Incubators: A graphic history

Even before graphic novels took off, several publishers, notably Lerner and Capstone, featured graphic nonfiction produced in a similar vein to the series nonfiction that most librarians are familiar with. The series nonfiction in graphic format continue to be a staple for nonfiction collections, although there are more literary options, like the Science Comics series.

Lerner’s Graphic Universe imprint produces new series twice a year, in January and August, and they usually pick timely topics. The January 2022 series Medical Breakthroughs is no exception, with titles on vaccines, germs, antibiotics, and more. The particular title we’re looking at today is the history of incubators.

The information is collected briefly in 32 pages with a short framing story showing two White children and a White, male-presenting doctor looking at a miniscule infant in a modern incubator while the doctor explains what incubators are used for. The story then jumps back to the 1870s and the work of two French doctors who. while trying to raise France’s falling birth rates, were inspired by the incubators they saw used with birds’ eggs at the zoo.

The incubators these and other doctors developed were funded by the exhibition of the premature babies, culminating in a semi-permanent exhibit on Coney Island. By the time the exhibit closed in 1943, thousands of babies had been saved and incubators became standard equipment in hospitals. Incubators continued to be improved, with interest and funding reviving after the death of President Kennedy’s premature son and culminating in the invention of a rechargeable and affordable incubator called the Embrace Nest that would be accessible to all people, especially in developing countries. The story ends with a return to the premature infant at the beginning, now a healthy toddler with their older siblings and parents.

The artwork is not memorable, but it is neatly done, with carefully drawn images of the various machines, and people shown in the appropriate period clothing as the story moves through time. All but a few people in the background and some nurses are depicted as White, which is a drawback, as one of the points of Couney’s work (the doctor who established the “Infantorium” at Coney Island) was the acceptance of infants of all backgrounds in sharp contrast to the eugenics movement. Most panels show the doctors and occasional nurses moving through bland scenery and exchanging a few remarks while the narrative is carried on in descriptive paragraphs. The appeal to readers who want the story told primarily through art is limited, since, as in most series nonfiction graphic novels, the narrative is told primarily in prose or through multiple “talking heads.” There is enough detail in the art to show the change in time periods, from the 1870s to 2008, and some additional information is provided through the pictures, like a nurse feeding a premature infant through their nose or the doctors explaining what they are doing to spectators and anxious parents.

One title is listed as a source, and there is also a glossary, index, and brief list of information to explore further.

The length of these titles naturally limits the amount of information that can be included and these titles tend to be brief introductions, which will hopefully engage interest in exploring topics further. Like most series nonfiction, they are available only in paperback or expensive library binding, which can be prohibitive for smaller budgets. If you have to watch your pennies it can be difficult to justify an extensive outlay on nonfiction that may quickly become dated. However, this series primarily covers historical events and so should have a longer shelf-life. With an ever-increasing number of struggling readers as well as graphic novel fans, Medical Breakthroughs should be a solid purchase for most school and public libraries and a good choice to interest young readers in history and science.

Incubators: A Graphic History
By Paige Polinsky
Art by Josep Rural
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2022
ISBN: 9781541581517

Publisher Age Rating: grades 3-6
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Representation: French, German

Sincerely, Harriet

Harriet Flores struggles with boredom and an unrequited crush while learning to manage her chronic illness through a long, hot, 1990s summer in Chicago. She uses her imagination to cope, which sometimes gets her into trouble, as she makes up fantastical fibs and wonders if there are ghosts upstairs. One neighbor, Pearl, encourages Harriet to read and write, leading Harriet to have a breakthrough and discover the power of storytelling.

(Publisher Description)

Sincerely, Harriet
By Sarah W. Searle

ISBN: 9781541545298
Graphic Universe, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)

Our Review

Sincerely, Harriet

The Spy Who Raised Me

Josephine (Josie to her friends) loves her parents, has a great friend in Zoe, and is an average student who struggles with gym class and math anxiety. But her mom takes her on her business trips and her parents care for her, so things are pretty okay. But then, Josie’s mom pulls her out of class one day and she can’t remember the next three hours. Then more things don’t add up. Suddenly, her whole world turns sideways because it turns out she’s a sleeper operative for the company her mom works for! 

