Review: Boxers and Saints

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Boxers & Saints, Volumes 1 & 2. Edited to add: National Book Awards shortlist

The Plot: The story of the Boxer Rebellion is told through the eyes of a Boxer and a Christian. Each volume is a standalone; but it’s best to first read Boxers, then Saints, and to read both.

The Good: For a discussion of the two volumes, go back to the reviews from earlier this week.

This, instead, will be about why two volumes? And how do they work together? Or, in other words, spoilers.

Boxers is the primary story: of how and why the Boxer Rebellion again, focusing on one young peasant, Bao, and what led him not only to rebel but also to commit atrocities. Since those actions make sense within the context of the rebellion (or, as some scholars say, uprising), it’s a bit of seduction of the reader, to have the reader at least understand Bao’s actions and, perhaps, even, to sympathize; or, even to think, that such acts were necessary.

As a young boy, Bao sees a young girl; later in Boxers, she shows up again, living with the Christians. It’s the eve of a Boxer attack. She has a bit of edge and an attitude.

In Saints, we learn Vibiana’s story: why she stands on the opposite of Bao, how they both love China, why Bao sees the foreigners and Christians as an enemy and why Vibiana sought Christianity and its fellowship. The two stories contrast shared purpose, different outcomes. Also, knowing what happens in Boxers, one knows what happens to both Vibiana and Bao. Except one doesn’t know, it turns out. There is a twist. Both books need to be read, Boxers first and Saints second, to understand the full story of Vibiana and Bao.

So, why Boxers and Saints? Why not just interweave these as two stories? Why not make it one volume?

To make this part of one story — telling a few pages of Bao, a few pages of Vibiana — would, I think, minimize the importance of both. Bao deserves his own book; so, too, does Vibiana; and this way, they both have it. Truth to tell, I think Vibiana’s story would not be as strong if it were interspersed with Bao’s.

It turns out, it’s not just Bao’s and Vibiana’s characters that meet: other people show up in both books, and offer different perspectives about what is or isn’t happening. But isn’t that history? Things that change depend upon perspective? One person’s hero is another’s murderer? What Yang accomplishes here, what is so terrific, is he manages to have the reader by sympathetic to both Bao’s and Vibiana’s beliefs. Yes, Bao — and other Chinese — are subject to humiliations and abuse because of the foreigners, and because of Christian missionaries. Yet switch to the missionaries and to the Chinese Christians and we see people asked, simply, to decide between life and faith. Everyday people, not the decision makers. (Boxers and Saints includes some of those policy makers, but it’s more about average people.)

Because Boxers and Saints shows that heroes, villains, and victims may overlap. For the artful storytelling that is as much about when a part of the story is told as it is about the whole. And, for Bao and Vibiana and China. These are Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Reading Rants.


Review: Saints

Saints by Gene Luen Yang. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Boxers & Saints, Volume 2.

The Plot: Saints traces the story of a young girl from the age of 8 to 15; part of her story overlaps with that of Bao from Boxers. Saints is not so much the story from the “other side” of the Boxer Rebellion. It’s not the armies or groups of foreigners; no, rather, it’s the story of why someone would embrace the “foreign” religion of Christianity, and risk death for it.

Four-girl’s story isn’t framed by locations or years; it’s simply her age. 8, 9, 14, 15. She is her mother’s only surviving child; she is not given a name; her father’s family has money but it’s not spent on her. Neither is any affection. Her name illustrates that she was her mother’s fourth daughter; four also means death. In short, she is neither wanted nor loved.

Four-girl first seeks out Christians and Christianity for simple reasons. If she is to be viewed as worthless by her family, why not become a devil? And who do her people call devils? The Christians. So become a devil! Also, they have cookies.

As Four-girl becomes older, she is baptized and takes the name Vibiana. She wants to be brave and strong, like Joan of Arc, but she’s not quite sure how to do it.

Vibiana is there, with the others, when the Boxers attack. Renounce your faith, she is told, and she will live.

The Good: Vibiana views her childhood as one of neglect, of dislike, and it is true — she isn’t treated well. Her father died before she was born, her grandfather couldn’t be bothered to even give her a name.

Why not go to the Christians? Why not seek solace in that religion, because she sure isn’t getting any from her family. Along the way, she has visions: from early childhood she sees Joan of Arc and talks with her. Joan gives her hope and faith and something to believe in. When Vibiana’s family beats her for being baptized, she runs away to the Christians.

That her family is not heartless is hinted at: her mother has her own story, one of marrying a young man viewed as damaged by his family, and she is viewed as not being good enough for the family she married into. She can barely tell her own daughter she loves her. When Vibiana’s cousin, whom she adores, meets up with her during the Boxer Rebellion, he is happy to see her. Still, he cannot understand why she simply doesn’t stop being Christian and come home.

