Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

47493017Joel Christian Gill is the creator of the graphic novels Strange Fruit Volumes I & II, which tell the stories of unsung African Americans. He turns the focus on himself in his powerful graphic memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. His recounting of his young life is both brave and heartbreaking. He does not hold back in exposing the abuse and neglect he suffered and shows how it impacted the way he moved through the world. He admits how painful it was to recall these childhood memories – I can only imagine what it was like to live them, given how painful it was to read about them.

His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to take care of him. He often had to stay with his mother’s friends or relatives, where he was sexually abused and neglected. School provided no refuge as he was also bullied by other children and mistreated by teachers. He was drowning but there was no one to throw him a life-line.  He had to swim his way out on his own. He shows how children subjected to violence in words and actions absorb it all; then, like sponges, they get filled up and start to “leak” that same behavior. Eventually he became like the children around him, a full vessel leaking abuse onto others.

He was kept afloat by the library, art and a few key friendships. Once he discovered how much he enjoyed drawing, he could lose himself in it. He struggled but made his way through middle school and high school. A decision he made at age 18 was surprising, but turned out to be life-saving.

Gill’s dramatic art, with saturated colors and expressive characterizations, brings you deep into his story and doesn’t let go. The scenes where he depicts his mistreatment manage to be simultaneously subtle, infuriating and devastating. Photographs from his early life through present day bring the story even closer. The language is as evocative as the visuals. In addition to imagining children as sponges, he uses fire to represent harm. Some people are arsonists, deliberately causing pain, while others are accidental fire starters.  There are also those who do controlled burns — looking for the best place to start the fire. Although this book is difficult, it shows how young people, living under dire circumstances, can still find their way out to a healthy life. He leaves us with hope.

I don’t know what it took to create this memoir, but I admire Joel Christian Gill for doing it. I appreciate his note saying he didn’t do this as a catharsis.  Instead, he is speaking to young people who are experiencing trauma, sending the message that they can think for themselves and can choose a different path. He is also speaking to adults who witness young people acting as he did; he hopes they can recognize the roots of this behavior and seek to learn that child’s story.

Find Fights at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Felix Ever After

FelixFelix is a queer Black trans teen who is still struggling with identity. Though certain he is not female, he doesn’t always feel 100% male. He’s a talented artist whose dream is to attend Brown University. Felix enrolls in a summer art program to help improve his chances. He has close friends in the program but has difficult relationships with other students. Felix arrives at his art school one day to find someone has posted a photo gallery of his pre-transition self, complete with his deadname (his pre-transition name). Felix is devastated and decides to catfish the person he thinks is responsible. In going after the person he targeted, Felix is forced to face some truths about that person and about his own relationships. This powerful story does not shy away from the harassment and misconceptions trans teens face. The narrative deftly explores the idea of continuing to question identity, even beyond the binary, given the complex experience of gender. The characters vary in culture, gender identity, and gender expression, and have depth. The resolution of the mystery and Felix’s arc are both handled in a satisfying way.

This is an #ownvoices story, meaning the author, Kacen Callender, is writing from their lived experience. Callender experienced much of what Felix is subjected to in the book. It was interesting to learn about the many identities between male and female as Felix searches for the one that feels right. The author intentionally makes the point that it’s OK to keep questioning identity – or to reject labels altogether.

Many independent bookstores are set up for online shopping, and this is an important time to support them. Find Felix Ever After at your local bookstore.

New Kid

New kid, new lifestyle?

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In this graphic novel we meet Jordan Banks, a 12-year-old living in New York City, who has just started attending Riverdale Academy Day School. In addition to having to make new friends and navigate the culture of this very fancy private school, he must deal with the challenges of being one of a very few kids of color there. His parents reflect the mixed feelings Jordan brings to the experience. While his mother is excited that he has the opportunity to go to a school that’s well-resourced and will allow him to make connections, his father is concerned about the lack of diversity.

A bigger issue for Jordan is that he’d rather go to art school. Jordan is a cartoonist; his creations, which are interspersed throughout the book, show how he uses his art and sly sense of humor to work out his frustrations. Many of them center around how Jordan and 2 other African-American boys at the school are treated. Jordan lives in a 2-parent middle-class household, Drew lives with his grandmother, and Maury, who has been at Riverdale since kindergarten, is the son of a Fortune 500 CEO. Despite coming from different backgrounds each of them is subject to the same assumptions. This is really brought home at the school’s book fair. The only books featuring African-Americans involve slavery, gang life and poverty. Making matters worse, the event organizers hand each boy  “The Mean Streets of South Uptown.”  The adults assume this street lit reflects the lives of the African-American boys and they expect the boys to love it.

This moment really struck me because, sadly, I personally have seen librarians do this. It is infuriating that anyone would look at Black youth and imagine that they would only be able to relate to books where someone gets shot, is forced to deal drugs or has incarcerated or drug-addicted parents. The belief that this represents all the boys’ experiences is insulting; even worse is the assumption that students who could relate to this book would have no interest in reading anything else. There are other instances of macroaggressions, some of which are experienced by staff of color, others by students who feel like they’re outsiders for other reasons.

However, these issues are all raised organically with irony, sarcasm and humor, so the story is refreshing, not didactic. The art brings Jordan’s journey to life beautifully. The fresh, colorful palette is engaging and clearly expresses everything the characters are experiencing. Switching to black and white for Jordan’s cartoons helps focus attention on his real feelings.

New Kid is a wonderful graphic novel which will resonate with a variety of readers – no matter how far removed you are from middle school.  Find it at your local bookstore.