Monday, November 24, 2014

Great Graphic Novels for Girls (and boys, too)

It all started when I had to take my daughter to the emergency room and she was reading Smile by Raina Telgemeier in the waiting room. I read along with her to pass the time, and I was expecting something fluffy and vapid, but the book was a memoir with verve and I loved it. It's the story of a tween's loss of two front teeth, headgear, fake teeth, and braces. She faces boy trouble, petty friends, and gives hope to the lonely tweens who feel out of place in the world.

It was then that I began to wonder if there were more female protagonists in graphic novels, and the answer is a resounding YES! and they are delightful.

We searched through the shelves at Barnes and Nobel, which does not have a graphic novel section for school age readers. El Deafo was nestled in the books, as if it were just any old book. Cece Bell's graphic memoir captures the anguish and frustration of a young girl's maturation through her struggles in school as a result of hearing loss. Hearing or deaf, all readers will enjoy the protagonist and her Phonic Ear and can identify with the universal themes: her desire for a bosom friend, her need to fit in, her hope for the attention of the boy she likes.
Well-written, thoughtful, and inspiring, Bell makes every reader more sensitive to the hardships of disability while turning them into superpowers.

I think the best graphic novel featuring girls is Tomboy by Liz Prince, which every student who has checked it out has devoured. Not only does the book speak to girls about their struggles as a non-girly girls in a male-dominated world, but it also helps them to understand the dangers of gender norming in American society. It isn't often that we read books that change us forever, that leave book hangovers that last for weeks, but this is one of those books. If every young person read this book, I think the world would be a better place. Prince models for all girls that anyone can be a comic book artist.

While Tomboy inspires young women to pursue their dreams and passions, Relish by Lucy Kinsey does the same. Kinsey's book catalogues her childhood through food as the daughter of a gourmet and chef, and explains her own journey to become a chef. In the process, she reminds us that food is connection, food is home, food is family, and food is art. The recipes are great, and the huevos rancheros are easy to make and delicious. Like Tomboy, Kinsey delves into a career dominated by males and shows her readers that she can do anything. 

Both Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol and Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch feature ghosts who torment the protagonists and require them to find their strength to fight back and make the world right again. Hereville features an Orthodox Jewish girl who fights a pig and delves into the realm of fantasy much like a fairytale. Students will learn about Orthodox culture and a little Yiddish as they read, and also that girls are just as tough as anyone.

Two other graphic novels for more mature students are Lost At Sea by Bryan O'Malley (famed author of the Scott Pilgrim series) and This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (authors of Skim, the graphic novel that artfully explores suicide, depression, and crushes). Both of these books explore the loneliness and despair teenagers experience as they grapple with the demands of the world around them, and these books are particularly poignant and must be finished for the powerful endings they both provide.

I also recommend Persepolis by Mariana Satrapi, a book my 12-year old daughter consumed with passion. Persepolis is a heart-wrenching historical memoir of a 10-year old's experience during the revolution in Iran in the 1980s. I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached captures the same nostalgia for homeland and horror for the war that ravaged it, but it is written as poetry, and the ending is perfectly evocative. Religion plays a role in the lives of these girls, and is essential in these stories.

Honestly, I had no idea there were so many graphic novels that would appeal to female readers, nor did I know they would be so profoundly well-written that they expand the genre and represent what is possible with the power of good storytelling.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

John Wick Kills Everyone for his Puppy

My husband wanted to take me on a romantic date, so, of course, we saw John Wick. If you haven’t heard about it, here is the plot: a mourning and scraggly Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, a widower whose wife has left him a post-mortem gift to help him grieve: the cutest beagle puppy since Snoopy. Even worse, a couple of days later, Russian gangsters beat him up, steal his ‘69 Mustang, and kill the puppy. Little did the Russians know, John Wick is worse than the Boogeyman, and thus begins his revenge killing spree.

Better Than the Eighties
Unlike the ultra-masculine proto-males of the eighties, John Wick is vulnerable and sensitive.  He cries, he lets the puppy sleep in his bed with him, he looks longingly at his dead wife’s jewelry, and he watches videos of her throughout the film. This is what every woman wants: a man who will mourn her death eternally. Even more, we want a man who loves little dogs. And this is why every American can justify the collateral damage of at least 95 Russian thugs for the puppy. This is something we can get behind. Without a doubt, Americans care more about homeless dogs and abused cats than we do our human brothers and sisters.

As a child of the 80s, I saw dozens of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Dolph Lundgren movies. They were fun movies that glorified murder on a grand scale and included graceful jumps from motorcycles where the hero literally lands on his feet. Most of those 80s films demonized Russians, but John Wick is different: these Russians used to be his friends and he doesn’t waste time with silly iconic lines (“I’ll be back”) or outrageous physical feats; his silence and his relentlessness are his secret weapons. He never hesitates; he just pulls the trigger with graceful purpose. His focus and determination are inspirational lessons for the viewer: If we just focus enough, we can overcome anything in our way.

There are so many people killed in this movie, I thought it might have exceeded Rambo IV (236), but the murder of the puppy is so heinous that it distorts the kill-count as something significantly higher. Keanu is no stranger to fight sequences, but he has proven in John Wick that fighting and killing are the right things to do. The final sequence of the film (I don’t want to give it away) brilliantly restores order to the chaotic world we live in and reminds us of what is important: we need to rescue puppies, Russians can’t be trusted, and you never know who is secretly an assassin, so be nice to everyone.