Representation in Graphic Novels

It has been quite an exciting year so far for graphic novels. On January 4, 2016 Gene Luen Yang was appointed as the Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (NY Times article). Then on Monday, January 11, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson was an honoree for the Newbery.

What do these events have in common? Aside from the whole graphic novel thing?

1. Both authors write great books for middle grade kids. 2. Both were able to connect with readers by creating fun, complex and fully realized characters. 3. Both are mis-and-under-represented people who have found a voice in the overwhelmingly, almost laughably White-male business of publishing.

Why does that matter? If you are unfamiliar with issues around books and representation take a few minutes to get up to speed, or at least begin the learning journey — look here (We Need Diverse Books), here (Melinda Lo on LGBTQ representation), and here (Lee and Lo in BookRiot).

Look, we all know the history of comics and graphic novels. Comic books have long been considered the territory of boys, White boys in particular. But, the truth is comics and graphic novels have an audience that reaches beyond gender and race barriers. According to on study done by The Beat (Schenker,2014) of nearly 24 million comics fans, 47% self-identified as female. That is just under half … which means around 11,280,000 women – who bothered to respond to a survey – are reading comics in one form or another. That’s a lot of people who are not men.

“So what?” you might ask. “What’s the big deal about some girls reading some books?” Well, for one thing, although graphic novels are probably the most diverse areas of children’s literature, it is still hugely, predictably, and programmatically White, male and straight. “But, what about Gene and Roller Girl?!?! You just said that things are exciting and new!” You might be saying. And, if you follow book news, you might also add, “Last Stop on Market Street‘s Newbery win. What about THAT!?!” And yes, things are moving but instead of sitting back — basking in the collective glory of recognition of great books written by and about women and people of color. I’m willing to bask for a minute, but I intend on seizing the moment. I am working hard on raising awareness about issues of representation, trying to build tools, and theory to help educators critically examine and talk about these books with each other and with our students.

I have been working on ways to help readers try and focus the ways people who are traditionally under-or mis-represented are used and read in graphic novels. This isn’t about ignoring or replacing traditional literary analysis or evaluation. Rather, it is looking at who and how people are represented in ADDITION to literary qualities.

One way to focus on representations comes from Alison Bechdel author of Dykes to Watch Out For, Fun Home, and  Are you My Mother. The Bechdel Test highlights if women appear as functioning characters in movies and books using 3 simple questions,

  1. Are there two named female characters?
  2. Do they speak to each other?
  3. About something other than a man or men?

That’s it. That is not a lot to ask of the media that we see every day, and it really isn’t much to ask of the media our kids see. You can also ask the same questions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer characters or people of color. This (unbelievably) low bar does not address the quality or fullness of characters that are either under-or mis-represented people. And, it certainly does not get at the images used in graphic novels to, literally, represent these people. So, I am proposing my own Jiménez Character Scale to focus a readers attention on a character’s authenticity or “roundness”. Think about a characters that stayed with you after you closed the book … I’ll wait here …. Do you have one? Good.

What made that character believable? Did they have complicated motivations that made sense within the book? Did they change? Where they complex and sometimes even contradictory? Were they more than a single behavior or look or emotion? More than a collection of stereotypes or simple tropes for the main character to bounce off? Could you imagine them existing before the events of the book ? And do they continue on after the events in the book are resolved?

And, because I am reading and writing about graphic novels, there needs to be a way to address the ways physical appearences are handled in these books. Think of it as a Physicality Scale that goes from Barbie to Actual Possible Person.

DelilahDirk
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
Hades-14
Hades: Lord of the Dead by George OConnor
LumberJanes by Stevenson, Ellis, Watters and Allen

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, we need to seriously look at the sexualization of women and girls in graphic novels. I’m not saying women can’t be sexual or shouldn’t be sexual, but is that all we are? Do female characters in graphic novels need an hour glass figure and cleavage? Are come-hither looks, ripped and revealing clothes all we have? And, why is whiteness the overwhelming norm?

thorn
Thorn from Bone series by Jeff Smith

Cleo

wonder-woman-comics-volume-1-tpb-softcover-souple-issues-v3-90074
Wonder Woman: Love and Murder

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are some of the questions I am asking. This is where I am going in my reading and my research. Hope you come along for the ride.

