The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

the-gettysburg-address-a-graphic-adaptation-mcconnell-hennesseyHennessy, Jonathan. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation. Illus. Aaron McConnell. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction Graphic Novel

Summary: Hennessy and McConnell use the innovative and fast-moving format of the graphic novel mode to tell the story behind the Gettysburg Address, what prompted it, what it changed, and why it mattered to America and the world.

Critique: The cover of this book claims to retell this moment of history through Lincoln’s words. I was immediately drawn in because Lincoln is one of the most eloquent writers e.v.e.r. I assumed from that cover claim that the graphic novel would rely only on Lincoln’s writings. It turns out that is not the case, but the book hardly suffers as a result. Hennessy’s script is excellently composed and draws on a ton of primary sources. The writing is clear, even when dealing with ideologically or philosophically tough stuff. And combined with McConnell’s excellent artwork, each page is densely loaded. But the arc is compelling, engaging, and hard to put down.

The book opens like a movie with a series of live action scenes: a family returns to the war carnage on the front lawn of their home. Cut to: President Lincoln receiving word of the outcome of battle at Gettysburg. Then the narrative steps back and an omniscient narrator takes over. Acting like the voice-over in a film, this narrator begins to explain what is going on. The imagery takes on more of a mix-and-match composition. Sometimes a page might have as many as 9 panels, and each one is treated like an individual block of information, rather than one piece in a sequence of actions (which is what you usually get in graphic novels). Often the panels are briefly footnoted, informing the reader who or what is being depicted. Senator So-and-So from Tennessee 1865 or Governor Whatshisname from Maine 1848 or the Such-and-Such building.

But overall, the artwork works hard to embody the principles under discussion in the text. For instance, as the text presents the two founding ideologies of the nature of government in America, the artwork depicts the busts of the two historical figures alive and debating their sides from atop their marble, museum columns. At other times, the imagery is a little tougher to follow. For example, when the text shares a quote from a then-famous newspaper, the picture gives readers a drawing of the newspaper building or printing house with a word bubble popping out of a window to contain the quote. Or to represent the idea of sovereignty, the artist has Lincoln holding a shiny white ball with a modern power on/off button (such as the one you see on your computer). At first glance, it seems as if Lincoln is holding the precursor to Apple’s iPod. (Judging by the look on his face, he clearly wishes it were less literally “appled” and more pocket-friendly.)

Structurally, the book takes what I call the rabbit hole approach. It establishes the “present” moment: the political climate, the historical context, what happened at Gettysburg and why Lincoln needed to make a speech there. Then, it dips down the rabbit hole of time and moves backwards, to that “four score and seven years ago” when the Founding Fathers were first conceptualizing a new form of democratic governance. Then it dips further down, or shifts further back, and back again, and back again, going all the way back to the conditions of North American continent post-dinosaurs. Then it walks the reader forwards again getting all the way to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Hugely effective, efficient, and easy to follow. Given all the recent conflict between communities and policing authorities, this book made for a sobering, yet illuminating read for the mature and leveled way it navigated issues like abuses of power, authority over the masses, and more!

Whether you have kids tapping into this era of American history, or you’d like a refresher, this book is well worth nabbing off the shelf! (And if you read it now, you’ll be able to look super-knowledgeable in all your patriotic 4th of July conversations coming up!)

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

fleming-romanovFleming, Candace. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. Schwartz & Wade, 2014. Print.

Genre: YA nonfiction

Summary: When two young, royal people meet, fall in love, and marry, what else but a Happily Ever After could possibly await them? Well, in the case of Nikolai and Alexandra Romanov, its anything but. How about watching the country they rule slide into an agonizing civil war that eventually results in the brutal murder of their entire family?

Critique: There are many reasons why Flemin has received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and a Golden Kite Award for her nonfiction (with a Sibert honor and YALSA finalist recognition for this book to boot). But the best reason is that she writes ripping page turners, by which I mean you darn near rip the pages out of the book to see what happens next! In this example, Fleming establishes a teasing structure whereby she introduces the Romanovs at the height of their glory, wealth, and power, all while deftly hinting at debilitating secrets and an inevitable tragic demise. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are “peasant interludes” taken directly from diaries or newspaper accounts. Unlike commercial breaks interrupting your favorite crime drama, these passages contribute an outsider’s perspective, further illuminating what the rest of the world saw as the dark side of Romanov rule. Scope under the skin of her words and you’ll find a very standard syntactical anatomy. Where some writers give you pagefuls of damask, Fleming gives you denim: succinct, functional, with an as-a-matter-of-fact style. No, denim is not as fancy or flashy as damask, but it is durable. Good thing, considering all the burn marks your fingers will leave on the pages as you race along the downward spiraling vortex of tragedy marking the last third of this Happily Neverafter Tale.

Wild Boy by Mary Losure

Losure-wildboyLosure, Mary. Wild Boy: The Real LIfe of the Savage of Aveyron. Illus. Timothy Basil Ering. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2013. Print.

Genre: middle grade nonfiction

Summary: In the late 1700s, French villagers discover a wild boy in the woods. Maybe only nine years old, the child is naked as a jaybird and grubbing for food. He has scars from old burns smattering his skin and one long scar slicing across his throat. Miraculously, he is alive and self-sufficient. The boy is captured, studied, and the entire trajectory of his life changes forever. So too are some of the lives that come in contact with him.

Critique: Losure’s style is concise. Rather than feeling like skin and bones prose, hers feels more deft. She does a lot with very little — like the best bikini designers. She leaves many questions unanswered, and not just because sources are sparse or do not provide answers. Rather, Losure gives readers a lot of subtext to chew on. Without directly stating it, she presents the possibility that trying to civilize the wild boy may have done more harm than good. The story quietly confronts the supposed supremacy of civilization. The text confronts the efficacy of certain teaching methods that run like a one-way street. It ponders whether dialogues between teachers and students might work better. The pencil/charcoal sketches are full of free, thin lines contained by lots of hard scribbling, jagged outlines. The result is an emotional mirror of the content: a small, free spirit trapped by a rigid society. My favorite (the most memorable) drawing is on page 123. The Wild Boy, named Victor, peers curiously into the benevolent face of his life-long teacher and guardian, Dr. Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard. Losure’s writing fuses with Basil Ering’s illustrations forming a wonderful bridge text for readers working their way out of chap books and into the realm of nonfiction (which, with Common Core, is just about every kid in school right now).