Critical Reading: The Nameless City

MONDAY logo 2015

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.

1024px-Pancho_Villa_bandolier_crop  

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.

Little Robot

MONDAY logo 2015

It is Monday. My sons have another snow day, even though there is no new snow on the ground. The snow is coming, or so they say.

Little RobotI recently got a copy of Little Robot by Ben Hatke (published by First:Second). My ten year old son, Alex, took it. He does that a lot. We “share” books, which usually means he keeps them in his room and feels a disturbance in The Force when I manage get my hands on them. So far he has claimed the Timmy Failure series (by Stephan Pastis), LumberJanes (by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson) and anything by Matt Phalen or Gene Luen Yang

When I mentioned I wanted to write about Little Robot, he ignored me and kept playing MineCraft. Did I mention he is 10? I started with a general “what did you think about the book?”

Alex: It’s good. It’s more for little kids, except for the no underwear situation.

I made him close MineCraft and talk to me because I did not understand anything he was saying, plus … snow days. Tried again and this time things made much more sense.

Alex: First off, I liked it. I know it is supposed to be for little kids because a) the main character is a little kid, and b) there isn’t much reading and you know, teachers wouldn’t think it was really reading. Also, little kids might not ask too many questions.

Me: Questions?

Alex: Yeah. First off, where are her (main character’s) parents? She’s got a brother who goes to school and then POOF, she’s out of the window and exploring. Also, why doesn’t she have any clothes on? I mean, if she’s old enough to go make fake robot art, repair real robots, and find dead animals. Shouldn’t she be wearing pants? Or, shoes?!?

Me: How do you know the main character is a girl? And, what about the little robot?

Alex: She’s wearing a nightgown (eye roll and implied DUH!). Also, she’s too nice. I think a boy would have on shorts and no top (redacted conversation about nipples). The robot? The main one? I think it’s a boy, but that’s probably because there isn’t anything boy or girl-ish about it and I’m a boy, so I think of it as a boy.

Me: So if you were a girl?

Alex: First off, no. But, I’m guessing a girl would think the robot was a girl. I guess the author was pretty smart that way. It’s a book for all little kids.

He returned to MineCraft to build an entire city scape that rested on top of layers of TNT. He planned on blowing it up later in the afternoon while he videotaped the explosions. He’s 10.

Black History in Graphic Novels

MONDAY logo 2015

There are many conversations going on right now about the ways slavery is being depicted in books written for children. If you are interested in the issues take a few minutes, or hours to investigate. A good place to start is with the terrific blog Reading While White.

My interest here is to address a few graphic novels that I think have get it right. Oh, and yes, I realize it is NOT February and therefore it is NOT Black History Month, but I am going to go ahead and do this anyway.

Strange Fruit CoverJoel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narrative From Black History  (2014) is a fantastic collection of nine all but unknown stories of great African American men that the standard American history has forgotten. The stories are written in comics format, using a rich, but muted color palette and cartoon-y but fairly representational people.

The short tales are both beautiful and tragic. Gill doesn’t sugarcoat anything about the historical place African-Americans have held. In fact, Gill plays hardball with slavery, oppression, and the general ugliness that African Americans have experienced.  For instance, Henry “Box” Brown’s tale opens with a small group of slaves picking in a field, one is getting whipped by a White man on a horse, and Henry exclaiming “This Sucks”. There is not space in the graphic novel for quibbling about whether or not slaves were happy in some circumstances, at some time, with some people. According to Gill (and any reasonable person who has experienced any level of oppression) no one liked being a slave. No. One.

But, the book isn’t perfect. After reading it for the first time I was struck with one glaring omission. There are no women heroes in Strange Fruit. None. There are women, but none are terribly important. In fact, the book flunks The Bechtel Test for women in a spectacular fashion. I say this because Gill has admitted to the error multiple times; in public, in private, on social media, and on TV. All over the place. And, his reason? Male privilege. Simple. He gets it and he is fixing it.

His next project features stories of black heroes that are women.


The most recent addition to Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series of historical graphic novels is The Underground Abductor.

If you have never read one of Hale’s (and yes, that is his real name. I met him once and made him show me his ID) graphic novels you are missing out. They are fun, interesting and accurate which is no small feat for any author.

This edition focuses on Harriet Tubman’s life and her involvement with the underground railroad. But, what makes this volume most interesting to me is that it begins with an account of her childhood as a slave and her experiences being rented out to other farms. Then the tale moves through her young adulthood, her marriage, and her escape to freedom. But, her story doesn’t end with her own freedom. Instead, she returned to her home in Maryland many times to act as a navigator for other people who wanted to escape slavery.

