Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld

Here is a book that just sort of arrived on my doorstep … ok, well not my doorstep as much as the pile o’ books that gathers in the area under

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Image by G. Struble

the mailboxes near my office at Boston university School of Education, waiting for me to come and collect them. I enjoy the sight and allowing the books to pile up because it feels like christmas when I do rip into them.

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland, colors by Hilary Sycamore was one of the books in my latest stack. I can’t tell you if I ordered it or if it was sent to me by the fine people at FirstSecond publishing but in any case, I’m happy it made it’s way to me.

The cover (seen here) is oddly creepy-ish and tough. I want to stay with this idea of creepy-ish and toughness existing simultaneously. Creepy elements include the red-eyed wolf with it’s open maw hovering behind the girl, as if it will chase her at any moment. The malevolent intent of the wolf seems clear and barely contained. The small but highly saturated areas of red – the wolf’s eyes, mouth, as well as what appears to be the spill in the bottom quarter of the cover – frame the image of the girl on the motocross bike.

If you want to read a complete and mind-blowing treatise of how illustrators can use these kinds of colors, hues, and shapes to effect readers’ meaning making, pick up Molly Bang’s Picture This (1991, Chronicle Books).

Back to the cover. The other creepy element is the doll on the back of the bike. For an instant, I thought it was a child riding without a helmet, or possible without a neck. But after looking at it for a while (horror mixed with curiosity) the visible pupil-less eye, tiny nose, and disheveled hair reminded me of a Raggedy Ann doll. Which was sort of still weird.

Then there is the girl, or more exactly, the young woman. She’s sitting astride a motocross motorcycle wearing full crash pads, holding a camera and looking right at me. Daring me. Daring me to what, I am not sure. But, this is a woman who does not suffer fools.

Let’s get some important stuff clear. This books is about a young woman, Addison, who is raising her younger sister, Lexa, alone. They are survivors of some sort of horrendous toxic spill or alien invasion, or opening of a portal into an unwelcome world. The Zone is off limits with the National Guard manning barricades to keep people out and the things that exist in the Zone in. Lexa no longer speaks as a result of the spill and so Addison ventures into the Zone to take pictures of what is left. She sells the pictures to take care of herself and Lexa.

The Zone is alive and weird. Deeply off. Familiar objects made strange by a distortion, ill suited colors, and Addison’s wary, warning narrative. She’s seen all this before. She hates it. She’s drawn to it. She is captured by it and repulsed by her own fascination.

The book passes the Bechdel Test … lots of female characters talking to each other about many things not related to men. As a matter of fact women drive the plot by breathing life into the structure of the book and acting to move the story forward. Westerfeld, a noted White male, does what many White male writers attempt and fail. He creates a strong female protagonist and allows her to be a wholly complex, imperfect, active agent in her life and the life of those around her. In addition, he creates minor characters who gave me the sense that they existed before these pages and will continue to exist after I closed the book. There are Whites, Blacks, Asians, men and women all living in a fragile and suspect world.

The end of Spill Zone is frustrating to me, as a reader. Like many dystopia novels it is part of a series. The end of this first book is a cliff hanger that leaves me wondering and worried for Lexa and Addison, And possibly, the world.

The book should come with the following directions – Pick it up, read it. Put it down, walk away. Return and repeat.

Octavia E. Butler’s KINDRED

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

It is Martin Luther King Jr. day here in America.

Over the weekend the prez elect* has called out Senator John Lewis for being a do-nothing-talk-without-action kind of guy. The accusation is astonishing and ridiculous. (Please read March: Books 1-3 if you want to know what action looks like.)

coverI wanted to draw attention to work other than March on this MLK day. So, I want to highlight and call attention to the graphic novel adaptation of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.

If you’ve never read Butler’s work, you have missed out on some mind bending sci fi work. I’m not a big fan of the genre but I have read the Lilith lyapo series (Dawn, Imago, Lilith’s Brood, and Adulthood Rites) series. Butler is not a great Black sci fi author. She is a great author who writes sci fi and is Black.

What’s the difference you might ask? Isn’t that just semantics?

And I would answer, NO! Her storytelling is tightly constructed, her characters are whole people I had a hard time letting go, and they are diverse. The characters are good and bad – often at the same time – Black, White and alien (with tentacles and everything!). She deftly crafts settings that are unknown and familiar.

