Moose Justice! A Review of Moose by Max De Radiguès

Moose

Max De Radiguès

Published by Conundrum International, 2015

Disclaimer: this graphic novel depicts graphic physical and sexual violence. Please consult your guardians before reading this book.

The Story: Joe is being relentlessly bullied, both psychically and psychological, at school by Jason. It is in the natural world that Joe finds some peace and comfort, but when Jason bombards Joe’s one place of safety, a chance event leads to a shift in the boys’ power dynamics and leaves Joe with a difficult moral dilemma which will have you questioning not only the choice Joe makes, but the choice you would in his shoes.

What Wallace and I Think: Moose was originally written in French and appeared as mini-comics that were eventually published as a collection. De Radiguès translated Moose into English, and the English version was very recently published by the Canadian publisher, Conundrum.

De Radiguès’s comic is drawn simply with black and white images. It feels like a quiet story, as there is little text, and often there are full pages with no text at all. The scenes in which Joe is bullied by Jason are filled with the verbal and psychological abuse that Jason spews. But when Joe is alone, often immediately following these bullying scenes, the reader instead is shown how Joe is coping visually. Indeed, we rarely read any dialogue that is spoken by Joe, and when he does, often the speech bubbles and text are drawn “wobbly” to indicate the difficulty Joe has speaking for himself (and by extent standing up for himself, for this has dangerous consequences).

Though the comic is drawn simply with clean lines, De Radiguès details the bullying Joe faces in a way that, at least for me, brings a complex emotional rise out of the reader. The injustice, unfairness, and out-right cruelty of Jason to Joe is the focal point for much of the story, making the reader side completely with Joe, as there isn’t any sympathetic explanation for why Jason acts the way he does. Making Joe so sympathetic, and Jason so completely unsympathetic, indeed a hateful character, is part of the complexity of the graphic novel, for it makes the moral dilemma in the latter half of the book all the more complicated. Making Joe such a victim and Jason such a villain is a trap! And I fell right in! For me, without giving anything away, the novel’s climax and end led me to interrogate the hatred I felt towards Jason (that had me wishing he could experience some of his own medicine), and whether Jason’s fate is justified by his treatment of Joe (for I was wishing something horrible would happen to Jason through most of the book), and of course led me to wonder what decision I would make in Joe’s position, and the moral implications of what my decision would be.

Moose is a fast read (took me about half an hour) but it made me reflect long after I had finished reading it. I felt uncomfortable with what I discovered about myself during these reflections. As someone who tries to live by the creed of “Do No Harm,” and bell hook’s call to choose love, because doing so is a revolution, I was shocked at the vehemence of hateful and violent thoughts I had towards Jason. But I think this is exactly what the graphic novel is designed to do. It is the graphic novel’s ability to haunt you after reading that makes this something young adults and adults should read. If you are in school, and dealing with situations similar to Joe’s, it may open up an interesting space to interrogate your own feelings and position. This graphic novel is powerful not only due to the story it tells, but in its implicating gaze outwards towards the reader.

And there’s a Moose. So, read it peeps!

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Keep Dreaming, Brown Girl

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson

The Story: Winner of the Newbery Honor, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction, Woodson’s novel has already made quite the splash. Written completely in verse, this novel is an autobiographical account of the author’s childhood growing up between South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. Focus is placed on Jacqueline’s early childhood, from her birth to her first few grades in elementary school when she discovers her passion for writing, stories, and making a difference in her world.

What Wallace and I Think: Wow. This novel is amazing! It’s marketed as a young adult book, which I hate to say, is almost too bad. I know there are many “adults” that turn their noses up to YA lit, and would be missing out in the case of Woodson’s novel. So, if you usually do shy away from anything with a YA label, muster the courage and read this book!

Woodson’s novel deals artfully with issues of racism, family, divorce, education, and finding and following your passion. I will admit I was a little hesitant to read this book knowing it was all written in verse. I assumed it would take some “work” to get through the book, as I find it difficult to read poetry for extended periods of time. However, the verse in Brown Girl Dreaming is extremely easy to read, and although is somewhat disjointed, does provide us with a linear story-line that makes it extremely readable. I’m going to share some sections with you, just to prove it.

