By Programming Librarian Meredith Crawford
Don’t every let anyone tell you graphic novels don’t count as reading, or that they’re only for younger readers. Whether you’re a graphic novel enthusiast or newcomer to these illustrated stories, here are five great titles published in the last year. These recommendations are from a virtual program in our Read Woke series.
Full disclaimer – before I was a librarian, I was an archivist for the National Park Service, so Wake, The Hidden History of Women Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and illustrated by Hugo Martinez basically checks all of my boxes in terms of interests.
This book combines memoir with historical research in such a way that it it feels like Rebecca Hall is taking you through her origin story as a historian super hero, researching her ancestors’ stories that were buried so deeply they were found only because they were speaking to her.
The way she describes living in the wake of slavery and the way Hugo Martinez inserts the historical ghosts of slaves in the reflections in puddles and tall-masted ships between the buildings along the waterfront in New York City show us how close to the past we really are.
The historical research and moving stories of enslaved people are a vehicle for delivering Hall’s own story of resilience in the face of closed doors and research dead-ends as she does this work to honor her family, her ancestors, and her voice, along with the voices of those buried throughout the centuries, now brought to illustrated life.
Djeliya, by Juni Ba, is a book I liked so much I took it to a group of young adults for outreach. It’s a heroic story of a slightly different kind, a story of a last prince fighting to fix the world.
Prince Mansour Keita is an unlikely hero that begrudgingly takes responsibility to help his people. The story goes back and forth between narrators, in and out of past and present and is full of energy and momentum.
The story is based in West African myth, and the illustrations are inspired by both African culture and modern animation – think anime and Cartoon Network coming to the page – and the dialog and rhythm of the speech echo hip hop.
In a way that only a graphic novel can, it gives us the visual cues and underlying story as a framework in which our modern-esque characters live and struggle.
The Secret to Super Human Strength is on my list because I love Alison Bechdel. This is a great book for here and now because I think in the not-too-distant past we’ve all had to do a little bit of looking at our physical bodies – trying to stay healthy, doing outdoor activities or just being stuck more with ourselves instead of others.
Something I find shocking is that she is 61-years-old – I have her in my head as being 34 forever, which adds to why I think this is a wonderfully interesting book.
There is a lot of negative space on the pages – which is true to Bechdel’s style but also really allows her physical presence on the page to be a focal point as she narrates with her spot-on humor her life with fitness fads and the search for the ultimate mind-body-soul connection. She even consults Jack Kerouac for some enlightenment – which to me is my entire 20s – so I’m all in on that, and it feels vaguely familiar.
It’s a serious topic overall, but the writing is so funny, so light for the heart and the eyes. It will leave you thinking, but it also gives you space to give yourself some grace and accept the importance of others in the quest for individual happiness and balance.
Shadow Life, by Hiromi Goto, is one of the most moving books I have read in some time.
Maybe it’s because my grandmother has recently moved to a care center or maybe it’s because I feel like I have been confronted with death more than usual lately, but I feel this is one of the most beautiful pictures of an aging adult I have see.
The measured countenance and resilience of this one woman’s escape from an assisted living center is what sets the story in motion, but what I find to be so powerful are the stories of life and love that come to light as we unearth her entire story and how those stories contribute to her commitment to both love and life.
There are not-so-subtle but beautiful undertones about writing our own stories, our own myths, and living in the traditions and routines that ground us and establish our paths.
This year especially, when August hit, I could feel the light bend. Through the heat and humidity, I could feel the shift in seasons like no other summer exit that I remember. Feelings: a Story in Seasons, by Manjit Thapp, speaks to my experience in trying to create balance as I am anxious about sending my kids back to school and all the transitions that would otherwise wreck me about this year.
When I first glanced at the illustrations, it looked a little like a Gaugin painting, with bold colors and images which pair perfectly with the practice of this book – living in the moment. The bold colors and shapes are glorious with the sparce and subtle words, creating an impact that settles these stories in my heart like cups of water poured from the hands of Manjit Thapp.
Within these pages, there is much to learn about ourselves as humans, as we are connected to the cycle of seasons and the range of emotions that we all can experience. It’s not pushy or preachy, and it settles us into understanding ourselves as humans as a whole, and befriending ourselves.
Just read it and love yourself and others a little more, please.