New Graphic Novels for Spring

Greetings, all! I’m back from lush and lovely Portland and am still feeling the effects of the stupendous hike I conquered (sort of) in the Columbia River Gorge. Killer views. Tasty, munchy trail mix. A deliciously gooey cinnamon bread-like roll called “Sin Dawg” (yes, really) with seeds and nuts that’s actually healthy. It was sublime.  But I digress. This week I’m still in a “visuals” frame of mind and thought I’d bring you up to speed with a sampling of some of the latest graphic novels published since my last round-up.

Ichiro by Ryan Inzana (Johnny Jihad). The star of this striking graphic novel is Ichiro, a lost and angry boy living in New York City with his Japanese mother after Ichiro’s American father is killed during the Iraq war. As with many immigrants facing poor job prospects and daily prejudices, Ichiro’s mother contemplates moving back to Japan to be closer to her family. As the novel opens, she’s taking Ichiro on a trip to acclimate him to her homeland while she looks for steady work. Once there, Ichiro’s maternal grandfather—then a virtual stranger—takes Ichiro on a tour of old Japan, from Tokyo to Hiroshima to various shrines in the surrounding area, introducing Ichiro not only to Japanese history but to his family’s history as well. Perhaps the most poignant of visits is their walk through Hiroshima’s Peace Park, where Ichiro is shown the other side of war and a city that was destroyed by an American-dropped atomic bomb—a  new perspective for a boy who is used to his paternal grandfather’s racist attitudes and idolizes his father’s pro-war legacy.

Halfway through the novel, however, the pace and structure of Inzana’s story changes. In true comic book fashion, Ichiro is thrust into a fantastical world steeped in ancient Japanese mythology and full of warring gods and epic battles. The parallels between this mythical world and the actual world are a-plenty and the separate illustration styles and color tones indicating the human world and mythical world drive the point home. A stunner both in content and in form. Ages 12+

Explorer edited by Kazu Kibuishi (a.k.a. the brainchild behind the much-loved Amulet series). I love graphic novel anthologies that are unified by a single concept or object (in this case, a mysterious box). Maybe it’s because I stink at drawing, but witnessing ingenious creators (here, seven) interpreting the same idea on the page with completely different—and equally stunning—results is a revelatory experience. Animator and comic artist Emily Carroll imagines a sneaky, faceless spirit-type doppelganger that escapes from inside the box and gleefully gets a young girl in trouble with her mother in “Under the Floorboards.” In “The Escape Option,” Kibuishi ‘s box is a space pod housing dogma-spouting aliens who, after capturing a wandering hiker, try to convince him to save the Earth before it’s destroyed by humans. My favorite, though, is artist Johane Matte’s vibrantly illustrated “Whatzit.” The Whatzit is a rascally Tasmanian Devil-type creature (again, from inside the box) that singlehandedly wreaks havoc on a spaceship’s storeroom, sending planets, unicorns, and zoo animals into complete disarray. The fact that his vocabulary consists of exclamations like NARGL! and HAGL! makes the whole strip even funnier. Ages 9+

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert (I Will Bite You!). Most kids are familiar with the trajectory of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller’s relationship that began when Keller was six years old and Sullivan became her tutor, but that still doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing their story for (probably) the first time in this impressively rendered visual format. In spreads featuring up to 16 panels, readers can witness Keller’s transformation from wild child to eager student, just as they can watch Sullivan’s growth into a confident and loving teacher. But beyond these nuts and bolts, what’s new, here, is Lambert’s portrayal not only of Sullivan’s tempestuous past as a troubled, half-blind orphan who grew up in a state poorhouse before attending the Perkins Institution for the Blind, but also of her innermost thoughts while supervising Keller’s care. The elder teacher’s loneliness, temper, and frustrations come through in letters and journal entries, and, of course, are further brought to life in the increasing lines etched onto her face. What I love the most about this book is Lambert’s treatment of Keller. By illustrating the deaf and blind girl’s mental and emotional progression in black panels populated first by dark blue blobs and shapes, then by lighter blue sign-language, then by words in various colors, then by full sentences, and eventually by people speaking full sentences describing concepts like cold and warm,  readers can literally watch Keller’s mind blossoming. The controversy surrounding whether or not Helen plagiarized a widely published story she “wrote” with Sullivan’s help does feel tacked on—and maybe unnecessary—at the end, but it doesn’t detract from the book’s overall success. Backmatter includes a bibliography and a list of suggested reading materials, as well as a brief section devoted to discussing and explaining specific panels throughout the book. Also available from the Center for Cartoon StudiesHoudini: the Handcuff King (2007), Satchel Paige (2007), Thoreau at Walden (2008), and Amelia Earhart (2010). Ages 12+

To read the rest of this post, please visit Letter Blocks: The B&N Parents and Educators Blog.
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