But, for all this love I must confess I never read Kindred. It didn’t sound interesting … I am not a historical novel kind of gal and when I saw the book was about a contemporary (it was written in the 80s) Black woman being summoned through time to to save a White boy in the Antebellum south, I was out. Not interested in the least. Hard pass.

But, now Damian Duffy and John Jennings have written a graphic novel adaptation … so, I had to read it. I downloaded a review copy while ago, before Christmas at least, but put off reading it. I continued to be not interested.

Turns out, I’m an idiot.

kindred_p1From the first page with the startling image of a Black woman in a hospital bed and the first line of text, “I lost my arm on my last trip home” I was hooked. This book captured my attention and held on for dear life. I have read it several times, and still think about it. There is something artfully painful about the struggle, both historical, and fantastical that this graphic novel captures.

Set in the summer of 1976, Dana, a contemporary Black woman, married to a White man, living the life of a struggling writer is wrenched out of her time deposited in the Antebellum south. She arrives just in time to save a young White boy, Rufus, from drowning. But, there is no explanation of how or why she transported through time and space. And, perhaps more importantly, no clear way for her to get back.

I was less intrigued than I was scared crapless by the set up. Did I mention Dana is BLACK, and not some high-yellow Black with straight hair and light eyes that could pass. Nope. Dana is dark skinned with a tight afro, large lips, and broad nose. There is no hiding her Blackness and I think that is an especially important aspect to this adaptation. The protagonists, the heroine, is a woman who is illustrated to be unmistakably and unabashedly Black.

Dana discovers that she can and does return to her life when she is in a life threatening situation. Right after she saves the boy, some unseen person draws a gun on her and aims it at her head. She returns to her home, to the shock of her husband who saw her blink out of existence and then reappear a few seconds later, wet and muddy and in a panic. The second time Dana lands on the plantation, she has more time to discover what is going in, but honestly, it still doesn’t make sense! Instead, I was worried about her getting caught and killed or worse. I mean … HELLO!! Black Woman on a freaking PLANTATION!!!

As the book continues, Dana keeps going back and forth and each time she is in more and more danger. Each time the violence she must endure is worse. As she gets more accustomed to the level of violence and pure hatred she experiences as a Black woman on the plantation, the violence required to return her to 1976 increases as well. In other words, the more time she spends surrounded by systematic, socially accepted, violent racism the more inured she becomes.

Sound familiar?

The novel is challenging to read. The illustrators are brutal in their depiction of the violence against Black bodies. It also passes the Bechdel Test many times over. I’m glad I took the time to read outside my comfort zone. You should, too.

 

 

*I will never add his name into the social media sphere because it feeds the beast.

 

Diversity Happens

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The fallout from my review of Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier has been interesting to say the least (read Swing and a Hard Miss here). Many people have said they had the same kinds of issues about the ways Telgemeier elected to depict a culture and history not her own. Read Debbie Reese (read her review here), the folks at Reading While White (their review with lots of comments here), and De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children (the review can be read here ) for more details.

I’ll bet if you ask anyone who loves books why it is important to read literature you’ll get some sort of answer about learning to understanding the world. But, the hard part about this idea of learning about the world – the part that makes many people uncomfortable – is that the world isn’t made up of the one kind of people. Diversity happens and in my opinion books need to reflect the diversity of people in authentic ways, not simply the ways that have come to be expected.

One of my favorite authors, Joel Christian Gill (see his blog here) works very hard at showing authentic versions of the world. Gill’s first graphic novel Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (2014) caught my attention because of the title, a reference to Billy Holliday’s song about lynchings in the South. It is a great collection of stories about African American heroes in American history. But, there was something noticeably missing from this collection of “uncelebrated” stories – Women. The irony that an author who wanted to shine a light on the fact that so much of American history ignores the contributions, both big and small, of African Americans, completely ignored the contributions of women was not lost on his audience. And, when readers pointed this out to Mr. Gill his response was shocking.

He listened. He thought about it. And he owned his actions. He has said his interpretation of the world is biased by his own male privilege.

