Friday, March 15, 2019

To Kill A Mockingbird

It is dissertation defense season, and my plate has been full lately, so I apologize for slacking off here. I have been trying to read this book for weeks now, and I am glad I finally did. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most read and also most challenged books in the USA. It is a novel I have read a few times, and there was at least one point in my life when I would have said it was my favorite book ever. I have to admit, there were moments of nostalgia that tweaked me here and there in reading this very faithful and well rendered adaptation. It hews to the original, in its well researched illustrations as well as use of original language from the book (Yes, the n-word is in there, and they provide a justification for its inclusion in the endnotes).

All of this to say that the potential problems people have with the novel also exist for those who would read this graphic novel. The "white savior" narrative is still pervasive, but in this go-through I also noticed how much it highlights feminism and the role of women in this community, something I do not see given as much attention when discussing this book. The family dynamics also touched on my heartstrings, and I admit I did get misty eyed at the last pages of the book. It is very well paced as an adaptation, top notch work all around.
Still, there is a part of me that wonders why this adaptation exists. TKAM is one of the most-read and taught books in the country. There are millions upon millions of copies of it in libraries, classrooms, and in people's hands already. I guess having a graphic version of this book makes it available to some readers who might not want to tackle the novel, but I I have to say that I still found this version to be a time-consuming read. It is text-heavy for a graphic novel, with the text mainly displayed in caption boxes. It is not "easy reading, " which is often the rationale for making a graphic novel version. I get why some of the other adaptations I have recently reviewed exist: The Giver is pitched at YA audiences and graphic novels have proven a popular format for that age group; Anne Frank's Diary carries of the weight of not only being a literary text but also one tasked with preserving people's memories of the Holocaust. I guess it is a good commercial decision to adapt TKAM, as I imagine libraries and schools will snap up this version. But as much as I liked it, I still ended up asking myself if it was necessary. Perhaps as an answer to my question I can say that reading this book has dredged up all kinds of contrary and ambiguous thoughts, which I feel in many ways is the hallmark of a powerful book. In that way, I say this graphic version is successful. 

Harper Lee, of course, wrote the original novel on which this adaptation is based. For it she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is remarkable given this was the only novel she published in her lifetime. Fred Fordham adapted the book here, and he has another graphic adaption, of Phillip Pullman's The Adventures of John Blake, to his credit. He has also created an original graphic novel Nightfall, which is currently available in French. He speaks about his work in adapting TKAM in this video.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Esther Keller wrote, "The color on the artwork is what struck me most. I expected black and white pencil drawings, which would evoke the Gregory Peck movie. Instead, bright, soft colors are used. It works. It’s beautiful." Publishers Weekly called it a "thoughtfully crafted interpretation" and summed it up, "More loving remake than revelation, Fordham’s adaptation may be scrutinized by Lee’s fans, but does sufficient justice to her portrait of injustice." CJ Lyons declared it "a worthy partner to the original, providing a clarion call for civility, equality, and justice for all."

To Kill A Mockingbird was published by Harper Collins, and they offer more info here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation

The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most read books in the world, which may beg the question of whether or not a graphic adaptation of it is necessary, but I have to say that I was blown away by this work. It is expressive, incorporates disparate pieces of artwork into the story, and creates a context for both exploring humanity and horror at the same time. Anne and her family spent years hiding from Nazis in an annex in Amsterdam during World War II. Along with some others they shared the cramped quarters, living in as quiet and unobtrusive fashion as possible. And all the while they listened for scraps of news and hope while hearing bombing and shooting all around them.
As if this atmosphere was not bad enough, Anne also had to deal with lots of other personal dynamics, including a rivalry with her older sister, a crush on a boy, and having to share her room with an adult man dentist. What I feel this book captures best about the work is 13-year-old Anne's sense of figuring out the world and her place in it, ironically at a time when she was sequestered and eventually taken out of it. This book is full of humanity, wisdom, and sadness, and the artwork only exemplifies the beauty and thoughtfulness of its prose.

As an educator, I often think of how to use a book like this, and I feel that it could be used in several ways. It could be read alone, in tandem with the original book that it excerpts, or it could also be excerpted itself to draw attention to particular passages. I was very impressed with this book, especially in how it uses various visual styles and formats to adapt the diary entries. Sometimes, it plays with a single image, often cribbed from a classical art source.
Sometimes, it uses straight forward comics, and others it features an illustration with an entire diary entry. I think that its creators were savvy in selecting which sections to summarize and adapt and which to present in more whole fashion. This adaptation is superlative, and it is prelude to an animated feature that is nearing the end of production. If it is anything like this book, it should be excellent.

This adapted book was a collaboration between Ari Folman and David Polonsky. Folman is an Orphir Award and Golden Globe Award winning director and screenwriter. Polonsky has worked as an art director, children's book illustrator, and animator. Both collaborated on the lauded animated film Waltz with Bashir. This interview sheds light on both creators' work on this book.

The reviews I have read about it have been largely positive. Ruth Franklin wrote, "Their book is brilliantly conceived and gorgeously realized." Publishers Weekly's starred review concluded, "The beauty of Anne’s life and the untarnished power of her legacy—here further elevated by Folman and Polonsky—are heartening reminders of the horror of her fate." Gene Ambaum called it "spacious, interpretive, and altogether wonderful."

Anne Frank's Diary was published by Pantheon, and they offer a preview and more here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Giver

This month I'll be reviewing a bevy of graphic novel adaptations of literary works, and I decided to kick it off with this book I've both read and taught. The Giver is a classic sci-fi tale of a dystopian future by Lois Lowry, and here it is given the grand treatment in a graphic novel adaptation. I know that the knock on such works is that the adaptation will always pale in comparison, but I felt that this one is first rate in that it cleaves closely to the original in terms of its dialogue and language. Plus the artwork not only captures the spirit of the original work, it also extends its ambience with the clean, blue, black, and white lines that convey a cold, sterile purported utopia. Also, I know that there is a general assumption that  graphic novel would be a simpler, breezier read than the original, but I felt that this one was still substantive and weighty.

In case you are not familiar with the original book, the narrative takes place in a future where humans have engineered a perfect place. Everything is planned and organized in ways to optimize people's lives, from deciding who they marry to selecting their vocations at age 12. No one wants for anything, and they are content, safe, and docile. This book follows a boy named Jonas who turns 12 and is selected to be The Receiver, which means he will be the sole person to learn the history and experiences of his people. This role exposes him to many dark features from history but also contemporary practices that make this world possible. This knowledge radically changes his life as he begins to question much of he has learned as normal.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, and it was as compelling and moving as the original. I think what works best about it is that I feel it works well on its own merits and could be read and studied thus. Of course, it could also be read alongside or in conjunction with the original novel if one wanted to compare the two as well. As far as graphic novel adaptations of prose novels go, this one is one of the best.

This book's adapter P. Craig Russell has been making comics since the early 1970s. He has won multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards for his work over the years, particularly in the fantasy genres. He is known for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman and also for adapting operatic works into comics. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "A first-rate visual reframing: sensitive, artistically brilliant, and as charged as its enigmatic predecessor with profound challenges to mind and heart." Anushka Girl wrote, "It’s a wonderful pick for young folk who are still not too keen on reading things comprised only of words, and it’s a great way for those who have already read the novel to revisit this particular dystopia." Publishers Weekly summed up, "An accessible version of the story for readers who have not yet encountered it."

The Giver was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and they offer more info about it here. There is a sizable preview of the book available here.

The publisher provided a preview copy.