of the Sea (2019), written and illustrated majestically by Dylan Meconis.  Tweens and teens will probably be most riveted, though, by the central characters and dramatic action in this alternate history novel, rooted in the early life of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603 C.E.).   Here called Eleanor, exiled from a  kingdom known as Albion, Eleanor’s imprisonment brings her to the northern island home of the novel’s narrator, 11-year old Margaret.  This likeable, believable girl—curious, smart, and loyal—has been raised by nuns in their convent, the remote island’s only community.  She does not know that the convent is also a prison for those who have offended the king.  For several years, these prisoners include a woman and her young son William, Margaret’s only same-age playmate. 

williamReaders will care about Margaret, be fascinated by Eleanor, and connect to this distant time and place thanks to Meconis’ powerful storytelling.  She creates a world here– complete with believable secondary characters, both loveable and hateful—with richly satisfying words and images, a combination of humor and adventures large and small.  Queen of the Sea, I am sure, will win accolades as one of this year’s best tween/YA graphic novels.

tableMeconis unifies her 400 page work by using the same format for  Margaret’s detailed, often tongue-in-cheek understanding of topics ranging from kinds of nuns to canonical hours, convent sign language, and embroidery stitches.  For each explanation, double-page spreads show circular items arranged concentrically.  This technique also first introduces us to each nun and later reacquaints us with them once the surprised Margaret learns more about their past . . . and her own history.  She was not just an infant who survived a shipwreck.  Her chessgamedramatic past, along with Queen Eleanor’s, and how that shapes their relationship is summed up in the chess games the two eventually play. As Eleanor remarks about the Queen pieces set up for their first game, “And now . . . they’re ready to fight.”  Later, hidden rescues, a wild chase and a last-minute escape dominate the book’s final pages.

Both daily life and dangerous flight absorb readers through Meconis’ swiftly-paced storytelling, presented in muted full-color images.  In an interview, Meconis has explained that she draws initially online but then downloads these images for completion by hand, using water colors and colored pencil.  Apt shifts in perspective and alternation of close-ups with mid and long distance views also support the narrative here.  Subtle shifts in expression and changes in body margaretdrawslanguage, reflecting what is being discussed or is occurring, also advance our understanding of the novel’s events.  Alongside the central characters, servants, royal guards, nuns, and other island visitors—some expected, others not—brim with distinctive life. Readers may also delightedly note that whenever young Margaret is recounting her understanding of biblical events or folklore the style of drawing becomes simpler, the colors more vivid.  This change is another layer of enjoyable sophistication in this many-layered, pleasurable historical graphic novel.

Readers will look forward to the sequel suggested by its final words and image:  “But for now—it is enough” precedes a place-holding, threaded embroidery needle.  Meconis has even said in an interview, “I do know what happens next, and Margaret certainly has more to say.”  Until then, readers may take pleasure in this gifted author/illustrator’s online feminist fable “Outfoxed”  or look at her other published YA graphic novel, The Long Con (2019).  I have that book, set at a modern science fiction and fantasy convention,  on order from my public library.

king georgeSimilarly, fans of the Twisted History series might enjoy looking at some of author Steve Sheinkin’s other, earlier humorous takes on American history:  King George—What Was His Problem: Everything your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the American Revolution (2008),  Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War (2008), and Which Way to the Wild West: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About rabbi harveyWestward Expansion (2008, 2015), all illustrated by Tim Robinson.  Sheinkin himself illustrated as well as wrote funny graphic novel mash-ups of Western and Jewish immigrant history in three books about fictional Rabbi Harvey.  These begin with The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West (2006).   I look forward to catching up with the other books in this series.

Happy reading—and best wishes for a fun-filled, successful school year!



