Not So “Wonder”ful

I need to admit at the onset, the hardest literature for me to judge, to get into, to teach has always been middle grade fiction. I think I have some sort of block – like, I had such a terrible time with middle school I can’t revisit it without experiencing dry heaves. So, when it comes to middle grade fiction, I have to take a step back and NOT trust my initial judgement. Instead, I have to read it, set it aside, and think about the book as it fits within the genre expectations, language and socio-emotional expectations of the readers, the context of school and curricular constraints. When I started reading Wonder, I assumed this familiar reader stance and asked myself these questions;

  • How does the craft, dialogue, language, rhythm hit?
  • What is the genre and form? Is that done well and with clarity?
  • Which characters drive the plot and are changed as a result of the plot?

In this case, I have been reading and rereading Wonder by R.J. Palacio since 2012. The book has won multiple awards, had a movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts, and spawned a series of follow-up books. Ten years after publication and it is still being used as school wide reads and is solidly embedded in the middle school literary cannon.

If you have been living under a rock and have missed the book … I will provide a brief synopsis:
The novel follows one school year in the life of a boy with massive cranial deformities. The book is written from multiple points of views, including the boy, his parents, sister, and peers. The boy’s voice is consistent, strong, patient, and extremely mature. In fact he is a saintly character – his motivations are only to protect others from his appearance, to make others comfortable when they are near him, and to make himself less bothersome. He is bullied and betrayed throughout his school year but in the end he gets an award and everyone learns that he is human – just like everyone else.

In addition to the reader stance, I also take a critical stance with this book because the main character represents a marginalized community with a long history of erasure, misrepresentation, and tokenism – in this case, he has a physical disability. As part of my critical read I want to make sure I attend to the basics of representation of marginalized characters.

  • Does the novel pass the Bechdel Test (1) is there at least two people with physical disabilities, (2) that are named and (3) speak to each to each other about something other than their non disabled people?

By taking a questioning stance I can center the text and the representation of the marginalized person. I try and avoid making the reading about me and my experiences or aesthetics. There is no reason why I should “relate” to a story about a young boy with a complex medical history, massive cranial and facial deformities, who is going to school for the first time. This isn’t, as Dr. Sims Bishop termed it, a Mirror book for me. Instead, it should read as a window, in which I can learn about a life experience I am not familiar with. I should learn something new, not simply read a retelling of long held ableist tropes.

First off, this book does NOT pass the Bechdel Test by any stretch of the imagination.  

After that, it just goes downhill from bad to horrid. The first chapter is from the point of view of the boy, who is an oddly mature and self-reflective White, middle-class, 10-year-old. The grammar in this first chapter is almost Hemingway-esque with short sentences, leading to simple statements, that build on each other to create an incongruity of beauty and brevity. The character is acutely aware of people’s reaction to his physical appearance – which makes sense. But, the first paragraphs of the book reads like some sort of parody from the point of view of Frankenstein’s monster, if the monster was a kid. For instance, early on he is thinking about the way differs from other kids and he mulls to himself or to us – he often has an arm’s length narrator voice, “But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming on the playgrounds.” The book isn’t an humorous, fanciful, or fantastical take on Frankenstein’s Monster as a Young Man. The book is realistic fiction, a depiction of a physically disabled kid going to school for the first time, and the first chapter provide us with a glimpse of how he sees himself – as a scary monster who makes other kids cry and runaway.

I’m sorry, what?

While I read, I feared for this kid. As I read, I whole new set of questions came up; What the hell is this book? Who was this author? What the hell am I reading? How would a kid with a physical disability read this? Is this the disability equivalent to the Magical Negro trope (when a black character appears solely to help a white character)? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!!?

I often use post-it notes to keep a running record of my reactions, to track quotes, characters, and plot points. Here are some of the post-it notes sticking out of the book from the many times I have read the book,

  • He thinks everyone in his family – mom, dad and Via (even Via’s boyfriend) are good looking. But he finds himself hideous.
  • He values physical beauty – TRADITIONAL beauty – and so does everyone else!
  • His mom’s reason for sending him to school … she is bad at fractions (page 8). Cue the math-phobic woman trope!
  • He avoids eating in front of people because his mouth looks like a “turtle’s beak” (page 51) and when he eats he smears food on his face – so he DOES NOT EAT around other people! He places the comfort of others over his own ability to nourish himself!
  • Via “doesn’t see” him. She is “blind” to his deformity, then she is way from him for amonth and upon seeing him again she understands what others see and how they react, “Horrified. Sickened. Scared.” (p. 65).
  • Halloween – when everyone is a freak he fits in.  
  • Great … bullies.
  • Of course … abandoned by his friends. Is he Jesus??? What’s next, a sack full of coins?
  • And a puppy with floppy ears – just like him. Representation as an animal?
  • Award? For what? SURVIVAL?????