Being written in verse made this novel perhaps one of the most beautiful narratives I have lately read. There were sections that touched my heart so deeply that I found myself rereading the section over a few times before moving on. For example, this small section keeps haunting me days after reading:

I do not know if these hands will become / Malcolm’s–raised and fisted / Or Martin’s–open and asking / or James’s–curled around a pen. / I do not know if these hands will be / Rosa’s / or Ruby’s / gently gloved / and fiercely folded / calmy in a lap, / on a desk, / around a book, / ready / to change the world . . . Woodson 5

This gave me chills, friends! Several tears were shed on my part, as well as some wide smiles and silent laughs. I also loved her descriptions of places. She conveys South Carolina in an almost mythical and nostalgic tone, while also being able to communicate the dangers of being black in the south during the 1960s and 70s.

And the air is what I’ll remember. / Even once we move to New York. / It always smelled like like, my mothers says. / Wet grass and pine. / Like memory. Woodson 95-6

Likewise, if South Carolina is based in nature, Brooklyn is felt to be gritty and concret, yet offering more opportuities.

Here there is only gray rock, cold / and treeless as a bad dream. Who could love / this place– where no pine trees grow, / no porch swings moves / with the weight of / your grandmother. Woodson 143

Although I have argued that this novel should not be read by only children and young adults, it is such an important work that offers a diverse narrative within a still very white-washed literary canon, that it is especially important for children and youth to read. Walter Dean Myers in his essay “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” published in The New York Times, describes that in the books he read while growing up:

I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me. Myers 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming is a step forward in developing children’s and YA literature into more of a mosaic by having more voices tell new and different stories. Myers argues books that offer more than one type of narrative humanizes those to fall outside the Eurocentric norm, and that for himself, they gave him “the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map” (Myers 2014). That is the potential power reading Brown Girl Dreaming can have on younger readers: it can validate experience and tell them their lives and stories matter and are important; it can encourage children to enter into the dialogue themselves and become active participants in their own lives. This is no small accomplishment.

Work Cited

Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Print.

Review of Drama

Drama

Raina Telgemeier

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The Story:

Write from back cover: “Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon over Mississippi, she can’t really sing. Instead she’s the set designer for the drama department’s stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when he doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen. And when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier!”

What Wallace and I think: I am already a fan of Raina Telgemeier from reading her graphic novels Smile and Sisters. Drama is the first of Telgemeier’s work that I’ve read that isn’t directly autobiographical, so it was automatically different. I loved the fictional character Callie, who has purple hair (which no one points out as being weird=awesome), is creative, innovative, driven, and a dreamer. I also appreciated that most of the action centers on the stage crew, not the actors, giving what I felt to be a different perspective from the normative story about school plays. Yes, there was some focus on actors being pre-Madonnas, but the focus was Callie and her crew mates putting the show together, which often involves long hours, lots of hard work and patience.

There are some love triangles, secret crushes, and unrequited love/crushes, but this is not the focal point of the graphic novel, which I LOVED. Callie does want a boyfriend, she has crushes on the wrong boys (well wrong for her, boys), yet the story does not end with her finding “Mr Right.” Instead the happy ending comes from Callie pulling off the set design, and receiving a promotion for next year’s production. I found the happy ending not being facilitated by a boy refreshing, and made me like Callie and Telgemeier even more. If anything, more emphasis is placed on making good friends, and being good to those friends, then being able to find a romantic partner.

Like the past graphic novels I’ve read, I absolutely love Telgemeier’s comic style. Gurihiru Scholastic/Graphix has done the coloring for all the novels I’ve read, this one included, and the color is vibrant and rich. Often with mass produced graphic novels the coloring can be pixelated (think of old Archie comics), so I LOVE that Drama’s color is free of pixilation and extremely saturated.

Though the novel takes place in a middle school, and involves some romance (the most heated things get are a quick kiss on a park bench), it is a tame graphic novel that could be read by older elementary aged children. There is also a diversity of characters (gay, straight, black, white, Asian) which could additionally make this a great book to be read in the classroom if you are looking ways to give voice to a more diverse groups of people. And if you like Drama, I would high recommend checking out the rest of Telgemeier’s work.

Testing The Testing: A Review

The Testing

Joelle Charbonneau

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The Story: From the backcover of my book: “The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few, who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career”

Cia has been dreaming of being chosen for The Testing and going to University, just like her father, her whole life. But when this dream is made a reality, her father’s chilling parting advice to trust no one is the first reveal that nothing is as it seems. Cia won’t only be competing for a spot in the university, but for her life.