He followed up Strange Fruit by introducing a series titled Tales of the Talented Tenth. The first book in the series covers Bass Reeves, a freed slave who became a US Marshal. The second in the series features the amazing story of Bessie Stringfield, “The motorcycle queen of Miami!”

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The graphic novel opens with an important forward by Dr. Sheena C. Howard who addresses intersectional nature of the book. It isn’t only about a woman, or an African American, or Jim Crow laws and society. It is about all of those things written in an authentic, respectful, fun and appealing manner.

The story opens with Bessie Stringfield meeting and talking with an unnamed and faceless interviewer. Using large panels, clear lines, and bold color schemes Gill walks the reader through Bessie’s early life – coming to American from Jamaica only to have her mother die and her father abandon her. Living in an orphanage where she was relatively happy and well cared for until she was adopted by a woman “doing her christian duty”. Bessie grew up with her “guardian angel” in Boston, MA. She had everything a young girl in the 1910s needed – a loving home, a good education, and eventually, a motorcycle.

Bessie’s adventures on the open road are nothing short of amazing. She was a young Black woman enjoying life on a Harley, criss-crossing the United States and parts of Canada without a care in the world. There is a double page map that shows Bessie’s routes across the US. I noticed that although she crossed the continental US 8 times (the first Black woman to accomplish that feat) she steadfastly avoidebessie-and-crowd the South.

The map is the perfect introduction to the Jim Crow South that Bessie (along with every other African American who lived, worked, and visited the region) experienced. One of her 6 husbands gave her a copy of “The Green Book”.

“The Green Book” was a guide for safe restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and other businesses that would serve African Americans. Gill uses man-sized crows to illustrate racist White southerners who direct Bessie towards a KKK rally. The clans men are depicted at white hooded crows, burning a cross. blackfaceOnce again, Gill uses his signature image of “black face”   as a way to depict the N-word. Just to be clear, this image is playful but not cute. It seems to cute the tension without loosing the power behind the message. Bessie is chased by a group of white hooded crows who have piled into a truck to pursue her. She gets away but it is clearly not the last time she encounters them.

The last chapter of the book covers her adult life – she joined an all Black motorcycle currier unit for the United States military. She was, of course, the only woman. She returned to school and got her nursing degree but she never stopped riding. Instead, she organized a motorcycle club for women and was eventually indicted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Gill has given us another chapter of our American history. This graphic novel provides a glimpse into a brave and spirited woman’s life. This is a graphic novel that I strongly recommend across grade levels and content areas to teachers and librarians who want to make diversity the norm.

 

 

A GHOST Story by Another Name

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Steven Seagle, part of Man of Action team that brought Ben 10, Big Hero 6, and cartoonist Jason Katzenstein have written a terrific graphic novel for young readers. It has everything I look for during the Halloween season – evolving characters, creepy setting, plot twists, monsters and step-monsters.

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Skye’s parents are divorced and she is scheduled to spend another summer with her father and step-monster as her mother goes off on her own adventure. At first Skye is a typical skarky teen with lots of eye rolls and full throttle what-evers. It is clear that her mother is excited by her Doctors Without Boarders plans, her step-mother has no use for her, and her father has no idea how to keep the peace with all the women in his life. The solution? Send Skye to camp the moment her mother drops her off. Things get interesting when her dad and step-mother are so clueless that they put her on the wrong bus. She is headed for Camp Midnight, a camp where kids (don’t call them monsters!) can show their true selves.

On the bus we see Skye is well versed in being the odd-kid-out. She spends a lot of energy trying to convince the world she is a lone wolf. But, she’s not prepared for Mia who is so easily overlooked it seems like Skye is the only one who pays any attention to her. Together, they negotiate a friendship that gives them both what they need. Mia, who is a past Camp Midnight camper, provides much needed guidance. Skype is thespotlight-gal-campmidnight-04_300_400_90 backbone of the operation and has no problem getting on the wrong side of the cabin harpies (literal witches). There is romance, excitement, and intrigue as the summer moves on.

The illustrations are full of subtle and not so subtle call outs to loads of creepy and desperate artists and illustrators. The pallet is a mixture of dark colors, along with eye assaulting bright-neons. After a while I figured out the pallet reflected Skye’s emotional state. The effect is visually jarring in the best possible ways – inviting closer inspection of each page. Eventually, I found a set of subplots that only appear as background to the main story. This is the kind of complexity that graphic novels can provide for young readers.

