This is the first of a new nonfiction graphic novel series highlighting, as the series says, “marginalized trailblazers.” This volume tells the story of the life of Edmonia Lewis, a Black/Ojibway woman born in 1844 in New York, who triumphed over prejudices against her race and sex, the challenges of poverty and lack of education, to become a well-known sculptor.

Information on her early life is sketchy, but she apparently spent much of her childhood with her Ojibway aunts, after her parents’ death. Her brother, who supported her artistic career, followed his father’s career as a barber from the age of twelve. Supported by abolitionists, Lewis struggled to get an education despite prejudices against her race and sex, present even in the partially-integrated schools available. Her college career at Oberlin ended disastrously, when she was falsely accused of poisoning two of her classmates and attacked and left for dead before the trial. Although she was acquitted, the school continued to suspect her and, accusing her of theft, forced her to leave without matriculating.

She started her sculpting career in Boston, under the aegis of the Abolitionist movement, and then traveled to Italy with the help of various Abolitionist patrons. There she found her skin color less of a hindrance than her sex and poverty, but she continued to forge her own pathway, although she sometimes angered her patrons and fellow sculptors. She reached the zenith of her career with her sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. After this triumph, she returned to Rome, but the changing artistic trends and decline in the popularity of Neoclassic sculpture eventually left her in obscurity. She eventually moved to London and died there in 1907. Her greatest work fell into obscurity only a few years after its exhibition and was only found and restored in the 1990s. Contemporaries and visitors of Lewis reported her as continuing to work and maintain her bright and cheerful personality until her death. She maintained a close relationship with her brother, who continued to support her as well.

Notes, sources, and an extensive study guide are included in this slim volume. The art is detailed and focuses on red-tinged earth hues. Edmonia is shown as a determined, strong woman with curly black hair, dark brown skin, and a red cap perched on her curls. She moves through the panels as the central figure in a swirl of historical characters and her white contemporaries. Her Neoclassic style is well-represented in the lines and faces of her white marble statues and busts. While the art focuses primarily on faces and the eponymous “talking heads,” action and interest is added by interposing examples of Lewis’ work and shifting from panels to spreads of her surrounded by action and movement as she moves through her career.

The unique subject matter, accessible art, and extensive resources for teaching in the back (they include educational standards, a multiplicity of questions on the art and subject, and educational activities) should make this a stand-out title. However, there’s one serious problem – the size and layout of the book. It’s a tiny volume, 7×5 inches, and the font and art is correspondingly reduced. While there is plenty of detail and emotion in the faces shown, it’s difficult to catch the nuances when the faces are so tiny and many readers will find the small size of the font frustrating. At less than a hundred pages, this title will quickly disappear on a shelf or be lost and only the most dedicated readers are likely to work through the small size of the font.

Nonfiction graphic novels are extremely popular with my middle school and high school readers, the best audience for this small but dense volume, but sadly, this one is likely to go unnoticed. However, with its very affordable price point and availability in paperback, schools may find it useful to purchase in bulk for a class read. The publisher appears to be planning one volume per year (Rachel Carson in 2021 and Willem Arondeus in 2022) and I can only hope that they will perhaps consider binding them into one large volume and enlarging the art and text to correspond.


Seen: Edmonia Lewis
By Jasmine Walls
Art by Bex Glendining, Kieran Quigley (Colorist), DC Hopkins (Letters)
ISBN: 9781684156344
Boom, 2020
Publisher Age Rating:
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Character Traits: Black First Nations or Indigenous
Creator Highlights: Black

  • Jennifer

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian, Matheson Memorial Library

    Reviewer

    Jennifer Wharton is the Youth Services Librarian at Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn, Wisconsin where she maintains the juvenile and young adult graphic novel collections and was responsible for creating the library’s adult graphic novel collection. She is constantly looking for great new comics for kids and teens and new ways to incorporate graphic storytelling in programming. Jennifer blogs for preschool through middle grade at JeanLittleLibrary and has an MLS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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