Park It!

maxresdefaultBears and bison and wolves, oh my!

A visit to Yellowstone National Park was one of June’s highlights for me.  We spent most of that two day excursion gazing at the park’s many geological wonders—colorful crests and vivid mud pools as well as spouting geysers.  But my husband and I also glimpsed some of the area’s wildlife—bison and coyotes, if not the bears and wolves one does not want to meet up close and personal!  Today’s Gone Graphic is inspired by Yellowstone Park (these days endangered along with other national parks by the dubious decisions and policies of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump).  I focus on two graphic novels and two picture books for younger readers, but also touch on a chapter book for tweens and teens.

yellowstone-wildlife-buffalo-79Ted Rechlin’s graphic novels are a safe, very satisfying way to discover Yellowstone’s dominant predators.  Early readers (as well as we older folks) will enjoy Silvertip: A Year in the Life of a Yellowstone Grizzly  (2011) and Epsilon: A Yellowstone Wolf Story (2013).   I know I feel lucky to have found these artful books for sale at the Gallatin County Museum in nearby Bozeman, Montana, and now to have learned about this talented author/illustrator’s other works at his website .  Both books with their simple text may also effectively be read aloud to pre-readers.

51jAZnZvhXL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_Told in the first person, Silvertip’s casual language works well with deftly-designed images to depict the sometimes humorous, sometimes serious and dangerous moments in the life of the adult bear Silvertip.  For instance, his assertion that “I’m big and scary. . .Most of the time. . . . Some of the time.  Okay, maybe once in a while.” comes alive when viewed alongside images of Silvertip, just awake after hibernation, stumbling and tumbling in the snow.  Rechlin alters the grizzly’s facial expressions as well as body language throughout the book to match Silvertip’s experiences.  Through this character’s recollections, we also witness Silvertip’s experiences as a bear cub, gradually discovering his abilities. 

Full page, double-page, and overlapping images successfully convey both the passage of time and intense moments of conflict,  such as Silvertip’s ultimate confrontation of the larger black bear who had been frightening Silvertip away grizzly-bear_PDfrom his food.   Close-ups alternate with mid-distance and long views in the visual storytelling here.  Rechlin wisely keeps some panels and pages wordless, while also smartly employing larger, colored fonts for the different roars creatures emit.  Besides that larger bear, Silvertip encounters a wolf pack, the blonde grizzly who briefly becomes his mate, and ground squirrels too small to be his summertime prey.  Along with these meetings, Rechlin points out the foolish, potentially dangerous behavior of some tourists when Silvertip meets a park ranger warning photo-eager folks to stay away from the grizzly bear.  Even Silvertip is amazed at their behavior! 

61lfOpvjEbL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_Epsilon: A Yellowstone Wolf Story is another full-color work filled with accurate scientific information, this time told in the third-person.  It begins with Epsilon being the adult, 9 year-old leader of his pack in the park’s Lamar Valley.  Most of this story, though, follows Epsilon from the time he is just a yearling, the survivor along with two siblings of an attack by another wolf pack. Individual and pack behavior is shown and told with great economy and verve.  The years speed by as we see such highlights as the pack working together to bring down large game for food, playing with their pups, and confronting  another adult wolf pack to reclaim their original home territory in Lamar Valley.  Older as well as young readers will appreciate the savvy way in which Rechlin depicts the decisive conflict there: Epsilon’s fight with the other pack’s alpha (or head) wolf is shown through alternating panels showing  only their fierce eyes and expressions, the loser finally seeming cowed just before a page shows him running away from Epsilon.  Only one word is needed there as commentary:  “Done!” The book’s final pages are a double page spread showing Epsilon and his pack howling triumphantly in Lamar Valley. 

61y9vqkctdL._SX476_BO1,204,203,200_I also recommend two picture books related to the history of Yellowstone Park and the national park system.  Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West (2009), by award-winning author/illustrator Lita Judge, uses full water-color illustrations to depict the adventures of artist Tom Moran, who in 1871 bravely accompanied the first scientific expedition to what would later become Yellowstone Park.  Moran was so eager to see and record its reported wonders that he fibbed about knowing how to ride a horse!  He quickly, if painfully, learned how to ride. 

Moran’s journals and those of expedition geologist Albert Peale are the basis for  Judge’s storytelling, with some of their actual words appearing as “letters” inserted into the scenes she depicts.  Moran’s own huge, magnificent oil painting of “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” now on display in Washington, D.C.’s 27405518258_551cc14811_bSmithsonian Museum, influenced people’s attitudes about Yellowstone and its natural wonders.  In part, Yellowstone was declared a national park because of Moran’s art.  A reproduction of that painting is displayed on this book’s final pages.  Also, I discovered that there is an online version of a 1990s museum exhibit of Moran’s Yellowstone sketches and his completed works about Yellowstone and other national parks here .  Its images, if not all of its text, may interest young readers along with its intended older audience.

517WEwMNEFL._SX388_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Readers of all ages will delight in the sprightly language of award-winning picture book Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service (2016).  Author Annette Bay Pimentel uses tantalizing imagery to describe the skills of Chinese-American chef Tie Sing, who “baked sourdough rolls as light as the clouds drifting above the peaks” and spread linen tablecloths “brighter than white-water foam.”  In 1915, millionaire naturalist Stephen Mather persuaded the already famous Sing to cook on an expedition through California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.  Mather hoped this trip would convince the influential men he had invited to support a new law creating a national park service.  Illustrator Rich Lo’s vivid, digitally-rendered pencil and water color images join with Pimentel’s words to show how Sing’s skill and ingenuity did indeed help Mather achieve this goal in 1916. 

