FIST STICK KNIFE GUN. It is a brutal chant of a title, a provocative confession from an avowed defender of childhood, a clear-eyed reminiscence, and a concisely laid out description of what happens to a child when violence is an accepted aspect of his social system.
In prose, it's laudable. Everyone should read it. In graphic novel form, it's a bucket of ice water to the face. Everyone can read it.
I read it in about an hour. In an hour, I met Geoffrey Canada at the age of four, round-eyed when his mother insists his older brother confront a neighborhood thief to retrieve a stolen jacket. I saw him, at six, get robbed of sixty-one cents after he'd been trusted to walk to the store alone. (Alone! At six! Every cell of 'mom' in me sat up and waved her arms and shrieked when I read that.) I was worried when he found a knife in the gutter, and alarmed when he bought a gun.
He describes a lot of fights. Fights for practice, fights for status, beat-downs, "lessons," business, revenge. He is utterly convincing. He either remembers these fights in blow-by-blow detail, or he is a talented action writer. And that may not be important to an adult reader - I don't know - but I do know that if the footwork and strikes in these fights didn't work, certain young readers would cast the book aside.
Sketch of Geoff as a boy by Jamar Nicholas.
Jamar Nicholas deserves a lot of the credit for this credibility. He draws those fights just right - midway between a realistic tangle of limbs and comic book excess. Wild eyes and sprays of blood, yes. But fear, humiliation, surprise, and pain too. In addition, though Canada's memoir is set in the 1960's, Nicholas keeps period detail to a minimum. The zipped jackets, t-shirts and jeans, the short hair - the boys in this book look like the boys in my school.
Ordinarily, when I consider graphic novels for young people, I look for full-color art. It's a giant dividing line - some kids see black and white and they just put the thing back down. But this story is so gripping, so intense, that black and white is, I think, the only choice. The cover will sell this book to a young person - the big fists and screwed-up eyes of that boy, the yellow background, and that title. Confrontational, grim, hard, and escalating.
In an afterword, Geoffrey Canada offers an alternative, an alternative that he has put into action in Harlem. His ideas for halting the escalation, for reinstating childhood as a developmental stage in the ghetto (his word), involve massive applications of funding and attention. I heard a caller on a radio show once say, about education, "You can't just throw money at the problem," to which the featured guest (oh I wish I could remember who it was, but it is Geoffrey Canada's sentiment exactly) replied, "How do we know that? Nobody's ever tried."
It is perfectly consonant with Geoffrey Canada's lateral, expansive thinking to produce a graphic novel adaptation of his memoir. Accessible, appealing, and a quick read, it is the kind of thing you could distribute to a high school class, tell them to read it over the weekend, and then spend the next week discussing. Even an 8th or 7th grade class. And then send the book back home and tell the kids to hand it to their folks.
Geoffrey Canada is featured in the documentary Waiting for Superman.
Jamar Nicholas (knew I knew his face from somewhere - we've met at comic cons) writes The Grosse Adventures.
Visit the Harlem Children's Zone to see how attention, intention, resources and willpower can defeat entrenched poverty and alter the trajectory of children's lives.