The Golem of Venice Beach

A reworking of the 400-year-old Jewish legend of the Golem of Prague is the foundation for this contemporary exploration of life, crime, and death in Venice Beach, California.

Adam, the Golem, now resides in California and has a direct link with the human protagonist Jake, a secular Jew hipster. Jake’s bloodline has been historically protected by the Golem, demonstrated in the graphic novel in two historical vignettes taking place during World War II. This background is further explained through discussions with Jake’s Uncle Steph. Jake’s life, and Adam’s existence, become imperilled when Jake falls for a neighbour with connections to a Santa Muerte cult and drug-dealing gangsters.

The legend of the Golem is born of violence towards Jewish people. In Venice Beach, the violence is not motivated by antisemitism but the death cult of the antagonists as they secure their drug fiefdom. Nevertheless, there are numerous connections in the storyline to Jewish culture, traditions, and history through the agency of Jake’s uncle and the vignettes. Adam may not be regarded as a legendary creature by the citizens of California, but readers have no doubt who he is and has always been although he does not physically resemble his ancient origins of a man made of clay. He is, however, a very large being that locals call “The Giant of Venice” or “El Gigante”.

Contemporary Venice Beach itself is a primary character in this tale, exemplified by Vanessa Cardinali, who provides potent contrasts between the sunny and exuberant day time scenes and the dramatic noir scenes at night. The original script for the storyline, written by Chanan Beizer, won the inaugural ScreenCraft Cinematic Book contest in 2018 before being offered as a Kickstarter project. Vanessa Cardinali is the lead artist with a variety of others illustrating the balance of the story.  Bill Sienkiewicz created the striking cover as well as the uncompromising prologue depicting the origin of the Golem. Jae Lee was responsible for the World War II flashbacks, Paul Pope for the Golem’s interface with two teens, Michel Allred for the map of Venice Beach, Nick Pitarra for his double-page spread of the neighbourhood, and Stephen R. Bissette’s horror dream sequence. All the artists, colourists, and letterers are identified and celebrated within the graphic novel. The different styles and use of colour add to the enchantment of the book and the understanding of the time sequences of the story. The major disappointment was that the story-arc is divided into two volumes. This first one ends in a cliff-hanger that requires patience for readers in the resolving of the tale. I had not realized this when I first dove into the novel although the number 1 is visible on the spine but not the cover.

I therefore am recommending it with reservations. I am unable to pronounce the ending as satisfactory until the second volume is published. The story is extremely violent and includes images of sexual congress and horror but is fascinating at the same time. I am looking forward to finding out where the storyline will take me and the Golem. I will admit that I have a fascination with the Golem and have visited Prague and the supposed place of the creation of the clay creature and so may be successfully drawn into this world because of that. I may have been drawn into it because it is well told and effectively and thoughtfully illustrated and packaged. Or, as I highly suspect, for both reasons.

The Golem of Venice Beach, Vol. 1
By Chanan Beizer
Art by  Vanessa Cardinali, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jae Lee,
Clover Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781951038601

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: Jewish

Let There Be Light: The REal Story of Her Creation

What if the God of the Hebrew Bible was a woman? In Let There Be Light, Liana Finck’s playful Jewish humanist retelling of the Book of Genesis, this question isn’t simply a thought experiment. It isn’t even a ploy to swap out the mercurial God of Genesis for a more enlightened model. Finck just wants you to know that her God is a woman, floating above us with a crown and a fairy godmother wand, a woman who is quick to anger and has some attachment issues, but is mostly doing the best that she can.

Genesis lends itself to adaptation, as even the most Bible-illiterate among us are likely to have passing familiarity with its stories: the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, Joseph of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. These are origin stories meant to orient us to our place in the world and our responsibilities to one another and their meanings shift depending on the reader. In Finck’s hands, they form a narrative about relationships: resentful spouses, jealous siblings, and an emotionally insecure God who can’t seem to figure out what she wants from her chosen people.

Examining the human element in these ancient stories, Let There Be Light remixes its source material in funny, startling ways. The book is structured in three parts: “Past,” which is vaguely set in what we might call Bible Times, “Present,” in which a modern-day Abraham fulfills his covenant with God not in the Promised Land of Canaan, but as an art student in a sort of Promised City, and “Future,” a science fantasy that unexpectedly imagines Joseph’s Egypt as an underwater kingdom peopled by merfolk (perhaps poking fun at the exoticization of Egypt in contemporary and ancient depictions—but also, why not merfolk?)

