Before opening the cover of the graphic novel, I knew that this was a true story, a memoir that had been originally told in an animated film for the National Film Board of Canada, but I had no other familiarity with the story or the reaction that it would generate within me. I was perplexed when I immediately recognized the setting of the story—I had been at that camp myself, a gift from an unknown sponsor much earlier and, while I distantly recalled much of the camp experience, I had totally forgotten where it was located until I saw the provided map. Memories came flooding back. Like my earlier experience, the author/protagonist was also attending the camp for the first time and, like this reviewer, was more excited about the accessibly of comic books and time to read than anything else!
The camp, in central Alberta, Canada, is located close to the small town of Eckville which, in the 1980s, became notorious because of its anti-Semitic mayor who also was a grade nine teacher in the local school. For several years the teacher, Jim Keegstra, taught his students that the Holocaust was a hoax. This was eventually halted by a parent campaign that resulted in a law case regarding hate and anti-Semitic propaganda. Keegstra was fired, but what was his legacy in the belief systems of those students? “Believing the curriculum was “incomplete,” Keegstra had been teaching Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in his classroom – that Jewish people had an international plot to control the world and were to blame for everything that’s wrong” (17).
To combat Keegstra’s troublesome legacy, the Alberta Jewish communities invited the students taught by Keegstra to the summer camp for a day of basketball and fellowship encouraging cultural understanding. The reader is privy to the initial worries and concerns of Hart and his fellow campers regarding the admission of these students into the camp and their lives. What follows is an illustration of misunderstandings and beliefs…and the natural healing and changing of worldviews through the game of basketball. The illustrations are simple line drawings, mostly in black and white, with spots of bright colors and backgrounds emphatically aiding in the emotional telling of the story. The perspective of the text and the illustrations is that of the children with the colored panels accentuating the outlandish monsters created by their imaginations and lack of knowledge of each other.
In the author’s note at the end of the book he discusses the effect Keegstra’s trial had on him as a grade 6 Jewish student. “Keegstra was successfully convicted of criminally promoting hatred of Jewish people, which was an important test of Canada’s hate speech legislation” (83). Hart continues to explain that the public debate surrounding this trial, although uncomfortable, forced Canadians and others beyond our borders to seriously consider the dangers of racism, the necessity of critical thinking skills, and the personal responsibilities to stand up against hate.
Although the basketball game took place in 1983, the trial in 1985, and Keegstra’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1996, the issues of racism, anti-Semitism, critical thinking, conspiracy theories and the dangers of hatred are not limited to the past.
I was a mother with two young children when the Keegstra Affair came to light. I lived locally and followed the news faithfully but was never aware of this basketball game until now. This is a story that needs to be read and revisited both the in the original filmic version and this newly published graphic novel again and again. The book includes an introduction, follow up to the trial, study questions, and a glossary. It is a concise and accessible entry to the ease of spreading conspiracy theories, fake news, misinformation, and hatred. Highly recommended for school and public libraries.
The Basketball Game By Hart Snider Art by Sean Covernton Firefly, 2022 ISBN: 9780228103912
Publisher Age Rating: 12+ Related media: Movie to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Canadian, Jewish Character Representation: Canadian, 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
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
Iranian Love Stories is a journalistic look at Iranians in their 20s heavily controlled by a conservative regime. Ten vignettes cover individuals and couples, their dreams, fears, and political angst. Jane Deuxard is the pseudonym of two journalists, a man and a woman, who conducted the interviews that make up the script of the graphic novel. They are also a romantic couple, opening the book by talking about the rings they purchased to make them appear married as part of the costume that would allow them to move freely in Iran, along with the woman’s veil and ¾ length coat. Most of the women in the book, including the blonde female journalist, are shown wearing loose headscarves in public in accordance with the local law. Originally published in 2016 in France, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Green Movement of 2009 are discussed by interviewees, but the book predates the political unrest and bloody governmental responses that have occurred in the last 5 years.
