Vermont is the only state to have an official cartoonist laureate, so it might seem surprising that the pick for Vermont Reads 2019, March: Book One, is the first graphic novel in the program's 17-year history. The 2013 memoir, the opener of a trilogy co-authored by civil rights icon and longtime U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), depicts his early years in rural Alabama and his awakening as an activist. March: Book Three won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2016.
"We've been very interested in choosing a graphic novel," said Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council, which selects the statewide read each year through an open nomination process. The goal, he said, is to choose a work of literature — fiction, nonfiction or poetry — that's accessible to a wide audience. Past titles have included Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Since the program's inception, more than 200 communities across the state have participated, according to VHC.
Because the nominations are open to the public, the suggestions inevitably reflect the zeitgeist. With the topic of race looming large in media and public forums, it's no accident that March emerged as the frontrunner among this year's contenders.
"This year, there was a lot of interest in the civil rights era because of the conversations happening at both the state and national level," Ilstrup said. "March isn't some dry, dusty history book, but a really visceral, visual experience."
Lewis, the son of a sharecropper, first heard one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sunday sermons on the radio in 1955. Galvanized by his message of equality and justice, Lewis decided to become a preacher himself. The book chronicles his first foray into activism as a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, where he became involved in the lunch-counter boycotts and nonviolent protests that made national headlines and sparked similar acts of resistance throughout the South.
At 128 pages, March is a quick read, but some of the themes (and images, drawn by artist Nate Powell) are heavy: "The book doesn't sugarcoat the violence of the '50s and '60s in the South," said Ilstrup.
Like Art Spiegelman's Maus trilogy, which substitutes cartoon animals for humans in its portrayal of life in a Nazi concentration camp, March conveys complex events and emotions through simple pen-and-ink drawings. That storyboard feel gives the graphic novel an advantage over prose in bringing history to life, according to James Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction.
"A drawing registers immediately as something more intimate than type — it's personal, like handwriting, and communicates so much in terms of mood, tone and sensibility," he said. Sturm has penned several graphic novels himself, including the award-winning The Golem's Mighty Swing.
VHC will kick off the 2019 Vermont Reads programming with a concert by the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts on January 20, featuring songs from the civil rights era and a Duke Ellington suite. Ilstrup hopes to partner with Vermont Public Radio to find Vermonters who were involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the group Lewis would eventually lead. SNCC advocated peaceful protest as a means to effect social change. Given the current political climate, that legacy seems particularly instructive.
"That whole era is an amazing moment in history that we can all look back on and learn from," Ilstrup said.