Graphic works for all ages by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When a writer offers long descriptions of people and places, my mind rarely forms a visual image from the text. Instead those words create an emotional mood – one that may not be completely faithful to the author’s intent. That’s one reason I enjoy books with drawings or photographs: the pictures offer me a different way to understand the story, letting me experience how the author/artist visualizes the characters and situations. This review features works for all ages that combine text and images to enhance the readers’ enjoyment.

For readers grades one-four

A simple combination of words and pictures can create a very moving experience. That will be true for adults who read “Nicky and Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued” by Peter Sis (Norton Young Readers). The reason? Adults know what happened to most of the children whom Nicholas Winton was unable to save. This picture book tells the story of Winton, who seems an unlikely savior: a young man interested in fencing and skiing. The only reason he traveled to Prague in 1938 was because a friend suggested that destination in place of the planned skiing vacation. Winton realized how dangerous the Nazis were and arranged for 699 children under the age of 17 to travel to safety in England before World War II began.

Vera Gissling’s story is intertwined with Winton’s. In 1938, the 10-year-old Vera was living with her family in a small town near Prague. When the German army marched into their country, Vera’s mother managed to find a spot for her daughter on one of the trains to England. When Vera returned after the war, none of her family remained and she moved permanently to England. Years passed and Winton’s wife discovered the secret of what he had accomplished, something he never mentioned. The end result is that Winton is honored by those who survived due to his efforts. Sis quotes Winton as saying. “I was not a hero... I did not face danger, as real heroes do. I only saw what needed to be done.”

“Nicky and Vera” is an excellent way to introduce children to World War II and the people who quietly tried to help. Parents would do well, though, to discuss the material with their children since those unfamiliar with the war may have many questions. Adults will appreciate the author’s notes offered at the end of the book, which give more details about Winton. The drawings create the appropriate mood and readers will find themselves pondering the additional layers of meaning they bring to the tale. 

For readers grades four-seven 

Sylvie Kantorovitz’s “Sylvie” (Waker Books) is a charming, clever graphic memoir about a young girl looking to find her place in the world. The author manages to capture the way Sylvie comes to understand her own needs, while also realizing the ways her parents – particularly her mother – are trying to mold and influence her. 

Sylvie doesn’t feel completely comfortable with her French classmates. It’s not just that they live at the school where her father is a principal. Sylvie was born in Morocco and is Jewish. The questions she gets asked (did they kill Christ, do they eat Christian babies) would sound ridiculous if her fellow students weren’t serious about their accusations. However, most of the memoir focuses on Sylvie’s daily life: the problems between her mother and brother, Alibert; the addition of two younger siblings whom Sylvie helps take care of; the fights between her parents; and the increasing difficulty of schoolwork as Sylvie must decide on her course of study. Her real love is drawing, which unfortunately must take second place to schoolwork and chores.

Kantorovitz’s drawings of Sylvie and her surroundings are delightful. Sylvie’s personality shines through the deceptively simple figures. While the memoir is aimed at young readers, older ones will also enjoy spending time with this sweet, wonderful young woman.

For readers grades seven-nine

Not everyone who lived in Germany during the 1930s and ‘40s supported the Nazi cause. Some risked their lives to protest Hitler and his cronies. That was true of the university students who formed the White Rose, which published and distributed leaflets against Hitler’s policies. Their story is told as a graphic novel in Andrea Grosso Ciponte’s “Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel” (Plough Publishing Company). 

The graphic novel feels cinematic in the way it moves between scenes, highlighting what both the White Rose was doing and the actions of Nazi leaders. These sections – many of which also juxtapose the philosophical ideas of the members of the White Rose and the propaganda espoused by the Nazis – create a mood that feels appropriate to the action. That’s also true of the dark, almost deary drawings that portray a story without a happy ending. 

“Freiheit!” (which means liberty or political freedom) highlights the actions of a group that should be better known. The work concludes with an English translation of the leaflets the members of the White Rose distributed for those who better want to understand their philosophy. Parts of “Freiheit!” can be disturbing so parents may want to also read Ciponte’s work in order to discuss it with their teenagers. 

For those interested in the biblical text

Dikla Laor’s beautiful photographs will be the first thing to catch readers’ eyes after they open “Women in the Bible in the Golan Heights.” The vivid and colorful photos have a painting-like feel and offer visual interpretations of a biblical text. Also included are several verses about the women featured and short rabbinic commentary to highlight an aspect of the women’s stories. But it is the photos themselves that will speak to readers.

For example, the longing on Lot’s wife’s face is palpable as she glances back for one last look at the daughters she’s left behind in Sodom. The aged Sarah radiates great contentment when sitting in a field where a young Isaac is playing. The photo of Leah and Rachel asks readers to ponder which woman is the beloved one, while noting how their hands reach for each other, even as they cannot look each other in the eye. The mixed feelings Rahab experiences when her city is about to be conquered by Joshua are apparent in the way she holds herself. The moving portrayal of Jephthah’s daughter shows the many emotions she must have experienced while waiting to be sacrificed. 

What makes the photos so impressive is not just the models, but the way the women are framed; they show just how beautiful are the hills and valleys of the Golan Heights. The 44 photos offer a different way to view and interpret the biblical text, and make clear the photographer’s love of the disputed area in which she lives. 

For mature readers

Some memoirs are told in a straight forward, linear form. Others, like Shira Spector’s “Red Rock Baby Candy” (Fantagraphics), are a psychedelic journey into the author/artist’s psyche. The non-linear story jumps around in time and place, yet still manages to portray Spector’s feelings about her life, the death of her father and her attempts to become pregnant. 

No two pages in this work feel alike: some tell a traditional story with easy to read dialogue and commentary. On others, the drawings and text circle each other – asking the reader to search for the written word. The memoir also contains very explicit sexual content that might make some readers uncomfortable. However, Spector is to be applauded for how bravely and openly she discusses her hopes and fears. 

“Red Rock Baby Candy” is not for everyone because Spector demands attention and the willingness to search for the meaning of her drawings. This graphic roller coaster ride will, however, reward those readers with its emphatic embrace of life.