The unspoken word in the title is “forbidden.” The writers sought out specific kinds of stories that are outside of the accepted traditional social structure. One of the brief interludes between profiles shows a handful of people the authors try to talk to giving pat answers such as, “I want a good, pious husband. I’d like an interesting job and children… etc., blah blah blah.” While their work mostly likely does reveal concerns felt by a large swath of Iranian youth, the book makes no attempt to give a balanced look at all Iranians. I appreciate that the authors made their goal clear in their approach. The anger in the stories is targeted at the regime; there’s less discussion of Islam in general. It’s not about bashing Islam. Instead, it’s a nuanced look at the different perspectives of a wide variety of men and women with complex ideas about the roles of men, women, and religion in their lives. No LGBTQ subjects are covered.
Many of the interviews reveal details of sex lives and purity tests, others focus on family conflicts and precise dances between obeying and breaking laws. It’s stressed many times that simply discussing all of these matters is not allowed, let alone performing the specific acts. In one astonishing vignette, a woman discovers from the authors’ conversation with her partner that he disagrees completely on their future, where they will live, and what their roles will be. She admits to the journalists that, even though they’ve been together for more than a year, they’re allowed so little time to speak openly that she didn’t know how he thought about these things at all. Throughout there are references to revolutions of the past and frustration with the political system, especially a feeling that future mass actions are not worth the danger. It’s jarring to see the degree to which the government is tied to their romantic lives. The stories vary in length and give their characters depth and development. Between each focused profile is a page or two that places in context some of what the journalists had to do to find subjects and their time together, including a stint of being held and questioned about their motives and cavorting in their hotel room. While they are present in all of the discussions, the journalists focus on their subjects’ stories more than their own.
The art by Deloupy is arresting. With thick lines and a muted color palette, the stories come to life with a dynamism unexpected from largely depicted conversations. He captures a great deal of expression in eyes, mouths, and body language. Backgrounds provide sweeping views from the Isfahan cable cars to stark cemeteries, juxtaposed with claustrophobic interiors. You feel like you’re traveling the country with the journalists. The vignettes each start with the names of the subjects, their ages, and location. The interludes are shown surrounded by a notebook corner, similar to a moleskin, giving the impression of a journal and visually separating the sections. In the stories there are realistic depictions of the lives described as well as political cartoon style flights of fantasy, such as Pez dispenser politicians and arachnid mother-in-laws. The stories unfold in panels without lined borders, often delineated by colored backgrounds or leaving heads and shoulders floating on the page. This adds to the travelogue feel and provides opportunities for a contrasting shock in the moments the images bleed to the edges of the page. The pages are frequently dense with illustration.
This is an excellent addition to any adult nonfiction graphic novel collection. Readers of Marjane Sartrapi and Joe Sacco will especially enjoy it. The subject matter and presence of a few sexually graphic parts make it better suited to adults, though older teens may find it interesting. It could be a deep conversation starter for weighty book clubs and college classes. For a broader comparison of approaches to marriage in Muslim culture, try reading this alongside the bubbly and cartoonish memoir That Can Be Arranged by Huda Fahmy.
Iranian Love Stories By Jane Deuxard Art by Deloupy Graphic Mundi, 2021 ISBN: 9781637790045
Publisher Age Rating: 16+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Character Representation: Iranian
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
SCI: The Jewish Comics Anthology Volume 2 is a treasure trove of 18 science fiction stories adapted from traditional Jewish teachings, legends, folklore, and mythology that started as a Kickstarter project. Several entries in the collection are illustrated prose pieces, but most of them are told in comic book format. The tone, tempo, and color palette are as varied as the diverse authors and illustrators that created new adaptations of the tales for this second anthology of Jewish tales.
In the foreword, editor Steven M. Bergson states that one of the intentions of this volume was to “introduce obscure, offbeat, and bizarre tales when we can.” A secondary objective is to make the collection accessible to readers of all ages. While I agree that the anthology met the first intention, I am not sure that every entry met the second goal. Many of the traditional stories are convoluted and, even with the individual introductory preface for each of the entries, the nuances and storytelling may be too complex for younger readers, even dedicated fans of science fiction. Many of the stories, adapted from the Torah and the Talmud (the compilation of the debates of historical rabbis debating what the Torah means), will be unfamiliar to many non-Jewish readers. This reader was particularly taken with the introductions offering background context and, occasionally, brief editorial commentary on significant aspects of individual items.
