graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein

I should never be trusted in the library alone.

I ran my son over there this week; he had lost his wallet earlier this year and hadn’t yet replaced his library card, plus there was a book he wanted to check out, so we stopped in. “I don’t need anything,” I told him. “Don’t let me look at books. I have two library books to read right now, plus two from NetGalley waiting for me. I don’t need to bring home another book.”

Friends, I brought home another book.

But how could I not??? I’d heard of When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021). I hadn’t added it to my TBR, but it remained lodged in my brain, and as soon as I saw it standing on top of a shelf in the New Books section, I gasped and grabbed it (and then mentally yelled at myself, and then yelled at myself for yelling at myself). And then I checked it out and took it home, being sure to keep my eyes off all the other tempting books before we left the library.

I didn’t realize until I was at home that Mr. Krimstein is the same author of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, which I read and enjoyed right before the beginning of the pandemic (I’m going to assume the stress of that time erased his name from my brain, because I’ve thought of that book often since reading it). Always nice to spend more time with an author I’d previously enjoyed!

Just before Poland was invaded, writing competitions were held for Yiddish-speaking young adults in eastern Europe. Because of the invasion, the winners were never announced, and the manuscripts were hidden away from the book-burning bonfires of the Nazis. They were discovered again in 2017, painting a vivid picture of what life was like for young people standing on the edge of likely destruction.

As the competitions required anonymity, only one of the author’s identities has been discovered (and fortunately, she survived), lending the book a haunting feel when you read with the hindsight and clarity of knowing what was to come for these optimistic teenagers. The illustrations add to this feel, and the overall book is at once tragic and wistful, optimistic and with an overarching sense of doom. It’s a miracle that these writings survived at all; that they’ve been illustrated and published is an amazing testament to our strength and our ongoing fascination with this subject and our determination to not let these voices be silenced.

Because of the nature of this book- it’s graphic nonfiction- it’s a quick read, but the wonder and the unanswered questions will stay with you.

Visit Ken Krimstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

graphic memoir

Book Review: Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

In my reading about censorship recently, I discovered that one of the books getting parents in a panic and calling for book burnings is the graphic memoir Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (Oni Press, 2019). I had a friend, may his memory be a blessing, that identified as genderqueer, and so this title, beyond its status as a challenged book, immediately called out to me for that. And lo and behold, my beloved local library, who never shies away from filling its shelves with controversial books, had a copy. To my happiness, it was checked out (high five to whoever was reading it; I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!), so I put it on hold and it came in about a week and a half later.

Growing up the child of laid-back hippy-ish parents, Maia Kobabe, assigned female at birth and who uses the pronouns e/em/eir, never had gender restrictions placed on em, but e still felt like e didn’t fit into any of the gender boxes e knew of. Not only that, eir sexuality defied classification at the time; bisexual kind of fit, but e knew e didn’t have the interest in sexual activity eir classmates and friends had. Curiosity, maybe; desire to participate in sexual activity, ugh, not really.

What Maia did have, though, was a loving, accepting family, and the ability and freedom to discover who e was on eir own, the freedom to search for materials that contained the language e needed to be able to describe emself. Gender Queer is a beautifully illustrated graphic memoir of a young adult’s discomfort with eir body and gender presentation and the struggle to define emself in a society that insists everyone fits into tidy boxes with no spare bits or overlapping edges.

This is an incredibly brave memoir that needs to be on library shelves everywhere. Maia does an amazing job of conveying, in both words and illustration, the discomfort e felt with eir body especially as it matured into that of an adult female, something that never matched up with what e felt e truly was. There are kids out there who need books like this, who are feeling the way Maia felt and who don’t understand what this means and who don’t have anyone to talk to about it. Those are the kids who need to pluck this book off the shelf so they can hear that their experiences are valid, that they’re just as worthy of life and love as people whose identities match what they were assigned at birth, and that it’s okay to question who you are, what box you’re suppose to fit in (maybe not any box! Make your own box! That’s a perfectly valid option too!), why things are the way they are. They need to read Maia’s story and understand that they have a story worth sharing when they feel comfortable, and that there’s a place in this world for them, too.

It’s easy to see why people get uncomfortable with this book; there are frank discussions of gender, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality, pronoun use, gender dysphoria, menstrual periods, and more. But again, as I said in my review of Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), these are things kids have questions about. If you’re sending them the message that they can’t talk to you or that their questions aren’t valid or are shameful, they’re going to go searching elsewhere for that information. Their friends might not have the correct, medically accurate information; the information they get from their friends might lead them to a dangerous place, whether in terms of physical health or emotional health. Where would you prefer them getting their information? Would you prefer a child who contemplates or commits suicide because the information they received damages their sense of self? Because unfortunately, we’ve created a society in which that is far too often the alternative for kids whose families don’t work to understand them and make them feel loved and accepted.