One way Sing brightened people’s spirits and held their attention as minor Tie_Singaccidents overtook them was by creating fortune cookies with inspirational messages.  These all referred to the natural wonders around them, with words such as “Long may you build paths through the mountains.”  Pimentel’s introductory pages do not shy away from the discrimination Chinese-Americans experienced then, information expanded upon in four supplementary pages at the picture book’s conclusion.  There, photographs also depict Tie Sing and the expedition’s most significant members, giving details about how they contributed in different ways to the 1916 creation of the national park system.  I learned with pleasure there and elsewhere that Sing Peak in Yosemite National Park was named in honor of Tie Sing.

61PA3YEyp5L._SX366_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Moving on from picture books, tween and teen readers may also enjoy the more in-depth information about Yellowstone Park in Erin Peabody’s  15-chapter A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park (2016).  Its focus on the 1871 expedition, complete with judicious sidebars and many contemporaneous as well as current photographs, has led me from its well-crafted, suspenseful narrative to George Black’s more hefty, adult-oriented  Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone (2012).  I hope to be able to finish its 400-plus pages before this library copy is due back!

51BwD9I-aTL._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_As I “park myself” for more reading, I also hope to look at some of Ted Rechlin’s other works, including Changing of the Guard: The Yellowstone Chronicles (2009), depicting the shift from dinosaurs to mammals in that region.  His newest work, Jurassic (2017), an award-winning dino-centric graphic novel, will also now be on my radar.  If you have dinosaur fans among your young readers, take note.  If a visit to one of our other U.S. national parks is in your plans, you may already have some relevant books in mind and to suggest.  I would be pleased to hear from you!  If not, check out your library for further park-specific works.  This 2016 list of 100 “must read” park books, including adult as well as younger reader works, may also be helpful. 



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Summer Reading–To Sip or Chew

images (3)What kinds of reading will you do this summer?  “Summer reading” can have very different meanings.  Will yours be hummingbird sips of brief pieces, pages of mainly light-hearted material scanned in between other outdoor activities?  Or will you and yours chow down on long, possibly serious works—books you have not had the time to read until school was out and work put aside?  Today’s Gone Graphic looks at both possibilities for readers ages tween on up.  I also explore how that first kind of summer reading can lead into the second, and take a look at some graphic novels which illuminate painfully serious current events—ones I fear will extend beyond this coming summer.

51PzlmGpnoL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_I just loved Penelope Bagieu’s recent Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World (2018).  The 29 mini-biographies in this 300 page book first appeared separately, as weekly digital comics in the French newspaper Le Monde—making each piece just the right length for a refreshing summertime mental  “sip.”  (Montana Kane provided the English translation here.)  For print publication, author/illustrator Bagieu added a double spread splash page at the end of each bio, wordlessly commenting on high points in the account. And what remarkable life stories Bagieu zestfully depicts: spanning the globe, ranging from ancient times to the present, spotlighting some lifelong rebels but also others who first “rocked out” as grandmothers or who now are still teens. 

51bG2mnFXULA few figures may well be familiar to readers: world-circling journalist Nelly Bly; actresses Margaret Hamilton and Hedy Lamarr; entertainer Josephine Baker; astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison.  But Bagieu has researched so thoroughly that fresh, sometimes surprising details are revealed in her portrayal of their lives.  And other subjects here will probably be unknown to many readers.  Ancient Greek gynecologist Agnodice, Apache warrior and shaman Lozen, and Syrian activist Naziq al-Abid may well be unfamiliar.  In an interview, Bagieu has said that “I realized I did know a lot of super awesome brave women.  .  . .  But since they’re not labeled as ‘heroes,’ they don’t have books or movies about them.  . . . [so] I just felt like I wanted everybody to know about them too and fix that injustice!”

download (7)Some of the heroes I discovered here for the first time include Afghan teen rapper Sonita Alizadeh, who today rocks out against forced child marriage, and American Frances Glessner Lee, the crime miniaturist who influenced legal forensics and also inspired fictional TV sleuth  Jessica Fletcher!  The life stories of 17th century African Queen Nzinga and 20th century Alsatian volcanologist Katia Krafft were among my other revelations.  (Current nightly news about Hawaii’s volcanic eruptions make Krafft’s heroism especially poignant.) 

Bagnieu’s words as well as images are wise, witty commentaries on these brazen women, beginning each bio in girlhood but then succinctly zooming in to highlight signal events and anecdotes.  When Clementine Delait, 19th century entrepreneur and Bearded Lady is asked whether people can touch her beard, she replies,  Screen-Shot-2018-03-15-at-1.47.42-PM“What’s wrong with you?”  Despite having a physical oddity, Clementine is the one here with healthy personal balance and space.   She asserts herself to achieve love, success, and happiness. Transgender pioneer and reluctant celebrity Christine Jorgensen replies to her detractors, “Kisses, haters.”  These verbal, humor-laced jabs have visual parallels.  Fluid lines depict expressive faces and active bodies with minimalist, cartoon-like verve throughout this book.  Its main biography pages, each organized in six to nine panels, also support and reflect this informal, “dashed off” style, with many panels omitting background details and even borders.  This style enhances the blocks of color Bagnieu uses here, limited to a varying four- or five-color palette, which add further punch and unity within each bio.

Careful readers will particularly enjoy the visual ‘call and response’ relationship between each brief biography and its concluding splash page.  For instance, Animal Whisperer Temple Grandin’s girlhood experience of autism is summed up in this way: “She doesn’t get jokes but always finds Waldo in a matter of seconds.”  Grandin’s splash page is subtly two-toned, with her crouching figure hidden (like download (8)Waldo’s) within a herd of cattle, similar to those helped by her innovative animal husbandry designs.  The foregrounding and fierce look of Queen Nzinga as she watches European ships approach her domains of Ndongo and Matamba sum up her battle-ready, triumphant spirit.  Similarly, the skewered perspective Bagnieu uses to depict Frances Glessner Lee peering into one of her forensic miniatures conveys her personality with humorous pizzazz.  Is Chinese Empress Wu Zetian really dropping the heads of executed enemies from a high bridge?  The black silhouettes there are suggestive, rather than definitive, as is information about that 7th -8th century figure. 

images (5)In these and a number of splash pages, Bagnieu opens up her palette to include more colors.  At other times, as when a stage spotlight shines on anguished rapper Sonita Alizadeh or as lighthouse keeper Giorgina Reid stands stalwart in the snow, a reduced palette conveys the woman’s intensity. 

