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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Tower of Treasure

by Scott Chantler

Kids Can Press, 2010

112 pages

I’ve been on a graphic novel kick lately, though I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because a lot of great recommendations are making their way to me. Maybe it’s because, in my other life as an omnivorous reader, I’ve been working my way through the polar opposite of comics: a wordy, un-illustrated, 21-book saga about the Napoleonic War. Or maybe it’s just because it’s been a while since I’ve read much in the genre.

Whatever the case, I’m taking you along for the ride.

My latest discovery is Scott Chantler’s Three Thieves series, which features 14-year-old acrobat Dessa and her friends Topper and Fisk. In Book One, Tower of Treasure, we meet the main characters and follow them as they attempt to burgle the queen’s treasury (the tower of the title).

Set in a fantasy facsimile of medieval Europe, the story begins with Dessa and her friends visiting the city of Kingsbridge. They are part of a traveling circus, with Dessa’s tightrope act as the centerpiece. Fisk’s job is to draw crowds with feats of strength; Topper’s is to pick the audience’s pockets while they watch Dessa perform.

Dessa, we learn, has joined the circus to look for her brother, who went missing years before when a mystery man burned down their home. When she and Topper bungle her act, the circus owner turns them onto the streets. Hungry and depressed, Dessa reluctantly joins the devious Topper and simple-minded Fisk in their unsuccessful effort to empty the royal bank account.

They end up in the custody of Captain Drake and the Royal Chamberlain, who turns out to be the villian Dessa’s seeking. He tries to have the three friends executed, but they escape–as does he, leaving behind a room and journal full of curious experiments and notations.

Drake, who is good-hearted but loyal to a fault, follows the queen’s order to pursue Dessa and her friends. Dessa and her friends, meanwhile, set off in search of the Chamberlain.

I chose this book for review because, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s rare to find kid-friendly heroines in graphic novels. They tend to be more along the lines of Lara Croft–ostensibly strong female figures but really just barely-clothed, overly violent sex objects designed to appeal to adolescent boys’ hormones.

Dessa, on the other hand, looks like a real girl. She has a trim but genuine female shape, bobbed hair that drops into her face after she’s been running, and a spray of freckles across her nose. In other words, girls can identify with her without saddling themselves with unhealthy expectations about their bodies and sexuality.

She also has a true friendship with her male buddies–she’s not just there for them to ogle or rescue from danger. They genuinely like her and admire her skills and cleverness. When they join her on her quest, it’s not because she’s a helpless girl; it’s because they all need each other.

Plus, I’m a sucker for books with girls in atypical roles. An acrobat girl–especially one who uses her skills to escape from prison and a horde of soldiers–is an unusual heroine, to say the least. Her chutzpah in confronting the Chamberlain and the queen, not to mention her daredevil stunts, are just fabulous.

Finally, I love when a book expands a girl’s range of identification. Tower of Treasure is that kind of book: it gives girls an unusual and new list of people they can be and things they can do. Are they likely to find themselves in need of a model for escaping from prison or calling out a greedy queen? No, but they might need encouragement to pursue a passion for gymnastics or stand up to a bully.

This is even the kind of book that, later in life, may become the inspiration for a career spent pursuing justice or fighting corruption. For my part, it gives me hope that legions of little girls will read it and feel stronger because of it. Plus, I can’t wait to see what else Dessa will do.

As of October 2013, Scott Chantler had released three volumes of Three Thieves, with another four slated for publication. The series is best read as a single story.

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Zita the Spacegirl

by Ben Hatke

First Second, 2010

184 pages

Quick–how many female fictional space adventurers can you think of? Now what if I ask you to limit it to characters intended for a child audience? If you can come up with more than Princess Leia, I’m seriously impressed.

For my part, I can only think of males: Buzz Lightyear, Buck Rogers, Marvin the Martian. Space adventurers are astronauts, and astronauts are boys, at least in the world of children’s entertainment. And it’s not just about characters–space toys and costumes are marketed to boys, not girls.

