430: “Revolutionary”—or an Internet-age rediscovery of storytelling artistry?

Native American ledger art “REVOLUTIONARY!”
    I’m a longtime fan of NPR’s Diane Rehm, but the moment I heard her echo a caller’s over-the-top praise of Reif Larsen’s new book as “revolutionary“—well, my mind was churning. And, I’m turning to you, our readers, today to explore this question: Just how revolutionary is it to expand a story through illustrations, graphics and marginal notes?
Reif Larsen Selected Works of TS Spivet      Larsen’s terrific new book, “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet,” is a wonderful accomplishment. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book myself. It is innovative. Penguin published it as a large-format, hardback book to capture all of Larsen’s drawings, maps and marginal notes along with the main first-person story of a brave little boy who travels to Washington D.C. to deliver a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution.
    That description alone may intrigue you. But my point here is that Larsen’s work hardly represents a revolution. I’d like to hear from you, readers, about books you’ve loved that might be considered grandparents or first cousins of this new book.

    First of all, we could argue that this storytelling artistry goes all the way back to cave paintings and then murals in the ancient world. Larsen’s got nothing new on Egyptian murals, for example, except maybe the contemporary subject of his tale.
    This isn’t even new to American shores. Native American Ledger Art is certainly an ancestor of this book, especially because Larsen—a New Yorker with a stellar East Coast family background in the fine arts—purports to be telling the story of a rural Western family in this novel. Larsen opens the book by describing young Spivet’s amazing passion for jotting, drawing and making charts in notebooks in his room on the family ranch in Montana. Well, out in that neck of the Great Plains, Indian artists were creating the first illustrated notebooks—Ledger Art—way back in the mid 1800s.
Blackhawk ledger art 1880 Lakota of a Spirit Being     This was a natural extension for them of drawings made on smoothed hides. Missionaries, traders, educators and other Euro-Americans brought these neatly bound ledgers westward with them—and Indian artisans soon mastered their own forms of illustrated storytelling in the big pages of these books. (Two of our illustrations today are actual Ledger Art. One shows brave Indian women on horseback recapturing a stolen sacred pole during the Ghost Dance era. The other, at right, is from around 1880 by a Lakota artist and shows a fearsome Spirit Being.)
    Leger Art didn’t die. It’s alive today in the studios of artists reclaiming its original form.
    It’s also been adapted in many ways. Sherman Alexie, probably the single hottest Indian writer and filmmaker today, used a simplified form of this genre for his multiply award-winning novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
    Of course, this book also borrows from the super-popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. Alexie’s novel tells the tale of young Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation and having a tough time at school. I recently came across this 2007 novel, which has won both a National Book Award as well as “Best Book of the Year” from the School Library Journal. Our own ReadTheSpirit Books is about to publish a Native American memoir and I’ve been working with a group of 50 high-school students studying Indian culture. I passed around copies of Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary”—and kids absolutely loved it! They jumped from that book to Alexie’s other books and his movie, “Smoke Signals.” (It’s natural in this mode of storytelling to move from sketches on a page to images on a screen, which Alexie does almost effortlessly.)

Watchmen     Finally, this week, Diane Rehm’s biggest praise for Reif Larsen’s “innovation” focused on the way he used his storytelling format to engage in multiple levels of the narrative—and even to invite readers to explore less-than-reliable voices within this mix.
    Well, of course, that mingling of narrative formats, voices and levels of reliability is at least as old as Sir Walter Scott, certainly followed by Charles Dickens. But, when you throw in all the graphics and illustrations in this new book—we’re surely talking about the cross-over influence of comic books and graphic novels here.
    “Watchmen” is a landmark in comic books partly because it wove various narrative voices into the text and images, some more reliable and on-point than others. Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, which evolved from comic books to illustrated storybooks, novels and even influenced Gaiman’s TV and movie work, also is part of this dramatic mingling of genres. It’s very exciting stuff. It’s just not a revolution attributable to Mr. Larsen.

    This creative mingling is everywhere you look—if you’re looking clearly. Even “children’s books” we’ve recommended from publishers like Candlewick—titles like the newly revamped “Don Quixote” and “The Time Book“—certainly are first cousins of T.S. Spivet’s tale.

    So, please, tell us what you’ve enjoyed in this mixing-and-mingling of storytelling formats.
    Is this revival of ancient forms fueled by the Internet’s graphic, non-linear webwork of storylines?
    Is this all due to the rediscovery of comics?
    Are aging Baby Boomers so nostalgic for the storybooks and comics of their own childhood that they’re fueling a revival now?

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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