Vibiana loves her country; want to do something special, be something special, like Joan of Arc was to France. When she learns more about the Boxer Rebellion she questions herself: what is the best thing to do?

It’s the Boxer Rebellion. She’s a Christian. She’s talking to Joan of Arc. And, if you’ve read the books in order, you know what happens to Vibiana. But, more on that later in a post that talks about both books. For now: Vibiana’s fate is written from before the book begins. The question in Saints is not so much what will become of Vibiana, but why. And the why is that Christianity gives her something that she cannot get elsewhere.

Review: Boxers

Boxers by Gene Luen Yang. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Boxers & Saints, Volume 1.

The Plot: In 1894, Little Bao is the youngest brother of three in Northern Shan-tung Province, China. He likes watching the traveling operas that visit the village in springtime; his older brothers tease him; he admires his father.

Slowly, over the next six years, as Bao becomes a man, this changes. A foreign Christian priest interferes in a local matter and destroys the village’s God of Earth. Bao’s father goes to seek justice and instead is brutally attacked by foreign troops. Injustice after injustice adds up, all the result of foreigners in China who are trying to control the country. Almost as bad as the foreigner devils are the secondary devils, the Chinese who have adopted the religion of the foreigners.

By 1900, Bao has had enough. He uses the training he and his brothers have had from the Brother Disciples of the Big Sword  Society to begin to fight back. At first, Bao and his followers stand up for their countrymen, calling themselves The Society of the Righteous Fist. History will call them Boxers. As the movement grows and their followers increase, their uprising sweeps across the country. Along the way, tough decisions are made about who to attack, who to kill, what to destroy in their quest for justice and freedom.

The Good: Boxer is the first of a two-volume set, telling the story of the Boxer Rebellion from the point of view of the Boxers. The story of the Boxers is Bao’s story: a story of injustice and floods and famine driving peasants to fight back. Along the way, though, when does “fighting back” stop being fighting back and becomes something else? It’s easy when it’s a soldier with a sword to a brother’s neck, but what about the child? Is a child innocent? Or, if that child is spared, will that child come back to seek vengeance against you for the harms done to it?

Bao and his brothers learn karate and other skills, and this is part of what fuels their anger, their fighting, their victories. What also fuels it is their belief in their religion, in their gods: before each battle, they ceremonially bow to the bean garden, swallow the ashes of charms, and exhale all that is within — and then become gods themselves. It is the gods who fight — and because this is a graphic novel, we see the gods inhabit the men and women who fight, we see them become something else.

Bao’s god tuns out to be Chin Shih-huang, the first Emperor of China. He offers wisdom and guidance to Bao, but it is a harsh and brutal wisdom. It is his advice, for example, to not leave anyone alive as they drive towards Peking, destroying not just the foreigners but also the Chinese who side with them, either politically or religiously. The decisions Bao makes are tough ones, and a few times, I thought “oh no he didn’t.” But this isn’t about a hero; it’s about history, with flaws, the good and the bad. The genius of Boxer is that by the time atrocities are committed, I have sympathized so much with Bao that I find it hard to condemn him. Also? It turns out that sometimes Chin Shuh-huang was right: “a nation is forged from the blood of the young and the old, the innocent and the guilty.”

Mei-wen, a young woman Bao meets, creates her own group, the Red Lanterns, who fight with the Boxers. Mei-wen is more educated than Bao. Mei-wen illustrates the role of women in the Boxer Rebellion; she also shows some of the contradictions going on. Her desire to be compassionate; the value she puts on China’s cultural history.

One of the people Bao runs across is a young convert, Vibiana. Vibiana’s story is told in Saints, volume 2 of Boxers & Saints.

Review: My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. Abrams Comic Arts. 2012. Personal copy. Graphic Novel. Alex Award Winner.

It’s About: A graphic novel memoir by Derf Backderf, a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer. This is not the story of a serial killer; it is a look at the childhood and teen years of Jeffrey Dahmer, before his first murder. (Note: nothing graphic is shown in My Friend Dahmer.)

What was Dahmer like, then? Were there signs of the serial killer he would become? And if there were, why did no one do anything?

The Good: Of course, I had heard of My Friend Dahmer. Read the reviews. And, as some of you who follow me on my Twitter feed know, I watch TV shows about real and fictitious serial killers. And yet — despite the Alex Award — I was still hesitant.

Then I heard Backderf speak at ALA (both at the YALSA Coffee Klatch and the Alex Awards program) and I changed my mind.