What Wallace and I Think: The Testing is largely a paint-by-numbers YA dystopian novel that has striking similarities to The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner. It has all the characteristics that are quickly becoming the markers of this genre: set in post-apocalyptic America (and spends some time in Chicago, which some of the other books I mentioned do, weird coincidence); society is divided into factions/districts/colonies and are characterized by what they produce; the main character(s) is separated from their family; there is a romance with a childhood friend, and this romance puts the main character in danger; a forced love triangle; a token “dark-skinned” character that is killed off early in the series[1]; and a corrupted government running whatever trials/tests/games the teenage character(s) must navigate.

However, what separates The Testing from other series is the potential relatability to readers. Yes, the final round of tests are eerily similar to the actual Hunger Games, but the first round of tests the university hopefuls must go through include four-four hour written tests on History, Math, Science and English. Sound familiar? These tests may seem tame compared to the last test, in which hopeful students are more than happy to kill one another to improve their chances at earning a spot at the University, but Charbonneau captures the stress written tests can bring (one competitor commits suicide after the written tests). Charbonneau takes the anxiety finals bring, especially those finals that will determine whether you get the grades you need to move on to post-secondary education, and turns it into a series.

This is what I find original and interesting about the series. The novel raises questions regarding the usefulness and consequences of this sort of testing in our own world. Sure, students in reality aren’t killing one another off to get ahead, but it is well known and documented that student suicide rates, in high school and post-secondary, are highest in December and April: finals season (what is called Dead Week at some universities). In my current dorm room, the windows can only be opened a few inches, and housing states this is for students’ safety, which we students all know and interpret as “so students can’t jump out of the windows.” The issues Charbonneau tackles may be closer to actual challenges and obstacles readers will face when compared to the other series I mentioned. Why does this matter? If you’re feeling the stress that school can bring, reading a series like this may help you to feel that you’re not alone. The academic side of me would put it like this: if someone is dealing with depression, a book like this could be an excellent resource to safely explore and workthrough emotions difficult to express, while also offering an escape from reality.

So while I didn’t find the novel overtly original, found some of the writing clumsy, and characters other than Cia were flat and underdeveloped, it’s engagement with an important issue makes it a worthwhile read, and I will be definitely be reading the second book in the series because I am intrigued to find what the university environment will be like.

If you love series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner AND want to read something very similar, this is the new series for you. I’d love to hear what you think.

[1] Case in point: Rue, Alby and in this novel Malachi. This is a pet peeve of mine. I appreciate that the authors are trying to introduce a more diverse cast of characters, but having the majority of the population as white in a post-apocalyptic world isn’t only troubling, but having these “diverse” characters firmly placed in the background/killed off early doesn’t actual do much to change the absence of non-white characters in YA and children’s literature. See an excellent article by Christopher Myers that calls this the Apartheid of children’s literature here, and another by Walter Dean Myers here

Review of Stargirl

Stargirl (2002) by Jerry Spinelli

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The Story: A new student arrives at Mica Area High School, and the student body doesn’t know what to make of her. She wears costumes, dances in the rain, carries her rat Cinnamon with her everywhere, strums her ukulele and sings Happy Birthday to people she’s never met in the lunch room, and cheers for both the home and away teams. Once the students gets over their initial puzzlement, she inspires outbursts of individuality throughout the school, and she starts a rebellion: “a rebellion for rather than against. For ourselves” (40). However, when Stargirl’s antics become more than the students can tolerate her eccentric habits becomes disparaged rather than celebrated. Can Stargirl survive the overwhelming conformity of High School?

What Wallace and I Think: I recently discovered the work of Jerry Spinelli when one of my committee members put Report to the Principal’s Office on my comprehension reading list. Since then, I’ve been making my way through some more of Spinelli’s novels for my dissertation research, and while I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by Spinelli thus far, Stargirl is my favorite.

Stargirl is a fascinating character that takes time to accept. Initially everything she did I assumed was for show, to be the center of attention. This undercut the sincerity of her actions and made her weird behavior annoying rather than endearing. However, as I came to know her better through her relationship with the narrator Leo, it’s revealed that she is completely in earnest. One character muses that she is “a little more primitive than the rest of us, a little closer to our beginnings, a little more in touch with the stuff we’re made of” (177). Stargirl is also a flawed character, which makes her even more appealing. She is not completely immune to the desire of wanting to be accepted by her peers, which brings her story from a fantastic realm to reality. She does cave for a time and tires to fit in, and as a reader you do not criticize her for this, but sadly understand.

