Memories and truth often lay buried in our distant past, waiting to be aroused and awakened. For award-winning children’s author and illustrator Dan Santat (The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend;Drawn Together) that time has come, and he conjures forth his magical creativity to reimagine a 13-year-old version of himself in the graphic memoir A First Time for Everything. What unfolds is an endearing character-building story that chronicles the adventures of a middle schooler on an overseas trip one summer before entering the throes of high school.
The story starts off in Camarillo, a small town located on the outskirts of Los Angeles where Santat grew up. He was a shy kid, preferring to be invisible, and when asked to recite an impromptu poem during an assembly in the school gym one day, gets jeered at by his classmates. During the summer of 1989, through the encouragement of his parents, he embarks on a three-week class trip to study abroad in Europe. Many “firsts” abound for him: Trying out a Fanta orange soda drink, dancing at a night club, having a beer, asking a girl out, and experiencing his first (albeit botched) kiss. A chance encounter later leads him to fall into love with a blonde named Amy Glucksbringer from Illinois. Together, they sneak in to watch a Wimbledon tennis tournament. At one point he even gets lost in the streets of Salzburg during the middle of the night and is chased by a gang of punks.
Santat narrates his travels and escapades with honesty, wonder, and charming humor, transporting his younger self across France, Germany, and England. Panels packed with lively action peppered with humorous moments—some wordless and filled with sound effects—drive the narrative scenes between characters. Flashbacks shaded in light somber blues capture moments in time that impact his present circumstances. Sightseeing excursions unfold through quarter to full-page panels featuring sketches of world landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe, Palace of Versailles, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, showcasing his burgeoning talent as an artist. The back matter features a collage of photographs and mementos marking key points in his travels along with insightful tidbits on the process of constructing a memoir from memory.
A First Time for Everything packs much love and heart into the zany and often awkward exploits of an adolescent encountering milestones of self-discovery. A coming-of-age story replete with themes on risk-taking, identity seeking, and reconciliation, this graphic memoir will make an enchantingly delightful addition to middle grade collections, demonstrating that it’s never too late to live life to the fullest.
A First Time for Everything By Dan Santat Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250851048
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14 NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Thai-American Character Representation: Thai-American
A fictionalized story of Edita “Dita” Adlerova, The Librarian of Auschwitz follows the daily life and motivations of Dita as she lives through World War II as a Jew and eventually is forced to move to Auschwitz with her family. Upon arrival, they are forced to strip for disinfection and given tattoos. But they are not subjected to the same horrible existence as the other camps. In the Family Camp, BIIB, Dita can see her family every day, wear her own clothes, and keep her hair. She also meets a man named Fredy, who works to keep the camp orderly and stands up to the Germans and the Kapos to get the prisoners various privileges.
Dita’s first job is being the replacement stage prompter in the children’s block, but after the performance, Dita is no longer needed until Fredy approaches her with a dangerous request: to become the camp’s librarian. In charge of the small number of books that are forbidden within the camp and carried with them a death sentence. Dita took her job very seriously and cared for the books and made sure people had access to them. She even starts setting up meetings with living books (people who tell stories from memory or share their own experiences). Before the end of the war, Dita experiences the loss of her parents, hunger, illness, and hard manual labor in addition to the constant threat of death. Fortunately, she was able to make a friend, Margit, who she reconnected with once the war had ended.
Included in the end material is a note from the adapter, who explains what types of changes were made for the graphic novel adaptation as well as a brief historical dossier about the novel’s creation and biographical information about some of the key characters.
I haven’t read the original novel this adaptation was based on; however, I did find the story easy to follow. The illustrations keep a good balance between showing stark truths and maintaining suitability for younger readers. To that end, there are some panels that show naked bodies, but nothing gory or sexual is on page. Mengele’s experiments are spoken of in order to showcase the terror felt by the prisoners but never explained in detail or in illustration. I liked the way the artist used muted neutral colors throughout the story. It set the tone and brought the reality of this part of our history into stark light.
This adaptation could be shared with readers as young as third grade and would appeal to readers through sixth grade. It would make an excellent addition to any public or school library in the historical fiction section.
