Editor’s note: Civil Rights icon, Congressman John Lewis passed away on Friday, July 17th from pancreatic cancer. Many news reports, articles, blogs, podcast and conversations are happening right now about this incredible man and the major accomplishments he made to push the needle forward for equality for everyone. As a resident of Atlanta, I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak on more than one occasion at disability and/or social justice events. A couple of years ago I wrote a book review for VisionAware on his graphic novel titled The March Trilogy. In celebration of his life I am reprinting it here.
The March Trilogy as a Graphic Novel
I don’t typically read graphic novels, as a matter of fact this book that I am reviewing is my very first one. For those that are not familiar a graphic novel is a written story presented with cartoon-type drawings in a panel format. They are similar to a comic book but much longer and with more text. I have been told they are very popular and many people love to read them. Well, the Library of Congress/NLS record their first one titled The March Trilogy by John Lewis. Although Lewis has published an autobiography in the past, the idea to make his story a graphic novel came from the time he was 15 years old when he first learned about Martin Luther King through reading a comic book on his life.
I was excited to read this book because it was about the life of US Congressman John Lewis. He is not only an icon in the civil rights movement, more popularly known for his beating while trying to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge during the March to Montgomery in 1965; but he is an outspoken politician in my hometown of Atlanta. These reasons made me even more interested in reading this book.
The overall story of Lewis’ life was educational and fascinating. Without giving too much away, I learned so much about his life that I didn’t know and was inspired by his passion and zeal to create change despite some incredible difficulties. His childhood growing up with parents who were sharecroppers gave him firsthand exposure to racial inequality. He attended college while participating in sit ins at lunch counters and bus boycotts. Then he later extended his civil rights activities into a career in politics.
Challenges Reading a Graphic Novel
But after I downloaded the book and started to play it on my NLS talking book player that is when the challenges and some disappointment began. The first thing I noticed is that my mind began to wonder from the story and I had to rewind my player. I realized that I was doing this not because the story itself was not interesting or that I was tired, sleepy or distracted but because I was having a hard time figuring out when the description of the graphic started and stopped. Terminology and phrasing such as “zoom in”, “zoom out”, “next panel”, “we see”, “in the frame”, “the next three panels show” give you an indication that the reader is describing what is in the panel and then going back to the text but if you are not listening carefully you can miss it. It is done very seamlessly. This is not necessarily a bad thing but just an observation. For years I have tuned my ears and my brain to read an audio book and thought that I had become quite proficient but reading this graphic novel challenged my audio reading ability. I had to really pay attention in order to visualize the scene and pictures in order to keep them separate from the actual text. There were times when I thought maybe I am trying too hard and should just let the story flow and not be concerned about it. Perhaps that is the way to read an audio format of a graphic novel?
The second challenge I had with reading this book was the detailed audio description. I love audio description and have written about it many times here on the VisionAware site but in this book, I found it to be a little overwhelming. The description of the illustrations was very detailed and lengthy. I shared my thoughts with a sighted friend who had a printed copy of this book. She listened to the NLS version and we reviewed it together. She understood my concerns and thought that in some ways the descriptions could have been shorten. But perhaps that is just personal preference. Some people like a lot of information when it comes to audio description and some like less.
On a positive note. I did appreciate the sound effects of the reader that were made within the audio description. That did bring the book to life more and made the story even more interesting. For example, when John was a child, he had to feed the chickens on the farm. The reader actually makes clucking sounds as John is doing this task. Some other sounds are phones ringing and an alarm clock buzzing. The reader also changed the inflections in his voice which I also enjoyed.
But despite these enhancements I have to conclude that a graphic novel is probably not my type of book to read. I found the story itself to be a good one however the illustrations to be a distraction. It was just too much for me to digest in an audio format and it took away from the overall story I was trying to read and enjoy. But perhaps you will read this book and have a totally different experience.