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American Born Chinese
Gene Yang, First Second Books, 2006
Indie graphic novelist Gene Yang’s intelligent and emotionally challenging American Born Chinese is made up of three individual plotlines: the determined efforts of the Chinese folk hero Monkey King to shed his humble roots and be revered as a god; the struggles faced by Jin Wang, a lonely Asian American middle school student who would do anything to fit in with his white classmates; and the sitcom plight of Danny, an All-American teen so shamed by his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee (a purposefully painful ethnic stereotype) that he is forced to change schools. Each story works well on its own, but Yang engineers a clever convergence of these parallel tales into a powerful climax that destroys the hateful stereotype of Chin-Kee, while leaving both Jin Wang and the Monkey King satisfied and happy to be who they are.
Yang skillfully weaves these affecting, often humorous stories together to create a masterful commentary about race, identity, and self-acceptance that has earned him a spot as a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People. The artwork, rendered in a chromatically cool palette, is crisp and clear, with clean white space around center panels that sharply focuses the reader’s attention in on Yang’s achingly familiar characters. There isn’t an adolescent alive who won’t be able to relate to Jin’s wish to be someone other than who he is, and his gradual realization that there is no better feeling than being comfortable in your own skin.
Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda
JP Stassen, First Second Books, 2006
Deogratias means “thanks be to God,” and it’s the name of a boy coming of age in Rwanda in 1994. He is just figuring out what it means to be a man, and wrestling with the feelings he harbors toward two sisters, Apollinaria and Benina. The sisters are themselves struggling to establish their own place in society and understand the difficult decisions their mother, Venetia, has made – Apollinaria’s real father is a white Catholic priest, and Venetia has been forced to leave the country in the past to save her daughters. But Deogratias is Hutu, and they are Tutsi, a simple fact that renders all of their internal battles irrelevant. This award-winning comic was originally published in Belgium in 2000 and has an introduction explaining the history leading to the Rwandan genocide. The heartbreaking power of Deogratias is how it keeps the reader distant from the atrocities by showing the trivial cruelties of everyday life before and after the genocide. Stassen is a journalist who lives in Rwanda, and his art is bold and clear, using different color palettes to seamlessly shift between before and after. There is no catharsis, only the realization that even justice turns its champion into a monster.
Lat; First Second Books, 2006
Lat recounts the life of Mat, a Muslim boy growing up in rural Malaysia in the 1950s: his adventures and mischief-making, fishing trips, religious education, and work on his family’s rubber plantation. Meanwhile, the traditional way of life in his village (or kampung) is steadily disappearing, with tin mines and factory jobs increasingly overtaking the village’s agricultural way of life. When Mat himself leaves for boarding school, he can only hope that his familiar kampung will still be there when he returns. The first in a delightful series, Kampung Boy is hilarious and affectionate, with brilliant, super-expressive artwork that opens a window into a world that has now nearly vanished.
King: A Comics Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ho Che Anderson, Fantagraphics Books, 2005
This collection covers the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his early days in college through the Civil Rights movement to his assassination. The fairly chronological flow of the story line is occasionally interrupted by brief soliloquies by friends, colleagues, and enemies. This technique offers a wide variety of perspectives on this American icon and the events surrounding him. King is shown as driven and charismatic, loving the spotlight, enjoying alcohol, having a tendency to cheat on his wife when he’s on the road, and having private moments with his family. One of the most powerful of those moments comes when King explains to his children that he can’t take them to a theme park because of the color of their skin. While Anderson has a gift for creating dialogue and narrative, he also knows when to let an image speak for itself. The artwork is a visual feast, mixing realistic drawings with expressionistic paintings and photo-collage. Although primarily black and white throughout, a few dashes of color explode on pages that focus on particularly emotional times. With its complex, compelling storytelling and vivid illustrations, King brings one of the greatest figures in our history to life, if only for a short while.
Jessica Abel, Public Square Books, 2007
Carla Olivares, a young Mexican-American woman, goes to Mexico City to try to get in touch with her Mexican side. She’s got her own, distorted ideas about what that means, and her annoyance with an old boyfriend who’s leading his idea of the romantic expatriate life (by hanging out exclusively with other expats) makes her even more nervous about coming off like an outsider. She starts hanging out with a bunch of local lowlifes and blowhards who feed her guilt about being a privileged “conquistadora.” They talk big (about stardom and revolution), but barely scrape by on petty crime-which eventually becomes not so petty, and sucks Carla into a vortex of fear and violence.
The Girl from Hoppers
Jaime Hernandez; Fantagraphics Books, 2007
A group of Mexican-American women come of age in Southern California’s burgeoning punk rock scene in the early 1980s and mature into the present in the fictional Los Angeles barrio, Hoppers as they attempt to define themselves in a community rife with class, race and gender issues.
Maus : A Survivor’s Tale
Art Spiegelman, Pantheon, 1996
This is the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).
Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.