The artwork in Let There Be Light has a spareness that recalls Tom Gauld’s graphic novels. Despite its simplicity, it’s perfectly pitched to carry the story’s tonal leaps. At one moment, we’re treated to visual gags designed to make readers cackle (wait until you get to the “Begatting” section, which lampoons the erasure of women from Bible lineages by depicting babies sprouting from patriarchs in the manner of Athena from the head of Zeus). Yet the next moment, Finck starkly renders a story like the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham is spared at the last minute from sacrificing his beloved son. Against the grayscale line art, the color red is used to link images of desire or destruction—reminding the reader that we are all connected by blood, in more ways than one.

In the afterword, the author acknowledges she’s dodged some of the most difficult stories in Genesis. We don’t read of the rape of Joseph’s sister Dinah, nor do we witness the forced enlistment of enslaved women Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah into the Abrahamic lineage. While this book is deeply concerned with gender, it doesn’t wholly reckon with the ways in which female characters in the Torah are treated like property instead of people. Finck explains that she didn’t want to make these women’s stories feel like an afterthought in a narrative that might not do them justice. I did feel these omissions in the text, but I can understand her reasoning.

By the end of this book, the tricky God-human relationship has become less histrionic and more sustainable, and Abraham’s desperate striving has given way to Joseph’s triumphant thriving. Finck leaves us with a lesson plucked from the Jewish diaspora, voiced by a God that’s mellowed out over the millennia: “What’s most important is that you stay alive, and stay together.” For readers open to reading the Bible as literature, whatever their faith background, Let There Be Light brings exuberant new life to this very old book.

Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation
By Liana Finck
Penguin Random House, 2022
ISBN: 9781984801531

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: Jewish

The Unfinished Corner

Middle schooler Miriam Feigenbaum is about to be an adult. Well, in the Jewish tradition, that is. Her Bat Mitzvah is quickly approaching, so she’s got a lot on her plate: practicing her Torah portion, attempting not to roll her eyes too hard at her Dad’s terrible jokes, party planning, and, oh yeah, getting sent on a surprise journey to finish the mythical Unfinished Corner—the one section that was left undone when the world was created, where it’s said everything evil and monstrous hides. Just completely regular things for a 12-year-old who isn’t even sure how she feels about being Jewish, right?

What was supposed to be a field trip for winners of the school art contest is suddenly the adventure of a lifetime for Miriam, her two best friends Avi and David, and their classmate/frenemy Judith, complete with shapeshifting buses, fantastical creatures, and a rabbi who might just be something more. As the intrepid tweens make their way across this mystical and mysterious land in search of the Unfinished Corner, they’ll find themselves delving deeper than ever into Jewish traditions, mythology, history, and lore, and maybe, just maybe, starting to figure out what being Jewish means to them. And if they’re lucky, Miriam might help them save the universe while they’re at it.

There has been an uptick of late in middle grade novels centering the mythology of historically underrepresented cultures, and The Unfinished Corner fits right in, with the graphic novel format making it even more accessible. Part coming of age story and part adventure yarn, author Dani Colman seamlessly weaves those aspects together with stories from the Jewish tradition that many readers may not be familiar with. Through conversations between our main four characters, as well as from folks they meet along their trek, stories and religious customs are explained in a way that feels casual and conversational; natural and not didactic, even when asterisks are employed to translate Hebrew terminology and phrases. 

As a non-Jewish reviewer, I cannot speak about the representation the book provides in the same way that a Jewish reviewer would be able to. I can, however, say that Dani Colman is a Jewish author, and lends at least her own lived experience to the voices of Miriam, Judith, Avi, David, and the cultural nuances they express throughout the book as they learn and grow together. So much Jewish literature for youth is focused on one specific period of history. It is incredibly refreshing to see instead a story where our main characters are just regular kids dealing with generic tween things like trying to figure out whether or not to wear makeup, drawing cool maps for role playing games, taking up a martial art to deal with bullies, and the way friendships grow and change, especially when you’re maybe hiding a pretty big secret. All while on an epic adventure, of course!

As always, when it comes to graphic novels, the stories would be mere shadows of themselves without the talented illustrators who bring the characters to life on the page. Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz’s art style feels like watching an animated TV show or film; perfect for the wide range of events throughout the book, from action-packed demon fight scenes to the moments of goofiness, exaggerated expressions, and humor, and the quieter moments of deep frustration and generational anguish. Each character has a vivid, bright personality, and the diversity of backgrounds is made clear as well (Miriam and Avi are white, David seems to be coded as Black and possibly Iranian as well, given that he mentions speaking Farsi, and Judith seems to be coded as Latine and speaks Spanish). It’s an important visual reminder that there is not one specific way to be Jewish.

