Moments to Remember

Notre DamePrivate or public, some moments are seared into memory.  I thought of this last month as images of Notre Dame blazed in the news.  Its toppling spire also brought New York City’s falling Twin Towers to mind.  Those images from 2001  had flared up recently as well, when President Trump perfidiously linked the  devastating scenes  to his media attack on Ilhan Omar, a local U.S. Representative here. 

There is another kind of indelible memory, that of personal experience which we share with others, usually most recognizable within our own species and culture.  Watching youngsters take their first wobbling steps, finding a mate, seeing how seven-ageselders age and die—these are some of those personal memories which, however unique within our own lives, resonate as experiences others undergo as well.  Today I look at two graphic works that illuminate these kinds of collective experience.  One is a nearly-wordless graphic novel, probably best appreciated by readers tween and up, that could also enjoyably engage and promote discussion with some younger readers.  The other is a stand-out  addition to a recent wave of graphic novels aimed at the middle-school crowd (but richly satisfying us older readers, too).    

through-a-lifeThrough a Life (2018) uses bold images laced with subtle details to chart the birth through death experiences of its fictional main character.  We see Rodney, born in 1955 Alaska, grow step-by-step to adulthood, becoming a NASA astronaut and later, after a failed marriage, returning to age in his childhood home.  Nature in all its wonders is important throughout this character’s life.  French author/illustrator Tom Haugomat’s decision to create this work within the long tradition of wordless books is powerfully successful here, made even more memorable by his limited palette of colors.   The repetition of red, teal,  beige, white, and black captures the eye and is a unifying narrative thread.

through a life cribColor is the most obvious link throughout this evocative work, where the only words are place names and dates on the bottom of most left-side pages.  These pinpoint places and times in Rodney’s life, beginning right before he is born.  It takes a few pages before one realizes that the right-hand page in these pairs is what Rodney in the left-hand scene is himself viewing!  Thus, we entertainingly get this child’s view through windows, a fence, a microscope, and even a mid-twentieth century View-Master toy.  (In an interview, Haugomat has described how much he himself enjoyed this throughalife-endpopular device.)   Later, we observe what an adult Rodney views through TV screens, train windows, and computer screens, among other frames.  Each view is shaped according to the situation it reflects—circular, oblong, square, and so on.  The typicality of many events in Rodney’s life—the ways that they represent collective human moments—is enhanced by Haugomat’s omitting facial features in his stylized scenes. 

The child Rodney does not always fully understand what he is seeing, and it is up to the reader to interpret such telling details as his father’s distraught hand gesture in a doctor’s office and a later snapshot, shown in a camera lens view, of his mother wearing a turban.  Her death by cancer is depicted silently several years later in a series of wordless scenes.  Unlike the shaped right-hand shots of less fraught Through a life churchmoments, centrally displayed on white pages, such highly-charged emotional or dramatic scenes are shown in full-page, double wide images, without worded dates or locations, in extended episodes covering six to twelve pages. In this way, Haugomat zooms into the church just before Rodney views his mother’s body; shows us how astronaut Rodney experiences being in outer space; depicts how Rodney as a NASA official observes (along with horrified spectators world-wide) the explosion of the Challenger shuttle craft; and, at the end of Rodney’s long life, even shows us how he perceives his final moments.   The careful viewer will note poignant parallels between the scenes Rodney observes as a child and those that draw his attention in old age.   These parallels, too, are often part of collective human experience.

New KidIn New Kid (2019), lauded author/illustrator Jerry Craft also details collective experience while spotlighting the specific problems his central character, seventh grader Jordan Banks, faces in his new school.  Many people experience awkwardness or uncertainty in new situations.  As we learn mid-book here, even Jordan’s grandfather has to undergo being (and being called) the “new kid” at his Senior Center when he moves to a different neighborhood.  Yet Jordan, a bright Black kid of modest means, has to cope with additional issues: the racial stereotypes about Blacks held by some teachers as well as students in  that private, expensive, and primarily white school.  His worried parents believe that cartoonist Jordan will gain more by using his scholarship there than he would from his first choice, an art school.  Craft uses sharp insights and humor to depict Jordan’s first year at “Riverdale Academy.”  In interviews Craft has revealed that he drew upon his own school experiences and those of his sons in creating this wise, engaging book.  (He and others also note that this school is set in the same fictional community as the Archie comics.)

New kid parentsJordan has concerned, well-educated parents, yet he and the few other Black students at Riverdale frequently face stereotyped assumptions that they come from single parent or indifferent homes, enmeshed in poverty or crime.  Not every Black student there needs financial aid!  Alternatively, some students and teachers thoughtlessly ignore the possibility that not everyone enrolled at Riverdale can afford to travel widely.  Craft depicts these situations—along with the difficulties Jordan has in moving between his home neighborhood, friends there, and Riverdale classmates—through a seamless blend of words and images.  These combine to give readers fully-fleshed, sympathetic characters.

new kid close upFor instance, his home room teacher reveals her unthinking, implicit rejection of Black students as individuals by consistently misnaming them, substituting the similar–sounding names of other Black students.  Jordan and Drew mock her bias (also taking some of the sting out of it) by coming up with ever-changing  names for one another, all only having a “J” or and “D” in common.  Jordan’s resentment only surfaces explicitly after this teacher without permission reads Jordan’s sketch book.   His satirical cartoons there lead to a productive, if painful confrontation with her.  Those black-and-white drawings are as visually distinct from Craft’s full-color main narrative as Jordan’s sketch-book comments are from his otherwise silent acceptance of Riverdale bias. 

Yet Craft humorously points out these fallacies and other foibles throughout this novel.  Cartoon visual cues support his cartoon-style of drawing.  Free-floating eyeballs surround Jordan and Drew as their teacher mentions “FINANCIAL AID” in relation to class trips, and all eyes turn towards the two Black kids in the room.  Jordan’s mobile facial expressions and body language are eloquent, often funny responses to conversations he chooses not to have with parents and others. new kid expressions Sometimes his conflicted emotions are represented by small good and bad “angels” shown simultaneously whispering in his ears!  Craft enhances fast-paced events here by frequently zooming in for close-ups,  breaking or doing away with panel frames, and shifting perspectives, sometimes tilting images for added punch.  The splash pages introducing the novel’s fourteen chapters zestily combine Craft’s skills as author/illustrator.  Each chapter title and double-spread image is a pun on a popular movie or book, jokingly suggesting what is to come.  For example, the chapter set in the school cafeteria is titled “The Hunger Games: Stop Mocking J.” 