Joe Sacco, Fantagraphics Books, 2002
Based on several months of research and an extended visit to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1990s (where he conducted over 100 interviews with Palestinians and Jews), Palestine was the first major comics work of political and historical nonfiction by Sacco, who has often been called the first comic book journalist. Sacco’s insightful reportage takes place at the front lines, where busy marketplaces are spoiled by shootings and tear gas, soldiers beat civilians with reckless abandon, and roadblocks go up before reporters can leave. Sacco interviewed and encountered prisoners, refugees, protesters, wounded children, farmers who had lost their land, and families who had been torn apart by the Palestinian conflict.
In 1996, the Before Columbus Foundation awarded Palestine the seventeenth annual American Book Award, stating that the author should be recognized for his “outstanding contribution to American literature.”
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Marjane Satrapi, Pantheon Books, 2004
Satrapi’s autobiography is a timely and timeless story of a young girl’s life under the Islamic Revolution. Descended from the last Emperor of Iran, Satrapi is nine when fundamentalist rebels overthrow the Shah. While Satrapi’s radical parents and their community initially welcome the ouster, they soon learn a new brand of totalitarianism is taking over. Satrapi’s art is minimal and stark yet often charming and humorous as it depicts the madness around her. She idolizes those who were imprisoned by the Shah, fascinated by their tales of torture, and bonds with her Uncle Anoosh, only to see the new regime imprison and eventually kill him. Thanks to the Iran-Iraq war, neighbors’ homes are bombed, playmates are killed and parties are forbidden. Satrapi’s parents, who once lived in luxury despite their politics, struggle to educate their daughter. Her father briefly considers fleeing to America, only to realize the price would be too great. “I can become a taxi driver and you a cleaning lady?” he asks his wife. Iron Maiden, Nikes and Michael Jackson become precious symbols of freedom, and eventually Satrapi’s rebellious streak puts her in danger, as even educated women are threatened with beatings for improper attire. Despite the grimness, Satrapi never lapses into sensationalism or sentimentality. Skillfully presenting a child’s view of war and her own shifting ideals, she also shows quotidian life in Tehran and her family’s pride and love for their country despite the tumultuous times.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
Guy Delisle, Drawn and Quarterly, 2005
Pyongyang documents the two months French animator Delisle spent overseeing cartoon production in North Korea, where his movements were constantly monitored by a translator and a guide, who together could limit his activities but couldn’t restrict his observations. He records everything from the omnipresent statues and portraits of dictators Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to the brainwashed obedience of the citizens. Rather than conveying his disorientation through convoluted visual devices, Delisle uses a straightforward Eurocartoon approach that matter-of-factly depicts the mundane absurdities he faced every day. The gray tones and unembellished drawings reflect the grim drabness and the sterility of a totalitarian society.
Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow
James Sturm & Rich Tommaso, Jump at the Sun Books, 2007
Told in flashback, the story takes place during the Jim Crow days where baseball was a genteel pastime, with the elderly seated under shady grandstands while black players abided the sickening and arbitrary restrictions placed on them. A period piece rather than a biography, the narrative captures the daily action of sporting contests against local racists and Paige’s dignity and resilience. Paige’s mystique as a lifelong survivor in the brutal world of early- to mid-20th-century race relations and sport will attract readers. The depiction of what daily life was like during this period is the real subject of this title, and it should be a marvelous discovery for teens.
Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China
Guy Delisle, Drawn and Quarterly, 2006
Shenzhen finds the author working on an animated movie in a Communist country, this time in Shenzhen, an isolated city in southern China. Delisle explores Chinese custom and geography, eloquently explaining the cultural differences city to city, company to company and person to person. He also goes into detail about the food and entertainment of the region. All of this is the result of his intense isolation for three months in an anonymous hotel room. He has little to do but ruminate on his surroundings, and readers are the lucky beneficiaries of his loneliness. As in his earlier work, Delisle draws in a gentle cartoon style: his observations are grounded in realism.
Adrian Tomine, Drawn and Quarterly, 2007
This is the story of Ben Tanaka, a confused, obsessive Japanese American male in his late twenties, and his cross-country search for contentment (or at least the perfect girl). Along the way, Tomine tackles modern culture, sexual mores, and racial politics with brutal honesty and lacerating, irreverent humor, while deftly bringing to life a cast of painfully real antihero characters.
Stuck Rubber Baby
Howard Cruse, DC Comics, 2000
A sweeping and delicately-etched coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the Deep South, “Stuck Rubber Baby” raised the bar for what the graphic novel could do.
In this book, set in Alabama during the early Sixties, Howard Cruse explores the structures of racism and homophobia with a complexity that resonates in his astonishingly intricate drawings. Reading Stuck Rubber Baby is an acutely sensuous experience, from its powerful visuals to the virtually audible jazz lyrics and freedom songs that weave in and out of the narrative. With unflinching honesty and meticulous craft, Cruse brings the confusion and exhilaration of social upheaval to vivid life.