The Spy Who Raised Me is exactly as fast-paced and over the top as it sounds; in fact, there’s so much covered that the start feels a little off compared to the rest. We’re introduced to Josie’s so-called normal life and it serves as an important counterpoint to the later story, Although it doesn’t seem to know where it’s going in the beginning, we get one clue that things aren’t what they seem before things start snowballing. There is little time to build that creep factor of normal life not being what it seems. However, the story is funny, action-packed, and has a great example of a supportive friendship. 

The art takes some getting used to, because the entire graphic novel is in the same color palette of shades of red. It’s impressive, because the artist manages to convey different moods using warmer and cooler shades as well as adjusting saturation of the color, but it also makes it hard to always tell what exactly is going on with the lack of other colors. The linework is loose and sometimes like a sketch, which works very well to convey motion and action, but sometimes makes it hard to read facial expressions. What really helps with the sense of motion, too, is the choice to use thick black lines for movement and similar thickness on lettering for sound effects. 

I think what I appreciate most about The Spy Who Raised Me is that this is truly a spy story for teens. It doesn’t feel childish, and it doesn’t feel too adult. I’d feel comfortable recommending this to almost any teen looking for action-based comics. It could fall a little into middle grade too, depending on the reader, since there’s not any gore or sexual content that can push a material into an older age bracket. 

This is definitely a great graphic novel to add to any library’s graphic novel collection. So far, it seems to be a standalone, so there’s no worrying about keeping up with a series, and it feels fulfilling on its own. It fills that niche of a spy/action story that isn’t too mature, like Crowded or the James Bond comics, and doesn’t require knowing a whole character’s world and story like the Grayson run of the Nightwing comics. It’s 175 pages and slightly smaller than average size, but not so much so that it would have trouble showing up on a shelf with larger comics. This could also be a great choice for a young adult book club, with discussions of free will/the control of parents. 

The Spy Who Raised Me
By Ted Anderson
Art by Gianna Meola
Graphic Universe, 2020
ISBN: 9781728412917
Publisher Age Rating: Grades 8-12

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Teen (13-16)

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

Discover the wonders of everyday life with four stories set in Beijing, China. In My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder, Nie Jun explores life through the eyes of a young girl named Yu’er and her grandfather.

Yu’er is disabled, and relies on her grandfather for transportation. She dreams of swimming in the Special Olympics, but the family does not have access to a pool. So her grandfather fashions a harness to a tree that allows Yu’er to practice swimming. The message of the story is if you believe in yourself, anything is possible.

In another story, Yu’er finds some neighborhood kids tormenting a butterfly. She tries to stop them, but they push her to the side. A young boy, Duobao, comes to the rescue. He whisks Yu’er away to what he calls Bug Paradise. Duobao shows her the visual and sensory pleasures that can be found there. From the sounds of crickets chirping, to the buzz of the bee, Yu’er imagines a symphony all around her. The scene captures the marvel and magic that surrounds us, that we are too busy to notice.

Yu’er has rosy cheeks and wears an orange and white cap with a tuft of her bangs hanging out. Her grandfather is a rotund fellow, who is always in a jovial mood. The artwork is done in the style of watercolor. The main colors used are orange, yellow, green, and blue. The courtyard residences that make up the hutong are naturally grey, but the author infuses them with orange and green window trimmings to give it a vibrancy. It makes the images pop out, and you want to absorb every little detail.

