Emancipation and Inauguration–Days Old and New

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Vantage Points: Staring into 2017

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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More or Less Grimm

6a00e5535ff83b88330105367edf8d970b-800wiChristmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and other festive occasions . . . .

Two recent, compelling fairy tale volumes would make excellent gifts this holiday season.  Matt Phelan’s Snow White: A Graphic Novel (2016) and Shaun Tan’s The Singing Bones (2015; 2016) are my enchanting focus today.  Viewed separately or together, these books’ very different visual takes on classic stories demonstrate the wonderful breadth of unfettered imagination.  Readers tween and up will appreciate these works rooted in folk tales first collected and published by the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm between 1812 and 1857.   Those original Grimm stories were more violent and darker than many modern versions, watered down to be “suitable” for younger audiences—most famously by cartoon mogul Walt Disney.  Phelan and Tan’s books, while not totally grim, remain truer to the original tales. 

414pgqjpeyl-_sx402_bo1204203200_Award-winning author/illustrator Phelan (first reviewed here in December, 2013) drew on iconic photographs and films to set his Snow White primarily in Depression-era U.S.A.  Living in 1918 New York City, Snow is a happy, well-to-do child whose later tribulations take place after the 1929 stock market crash precipitates the Depression.  The black-and-white, sepia, or lightly tinted pages of this book reflect photos and movies typical in the 1920s and 1930s.   Before full-color films became the norm, silent black-and-white movies sometimes had a few tinted scenes to reinforce changes in mood or action.  Vivid color—the red of blood and the deceptive lushness of poisoned apples or lips—is used sparingly here, to great dramatic effect.  Similarly, the book’s happy ending (after a dramatic kiss, not in a forest or castle but a department store window!) is reinforced by pages drawn and water-colored in a range of pastel colors. 



snow-white-2Phelan effectively updates and anchors Snow White to this specific time and place in many ways.  Her evil stepmother is a Ziegfeld Follies star whose desire for the spotlight is exceeded only by her greed; here, she is inspired by messages from a seemingly demonic stock exchange ticker tape machine, rather than a magic mirror.  Her plots, machinations, and evil deeds are effectively conveyed by telling close-ups, another cinematic technique Phelan employs.  His knowledge and love of silent films is also evident in the many wordless scenes in the book, some as long as ten or twelve double spread pages.  The electrifying end to that murderous Follies star’s schemes —in a chapter aptly titled “Up in Lights”—is almost totally wordless, yet very rich in emotion as well as fast-paced action.  Sound-effect words and street signs, along with facial expressions, communicate so much in these pages, as they do throughout the book.


This story’s Depression-era characters include seven homeless boys, living hand-to-mouth on the streets and in a hobo encampment, who are Phelan’s fairy tale “dwarves,” sheltering, rescuing, and for a time mourning Snow White.  Their initially suspicious, pugnacious faces are eloquent, even when all their leader will reveal about them is the dismissive, wary phrase, “We’re the Seven.  That’s all you need to know.”   Readers may become misty-eyed when each boy, mourning Snow’s apparent death, whispers his name into her ear. 

download-1Phelan strives for such emotional response in his works.  In an interview , he has said “that emotional connection is  . . . something I aspire to in my work.”  That is why his drawing is not totally realistic in style: as he puts it, “I’ve always loved sketches and art that has a ‘just enough’ quality to it.”  He adds that, rather than using a guide sketch, after much time in preparation and initial thumb-nail sketches (Snow White: A Graphic Novel took three years to complete), he draws freehand from those sketches, working “quickly on each panel.  I want a certain energy to the line and the watercolor.”   Phelan’s typical use of un-bordered, irregularly sized panels and double spread pages, some without any panels at all, adds to the vibrancy of his story-telling goals and technique.


While Matt Phelan avoided reading multiple written versions of Snow White, wanting “to approach the story fresh,” Shaun Tan’s fairy tale volume was inspired by the written word.  Specifically, after designing the cover and a few internal illustrations for 51jqd0yuisl-_sx383_bo1204203200_a German language edition of Grimm’s fairy tales, Tan was hooked!  That book was a translation of noted British author Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (Viking, 2012), which contained Pullman’s favorite fifty tales.  Tan (reviewed here in August, 2014 and April, 2015)  was so entranced by Pullman’s language and storytelling that he went on to identify and create sculptures in The Singing Bones for seventy-five Grimm tales.  Tan’s book, however, does not contain complete versions of these tales.  Instead, a significant passage from a tale appears on the left hand page, with Tan’s related sculpture appearing on the opposite right-hand page.  Noted fairy tale scholar and translator Jack Zipes is the author of these passages, as well as the Annotated Index summarizing the tales’ plots.

imagesAward-winning Tan’s imaginative take on each tale differs dramatically from Phelan’s.  Rather than situating the tales in a particular time and place, Tan’s sculpture captures the emotional center of each story, recreating people, creatures, and items with minimal detail and dreamlike distortion.  In his Afterward, Tan writes that he was “inspired by Inuit stone carvings and pre-Columbian clay figurines . . . .”  He used papier-mache and air-dried clay, colored with acrylic paint, metal oxides, and shoe polish, to create his small-scale pieces.  Elsewhere, Tan notes that some of his  paper sculpting techniques were folk craft taught by his Malaysian/Chinese father.    With input from his skilled photographer wife, Inari Kiuru, Tan then designed for The Singing Bones the photographed versions of his three-dimensional art.   

