Ghosts: Swing and a Hard Miss

Today I am writing about Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I got my copy last week. I was excited to read it, bring it to my children’s lit courses, talk it up on my blog and basically have a welcome party for another great Telgemeier graphic novel for young readers.

But I can’t. I can’t because, like many authors before her and, unfortunately, many authors to come, Telgemeier is dealing in cultural appropriation.

Cultural Appropriation

I define cultural appropriation as Privileged individuals using something from another culture without showing understanding of the culture or giving credit to that culture. Here are a few very good pieces on the subject …. Decoded; True Tea; Huffpost’s Black Voices.

The problem with cultural appropriation is that privileged individuals (usually White, sometimes straight, and often male) get rewarded for being edgy, cute, or exotic. These privileged individuals get credit for “discovering” and “giving us [read other White people] a look at a new culture [read as anyone not White].” But, and this is important, for the people who’s lives and histories have been taken and used for consumption, their culture is not exotic. They don’t need to be discovered because they are not lost, nor unknown. The argument that this White person (or straight person or male) is giving voice ignores the fact that people could learn about a culture by listening to the actual people of that culture.

But that isn’t what is happening. What is happening is peoples histories, stories, pain, and pride is being stripped away and reduced to the easiest object or image to be consumed by those who already have too much privilege and power.

 Being Latinx and Reading Ghosts

I grew up in Southern California thinking of myself as Chicano-American. My father’s family is from Mexico and my mother’s is from Minnesota by way of Ireland and Germany. I grew up on the Latinx side of the street which means when my White friends thought Little House on the Prairie was romantic, I saw it as a land grab. The first time I saw anything but a stereotyped Latinx in a book was Sandra Cisneros House on Mango Street, published in 1984 and almost immediately challenged and banned.

The cover of Ghosts doesn’t give much away. It has a girl standing with eyes wide, mouth agape, and hands clenched looking awe struck with a younger girl in front of her looking happy and relaxed. The title page looks like a Pinterest image of a Dia de los Muertos altar but, I was hopeful.

The story begins with a family (the two girls on the cover and their mom and dad) in a minivan moving from Southern California to “Bahía de la Luna” (moon bay). The town name is clearly seen on a freeway sign (I wondered when this book set because I don’t remember California freeway signs having accent marks). There is a resort in Oaxaca, Mexico called Bahía de la Luna, but this family was headed north to a town with lots of fog. Between the name and the description of the town I was reminded of Half Moon Bay, a small city on the Pacific coast, south of San Francisco.

While reading I learned that the younger girl, Maya, has cystic fibrosis, which is why the family is moving. On page 12, after running up a flight of stairs in her new house Maya is panting, a goofy sort of crossed eyed, open mouthed look on her face. Her older sister, Cat, tries  hard to be understanding but she is both annoyed by her sister and scared for her. After their parents tell them to go explore, an adventurous Maya leads a superstitious Cat down a path to the beach. In an old and abandoned arcade on the beach they meet a boy who talks of the cities reputation for ghosts. That evening Maya and her family head to a neighbor’s house for dinner which Cat does not want to attend. So far, a pretty straight forward Telgemeier book.

Then the name … The neighbors are the Calaverases. They are Mexican, and their name is Calaveras (skull) and they live in a town full of ghosts. That is the equivalent of a family named Advent Calendar living in town with a reputation for elves.

Of course, the kid from the beach is Carlos Calaveras who plays maracas with Maya while the adults talk and Cat sits and eat chips and guacamole. Turns out Maya and Cat’s mom, Leona, is a fully assimilated Mexican who rejected her heritage, married a White guy and basically has turned away from everything Mexican, even the food. This is an important detail since that is how Carlos temps Cat into joining him and Maya on a tour of the local mission.

Give a girl a concha (sweet pastry with a shell shaped sugar pattern) and she’ll be yours forever. So, the kids go to the local mission which Carlos insists is a doorway to the spirit world. He also says the ghosts prefer to speak Spanish because they were from Mexico.