 

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

Lumberjanes_Cover

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.

Author Intent in Children’s Literature

“The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”

(Barthes,1998, p. 386)

The issue of representation in children’s literature has been on high octane overdrive for the last 18 months or so. For me, the breaking point was the advent of the We Need Diverse Books social media campaign. The twitter conversation exploded into a full on outcry from readers and authors. There were and continue to be many bloggers who are focused on issues of representation, and the work is becoming part of a larger conversations about race and privilege that have been a long time coming. These conversations are not easy, they are not comfortable, and there are no easy answers.

Recently, another picturebook, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, featuring the all too familiar happy-slave trope. Click here to link to an article by Hillel Italie that provides an overview of the issues.

I had heard about the Cake from other scholars in children’s literature, but it wasn’t until I attended the American Library Associations Mid-winter conference here in Boston that I got a chance to see it. It would be easy to say I was shocked, or surprised. But, what is hard for me to admit is that I wasn’t caught off guard at all. I am rarely surprised by the tropes used in children’s literature and other media that reduce people and cultures to collections of stereotypes and caricatures. I am not surprised when books avoid the terrible truths in our collective history.

There is a strong contingent of smart, caring people in the children’s literature community who I disagree about representations like those in A Fine Desert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington. In the past I have found it difficult to participate in these conversations about privilege and Whiteness, and representation. I get mad and start to rant. I scare the dogs. I threaten my computer. But, I am working on sitting and thinking, instead of standing and yelling. And, in this space I am going to talk about an often used defense about books that have objectionable representations of people, cultures, and history.

The Good People Argument

  1. The author is a good person
  2. The author did not intend malice
  3. There is a note in the back of the book that explains the authors intention
  4. Therefore, no one should take offense at the depiction of an under-represented person or culture in the actual body of the text

I have never understood this argument. By in large, I do not know the authors of the books I read. I don’t know Dorothy Parker, Kurt Vonnegut, William Saroyan or Douglas Adams (some of my favorite dead authors). And although I have met Andrew Smith, Nathan Hale, and Laurie Halse Anderson (some of my favorite not-dead authors) I can’t say I know them. And, it shouldn’t matter. Their intent or general personhood cannot matter to me as the reader. Barthes, a French literary critic, wrote about the end of the author’s control of the story.

The author’s intentions when creating a book are changed by time and experience. Once an author has written an imagined scene, or person, or event with all the emotions attached, the idea is changed by the act of writing. The author is changed as well. Books are created by change. They are imagined, dreamed, doodled, written, rewritten, edited, proofed, thought about, talked through, destroyed and reborn in a million ways. By the time I begin to read the author has faded, and in their place stands the book. The intention has dissipated into time and space and events of the day. The intent has no baring on the object in front of me. It it my responsibility to make sense of the book, using all I have at my disposal; my experiences, my understanding, my interpretation.

I care about the book in front of me. The story, the characters, the language and what it makes me see and feel and how it affects me. I’m glad the author exists, so that they can write again, because I am a greedy reader. Unfortunately, that is the contract an author agrees to when they write and send a book out into the world. The book must represent itself to me, the reader.

 

References

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Art and Interpretation: An Anthology of Readings in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Ed. Eric Dayton. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1998. 383-386. Print.

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

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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?

What Are You Reading? January 19, 2015

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Timmy Failure

I am reading the third Timmy Failure book by Stephan Pastis, We Meet Again, with my 9 year old son. The books are a terrific series that are getting better over time.

The basic premiss is a simple one – Timmy is an odd kid who lives with his mom and his polar bear named Total with whom he runs the greatest, but as yet unknown, detective agency. The agency is called Total Failure Inc.

