This is the year of March: Book Three. The third volume in Congressman John Lewis’s graphic memoir of the civil rights movement, coauthored by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, is the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award and is making all of the best-of-the-year lists. And deservedly so.
All three volumes in the “March” trilogy are great reads for teens. The titles show what life was like in the Jim Crow South and how a determined group of activists mobilized to change the world. While history can sometimes seem like a string of almost inevitable events, the “March” titles make clear that nothing was inevitable in the civil rights movement, and the authors vividly depict not just the passion of the organizers, but also their planning and preparation. In addition, March: Book Three is simply a dramatic story.
The “March” trilogy is truly one of a kind, but the graphic medium in general has great power to convey information, bring the reader into the center of the action, and breathe life into the dry facts of history. Here’s a roundup of recent and upcoming graphic novels that bring history and current events to life in a similar way, by telling important stories through the eyes of real people.
BAGIEU, Pénélope. California Dreamin’: Cass Elliott Before the Mamas and the Papas. 272p. First Second. Mar. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781626725461
Gr 10 Up–Bagieu’s biography of singer Cass Elliott takes its title from her most iconic song. Elliott was the lead singer in the 1960s vocal group The Mamas and the Papas, but this story shows what led up to that stardom: Elliott’s childhood in a family of Jewish deli entrepreneurs in Baltimore, her irrepressible high school personality, and her early career as a musician. Elliott performed in an ever-changing series of bands before finally joining the group that would become The Mamas and the Papas, against the wishes of songwriter John Phillips. Woven throughout the story is the issue of Elliott’s weight: Bagieu portrays her as a skinny kid who started eating more to please her family, and an overweight teenager and adult who was comfortable with her body, even though she lost some opportunities because of it. Bagieu has a loose, curvy style that works well with the subject matter; as a child, Elliott has an impish quality reminiscent of Hilary Knight’s Eloise, and as a woman, she carries her body with grace. True to its period, the book includes many scenes of drug use (marijuana and LSD), and there is some talk of sexual situations but no explicit depictions.
BROWN, Box. Tetris: The Games People Play. 256p. First Second. Oct. 2016. pap. $19.99. ISBN 9781626723153.
Gr 9 Up–Brown’s history of the video game Tetris is also a history of games in general, as well as the complicated story of the pioneering video game itself. He shows the creation of Tetris as a side project, basically for fun, by Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov. The addictive game spread via shareware throughout Moscow and then to Hungary, where it caught the eye of Robert Stein of Andromeda Software, who wanted to market it. The story gets more tangled from there, with several businessmen wrangling over the rights and Alexey sitting back in his office, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, unaware of most of what was going on. Brown takes some interesting side trips into the psychology of games and the history of gaming, particularly the origins of Nintendo’s Game Boy and Donkey Kong. His simple, blocky style is appropriate to the subject matter, and he takes pains to make the story less confusing by introducing characters one at a time and occasionally using diagrams and flow charts to make his points.
GLIDDEN, Sarah. Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. 304p. Drawn & Quarterly. Oct. 2016. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781770462557.
Gr 10 Up–Glidden’s story of traveling through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq with a team of freelance journalists is a fascinating piece of reporting on both the situation of refugees in those countries and on journalism itself. Glidden shows us the journalists conducting interviews, as well as finding contacts, setting up stories, and discussing how to frame and market their work. Also traveling with the team is Dan, a friend of the journalists who is a veteran of the Iraq War, and much of the story revolves around his reflections and the ethical problems that come with including a personal friend in news reporting. Glidden’s simple drawing style brings the different settings to life with just a few details, and her art is easy to follow. While the situation in the region has changed drastically since her 2010 trip, the team’s conversations with ordinary people there still shed unexpected light on both the Iraq War and the lives of refugees.
KAZUTO, Tatsuta. Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. 576p. Kodansha Comics. Mar. 2017. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781632363558.
Gr 9 Up–The pseudonymous author of this manga was just an ordinary guy working cleanup at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant, which was severely damaged during the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. His duties there included plumbing, maintenance, and taking care of the robots that went into the plant to remove the melted fuel rods. Unlike the other workers, though, Kazuto was also a manga creator (although at that time, an unsuccessful one), and his account of his work at the reactor caused a sensation when it was published in Japan. Kodansha Comics is collecting all three of the original volumes in a thick omnibus to be published next spring.
MOORE, Anne Elizabeth, and The Ladydrawers. Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking. 160p. Microcosm. May 2017. pap. $13.95. ISBN 9781621067399.
Gr 10 Up–Created as a journalistic project by Moore and the artists of the Ladydrawers collective, Threadbare takes a hard look at the fashion industry from a number of different angles, including the rise of “fast fashion,” the secondhand clothing industry, free trade zones, the life of a model, and the internationalization of fashion. The stories include some frank talk about sexual harassment, and the sections on the connections between sex trafficking and the garment industry, which include critiques of anti-trafficking NGOs and an interview with an advocate for sex workers, may be challenging for some readers, although there are no explicit depictions. The book is written for an adult audience and includes some dry discussions of the business aspects of the industry. In addition, the drawings are uneven in quality, and the lettering is sometimes hard to read. Nonetheless, this is an extremely valuable overview for anyone interested in knowing what goes on behind the clothing racks, and the subject is inherently appealing to teenagers. The stories include many unusual points of view, and everything is copiously footnoted, making this a good starting point for further research.
RODRIGUEZ, Jason, ed. Colonial Comics, Volume II: New England, 1750-1775. 216p. Fulcrum. Jan. 2017. ISBN 9781682750025.
Gr 7 Up–The Colonial Comics books (three volumes are planned in all) are anthologies of short stories by different authors, each focusing on a single event in pre-Revolutionary history. Some focus on lesser-known figures, such as smugglers and agitators, while others cast an iconic event in a new light, such as the story about how the tea that was thrown overboard in the Boston Tea Party got to Boston Harbor in the first place. The stories all stand alone but together, they add up to a well-rounded picture of life in New England in the middle of the 18th century.
TITEUX, Sybille. Muhammad Ali. illus. by Amazing Ameziane. 128p. Dark Horse. Nov. 2016. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781506703183.
Gr 9 Up–Two French creators capture the essence of a very American phenomenon, Muhammad Ali, following him from his childhood in Jim Crow Kentucky through his turbulent career as a boxer and fiery spokesman for civil rights, to his quiet final years when, his fists stilled by Parkinson’s disease, he met with presidents and accepted belated honors—including a new Olympic medal to replace the one he threw off a bridge in 1963. Titeux and Ameziane quickly put Ali’s story into context, explaining the political and cultural events that touch on his life, and they also do a great job of explaining the boxing piece, showing how each of his fights unfolded in the ring. The one flaw in this book is the decision to write it in the second person, addressing the subject directly, but the story itself is so engrossing that readers will likely overlook that narrative misstep.
WARNER, Andy. Brief Histories of Everyday Objects. 224 p. Picador. Oct. 2016. Tr $20. ISBN 9781250078650.
Gr 7 Up–This one is just for fun! In brief three- and four-page episodes, Warner tells the fascinating stories behind everything from toothbrushes to traffic lights. The stories are based on facts, but the characters speak in an anachronistically facetious tone that will go over well with teenagers. The entries are short and self-contained (although there are a few running jokes), so the book can be read in small bites, and each section includes a few extra facts.
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