The Librarian of Auschwitz: The Graphic Novel By Antonio Iturbe, Salva Rubio Art by Loreto Aroca Hollendonner Godwin Books, 2023 ISBN: 9781250842985
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Spanish, Character Representation: Jewish
“This book is more than the story of how two Polish Jews survived; it is also a cautionary tale of what happens when people stand by and allow antisemitism, hate and prejudice to run rampant” (Introduction, xii).
This nonfiction graphic novel illuminates the story of Bluma Tishgarten and Felix Goldberg, two young Polish Jews who were survivors of the rise of fascism and Hitler’s rise to power. It also reveals the intensification of antisemitism in Europe and the rise and consequences of the Holocaust to contemporary readers. The narrative follows Bluma and Felix on their individual fraught journey to an eventual fruitful meeting filled with optimism, endurance, and promise. It does not sugar coat the horrors of the Nazi concentration and death camps but offers historical insight and background along with the pain and anguish experienced by the protagonists and their allies. It is not an easy story to read but an extremely important one, especially in our current society.
The story, opening in the present day, explains several Jewish customs before moving back through time to the explore the beginnings of the Holocaust in 1917. It paints a bleak picture for the Jewish population as events lead up to the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II. In alternate vignettes the reader follows Bluma and Felix as they are separated from everything and almost everyone they have known and thrown into the frightening cauldron of racial and religious exploitation.
Towards the end of the war, Felix is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he is tattooed and where 960,00 Jews, 74,000 Non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Romas, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and over 15,000 citizens of other nations died before liberation. At the same time, Bluma and her sister Cela are transferred to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp which also housed Jews, POWs, political prisoners, Romas, criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals and where approximately 50,000 people died. Both camps excelled at humiliating treatment and considered the inmates as less than human. Eventually the three protagonists, along with Felix’s friend David Miller, are sent to a Displaced Persons camp in Landsberg, Germany. (Ironically, in 1924, Adolf Hitler was imprisoned there and where he wrote Mein Kampf.) The four young people meet, fall in love, and have a double wedding before moving to the United States. Once they are settled, they begin informing others about the atrocities they experienced and the dangers of unbridled antisemitism. They encouraged their children to continue their mission with one of the results being this moving graphic novel.
The evocative black and white realistic illustrations signify both the hardships and the joys that the families experience. Most of the written content is in text boxes augmented by some dialogue. There is a great deal of information to absorb on each panel and page. A variety of panels and backgrounds of the pages add to the depth of data and emotion in the story.
Extensive back material includes family photographs, biographies of the creators and contributors of the graphic novel, a timeline of events related to World War II and the Holocaust, a succinct glossary, recommended resources, and an index.
Highly recommended for middle and high school libraries and public and academic library collections. The title has been nominated for inclusion in this year’s YALSA listing of Great Graphic Novels but is a substantial read for older readers.
Thanks to Crystal Strang who gifted me an autographed copy of the graphic novel after attending a presentation by the author, illustrator, and publisher. She, along with the creative team, truly understands the importance of making sure this message is spread far and wide for people of all ages.
We Survived the Holocaust: The Bluma and Felix Goldberg Story By Frank W. Baker Art by Tim E. Ogline Imagine & Wonder, 2022 ISBN: 9781637610206
Publisher Age Rating: 12-16
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Representation: Polish, Jewish
Girl gets the dream of having own comic strip but has no idea what to write about. This is the dilemma in Girlsplaining by Katja Klengel. The author is so excited about getting the opportunity to create her strip. She dreams of being the Carrie Bradshaw of the comic world. She plans on meeting with her friends and writing about their lives. Thinking about it further, she finds following the Sex and the City formula to be limiting. She doesn’t want to just talk about guys.
Katja is interested in topics like being self-conscious about body hair, pressure to have children, female heroines, and gender-neutral toys. I appreciated the author’s honesty in detailing her anxieties and fears of having children. She shares her internal struggle if this is the right thing for her. On the con side, she worries about pregnancy being painful, having enough money to raise a kid, and not having time for herself. I laughed at her depiction of having a C-section as akin to having someone take a chainsaw to your belly. She also imagined a wrestler jumping on her tummy to push the baby out. On the pro side, she envisions that her kid could save the world and become Sailor Moon!
