Operatic – Maclear.Eggenschwiler

The definition of bullying in many school boards follows this sort of formula: In order to qualify as bullying, there must be some sort of power dynamic – or “imbalance” – at play, and the bully is the one holding that power over the head of the bullied.

But, as many teachers and young adults can ask, what if the bullying is more of an overall feeling, a general tendency to universally dismiss or scoff at the bullied individual? How do you send the entire school to the office?

Operatic, a gorgeous and thoughtful new graphic novel from Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, explores the aftermath of this bullying, documenting the absence of the universally shunned. Meanwhile, the novel thoughtfully portrays the musical epiphany and blossoming self-awareness of the protagonist, eighth-grade Charlie, in a refreshingly authentic way.

From the start of this brief graphic novel, it is clear that the illustrations are the real strength of the piece. Later in the novel, two frames follow Charlie and the beautiful, quiet, beekeeping Emile as they walk through the city, their surroundings transforming into visual representations of city sound: music, vibration, horns, passing cars. These sounds grow into what appears to be a garden, forming and following them as they move together.

The characters are complex. There is Mr. Kerner (Mr K), for example, the inspirational teacher archetype who, while pushing the students to think beyond their immediate experiences and providing them with creative learning opportunities, is also woefully unprepared for the classroom bullying that ensues. His comments of “quit it” and “go to the office” clearly do nothing to prevent the tender, whimsical, and surprisingly bold Luka from disappearing from school. Mr K. assigns an inspirational music project, he plays songs he wrote in his youth (*cringe*), but Luka’s desk remains unoccupied. The days go on, the class becomes empowered by tales of Patti Smith, but Luka is still missing.

Sometimes, the trend-based dialogue (“OMG post it!”; “You slay”) is too specific for a graphic novel that hopes to reach a wide variety of young readers, but the instances are infrequent and not excessively distracting.

Another small disappointment was the lack of detail involved in narrating Charlie’s discovery of Maria Callas. Much of this short graphic novel delves into a Wikipedia-esque summary of the life of Callas, while what the young adult reader likely wants is to experience Callas through the eyes of Charlie. The illustrations come to the rescue here, as Eggenschwiler cleverly portrays Charlie and Callas as mirror images of each other at points throughout the novel. Charlie and Callas looking out the same window, Charlie playing Callas’s character on stage, etc.

Opera and middle school may seem worlds apart. As Operatic demonstrates, however, the melodrama, passion, and universality of both connect these two in deep ways.

Middle school libraries should display this book in plain sight.

Operatic – Written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler

Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press

Young adult graphic novel – Release date: April 2, 2019

Thank you to Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press and NetGalley for the advanced reader copy of this graphic novel.

Reading this Week

This week’s reading list…

“I Met Fear on the Hill” by Leslie Jamison, an essay in the newest Paris Review (Winter 2018) – A piece investigating the events in the life of the author’s mother through an unpublished manuscript

On page 282 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Book Six: The End) – Update: approaching the Hitler section… wondering what to do

Khaled Mattawa’s “The Boat Merchant’s Wife” from the latest issue of Poetry magazine – There’s an enlightening episode of the Poetry Magazine podcast featuring this poem.

Also.

My employer suggested we all post the answer to this question: “If you were trapped on a desert island, what book would you hope to have with you?”

Simple question, right? WRONG. I literally have no idea. I lost sleep over this question last night. Like, do I take along all of the Knausgaard books, just to have a ton of reading material? Do I take a book of poetry to read again and again? The collected works of Shakespeare?

Could I bring a novel with my favorite poem, “Meditation on Yellow”, on a piece of paper, tucked inside?

Still undecided. Will report back.

Forest Baby – Elmquist.Robinson

Forest Baby, a 2018 release from Canada-based Orca Book Publishers, showcases the profound simplicity of a walk through the forest with a child.

Robinson’s illustrations are dynamic, indicating movement on each page–a baby’s hand dipping into a pond of fish, the spray of lake foam grazing the hands of the mother and child, the butterflies that “shimmy and dip”.

Elmquist’s poetic descriptions of this gentle and calm outing into nature are sighs of relief in an age of screen distractions for children.

Forest Baby by Laurie Elmquist, illustrated by Shantala Robinson

2018 Orca Book Publishers

Why Am I Me? – Britt.Qualls.Alko

This 2017 release from Paige Britt, Sean Qualls, and Selina Alko showcases a profound question with few words but plenty of visual appeal.

“Why am I me?” begins this stunning and colorful book. But don’t expect a clear answer. The question, and variations thereof, are repeated on every page throughout the book, only to conclude with a vague suggestion on the last page via Alko’s poignant illustrations.

Despite the apparent lack of philosophical complexity here, the illustrations cleverly connect the question to complex notions of race, culture, and identity, all occurring among scenes from a busy urban center; subway, shops, parks, etc.

Young children will be drawn to the intense visuals, large illustrated faces and bright colors. Older children will be prompted to discuss.

Why Am I Me?

By Paige Britt, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

2017