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder captures what life is like living in a hutong. These types of structures are normally found in the northern parts of Beijing. A hutong is an alleyway that connects rows of siheyuan. Siheyuans are residences that are built to form squares or rectangles to create a courtyard. These types of spaces began during the Yuan dynasty circa 1271-1368. When initially people think about Beijing, they might think of the Summer Olympics. A visual of huge crowds, historic buildings, and a place where tradition and the present combine. The hutongs as depicted in the graphic novel give us a sense of interconnectedness of the community. By being connected physically, communities become closer and cooperation is necessary for peace and harmony.

I found My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder to be a visual feast for the eyes and like a warm cup of soup for the soul. You can’t help but feel your spirit glowing. The story radiates happiness, and an appreciation for the simple things around us. Children will enjoy the visuals, and the character of Yu’er. The theme of the importance of dreams, and not letting your limitations define you will resonate with the young and old.

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder
by Nie Jun
ISBN: 9781512445909
Graphic Universe, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 7-11

Marco Polo: Dangers and Visions

Marco Tabilio’s dreamy depiction of Marco Polo recording his famous narrative Il Milione, also referred to as The Travels of Marco Polo and The Book of the Marvels of the World, begins with Marco Polo relating his many adventures to fellow prisoner Rustichello while imprisoned in Genoa after the defeat of his fleet. Tabilio’s drawings transport the reader into this absorbing tale of world geography, politics, and the international trading culture of the 13th century. But Marco Polo: Dangers and Visions is not a straightforward travelogue; instead, it is a speculative and occasionally anachronistic illustration of a man and his coming-of-age.

Dangers and Visions doesn’t deviate from or challenge Marco Polo’s historical memoirs. He begins with Polo’s youth, during which he reunites with both his long-absent father and his uncle and joins their expedition to the court of Kublai Khan, and ends with his return to Venice and subsequent capture during a disastrous sea battle against the neighboring republic of Genoa. Marco is curious and tolerant, talented with languages, and favored by powerful rulers. Even so, it’s hard to take Marco at his word: it’s clear from the events depicted that he withholds elements of his story from Rustichello, and Il Milione has a historical reputation as a creative story, not a factual one.

The art is the supporting framework of the story. Many of Marco’s recollections are studded with dreams, nightmares, and bouts of illness, including a memorable episode where, in a transition from youth to adulthood, the skin of his face crumples and sloughs off, revealing an older version of himself. While dense with text in some pages, other sections of Marco’s memories are soundless and nearly blank. Each new destination on Marco’s journey is treated to a stunning and detailed map. These maps are reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts and copperplate engravings from Polo’s era (1254-1324). Monsters twine themselves through oceans and around the borders of the known world, a political map of the Holy Land depicts men at war, and the body of Genghis Khan demarks an almost anatomical division of his kingdom.

The more regimented panel art is also full of content, surprisingly so when you realize how much Tabilio makes use of negative space. Perhaps to offset these details, Marco and other human characters are gestural figures with wide, empty eyes, and unadorned clothing. Tabilio is capable of human depiction—Marco is recognizable no matter what the scale is—but for the most part, people are background noise. The result is a captivating story that requires re-reading to absorb its many layers.

Rustichello remarks that Marco’s tale “makes for a coming-of-age story.” It is, and it’s also a mid-life crisis. Marco is in his mid-40s at the time of this prison-imposed storytelling, and his thirst for travel and more youthful ambition have been quashed by a melancholy love affair, his father’s death, and his catastrophic losses at sea. During his year-long imprisonment, Dangers and Visions implies that Marco is on his last legs (“I can’t die before I finish,” he says, whereupon Rustichello begs the prison doctor to save his protagonist). Never mind that the historical Marco Polo lived another 25 years after his release; it was by all accounts a quiet life. For Tabilio’s Marco, that might have seemed like dying after all.

Graphic Universe recommends this title for readers in high school, though it’s appropriate for a younger audience, if that audience really enjoys fine print. The content is on par with Hergé’s Tintin.

Marco Polo: Dangers and Visions
by Marco Tabilio
ISBN: 9781512411829
Graphic Universe, 2017