Reading these brief, buoyantly told biographies may lead to more extended reading.  I know that Bagnieu’s highlighting of Finnish painter Tove Jansson, creator of the comic strip Moomins (now also found in picture books), has led me to order Jansson’s autobiography from the library.  I was tantalized by the ways Bagnieu linked some Moomin characters and plots to Jansson’s life experiences.    Readers young and old may similarly want to learn more about explorers such as Wisconsin-born Delia Akeley or Australian athlete Cheryl Bridges.  Some of these explorations download (9)may lead into serious terrain, such as the child abuse Bridges experienced or the torture endured by the Central American rebel sisters known as “Las Mariposas” (the Butterflies).  Bagnieu’s illustrations there just suggest with thin lash marks and torn garments what these women suffered.  Other, lengthier accounts may offer more details for those seeking to learn Dominican history.  

 (It is noteworthy that this U.S. edition of Brazen omits the 30th biography included in other nations’ print editions—an account of the bandit queen of India, Phoolan Devi.  Her childhood rape was considered too disturbing for tween readers here.  Yet Phoolan heads the list of “Thirty More Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World” in 51kiz7cR84L._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_this edition’s back matter.  Delving into that list may  also lead to extended and possibly serious summer reading—“chewable” stuff.)  Bagnieu’s own autobiographical end note, delightfully continuing the book’s graphic format, may further inspire readers to look at her other, longer graphic works.  I enjoyed Bagnieu’s full-length biography of 1960s-70s pop star Cass Elliot, California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (2015; 2017), already lauded as a 2018 ALA Best Graphic Novel for Teens.  It is an engaging look at Elliot’s serious ambitions and problems.

My own summertime reading plans include “chowing down” on a graphic work  long on my “to be read” list.  Message to Adolf, Part 1 and Part 2 (2012 – 2016) is the second translation of a five volume fiction series by Japanese manga master english-message_to_adolf-400x400 (1)Osamu Tezuka, published in Japan in 1983 -86, and originally translated into English as Adolf.  These books set mainly in Germany follow three different characters named Adolf, one Jewish and another Adolf Hitler himself, in the years before and during World War II.   Tied together by a Japanese character seeking to solve and avenge his brother’s murder, their  combined 1300 pages will not be light reading, I think, even if the books are currently being marketed as a “political thriller” for adults. 

51fxp5VLdWL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_War, anti-Semitism, and related complex issues also figure in two other lengthy works tied to troubling current events.  The recent actions of Israeli military forces against civilians, many unarmed, in Gaza bear examination in many ways, including looking at past download (11)events there.  Graphic journalist Joe Sacco does just that in Palestine (1996; 2001; 2007), winner of a 1996 American Book Award,  and  Footnotes in Gaza (2009), another multiple award winner.  (I previously have discussed Sacco’s work briefly here and here.) These books’ respective 300 and 400 pages are not quick or light reading, but the thorny questions they raise—and Sacco’s artistry—deserve close scrutiny.  To whom does Gaza belong, and how should it be defended? American Jews, including myself, do not speak with one voice on these issues. 

61YJz2HceoL._SY399_BO1,204,203,200_Ironically, while war and violence in Gaza strike children as well as adults, Sacco’s books are best absorbed by readers who are mature tweens or older.    I have just begun to look at books about Gaza for younger readers, noting that picture book The Story of Hurry (2014), written by Emma Williams and illustrated by Ibrahim Quraishi, is one work with a child’s eye view of life there.  Perhaps you readers have others to recommend?

Whether you sip frothy fare or settle in for a less quickly-digested literary “meal,” I wish you and the young people in your life rewarding reading this summer!


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Picturing Butterflies

images (2)A brand new, sumptuous picture book biography is my focus today. Its illustrations refreshed my winter-weary eyes, even as its crystal-clear language movingly revealed an exceptional woman, from girlhood through old age.  And, whether by remarkable coincidence or fate, my writing now about Joyce Sidman’s The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (2018) seems meant to be.  Let me explain.

Just last month, I went overnight from groaning at (fake) worms to gasping at beautifully pictured butterflies.  Women scientists—almost unheard of in the 17th and early 18th centuries—were responsible for both reactions!  The worms were being studied by a character in an 18th-century English play, Susanna Centlivre’s The Basset Table - Persistent Theatre ProductionsThe Bassett Table, being produced by a local theater company   I saw several performances of this funny play, as scientific Lady Valeria’s disapproving father was acted by my husband, Don Larsson.  His shock and disgust when “daughter” Valeria thrusts a six-foot long tape worm at him evoked laughter in the audience but also a few sympathetic groans. 

Centlivre’s comedy was written and first performed in 1705.  That was also the year that German artist and scientific pioneer Maria Merian published her most famous work, a study of South American insects and amphibians.  Maria actually lived the life and achieved goals dreamed about by fictional Lady Valeria!  How could I not focus today on Maria’s life story—particularly since its author is the admirable poet Joyce Sidman, whose award-winning work I have long enjoyed.  (For this Earth Day, I posted an article that in part discusses two of Sidman’s books of luminous nature poetry.)  I had The Girl Who Drew Butterflies on my library call list, not knowing more than its title, even before my husband began rehearsals for that play.

