The final competition in the Battle of the Books! At the Gobles Elementary School. Call 269-628-4537 for more information.
I heard Newbery-Honor author Jacqueline Woodson speak recently on the theme of “Windows and Mirrors.” The basic idea is that children’s and young adult books need to allow us a view into another world while simultaneously reflecting our identity back to us. It’s a call to diversity, an insistence that literature offer authentic mirrors for minority children. At the same time, it broadens and reaffirms the notion of the universal. It defines a very difficult line for children’s and YA novelists. Woodson’s After Tupac and D Foster (ages 10 and up) gives us an example of how wonderfully she walks that line.
Despite the title, you don’t have to be familiar with Tupac Shakur—a hip-hop legend who died a violent death at a young age—to “get” this novel. Tupac grounds the story in a particular place and time, between late summer 1994 and September 1996 following his death. Woodson also subtly positions the rap star as a symbol of some of the book’s themes: the bonds of friendship; the relationship between kids and their mothers; the African-American’s unfair vulnerability to violence and imprisonment.
Tupac’s fame and fortune also make him a symbol of a larger world of possibilities. The unnamed narrator and her friends grow toward that world as they reach their twelfth and thirteenth birthdays. Tension between this wide world and the single city block the narrator and her lifelong friend Neeka are not permitted to leave reflects the tension between the specific and the universal—the window and the mirror.
Early in the novel, the narrator describes herself this way:
Lately, I’d been feeling like I was standing outside watching everything and everybody. Wishing I could take the part of me that was over there and the part of me that was over here and push them together—make myself into one whole person like everybody else.
She is divided between the small, familiar world of her childhood and the world of the possible, of what her friend D calls her “Big Purpose.” As a voracious reader, she connects to that larger world through books. Later on, she and Neeka connect to it more directly, deciding to “roam” with D to a different part of the city. They find a fancy amphitheater and loudly announce, “We’re here!” to its wide open, echoing spaces.
The girls experience a moment of freedom, of connection to the wide world without negative consequences. After all, this is not a tale of the hidden dangers of the city. This is a story about expanding life through friendship and music, about the struggle to unite the part of us that belongs to the small world of our beginnings to the broader world we can choose to enter as we grow up.
Of course, this is also the story of D, the foster child who already has the wide world in her freedom to roam during the day. D longs for a more intimate and reassuring world. The narrator imagines that D and Tupac—in part for D a symbol of broken and restored connections with her mother—are together in the end, and that D is “finally whole.”
The universality Jacqueline Woodson achieves in After Tupac and D Foster comes from her genuineness as an author who has contemplated the broad human condition as well as the condition specific to her race and gender. It is also a testament to her talent and skill as a writer that this book—which might in lesser hands have been just another “issues book,” sacrificing storytelling for social relevance—is such an engaging read.
[fusion_builder_container backgroundcolor=”” backgroundimage=”” backgroundrepeat=”no-repeat” backgroundposition=”left top” backgroundattachment=”scroll” video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” bordersize=”0px” bordercolor=”” borderstyle=”” paddingtop=”20px” paddingbottom=”20px” paddingleft=”0px” paddingright=”0px” menu_anchor=”” equal_height_columns=”no” hundred_percent=”no” class=”” id=””][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][fusion_text]Jeff Smith’s Bone is, hands down, the most accessible and appealing all-ages graphic novel series ever published. The trade paperbacks, collecting the comics from Smith’s Cartoon Books, bear Scholastic’s graphix imprint–a sure sign of their family friendly nature. The marshmallowy appearance of the title characters may put off teens and adults who are looking for a harder edge, while the books’ home on the bottom shelf with the more adult graphic novels makes access taboo for younger readers. It’s a shame, because Bone is that rare breed of book with something for everyone.
Out From Boneville, the series’ first volume, begins as the Bone cousins hover in a patch of desert, on the run from the good folk of Boneville (something like our modern midwestern U.S.A.), who have caught on to Phoney Bone’s latest con job. When the trio separates in a swarm of locusts, we follow good-hearted Fone Bone into the mountains–where he first encounters the Great Red Dragon and the rat creatures, and the medieval valley–where he meets (and falls for) a young human girl named Thorn. Smith manages to introduce the sweeping arc of the storyline without at all sacrificing the humor. Think of the Marx Brothers transported into an epic fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien or George Lucas. Soon, we are introduced to the Hooded One and Kingdok, leaders of the villainous rat creatures, who, for some mysterious reason, are looking for Phoney. To flush him out, they attack Thorn’s grandmother’s farm, trying to kill Fone Bone. Ultimately, with the Dragon’s help, Fone and the rest of the heroes survive the attack, but the future looks dark for them.
This is the first of a series, and Smith’s pacing out of the gate is impeccable. We just begin to get hints of the larger picture: Thorn’s mysterious dreams, Gran’ma Ben’s relationship with the Red Dragon, the Hooded One’s deal with Phoney Bone. These revelations propel us into the following chapters, but what keeps us squarely grounded in the present volume are the characters–their familiar humanity, their humor, their strength. Fone Bone is an accidental hero, an everyman–easy to identify with, resourceful and courageous but without any special powers–who sweeps the reader up as he is swept up in the action. Thorn and her Gran’ma Ben–who alternates between a sweet old lady and a no-nonsense scrapper–are strong female characters with a sense of history and depth.
The art is cinematic. Smith’s background as an animator shows: he paces the action sequences and composes each panel as deftly as a good film director. Despite the simplicity and openness of his lines, Smith elicits a full range of expression from his characters, investing the reader in the subtleties of their emotional lives. Smith is masterful at “show, don’t tell”–the dialogue never gets too heavy and expository here (as it occasionally does in later volumes).
It’s not perfect. The villains at this early stage are two-dimensional. The Hooded One plays a caricature of a devil, having made some vague bargain for Phoney’s soul. Their relationship rings hollow, a flaw in the overall gem. Inconsistencies in the various stories of what exactly Phoney did to get the Bones run out of Boneville also distract from the story a bit. In the overall flow of the graphic novel, however, these problems barely register, even through repeated readings.
I would like to see everyone–male and female, from newborn infants to the most wizened centigenarians–read this series. Fans of classic funny-animal comics will immediately be reminded of Walt Kelly’s Pogo (check out The Return of Pogo) and Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories (such as “The Seven Cities of Gold“). Fans of classic comedy will appreciate the Vaudevillean Bone cousins Phoney and Smiley (a cartoon double of Ed Norton from the Honeymooners), as well as the two bungling rat creatures who bicker over insults and recipes. Die-hard fantasy fans will be captured by the epic, Tolkienesque plot. Other readers will enjoy the modern sensibilities of the Bones as strangers in a strange land. Toddlers (when parents read Bone to them) will eagerly follow the simplicity and silliness of it. Teens will find a coming of age story that, in a mythic way, mirrors their own. Adults will be transported back to their childhood.
Truly, Bone has something for everyone![/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]