As soon as the Harry Potter series started hitting best-seller lists, something came along for the ride: the detractors. The most vocal of these were usually conservative, religious people who felt that the series promoted witchcraft, among other things, and that children shouldn’t be allowed to read them. In some cases there have even been attempts to ban the books — whether that’s banning them from the classroom or from libraries. Whether or not you’re a fan of the books yourself (or have even read them), it’s pretty likely that you’re aware of them and at least some of the controversy surrounding them.
Enter Americus, a graphic novel released this fall by MK Reed and illustrated by Jonathan Hill. Neil Barton doesn’t have much going for him. He gets picked on by his classmates, not just for his small size but because he’s a bit nerdy, and his prospects as he enters high school aren’t much better. What’s more, his best (and only?) friend has been shipped off to military academy. His best refuge is in books — and in particular, in a series called The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde, a best-selling line of children’s books about a witch.
Danny, Neil’s best friend, is also a huge fan of the books — but his mother is convinced that they’re immoral and corrupting her son, so she starts up a campaign to ban the series from the local library. (It’s also part of the reason why Danny is shipped off to military school.) The battle between Danny’s mom and the local librarian (with supporters on both sides) is the central conflict of the book. It’s not the only conflict, though. Neil still has to deal with growing up and being a freshman in high school. He discovers punk music, makes new friends, and starts discovering his own voice.
Throughout it all, we get little glimpses of the Apathea Ravenchilde story, too: as characters in Americus read the book, we see the story unfolding in comic-book form. There’s not enough there to make up a story in itself, but it hints at a much larger universe — after all, at the start of the story, Book 8 of the series has just arrived.
Going into Americus, I hadn’t actually known anything about the plot at all, but I was immediately drawn into it and ended up reading it in one sitting. Reed has a knack for dialogue that sounds real — scenes where people are talking past each other or large crowds are a combination of multiple conversations ring true — and Hill’s drawings have a fluidity that looks simple but conveys the emotions of the characters clearly. As somebody who was short and bookish in junior high, I could definitely relate to Neil (though my circumstances weren’t anywhere as bad as his). And now, as somebody who has worked at a public library and has encountered parents who are vehemently against the Harry Potter series, I could also relate to that aspect of the story.
As I mentioned before in my Wordstock Sneak Peek, my biggest problem with the book is that the crusading anti-witchcraft mom just seems a bit over-the-top. Or, rather, that she seems to be the only portrayal of Christians in the book and it’s a very cliched family. It’s hard to detail without giving spoilers, but there’s a small section, right after the mom discovers that Danny is reading the books, which feels completely stereotyped: mom rages about the direction our country is headed, kid makes remarks, mom slaps kid, dad goes to the basement and drinks from his secret stash of whiskey. It’s the “oh, look how hypocritical this Christian family is — she thinks she’s so great but her family is totally falling apart inside.”
I will admit, some of her complaints about the Apathea series are in fact very much like what some people have said about Harry Potter, and it’s not entirely unrealistic. I think what bothered me more, though, is that it felt like the conflict was made out to be a Christians vs. non-Christians battle — Christians are like Danny’s mom, totally unreasonable and out of control, making snap judgments and not actually reading the books or appreciating their merits. The non-Christians, of course, make logical arguments and try to explain what makes the books good, but their statements fall on totally deaf ears. As somebody who is both a Christian and a fan of the Harry Potter books, I felt left out of the conversation, and was surprised that there weren’t any characters in the book who made any arguments for the books from a Christian perspective.
At any rate, Americus is a pretty cool read — unless you’re like Danny’s mom, in which case you’re pretty likely to be completely offended by it. If you’ve ever had to defend your decision to let your kids read Harry Potter (or some other book), you’ll probably enjoy this.
I should note, for parents, that the book is probably about a PG-13. There is some profanity, and some middle school/high school teasing and bullying, including making fun of a kid for being gay. Oh, and did I mention there’s witchcraft?