Yeah, so this is the first thing that really makes no sense. The Catholic Mission system was a way for the Spanish to colonize California. Probably tens of thousands of Native Americans and Mexican Indians were killed and enslaved in these missions. The ghosts these kids find would most likely be Ohlone in that area of California, not Mexican. Even if they were Mexican, chances are they would be from some other tribe that was forced to speak Spanish. Why would these ghosts “prefer” to speak the language of their colonizers? Someone -Telgemeier, an editor, anyone with an internet connection – should have spent 10 minutes investigating Spanish missions.

Back to the book. Maya has an attack from playing with the ghosts and needs to be hospitalized. Family drama ensues.

September rolls around. Maya has to stay home while Cat goes to school. Cat meets Seo Young who talks about nail polish, froyo and going to the “midnight party on November 1st” (Dia de los Muertos) where she met a cute boy. Who is dead. Because that is what Dia de los Muertos is about. Ghostly hook-ups. Maya slowly gets better, although she needs a tank and breathing tube to deal with her ever weakening lungs.

As October approaches more Dia de los Muertos stuff appears and the book is the worse for it. For those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos the holiday is about honoring and remembering family and friends who have died. We make ofrendas (offerings) as a way to invite the dead back to visit and see that the family is alive and well and continuing. It is a 3000 year old celebration of birth, life, death and rebirth. It is not a “Mexican halloween” which is how Telgemeier treats it. Cat wears a la Catrina costume for halloween, which is pretty much the standard for cultural appropriation – right up there with black face, headdresses, and the sexy bandito costume.

In Telgemeier’s graphic novel the ghosts have a bit of an obsession with orange soda in a bottle. The dead basically want to party all night long, drink orange soda, and don’t seem to care if they are with family or just randos on the street. The end of the book is full of music, flying, an inexplicable dead light house attendant, and a black cat who delivers Mexican food.

If you are teaching kids about Dia de los Muertos, please look elsewhere.

Digger by Ursula Vernon


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My professional reading practices have changed in the last year. I am slowly working through a subset of all the graphic novels published in the last 10 years or so. I read, graphic novels with female protagonists that might show up in a k-12 classroom almost exclusively .

That means I’m reading within genres I’m usually not interested in and books that I wouldn’t usually open. Although it might not be exactly what Gene Luen Yang had in mind when he started Reading Without Walls but it has opened my eyes to lots of new authors. Besides that, it has changed the patience I have for books.  I tend to stick with them past the first 10 pages, even if I am NOT in luuuuvvvvv with the book.  

DiggerOne of the books I would never had picked up, if not for this project, is Digger: Volume One by Ursula Vernon, published way back in 2005. Originally a web comic Digger, a no nonsense wombat, ends up tunneling into Lord Ganesh’s temple and talks to the resident statue. The black and white graphic novel begins as a fairly traditional “stranger in a strange land” narrative. It takes a bit of time to get into this story and to appreciate the odd mix of a very stoic character dealing with fantastical elements in a non-nonsense manner.

The true strength of the book is in the characters. Digger is both kind and snarky, giving a genuine portrait of a hard working wombat who is trying to figure her way out of a very weird situation. There is also a hyena sort of thing (who Digger names Ed), ShadowChild who recently emerged from an abandoned egg, a slug who listens to the leaves, and a whole bunch of librarians and resident temple rats. 

