Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine

Two sisters show life in different countries and different cultures in this graphic novel by Anaele and Delphine Hermans – a memoir of Anaele’s 10-month stay in Bethlehem while volunteering for a youth organization/NGO.

Presented as postcards and letters shared between the two sisters, ‘Green Almonds’ highlights the living conditions of populations in war-torn zones of the world. At the same time, it humanises these conditions as they accept them as a ‘normal’ part of life.

Anaele’s initial arrival presented anxious times from the word go, as she negotiated customs at Tel Aviv airport in 2008. Her stories about the months that followed illustrate some of the precarious situations faced by everyday people in these occupied territories. At the same time, descriptions of simple joys in life shared amongst friends show things she enjoyed with her Palestinian friends. Cultural differences aside, there is still a place where: “we sing, we laugh, we talk until late into the night”.

As the correspondence journeys between Bethlehem and Liege, great contrasts are displayed in the lives of the two sisters. Interestingly, the postcards from Delphine mainly chat about shallow day-to-day life events at home in Liege; Anaele’s letters provide greater detail, empathy and passion about her experiences, as she negotiates a world apart from Belgium.

Of course, ‘Green Almonds’ is also a reflection of the harsh world experienced by those caught in this massive ongoing battle. As a graphic novel, it provides some introduction and insight into a dangerous conflict. Perhaps a more detailed follow-up would look deeper into the lives and relationships Anaele experienced in her time there and since her return to Belgium. (It would be an interesting continuation as she has worked to enable international volunteering projects since her return.)

Green Almonds received the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) award for the best travel diary highlighting the living conditions of populations in precarious situations when it was published in France in 2011.

Do you read non-fiction graphic novels?

Do they offer a worthwhile presentation of historic or real-world events? (e.g. the March trilogy which focuses on civil rights in the US)

Can such a memoir make you think about world events and conditions?

Graphic portrait – Vincent

imageThe troubled life of Vincent Van Gogh is cleverly portrayed in Barbara Stok’s graphic novel, ‘Vincent’.

Van Gogh’s struggles, inspirations and family support are revealed as Barbara focuses on the ‘brief and intense period of time that the painter spent in the south of France.’

In simple ways, ‘Vincent’ also brings to life the way in which artists of the time influenced, and were influenced by Van Gogh, such as Paul Gaugin.

The idea of artist colonies/houses /communities springs up, as does the need for many talented artists to be sponsored by someone – in Vincent’s case, by his dedicated brother, Theo. The good times and the bad are pictured, as Stok reveals the character of Van Gogh, his ‘pursuit’ and ‘purpose’ of painting, and his artistic intensity and drive.

Fans of Van Gogh will recognise the natural elements which inspired the artist at this time – haystacks, starry nights, sunflowers. Within this time, however, there are also periods of mental illness, including when he cuts off his own ear. Ultimately even though family support comes through, Van Gogh’s tortured existence continues.

In many ways, Van Gogh’s art both drives him, and demonises him. The ability to paint sees him through many tough times, but the need to paint also divorces him from many aspects of normal life.

Reading ‘Vincent’ makes you ponder the life of an artist – and offers a little understanding of the life of Van Gogh; the difficulties he faced, the sacrifices and the troubled existence of an infamous Dutch artist and his colleagues.

N.B. I am not an art student, and found this an interesting reflection of an artist introduced to me by a teacher in year 3!

Life choices – Level Up

Level UpGene Luen Yang is a clever writer of graphic novels – though this is probably not the career path his parents would have chosen for him. This insight is given in an interesting dedication at the beginning of the book:

Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being good Asian sons.

Dennis Ouyang is the main protagonist in Level Up, and his parents have high expectations for their only son – that he should be a gastroenterologist. Dennis, on the other hand, would rather be playing video games. His struggle with meeting his parents wishes or following his own interests would be familiar to many young adults, particularly those with strong cultural influences on how a child should respect his/her elders.

Yang, and illustrator Thien Pham, have used some interesting techniques in this graphic novel:

# The early pages are shaded blue as we are introduced to the potential conflict of ideas of Dennis and his parents.

# Colour also plays an interesting part in depicting some of the unsavoury choices Dennis takes, the visitations he has (in his mind) from his father,  stronger colours are used during normal day-to-day situations.

# Symbols like angels and feathers link events to the past, and video game characters haunt Dennis till he overcomes certain issues.

# The novel is sectioned like a video game with new levels being achieved as the novel develops and Dennis’ choices take effect. As in videogames, Dennis does not always ‘finish the level’ and his path is sometimes bumpy.

As Dennis struggles to work out which is the right path for him to take, his mind begins to play tricks on him and he has visitations – from his father, from an angelic chorus (his conscience?) and from the ghosts of an old computer game. Though he at first happily drops out of medical school, and achieves fame and fortune in the videogaming world, there are more changes to come. Will he ultimately discover who he really is? Whose expectations he will meet in the future – his dead father’s? His ill mother’s? his own?

Yang himself may have faced the same struggles in his youth. While it is said his parents tried to instill in him a strong work ethic and traditional Asian culture, they also told him stories. It is clear that this combination inspired his creative skills with a will to achieve – though not in the medical field.

With Pham’s quirky but expressive illustrations, he has created a clever and humorous story, which also makes you wonder about which is the right direction to take in life. Being built around a videogame-style concept makes it appealing and quick to read. However, it is worth a closer look once you finish to find all the little elements we may gloss over in a graphic novel.

