Friday, April 21, 2017
Amazing Historical Graphic Novel about an African American Unit that Fought in World War Two and a Controversial Graphic Novel about Identity, Adolescence, Despair, and Perhaps Hope.
20 April 2017
Brooks, Max; White, Caanan (2014) The Harlem Hellfighters. New York: Broadway Books.
Opening lines: “They used to call it the ‘Great War.’ But I’ll be damned if I would tell you what was so great about it. They also called it ‘The War to End all Wars’ cause they figured it was so big and awful that the world’d just have to come to its senses and make damn sure we never fought another one ever again.”
So begins the graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters. This book brings to light the forgotten story of the 368th regiment, an African-American unit that fought in France during World War Two. They spent more time in combat than any other unit fighting for America. Though they fought in trenches on the front lines, they never retreated or lost any ground to the enemy. Not a single soldier of the 368th was ever captured.
Here is the whole story of the regiment, of their enlistments in Harlem, New York, of their training in South Carolina, where often the civilians in the neighboring towns seemed more hostile than the Germans that the 368th would eventually fight, of the difficult journey to the European theater across submarine infested waters, and finally of their fight in the trenches of France. We see them changed form a collection of teachers, porters, farmers, musicians, workers, and students to a unified fighting force. We also see them facing prejudice and harassment from white soldiers in their own army and dealing with that sometimes with patience, sometimes with anger and revenge. This account gives us not only the triumphs of the 368th, but also the moments when they fought with each other, made wrong decisions, and let each other down. It seems an honest and moving portrayal.
The artwork reminds me of Dave Gibbon’s work on the Watchmen. The style is realistic, yet dramatic and rendered mainly in line and shadow. It effectively conveys the horror of war, the heroism of the men who fought in it, and the hectic pace of battle. The artwork and the words make for a gripping story.
The artwork and text would be accessible for student readers in fifth grade and older, though there is some vulgar language and minor sexual innuendo that may be an issue in some school contexts. As always, I would encourage teachers to read the book before putting it in their classroom library or using it in a unit about World War Two. I would encourage History teachers and English teachers especially to read it.
Tamiki, Mariko; Tamiki Jillian (2008) Skim Toronto: Groundwood Press
Opening Lines: “I am Kimberly Keiko Cameron (AKA Skim). My best friend: Lisa Soor. My cat: Sumo. Interests: Wicca, tarot cards, astrology, (me=Aquarius = very unpredictable). Philosophy. Favorite color: Red. Year: 1993.”
Skim is in high school, and, like many high school kids, she is desperately trying to figure out who she is, who her friends are, and how this life thing is supposed to work anyway. In the first few pages of this graphic novel, Kim and her friend Lisa are excited to be going to their first meeting with a wiccan coven. Skim has been building a collection of items that she has read a necessary to be a wiccan. When they go to the wiccan circle, however, they find a group of what seem like hippies talking about the power of nature. Skim seems disillusioned but continues thinking about witchcraft. A day or two later, after she has snuck away to the outer edge of school property to smoke, she meets her favorite teacher, Ms Archer. After they have a long talk, Skim starts to focus on Ms. Archer and comes to believe that Ms. Archer likes her in a romantic way. Eventually they share a kiss. Meanwhile, the school is reeling from the suicide of a popular boy who had just broken up with his girlfriend. Skim goes to visit Ms Archer and is rebuffed. Skim and Lisa go on a double date with two boys. All of this is a realistic portrayal of the confusion of trying to negotiate identity and relationships in high school.
The art is both beautiful and ugly. Tamiki’s drawings are sometimes blindingly full of white space, sometimes shrouded in shadow. She draws Lisa and Skim in a way that highlights their awkwardness and shows how hard they are trying to be something other than what they are sometimes. The style of drawing owes a bit to classic Japanese art, but in a way that hints at it without clobbering you over the head.
Sometimes I talk with my students about how children’s literature can serve as a mirror – showing us how the world really is, as a lamp – showing us how the world ought to be, or sometimes serving as a door – letting us into another world (I got these ideas from M.H. Abrams and Junko Yokota). This book probably falls nearest to the analogy of a mirror. It is an authentic portrayal of the path that some high school kids walk. This book has the potential to connect with such students who may believe that most adolescent or YA literature portrays a world unlike the one they live in.
Having said that, as a teacher, I really had a hard tiem reading aobut a relationship between a teacher and a student, even such a short-lived on as is depicted here. While it may be a mirror book, and while it is certainly true that such things happen, the inapporapriateness of the power differential and the moral wrongness of such a thing is soemthing that is hard for me to read aobut, particularly when the relationship is shown to be unfortunate and painful, but not really wrong in anay way. I unserdstand that it is authentic mirroring, but I guess I was looking for the book to be a bit of a lamp in that moment.
Furthermore, that authenticity may prove difficult for parents and administration to swallow. This book contains references to sex acts, the inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student, lesbian impulses, drinking and smoking, witchcraft, and suicide. It would very much depend on your school context, but teachers considering using this graphic novels should anticipate parental and/or administrative challenges. The Tamikis’ more recent graphic novel, This One Summer deals with similar themes of identity, frustration, and perhaps hope (or at least survival) but in a way that might be less likely to be challenges (though only slightly so). I cannot imagine using Skim anywhere but high school or college and would encourage the teacher to consider carefully whether the thematic value of the book outweighs the extreme reaction that parents, administrators, and likely students would have. In short, if you want to use this book, know what youare getting into.