Vernon provides us with a long list of interesting and individualistic characters that have a wonderful assortment of flaws and charms. The book, with all it’s charm, basically comes down to a representation of a hero’s tale. Digger works hard at understanding how her new world works and how she can get back home. Digger 2007-02-13-compassion

I have to admit, I didn’t love this graphic novel in the beginning. It was a difference in taste. I tend to prefer graphic novels that stretch the reader, creating lots of open space between the images and the words for me to figure out. In the beginning of this books there seemed to be too much that is both shown and stated. I think Vernon’s over reliance on Digger’s narration made it hard for me to get into the book. For instance, there is a terrific series of panels where Digger and ShadowChild are trying to retrace her steps back to Ganesh’s temple. The route is marked by a series of statues whose large and pointed tongues point (quite literally) the way to the temple. The images, along with her progress, made it clear, but Vernon chose to include dialogue that simply explained what was clear from the images. The explanation, for me, was unnecessary.

Because of my commitment to reading graphic novels with female protagonists I kept reading well past when I would usually let this book go. And, I am glad.

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The book passes the Bechdel test early and often with many named female characters talking to each other, almost exclusively about something other then a man. In fact this book shows a series of strong female, male and non-gendered characters moving through an interesting landscape, evolving and revealing more about themselves and the world they live in with each step. Once I became accustomed to the symmetry between the images and the words, I began to enjoy the story. There are many interactions between the characters that made me laugh, and then think, and then laugh again. Vernon takes on many philosophical and religious ideas without preaching.

Although this is a very female-centric book, there are issues with some of the characters as I reflect on the way race and ethnicity play out. Ed (the hyena character) speaks in an odd manner, mostly because he was shunned from his “tribe” and has spent so long alone. Yeah, honestly, a warning signal goes up when I read the word “tribe” and the character that comes from a “tribe” is shown to be … not as sophisticated. Ed wears a loincloth and a necklace of odd-shapes stones. He speaks English in an oddly formal and yet stilted  manner. In one scene, after Digger has slept for many hours in Ed’s cave, he offers Digger a warm cup of something,

“Is warrior herbs. Is make hunter’s water strong! Smell for miles! Digger-mousie marks territory now, all people know is fierce mousie, respect mark. Digger-mousie new, need respect to win territory”

2007-03-13-wombat41-cooperLater on in the book Digger is being hunted by Ed’s old pack-mates who have the same sort of stilted,awkward speech pattern. They wear loin clothes, carry spears, have painted faces and feathers. It is not clear to me what indigenous community is supposed to be represented here but it gives me pause.

I encourage people to pick this Hugo award winning series. I worry that in order to gain a strong, complex female protagonist the book provides am indigenous trope. It is worth a read, and a discussion.

Writing Women Well

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I read books because I love reading. I also read because I research literacy and literature. I recently had to admit I have a bias, grounded in lie experience, and because of this bias I have made a study of the authors of the graphic novels with women and girl protagonists. I hate to say it, but I really thought I was going to call guys out on the ways women and girls are over-sexualized objects. I was saving up a big rant about MEN and WOMEN and ALL THE THINGS. But, I can’t. I have to listen to the data and the data says it is more complicated than simply men and women, because sometimes guys get it right, too.

Nimona

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First, a woman who writes terrific girls and women. Noelle Stevenson has successfully written two of my favorite graphic novels, Nimona and LumberJanes. There is something about the giddy, no holds barred, ridiculous nature of her books that keeps me coming back to read and reread. Whats more, is these books feature women and girls as flawed, interesting, complex protagonists that learn and grow.

Lumberjanes, features a group of friends at summer camp who stumble, fall, leap, and crash into adventures. This is NOT a “girl book” where boys will be lost or uninterested. The goofy-adventurer spirit will attract both boys and girls. My ten year old son and I keep stealing the book from each other.

Nimona is different, but still has a lightness to the story. Stevenson’s overly exaggerated style fits the story of a young girl (who happens to be a shape shifter) joining forces with Lord Blackheart (the evil villain) to over through the government — or something like that. But, it is also a story of friendship and redemption.

Oh! And both books have gay characters that don’t suffer or die or live awful, lonely lives because of their sexual identity.


 

And then there is Barry Deutsch. Remember when I mentioned that I kept thinking that the problem with over-sexualized girls in graphic novels was male authors? Well, I was wrong. It isn’t that easy to point fingers at any one group or the other.

