9.09.2011

Americus, writte by MK Reed, art by Jonathan Hill, 216 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE/TEEN

Americus, written by MK Reed with art by Jonathan Hall is amazing on so many levels for me. I have a deep appreciation for the art of illustration, so I was bit disappointed when I turned to the first page of  Americus and saw that it is illustrated entirely in the traditional black and white comic style without any shades of gray. Still new to the genre, I had yet to read a graphic novel in this style. Most of my reading experience has come from brightly colored, highly imaginative fantasy graphic novels for younger kids. However, by page 5 of Americus I was so completely engrossed in the story that I forgot all about the beautiful colors and magical creatures I thought I longed for. Instead, I was carried along by the story of Neil Barton, a bookworm who usually likes to fly under the radar but who is challenged to speak up when he loses one best friends and is about to lose another as a group of parents threatens to censor his favorite book series and remove them from the public library.

Neil and his friend Danny have been eagerly awaiting Book 8 in the Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, Huntress Witch series, which is released the summer before they are about to start high school. The two head to the Americus Public library to pick up the copy that Danny has been on the waiting list for since Book 7 was released. Not on the list and lacking the funds to buy the book, Neil roams the shelves of the library with the occasional help of Charlotte, the librarian, who has her nose buried in her own copy of Book 8. Neil and his mom have been living a pretty spartan life since his father walked out on them, taking the computer and purchases like books and music are a luxury. However, while visiting his aunt and uncle in Tulsa, a trip to the store with his older cousin's boyfriend turns into a musical education. 


While Neil's world is expanding, Danny's is shrinking. A scene at the beginning of the book depicts the end-of-the-year dance in the gym that Neil grudgingly attends with Danny. When Danny goes off to dance with a girl Neil sneaks out into the hallway to read The Martian Chronicles and is confronted by three thugs who make some homophobic slurs about him and Danny and throw his book in the dumpster. While this event doesn't directly affect Danny, it foreshadows Mrs Burns' fury when she finds Danny reading the newest Apathea book and heads to the library to make a scene. At dinner that night, Danny tries to defend the book to him mom, telling her that reading those books is the only thing in Americus that makes him happy. As her tirade escalates, Mrs Burns tells Danny that she is trying to protect him from "the people who want to put your soul in jeopardy - the damn liberals, the atheists and the gays," to which Danny responds, "Damn it mom! I'm gay!" While Mr Burns ushers the other children out of the room, Mrs Burns slaps Danny, sends him to his room and ultimately decides to send Danny to summer camp to fix his problem then on to military school in the fall.

In Danny's absence Neil slinks his way through high school. My older kids and my husband, who has been a high school teacher for 17 years, read Americus and he got a good laugh out of the scenes in which Neil traipses through his first days in high school when the teachers are introducing themselves and their classes. He said he actually teaches with a few people like that, which gave me pause. 
Neil passes his days with his nose in a book, slowly noticing the world around him and even making tentative friends. He finds a job at the Americus public library where, faced with a parent group headed up by Mrs Burns, who ripped up Book 8 in her face, Charlotte is finding her job very stressful. Mrs Burns organizes her group, writes letters to the editor and searches the internet for instances of the inappropriateness and obscene nature of the Apathea books. However, she does not read the books. After Mrs Burns and her Keep the Faith in Christ Literary Awareness and Library Advocacy Group hijack a library board meeting, the members of the board agree to read the book and decide at the next meeting whether it should be censored and removed from the shelves. However, what the board really wants to talk about it the move to switch from paper towels to hand driers in the bathrooms at the library.


How Neil gets involved and the final decision is suspenseful enough to keep you reading this book straight through, which is exactly how my husband, daughter and I read it. And, despite being a graphic novel, Americus is not a fast read. One aspect of Americus that I especially loved was the inclusion of bits and pieces of Apathea's story intertwined with Neil's. Those scenes make me want to know more about Apathea and her story. Americus originally appeared seriealy at the website Save Apathea and there are all sorts of tidbits on the website, including a list of the titles of all eight of her books (to date...) One of the interesting things about Americus for me was the fact that my daughter, who has grown up reading the Harry Potter books as they were published, did not see the parallel between the censorship challenges to the Potter books and the challenges to Apathea until she was half way into this graphic novel. Of course, she has also grown up in her own bubble of childhood that did not include censorship or the potential censorship of any book.


In an interview from 2010 during Banned Book Week, MK Reed says that she was inspired to write   Americus after reading about the many challenges to Harry Potter in schools and libraries, which she found ridiculous. As she says, "I see a clear link between kids who are intellectually curious and kids who read and I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to encourage that in their kids." As a bookseller of sixteen years working at a store in a politically and religiously conservative city, the story of Americus resonates for me. Being a book, I think it was necessary for Reed to present the parent group in an extreme light and make the setting as bleak as possible so that the tension in the story is suspenseful, however I have experienced less intense expression of this fear of fantasy in my years as a bookseller. This depiction in Americus may seem insulting or over the top to some, but it is not a complete fiction. A search of the internet can find any number of writings by Christians discussing the reality of the practice of witchcraft and how any fictional presentation of such, no matter how totally unrealistic, poses a threat.

While I have never had the specific, ill informed, vituperative convictions of the parent group in Americus expressed to me while working as a bookseller, I have had plenty of parents, while having me help them find a book for their reader, tell me that they do not allow their children to read books with witches or magic. Silently fuming, I have kept my mouth shut despite the fact that I so want to ask them if their kids have read any of the books by that canonical Christian author, CS Lewis, a few of which include magic and witches? And, do they encourage their children to believe in Santa Claus, a fellow who clearly couldn't get his job done without a bit of magic? Have they actually read any of the Harry Potter books or other books in the fantasy genre to determine if they truly are a threat to their children? Do they realize how the experience and expression of imagination and creativity benefits children in their adult lives and how reading fantasy develops imagination? And, finally, have they taken the time to get to know their children and their interests and their capacity for sorting out reality and fiction? The thing that saddens me the most is the parental unwillingness or inability to have faith in the intelligence and imagination of their own children, to be able to trust that reading Harry Potter, while it might inspire some robe wearing and wand waving, will not lead (most) readers to want to actually practice magic.

I almost did not add this last paragraph. Parenting is a completely personal experience and, after eighteen years of being a parent to three children I have learned not to judge others in this area. Hopefully, we are all doing the best we can to raise our children to be kind, caring adults. However, my job at work and on this blog is to help people find books for their children and sometimes my personal beliefs and hopes for young readers conflict with those of others. I hope that we can learn from each other, be open to each other and not judge one another. And, I especially hope that we can try not judge a book by its cover.




One final thing, for those of you who enjoyed Americus, here is a cool thing from the website - a Casting Call with a dream cast for the movie version of Americus! I totally agree and would LOVE to see this graphic novel made into a movie!




MK Reed is currently working on a new graphic novel, About a Bull, with art by Caroline Kelsey.

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