My favorite section of the graphic novel is the one on toys. Katja recounts how she loved and collected Barbie™ dolls as a young girl. She was really into her brother’s LEGO™ set that featured dragons and knights, but he wouldn’t let her play with it. He instead recommended that she play with her own LEGO™ set. She remarks how that one didn’t have dragons, but a beach bar and girl surfer. I could see from her perspective how this limited her imagination and sense of fun. Why should dragons only be for boys? She notes that her nephew was embarrassed when he was caught playing with a Barbie™. I recall as a librarian, when I was doing a storytime for kindergartners, a young boy chose a LEGO Barbie™ book and a classmate took the opportunity to chide him for his selection. He said, “That’s a girl’s book!” My reaction was to say, “There is no such thing as girl books or boy books, there are just good books.” A parent who volunteered that day gave me a look that said, “Right on!”. I found myself sympathizing with this story because I’ve seen how gendering things limits people on both sides.
The artwork is drawn in shades of pink, Katja’s way of unabashedly embracing her femininity and reveling in it. She throws in a lot of pop culture references such as Sailor Moon, Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Family Feud. Katja has an obsession with American pop culture and includes a list at the end of the book of her favorites. People are drawn in a very realistic way, with different body shapes, hair, and facial features. She uses a lot of white background space to highlight certain scenes and to focus your eyes on certain points she is trying to make.
I would highly recommend purchasing Girlsplaining. It talks humorously about a lot of issues that women go through. It is a quick read and highly enjoyable for me. There are some very adult discussions about female body parts and drawings included. This graphic novel is appropriate for older teens who parents feel have the maturity to handle the subject matter.
Girlsplaining By Katja Klengel BOOM! Archaia, 2021 ISBN: 9781684156627
After his mother suffers a stroke, Noel leaves Berlin to live in a somewhat isolated town in a rural area in Germany. As he gets to know his housemates and quirky neighbors he starts to ease into his new life. The book is made up of short episodes and, while there are continuing plotlines, it’s mostly a slice of life story. What sets it apart is that Noel is neurodivergent, as are most of the citizens at Neuerkerode, an inclusive village that houses 800 people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and over 500 staff members. Mikaël Ross accepted the opportunity to produce a graphic novel honoring the real life 150 year history of Neuerkerode’s mission, spending lengthy visits learning about the village and its citizens. This edition by Fantagraphics has been translated from German by Nika Knight.
The Thud is told from Noel’s perspective, occasionally with brief narration by him. There are no labels or diagnoses talked about when it comes to Noel and the other citizens. Even the phrases “developmental disabilities” and “intellectual disabilities” only ever appear on the inside of the book jacket. The characters are presented entirely through their interactions and behavior. It’s not always clear who are citizens and who are staff (I’m still not sure about the man in the police rain jacket), speaking directly to the inclusive intentions of the village. The diversity of the citizens encompasses many types of physical and mental ability. In the beginning, Noel is seen needing his mother’s guidance in social situations and his movement into care at Neuerkode is murky. Valentin, one of Noel’s housemates, has a fascination and encyclopedic knowledge of dates—births and deaths of everyone from Princess Di to his beloved cat Fluffy IV, and an intense need to stick to schedules. Alice, who pops up a lot, is shown having a seizure at one point, bringing back Noel’s trauma from hearing his mother fall to the ground in the start of the story. One of the highlights of the type of care offered by the village is supposed to be social freedom, which is the central element to the episodes in the book. The staff mostly intervenes when injuries happen from out of control actions or the citizens find themselves too far afield.
The characters and antics in The Thud are charming and engaging. Noel looks for love and rock and roll (the real Neuerkode is currently home to three bands). He contemplates what it means for something to die and to lose someone. There’s not a lot of depth in many of the side characters, just comments or short conversations. In an article for Der Tagesspiegal, Ross talks about how probing interviews with citizens didn’t get him very far in his research stage, but hanging around the public areas did, as they would come up to him and offer up far more. Reading the book feels like people watching. This is a limitation on its depiction of the citizens in that it feels respectful and realistic, but remains on the surface. At the same time, Ross doesn’t impose the many problematic tropes that often exist in fiction about neurodiverse characters by neurotypical writers. The lack of labels and diagnoses works to present the characters as people rather than examples; it never feels as though Ross is saying “this is what a person with autism is like,” preserving the actual diversity of neurodiversity.