Posted in graphic novels, hybrid books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Life’s Soundtracks

musicWhich song could be the soundtrack of your life today?  This question is posed to the 8th grade characters in Operatic (2019), a wonderful new graphic novel combining music history and biography with smart insights into the complex tween and teenage years.  Author Kyo Maclear and illustrator Byron Eggenschwiler do a pitch-perfect job showing us how the students in “Mr. K’s” music class respond to this assigned question, based on their evolving self-awareness, middle school dynamics, and new as well as long-standing friendships.  This Canadian duo seamlessly blends their considerable talents in this richly satisfying work, which will move readers young and old with its poignancy as well as humor. 

OperaticAs Maclear has said, this is a novel about friendship, with the crush that develops between two of the four central characters a secondary element.  Charlotte Noguchi (aka Charlie), a hapa (part Asian) teen, is the narrator, with shy, bookish Emile and a new student, un-selfconsciously genderfluid Luka, the other fictional characters.  The final central character is real-life opera star Maria Callas, who voices the song Charlie is amazed to discover is the soundtrack—the personally resonant and meaningful tune—to her current life.  What Charlie finds out—and then imagines—about the difficult younger years and complicated life of this sometimes controversial diva is non-fiction intertwined smoothly with the fictional framework here.  Mr. K’s ongoing overview of music history—with different musical styles, such as emo and hip-hop–is a similarly smooth part of the narrative.  (In her blog, author Maclear reveals that her sons’ middle school music teacher was the inspiration for Mr. K.  She recently interviewed this gifted teacher.)    

Mr. K.Maclear uses precise, apt words and verbal images to convey Charlie and Emile’s slow-growing affection for each other, along with the concern they share for Luka, absent now from school after homophobic bullying by some schoolmates. For instance, Charlie notes that Emile’s “voice lights up my belly like sparklers/ little pops of brightness in my gut.”   When she thinks about Luka’s initial self-assurance, Charlie realizes that Luka “was kind of stubborn.  Like the oak tree by the old tennis courts.  That just keeps growing and doesn’t care that it’s not meant to be there. Like that.”  Such word craft, including natural speech rhythms for all the book’s characters, has won MacClear awards for works written for adults as well as story books for kids.  (I reviewed one of those story books, The Fog, here.)  It is remarkable, though, that Operatic is Maclear’s  first graphic novel, as she is stunningly good at deliberately leaving narrative space for illustrator Eggenschwiler to develop the story visually.

desk operaticEggenschwiler effectively uses color to code each character’s strand within the novel’s limited, muted palette: Charlie’s sections are golden yellow; Emile’s are dark grey; Luka’s parts are sky blue; and Maria Callas’ arc is rose red.  When their stories overlap, either within the book’s main narrative or within a character’s imagination, so do the colors.  For operatic butterfliesinstance, the mystery behind Luka’s prolonged school absence, ultimately resolved well, is signaled by a jarringly blue desk.  And when Charlie daydreams about Emile, who studies insects, she mentally pictures him reclining in a lush grotto composed of outsized, yellow and dark grey butterflies.  This two page spread is just one instance of full or double page images where size conveys dramatic emphasis.  The transporting impact of Maria Callas’ rich voice is seen in several red-hued full or double page images.

maria operaticEggenschwiler also takes full advantage of narrative space to both advance and enhance Operatic’s story.  Often, he deploys wordless panels or pages for this purpose.  For instance, after Charlie’s mentally musing at the bottom of one page that Emile “has a way of looking sideways into my eyes that makes me feel kind of. . . ,“ we turn the page to see Charlie wordlessly melting into a puddle next to her classroom desk!  This gently humorous image is a wonderful conclusion to that half-finished verbal thought.  Similarly, when the young, unhappy Maria Callas borrows phonograph music records from her public library, we turn the page to see her eagerly, wordlessly examining her newest treasure even as she descends the library portico’s steps.  