My Friend Dahmer is about Jeffrey Dahmer, and Backderf didn’t rely solely on his memories in writing this. He also did extensive research, showing the reader more about Dahmer than what the teen Backderf knew or suspected. (This is part of what intrigued me: the extensive research for the book).

But, My Friend Dahmer is also about a time and a place, the late seventies, that is a different world than the world that today’s teens would know. The fathers went to work, the mothers stayed home. A combination of baby boomer teens and the seventies recession meant overcrowded schools. While I’m a good eight or so years younger than Backderf and his classmates, there was still something so familiar about the setting and time he describes, down to schools having designated smoking areas for both students and teachers. And that also made me quite interested in My Friend Dahmer.

Teenage Dahmer “was the loneliest kid I’d ever met,” Backderf explains. Backderf proceeds to be brutally honest about himself and his friends, in a way that time allows. Backderf has real friends (Neil, Kent, Mike) and together they are fascinated by the eccentricities of Dahmer. Dahmer is a loner but he also does strange things: he “threw fake epileptic fits and mimicked the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy.” Backderf and his friends are amused by this (at one point Backderf also observes they were bored in the suburbs with little to do).

Later on, Dahmer also comes to school drunk and drinks continuously at school.

Do Backderf and his friends say anything? No; they had no idea that Dahmer was already being haunted by dark sadistic fantasies. (The author is clear that for any pity he feels for Jeff, that ended with the first murder.) Because of Backderf’s research, the reader (and the adult Backderf) knows what is going on in Dahmer’s head. It’s a bit jarring, the contrast between watching Dahmer lay in wait to kill someone and then being in the classroom with his friends who think he’s just being different.

Backderf’s defense, and it’s a good one, is that they were typical teenagers and self-absorbed and had no idea. Actually, it’s more than a defense: it’s a clear eyed look at how teens thought, how he as a teen thought. I appreciated that he neither downplayed nor exaggerated the time period. (Note to people writing memoirs or stories told about their teen years: yes, sometimes time must pass to be truly honest about that time period.) But where were the adults? Why did his antics go uncommented on at school? How did he get away with being drunk for about two years of school? I wondered — what could be excused by the time period, and what by adults ignoring the obvious because it’s easier?

Other reviews: Wrapped Up In Books; The Hub Interview with Derf Backderf; Bookshelves of Doom.

Review: Relish

Relish: My Life In The Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Relish is a memoir/coming of age book about food and cooking, told in a graphic novel format.

The Good: It’s a memoir. And coming of age book. About food. And cooking. In a graphic novel format. What else do you need to know about how great it is?

Knisley starts with childhood memories, and Relish takes her all the way after college, and the focus, of course, is food. And it’s all kinds of food, from creme brulee to oysters to foie gras to boxed macaroni and cheese, frozen dough croissants and fast food burgers and fries.

Recipes and remembrances of food are woven through Knisley’s story: of being a city kid in Manhattan, until her parents divorce and she moves with her mother to the country. Knisley is at first a reluctant country girl, but eventually grows to appreciate her new home — especially the new, fresh food. Significant trips and vacations, choices for school, what art means to her — all of these are part of Relish, which is much about relishing life as it is about relishing food.

Be warned: Relish will make you hungry! There are recipes and food advice (such as why not use the store bought croissants in a tube?), plus just tons of talk about fresh vegetables and eggs from chickens and croissants and cheese….

Relish will also make you laugh. Knisley has a great way with words: “my parents moved to New York City in the late seventies, where they lived the kind of Manhattan life that has since migrated to Brooklyn.” And, of course, a great way with pictures. I loved the panel where a frustrated and angry young Lucy tries to hail a cab to take her back to Manhattan — as her mother doubles over in laughter, because of course there are no cabs to be had.

The illustrations also make the recipes friendlier — at least to someone like me. Never more than a couple of pages long, the recipes from Spice Tea to Pasta Carbonara seem to be something even I could make because, hello, pictures!

I think perhaps one of my favorite sections is the part about Knisley and her mother raising chickens. Because I know a thing or two about chickens and what they are really like and all the eggs and the animals that eat them. That aren’t us.

Because while food is obviously important to Knisley, it’s clear that it’s part of her life, not her Life. Because Relish made me hungry and made me laugh. Because I just want to hang out with Knisley, and ask her what cheese goes best with Fig Balsamic Vinegar. Because I want to pick up copies to give to everyone. Because Relish shows the depth of graphic novels. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Reading Rants


Review: The Silence of our Friends

The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos, art by Nate Powell. First Second. 2012. Graphic Novel. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Houston, 1968. Two stories are intertwined; the story of a white family and a black family. Jack Long is the race reporter for the evening news. Larry Thompson is a local activist and college professor. They reach out and develop a friendship, based in part because both realize that “men of conscience have got to get together . . . , or nothing is going to change.”

