Book review: Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist, by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

Almond, David. Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist. Il. Dave McKean. Candlewick, 2019. $17.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-5362-0160-4. Ages 12-15. P7Q10

Almond’s 2014 story is creatively illustrated with panels, boxes, and full-page mixed media including drawings, scribbles, watercolors, and collages in this psychological “graphic storybook” set in a small British town. Joe invites friends David, the narrator, and Geordie to his house so they can see how a ghostly being wreaks havoc in his house by smashing dishes, breaking windows, and doing other damage. Although reluctant to go, Davie joins Geordie, Joe, and Mrs. Quinn for a meal where they hear crashing upstairs and food flies through the air over them. Davie is thoroughly convinced and believes in the presence of his dead sister, but Geordie thinks that Joe has set them up. Also convinced that she feels the poltergeist, Mrs. Quinn sends Joe for the Irish priest, Father Kelly, to exorcise the being, and the father helps Davie find peace: “There is not Heaven to go to. And no Hell…. There’s only us.” Almond’s two-page introduction tells about his close connection to the plot from the death of his baby sister when he was seven and his family’s belief in the supernatural.

Verdict: Almond’s two-page introduction tells about his close connection to the plot from the death of his baby sister when he was seven and his family’s belief in the supernatural. The eerie graphic novel resolves with the possibility of hope in spite of the prevailing sense of horror. Davie resolves his feelings by believing “…the poltergeist is all of us, raging and wanting to scream and to fight and to start flinging stuff; to smash and to break. It is all of us wanting to be still, to be quiet, to be in love, to be at peace.”

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Guts, by Raina Telgemeier

Telgemeier, Raina. Guts. Graphix/Scholastic, 2019. $12.99. 211p. ISBN 978-0-545-85250-0. Ages 9-12. P9Q9

The author of popular middle-school graphic memoirs, Smile and Sisters, returns to the format when she addresses her suffering from a rebellious stomach in struggles with food, school, and friendships. She becomes a germophobe, and toxic green dialog panels describe her negative feelings. Although Telgemeier is initially frightened by seeing a therapist, she learns coping exercises by grounding herself and relaxing, even teaching classmates about them in a classroom project. Telgemeier’s “Author’s Note” explains how, despite extensive treatment for her emotional issues, they are a part of who she is.

Verdict: Minimalist facial expressions clearly show shifting feelings through a few lines. Nonjudgmental and therapeutic without being didactic, Guts shows young people that they are not alone in their fears and feelings of inadequacy. The book is dedicated to “anyone who feels afraid” and can help people understand those with phobias and panic attacks.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, art by Harmony Becker

Takei, George, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott. They Called Us Enemy. Art by Harmony Becker. Top Shelf, 2019. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-60309-450-4. Ages 10-15. P9Q8

George Takei, the actor who played the helmsman of the USS Enterprise on Star Trek, was one of the thousands of Japanese-Americans incarcerated after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. In 1942, the four-year-old was sent with his family to a “relocation center” like all the other people of Japanese descent living on the west coast of the United States. These places could be thousands of miles away from their homes, and people were allowed only the few possessions that they could carry with them. For years, they lived behind barbed wire, hated by most of the people in the nation. The black and white panels in this graphic narrative show their harsh life away from their friends where they were subjected to abusive treatment. Left with no home when a court ruling forced their release, inhabitants were told that they could stay safe behind the fences if they renounced their citizenship. To keep her family safe, Takei’s mother renounced her citizenship only to be forced to fight the renunciation after the end of the war. Upon their return to LA, the Takei family lived in poverty on Skid Row until his father found a job, but George was still abused by racist teachers. The book culminates in a brief piece about Takei becoming an activist to fight for democracy.

Verdict: Rich interweavings of Takei’s childhood and adult understandings are combined with historical key speeches and events. The personal view of Takei’s experiences comes from Manga-inspired fine lines reflecting body language and faces. The message is clear: immigrant communities in the 21st century suffer the same persecution from people of the U.S. that Japanese Americans did during World War II.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children, edited by Kath Shackleton, illustrated by Zane Whittingham

Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children. Ed. Kath Shackleton. Il. Zane Whittingham. Sourcebooks eXplore, 2019. $14.99. 96p. ISBN 9781492688921. Ages 10-14. P8Q9

Six Jewish people who lived through the Holocaust as children and young people narrate the horror of their experiences in this graphic depiction of persecution that incorporates drawings of photographs, primary documents, and maps.  Although a “comic” form, the images of Nazi soldiers pointing guns at innocent people, bombs dropping, and pounding on doors in the middle of the night demonstrate the terror of the subjects’ capture and forced migration to concentration camp. Particularly ghastly is the last entry, Arek’s story of his life at Birkenau with abuse and emaciated figures. The book finishes with photos of the people at the time it was first published in 2016 and brief paragraphs for each about the aftermath of the Holocaust for them. A glossary, timeline, brief index, and web sources complete the book. The graphic narration is based on a British TV animation series.

