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  • Dan Johnson

Jonathan Hill and the Power of Encouragement

Updated: May 14

Recently, I was fortunate to attend the 2024 Oregon Library Association Convention, where I was asked to be a panelist talking about graphic novels, a subject dear to my heart. This past year, I’ve been on a committee that is a joint effort of REFORMA and the Graphic Novel and Comics Round Table (GNCRT) to create a core list of graphic novels about and by Latinx folk. It’s been a rewarding experience where I’ve met other librarians and educators who see the value in comics and the power of representation in this particular medium.


It was my first time presenting at such a conference, but Facebook recently reminded me that 9 years ago, I attended the Texas Library Association where I popped in on a session on Diversity in Comics and where I first met Tony Wren Goodwyn, then teen librarian at Houston Public Library. Tony spoke about characters like Storm of the X-Men and Miles Morales, but more importantly to me, Tony was an example of someone who was obviously in love with comics and who had found a place to thrive in his passion. So, its fitting that I’ve come around full circle to find myself presenting on a similar topic in a similar convention, nearly a decade later.


One of the things I was most excited about this conference was that the keynote speaker for Saturday was going to be Oregon comics creator Jonathan Hill, speaking to us librarians about a very important topic, the power of encouragement. This morning, I had the pleasure of listening to a wonderful speech where Jonathan reflected on the myriad little encouragements, gifts of kindness, throughout his life that each provided a step in the right direction, one after another, that have defined his life as an artist, an educator, and a human.


Jonathan spoke, often with tears in his eyes and a quaver in his throat, about parents, teachers, and mentors who have all contributed with simple kindness to his success. He pointed out that it’s only in retrospect that he realized the way little encouragements gave him the courage to follow his passion, push his abilities, practice his craft, and find his voice. He spoke of his mom, buying art supplies at every Christmas and birthday. He spoke of his dad, who arranged on career day for Jonathan to spend a day in the life of a comic strip artist at his local newspaper. He spoke of his social science teacher who saw the beauty and creativity in the doodles that embellished the margins of all his assignments. He spoke of the art teacher in Dubai who took his class all over Egypt and Europe to explore the masters. And he spoke of his art school professor who convinced him to become a cartoonist, who demanded nothing more than the best from his students, pushing them to grow. He spoke of editors in his life that provided constructive feedback buried in rejection letters.


Jonathan also spoke of a community of zine makers and rebel artists, where he explored his early comics and honed his skills. But more than anything, what I took with me from this talk was a humble attitude of gratitude for all the little lights that shone in the dark, the simple gestures that allowed Jonathan to explore and thrive. It was amazing to see how his road to success was paved with encouragements. And he exhorted us, as librarians, to keep this in mind in all that we do. A simple gesture of kindness can nurture talent and open up opportunities, sometimes ones we never imagined for ourselves.

What I took with me from this talk was a humble attitude of gratitude for all the little lights that shone in the dark, the simple gestures that allowed Jonathan to explore and thrive.

It was a lovely talk, and afterwards, I found Jonathan and thanked him for his speech and for his beautiful book, Tales of a Seventh-Grade Lizard Boy. Jonathan is a second generation immigrant, son of a white father and Vietnamese mother. His book is a middle-grade graphic novel that uses the metaphor of lizard-people blending into human life to speak about the delicate yet powerful skill that immigrant children have learned when they navigate two worlds, to assimilate while not losing that connection they have to their parents and their ancestral culture.


In many ways, his book was a love letter to his mother and uncle, who escaped war-torn Vietnam and whose experience in adjusting to the US was just as otherworldly as lizard-people fleeing the center of the earth to survive on the surface world. His uncle Phuc was loosely the inspiration for the character Dung, the book’s protagonist’s best friend. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Jonathan writes of his uncle, “That's the importance of identity. I always believe you lose your identity, you lose who you are, and then your culture after that. I think the name to me is everything because it’s followed by retaining your culture and your language and things like that.”


