Neil Barton is a typical middle school student in the typical small town of Americus, Oklahoma. Sure, he’s quiet, reads a lot, and doesn’t have many friends except for his best friend Danny Burns, but otherwise, he’s typical. Average, you would say. Yet Neil’s – and the town’s – mundanity makes this story about censorship incredibly believable.
Neil and Danny are regular library users and are hooked on a Harry Potter-like series called The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, the Huntress Wytch. But as they graduate middle school and get ready for summer and their entry to high school, the whole town is caught up in a controversy. Danny has been hiding what he’s reading from his Conservative Christian mother. When she finds out that Danny is reading a book about what she sees as witchcraft, Danny’s mother drags him to the public library to confront the young adult librarian Charlotte Murphy about the book in a dramatic scene where Mrs. Burns ends up ripping up the town’s only copy of the latest Apathea Ravenchilde release.
Things progress in a natural manner from there. After a tense and revealing family dinner scene in the Burns house, Danny is sent off to a church camp for the summer and then on to military school. This leaves Neil to fend for himself as the unpopular kid starting high school. There are a few bright moments in Neil’s life, like when he reaches fourteen and can work for the library, and when a relative’s boyfriend befriends him and introduces him to indie punk music. But looming on the horizon is the town’s growing movement to get the library board to ban his favorite book.
One excellent turn that Reed takes with her storytelling is touching not only on Neil and his reactions, but on the reactions of the town. The narrative follows not only the main characters, but many others such as Neil’s neighbor, a library board member, and a girl a couple of years older in his high school, as they cross paths and their own experiences intersect. The variety of voices and attitudes, from teachers to parents to other students, add a layer of authenticity and give the story resonance. It would have been easy to tell this story without this look at what everyone else in the town thinks, or without the seemingly extra parts, like all the teachers’ classroom introductions during Neil’s first day of school. But by showing all those details, Reed shows how, in a small community like Americus, where everyone knows everyone else, differences and conflicts become everyone’s business.
Ably assisting Reed is artist Jonathan Hill. His confident brushwork has an almost homey, comfortable quality that fits well with the subject matter. Able to depict all sorts of body types and clothing, his black and white artwork manages to make the wide array of small town characters all have their own distinctive look and be easily recognizable. He also introduces a nice twist when illustrating passages from the Apathea series, adding gray tones to make them both more dramatic and cinematic, visually showing how Neil and other readers are able to escape into the fantasy of Apathea’s world.
Needless to say, library professionals (like myself) will be drawn to this book for its story of censorship and book-banning, but what really shines about the book is the authentic voice of Neil and the other well-realized characters. Teens should find a bit of themselves in this story, where the hero doesn’t save the day by himself – or even want to – but is part of a much larger community that wrestles with an issue that affects them all. It should be a welcome addition to any teen or middle school shelf, assuming you live in a community with a less restrictive attitude than some of the residents of Americus.
by MK Reed
Art by Jonathan Hill
First Second, 2011