It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when Marvel superheroes weren’t necessarily everywhere. They couldn’t be streamed directly into your television any time you wanted. Many of these heroes may have already found their way onto lunchboxes and underwear, but the one place kids were guaranteed to find their adventures was on the comics rack. For a few cents from a hard-earned allowance, a kid could catch up on the latest adventures of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. This is the world Patrick McDonnell, creator of the comic strip Mutts, remembers fondly and his book The Super Hero’s Journey clearly shows his love for these heroes.
Doctor Doom has realized another nefarious plot that will bring him closer to his goal of world domination. Superheroes are too busy arguing with each other to stop Doom’s plans; things look dire. Luckily, Uatu the Watcher has decided he must no longer merely watch and must once again interfere (his usual M.O., honestly) in order to set things right, all while creator McDonnell illustrates what these comics truly mean to him and why they have stood the test of time.
This particular work is hard to categorize. If just looking at the overall plot, it seems like a book that could be stuck in a library’s children’s department until a well-meaning parent checks it out for their child to read. However, McDonnell is doing more than just reskinning a story and calling it his own. He’s incorporated biographical information about himself and how as a child he was drawn to these heroes. He’s brought in quotes from deeply spiritual writers like Eckart Tolle and Henry David Thoreau. This book is less a story on defeating Doctor Doom than it is defeating mental and spiritual obstacles that hold humanity back, an idea he claims that Marvel books illustrate. This deceptively simple story is a love letter to the Marvel Universe that also introduces a discussion of what these stories say about the human and superhuman condition.
The panels McDonnell chooses also illustrate that this is more than just another story where superheroes ban together to stop a greater threat (no offense to Thanos and Avengers: End Game). The panels incorporated into this book show his admiration for comic book luminaries like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. McDonnell also inserts his own drawings, which add a surprising humanity to these superhumans. Uatu goes from looking like an omniscient cosmic being to just a Good Samaritan who wants to help the people he’s found stranded on the road.
While this book would be ideal for any adult collection frequented by patrons who love not just the Marvel movies but the Marvel books of yore, it might also be a hard sell for some. Librarians may find they have to contextualize the book, explaining that, although McDonnell might be known for a comic strip with cute animals, this super hero’s journey is quite ambitious.
The Super Hero’s Journey By Patrick McDonnell Abrams, 2023 ISBN: 9781419769108
Publisher Age Rating: Preschool and up NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
“I wondered why I suddenly needed a manual for understanding my friend.”
In But You HaveFriends, Emilia McKenzie uses short anecdotes told in comic format to tell the story of a friendship. After frequent moves as a young child, Emilia struggled to fit in and find friends, until she met C. Their friendship blossomed into a deep connection lasting nearly 20 years, until C’s death by suicide in 2018. This memoir is McKenzie’s attempt to process the friendship, C’s death, and her grief.
Emlia and C (Charlotte) met when avoiding lunch during year 10. This friendship felt different from the beginning. Other relationships felt surface level, but C and Emilia were able to talk about deeper issues in their lives, like their emotions and mental health (even when they didn’t quite have the vocabulary to understand it). It was, “just the two of us against the world.”
Long-lasting friendships evolve over time, especially those with foundations in your adolescence. C and Emlia were separated by distance in uni, and their relationship to each other changed, but not in importance. Though only occasionally together, they still found depth in each other without judgment.
C’s mental health issues became more severe while at uni. Eventually, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. After uni, from Emlia’s perspective, C’s mental health ebbs and flows, with a sharp decline in the few years preceding her death.
The book is not McKenzie’s attempt to share C’s life story or to educate anyone about mental health and suicide. It is about friendship. As C’s mental health deteriorates, Emelia makes every attempt to be there as a friend. However mental health is personal and difficult to understand from an outside perspective.