Jonathan and I spoke about immigration, assimilation, and the burden of living up to immigrant parents’ hopes for a better life for their children in this new home. There is gratitude commingled with guilt when immigrant children realize the extend of the sacrifices immigrant parents make in leaving all they know behind in the hope of a better path for their children. It’s a gift, no doubt, but one that is fraught with all sorts of emotions. We talked about how simply retaining a given name, one that sounds foreign and strange here, can be an act of resistance, of resilience. And we spoke of the way libraries nurture dreams and open possibilities. It was a powerful speech and equally powerful conversation, and one that compelled me to spend some time reflecting on the little encouragements in MY life. If Jonathan can recognize the kindnesses bestowed upon him, why shouldn’t I?

There is gratitude commingled with guilt when immigrant children realize the extend of the sacrifices immigrant parents make in leaving all they know behind in the hope of a better path for their children. It’s a gift, no doubt, but one that is fraught with all sorts of emotions.

So, I begin my journey into an a reflection of the encouragements in my life by first thanking my parents. We left Central America in the early 1980s, when civil wars were tearing apart El Salvador and Guatemala.  My father had been born in California, and thus had American citizenship, but had never spent more than a couple months in the US.  He didn’t speak the language and had spent most of his formative years the only son of a Salvadoran divorcee in a large extended family.  My abuelita Tita, his mother, had a huge family of many siblings, and my dad grew up an Olmedo, with countless cousins.


Photo of Dan Johnson as child with parents and brother
Johnson Family Portrait

When the job in Guatemala dried up, he faced the very dire question of whether to return to El Salvador, and hazard the prospects of a homeland torn apart by a deadly proxy war to the US/Soviet Cold War, or to head off to uncharted waters, withdrawing his life’s savings from the bank and hoping for a better future in Texas, where his cousin Raúl had managed to make a life for himself.


I must admit, I’ve never asked my dad how he made that decision, how many options he saw as real possibilities, and how many subsequent decisions were simply making the most of diminishing options. Whatever the calculus, we boarded our little Volkswagen Rabbit and crossed into the US, first stopping in Vider, then Beaumont, and finally making our home in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. So, I think the very first pit stop on my life’s journey of encouragements must start with this decision and the recognition that my mom and dad were incredibly brave to leave the known for the unknown. My father had several uncles who played pivotal roles in his upbringing, but he grew up without a father in his life, and he vowed that we would never face that same shortfall. And for all our disagreements and misunderstandings, the first encouragement I can count on is that that my dad loved me, loves me still, and has always been proud of me. I can’t say our relationship has always been uncomplicated, but I can say that it’s a bond built on love.


The next person who has been a constant source of encouragement is my mom. When we first came to the US, neither my mom nor I spoke English. I think my school in Guatemala had taught me to say the Our Father in English, and a few other phrases, but when I first started school in the US, I didn’t speak the language. In the months between kindergarten and first grade, my mother and I spent much of the hot Houston summer in the library, where my mom would read Dr. Seuss picture books to me. She didn’t know what they said, but she was reading phonetically, hoping that the the repetition and exposure would help me pick up snippets of English. “I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them, Sam I am.”

When we first came to the US, neither my mom nor I spoke English. I think my school in Guatemala had taught me to say the Our Father in English, and a few other phrases, but when I first started school in the US, I didn’t speak the language.

My mom once told me that the way way she knew I was starting to understand these weird books in a foreign language is that I started laughing at them. The fact that I found them funny and silly meant I was understanding them well enough to find the humor in the words. My laughter was proof that I was learning this strange new language. Through sheer repetition, and perhaps the gift that I already knew how to read in Spanish, the summer spent in the library paid off.  By first grade, my English was better enough that one of my homeroom teachers didn’t believe I was an ESL student. Within another two years, I was identified as Gifted and Talented by the Cy-Fair School District, and my trajectory in education was off to a wonderful start.

The fact that I found them funny and silly meant I was understanding them well enough to find the humor in the words. My laughter was proof that I was learning this strange new language.

My mom and dad’s encouragement didn’t end there. Both of them realized I was an avid reader, and while we didn’t have a lot of money, we always had a few dollars to spare for the school’s Scholastic Book Fair.  We also became habitual visitors to the Bear Creek Library, where we’d max out my library card limit on our weekly visits over the summer. One of the perks of being a child of immigrants is that my parents didn’t pleasure read in English, so they weren’t familiar with the authors I was checking out.  For many years, I was an avid fan of Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony, and Stephen King.