Although Skye is the protagonist, Mia plays an important role throughout the book as both a guide, a sounding board, and a co-conspirator. At first she is  needy, insecure, and visibly afraid of everything and everyone. As the summer progresses, Mia helps Skye navigate a new culture, the possibility of romance, and she learns to trust Skye with tumblr_inline_o6qgzuvmyy1qa1eat_540her own secret – there is something worse than humans or the “big three”. Together Skye and Mia help each other get to know themselves better.

Other characters are fairly standard fair – the Queen Bee of the cabin and her two cronies, the kind but stern camp counselor, and Griffin who acts as Skye’s romantic interest. All add flavor and depth to Skye and Mia’s camp experience. Griffin explains the issues behind calling them “monsters”. The word merely seems to be a way to lump all the kids together and denies each of them their individuality. Sounds like a pretty good message for all readers.camp-midnight-04

What I find most interesting about Camp Midnight is the straight up silliness artfully combined with the important emotional journey of individual characters that are in pain and trying to find a place in the world. Skye isn’t perfect, but that is what makes her all the more authentic. She has a nasty streak, but it is obviously born from vulnerability. Mia wears her need for approval and acceptance like a lighthouse beacon, which chases others away.

The book deals with important issues such as divorce, bullying, prejudice, and trust. The combination of complex images and authentic characters makes Camp Midnight a great book for young readers. I don’t usually compare books but given the extreme cultural misappropriation that abounds in Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts I think it’s important to highlight a book that deals with hard, real life issues without the load of cultural appropriation.

 

Digger by Ursula Vernon


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My professional reading practices have changed in the last year. I am slowly working through a subset of all the graphic novels published in the last 10 years or so. I read, graphic novels with female protagonists that might show up in a k-12 classroom almost exclusively .

That means I’m reading within genres I’m usually not interested in and books that I wouldn’t usually open. Although it might not be exactly what Gene Luen Yang had in mind when he started Reading Without Walls but it has opened my eyes to lots of new authors or at least authors I didn’t know about. Besides that, it has changed the patience I have for books.  I tend to stick with them past the first 10 pages, even if I am NOT in luuuuvvvvv with the book.  

DiggerOne of the books I would never had picked up, if not for this project, is Digger: Volume One by Ursula Vernon, published way back in 2005. Originally a web comic Digger, a no nonsense wombat, ends up tunneling into Lord Ganesh’s temple and talks to the resident statue. The black and white graphic novel begins as a fairly traditional “stranger in a strange land” story.

The true strength of the book is in the characters. Digger is both kind and snarky, giving a genuine portrait of a hard working wombat who is trying to figure her way out of a very weird situation. There is also a hyena sort of thing (who Digger names Ed), ShadowChild who recently emerged from an abandoned egg, a slug who listens to the leaves, and a whole bunch of librarians and resident temple rats. 

Vernon provides us with a long list of interesting and individualistic characters that have a wonderful assortment of flaws and charms. There are no easy tropes in this book, instead the book is a great representation of a hero’s tale. Digger works hard at understanding how her new world works and how she can get back home. Digger 2007-02-13-compassion

I have to admit, I didn’t love this graphic novel in the beginning. It was a difference in taste. I tend to prefer graphic novels that stretch the reader, creating lots of open space between the images and the words for me to figure out. In the beginning of this books there seemed to be too much that is both shown and stated. I think Vernon’s over reliance on Digger’s narration made it hard for me to get into the book. For instance, there is a terrific series of panels where Digger and ShadowChild are trying to retrace her steps back to Ganesh’s temple. The route is marked by a series of statues whose large and pointed tongues point (quite literally) the way to the temple. The images, along with her progress, made it clear, but Vernon chose to include a verbal explanation which, for me, was unnecessary.

Because of my commitment to reading graphic novels with female protagonists I kept reading well past when I would usually let this book go. And, I am glad.

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The book passes the Bechdel test early and often with many named female characters talking to each other, almost exclusively about something other then a man. In fact this book shows a series of strong female, male and non-gendered characters moving through an interesting landscape, evolving and revealing more about themselves and the world they live in with each step. Once I became accustomed to the symmetry between the images and the words, I began to enjoy the story. There are many interactions between the characters that made me laugh, and then think, and then laugh again. Vernon takes on many philosophical ideas without preaching.

