Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 1)

Booktoss means we, the Literary Gatekeepers, need to be willing to see the problems with books and simply toss them aside. Then there are the books I want to keep, and hold, and pass on to kids and teachers. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are great authors that don’t need to tear down, dehumanize and objectify one community in order to make a point.

For this first iteration Books: Keep or Toss I will be looking at two graphic novels set in China; The Only Child by Guojing and The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff. There will be spoilers, so … gird your loins.

Only Child Cover

Book to Keep:
The Only Child by Guojing

Some will argue this is a wordless picturebook. I don’t care. I am claiming it as a graphic novel, in the same way I openly claimed Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Some might say, “But Laura. I thought you said graphic novels are book length narratives written in the comics medium and comics utilize images AND language to deliver a unique story.”
At this point I’d have to shush you, and open the book because it is gorgeous, and magical, and sad, and heartbreaking, and beautiful. So, stop quoting me at me and look at the book!

The Only Child begins with a short author’s note Guojing describes the isolation she “experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China”. The book reads as if it is an expression of that isolation, but at the very same time it communicates love for family, a respect for a child’s imagination, and the possibilities of magic.

The story centers around a little girl in an industrial city who’s parents leave for work in the morning, and she is left to entertain herself in their apartment. Her only companion is a small, toy elk that she takes with her throughout the book.

interior Only Child

The entire book is drawn with very fine lines – pencil or charcoal – that give a depth to the objects and spaces. The paper is thick, almost luscious and gives the book a physical heft it deserves. Guojing’s paneling is and image placement is deft, and provided me with a clear idea of what was real and present in the girls life, and what was not. Take a look at the series of panels on the left page … the little girl is actively engaged in keeping herself entertained. But, each time she engages in play she ends up with a sense of time simply passing.

Now, look at the facing page (right side). The girl has settled in and is looking at a photo album. Her small hand signals a change in point of view for the reader. We are no longer looking at her play in the apartment. Rather, we are now oriented, as we hold the book, as a co-reader as she holds the photo album.

The book progresses. Things happen. Tension builds as she leaves the apartment, gets on a bus to see her grandmother, and gets lost in the woods. I’m not going to give any further details of the story but I will share the exchange I had with my 12 year old son after he read The Only Child.

“What’d you think?” I asked when he returned the book to me.
“Yeah. Good.” He said in typical 12 year old fashion as he headed to the fridge.
“Can I get more words?” I pushed.
“Great drawings. The clouds were amazing. The kid was cute.”
“Did you laugh? Cry? Anything?”
He looked at me, rolling his eyes and sighing, “Well, yeah. All of that. What do you think I am, some kind of monster?” The implied dumb-ass was clear. Of course he had all the feelings. How could he not?

I highly, insistently, and obnoxiously recommend this wordless graphic novel for a microcosm level look at the ways the Chinese one-child policy affected a generation.

UndertakingBook to Toss:
The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

This graphic novel also begins with an authors note. But, instead of a note from the actual author, it is an excerpt from The Economist (July 26, 2007about a cultural practice in China called “corpse brides” wherein brides are procured for unmarried dead men.

According to Amazon Undertaking is about “Deshi, a hapless young man living in northern China, is suddenly expelled from ordinary life when his brother dies in an accident. Holding Deshi responsible for his brother’s death, his parents send him on a mission to acquire a corpse bride to accompany his brother into the afterlife, in accordance with an ancient Chinese tradition that has many modern adherents” (https://www.amazon.com/Undertaking-Lily-Chen-Danica-Novgorodoff/dp/1596435860).

Yeah. Many.

The salacious nature of the term “corpse bride” set off a warning flag. The term predisposes the reader towards a “Isn’t China just so weird and different”? stance that I have seen far too many times. Anytime I see cultural practices used as plot devices I’m skeptical.

bad-guys.jpgNovgorodoff’s characters are drawn as caricatures of people but even given this more abstract and absurdist style she relies on some tried and true racist and sexist tropes.

Deshi meets up with a bride merchant (pictured) who is actually has a “fu manchu” mustache which, if you have ever seen any evil Asian characters immediately signals he is up to no good. In fact, he convinces Deshi that to be a real man and a good son he must find a kill a young woman to be his brother’s corpse bride.