This book has a strong female protagonist, who talks to other women, and to other African Americans, often times about things beside men and White people. There are also maps, jokes (but never jokes about slavery), and footnotes that steer readers other interesting stories.

Both of these books focus on African Americans, which is fine. Ideally, I would like a discussion of race that goes beyond the classic Black/White dichotomy and includes people who fall along the color spectrum.

Great books are not perfect books. They don’t need to be. What great books need to be are books that explain the complex systems of inequality that our history is riddled with, written so kids can read them and start having conversations about race, justice, gender, and sexual orientation.

The Girls of Summer

MONDAY logo 2015

I’ll be focusing the blog this year on issues of representation in graphic novels. It took a while – almost all of last year – of reading and writing to understand how and why this was an important area for me to take on.

Here is the first set of graphic novels I have read for 2016.

Roller GirlRoller Girl by Victoria Jamiesan (Dial book for young readers, 2015)

This book passes The Bechdel Test* within the first page. The book centers around Astrid, her best friend Nicole, and her longtime nemesis Rachel.

Astrid is having a bit of a rough patch. The book takes place during the summer between 5th and 6th grades – which means the dreaded MIDDLE SCHOOL YEARS! She is having a hard time with her best friend (maybe ex-best friend?), hitting puberty (and it is hitting her back), and learning what it means to try and fail and try again. Astrid is spending the summer at Roller Derby camp with Zoey, a new friend, lying to her mom, avoiding or confronting Nicole and scheming retaliatory attacks against Rachel. Oh, and she’s dreaming of being her roller derby teams jammer and scoring more points than any other junior derby girl in history.

Jamieson’s illustrations are rendered in full color on a heavy matte paper which gives the book a comforting heft. She uses fairly regular panels, interjecting occasional two-page spreads with full bleeds along with small focused peek-a-boo panels (all that means it is a good balance between regular panels and surprises). The people look like people, representing different sizes, shapes and colors without being stand-ins or tropes. The supporting cast of characters aren’t fleshed out well, but they are not simple tropes or stereotypes either.

Astrid learns some hard lessons. Over the course of the book she finds she isn’t a great friend a lot of the time, she needs to work hard to get what she wants, and sometimes her mom is right (I love that bit more than I probably should).

I highly recommend Roller Girl for upper elementary and middle school readers.


SunnySideUp

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (Graphix, 2015)

Holm’s book passes The Bechdel Test* but it takes a while before a second, named female character is seen.

Sunny, the main character, is a young girl who is spending the summer in Florida with her grandfather instead of the shore with her family and best friend. One of the things I love about this book is that it is visually straight forward but the narrative is complex and nuanced. That isn’t something you usually see in books written with young readers in mind, but Holm and Holm manage to balance a difficult subject deftly.

Difficult elements of Sunny’s life are revealed slowly and most often through the illustrations and flashbacks. It is difficult to pinpoint when it becomes clear that Sunny’s home life isn’t all smiles and terrific-ness. On page 24 and 25 we see her and her (so far unnamed) best friend hanging out and planning summer vacation. We ‘hear’ Sunny’s little brother crying when he is supposed to be taking a nap. There is an odd exchange about Sunny’s brother changing into someone who is “terrific”. Although she indicates the crying brother, there is more to the scene. There is an unanswered question that lingers.

Dale, Sunny’s older brother is cool. He doesn’t follow rules, smokes, seems to have trouble with his teachers, hangs out with the wrong kids and, eventually, it is clear he’s dealing with a growing substance abuse issue.

So instead of going to the shore, Sunny ends up in her grandfathers retirement community. We meet Sunny’s grandfather, his friends, and Buzz, a young boy who introduces Sunny to comic books. As the summer progresses we see Dale’s story unfold in flashbacks. Finally Sunny breaks down, admitting to her grandfather that she feels all kinds of  (misplaced) guilt about Dale.

The visuals are pure Holms – and I mean that in the best possible way. The book is treated with full color illustrations with lots of white space to help readers think and understand the transitions. The people are a bit on the abstract/cartoony side but nothing that takes them too far afield. The paneling is consistent throughout the book. Perhaps most importantly, the book is designed to aid in comprehension. Although it is full color the speech and thought bubbles are predominately done with a white background with black text that is easy to read. They use tails to clearly indicate who is talking, and even use separate bubbles with connecting tails when the dialogue is too long to easily fit within a single bubble. The text never feels crowded or hurried.

I applaud this well crafted book and highly recommend it for elementary (and above) readers.


*The Bechdel Test: 1) Are there 2 NAMED female characters; 2) Do they speak to each other, 3) about something other than men?