LukaMontage images, often employing hand-lettered words whose size and style—jittery and jagged to round and smooth—reflect different musical styles and volume, are other elements in Eggenschwiler’s visual repertoire here.  In an interview, he explains that he first hand-draws these cross-hatched images in pencil, later coloring them further on a computer.  Sometimes, montage images surreally juxtapose other school figures or family members of the main characters.  At other points, Eggenschwiler shifts perspective so that at apt moments in the story we see events or objects through Mr. K’s or young Maria Callas’ eyes.  Again, I note with amazement that Operatic is also this artist’s first graphic novel.  Typically, he works full-time as an editorial illustrator, with other more limited experience as a story book illustrator.

divaI believe readers of Operatic will come away—as I have—eager to read and see more work by its gifted creators.  Possibly you or they may want to listen to recordings by Maria Callas, see a recent documentary film about her, or watch a recorded bit of Master Class, a play written about this demanding diva when she taught.  I know I also will be thinking about which song is my own life’s soundtrack today and pondering what would have been the soundtrack during my middle school years.  Happily, as noted in Operatic, these tunes have the potential for change and growth that we ourselves do!  That reassuring, joyful lesson is one of the upbeat melodies emerging from this graphic work and its positive, life-affirming conclusion. 

Meanwhile, later this month I look forward to some serendipitously related movie-going.  In just two weeks, a film in part about discovering one’s personal soundtrack Blinded by the lightdebuts nationwide.  The entertaining trailer for Blinded by the Light—depicting how the rock music of U. S. singer/composer Bruce Springsteen inspired a Pakistani-British teen—has captured my interest.   Learning that this movie is based on the real-life experiences of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, as described in his published memoir Greetings from Bury Park (2008; 2019), adds to my anticipation here.   It also reminds me to look far and wide for my life’s soundtrack . . . now and in the future.  Music can transcend geographical distance and cultural differences, as Kyo Maclear, Bryan Eggenschwiler, and the characters they create in Operatic would agree.



Posted in biographies, graphic novels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fireworks or Fizzle?

fireworksAnticipating or recalling those 4th of July fireworks?  Colorful blasts have been part of “Independence Day” celebrations ever since the U.S. Declaration of Independence supposedly was signed on July 4, 1776.   Yet our new country’s continued growth is the exception rather than the rule.  More often, such attempts at statehood have fizzled.  This is an apt time of year to look at some of the many other less successful ideas people have had for independent statehood.  Readers tween and up will be entertained and sometimes moved by the thirty short-lived nations overviewed in the brand-new This Land is My Land: A Graphic History of Big Dreams, Micronations, and Other Self-Made States (2019).  Its author Andy Warner and illustrator Sofie Louise Dam do a fine  job of spotlighting the absurdities underlying many of these self-declared states while respecting the thoughtful, challenging visions underlying others.   

Warner separates these political innovations into five categories, each given its This Landown chapter.  “Intentional Communities” are ones where “groups of people [chose] to radically remake their social structures,” while “Micronations” describe “tiny nations” whose names few people will recognize.  “Failed Utopias” are grand “experiment[s]” whose failures were equally big, while “Visionary Environments” are accounts of the physical changes individuals have made, creating “wonderful and bizarre places” to “make their visions reality.”  The last chapter, “Strange Dreams,” describes some “plans . . . and schemes” for new nations that never took shape at all.  

Illustrator Dam provides helpful, color-coded world maps—showing the location of each new country—for each chapter as well as for the Table of Contents.  Readers might choose to dip into this book continent by continent, so to speak, as well as chapter by chapter.  I think This Land is My Land will be savored best when sampled in one of these ways, rather than being read straight through.  Such small “sips” will give readers time to ponder these surprising bits of history, perhaps going on to find out more about the places themselves and the situations and ideas that inspired them. Only 2 to 4 pages are devoted here to each new nation, brevity which may satisfy some readers but leave others at different points craving more. 

