Thursday, August 21, 2014
Best Historical Graphic Novel I've Read This Year
Getz, Trevor R. and Clarke, Liz (2012) Abina and the Important Men. New York: Oxford.
Oh, and a shout out of thanks to Dr. Jung Kim, a literacy professor, colleague, and personal hero of mine, for giving this blog a plug. Like reading this stuff? Feel free to become a Follower. I think there is a tab somewhere on this page.
In 1876, in the Gold Coast of West Africa, a young African woman named Abina Mansah, was sold by her husband to be a servant in the household of a wealthy palm oil planter and influential man named Quamina Eddoo. Slavery was illegal in the Gold Coast, then a colony of Great Britain, yet was practiced widely and without fear of reprisal.
Abina escaped Eddoo's household and sought help from an African court translator named James Davis. With his help she filed court papers and was granted a trial. At that trial, she sought to confront the colonial authorities with the injustice of a written law that is not enforced. It is a fascinating and surprisingly gripping courtroom drama -- and all of it is based on a real and recently discovered court transcript.
Getz and Clarke have turned this story into a remarkably accessible graphic novels that students in middle school and high school will find interesting. The art is excellent and they do a nice job of using the panels to tell the story.
But that isn't the only reason that I love this graphic novel. See, although historical graphic novels are a great way of getting students to engage in the real human stories that make up history, they come under criticism because, in order to craft a graphic novel (especially one like this when no photographs of the participants exist), the creators have to make interpretive choices. And this means that the factual and authentic nature of real history is diluted (or so the argument goes). Never mind that any book that describe history must make all sorts of interpretive choices -- what to foreground and what to put in the back of what we read -- which photographs to use and how to present them -- which facts to include and which to ignore as superfluous, and so on.
The wonderful thing about this book as that it responds to that argument by including both the 65 page graphic novel version of the story, but also the entire transcript the GN version is based on, 6 essays to provide context for the story (describing geography, political context, sociological context, the influence of the church, slave trade and the abolition movement, and what we know of Abina Mansah.) Then there is also a reading guide and some suggestions for using the book in the classroom.
So here it is: if you teach middle school or high school history, get this book. Get a class set. Use it as a way to help students think about the interpretive challenges of history. This would be perfect for a unit after AP students take the AP test in the Spring. If you don't teach history, but teach high school or middle school -- buy the book anyway and put it in your classroom library. If you don't teach, but like reading about history, buy the book and read it, then loan it to a history teacher.