A Light in the Darkness

29436571March: Book Three, by John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell (2016)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a book on Goodreads with a higher rating than this one (4.7/5 stars), but that’s not why I read the conclusion to John Lewis’ March trilogy this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book win so many awards, (4 at ALA’s Youth Media Awards announced last week and the National Book Award last year) but that wasn’t why I read it either.

I read it because I needed some hope.

When earlier this week, I opened a new box of books at school, I breathed a sigh of relief to find March among them. It’s been a rough week, hasn’t it? It’s hard to not feel hopeless every time I turn on the news or scroll through my social media feeds, and after getting a little less sleep than normal due to my husband’s knee surgery on Monday, by this weekend, I was feeling weighed down. Hearing from one of our country’s leading civil rights activists who has really been through it all, that’s what I needed.

If you’ve read the first two volumes of March, you know what to expect in this one. The third volume picks up with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, when four young girls died and dozens more were injured. It then carries through the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X, the killings of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, Freedom Summer (with the major push to register black voters in Alabama), and culminating with the marches in Selma. It’s a dark story, darker than the first two for sure. There were more than a few scenes that make my neck prickle at purchasing this for middle school.

But there’s no way I can let this one stay off the shelves. There’s too many important things in these pages, things that I don’t think my students are aware of. I know before reading the first March, I had very little knowledge of John Lewis and the incredible role he has played in our country’s history (and modern politics),  and I was raised in a much more diverse population. It seems as though we teach about MLK, Rosa Parks, maybe Malcolm X in more liberal classrooms, but that’s about the extent of it. The fact that Lewis chose to tell his story through graphic format is genius. Not only does it meet students where they are (in the graphic novel section), but also it brings the reality of the horror of our nation’s past to very bright light. And the thing is, it doesn’t take much to see how relevant this story from 50 years ago is in our current situation.

The thing that I think makes this book so powerful, though, is what I mentioned at the beginning: the hope. Lewis does not shy away from the violence, from the language, from the very real darkness he lived through. But interspersed with that darkness are scenes from Inauguration Day in 2009, when President Obama took office. These little glimpses show us that despite all the terror Lewis has witnessed, he knows the value, the purpose, the goal and that it’s all worth it. He knows that those terrible years in the 60s were just the beginning of a lifetime of hard struggle (as is evidenced in his 30 years in U.S. Congress so far), and yet he’s not giving up. He’ll keep doing the work, and so can we. As sad as I am that Obama is no longer in Washington, I can remain hopeful, because Lewis is. And even when he finally does take a well-deserved rest, there will be others there, maintaining the fight.

3 stars, Mr. Lewis.

Middle School Drama at its Finest

Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova (2015)61yatzrvzjl

What a perfect title for this graphic novel set in middle school. Because, coming from someone who spends everyday in a middle school, it’s a word that describes anywhere from 50%-75% of any given day.

Penelope feels super awkward every time she sees Jaime in the hallways, due to a terrible interaction she had with him on her first day at a new school. After tripping over her own feet in front of everyone, Jaime stops to help her pick up her stuff. The local bullies start harassing them, calling Penelope Jaime’s “nerder girlfriend”, and in a desperate attempt to distance herself from a low social status, she pushes Jaime away and yells at him to leave her alone. Now she feels incredibly guilty for her reaction to a kid who was just trying to be nice to her.

Awkward.

I can identify with Penelope’s severe guilt complex (I still cringe when thinking of a similar moment of over-reaction in 5th grade), so I immediately felt the truth of these pages. Soon, she gets in with the art club crowd, a weird but welcoming group of friends — another thing I can identify with after spending four years in drama club. But the art club’s bitter rival is the science club, who recently stole their table at the school club fair, and the principal plans to cancel both clubs if they can’t get along. Penelope’s anxious to keep the art club running, because it’s the only place she’s felt comfortable — and the one person from the science club who might be willing to help bring the clubs together is none other than Jaime. Can she push aside the awkwardness to save the clubs?

