The Thud

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

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees profiles a few dozen people in five geographic locations, involving three trips to refugee camps between 2013 and 2017, as well as a few additional interviews. Kugler’s approach to representing the refugee crisis was to interview refugees in order to directly learn more about the situation and their experiences. This dialogue-driven style of storytelling means the book lacks an overarching narrative and functions a bit more like a scrapbook, a collage of different people and the objects that surround them in their everyday lives. This scattered narrative seems to reflect a life in pieces, fragments of a life lived in limbo—waiting for paperwork, not knowing how long you may have to wait in order to be approved to move to your next destination or when you may be approved for resettlement, with the fear of deportation constantly lurking in the background.

Much like a scrapbook, there are a lot of layers to the art. People are often drawn in many positions simultaneously, several arms drawn to represent gesticulations while speaking, an outline of a hand holding coffee while a colored-in version lays crossed against a stomach. Sometimes an element is repeated out of context as an outline, such as someone’s nose floating in front of their face or an eye repeated off to the side. Words and letters occasionally escape the edges of speech bubbles. Notes and annotations crowd the pages, and objects are almost excessively detailed, making you wonder what the purpose is of labeling socks cast aside by a tent or a plastic spoon near refugees sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes. The reader is left lost and seeking direction, searching for a route among the chaos. You must scan the page carefully, worried you might miss a detail. The art works with the storytelling style to encourage a non-linear reading experience engineered to slow the reader down and allow them to spend more time with what is otherwise a fairly short book. Different parts of the page are occasionally numbered in order to guide the reader.

Escaping Wars and Waves brings a perspective to the refugee crisis that many other comics on the subject lack. Many of the interviewees mention missing Syria, whether they are sharing photos of beloved cats or reminiscing about their hometowns. One person aptly says, “For us Europe is not a dream land. It is not paradise… it is not heaven. I prefer Syria. But without the war.” The book dispels myths that readers might hold about refugees. Someone explains that their priority is not to qualify for government benefits, but rather “to get on with our lives.” Because Kugler’s interviews take place over four years in five different regions, the book effectively demonstrates how the reception to refugees has changed over time, from policemen scolding refugees with a simple “try again tomorrow” to an increased militaristic guard. Citizens became more aggressive, charging Syrians more than locals for the same products, and smugglers became even greedier, doubling their fees for questionable transportation options.

It’s unclear if the names given are made up to protect identities, but based on one encounter I’m guessing they’re not. Only one of the encounters is not illustrated, with the subject referred to simply as “The Afghan,” with a note from the author explaining that he did not want to be photographed or recorded. That being said, in his preface, Kugler notes that during several of his trips, women were particularly uncomfortable with being photographed (photographs which were necessary as drawing references), even if he did receive permission to do so. He explains that he felt it was important that their voices were heard and their stories were told, not seeming to recognize the hypocritical and disrespectful nature of not centering refugees’ wishes and comfort.

The book doesn’t have a conclusion, only a fairly lacking one-page postscript that fails to effectively wrap up the book. It’s unclear what kind of tone the author intended for the reader—empathy and understanding without further action? No additional resources are provided or referenced in regards to how to help refugees or take action, aside from a possible low-key recommendation to support Doctors Without Borders. I found this aspect fairly disappointing, especially after reading such impactful stories.

The book’s content is emotionally difficult, but would not be inappropriate for a young adult audience. However, regardless of where it is shelved, collection development is essential in order to ensure that readers have enough context for the work and can find more information about the refugee crisis.

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees
By Olivier Kugler
ISBN: 9780271082240
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

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