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. 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” narrative. It takes a bit of time to get into this story and to appreciate the odd mix of a very stoic character dealing with fantastical elements in a non-nonsense manner.

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. The book, with all it’s charm, basically comes down to a 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 dialogue that simply explained what was clear from the images. The explanation, 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 and religious ideas without preaching.

Although this is a very female-centric book, there are issues with some of the characters as I reflect on the way race and ethnicity play out. Ed (the hyena character) speaks in an odd manner, mostly because he was shunned from his “tribe” and has spent so long alone. Yeah, honestly, a warning signal goes up when I read the word “tribe” and the character that comes from a “tribe” is shown to be … not as sophisticated. Ed wears a loincloth and a necklace of odd-shapes stones. He speaks English in an oddly formal and yet stilted  manner. In one scene, after Digger has slept for many hours in Ed’s cave, he offers Digger a warm cup of something,

“Is warrior herbs. Is make hunter’s water strong! Smell for miles! Digger-mousie marks territory now, all people know is fierce mousie, respect mark. Digger-mousie new, need respect to win territory”

2007-03-13-wombat41-cooperLater on in the book Digger is being hunted by Ed’s old pack-mates who have the same sort of stilted,awkward speech pattern. They wear loin clothes, carry spears, have painted faces and feathers. It is not clear to me what indigenous community is supposed to be represented here but it gives me pause.

I encourage people to pick this Hugo award winning series. I worry that in order to gain a strong, complex female protagonist the book provides am indigenous trope. It is worth a read, and a discussion.

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.

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.

Little Robot

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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.

Writing Women Well

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I read books because I love reading. I also read because I research literacy and literature. I recently had to admit I have a bias, grounded in lie experience, and because of this bias I have made a study of the authors of the graphic novels with women and girl protagonists. I hate to say it, but I really thought I was going to call guys out on the ways women and girls are over-sexualized objects. I was saving up a big rant about MEN and WOMEN and ALL THE THINGS. But, I can’t. I have to listen to the data and the data says it is more complicated than simply men and women, because sometimes guys get it right, too.

Nimona

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First, a woman who writes terrific girls and women. Noelle Stevenson has successfully written two of my favorite graphic novels, Nimona and LumberJanes. There is something about the giddy, no holds barred, ridiculous nature of her books that keeps me coming back to read and reread. Whats more, is these books feature women and girls as flawed, interesting, complex protagonists that learn and grow.

Lumberjanes, features a group of friends at summer camp who stumble, fall, leap, and crash into adventures. This is NOT a “girl book” where boys will be lost or uninterested. The goofy-adventurer spirit will attract both boys and girls. My ten year old son and I keep stealing the book from each other.

Nimona is different, but still has a lightness to the story. Stevenson’s overly exaggerated style fits the story of a young girl (who happens to be a shape shifter) joining forces with Lord Blackheart (the evil villain) to over through the government — or something like that. But, it is also a story of friendship and redemption.

Oh! And both books have gay characters that don’t suffer or die or live awful, lonely lives because of their sexual identity.


 

And then there is Barry Deutsch. Remember when I mentioned that I kept thinking that the problem with over-sexualized girls in graphic novels was male authors? Well, I was wrong. It isn’t that easy to point fingers at any one group or the other.

The Hereville series is … wonderfully odd. It features an 11 year old girl, Mirka, who is smart, seeks adventure and is an orthodox jew. She lives in a modern day orthodox community with her father, her brother, her sisters, her step-mother, and the memory of her mother. Mirka isn’t interested in learning how to be a good wife and mother. Instead, Mirka wants to slay dragons, fight witches, battle trolls, and save her sister from an evil fish who grants wishes.

Deutsch, much like Stevenson, uses a cartoonish style with lots of color and motion. The characters are sometimes dramatically overstylized with huge noses, crazy hair, and enormous fins. Mirka is a pain in the butt to her stepmother, sometimes she’s not a great sister, and most of the time she is simply not listening. The orthodox family life is shown with respect and love. Deutsch provides the reader with yiddish expressions that flow from Mirka and her family with ease.

Both of these authors have created characters and worlds that draw readers in, invite us to ride along in the adventure, and leave feeling that the world is a little goofy, but definitely, a better place.

Black History in Graphic Novels

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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?