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.

 

 

 

 

An open letter to the world on June 14, 2016

I usually write about graphic novels. Today I am writing to the world about living in the world as a cis-gendered, Latina-lesbian, with two sons and a wonderful, patient wife who keeps marrying me because the laws change but our commitment does not.

Last weekend I attended the Children’s Literature Association’s (ChLA) annual conference in Columbus, Ohio. I presented research, talked about graphic novels, heard important ideas about books and reading. I also took part in a panel organized by Dr. Katharine Slater, supported by the ChLA board and the ChLA Diversity committee, and focused on the needs of minority scholars.

I did not want to be there, sitting in front of a room mostly filled, with so many women of color, with so few White allies. My reluctance to participate is born from a lifetime of being called out, threatened, and assaulted being a person in the world.

Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen began the panel by addressing the fact that we, as women of color, were taking a chance by representing ourselves, as ourselves, to the academy. I sat next to Dr. Marilisa Jimenez Garcia, and Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and heard their stories, and shared my own. Unfortunately, our stories are not unique. The women in the audience spoke of being regularly ostracized, criticized and summarily dismissed personally and professionally. I left the room feeling drained. Later that afternoon I heard Dr. Park say the words I know to be true, “We are not the problem. Racism is the problem.”

More Than Racism

That night I enjoyed the company of friends at the ChLA awards ceremony filled with congratulations, hotel conference food, and laughter. Later we had what can only be described as the first annual ChLA Prom Night. In one corner of the room I danced with gay men, lesbians, and straight allies I had come to know and appreciate. We clustered together and celebrated the end of a long day with silliness and joy. At one point a gay male colleague confided, “I used to go dancing all the time. I miss it.” And I knew what he meant.

The next day, Sunday, as I stood waiting for my phone to charge before I got on an airplane to return home, I saw the news. I knew what it meant, even if the news anchors didn’t say it; Mass shooting, Pride week, a nightclub called The Pulse. We were, once again,  hunted for being ourselves in the world.

It was not a coincidence that a coward with an assault riffle killed and wounded more than 100 LGBTQ people on Latin Dance Night in Orlando during Pride week. It was a planned attack by a rage-fueled man with a million excuses and the tacit approval of a nation. Make no mistake about the importance of the everyday aggressions against my communities; racism, homophobia, and misogyny work hand in hand to destroy the person I am in the world. They give a pathway to hate turned to action. As we danced and laughed and drank on that very same Saturday night, we were part of the same LGBTQ community who takes refuge in music, community, and joy, who celebrate ourselves and each other in the world.

More than One Man

I returned home on Sunday feeling wounded. On Monday I picked up my 13 year-old son from middle school. He got in the car and asked if I knew about what happened in Orlando.

“I do. What do you think about it?” I asked.

“Maybe Trump is right. Maybe we do need to keep them out.” He said, quietly, as we drove down sun dappled New England streets. I found myself defending Muslims and trying to tell him it was a single man who destroyed that night. I ran through the list of non-Muslims who had bombed buildings, and opened fire in public places, killing and wounding so many out of hate. I explained it is more about guns than faith. As we drove, I defended a religion with a long and lively history of damning, imprisoning, and killing LGBTQ people to my son because I want him to be better than that.

But if I was honest with him I would say I know religion is a problem. The Catholic Church, along with the vast majority of organized Protestant religions damns me to hell for the person I am in the world. The Church of Latter Day Saints damns me, and my children, for the person I am in the world. The majority of Muslim countries have laws against me, and a faith that condones killing me in horrific ways, for the person I am in the world. So, it was one man, but he was not alone.

Be Brave Enough

White, cis-gendered, or straight people often ask, “But what can I do?” They ask me in private, in classes, in conversation, and they asked at the ChLA panel. My answer is the same. You can be brave. Brave enough to say, “That is not ok” out loud and in public. When faculty members says, “but she sounds so white” after meeting an African American job candidate, you can respond, “that is not appropriate”. You can refrain from putting the burden of racism on the one non-White student. You can be brave enough to defend my right to marry, to raise children and have all the rights you have had for so long. You can be brave enough to shut down the “all lives matter” defense of racism. Call out the “what about men?” misogyny. Shut down the “she was drunk and wearing that” rape culture. You can listen, without excuse or argument, when we say that words matter, actions hurt, we are mistreated and misjudged everyday single day for being ourselves in the world.

And let me be clear, you will need to be brave to stand with us because you will be uncomfortable. Your actions will cause tension, you will not be appreciated by aggressors for  standing up and speaking out. You might shake, feel queasy, or doubt your decision to step out of your privileged, safe space. There will most likely be pushback, accusations and suspicion. It will never be easy, just as living in a world designed for you is never easy for me.

I am tired.

I am haunted.

I am hunted.

You can choose to be brave enough to defend who you are not.

Sincerely,

Laura Maria Jiménez, a person in the world, every day.

Death Vigil

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

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

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

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

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


Sq Girl

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

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

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

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

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

Feminist Reading as “Regular” Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authorscharacter

 

 

 

Critical Reading: The Nameless City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say it With me: Intersectionality

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

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

1024px-Pancho_Villa_bandolier_crop  

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

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

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

Little Robot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Robot

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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

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.