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Graphic Novel Review: Unrig: How To Fix Our Broken Democracy (World Citizen Comics)

Unrig: How To Fix Our Broken Democracy (World Citizen Comics) by Daniel G. Newman, art by George O’Connor. First Second, 2020. 9781250295309. 280pp. including notes/citations for each chapter and an index.

Newman, who runs MapLight (maplight.org), lays out problems with our political system alongside examples of how they can and are being fixed. At the heart of most of the trouble is money, wielded by companies and individuals who can spend enough to determine who runs for office, gets elected, and writes US laws. The politicians they help elect then rig the rules in their own favor, and to favor the folks who help get them elected. Newman points to ways to unrig the system, including Seattle’s democracy voucher program, which allows candidates to fund campaigns without becoming beholden to those who finance their campaigns. (He highlights other ideas for clean elections too, which not only affect funding but also make politicians pay attention to the public as a whole.) The book often goes into a great deal of detail — for the Seattle idea, for example, Newman talks about how it came to be starting with the ten folks who founded Vote Clean Seattle, and how they pushed their idea forward, including what they learned from early mistakes.

Not to make a huge push for this, but this whole section at the beginning pretty much guarantees every library I frequent in Seattle and King County (the county around Seattle) is going to buy a few copies — and they should. But it doesn’t just belong here, it belongs everywhere. There are other real-life examples from across the country as Newman looks at problems with congress, the most shocking of which is how much time each member has to spend making calls to solicit donations for their next campaign. (This clearly has to be their focus, with the way things are now and the amount of money they have to raise: “The average winning Senate candidate spent much more — $15.8 million. That’s more than $7,000 per day — for an entire six year term.”)

At the heart of most problems Newman lays out, is MONEY. He explores campaign finance rules in detail, shows how wealth hoarders buy a system that benefits them (including climate change denial), and addresses voter suppression. In each case though he offers hope and a way forward. There’s much more in the book than I’m detailing, too.

I normally don’t like graphic novels with a talking head, and it’s worth noting that Newman himself appears in this one throughout, talking to readers. But O’Connor (best known for his Olympians graphic novels) has done a fantastic job illustrating the concepts and people Newman discusses, and the panel layouts, word balloons, and other text work together to keep make the book a page turner.

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Graphic Novel Review: Kusama The Graphic Novel by Elisa Macellari

Kusama The Graphic Novel by Elisa Macellari, translated from Italian by Edward Fortes. Laurence King, 2020. 9781786277169. 128pp.

Lenz’s documentary Kusama – Infinity, and Kusama’s autobiography Infinity Net are the two main sources listed at the back of the book, but even if you’re familiar with both there’s a lot to love in Macellari’s colorful, well-designed graphic novel. (Is it weird that my favorite part of the book is Kusama’s deadpan face and the way Macellari draws Kusama at different ages?)

The book opens with Kusama’s early life, including her unsupportive mother and going inside her head a bit to show her mental illness and obsessions. Kusama moves to New York in the late 1950s and works on art around the clock, anxious and detached. She’s driven and ambitious, and has quite a bit of success. (The book spends a few pages on her intense and platonic relationship with artist Joseph Cornell, which is lovely and sad.) After she returned to Japan because of her mental health, there was a period where she was mostly forgotten, though now, of course, she’s become famous worldwide for her art and for being herself. (If you haven’t ever experienced one of her mirrored infinity rooms and you have the chance, go for it.)

This looks like a friendly, colorful book for kids, but it’s probably not something most parents would appreciate finding in the children’s graphic novel section of the library — Kusama witnesses her father cheating on her mother, and there’s some nudity when she’s creating public performance art in New York. Worth noting: it’s all tastefully drawn (even the adultery).

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Graphic Novel Review: InvestiGators by John Patrick Green

InvestiGators by John Patrick Green. First Second, 2020. 9781250219954. 201pp. including a few lessons in how to draw characters in the back.

Investigators is the graphic novel Green has been working toward for years. It brings together the cute animals and workplace humor of his Kitten Construction Company and Hippopotamister in a fun, wordplay-filled mystery featuring two alligator investigators, Mango and Brash. The pair work for S.U.I.T. (Special Undercover Investigative Teams) to solve mysteries and fight “crime, corruption, and confusion.” The story starts with the pair going undercover at a bakery because world famous cupcake chef Gustavo Mustachio is missing, which leads them to another mystery involving the thingamabob invented at the Science Factory and the villain who wants to steal it. Oh and there’s also a shadowy, vaguely alligator-shaped figure forcing Gustavo to bake for his nefarious reasons (which will come into play in the sequel, which was just published).

My favorite thing about the book, aside from the drawings, is a character straight out of Green and Dave Roman’s Teen Boat!, a transforming doctor with a hilarious origin story and a very strange trigger word.

