Thursday, April 21, 2016

Graphic Novel Review: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor

Underground Abductor book coverNathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor (9 out of 10) Graphic Novel, 128 pages, Hardcover. 2015, Amulet Books. 
My 8th grade son was put on the spot by his history teacher yesterday. She had him put on an apron and a scarf, and told him he was Harriet Tubman. They were just getting into her story, and I don't know if the teacher was putting him on the spot or not (she knows me, and knows he could handle it), but he was able to answer every question she threw at him. And it was all because of a graphic novel he read last year.  
The Underground Abductor is the story of Harriet Tubman of course, and is the first in this series of graphic novels that's a biography of a single person. It's a break in the formula that Hale has established, but is still able to use one woman's story as an exemplar of what's happening in the wider story of American History. In this case, slavery and the abolitionist movement in the antebellum South. 
The premise is the same as the other books in this series: American patriot/spy Nathan Hale is at the gallows, about to be executed by a Hangman and British Provost. As he's about to die, he's able to magically see all of American History, and entertains the Hangman and Provost with the tales, Sheherazade-style. At the beginning of this story, the Provost (stuffy, very British) says essentially "all of these stories are about how America is so great, so special, the best country ever..." which Hale admits to, but does say that the country has made many mistakes, and that slavery is one of the worst. 

Hale (the author) lays out the history of slavery quickly, getting us up to the 1830s, when Harriet Tubman was a young girl. Back then she was "Araminta Ross," and she keeps that name for the half of the book before she escapes to freedom. Her story gives us a good look at what the institution of slavery was like in the south at the a word, terrible. Hale is able to do this in a way that honors the pain and condemns the horrors of slavery, but is still appropriate for the target audience of 5th - 8th graders. I wouldn't say it's sanitized; he gets into the fugitive slave laws, and punishments including hobbling. He describes and shows the beating of Araminta and other slaves, and there are passages that are a hard read because of that. Throughout, Hale's cartoony style of illustration is able to convey the humanity of these people, but soften some of the harder edges of history. 

In the middle of telling Harriet Tubman's story, Hale takes two small detours to tell other stories that fit into the same time period and subject: the Nat Turner Rebellion and the story of Frederick Douglass. He's able to tell both succinctly, and their inclusion gives us a broader view of what was happening outside of Tubman's relatively small world. 
With the announcement that Harriet Tubman would be replacing Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill, it's fitting that we (and our students) brush up on who she is and her remarkable accomplishments. The Underground Abductor is a fine way to do that. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Trump Coloring Book

So I was in my local Barnes & Noble, rearranging shelves so that Play Like a Pirate was displayed more prominently (I'm not joking about that part) and on my way out saw some of those "adult coloring books" on a table. I actually like those, although I liked coloring before coloring was cool, which makes me like a Crayola hipster or something.


Alongside an adult Star Wars coloring book and eighty-three different Mandala coloring books, and a Game of Thrones coloring book, I saw...The Trump Coloring Book. I picked it up, flipped through it, left it behind, and went out to my car. 

After sitting in the parking lot for about two minutes, I went back inside and bought a copy. Partially for the history teacher in me, partially for the part of me that's always thinking "how could I use that in a classroom?" and partially just...the twisted pleasure of it. Some of these images are really, really disturbing. The whole idea behind the "adult coloring book" craze is that it's relaxing to follow the lines, to bring life to these pages...but the imagery here was stressing me out, man! But it also made me laugh. And cringe. And weep. And snort. 

After looking at this coloring book, I looked for some on other presidential candidates, and this is by far the best. Not because I don't like Trump (politically or otherwise, I've never been a fan), but because it's well-done and simply funny. There are some Hillary ones that are fine, but the ones that are anti-Hillary are broadly misogynistic, and I'm honestly not sure if the Ted Cruz one I found is meant as parody or as a sincere appreciation of his devout nature. 

The cyclical nature of presidential campaigns mean that this coloring book is a novelty that will be forgotten soon enough...unless of course President Trump becomes a reality. In which case, some of these scenarios won't just be something a kid gets to color in, but something they'll be seeing in their history books. 

In that case, as my eleven year old said when he saw the coloring book: "we're gonna need more orange crayons."

 Author/artist M.G. Anthony has worked Trump into the patriotic iconography of the United States, including adding him to Mount Rushmore, having him sign the Constitution, flying Benjamin Franklin's kite, and crossing the Delaware.

That's not enough for the Donald, so he invades other parts of pop culture, swapping places with Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, Willy Wonka, and all four Beatles. Good luck getting the image of Donald Trump as Marilyn Monroe standing over the grate with the dress billowing up around him out of your head.

We even get some...substance? With Trump in showdowns against Kim Jong-Un, Vladimir Putin, and Hillary Clinton (playing Battleship, Chess, and Arm Wrestling, respectively).

I really bought this for myself, but I can see there being classroom applications for it -- as with everything else around us. M.G. Anthony chose the imagery he did for a reason. It's part patriotic symbols, part history, part pop culture. As with a political cartoonist, he's saying something about Donald Trump when he puts him on the Game of Thrones "Iron Throne." What message is the artist trying to send?  How would this book be different if it were representing a different candidate? Could you criticize the positions (or personality, which is what a lot of this comes down to) using different historic scenes, movies, or symbols for different candidates? If you were to pull someone forward from history and do this kind of a project for say, Queen Elizabeth I, what scenes would you put her into to examine her life in this simple, coloring book-style?

Or you know. Have a coloring contest with your students and give a candy bar to the winner. I just liked the book. :)