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Eventually, Lily is introduced into the story. Deshi decides Lily is the girl for his brother and convinces her he’ll help her escape marriage her father has arranged. She is drawn with ridiculously thin arms and legs and a huge bobble head. In one scene she sits on a riverbank in supplication before she catches a fish with her bare hands to cook for Deshi. She is looks physically delicate and yet she can catch a fish with her bare hands, gut it and cook it over a campfire, all before Deshi has figured out how to kill her.

Much of the book is spent with Deshi trying and failing to kill Lily while they travel the countryside to “escape” her life on the farm. One night, by the light of a campfire, he climbs on top of her and starts strangling her. She wakes, touches his face tenderly, and they have sex. The whole thing is bizarre.

The combination of racist and misogynist tropes, the exoticism of China, along with the rape and forgiveness storyline make this a graphic novel one to toss. Toss it and move on with your reading life.

 

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.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Best Cover I don’t think of myself as a sentimental reader although there is a good chance that I am. I am always more clear about other people’s motives than I am about my own. I can clearly see when my friend is making a HUGE mistake or when my kids are being so prideful that it is going to come back and bite them in the butt. That kind of clarity is nearly impossible for me to glean from my own psyche.

That sense of veiled motived, self delusion, and search for clarity is what this book brings with a gentle beauty that I found … almost painful to read.

Thi Bui, according to the book jacket, was a child when she and her family immigrated from Vietnam to America. She now teaches and lives in Berkley, CA with her husband, son and her mother. In between those two lines of text lay a story of immigration that spans continents, wars, and generations.

Before talking directly about The Best We Could Do I want to take a moment and talk about the graphic novel as a form. There are some in my field of study who don’t like the term. Some consider the term an unnecessary separator that takes away from the legitimacy of comics. Like using the work film instead of movie in order to show how sophisticated you are. The term may have started that way. It may have been meant as a way to distance authors from comic books. I don’t doubt any of that, but for me a graphic novels is a long form comic narrative that stands alone and apart – whole unto itself.  With publishers discovering the marketplace, and readership growing I worry that graphic novels are being overtaken in the by comic book arcs and series. But, then, I see books like this and I don’t have to worry much anymore. As long as there are memoirs to be told, graphic novels will continue to be written and read.

The Best We Could Do opens with Thi Bui in labor in New York. There is a bravery to this opening that I cannot overstate – think about it. The first time I meet the protagonist she is grunting, afraid, and vulnerable.  She is being told what to do and how to do it by the hospital staff and trying to hold onto her adulthood, she wants to be in control of what happens to her body and to her baby. This is the perfect metaphor for the rest of the book – people trying desperately to be controlling agents in their own lives – even as fate, family, and politics pushes them in a different and often violent directions.

Like many families, there is a hidden history to this immigration story. Thi Bui uses a charcoal or heavy pencil to create the paneling throughout the book. This provides an uneven edge that signals a fragility or messiness of the world she is inviting me to witness. In addition, she uses text boxes to offset her internal narrative. This design choice (seen here on pp. 36-37) provides me with the expository text I need to better understand a story that is incredibly foreign to me. I am not any sort of Asian and although I grew up in Long Beach during the 70s and 80s and knew my fair share of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai kids, I learned nothing about the history of the region.

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The watercolor wash – a dark orange that reminds me of the stucco houses in Los Angeles – provides an important depth to the images. Sometimes, as seen on page 36, in the larger panel, Thi Bui uses brushwork to echo and highlight an image. Sometimes color is used as an independent and layered image that illustrates a memory (p. 37, pn. 1). And there are times when the color distinguishes background objects like buildings, and creates a white space to focus attention on characters (p. 37, pn. 2). The depth of hue achieved with a single color is astonishing.

Thi Bui’s light pen work (perhaps done with a brush?) on the characters faces is deceptively simplistic. There isn’t much detail and yet emotions and personalities are clear. Her father’s cloudy disposition, her mother’s emotional reticence, and Thi Bui’s own openness is clear. According to Scott McCloud (see Understanding Comics) the lack of highly defined details on character faces may be what allows me to connect with the characters.

This is a journey book covering some of the historical background that lead to the Vietnam War, and the aftermath for one family. It is at times violet, scary, and merciless in showing the history of this family. From starvation to war to the escape and assimilation this is not an easy story to read and experience but it is worthwhile. I would place this in the hands of any high school student or adult. It is, simply put, a sublime example of a graphic novel memoir. The Best We Could Do uses one family’s story to provide a glimpse into a history sorely absent from the American narrative.