I, fortunately, have not lost a loved one to suicide, but I have had close friends and loved ones deal with severe mental health episodes. This book resonated with me. Some people who shower love onto friends with ease and no judgment are often those same people struggling to find peace for themselves.
McKenzie’s illustrations are hand-drawn with light purple shading (C’s favorite color). Emotion, emphasis, and even age are depicted through simple lines on the face or in the panel. Even the text is handwritten. It is more reminiscent of a diary than a polished published comic. It mirrors the writing, which focuses more on relationships and the emotional response, rather than a cohesive story. The effect is disarmingly intimate. And despite every attempt to appear professional at my desk at work, I felt tears in my eyes throughout the last half of the book. The story affected me more than I realized it would, and I anticipate many others will feel similarly.
But You Have Friends is a tender exploration of friendship, love, and grief. The book is published for an adult audience. It is from the point of view of an adult looking back at the journey of a friendship, and many adult readers will find resonance or parallels with their own relationships. I will be purchasing it for my high school’s collection, as I think many teens will also appreciate a touching memoir about friendship and mental health.
But You Have Friends By Emilia McKenzie Top Shelf, 2023 ISBN: 9781603095273
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: Borderline Personality Disorder
Charles M. Schulz’s name is as synonymous with comic strips as printer’s ink. His comic strip Peanuts moved beyond newspapers and into books, television, movies, and even products like snow cone machines. Peanuts’ lead character Charlie Brown has never kicked the football held in place by Lucy Van Pelt and that fact has been a consistent metaphor for Charlie Brown’s existence. Though Schulz (or “Sparky” to his friends) had a great deal more professional success as a cartoonist than Charlie Brown received at sports, there are many similarities between the cartoonist and his socially awkward, self-deprecating creation. Artist Luca Debus and writer Francesco Matteuzzi explore the parallels between Sparky and Charlie Brown in the biography Funny Things: A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz, and in a format the icon known as Sparky would appreciate.
Charles “Sparky” Schulz was a boy growing up in Minnesota with lofty aspirations of becoming a cartoonist. Sparky was never an outgoing child, more willing to talk about his drawings than about himself. But he managed to live an interesting life. Even before he created the Peanuts characters, Sparky was a staff sergeant during WWII, active in his church, and an avid hockey player. Thanks to Charlie Brown, Sparky worked in television, traveled the world, and gained a fanbase that continues to grow. However, he still had his “Charlie Brown moments” where he would feel anxious and awkward, whether fretting about his interactions with others or considering the nature of the universe. Even in his final days, Sparky needed to be convinced that he was indeed beloved by his family and by his many fans.
This work is biographical, but its format and its humor keeps it from ever getting dry. The creators tell Schulz’s story using four panel comic strips that tell a continuous story, from his early childhood through his two marriages and from the early beginnings of his singular creation to near the end of his life when a stroke and various health problems forced him into retirement. The scope of Schulz’s life, as presented by Debus and Matteuzzi, is broad but skims over what could be darker moments of the book, such as how Sparky’s infidelity broke up his marriage or how Schulz’s father died suddenly just as his studio burned down. This book might not be for those who prefer their biographies to show a subject’s ugly secrets, but its lighter tone makes it a testament to the subject who inspired it.
The book pays homage to Charles Schulz, and Debus’s artwork does so by referencing the medium that made him famous. Telling Schulz’s story through four panel comics (with occasional larger, full-color comics) is like opening up the comics page of the newspaper. This “funny pages” look extends to the characters that populated Schulz’s life, especially Schulz at different ages, from quietly anxious child to shy, creative adult. The overall book is over four-hundred pages of these panels, but the breaking up of these moments in Schulz’s life into four panel comics, which are quite humorous, keep this biography from being a complete slog. There may be a question of authenticity, as there’s always the question of how much accurate information was sacrificed for the punchline. Nevertheless, it gives the highlights of Schulz’s life and portrays him as very much like Charlie Brown; serious, self-effacing, and surprisingly deep.