9781760111038-3These are powerful, haunting images.  Tan embodies the story of Snow White in a sculpture of the evil queen or stepmother, red with violent envy; sharp-featured with consuming, murderous ambition; shadowed by pride which has made her spiked crown as large and important as her barely human head.  His Hansel and Gretel are both too hungry and too greedy for sweets to see the dangerous, powerful witch lurking behind the download-2seemingly harmless old woman who then invites them inside her candy-studded cottage.  The reader, though, sees that monstrous figure as well as the cracks in the cottage, with its doorway that also resembles the opening of a clay oven.  It is the weariness of toiling Cinderella, falling asleep inside the sooty bed of a fireless chimney, rather than her glass slipper and romance, that Tan emphasizes.  And it is the dangerous naivety of Little Red Cap, contrasted with the wolf’s smug assurance and size, rather than her final rescue that Tan embodies in highlight. Readers will want to linger over these familiar tales, and also make good use of the index to discover the full stories behind the many compelling pieces born of lesser known tales.

2244Like author Neil Gaiman, who wrote the Foreword to The Singing Bones, I long to touch these pieces, to revel in their textures and also view them from different angles.  My desire here is also fed by my own dabbling in clay this past year, producing pieces heavier on emotion than realism.  It was researching folk tales for possible inspiration for my future sculptures that led me to discover Shaun Tan’s three-dimensional art!   Now, I need to see which tales apart from the Grimm brothers might spark some more of my own amateur efforts.  First up: a look into the folk tales of my own Eastern European Jewish heritage.  


51ywroazv6l-_sx491_bo1204203200_Are you interested in other graphic works depicting folk or fairy tales from different traditions? There are many picture books depicting “Cinderella” stories around the globe.  Ed Young’s award-winning Lon Po Po (1989;1996), set in China; John Steptoe’s acclaimed Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (1978; 2008), set in Africa; and Tomie de Paola’s Adelita (2002;2004), set in Mexico, are only a few.  I myself plan to catch up with an award-winning volume of Native American graphic folk tales, edited by Matt Dembicki, Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection (2010).  It features the combined efforts of Native storytellers with comic book artists.

Happy reading—and happy holidays!


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Twenty-first Century Genius

genius-007Two graphic novelists were among the twenty-three creative people recently awarded an annual MacArthur “Genius” grant, with its hefty prize money.  The MacArthur Foundation “celebrates and inspires the creative potential of individuals through no-strings-attached fellowships.”  I was delighted to see that novelist Gene Luen Yang, the current U.S. Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, was one winner. (I had discussed Yang’s great works in Gone Graphic posts for August, 2013; March, 2014; September, 2014; and February, 2016.)   But who was Lauren Redniss, the other graphic novelist being acclaimed by the MacArthur Foundation—and what were her works like?  I knew nothing about her! 

Today I am going to describe the three awesome Redniss books I just finished reading.  Teens or tweens interested in graphic works, art, biography, or in these books’ topics will revel in these gorgeous non-fiction volumes. Older folks will be fascinated, too!  Redniss’ deserved acclaim as a twenty-first century “genius”  also showcases and extends some techniques already familiar to fans of literature gone graphic. 

61yotly9i4l-_sx361_bo1204203200_Redniss is an art professor who has been praised by the National Book Foundation for “marrying the graphic and visual arts with biography and cultural history.”  Redniss herself recently said,  “I think I am drawn to people who are undaunted by hardship.  It puts things in perspective.”  Her first two books are unconventional biographies of extraordinary people, dancer Doris Eaton Travis and scientist Marie Curie, boldly showing and yet also at times just hinting at how they felt about the dramatic course of their lives.  Her third book shifts further into science, focusing on weather and climate change.

Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies (2006; 2012) primarily uses collage to document the life of its  subject, who lived to the remarkable age of 106.  Sepia-hued as well as full-color photographs, old newspaper clippings as well as hand-lettered text, are juxtaposed with physical mementos of Doris Eaton Travis’ life.  Born in 1904, thanks to her “back-stage mother,” Doris began performing on vaudeville stages as a four year-old, and after fame in the Ziegfeld Follies she and her siblings appeared in Hollywood’s silent movies. 

d1a839bce638bdb522c1ec0e8e32b825Redniss documents the different ways family members handled success and its loss, into and through the 1930s and 1940s, as the  Great Depression and World War II impacted their lives.  Giddy, silly, saucy, and even some sad images mark the passing decades.  Her sisters and brothers faltered, some just having plain bad luck, while Doris went on to a new career and success as a dance instructor, working with the Arthur Murray chain of dance schools.  Her passion for dance continued throughout her long life and her lengthy, complicated second marriage.  Along the way, this trouper entered college as a 77 year old “freshman,” and became a college graduate at 88!  The volume’s final pages include photographs of 100 year-old Doris onstage as well as of her musing about her life.  