Best

Twitter, Critique and Children’s Literature … Oh, My.

There are plenty of people telling me I am too harsh on children’s books. I’m too quick to call out the overwhelming Whiteness of authors, illustrators, editors, and critics. I get pushback for directing criticism to our children’s literature organizations, literacy associations, critics and bloggers.

There are times when someone takes me to task and I wonder – have I gone too far? Am I part of the PC internet-Twitter-mob? (Is that even a thing?) Am I looking for racism, sexism, ablism, and homophobia where it isn’t?

Then I look to other critics who are, by in large, NOT straight, White, able or male and I see the same reactions, the echoes, the same plea for respect.

Recently Edi Campbell tweeted out a book cover and asked a small number of critics (including me) if we sawbadmood “the problem”.

I’ll admit I didn’t see what the issue was at first. I barely looked at the girl, noticed the book was written by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler) and thought …. “What am I not seeing here? God, is there another watermelon joke?” I trusted my colleagues and I knew that if I wasn’t seeing the problem it did not mean there was not a problem. It meant I was not seeing the problem. 
So, I asked.
And, the answers were awful.  Sarah Hannah Gomez copy

First, Sarah HANNAH Gomez (tweeted out the book cover, accompanied by the racist image of a golliwog. Although usually found in the UK, the golliwog is yet another blackface image we could do without.

Then, Allie Jane Bruce provided another kind of image. AllieJaneBruce copyThere it was. The awful truths. That “mood” was a call-back to a racist visual trope aimed right at Black and African American kids who would see it and feel it, even if I did not Once I saw it I could not unsee it. Read Edi Campbell’s blog post about the book here CrazyQuilts blog.

We have to decide, as a community of book lovers … do picturebooks matter? Do they help kids see the world? Do they help kids build themselves? If reading and books matter than we have to come to the realization that images within books matter, too. We cannot believe that books are important but that representation isn’t. We, as a community of educators, cannot have it both ways.

It matters that this book confirms the age old visual trope of black = bad, and curly = unruly and must be tamed! (see the stick). If picturebooks matter than the messages contained within the words and images matter even if we, as adults, do not initially see those messages. LB Kids

After emailing and tweeting the author and the publisher for a few days, there was a response – an actual apology. Not a “sorry YOU took offense” but an actual “oops” and promise to do better.

Books matter. Those of us who’s identity was built in part by the books we read know this to be true. Books save lives, they open doors, they allow us to escape into worlds and possibilities beyond what we see. But, the flip side of this is that books can damage and degrade readers who see themselves represented as the problem, the issue to be solved, the condition to be cured.

That is what many critics, book bloggers, and awards committees do not want to admit. The lists and honors matter to teachers and parents because they rely on experts. But, who is the expert on non-White, non-heterosexual, disabled representations? badmood

Again, I did not see the problem even when it was, literally, staring me in the face.

The Eisner award nominations came out about a week ago and Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts was on the list. She appropriated Latinx culture, and completely erased Native American history in her graphic novel (link to my critique, link to Debbie Reese’s critique). I’m not surprised but I am disappointed by the nomination.

White authors using culture and identities as cheap plot devices and lazy tropes – including books like Telgemeier’s Ghosts – isn’t new. The overwhelming, overrepresentation of White, straight, able males in children’s books isn’t new.

What is new is our voices on social media. We will not be silenced by a call for niceness. Instead, we will raise our voices to be heard above the din of fragility. We echo each other. We seek out allies who recognize the beauty of diversity, and the strength of hearing stories in told in #ownvoices, like Gene Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge. If all your book lists, including that stack of books you have ready for summer reading, feature people who look and sound like you, make an effort to read beyond yourself.

Start with 2017 We’re The People book list.
Read blogs like Latinxs in Kidlit, The Brown Bookshelf, Disability in Kid Lit, CrazyQuilt, The Dark Fantastic, and American Indians in Children’s Literature.

 

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.

 

Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

A friend and colleague asked me to take a look at a new graphic novel, Indeh by Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth. She is considering it as a text for her secondary history and social studies education class. At first glance it looked interesting, so I agreed to read it with a more critical eye.