Among the many unusual tales, however, are the reworkings of the more familiar stories that will resonate with younger readers, such as “Stone Soup,” a traditional European folktale found in many cultures; “It Could be Worse,” one that the editors label “the crowded house folktale”; and “Something from Nothing.” This latter reworking, written by Trina Robbins and illustrated by Rossi Gifford, is one of my favorite entries. Robbins, the daughter of a tailor and a former tailor herself, breathes a fresh rendition on this timeless Yiddish folktale. The use of the color red for the blanket and it’s recreations garnish attention in the otherwise black and white illustrations for this tale, reminiscent of the use of the color in the 1993 film Schindler’s List. Taking place in the near future, the story reminds us all of the need for historical memory along with hopes for the future.
Several stories are ablaze with neon colors and creative panel layouts while others, such as Robbin’s tale, use color only to highlight significant elements. Many of the characters are identifiable as human while many of them are truly from another universe or time. The illustrative styles differ as much as the stories themselves and complement the stories being told. Included at the end of the stories are five full-page illustrations that are wordless stories in themselves. One that particularly resounded with me was a stunning and hauntingly beautiful retro-future “Golem” by David Mack. Biographies for the creative talent involved in the anthology rounds out the worthy collection.
SCI: The Jewish Comics Anthology Volume 2 By Steven M. Bergson Art by David Mack ISBN: 9780987715289 Alternate History Comics, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: Adult Series Reading Order
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+)
In this collection of stories, which were originally printed in the British children’s comic Eagle, artist Frank Hampson and writer Rev. Marcus Morris share the tale of Christ from his birth in the manger to his crucifixion and resurrection. These comics were originally published in the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s, and the influence of the Silver Age is evident: the artwork is sweeping, almost epic. Unfortunately, too much liberty has been taken with the subject material. For example, Barabbas, the criminal Pilate releases at Passover instead of Jesus, is depicted hiding in Joseph’s home and meeting Jesus even before his birth. Later, he attempts to conscript Jesus to become part of his plan. None of this appears in the Gospels. The dove is notably absent at John’s baptism of Jesus, and the voice of God is never shown speaking to the crowd. Childhood tales of Jesus, purely conjecture, with no basis in scripture, have been added as well. The story of John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament, is also included. He was a boy at the end of Jesus’s ministry and was a witness to his arrest, crucifixion, and burial. Several changes are made to this Gospel account as well, most notably when it is Mark himself, not an angel, that tells the women who come to tend to Christ’s body that he has been resurrected. It is unfortunate that a story told so richly in the artwork is told so poorly and inaccurately when compared to the original texts.
Classic Bible Stories Jesus: The Road of Courage Mark: The Youngest Disciple by Rev. Marcus Morris, Chad Varah Art by Frank Hampson, Joan Porter, Giorgio Bellavitis ISBN: 9781848565258 TItan Books, 2010 Publisher Age Rating: Teens (16+)
Testament is a work I was not expecting to adore for the very simple reason that I’m entirely unaware of most of the stories of the Old Testament. I have virtually no religious background and so even well-known stories are new to me, so I was worried the stories would not resonate with me as they might with another, more familiar reader. First off, I was wrong — the stories are presented in simple language and with outstanding illustrations across the board. The fact that I didn’t know them may have in fact been a bonus — the drama was all new to me — but I’ve compared my reactions with friends who knew more ahead of time and they were equally impressed. The frame for these tales is conversation in a bar with a familiar bartender, but each tale has its own art and style. My only quibble is that many of the stories felt rushed — I wanted more detail, more time to digest each. This title is published by a subsidiary of the American Bible Society, and Testament is refreshingly free of any preachiness — they are presented as stories, not a religious text, nor are they intended to be taken as such. The violence represented, for certainly the old Testament is not full of peaceful stories, is at around a PG-13 level. For anyone looking for a unique and excellently illustrated addition to their collection, check Testament out.
Testament ISBN: 1585167657 by Jim Krueger Metron Press, 2003