Redniss frequently uses double-page spreads in this book (and her others), often shifting the background color and images to great dramatic effect.  Black is a frequent background color, also used on pages that mark transitions. A number of such spreads are wordless, communicating solely through the juxtaposed images.  What readers “see” here sometimes depends on how carefully we look at pages and remember others.  The cracks apparent on one close-up of a doll’s-head are telling at a low point in Doris’ family life; the tin soldiers one brother loved to play with as a child say something else about him when they re-appear at the end of his life, as he takes shelter with Doris and her husband. 


White, hand-written text, sometimes irregularly spaced, also contributes to the immediacy and rhythm of Redniss’ impressions of Doris’ life.  Another technique Redniss uses to convey emphasis and emotion, highlighting events or brief statements, centurygirl-131is to isolate them in the center of otherwise empty or nearly empty pages.  The left hand side of one such spread states in black letters on a white page:  WITH STRENGTH IN NUMBERS AND A SOLID PEDIGREE, THE EATONS SEEMED UNSTOPPABLEThe facing right-hand white page shows Doris with one of her brothers, with these ominous words as follow-up: BUT TIMES CHANGED. Redniss’ ability to identify and use apt words from interviews as well as printed sources is another storytelling strength she brings to this book (as well as her others). 

51tm3cpkybl-_sx351_bo1204203200_Print materials also complement images in Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout (2010; 2011), another breathtaking biography, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.  Here Redniss uses collage to show how Marie Sklodowska (1867 -1934) battled discrimination against women in science to become the degreed research partner (and later wife) of Pierre Curie.  Together, the couple in 1903 earned a Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of radioactivity.  After Pierre’s death, Marie Curie in 1911 earned an astonishing second Nobel Prize for her further work on the radioactive element radium. 

Yet these were not Marie Curie’s only accomplishments and struggles.  She (and Pierre) developed cancer and other  diseases through exposure to radioactive elements; they persevered with their research despite this, just as Marie persevered even after Pierre’s shocking, traffic accident death—researching, rearing radioactive-660x453her daughters, finding and losing another, somewhat scandalous love, and even contributing to France’s frontline efforts during World War I.  Radioactive uses text deftly chosen from letters, journals, and other written accounts to tell a profound love story as well as a history of science.  Moreover, the “fallout” of its subtitle extends beyond Marie Curie’s lifetime into the present day, as the book details the negative as well as positive results of the Curies’ discoveries.  Redniss interposes accounts of nuclear bombs and accidents at nuclear power plants, as well as advances in nuclear medicine, smoothly into the book.

Collage and the placement of images and text for dramatic effect again figure prominently in this book’s blue-rich, color saturated pages.   Photographs, maps, and a crypt rubbing as well as original drawings hold our attention in its page-turning narrative.  At one point, we literally have to turn the page to find the answer to this question about widowed Marie’s new love, scientist Paul Langevin:  “Who wouldn’t rejoice in the union of Paul and Marie—a coupling of giants?” At the bottom of the next double-spread of vivid, contrasting colors  is the answer, “His wife.”!  

blue_radioactiveFor the rich blue shades predominant here and the sometimes eerie images,  which often seem to glow and resemble half-developed photographs or x-rays, Redniss used a specialized technique–cyantope printing.  As she explains at the end of Radioactive and in a related TED Talk, this chemical process depends on exposure to ultraviolet light.  For Redniss, cyanotypes were a method evoking and paying tribute to Marie Curie’s work with radioactivity.  Redniss goes on to explain how she manipulated the resulting blue images to add or change colors.

61agsqhveul-_sx372_bo1204203200_-1Similar thought went into Redniss’ choice of graphic techniques for her award-winning third book, Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, and Future (2015).  Her author’s note explains that she selected copper plate etching (and its contemporary offshoot, polymer plate etching) as a tribute to the centuries of records kept by weather-studying scientists and artists.  Master printers helped Redniss produce black and white prints, which she then hand-colored. The beautiful and totally wordless chapter 7, titled “Sky,” was hand-drawn by  Redniss, using colorful oil pastels. 

Double page spreads again dominate in this engrossing volume, which moves from unusual weather events to typical climatic conditions, from how individuals challenge themselves in extreme environments (such as distance ocean swimming) to how communities fare in extraordinarily harsh climates, such as the Arctic Sea’s Svarlbard islands. Color is extraordinarily important in this volume, whether vivid or pale.  We are awed by the intense orange-reds of deserts and forest fires and entranced by the dim greys of gallery-1445870542-tandl-p28-29polluted city fog and Arctic “snow blindness.”  Redniss illustrates the latter in four double spread pages, where we peer into soft grey-tones, attempting to make out the faint shapes there just as a snow-blind person might struggle to see in white-out conditions.  Black is again used effectively as background to a typeface Redniss created herself for this book.

In this history which ranges from eras in which weather was worshiped to ones in which humans, both deliberately and inadvertently, change weather events  and climate, Redniss continues to weave a strong narrative.  Diaries, letters, and personal interviews combine with newspaper accounts, official documents, and Redniss’ own words in this volume.  Attempts to predict the weather are both detailed precisely and slyly mocked, as in the pages devoted to the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  This good-natured laughter is one kind of humor in Thunder & Lightning. How much—and yet, how little—thought people seem to have given to climate change may confound readers, causing rueful and dismayed laughter, even as we marvel in appreciation or dismay at related images.   On issues where there is reasonable debate, such as whether humans should deliberately manipulate the environment, Redniss presents the conflicting viewpoints through entertaining anecdotes and images.