LibertatiaFor instance, after reading about “Libertatia,” a 17th century intentional community on Madagascar where for 25 years pirates and freed slaves lived in equality and harmony, readers might well ask about other countries started by former slaves or other ways some pirates rebelled against convention.  There are a wealth of possible topics to pursue here during long summer days!  Similarly, the section about “Oneida,” the failed 19th century utopia in upstate New York that became a hugely successful silverware company, might inspire readers to look into other utopian communities or the origins of popular or local businesses.

templesMicronations such as “North Dumpling Island” near Connecticut have been founded by brilliant, wealthy eccentrics such as inventor Dean Kamen, while other micronations have been founded as tax dodges!  Guilt and a father’s love inspired one visionary environment, the “Arizona Mystery Castle,” while razor blade tycoon King Camp Gillette’s strange dream of a New York city-state called “Metropolis” never took hold.  (Millionaires do not automatically have political knowledge or even good sense—as many U.S. citizens today would attest.)  Some new nations—such as “Auroville” in India—faded away after the death of an inspirational leader, while another Indian visionary’s plan, “Nek Chand’s Rock Garden,” survives today as a popular tourist attraction.

This Land is My LandSophie Dam’s illustrations support author Warner’ breezy tone in this book.    Her cartoon-like line drawings and non-realistic color schemes are light-hearted, almost carnival-like, buoying up even the eventual failures or strange fates that befall most of the nations depicted here.  Her playful treatment of panels—overlapping ones of different sizes, breaking through or omitting frames, and interjecting circular panels filled with characters congregating in surreal ways—is equally irreverent, as are some images here of traditional religious This Land is My Landleaders  and gay and lesbian nations.  Some tween readers might have questions about those images and topics or about the book’s casual mention of other serious topics such as slavery.  I wish the author or editor here had included a bibliography for further reading.  While there are visual signposts—in the form of single or double splash pages—for each chapter and each new nation, there are no similar way signs for materials outside This Land is My Land.  That omission is a failing.

Readers who have enjoyed Andy Warner’s quick-glimpses at national histories may relish his Brief Histories of Everyday Objects (2016), illustrated as well as written by Warner.  I missed this best-seller, but it sounds similar in tone and scope to This Land is Mine.  And, of course, young readers who do not know the musical allusion in that book’s title  should have the chance to hear some version of Woody Guthrie’s classic songIt sounds more poignant this close to 4th of July, to easy summer days of cross-country travel for some but hard days and nights of immigrant detention for others. 


Posted in graphic novels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Anne Frank Industry

Anne Frank house 2I was ready, site open and fingers poised, to purchase those “hot” on-line  tickets, going on sale precisely at noon.  One fumble and then . . . success!  I had snagged our spots—tickets we would use exactly two months later, during our weeklong stay in Amsterdam.  I felt like a Springsteen or Twins fan who had just won the Ticketmaster “‘lottery” for an upcoming, highly anticipated event.  But the prized openings I had secured were to a Holocaust memorial—the Anne Frank House.   How and when did Anne Frank become a household name and tickets to the Anne Frank House such an in-demand commodity?

Diary Anne FrankVisitors world-wide today flock to this building, since 1979 a museum commemorating that young victim of the Holocaust, made famous in the diary she left and its later incarnations as a play and movie.   The Diary of a Young Girl, as it is frequently titled, has since 1947 been published in more than 60 languages in thirty countries around the globe.  It is often tweens’ first introduction to the Holocaust, part of many school curricula.  Now Anne Frank’s diary is also available in a new, compelling graphic novel adaption, a book I reviewed after our trip last month to Amsterdam.

Both versions give us some of the intimate thoughts and daily experiences of this Jewish teenager who, along with her family and four others, during World War II hid in that very house to avoid Nazi capture.  The steep stairs today’s visitors climb are the same ones those desperate people trod to reach the sheltering, three level “Secret Annex” in the building where Mr. Frank had Anne Frank coverworked.  The museum reproduces some of the décor of the Annex back then, but its rooms are empty of furniture.  Visitors must imagine what life was like in those cramped quarters, drawing upon exhibits in other parts of the House.  They tell much about the years between 1942 and 1944, when daring Dutch friends helped the endangered Jews hide, before the Nazis burst in on the morning of August 4, 1944.  Visitors usually know that only Otto Frank survived the war to return to Amsterdam, after deportation and imprisonment in concentration camps.  Dutch friends then gave him Anne’s diary and other family papers they had rescued and saved.   