Verdict: The tales of fear and chaos, being replicated today as refugees seek safety, are made more vivid through hand-drawn digital illustrations of harsh figures and faces. “Lest we forget,” everyone, including children need to know the consequences of cruelty and repression, simply on the basis of being perceived as different. Powerful, memorable, chilling—a vital addition to libraries. Helpful is that each person ends up in a safe place.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Hawking, by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Leland Myrick

Ottaviani, Jim. Hawking. Il. Leland Myrick. First Second, 2019. $29.99. 291p. ISBN 978-1-62672-025-1. Ages 12-15. P7Q8

At the age of 21, popular Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with the degenerative neuromuscular disease, ALS, which carried an average death sentence within three years. Yet Hawking lived for another 55 years to become a brilliant theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who did groundbreaking work. Hawking invited Ottaviani and Myrick to create the book, and the graphic narrative is told in Hawking’s own voice. Some of Hawking’s problems are glossed over, such as his second wife’s abuse, but the difficult relationship with his first wife of 25 years is clearly explained by not only Hawking’s deteriorating physical abilities but also his obsession with his work. The author provides both his professional career and personal life during this time in a graphic form with five to nine full-color panels on each page.

Verdict: The complicated concepts are sometimes hard to understand, but the biographical information provides an excellent background to Hawking’s life and his struggles with his declining ability to take care of himself.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks

Ottaviani, Jim. Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier. Il. Maris Wicks. First Second, 2020. $19.99. 159p. ISBN 978-1-62672-877-6. Ages 10-14. P8Q9

In 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space because of the sexist attitudes of the U.S. government. Sally Ride didn’t become the first U.S. woman in space for another 20 years. With charm, humor, and insight, U.S. female astronauts, especially one of NASA’s second group of female trainees, Mary Cleave, tell the stories of their drive to go into space and the ways that women were blocked from taking part in the space program although they were often better qualified. Color panels of their biographies and training are mixed with such funny diagrams as the extensive testing for participation and dialog such as male concern for a “dress code” for women but not men. Details about Tereshkova and U.S. women show how little mentally equipped the men in charge of the U.S. program and male congressional members were to deal with even the concept of women in space although one of those chosen was married to a senator at the time. Wicks uses a faux-Cyrillic font developed by Kevin Cannon for Tereshkova’s dialog.

Verdict: An important part of the graphic narrative is the story of the “Mercury 13,” women trained in the U.S. as astronauts but then rejected because of politics. (Tanya Stone immortalized this experiment in Almost Astronauts.) Tereshkova’s experiences, when she was accepted as a colleague, are skillfully interwoven with testimony by Janey Hart and Jerrie Cobb, members of Mercury 13, at a congressional hearing where the qualified women were refused the chance to serve as astronauts, despite Hart’s husband being a senator. Humor is well-delineated with facial and body expressions indicating male mockery and cluelessness and the women’s frustration. The elements of science from the training show the women’s talent in doing essential work as scientists and pilots. The action-filled artwork in space brings reality to the women’s hard work, and Cleave’s narration ties together the prejudices, politics, and science of women in space. Recommended for all libraries.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Activist: A Story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting, by Lauren Elizabeth Hogg, illustrated by Don Hudson

Hogg, Lauren Elizabeth. Activist: A Story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting. Il. Don Hudson. Zuiker Press, 2019. $12.99. ISBN 9781947378216.  96p. Ages 11-14. P8Q8

Valentine’s Day, 2018, began with joy for the 14-year-old author of this graphic narrative and ended with the horror of 17 classmates and teachers gunned down by a student at the Florida school. Now an activist along with her older brother, Hogg describes her feelings throughout the day that led her to become an activist for gun control despite the smears that she and her colleagues received, even from the son of the U.S. president. That event led her to write First Lady Melania Trump, who had recently launched an anti-cyberbullying campaign, about Donald Trump Jr’s tweet supporting a false conspiracy theory concerning the gun control advocates.