What’s problematic about this? I’ll let Amelia Earhart tell you. Not long after her 1928 solo flight across the Atlantic (the first completed by a woman), Earhart wrote, “There are no heroines following the shining paths of romantic adventure, as do the heroes of boys’ books. . . . Of course girls have been reading so-called ‘boys’ books’ ever since there were such. But consider what it means to do so. Instead of closing the covers with shining eyes and the happy thought, ‘That might happen to me someday!’ the girl, turning the final page, can only sigh regretfully, ‘Oh, dear, that can never happen to me–because I’m not a boy!’.”

In other words, if we want little girls to feel free to become astronauts (or any other kind of explorer or adventurer), we need to show them from a young age that it’s a viable option. And, of course, books are one way to do that.

Enter Zita the Spacegirl, a graphic novel whose eponymous heroine becomes a space traveler in order to rescue her friend Joseph. When Joseph is kidnapped by an alien, Zita follows the trail to a strange city on a strange planet. With the help of some friendly creatures–and despite the hindrance of some unfriendly ones–she figures out where Joseph has been taken and sets off to rescue him.

Along the way, she picks up some followers: a mouse the size of a baby elephant, a golem-like giant named Strong-Strong, and two robots. Yes, it does begin to feel like The Wizard of Oz after a certain point–but in a good, clever-reboot kind of way.

And that’s one thing I like about this book–nothing feels conventional. The characters are fresh (battle robot One is hilariously belligerent and over-confident), Zita encounters unexpected situations, and the resolution is surprising and clever. I also love the art. It’s perfect for young kids: detailed and expressive enough to stretch them, but not so cluttered or complicated that they give up in frustration.

As for what makes the book inspiring, well, that’s kind of hard to pin down. I think it starts with the mere fact that the lead character is a girl, not a boy. Girls who read this book can have that “I can do it, too!” experience that Earhart so wistfully craved for herself and the girls of her time. They can think, “I can rescue someone. I can have adventures. I can explore!”

There’s also the fact that Zita is a deliberate adventurer. When Joseph first disappears through the space-portal, she’s shocked and confused. As any kid likely would, she runs off in terror and bursts into tears. But after a little while, she purposefully pulls herself together, dries her tears, and heads off to help her friend. Later, when she faces betrayal and other difficult situations, she’s realistically upset but always comes back around to making a smart, intentional choice

It’s a nice counterpoint to the squealy, bubble-headed, I’m-just-along-for-the-ride female characters who so often appear in kids’ entertainment. And it’s a great model for girls who struggle with strong emotions. Zita shows that grief, fear, and confusion are all normal and nothing to be ashamed of–but they don’t have to define who a girl is or what she does. Instead, if she’s smart and determined (and having loyal friends doesn’t hurt), she can pull herself together and continue the adventure.

Zita the Spacegirl is the first book in an ongoing series whose second number, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, was published last year.

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by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, 2011

639 pages

When I was growing up, book fairs were one of my favorite things about school.

Every year, I waited with baited breath for those little catalogs to show up on our desks.  And though I never got to buy all the books I wanted (which was only every single one in the entire catalog), book-delivery day was as big as Christmas for me.

So you can imagine how excited I was when my daughter, who is in kindergarten, brought home a little note announcing family book fair night.

I didn’t really ask her if she wanted to go–and we got there early, like Black Friday shoppers (though I controlled myself enough to enter the school library in an orderly fashion).

I was halfway down the wall of displays when I saw it: Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick’s followup to his stunning hybrid graphic/text novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

If I hadn’t been conditioned into silence by a lifetime of library visits, I would have squealed out loud.  As it was, I grabbed for the book so, um, vigorously that it’s a good thing no one was standing between me and the shelf.

I didn’t buy Wonderstruck that night (I let my daughter spend all the money), but a quick skim was enough to send me straight to the public library’s “I want this book” list as soon as I got home.

And, once again, Selznick did not disappoint.  Wonderstruck is not a sequel to Hugo Cabret, but it is a worthy successor–and ideal fodder for this blog.

The book consists of two tales, initially told separately but later intertwined in a somewhat predictable but entirely elegant way.

For me, the inspiration is in the story of Rose, a 12-year-old living in 1920s New Jersey.

Born into a wealthy family, Rose is a deaf-mute whose parents confine her to the house and subject her to private lessons in speech and lip-reading.

Fed up with the isolation and shame, Rose runs away to New York City, where she moves in with her older brother.  She begins to make a new life for herself and, much later, helps another young runaway do the same.