I have to say, I strongly encourage people to pick this Hugo award winning series and begin reading, and keep reading because it is well worth the time.

 

Bera the One-Headed Troll

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To say this summer has been hard is an understatement.

But, life goes on. And, it goes on better when we have things to help with all the tears we shed and the frustrations we experience each day.  With that in mind, I am writing today on a great book by Eric Orchard, published by FirstSecond.

Bera This is a great piece of fantasy, written with wit and kindness. The illustrations appear to be fine pen with wash of watercolor over the panels. Most of the books has a dark orange, almost brown cast to the color scheme. Orchard’s gothic style just hinges on the edge of actually scary but he pulls back just enough to make the creepiness feel cute (but in a good way).

Reading Bera reminded me of a halloween story I have never read or heard of but feel as if it is just out-of-reach familiar. I have re-read it many times now, and each time I am charmed by the story, the illustrations, and Bera.

We enter the book as Bera, a troll, is finishing up the pumpkin harvest. She is the royal pumpkin grower and lives on a small island with Winslow (and owl) and her many-greats-dead-aunt Dota for company. Berta is happy and satisfied with her hard work and quiet life. But, then a human baby shows up on her shores and her adventure begins.

The thing I appreciate most about Bera isn’t her outlandish deeds of bravery or her victories in the face of unrelenting opposition. Nope. Bera is no Lara Croft. in fact, most of the time she has no solid plan other than to find a hero and hand over the kid and get back to her island.

I appreciate that.

She is brave in the face of things that scare her, including Cloote who is the witch who stole the baby in the first place and runs around in a amphibious boat thing with long legs and tiny feet, is armed with shields that look like skulls. Along the way Bera evades Cloote, makes friends with wizarding hedgehogs, rats, and even rescues a goblin! All the while, she is trying to FIND a hero, she is being a hero.

This graphic novel passes  Bechdel test. But, just as importantly, it shows a female character learning, growing and changing in interesting ways.

 

 

 

 

Death Vigil

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I have been trying, once again, to get into comic books. And again, I have had limited success. There is just something so unsatisfying about the length of the form. It is as if I am only getting a single bite of the story and then I have to direct my attention elsewhere. I know many readers – both kids and adults – who love the compact form but for me, there is not enough time to get lost. And, in order for me to put up with some of the issues I have with reading (in general) I need to get lost.

To combat this issue I have turned to collected volumes. That way I get the feel for comic book arcs but they have enough “there” there (to quote Gertrude Stein) for me to get into.

DeathVigil_vol1-1Death Vigil, Vol 1 by Stjepan Sejic (Image Comics). This comic follows a happy/merry troop of dead heroes who defend the world from darkness and evil, all with the help of The Grim Reaper (Bernadette). Yeah. I know. It sounds really odd but the mix of horror, action and goofy-pun ridden sarcasm works well.

This is a comic book series that Sejic writes, draws and paints, all with equal parts blood and guts, and happy family. I’ve never seen his work or at least I didn’t recognize it when I started reading, but I am now a big fan. Let me be clear – this is a YA and Adult comic series! This volume collects the first 8 comic books and stands on solid ground as a graphic novel (This isn’t always the case). Although girly-goth characters, especially in comics, are fairly popular and often a disappointment (lots of cleavage and butts and not much else) Sejic creates a collection of both men and women who care deeply about each other and defending man-kind. Oh, and death.

Passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Interesting characters that stay with you. Beautiful images (with a lot of bloody ick! so just be aware) and a story line that held my attention so much so that I am pre-ordering the second collection.


Sq Girl

I have seen the comic books and heard about the character of Doreen Green, a mutant who has the power of squirrels, for a while. I thought it was about time I pick it up and give it a shot.

Once again, not a big fan. Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of most Marvel/DC stuff so for it to impress me there needs to be a lot of work.

In general the comic if fine. It’s fun, sort of tongue in cheek hero stuff. I mean, how serious can a superhero be when her super powers include talking to squirrels, being super strong, and having a huge tail.

