The Best We Could Do

by Thi Bui
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Content: There is talk of violence. It’s in the Graphic Novels-Nonfiction section of the bookstore.

I fit this in among my reading for school, partially because we were reading books by Asian authors, and one that Bui illustrated (and won a Caldecott honor for), A Different Pond, was on the list. I figured it was a good opportunity to read her graphic memoir, which I’d been meaning to read for years. (This is a theme with this class: I’m catching up on ones I have meant to read!)

It’s mostly the story of her parents, their lives in Vietnam before and during the war. Bui is exploring their trauma and how it relates to her, especially after she gave birth to her son. Her family fled Vietnam and came to the United States when she was young, and her parents weren’t terribly demonstrative in their affection. Bui, as she got older, wanted to understand their stories, and where they came from, in order to understand them, and by extension, herself.

Her parents’ stories were fascinating, and I learned a lot about Vietnam, a country I sadly know very little about. Her art style was simple – mostly line drawing on a muted color background – but effectively portrayed emotion and the story she was trying to tell.

A very good graphic novel.

Most Dangerous

mostdangerousby Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: “They came to California to ruin a man.”
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Content: There’s some swearing (no f-bombs), and it’s a bit complex. It’s in the teen non-fiction section at the bookstore, but I think a 5th- or 6th-grader would be interested.

I’m late fan of Sheinkin’s but I’m becoming a truly devoted one. There are few people who tackle more interesting subjects in a way that’s accessible to kids without being simplistic and yet make the book (and the subject) utterly fascinating.

This time, the subject is Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon employee in the 1960s who turned against the Vietnam War and ended up stealing and releasing a series of Top Secret papers in order to expose conspiracies in the government surrounding the war. It’s a fascinating story, one that (given my age; I was only 2 years old when Vietnam ended) I hadn’t heard of before. And Sheinkin raises interesting questions: sure, governments need secrets in order to operate, but how much is too much?

Much like Port Chicago 50, the government didn’t come off well in this book. Sheinkin was fair — Ellsberg was never lauded as a hero or portrayed as anything but human  and Sheinkin pointed out times in which presidents made good decisions — but, in my view, the actions of the government were despicable. Perhaps it’s my political views toward war in general, but there really was never anything solid given for why Vietnam happened. It seemed like it was all just a big Bro statement: look at us, we’re America, and we’re bigger than you.

And yes, I drew a lot of parallels to our current situation as well. There’s the obvious one that Sheinkin brought up in the epilogue with Edward Snowden, but for me, there was a general underlying mistrust of current motives for the government to head into any military action. Why, actually, are we doing this?

A very timely book, and (like everything Sheinkin touches) an excellent one.