The Hereville series is … wonderfully odd. It features an 11 year old girl, Mirka, who is smart, seeks adventure and is an orthodox jew. She lives in a modern day orthodox community with her father, her brother, her sisters, her step-mother, and the memory of her mother. Mirka isn’t interested in learning how to be a good wife and mother. Instead, Mirka wants to slay dragons, fight witches, battle trolls, and save her sister from an evil fish who grants wishes.

Deutsch, much like Stevenson, uses a cartoonish style with lots of color and motion. The characters are sometimes dramatically overstylized with huge noses, crazy hair, and enormous fins. Mirka is a pain in the butt to her stepmother, sometimes she’s not a great sister, and most of the time she is simply not listening. The orthodox family life is shown with respect and love. Deutsch provides the reader with yiddish expressions that flow from Mirka and her family with ease.

Both of these authors have created characters and worlds that draw readers in, invite us to ride along in the adventure, and leave feeling that the world is a little goofy, but definitely, a better place.

Black History in Graphic Novels

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There are many conversations going on right now about the ways slavery is being depicted in books written for children. If you are interested in the issues take a few minutes, or hours to investigate. A good place to start is with the terrific blog Reading While White.

My interest here is to address a few graphic novels that I think have get it right. Oh, and yes, I realize it is NOT February and therefore it is NOT Black History Month, but I am going to go ahead and do this anyway.

Strange Fruit CoverJoel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narrative From Black History  (2014) is a fantastic collection of nine all but unknown stories of great African American men that the standard American history has forgotten. The stories are written in comics format, using a rich, but muted color palette and cartoon-y but fairly representational people.

The short tales are both beautiful and tragic. Gill doesn’t sugarcoat anything about the historical place African-Americans have held. In fact, Gill plays hardball with slavery, oppression, and the general ugliness that African Americans have experienced.  For instance, Henry “Box” Brown’s tale opens with a small group of slaves picking in a field, one is getting whipped by a White man on a horse, and Henry exclaiming “This Sucks”. There is not space in the graphic novel for quibbling about whether or not slaves were happy in some circumstances, at some time, with some people. According to Gill (and any reasonable person who has experienced any level of oppression) no one liked being a slave. No. One.

But, the book isn’t perfect. After reading it for the first time I was struck with one glaring omission. There are no women heroes in Strange Fruit. None. There are women, but none are terribly important. In fact, the book flunks The Bechtel Test for women in a spectacular fashion. I say this because Gill has admitted to the error multiple times; in public, in private, on social media, and on TV. All over the place. And, his reason? Male privilege. Simple. He gets it and he is fixing it.

His next project features stories of black heroes that are women.


The most recent addition to Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series of historical graphic novels is The Underground Abductor.

If you have never read one of Hale’s (and yes, that is his real name. I met him once and made him show me his ID) graphic novels you are missing out. They are fun, interesting and accurate which is no small feat for any author.

This edition focuses on Harriet Tubman’s life and her involvement with the underground railroad. But, what makes this volume most interesting to me is that it begins with an account of her childhood as a slave and her experiences being rented out to other farms. Then the tale moves through her young adulthood, her marriage, and her escape to freedom. But, her story doesn’t end with her own freedom. Instead, she returned to her home in Maryland many times to act as a navigator for other people who wanted to escape slavery.

This book has a strong female protagonist, who talks to other women, and to other African Americans, often times about things beside men and White people. There are also maps, jokes (but never jokes about slavery), and footnotes that steer readers other interesting stories.

Both of these books focus on African Americans, which is fine. Ideally, I would like a discussion of race that goes beyond the classic Black/White dichotomy and includes people who fall along the color spectrum.

Great books are not perfect books. They don’t need to be. What great books need to be are books that explain the complex systems of inequality that our history is riddled with, written so kids can read them and start having conversations about race, justice, gender, and sexual orientation.

