A ‘Graphic’ Graphic Novel: Meg Lemke on ‘This One Summer’
Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer is a Caldecott Honor (and multiple award-winning) graphic novel that follows two young friends over a vacation’s “tween wakening.” The book captures their bittersweet pause on the cusp of adolescence, immersing readers in the girls’ conflicting desires to hold onto childish games—and peek into the drama of the townie teens and bickering, mysteriously grief-stricken, adults surrounding them. The reader is brought close within the girls’ most private conversations—as the comics’ illustration offer context and perspective that the characters haven’t yet begun to articulate in the text on the page. Depending on what experience you bring to this young-adult book, you may see more or less than the preteens themselves perceive.
Daniel Handler, otherwise known as Lemony Snicket, praised the intimacy of the narrative, urging that one should “read it and keep it like a secret…” He didn’t mean that literally, of course, but it’s what has happened. This One Summer has been removed from schools and (K-12) school libraries, on the basis of “use of profanity,” and the sweeping charge of “vulgarity,” which covers allusions to a potential abortion—and a miscarriage—and one suspects the possible queerness of one of the main characters. It was also removed from shelves at some elementary schools where perhaps, as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund wondered, teachers added any Caldecott short-listed title without researching its recommended age group (12+, in this case). In news footage that I admit cracked me up (with the kind of laughing that leads to tears), a coiffed local newscaster in Florida reports on the plea of the alarm-raising parent who just wanted other concerned mothers to “be aware of this ‘illustrated book,’ described as a graphic novel…” as she flips fast through the lushly drawn pages. A GRAPHIC graphic novel: Be afraid, be very afraid.=
As with other banned comics (such as Alison Bechdel’s lauded Fun Home), we see how easily images read as obscenity to those unfamiliar with the form. They are seen as more dangerous by their accessibility. It is what makes them attractive to younger readers, and too tempting a mark for censorship.
I want to share on Illustrated PEN this section, which begins to capture the unique genius of this gorgeous book, but you must read the whole story (available from First Second) to understand what literature we are currently keeping from children. Then, read Mariko Tamaki’s hilarious and provocative open letter to the principals she’s heard are hoarding the books in their offices, to avoid the news cameras that might come through if they officially removed it from the curriculum. This “informal censorship” is so common but so difficult for organizations like PEN America to fight, because it is secretive and unexamined. Like Mariko, let’s force open the door to conversation.
Meg Lemke is the Editor-in-Chief of MUTHA. She programs the comics and graphic novels at the Brooklyn Book Festival and has worked as a book editor at Teachers College Press at Columbia University, Seven Stories Press, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The Seattle Review, The Atlanta Review, The Good Mother Myth blog, and Seleni, among other publications. She lives with her family in Brooklyn. Find her @meglemke and meglemke.tumblr.com.