New Kid back coverBy the end of his first tumultuous year at Riverdale Academy, Jordan has grown successfully in all ways.  His proud parents say “[Y]ou look like a new kid,” to which Jordan happily replies, “You know, I feel kinda like a new kid.”   As Jerry Craft shows us, this character has learned that he can successfully speak out as well as fit in to more than one social situation.  Cartoon hearts and smiling emojis dot the final images here of Jordan’s Riverdale School pals, while a rainbow and shining sun link them and Jordan to his home neighborhood friends, the kids he will see most in the upcoming summer. 

Notre QuasimodoI was happy to learn that a sequel to New Kid will be published in Fall, 2020.  This book’s many memorable moments have me looking ahead to that with my own smile in place.  It is a feeling I believe readers will share—positive anticipation we need in uncertain times too often filled these days with public disasters and upheavals.  Notre Dame’s conflagration is not, I fear, the only fire we will need to douse.






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Some “Tree-mendous” Books

climate changeEvery day—not just Earth Day (April 22) or Arbor Day (April 26)–should be “tree-mendous.”  I reached this conclusion as world-wide student protests about climate change overlapped last month with my reading of novelist Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018).  Powers’ epic work about the fabulous nature and history of trees, linked in mythic ways to humanity’s survival, like Annie Proulx’s equally lengthy Barkskins (2016), is a compelling, tree-centric fiction written for adult or near-adult level readers.  Both novels explore how people have endangered ourselves and Earth itself by the unheeding destruction of tree species and forest ecosystems.  I began to wonder what graphic works examining these issues exist for young readers.  Today’s post grew from that questioning “seed.”  I found several books to recommend and one series to dismiss.

Trees kingsTweens and upper elementary school kids will enjoy the entertaining characters created by author/illustrator Andy Hirsch in Trees: Kings of the Forest (2018).  His main character is a child-like acorn who mistakenly thinks that “grown-up” trees lead boring, limited lives.  A series of new friends—ranging from a frog to a fungus, a leaf shoot to a beetle, then a spider, squirrel, bee and woodpecker—explain how wrong the acorn is, even as they teasingly bicker with one another.

Hirsch’s full-color, cartoon-like images add pizazz to these exchanges and to the detailed information about trees in the narrative boxes and some word balloons. Close-ups, overlapping panels, panel-less images, and figures that extend beyond or between panels are tree frogsome of the visual techniques that enhance humor here and move the action along smartly.  I particularly liked the double spread, multi-character illustrations Hirsch created to depict forest ecosystems, fruit-bearing trees around the globe, and the photosynthesis cycle.   Along with its engaging characters, the book’s final glossary and leaf illustrations offset its many bold-faced scientific terms for scientific processes.  These at times are spelled out laboriously.  This level of detail will benefit some readers even as it may annoy less-interested or younger ones.

With teen readers in mind, I eagerly turned to a recent comic book series titled Trees, collected in two volumes (2014-2016) and authored by veteran comics writer Warren Ellis.  Was I disappointed! This series has almost nothing to do with ecology—or even real trees.  Instead, its title refers to the aliens who have invaded Earth world-wide!  These invaders resemble large Redwood trees, as illustrator Jason Howard shows, but the majority of his images depict how humans fight back or adjust to this invasion around the globe.   In sometimes blunt language and adult encounters, author Ellis does deal with some social inequities or problems, but climate change is not one of them.  Teens will need to turn elsewhere to learn more about this planet’s trees.

branching outTwo books organized as catalogs of trees world-wide are a good choice for teen and tween readers. One is Branching Out: How Trees are part of Our World (2014), written by Canadian Joan Marie Galat and illustrated with high-grade, full color photographs. Besides examining eleven different tree species, award-winning Galat in this 64 page, clearly-written volume looks briefly at climate change, tree physiology, a forest ecosystem, and ways to save trees.  Galat’s book is a crisp, well-done scientific overview of the endangered trees of planet Earth. Another catalog of trees world-wide is a wonderful complement to Branching Out, as it tackles this subject from a different perspective.

CanopyUnder the Canopy: Trees Around the World  (2018) is a beautiful, oversized picture book, focusing on the myths and legends about seventeen tree species and four forests around the globe.  Argentinian illustrator Cynthia Alonso’s luminous, saturated, and imaginatively stylized images will keep readers looking at and revisiting each double spread section.  Alonso emphasizes the stories retold here by author “Iris Volant,” a pen name for Flying Eye Press’ author/editor Harriet Birkenshaw.  The final double spread illustrating the seventeen different species may lead readers back to more science-oriented texts about these trees, only briefly identified here in their individual sections.  Of course, readers of all ages can take pleasure in this lushly-rendered and designed picture book.

tree-ladyThe wide-ranging appeal of picture books is why I also want to spotlight some tree-related picture book biographies. The Tree Lady: How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever (2013; 2018), written by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry, depicts the impact determined “Kate” Sessions (1857 to 1940) had on the landscape of her adopted city, San Diego, California.  This book’s vertiginous cover is as boldly designed as Sessions’ successful plans were for planting and tending a global variety of trees.  She was inspired by her girlhood love of trees and the scientific education it led her to obtain.  McElmurry uses gouache for the stylized American kate sessionsfolk art figures and patterns illustrating Hopkins’ text, which emphasizes Sessions’ pioneering vision and determination.  She had goals and dreams beyond any then deemed desirable or even achievable for women.  No one believed these goals were possible, “[b]ut Kate did,” as Hopkins notes in this book’s effective refrain.

