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Review: Americus

Neal Barton hates most everything, except Apathea Ravenchilde, the imaginary heroine of a mega-popular fantasy book series. But when Neal’s best friend Danny gets caught by his mother reading the Apathea Ravenchilde series, she ships him off to boarding school and begins a campaign to remove the “evil” books from the Americus Public Library. Now Neal will find out if he has the same courage as Apathea as he fights with young adult librarian Charlotte to protect the books he loves.

Written by MK Reed; Illustrated by Jonathan Hill
Ages 13+
First Second, September 2011, ISBN 978-1-59643-601-5
216 pages, $14.99

Reed and Hill are really just preaching to the choir with Americus, though it’s an fairly enjoyable sermon nonetheless. Apathea Ravenchilde could pretty clearly be read as a stand-in for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the bannings and challenges it has faced, but because Reed is careful to make Apathea’s adventures unique, Americus is unlikely to age because of that comparison. After all, fantasy is a genre that has long been challenged; just ask Madeline L’Engle and Philip Pullman.

There are some strong elements in Reed’s plot. Neal’s apathy towards life and his annoyance at the adults around him is believable, both from a teen perspective and from an adult one. Reed aptly shows how the right book at the right time can capture a person’s soul and shape them in directions they never expected, pushing them to be the best they can be. By the same token, she also shows how older teens and non-familial adults can have a strong positive influence on a young teen’s life. Both Neal and Danny are happier because of the changes brought about throughout the course of the book.

On the other hand, Reed neglects to fully examine all sides of the book banning debate. While the members of the library board offer many of the examples of why a book will be either banned or supported, the main challenger is Danny’s mother and her friends. They are a one-note stereotype of conservative Christianity, all hellfire and brimstone, with no depth or subtlety. If Reed’s purpose was to create a perfect villain, then she certainly succeeds, but in the process she loses a valuable opportunity for in-depth exploration of a sensitive topic, something I think teen readers would appreciate and embrace. It also means that she loses the opportunity to use her work to try to reach a middle ground, something that we could all use more of these days.

This may be Hill’s first graphic novel, but he’s a strong artist right out of the gate. He uses simple black lines to build a world which is cartoonish enough to be friendly and appealing, but detailed enough to be believable. Even though there isn’t much shading, the scene elements are nicely layered so that they do not get lost within each other. And his characters’ faces, though basic (eyes are just dots or circles), show a wide range of emotions.

Americus was first published as a webcomic at Save Apathea. First Second is publishing it in September to tie in with the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week (September 24th through October 1st). As part of the release, First Second has provided an online book discussion guide. Teens who love books, even those who don’t consider themselves to be “fighters for justice,” will appreciate the message that quiet, bookish slackers can enact change in their own community. Reed and Hill aren’t likely to change any minds, but they’ve crafted an enjoyable enough look at one side of a decisive issue.

This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © First Second.

Snow Wildsmith About Snow Wildsmith

Snow Wildsmith is a writer and former teen librarian. She has served on several committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2's Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on her first books, a nonfiction series for teens.

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