The Girls of Summer

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I’ll be focusing the blog this year on issues of representation in graphic novels. It took a while – almost all of last year – of reading and writing to understand how and why this was an important area for me to take on.

Here is the first set of graphic novels I have read for 2016.

Roller GirlRoller Girl by Victoria Jamiesan (Dial book for young readers, 2015)

This book passes The Bechdel Test* within the first page. The book centers around Astrid, her best friend Nicole, and her longtime nemesis Rachel.

Astrid is having a bit of a rough patch. The book takes place during the summer between 5th and 6th grades – which means the dreaded MIDDLE SCHOOL YEARS! She is having a hard time with her best friend (maybe ex-best friend?), hitting puberty (and it is hitting her back), and learning what it means to try and fail and try again. Astrid is spending the summer at Roller Derby camp with Zoey, a new friend, lying to her mom, avoiding or confronting Nicole and scheming retaliatory attacks against Rachel. Oh, and she’s dreaming of being her roller derby teams jammer and scoring more points than any other junior derby girl in history.

Jamieson’s illustrations are rendered in full color on a heavy matte paper which gives the book a comforting heft. She uses fairly regular panels, interjecting occasional two-page spreads with full bleeds along with small focused peek-a-boo panels (all that means it is a good balance between regular panels and surprises). The people look like people, representing different sizes, shapes and colors without being stand-ins or tropes. The supporting cast of characters aren’t fleshed out well, but they are not simple tropes or stereotypes either.

Astrid learns some hard lessons. Over the course of the book she finds she isn’t a great friend a lot of the time, she needs to work hard to get what she wants, and sometimes her mom is right (I love that bit more than I probably should).

I highly recommend Roller Girl for upper elementary and middle school readers.


SunnySideUp

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (Graphix, 2015)

Holm’s book passes The Bechdel Test* but it takes a while before a second, named female character is seen.

Sunny, the main character, is a young girl who is spending the summer in Florida with her grandfather instead of the shore with her family and best friend. One of the things I love about this book is that it is visually straight forward but the narrative is complex and nuanced. That isn’t something you usually see in books written with young readers in mind, but Holm and Holm manage to balance a difficult subject deftly.

Difficult elements of Sunny’s life are revealed slowly and most often through the illustrations and flashbacks. It is difficult to pinpoint when it becomes clear that Sunny’s home life isn’t all smiles and terrific-ness. On page 24 and 25 we see her and her (so far unnamed) best friend hanging out and planning summer vacation. We ‘hear’ Sunny’s little brother crying when he is supposed to be taking a nap. There is an odd exchange about Sunny’s brother changing into someone who is “terrific”. Although she indicates the crying brother, there is more to the scene. There is an unanswered question that lingers.

Dale, Sunny’s older brother is cool. He doesn’t follow rules, smokes, seems to have trouble with his teachers, hangs out with the wrong kids and, eventually, it is clear he’s dealing with a growing substance abuse issue.

So instead of going to the shore, Sunny ends up in her grandfathers retirement community. We meet Sunny’s grandfather, his friends, and Buzz, a young boy who introduces Sunny to comic books. As the summer progresses we see Dale’s story unfold in flashbacks. Finally Sunny breaks down, admitting to her grandfather that she feels all kinds of  (misplaced) guilt about Dale.

The visuals are pure Holms – and I mean that in the best possible way. The book is treated with full color illustrations with lots of white space to help readers think and understand the transitions. The people are a bit on the abstract/cartoony side but nothing that takes them too far afield. The paneling is consistent throughout the book. Perhaps most importantly, the book is designed to aid in comprehension. Although it is full color the speech and thought bubbles are predominately done with a white background with black text that is easy to read. They use tails to clearly indicate who is talking, and even use separate bubbles with connecting tails when the dialogue is too long to easily fit within a single bubble. The text never feels crowded or hurried.

I applaud this well crafted book and highly recommend it for elementary (and above) readers.