There’s positivity and community exhibited in the book, but Ross doesn’t engage with any of the controversies surrounding communities that separate people from the rest of society. The whirlwind of Noel’s move from Berlin to Neuerkode does retain the confusion and fear that comes from having a major life decision carried out without your input, but Ross doesn’t editorialize further than that. Working for the foundation that supports Neuerkode doesn’t stop him from shining a brief light on a dark chapter when Noel speaks with an older citizen. Irma tells him the story of the Nazis who were placed in charge of the village and hiding from them when they came to take the inhabitants to their deaths.
The art and style are emotionally intense. The sketchy art blends realistic features and cartoonish expressions. It is very European, but not in a way that is inaccessible to an American audience. The colored pencil palette is dramatic, keyed to characters’ reactions as well as moody environments. A standout is the scene in the disco where a dense mottled rainbow of thick distinct lines provide the sonic and socially charged backdrop for Noel and his crush. The draftsmanship of many of the establishing backgrounds makes me wonder about the documentary angle of the book—would I recognize them if I were to visit Neuerkode? Aside from a handful of expertly employed splash pages, the panel structure is simple and straightforward. Ross uses speech bubbles to punch up the dialog, jagged lines and irregular outlines conveying the volume and energy of the speaker. This physicality of the dialog really helps bring the characters to life.
A Junior Library Guild selection, Fantagraphics bills The Thud as a YA graphic novel. There’s a stylized naked statue of a woman and a hilarious episode where Noel and Valentin are introduced to a pornographic DVD (the cover is shown featuring a topless woman) with the tv off panel, otherwise no nudity or sex. The general plotline of just trying to get along with the bunch of people you’ve found yourself surrounded by will speak to teens and adults, too. I recommend this for all collections that serve adults and teens. Neurodiverse readers may recognize aspects of themselves in the characters and neurotypical readers may experience some empathic breaking down of expectations of people they perceive as different.
The Thud By Mikael Ross Fantagraphics, 2021 ISBN: 9781683964063
Publisher Age Rating: age 13-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: German Character Representation: Neurodivergent
This biography covers Einstein’s life, with a focus on his years doing research. The book begins with the briefest glimpse at his childhood, when he receives a compass from his father, a captivating gift. The compass returns repeatedly throughout the story, symbolizing both his curiosity and passion for learning more about the unknown and his commitment to following his moral compass as a pacifist through two World Wars. Einstein’s story is told through a series of reflective framing conversations: chatting with his mentee, lecturing to students, and confiding in his girlfriend, Johanna Fantova. The frame story approach occasionally means that some biographical information comes across as heavy-handed. For example, in the beginning of the story, Einstein insists on feeding his mentee dinner, saying that he should not be hungry, clumsily tying this hunger to his criticism of the Nazis for “establish[ing] their authority over a people that were weak and hungry.” While the book does contain a fair amount of dialogue quoted or paraphrased from Einstein, it is generally executed more gracefully.
The story is fairly narration-heavy, given the conversational style. Some scenes depicting Einstein working on his theories can be fairly dense, with text that’s hard to follow both visually and conceptually. While it is not necessary to have substantial knowledge of physics in order to appreciate the story, a few pages may need to be re-read in order to follow Einstein’s thinking and his discoveries. The book has plenty of footnotes to contextualize the names of important historical figures, events, and theoretical concepts, which helps convey their significance without slowing down the story too much.
This text-heavy approach is seemingly balanced by the relative simplicity of the art. The art is a realistic style and uses shading in primarily one shade of light gray, which makes the art look flat and feel somewhat sparse and unfinished. However, most of the panels contain fully illustrated backgrounds, which saves it from looking too cartoonish. Some panels are drawn without borders—rather than a full panel, the person and their speech bubbles float against a plain white background, creating added weight to these words. While this technique is used sparingly, it’s not always employed in the most effective manner; ”Of course, Mark, if it will help you,” is a far cry from “The Nazis are going to take power and by then it will be too late.” The most striking pages in the book depict the mushroom clouds of each atomic bomb, with small panels along the bottom showing their destruction. These pages are incredibly visually effective, carrying the weight and devastation of the bombs while also conveying the appropriate silence.