What makes these books so terrific is the Timmy’s absolute and unwavering confidence in his own abilities as a world class detective, even though he has never come close to solving an actual case. He is one of the most unreliable and completely self-deluded narrators I have seen in literature. And it is this strong and completely ridiculously wrong-headedness that makes Timmy so lovable.

After the second book, Now Look What You’ve Done, my son Alex characterized Timmy as “sort of sad but going on anyway, the best he can.”

The supporting characters include Timmy’s best friend Rollo Tookus who cares about grades, Molly Moskins who cares deeply about Timmy, and Corrina Corrina (AKA The Beast, The Wedgie, and World Wide Enemy of Da Goodness) who is Timmy’s arch nemesis. She is unaware of her status.

totalThe sketches used throughout the books add a sense of innocence to Timmy and highlight the weird, self deluded nature of the narrative.

Also, the pictures make me laugh. Some of the best pictures are illustrations that align with the text, such as images of Señor Burrito (who happens to be Molly’s girl-cat) as she sits at the table and puts her paws in Timmy’s tea while he interrogates Molly.  Senor B

Pastis doesn’t overuse these visuals, instead he drops them in sporadically but often enough so we learn to expect and relish the craziness that is the world of Timmy Failure.

I asked my son what he’d say to the author if he ever got a chance to talk to him. He responded, “Thank you for writing such an awesome series. I love how Timmy tries and fails so hard. Oh, and TACOS!!!”

That pretty much sums up the books nicely.

—————

In addition to the Timmy Failure series, I have been rereading some graphic novels in preparation for starting a new research project. I’m looking at the representation of women and girls in graphic novels, especially those that feature female protagonists. I’m developing an online form and database in an effort to crowd source data about these books.

One aspect I am looking at in regards to graphic novels is what is known as the Bechdel Test, named for Alison Bechdel author of Dykes to Watch Out For, Fun Home, and  Are you My Mother. In brief, the Bechdel Test simply highlights if women appear as functioning characters in movies and books. There are 3 elements – 1) Are there 2 NAMED female characters; 2) Do they speak to each other, 3) about something other than men?  That’s it.

I went back and looked at a few graphic novels I have in my “might use in class’ pile. Nonewere selected specifically for female protagonists but the results are interesting none the less:

1. Sidekicks by Dan Santat. Fails on the first part of the measurement. Although there are a few women who speak, none are named.

2. The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Passes all parts. There are multiple named women including Hua Chu (Hank’s mother), Red Center (Hank’s love interest), Red’s sister Green, and Mrs. Olson (Hua works for her). All of these women speak, some have conversations with each other about things other than men.

3. Bird and Squirrel by James Burks. Fails. Also fails in another important way … the misrepresentation of Native people and culture. Not only is there only one named female character, she is the “chief’s” daughter. The story centers around Bird and Squirrel landing in a snowy land filled with vaguely Inuit-type penguins who are, of course, in need of saving. The penguins wear face paint, carry spears, have a ‘medicine’ man who lives in a glowing green cave, sees visions and says things like “I listened to the wind”. In a word, this is an awful misrepresentation of some sort of unspecified native culture with a dash of White male missionary privilege tossed in for good measure.

 

 

 

 

What Are You Reading? December 29, 2014

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I’ve been thinking about simplicity lately. The idea that an image can be simple but not easy has grabbed my attention.

The difference between simple and complex isn’t easy to understand. This is one reason why text leveling does not work for measuring the difficulty of a text. Text leveling measures what it is designed to measure – the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs; the commonality of words and punctuation used to construct the sentences. Text leveling programs measure these factors accurately, but what these measures miss is what I have begun referring to as the “cognitive-aesthetic” work that readers do when reading. That is why Hemingway ‘s  The Sun Also Rises has a lower Lexile score than Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins (read the New Republic’s article here) that means Hemingway’s language might be simpler but the story is not.