Another thought-provoking novel from the author of award-winning American Born Chinese. 

the Great Gatsby – a fresh look – Nicki Greenberg

A new view of the classic novel by F.Scott Fitzgerald is presented by Nicki Greenberg in her graphic adaptation – a book which was six years in the making. The suave Jay Gatsby comes to life as a seahorse, perhaps alluding to him as a creature of mystery and intrigue. His lifelong love interest, Daisy, features as a dandelion creature, and friend to all, Nick Carraway, presents in a slug-like appearance as he narrates the tragic tale.

Other characters within Nicki’s adaptation include the seductive Jordan Baker, Daisy’s long-time friend; with a somewhat shady side to her, Jordan’s squid-like appearance exudes her questionable nature. Another, Tom Buchanan who is Daisy’s husband, is a barechested beast of a character, with threatening size and appearance in most of the frames in which he appears. In both cases their nature is well defined by their appearance rather than words.

The era in which the novel was set is alluded to visually, using sepia tones and with frames set out like an old photo album. Greenberg alludes to the partying and glamour associated with the Gatsby lifestyle, as the in-crowd frolic in many of the photos. She also captures some of the inanity and vagueness of the partygoers’s conversations (reflecting their true interest: in being seen at Gatsby’s), though they finally fade to be ghosts of insignificance in the background as the story develops.

Reading ‘the Great Gatsby’ as a graphic novel brings about a different experience. But be warned: while some people read graphic novels rather quickly, it is well worth taking the time to absorb all the features – and to consider how Greenberg can change the tone of the story with colour, shading, placement of the frames and text within the frames. Use of whitespace (which is actually black) also works to alter the speed with which the story needs to be read. Even the changing placement of the individual picture/photo frames can impact on the pace and mood of the tale.

To paraphrase Nicki’s own words (when she was referring to a fellow graphic novelist’s book):

…try, if you possibly can, to slow down just a tiny bit. Linger a little in the wonderful lush landscapes of (Gatsby’s world and the fabulous intrigues of 1920’s New York). Enjoy the clever use of space in the page layouts, the colours and textures, and the complex blocking required to portray so many characters’ interlocking conversations.

For now, I think I will revisit both versions of the Great Gatsby again soon – the original to find the tone of the original author, and Nicki Greenberg’s version to find those intricate details I have missed the first time around. For more about the book from the author, see:

There is also a great video where Nicki speaks about creating a graphic novel and points out some of the dfferences to a ‘normal’ book at: – which makes really interesting viewing. If you haven’t tried a graphic novel before, then gives this book a go or look at some of those mentioned earlier on this blog.

10 Little Insects – Davide Cali

When I first heard of ’10 Little Insects’ at a recent CBCA conference in Adelaide, I thought it would be fun to read. I didn’t expect to be sitting and giggling as I moved through the pages – much to the mirth of my family, on a glum Saturday afternoon.

From the first pages of this new graphic novel, to the very end (which I almost missed…) there was a lot to keep you laughing and musing about along the way. In this whodunnit mystery, we follow the trails of 10 insects invited to Tortoise Island for a variety of curious reasons. Each ‘guest’ has come along with a different expectation of a weekend at an exclusive, but mysterious mansion on a secluded island.

Unfortunately, one by one, they meet an untimely death – reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ (or ‘Ten Little Indians’ as it was released in the US). Of course they attempt to solve the mystery of individual deaths along the way, but as in any good Agatha Christie novel, the crimes aren’t solved completely till the very end; in an extremely humorous way.

’10 Little Insects’ was launched in Australia by Nicki Greenberg, a very clever Australian writer and illustrator, with an affinity for graphic novels. You can read her comments from the launch, and thus understand why she was the ideal candidate to launch the book in Australia. Read her comments carefully, especially when she implores:

“…try, if you possibly can, to slow down just a tiny bit. Linger a little in the wonderful lush landscapes of the island and the fabulous interiors of the mansion. Enjoy the clever use of space in the page layouts, the colours and textures, and the complex blocking required to portray so many characters’ interlocking conversations.”  (Nicki Greenberg,

And since Nicki spoke so eloquently and effusively about this book, there is little more I can say – except to recommend your read this, whenever you get the chance… then read it again to pick up what you missed (either in the clever illustrations of Vincent Pianina, Davide Cali’s punctuating text) the first time.

Do you enjoy graphic novels? or are they something new you are yet to explore?  are you like me, and would like to compare them with the original (if they are an adaptation)? or would you just prefer to take them at face value?

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It’s Graphic!

Many years ago, graphic novels were restricted to those produced in Japan in the Manga style; today, there is great variety in both the format and subject matter covered in these books. As they become more widely available, the popularity of graphic novels is growing.

manga2The variety of graphic novels is well illustrated by our school’s collection. These start with the traditional Manga styles, which include Japanese characters, and which are read from back to front, and right to left.

Newer versions of graphic novels (often produced outside of Japan) are read like a normal book, though using the defining sequential art work in frames. The subjects covered in graphic novels now ranges from classic tales (e.g. Shakespeare) to series following the adventures of key characters, and from myths and legends to the reworking of popular authors (e.g. books from tales by Anthony Horowitz, Emily Bronte or Mary Shelley).

Our selections include series in:

  • Naruto
  • Fruits Basket
  • Fullmetal Alchemist
  • The Dreaming
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion
  • Grand Guignol Orchestra
  • as well as many re-creations of  modern books (like Twilight or Stormbreaker), and historic classics (like Shakespeare).

What are your favourites in graphic / manga novels? Do you prefer the traditional Japanese style or those created for English cultures?