In the third volume of the Secret Smithsonian Adventures series, middle school students Eric, Dominique, Ajay, and Josephine have just returned from wrangling dinosaurs in volume 2 of the series to discover that their work is far from over. The present-day United States is almost unrecognizable with soldiers on the streets enforcing curfews, family members accused of sedition, and everyone preparing for Coronation Day! The four young heroes head back to the Smithsonian, this time to the National Museum of American History, where the American Presidency exhibit is now devoted to American Monarchs. A dastardly villain is rewriting history, and it’s up to our four adventurers to set things right. Using time machines developed by the Smithsonian, the schoolmates must travel to the scene of George Washington’s farewell address, where Washington’s imposter is seeking a third term instead of stepping aside for a new president.
It’s Treason, By George! relies on background from earlier volumes, but provides some additional details about the origin of the Smithsonian’s time machines and why they were created. Readers are expected to be familiar with the good-guy scientists including Smitty who can speak to the protagonists across time and space and create holographic effects, and Al who runs the show at the Smithsonian. The villain Gould, also introduced in previous volumes, has additional backstory revealed in this book. However, it is never entirely clear what is motivating Gould to wreak havoc upon historical events. Perhaps forthcoming volumes will shed greater light on this mystery.
The full-color illustrations are simple and accessible to young readers, with crisp lines, bold colors, and an uncomplicated panel structure. The racially diverse main characters are portrayed realistically with expressive features. However, a lack of clarity in the portrayal of the historical characters is problematic. Since the storyline hinges on the villain reversing Washington’s historical actions, it is critical that the reader be able to discern the difference between the real Washington and the fraud, which is very difficult at times. Hamilton, Adams, and Washington are also nearly indistinguishable in some panels, further muddling the flow of several otherwise pivotal scenes, though dialogue does help clarify the action.
The concept for this series, and this volume in particular, is intriguing. It provides an opportunity for young people to explore history, and to become acquainted with the collections of the Smithsonian museums, as well as to contemplate the merits of a constitutional republican form of government. Unfortunately, the execution of this concept is more simplistic than would be desired for the intended audience. Whereas the text addresses complex ideas such as the peaceful transition of power within a modern republic, the plot lacks the depth preferable for the maturity of most middle grade readers. Additionally, the protagonists tend to break from adolescent speech patterns to provide precocious commentary about the historical events they are witnessing, and they lack the dimension to make them relatable characters.
While I had higher hopes for this series and this installment in particular, It’s Treason, By George! is a suitable addition to school and public library collections where historical graphic novels are in demand. The brief length will also enable this text to be used as supplemental material for classroom instruction.
Secret Smithsonian Adventures, vol. 3: It’s Treason, By George!
by Chris Kientz, Steven Hockensmith
Art by Lee Nielsen
Smithsonian Books, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12