Librarians might be tempted to simply put this into their graphic novel collections, but it would be better served in their biography shelves. Even if it’s using pictures and panels to tell its story, its story of Schulz the artist, husband, father, and spiritual man is an enjoyable exploration into what made the man who made Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Funny Things: A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz By Francesco Matteuzzi Art by Luca Debus Top Shelf, 2023 ISBN: 9781603095266
Throughout life, we all undertake the universal journey to explore our identity, a rite of passage that can take on many forms. For Pedro Martín, this journey started with a family road trip to Mexico, one that would uncover his heritage and family secrets as he reconnected with his Mexican American roots in Mexikid: A Graphic Memoir.
From the opening pages, we meet Petro (Peter), the fourth child in a family of nine, who indulges in a carefree world of reading comic books, playing with superhero action figures, and watching episodes of the sitcom tv show Happy Days (his idol is the Fonz). The year is 1977, and one day his family decides to hit the road and embark on a 2000-mile trip from their home in Watsonville, California to Jalisco, Mexico to pick up their Abuelito so he can live with them. They hop into their Winnebago motorhome and launch into their adventure. On this trip, stories are exchanged and the heroic feats of Abuelito running a mule train to bring food to warring sides during the Mexican Revolution era come to life. Lively dialogue interspersed with Spanish fill the pages—supplemented in part by occasional translated footnotes—blending in esoteric facts drawn from family stories, history, and culture.
Unfolding like a travelogue packed with cultural tidbits, this graphic memoir delves into a fascinating foray of one Mexican American family’s history and culture loaded with humor, drama, and charm. At the same time, Martín grapples with his bi-cultural heritage especially since his older siblings tease him about his inauthentic roots, having been born in the US. The text-laden panels burst with tons of cultural richness. From the vibrant musical rhythms of Chun-Ta-Ta to the romancing courtship rituals of Serenata (serenade), Martín piles on nuggets of information that infuse the narrative with intriguing insight. The back matter also features photos of his family, Mexican slang, and other fun facts that led to the crafting of his illustrious memoir.
Vibrant colors of gold and yellow accentuate Martín’s childhood escapades, while soft watercolor palettes with lighter shades signify distant flashback memories. Ben-Day dots reminiscent of pulp comics from the 1950s-1960s highlight Abuelito’s mythic adventures. The artwork and coloring is as robust as the text, capturing a multigenerational panoply of history and culture woven through stories past and present. Covering themes of identity, heritage, history, and family secrets, Mexikid adds to the ever-expansive voices of color in middle grade graphic memoir collections, one that offers a unique opportunity for Mexican Americans to tell their stories and speak their own truth and experiences.
Mexikid A Graphic Memoir By Pedro Martín Dial Books, 2023 ISBN: 9780593462287
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14 NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Mexican-American Character Representation: Mexican-American
“To me fat was intangible- a feeling. And when I felt fat, I always managed to find it. But the doctors showed me that fat wasmore than a feeling, it could be numerically quantified. And the eating disorder doctors showed me that not only can you quantify a feeling, you can personify a disease.Iwas the problem. And weight was the only means by which the doctors could evaluate just how big of a problem I was. As for the rest of my identity… well, there was no rest of my identity.”
One of Hayley Gold’s earliest memories comes from when she was four years old, riding in the car with her father as they left the park. He turned to Gold and told her that her mother was a “fat, miserable person” who had made him “fat and miserable” as well. “She’s so fat and disgusting, no one could ever love her. She’s not even a real woman.” He said “ Don’t you want to be a real woman?…Then don’t be like your mother.”
And as Gold got older, her eating disorder grew alongside her.
Nervosa chronicles the difficulties of growing up with anorexia, as well as Hayley’s personal struggles to “become Somebody” despite the dehumanizing nature of a medical system that often “erases” those it seeks to help.
