Evaluating nonfiction: At War with the Empire

at war with the empire Evaluating nonfiction: At War with the EmpireTo better understand the criteria for judging children’s books, I started reading frequent Horn Book Magazine contributor Kathleen T. Horning‘s From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books. In the second chapter, Horning considers “books of information.”

Around the same time, author Gerry Hunt and illustrator Matthew Griffin’s graphic novel At War With the Empire: Ireland’s Fight for Independence (O’Brien/Dufour, July 2013) arrived in the mail. Since I know next to nothing about Irish history and wanted to apply what I’d just learned about reviewing nonfiction, I decided to kill two birds with one stone.

Horning suggests reviewers analyze nonfiction in terms of authority and responsibility of the author, organization, illustrations, design, writing style, and documentation of sources. Here’s how Hunt’s graphic novel measures in these respects:

Horning’s criteria

At War With The Empire

Authority and responsibility of the author
  • Hunt and Griffin each had family members who lived through this part of Ireland’s history.
  • Hunt’s other published works include a graphic novel on the Easter Rising.
Organization
  • The story is told linearly, from immediately after the Easter Rising to the start of the Irish Civil War.
  • Hunt writes in third-person multiple POV, usually following key players on both sides of the conflict, but occasionally the police and innocent bystanders.
Illustrations
  • Solid dark colors dominate Griffin’s palette, with pops of arterial red and fiery orange.
  • The characters’ faces are all grim and heavily shadowed, making it hard to tell people apart.
  • Frames without people are intricately inked to look like pictures from newspapers of the era.
Design
  • Dynamic horizontal and vertical frames emphasize directional motion, such as the exchange of gunfire or someone jumping from a height.
  • Typography has a handwritten look characteristic of comic books. The same typeface is used for dialogue and narrative, but the narrative is distinguished with all caps.
  • Dialogue bubbles are used to indicate speech.
Writing style
  • Hunt’s tone is factual and dry.
  • However, author bias is evident upon examination of verb choice (i.e., “retaliated” and “took revenge” versus more neutral terms such as “shot” and “killed”).
  • The dialogue often echoes the narration, rather than providing new information such as character insights.
Documentation
  • Hunt includes no bibliography or back matter.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much about Ireland’s fight for independence from this graphic novel. This has everything to do with the writing rather than the medium. While Hunt provides basic information such as names, dates, and places in his narrative, he doesn’t address basic questions like why Ireland was fighting for independence or describe the motives of key players in the conflict such as Michael Collins, Sean Hogan, and Dan Breen. Neither does he explain the religious aspect of the conflict, despite multiple mentions that the police constables being ambushed by Irish nationals were both Irish and Catholic.

Rather, Hunt focuses most of his attention on a grocery list of back-and-forth shootings, ambushes, retaliations, and riots. Hunt may expect his readers to already have some understanding of his subject, but stripped of their historical context, these events in the Irish rebellion blend together. All I gathered from the repetitious exchange of violence was how drawn-out and confusing this conflict was.

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About Jennifer Lu

Jennifer Lu is an editorial intern at The Horn Book.

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