It’s been a strong year for graphic novels. Boxers & Saints is increasingly looking like a frontrunner, but there’s also Relish, March, Book One (don’t worry, we’re definitely covering this one as soon as we get a copy), and now the two titles that are up for discussion this morning: Delilah Dirk & The Turkish Lieutenant and The War within These Walls. Complete opposites in genre, style, and tone, but each have outstanding qualities that are certainly worth a closer look. Are these qualities enough to nab a Printz?
Erdemoglu Selim is the kind of man who appreciates subtlety and quiet. Delilah Dirk is the kind of woman who is at ease being the center of noise and chaos. As with all odd couples, they shouldn’t be a good team, but in fact, they’re a great team. Delilah, a thoroughly unique woman, pushes Selim outside of his comfort zone and helps him discover that there is more to life than doing what’s expected of you. Although what Selim offers Delilah is not explicitly stated (other than his deliciously brewed custom-blend tea), their adventures show that he has a knack for strategy in tough spots when she is perfectly happy to go down fighting. Free of moody angst or complicated mythology, it is easy to fall in love with these characters as they go from one adventure to the next.
It helps that Tony Cliff has written two utterly delightful characters. They are both so likable, we can’t help but root for them. Delilah begins the novel as an impulsive loner on a mission to steal back treasure from a pirate who has raided her uncle’s ships many times. It would have been easy to make Delilah a moody anti-heroine; instead, she is upbeat and fun. Selim could be a shrill, nervous wreck, but he’s the reader’s surrogate, marveling at the force of nature that is Delilah Dirk.
No matter where she is placed, Delilah is the nucleus of every frame that she’s in. Whether it is her unmissable white skirt, twirling out or billowing behind her, or her long mass of hair flying about, Cliff draws Delilah so that the energy from her is always outward and moving. Even in a close frame of just her face, she always seems to be in motion, the lines always suggesting that they are in flux.
The artwork overall is fun and kinetic, reflective of the action-adventure narrative. Cliff makes good use of the sequential format by expanding the scope of the story with larger frames–and sometimes full-page spreads–and tightening the action with smaller boxes to pack as much as possible into a single page. It’s crucial to the pacing of the book, and Cliff does a great job of controlling it. There are occasionally some panels that are too crowded with detail, but this may be a matter of preference rather than a flaw. Cliff is interested in populating a complete, realistic world, and part of that is providing enough detail to convince the reader that this is a fully realized world. He saves the wide-open spaces for when Delilah and Selim are at rest, and these two-page spreads allow the reader to breathe and take in just how much of the world our two protagonists are about to conquer.
Just before the denouement of the story, Selim decides that he needs to settle down; Delilah’s lifestyle is just too much for him to handle. But of course, she has changed him irrevocably. Although he enjoys his quiet life in a seaside town, he is no longer satisfied with quiet. Readers get the ending we expect when Selim sets off to find Delilah and join her as a permanent companion. Although there is nothing surprising in this plot resolution, I do like that Selim, as the male, is the character who answers the call to adventure from Delilah. So often we see male heroes acquiring female traveling companions (cough, cough: Doctor Who), so it’s refreshing to see Delilah as the one who leads, and Selim as the one who complements our hero.
Delilah is absolutely one of my favorite books of the year. It’s full of joy and a celebration of friendship. Will it win a Printz? Probably not. I can’t make a strong argument for extraordinary literary merit by any of the Printz categories. This is a terrific book though, one that I will push into the hands of my students, and I sincerely hope it makes the Great Graphic Novels for Teens shortlist.
The War within These Walls, Aline Sax and Caryl Strzelecki
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, October 2013
Reviewed from final copy
From a novel of pure delight to a novel of pure horror, let’s turn our attention to Aline Sax and Caryl Strzelecki’s fictional account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Unlike other graphic novels which typically use sequential art, this novel’s artwork is laid out like a picture book (except the trim size is smaller; approximately 9×5). Likewise the text, translated by Laura Watkinson, consists of simple sentences and word choice. This childlike structure magnifies the escalating violence and terror that the Jewish people in Warsaw experienced.
Through ink and pencil drawings, Strzelecki shows the anguish and desperation of the people as they are forced into the ghetto, starved, and finally led to concentration camps. Some of the illustrations are incredibly detailed, showing the shadows and lines on a young girl’s face for example; other drawings are more expressionistic, conveying rage and hope in the single image of two hands shaking.
All of the art, as well as the entire book, is printed in monochromatic dark blues and white. Pages are either white with blue text or vice versa. Many of the blue pages carry text that need special emphasis. “We were going to die” is the only sentence on one such page. It is a powerful statement made even more significant by its presentation. Another technique employed is the skillful use of varied fonts weights and sizes. The main text is set in ATRomic, but the Nazi edicts appear in a bold all-caps sans-serif, sometimes with a Blackletter type.
The design of this book is truly exemplary; however, all of what’s great about this book is in the art and design. As I wrote above, the text is simple, which indeed highlights the horrific narrative, but it also leaves little room for thematic depth. Aline Sax presents the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from a fictional teen’s point of view. Misha takes great risks to keep his family fed as the walls fence him in, but his younger sister eventually disappears trying to follow in his footsteps and he cannot completely stop his parents from withering away. He decides to join Mordechai Anielewicz’s movement to fight against the Nazis, despite knowing that it is an impossible fight. This story could be rich with complex characters and meaningful themes but Sax just doesn’t reach the mark. In an early scene Misha sees a parakeet fly beyond the ghetto walls and wonders why he can’t also fly away. This may be a matter of personal taste, but this metaphor just doesn’t work. Birds have been used to represent trapped people for so long, it’s no longer meaningful and actually, a bit boring. It might be easy to accept this metaphor if it didn’t come back at the end of the novel, but of course, it reappears when Misha manages to escape the ghetto after many days of fighting. This is how the book ends, with a cliché.
I can see why The War within These Walls has earned multiple starred reviews; I certainly think it deserves them for the brilliant use of design to enhance the emotion of the narrative, but as a whole piece the book just does not seem rich enough to earn a Printz.
Now it’s your turn, dear readers. Do you agree that this is a great year for the graphic format? Have you read any extraordinary graphic novels that we should have on our radar? And what did you think of Delilah and The War within These Walls? These are two noteworthy books that miss the mark for the Printz, but perhaps you feel differently? Share below!