61qP0DFlbAL._SX387_BO1,204,203,200_In this book’s twelve chapters, Sidman explains what life was like in 17th –century Germany for middle class women.  Unlike aristocratic Lady Valeria, Maria Merian had to contribute to her household’s income and even support herself late in life.   She was the daughter of a printmaker, then step-daughter of one working painter and wife to another painter.  While women in such households might perform tasks relating to art, they were not trained formally or accepted as professional artists.  Similarly, few people back then believed that women had the brains or temperament to study the natural world.  In fact, women who showed interest or special knowledge of nature might be burned as witches!  Most insects, even the butterflies which were Maria’s special love, were considered “evil vermin.” Marriage and motherhood were the roles she was expected to fulfill—and she did.

Merian_Metamorphosis_LXBut Maria also continued to observe, think about, draw, and paint insects as they developed in their own habitats.  She later shared these interests with her daughters, who painted their own still-lifes.  Their achievements, though, were of a lesser order than Maria’s.  Documenting the origin, metamorphosis, and particular sites of different butterfly species was her signal contribution to science and art history.  Seventy-five years before the word “entomologist” came into usage, Maria Merian’s nature studies were praised by science-minded members of the British Royal Society.  Her colorful and detailed engravings of creatures depicted in their shared natural setting later influenced the prominent naturalist-artist John Jacques Audubon.

GuavenzweigSidman supplements the narrative chapters with nine sidebars on such apt topics as copper engraving, witch hunts, religion in the 1600s, and the differences between moths and butterflies.  The sidebar on slavery in Surinam, the South American Dutch colony to which Maria daringly journeyed to observe exotic insects and amphibians, is especially important for the young readers in grades 5 and up who might pleasurably explore this book.  This sidebar provides needed historical information and context for how unusual for that time Maria’s awareness of slave women’s suffering and lore was.  Her views are recorded in her 1705 book.

 FulgoraReaders old as well as young will appreciate the brief poems Sidman offers at the beginning of chapters, all titled sequentially by the stages in butterfly development.      Each poem is illustrated with a full-color photograph of a stage, while the poem itself cunningly applies not just to the pictured insect but to the chapter’s comparable stage in Maria’s life.  So, the caterpillar which has again shed its skin and teen-aged Maria about to be married are both eloquently described by this verse:  “I grow quickly, shedding skin after skin, twisting, shifting to match my surroundings.”  In the chapter titled “Flight,” an airborne butterfly and Maria’s bold trip to faraway Surinam are both captured in these words:  “How vast the swirling dome of the sky!  How strong the wings I have grown for myself!” 

330px-Garden_Tiger_Moth_Maria_Sibylla_MerianSidman took most of the sharp-eyed photographs here herself.  I particularly enjoyed the one of her young neighbor eyeballing a butterfly, shot in a Twin Cities suburb not far from the one where I live!  The bulk of the book’s gorgeous illustrations, though, are reproductions of Maria Merian’s own detailed,   beautifully-colored images of flowers, plants, insects, and other creatures.  They are a delight, extending to the interior covers of this volume, which is a joy to hold. The maps and contemporaneous engravings of city scenes related to Maria’s life, along with back matter such as a timeline and an introductory butterfly glossary, are further reasons to recommend this thoughtfully designed and creatively executed biography.   

51SaTiNdWVL._SX422_BO1,204,203,200_Sidman’s book is more kid-friendly than another recent work about the artist-naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist/Scientist/Adventurer (2018), written by Sarah B. Pomeroy and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby.   That richly-illustrated book published by the J. Paul Getty Museum on heavy paper stock does, though,   contain some information not in The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: sidebars on 17th –century women painters and on Maria’s daughters’ art.  It also has a chapter about how Maria’s work and reputation survived and grew, thanks in part to her daughter Dorothea.  Those are some reasons for a further look at this art history-oriented book.

Early elementary-aged readers might relish Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (2010), with clear, simple text written by Margarita Engle and attractive pictures drawn by Julie Paschkis.   For older readers eager to learn more, I recommend Kim Todd’s Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of 51HAVf2zDgL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Metamorphosis (2007).    I have just begun to peruse this award-winning work aimed at adults, breath-taking in scope and insights into 17th  -century women’s lives and the implications of scientific knowledge.  I also appreciate how Todd includes her own experiences and thoughts as she travelled to research this biography.  Nature and poetry lovers of all ages would find much to enjoy in Joyce Sidman’s other books, listed at her website

51LpxK6H7wL._SX365_BO1,204,203,200_Finally, when it comes to picturing butterflies, I would be remiss in not mentioning for older readers the graphic novel Ruins (2015) by author/illustrator Peter Kuper.  (I reviewed one of his earlier books here.)  Alternating the story of monarch butterfly migration with the journey of a married couple, this 300 page novel in 2016 won an Eisner Award and was also a Book List Top Ten Graphic Novel.   


Play photograph by Scott Pakudaitis






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On Earth Day: Poetry Embracing Science

earth-dayI was shocked—an editor had just told me that poetry had no place in science books!  This young man had been assigned by the publisher to shepherd my completed work-for-hire, about watersheds for middle school readers, into print.  The poetry in question was a line or two by contemporary author Gary Snyder, which I had included in the book’s introduction.   Although this exchange happened more than a decade ago, it led to the essay below, first drafted in 2009, I would like to share with you today.

Upcoming Earth Day—with its all its celebrations—has reminded of this essay, as has a brand-new book by local, award-winning poet Joyce Sidman, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (2018).  (More on that book, I think, in the next Gone Graphic.)  Two of Sidman’s earlier books had figured in the extended written response I ultimately made to that editor’s ignorant remark.  I also cited books by two other established, highly-lauded poets; published poems by young authors; and comments about my own sometimes poetic science books for kids.  I could have cited many more works.  The young man was ignoring a wealth of literature, and underestimating young readers, too!  

hera_picI was unsure about how to focus my reply, though, until I saw a call for papers for an academic conference centered on “Nature and the Humanities.”   I drafted the following essay, which I presented at that Chicago conference in 2009.   This presentation dovetailed my work and interest in writing for young readers with my earlier training as a university researcher and teacher.  Although the conference program listed me as an “independent scholar,” meaning one without a current university affiliation, even then I preferred being known as a “writer.”

