Pandemic! One Hundred Years Later

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


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

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

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

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

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


Happy reading as you stay well!

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And the Winner Is

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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








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On Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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On the Brink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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Get Sets for the Holidays!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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In Season and Beyond

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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It Takes Guts!

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

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

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

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

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

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






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Looking Forward to History

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Life’s Soundtracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Fireworks or Fizzle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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