Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq

by Jeanette Winter

Harcourt, 2005

32 pages

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq

by Mark Alan Stamaty

Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

32 pages

When the United States, Britain, and George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq in 2003, the human toll of the operation was the only thing more upsetting to me than the destruction and looting of museums, ancient landmarks, and cultural resources.

I knew that the loss of Iraq’s landmarks and artifacts was not just about the Iraqi people. It was about all of us, because we all trace our history back to the early civilizations represented by those irreplaceable treasures.

Since then, I’ve wondered what happened – what is happening – to Iraq’s cultural repository. How much was lost to the war, and did anyone ever manage to protect what was so important?

Not long ago, I discovered just a small part of the answer to that question when my local library held a book club event for children. The featured book was Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra.

Inspired by a New York Times article, this picture book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baqr (sometimes spelled Baker), who was the Basra city librarian at the time of the war. After reading Winter’s book and researching Baqr further, I discovered a second book about her: Mark Alan Stamaty’s graphic novella Alia’s Mission.

Alia’s story is this. She was head of the busy public library in downtown Basra, where people came to read and discuss ideas. Following the 2003 invasion, rumors reached Basra that the British were coming to take the city. Afraid that fighting would destroy the library, Alia asked Basra’s mayor for permission to move the books. He not only said no, he turned the library into a military command post, making it an even likelier target.

That was the last straw for Alia. She secretly recruited her friend Anis, who owned a restaurant next door, and other concerned citizens to help her. They began smuggling books over the wall to Anis’s restaurant and down the street to Alia’s home. The British did take Basra, and the library did burn – but not before Alia and her friends had saved about 30,000 volumes.

Winter lays out this story in just a few sentences, accompanied by simple but richly colored illustrations. Her book is suitable for children of any age.

Stamaty goes into a bit more detail, in a version that is suitable for elementary ages. He fleshes out Alia’s motivation for saving the books, the contributions of the Ottoman Empire, the participation of Alia’s husband and Basra’s citizens. He also tells the end of the story: following a stroke caused by stress, Alia recovered and oversaw the construction of a new library.

There are so many inspirational elements to Alia’s story: her courage, her civil disobedience, her tenacity, her ability to galvanize others. But what I really loved – and what most inspired my daughter – was the fact that this is a story about books.

There’s a reason so many authoritarian regimes deny girls an education, censor or even burn certain books, or deny freedom of the press. Because books make people think. A non-reading, unthinking populace is easy to control. But readers, like the men and women who visited the Basra library, absorb ideas and talk about them. And thinking, idea-sharing people are dangerous people.

Books can also be important tools for becoming better versions of ourselves. Books and other written materials have longed help to spread ideas – whether religious, scientific, political, or artistic – that have saved lives, encouraged compassion, promoted peace, and shared beauty.

As Stamaty points out, that’s why Alia considered “her” books worth the risk of rescue. She had the vision to understand that Basra and its people are better off with their library intact. Especially for a girl living in a free, developed nation, where reading is a mundane activity, Alia’s story is an inspiring reminder of the importance of books and the lengths a courageous woman will go to preserve them.



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Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

by Kate DiCamillo; ill. by K.G. Campbell

Candlewick Press, 2013

233 pages

Finding inspiration in the sublime or the exceptional is fairly easy: the girl who bravely battles the wilderness, cancer, or a super-villain is an obvious candidate to inspire the next generation of women.

The problem is, most girls don’t live that kind of life. So while books about extraordinary people and situations are important, so are books that celebrate the ordinary or even oddball. That’s where most girls are going to find a point of identification and, by extension, of inspiration.

Which brings us to Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, illustrated by K.G. Campbell.

Preteen Flora Belle Buckman is a character many girls can easily identify with. She lives in an ordinary middle-class home in an ordinary middle-class neighborhood. Her clothes, her bedroom, her dad’s car, her street – they all look like anything or anyone you’d encounter in your own home or city.

Flora also faces challenges many girls can easily identify with – the kinds of problems that are a part of many ordinary people’s lives. Her parents are divorced, she and her mom don’t quite connect, and she misses her dad, whom she sees only on weekends. She copes by escaping into her favorite hobby and by detaching herself from her peers and family. She calls herself a “natural-born cynic” and takes “Do not hope; instead, observe” as her motto.

Flora’s life becomes suddenly un-ordinary, however, when Ulysses the squirrel appears. Flora rescues the rodent after he suffers a run-in with neighbor Tootie Tickham’s vacuum cleaner. The accident endows him with superpowers: super strength, the ability to fly, and the ability to compose poetry (though he has to type it, since he does not receive the power of speech).

Being devoted fans of comics, Flora and her dad know that every superhero must have an arch-nemesis – and they quickly figure out that Ulysses’ is none other than Flora’s mother. With the help of Tootie, her great-nephew William Spiver, and Mr. Buckman’s neighbor Dr. Meescham (who tends to speak in wise but enigmatic axioms), father and daughter set out to save Ulysses from his climactic encounter with the enemy.