This is collection follows Doreen as she tried to balance life as a new college student and saving the world. Her roommate, an African-American woman with a cat and a knitting fetish, soon finds out Doreen’s secret identity and becomes an ally.

In general, the puns and ironic self-reflection quickly wear thin and after that there isn’t much here. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and as with many of the DC/Marvel comic books, this is another overly Marvel-centric.

Feminist Reading as “Regular” Reading

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“The higher you go, the fewer women there are.” Wangari Maathai 

It is International Women’s Day today. I am celebrating by being worried about the Republican Presidential candidates, because as a group they scare the living bleep out of me.

I also got the chance to reflect on why I read graphic novels for representations – including representations of women. I received an email asking why I think it is “appropriate” to keep track of the numbers? Why don’t I focus on other aspects? Why “reduce” characters to numbers?

I have to admit, I am sometimes surprised by the ways my research has turned. Comics are traditionally a male dominated form. That’s not news. But, now that more women are writing and more women and girls are featuredWW_Cv49_Neal_Adams_var-1-580x892 there is a sense that everything is fine. 

And yet …. Wonder Woman is reduced to a butt shot and a raised foot on the cover of her own comic book.

And yet … When asked when will there be “enough” women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg responded “when there are nine.” Think about the fact that her response is a radical notion even though for most of our history as a nation we have had nine men. 

And yet … when everyday misogyny is called out on twitter, using the #YesAllWomen hashtag, the backlash is incredible and scary. 

And yet … when I ask both boys and girls about it they say, “Dress codes are only for the girls … well, girls and the black kids.”

So, I read graphic novels with female protagonists and I ask,

  • How many male characters speak or can be identified?
  • How many female characters speak or can be identified?
  • Do female characters speak for themselves?
  • Who drives the plot forward? 
  • Are women and girls allowed to be varied and authentic or are they represented as boobs and butts, no matter what the age? 

Why do I read and count and make pie charts? Because the charts keep looking like this …

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Critical Reading: The Nameless City

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I’m late for “It’s Monday”. Our house has had a visitation from some sort of vicious stomach virus from hell.  We are slowly coming out of it, but there are ramifications.

Nameless CoverRecently, I had the chance to read The Nameless City (2016) by Faith Erin Hicks. Full disclosure, I am a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, and I liked The Legend of Korra, especially the last season. I mention this because the style Hicks uses, in this first in a planned trilogy, evokes a similar feeling. The setting, like The Last Airbender, is what I can only describe as “vaguely Asian-ish”.

There are three “tribes” of people who are constantly at war, and the main prize seems to be the City. For the last 30 years the Dao have controlled the city, but it is a tenuous hold. Aside for the warning factions, there are also the citizens that live in The Nameless City. They call themselves The Named.

The protagonists are Kaidu and Rat. Kaidu is a young man who has just arrived in the The City to begin his training as a Dao soldier and to meet his father for the first time.  His father is a general, his mother is “tribe leader”. Rat, on the other hand, is a homeless orphan who fends for herself. She is s survivor, like most of The Named.

Rat agrees to teach Kaidu to run navigate  the cities rooftops the way she does in exchange for food. Lots and lots of food. He learned a bit about the history of The Named, a continually conquered people and Rat learns that not all conquerers are comfortable with colonization. Rat, Kaidu and a Named woman who guards the prince, foil a plan to kill the Dao General of All Blades.

The Nameless City is a good book. The story is a good balance between friendship, discovery, and political intrigue and makes for a fast paced story. The full color illustrations communicate the action and emotion very well.

But, it is not a perfect book. I find it odd that as a book that features two strong female characters does not pass the Bechdel Test. The reason? The two female characters never talk to another female. Ever. When I realized this I looked more closely at the characters. It turns out there are 17 men who speak and 2 women who speak.

In addition to the issue of female representation, there is the issue of randomly using the “tribe” trope as a nod towards an indigenous community. There is no reason that I can see for patterning the Dao after some sort of tokenized Alaskan indigenous people. The Dao are shown with spears and fur and have leather boots but there isn’t really anything made of this “culture”.

Although I enjoyed the book, I can’t recommend it, because of these issues of representation. I hope the author takes the criticism in the way it is intended. I hope she adds some substantive female characters, and looses the vaguely “native” trope in favor of the political and cultural struggle she touches on. It would be amazing to see a graphic novel about a colonizing force and the people under it’s rule as they move beyond that power dichotomy.