Philosophy and ethics were integral to Einstein’s work and mindset. The excitement he displays when working on the theory of general relativity vanishes with the development of the atomic bomb. While Einstein was not directly involved with the Manhattan Project, he signed a letter to President Roosevelt encouraging nuclear research, fearing that the Nazis may be the first to harness its horrors. In one of his more harrowing quotes, Einstein says, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” This book provides an overview of Einstein’s life while grappling with some incredibly heavy themes. A detailed timeline, bibliography, and selected quotes follow the story for readers wishing to learn more about Einstein’s life.
In regards to content warnings, there are brief depictions of the following: anti-Semitic violence, a Holocaust mass grave, war, and bodies burned by the atomic bombs. The book contains a lot of heavy topics, though the art does not focus nor unnecessarily linger on the violence.
Albert Einstein: The Poetry of Real By Marwan Kahil Art by Manuel Garcia Iglesias ISBN: 9781681122021 NBM, 2019 NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
In her memoir Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe, Ali Fitzgerald teaches comic classes to refugees in an emergency shelter called The Bubble. She quickly learns that not all drawing prompts are universal—a playfully intended “what’s under the boat” evokes capsized rafts and missing people and is quickly replaced with “my favorite food memories.” Students don’t always want to create art in the workshops; they often wish to practice language learning, a vital survival skill. Fitzgerald has learned how to speak in reassuring but vague “soft words,” carefully phrased optimistic responses to difficult questions she receives, particularly those related to the future or opportunities for refugees to move to the United States or return to school. These well-intentioned lies drain her spirit.
The whole book is underscored by Fitzgerald’s deep-seated worry and uncertainty about how to help. She makes many comparisons to Jewish refugees, measuring Germany’s unconscionable history with racism and refugees with a tenuous, uncertain future. She highlights geographical “in-between spaces” in the memory of World War II and how they’ve changed and transformed, how they reflect or deflect history, and the inherent symbolism of their transformation. She describes Tempelhof, “where the horrors of war are repurposed” from an airport built by Nazis to a public park with community gardens, bird sanctuaries, and the largest refugee shelter in Berlin. She describes Berlin as, “a place where history sits with itself not comfortably but with a soft melancholy hum.” This tone is carried throughout the book.
The art is very strong, with a bold black and white style akin to Charles Burns’s style in Black Hole. Fitzgerald even brings Burns’s work The Hive with her to her comics classes to share with her students. Her art wonderfully conveys very expressive faces, which is crucial in trying to understand the range of emotions of her students, from childish glee to a numbness to tragedies they’ve endured. She also recreates the drawings her students made in classes, mimicking a heavily detailed ship with fine crosshatching and stick figures surrounded by sharks and the police. These contrasting art styles make it feel as if her students are truly a part of the book, rather than an afterthought in her story.
Fitzgerald writes from the frame of memoir and does not claim this book as a work of journalism, describing it as “surreal graphic nonfiction, a collection of illustrated observations, and/or akin to memoir.” As a result, there are occasional details that seem to stray too far from the story at hand—what relevance does taking Ecstasy in a sex club have to teaching comics classes to refugees?—but these details serve to characterize Berlin and give it some modern context, providing a very different set of expectations and reality of the city, and building a sharp contrast to life inside The Bubble.
The memoir framing asserts ownership over the story and an explicit resistance to co-opting, reducing, or exploiting the stories of refugees. Fitzgerald takes care in the way she represents the refugees she has met; she never puts words in their mouths, using only quotations taken from her notes, and gives everyone new names, which serves to both protect privacy and serve as a representation of her subjective experiences with that person. She strives always to depict the people she has met, rather than a homogeneous group. Yet she still acknowledges an uncertainty as to how she fits in to the story—to the historical context of the country, to a frightening potential future, to the stagnant life of The Bubble. The way Fitzgerald entwines her experience of Berlin with what is experienced by her students begs the question: whose story is it? In a meta moment near the end of the book, someone asks her, “But this is your story too, isn’t it?”
