(Grades 7 & up) This one has been out for awhile and has been reviewed and discussed by comics aficionados all over the webs. Check out this excellent round table discussion of the book by the wonderful folks over at Good Comics For Kids and then slide on over to the Graphic Classroom for tips on how to use this book in a lesson or unit. In light of all this discussion, I’m going to attempt to keep mine short and (semi)sweet.
Neal Barton leads a frustrating life. He hates middle school, having been constantly picked on and he’s positive high school will only be worse. To top all that off, his best- and only- friend is being shipped off to military school. So when his only escape from all of these worldly woes- a book series entitled The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde- is challenged by a local group of Christians, he decides to fight back. Joining forces with the local library and other fans of the series, he helps organize a campaign to save his favorite story. Will Apathea get banned? That depends on whether or not Neal can overcome his insecurities and his crushing loneliness enough to really put up a fight.
Honestly speaking, I don’t think Americus is the best story about censorship out there. The main reason is that it is so heavily one-sided (in favor of the book-lovers, duh) that it doesn’t feel true. The author makes no attempt to help readers understand the Christian group; they are portrayed instead as a stereotyped joke. It makes for satisfying reading to see the villains portrayed as drooling, snarling, goofballs but it doesn’t make for honest reading.
Where Americus DOES shine, however, is in telling Neal’s coming of age story. One of the best, and most truthful, moments in the book is when he discovers punk rock music at a family gathering and quickly goes through a musical awakening that helps him look deeper into who he really is. This is where the story- and Neal as well- both find themselves. It is also where the real theme of the book is revealed: growing up isn’t about trying to please people, it’s about finding friends who will stick with you, becoming passionate about something, and staying true to those things. Through doing this, Neal finds himself and the strength to stand up for his beloved Apathea Books.
So, if you need a book to get you riled up about the horrors of censorship, Americus will do that just fine, it just won’t help you understand the other side. In a world that needs a little more understanding, I recommend that you instead come to Americus for the life story contained within. It’ll teach you a lot more about what it’s like to feel alone and how important it is to find people who really care about you and stick with them.
Oh, you should also come to Americus for the artwork. Jonathan Hill has crafted a pen and ink, black and white world that is visually appealing in its cartoonish simplicity. The empathy he creates with a few strokes will draw readers in because they can’t help but relate to all of the main characters. As everything that First Second Books does, Americus is a book that is a pleasure to just hold in your hand, a true piece of literary art.