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Graphic Novel Review: Aster of Pan by Merwan

Aster of Pan Volume 1 by Merwan. Translation: M.B. Valente. Originally published by Dargaud, 2019. 9781942367949 (the 2021 English translation). 200pp. Info at http://www.europecomics.com/album/aster-pan-v1/ though it looks like the digital versions have been pulled from the US market because a print edition by Magnetic Press is coming in Nov. 2020. That book will contains this and Volume 2.

February, 2068, Fontainebleau Forest. Aster lives alone in a treehouse, surviving on what she can scavenge from the ruins of Paris and trade for in Pan, the farm town where her book-loving friend Wallis lives. Aster is all big gestures and toughness, though it’s clear she wants a family and longs to be a citizen of Pan. There’s a bear, a pirate attack, and a bit of politics before an “ambassador” arrives with tech and soldiers from the Republic of Fortuna, announcing that Pan will soon have the honor of joining their federation. The leaders of Pan aren’t happy, but they have little choice. But then they ask for arbitration by celestial mechanics. (No one even knows what that means.) But then someone arrives in Pan who starts training them for the game they’ll have to play. It’s more than a little ridiculous, but also serious, and of course they need Aster to completes their team (even though she’s un-Pan).

The story has the perfect amount of fun for its post-apocalyptic setting, and I really loved Merwan’s drawings. Their fluidity reminds me of the best of Connor Willumsen’s, though there’s also a bit of a manga influence in the body language and facial expressions, and it’s perfect colors hold the words and art together.

Assuming Volume 2 is as good, the forthcoming book would be a great graphic novel for any YA or adult collection.

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Graphic Novel Review: Banned Book Club by Hyun Sook Kim and Ryan Estrada, illustrated by Hyung-Ju Ko

Banned Book Club by Hyun Sook Kim and Ryan Estrada, illustrated by Hyung-Ju Ko. Iron Circus Comics, 2020. 9781945820427. 192pp.

This fictionalized memoir of Kim Hyun Sook’s life begins in 1983. It was the year she started college, and back then the US backed South Korea’s ruling military dictatorship. College campuses were the sites of protests that often turned violent. The government sometimes tried to silence students with violence and disappearances.

Her first day at Anjeon University, Hyun Sook has to dodge Molotov cocktails, tear gas, and riot police to get through the main gate to her first class. She soon joins a masked folk dance club to stay out of politics, but even traditional dances are political. One of her new friends invites her to a book club, which sounds great. But she soon finds out the attendees read and discuss books that could get them arrested. At first Hyun Sook decides not to join. Bu her Shakespeare professor indirectly encourages her, and soon she’s attending. She learns a lot, including about the parts of her country’s history that her parents don’t talk about like the Kwangju Massacre. Soon a government agent is after them. is trying to track down members of the book club.

It’s all very a bit harrowing, but there are also lighthearted moments. The opening scene in Hyun Sook’s parents’ steak restaurant made me laugh, and so did the movie everyone is talking about (it involves a naked woman on a horse). Some book club members even copy books right under the nose of a government censor.

The characters are all easy to root for, especially for library folk and readers like us. Hyung-Ju Ko’s expressive illustrations make them even more likable.

This biography is fictionalized, in part to protect the people in the story, as Kim says in her biographical statement. But it rings true to me based on stories my wife has told me about her university days in Busan, where Kim and Estrada currently live.

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Nonfiction Review: Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. Penguin Classics, 2008. 9780141442075. 347pp. including photographs and an index.

“Arabian Sands describes the journeys I made in and around the Empty Quarter from 1945 to 1950, at which time much of that region had not yet been seen by a European.” (The Empty Quarter is a huge dessert in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.) Thesiger’s detailed account is full of vivid descriptions and immense hardship, as well as respect for and camaraderie with his Bedu companions. I loved the hospitality displayed by most who met Thesiger, though he did face danger from a few who were displeased with having a Christian in their land. There’s also a sadness around the edges of the journey — the oil companies are moving in and making deals, and Thesiger can see that the Bedu’s way of life won’t last much longer.

This is one of my friend Mac’s favorite books. When he read a passage from it at Christmas dinner last year, he could see that I was hooked, and he loaned me a copy. (He keeps several around the house.) When I finished it I had an intense desire to wander around in the dry heat and an aversion to riding camels (though I might try eating one if it’s ever an offer).

You can see some amazing photos by Thesiger from this time period here.

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Picture Book Reviews!

Butts Are Everywhere by by Jonathan Stutzman, pictures by Heather Fox. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020. 9780525514510. 32pp.

Tired of poop books getting so much attention? Need to help the butt obsessed child in your life build their vocabulary? This is the book for you. Adorable illustrations! Fox also illustrated the amazing Llama Destroys the World.

 

 

Scaredy Snacks by Terry Border. Philomel Books, 2020. 32pp.

