191: Expand Your Reading with Our Latest Graphic Novel Recs
In this Unabridged Podcast episode, we talk all things graphic! We share a graphic novel, a graphic memoir, and a graphic nonfiction pick, all of which would work well for the Unabridged Reading Challenge 2021. Listen in to hear what we have to say about our picks including Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Gene Luen Yang’s Dragon Hoops, and Jerry Craft’s Class Act.
Our Graphic Novel Recommendations
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Jen said, “So thanks to Libro.fm's ALC program, I am listening to Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were. And so this book is—I will say, I wonder if I would be a little more successful reading it in print, but I'm loving the audio. It is a series of interconnected short stories, and each short story is told by a different character. Each of those characters has a different narrator in the audio book. It focuses on a village in Africa called Kosawa, and it has basically been destroyed by an American oil company. So because of the oil company's presence, children are dying. They're facing a lot of health issues. Their economy has been upended. A lot of the traditions that sort of held them together and help them keep going—they've had difficulty maintaining them. Seeing what is happening from all of these different perspectives is really fascinating. So there's one young woman who is an activist, and in her chapter, you see the gender expectations for women in the village, which means other people don't take her activism as seriously as they should. There are characters who have traveled to America to study and have come back and you see the impact of that experience on their lives. There's one section called 'The Children,' that is a first-person plural narration, and you see the way it's affecting this whole generation of children in the village. So, it's really fascinating. I've been trying to read more environmental and nature writing because of the school where I teach, which has that focus. This is a book that I definitely want to use in my classroom next year because I think it does such a great job of raising environmental issues and looking both at the larger impact on a community, and also the personal impact on individuals. So I'm really anxious to get to the end and sort of to find out what happens. I do not anticipate that there is going to be a happily-ever-after kind of conclusion. I would not say it is the most uplifting of books, but it is really beautifully written, and again, the audio experience is great. I've just talked about before—I'm not as strong a listener as I am a reader, and so I'm sure there are subtleties I'm missing. So I may go back and try to read it in print, but I really am enjoying it a lot. That is Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were.”
Ashley shared, "So one of the books I am reading right now—I'm listening to on audio from our library, so that's been a nice thing. A lot of you know that. I am overseas but we have a great library app. Recently they've added audio books, and so that's been really cool. So, I've been using a lot of the ebooks through the library while I've been here, and I'm also listening to audiobooks. So this one is Rebecca Stead’s The List of Things That Will Not Change. This is probably--I actually didn't look to see what it's classified as, but I would say it's probably middle grade, it is for younger readers. It is the story of Bea, and she is navigating a lot of things in her life. When the story starts, she's looking back on when she was eight, which was several years before and remembering that when there was a major event that happened in her family's life that they got her a journal, and at the beginning of the journal is a list, and the list is the things that will not change. So that is a thread that runs throughout the story that's really beautiful. What's happening at the beginning is that her parents are getting a divorce, and so in the opening part of the list, it affirms that her mom will always love her. So that's number one. And her dad will always love her. That's number two. And they will always love each other, but in a different way, and that's number three. So then the list continues from there.
"She also learns around that time that her dad is gay, and so he talked with her about that and about how it was something that he came to know about himself and that it didn't just happen suddenly but that it altered his way that he felt as far as being in a marriage with her mom. A couple of years after her parents separated, he meets Jesse, and he and Jesse get to know each other, and they have a great relationship. So they date for a long time. Then as this story is like the present time of the story, they're getting married. So she is really excited about that, but she also was navigating a lot of anxieties. So when these things happened in her parents' split up, even though her parents continued to have a really great relationship with each other, it was still a lot for her to navigate. She was going back and forth between two homes—she went from night to night. So she had to really learn how to navigate a schedule where she was in two different places. Both her parents had vowed that they would stay close in physical proximity to each other so that she would have as simple of a situation as possible. Her dad works at a restaurant, and so he's always bringing amazing food home, and he brings it to her mom's house. So they find these boxes of delicious food in their fridge, and so they do a lot to take care of each other. But she still struggles with anxiety. So they help her get involved with Miriam, a counselor. Over time, she comes to have a really great rapport with Miriam, and she is exploring all of that. So it's a really fascinating story. I think that one of the things I love is Bea's perspective on everything. So I think that, you know, we as adults see these events from a certain light. But I think that Rebecca Stead does a really great job of showing it from the child's perspective. Even though there's a lot of happy things happening, she still has a lot that she's navigating for such a small person and such a young person. I'm really loving it. I had heard great things about this one, and it's living up to the reviews that I heard, I think it's a really rich story that takes on a lot of important issues, and then tells them in a really meaningful way. So again, that's Rebecca Stead’s The List of Things That Will Not Change."