From measuring urine output in a plastic toilet cover known as a “hat” to the looming fear of Electroconvulsive therapy and “getting the tube,” Gold illustrates the day to day realities and indignities of life in an E.D. (eating disorder) ward.
But it isn’t the weigh-ins or the observed showers that bother Gold most. It’s not even the disgusting dinners of NuBasics (A now discontinued nutritional supplement Gold describes as having “such a high viscosity that I doubt it could even be classified as liquid”)—but the way the other patients around her seem to either define themselves by their disorder, or cease to define themselves entirely.
“It seemed that I could choose between losing my identity to the eating disorder…or getting my identity erased, so that I would be content to chug NuBasics and mystery pills without question. Either one was the same fear, my greatest fear—the fear of being Nobody.”
Gold chafes under the strict regulations of group therapy sessions:““No food talk, no weight talk, no numbers, no discussion of violence, trauma, or self-destructive behaviors. If you need to mention a food, refer to it as ‘item;'” meant to aid in patient recovery by avoiding topics or words that may be ‘triggering.”
It is her intense desire to become Somebody by creating something beautiful that “shows the world [her] Underneath” that sees her through years oscillating between restrictive hospitals and her verbally abusive home.
Gold isn’t the type to pull her punches. She resents institutional efforts sugar-coating her personal experience to make it more palatable for others. Nervosais Gold’s story, full of all the sarcasm, cynicism and gallows humor that got her into trouble at group therapy. She doesn’t feel the need to file down her anger and there is something both refreshing and deeply cathartic in her venom.
Gold’s memories are interspersed with the poems of Emily Dickenson, and parodies of popular magazine games, like Highlights hidden pictures and opportunities for readers to “help Hayley make her way through the maze while steering clear of hazards” like the kitchen or the lab.
Throughout her memoir, Gold makes the deliberate choice not to depict changes in her weight. Her appearance was often treated by those around her to be a correlative indicator of her mental and emotional wellbeing in regards to her eating disorder—something Gold became increasingly frustrated with as it was often incorrect, deceptive and reductive. By obscuring visual markers of weight, Gold forcibly prevents her readers from falling into the same habit. “To tell if I’m ‘sick’ or ‘better’ you will have to listen to my words.” By controlling the image in this way, Gold’s voice is brought to the forefront.
In addition to being an impactful and darkly amusing read, Nervosa answers questions about life with an eating disorder that often go unasked for fear of impropriety. There is quite a bit of harsh language as well as some nudity, though not in a sexual context. Nervosa straddles the line between older teen and adult, and would be a valuable addition to either collection at a public library. That being said, it’s definitely aimed at a more mature crowd, and would not be an ideal fit for middle school or junior high libraries.
Nervosa By Hayley Gold Street Noise Books, 2023 ISBN: 9781951491246
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Eating Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Character Representation: OCD, Eating Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
In Layers: a Memoir, Pénélope Bagieu, the author and illustrator of the Eisner-winning book Brazen, explores the complexities of her youth with grace and wit. As adults, it is often tempting to view our past through a lens of cynicism or jest, especially when recounting embarrassing fumbles or difficult mistakes. However Bagieu cares for her younger self with respect, and in doing so she also respects the mistakes and fumbles of her young readers.
The book opens with the story of a beloved pet cat. The story is told with wit and humor, and some tears. You can’t share stories of childhood pets without tears, but it is a strong opening to a book that explores the complex spectrum of emotions associated with relationships and moments from our youth.
I think the intended teen audience will appreciate the emotional honesty of Bagieu’s work. Some of the memoir focuses on her days as a teen or in high school, but much of it follows her life in and just after university. It explores the awkward growing pains of this time, with a sense of pride for her younger self.
The memoir is split into chapters. They might better be characterized as comic essays, each one exploring a different theme or relationship. The stories are based on diary entries from Bagieu’s youth and range from lighter moments recounting some embarrassing story from her past to darker depths related to sexual assault and broken relationships.
