By Ryan Woodward
Library & Education Associate
This week marks the beginning of Will Eisner Week, an event held every March that celebrates comics, graphic novel literacy, free speech, and the legacy of Will Eisner in schools, universities, libraries, museums, bookstores, comic book shops, and other venues. Anyone familiar with the Holocaust Center’s programs and events knows this is something we do nearly every day. We are so proud of our own comic book series, CHUTZ-POW! Superheroes of the Holocaust, not only as a unique medium in which to document survivors’ stories, but also in its efficacy toward Holocaust education. In addition to sharing this series and its associated resources with numerous local educators, in the past year alone, our team has presented on the power and benefits of using graphic novels and comic books in the classroom to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, The Anti-Defamation League, Conference for Holocaust Education Centers, and many more organizations.
As part of my role as resident reference librarian at the Holocaust Center, I routinely give recommendations for new and further reading to teachers, students, and the public. For every such themed book list, I try to incorporate a work of graphic prose, knowing that different works will appeal to different readers. This practice is also helpful in breaking down any preconceived ideas of comic books being not serious or inappropriate for learning more about the Holocaust. If you still fall into that category, fear not – change is possible! I can believe this because it was true for me at one time. Graphic novels and comic books might not be enjoyed by all readers, but they are a legitimate form of education and can be highly engaging on multiple levels when the best words are paired with the right artwork. The Holocaust Center and an army of librarians everywhere are ready to help you find such books that can be a bridge to a meaningful experience. Today, I am sharing some recent reads, more largely focused on World War II in general, that I feel give readers both an accurate explanation of events during the war and an introduction to some newer published works.
The Case of Alan Turing: The Extraordinary and Tragic Story of the Legendary Codebreaker
by Eric Liberge, Arnaud Delalande, and David Homel (2016)
Readers who have watched the film The Imitation Game (2014) will be familiar with Turning’s attempts to decipher the Nazi codes that, in the early part of the war, had put them at a great advantage in battle, particularly in the North Atlantic. The authors, having accessed previously classified information, have constructed both an easily followed biography of Turing and one that goes further into his personality than the film was perhaps able. Reader recommendations for The Case of Alan Turing tend to hover around 15 and up, which I will not dispute. There are many heavy themes throughout the book including events happening in the war and Turning’s own isolation, which led to a mental health crisis after being persecuted for living his authentic life. The artwork is stellar, however, and comes across as stark, clean, yet somewhat layered, which to me is the perfect match for an analytical mind that was constantly problem solving, whether mathematical equations or personal demons.
The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television
by Koren Shadmi (2019)
Of the three books profiled here, Rod Serling’s story was the one I knew the least about, although obviously familiar and a fan of the original The Twilight Zone series (1959-64). The horror/sci-fi aspect is actually what drew me in – unprepared but thrilled to learn more of his involvement in World War II. A paratrooper no less, who continued testing parachutes after the war to earn extra money in the days before he taught college or began writing screenplays for a groundbreaking new television series. The Twilight Man highlights several episodes of The Twilight Zone that are either about or inspired by events of World War II – an experience that obviously held much influence over Serling throughout his professional and personal life. Entire sequences in the book are illustrated in various tones of gray, brown, or blue, which for me set the mood for rewatching The Twilight Zone or looking at old photographs. The general recommended reading age is also around 14 and up, which again is fair. While the tone and subject matter may not be quite as heavy as is found in The Case of Alan Turing, the age recommendation seems appropriate for those whose interest this book will hold.
Hedy Lamarr: An Incredible Life
by William Roy and Sylvain Dorange (2018)
I enjoyed all of the books mentioned here, but perhaps liked Hedy Lamarr: An Incredible Life most of all. Born in Austria, Hedy’s early life was surrounded by rising fascism and nationalism. We see, from the inside, Austria becoming a part of the Third Reich as Hedy makes her escape to the United States. This book then shows us, more than the other two, aspects of the American home front, particularly what was happening in Hollywood at the time- two of my personal favorite subjects of the 1940s to study and read more about. [If anyone reading this periodically watches Hollywood Canteen (1944) a couple of times a year, get in touch, as we’re bound to be friends.] I had to laugh at one reading age recommendation for this book, which listed it as “Baby and up.” There are themes and even artwork in this book that are not appropriate for children, prompting me to make my own suggestion of “13 and up” and re-issue my reminder that graphic novels and comic books are not synonymous with children’s literature. The artwork, and in particular the use of color, however, completely sold this book for me. I have mentioned film or television in each of these books’ short profiles, which obviously highlights my love for visual media, but also explains my increasing appreciation for works of graphic prose as a medium that sits comfortably for me between books and film.
That these three people were extraordinarily smart and inventive could give the book writers and artists several volumes worth of material. One aspect I appreciate from each of these works is the honest approach they take in telling complex stories of these individuals and their experiences with the war. Each person is affected by the war and committed at the time to doing her or his part to bring it to an end. These books are all written in a way to show the complexities of real lives that were lived outside of, but influenced by, the war period. Alan Turing breaks the Enigma Code, but his story equally reflects his struggles to gain respect as a genius mathematician from his peers and teachers and later legal persecution due to his sexuality. Rod Serling fights in the Pacific Theater, but along the way becomes a competitive boxer, no doubt preparing him for later battles with television censors and sponsors over his commitment to telling honest stories about racial injustice. Hedy Lamarr develops a system for jamming torpedo signals, but is encouraged to use her pretty face to sell war bonds, which she does exceedingly well, while working to get her Jewish-born mother safely out of Austria. It could be said that all three were simply ahead of their time, but we learn from these books that they were ahead of all times. Three quick reads about incredibly brave, creative, and talented people who still had to navigate the prejudices and unrealistic expectations of others throughout their careers, while simultaneously working to end the largest conflict in world history.
For our Pittsburgh-area audience, I was able to read all of these through the Hoopla streaming service, to which all Allegheny County Library Association members have access. Hard copies of each book profiled here are additionally available through the ACLA’s e-iNetwork. Visit the link to see where these books are located or to place a hold and have them sent to your local branch.