Read on to learn more about “Watershed Moments: Poems that Cross Generations and Genres.”  And have a wonderful Earth Day, 2018, however you pay tribute to Mother Earth. 


As poet Gary Snyder notes, a “watershed is a marvelous thing to consider: this process of rain falling, streams flowing and oceans evaporating . . . .  The watershed is beyond the dichotomy of orderly/disorderly, for its forms are free, but somehow inevitable.”  A recent spate of poetry books inspired by Nature supports Snyder’s insights.  These books subvert conventional notions of artistic proficiency, distinct genres, and separate audiences.

517pdTQ0siL._SX466_BO1,204,203,200_ Young authors now contribute annually to published volumes titled River of Words.   This outpouring of talent often begins in classrooms focused on science or environmental  issues, or with community groups dedicated to watershed restoration.   The Library of Congress cosponsors the yearly writing and art contest which in 1995 began this deluge of creativity.  The impact of these poems—whether limpid haiku or cascading torrents of word play—belies the age of their authors.  These young people are wise as well as witty.

 Other poets writing for young readers recognize this.   In volumes such as The Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems and Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of  the Meadow, Joyce Sidman conflates genres.  The factual explanations she adds    after her polished poems do not jar but flow naturally.  Lisa Westburg Peters in Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up  and J.Patrick Lewis in Swan Song similarly interpose nonfiction with poetry.   The ebb and flow of these illustrated volumes satisfies adult readers as well as children.   I will highlight these trends, and then conclude with a few instances of how, when I write “faction” for young readers, I too use poetry to convey scientific concepts.

The River of Words competition offers a teacher’s guide to help educators introduce poetic forms and tropes in relation to environmental issues.  There are many styles of poetry displayed in its volumes and on its website.  For the sake of brevity and because they reflect my own poetic taste, I will share some of the shorter gems with you today.   From the 2008 volume published by Milkweed Press, this is how 9 year-old Damia Lewis describes herself:



You may think

I am a shadow,

But inside

I am a sun.


A brief, visionary, and luminous statement of hopeful possibilities.


This is how 16 year-old Anna Dumont captures one memorable moment:                                                                                                



They came upon us

like I, as a small child,

was always afraid

that a tornado would,

a black mass in the sky,

roaring and cackling,

the occasional high-pitched squeal

like metal on bone.

There were thousands of them,

far more than was necessary,

as if, in the sparse winter,

nature was indulging a little.


Anna Dumont, age 16

A witty and sharp-eyed comment about Nature’s vagaries as well as childhood.


And, finally, in honor of our gathering together today near the shores of Lake Michigan, here is the winner of this year’s Grand Prize in the competition category for grades 7 – 9, now displayed on the River of Words website.  Thirteen year-old Patty Schlutt of Grand Rapids, Michigan writes about

Stories Told With Sand Whipping in Our Faces

I was three years old.
My father pulled a map
out of his backpack,
roads spilling across it
like languages I did not understand.

Later, seagulls scampered
through the dunes
as we climbed to a place
where roots laced like fingers over the earth
      and Lake Michigan lay before us,
as if it were a guardian.
We stood looking out over the place where
he was born, the hospital
where doctors waited in white shoes
while his throat burned
from tonsillitis. I could see him

a young boy darting through the streets
on his way to the dunes,
the closest thing to heaven
that we have while we live below the stars.

The driveway his father paved
by hand, bruised
from days of bricks
pulling him towards the earth.

His memories fell from his mouth
and I remember them all well
as if it was that morning
and I was standing tall
with his childhood looking back at me.

 I believe that these poems speak for themselves, for their creators who are poets first, young poets second.  Their vision and artistic proficiency are moving for adult readers as well as their peers. 

At the end of this of this paper, I have attached three other poems by young writers, including one written in both English and Spanish.  That kind of multiculturalism is typical of this competition, which is an international one, with entries so far from 16 countries.  Humanists will also be pleased by the competition’s inclusion of the visual arts, both as a separate award-winning event and in the way it pairs visuals with poems in the anthologies.  Another artistic symbiosis occurred in 2002, when     multifaceted composer Chris Brubeck, commissioned to create a piece for soprano Frederica von Stade, composed River of Song.  Its libretto contains poems by five River of Words young poets as well as e.e. cummings.  I have that CD here, and can play a bit at the end of this session or after it if any of you wish.

51I7QSBX71L._SX400_BO1,204,203,200_Joyce Sidman’s award-winning picture books contain poetry that is versatile and sophisticated, giving readers the sensations of Nature before presenting their scientific explanations.  In Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems, these lucid prose explanations appear on the same pages as the poems.  In Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, each double spread of poems ends with the questions, “What am I?” and the answers are revealed only once the page is turned.  A double spread of limpid prose then appears.

In 2005’s Song of the River Boatman, one device Sidman uses is repetition.  Here is the beginning of her poem “Listen to Me”:

                                        Listen to me on a spring night,

on a wet night,

on a rainy night.

Listen for me on a still night

for in the night, I sing.


                                                    That is when my heart thaws,     

                                                                       my skin thaws, 

my hunger thaws.

That is when the world thaws,

and the air begins to ring.

 The prose paragraph that follows the complete poem contains facts about its speaker, the inch-long tree frog called a spring peeper.  Sidman later aptly uses a cumulative poem to present the food chain of creatures that feast upon one another in a summer pond.  She uses contrapuntal voices to capture the mirrored lives of two water bugs—the water boatman and its upside down twin, the backswimmer.   But I believe the synergy between the four quatrains of “The Season’s Campaign” and the prose explanation that floats alongside is a ready demonstration of how  Sidman sinks the ideas of distinct genres and of separate—adult vs. child—audiences in her works.   She writes

The Season’s Campaign


I.Spring                                                II. Summer                                      

We burst forth,                                    Brown velvet plumes                 

crisp green squads                               bob jauntily.  On command,

 bristling with spears.                          our slim, waving arrows

We encircle the pond.                          rush toward the sun.