Sara commented, "I am reading, thanks to Libro.fm’s ALC program, I'm reading John Green's The Anthropocene Reviewed. This is a collection of essays, sort of like a memoir in essays, but more like what he thinks about certain things. What is really cool is he takes something like a song or something, and he tells a story about how it relates to him and his life or how he learned about it. Then at the very end, he gives it a review, like a five-out-of-five stars. Because in the very beginning, in the introduction, he talks about how the five star rating system is kind of a new thing that has not been happening for that long, so in his essays, he has a topic that he's talking about, and then he gives it a review at the end. So, I really like this book because it is something that I can dip in and out of because of the way in which it's written with essays on different topics. He reads the audio book, and I really like that too, because it's well documented how much I love John Green and his work. I think he's really good at talking about things pretty frankly. He's very open about his struggle with anxiety. He said that the reason that he decided to do this book is because with his fiction books, people were always asking out of his fiction characters, what part of his characters were kind of like a part of him. Sometimes they weren't like him—he does struggle with anxiety, but like Turtles All the Way Down, the main character has anxiety, but that his anxiety was different than hers. People would ask specific questions about how his anxiety was showing up in her, and he just felt uncomfortable with that. He didn't really want to write any more fiction for a while, so then he came up with this idea about writing some nonfiction that related to him, and I really like getting to see that process and how he discusses each of these topics. So I'm really enjoying it. And like I said, it's something I can dip in and out of, and that is John Green's The Anthropocene Reviewed."
Main Discussion—Graphic Novel Recs
Ashley shared, "This is actually a graphic memoir that I had on my Kindle and had heard really great things about. It is Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, and this is by Roz Chast. She is a comic artist for The New Yorker. She's exceedingly talented as a comic Illustrator. I had heard about this, I don't even remember exactly, but I just saw some great reviews. Then it was one of those that came along on a good deal, and I was like, Oh, this is awesome, especially for graphic novels and graphic memoirs, those can be really expensive. So I had purchased it, but I knew just a tiny bit about it and wanted to dive in. Like I said, this is actually a memoir, but it is specific to her experience with her parents and them dying, so it's really looking at old age. Both of her parents lived into their 90s, and so it was looking at navigating the last years of their life. So, I know that sounds really sad, but she is a humorist, and so there are parts that take a light side on what can be a really dark topic. But I think what I appreciated the most about this one and why I would definitely recommend it is the frank way that she is willing to talk about her own feelings, navigating this very difficult thing, which inevitably, children face with their parents if their parents live into old age. I think that's what I really appreciated about it. So she is an only child, and she had a pretty challenging relationship with her parents. They had immigrated, they had experienced a lot of hard things, and they also had been married for—I don't remember exactly, but like 70 something years—so they had been together through everything. Even though her mom has a very, very domineering personality, and her dad is really meek and quiet and timid and very anxious, and so in a lot of ways, their personalities totally contrast each other and they did fight a lot. But they also had this like perfect unit. That's how she perceived it as being their child, that they had this perfect unit, the two of them and then a lot of times she felt like she didn't really fit into that perfect unit. So we see a lot about her experiences growing up, and then we also see her facing the reality—her parents were well into their 90s before they got to a point where there was any question about them being able to live alone. So, for a long time they were living in the city in their apartment. So, they were living in Brooklyn, I believe it was in New York, and then she was in Connecticut, with her family.