The Book
Ethan Hawke, yes … Ethan Hawke the actor from Gattaca, Snow Falling On Cedars, and Boyhood … has been fascinated with Indians of the old west since he was a child. As an adult his fascination continued and he watched movies like Smoke Signals and read books by Sherman Alexie to get an authentic view of the Native American experience. According to Hawke’s author note Indeh was originally a screenplay that he had no luck getting it to the screen. Instead, Hawke connected with Greg Ruth and created a graphic novel based on Hawke’s study of history.

The Issue of Representationdiversityinchildrensbooks2015_f
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center found in their survey of 2015 children’s books there are painfully few representations of American Indians in books written for children. In addition to the sheer lack of books, the actual representations are warped most of the time.

My “Knowledge”
My scholarship focuses on representation of marginalized people in graphic novels. That is a big group of people and includes many communities I am not a part of, and have little knowledge about. When I read a graphic novel that centers a marginalized community I am not a part of I have to do some extra work and ask questions of myself as a reader. I usually begin by making a list of what I “know” about the community, and this “knowledge” includes my own biased views, stereotypes and family lore. For this books I wrote a list about Apaches;

  • Apache live in the southwest desert.
  • They live on both sides of the boarder.
  • According to my grandfather when the Anasazi abandoned their lands half when north and became Pueblo, Apache and Navajo indians. The other half went south and became Cora (my family) and Huichol.
  • My tio Jesus (HEY-sus) – who was actually my great uncle on my grandfathers side – was called el Apache or el indio by our family.
  • Apaches were great fighters and basically kicked our (Mexican) butts in 2 wars. First, in 1821, just after Mexico gained independence, and then again around 1880.
  • The 1880 war where Geronimo and Chato rose up and kicked Mexican butts.
  • Mexico has never had a great army.
  • The first Mexican battles against Chato and his Apache warriors – and I am never sure who the players were or what side my family members were on – took place in Chihuahua where my tia Theresa’s family originated.
  • Apaches are awesome fighters, can live on nothing but dust, and never forgive their enemy.
  • All of the stories I heard are about Apache men – never women.
  • Although I suspect there are different bands of Apache, I have no idea what those bands are or where they are located.

Reading the Words and Images
The inside cover is a two page black and white spread depicting a level of violence I would usually just skip over. Men with hand guns, rifles, bows and arrows killing and being killed. I spent some time on this image and came to realize that the White men – as signaled by their clothes and equipment – were dead or being killed whereas the Apache were the ones doing the killing. In one section an Apache seems to be turning from killing one White man who lays on the ground towards another who is struggling with two arrows in his back. The Apache has no shirt on, and there is blood spilling off the knife in his hand.

There is an extremely complimentary foreword written by Douglas Miles, owner of Apache Skateboards. Miles is a member of the Apache nation.

The beginning of the books is difficult to place in time. It seems to jump from “present” to “past” but there is no way for me, as a reader, to orient myself to the time period.
The book opens with Cochise telling two boys, Naiches (his son) and Goyahla, a creation story while standing in a stream. This fades into a first person narrative by one of the boys who states, “Many of our people had lost much in the massacre …  … but I had lost all”. This line is set beside the image of a person’s forehead and one open eye, their long, dark hair flowing across the panel from right to left, with blots of something that could be ink or blood.  (p.9, pn. 3).

The next page has a banner “Seventeen Years Later – Mexico” and a single panel makes up the entire page. A man sits close by a woman who appears dead and bloody. The story in the text is that of a man who had to bring 100 ponies to win permission to marry. The panels alternate between a light grey past filled with intimate closeup of the man and woman and his collecting the horses, and what seems to be the present violent death of a woman. There is no clear perpetrator. There is no other person aside from the man who seems to be the narrator. I was not sure if he had killed his wife or if his wife was killed by unseen forces.

As I read further, it became clear there was a mass killing and this man, Goyahla, had survived but his wife and daughter were killed. He sets a funeral pyre alight (p. 20) but on the next page it is not on fire and a hawk or eagle lands on the pyre and tell Goyahla that he will be impervious to guns (p. 22-24). He asks permission to lead a war party against the Mexicans who are, according to the text, responsible for the deaths of his family. For the next few pages Goyahla and Cochise raise an army from among the Bands of the Apache nation.

The next two-page spread (p. 34-35) is another bloody, violent scene full of smoke, running horses, and death. What struck me about this and many other pages within this book was the way the violence is portrayed, and by whom and upon whom the violence is being inflicted.