In a few chapters, she illustrates difficult moments from her teen years paralleled against devastatingly similar ones from her life as a young adult. Literally paralleled. The stories from high school on the left side of the page, while the ones from her 20s on the right. It is a poignant choice to connect themes that are recurring elements in the lives of many young women who may read this memoir.
The handling of sexual topics is well done. It is a sex-positive book that does not use sex as a cautionary tale but does accurately portray the ways that young adults must navigate it. In one scene a nurse at a Planned Parenthood gives Bagieu advice on sexual health. In that essay, she notes how eternally grateful she was as a teenager to get clear and honest advice about sex from an adult. At a moment that for many may be filled with shame and embarrassment, she was treated with respect and care. I believe that Bagieu holds the same level of respect and care to her younger readers in the way she discusses sex in the book.
The hand-drawn black and white illustrations are not crisp and clean. The style isn’t dissimilar from her work in Brazen. But unlike in Brazen, she took away the color and added some chaos to the lines. When we look back on the chaotic time in our own lives in the transition from teen to adult, this stylistic choice is incredibly appropriate. Black and white pictures, with harried lines, are also reminiscent of the thoughts (sometimes in words and sometimes through pictures) scribbled into the diaries of young people.
Many adults, when imparting learned wisdom to the younger generation, condescend and/or tell their stories through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and focus on the lessons. However, despite telling stories from 20 years ago, these essays feel fresh and relevant to today’s teens. She does not organize the chapters on passed-on lessons, rather she focuses on honest snippets of her life. The moments of struggle juxtaposed against levity are honest and refreshing.
I think it is a strong choice for collections serving teens, and I think many young people will see themselves in the pages of the book.
Layers was originally published in France in 2021, and has been translated to English by Montana Kane.
Layer A memoir Vol. By Pénélope Bagieu, Montana Kane, , Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250873736
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: French,
Zoe Thorogood received multiple award nominations for It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth, including 2023 Eisner Awards in the Best Graphic Memoir and Best Writer/Artist categories, Forbes’ “The Best Graphic Novels of 2022” list, and she won the 2023 Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award at the Eisner’s. Her art is evocative, engrossing and layered, grabbing readers immediately.
Zoe herself, however, is an entirely different story. She is certainly layered and complex, but she’s also self-conscious, shy, self-described as pathetic and suicidal. It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth is her attempt to record a six month span of her life and try to make sense of how and why she is mental and emotionally in the place she finds herself. A large portion of the story takes place during the Covid-19 lockdown period of 2021 and the sense of isolation many of us experience then is personified by Zoe, who was lonely long before then.
There is a lot of fourth wall breaking as Zoe directly addresses the reader in this book. Very early on she admits that she’s recently had suicidal thoughts, but she’s had them since she was 14 so it is nothing new for her. She is also quick to admit that this book may be an exercise in narcissism or it might help someone else, but it certainly is a selfish act. She’s hoping to bring us along on her journey to America for her first big comic convention she’s been invited to and her hope is the trip itself might be a journey of self-discovery. During the course of the story we’ll meet 14 year old Zoe back in 2013 and see what it was like for her to try and survive in school, watch Zoe meet her best friend in college and have her heart broken in America.
We see Zoe struggle with personal interactions in public with strangers, fans of her work, her parents and at time her friends. She illustrates her depression as a monster that follows her, a giant looming specter waiting just behind her. She illustrates multiple versions of herself and her personality in varying styles so that we can better see how she transitions in and out of comfort and confidence to stress and fear. I’ll point out here that the art in this book is phenomenal and truly aids every facet of the storytelling. There are times it is told in just black and white, other times with splashes of color and some pages are collage with photocopy and photographic elements. I was completely captivated throughout the book.