III.  Fall                                                  IV.  Winter

All red-winged generals                       Our feet are full of ice.

desert us.  Courage                               Brown bones rattle in the wind.

clumps and fluffs                                  Sleeping, we dream of

like bursting pillows.                            seed-scouts, sent on ahead.


Sidman then adumbrates what illustrator Becky Prange has depicted in a flowing quadriptych.  In a paragraph titled “Cattails,” Sidman explains that

Cattails are plants called emergents, for they grow half in and half out of the water.  Their tall, spiky leaves spread around the edges of ponds and shelter many animals.  Red-winged blackbirds nest in them, muskrats build mounds with their leaves, and ducks paddle among them, hidden from predators.  The most distinctive part of the cattail is its brown “flower,” which looks like  sausage on a stick.  Soft as a cat’s tail, this flower becomes a fluffy mass of parachuting seeds, spreading with the wind.  When tiny cattail seeds fall on moist soil, they sprout and grow new cattails.               

Adult as well as younger readers will readily appreciate how cunningly Sidman has woven this information throughout the military parade of her poem.

61vTm0Q6LTL._SX427_BO1,204,203,200_In the 2006 volume Butterfly Eyes, Sidman continues to address a range of audiences.  This is evident in her identifying some of the poetic forms she uses in her titles, such as the poem  “We are Waiting (a pantoume).”  Turning the page, readers learn that this aptly repetitive poem– beginning and ending with the same line, as pantoums do—describes forest renewal or succession.  The added frisson of seeing how subtly the poet has aligned her form with its content  need not be present to savor these pieces; yet  this knowledge resonates for the informed  adult or young reader.  And readers mystified by the rather exotic word “pantoume”  may be inspired to look up its meaning.  Sidman does not talk down to her audience, purportedly elementary school aged readers.  Similarly, Sidman’s short poem “He” works on several levels:





meadow-gold grass

in dawn sun



a word


its own



Who is he?

When the next page reveals that this creature is a fox, the adult or sophisticated reader will gain added pleasure from knowing that “foxy” means clever or crafty, but one need not know this to appreciate the other visual and tactile images in this poem.  

61zXvXKUUiL._SX429_BO1,204,203,200_ Lisa Westberg Peters has a very different voice—wry, rollicking, and goodhumored—in her 2003 collection Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up. She often uses puns and plays with conventional narrative forms to convey her joy in  geological facts.  Both are apparent in this earthy gem, which takes the form of a set of written directions:



Instructions for the Earth’s Dishwasher

Please set the

continental plates

gently on the

continental shelves.

No jostling or scraping.


Please stack the

basins right side up.

No tilting or turning



Please scrape the mud

out of the mud pots.

But watch out!

They’re still hot.


As for the forks

in the river,

                                                                 just let them soak.



if anything breaks,

it’s your fault.


In the End Notes for this book. under this poem’s title, Peters explains that

Some complex geological features have simple, everyday names.  For example, a plate is a section of the earth’s outer layer, or crust.  A basin is a low area in the earth’s crust.  A shelf is an underwater platform on the edge of a continent.  Mud pots are formed when rising steam changes rock into clay.  A river is “forked” when it has more than one branch.  A fault is a crack in the earth’s crust.

Other fun-filled poems in this anthology take the forms of a love letter, an obituary,  want ads, a warning label, and recipes.  .  The title poem, “Earthshake,” is a recipe for a frothy beverage—akin to a milkshake!   In each instance, an End Note explains the science behind the poem.  I believe Peters’ inspired whimsy appeals to old as well as young and is an effective bridge linking poetry and prose. 

51DWuIlRF6L._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_J. Patrick Lewis takes a slightly-more more solemn tone in his 2003 collection, Swan Song, which befits its subtitle: Poems of Extinction. As he explains in his melodious and onamtopoeia-rich Foreward, 

This book is about the recently departed.  In Earth’s great forests and fields, they buzzed and chirped and bellowed through little incidents of sorrow from roughly 1627 to 2000.  Whether beautiful or homely, giant or dwarf, each species was its own drama in many disappearing acts, even if it was very far off the Broadway of the dinosaurs.

As you can see from the sophisticated language and sentence structure of this paragraph, Lewis’s audience encompasses both old and young readers.  The poet uses End Notes to explain the history of each vanished species, eulogized in a poem, such as this one which—bittersweetly—yields both the volume’s title and shorthand for extinction itself:

Chatham Island Swan

Chatham Island, rich and rare resort

For migratory marvels on the wind,

Is something of an empty royal court:

A paradise without a queen and king.


Exotic birds were commoners to those,

Who once, an age ago, could silhouette

In symmetry and S on S, and pose,

Or glorify a shoreline, dripping wet.


But beauty is handmaiden of the strong,

Or else we might have heard

          this Swan’s swan song.


Lewis’s graceful play upon “swan song” in the poem’s last line is as elegant as Christopher Wormell’s wood block illustration.  And the End Note which explains the extinction of this New Zealand bird is as sophisticated and rich in its prose as the poem itself:

Four hundred fifty miles from any other inhabited land, the group of ten Chatham Islands is a part of New Zealand.  Maoris, the first human settlers, populated them in 1000 A.D.  The Chatham Island Swan, lovely by being, innocent by nature, defenseless in its habitat, found its way to dinner tables—and to extinction—even before the British colonized the islands in 1791.

Lewis, perhaps even more than Sidman, writes prose that is poetically rhythmic.