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What I want readers to see in this example is that the Apache are on the move, shooting and killing unarmed men, women, and children. Thus far they are the ONLY violent actors shown.

On page 39 Goyahla is shown in the act of scalping someone. On page 41 he rams a knife through a mans chin and into his skull. On page 42 and 43 Mexicans are seen as bleeding victims with arrows and spears protruding from their bodies. On the second panel of page 43 a dead baby is seen floating down a river. The image is tied in with the sequence of the Apache killing unarmed Mexicans.

The book continues in this manner. Neither White Americans nor Mexicans are seen as the actual perpetrators of any level of violence. The images in the book are almost always of the aftermath of massacres or killings by the army on the Apaches. The military are responsible for the hanging deaths of a groups of Apache on page 94-95, but the immediacy of the act is not shown, only the aftermath. Again and again White soldiers are depicted threatening violence and the American government makes and breaks promises and treaties, but the direct image of Whites perpetrating violence on Apache bodies is not seen, over and over again.
– On page 136 an army officer shoots a horse in the head to use it as a road block. On page 137 a bullet comes from outside the panel, from an unseen shooter, and goes through an Apache’s head.
– Pages 146-155 show the killing of Magas Coloradas, an Apache leader who was shot and beheaded by US army soldiers. Coloradas’ death is not shown. Instead, the panel (p. 151, pn. 4) shows Lieutenant Gatewood’s reaction to hearing the shot outside his tent.
– There are Apache heads on pikes (p. 163) but no image of them being beheaded.
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– During a series illustrating a battle at Skeleton Cave in Arizona (p. 174, pn 1-3) the US soldiers have rifles in panel 1, a bearded man says “Buck, see that fella up front?”. Panel 2 shows an Apache with a rifle being shot several times. Panel 3 shows 4 other Apache, one with a rifle, being shot. But, again, the perpetrators of the shooting are not depicted.
This separation of violence and perpetrator is ONLY afforded to the US and Mexican soldiers and not to the Apache. The Apache are seen, within panels, as the direct perpetrators of violence against friends and enemies alike.

This graphic novel is a problematic text. In my scant review of the literature under “further reading” (p. 231) and my research into the specific battles shown, this book shows an extremely biased history as told by White americans. The fact that ONLY the Apache are seen as direct perpetrators of violence against women, children, unarmed and armed men is a huge concern for me.

To answer my colleague who asked if Indeh is a good graphic novel to use in her secondary history and social studies education classes, I have to say no. It is yet another example of a distorted, overtly violent and damaging portrait of an angry and brutal Apache Nation. Don’t bother buying it. The authors don’t need to be rewarded.

EDIT – please see Debbie Reese’s excellent review which focuses on the historical accuracy of the book, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

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.

 

Ghosts: Swing and a Hard Miss

Today I am writing about Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I got my copy last week. I was excited to read it, bring it to my children’s lit courses, talk it up on my blog and basically have a welcome party for another great Telgemeier graphic novel for young readers.

But I can’t. I can’t because, like many authors before her and, unfortunately, many authors to come, Telgemeier is dealing in cultural appropriation.

Cultural Appropriation

I define cultural appropriation as Privileged individuals using something from another culture without showing understanding of the culture or giving credit to that culture. Here are a few very good pieces on the subject …. Decoded; True Tea; Huffpost’s Black Voices.

The problem with cultural appropriation is that privileged individuals (usually White, sometimes straight, and often male) get rewarded for being edgy, cute, or exotic. These privileged individuals get credit for “discovering” and “giving us [read other White people] a look at a new culture [read as anyone not White].” But, and this is important, for the people who’s lives and histories have been taken and used for consumption, their culture is not exotic. They don’t need to be discovered because they are not lost, nor unknown. The argument that this White person (or straight person or male) is giving voice ignores the fact that people could learn about a culture by listening to the actual people of that culture.

But that isn’t what is happening. What is happening is peoples histories, stories, pain, and pride is being stripped away and reduced to the easiest object or image to be consumed by those who already have too much privilege and power.

 Being Latinx and Reading Ghosts

I grew up in Southern California thinking of myself as Chicano-American. My father’s family is from Mexico and my mother’s is from Minnesota by way of Ireland and Germany. I grew up on the Latinx side of the street which means when my White friends thought Little House on the Prairie was romantic, I saw it as a land grab. The first time I saw anything but a stereotyped Latinx in a book was Sandra Cisneros House on Mango Street, published in 1984 and almost immediately challenged and banned.