I know the end is what everyone loves. The kid lives through a year of being bullied, undervalued, betrayed and at the end of the year he gets a school award for … being unchanged, unchanged, untouched, and unaffected by the year. For him, time has passed, and he is the same sainted kid. The plot moves along and taking him with it, where his growth is unnecessary and peripheral. The other students, the teachers, his family all grow and learn, but not the main character. Instead, he is static and stoic in his saintly goodness. He is an object whose sole purpose is to provide the opportunity for them grow and change.

I understand that there is an argument that any representation is better than no representation. And, some folks argue that those with privilege can and should use that unearned privilege to open the doors that are closed to marginalized communities.  But, this book is not doing that work. Instead, it is a collection of ablism wrapped in a comforting and familiar bow that objectifies marginalized folks for the sole purpose of making abled readers feel good. There has been no mentoring of marginalized authors into publishing by the publisher. Instead, Random House Children’s Books media machine has simply pumped out more and more books that do nothing to challenge ableist tropes.

If you want to bring stories by and about disabled kids into the class, go and pick up a copy of “Unbroken” by Marieke Nijkamp.

What They Read and How They Read It- Part 1

As a researcher I am often asked to describe my research interests in a short form,  sometimes referred to as our research  “elevator speech”, a snippet that communicates just enough to pique peoples interest and want to a) talk to us, b) hire us, or c) give us money to do more interesting research. Never get stuck in an elevator with teacher education folks!

My research is in two areas: What is read in schools, and how people read. If I were to make a Venn diagram of these areas it might have looks like this.1111

Except, that doesn’t represent the relationships as they actually exist. A friend of mine is working on her dissertation – She is making explicit connections about how children’s literature is used and thought about across different domains (library science, English literature, and education). Her work is important because she is illustrating that the more explicit we are about the multiple ways we think about literature, the better we are as educators.

So, if I were honest, the diagram would look more like this,

complexTherefore it is probably impossible – at least for me  – to separate out things like authenticity in representation, artistry, narrative, history, and literary merit.

I am writing about two books today; In Part 1 I’ll tell you about a lovely and brilliant and haunting graphic novel, in Part 2 I’ll tell you about a graphic novel series that isn’t just not great, but might be damaging. Why am I writing about them together? Because both graphic novels have American Indian characters, and represent vastly different portrayals of American Indian lore.

CoverJust to be clear. I am not, as far as I know, any sort of Native American, nor am I a scholar of Native American literature. On the other hand, I think and write and teach about multicultural literature in education and believe it is important to highlight the good literature, as well as recognize the not so good stuff that is still all too prevalent.

The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel (2013) by Drew Taylor, Michael Wyatt (Illustrator), and Alison Kooistra (Adapted by) published by Annick Press, Limited.

The basics of this graphic adaptation are these  – Pierre is a vampire who left Canada some 300 years ago for adventure but ended up becoming a side-show Indian for rich Europeans. He eventually contracted the measles and was “saved” from death by being turned into a vampire. The novel opens with his return to his birthplace where he rents a basement room from a broken family.  The divorce is still fresh in everyone’s mind – Mom took off with a White guy and left dad with a headstrong teenage daughter, Tiffany. She and her dad live with his mom on the reservation. The story is a perfect balance between teen angst (no one understands why Tiffany is dating the dumb-jock White kid who is cheating on her) and the creepy, self-hatred of a 300 year old vampire who scares the crap out of everyone by just hanging around and being really tall .

NW_P5But, as in all graphic novels, the story told in the words is not complete. The illustrations are clean and highly representational. The artist gets the most out of a very basic black and white pallet that includes shades of grey that allow for shadow and light to play at making the night alive and visible to me as a reader. The artist uses splashes of red around Pierre, but not so much that it become silly or predictable.NW_P43

The Native American culture, religion, and narrative traditions are bound together in this book with visual representations of stories, people and places. There are modern Native Americans wearing jeans, drinking tea, being kind and being jerks. There are also the stories from Pierre’s childhood in which he and his family are in buckskins. It is the modern and old representation that is an important aspect in this book. Far too often Native Americans exist only as museum pieces and not as part of the present.

This isn’t the perfect book. Tiffany’s father is flat and seems included to provide a source of tension for Tiffany to bounce off. Her grandmother on the other hand changes dramatically as the story progresses, from a oldster who peppers her conversation with random Indian words, to someone who truly understands the pain and hunger that Pierre is just barely controlling.


The tension in Tiffany’s life, the fact that she has her first White boyfriend at the very same time her mother of off with some anonymous White husband play out for the reader, but Tiffany seems unaware of the irony. Pierre plays a pivotal roll in her life, just as Tiffany does in his. He tells her stories from his own childhood of rebellion and mistakes in order help her understand the consequences of rash actions now on her future.

This book provides both creepy entertainment, beauty, and an authentic representation of a non-White culture that is alive and well in 2013.


Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

I have several confessions to make.

  1. I use this blog space as a place to work out ideas or issues that come up while I am writing more formal, academic work.
  2. I have some publishers that I really like a lot. I like their work, their ideals, and the ways their products. I am biased.
  3. I read books differently when thinking about them for academic settings.