Gender Queer is a truly important book, one that teenagers and young adults should have access to. Even if they’re not actively questioning their gender, reading Maia’s story might help them understand what their friends and classmates are going through who are questioning or who have realized they don’t quite fit their assigned gender roles. And a little more understanding goes a long way.

What a brave, brave, important book.

Visit Maia Kobabe’s website here.

Follow em on Instagram here.

graphic memoir

Book Review: Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil

I need to read more graphic novels. I always, always forget how fun the format is, how relaxing it is take in the art as I page through the story- even when the story isn’t necessarily an easy one. Currently, our teen graphic novels are squished in with the manga, which makes them kind of difficult to find amidst all the brightly colored series books, and the adult graphic novels are tucked away in a far corner of the library that I’m never by, so I don’t always remember to go looking for them. I’m really hoping that they have a more prominent place when our new library building opens up late next year (I get so excited driving past the building site on Main Street and seeing the progress they’re making. It’s slow- they started tearing down the old abandoned grocery store that formerly sat in that site late this past spring, and it’s now just an empty lot with heaps of broken concrete, and the start of a small basement, but it’s definitely progress!) All that to say, I had a bit of a hard time locating Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil (Black Balloon Publishing, 2016) during my last trip, but I’m glad I finally found it squished in there on the bottom shelf.

Growing up the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor isn’t easy for Amy. Her mother, a psychologist, overanalyzes everything; her grandmother has never really shared what she went through, but Amy, a budding artist, wants to learn her family’s stories. What happened to Bubbe? What does it all mean for their family, for Amy, for their future? Sliding around in time and incorporating the stories of all three women- grandmother, mother, daughter- Amy writes and illustrates the story of her grandmother’s survival in Poland, all that she lost, and all that she carries with her to this day. By doing so, Amy explores the trauma all three generations have suffered because of it.

Graphic memoir is such an interesting format for such a heavy topic. It’s still an intense subject, and Bubbe’s experiences fleeing, hiding, and losing almost her entire family absolutely reach in and rip out the reader’s soul. But the format tempers it slightly in a way that plain print doesn’t- it doesn’t lessen the emotional impact at all, but the illustrations wrap a fuzzy blanket of comfort around your shoulders as you digest the tragedy. Ms. Kurzweil represents her grandmother’s pain well, but her drawings, frame by frame, help soothe the ache and make the long-term effects of the tragedy easier to understand.

While this is definitely an emotional subject, Flying Couch is still a fast read (just take the time to appreciate all Ms. Kurzweil’s fabulous artwork!). I flew through it Sunday morning and it’s given me an even deeper understanding of the toll of generational trauma, and the importance of sharing our stories.

Visit Amy Kurzweil’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve likely heard a lot about Israel and the fighting that’s been going on. And odds are, you have an opinion on it, whatever that is. I’m not going to get into the many sides there are to this millennia-long story, but there are a lot of them. Israel and its history and politics are complex, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand it, but I can keep trying, and that’s how the graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden (Vertigo, 2010) wound up on my TBR.

This graphic memoir chronicles Ms. Glidden’s Birthright Israel trip. (Jews under a certain age- I’m too old!- qualify for a free group trip to Israel, via this donor-funded group. I have a younger friend who just had his Birthright interview.) Ms. Glidden goes into the trip deeply conflicted about her feelings on Israel and its struggle with the Palestinians over territory. Isn’t how Israel treats the Palestinians wrong? Is this trip just going to brainwash her and be full of propaganda getting her to take Israel’s side without further introspection? She’s skeptical from the very start.

But traveling throughout the country and hearing multiple perspectives makes her realize the trip is a little more balanced than she had expected, and that the situation is indeed complicated, possibly even more than she had originally thought. And while she doesn’t come away from the trip with any concrete answers, it’s given her a lot to think about.

I really enjoyed this. The artwork is lovely, and I enjoyed the literary field trip the book took me on. I did learn a lot about the country and what a Birthright trip looks like, which was pretty awesome (because I’ve heard a lot about them, but nothing as in-depth as this). There’s a lot of history in here, and a lot of different perspectives on many of the issues that still divide opinions on Israel today. You’ll come away with a slightly more nuanced understanding of how complex the topic really is.

What you won’t come away with is answers. Ms. Glidden doesn’t preach or offer up set opinions on what you should think or feel; what she does offer, however, is confirmation that Israel’s problems are exactly as confusing as you think, and maybe there are no good solutions, but that there are definitely people working to better things and to create a more peaceful life for everyone who lives there. At one point, she attends a presentation put on by both Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict; while this book was published in 2010, this organization is still working for peace, as I heard an interview with several parents from the group on NPR a few days ago. I’m glad they’re still out there; I’m sorry that they still have to be.

This graphic memoir is a lovely take on something that confuses the majority of us, and for which there truly may be no perfect solution that will work well for everyone. But it does encourage you to keep thinking about it, and that’s something I really appreciate.

Visit Sarah Glidden’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.