The narrator, Leo, is equally complex. He embodies the readers’ contradictory feelings for Stargirl: loving her, but not wanting her to get hurt, which means tempering her individuality. Leo is also an interesting character because he falls in love with Stargirl when she is Stargirl, not when she’s trying to fit in, and during a period when the entire school shuns her. He is dazzled by her, and though he is later influenced by the opinions of others, initially falls in love with Stargirl for herself. This is a positive message and frankly a refreshing depiction of a teenage boy in a young adult novel.

Spinelli does a wonderful job of telling a story that is largely a metaphor for the struggle of staying true to yourself in an environment that demands conformity to the norm. The high school he depicts is realistic, not a caricature, and I found myself wondering if I would have the courage to be myself to the extent that Stargirl is not only when I was in high school, but now. Spinelli gracefully captures the fear and risks of being an individual, but leaves us with hope at the end.

Though this story takes place in a high school, it’s a clean story, and I believe would be enjoyed by children twelve and up.

Review of Sweethearts

Sweethearts (2009)

By Sara Zarr

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Disclaimer: this novel contains some “implied” sexual encounters (though overall it’s pretty PG), as well as depicts physical and mental abuse. If you’re under 13, please check with your parents before reading.

The Story: During elementary school Jenna Vaughn’s childhood sweetheart, Cameron, disappears suddenly. Jenna hears rumours that Cameron has died, and finding no proof against these rumours, she believes them and mourns the loss of her best friend and only person who truly knew her. But Cameron mysteriously returns during Jenna’s senior year of high school, forcing her to confront a disturbing event they both shared, but have never spoken of, and compelling Jenna to determine who she really is.

What Wallace and I Think: I was largely underwhelmed by this novel. When Cameron does reappear, this results in a few page turning chapters because I was curious to find out what really happened to him, but otherwise the novel relies too heavy on shallow tensions that fail to add the urgency or drama the novel was striving for. Jenna is a difficult person to root for, for several reasons.

  1. First off, when Jenna knew Cameron in elementary school, she was unpopular and outcast with Cameron as her only friend. When Cameron disappears, and Jenna moves schools, she transforms herself into a popular girl, who by senior year has a close group of friends and a boyfriend. Jenna fears what will happen if her new friends discover what she was like in elementary school from Cameron. However, it is difficult to relate or believe this fear. I find it hard to believe that her friends of four years would stop hanging out with her, or think of her differently if they found out she didn’t have many friends, was teased, and was chubby in grade three. Why do I think this? BECAUSE IT HAPPENED IN GRADE THREE! I know it’s been a while since I was in high school, but if in grade twelve I found out my friend had been teased in elementary school and wasn’t very popular, I highly doubt I, or anyone for that matter, would respond with “What? You weren’t popular you’re whole life? Well, I can no longer be associated with you.” This fear of being “found out” by her friends is present through most of the text, and not much to my surprise, Jenna’s friends don’t care, at all, when they do find out, deflating whatever building tension there was.
  2. Jenna is very resentful of her mother. Until her mother remarried when Jenna was in Jr. High, it was just to two of them. Her mother put herself through nursing school while working a full-time job, leaving Jenna by herself a lot. I can understand that that would be tough on a kid, feeling like your mom isn’t around. But Jenna is now seventeen, and she is still angry at her now present mom for basically working hard to provide them with a different life. Jenna was alone a lot because her mom was putting herself through nursing school, so she could get a better job, and better provide for her daughter. You would think that a seventeen year old would at least be able to grasp this better than Jenna does, and cut her mom a little slack, and maybe even admire her for accomplishing so much as a single mother. Jenna’s inability to see beyond her own hurt undercuts her mom’s own accomplishment and struggle.
  3. When Cameron returns an unstable love triangle forms because Jenna has a boyfriend. The love triangle is unstable because Jenna is honest from the beginning that she doesn’t really have feelings for her boyfriend. So I continually found myself asking, as does one of Jenna’s girlfriends, WHY DON’T YOU JUST BREAK UP WITH YOUR BOYFRIEND (who Jenna doesn’t seem to like very much) AND JUST BE WITH CAMERON. Sorry for the all caps, but I found it very frustrating because, like my other two points, it seemed like a weak attempt to add drama to the novel.

Sweethearts wasn’t all deflated drama, and I will give props where they are due.