Prevost 3Another remarkable woman is the subject of several noteworthy picture biographies.  Kenyan scientist and activist Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) won 2004’s Nobel Peace Prize for her successful efforts to reforest her depleted homeland.  Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees (2012; 2015), written by Franck Prevot and illustrated by Aurelia Fronty, is best suited for older readers, as it includes Kenya’s colonial past, different tribes, and contemporary political problems in ways other picture book biographies of Maathai do not.  It also concludes with several pages of photo-illustrated background material, including some of Maathai’s own writing and speeches.  Yet the colorful, stylized illustrations here are more vibrant than the main text, translated from its original French. Prevot’s translated narrative is clear enough but sometimes plodding.

Mama MitiMama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya (2010), written by veteran author Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, is more engaging.  Napoli includes some Kenyan phrases as a refrain, and award-winning Nelson’s illustrations strikingly combine his original oil paintings with African textile designs.  This biography contains more information about Maatthai than prominent author/illustrator Jeanette Winter’s Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story From Africa (2008), which is clearly aimed at the youngest readers and also suitable for reading aloud.  Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to seeds of change 2Peace (2010), written by Jen Cullerton Johnson and illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler, is another Maathai biography I can recommend strongly.  Its deftly-written text is somewhat broader in scope than Mama Miti without being overwhelming, and its engaging, colorful images employing quilt patterns will appeal to elementary age students, as well as other readers.

we plantedAs you prepare for Earth Day and Arbor Day, do not reach for what might be a sentimental favorite, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964; 1992; 1999).  Whatever your views about this classic work’s take on sacrifice and forgiveness, it is now clear that the chopped-down tree stump at its conclusion is an ecological disaster!  When left to naturally die and decay, trees support a wide variety of life on Earth, as vividly seen in the award-winning A Log’s Life (1998), written by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Robin Brickman.  Instead, encourage young readers to combat deforestation by planting trees and other activities.  A treecologypicture book such as We Planted a Tree (2010; 2016), written by Diane Muldrow and illustrated by Bob Staake, will appeal to young readers and may also be read aloud.  A non-fiction work such as Treecology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Trees and Forests (2016) offers much to tween and teen readers.  Its author Monica Russo, along with photographer Kevin Byron, also provide extensive back matter, including a useful Teacher’s Guide and Bibliography.  

We all have a “tree-mendous” task ahead of us as we seek to combat climate change.  We can succeed, but limited success or even failure these days are also scarily real prospects.  The graphic works described here emphasize actions to take for positive outcomes, but some noted, concerned authors have joined in also 2114issuing an eerie challenge to their adult fans: a brand-new work by each writer will only become available if a new forest in Norway survives the next hundred years to produce paper for printing these books!  Until then, these works are locked away.  Called Future Library, this project begun in 2014 by artist Katie Peterson so far includes fiction by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjon, Elif Shafak, and Han Kang.  Ironically, even if this challenge succeeds, only today’s pre-readers and youngest readers may be around in 2114 to read these legacy works.  




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Tweens Spring Forward

tulips-in-snowTransitions.  Whether it is tweens careening towards adolescence or winter blossoming into spring, the change is predictable–even if the pace is not!  This is why fickle March seems an apt moment to catch up with two award-winning graphic novels about tweens.  I read these engaging books by author/illustrator Victoria Jamieson when they first appeared but only today found the “right ” time and place to discuss them.

51OoLW0alML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Just as this review is somewhat late, twelve-year old Astrid Vasquez, the central character in Roller Girl (2015), finds herself out of step with her childhood best friend Nicole.  The double spread prologue of this Newberry Honor winner sets up its narrator’s problem:  Astrid wordlessly grimaces as she overhears herself being called a baby for roller skating in a park rather than shopping at a mall.  Nicole and her new, jeering 6th grade pals, unlike Astrid, are into fashion and crushes, but—even more fundamentally—ballet-loving Nicole is horrified by rough-and-tumble events. 

This difference is highlighted humorously when Mrs. roller-girl-2Vasquez’ latest surprise “evening cultural event” for the two girls is a women’s roller derby contest!  Nicole is dismayed, attempting to shield her eyes with her hands, but Astrid is thrilled, even convincing her mom to sign her up for junior roller derby summer camp.  To that end, Astrid lets her mother mistakenly believe that Nicole will also be attending that camp, and that Nicole’s mother will drive both girls back home from camp each day.  

Roller Girl is an insightful, frequently humorous look at the psychological and social challenges tweens face.  Besides vividly conveying the thrills and spills of roller derby as a team-building sport, Jamieson focuses on what Astrid learns about herself.  Lying to her mother is as uncomfortable as any of the falls Astrid takes, and she has a hard time figuring out how to relate to Nicole as well as her new team friend Zoey.  Confronted by her disappointed mother about her lies, Astrid blurts out, “Maybe I don’t know who I am either.”  Yet in the remaining 4 chapters of this 16 chapter book, Jamieson does a great job showing Astrid puzzling out some answers to that mystery.  This Latinx character gains confidence as she works hard to expand her physical and mental limits.  

226 (1)Vivid colors, close- ups varying with mid and long distance views, different panel sizes and shapes, and expressive body language and facial features drawn with bold, minimal strokes—all combine to make Roller Girl an entertaining work that, in Jamieson’s own words, is about “fun, family, and character.” That insight, along with others about how she created this graphic novel, is available in a downloadable e-book at Jamieson’s website.   There we also learn how the graphic novel relates to the author/illustrator’s own life and how the punning, mock-aggressive derby names of Roller Girl’s characters are based on real-life team players. 

For instance, “Panda-monium” and “ThrillaGodzilla” are teammates who accompany Astrid as she soars towards adulthood as roller derby’s “Asteroid.”  1445 Derby names provide sly fun here, alongside some images that are visual jokes about narrator Astrid’s thoughts and words.  For instance, when she thinks about an old-fashioned, strict teacher, Jamieson depicts a fierce dinosaur and prehistoric fauna.  When Astrid is most despairing, readers see a large reddish image of what she childishly imagines as hell.  Yet as the more self-aware “Asteroid,” this character does resume a limited friendship with Nicole.  Astrid’s adolescence may not keep pace with Nicole’s—and Astrid’s teen years and adulthood may not resemble Nicole’s apparently conventional path—but Jamieson’s heroine matures and is happy as the novel concludes. 