*The Bechdel Test: 1) Are there 2 NAMED female characters; 2) Do they speak to each other, 3) about something other than men?

Yet Another Reason to Love Gene Luen Yang

Do you have a list of artists that no matter what they do, you are in? I have a few …

P¡nk. She can sing a phonebook, a dictionary, and random encyclopedia entries and I’d go to iTunes and buy the entire album (do we still call them that?) Here are a few reasons I am a huge fan –  her Grammy performance of Glitter in the Air and her tribute to The Wizard of Oz at the Oscars

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Anything painted by Rene Magritte makes my head hurt in the most wonderful ways. I think the fact that Scoot McCloud used Magritte’s work to explain representations of iconic images helped me better understand some of the layered complexity of graphic novels and comics.

There are others, but in general, what attracts me to artists is a sense of fun, commitment, and flexibility. There is a change over time that you see when artists express their own growth and learning through their performances.

Gene Luen Yang is a graphic novelist that is in the same category. His range in storytelling is amazing. From American Born Chinese in which a young boy, Jin Wang, deals with his own identity, subtle and not so subtle racism, romance, and a crazy cousin. Oh, and toss in is a dose of the Monkey King folk tales on the side just for good measure. I think what makes ABC so wonderful to teach with is the Chin Kee character. He is the best and more excoriating presentation of all of the Asian stereotypes rolled into one disturbing and guilt inducing character. I have had students cry after discussing Chin Kee and all the horror Yang shows the reader by putting it all out there and making it very hard to turn away.

Then, when I thought I had a solid handle on the kind of artist Gene Yang is, he went and created Boxers and Saints. I remain in awe of the historical work that must have gone into this two book set as well as the way he develops the protagonists, Bao in Boxers and Four-Girl in Saints. My friend and colleague Sterg Botzakis wrote a great review over at Graphic Novel Resources.

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Yang’s newest novel with Sonny Liew, The Shadow Hero is a million miles away from either ABC or Boxers and Saints and yet it is completely his work.

This book is a solidly middle-grade book with loads of fun, excitement, and dashing heroes, including a few cameos by a SuperMan like character that influences the story early on. Set in 1930s Chinatown – I can’t help but read it as San Francisco – the novel tells the origin story of a little known comic book super hero called The Green Turtle. The Green Turtle was originally written by Chu Hing as a short run comic book but it never caught on like other superheroes of the time.

What makes The Shadow Hero such a rich graphic novel is the complexity of the characters lives. Hank Chu, the protagonist, is a young man growing with immigrant parents. Both Hank’s parents are from China but have very different back stories, as well as different expectations of America. Because of their differences, Hank grows up with a loving but distance and slightly disappointed mother, and a loving and grounded father. Hank dreams of taking over his dad’s shop when he grows up, but his mother has other aspirations.

Sh FamilyHank’s relationship with his mom is … complicated. And that is the element that keeps this books moving forward in interesting ways. All the characters have well rounded back stories that gave me a sense of real life struggle and joy. Oh, that and the painfully bad martial arts training montages, the tricky protection clauses. and the eventual butt-kickery-ness of the hero. All of that.

Sonny Liew’s artwork is at once classic pulp comics with loads of motion and action, and a rather dull color pallets that resist bright white gutters that we have become used to with the high quality paper and printing available today.

SH_Inside_3One comic convention that Liew uses with striking effectiveness are recessed panel groupings. He frames the action as a larger panel with several internal panels showing details and shifts in point of view, while still keeping the larger context in view for the reader.

The effect this has on my own reading is that I am focused on the intimate and furious action as Hank’s mom sews a superhero costume, loosing herself in the task while I, as the reader, am still aware that time is passing.

The Shadow Hero is an immigrant story, a superhero origin story, and a story about the lengths a young man will go to in order to become a hero in his own eyes. I enjoyed reading and re-reading this novel and plan on sharing it widely.