Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer, art by Randy DuBurke.
Serious Comics, Hill and Wang, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006.
Graphic novel biography, 102 pages plus extras.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 6.6 (worth 3.0 points) .
A black and white comic-style graphic novel biography of Malcolm X.
For some time now, I’ve been trying to find a great middle grade children’s biography of Malcolm X. I’ve gotten some from the library, and purchased a few. So far none have greatly impressed me, which is why I’m just now getting around to reviewing them. Children’s biographies of Malcolm X have a tricky balance to strike. Islam must be included, since it was an important part of his life and work. His militant views (and later ideas about a more hopeful society) can’t be left out, but should be presented in a way appropriate for children. It’s a tall order.
This was a relatively short book that felt long. The text is heavy, with at least one sentence to every picture box and often whole paragraphs. The book itself is relatively small for a comic book, the size of most paperback novels. I was able to read half of this in front of the kids without them catching on that it was a graphic novel. However, an unfortunate side effect is that the text and pictures then feel even more cramped.
The art is done in a fairly bold black-and-white style, similar to old comic books. Despite what you see on the cover, there is almost no shading inside the book. At points a technique of paint or ink splattering is used – I think for a more gritty look, but it didn’t help much in making things clear.
Because the artwork is done entirely in black and white and the format is smaller than the norm for comics or graphic novels, the characters are often ill defined and it’s difficult to tell a character’s race (not important in some circumstances, but crucial for a graphic novel about race relations), let alone to recognize who a character is.
There also were several points at which figures appeared distorted within a box. I couldn’t figure out if this was intentional or a product of early computer editing processes. Either way, the result was confusing and irritating.
I can’t tell from the book itself what the intended audience was. Since the book doesn’t soften the graphic violence or references to sex, I assume this is considered an adult read. It’s probably fine for high school, but I wouldn’t recommend it for middle school libraries.
The text is so dense it left almost nothing for the artwork to show, and the artwork added little value to the text. This would have benefited greatly from some heavy editing. The kids didn’t enjoy it and didn’t read it even with the graphic novel trend we’ve been having lately. It wouldn’t be a great choice for very young or very sensitive students due to the way the more violent aspects of his life are presented. Some students might prefer it to reading a chapter book, but I’m still hunting for a great biography of Malcolm X.
While this book was definitely a miss, I have heard good things about Randy DuBurke, so I’ll still consider other books by him. There were points (like page 18 & 19) where the artwork showed promise but was overtaken by the flood of text, so I’ll chalk this up to a poor author/illustrator combo tackling a difficult subject and try again.