51zf3dq4b0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In All’s Faire in Middle School (2017), Jamieson again uses an unusual pastime to highlight the trials kids typically may undergo in middle school.  Eleven-year old Imogene Vega, whose Florida family are Renaissance Fair enactors, has been homeschooled but is now enrolled in public middle school.  She nervously waits to see how her beloved festival’s recreated royal court traditions of “Honesty, Chivalry, and Bravery” will play out in school classrooms, hallways, and—in the social setting Imogene fears most–“Lunch.”  A full page image of the lunchroom looming ahead of Imogene, summed up by that one word, depicts just how overwhelmed she feels.  In other scenes, Imogene’s feeling like a “ghost” in the crowds of kids is reinforced by pastel colors in panels replacing the novel’s otherwise vivid hues.  Unlike Roller Girl, Jamieson shows her Latinx main character encountering discrimination.  Imogene sees how in her father’s “day job” as a store manager, Mr. Vega faces a dissatisfied customer who sarcastically calls him “Amigo” while negatively referring to Mr. Vega’s dark skin and features. 

0827-BKS-Ingall-articleLargeImogene ultimately learns that it is better to stand up for her values than try to fit into cliques that jeer at poor or awkward tweens.  She shows herself to be a valiant “squire” outside of weekend Faire days, standing up to several kinds of bullies.  Along the way, Imogene gains some new school friends, discovers that one critical teacher is not an enemy “dragon,” and regains the trust of younger brother Felix and her extended, supportive Renaissance Faire “family.”  Readers will enjoy the way Jamieson weaves these characters’ use of “colorful Elizabethan language” into this widely-praised novel.  For example, blunt-talking Gussie helps Imogene practice her squire’s spiel by jokingly saying, “Thou spongy ill-nurtured strumpet!  Thy breath stinks with eating toasted cheese.”  

manuscriptHumorous moments such as that occur throughout the novel.  Readers unfamiliar with re-enactments will find the 13 full-page chapter introductions here useful as well as charming.  Each is drawn like a medieval or Renaissance manuscript page, with a swirling, intricate border surrounding an apt image and information.  An online book trailer, giving this work’s flavor,  is also a fine introduction to faires.  Despite the travails Imogene experiences, the book ends on a warm and upbeat note, with a final full-page image of Imogene and Felix enjoying their view of the stars.    

51TYBnQNaML._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Rereading these graphic works, I was happy to discover that Victoria Jamieson has also written two graphic novels for younger readers:  The Great Pet Escape (2016) and its sequel, The Great Art Caper (2017).  I look forward to seeing what fantasy adventures Jamieson has crafted for the classroom pets of Daisy P. Flugelhorn Elementary School!   I wonder how this talented author/illustrator has tied these central characters into the daily lives of elementary school kids. 



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Crushes Now and Then

love-is-in-the-air (1)Heartthrob or heartache?  Sudden attraction or slow connection?  With Valentine’s Day approaching, and its card exchanges popular even in some pre-schools, the recent publication of Svetlana Chmakova’s Crush (2018) was aptly timed.  This continuation of the author/illustrator’s award-winning Berrybrook Middle School series targets tween readers, the age at which crushes typically first loom large.  Today I look at this very enjoyable, satisfying graphic novel and another recent graphic work about first and ongoing loves, M. Dean’s memorable I Am Young (2018).  That book will appeal more to teen and older readers, with its look back at how folks frequently used to get and manage crushes, before these days of (often successful) online dating websites.

51x1vuzcj2l._sx347_bo1,204,203,200_Crush’s central character, 13 year-old Jorge Ruiz, first appeared in Chmalkova’s Brave (2015) and Awkward (2017), reviewed by me here,but Crush works well as a stand-alone-novel, too.  I believe that readers who first experience engaging Jorge’s point-of-view here will eagerly seek out those other Berrybrook Middle School works!  Chmakova does a great job communicating how Jorge’s big, athletic build—his stereotypical “jock” appearance—does not match his sensitive nature and thoughtful mind.  He is one of Berrybrook’s unofficial peacekeepers, watching out for other kids at risk from bullying, and quietly annoyed at how crushes are the hot topic at school. 

08f7bc7b6feff223f2e52afe3ee2c8da._sx1280_ql80_ttd_Wordless panels and others with word balloons filled only with ellipses show us Jorge’s gradual, then stunned realization that he too now has a crush—on classmate Jazmine Duong.  As the novel’s eleven chapters unfold, we see Jorge later daydreaming about Jazmine in even softer pastels and also read his astute, rueful conclusion about his own change-of-heart about crushes:  “I guess that’s why you can predict movie plots . . . but can’t predict life.”

Chmakova’s visual style, employing the manga conventions of cheek lines for blushes and wide mouths for other strong emotions, supports Crush’s story lines and character development.   Sub plots involving some self-centered and insecure tween characters add dimension to school life here, as does the understated 26271091._sy540_depiction of a hajib-wearing gym coach, a lesbian teacher whose wife accompanies her to school events, and what appears to be a non-binary drama club character, Nic.   This rich texture of daily and seasonal school events adds heft and poignancy to the slow development of Jorge and Jazmine’s relationship from friends to “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” 

Even figuring out how to ask for—or give—a phone number for texting is a situation the pair realistically stumbles through.  Along the way, Chmakova points out that Jorge admires Jazmine’s spirit and not just her appearance, unlike another shallow character.  We see that sincere dating duos, like real friends, steadfastly support one another’s efforts and events.  A cheek kiss and a “Hi, Jorge” sweetly conclude this tween-age saga.  Chmakova’s fans will further appreciate the author’s “Afterward,” interestingly and entertainingly showing how over months she developed Crush, becoming a mom  during this time period, too.