Say it With me: Intersectionality

I’ve been reading and thinking about the ways identity overlap and intertwine within individuals, and how people decide what to forefront about themselves and why, and how those decisions effect how they are seen. On Super Bowl Sunday I was impressed with Lady Gaga’s rendition of the national anthem> But, I was simultaneously angered by the ridiculous snub of Marlee Matlin’s (an academy award WINNING actress) ASL performance. I watched Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance (watch here beginning at 1:30) the monday after the Super Bowl because it would be physically and emotionally impossible for me to care less about the game itself.

What I knew about Queen B’s halftime show was my 13 year old son thought her and her crew were way more boss with their synchronicity then Bruno Mars and his guys. But, when I watched it I saw a powerful, jaw dropping political statement and I thought, “Oh, she’s done it now.” From the natural hair of the dancers, and call out to the Black Panther berets, to the Malcolm X formation, and Pancho Villa’s gun belts (which may have been more about Michael Jackson, but I’m Mexican, so I went with what I know), to the unapologetic booty shake.

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What, you might be asking, does any of this have to do with reading, selecting, or using graphic novels in your classroom? Wait for it ….

This is how intersectionality works. I was happy about Lady Gaga (White woman), mad about Marlee Matlin (White, straight woman who played a lesbian and is deaf), impressed with Beyonce´ (Straight, Black woman) and happy to see Bruno (Latino, maybe gay but no one seems to care) perform with Coldplay (a bunch of White guys from England) that I am neutral about because they always sound like Maroon 5, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. I did not have one feeling over the other. I was not happy about the ASL snub because I like what Bey was doing. Nor was I expecting Bruno to kiss a guy because Lady Gaga’s sexual identity often confuses me.

This is often how we approach issues of representation in children’s and YA literature. Books have either good or bad representations, and that singular view overpowers the more complex ways of reading books. But, what if we look at a book not to simply defend it, but rather to see what kinds of representations exist or can be found within it.

Little Robot

On Monday I posted a short conversation I had with my my 10 year old son about Little Robot by Ben Hatke. I left out a lot of what my son and I talked about because it ranged into intersectionality and I wanted to spend some time with the ideas before writing this post.

First off, both of us agree it is a great graphic novel. The images are clear and clean with a highly representational look to them – which means people look like people, trees look like trees and robots look … well, like they belonged in the world. The colors were bright and clear but not overbearing. My son said the paneling was “regular, so it was easy to figure out where to look and where to go next. Probably a good book to start reading beginning graphic novel readers”. The story unfolded in a well paced manner, characters were developed through interactions with each other and the world around them. According to my son, it was a sweet story about love and acceptance.

But, and here is the thing, there is no such thing as a perfect book. Here are some comments from my son that he and I talked about:

Why is the poor kid the Black one? There was a White guy getting on the bus with the main characters (assumed to be) older brother, and there was an “old White grandpa” with a swing set in his backyard, so it isn’t like there were no White people. When I asked him why this was important he said, “It might not be, but … I don’t know … it makes me feel like Black skin means poor.”

The book doesn’t pass The Bechdel Test. There are 3 male characters, and 1 female characters that we were able to identify. I asked why he thought the main character was a girl and my son said, “Her hair, maybe? Or, her … the way she is. She’s a girl. Also, the author always draws girls.” He recognized Hatke’s style from reading the Zita the Spacegirl Adventures series. We talked about the robots and gender for a while and decided they don’t have a gender. They are not boy or girl, they are robot so the rules are different.

And, what about the girl? She remains nameless, but she is not unimportant, voiceless, or powerless by any means. “She’s kind of a bad-ass, you know?” He was looking over the page where she takes on an evil robot about four times her size, manages to save her friend, and turn things around so everyone is happy. “She’s a serious genius. Like one of those guys on Robot Wars, except she’d probably cry if her robot got messed up. Yeah, that’s the other reason she’s a girl. A boy would probably blow things up.”

Would I put this book in a classroom? Absolutely, without question. It is a great book. And, what makes it even better is the possibility within the narrative to have conversations about race, gender, poverty and robots.