Twenty-first century genius Lauren Redniss is a master of some techniques you may have seen before in graphic works.  For example, collage and found objects figure in memoirs by Ozge Samanci (reviewed here in August, 2016), by Lucy Knisley (July, 2016 review), and in novels by Jennifer L. Holm and Elicia Castaldi (September, 2015 review).   Extended wordless passages also have a long history and other contemporary, excellent practitioners—such as Brian Selznick, Shaun Tan,  Peter Kuper, and Erik Drooker.  (See the Gone Graphic postings for November, 2015; April, 2015; and February 2014 for details.)  Level-headed Redniss herself demurs at being labelled a “genius.”  Possibly she might be more accepting of this label if “genius” meant nowadays what it did in 17th and 18th century England—the spark of creativity inside every person. 

lr-nyt-13However one feels about such labels, I am glad the MacArthur Foundation award drew my attention to Lauren Redniss’ gifts.  I intend to catch up with her earlier “Opt-Art” pieces for the New York Times, some cached at her website.  And I definitely will look for her next graphic novels.  Redniss has said that she is now at work on a book about an Apache tribe in Arizona, focusing on three generations within one family.  I am eager to see how she portrays those lives and that history. 



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Lively Looks at the Day of the Dead

 29700866772_5465f2b9ef_k-640x420A spirited crowd welcomed author/illustrator Raina Telgemeier to the Twin Cities the other week.  Tweens in family and class groups filled a large university auditorium, excited to meet the popular, award-winning cartoonist, on national tour to promote her brand-new graphic novel, Ghosts (2016).  This funny, tender-hearted book, colored by Braden Lamb, is one of two works I am spotlighting today, both centered on the November 1- 2 celebration of la Dia de Los Muertos—the Day of the Dead.  Author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh’s recent picture book biography, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, a 2015 award-winner, is the other.  Both are great reads for any age, and at any time of year.  Especially in October, though, these works can add piquancy and food for thought as Halloween images and activities loom large around us.   La Dia de Los Muertoes celebrates a very different view of the supernatural than the one Halloween traditionally promotes.

518xic8gdhl-_sx346_bo1204203200_The 6th grade protagonist in Ghosts, Catrina Allende-Delmar, is both skeptical and fearful of ghosts.  She and younger sister Maya are not familiar with the Mexican-American traditions that their mother, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, shunned in her own youth.  They do not know that, during the Day of the Dead, loved ones who have died are remembered with joy, honor, and affection.  Music, festive food, and dancing are the background notes to this holiday now celebrated beyond Mexico, with Halloween’s fearsome skeletons figuratively transformed into lost loved ones.  In Telgemeier’s fantastic novel, this transformation is a literal one, as the windy environs of Catrina and Maya’s new California hometown are filled with ghosts.  They may be encountered even on ordinary days, not just during this community’s welcoming Dia de Los Muertos celebration. 

Acknowledging death and what mght lie beyond it is particularly important to Catrina 640and Maya because Maya has cystic fibrosis—a degenerative, fatal disease.  As the younger girl poignantly tells Cat, “I have to talk to a ghost . . . . I want to know what happens when you die . . . . Dying isn’t pretend . . . .”  Telgemeier’s story insightfully depicts how Maya’s illness has shaped family choices, and how—despite the love between the sisters—Cat sometimes resents the priority given to Maya’s needs.  The author/illustrator also realistically depicts how cystic fibrosis typically affects its victims, the main ailment being difficulty in breathing.  Ironically, it is breath or wind which also “gives life” to Telgemeier’s ghosts. 

Despite these serious problems, Maya is an ebullient kid, quick to make friends, and Ghosts is an upbeat, well-rounded novel, not didactic in the messages it conveys.  Making new school friends, meeting new neighbors, and the good-natured back-and-forth of possibly acquiring an early-stages boyfriend are also depicted here.  Food is the fun-filled way the girls’ mother comes to terms both with her heritage and the memory of her mother.  And there is as much merry-making here as there are anxious moments before Cat discovers just how well-intentioned those ghosts are.  Deserted carnival buildings and rocky coastlines at night are two of the eerie, windswept settings that ratchet up Cat’s fears. 


Visually, Telgemeier combines cartoon-like drawing with more sophisticated narrative techniques.  Sometimes, the images within panels contradict the words with fine dramatic irony; at other points, images support and extend a character’s words.  Tense situations, such as Maya’s being taken ill or a spooked Cat running from her fears, are made more forceful through the alternation of close-ups with long or mid-distance views and changes in perspective.  Several action-packed wordless episodes—some extending as long as ten pages—capture the reader’s attention, leaving us breathless in the best possible way!  Colorist Lamb does a fine job of enhancing text and word balloons as well as balancing composition through color choice.  Ghosts ends on a high note, one maintained by the down-to-earth, informative author notes and thank you that conclude the book.