Visiting the Anne Frank House is a solemn, often emotional experience.  I saw a backpacking, bearded young man—listening to an audio version of one display—Anne Frank moviecover his eyes with one hand as his shoulders quaked with tears.  As a film buff, I was particularly touched by the movie star items adorning one wall of Anne’s room.  From her diary, we know how often she daydreamed about the photos she had put up there of such popular actors as Sonja Henie, Ginger Rogers, Robert Taylor and Robert Stack.   This typical teenage enthusiasm is such a contrast to the circumscribed, terror-driven life Anne and the others led in the Secret Annex.   I did not understand until recently, however, how Anne’s accessibility as a typical teen figures in the many controversies about her and her diary.

Even before our Amsterdam visit, I knew there long had been revelations about her father Otto Frank’s original editing of the diary.  He removed any mention of sex or sexuality and negative remarks about Anne’s mother or her parents’ marriage. Not Collected worksuntil the 1990s appearance of several “Definitive” and “Critical” editions were these cuts restored.  Those versions also explained that Anne had begun to revise her diary for possible publication, with this revision also covering several months absent from the original diary restored to Otto Frank.  This month’s publication of Anne Frank: The Collected Works (2019) contains the different versions of the diary, along with short stories Anne wrote, and also contains for the first time five loose pages from the diary found after the Nazi raid.  This history—along with fate of each Annex dweller—is on display at the museum.  Yet there is much about the diary’s history that is not mentioned or only briefly touched upon there.

For instance, until researching this essay I had not known that Mr. Frank also omitted most of Anne’s comments about Jewish beliefs and practices and some of her fearful remarks about Germans.  I also did not know that until 1991 the German translations of Anne’s diary omitted all negative remarks about Germans and Germany, substituting instead words such as “soldiers,” “people,” and “the enemy”!   Mr. Frank approved these changes because he viewed the Holocaust in terms of people’s general inhumanity rather than anti-Semitic genocide.  This controversial view, I have learned, also probably influenced the diary’s award-winning play and film adaptations.

American author Meyer Levin, with Otto Frank’s approval, wrote the first dramatic adaptation of The Diary of a Young Girl (1952).  Levin, a Jew, saw both the diary and his play as part as part of the ongoing, necessary outcry about the Nazis’ genocide of six million Jews.  This is not the play we know.  Otto Frank decided, on the recommendation of theater professionals and literary luminaries, to commission a different adaptation.  It would downplay Anne’s Judaism, as was his own wish, instead emphasizing the human drama of life in the Secret Annex.  That emphasis, his advisors said, would produce a more popular and successful play—a so-called “hit.”

anne frank playbillIt is this play—by veteran playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and first produced in 1955—which we know because it did become both a popular and critical success.  Their Diary of Anne Frank won the Pulitzer Prize for best play and other major awards in 1956 and, decades later, won new kudos for revival productions.   Goodrich and Hackett’s play was also the basis for the film, debuting in 1959, that won several Academy Awards.  Levin, though, remained incensed at his work’s rejection.  He sued Otto Frank and the successful play’s producers, claiming breach of contract and plagiarism of his writing.  This suit was settled out of court, but Levin went on to write a memoir and a novel about this conflict, rooted in his different, strong views of Anne Frank’s experiences and diary. 

Some opposing views of Anne Frank, though, are on display at the museum bearing her name.  For instance, some Holocaust survivors such as authors Elie Wiesel and Elie Wiesel NightPrimo Levi applaud the way Anne’s words, baring her soul, make the Holocaust real to people who cannot identify with the vast numbers of people actually slaughtered then.  Others say that an ordinary girl unreasonably has been turned into an “icon” or saint, turning the Annex into a kind of pilgrimage “shrine.”  Another criticism is that Anne’s youthful, upbeat responses have been spotlighted while her discouraged or bitter remarks have been overlooked.  Many people recall the staged and filmed versions of Anne Frank saying, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”  Far fewer know or remember that fifteen-year old Anne, after two discouraging years in the Secret Annex, also wrote “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.”   