A non-violent protest at the local historically black college ends violently when police move in to arrest the protesters. Not only are the arrests rough and brutal; a shot rings out, a police officer is injured, and violence erupts. A police officer is shot and killed; hundreds are arrested; and five black college students are charged with his murder.

Will Jack Long be silent about what he saw happen — that a fellow officer accidentally shot the police officer?

The Good: This is a fictionalized version of the author’s childhood; some things were changed, such as the date of the protest and the details that resulted in the arrests of the TSU Five.

On the surface, this is a story of a friendship and a protest and a trial. This is based on a real life event I knew nothing about; and I’m sure  there are many such incidents from the 1960s about which I have little or no knowledge. What struck me most from The Silence of Our Friends is not this big story of racism and violence and prejudice and charges; it was, rather, the little moments, the every day moments in the lives of Jack and Larry and their families.

Jack’s children play games and pretend — the casual use of the n-word will appall the modern reader, and it’s a word that their parents tell them not to use. It’s used by those around them, though. An old friend of the family comes to visit, and the Long family can no longer ignore the casual racism that surrounds them.

The dangers that the Thompson family face are more direct: what it does to a man who is refused service in a store. How two children can’t ride bikes to the local store without the risk of being run down.

Powell’s images are powerful and add to the story telling. For example, it’s not directly said that Jack has a drinking problem. Rather, his increased drinking is shown.

My favorite panel may be that of young Mark, washing out some tonic his mother put in his hair, dealing with a black eye from an encounter with a neighborhood boy (the implication is its the result of his family’s friendship with the Thompsons), and singing to himself the lyrics to Soul Man: got what I got, the hard way, I’m a soul man. Earlier, music had brought the families together. Now, they comfort him when he is alone.

One of Long’s daughters is blind. I loved the portrayal; scenes of her at school, learning how to use a brailler. She is always a part of the family; never explained away or distanced or made “other”. I was a bit surprised to learn from a Publishers Weekly interview that one of the things fictionalized was this — making a sibling blind.

Reviews and interview: Interview with author at The Daily Texan; BookDragon review; Comic Book Resources review; The Horn Book.

Review: Bayou Volume One

Bayou Volume One by Jeremy Love. Zuda Comics / DC Comics. 2009. Review copy borrowed from friend. Graphic Novel.

The Plot: Charon, Mississippi, 1933. Two ten year old little girls are playing, Lee and Lily. One black, one white. One lie results in Lee’s father arrested and a lynching feared. To save her father, Lee leaves her familiar world behind for a world of monsters,a world just as dangerous as the segregated south she leaves behind.

The Good: The cover of Bayou shows two girls playing, one monster looking from the trees as a giant hand reaches up from the water. The darkness of Bayou is shown in the first few panels: the feet of a young African American boy, a tree, blood dripping, white men watching — a lynching. The reader is introduced to Lee and her father as they are paid to retrieve the body of the dead boy from the bayou. (Sound familiar? The dead boy, Billy, whistled at a white woman; the notes at the end show he was originally named Emmet.) When real monsters are later introduced in the fantastical world Lee enters, the reader cannot help but think that there were monsters in the world Lee has left behind.

When Lee’s white friend, Lily, loses her necklace, she fears a beating from her mother so accuses Lee of taking it. Lee is forced to work for Lily’s mother for free to make up the cost. Lily, realizing what she has done and wanting Lee to like her again, goes in search of the necklace. What the girls don’t know — but the reader does, from the artwork — is something lurks in the bayou, something monstrous that took Lily’s necklace when he reached for her throat and missed. When Lily again enters the bayou, the monster takes her as a horrified Lee watches. Lee’s father is arrested, blamed for her disappearance, Lee’s protests ignored. To save her father Lee must find Lily, so she enters the bayou and encounters the monsters and figures it contains.

There is the monster who ate Lily whole, Cotton Eye Joe. Billy, the boy who was lynched, has been transformed into a winged creature who offers some guidance. Bayou is large and scary, and Lee initially fears him, but she discovers he is good hearted and he risks his own life to help Lee. The fantasy world unfolds, clearly influenced by the real world and its historical terrors. Bayou is hunted by a cavalry of hounds wearing confederate uniforms. Jim Crows are actual crows.

