Saturday, January 21, 2012

GN Review -- Americus / M.K. Reed and Jonathan Hill

Imagine coming to your library to find out that someone is trying to ban your favorite series of books, because they think those books are corrupting, sinful, and inappropriate for young people to read.  What would you do?  Would you get angry?  Would you try to stop them?  If you're as much of a bookworm as Neil Barton is in Americus, chances are you'd want to defend your right to read what you want.

Neil Barton, a shy bookworm, is not excited about the prospect of beginning high school.  He'd much rather be left alone by everyone in the fictitious town of Americus, Oklahoma, so he could just read.  Instead, he and his friend Danny are frequently the targets of bullies.  When Danny's mother catches her son reading Apathea Ravenchilde, a fantasy series involving witches and dragons, she storms into the public library where he got it and tears it up in front of the librarian, denouncing it as filth and vowing to get it banned from the library's shelves.  For arguing with her, Danny is sent to military school, and suddenly Neil is left without his best friend.

To make matters worse, Danny's mother follows through on her threat to try to ban the Apathea Ravenchilde books.  She forms a vocal group of concerned citizens intent on keeping "inappropriate" materials out of the library so they won't "corrupt" the town's youth readers.  Enduring this in addition to the normal trials of high school--bullies, surly classmates and unsympathetic teachers--Neil must do the unthinkable and try to take a stand against the detractors of his favorite series.

I found this to be a thoroughly entertaining story.  While the central conflict revolves around the issue of censorship in libraries, there is plenty of other material in the narrative that informs the characters involved.  Neil is not just shy--he's nearly misanthropic in places, talking back to his mother and professing his hatred for the town he lives in as much as the bullies he has to put up with.  There are scenes excerpted from the Apathea Ravenchilde series that serves as thematic analogs to the rest of the story.  There are teens all over the place, talking and giggling and breaking up and going out and generally lending a realistic vibe to the high school scenes depicted in the story.

I thought the characterization of the main character was well handled.  I feel like Neil was me, back when I was a teen: shy, not quite sure how to interact with others, sometimes resorting to petulance or hostility when nothing else came to mind.  It's both entertaining and humbling to meet a character you identify with so completely, flattering or otherwise, and I think MK Reed deserves props for the work she put into the protagonist here.  While I might have some slight reservations about how the detractors are portrayed (somewhat two-dimensionally), I do think she nailed the teen characters, particularly Neil, very well.

I enjoyed the art immensely in this story, and thought it was appropriate to its plot and themes.  It's simple and cartoony for the main portion of the narrative, which makes sense when you consider that the narrative is essentially an introduction to the issue of censorship.  Both the art and the writing make the issue more accessible, easy to understand, and interesting enough that you want to know more.  The excerpts of Apathea Ravenchilde are done in a slightly more detailed, highly stylized fantasy motif, and work well in separating that story from the rest of the narrative while keeping it linked to the larger story.  Kudos to Jonathan Hill for working so adeptly at the visuals in this book.

Overall, I'd say Americus is an engaging introduction to the issue of censorship as well as an entertaining story in its own right.  Teens interested in what they can and can't read in libraries--and the politics involved--will enjoy this exploration of what can sometimes be a highly charged issue.  People who love public libraries, escapist fantasy series (particularly Harry Potter), and political dramas will also enjoy Americus.  Highly recommended.

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