A recommended purchase for any library, The Unfinished Corner fills a much-needed gap in Jewish youth literature and is an at turns informative, funny, moving, and exciting graphic novel that will appeal to middle grade readers who are fans of friendship stories and anything under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint.

The Unfinished Corner 
By Dani Colman
Art by Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz
Vault, 2021
ISBN: 9781638490111

Publisher Age Rating: 8-13

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: Jewish

Squad

In her new home of Piedmont, Becca yearns for what every high schooler desires: a place to fit in and a squad to call her own. Much to her surprise, the most popular clique in school immediately accepts her into their fold, bonding over shopping trips, gossip, and… bloodlust? On a full moon’s night, Arianna, Amanda, and Marley reveal their secret: they are werewolves, preying on skeevy boys who target unsuspecting girls at parties, and they want her to join the pack. Filled with a need for acceptance, Becca embraces the transformation, feeling a kind of strength she never had before. But with this power comes a dangerous hunger that rattles her to her core and tests her morals. Tensions only flare higher as longstanding rules are broken, authority in the pack is questioned, and one wrong kill threatens to expose them all. In this fast-paced, strikingly illustrated graphic novel, Squad perfectly balances its elements of drama and horror, though unfortunately does not live up to the full potential of its story.

Personal tidbit about me, I love werewolves, they’re my favorite monster, star in my favorite horror films, and can be abundantly diverse in terms of storytelling and design. I also love the girl gang trope found in films like Heathers and The Craft, which this comic utilizes perfectly, as I found so many parallels between this comic and the latter film. Naturally, I was excited to dive into a story about a pack of female werewolves taking a bite out of the patriarchy in a way only werewolves can, but was ultimately disappointed once I reached the final page.

Most of my issues with this comic comes from its story and how certain elements do not receive any development that would have made it more memorable. The themes of Squad, such as finding community, reclaiming agency and control from potential aggressors, and challenging oppression towards women are all there, but become muddled due to its fast pace and short page length. Standing at around two hundred pages, this does not give Squad the time it deserves to properly flesh out its message, characters, or lore and, as a result, its impact is compromised significantly. Though the comic strives to highlight female empowerment, the internalized misogyny shown by the main characters, exhibited through fatphobic remarks and moments of victim blaming, is seldom addressed or even combated. There are also several microaggressions committed against Becca, who is Asian, that receive the same treatment, which is odd considering they mainly come from her eventual love interest. Seeing this, I was waiting to see how the climax would handle these moments, if they were to serve some purpose for a more nuanced message about feminism or the effects of, as Ms. Norbury so eloquently put it in Mean Girls, “girl on girl crime.” Unfortunately, those scenes just sit within the story, unanswered for.

Some of the characters and their dynamics almost exist as afterthoughts, appearing through the uneven character development of our main cast, or the tacked-on romantic relationship between Becca and Marley that begins nearly fifty pages before the end of the comic. While it is always wonderful to see more LGBTQ+ representation in young adult graphic novels, it still needs to be quality representation that has enough time and focus devoted to make it truly resonating. What is truly disappointing about Squad is that its lacking elements could have worked, if only given a little more time to breathe, develop, and not feel so constrained by its own page length.

The saving grace of the comic would definitely be Lisa Sterle’s illustrations, which evoke an engaging atmosphere that revels in the story’s horror aspects. In the more suburban scenes, the colors are flatter, more evenly toned to match the domestic setting, but, in moments of high emotion or violence, Sterle incorporates a startling scarlet red, making these scenes stand out in a perfectly visceral way. The character designs are memorable, giving off a more modern Archie Comics vibe while having their own identity. Sterle deciding to give the squad’s wolf forms a leaner, more emaciated look is a good touch, tying in nicely with their insatiable appetites, though having them all mostly be different shades of brown makes it difficult to tell who is who at times.

Fans of series like Riverdale, Teen Wolf, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina will appreciate the dramatic and horror elements of the story, and for teen readers there is the additional appeal of connecting with a high school setting and the social issues brought up in the story. As Squad has multiple instances of gore and violence, along with one moment of near sexual assault, I would agree with the publisher-given age rating of 14 and up. While I would not recommend this comic as a must have for a collection, it may interest librarians and educators looking to include titles that share the appeal of the previously mentioned series or have a high circulation of female-centered, character-driven stories.