Telgemeier’s sly sense of humor is further confirmed as we turn to Duncan Tonatiuh’s 814udotafrlpicture book biography, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (2015).  Cat and Maya’s welcoming (human) neighbors are named the Calaveras family.  As Tonatiuh explains, the Spanish word calaveras literally means “skull.”  Calaveras has also come to mean the satirical skeleton images, associated with the Day of the Dead, best known through the work of Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852 – 1913).  Posada was himself no slouch in the humor department!  He poked fun not only at politicians but at the vanity and foibles of wealthy and working class people too. 

This picture book is visually rich in so many ways.  Tonatiuh depicts Posada and some other Mexicans with darker skin tones and facial features that reflect their Aztec heritage.  Many of Funny Bones’ pages are bordered bydownload-18 bones alternating with other emblems that indicate the passage of time—for instance, the pencils of Posada’s youth give way to inkpots as Tonituah describes how the artist began to etch his work.  And even life’s ups and downs—growing families, disastrous floods, fame and success, war—are depicted with cohesive visual flair, with centered images often arranged in circles.   I particularly relished the double page spreads showing how the Dia de Muertos was celebrated during Posada’s lifetime and Tonatiuh’s final imagining of what Posada’s calaveras might “look like nowadays.”  Those roller blading and skateboarding skeletons are a hoot!   


Young readers will relish these images along with Posada’s more serious, sometimes frightening calaveras.  Those are reproduced and offset here by Tonatiuh on separate, different-colored pages, with thoughtful questions about what these complex images might mean about human nature, life, and death.  Answers are left up to the reader.  Along with such food for thought, Funny Bones also provides more down-to-earth information.  It has clear, sequential images and brief explanations of the steps involved in the artistic processes of lithography, engraving, and etching.  Tonatiuh’s colorful images and crisp words are a fine tribute to Posada’s art and a holiday that celebrates life as much as it does death.  I think readers will be as eager as I was to read the author’s note and bibliography, which also contains information about where one may see Posada’s work in person in the U.S. A.


What sorts of skeletons will you be creating or looking for this October?  Spooky or kooky . . . terrifying or terrifically friendly?   Possibly la Dia de los Muertos is already one of the holidays you celebrate.  Perhaps it is time for a new (or new “old”) tradition for you and the young people in your life.  Perhaps you do not have to choose—after all, October 31 is followed by November 1 and 2.  First Halloween and then the Day of the Dead?   As Cat and Maya might say, “Wheeee!”!


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School Days vs. Labor Days

Is that alarm clock set to go off for school or work?  And how do the young people in your life feel, come September, when they answer that question? 

08_1001628101_6SUNSPOT072416_40839695Here in the U.S., Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer and start of another school year.  You probably know at least a few kids unhappy with this turn of events!  Yet around the globe school remains an out-of-reach luxury for too many kids, many of whom labor in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.  Still other young people world-wide are denied an education just because they are female.  These inequities are the focus of today’s blog, which spotlights three excellent picture books.  A recent visit to the Twin Cities by Malala Yousafzazi, the Pakastini teen whose brave, inspirational struggle for an education led to a Nobel Peace Prize, had me looking for graphic works about her and these topics. 

Malala’s remarkable story has been told in a text-based book for older kids and teens—I am Mala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (2014, co-authored with Patricia McCormick, adapted from the 2013 book co-authored by Christina Lamb).  But I also sought and found works that would bring the hard facts and emotional realities of child labor to even younger readers.  After all, children as young as four labor around the globe.  I hoped I would find books that would uplift as much as dismay—and I am happy to say that I did.   

malala-a-brave-girl-from-pakistan-iqbal-a-brave-9781481422949_hrAward-winning author/illustrator Jeanette Winter has created an unusual as well as powerful dual biography in Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan (2014).  As one of its covers aptly notes about this volume, it contains “Two stories of bravery in one beautiful book.”  What is remarkable about these twinned stories is that readers can begin either narrative by flipping the volume upside down! Each begins on a separate side of the book, and each concludes as the stories “meet” in the wordless mid-point double spread.  There, in a visually poetic rendering of the similar dreams of each child, Iqbal is shown on one page seeming to reach for a kite, while Malala is depicted on the other holding onto one as it soars. The dreamlike nature of this scene is heightened by its nighttime background, with stars dotting the dark  sky.  This sky unites the pages, as do the balanced composition of images and reuse of colors.  Readers merely flip the book to bring the second scene into more prominent focus. 


Malala struggled for her education, surviving an assassination attempt in 2012, because Islamic zealots in Pakistan thought girls and women should not read anything but religious texts.  She and her classmates had to attend school in secret.  Poverty—and lack of laws against child labor—a decade earlier limited Iqbal’s access to education.  From the age of four, he worked long hours in a carpet factory, sent there by his parents to pay off their debt.  The ways in which this labor stunted and twisted Iqbal’s body, and the beatings he suffered, were long term assaults, the “flip side” of the bullets that in just seconds nearly killed Malala.  It was her extended recovery from this attack that took much time and multiple surgeries.  Yet, as young readers will discover, while Iqbal finally freed himself and others, acquiring and using education to speak out against child labor, bullets also cut short his life.  This murder was probable retaliation by those who lost money and future profits when local laws against child labor became better known, enforced, and expanded. 