The issue is NOT that the measures are wrong, it is that they are being used incorrectly. It is as if I asked for a vegetable peeler and got a hammer. The hammer is designed to do a job, and in the right hands it can do those jobs well. But take a hammer to a ripe mango and all you have is a big mess and that is what these measures are doing for classroom reading – making a giant mess.

And, when utilized on graphic novels, comics and even informational books with an abundance of images, things go very wrong, very quickly.

And so I have been thinking about cognitive-aesthetic comprehension. I began looking at books that express great emotions – an abstract and complex construct – with little detail and little or no color.

Happypigeon

depressed pigeonMo Willems is an expert on the use of muted colors, simple lines, and few details to convey great emotional range and depth in a character. How else can he take us from a happy-go-lucky Pigeon to a despondent Pigeon? Willems changes the “pupil” location, the neck, the tail, and the wings. We, the reader, read into these changes and interpret the emotional context of the character.

Andy RWorried_owlyunton shows us a depressed and worried Owly by manipulating similar aspects of the bird – especially the eyes. Using the same downcast pupils in large, white orbits he is cueing the reader to interpret worry or sadness or, even, depression.

But what about artists who don’t use these kinds of large, rounded eyes? How do they provide the reader with cues to the emotional life of a character?

Veil_persepolisMarjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis uses deceptively simple, solidly inked illustrations. Typical of the book is this illustration of Marjane and her friends as they are made to wear veils for the first time in their lives. Satrapi provides the reader with a view of the changing world these girls are experiencing during Iran’s religious revolution. She uses a few details to delineate girls from one another, including their eyes, a bit of hair on the forehead, and a single line for the mouth and yet we see a range of emotions from comfort or acceptance to worry and resignation.

Keaton_face_BlufftonIn Bluffton, Matt Phelan gives us a character who is known for his deadpan expression. Buster Keaton’s youthful face is shown with almost no expressive lines, slightly raised eyebrows, and like Satrapi’s young girls, a single line for a mouth. But, somehow I look at that face and wonder at the depth of character that is going on behind those eyes.

The lack of color is not the most striking aspect of these images – instead it is the abstractness that I actually forget about. Even without color and in only two dimensions, the human face is a complex set of lines and angles.

Dorothea Lange_Mother

Dorothea Lange’s photos capture the depth of human emotions without the use of color, as in her famous photo Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. Although we have to work to comprehend the emotions the photo is a realistic depiction of a human face rendered into a two-dimensional image.

What amazes me, as a reader and a scholar, is the ways highly abstract faces emote such strong responses without the details that would make them realistic.

The Pigeons happiness and sadness is obvious. Keaton’s emotionless face gives away nothing and yet I interpret it as having much to reveal if only given a chance. This use of highly abstract images can create characters that we as readers work to understand. But, and this is the part I am still thinking about, why are we compelled to do that work? The work the reader undertakes – to interpret a simple set of lines into a meaning of emotion, thought, an personality – is not easy and in fact the work is often far from frivolous.

maus
From Art Spiegelman’s Maus
Harlem Hell Fighters
From Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and Caanan White

What Are You Reading? December 15, 2014

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I’m catching up on my reading list and I finally got around to opening up Andi Watson’s Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula. it’s a fun black and white graphic novel with just a hint of romance. Watson is a comics author that is trying his hand at a longCover form graphic novel and he’s pulled off a brilliant balance between simple lines and illustrations and a charming story.

The book begins in the Underworld with Princess Decomposia dealing with her bedridden father (the king), his crazy neediness, all the kingdom’s business dealings, the responsibility of finding a new chef. She is crazy busy, trying to keep all the balls in the air, and stressed beyond her limits.

What I appreciate about Princess Decomposia (Dee to her friends) is that she is the quintessential caretaker to the entire underworld. As she walks from one end of the castle to the other she receives state papers, long letters, and updates about the political goings on. In addition, she spends her days negotiating with foreign dignitaries trying to balance her fathers wishes, the good of the kingdom, and peace.