I loved this graphic novel for it’s engaging artwork, complex and diverse characters, and simple yet relevant plot. Another good one to hand to those that love Raina T.

2 stars.

Holy Mae Jamison!

71aw5whc8el81cs5miglxlLumberjanes Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy and Lumberjanes Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max  by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke A. Allen (2015)

Oh my gosh, you guys. These GNs are the best.

Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types is the summer home for the five best friends in the Roanoke Cabin. Things are hunky dory with a variety of summer camp activities. That is until monsters show up. That’s basically the extent of this series… summer camp activities, friendship, and monster-fighting. And I couldn’t ask for more.

The dialogue is smart, hilarious, and perfectly pre-teen. The pro-feminist attitude and she-ro exclamations (“oh my Bessie Coleman!” “Where the Phyllis Wheatley were you?”) are perfection (even if they may be lost on a younger audience). AND it quietly references A League of their Own, only the greatest movie ever!

Seriously, these are so much fun and made me laugh out loud many times. 3 stars.

Strange, scary, swampy stories

618x1sxqvnlThe Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York, by Kory Merritt (2015)

Opening line: “Beware Pen-tip Polishers and Ditto Wranglers.”

What a delightfully weird book this is. Oh, how I loved it. Someone on Goodreads said it was as if Edgar Allan Poe, Dr. Seuss, and Tim Burton all sat down and wrote a book together, and Paperbackstash was right.

Jonathan York got himself lost in the swamp on his way home, and it’s getting dark. Of course, that means it’s getting a little too “Snow White in the creepy woods scene” for him, and he’s only all too happy when he happens upon three strangers who suggest he accompany them to a nearby inn. Luckily for Jonathan, the innkeepers don’t accept money as payment, only stories. Really good stories. Unfortunately for Jonathan, he’s terrified of public speaking and cannot think of a single story.

The strangers have some wild stories, indeed. But when it’s Jonathan’s turn, he’s kicked to the curb (or the dark, shadowy swamp) after failing to produce a story. And so begins the most wild story of his life.

The artwork, while sometimes SUPER creepy, also has lots of great and hilarious details. You can tell that this creator is just as much an artist as a storyteller. I also love that stories are the form of exchange here. That should be the case more often, right?

2.5 stars

Snow Day = Graphics Day

We had a snow day Friday, which is much different in South Carolina than it was in Illinois. First off, they called it at about 6pm the night before (unheard of), and we didn’t get snow until late Friday night, although the freezing rain and sleet all day did make the unsalted roads fairly treacherous. I’m not complaining, to be clear. Plus, I had been forewarned by my new coworkers to expect it, so I took home a whole stack of new graphic novels we got in this past week, and put my snow day to good use!

51vjlju6ullDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, by Don Brown (2015)

Opening line: “An unremarkable wind leaves Africa and breezes toward the Americas.”

Don Brown, gaining a reputation for his graphic non-fiction for young people following The Great American Dust Bowlpresents a graphic representation of the most horrific natural disaster our country has seen so far this century: Hurricane Katrina. His artwork is haunting, and he will give students new to this topic a lot of surprising and jarring details about this disaster. I wanted to love this one, but found myself having trouble connecting one panel to the next, and also found some of his details confusing or strangely placed. I wished for a more cohesive narrative. And although written for a slightly older audience, I loved A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge much more.  1.5 stars

51p2bmkuorjlLost in NYC: A Subway Adventure, text by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sanchez (2015)

Pablo is new to NYC, and although he is used to new places (as his family moves a lot), he’s not at all used to the NYC subway system. He quickly becomes separated from his class on their field trip to visit the Empire State Building, and has to navigate the crazy colors and numbers to get himself to the right place. A very quick read, but the drawings are full of rich and fun details that could easily let you spend a long time on each page. 2 stars

51fryuowq-lThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Volume 1, by Ryan North and Erica Henderson (2015)