It is bold for a 22 year old to write a memoir as there is usually not much life experience to draw from, but this book didn’t suffer from a lack of self-awareness there. Zoe explores themes of isolation, self-worth and perception while pointing out to herself how wildly indulgent and vain it is. While it may not have provided a neat, tidy ending where all ends ‘happily-ever-after’, we did see a lot of personal growth from Zoe even as she simply engages with the idea that her younger self would see her current art as successful and fulfilling. She ends the story in a better place than we found her at the beginning saying, “Loneliness makes it hard to see the bigger picture. It makes you self-obsessed; not out of narcissism but because your own self is all you have. Your flaws, quirks, regrets, and mistakes begin to engulf you. Your own self begins to overshadow that bigger picture, but there is always a bigger picture.”
Image Comics rates this book as Mature and I would agree for the sake of placement inside a library. Suicide is already a tough subject to tackle with younger readers, but Zoe depicts (and comments on) her casual drug use and there is profane language sprinkled throughout. I wouldn’t tell older teens not to pick this up, it’s clear why it was nominated for so many awards, but for them especially I would point out Zoe’s disclaimer inside the cover about talk of suicide and her confrontations with it. I hope for her sake it was as cathartic to write as it is to read. Her frankness and honesty was compelling and I found myself rooting for her.
It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth By Zoe Thorogood Image, 2022 ISBN: 9781534323865
Publisher Age Rating: Mature
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Anxiety, Depression
If you and your significant other agree on most things, what happens when one big thing comes up that you disagree on? Is being almost perfect for each other enough to happily continue the relationship despite that one Big Thing?
In Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag, Michael Anthony (author) and Chai Simone (artist) depict a relationship between an omnivore and a vegetarian. Michael, our narrator, is an Iraqi war veteran with body image issues. Michael’s girlfriend, nicknamed Coconut, is a vegetarian who gets more involved in animal rights activism and goes vegan. Michael had to turn off his emotions in order to survive war. “But to do it all-deal with the dead, the dying…the sleepless nights, weeks, months, and to save as many lives as possible, we had to stop caring. We had to let it all go and become autonomic machines. Emotionless. Detached…and yet, after everything I’d seen and been through, Coconut thought some videos would…overwhelm me? Change my entire life? Disgust me into action? Get me to stop eating meat?” (p. 16-19). Coconut’s mother’s past damaging criticisms of Coconut’s body and her own caring, selfless nature inform her backstory. Can their otherwise harmonious relationship survive Michael’s veiled—and Coconut’s overt—conversion attempts? I hoped for a certain outcome, but I’ll let you read the book and find out for yourself what happens.
Simone’s art style is colorful and cartoony. Her characters’ facial expressions and body language convey their many moods, ranging from Coconut’s horror and smugness to Michael’s exasperation and befuddlement. She draws supporting characters with care as well. In one scene where Michael is asking event guests what made them decide to be vegetarian, it’s interesting to see how their faces change when he follows that with “What would get you to eat meat again?” (p. 69). Simone’s lettering makes the book easy to read. Michael’s narration is shown in tan blocks of text, with different lettering styles used for dialogue and for each of the protagonists’ handwritten notes.
This is an interesting, multilayered story, not merely a lecture on the harms of industrial animal agriculture. Although the book explores those harms, each character’s backstory and how their past experiences shape their current predicament is more compelling.
This book is for adult readers due to some graphic illustrations of warfare, slaughterhouse activities, and meat-packing plant scenes. There is also mention of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse among veterans. Any library with an attentive readership of nonfiction graphic novels, either memoirs or food-related books, should consider this title for their collection. Check the recommended reading list on pages 168-169 for further resources on veganism.
Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag: A Memoir By Michael Anthony Art by Chai Simone Street Noise Books, 2022 ISBN: 9781951491192
Author and illustrator, Thien Pham, shares memories of his life framed around particular foods he remembers.