If all this sounds a bit oddball, it is – deliciously so. Flora & Ulysses is the geek’s version of Judy Blume’s middle-grade problem novels. The characters are all a little wonky, comics and superhero references are everywhere, the kids are incredibly smart, and there’s a touch of magical realism to boot.

Overlaying it all is DiCamillo’s classic wry humor and barely self-conscious lyric phrasing. Campbell’s beautifully-shaded, animation-style pencil illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.

Being a geek myself, I would have loved this book even if there were nothing inspiring about it, but of course it is inspiring, or I wouldn’t be writing about it here.

Flora’s friendship with Ulysses calls out all the best in her. It opens her heart, commands her courage, and pushes her intelligence to its limits. It also leads her to call out the best in others: she gives Tootie a chance to be decisive and brave, her father a chance to reforge their bond, Dr. Meescham a chance to nurture others, and William Spiver the chance to belong. By book’s end, she’s even pulled her own denial-steeped mother back to reality.

This all happens through means that are kooky rather than heroic, but perhaps the quirkiness is what helps make the messages unforgettable. Flora & Ulysses tells girls that changing things for the better – whether in their own lives or the lives of others – is not just for superstars, the popular, or the beautiful. However “outside” they may think themselves, there are people waiting to welcome them in and befriend them. Hope is for everyone. And extraordinary opportunities to become an even better version of themselves are waiting right in their own backyards.

Which all means that, for ordinary girls facing ordinary problems, Flora is a heroine for the books.


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by Jeff Smith

Graphix/Cartoon Books

11 volumes

If ever there was a graphic-novel epic, Bone is it. This fantasy saga spans nine main volumes, plus two prequels. It’s a true Tolkienesque fantasy, complete with a fully realized universe, gripping action, and a nail-biting quest for truth and victory over cataclysmic evil.

Bone is primarily the story of three cousins: Fone Bone (the main character), Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. As their names imply, Fone Bone is plain but genuine and loyal, Phoney Bone is a selfish charlatan, and Smiley Bone is a happy but brainless goofball.

The story begins with the three cousins wandering in the desert–they’ve been run out of Boneville by citizens who are sick of Phoney’s endless schemes. Trying to find their way home, they stumble instead into a lush valley where fierce rat creatures roam the woods, a force called “the dreaming” underpins the universe, and dragons and a special race of humans called Veni-Yan-Cari maintain the dreaming’s balance.

Fone, separated from his cousins, falls in with Gran’ma Ben and her granddaughter Thorn, who live alone on a cow farm in the forest (more about them later). Phoney and Smiley, meanwhile, fall in with Lucius Down, a gruff behemoth of a man who owns a tavern not far from Gran’ma Ben’s farm.

The three cousins soon reunite and, together with their new friends, face down the mysterious Hooded One, who is plotting to unleash the evil Lord of the Locusts on the valley.

Fone is himself an inspiring character. He begins the story as a frustrated hand-wringer, angry with Phoney’s schemes but powerless to effect real change. By epic’s end, however, he’s become a quietly courageous hero and the leader of his family. He is an Everyman who rises to challenges he didn’t even know existed.

But he, of course, is not my focus. Which brings me to Bone‘s super secondaries, Gran’ma Ben and Thorn. Over the course of the story, Fone discovers that both these women (as well as Lucius) are not what they seem: each has a deeply hidden history that proves crucial to the outcome of the story.

That hidden history is immediately apparent when we meet Gran’ma Ben. By the end of the first volume, we know that she can wrestle full-grown cows, kill rat creatures with her bare hands, and run at racehorse speeds. In other words, she’s tough to the point of being superhuman. There are also hints of a complicated past involving Lucius, who turns out to be a powerful warrior in disguise.

I won’t spoil the surprise of Gran’ma Ben’s true identity, but suffice to say that her concerns range far beyond the borders of her little farm. She’s something of a Gandalf figure: wise, with hidden connections to the unseen, but fallible and saddled with the heavy task of inspiring a new generation to finish the fight she started years before.

Gran’ma Ben is an inspiring reminder that age and experience are relevant and often game-changing. She’s the kind of character who might prompt girls to seek out strong female mentors–or even one they can remember decades later, when they’re entering middle age and wondering if they still have value in our youth-obsessed culture.

As for Thorn, she turns out to be the lynchpin of the entire story. Like her grandmother, she has a secret identity; but unlike her grandmother, she doesn’t know it. And when her true identity comes to the surface, she’s not entirely sure she wants to accept it.

For girls facing an unexpected ordeal–the death of a parent, serious illness, a sudden cross-country move–Thorn is inspiration incarnate. Her transformation from unassuming farm girl to capable leader is gradual and authentic, full of plenty of missteps and backward glances but ultimately successful.

If Fone is the story’s Everyman, Thorn is the Everywoman: the ordinary person who proves to be extraordinary. She’s the classic everyday-citizen-turned-questing-hero(ine), the character who makes girls stop and think, “Maybe there’s more in me than I thought.”

Ultimately, Bone is a worthwhile read on any account–but these two strong women elevate it to must-read status.

Smith has now published a second saga set in the same universe, Bone: Quest for the Spark.

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