51cKB7Nh4YL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_This book’s images display Winters’ signature style—vivid colors, flat perspective which removes the need for shading or shadows, and frequent use of decorative borders to frame scenes.  She also depicts some sequential events in different sections of the same setting.  That this so-called “folk art” style is also reminiscent of Persian miniature paintings is a further plus in this biography of two Muslim children, as it is in Winters’ related book about forbidden education for girls, Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan (2009).  That multiple award-winning work shows both the devastating effects of repression by the Taliban regime there between 1996 and 2001 and the healing power of education.

After her father is brutally arrested and her mother disappears, traumatized Nasreen stops speaking.  Her sad face and blank stare do not change even when her worried grandmother finds and sends Nasreen to “a secret school for girls.”  Grandmother explains that she wants Nasreen to “learn about the world” as the women in her family have in better, less narrow-minded times.  Nasreen does begin to speak—and feel, and make a friend—but only after many months.  This healing is indeed spurred and supported by the worlds contained and revealed in books.

Besides the wonderful cover image showing the varied folk and fairy tale characters contained within a book, Winters’ vivid illustrations, one per page, bring to life such succinct phrases as “Windows opened for Nasreen in that little schoolroom.”  nasreens-secret-school-9781416994374.in01Illustrations here expand the text, as when Nasreen’s lost parents, shown holding hands, are depicted in the “blue sky beyond those dark clouds” that once obscured Nasreen’s inner as well as outer sight.  It is also telling that Grandmother concludes this story with full-hearted piety, with the typical Muslim expression following an expressed hope, “Insha’ Allah” (God willing).  Her pious wish, so unlike the Taliban’s limits on women’s education, is for Nasreen’s continued growth—that “soldiers can never close the windows that have opened for [her] granddaughter.” The centrality of this goal and this family connection is reinforced by Winters’ final image, showing us  Grandmother and Nasreen close together, in the center of a framed yet boundless night sky.

51Wj7LL9DHL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Yasmin’s Hammer (2010; 2015), written by Ann Malaspina and illustrated by Doug Chayka, is set in the country of Bangladesh, once known as East Pakistan.   Its fictional account, rooted in real-life experiences, harkens back to Iqbal’s tale, as it is poverty that limits Yasmin’s access to education.  Yasmin wants to know more to satisfy her curiosity and also to have job opportunities now far beyond her reach.  Her family would like to send her to school, but they need the money that Yasmin, about 10 or 11 years old, and her younger sister Mita earn each day as brick chippers.  This hot, dusty work leaves the girls with coughs that show how their lungs are being harmed, even as their bloodied and blistered fingers are the more apparent injuries. doug-chayka-book-illustrations-02 Yet the coins the girls bring home help pay for food and shelter, and will help their hard-working parents save enough money to purchase the rented rickshaw Father now pedals each day.  ( Mother spends long hours washing clothes and cleaning houses.)  Until then, it seems Yasmin must be content with the promised “Soon” she hears from her parents, a word she repeats to herself whenever school is mentioned. 

That litany takes on new meaning when, having taken on even more work, thrifty Yasmin saves enough to buy and bring home a book.  None of them can read it!  By yasminspread22glowing candlelight, she and her family puzzle out what some of the words in this alphabet picture book might be. Her parents are moved by this experience.  They increase their own heavy workloads, earning more money, so that Father can surprise Yasmin and Mita one morning with a rickshaw ride along an unknown route.  The girls are not going to the brickyard to use their hammers.  It is her father’s smile which helps Yasmine realize joyfully, as the book concludes, where they are instead headed: “Then I know.  This is the way to school.”

The amount of text in this book, along with its front source list and informative back matter, including a glossary, make it well-suited for upper elementary age readers.  Yet readers of any age will appreciate the glowing colors of Chayka’s full page illustrations, originally completed as oil on canvas paintings.  He captures not only the bustling, vivid hues of Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, where Yasmin’s family now lives, but also the calm, softer tones of their earlier village home, before it was destroyed by a cyclone.  And Chayka succeeds, I believe, in his stated aim of depicting the “brightness and inner life of the characters.”  Like Iqbal, Yasmin never loses sight of her goal, and her efforts inspire others to help her to reach it.     

51tnnCNvg6L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Young readers may also appreciate learning more about the history of child labor within the U.S.  While the text of Russell Freedman’s award-winning Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor (1994; 1998) is best suited to upper elementary and older readers, Hines’ insightful photographs—still acting as change agents—will provoke interest and discussion in readers of all ages.  Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Kids on Strike (1999) is similarly illustrated with dramatic historical photos.  And Lawrence Migdale’s sensitive photographs in Migrant 618FK1HJFTL._SY473_BO1,204,203,200_Worker: A Boy from the Rio Grande Valley (1996), written by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith,  demonstrate ways in which child labor still occurs in the contemporary United States.  As youngsters experience the first days of this new school year, comparing their own recent photos—particularly ones taken at school—with ones in these books might be educational experiences in themselves.

Happy Labor Day as you add new school days to your memories!




