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Friday, January 19, 2024

“Childhood Innocence” Does Not Need Rescuing Here : Growing Up Graphic book review

reviewed by Cecilia Garrison, 
California Institute of Integral Studies

Alison Halsall. Growing Up Graphic: The Comics of Children in Crisis. Ohio State University Press, 2023.

Growing Up Graphic: The Comics of Children in Crisis is a refreshing and honest assessment of the importance of accurately and frankly acknowledging that childhood innocence is a Western invention. And also, that children, no matter where they are from or who they are, deserve to see themselves depicted in comics and can use the graphic narrative medium as a means to develop a broader and more realistic world view. Alison Halsall, fresh off the success of her edited volume The LGBTQ+ Comics Studies Reader winning the 2023 Eisner Award for Best Academic/Scholarly Work, writes Growing Up Graphic with four objectives in mind. First, Halsall aims to explore comics and graphic narratives as a medium heavily invested in representing the reality of the social, political, and cultural experiences of childhood and youth. Graphic narratives, she argues, are a particularly useful means of sharing these experiences across national and cultural borders, because the “unique verbal/visual interface” (28) of these narratives seems to translate across the borders more easily. The second objective is the navigation of comics for young people throughout, within, and around “discourses of nation, belonging, ableism, and identity” (3). Young people are shaped by the communities and countries in which they live, and the politics of those spaces, and they deserve to have a space in that discourse. Third, she observes and contends with the trend in children’s publishing to diversify published content, providing young readers in the Global North with a more intersectional lens through which to see the world when consuming media. Comics and graphic narratives for children use the personal and the local to aid young readers in understanding broader narratives. And finally, she considers the readers themselves as a source of tension. Halsall meets all her stated objectives with aplomb and a frankness that makes the book hard to put down.

            Halsall’s text refutes the harmful ideas that comics and graphic novels are somehow lesser and should not be consumed by children or young people because of supposedly harmful and corrupting influences. This idea has existed for decades; today’s censorship of LGBTQ and African-American graphic novels echoes Fredric Wertham’s 1950s crusade against comics. However, Halsall argues that the world in which we all live requires more and more of children, particularly in terms of communication and critical thinking skills. Visual literacy, comprehension, and interpretation are increasingly necessary aspects of communication. More libraries, schools, and curricula for young readers find the navigation of graphic texts to be a valuable means by which students and readers can develop these and other skills, while also developing a love of literature, art, and reading from a young age. Not only do graphic narratives provide opportunities for young readers to develop the aforementioned skills, but the particular graphic narratives Halsall addresses in Growing Up Graphic (which include such titles as War Brothers by Sharon E. McKay, Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi, 7 Generations by David Alexander Robertson, and several of Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels, including Guts and Drama) provide young readers with new and engaging opportunities to learn about human rights discourses, world events, and ways in which children are and can be active agents in the world around them, providing the groundwork for those readers to become more empathetic, compassionate, and culturally aware.

Furthermore, Halsall questions the Global North belief that childhood and youth are and must be innocent – that children should be protected from anything that may burden the innocence of their youth. Childhood, Halsall argues, is a largely Western concept, and that the Global North conception of childhood as something which should be stable and protected is in conflict with the experiences of hundreds of thousands of children both within the context of Western societies and beyond. This conflict is present throughout all five chapters of Growing Up Graphic.

In her first chapter, Halsall explores the use of childhood in war, bringing the reader through an analysis of Michel Chikwanine’s Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, Sharon E. McKay and Daniel Lafrance’s War Brothers: The Graphic Novel, and Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda to ask readers to reflect on the ontology of victimhood, the lives of those – especially children – who are caught up in wars not of their own making, and the impacts of power, control, and change. She calls upon these texts to defamiliarize standard historical narratives and the ideas of childhood, as they instead point out that history is far rifer with personal and political violence and trauma, and that childhood “transforms in relation to war, a social and political crisis” (34). The children involved in armed conflict cannot be seen from the Western perspective of childhood as brimming over with innocence, they are shown through these narratives to be complex; neither agents nor at-risk victims, but perhaps both at the same time. They can be agentic without being responsible, vulnerable without being entirely victimized, etc.

This vein of complicated agency continues into the second chapter, with a question of how graphic narratives about immigration, diaspora, and refugees, such as Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman’s Zenobia, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Matt Hyunh’s “The Boat,” Reinhard Kleist’s An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar, Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi, and George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy, can explore migration ethically, rejecting the instinct common in Western literature to represent refugees and immigrants as “passive victims waiting to be ‘saved’” (58), instead exploring them as fully complex individuals shaped by the circumstances in which they find themselves. This effort humanizes the refugee crisis and the protagonists of these texts, allowing young readers to ground themselves in another young person’s lived experiences. “Here” and “there” become less disparate as young readers read, and they are able to conceptualize immigrants and refugees as something more than victims without agency, awaiting saving from the Global North.