Opening line: “Squirrel Girl, Squirrel Girl! She’s a human and also a squirrel!”  (sung to tune of the SpiderMan theme song)

I don’t read a lot of superhero comics, but Squirrel Girl is one I can get behind. Doreen (aka Squirrel Girl) is starting college at Empire State University, simultaneously trying to blend in as a regular college student (although stuffing her enormous tail into her pants gives her a hiney rivaling Kim K’s), and jumpstart her career as an awesome superhero. As part squirrel, Doreen can climb and leap with the best of them, but her real power lies in her ability to communicate with and instruct squirrels to do her bidding, besting even the strongest of villains. Plus, she and her sidekick Tippy Toe are generally hilarious. I’m a big fan. 2 stars

41vjt-xeoalTrickster: Native American tales, A Graphic Collection, ed. by Matt Dembicki (2010)

This is a compilation of more than 20 Native American trickster tales, adapted into graphic novel format. Each story is collected from a different Native American storyteller or author, and is illustrated by a different artist. I have to say, with the vast variety of stories and artists, some I liked better than others. A couple of my favorites included the brightly-colored “Mai and the Cliff Dwelling Birds” and the dark and haunting “Coyote and the Pebbles.” There were others, however, that I did not enjoy, like “When Coyote Decided to Get Married” (in which everyone was turned to stone because Coyote was pissed that one of the maidens he sent for was tarnished goods) and “Paupaulenalena” (which combined a hard-to-read font, creepy pictures, and a super bizarre story). I don’t know. I guess I feel good that we have it in my library, but it was not my favorite of the pack, to be sure. (1 star)

 

Just a sidekick and her villain

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson (2015)81htvtp4ktl

I’ve never been into webcomics. I don’t really get them, for some reason, or don’t like the serialization of them, or something. So I really appreciate it when great webcomics get turned into great graphic novels, like Nimona. Especially when the big, bad, scary guy in the story is actually a short, not-skinny, teenage girl with buzzed hair and big boots.

Nimona is a shapeshifter, capable of turning into just about any creature she wants to, ranging from other humans to small cats to giant dragons. And with that ability, she dreams of causing chaos and taking down the man. In this case, the man is The Institution, which villain Lord Ballister Blackheart has been trying to destroy. Despite his role as Villain of the community (and a name like Blackheart) Ballister actually has a heart of gold, and is trying to expose the lies and immoral nature of the powers at be. Nimona is determined to be his sidekick.

But when Nimona joins Lord Ballister’s team, she’s keeping her cards close to her chest, and Ballister can tell she’s hiding something. Something that might just destroy all his plans.

This graphic novel is HILARIOUS and HEARTBREAKING and HEARTWARMING and HUGELY entertaining.

2.5 stars

Jammer Dreams

51mvuixhjelRoller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson (2015)

Opening line: “If you really want to know, it began back in fifth grade. Back when Nicole and I were still best friends.”

Okay, so I’m seeing a startling similarity between this one and my last post, despite the fact that I didn’t pick up on it during the actual reading of the book. Perhaps there are just some themes that are important enough to middle school that they need LOTS of books about them. Like drifting friendships.

Many of us had that childhood best friend. We loved the same things, hated the same things, and did everything together. But with age, new people, and new experiences, that friendship can change. As it did with Astrid and Nicole. The girls attend a roller derby game one night with Astrid’s mom and Astrid falls in love with the intensity, the speed, and the crazy outfits. She assumes Nicole will sign up for the derby summer camp with her, and is surprised to learn Nicole has signed up for dance camp instead. With the worst girl in the world.

But Astrid is determined to become a derby girl. Unfortunately, the first day of derby camp shows that skating is NOT Astrid’s natural instinct. She’s pretty awful at it. Despite that, Astrid refuses to give up.

Great for fans of Raina Telgemeier’s and the only middle grade book I know about an increasingly popular sport!

2 stars.