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Turkish Delights and Dangers

28_103397706_Turkish_soldiers_secure_the_area_as_supporters_of_Turkey27s_President_Recep_Tayyip_Erdogan-large_trans++ZgEkZX3M936N5BQK4Va8RWtT0gK_6EfZT336f62EI5U (1)What sense do young U.S. readers, bombarded these days by the war of words between our presidential candidates and assaulted by the images and realities of U.S. gun violence, make of recent events in Turkey?  A failed military takeover of the Turkish government on July 15 left hundreds dead and more than a thousand people injured, with thousands more later imprisoned, removed from their jobs, or forbidden to travel internationally.  Just a few weeks before that, a deadly terrorist attack at Turkey’s largest airport, outside cosmopolitan Istanbul, shocked the world.  I follow Turkish news not only because Turkey is an important U.S. ally but because our son lived in Istanbul for four years, from 2009 to 2013.  We learned much about Turkey then and visited there, too.

I wondered now whether any accessible graphic works would aid young readers’  understanding of modern Turkey, with its complex history as anchor of the once widespread Ottoman Empire.  So—with mixed results—I turned my attention to four graphic novels, all aimed at readers tween and up.  All turned out to be enjoyable reads, but only two speak to the complicated, sometimes brutal realities of life in Turkey today.  And, ironically, one of these relevant books never mentions Turkey at all!

618S+7M1IPL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_I first caught up with author/illustrator Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, a 2013 fiction bestseller, and its recently published sequel, Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling (2016).  These swashbuckling adventures, set in the early 19th century when Great Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, feature the daring, sometimes law-breaking deeds of Delilah Dirk.  In both books, this upper class British woman—whose incredible martial arts training, acrobatic skills, scientific gadgets, and penchant for violent “justice” remind me of superhero Batman—is accompanied by Mr. Erdemoglu Selim, the eponymous “Turkish lieutenant.”  His is the voice of reason which only sometimes restrains Delilah, and his superior tea-making abilities and loyalty to the hot-headed woman who once saved his life both are important plot elements in several of their thrilling adventures. 

514nTIdeZEL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_While I was pleased to see author Cliff stress that friendship, rather than a stereotypical romance, unites this unconventional pair, I was disappointed to see how Turkey was used mainly as exotic background for the first novel.  Constantinople (the earlier name for Istanbul) is that work’s first, riotously detailed setting.  Selim is, at first, a lieutenant in the Ottoman Empire’s military.  Yet the duo’s shipboard fights against the pirate captain Rakul, here set on the Bosphorus River and Sea of Marmara, might just as well have taken place on the Indian Ocean, with Mr. Selim being replaced by a native of the Indian sub-continent.   Little that is unique to Turkish culture or politics ultimately figures in these volumes—a fact also re-emphasized by the biases of some British characters in the European setting of Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling.  Its central villain, the treacherous Major Merrick, certainly disdains and lumps all dark-skinned people together, regardless of their country or continent of origin.  Merrick’s views are ones that fueled British imperialism, though no background notes are given about that, the Ottoman Empire, or the Napoleonic Wars in either book.  Perhaps—I am sad to realize—countries being at war need no explanation for some of today’s young readers, particularly ones seeking pleasure rather than information.   

And there is much that is pleasurable in these two graphic novels.  Cliff’s cartoonish illustrations are marvelous in their energetic, fast-paced depiction of action scenes, with close-ups alternating with mid and long-distance shots, many of them wordless.  We seem to tumble, swerve, and swoop right along Delilah Dirk!  These scenes retain a comic tone, too, through the many, sometimes funny faces characters display as they surprise themselves or one another in what might otherwise be high stress situations.  But there do not seem to be real consequences, in emotional terms, to all the blood being shed and death being dealt.  Instead, we get dramatically varied, inventive sound effect words such as “Clang, “FWHOOP,” “CHOOM,” and “KRISH.” 


Rich, lush colors highlight Cliff’s detailed renderings of scenes, and he wisely employs different, unifying color palettes as the action moves from one scene or time frame to another.  Readers will enjoy the way illustrations sometimes contradict the exchanges between “Miss Dirk” and “Mr. Selim,” showing how these friends sometimes deceive themselves as they attempt to influence one another or trick their opponents. Thinking of these characters’ strong relationship along with their many escapades, I was not surprised to learn that the Disney studio recently acquired movie rights to “the Turkish lieutenant series.”  Real-life events in Turkey would be less appealing to that family-oriented movie company. 

51qqwF3CKNL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_Similarly, the most dramatic events occurring in 1970s through 1990s Turkey take place mainly “offstage” in Ozge Samanci’s excellent graphic memoir, Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (2015).  These dramas include war with Greece over Cyprus, coups, and attempted coups.   Nonetheless, by selectively depicting her family’s daily life in the western coastal city of Izmir—including what she herself did not understand as a 6 year-old when the memoir begins—this author/illustrator has created a vividly intimate portrait of their lives, her growth as an individual, and how a restrictive society shaped individual choices and family dynamics.  Sad to say, many of those repressive situations—government limits on mass communications; sudden arrest of people suspected of dissent, followed by torture or beatings; a military sometimes operating on its own; and government officials who “bend” laws to remain in power—still exist in Turkey today.   As the backgrounds in some of Samanci’s illustrations slyly point out, through posters and graffiti on walls, only the names of some  dissident groups have changed.  I believe that reading this memoir will indeed help to inform tween and up readers about life in Turkey today, even though 21st century politics have brought new complications there.   Yet Dare to Disappoint is anything but heavy-handed or heavy-hearted in its storytelling.