On top of her more than stressful duties she must hire a new chef. She finally settles on one, Count Spatula. His first action, before even getting the job, was to take careDecomposia of the princess which is something no one else in the castle thinks to do. She has been running around all day, hasn’t eaten and feels lightheaded. He not only rushes to her side, he also pulls tea and muffins from his chefs hat and gets the job. But more importantly, he begins a friendship with the princess.

The illustrations are lighthearted and simple but that is not to say they are simplistic. Instead, Watson takes care to use very few lines to communicate emotion and humor. Although the counts face is not much more than a heart shape with a few lines, he is able to convey a full range of emotions. The other characters are less simply drawn but no less expressive.

Count Spatula is a good guy, even for a vampire, who loves sweets and has a flair for the dramatic. At one point he concocts a set of dessert that rains delicious lemon curd into the guests. His meals are a success, maybe too much of a success for the kind to be happy.

The king is taking an extended, hypochondriac-induced vacation from his royal duties but he is more than happy to direct the court from his bed. And Dee (princess Decomposia) is stuck trying to be both a ruler and a servant to her father. Eventually, with the thoughful council of Count Spatula she begins to delegate and gain some control over her life and her sanity. But, that isn’t what the king wants … he wants to have his cake, and eat it too.

The king decides the count has to go and so he sends her away for a day in the above world. When Dee decides to take the count with her, it leads to a terrible confrontation between the king (who not sick but is rather lazy and selfish) and the princess.

In the end, Dee is in charge of the kingdom and Count Spatula is in charge of the kitchen, but more importantly they are in charge of supporting and loving each other. This is a great story for emergent readers, readers are are just beginning to read graphic novels, and romantics alike.

Count1

What Are You Reading? December 8, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I just returned from a great Literacy Research Association (LRA) conference held on Marco Island, FL. Like many in my field I have few colleagues in my sub-sub-sub field (graphic novel reading) and LRA gives me a change to catch up on everything. It leaves me exhausted and invigorated.

So, I came into the office – it is something like 19 degrees outside and 87 degrees inside – ready to grade papers, talk to students, Ares-Cov-300rgband change my syllabus for next semester’s children’s and YA literature course to reflect the research I saw at LRA. But, before all that started, I found the latest in George O’Connor’s Olympians series in my mailbox!!!

 Like so many graphic novel readers I have loved this series since Zeus (Vol. 1) but truth be told Hades (Vol. 4) was by far my favorite and remains so today.

Ares: Bringer of War is another solid edition to the series. The color red runs throughout the book, beginning with the cover. In this book O’Connor does some interesting work delineating Ares and Athena early on. Athena (Vol. 2) is given a cool shade of blue-gray as her color and it reflects her appreciation for strategy as a way to enter into war with a clear and levelheaded strategy. She is not swayed by passion or emotion, or so she would have us believe.

Page 4

Ares on the other hand is the epitome of passion and madness of battle. The image of Ares and his sister Eris plunging into war provide a beautifully disturbing starting point for the story. The blue gray calm of the bottom left portion of the page is ravaged by Ares and Eris’s flaming chariot as it rips through the troops. The soldiers fear and confusion is apparent as their wide, white eyes that stand in shocked contrast to the rest of the page.

Ares: Bringer of War highlights the connections between the Olympian gods and the Trojan War. First as a comparison between Athena and Ares, then as a stage for the continued competition between Hara, Aphrodite and Athena (see Aphrodite: Goddess of Love). After all, it was the competition between these three which began the Trojan war in the first place!

And so it is with this volume that O’Connor provides us with another view of the gods and the whimsy they took with human life. The treatment O’Connor gives to Hara, Aphrodite and Athena is oneof the most interesting aspects of this book. Each one takes a champion in the war to represent their godly interests with no regard for the mortal himself. O’Connor provides a visual of the ways champions were mere puppets for the gods: Athena looming like a large shadow over Diomedes as she takes him into battle against Ares, and Hara feeding words of encouragement to her army through Stentor as she stands behind him.

