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.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Steptoe, Javaka (2016) Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York: Little Brown.
Opening Lines: “Somewhere in Brooklyn, between hearts that thump, double-dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice, a little boy dreams of being a famous artist.”
Of course, it isn’t the text that makes this picture book wonderful (though the text is both artfully and poetically written), but it is the images. Steptoe does a brilliant job using the same media that Basquiat used. Pages in this book appear to be paintings on wooden walls that make use of charcoal, objects, and collage techniques. Somehow the images manage to welcome you into another world while simultaneously reminding you that you are looking at an illustration painted on old boards (or, on one specific page, a painting of a painting of Basquiat and his mother looking at the painting Guernica in a museum)..
And the bottom line is, these images are beautiful to look at. In both the street scenes and the scenes set inside the Basquiats’ apartment there is so much light and energy and life. One two-page spread shows Basquiat in his early 20s walking the streets of New York with an art kit in one hand, burshes in the other and canvases tucked under his arm. There is activity in the background with people dancing on the side walk, walking, and playing music. There is a fancy yellow sports car by the curb, and muted blues and reds, and browns and blacks – so much to look at. And yet our eyes are drawn to Basquiat’s face with his wide-eyed grin and his eyebrows raised as if he were drinking in all the action, noise, and beauty of the city.
This book would be great for elementary school classroom libraries and any art classroom from elementary through high school.
Bell, Cece (2015) I Yam a Donkey. Boston: Clarion.
Opening lines: “I yam a donkey!”
“What did you say? ‘I yam a donkey’? The proper way to say that is ‘I am a donkey.”
“You is a donkey too? You is a funny-looking donkey.”
So begins the silliness of this picture book by Cece Bell (author of the graphic novel El Deafo. ) In the book, a goofy and arguably not terribly bright donkey continues this discussion of confusion with a bespectacled yam who is trying very hard to teach the donkey proper grammar.
Maybe that makes it sound like this would be a greeat book to teach young students proper grammar. Um, I would love to be proven wrong, but I am not convinced that is a good idea. The donkey persists in its confusion and the yam continues his prescriptivist rant until the end when the donkey pronounces “Oh! You is lunch” and devours the yam and several of his vegetable friends. Clearly knowing good grammar did not help the veggies evade their end, and incorrect grammar did not stop the donkey from triumphing. So the message regarding grammar is mixed at best.
But in terms of silliness, this book is a winner. When I was reading it silently to myself I could imagine the laughter and squeals of pre-k through first graders as they read each new incorrect interpretation of the donkey. Cece Bell is nothing if not good at inducing giggles. This picture book is a lot of fun.
Incidentally, the entire book is told with word balloons making it useful perhaps for teaching little kids how to read graphic novels. There are no real panel divisions, though.
Monday, April 3, 2017
Supplee, Suzanne (2008) Artichoke’s Heart. New York: Dutton,
Opening Lines: Mother spent $700 on a treadmill “from Santa” that I will never use. I won’t walk three blocks when I actually want to get somewhere, much less run three miles on a strip of black rubber only to end up where I started out in the first place.
I didn’t like this book when I started it. It is a novel about a fat girl and it is set in the south and a lot of the scenes take place in a beauty salon and it just seemed from the start like I knew where it was going and I was never going to care about the main character. It turns out I was completely wrong. I ended up liking the book a great deal.
Rosemary Goode is 16 and she is fat. She has always been fat and she expects she always will be fat, in spite of her mom’s nagging and her well-intentioned Aunt Mary’s meddling. But when her mom puts her in an experimental counselling program and Kyle Cox, a boy at school, is nice to her, Rosemary decides she wants to lose weight.
The novel then needs to walk a very tricky line between emphasizing the idea that Rosemary’s sense of self-worth is not just predicated on her appearance, even though the plot and the other characters might be emphasizing exactly that. It doesn’t help that Rosemary’s mom owns a hair solon and gossip and snide remarks are part of the world Rosemary moves through.
What makes the book work, oddly, is Kyle, Rosemary’s love interest. His relationship with Rosemary is real and moving. He sees in her something she doesn’t see in herself. He asks her out. He brings her flowers, and he seems to care about her as a person.
Rosemary also becomes friends with KayKay, a nice athletic girl who is being shunned by the popular kids. Now that she has friends, a counsellor, and a boy who seems to like her, Rosemary drops from 210 pounds to 165 and eventually to 158. Yet somehow she always has to fight the desire to eat more than she should, and always she is insecure about her appearance. Together, she and KayKay learn to ignore the toxic popular girls and Rosemary learns to trust in Kyle’s love for her (rather than convincing herself, it is part of some kind of practical joke. Rosemary grows strong enough that she can cope with her mom developing cancer and can even be civil to her meddling aunt. In the end, this book leave Rosemary in a place where she (and the reader) have hope for the future.
This would be a good book for upper middle school or lower high school readers. There are some occasional vulgar words, but nothing that might cause the book to be challenged. The novel might be good for a Phys Ed Classroom studying body image. And would also fit well in an English classroom library. Well worth reading.
McMann, Lisa (2008) Wake. New York: Simon Pulse.
Opening lines: Janie Hannigan’s Math Book slips form her fingers. She grips the edge of the table in the school library. Everything goes black and silent. She sighs and rests her head on the table. Tries to pull herself out of it but fails miserably. She’s too tired today. Too hungry. She really doesn’t have time for this.
Jamie’s problem is that if people fall asleep in the same room she is in, she enters their dreams. This makes her privy to all sorts of secrets she would rather not know and it makes it hard for her to carry on a regular life. Sleepovers are fraught with danger. She can’t study in the library at school because students like to sleep there, and she learns to drive around town in such a way that she doesn’t go near houses where she knows that particularly powerful dreams might cause her to black out.
When she meets Cabel and finds out about his horrific dreams (which seem inspired by physical abuse against him by his father), she finds him to be a compassionate, caring, really nice boy. He seems to like her too and she thinks that maybe she can confide in him. Then she helps an older woman at work resolve a troubling and incomplete dream by going inside the dream and helping the woman change it. Her life is finally looking up.
Then she finds out that Cabel goes to parties every weekend, is apparently sleeping with a cheerleader, and seems to be a drug dealer.
It turns out that some of these things are lies, that Cabel is involved in something really important and dangerous, and that Janie’s abilities may hold the key to finding out the truth.
Interesting idea. Intriguing characters. Good plot. The only problem is the language. I understand the need to write like students talk, and the need to connect with students in a way that seems relevant and real world enough to grab their attention. And maybe there are some students who really talk like this, but the amount of vulgar language and sexual innuendo guarantees that this book will be challenged. And that is a shame because most of that language is utterly superfluous to the character and the story. Because of that, it would be hard to use this story in a class, or even have it in your classroom library without some sort of disclaimer on the book.
Zarr, Sara (2008) Sweethearts New York: Little Brown.
Opening Lines: A Dripping faucet.
Crumbs and a pink stain on the counter.
Half of a skin-black banana that smells as old as it looks.
If I look at these things and at nothing else, concentrate on them and stay still, and don’t make any noise, this will be over soon and I can go home without Cameron’s dad ever knowing I am here.
He is yelling.
When Jennifer was younger, everyone in her school called her Fatifer. Cameron was the only person in the world who she thought understood her. Then one day when she was at his house, Cameron’s father verbally abused and threatened them in a particularly disturbing way. They escaped the house together. Shortly after that, Jennifer found out that Cameron had died.
Now years later, Jennifer is at a new school in a new place and she has reinvented herself as the new, thin, funny, social, perfect girl Jenna. Jenna has a boyfriend (Ethan) and some good friends who she laughs with. But when Cameron shows up and she finds out that he isn’t dead, her life turns upside down. She starts to wonder whether she really loves Ethan, finds herself trying to advise her friend who likes Cameron about how to get to know him, and wonders why her mother told her that Cameron died in the first place. Finding out that Cameron is homeless only complicates matters.
There are some interesting themes in this book, but nothing that I think would hold up to studying it in English class. It might make an interesting addition for a high school classroom library, though.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Every so often I use this space to pass along information from the children's publishing world.
I have been emailing back and forth with a couple of publishers about a research piece I am writing about celebrities writing picture books. Everyone from Jamie Lee Curtis to Spike Lee, has penned a picture book in the last couple of years. I have been trying to look at how their writing process differs from conventional authors (especially in terms of how much support the publishing company provides). Anyway, I was talking with the editor of a small children's press out of Bakersfield,, California called Sloof Books. They recently published a picture book by noted actor John Lithgow and have been in talks with country singer Trisha Yearwood. When I was interviewing the Editor-in- Chief of the company she mentioned that they had recently signed the creator of the Musical Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda, to write a parody of a picture book to be titled Max and the Wild Trumpus.
Patterned after the classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are, Miranda's book tells the story of what happened the night after Max wore his wolf suit and traveled to the island of the beasts and had a wild rumpus. It turns out that the following night, after making mischief of one sort or another, Max's mom sends him to the land of the Wild Trumpus.
My editor friend, April, says that Miranda got the idea when he saw this picture of former president Obama and the first lady reading Where the Wild Things Are:
Miranda thought how unlikely it would be that President Trump would ever read children's books out loud. Mirada had also been reading about President Trump's intention to cut all federal funding for libraries and was wondering what he could do about it. April says that the book was partly a way of working off his frustration, but adds that all proceeds from the book will go to help the libraries that Mirada suspects may close because of the cuts.
After much pleading, April agreed to send me a short except of the book. She cautions that this is in a very early draft stage and so it is likely this verse will not even be in the final book. But here it is, straight from her email:
And when Max came to the place where the wild Trumpus lived, he was a little bit scared. The Trumpus looked angry and had scary teeth.
The wild Trumpus combed his terrible hair and roared his terrible words and pushed his terrible lips together and rolled his terrible eyes and showed his tiny claws.
"You Loser!" said the Terrible Trumpus.
"I will build a wall with haste
to keep immigrants in their place
all friendly laws I'll soon erase
destroy libraries so there is not a trace
and force you to eat toxic waste,"
till Max said “BE STILL!”
and tamed the Trumpus with the magic trick of staring into his yellow eyes without blinking once and said
and tamed the Trumpus with the magic trick of staring into his yellow eyes without blinking once and said
"SHUT UP YOU BIG BULLY! BE NICE TO ALL PEOPLE!"
And the wild Trumpus was frightened and called Max the most wild thing of all.
The book is due out this May.