“Sometimes stories get to you; this one left my stomach in knots. After three days of reporting, I still couldn’t decide which was more appalling: the child’s life or the child’s death.” – John Hull, TIME Magazine, Sept. 1994. When true stories get turned into graphic novels for kids, they tend to take place in the distant past. Books like James Sturm’s Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, for example. Contemporary stories, or tales that have taken place in the last 20 years, are few and far between. Picking up Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Greg Neri, I hoped against hope that the book in my hands would be appropriate for middle grade readers. I love comics for kids, but there are really only so many tales involving kids finding magical distant lands that you can read before you want to pluck out your own eyeballs. Yummy in contrast was something entirely new. Gritty, real, willing to ask tough questions, and willing to trust that young readers will be able to reach their own conclusions. The central question is this: Can a child murderer be both victim and bully all at the same time? Don’t look for easy answers here. Neri’s not handing them out.
The real world facts are available. Here’s what we know: That Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was eleven years old in 1994 when he went on the run after accidentally killing a neighbor girl. Gang violence was at its peak in the Roseland area of Chicago, and in this book a fictional neighborhood boy watches what happens to Yummy and to his own brother, both members of the same gang. The book asks hard questions as we watch Yummy’s life and strange toughness, even as his story turns tragic. An author’s note and bibliography appear at the end.
Author Greg Neri first stepped onto the children’s literary scene a couple years ago when he wrote Chess Rumble with illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson. After that he went YA with Surf Mules, only coming back to the world of middle grade fiction with the publication of Yummy. And it is middle grade, by the way. I can already tell that the age range is going to be a big question with a lot of people. As it happens, Mr. Neri originally wrote Yummy’s story as a film script, but held off on making it into a movie because he knew that the content would earn him an R rating. And an R rating would keep the kids who most needed to hear this story from seeing it. So a middle grade graphic novel it became instead. The gun violence (or really any violence) that’s in this book is always “off-screen” so to speak. And no one could read this book cover to cover and claim that it praises gangs or gang violence in any way, shape, or manner. Most importantly, this is a story that needs to be told and it needs to be told to kids. Hand it to teens all you want (this would make a fantastic reluctant reader pick), but remember that there’s going to be nine and ten-year-olds out there as well who are ready for what Mr. Neri has to say.
You can have the nicest written graphic novel in the world, but unless you have a worthy artist to pair with the text, it’s not worth much to anyone. Enter Randy DuBurke. DuBurke has done some children’s books before, as it happens, but nothing so gritty. A couple years ago he won the John Steptoe Award for best new talent for The Moon Ring. Until now he’s never really delved deeply into the graphic possibilities behind children’s comics. Aside from the odd Malcolm X biography his comic book work has usually been relegated to the D.C. and Marvel side of things. Now he’s taken Neri’s tale and created a book that feels both realistic and as beautifully stylized as any old noir. Playing not just with expressions and characters but with light and shadow as well, it’s DuBurke’s choices that lift this book up and make it far more compelling than it would be merely on its own.
First and foremost, watch what DuBurke does with our narrator. He’s fictional, of course. A composite of the children that would have lived through that time period. So it was interesting to note that at the start, when Neri is talking about what Chicago is known for, DuBurke places the narrator in with the famous characters. He’s on the court with the Bulls, or arresting Al Capone, or singing a tune or two with Muddy Waters. So basically right at the beginning DuBurke is making it clear to the reader that this kid, like all kids, has a connection and a part to play in the history of his city. As for Yummy himself, there is one image of him that appears on everything from the cover of this book to just about the last page; his mug shot.
Then there’s DuBurke’s use of light. In a two-panel section we see Yummy next to a tall tough looking dude. The text mentions that Yummy was just four feet tall, “and maybe 60 pounds heavy.” In the first panel he’s looking up at the tall guy, eyes wide. The second panel, however, the shadows have darkened around his eyes, and his mouth is set. He’s a whole different person. Now look at the end of the book. The harsh light of the streetlamps throws everyone’s faces into white and black. Eyes get hidden, bodies get eaten up in the shadows of leaves. It’s fantastic. The whole book is a series of variegated contrasts, all black and white. That’s particularly ironic when you read the text and realize that the storyline is anything but black and white. This is a book written in shades of gray.
Such shades of gray affect all aspects of the storytelling. You read enough books like this and you begin to feel like they all hit the same beats. So when Neri writes that “Everyone had an opinion: The news guys, the politicians, the police, the lawyers, and the professors,” I expected to see a bunch of white people giving the same old, same old about gangs and violence. Instead, Neri chooses to show sympathetic professionals who may not quite get it, but aren’t pitted against Yummy either. As one man says, “This young kid fell through the cracks. If this child was protected five years ago, you save two people. You save the young woman who was killed and you save the young offender.” This was not what I expected to hear. Refreshing doesn’t even begin to describe it for me.
I felt some similarities in this book to The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon, particularly in terms of a younger brother seeing his older sibling making potentially dangerous choices outside the home. Still and all, Monster by Walter Dean Myers is probably the closest equivalent to Yummy at this time. But Monster was a study in unreliable narration and new style of prose, more than anything else. Yummy looks a little deeper what makes a human being “good” or “bad”. Is it how they’re raised? Or how they live? The choices they make? As our hero says, “I tried to figure out who the real Yummy was. The one who stole my lunch money? Or the one who smiled when I shared my candy with him? I wondered if I grew up like him, would I have turned out the same?” That’s a question any kid reading this book might ask themselves too. We have so few serious graphic novel fiction titles asking kids tough questions like this. I mean, walk over to a graphic novel section of any library or bookstore and find me the contemporary realistic fiction. It’s there, but hardly any of those books feature black characters, and the ones that do are historical. I guess Yummy is historical too, but at this point in time no kid will notice. What they’ll find instead is a book that asks tough questions and comes to the conclusion that there aren’t any easy answers. Believe me, you’ve nothing like this in your collection. Better get it while you can.
On shelves July 31st.
Source: Review copy sent from publisher.
Other Blog Reviews: EN/SANE World
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
- For facts about the real Yummy’s life, check out the sidebar on Greg Neri’s website. There you can find everything from a documentary on Yummy to a historical analysis of his gang, The Black Disciples.
- Be sure to also read Greg’s piece in Hunger Mountain called Creating the Book: How to Hook Urban (non)Readers.