I myself like the comments made by actress Whoopi Goldberg, who said that for her Anne was both an ordinary teen who could annoy others and a person who coped bravely with extraordinary experiences.  This balanced approach acknowledges the broad spectrum of responses to Anne Frank’s fame.   Some teens respond most to Freedom Writersparts of the diary that mirror their own typical emotional “growing pains,” while other young readers have been inspired by Anne’s experiences to rethink their own roles and opportunities in life.  For instance, Cara Weiss Wilson’s decades-long correspondence with Otto Frank, begun when she was a teen and later  documented in two books she published,  seems remarkable mainly for its American author’s focus on her own life.  Yet studying Anne Frank’s diary with teacher Erin Gruwell also led at-risk, bigoted California teens to transform their lives and community.  Their experiences as “Freedom Writers” are documented in a book and a movie.   

Other books, a play, and films have sprung from or employed Anne Frank’s fame.  In fiction, American novelist Philip Roth bizarrely employed her as a secondary character in his novels The Ghost Writer (1997) and Exit Ghost (2007).  These satirize his main character, a writer, who meets an imaginary Anne who survived the Holocaust, using a different name.  Anne Frank also appears as a secondary character, having survived the Holocaust, in American writer Shalom Auslander’s satirical novel Hope: A Tragedy (2012), while David Gillham’s recent novel Annaliese (2019), seriously explores what Anne Frank’s post-Holocaust life might have been like.   In 2014, a play sanctioned by the Anne Frank Fond, the Swiss foundation started by Otto Frank to maintain his daughter’s memory, also explored what Anne’s life might have been like had she survived the war.  Sharon Dogar’s novel Annexed (2010), set during the war years, is speculative in a different way, imagining the thwarted feelings between Anne and Peter van Pels in the Secret Annex—speculations that drew strong, mixed responses from readers. 

Miep GiesOpposing these fictions is a wealth of real life books by those who sheltered Jews in the Secret Annex, knew Anne before her family went into hiding, or through Otto Frank’s post-war marriage joined him in honoring Anne’s brief, bright life.   Several television programs and an Academy Award-winning feature documentary have also been made about Anne Frank.  These recollections and visible reminders of her place in Dutch and Jewish history stand in stark contrast to the mis-statements and lies of Holocaust deniers, some of whom have targeted the diary of Anne Frank as a forgery written for profit by Otto Frank!

Ironically, when the Fond’s copyright to Anne’s diary expired in 2015, its move to have a new copyright instated by listing editor Otto Frank as a “co-author” delighted Holocaust deniers.  They seized upon this motion as proof that the diary Bepis fake.  That outrageous claim is one despicable result of what has been an ongoing dispute between the Fond and the Anne Frank House.  Each organization believes it has (or should have) legal ownership of Anne’s diary and the Frank family memorabilia.  The paper trail there is unclear, exacerbating the organizations’ different takes on how to present Anne’s story.  Generally, the Fond sees this in broad humanist terms, as Otto Frank did, while the Anne Frank House is more focused on the genocide of Jews.  Recently, a third organization—the Anne Frank Center USA—has also become more active in this dispute.  Yet this group’s validity and authority as a Holocaust memorial organization is also a subject for debate.  The commodification of Anne Frank—in terms of the lucrative grants and donations to organizations bearing her name and dedicated to her memory—continues. 

This commodification is ongoing in incremental ways, too.  Entry fees to the Anne Frank House—such as the ones I paid—help support it, as do purchases at its small gift shop.  That store sells relevant books and post cards and also, for children, a Anne Frank buildbuild your own Secret Annex” kit.  (Though I understand that children learn in different ways, I still find that item in questionable taste.)  Similarly, the Anne Frank Fond received a portion of each ticket purchased to the play it sanctioned. I assume the Fond has or will be receiving income from the animated film it recently commissioned about Anne’s final months, after her capture.  Where is Anne Frank?, developed by the same duo who created the excellent recent graphic adaption of the diary, is scheduled to debut in Spring, 2020.   Paradoxically, this commercialization of history is also keeping that history alive, however different the interpretation of facts may be.