Samanci effectively inserts collaged items into the impishly-drawn cartoon   narratives of her fifteen chapters.  For instance, the family members to whom the book is dedicated are represented by “stick figures” actually composed of button “heads” and trailing yarn “limbs.”  Young Ozge’s prized pink ruler is shown several times as an actual plastic ruler, bearing not only the cut out geometric shapes U.S. readers will recognize but also a profile of revered Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk!  (Ataturk’s image is indeed everywhere in Turkey, as frequent in government buildings as Washington’s or Lincoln’s face is here.  Samanci devotes a whole chapter to Ataturk’s influence in the media and schools.) 

ozge-samanci-dare-to-disappoint-growing-up-in-turkey-turkiyede-buyumek-kitap-cizer-cizgi-karikatur-amerika-10 (1)

Such creative, unexpected touches as collage or crayoned scribbles lighten this family history, where personal choice is often limited by a harsh, unstable economy, fear of offending powerful government officials, and a rigid educational system that uses standardized tests to slot young people into schools and careers, regardless of their desires or potential.  To satisfy their worried father’s goals, both Samanci and her older sister study and enter fields that deny their real interests, along the way stifling friendships and creativity.  Only after she has graduated from college does Samanci “dare to disappoint” her family, veering off her prescribed course to pursue art as a career.  Today Ozge Samanci is an artist and professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.   


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What is “foreign” in Turkey’s everyday life will be more accessible to American readers because of the ways in which Samanci zeros in on aspects of childhood that transcend borders.  The desire of a preschooler to be like her school-going sibling; an elementary school student’s adulation of a kind, attractive teacher; the seemingly endless hour at the end of a boring school day, minutes counted down one-by-one: all are captured by this gifted author/illustrator.  Her mainly black-and-white pages use color tellingly, highlighting dramatic moments, realizations, or settings.  The book’s cross-cultural experiences extend beyond childhood into more adult terrain: first boyfriends, juggling school with part-time jobs, the social pressure to marry, and even a terrifying attack and near-rape by a stranger are also recounted here.  By the memoir’s buoyant conclusion, when Samanci surfaces atop a sparkling, collaged fish to encourage us to “Come, let’s swim against the current!,”  we understand how she has struggled to reach her open-hearted, triumphant sincerity.  Her final words to readers are a joyful, well-meant challenge: “Do you dare to disappoint?”

Samanci’s memoir debuted in 2015 to glowing U.S. reviews and positive ones in Turkey’s liberal press. One reviewer there called it Turkey’s first graphic novel.  Dare to Disappoint was and may still be under consideration for publication in Turkish there.  Yet I suspect that Turkey’s current government, criticized by Samanci in her online blog, may make such publication unlikely, if not impossible.  Other graphic works from and about Turkey are scarce.    Anthologies about comics in the Middle East such as Muqtatafat (2016) focus on translating Arab language works—from countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan—rather than works from Westernized Turkey, with its Romanized alphabet. 

61exQG62lDL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Ironically, to get a further sense of how suppressed groups live under a military regime, and how teens’ choices and friendships are constrained by the laws and customs upholding such regimes, readers might look past Turkey or any other clearly-identified country.  Author/illustrator Faith Erin Hicks’ new graphic novel, The Nameless City (2016), colored by Jordie Bellaire, spotlights these questions in an adventure-filled, fantasy novel centered on two teens—a ruling caste young man named Kai and an impoverished, homeless young woman known only as Rat.  Her people powerfully refuse to use the names given to their pre-industrial city by its succession of conquerors.  That strategically-valuable city, located at a juncture on what might be the central Asian steppes, is prized by different ethnic groups, another distinction drawn here between conquerors and the conquered. 

Unlike Delilah Dirk who challenges authority for excitement, honor, and—at times—for the satisfaction of righting wrongs done by others, Rat dangerously bounds across rooftops, avoiding armed soldiers, to find food! She and other conquered people in the Nameless City do not have enough to eat. Rat does not have the choices and privileges that Delilah has.  Her ethnic identity—different from Kai’s—is another feature that sets her apart . . .  a difference even sharper in this novel than race is for Mr. Selim in Europe.  Harsh choices, rigid laws upheld by the military as well as police, and punishment of any kind of dissent—all were part of Ozge Samanci’s Turkey and typify Turkey today.  And, as Samanci notes in her memoir, some Turkish dissenters belong to that country’s ethnic minorities.  In The Nameless City, both Kai and Rat have to learn to see past their racial differences to become friends and allies.  There are parallels between life in Hicks’s mythical city, 19th century racial bigotry, and its unfortunate lingering into the 21st century.

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I recommend Hicks’ book, the first volume in a trilogy, not just for the issues it addresses but for its engaging characters and detailed, energetic illustrations.  I look forward to the trilogy’s second volume, The Stone Heart, scheduled for publication in Spring, 2017.  It is enticingly previewed here.  I can only hope that by next spring the news from Turkey will be better, life there safer and more comfortable for its citizens and the refugees it now shelters.  



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