In general, I expected less memoir and personal anecdotes from Fitzgerald and more focus on the lives of individual refugees, but perhaps this is a voyeuristic expectation. In her meta moments, Fitzgerald briefly discusses her concerns around exploiting the stories of the people she has met. She seems to mitigate this by drawing historical parallels to WWII Germany, making the story as much about the social and political landscape and Germany’s legacy as much as it is about the refugees who she meets in her work. The past informs the present in an eerie way, from full-on anti-immigrant attacks to typography in popular culture, with Nazi-era Fraktur typefaces creeping back into popularity. This discussion of national history seems to assert an insistence of responsibility. The world promised, “never again,” but we are facing a poorly handled international crisis that questions our respect and regard for human life.
While the book ends on a tentatively hopeful note, it is weighed down by the horrors experienced by refugees in their journeys to safety, and the difficult decision for some to return to where they fled from. Drawn to Berlin doesn’t promise actions, solutions, or moral lessons. It meditates on lives spent in an unending transition, a limbo where your fate is still being decided. It captures a reality most readers won’t have to confront, even in the news, capturing just a brief glimpse of what asylum seekers must endure to try to find peace, safety, and a new sense of home.
Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories From a New Europe By Ali Fitzgerald ISBN: 9781683961321 Fantagraphics, 2018
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Character Traits: Middle Eastern Lesbian, Queer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906. He had a great childhood with a big, wonderful family, a good education, and a strong faith. By 14, Dietrich declared himself a theologian, an aspiration that shaped the rest of his life.
By all accounts, Dietrich was a normal, decent, faithful man.
Then the Nazi party rose to power, his beloved Germany became unrecognizable, and everything changed. Dietrich remained a normal, decent, faithful man—even while planning the assassination of Adolf Hitler.
In John Hendrix’s The Faithful Spy, the life of this little known historical figure is explored with captivating prose and beautiful illustrations.
I had never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before picking up this graphic novel, which probably made the book even better. I didn’t know the fate of Dietrich and I was rooting for him the whole time. Even knowing that the assassination attempts fail didn’t take away from the suspense. I enjoyed following Dietrich through all the events in his life and seeing how one man played a big part in the German resistance during World War II. It shows how much one person can contribute, but also how resistance and revolution is the work of many people working together.
It is obvious that Hendrix did his research and this story is steeped in historical fact. He doesn’t over embellish or put his own opinions into the prose. Instead, Hendrix explains how Hitler came to power, breaking down the politics into an easy to follow and understand story. Everyone knows Hitler and knows about the Holocaust, but Hendrix was able to show what caused these terrible things to happen and how the normal, everyday Germans were blindsided by the atrocities.
Although filled with illustrations, The Faithful Spy is definitely wordier than the average graphic novel. It easily could have been a regular novel and still would have been enthralling. But Hendrix’s art adds so much to the story, even while only utilizing four colors—green, red, black, and white. It’s almost like the doodles on the side of your history class notes, but if you had enormous talent.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life story captured my attention from the start and I loved every page, often taking my time to really study Hendrix’s illustrations. This is a gorgeous book that made me seek out more of John Hendrix’s work (he has several children’s picture books about other historical figures).
The Faithful Spy would make a great addition to World War II lesson plans. We often wonder how someone like Hitler and the Nazis could come to power and do these awful things. We often wonder how the German people didn’t stop him. Well, this book shows how it happened and that there were people trying to do something.
I highly recommend The Faithful Spy. It would be a great addition to libraries for teens and adults.
The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix ISBN: 9781419728389 Abrams, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: 10-14
Graphic memoirs are a great way to relay historical information to audiences who may never pick up a giant prose biography. Renegade: Martin Luther, the Graphic Biography takes a deep dive into the life of Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. While I knew many of the significant facts of his life, this biography covers details that I wasn’t aware of, and thus paints a more complete picture of this significant historical figure.
The first thing one notices is that this is a ‘dark’ graphic novel, both in tone and look. Italian artist Andrea Ciponte uses dark oil paints to show that life 500 years ago was not easy. Author Dacia Palmerino begins the tale with disease, hunger, poverty, leprosy, and executions. Ciponte helps her tell the story with dark tones and blurred lines to convey the feeling of the time. Luther is raised in a devout, religious German family that is strict and punitive. He eventually goes to university and decides upon a life as a monk after a near-death experience involving a lightning strike. As he studies the Bible and finds that scripture diverges quite a bit from what the Church is teaching, he starts to agitate for change. Travelling to Rome and observing the corrupt practice of ‘indulgences’ sets him on a path of revolution. Soon he is posting his “95 Theses” on the door of a church in Wittenburg and initiating the Reformation. Luther goes into hiding, translates the Bible into a common language, gets married, has children and reckons with the forces that his actions unleashed.
