graphic nonfiction

Book Review: When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

My daughter has gotten super into graphic novels, which I love. My library has a so-so collection of these, but there’s a library in the next town over that has an absolutely fabulous collection of graphic novels for the middle grade set, so I was browsing through there one day, trying to find her new books to fall in love with, when I came across When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (Dial Books, 2020). A quick glance at the premise had me immediately tossing it into my bag…for me. (My daughter got like four other books that trip, so it’s all good!)

Omar Mohamed and his brother Hassan are growing up in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, because their native Somalia hasn’t been safe for years. Their father was killed there; they became separated from their mother when they were fleeing and haven’t seen her since. Hassan is nonverbal; Omar spends his days taking care of him. A fellow refugee serves as a foster mother, but really, the boys are on their own, dreaming of a better life in America, Europe, or Canada.

When Omar finally gets the chance to go to school, he hesitates; what about Hassan? When his friends and foster mother encourage him, he nervously takes his first step towards a better life and finds out he’s actually an amazing student. But school is not without its challenges, and for his female friends, the odds are stacked even higher. And even when prayers are answered, those answers may not always be what Omar anticipated, nor are they easy. Life as a refugee is a struggle everywhere, but there are some refugees who manage to use that struggle to better life for everyone, and Omar Mohamed does just that.

What a beautiful, remarkable, soul-tugging book. This would be an excellent introduction to life in a refugee camp for the younger crowd. It’s a thick book, but as it’s a graphic novel, it’s easy to read and the pages fly by quickly. Omar’s story is tragic, though it does have a happy – or at least a happier ending than most. The hunger he and his brother experience, due to their meager rations, is constant; the images of the two of them sleeping alone in a tent their entire childhoods is one that will likely make an impression on even the most internet-jaded of middle grade readers, as will the images of Omar’s pregnant schoolmate who has been forced to leave her education behind and get married while still a child herself.

This book doesn’t sugarcoat the refugee experience, but it’s not a super-harsh book. It cuts off when Omar and Hassan are able to leave Kenya behind to be resettled in the US (though it does give an update on what their lives were like after they came here); I’d love to see a follow-up of a more fleshed-out version of their stories, because I’m always interested to know what life is like for the immigrants and refugees who come here, and what I can do to make life easier for them. Omar has started an organization called Refugee Strong, which aids refugees in places like Dadaab, providing them with support and educational materials, which is something I find remarkable. It would’ve been entirely understandable if he couldn’t face the trauma he’d been through there and just focused on building a life in the US for himself and his brother; instead, he turned back and works to make a better life for all the people still there. Amazing.

If you’re looking for a beautifully illustrated graphic novel that tells a remarkable story of resilience, When Stars Are Scattered is a great choice.

Visit Victoria Jamieson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Visit Refugee Strong’s website here.

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graphic memoir · graphic nonfiction · graphic novel

Three graphic novels!!!

I love graphic novels and memoirs, and I’ve been having fun enjoying the ones that have come up on my TBR lately. They’re a quick read, but the art makes the story really come alive. I find it difficult to review them, though; I’m not much on the technical parts of art, so I can’t really discuss those, and it feels like a huge omission to leave that out. But I was able to grab a few graphic novels from the library lately, and I figured I’d give them a quick mention here.

First up is the creepy true story, Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? by Harold Schechter and Eric Powell (Albatross Funnybooks, 2021). Most of us are familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho; the character Norman Bates and his crimes were based on Ed Gein, a native of Plainfield, Wisconsin. His crimes changed the face of American horror forever; in the years before Gein’s crimes were discovered,  scary movies in the US usually centered around creatures from other planets. Gein’s house of horrors launched the birth of slasher films, an era that’s still ongoing.