"For a long time, they were completely independent. But of course, inevitably, there comes a time that they get to where they're having enough health problems to where there needs to be a move and a change. She just talks very openly, in graphic form through a series of chapters, essentially, through that process, and what it looks like, and she's honest about how horrifically expensive all of that care is, and how staggering those costs were, how completely clueless her parents were to those expenses. They had some savings, but then, you know, they were burning through this, like crazy and didn't necessarily have any awareness of that. She looks at all that in the story. She also, I mean, the title, as the title suggests, in the very beginning of the graphic memoir, she's trying to have these conversations with her parents about death, and about what they want, what their wishes are all that kind of thing. They were always even, you know, at 95, they're like, can't we talk about something more pleasant and just that attitude of, wait, we don't need to talk about this, because this is not an enjoyable thing to talk about. So we're just not going to do it.
"Again, I think she just lays out there what I think is true for a lot of people in our society. It is a very hard thing to talk about, I think. Certainly in America, that's something that people avoid, yet it is an inevitable part of life and something that has to be navigated and that can be very difficult emotionally and financially to navigate. So I thought it was really beautiful. I really enjoyed it. It's not, I was afraid it was going to be devastatingly sad, and I didn't feel that way about it. Like I said, what I appreciated most was just that I felt like she was really vulnerable and willing to admit her feelings—the good, bad, and the ugly—about the process. A lot of it was she, I think, in a lot of ways, she did grieve with her dad, but even toward the end of her mom's life, she's still in a lot of ways did not have a good relationship with her, and all of the times that her mom had been really antagonistic toward her, her whole life still weighed on her. So I think she's just honest about that, and how the relationship didn't miraculously change, and she didn't suddenly see the light or feel this amazing connection and comfort, and yet was looking for that. In a lot of ways she’s looking for that solace and that peace that you want to come in relationships, but she just puts all that on the page. Her illustrations are beautiful, and she really captures what it's like to navigate that. I thought all of it was really masterfully done. Oh, my goodness, it was really powerful. Like I said, I was worried when I first read about it, I thought that it would be super heavy, and it's not. Of course, the topic is heavy, but I think that it did not impact me in a really significant way emotionally. Like I appreciated it, but I did not feel like I could not get up. I did appreciate, I mean, just all the things that she said about trying to find a facility that would take them and then what happens when they get to the point where assisted living isn't sufficient, so that you know, there's a time where things are costing 10s of 1000s of dollars a month because they need both the assisted living but also 24-hour nurse care in addition, which the facility will not provide. It's that kind of thing that was basically just showcasing how flawed the entire system is and how impossible it is to navigate that if people are what we perceive to be fortunate enough to live to that point in their life. What does that mean? What does that mean for them and for the people who love them? You know, how is that going to be? And I thought all of that was really important to examine. That was Roz Chast. She is the illustrator/author. And the title is Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"
Jen shared, "My pick is Gene Luen Yang's Dragon Hoops, and let me just say here this is nonfiction, so technically our title for both Ashley's book and my book is not accurate. These are not graphic novels, they're graphic nonfiction or graphic memoirs. For the reading challenge, you can do what you want. So, go ahead if you want to read a graphic memoir or graphic nonfiction, that is perfectly fine. I really liked Gene Luen Yang's work, and I could not have loved this book more. I would say it's classified as YA, but I definitely think adult readers will enjoy it as well. So Yang is trying to decide on his next graphic book topic, graphic novel topic after having written his two-book set, Boxers and Saints, and he gets the idea to write about the basketball team at the private Catholic school where he teaches. They are called the Dragons. But he's a little skeptical of his own idea, because he really hates sports. He has never been a sports kid. He was really bad at sports when he was a kid. He does not follow them. But they have this interesting situation because this is a team that has made it to the California State Championships more than once, and they have two of the best senior boys basketball players in the country. The coach Lou Richie, who Gene Luen Yang knows as a colleague but does not know well at all, thinks that this is going to be their year. Lou actually attended the school, Bishop O'Dowd High School. He attended this school himself and made it to states and did not win, and he is the coach who followed this legendary most winningest coach in California boys' basketball history, he has followed in that person's footsteps.