The cover of Ghosts doesn’t give much away. It has a girl standing with eyes wide, mouth agape, and hands clenched looking awe struck with a younger girl in front of her looking happy and relaxed. The title page looks like a Pinterest image of a Dia de los Muertos altar but, I was hopeful.

The story begins with a family (the two girls on the cover and their mom and dad) in a minivan moving from Southern California to “Bahía de la Luna” (moon bay). The town name is clearly seen on a freeway sign (I wondered when this book set because I don’t remember California freeway signs having accent marks). There is a resort in Oaxaca, Mexico called Bahía de la Luna, but this family was headed north to a town with lots of fog. Between the name and the description of the town I was reminded of Half Moon Bay, a small city on the Pacific coast, south of San Francisco.

While reading I learned that the younger girl, Maya, has cystic fibrosis, which is why the family is moving. On page 12, after running up a flight of stairs in her new house Maya is panting, a goofy sort of crossed eyed, open mouthed look on her face. Her older sister, Cat, tries  hard to be understanding but she is both annoyed by her sister and scared for her. After their parents tell them to go explore, an adventurous Maya leads a superstitious Cat down a path to the beach. In an old and abandoned arcade on the beach they meet a boy who talks of the cities reputation for ghosts. That evening Maya and her family head to a neighbor’s house for dinner which Cat does not want to attend. So far, a pretty straight forward Telgemeier book.

Then the name … The neighbors are the Calaverases. They are Mexican, and their name is Calaveras (skull) and they live in a town full of ghosts. That is the equivalent of a family named Advent Calendar living in town with a reputation for elves.

Of course, the kid from the beach is Carlos Calaveras who plays maracas with Maya while the adults talk and Cat sits and eat chips and guacamole. Turns out Maya and Cat’s mom, Leona, is a fully assimilated Mexican who rejected her heritage, married a White guy and basically has turned away from everything Mexican, even the food. This is an important detail since that is how Carlos temps Cat into joining him and Maya on a tour of the local mission.

Give a girl a concha (sweet pastry with a shell shaped sugar pattern) and she’ll be yours forever. So, the kids go to the local mission which Carlos insists is a doorway to the spirit world. He also says the ghosts prefer to speak Spanish because they were from Mexico.

Yeah, so this is the first thing that really makes no sense. The Catholic Mission system was a way for the Spanish to colonize California. Probably tens of thousands of Native Americans and Mexican Indians were killed and enslaved in these missions. The ghosts these kids find would most likely be Ohlone in that area of California, not Mexican. Even if they were Mexican, chances are they would be from some other tribe that was forced to speak Spanish. Why would these ghosts “prefer” to speak the language of their colonizers? Someone -Telgemeier, an editor, anyone with an internet connection – should have spent 10 minutes investigating Spanish missions.

Back to the book. Maya has an attack from playing with the ghosts and needs to be hospitalized. Family drama ensues.

September rolls around. Maya has to stay home while Cat goes to school. Cat meets Seo Young who talks about nail polish, froyo and going to the “midnight party on November 1st” (Dia de los Muertos) where she met a cute boy. Who is dead. Because that is what Dia de los Muertos is about. Ghostly hook-ups. Maya slowly gets better, although she needs a tank and breathing tube to deal with her ever weakening lungs.

As October approaches more Dia de los Muertos stuff appears and the book is the worse for it. For those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos the holiday is about honoring and remembering family and friends who have died. We make ofrendas (offerings) as a way to invite the dead back to visit and see that the family is alive and well and continuing. It is a 3000 year old celebration of birth, life, death and rebirth. It is not a “Mexican halloween” which is how Telgemeier treats it. Cat wears a la Catrina costume for halloween, which is pretty much the standard for cultural appropriation – right up there with black face, headdresses, and the sexy bandito costume.

In Telgemeier’s graphic novel the ghosts have a bit of an obsession with orange soda in a bottle. The dead basically want to party all night long, drink orange soda, and don’t seem to care if they are with family or just randos on the street. The end of the book is full of music, flying, an inexplicable dead light house attendant, and a black cat who delivers Mexican food.

If you are teaching kids about Dia de los Muertos, please look elsewhere.

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.