61e4swhudol._sx409_bo1,204,203,200_That conjunction between adult life, often linked to parenthood, and its frequently problematic relationship to tween or teen crushes is central to M. Dean’s I Am Young.  This visually lush book contains six short stories spotlighting such intense emotional connections, also including a non-romantic one between two female best friends.  A widowed father and adult daughter who no longer “connect” figure poignantly in another story.  All these distinct stories, some set in the U.S. and others in Great Britain, alternate with episodes in a seventh, prominent framing story—the saga of one couple’s relationship with one another, begun as a sudden crush, when Miriam and George meet as teenagers at a Beatles concert in 1964 Britain.  We follow that crush, continued at first through hand-written letters, throughout the pair’s lives, the passage of time signaled by different Beatles  album covers as well as Miriam and George’s whitened hair.  Regardless of age, Dean’s characters all have the large eyes and simple facial features and bodies of cartoon characters. 

georgeMusic is important throughout I Am Young, with Dean altering her color palette and graphic style to match her other characters’ very distinct musical tastes and eras, along with the each story’s plot line.     Miriam and George’s Beatlemania is shown in black-and-white, while Lisa’s later psychedelic tripping to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is depicted in deep pink, gold, and green swirls.  High school seniors and best friends Kennedy and Rhea, whose growing differences are summed up in their opposing views of pop singer Tom Jones, are shown in somber beiges, maroons, and olive green.   

swirlDean smartly varies the size and shape of panels in these stories, sometimes omitting panel frames all together, to accentuate mood and events.  Similarly, she makes some pages very busy or empty, with text sometimes centered or even omitted, in telling ways.  When Roberta in “Baby Fat” begins to doubt that she really was ready at 18 to marry Pepe, we see her in the corner of a page, vulnerably small against a large vista.  When she unwillingly derives some comfort from returning to her childhood home, Roberta is almost overwhelmed by parental concern along with her own doubts, shown nearly smothered by the busy patterns of a subdued blue quilt.  

robertaThroughout this visually rich and emotionally wise book, Dean continues to question crushes and how we see others and ourselves.  In “Nana,” the central character continues to doubt herself harshly,  but she realizes that a shared love of Karen Carpenter’s music is not enough for a former school bully to become a new, close friend.  In “Alvin,” the brainy central character has a retro appreciation for Chuck Berry, but that and all the theories he knows about social injustice cannot get him a date for his high school’s “sock hop.”  Alvin is left alone, with a migraine headache.   M. Dean cumulatively fulfills her goals for this graphic work in each story.  In an interview, she said, “I want to tell stories about the foibles of youth, the mistakes and nuances, the people, places, and things that feel important.”   Dean added, “I realized a title like I Am Young reveals both naivete and an acknowledgement that everyone grows older and changes.”

Readers who are mature enough to take an objective view of crushes vs. adult beatlesrelationships or who enjoy music and art will take particular pleasure in Dean’s storytelling achievements here.  I also believe that those of us old enough to remember the Beatles’ 1960s debuts in Britain and the U.S. will find much to be nostalgic about in I Am Young, even as I ruefully wonder if some young readers (or perhaps the tween characters in Crush) might mistake the circular vinyl record and record album covers Dean depicts for CDs!  In these days of streaming music, perhaps CDs will soon lose their familiarity as well.   

As someone who no longer says, “I am young” but still very much appreciates valentine2exchanging valentines with my white-haired husband, I find the final double spread pages of M. Dean’s novel particularly meaningful.   On the left, we see aged Miriam and George, now barely old acquaintances, while on the right we see the couple as they first met, teenagers sitting together, with handwritten greetings to one another at the top and bottom of the page.  There is something to be said for memories and being young at heart—and M. Dean captures it here.




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Timely Questions

Free Clipart Of A bell hourglass and happy new year bannerAt the start of a new year, in our sometimes Kafkaesque world, it is good to realize that not all tales from the inner city are bad.  What exactly do I mean by that remark?  I hope you will be amused that it contains the titles of two new graphic story collections I am about to discuss.  Today I look at works by master storytellers Peter Kuper and Shaun Tan, whose award-winning achievements I have reviewed before.  Some earlier works by both artist/illustrators are discussed here, while more of Shaun Tan’s bravura efforts are described here and here.   Both men have won acclaim, in part for their wordless or nearly wordless storytelling.

51aOrXNMYUL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Words, though sparsely used, are integral to Peter Kuper’s Kafkaesque: Fourteen Stories (2018).  On the book’s frontispiece, Kuper describes this work as a “conversation with [Franz] Kafka.’’  This Czech author (1883 – 1924) wrote such powerful novels and stories depicting the absurdities of government and cruel circumstances of people’s lives– including The Trial, The Castle, and The Metamorphosis—that his name has become a synonym for nightmarish bureaucracy—“Kafkaesque.” 

With this new book, containing some stories that first appeared in his collection  Give It Up! and Other Short Stories (1995), Kuper interprets Kafka’s insights in a boldly dramatic way.  He has drawn on black-inked scratchboard, scratching away parts to achieve white highlighted images, to capture Kafka’s bleak—and sometimes bleakly funny—view of what Kuper sees as “the basic human condition.”  Kuper also sees (as do I) connections between situations in Kafka’s stories and today’s Trumpesque “political and environmental climate.”   Teen and older readers engaged by these challenging topics will appreciate Kuper’s storytelling here. 


It is hard for me to single out a favorite, though “A Little Fable,” its mouse-like protagonist trapped in a maze, lingers in my mind.  An overlapping panel and a close-up dramatize this rendition of life’s diminishing choices for this character (and possibly for any living being).  Yet this character is trying his best, as is the narrator in “The Helmsman.”   There the central character’s attempting to maintain his position at a ship’s helm is undercut by other crewmembers who cannot or will not question the person who has mysteriously asserted authority over them all. 

Such resignation to authority also dominates the main Kafkaesque_PG100character in “Before the Law,” even as we see him initially questioning the guard who will not let him enter an important government building.  Kuper’s making this seemingly powerless figure a Black man adds another layer of meaning to this “conversation with Kafka.” The years-long fictional exchange here, portrayed in a two-page double spread swirl of images, ends ironically, with the guard’s revealing that this entrance was always meant for the now dying, too patient character.  He never tried to force his way past the guard.  Readers may well wonder about our own life choices and whether or when it is wise to delay action.  Like most of the stories in Kafkaeque, these are only five or six pages long.