Now that we have all that out of the way, I want to take on the task of writing about Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, published by First:Second Books. First:Second is my absolutely favorite graphic novel publisher … bar none. I could extoll the virtues of the paper they use, the printing process, the authors, and stories they find and cultivate. Just go here and see for yourself.

I was hugely excited to get a review copy of Delilah Dirk. I knew it was originally a web comic or was developed by Tony Cliff on the web or something like that – OK, so I don’t really know what it was because it started when I was writing my dissertation and when one is writing one’s dissertation there are things that one must not allow to distract one from one’s work. But, I digress.

Reading the book was a terrific thrill ride. The characters were funny, there was great banter, and no one had sex or even looked like they wanted to. It is truly a story about Delilah, a swash-buckling woman with a HUGE main of hair meets Selim, a Turkish lieutenant with even bigger morals, who is sent to interrogate her. Through some very unlikely but totally believable mishaps Delilah escapes and in the process saves Selim’s life. He, in turn,  feels indebted to her and vows to accompany her. Think of the best “buddy movies” you’ve seen but instead of two guys, it is a half Greek woman with swords and a flying boat and a Turkish guy with a tea fetish.

The illustrations are just fabulous: Rich color married to exquisitely penned details, along with very smart use of panels and page layouts, which all work together to give rise to an intimate and exciting book. There is a lot of text, almost all of it dialogue with a few bits of back-story exposition, or narration to keep things flexible and interesting. There are gaps in the written text where the author allows the illustrations to provide the details.

Cliff creates some of the most beautiful open water and sea port views. His use of color and line, along with the heavy grade gloss paper is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Boat at sea

Boat at sea

Flying boat

Flying boat

I’m going to walk you through page 14, which shows Delilah and Selim’s “meet cute”. First look over the page yourself, and then take a look at my reading notes.


-Panel 1, 1/3 panel, row 1: mid-shot of Selim baring hot tea though a jail door. Note the jailer keys, the steam rising from the pots and the formal tray, and his raised foot that suggests movement.

-Panel 2, 2/3 panel, row 1: wide-angle, Delilah is quite small in comparison to Salim in the previous panel. Note the chain attached to the wall in the upper left corner and the corresponding one just out of sight-line in the upper right.

-Panel 3, row 2: smaller still but inline with panel 1. Close up of Salim.

-Panel 4, row 2: wide shot that shows both. Selim’s movement from the door to the table (which was not seen prior to this panel) is complete. Note the chair on the far right side of the panel.

-Panel 5, 1/2 panel, row 3, close up of Delilah. Note the large cuff on her writst.

-Panel 6, ½ panel, row 3, mid shot of Selim – he is not amused. Note that this is the first time the panels are in balance with each other.

-Panel 7, full size, she sits and pours while he watches, hunches and displeased. Note they are both in the same panel.

The technical fore-thought is amazing and is consistent throughout the book. But …. And there is a big but, the book has a major flaw that I cannot get around or ignore.

Although Delilah is the main character, and she defies many stereo-types of women, and the relationship between Selim and Delilah is unique in the equanimity it shows, there are problems with the ways women are portrayed throughout. In fact, you could change Delilah to a man, and there would be little change in the story. That is a problem.

It took me until the third time through the book, when I was getting ready to write about it, to see the problem. I often read with the Bechtel Test in the for-front on my mine when looking for representations in a book. The Bechdel test is a great way to read graphic novels for inclusion and representation that  includes how and why visual elements are used and why.

In short, The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies highlights how women are portrayed in media. Just ask yourself these questions about the book or movie:

1. Are there 2 women who have names?

2. Do these women talk to each?

3. When they talk, is it about something other than men?

That’s it. Three questions … actually, two and a half since #2 and 3 are so tightly related.  Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant  fails.

Here are the reasons:

1. There are very few women that appear in the book (3, not counting Delilah).

2. Most of the women are nameless, covered in everything from chador to full-body bukas, even though the men are depicted in a range of clothing styles, and even shirtless in one scene.

3. Two of the three women who appear in the book are only there as objects of desire for Selim.

4. The  one other woman who has a name in introduced by her husband, Semih, as “my Sofya” who bakes and takes care of others.

5. When Sofya finally does speak she talks to Selim as he leaves the village in search of Delilah, “Come back when you are ready to marry one or more of my daughters!”

Yes, that is the extent of the women who speak in the book.

It doesn’t just fail a little. It fails EPICALLY and I am  mad.

I am mad because I wanted to be able to love this book. I wanted to use this book with preservice teachers, in-service teachers, and kids. But I can’t. I cannot recommend this book at all. I hate finding an almost terrific book more than finding horrid dreck. I believe that really horrid, simplistic, badly designed and written graphic novels have enough strong competition in the marketplace. At one point there was only Bone by Jeff Smith. Now, there are divisions and publishers that think, and think very carefully about books to keep truly terrible books in check.

But, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, isn’t just simply bad. It is beautiful and fun and a really good story that has one element that I cannot abide. I hate this kind of conundrum because I know there are loads of good teachers and parents who are going to look this book over and think it is a good read for theirs sons or daughters. But, it isn’t. It shows readers that women are more often then not nameless property or servants to the community.