by M. K. Reed and Jonathan Hill
First Second, 2011
Dragons make an appearance in this graphic novel about the dangers of censorship in that the book-in-a-book under fire features a “wytch” protagonist who is half-dragon… leading to cries of bestiality from the Christian far right!
Americus is based on a controversy of some years ago when J. K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series was reaching epic heights of popularity. It’s all silly in retrospect, but there was a real danger her harmless and entertaining books would be banned from public libraries for their depictions of witchcraft and what was thought of as devil worship. Americus is the story of a similar battle in small-town America, and how a high school freshman named Neil Barton plays a role in it, standing up for the books he loves.
This aspect of the plot was a been there, done that for me as the original news stories have long faded. But what remains is more interesting… how Neil deals with the transition from 8th grade to 9th grade and the newer, more threatening milieu of high school with its bullies, gossip, adult hypocrisy, and social rules he knows nothing about. It’s the little incidents that made me laugh, like a cousin’s boyfriend taking him under his wing and introducing him to punk rock, or insisting to his mom that he wants a collared black shirt as back-to-school wear, and to grow his hair longer. By the end of the story, after he takes his stand at a library board meeting, he’s become a young man not a child, and this is reflected in the depiction by the artist – he’s no longer so soft and doughy, his nose has sharpened, his posture is straighter.
Excerpts from the fictional fantasy series, The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde, are woven in throughout the book, complementing it but not overwhelming it. The drawing style for these is darker and less complex than the modern scenes, which often have a delightfully cluttered look to them reflecting the overwhelming confusion Neil feels as he enters high school. Hill’s dragons are threatening and sinewy, with snapping jaws and long necks, while the humans wear swirling robes. It’s a nice way of indicating a fantasy series both like and unlike Harry Potter.
I did enjoy the artwork a lot, it was similar to, but looser, than the drawings for Dungeon Quest, and I’m a sucker for hand-lettered dialogue. The story struck me as more female-centered, with its emphasis on mothers, teenage gossip, and female friends, and indeed the writer, M. K. Lee, is a woman. But having a boy as a protagonist balances this out.
What struck me most about the story is the passion books can inspire, whether it’s a lonely middle aged man explaining why he reads a YA fantasy series, or two best friends vying for the only copy of the latest book for the library. Books, especially fantasy books, mean something far more than printed words on paper. They inspire community.