Screen-Shot-2018-09-28-at-9.00.56-AMTwo of Franz Kafka’s best-known short works, though, receive lengthier interpretations.  Kuper devotes 22 pages to “A Hunger Artist” and 45 pages to “In the Penal Colony.” These sobering, thought-provoking stories about what spectacles people watch and what measures our judicial systems consider to be justice raise  multifaceted questions.  They touch on human nature in general but are also highly relevant to today’s social media-driven world and to current issues in U.S. judicial reform.   Here, as is typical in Kuper’s work, panel size and shape vary to emphasize the mood of each story element.  Similarly, Kuper’s exaggerated abstraction of facial features and body language dramatizes his sympathy with Kafka’s nightmarish views. 

51CnCw7WUqL._SX387_BO1,204,203,200_Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City (2018) is more varied in tone than Kafkaesque, but it too contains dark elements as it explores the relationships among animals and supposedly superior human beings.  The 25 prose poems and short stories here are Tan’s “sister volume” to his earlier collection of 15 illustrated short pieces, Tales from Outer Suburbia (2009).  In both these works, it is the illustrations that will speak most eloquently to readers of all ages.  Tan’s stories in this latest volume, though, seem geared to a tween on up audience.


42003999_2243539082600047_5087192158705599834_nAs he has explained on his website and in interviews, Tan’s fascination with animals, the ways in which humans see them and ourselves as somehow totally separate and yet sometimes close allies, led to this new volume, in which animals appear in surprising ways inside cities.  This unifying concept also helped the internationally acclaimed Australian artist to explore further another personal fascination—just how the human imagination works.  Tan sometimes used his dream images as springboards; at other times, newspaper articles led him to experiment with different media to lungfish sculpturesinspire the final visual piece, in each instance here a full-color painting.  Sometimes Tan photographed real-life places, gaining naturalistic details, while at other points, his own drawings or “doodles” were his visual inspiration.  One illustration—of a deer on the upper floor of a skyscraper—even early on was a diorama, populated by stand-up figures Tan made!  The author built clay-and-plaster models for another painted illustration here, that of fish with almost human faces. 

fox medium rgbGiant snails on a city bridge; a leaping fox in a sleeper’s bedroom; in an echo of Kafkaesque legal systems, a bear with its lawyer lumbering up courthouse steps—these eerie images are memorable and thought-provoking.  Yet it is Tan’s longer works centering on dogs and cats that also touch one’s heartstrings.  A series of 13 wordless, double spread paintings depict the bear medium rgblong history of human-canine interaction while also referencing the devotion of dogs to their humans.  The short poems that accompany these paintings highlight the sad reality that dog lives are so much shorter than human ones—people will inevitably experience the loss of this bond.  As Tan writes, “And when you died I took you down to the river.  And when I died you waited for me by the shore.  So it was that time passed between us.”

26413336._SY540_In a parallel twist on this theme, Tan illustrates a cat loss story with a painting of a literally absurd but emotionally-true situation.  Just as the death of their cat has rescued a woman from frozen emotions, allowing her to shed tears as she grieves with other bereft cat “owners,” we see a giant cat rescuing its people.  The woman and her young daughter sit on the now gigantic cat’s head, kept safely above a sea of crashing waves.  Her newly-found ocean of tears will not capsize this mother with grief.  Tales from the Inner City is full of such moving images, sometimes provoking sentimental as well as sharply-questioning responses.

Appreciative readers of these latest works by Peter Kuper and Shaun Tan will want to check out Kuper’s graphic version of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece novella, The 514+M03talL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Metamorphosis (2004).  It already appears in some high schools’ curriculum.  For an overview of Kuper’s works, including the more light-heartedly satirical “Spy vs. Spy” pieces he has created for Mad magazine, readers can browse the author/illustrator’s website.  Shaun Tan’s website has interior links to his creative process for each of the Tales from the Inner City, as well as other works.  Tan’s fans will also enjoy this brief video he made recently.

As we question ourselves and set goals for the new year, reading about such creativity is one empowering and inspiring step towards the future.   Figuring out how to make the coming year less Kafkaesque remains a collective as well as an individual challenge.









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Great Graphic Gifts

images (13)Giving “experiences” rather than “things” is a trend this winter holiday season, making graphic literature a fashionable, two-for-one joy for the tween-and-up readers on your gift list.  They can hold a volume in their hands, actively scanning between text and images, flipping back-and-forth between pages, as they mull over and revel in how a great graphic work builds its many layers of meaning.  I have two sumptuous books to recommend this month, works that will move hearts and minds even as their rich imagery and high-quality production values satisfy hands and eyes.  One will even tickle funny-bones as it is read and reread . . . .  These recently published novels have already been acclaimed among this year’s potential award winners.

519W0nbxbZL._SX362_BO1,204,203,200_The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (2018), written by M.T. Anderson and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, uses humor and the traditions of fantasy fiction to comment slyly on real-world politics and problems.  Its central characters are elves and goblins, at war with each other for a thousand years, whose different takes on that history and mistaken ideas about one another mirror more than a few conflicts today.  When elf Gawain, a timid historian, is drafted to be the ambassador to the goblin kingdom—and ordered to spy on the goblins as well, the fun begins.  How Gawain interacts with his goblin host Werfel and his distant elven spymaster Lord Clivers is the central plot here, one packed with breathless action and escapes as well as scenes of daily goblin life and high court pomp.  Goblin habits are, by human standards, often gross!  Young readers and others merely young-at-heart will enjoy details there, including the behavior of Werfel’s affectionate pet—a flying, fishlike creature with tentacles.   But it the way Anderson and Yelchin tell this story that makes this book such a gem. 