Finally, I want to point out relevant pieces by two authors whose works I greatly admire.  Award-winning Jewish-American writer Nathan Englander referenced EnglanderAnne Frank’s fame and conflicting images when he wrote and titled one of his complex short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”  (2012).   That story highlights different views of Judaism among Jews ourselves, also foregrounding a question Englander and his sister began asking themselves as  children: “Who would shelter us—as Anne was sheltered—if we are persecuted for being Jews?”  Dara Horn, another award-winning Jewish American novelist and scholar, examined Anne Frank’s life and fame even more overtly in a recent essay. She concluded that for many people it is easier to talk about dead Jews than live ones, particularly in terms of antisemitism and Israel.  Horn also critiqued the Anne Frank House while foregrounding another eloquent voice from the Holocaust. 

This week, when we marked the day that would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, as knowledge of the Holocaust continues to fade until high school students see nothing wrong in giving Nazi salutes, I think it is more important than ever to keep some memory of Anne Frank alive.  The meaningfulness of her life and death—whether we view her as an normally flawed human or a more saintly figure—is being lost in our meme-driven, Instagram world.  Just within the last month, her name and image have been the butt of superficial, offensive jokes by popular online and on-air humorists.  That thoughtless, contextless humor is the only part of the Anne Frank “industry” I find odious.  Otherwise, I believe the price we pay—whether in museum or other admissions, book and memorabilia purchases, or donations and grants—is well worth what we gain in historical knowledge and self-awareness. 





Posted in Books, graphic novels, memoir, war | Tagged | Leave a comment

In the Footsteps of Anne Frank

Anne Frank diary 1They were the hardest sets of stairs to climb.  Last month in Amsterdam, I visited the Anne Frank House  , since 1979 a museum commemorating that famous young victim of the Holocaust.  Through the diary she left (and its later incarnations as a play and movie), many people world-wide have come to know some of the intimate thoughts and daily experiences of this Jewish teenager.  During World War II, Anne, her family, and four others hid in that very house to avoid Nazi capture.  The steep stairs I climbed were the same ones they trod to reach the sheltering, three level “Secret Annex” in the business building where Mr. Frank had worked.  The museum reproduces some of the décor of the Annex back then, but its rooms are empty of furniture.  Visitors must imagine what life was like in those cramped quarters, drawing upon exhibits in other parts of the House.    

Anne Frank coverAs we now know, 13 year-old Anne and the others escaped capture for more than two difficult years, from 1942 to 1944.  Then, the Nazis burst in on them.  Fifteen year-old Anne—who in her diary once poignantly wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”—and her 17-year old sister Margot later died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  Only their father Otto Frank, of the eight people once hidden in the Secret Annex, survived to return to Amsterdam.  His decision to publish parts of Anne’s diary in 1948 led to this moving memoir’s eventually becoming a regular part of school curricula around the world.  Often, The Diary of a Young Girl, as it is frequently titled, is tweens’ first introduction to the Holocaust.  Today, the Anne Frank House draws visitors from around the globe.  I heard several languages during my visit there but never did learn the nationality of one back-packing, bearded young man, whose hand covered his eyes as his shoulders quaked with tears. 

Anne Frank sisterToday I want to tell you how extraordinarily powerful and wise the latest graphic version of Anne’s diary is.  It was initiated by the Anne Frank Fonds, the foundation holding copyright to the diary, specifically to appeal to the growing audience for graphic works.   Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation (2018), adapted by Ari Folman and illustrated by David Polonsky, condenses while preserving Anne’s own insights.  For example, her many comments about her loving but fraught relationship with sister Margot appear here on just one page, replicating the multiple, painful comparisons adults often made between the girls.  It is through such condensing that this graphic work at 150 pages is roughly half the length of the autobiography now published in more than sixty languages. 