"So Gene Luen Yang is teaching, he has a family. There's at one point, this circle graph that shows the amount of time he has to spend on his graphic novel on his graphic book career, and the amount he has to spend on teaching and the amount he has to spend on his family, and they're continuously crowding each other out. So again—I think very relatable to adults. But what results is just this amazing book. So he tells the story of this team. He has chapters that are detailing different games over the course of this season. He has chapters that deal with the history of basketball, and he looks at why it was invented, why it was a good kind of sport to have in particular places. He looks at the first women's basketball team and the way that women's basketball has sometimes been treated unfairly. He looks at the history of racial integration of basketball, and the fact that originally people thought that black players could not play. He looks at the way that initially basketball focused on small players, and they thought that people who were too tall wouldn't be able to play basketball because they were too slow and the way that changed. So those are some chapters as well, and then he focuses on individual players on the team, which that part is just amazing. So you get the backstory of all of these boys, most of the players on the team are seniors, and you see why they attended this private Catholic school. Some of them are the children of immigrants, and that was really important. There's one player who immigrated from China to the United States in this exchange program specifically to play boys' basketball, and so he moved to the US specifically to play on a private Catholic team. He considers the impact of coaches on boys’ lives, particularly boys who might need extra help getting to college. So most of the players on the team are black, but there's the Chinese player. So there's one character who is Sikh, and he faces a different kind of racism. He's called 'terrorist' by fans from other teams, and Yang is just incorporating all of this in the story.
"There's also this really interesting component where he talks about the writing of the story and what to include and what not to include on the page. And he deliberately addresses writing techniques. So at one point—his wife is a part of the story throughout—and at one point, he and his wife are having a conversation, and he kind of breaks in and talks to the reader and says okay, so you know that sometimes I just use these conversations because I need to deliver information and says actually this isn't a conversation I'm having with my wife. It's a conversation I'm having with myself. Then there are two little Gene Luen Yangs on the page having this conversation about what direction to take the narrative. So it's funny, and it's smart. While he was writing this book, he got the offer to write Superman for DC Comics, which was a huge deal, and so he also talked about the reason he always loved superhero stories is that you know, the good guy always wins and that one of the frustrating things for him in sports is that the good guy doesn't always win. So you don't know until the end what happens with the Dragons and their goal of winning the California State Basketball Championship, so that is this constant suspenseful thread through the book, but it brought together so many different threads. He does so many really innovative things with storytelling that I've talked before about how I don't play sports, but I love sports stories. And this, I think, encompasses all of the reasons I love sports stories because you get this drive, you see what drives each of these players to want to succeed and how they view that potential success as being really important in their lives as being a way out of situations or as being a stepping stone to something they want to achieve. It's won a ton of awards. So, I'm by no means the only person who thinks his book is brilliant, but I just could not put it down. I loved it so so much. So that is Gene Luen Yang's Dragon Hoops."
Sara said, "I know, I've talked about Jerry Craft’s New Kid on the podcast at some point, and that book centers around Jordan Banks—his parents have enrolled him in a prestigious private school where academics are super important, but there's not a lot of diversity. Jordan is only one of the few kids of color in his grade, and he has a friend in that book, and his name is Drew. So book one, New Kid, is all about Jordan’s experience. So, the book I'm going to talk about today is Class Act, which is also by Jerry Craft, aWnd there's a companion book to New Kid, and this is all about Drew, the main character of this book. So basically, Drew is attending Riverdale Academy, which is again, not very diverse. He's one of the few kids of color. What I really love about this book is that it really talks about privilege and what that means. I really like the way it navigates it for the audience it's intended for.
"So I think this is a really good middle-grade graphic novel. It's solid. It brings up a lot of things that I think are important for middle schoolers to think about, and it just navigates friendships and how things change, and how you deal with those changes. But it's funny, you know, you can laugh out loud. When I read it—I got both of these books for my son—and when I read it, I just was impressed with the way that it navigates these hard things that all middle schoolers face, but then in particular, feeling like an outsider in a place where you should be able to fit in and navigating people who have privilege and don't understand it. I just thought it was really great seeing how that unfurls and how middle schoolers have to deal with these things that come up. It's hard. That's why I always love beating my drum for good middle-grade literature because the middle grades are a time when there are so many things in flux, and there are so many times where students don't know exactly what's happening. They're growing up, but they're not grownups, and I think that this book does a good job of showing that in a very accessible way. Again, like I said, it's really funny at times. So, I really like this for middle-grade readers, and that is Class Act by Jerry Craft.”
Give Me One - TV Show to Watch Immediately
Listen in to hear our picks, and join us on Instagram on Monday to share your pick with us!
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