The theme of agency and refusing to see marginalized protagonists as victims in need of saving continues throughout the text. Chapter 3 of Growing Up Graphic focuses on Indigenous texts from Canada, exploring the way that texts such as Katherena Vermette’s A Girl Called Echo, David Alexander Robertson’s 7 Generations, and Michael Nicoll Yahulanaas’s Red: A Haida Manga explore the healing powers of language and visual storytelling to explore myth and worldview, and address the generations of systemic violence and genocide faced by Indigenous communities. While this chapter addresses and acknowledges injustices, both past and present, the texts analyzed within seek to empower Indigenous youth, providing a narrative that emphasizes cultural affirmation, renewal, and hope while responding to a history of colonial violence. The texts encourage young readers to question historical narratives, resist the erasure of violence and colonialism, and work against the continued racial stratification and systematic injustices. Not only does the use of graphic narrative offer Indigenous writers and readers catharsis and critical reflection, but it also provides non-Indigenous young readers with valuable perspective while not viewing Indigenous peoples non-agentic or their lives and stories as something to be relegated to a history book.

Chapter 4 takes particular umbrage at the concept of protecting the innocence of childhood by highlighting the powerful importance of quality representation of queer identity in texts for young readers, complicating the idea that children must be separated from any knowledge of sexuality. Halsall argues against both an ideal of a stable, protected childhood and a stable sexual and gender identity, acknowledging that both of these concepts are likely to fluctuate, change, and have different meaning for different people over time. She examines texts such as Mariko Tamaki’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, Hubert and Marie Caillou’s Adrian and the Tree of Secrets, and Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please! to understand how they normalize the queer experience, reorienting the narrative of queer media away from the trauma and crisis often associated with queerness to the conflict ubiquitous in young people’s interpersonal relationships. The context of this chapter within the rest of Growing Up Graphic is interesting, because the texts Halsall examines here are creating narratives wherein existing as queer is not, inherently, a crisis. However, the texts themselves are seen as a crisis, as political and cultural groups continue to try to protect young people from anything perceived as sexual. Such groups harken back to “the pervasive myth of the implied Romantic child reader, whose purity is necessarily incompatible with sexual awareness and experience” (131) and consider such texts inappropriate for young readers. These texts, however, are continually and increasingly important for readers, as they seek to orient themselves in relation to the world around them and develop broader views on many issues.

All of the texts encourage perspective taking, empathy, and compassion in their readers, and the fifth chapter’s emphasis on health crises furthers this objective, while also often providing information, awareness building, and consciousness raising about what are often otherwise undiscussed parts of people’s lives, especially when those in the midst of the health crisis are young people. Texts such as Raina Telgemeier’s Guts or Smile, Cece Bell’s El Deafo, and Tory Wollcott’s Mirror Mind: Growing Up Dyslexic provide the creator and perhaps the reader with some measure of control over what can often be a situation in which the person affected has little to no control. Not only does Halsall address the way these texts can normalize experience of bodily difference, chronic and/or severe illness, or mental variance, she also speaks to the way that the texts respond to the silence around many of these conditions, redefine the meaning of health, and affirm the agency of those who may have such a condition, especially in the face of families or medical professionals who may attempt to remove such agency or voice. Halsall returns to the message of refuting the victim paradigm, emphasizing texts that move away from the protagonist needing rescue from their condition. Not only do graphic narratives provide the same benefit of socio-emotional education around disability that they do the other topics discussed in Growing Up Graphic, but Halsall also points out the ways in which graphic narratives as a whole can be an accessible form of learning for those with developmental disorders, learning disabilities, or other conditions that may impact information acquisition, retention, understanding, and/or processing (179). These graphic narratives challenge the idea of children as apolitical and needing protection from troubling topics such as health crises or disability, instead giving children the language necessary to approach medicine and their bodies with agency and information.

Halsall leaves the reader anticipating more – more comics and graphic narratives, more from comics studies, more from Halsall herself, and, unfortunately but realistically, more children in crisis. She concludes with an impact statement about how the COVID crisis has highlighted discrimination in a variety of forms across the globe and the unequal distribution of safety and power across homes and nations, and the ways in which graphic narratives are already being used to address various aspects of the pandemic. Still Halsall asserts, the children don’t need protecting from the realities of COVID any more than they do from other world crises, they need understanding, information, an outlet, and compassion. From an explosion of digitally available comics about the experiences of people during the course of the ongoing pandemic, to being used to provide information about mitigating the risks of the virus, Halsall anticipates that COVID comics will continue to prove all the ways in which comics provide young readers with a humanizing glimpse into the experiences and challenges faced by young people all the world over.

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