Those who have visited the House will also note how Polonsky has used some of the sparse, precious memorabilia we have of Anne’s short life in his illustrations.  Anne’s fearful imaginings of how Nazis treat the Jews they round up, here depicted Anne Frank Kittyas slaves working on a pyramid, resonate anew in light of Anne’s completed school project on ancient Egypt.  Seeing the notebooks for that project in display cases also adds resonance to a double page spread capturing adult conflicts in the Annex.  Mrs. Frank, Mrs. van Daan, and Mr. van Daan, arguing  fiercely, are all shown as hissing sphinxes, twined round the words of their running disagreements.  Sphinxes are among Anne’s drawings for her report.  And, of course, seeing the surviving red-plaid diary itself adds immense emotional heft to the way she personalized her diary entries, writing them as letters to an imaginary best friend named “Kitty.” 

Yet one does not have to have visited the House to appreciate this graphic adaptation’s emotional punch.  Polonsky’s illustrations, in particular, advance and deepen Folman’s verbal retelling of Anne Frank’s thoughts and experiences.   When she is depressed, we see her literally upside down, falling as it were into a shaded gloom.  At other points, her fears about being discovered and captured by the Nazis are shown in doublewide images.  Such despairing scenes have shadows in the way that most of the images in this adaptation—drawn in the “clear line” (ligne claire) style of many European comics—do not.  For instance, when Anne thinks for a time that she and Peter van Daan, the other teen in the Annex, are falling in love, nothing shadows those moments.  Instead, Polansky enhances them by depicting the teens with reflections of one another in their eyes.

Anne-Frank-residentsInterposed with these serious moments are the angrily humorous thoughts teenaged Anne has about her ever-present companions.  On one page, her noting their annoying repetition of the same complaints and concerns is emphasized by Polonsky’s drawing them satirically as wind-up toys.   On another doublewide spread, their eating preoccupations are captured at dinner, with everyone shown as an animal whose typical gobbling or nibbling matches the person’ habits.  In this adaptation, as in the diary Anne herself had begun to revise for possible publication, the full depiction we get of a very bright teen’s insights, hopes, and questions makes the truncation of her life—the weight of that loss—so shocking and painful. 

Famed Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who wrote eloquently about his own  experiences then and their aftermath, once said of Anne Frank after her capture, Elie Wiesel Nightthat “No one can answer  . . . questions” about what she might have written about that time, that “no one has the right to.”  Yet in effect that is the next project that the Anne Frank Fonds has sanctioned.  It has commissioned Ari Folman and David Polonsky to create an animated movie about the last seven months of Anne’s life, from her capture until her death in February or March, 1945.  The creative Israeli duo—whose animated movie Waltz with Bashir (2008) , about Israel’s 1980s war with Lebanon, won or was nominated for multiple awards—feels their graphic adaption of Anne Frank’s diary prepared them for this monumental task.

They have completed filming of Where is Anne Frank?, now planned for Spring, 2020 release.  This film, combining 2 D characters with stop-motion animation, is told from the viewpoint of “Kitty,” Anne’s diary magically brought to life after Anne’s capture.  Thinking Anne is still safely hiding in the Secret Annex, Kitty goes where-is-anne-frankthere before catching up with and following Anne during the next pain and terror-wracked months.  I anticipate seeing Where is Anne Frank? with both high interest and dread. Drawing upon accounts from the handful of survivors already acquainted with the Franks, who saw Anne, Margot, and their mother during those post-capture months, this film is bound to be harrowing.  I anticipate once more feeling as though I am walking in Anne Frank’s footsteps!

Anne Frank collectedI do not know if the film will also shed light on the lingering question of how the Nazis learned about the Annex’s occupants.  As I mentioned last fall while reviewing two Dutch graphic novels, some brave Dutch individuals aided Jews while others collaborated with the Nazis.  That possibility is another of the pervasive fears articulated in both The Diary of a Young Girl ( now also available in a new edition of Anne Frank: The Collected Works [2019])  and its recent, gripping graphic adaptation.







Posted in Books, graphic novels, memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment