Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham. First Second, 2017. 9781626724167. 224pp.
I feel like I’m seeing Pham’s name and artwork everywhere. I loved The Bear Who Wasn’t There (am I imagining the scene with a giraffe on a toilet?) and I’ve got Isabella for Real near the top of my to-read pile. And she also drew a full length graphic novel with Shannon Hale (Princess in Black, Rapunzel’s Revenge (I know she’s written a lot of other cool books, but those are my favs))?!? When does she sleep?
First, the art: fantastic. Pham captures the red-headed Shannon’s everyday antics and really brings her imagined games to life, too. She’s right up there with Raina Telgemeier. Wow.
The story: This is Shannon Hale’s story, based on her memories of elementary school friendships. (There are awkwardly beautiful pictures of Hale at the back for comparison with the character’s look, along with an author’s note about the story.) Shannon loves her friend Adrienne so much! But in second grade, others want her attention, too, and then Adrienne moves away. Shannon makes another friend, Tammy, who clearly wants Shannon’s friendship while all Shannon wants is for Adrienne to come back. And then she comes back. It’s painful to to read, and it only gets worse as girls form grade school cliques and Shannon moves in and out of them — lots of social anxiety, lots of stomach cramps. It’s saved from a didactic after school special vibe and comes alive because Shannon doesn’t always do the nicest thing, and like in real life it’s often not clear what she should do. (I’m leaving this where my high school aged daughter can find it.)
Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462694.
Bagge’s first biographical comic, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, was the kind of history-is-stranger-than-fiction book I love, so I was pretty excited that he’d written another one. And it’s about Zora Neale Hurston: writer, folklorist, and star of the Harlem Renaissance. It doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of the same kind of outrageous behavior, headstrong self-confidence, and perseverance in doing what needed to get done. Her life had family troubles! Literary feuds! Scrapes with death in rural Florida while collecting folklore! (There was a woman with a knife in a turpentine camp who felt Hurston had been putting the moves on her man!) And lots and lots of romantic relationships! (See also the previous parenthetical!)
There is a but coming: Hurston’s very full life, complex political beliefs, friendships and sometimes enemyships with a list of influential people as long as your arm means that you get plunged into the middle of her life without a lot of lead up or context… until the notes section at the back. The notes, arranged in order by the page they explain, have the same tone as the comics with lots more detail. I just wish the information from each section could be combined better with the notes. I’ll be first in line for any future biographies by Bagge, but now I’ll be sure to flip back to the notes section as I read them.
Agatha Christie by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Elisa Munsó, translated by Raquel Plitt. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2017. 9781847809605. In the series Little People, Big Dreams.
I’ll admit that I was confused by the series name Little People, Big Dreams. Are all the biographees short? No, turns out they are all about women who had some aspiration in childhood that led to their achievements as adults. In Agatha Christie’s case, she thought up better endings for the books her mother read aloud to her. She grew up to learn about poisons as a nurse in WWI, and later created the legendary detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She wrote mystery novels that became famous all over the globe. (The afterword notes that her books have been translated into more than a hundred languages and that her book And Then There Were None is one of the ten most-read books in the world.) This book is both an accessible biography for kids who won’t be reading Christie’s novels until they’re older, and an encouragement to explore their interests.
I wish I had Gene’s eye and vocabulary for illustration so I could say something more informative than “I really liked it!” The pictures are black and white pen drawings full of detailed patterns and swooping lines. Each page has an accent in red, and the faces are simple and appealing.
Audubon: On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau & Jérémie Royer. Nobrow, 2016. 9781910620151.
I’m not someone who longs for walks in primeval wilderness, I don’t read history books, and most biographies leave me cold, but this beautifully drawn and colored graphic novel was amazing. Audubon was obsessed with painting the birds of America. He left his family behind to undertake dangerous trips into the unsettled wilderness to paint the birds he found there. Two moments that stand out to me: Audubon climbing into a hollow sycamore tree to investigate the thousands of swallows nesting inside, and shooting at a flock of pigeons in which birds may have numbered over a billion. (The most shocking thing about the book was the cavalier way he killed so many birds so that he could pose them in lifelike ways to paint. He’d sometimes be so captivated by them that he let them live, but those exceptions were few and far between. It was more like: “Look at that beautiful bird!” Pow!) The scientific community in the U.S. wasn’t supportive of Audubon’s work — they saw him as an artist, not a naturalist — so he eventually had to travel to England to find support for his famous book.
I often say that the key to pursuing one’s artistic goals is a supportive spouse or partner, and Audubon’s wife goes above and beyond in terms the number of years she spends without him, raising all their children. (I’d love to read a graphic novel about her life next.)
Pair this with Nick Bertozzi’s epic Lewis & Clark to try to give the comic readers in your life a love of nature and history. It’s too late for me, but I’m sure that could work for someone with fewer plant allergies.
When I Was A Kid: Childhood Stories by Boey. Last Gasp, 2013. 9780867197583.
Each of the one or two page stories of Cheeming Boey’s childhood in Malaysia in this comic collection is drawn from his blog and starts with “when I was a kid.” While Boey is an accomplished artist, he uses simple shapes to depict himself and his family. I was amazed at how expressive he could make a drawing of himself with only a line or two for eyebrows. The stories are funny, not sentimental or saccharine (he remembers being more upset that his mom put their dead dog in the trash can than that it had died). They convey a sense of place down to how crunchy snacks were (not very, it was pretty humid). (In fact he was astonished at how crunchy chips were when he moved to San Francisco.) The stories might not be as polished as the greats (Kampung Boy, The Greatest of Marlys) but they are just as evocative of childhood.
Esquivel! Space-age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Charlesbridge, 2016. 9781580896733.
The story of the life of out-there pop composer and conductor Esquivel! (the exclamation point is a part of his stage name) illustrated with images in the style of the ancient Mexican Mixtec codex, with photographic textures as color.
The Cosmo-biography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening by Chris Raschka. Candlewick Press, 2014. 9780763658069.
The story of the life of the legendary jazz composer and performer Sun Ra illustrated in paintings bursting with color and movement.
As much as writing about music is like dancing about architecture, is a child’s picture book about lesser-known musicians even more so? The stories are fine on their own (probably why they got into books in the first place) but there is no way to convey the power of the artists’ music, much less its impact. Best case scenario, a child will recognize the names from these books when they hear the music. I’m guessing it’s all a part of trying to give a child a cultured (or impressive, or quirky) taste in music. Not matter how interesting his life was, there probably won’t be a picture book biography of Lawrence Welk, he’s just not cool enough. (Though I will admit that Esquivel!’s is pretty close to lounge music, even if it is very experimental.) That said, I think Esquivel! and Sun Ra are good kid-music choices: fun, weird, and enjoyable even outside their cultural contexts.
How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less by Sarah Glidden. Drawn & Quarterly, 2016. 9781770462533.
Emailing my new Israeli librarian pen pal (Hi Karen!) seems to be bringing a lot of books on her country into my orbit, or at least has me moving them to the top of my reading pile.
Glidden’s graphic novel memoir about her birthright tour to Israel is one of the best. At the beginning, she’s on the lookout for pro-Israel propaganda and evidence of the mistreatment of Palestinians. But as she learns more about Israel’s history and it’s people, she sees how complicated the situation is. It’s an awkward, upsetting, emotional journey, and luckily Sarah has her friend Missy along.
This is much more of a personal journey than Joe Sacco’s journalistic Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, and it lacks the funny moments of Delisle’s Jerusalem. In some ways I think Glidden took on the tougher job in making her uncertainty both inform and entertain. And I really enjoyed the way she characterized the people she met: other visitors, their guides, and the people they met and listened to along the way.
Between the above books, Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, and Brigitte Findakly’s Coquelicots d’Irak (a graphic novel about growing up in Iraq that’s still only available in French), I’m becoming more and more interested in visiting the Middle East.