While the narrative is linear and straightforward, the artist adds flourishes and fanciful images periodically to convey a message. The devil is often painted when Luther is contemplating evil or temptation. When Luther is feverishly writing, he is depicted walking through halls made of pages and words. Some pictures look like they are out of a Salvador Dali painting or Dante’s Inferno because of their odd shapes and distorted perspective. These images are powerful when they show up because they are used sparingly. The artist also effectively uses color, close ups and various perspectives to move the narrative along. Care is taken to differentiate the look of the historical figures and it’s pretty easy to follow who is doing what, no easy task considering how many important individuals appear in this book. The text is well resourced and uses research to back up the events depicted. This book is quite an achievement.
So who is this written for? The Italian authors are academics and educators. They clearly want people to learn more about Luther, but this is a book for adults, not kids. The dark topics that are covered depict a realism and nuance that some might not appreciate, particularly if they are looking for a sanitized version of Luther’s life. But for those looking for an imaginative yet well researched look at a seminal historical figure, this book will fit the bill.
Renegade: Martin Luther the Graphic Biography by Dacia Palmerino Art by Andrea Ciponte ISBN: 9780874862072 Plough Publishing House, 2017 Publisher Age Rating: T+ (16+)
Seraphin’s mother died in an attempt to study the aether from her hot air balloon, and the potential of this mysterious, invisible, and deadly substance has obsessed Seraphin since. One day, Seraphin’s father, Professor Archibald Dulac, gets a note that the king of Bavaria has recovered his wife’s log book from her last flight, also included in the note is a one-way train ticket to Bavaria. However, at the train station, Professor Dulac and his son are confronted by Prussians and barely escape.
When they arrive in Bavaria, Professor goes straight to work for the king as the lead engineer on the king’s pontoon, a surprisingly solitary spaceship with quarters for the king, an orchestra for him to hear music, and that’s about it. Meanwhile, Seraphin befriends the gamekeeper’s children, Hans and Sophie. The children uncover a Prussian spy who is close to the Bavarian king and wants access to the king’s aether technology. Will the spy get the technology?
What’s spectacular in the artwork is the attention to architecture in all of its forms, from the more mundane, urban train stations of Paris to the fairytale castles of Bavaria. For a book that’s about characters who love technology, its power, and its promise, it makes sense that the columns and archways of the castle occasionally spill out into the gutters of the page. That out-of-panel attention to blueprints and maps not only gives the readers a new way of reading, but it also furthers the plot: when the reader sees a map of Germany’s various kingdoms, it helps explain Prussia’s militarism later in the story. When the reader sees a floor plan of the Bavarian king’s pontoon, the reader can appreciate the king’s desire to be removed from his political life and cast in a fantasy world.
As a whole, though, the love for adventure undermines the story. Seraphin’s obsession with aether and his motivation to discover more about what happened to his mother is developed well at the beginning of the story, but that character line diminishes when the action begins. Hans and Sophie have potential to round Seraphin out and present other complications in his world, but they never develop beyond sidekicks along for the ride.
This richly imagined and mildly historical middle grade adventure will appeal to fans of comics like Compass South by Hope Larson and NewsPrints by Ru Xu. This story was translated from French and will be published in two parts, with the next book to be published by First Second in September 2018. Since the first one ends in a sort of intermission, I would encourage librarians to wait for both volumes to be translated into English before purchasing. However, if you work with a French-speaking population, as I do, you may want to consider purchasing the books in French if that option is available for you.
One final note: with an 11 ¼ X 8 ½ trim size, these books may not fit on some library shelves, as it’s an usual trim size for a children’s comic. You may want to plan accordingly!
Castle in the Stars, vol. 1: The Space Race of 1869 by Alex Alice ISBN: 9781626724938 Macmillan, First Second, 2017 Publisher Age Rating: 10-14