Brangwain4-300x289Gawain is a hybrid graphic novel—one that intersperses pages of prose with pages of wordless images which themselves advance its story-telling.  (I have written about other hybrid graphic novels, including works by signal practitioner Brian Selznick, here and here.)  The delightful twist that Anderson and Yelchin add to this format is that their wordless sequences—almost all meant to be Gawain’s reporting back to spymaster Clivers—are “not exactly what [Gawain] sees.  It’s whatever he pictures in his mind’s eye.”  Readers only gradually realize that Gawain’s beliefs about goblins distort what he sees, making innocuous, if strange scenes—along with some disgusting ones—into more monstrous, sometimes terrifying ones.   This is another comment on how enemies may misunderstand or demonize one another.

unnamedAward-winning illustrator Yelchin inventively styles these imagined views as Renaissance engravings, in the vein of Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts.  There are more than 180 pages of black-and-white images in this 500 page book, with changes in perspective and distance advancing fast-paced action even as other scenes contain so many humorous, clever details that the eye lingers.  Readers may well page back to see and savor more—I know I did.  Yelchin gives characters here such distinctive facial emotions and body language that we empathize with these cartoonish characters’ woes even as their antics make us smile.

Award-winning author Anderson engages us by alternating Gawain’s and Werfel’s very different views of events with letters the chief elven spy Lord Clivers writes to his increasingly dissatisfied king.  Each failure Clivers has to report has major, bizarrely funny consequences for this self-centered character, who bullied Gawain when they were young schoolmates.  The secret “Order of the Clean Hand,” headed up by Clivers,  takes on new meaning as the king responds with cutting wrath.

Brangwain25Anderson’s language will also delight those readers who appreciate the somewhat old-fashioned, formal language of traditional fantasy epics, also when appropriate switched out to other verbal styles.  The “broken Elvish” some Goblin nobles try to speak is a hoot: one enthusiastically invites Gawain into her home by saying “I punch you with me house hard, many time.”   The book trailer for The Assassination of Gawain Spurge, which concludes with Anderson and Yelchin pretending to bicker about their collaboration, captures the tone as well as the content of this work.   This trailer  will let you know if your young readers are ones who, among many others, would be happy to write their names on the embellished inner cover of this gifted volume, under the words, “This book belongs to . . . .”

51apVucNFPL._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_Vesper Stamper’s richly-illustrated novel What the Night Sings (2018) is more serious in tone.  Focusing on the Holocaust experiences and survival of 16- year old Gerta Rausch, a German-Jewish musician, this powerful work is both moving and uplifting.   Illustrator/author Stamper, herself born in Germany but raised in New York City, shows in images and words how profoundly resilient the human spirit is.  At first, a younger Gerta is sheltered by her musician father and the  opera star who mothers her; Gerta does not even know that she is Jewish!   But their family is betrayed, and Gerta and her father herded into concentration camps.  He does not survive.  Gerta is near death when victorious Allied troops rescue her as they liberate prisoners at Auschwitz.  (Some prior knowledge of the era might be helpful for tween readers, though When the Night Sings may also serve as sobering introduction, raising important questions.)

download (16)Gerta slowly rediscovers her singing voice and finds love in a displaced person camp, later marrying and immigrating with her new husband to Israel.  Simple sentences, each word aptly chosen, are rich with metaphor as they communicate teen-aged Gerta’s thoughts:  She realizes that her musician father’s viola, which she has managed to save, “is a forest.  It is a living tree.  It is the heartwood of our family.”  This refrain is also seen in images throughout the book, where trees shown first as abstract, barren roots, trunks, and limbs gradually thrive and blossom.  Gerta herself is sometimes shown in impossible, symbolic juxtaposition to these backgrounds, rather than realistically.

Similarly, the butterflies that figured in the gardens of Gerta’s early childhood 30YA-WTNSreappear later in this poignantly illustrated volume, in scenes which range from sorrow to hope and joy.  Stamper depicts her characters’ many emotional and literal journeys in varied visual formats: quarter-page as well as full page or double spread illustrations, along with a dozen spot illustrations, all embody significant moments or emotions.  Their muted palette of grey and sepia ink washes is as haunting as the sparse eloquence of Gerta’s religious husband-to-be Lev, also liberated at download (17)Auschwitz, who says, “The way I love you . . . It’s like music.  It’s like praying.”  Lev and Gerta relate to traditional Judaism in very different, yet ultimately complementary ways, as Stamper reveals through luminous words as well as images.  I was not surprised to read in an on-line interview that she includes morning Bible reading and prayer as part of her daily creative routine.

Remarkably, What The Night Sings is Vesper Stamper’s first published book, begun as a student project for the graduate degree she earned in Illustration as Visual Essay.  The novel’s stellar text is followed by a lengthy “Author’s Note” appreciative 29YA-WTNSreaders will welcome.  It contains information about events in Stamper’s life leading to that degree as well details of her Holocaust research, including photographs.   A relevant map, glossary, and suggested further resources conclude this hardcover volume, printed on high-quality, heavy stock paper, enhancing the depth of shaded illustrations and further distinguishing it as a special, “giftable” volume.

 Comedy or tragedy—neither of these vast categories precisely  “fits” the books I have discussed today . . .  each book, upon reflection, contains some elements of both. The ways in which these particular volumes engage readers to think about their ideas and images, the characters and events they describe, will make them gifts of experience as much as sumptuous objects to be gift-wrapped in time for winter holidays.  These graphic works will provide meaningful, enjoyable reading and rereading at any time of the year.



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Happy Holidays? Family Woes and Wins

b49d978ca1e231df6fe97cd7757a7770--christmas-puppy-santa-christmasSanta Claus may not be this season’s biggest holiday myth.  A more troubling fantasy here in North America may be the myth of the perfectly happy, affluent family—one celebrating its winter holidays with big smiles in a bright, cheerful home filled with presents.  The many ads and other images featuring such families can be a far cry from what some kids and teens actually experience.   Today, I look at two graphic works—one a personal memoir and the other a novel—that vividly depict real-life family problems as these play out during holidays as well as ordinary days.  Addiction is the main problem in both books.   Readers teen and up will appreciate how the central figures in these works cope with and survive family woes and, in one case, even win a bright future. 