Squad
By Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Art by  Lisa Sterle
Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2021
ISBN: 9780062943149

Publisher Age Rating: 14+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Japanese-American, Bisexual, Jewish
Character Representation: Black, Japanese-American, Lesbian

Free Speech Handbook (World Citizen Handbook Series)

This book opens with the free speech portion of the first amendment from the US Constitution, followed by writer Ian Rosenberg, who is Jewish, explaining the events that led to this book. Several events are referenced within the first three pages, including the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, National School Walkout protests, 2017 Women’s March, and Mollie Steimer’s arrival at Ellis Island from Russia in 1913. Steimer’s foundational court battles lead into a key consideration: “Who is truly heard in the marketplace [of ideas]? If women, minorities, and the poor are not granted equal opportunity to enter the market, how can their voices participate in the competition for truth?” This question is immediately followed by talking-head quotes from law professors Charles Lawrence III, who is black, and Catharine A. MacKinnon, who is white.

The second chapter looks at Colin Kaepernick and the act of taking a knee (originally staying seated, but changed to kneeling as a sign of respect to fallen soldiers, an oft-overlooked nuance I was glad to see highlighted). After comparing reactions for and against that act of protest, the narrative shifts to the 1935 case of a child not participating in his classroom’s pledge of allegiance. There, as in Steimer’s case and many others used in this book, Rosenberg quotes and contextualizes judges’ rulings, their immediate fallout, and what they mean for Americans’ freedoms today. In each chapter, Rosenberg cites different scholars, justices, authors, and legal precedents, ensuring that his teacherly perspective is never unilateral or unsupported by facts and expertise. This is important when debunking Donald Trump and Clarence Thomas’s hypothetical rewriting of libel laws to go after the media, for example. Further issues include but are not limited to civil rights protests, propaganda on social media, Westboro Baptist Church’s protesting at funerals, and the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. There’s a lot to chew on in every chapter!

All of this history and legal analysis needs a skilled cartoonist to weave its various threads into a cohesive whole, and artist Mike Cavallaro is mostly up to the task. There can be paragraphs of dry text on some pages, and Cavallaro makes sure to break up each block of text with a related image, often a picture of someone in portrait. Layouts will include images designed to guide readers across the page; other times, they use broad, straightforward grids. Some metaphorical imagery underlines Rosenberg’s points, but more often than not the art is rather literal, depicting flatly delivered quotes, exposition, talking heads, and book covers. The first amendment appears as an anthropomorphic #1 wearing a red cape, battling laws aimed at restricting it. I can’t help but think back to my previous review of What Unites Us, which used color and figurative imagery more frequently and effectively. That’s not a knock against the arguments presented in this book, only its presentation.

An afterword including quick summaries of first amendment concepts, as well as a glossary of legal terms and chapter-by-chapter bibliography, provide resources for learning and recall. As one might expect in a thorough review of free speech, some of the book’s examples involve swearing, from celebrities cursing at awards shows to George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television” bit, Samantha Bee’s callout of Ivanka Trump over immigration policy in 2018, and “fuck the draft” printed on a jacket during the Vietnam War. A section about Larry Flynt’s legal battles over Hustler, a pornographic magazine, does not include porn. The issues discussed in this book are undeniably pertinent to all Americans, as well as historians and legal scholars. To make another comparison to What Unites Us, this is another powerful teaching tool from the World Citizen Comics line of publisher First Second that demonstrates over and over the impact of people standing up for their rights, even (especially!) if doing so is unpopular. The presentation is scholarly, as well it should be. Close reading and factual analysis should be considered signs of respect for “the most American of virtues.”

Free Speech Handbook
By Ian Rosenberg
Art by  Mike Cavallaro
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250619754

Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: African-American, Russian, Mobility Impairment, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Protestant ,

Adler

The year is 1902 and nurse Jane Eyre is newly returned to London from the Boer War. After facing the horrors of combat in South Africa as a combat medic, Jane is having a hard time readjusting to civilian life, particularly regarding how society seems to think proper ladies should act. After years of having to do the work of a doctor in places where there was none, it is rough to be told you cannot do such things by men who have not seen what you have. Thankfully, Jane finds a sympathetic ear and kindred spirit in the Lady Estella Havisham, who helps Jane with another problem she is having – finding a suitable roommate.