Almost from her first appearance in the book, Rose inspired me with her uncompromising spirit.

She knows who she is and believes she has the right to be that person.  She won’t settle for anything different, or anything less, even through bewilderment, deep fear, and heartbreak.

And the story validates her difficult decisions.  Fifty years after her journey to New York, Rose is a confident, fulfilled woman.  She’s had a satisfying life, with no regrets.

When she meets runaway Ben, also deaf, she seizes the opportunity to pour that confidence and fulfillment into his life.

She opens her life to Ben so he can have a living, breathing example of the validity of pursing dreams and living to his full potential.

By sharing her story with him, she helps him find peace–with himself, with his history, and with the missing pieces of his life.

What a great message for girls: Define your identity from within, not from without–and be courageous yet vulnerable enough to show others your true self.

The reward? Not just fulfillment for your own life, but (even better) a connection to and legacy of inspiration for the next generation.

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This is the fourth post in my “Precocious Princesses” series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess fairy tales.

Rapunzel’s Revenge

by Shannon and Dean Hale, ill. by Nathan Hale

Bloomsbury, 2008

144 pages

For a princess story, the tale of Rapunzel is fairly subversive.

To begin with, she’s not actually a princess, or even of noble birth.  She actively enables the prince’s visits to her tower, and she plots her own escape.  She makes her own way in the wilderness.  And she rescues the prince, who is magically healed of blindness by her tears.

Even in its classic form, then, “Rapunzel” is a decent alternative to passive-princess tales like “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty.”

For older girls, however, there is an even better option: the sassy graphic novel Rapunzel’s Revenge, written by husband-and-wife team Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by Nathan Hale (not related to the authors).

More than a retelling, Rapunzel’s Revenge is a complete reboot of the fairy tale.  Set in the nineteenth-century American West, the Hales’ version skillfully treads the territory between parody and inspired reimagination.

This Rapunzel lives in a walled compound with her mother Gothel, a grim woman who uses powerful “growth magic” to control the area’s food production and, by extension, its wealth and people.

But Rapunzel is tired of being cooped up like a lapdog, and she’s not so sure she wants to be Gothel’s heir.  When she discovers that Gothel is actually her kidnapper and captor, not her mother, she openly rebels–and Gothel locks her in an enchanted tree-tower for punishment.

Rapunzel spends 4 years there, her thick red hair growing all the time, until she finally engineers her own escape.  Accompanied by a guy named Jack, whom she rescues from some thugs, Rapunzel gradually makes her way back to Mother Gothel’s villa.  Her goal (the “revenge” of the title) is to liberate the land and people from Gothel’s clutches and rescue her own true mother from the witch’s dungeons.

The entire tale, from beginning to end, is nothing short of brilliant.  Equal parts campy Western, quest fantasy, and pioneer/adventure tale, it’s overlayed with just the right amount of sincerity and poignancy.

If you’re a fan of the film Gladiator, you’ll know what I mean.  You cheer for Rapunzel not just because you love watching her kick the bad guys’ butts (which she does quite handily, thank you very much); you also want this lonely, wandering girl to find the family she so desperately seeks.

And that’s what makes this tale captivating: Rapunzel feels real.  Hard to imagine, for a girl who twirls torches at the ends of her braids and rides lake serpents like they’re rodeo bulls.  But her creators, through both artwork and story, manage to color her with oh-so-human longings and fears.

As an added bonus, they do it all without the gore, blue language, and sexual objectification so pervasive in the genre.  Admittedly, there are moments where the story seems a little too squeaky-clean, but they’re few and far between.

The overall package is beautifully executed, a brain-tickling blend of clever humor, sly allusions, authentic character development, and high-octane adventure.

It’s the perfect book for girls in difficult circumstances who feel powerless to effect change–and for any girl who needs a little encouragement to be unapologetically, radically herself.

The Hale trio have also published Calamity Jack, a follow-up to Rapunzel’s Revenge.  As you might guess, this comic shifts the focus to Rapunzel’s friend Jack, although our heroine is still a prominent character.  And, yes, there is a giant involved.

Shannon Hale is also the author of several alternative fairy tales in novel form, the most famous of which is her Newbery Honor-winning Princess Academy.

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