51jfyUWZ6hL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Author/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka dedicated his recent memoir Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction (2018) not only to his grandparents and mother but to “every reader who recognizes this experience.”  Teens who know 41 year-old Krosoczka only as the successful author/illustrator of funny picture books, chapter books, and the humorous   “Lunch Lady” series of graphic novels may be surprised to learn about his difficult childhood and adolescence.  Krosoczka has mentioned this, though, in a 2012 TED talk about his becoming an artist.  The insights in that talk  are fleshed out in his moving memoir, already short-listed this year for a National Book Award.  

Krosoczka’s mother Leslie was a heroin addict, unable to care safely for her son.  From the age of three onward, Jarrett was raised in Worcester, Massachusetts by her parents, his grandfather Joe and grandmother Shirley Krosoczka.  Jarrett’s Christmas memories include his bewilderment at being separated as a three year-old from his mother and his pained confusion after a holiday visit with her the 07McCormick-facebookJumbofollowing year.  Throughout this memoir, which follows Jarrett through high school graduation at age seventeen, holidays figure prominently: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Mother’s Day are fraught with meaning and tension.  Traditional Mother’s Day cards suit neither the love and disappointment of his relationship with mother Leslie nor the complicated devotion grandmother Shirley provides. It is sometimes hard for bitter-tongued Shirley to see beyond her own needs and beliefs, as when she dismisses the portrait teen-aged Jarrett has labored over for his grandparents’ 45th wedding anniversary gift.   Her saying “It doesn’t look anything like us.  You’re not that good” is terribly hurtful to him. 

Expressive facial features and body language communicate this pain effectively  here and throughout the book.  The author/illustrator understands much about his grandparents that is unstated in words but revealed in images.  During Jarrett’s account of his grandparents’ “backstory,” Shirley’s changing expression as she struggles as a young mother with a growing family of five children  is  tellingly 56bb4fd1862b432884cf4cdaf256adedspotlighted by its placement on a double spread page with a black background.  Such double spreads highlight other emotionally significant moments in this eight-chapter, 300-page work.  We also see how some parental patterns have unintentional influences.  Shirley and Joe themselves drink heavily, leading to household arguments.  On a lighter note, Joe’s affectionate hello to Jarrett, “Hey, Kiddo,” is echoed by Leslie in some of the letters she writes to her son when she is (unbeknown to him) in prison. Jarrett Krosoczka as author does a great job capturing and reproducing the rhythms of everyday, idiosyncratic, and sometimes profane speech. 

Timestamps throughout the memoir are effectively made through bits of contemporaneous songs and through actual memorabilia (family photographs, wedding and graduation announcements, newspaper clippings) that introduce each chapter.  One memento is a handmade, obviously cherished Christmas tree 654958884ornament.   Readers never lose track of where we are in this memoir, while Krosoczka catches us up on subsequent events in an affecting final “Author’s Note.” The following “Note on the Art” is where we learn the origin of the book’s limited color scheme—a tribute to his grandfather Joe.  Krosoczka at age 41 concludes his heartfelt memoir with images supporting his recognition that Joe and Shirley were “two incredible parents right there before me the entire time.  They just happened to be a generation removed.”  I myself find it moving that this echoes the dedication of his first published book, Goodnight, Monkey Boy (2001).  Even back then, the 23 year old author/illustrator acknowledged “Grandma and Grandpa, the best parents a kid could ask for.”

51t8sQjyemL._SX382_BO1,204,203,200_David Small, a Caldecott Award-winning children’s book illustrator, won further acclaim and awards in 2010 for his own painful graphic memoir, Stitches (2009), detailing his youth and dysfunctional family life in 1950s America.  Small’s new graphic novel, though, titled Home After Dark (2018), is a fictional work set in the same time and milieu, but based on experiences told to the author/illustrator by a friend.  This harshly poetic book is a breath-taking achievement! 

The story of its central figure, thirteen and later fourteen year-old Russell, is told primarily through pen and grey wash images, with sparse narrative.  Multiple page sequences abound homeafterdark2-e1537285215138with no words at all.  Russell is abandoned by  his mother and later by his alcoholic father, set adrift in a small California town.  This community is rife with school yard bullies, racist attitudes towards Asian immigrants, homophobia, and sexual stereotypes that make “girl” a slur when spoken to or about any teen age boy.  Russell cannot even escape in sleep, as his fears and experiences transmogrify into frightening dreams.  One dream transforms his limited understanding of the town business men’s Lions Club into a circus where Russell finds himself thrown into an actual lion’s cage.  In a devastating image, Small draws the terrified teen crouched inside the lion’s wide-open jaws.    

Spoiler alert and warning: another teen takes his own life here.  And Russell then runs away, living dangerously on his own in an attempt to apologize for his failure to stand up for that boy.  All this plays out against a Christmas prologue, seen in the 10 minute book  trailer read by Small himself, which serves to highlight how far Russell’s existence is from any holiday cheer or televised dreams. 

20180724_SMALL_D_630Yet there is also some hope here.  Russell, who near the book’s conclusion says “I am nobody’s son,” is taken in by the Chinese immigrant family whose trust he has already betrayed once.  The final page and image is of Mrs. Wah, calling Russell into their house, with the welcoming words that “Supper is ready.” For a teen who has despaired of life, summing up his biggest, seemingly insurmountable problem as his wish “to live without hurting anyone,” a second chance in that circumscribed, pre-Internet world now seems possible.  Teen readers might want or need to talk about this book with others, for background insight into the era as well as discussion of the novel’s events and ideas.  Home After Dark is well worth that commitment of time and energy for readers ready to explore the many issues, including alcoholism, it addresses. 

61INu+9TYuL._SX391_BO1,204,203,200_I plan now to decompress from Home After Dark by reading as many of the ten Lunch Lady graphic novels as are available in my local library!  I have only personally read her adventures in a series of compilation volumes, the Comics Squad books, which Jarrett Krosocska contributed to as well as co-edited.  (I reviewed one a few years ago here.)   After that, I think I will be ready to 51rDDfX6nxL._SX382_BO1,204,203,200_reread my own copy of David Small’s searing memoir, Stitches.  I will also remember to count each and every win as any woes arise.  Fine graphic literature is definitely in my win column, along with family and friends, for whom I feel fortunate and remain grateful.

Wishing you good reading and holidays free of stress and frenzy. . . .






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