Enter Irene Adler; an American and an actress, who is also in need of someone to help her pay the rent. Given Victorian London’s opinion of Americans and theatrical types, Jane is certain she and Irene will get along like a house on fire even before they meet. However, Irene is far more than a simple actress, living a double life that places her at war with both the respectable and unrespectable elements of society. Soon Jane finds herself drawn into Irene’s world and a conflict beyond imagining, as a foreign queen declares war on the British Empire for what they did to her nation and seeks the advanced science of Marie Curie to unleash a power undreamed of upon the world!

It is impossible to consider Adler without thinking of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (Indeed, the advertising for Adler described it as “The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen.”) While this is an easy comparison to make, it is also an unfair one, despite both series having the same base concept of taking characters from Victorian literature and putting them into a story together. While Moore’s central conceit was to devolve the superhero genre to its penny dreadful roots and tell a Victorian superhero story, Adler’s tale is closer in tone to the pulp fiction and weird science stories that dominated popular fiction in the early 20th century.

Adler also has a stronger focus on its characters, with Jane Eyre becoming the Dr. Watson to Irene Adler’s Sherlock Holmes, but getting a bit more to do than offer Irene someone to talk to when exposition needs to be delivered. Lavie Tidhar’s focus on the characters and commitment to adding complexity to their motivations is such that one even feels a certain degree of sympathy for the villain Ayesha (aka the Amazon queen from H. Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure), who shows surprising nobility by freeing the captive performers of a freak show while in the middle of plotting to kill thousands of innocents. There are also hints of a romance between Ayesha and her chief assassin, the vampire Carmilla.

The artwork by Paul McCaffrey proves equally well-crafted. The many action sequences of the story are well-choreographed and flow freely and smoothly from panel to panel, guiding the reader along. The character designs are also worthy of note, as McCaffery makes all the characters look distinctive so there is no chance of confusing any of the cast.

Adler Vol 1 is aimed at audiences 12 and up and I consider that to be a fair rating. There is a bit of bloodshed, with realistic depictions of garroting, radiation poisoning and bullet wounds, but nothing inappropriate to a T-rated graphic novel. Many of the literary references may fly over the heads of the intended audience, but adults will find a lot to enjoy in Adler beyond picking out the nods to characters from The Prisoner of Zenda and The Amateur Cracksman.


Adler Vol. 01
By Lavie Tidhar
Art by  Paul McCaffrey
Titan Comics, 2021
ISBN:9781782760719

Publisher Age Rating:  12+ Only

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Israeli, Jewish
Character Representation: American, British, Central African, Lesbian,

Red Rock Baby Candy

Shira Spector weaves a dreamlike graphic memoir from ink, watercolor, and mixed media collage. In its nonlinear timeline the story details, among other things, Spector’s pubescent sexual awakening, her miscarriage and struggle with infertility, and her father’s decline in health and ultimate demise due to a brain tumor. The first death that shapes Spector is her Bubbie’s—a story that is interspersed with lyrics from the children’s clapping song “Down Down Baby.” One page features: “Gramma, Gramma, sick in bed. Called the doctor, and the doctor said…” when a parent interjects with the news: “Bubbie is dead.” The story jumps to a portrayal of a country/folk artist singing the book’s titular song, a “queer infertility anthem” about the magical Red Rock Baby Candy Mountain, where babies grow on bushes and are naturally well-behaved. This quick leap from trauma to comedy is par for the course in this big, beautiful, messy book.

It’s often difficult to glean the story from the art, since many pages feature poetic words splayed out across images rather than a clear explanation of what happens next. These pages are emotionally resonant and evocative; it’s possible Spector intended to give readers the opportunity to feel what it’s like to experience these things, rather than detail the minutiae of her own story. The early pages of the book are all in black-and-white pen drawings with hatched shading and occasional grey ink washes for additional shades. Spector adds pink as an initial spot color, mostly for lipstick, flowers, veins, and blood vessels, the latter two of which remind me of the external hearts and snipped arteries in Frida Kahlo’s painting The Two Fridas. Gradually, a second spot color is introduced – blue, such that the pink and blue juxtapose and seem to poke fun at the binary of genders assigned to babies before they are equipped to understand their own identities. Once the story turns to miscarriage and infertility, Spector brings in paper collage. Most of these images appear to be cut from vintage Betty Crocker cookbooks, with layers of ornately-decorated cake, hard-boiled eggs, and sliced ham forming Spector’s own miscarrying body. It’s visceral and truly unlike anything I’ve seen in a book; I could see many pages from this book featured as stand-alone pieces in a feminist art gallery.

