Portable Press, an imprint of Printers Row Publishing Group, is the home of the popular trivia books Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series. They might seem an odd choice at first for a series of biographies of famous Americans in graphic format, but the lively stories and interesting facts fit right in with their other titles. The series began with four titles, with more titles planned for spring 2020.
Dated chronologically, the first is Alexander Hamilton: The Fighting Founding Father. The story opens by introducing the narrators, a black girl who represents a young Lady Liberty and a white boy who is the boyhood version of Uncle Sam. The story begins with Hamilton writing a farewell letter to his wife as he sets out to meet Aaron Burr for a duel, then jumps back to his boyhood and follows the events that led to that day. His childhood poverty in the Caribbean islands, activities in the American Revolution, and extensive writing and involvement in the founding of many of the United States’ policies and structure are covered as well as the scandals and controversies of his political career. Hamilton’s life ends with the duel that opens the story, but his legacy remains and is encapsulated in the additional resources and information included.
A similar structure is followed for the biography Abraham Lincoln: Defender of the Union!, although this title focuses mainly on his early life and career. Shown as a jokester and self-educated man, Lincoln’s early days are marked by failure and tragedy as he is consistently defeated in his bids for public office, struggles to support his family in his career as a lawyer, and faces personal tragedy in the loss of his sons. The controversy of his election is covered, as well as some of his earlier, pro-slavery remarks. There are also several overviews of slavery and the Civil War. However, there is no mention of the racism faced by former slaves and freedmen in the Union Army. The biography ends with Lincoln’s assassination and a brief description of the fate of Booth’s group, and finishes with some additional resources and descriptions of other personages.
The third biography introduces a well-known woman and entrepreneur in Amelia Earhart: Pioneer of the Sky! From her troubled childhood, suffering from her father’s alcoholism and abuse, to her struggle to be recognized as an aviator in her own right, not merely flying under the auspices of men, to her final mysterious disappearance, Earhart’s story will be familiar to most adult readers. However, children who have previously only encountered her in popular media or incidental mentions in history books will get a whole new look at Earhart’s story. Incorporating many of her own remarks and writings, the story follows her exciting career through its ups and downs, showing how she used her eventual celebrity to pursue her passions and help other women find the freedom she had discovered in flying.
The most contemporary biography of this set is Martin Luther King Jr.: Voice for Equality! It begins with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, then takes the readers back to the beginning, starting with King’s father changing his name from Michael to Martin Luther. Martin’s experiences as a child and teenager, from racism and segregation in the South to the more liberal atmosphere of the North, helped form his character and life decisions. He learned from many mentors at Morehouse College, Crozer College, and Boston University, married music student Coretta Scott, and finally began his career in Montgomery, Alabama. From there the biography follows his difficult, challenging road of civil activism from bus boycotts, sit-ins, and the first signs of success in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to the tragedy of the Watts riots, discouragement of attempts to resolve housing discrimination in Chicago, and controversial stance against the Vietnam War. However, King refused to give up his stance of nonviolence and was involved in a nonviolent strike of sanitation workers in Memphis when he was assassinated. The book ends with the continuing work of civil rights activists, some of the legacy of Dr. King Jr., and a reminder that there are still many challenges and problems to solve.
The art is done by various illustrators and groups, but all has a similar style. The coloring is sometimes uneven; Lady Liberty’s skin tone changes from page to page and book to book, sometimes being darker and sometimes lighter. In Martin Luther King Jr., the boy “Uncle Sam” has black hair on the first page and brown hair throughout the rest of the book. While most of the faces are recognizable, some veer into caricature, especially in Amelia Earhart and Alexander Hamilton, both illustrated by Kelly Tindall, where the characters have an almost manga style of sharp chins and clumps of wavy hair. The illustrations stay away from the more graphic elements of the wars and violence they describe; bodies are shown from a distance, the assassinated or dying men are shown only in bed looking asleep, and only in some of the altercations in Martin Luther King Jr. is blood on peoples’ faces shown.
These titles work well as supplemental or introductory reads for the time periods and characters in history they depict. They gloss over many of the more complex aspects of the events and people, but in the limited space of a brief graphic novel, do a good job of introducing the important events and actions of the personages in each book. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales give a better comprehensive look at events in history while Fred Van Lente’s Action Presidents have a more polished art style and a more nuanced view of the figures’ actions and choices. However, for younger readers or to fill out a collection, these are a solid choice to draw in readers and get them interested in further research into history.
Show Me History! series
Alexander Hamilton: The Fighting Founding Father
By Mark Shulman
Art by Kelly Tindall
Abraham Lincoln: Defender of the Union!
By Mark Shulman
Art by Tom Martin
Amelia Earhart: Pioneer of the Sky!
By James Buckley Jr.
Art by Kelly Tindall
Martin Luther King Jr.: Voice for Equality!
By James Buckley
Art by YouNeek Studios
Portable Press, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 7-11