On cleaning day, Sprinkles and her friends go to welcome Dr. Nuttenstein to the neighborhood. After they watch him bring a “monstrous” cookie to life, they get a little freaked out.

Border creates the characters and props mostly from common household items (including snacks, of course). They’re hilarious and sure to inspire art projects.

 

Julia’s House Moves On by Ben Hatke. First Second, 2020. 9781250191373. 40pp.

So many lost creatures live at Julia’s house, but it’s time to move on. And Julia has plans, as she always does. Which is great because as things go wrong, she’s going to need them all. But what will happen when her plans aren’t enough?

Ben Hatke’s drawings are always wondrous, and every creature in this book wowed me from the goblins to the trolls to the ghost and robots and all the amazing sea creatures! Note: It’s a sequel to Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.

 

Window by Marion Arbona. Kids Can Press, 2020. 9781525301360. 32pp.

A girl walks home from school, looking up at the windows she passes. The pages with the windows unfold to show incredibly detailed scenes of what’s going on behind each: lush jungles, bath time with whales, vampires flying with their bats, gnomes having a contest, and more. It’s surprising, a little insane, and really cool. My favorite is room full of masks where a crazy looking guy is having tea with his dog. You may prefer the room full of books. (At the end the girl makes it home and we get to see her room, too.) All drawn with glorious, highly detailed, old school black ink.

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Easy Reader Review: If You Love (activity) You Could Be…

 

 

 

 

 

If You Love Cooking You Could Be… (Ready To Read Level 2) by Elizabeth Dennis, Illustrated by Natalie Kwee. Simon Spotlight, 2019. 9781534454545. 32pp.

If You Love Dolphins You Could Be… (Ready To Read Level 2) by May Nakamura, Illustrated by Natalie Kwee. Simon Spotlight, 2019. 9781534444690. 32pp.

If You Love Video Games You Could Be… (Ready To Read Level 2) by Thea Feldman, Illustrated by Natalie Kwee. Simon Spotlight, 2019. 9781534443990. 32pp.

If You Love Fashion You Could Be…. (Ready To Read Level 2) by May Nakamura, Illustrated by Natalie Kwee. Simon Spotlight, 2019. 9781534448773. 32pp.

Each of these easy readers goes into a bit of detail about three careers, and has a list of more cool jobs at the back. The stars of each are Kwee’s happy, simple drawings. Everyone is smiling, and it feels like every little thing she draws is, too.

The book full of dolphin love is probably my favorite of the four — it has a subtle, pro-environmental message as it contains details about being an aquatic veterinarian, marine biologist, and underwater filmmaker. (The other careers mentioned briefly at the end are oceanographer, aquarium curator, underwater archaeologist, environmental lawyer, and environmental social scientist.)

In 2020, it’s hard to argue that it’s ever too early for kids to start thinking about a career and a couple of fallbacks.

Worth noting: the next books in the series are If You Love Robots.., and If You Love Books…. — I hope librarians made the cut in the latter.

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Graphic Novel Review: Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne

Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020. 9781534441538. 256pp.

Beetle loves hanging out at the mall with her friend Blob Ghost, which is good because BG can’t leave the mall. Beetle’s grandma keeps trying to teach her goblin magic, but Beetle doesn’t think potions are real magic. Her friend Kat has just come back to town to apprentice with her aunt, Marla Hollowbone. Kat’s having the kind of success with magic that Beetle believes she can only dream of, but it’s Kat’s life that’s the nightmare — Kat’s aunt is a seriously nasty piece of work, and that nastiness goes wide when she tries to force Beetle’s Gran out of her job and to destroy the mall where BG lives. Beetle has to save BG by finding a way for him to escape the mall before he’s buried in the rubble, and to save her friend Kat from her aunt, too.

This is a beautiful little book about friendship with (what I assume is) superb digital art. The whole thing is just wonderful, and a great read-alike for Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy graphic novels. Worth noting: Layne is the creator of the all-ages webcomic Demon Street. http://www.demonstreet.co/about

 

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Graphic Novel Review: The Book Tour by Andi Watson

The Book Tour by Andi Watson. Top Shelf, 2020. 9781603094795. 270pp.

British author G.H. Fretwell is on a tour to promote his new novel, Without K, and nothing is going right. Someone has stolen his suitcase, and no one is buying any of his books. After a night alone in his hotel room he’s questioned by two policemen about a missing bookstore clerk because he was the last person to see her. He find himself the center of a criminal investigation as his “book signings” get stranger and his accommodations seedier. What is the mystery’s relationship to the book Fretwell wrote? Why does everyone think he’s guilty? And why hasn’t a review of his book appeared in the newspaper? It is, as you may have suspected, very Kafkaesque.

Watson is one of my favorite artists, and the way he uses a 12-panel grid for layout in this book is masterful. It’s clear he had as much fun drawing the bookshops as he did the streets and alleys. This is a surreal, fun bit of bookish anxiety.

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