When Spector finally has a kid, the book shifts to a realm of full color illustrations, where it remains as it delves into a history of her childhood sexual experiences (including a scene many people—myself included—can relate to, in which she discusses masturbating to Judy Blume’s seminal book Forever) and her gradual realization that she’s a lesbian. One page stands out among the psychedelic illustrations due to its computer font paragraphs and its title across the top: “On My First Fingering.” This page details a sexual assault that turns into an ad for Sexy Baby Time perfume (likely a reference to Love’s Baby Soft perfume), which girls should purchase because “Boys like the way babies smell. Brand new and vulnerable…So delicious they want to ruin them.” This is not an easy book to read.

I could go on about the fertility doctors who say Spector was having trouble getting pregnant because “it wasn’t the natural way,” or how she proposed marriage because she “secretly…hoped getting married would bring my stubbornly dead dad back,” but instead I will say this is a strange book filled with a mix of straightforward and stream of consciousness writing, as well as a blend of realistic drawing and abstract lumps. Like Lynda Barry’s work, it strikes that delicate balance between a childlike perspective and a very, very adult one. Also like Lynda Barry’s work, and like Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, most pages of this book feel like they were quickly sketched in a notebook hidden in a high school desk from the teacher’s prying eyes. It’s powerful and different and addresses plenty of important topics in a moving and thought-provoking way. I would recommend this book for most adult graphic memoir collections.


Red Rock Baby Candy
By Shira Spector
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964049

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Lesbian, Jewish
Character Representation: Lesbian, Jewish

Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story

In this moving narrative about his father’s experiences in escaping Nazi-occupied Belgium to his eventual safe arrival in Canada, Cary Fagan effectively and efficiently offers contemporary young readers with relatable background information about this historical era.

Fagan’s introduction to Maurice Fej­gen­baum begins abruptly; the reader is thrown immediately into the apprehension, chaos, and confusion experienced by the fourteen-year-old protagonist and his Jewish family as they frantically pack their belongings to flee persecution in Brussels. Along with the approaching lack of freedom, Maurice, who changed his surname to Fagan when he immigrated to Canada, articulates the everyday losses that the family is experiencing as they are displaced from their community. The family travels by train to Paris, Spain, and Portugal to finally escape to an internment camp in Jamaica, where there is little independence. Fortunately for Maurice, he finds a great deal of family and community support, along with some camp administration assistance. This support gives Maurice an informal but valuable education and the ability to obtain a second-hand English language dictionary, which becomes both his English language teacher and his talisman in his successful journey to becoming a lawyer at the University of Toronto in Canada.

It is Maurice’s thirst for knowledge and the strength of his family support that creates a foundation of hope against the ravages of war and antisemitism. His informal education does him in good stead as he applies to the local high school, Jamaica College. “I have learned the smallest act of kindness can make a huge difference” (41). This lesson is exemplified throughout the graphic novel, adversity is faced and overcome with the aid and kindness of those Maurice and his family meet in their struggle for autonomy.

The book as an object is deceptive as it appears to be a picture book intended for younger readers. However, opening the covers immediately dispenses with that assumption. The sepia illustrations and the panel layout illuminate the perils the family faces leaving their home, crossing Europe, and the tossing seas that accompany their voyage to Jamaica. As with the text, the illustrations offer lightness and hope within the borders of the horrifying wartime experiences while at the same time being authentic portrayals of them. The dangers and horrors the refugees experience during wartime are not sugar coated by either the text or the illustrations. The color palate used by Mariano contrasts the sombre colors of war with orange backgrounds that illuminate the memories, and future plans held by the individual members of the family. The facial expressions, especially the mouths, of all the characters add to the immediacy and emotions of the moment and effectively enhance the engagement of the reader.

The supplementary Author’s Note comprises additional his­tor­i­cal background, pho­tographs of the family and the ship, and doc­u­ments of the Fagan family. It includes the poignant photograph of the mended, faded red dictionary now residing on the author’s own desk. It also delineates the loss of the rest of the extended family in the Holocaust. The dictionary of the title, while not a major focus of the story, plays an invaluable role in this tale, cementing the past with the present by demonstrating Maurice’s perseverance and hopefulness and witnessing the strong familial connection of the author to his father’s story.

Fagan’s family story of survival and persistence continues to be relevant in today’s time of turmoil, unrest, and continued and renewed antisemitism and is highly recommend for elementary school and public library collections.


Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story
By Cary Fagan
Art by Enzo Lord Mariano
Owl Kids Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781771473231
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Jewish
Character Representation: Canadian, Jewish