Verdict: Photos at the end of the book give an additional view of the author’s life. Hogg’s strong voice and mission gives a well-organized and compelling view of a major 21st-century tragedy, and her personality comes out through her relationships with parents, brother, and friends. She vividly relates how hope and strength can evolve from a disaster. Anthony E. Zuiker, creator of the TV series CSI and cofounder of Zuiker Press, produces a series of graphic memoirs by teenagers about social issues, trauma, and other life-changing events.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, by Bryan Caplan, illustrated by Zach Weinerstmith

Caplan, Bryan. Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Il. Zach Weinersmith. First Second, 2019. $27.99. 248p. ISBN 978-1-250-31697-4. Ages 15+. P5Q8

This graphic narrative dives into the fray of immigration debate, refuting arguments about social burdens and dangers for citizens with statistics showing the benefits to countries from immigration. The economist author argues that a successful global economy would result from opening borders, eradicating worldwide poverty and benefiting everyone. Caplan employs wry humor to address such issues as detention camps, walls, and caged children as well as more complicated subjects like fiscal collapse and the relationship between production and IQ. Other complicated subjects include elitism, a major reason behind anti-immigration and utilitarianism.

Verdict: The 31 pages of source notes indicates Caplan’s extensive research, and the clarifying artwork can be whimsical. The book benefits from a lack of emotional attacks. The content, although sometimes hard to understand and confusing with both sides presented, is an excellent beginning for a discussion of the overall subject. Commentators from many sides of the issue have praised Caplan and his work.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Brown Girl Ghosted, by Mintie Das

Das, Mintie. Brown Girl Ghosted. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 289 pages. $17.99. ISBN 9780358128892. Ages 14-up. P8 Q7

Sixteen year old Violet Choudhury is one of the few brown skinned students in her Midwestern high school and she is careful to maintain her place in the school’s hierarchy—a cheerleader, but the one at the base of the pyramid, friendly with the leading clique, but not a leader.  As the descendent of Assamese queens—the Aiedeo—Violet is heir to supernatural powers and was in training with her ancestors until a test of her skills almost led to her death.  Since that time, Vi has avoided anything to do with her heritage.  The Aiedeo decide to send one last test.  When Naomi, head cheerleader and leading mean girl, dies and comes back as a bhoot, a ghost, Violet must find out how and why she died and must finish the job before Naomi is buried.  As an incentive, the Aiedeo turn Violet into a bhoot as well.

Verdict: As the book begins, Violet’s survival strategy is self-protection at all costs.  She is aware of the misogyny directed against female students by the male athletes, students, and male teachers, aware of the racism inherent in the school’s social structure, but she chooses not to interfere.  It is only when Violet herself faces death that she acts to change the school’s paradigm.  Only by taking her own power seriously and honoring Naomi’s experience through empathy can Violet save herself and solve Naomi’s murder.  The first person narration brings us into Violet’s experience, which through the first half of the book shows a pretty selfish person.  Violet does grow through the second half of the book, but the language around sexism and racism was sometimes didactic.  I have enjoyed some of the increasing numbers of young adult fantasies incorporating folklore and tales from the Indian subcontinent.  Descriptions of Violet’s transformation into a bhoot, or dead spirit with smoky gray color and backwards feet, were effective.  This might be a good book for those who have read Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret and Game of Stars, in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Otherwise, I would treat this as an optional purchase for junior high, high school, and public libraries.

June 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: Deadly Aim: The Civil War Story of Michigan’s Anishinaabe Sharpshooters, by Sally M. Walker

Walker, Sally M. Deadly Aim: The Civil War Story of Michigan’s Anishinaabe Sharpshooters. Holt, 2019. $19.99. 288p. ISBN 978-1-250-12525-5. Ages 12-15. P5 Q8

Although over 20,000 Native Americans served in the Civil War, most of the stories are about either black or white soldiers. This book helps fill in the blank by relating the experiences of Company K, one of the largest all-Native American units in the Union Army, in their training and on the front lines. The book is rich in archival photographs and documents, inviting layout, and accessible stories of individuals. The chapter “Homeward Bound” covers a brief aftermath of Company K, and the “Epilogue” follows a dozen of the men after the war. An “Author’s Note” explains some of Walker’s research, and four appendices list the names of the men, a timeline of Company K during the Civil War, treaties, the eagle mascot, and a letter written in Odawa. The glossary includes words from the indigenous language.

Verdict: The accessible language covers not only the experiences of the men as soldiers but the prejudice that kept Native Americans from signing up for two years until the government recognized their value in a time of desperation. Even then, the Native American volunteers were not U.S. citizens, willing to fight despite government genocide and broken treaties. The history includes fascinating battlefield tales and horrific times at Andersonville Prison as well as the denial of pension benefits causing poverty among tribal members. With meticulous research, Sibert-winning Walker relates the bravery through personal letters, photographs, military service records, treaty reports, pension files, first-person accounts from descendants, and more as shown in the extensive Source Notes. This book about a lesser-known part of U.S. history belongs beside her Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.