51M0EJ+Bz4L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Finally, let me just point out a few instances in which I have used poetic language to make science memorable for young readers in picture books.  I completed the Amazing Science series, a collection of six books, in 2003 specifically for very young readers—children pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade.  Each book had an assigned topic, tailored to grade school curriculum.  But I wrapped science concepts in words children could savor and take with them as they grow.  For instance, in Dirt: The Scoop on Soil, readers learn that “Squiggling worms, trailing snails, slithering snakes, and burrowing rabbits loosen the soil as they crawl through it.”  I am pleased to say that this book is one of 22 that the Minnesota State Department of Agriculture distributes annually to classrooms statewide.  

Light: Shadows, Mirrors, and Rainbows  begins with a two page spread that reads:

Delightful Light

Shadows play on a sunny day.  Water glints and gleams.  At a storm’s end, a rainbow bends.  

Wherever you look, light dazzles and dances.  It makes wonderful shapes and colors.  Light is what lets you see things.


51-v0vop1JL._AC_UL115_Guidelines for this series called for no more than three sentences per page.  I concluded Light with this two page spread:

     All around, light is sparkling, swirling, blinking, bending, and bouncing.

Watch.  Wonder.  Investigate.  Our world is shining with colorful new things to explore.


9781404800151At times, in this series, guidelines and editorial concerns led me reluctantly towards more plodding prose, but my background in the humanities gave me strength and motivation to resist!  And so, in Rocks: Hard, Soft, Smooth, and Rough, readers learn that “Some sedimentary rocks tell stories about the past—stories of forgotten forests and vanished seas.  They tell tales of creatures that swam, slithered, or crept.”  This book concludes by asking readers to look closely at the rocks around them and asks, “What stories do these rocks tell?”  

It pleases me to think that—along with the extraordinary poetry of Sidman, Peters, and Lewis—some of the young authors entering the River of Words competition may have read my science picture books in their school classrooms or libraries.

Copyright 2009 Natalie M. Rosinsky


Works Cited

Brubeck, Chris. “River of Song.” on Convergence (Music CD). NY: Koch Entertainment, 2002.

Lewis, J. Patrick.  Swan Song: Poems of Extinction.  Mankato, MN: Creative Editions, 2003.   

Michael, Barbara, ed.  River of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of Things.  Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2008.

Peters, Lisa Westerg.  Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up.  NY: HarperCollins, 2003.

Rosinsky, Natalie M.  Dirt: The Scoop on Soil.  Minneapolis: Picture Window Books, 2003.

————————-.  Light: Shadows, Mirrors, and Rainbows.  Minneapolis: Picture Window Books, 2003.

————————-.  Rocks: Hard, Soft, Shiny, and Smooth.  Minneapolis:  Picture Window Books, 2003.

Sidman, Joyce. Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

——————.  Song of the River Boatman & Other Pond Poems.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Snyder, Gary.  A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds.    Berkeley, CA:  1995.


          More Poems from River of Words. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2008:



 a fox stepped out of nowhere.

His long legs stretched across the stone wall.

He paused as we stared,

both wondering where the other was going,

although it was obvious each was wandering—


I paused as we stared,

both wondering why the other was

using it for direction—


He  wasn’t a sly fox—

At least I didn’t see it in his eyes.

He was frightenend.

I’d never seen a fox before.

I was frightened, too.



A living poem—

A girl, a fox


only by a stone wall

and a fear of the unknown.


Zoe Mason, age 13




Often have I come to you

In the fitful light of evening

Or the constant sheen of morning

And often have I sought your solace,


Show me the secret of your solitude

That thing, that unknown certain thing

Which has brought you through a hundred shifting seasons

And will bring you through at least a thousand more.

Teach me to be alone through summer, autumn, winter, spring

And still to catch the gleaming sunset

And dance in golden eddies in the shadows of the islands.

Tell me all the secrets of those silent seasons

Or one thing only—

When spring comes, show me how to break the ice.


Alexandra Petri, Age 14



THERE IS A DARK RIVER                                  HAY UN RIO OSCURO


There is a dark river                                           En la alcantarilla de la calle

In the gutter of the street                                  En frente de mi escuela

In front of my school.                                                Nacio de la lluvia

It was born in the rain                                                  Y no corre mas.

And isn’t flowing any more.                                        Se quieda triste

It’s sort of sad                                                      Con goats de gasolina

With drops of gasoline                                      Y un papel rojo

And a red wrapper                                              Que tiro un nino

Some kid tossed                                                  Despues de comer un dulce.

After eating a candy.                                          Petro aun triste y sucio

But although it’s sad and filthy                       Lleva la sombra de mi cara

It carries the shadow of my face                      Las nubes andrajosas

The tattered clouds                                            Y en blanco y negro

And in white and black                                     Todo el cielo.

The whole sky.


                                                                      Michelle Diaz Garza, age 9

                                                                      & Rosa Baum, age 9

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Being Brave and Bold

march-lives_697Awkward middle schoolers gaining confidence and becoming brave— two great graphic novels about this transition are my focus today, inspired by current events.

How do young people learn to be brave and bold?  I have been thinking about this since last week’s March for Our Lives, helmed by students protesting gun violence in schools and elsewhere.  The 800 or so demonstrations here in the U.S. and world-wide showed how connected, committed, and bold young people can be.   A movement born in reaction to the recent Parkland, Florida school shooting is now nation-wide and even transcends borders.  Such tragic events calling out for change may spur boldness. 

29844341Knowing about the success of past protests may also be inspirational.   There were shout-outs to the civil rights movement in several U.S. demonstrations last Saturday.  Speakers at the Washington, D.C. march included not only survivors of gun violence but the 9 year-old granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Yolanda Renee King.  Her own “dream . . . that this should be a gun-free world”  echoed Dr. King’s powerful words and vision.  In Atlanta, the civil rights hero Representative John Lewis spoke with authority when he told young demonstrators that, by never giving up or in, they were “going to have a victory.”   Some tweens and teens may have learned about Congressman Lewis and the civil rights movement through the award-winning graphic trilogy about his life, March, Books  1 -3  (2013 – 16), reviewed by me here and here.

