Friday, June 26, 2020

Things I Tried to Bring to 'The Great Chicago Fire' Graphic Novel

When I was presented with writing the script for The Great Chicago Fire: Rising From the Ashes, I was a little intimidated. Chicago school kids study this topic inside and out. They become experts. Their teachers are already experts. Stacks of books have been written about this subject. What could I possibly bring to this that hasn't already been done?

As I began compiling research into this fascinating moment from history, I couldn't help but be impacted by current events happening all around me. A ban on Muslims entering America. Immigrants turned away at the southern border. Condemnation of refugees. Looking back at 1871 Chicago, Irish Catholic immigrants like Mrs. O'Leary were at the bottom of the social pecking order. And therefore easy to scapegoat.

So that's how I landed on telling the story through the eyes of two poor immigrant kids. While the graphic novel is nonfiction in that it relays the facts of the fire and includes first-hand accounts, I did use a device for the narrative arc: The fictive Franny and J.P., our protagonists, take us through the story and, I hope, make readers feel as if they're there in the action. Together with these siblings—and an orphaned puppy because we need kids to really care about what happens in the fire—we race down burning streets, past collapsing buildings, and into the lake to cool off.

I wanted kids to identify with Franny and J.P. and think about how frightening this disaster would feel. Unfortunately, devastating fires are not a thing of the past, as we see with Australia's terrifying wildfires in late 2019 and ongoing fires in the American West. I also wanted young readers to think about social issues, too, like how their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents might have been treated when they arrived in America. And how we currently treat newcomers to our shores. The Irish who populated American cities in the middle of the 1800s were fleeing famine, starvation, and oppression, seeking a better life where their kids could thrive and prosper. How different is that from today's immigrants?

And through these protagonists' eyes twenty years later at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, we see the city reborn with skyscrapers, new inventions and ideas, and hope. This part of the story was essential to me, in that when we write books for children, we need to give them hope. And we need to show them that while devastating things can and do happen in life, we can move forward. We can emerge better for it. Chicago burned to the ground, and it was terrifying. But like the phoenix that became a symbol of the city's rebirth, Chicago rose from the ashes.

Why should a child read this book? To start to understand that history isn't an isolated moment but rather a continuum. A raging river. And that we, both as individuals and as a people, learn from the hard times and work toward making things better. In the current moment of pandemic, economic instability, and push for social justice that is Summer 2020, let's hope again that we emerge from this better both as individuals and as a society.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Remy Lai's 'Pie in the Sky' a Sweet but Sad Graphic-Novel Hybrid

One of my favorite recent reads is Pie in the Sky by debut author-illustrator Remy Lai. Winner of the SCBWI Sid Fleischman Humor Award and an NPR "Best Books of 2019" selection, Pie has received all kinds of love since its publication last year from Henry Holt. A hybrid graphic novel blended with traditional novel, it's like a perfect cake: the emotional content is challenging, but the humor keeps it light.

Middle-grade readers will go through a range of feelings as they get to know 11-year-old Jingwen. Not only has his mother uprooted the family to Australia, forcing Jingwen to adapt to a new home and new language, but he's got to be the responsible big brother to his utterly annoying younger sibling, Yanghao.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Jingwen and the almost paralyzing sadness he experiences over the loss of his father. Baking fancy cakes together on Sundays brought them closer — toward a "pie in the sky" dream of someday opening up a cake shop and leading a better life. But Jingwen carries too much sadness and guilt to adapt, and Lai shows us all the hurt: feeling like a literal alien at school, watching his little brother soar, realizing his old friend has forgotten him, disobeying his mother's orders.

Pie in the Sky satisfies on so many levels, accomplishing that most enviable feat of making readers laugh through their tears. This is a must-read.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Cindy Copeland's Graphic-Novel Memoir 'Cub' Celebrates Journalism

I grew up reading newspapers at the breakfast table each morning, starting on the funny pages and gradually working my way into the news sections. When I reached high school, I knew that my natural nosiness about other people, knack for eavesdropping, and love of language and wordplay were a good combination for working on the school newspaper. On to college to study journalism formally, and then work at national newspapers. I absolutely loved walking into the newsroom every day, and I can't read enough about Nellie Bly, Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, and other female journalists.

When I stumbled onto Cub (Algonquin, 2020) by Cynthia L. Copeland, I fell hard! Race to the bookstore and pick this book up for the budding journalist in your life! Both funny and smart, Cub is Cindy's memoir in which she recalls being a 12-year-old reporter shadowing a local news reporter. Set in 1972-73, there’s so much here: Watergate, Vietnam, ERA, groovy fashions like bell bottoms. John Denver. How girls and women were treated at the dinner table and in the newsroom. As well as the shifting sands of friendships and the agony of first crushes.

A complete joy and a good prompt for discussing how far we've come and how far we still need to go.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Heartbreak, Hope of a Better Life in Graphic-Novel Memoir 'Stars'

World Refugee Day is coming up this Saturday, June 20, and for parents and teachers who want to better understand the refugee experience as they talk with their kids, there are plenty of books to turn to. Among the best I've seen is the new nonfiction graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered (Dial, 2020), written by Somali refugee Omar Mohamed in collaboration with Victoria Jamieson, the Newbery-Honor winning author-illustrator of the beloved Roller Girl (Dial, 2015).

The story is told from the perspective of Omar, who was forced to flee his home at age four with his baby brother, Hassan, after their father was killed and they became separated from their mother. Their childhood was spent in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, and young readers might find it shocking to see how different life is for refugee kids compared to their own day-to-day concerns. The boys go to bed hungry, spend hours in line for basic necessities like water and food rations. School is something Omar can only dream about, and once he's able to attend classes, he feels conflicted that he has to leave his little brother behind. Especially powerful is what happens to Omar's female classmates.

The back matter makes Omar's experience even more real, as he talks about where he's living now and the life he leads today. And how he's working to help other refugees who also dream of a better future. I found myself close to tears throughout. This is an important book for all readers, no matter the age, and for every day—not just World Refugee Day. As we work with children to understand the covid pandemic and how it impacts populations in our cities and around the world, as well as the anti-racism protests and calls for social justice, this is another part of that conversation about building a more just and inclusive world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

'Go With the Flow' the Graphic-Novel Period Book We All Need

Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann are the brilliant team behind Go With the Flow (First Second, 2020), the informative graphic novel that examines periods in all their embarrassing, confounding glory. While the four friends featured in the story are sophomores in high school, this book is the perfect thing to hand to middle-schoolers who want to learn more about the mysteries of menstruation, cramps, tampons, and fighting the system. While I know it's a fictional tale of friendship, I read it as a nonfiction primer on periods.

Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha challenge their school to put feminine hygiene front and center, and keep the tampon and pad machines stocked as a basic service (basic human right) for their students' well-being. Thought-provoking, humorous, spot on (okay, my puns are terrible), you can see how these talented author-illustrators did it via First Second's Comics Relief discussion. Well-written and beautifully illustrated in a palette of reds, Go With the Flow is the book I wish I'd had back in the day—and wish I could have shared with my daughter in her preteen years. A great pairing with American Girl's The Care and Keeping of You.