The book starts with a memory from when he was five years old on a small boat in the ocean fleeing Vietnam and encountering pirates. He remembers eating a rice ball his mother saved for him. His next memories come from his time in the refugee camp in Thailand when his mother purchased a banh cuon stall in order to support their family. After finally making it to America, Thien recalls his first American meal, steak and potatoes, as well as the luxury of fresh strawberries and potato chips. Life is hard for Thien’s family but they persevere together, opening their own café then converting it to a video rental store. Thien recalls attending an American school and reuniting with a friend he made at the refugee camp. The last few memories he shares are about the American disposition toward immigrants, especially the loud, angry messages, and his work to become a full American citizen with the support of his friends and family.
Sometimes words aren’t enough to convey all the emotions and meaning you want to share with others. This theme is prevalent throughout Family Style as Thien Pham’ excellent illustrations impart little things like the language barrier (word clouds full of lines and the occasional word that is recognized) or how tired his parents were so often. There were not very many bright colors used. Light seems to be used to show time of day. The muted colors serve to highlight and support the storytelling. Bright colors would have detracted from the serious tone used throughout. Personally, I find graphic memoirs more powerful than just words on a page or in audio form. It can be hard to imagine or picture someone else’s experiences from just words, so the illustrations express both the hardships and trauma as well as the triumphs and joys this family found together while pursuing the American dream.
The endnotes section contains a series of interviews and insights as the author answers some frequently asked questions like what his parents think of how he told the story and what they played with at the refugee camp. Although there are heavy topics introduced and discussed, I would recommend adding this to any graphic novel collection. It brings a perspective to light that not everyone has a chance to encounter in their everyday lives. The author keeps the illustrations pretty PG-13 and does show some violence on the page. The best use of this title would be for a parent to read it with their young ones and have discussions at the end of each memory/chapter.
Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam By Thien Pham Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250809728
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18 NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Vietnamese American Character Representation: Vietnamese American
In an age where computers can create comic panels that saturate the viewer’s eyeballs with color or render scenes that only existed within one’s imagination, a more simplistic art style can be seen as an artist doing the bare minimum of artwork. But that viewpoint completely ignores the story being told. One such example of a story buoyed by its minimalist artwork is Anthony Del Col and Fahmida Azim’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp.
This graphic novel tells the harrowing ordeal of Zumrat Dawut, a mother of three who is arrested and detained by the Chinese government simply for being Muslim. Tortured, beaten, and even sterilized, Dawut’s only recourse is to escape her captivity, and does so with the help of her husband. That escape, however, is hard earned, and readers will accompany Dawut throughout her harrowing time as a prisoner.
Perhaps most harrowing about this particular story is the fact that it’s true. The source material uses testimony Duwat herself gave to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Writer Del Col created a very clear character arc to Duwat’s story, beginning first by exposing her quiet life as a wife and mother before going into her nightmare. Readers are there for every beating, every degradation, every time her hope of someday leaving her cell is dashed. By the time Duwat is free, that freedom feels both well-earned and ephemeral, not sure that she is really safe until the final page is closed.
Azim’s artwork for this story is minimal, mostly in black and white, which makes sense, considering that Duwat is incarcerated. Life in prison is lacking in color and vibrance by design, so as to break a prisoner’s spirit. That lack of color eventually feels like a physical weight for the reader, who is forced to imagine what that experience is like for Duwat. Color only returns when Duwat, along with the reader, is assured of her freedom.
This novel is a great addition for librarians who want to show the capabilities of graphic novels to tell realistic, human stories. It doesn’t take place in space, or in medieval times, nor does it feature hyper-detailed human figures ready to leap off the page. It depicts the action without indulgence, shunning a color-saturated sheen for honest emotion. Patrons who love biographical works and the comic format, while able to appreciate a more serious tone in their stories, will find Duwat and her story worthy of triumphant cheers.
I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp By Anthony Del Col Art by Fahmida Azim Lev Gleason, 2023 ISBN: 9781988247960
Publisher Age Rating: 12 years and up NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) , Character Representation: Chinese, Muslim