  1. Cameron’s personal story is much more heart wrenching than Jenna’s, and perhaps focusing more on him would have made for a better book. Cameron is a victim of child abuse, and the few scenes depicting his father are terrifying, and my heart did break for his and his siblings’ struggle. If you’re going to read this book, do it to meet Cameron.
  2. The depiction of Jenna’s stepfather is really beautiful and positive, which isn’t always the norm with step parents in children’s and YA literature. Alan, the stepfather, loves and supports Jenna, and is often the person Jenna chooses to go to first when she needs comfort. There’s a beautiful scene when Jenna finds herself unable to sleep at three am (I won’t spoil why), and wakes Alan with her crying. He comes into her room, and simply sits next to her with his hand on her ankle until her morning alarm goes off. Their relationship was one of the stronger points of the novel.

I would recommend the age range for this book to ages thirteen and older. I give Sweethearts a 3/5

Review of American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang

Published in 2006 by First Second

GeneYang-AmericanBornChinese-cover

The Story: The graphic novel American Born Chinese tells three seemingly unconnected tales:

  1. Jin Wang’s family moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to a new neighbourhood, and Jin finds he’s one of the only Chinese-American students at his school. He and his other Chinese friends are picked on constantly, and to make things even worse, Jin falls in love with a stereotypical All-American, blonde haired, blued eye girl in his class.
  2. The Monkey King was born from a rock, and soon after establishes his monkey kingdom. He’s mastered the Arts of Kung-Fu, the Four Major Disciplines of Invulnerability, and has achieved the Four Major Disciplines of Bodily Form. However, even with power and adoring subjects, the gods, goddesses, demons and spirits of heaven only see the Monkey King as . . . a Monkey. The Monkey King yearns for the respect he deserves.
  3. Chin-Kee is the accumulation of every negative Chinese stereotype. Once a year he visits his cousin Danny in America and RUINS HIS LIFE. After every visit Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the ridicule his cousin brings. This year’s visit is worse than ever.

What Wallace and I Think: A review on the back cover of my edition compares American Born Chinese with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (a wonderful comparison in my opinion) in that they both explore “the impact of the American Dream on those outside the dominant culture” (School Library Journal). This is a story as old as the American Dream itself, but with the current success of ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, nearly ten years after it was first published American Born Chinese’s continues to be significant. Yang’s graphic novel tackles stereotypes, as well as the effects these stereotypes have on first-generation Chinese-American children. At its core, the graphic novel is a coming of age story for Jin who must learn to integrate himself in American culture while also maintaining his Chinese roots. Because of the constant teasing and racist assumptions Jin’s peers make, Jin thinks the only way to be accepted into American society is to erase his “Chineseness”. But, as a wise woman tells a young Jin (after learning he wants to be a Transformer when he grows up), “It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul” (29). What Jin must determine is whether forfeiting his soul to become what he thinks he wants is worth the price.

The Monkey King’s story is a delight and a gateway to further exploration of Chinese fables. The Monkey King is tied into Jin’s story-line in a surprising way, and also introducing readers to a traditional Chinese story. The Monkey King is a main character is the Chinese Classical novel Journey to the West, and is also found in later stories and adaptations. The Monkey King’s section loosely follows the story line of Journey to the West. Like the classical novel, Yang’s Monkey King is imprisoned under a mountain after rebelling against heaven, and is only released from the mountain when he agrees to accompany a Monk, Xuanzang (who also appears in the graphic novel), on a journey. Yang updates the fable, for the Monkey King’s mission intersects with the story lines of Jin and Chin-Kee. Comparing the Monkey King’s protrayal in American Born Chinese to his classical protrayals could make for interesting discussions.

The Monkey King shows those heavenly snobs who's boss!

The Monkey King shows those heavenly snobs who’s boss!

Chin-Kee’s story line should make you feel uncomfortable. Blatantly a racist depiction of Chinese stereotypes, Chin-Kee forces American-Chinese characters to confront fears of how they’re being perceived. Chin-Kee is the conscience of the graphic novel and acts as a “signpost” to Jin’s “Soul” (221). He also acts as the signpost and conscience of readers who may be to blame for acting similar to Jin and Danny’s bullies in the graphic novels; to those who are to blame for naming the stereotypes and bringing them into being. Mary Roche argues a main benefit of reading literature is that it opens us up to the lived experience of others, deepening our sympathies and understanding beyond our own lived experience. Given the chance, this is what American Born Chinese can accomplish, especially through the depiction of Chin-Kee and how he links up to the two other story lines. And to those that already identify with Jin’s experience, the graphic novel functions as a friend, who will warmly put his arm around your shoulder and say “you are not alone. You matter.”

This is a young adult graphic novel, and I would recommend it to grade seven readers at the youngest.

I give this novel a 5/5