Lee moves from one nightmare world, 1933 Mississippi, to one equally dangerous. In both worlds, she speaks up, takes action — in both, her goal is the same: save her father. Her chance of success is, ironically enough, more likely to happen in the supernatural world she enters. In the bayou, despite the dangers, Lee has more power and more allies than in the “real” world.

Review: Yummy

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Lee & Low. 2010. Graphic Novel. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: A fictionalized account of the life and death of eleven year old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.

The Good: Yummy’s story was brought to national attention in a 1994 Time Magazine article, Murder in Miniature.  Yummy’s life was short and brutal, full of abuse and neglect. Raised in Chicago, he was a member of the Black Disciples. Because of his age, when he was arrested for the crimes he committed he was let out: “see, back then, the laws were set up so that no shorty [i.e., someone as young as Yummy] could be convicted of a felony. Even for the worst crime, they’d be sent to Juvie and be back on the streets by the time they were 21. So the gangs put shorties to work.” At eleven, Yummy’s crimes escalated from robbery and arson to murder when he shot at gang rivals and accidentally killed an innocent fourteen year old girl, Shavon Dean. Yummy hid from the police for several days; at first, his gang assisted him. When they realized that Yummy had become a liability, he was killed by two of his fellow gang members, brothers aged fourteen and sixteen.

  Neri only fictionalizes the framing device to tell Yummy’s story, creating a young neighbor (Roger) to show Yummy’s life, the different views people had of him, and the impact of Yummy’s life on those around him. Neri’s website has additional resources; reading them, exploring more, shows that all the quotes about Yummy and his life are pulled from primary sources.

Using a graphic novel format to tell Yummy’s story creates a sense of immediacy, of being there with Roger and Yummy. Violence is spoken about, but what is shown is not explicit. It’s just enough to show the horror, the loss, the death, without being gratuitous. DuBurke’s black and white illustrations bring the reader into the story, removing any safe distance from Yummy. It also presents the story to those kids who would never pick up a “real book” — a novel, historical fiction — but will pick up a graphic novel.

There is nothing glamorous about Yummy; it is tragic, a waste. By using Roger as a  narrator, Neri can ask questions — how did this happen? Could something have been done different? Did Yummy have choices? What about those around him?  A final note from Neri does not answer the question as to whether Yummy was “a cold-blooded killer or a victim,” but does clearly give a take away to readers: “Like the preacher at Yummy’s funeral said: make up your mind that you will not let your life end like Yummy’s. Easier said than done, no doubt. But if you can find a way to make the choice of life, then other decisions may be easier. Choose wisely.”

In addition to the choices that Yummy faced, and the choices of other young men and women in similar circumstances, Yummy raises questions of both juvenile justice and the social welfare system. Yummy didn’t just fall between the cracks — he fell between the cracks over and over and over. Was there a point when something different could have been done so that Yummy could have been saved — or, could have realized he had different choices?

This is a middle school book, with its prime readership being those who, like Yummy, are about to face choices; and those who need to see the dark side of what they may see as a glamorous life.

Images and Issues Beyond the Dominant

Images and Issues Beyond the Dominant: Including Diversity in Your Graphic Novel Collection, YALSA YA Lit Symposium, November 6

Presenters: Robin Brenner, Francisca Goldsmith, Gina Gagliano

I really enjoy working at a library for the blind and handicapped. One drawback? The collection is primarily audiobooks and Braille; so no graphic novel collection. Still, it’s a format I really enjoy reading and learning more about, especially when it comes to diversity.

I love presentations based on booklists, and this had plenty of books. Reasons for my love: gatekeeping. No, really — I go to presentations like this confident that I’ll be hearing from people who have done the work to create a useful booklist so that I don’t have to do that work. I also love to see the different styles of booktalking people do, what is emphasized, what hook is used. I like it when the lists include books I know because I think “yes, I know that, I’m doing a good job keeping up on the literature!” with a side of “oh, because I know that is a good book, I can trust what is said about the other books.”

Titles discussed by included Bayou by Jeremy Love, an alternate history/Song of the South retelling and Incognegro by Mat Johnson, about “passing” as white to investigate lynchings. Other titles included ones featuring a Hispanic Teen as a superhero (Blue Beetle: Shocked by Keith Giffen) and Hereville by Barry Deutsch, “yet another troll fighting twelve year old Orthodox girl.”

The handout with the books from the presentation is at the Yalsa NING and Yalsa wiki. Also try this link (to a PDF), at Brenner’s No Flying No Tights website. I’m not going to repeat that list here, even though it would be very, very tempting. I began with those four titles and wanted to go on and on! Click through to the whole list, which includes titles that address ethnicity, gender, weight, class, mental health, disabilities, a whole range of areas.

Thanks to RIF for making it possible to attend this!