Ares, like many of the gods of Olympus, lost a son in the battle for Troy, but unlike the other gods he truly grieves the loss. His grief becomes the catalyst for a short lived brawl between the gods, but the war rages on between the mortals well after the gods have lost interest.

 The lively images and playful treatment of some of the gods makes it a fun and exciting read. But as a retelling of the Iliad it lacks the coherence I have come to expect from O’Connor. Because he dips in and out of the traditional story, this volume might be confusing for readers who don’t know the Iliad, or the divisions between the the Greeks and the Trojans. Given the shortcomings of the text, I think this volume would be a great supplement Homer’s Iliad.

The battle of troy rages on even after the gods loose interest, except for Zeus and Ares. They remain to the bitter end. Ares understands his own nature, and in the end he realizes he is much like Zeus, his father. And this realization brings no relief to Ares or, as it turns out, to man.

What Are You Reading? July 14, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

 

Adding my voice to Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki’s  Unleashing Readers on their great Monday-reading-palooza.

I’m getting a lot of reading in these days – NOT teaching, along with prepping for a courses next Fall and Spring make for a well balanced reading load right now.

This post is a) really late but still counts as MONDAY, and b) shorter than usual. I hope you forgive both issues.

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Squish cover

Squish#5: GAME ON! by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm

I’m not going to lie. I love the Squish series. I’m not crazy about Baby Mouse – I just never connected with her problems or the stories or the supporting characters. I know loads of readers who adore both Baby Mouse and Squish, so I know it is possible, but it is simply not for me.

Squish is an amoeba, he loves Twinkies, comic books – especially Super Amoeba, and has trouble in school with the cool kids. He’s an Everyman character, as long as everyman is a single celled organism. He’s got two best friends, Peggy who is all about smiles and rainbows and happiness, and Pod who is more serious.

In this book Squish’s gets hooked on a video game called Mitosis! He overdoes it, gets bad grades, doesn’t sleep enough, becomes obsessed (which is bad). The funny thing about Squish #5 is although the message is preachy (keep all things fun in balance with responsibilities) it doesn’t read as simply or didactic. Instead it shows the trouble caused by obsessive game play OVER all everything else, like reading comics or interacting with friends and family.

The illustrations are bright and bely a complexity that might get past the novice reader of comics and graphic novels. The Holms use a slime green color to illustrate Squish’s real life, and a simple gray scaled color palette to illustrate when we are reading comics or playing Mitosis! along with Squish. This clear color distinction is not the only way the authors help organize the story for readers. In addition, the panels used for Squish’s real life are dark and bold but irregular, showing a fluidity to his reality. This fluidity translates into other parts of the illustrations, like his hat which changes to mirror Squish’s mood and focus. The panels have lots of quick transitions that utilize overlapping panels that not only help guide the readers attention, but also communicate the mood of the story. On the other hand, the Super Amoeba comics are presenting in grays with rectangular and regularly spaced panels with light lines and regular gutters and are, really, much less visually interesting.

GAME ON! might be my new favorite on the series.

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And now for something completely different.

yummyCover

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and Randy Duburke

This award winning graphic novel is a fabulous biography that tells the story of Robert Sandifer, AKA Yummy, who was at the heart of Chicago’s notorious gang violence epidemic in the 1990s. The book is told from the point of view of a fictionalized character Roger, who’s older brother is in the same gang as Yummy.

Robert (Yummy) Sandifer was 11 when he accidentally shot a young girl. He was aiming for a suspected rival gang member but shot Shavon Dean instead.

It is a hard book to read. From the brilliant use of subtle shading in the cover, to the black and white illustrations, to the stark everyday struggle and horror of Yummy’s life. All of it is just hard to read, but harder still to see.

This is a rare book that should be used to underscore the systemic ills of our day. The problems that lead to a vacuum of humanity in which gangs fill the void. Yummy tells the tale of one young man by putting him and his action into context with the world around him.