Schechter and Powell tell the story of Ed Gein’s life: his abusive, controlling, overpowering, hyper-religious mother, who worked hard to create him exactly how she wanted him; his inability to become a fully independent adult; the town’s basic acceptance of the man they considered a little odd; the shocking discovery of what he’d been doing in that house all those years after his mother had died. Even if you think you know the full story, odds are there’s something in here you didn’t, and the two authors base their telling almost entirely on primary sources. This is creepy, but fascinating!

Next up, It’s All Absolutely Fine by Ruby Elliot (Orion, 2016). A funny book about depression? A funny illustrated book about depression? Whaaaaaaaaaaaat??? It exists, and it’s so worth the read.

Ruby Elliot has struggled for years with depression, the kind that makes it hard to even get up off the crumb-filled couch you have your face mashed into. The kind where your brain is constantly telling you what a worthless toad you are, so why bother. And in this graphic memoir, she illustrates exactly what her depression looks and feels like. And somehow, she manages to not only do it, but do it with a sense of humor.

I laughed out loud so many times, both from genuinely finding Ms. Elliot’s writing and illustrations funny, and because she just gets it so well. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety my whole life, and I was able to relate to so much of this book. It was a truly enjoyable read and a gentle, yet strong treatment of what’s normally a tough subject.

And then there’s Trashed by Derf Backderf (Harry N. Abrams, 2015). I really enjoyed Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer, and this was no different. While this graphic novel is indeed fiction, it’s based on his experiences as a garbageman. The story follows a young man who’s been hired on with his city’s sanitation department and gets into all aspects of the job (how disgusting it is, what complete jerks the ‘customers’ are, the pranks and hijinks between the workers). Interspersed with the story are facts and information about trash, trash collection, and the massive problem that is trash, both in the US and around the world. Totally enjoyable read that will make you think about not only what you dispose of, but HOW you dispose of it.

And that’s it! What are some great graphic novels that you’ve read recently???

graphic nonfiction

Book Review: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu, translated by Montana Kane

Yet another example of how I shouldn’t be allowed unfettered access to the library when I already have books at home. But how could I resist? Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu (First Second, 2018), translated by Montana Kane, was just sitting there, begging me to take it home, and I was like, “It’s graphic nonfiction! It won’t take me long to read at all! It’ll be fiiiiiiiinnnnne.” And it was. : )

In short chapters, Ms. Bagieu tells the story of a woman from history- sometimes ancient, sometimes modern- who stepped outside of the lines society drew for her and created her own reality. Some you’ve likely heard of- Temple Grandin, Nellie Bly, Betty Davis, Hedy Lamarr- and others likely not- Naziq al-Abid, Frances Glessner Lee, Delia Akeley, Giorgina Reid. Each has a spark of something a little extra that allowed them to stand up against the restrictions society placed against women in their time and that inspired them to be a little more than what the world told them to be. The charming illustrations are perfect for Ms. Bagieu’s slightly snarky sense of storytelling; overall, this is a fabulous book of women’s history.

I learned a lot from this book; even at 41, there’s still so much I don’t know, and I was absolutely fascinated with every story in this book. That’s not to say I loved all the people portrayed; some were a little disturbing (but, as the author says, plenty of men act in similar ways and they’ve gotten away with it for centuries, which was, happily, something I also thought about when I was I reading this particular historical figure’s story. I love when my brain actually thinks intelligent things and not just things like, “Wait, why did I get up and walk into the kitchen again???”), but wow, there were just so many fascinating women portrayed in this book that I had never heard of. I would love to read anything else Pénélope Bagieu has written, because I enjoyed everything about the experience of reading this book.

It’s too late for the 2021 holidays, but this would make a fabulous gift for any young feminist (and that’s male or female!), even if they’re not much of a reader. The graphic nonfiction format makes it a quick read, but the format will also hold the attention of even the most reluctant non-reader, and the humor sprinkled throughout the stories keep the feel light. Pick up a copy for that niece that’s hard to buy for, or your feminist co-worker’s son. They’ll love it.

Visit Pénélope Bagieu’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.