61+37jJgn3L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Yet such historical examples of bravery, perhaps introduced in school, are just one way kids learn to be brave.  More immediate and sometimes painful lessons happen through everyday life, which for most Western tweens and teens centers on school.  With this in mind, today I want to spotlight two graphic novels that I read recently, after eagerly looking at the American Library Association’s 2018 Great Graphic Novels for Teens listBrave (2017), written and illustrated by Canadian Svetlana Chmakova, was one of that list’s top ten books.  It is a spin-off of Chmakova’s earlier Awkward (2015), which in 2016 was also a YALSA top ten graphic novel.  Minor characters in Awkward become the protagonists in Brave, which can be read as a stand-alone novel.

In Awkward, we follow the (mis)adventures of Peppi Torres, the new girl at Berrybrook Middle School.  Through her first-person account, we see how this shy, sometimes physically-awkward pre-teen acquires genuine friendships as she deals with other students and cliques at school.  Art-loving Peppi is surprised to learn download (4)how much she enjoys science, even though the Art Club kids are “at war” with the Science Club!  Peppi’s personal growth is accented by the one time that Awkward’s muted palette of mauve and soft browns or  blues effectively flares into vivid colors.  During a class trip to a science museum, as Peppi imagines herself visiting terrains around the globe, she “sees” them in bright greens, yellows, and shimmering white.  This color transformation parallels the strength of the friendship Peppi ultimately develops with equally shy Jaime, a science “nerd,” and the strong way she finally is able to literally shout down some bullies.

Yet Awkward is not a simple, linear work.  Its large cast of characters includes students and teachers of wide-ranging backgrounds and ethnicities.  With apt words and visual details, Chmakova gives us the attitudes and home lives of kids rich and awkward_preview6-copy (1)poor, of families which cope with disability and others which break apart due to self-centered anger.  We see teachers with lovable foibles and others with fearsome flair.  There are several subplots resolved in Awkward, even as we follow the main story about Peppi through the novel’s six chapters and 200 pages.  We see Peppi’s life over the course of several months, noting how her emotions trump ordinary clock time.  An anxious, sleepless night which feels endless occupies several pages, while the few minutes she spends nervously convincing the art and science clubs to work together to build an indoor planetarium feel  like “SEVERAL CENTURIES LATER.”  The planetarium is a success, returning both groups to officially approved school status.  Peppi learns to be brave by working with others in such efforts as well as speaking out by herself.   Or, as Peppi herself concludes, “BUILD THINGS.  BUILD FRIENDSHIPS. BUILD YOURSELF.”  

In Brave, Chmakova continues to use capital letters and different fonts for 61l8JZ2C8sL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)emphasis as well as to indicate actual changes in spoken volume.  Readers of both works will also note their similar, manga-inspired visual style, since both feature faces and some actions drawn unrealistically.  Chmakova’s earlier success as creator of manga  for publishers Tokyopop and Yen Press is evident in her depiction of  impossibly wide frowns and smiles, surprised eyes with pinpoint or no pupils, and doubling of arms and legs to indicate motion.  These techniques will delight lovers of manga and be accessible to other readers as this style so cleverly supports each work’s rich storyline and characterization.   

Brave’s protagonist and narrator is twelve year-old Jensen Graham.  This somewhat download (5)overweight boy, fixated on potential disasters caused by sunspots, was a minor character in Awkward, a member of the middle school Art Club.  In Brave, we see how Jensen is physically bullied and teased about his weight, obsessions, and trouble with math, even as some students he considers friends ignore him or make slyly mean jokes at his expense.  Jensen’s visualizing his school day as a video game, with a series of leveled obstacles to overcome, is both sad and funny!  Pages or panels depicting this game and Jensen’s comforting daydreams are the points at which Awkward’s subdued palette adds some brighter colors.

Jensen’s learning to recognize different forms of bullying and to speak up for 1himself are major points in the novel.  Its nuanced characterizations also have his thoughtless friends learning to recognize and change their verbal bullying, while one of the two physical bullies also begins to change.  These subplots enrich the 10 chapter novel, which also sees outer-space obsessed Jensen coming to appreciate school athletes, two of whom befriend and stand up for him.  As Jensen says to himself, “I guess sports are . . . kinda like their Star Trek.”   Such natural sounding thoughts and dialogue are one of the ways Chmakova  brings her many characters to life. 

These characters include newspaper editors Jenny and Akilah, longtime friends first introduced in Awkward.  Here, working on the school’s news video blog, the girls learn to acknowledge and overcome their different attitudes towards risk and anger.  Jenny has a hair-trigger temper, but she is more afraid of offending school authorities than mild-mannered, hajib-wearing Akilah.  Such richly-drawn figures and relationships are a fine, engaging substitute for the “tutoring for middle school life” that at one point is beleaguered Jensen’s wish.

444f2bdc-b7fe-412e-813e-ea23c16fd05bSvetlana Chmakova’s perceptive insights and engaging characters make us eager to read the illustrated autobiographical pieces at the end of each book.  She provides relevant details about her life in Russia and as a 15 year-old immigrant to Canada, as well as—in Brave—reassuring scientific facts about sunspots!  I believe readers will be happy to learn that a third volume about Berrybrook Middle School’s students, titled Crushwill be published in October, 2018. 

Before then, fans of Awkward and Brave who like spooky stories might want to check out the manga listed at Chmalkova’s website.  (I myself will be requesting the 61FJgSzab-L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_first volume of Night School from the local library.)  Kids wanting to know more about 1960s civil rights battles would find The Silence of Our Friends, a graphic novel reviewed by me here, rewarding.  I am Alfonso Jones, highlighted here, is a stunning, gut-wrenching graphic novel linked to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.  And, for those brave and bold young people who choose to unite in protest, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has produced Be Heard!,  a a short comic detailing student protesters’ rights and suggested best practices. 





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Of Mice and Middle School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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In War and Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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