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No Ivy League, written and illustrated by Hazel Newlevant

There’s no denying that art has power. A work of art in any form can stop you dead in your tracks, take your breath away, send chills down your spine. It can elicit a bold, dramatic response–an experience so vivid that it’s as memorable as the work of art itself.

Sometimes, though, art exudes a quiet power–less shockwave and more a resonance that grows deeper and richer with time, drawing you in over and over, changing you in the process.

Hazel Newlevant’s graphic novel No Ivy League has that quiet power, wrapping it in an unassuming package. While the book appears to be a slow-moving memoir of a summer job washed in monochromatic watercolor (don’t let the full-color cover fool you), it is an exquisite glimpse at the lives of contemporary teens.

Author and illustrator Newlevant describes her first job, a summer stint with the local parks department during high school. Hazel is a seemingly average teen in Portland, Oregon, who happens to enjoy reading, video games, hanging out with her friends, and making art. She’s trying to save enough money to see her favorite band in concert in the fall, so at her parents’ suggestion she applies for a spot on one of the city’s youth conservation crews; she gets a job cleaning out invasive ivy at a park. She spends the summer learning about herself and the diverse group of people she works with, discovering that the world around her is a far bigger and more intricate place than she ever imagined.

There’s little plot description because there’s not much plot to describe. Hazel’s story is a meditative character study examining self-discovery, particularly that time when teens first realize that there is life outside their own bubble. Newlevant depicts adolescence in all its naive, cringeworthy, optimistic, angry, despairing gloriousness. In doing so, she opens Hazel’s eyes (and ours) to the shades of grey present in a previously black-and-white world. Words and actions that may seem like jokes to some may be far from it for others. Perspectives on justice and “doing the right thing” may vary widely depending on experience–experiences determined by skin color and economic opportunity. Hazel begins to see and acknowledge the differences between herself and other teens on her team, discovering that her secure, stable life isn’t universal.

Newlevant deftly weaves nuance throughout the book. The realistic dialogue (including Hazel’s interior dialogue) sounds immediate and lifelike without being over the top or trying too hard. Same goes for the art. As you read, the chapter title spreads progress from fully covered in ivy to a space almost cleared. When another teen taunts her, the laughter written on the page chases Hazel away. Invasive ivy creeps toward Hazel threatening to entangle her after being shaken to her core by a family secret. Newlevant’s work shows just enough detail to serve the story–these aren’t overly busy panels–and has a slightly misty quality (as memories do) thanks to a hazy watercolor wash.

Newlevant’s nuance is evident as she thoughtfully relates discovering the role privilege played in her upbringing, “This book is about a pivotal summer in my life. It poked a hole in my familiar bubbles and complicated my understanding of the world. It was a multi-car pileup of race, class, gender, and teen hormones…It’s incredible, believing over and over again that you’ve figured things out–only to stumble on new ways your place in society shields you from the truth. I really didn’t know anything. Maybe I still don’t.”

No Ivy League offers up its insights in quiet, thoughtful ways and leaves a quiet, thoughtful power in its wake. It’s a realistic slice of adolescent life in all of its raw, complicated messiness. This isn’t a book for readers wanting heavy, plot-driven action or a sanitized depiction of teenagers. It is a title for adults and mature teens who are patient readers interested in character development, realism, or examining society. A variety of teen lives are depicted; strong language and some sexual references are included.  No Ivy League and many other amazing memoirs in graphic novel format are available at the library. Stop by and see what we have to offer!

The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal

Rhett and Link met in the first grade at Buies Creek Elementary School in 1984. The story goes that they were both held back from recess for writing profanity on their desks. While everyone else was outside playing, they spent their recess coloring mythical creatures. They have been best friends ever since, and even made a blood oath to commit to always work together and create big things. That promise has been kept. Some of their earliest projects include a screenplay Gutless Wonders (never finished), and a punk rock band.

Fast forward to today, they run one of the most successful Youtube channels, Good Mythical Morning (GMM), with over 15 million subscribers, and over 5 million views daily. Their catalog also includes music videos, the web television series Buddy System,  their award winning podcast EarBiscuits, comedy/musical tours, and the New York Times’ Bestseller Book of Mythicality. 

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because the parallels between real life and fiction are evident in Rhett and Link’s second book, and first novel The Lost Causes of Bleak Creak. The book follows the friendship of Rex and Leif in the town of, you guessed it, Bleak Creak, North Carolina. Bleak Creek is a typical, small southern town. One that holds religion, family values, and tradition close to heart. It is a seemingly cheerful place, but every town, no matter how big or small, has its secrets.

The first chapter starts with Rex, Leif, and their friend Alicia filming a scene for their film, Polterdog (similar to the screenplay Gutless Wonders mentioned above). Something goes wrong during the filming of a scene which lands the three friends in trouble, one of the terms of punishment being that they are no longer allowed to film their movie. Alicia who already has a bad reputation due to previous circumstances, gets the worst punishment of the self-appointed Triumvirate. But having put so much time and energy into their movie, the group decides to meet up and film one last scene. As Rex and Leif make it to Alicia’s house, they soon find out she is in trouble. They find out she is being sent, against her will, to Wayne Whitewood’s reform school. Shrouded in mystery, no one really knows what happens inside the ominous building surrounded by a chain-linked fence, but it has a reputation of its own. Some people never return, those who do come back aren’t quite the same, almost zombie-like, without the appetite for brains. Either way, Rex and Leif have no choice but to try and save their friend from certain demise.

For a comedic duo, Rhett and Link wrote a thrilling page-turner. There is plenty of 90s nostalgia, and nods to good-ole southern traditions such as pig pickins’. They took elements from their personal lives and transformed into something magical. Hopefully this can turn a few people into a Mythical Beast, or fans of the GMM channel, because the friendship of Rhett and Link is so wholesome and inspiring. Their most recent episodes have been shot documentary-style, while they take you through Buies Creek to revisit their childhood homes, church, and the creek itself. It adds another layer to the novel. Even though  Halloween is over, there is always room for a little suspense and psychological terror (especially with the holiday season approaching fast), and this book delivers.

 

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What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book review by Beth Snow

 

Coming of age stories are the bread and butter of books written for teen audiences.  They appear in a wide variety of formats, both fiction and non-fiction. Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes–which makes it more likely that readers will find a story that fits.  For teens trying to find their place in the world, it can make all the difference. Today’s title is more than just historical fiction or an object lesson; it describes a painful path to identity.

In What the Night Sings, author Vesper Stamper raises and answers the question, “When all is stripped away, who am I?”  Through her main character, Gerta Richter, she shows (in words and images) what remains of identity after a harrowing journey.  Teenage Gerta lived a life sheltered in beautiful music and in her father’s love until the Nazis came one night and put them in a cattle car bound for a concentration camp.  Only when her father’s story unfolded on the train ride, did Gerta learn she was Jewish and living under a false name. From that point on, she’s immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust surviving through luck and her skill with her father’s viola.  Barely alive at the end of the war, Gerta begins the long road to recovery at a refugee camp where she meets other survivors–each with their own physical and emotional scars, each facing decisions about the future. At 16, she must learn who she is and carve a path for herself in a world utterly, irrevocably changed.

Let’s stop there, because plot summary doesn’t begin to tell the story.  Stamper unfolds Gerta’s tale of pain and discovery using carefully crafted prose–just enough detail to be effective without offering more than what is needed.  She crafts an outline on which readers can hang their imaginations, filling in Gerta’s experience: “The train screeches, slows, whines. The clacking tempo decreases until we stop.  A rush of wind blows through the two small windows. It smells of a sweetish smoke. It is not wood smoke.” Although Stamper uses few words (the entire book including multiple supplemental sections reaches only 266 pages), it’s enough to create rich, believable characters.  It’s also enough to convey the research behind this well-written historical fiction. Gerta’s emotions feel authentic, immediate, a realistic response to the specific nightmares of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

There’s a sparse beauty in Stamper’s text and in the black-and-white, ink wash illustrations found throughout.  Whether a small, corner work or a full, two-page spread, her art is both ethereal and very much grounded in reality.  (Pages 198-99 are a fantastic example!) Images and story mesh perfectly, bringing Gerta’s journey to life and deepening the reader’s experience.

What sets this book apart from the greater body of Holocaust fiction is its timeline.  The main narrative doesn’t end with the Nazi defeat. Instead, it tackles the immense question of “What happens afterward?”  As was the case for millions after World War II, Gerta’s life does not immediately return to prosperity or joy because bombs stopped dropping and concentration camps were liberated.  Stamper unflinchingly describes the situation faced by survivors–disease, malnutrition, poverty, housing shortages, physical and emotional scars, the search for loved ones, rampant anti-Semitism, reclamation of identity.  Perhaps it’s possible that hope can return to Gerta, that she can truly live instead of merely survive: “Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.”

Be sure to read What the Night Sings cover to cover.  The supplemental materials after the story round out the book and offer richer reading.  The author provides hand-drawn maps of the book’s settings along with a glossary, pronunciation guide, and brief list of related resources.  To get a true feeling of how music intertwined with the characters, try listening to the selections mentioned in the book; a list is included with the other resources.  Most importantly, read the “Author’s Note” for a powerful view of Vesta Stamper’s moving, challenging journey of discovery as she created this story.

This memorable work was a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2019 William C. Morris YA Debut Award which honors a book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrates impressive new voices in young adult literature.  This is an amazing book, award or no. Read it because it’s beautiful, powerful, important, and Velveteen Rabbit real. It’s great for teens (and adults) who are ready for Holocaust and coming of age material; be prepared for discussion opportunities on a variety of topics.  I greatly enjoyed this title and hope you do, too.

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