Cover image from Neil Gaiman's the view  from the cheap seats
Neil Gaiman's The view From the Cheap Seats

My parents were of the opinion that all reading helped to build my vocabulary, all reading exercised my mind, and all reading would prepare me to do better in school. What they perhaps didn’t realize, especially once I started reading Stephen King, is that some of these were books meant for an adult readership. Through King’s writing, I learned about the dangers of marital infidelity, that the cracks in relationships were much more dangerous than a rabid dog. Neil Gaiman writes, “There are things that I read as a boy that troubled me, but nothing that ever made me want to stop reading. I understood that we discovered what our limits were by going beyond them, and then nervously retreating to our places of comfort once more, and growing, and changing, and becoming someone else. Becoming, eventually, adult.”


My parents, perhaps through their ignorance of the contents of the books I was reading, encouraged me to keep on reading, to keep on challenging myself, to push my comfort zones, and to slowly retreat to safer shores when needed. While my dad sometimes had questions about the music I listened to, he never had questions about the books I brought home from the library. And because of this encouragement from an early age, I have always found refuge in words.


There are many other encouragements, some big and some small.  But I think one of the ones I hold most fondly was the encouragement I received from my Abuelita Ana. My mom’s mom was a widow of very meager means.  But most summers in my childhood, we would visit El Salvador and spend a large part of that time in Abue’s orbit.  She knew I loved comics (by then the spinner racks of Spider-man and Batman were one of my favorite haunts) and while she didn’t know much about American superheroes, she made sure that I alway had a few colones in my pocket when we’d stop at the newsstand around the corner from her house. 


Image of Yolanda Vargas Dulché Memín Penguín
Yolanda Vargas Dulché Memín Penguín

Thanks to her loving encouragement, I learned about Condorito, Mafalda, and Memín Pinguín, comics so very different from the spandex superheroes in Marvel and DC. But this expanded my worldview on what types of stories could be found in pages of a comic book. This lesson stuck with me, even on my return flights back to Texas. And that encouragement, Abue’s recognition that I had a passion for visual storytelling, meant that I was showered in love as I was exposed to a different world.


One other memorable instance of encouragement happened in my high school years, when I had Mrs. Mary Stoner as my English teacher. Our class was starting a segment on sci-fi and fantasy, and instead of all reading the same book, as we had done for most of the rest of the year to that point, we were instead given a list of recommended books, about 15 or so titles, that we could pick from. We could respond to our chosen book in any way we wanted to, so long as we had read the book and could demonstrate mastery of its contents. One of the books on the list was Fellowship of the Ring. Another was The Two Towers. A third was The Return of the King. The assignment was for a single book. And I had thought to read Fellowship for my assigned reading. But once I had read the first book, I wanted to see the story through.  What would happen to Frodo and Sam, to Merry and Pippin? So I read The Two Towers. And then I read Return of the King.

Image of cover for Fellowship of the Ring>
Fellowship of the Ring

While I didn’t especially care for the way Tolkien was telling his story, I was invested in finding out where it went, what happened to the characters I had fallen in love with, and would good triumph over evil? But of course, that meant I had read three books. Which one would I respond to, and how would I prove I had read the assignment? Ultimately, I decided to respond to all three in an oddly non-verbal way.  I decided to draw the photo-album Frodo kept as memento of his travels in Middle-earth.  I had black pages cut out from black poster-board, which I assembled into a makeshift photo album from the days of black and white photography. I convinced my parents to let me buy photo corners, and then I drew a series of photo-sized still images, slowly showing Frodo’s adventures leaving the Shire, meeting the fellowship, and then encountering Gollum, an unwilling guide into the heart of pure darkness, Mordor itself. 


While I am more proud of the concept than the final execution, more sure of the process than the product, it was the first time a teacher encouraged me to blend words and pictures in my response to a text. I didn’t realize I was trying to tell Tolkien’s tale in a wordless comic, what Scott McCloud would undoubtedly have called sequential narrative, but that’s what I was doing. Or more exactly, what I was attempting. Stumbling baby steps, but this was fun and challenging and something outside the box of just writing a response paper. I don’t know if Mrs. Stoner remembers me, but I definitely remember her kind response to my weird photo album.


Another time a teacher provided encouragement was in my sophomore year at the University of Texas, when I took a class on cyberpunk fiction with grad instructor Mafalda Stasi. Once again, we were presented with a writing prompt from a wide selection of texts, various examples of cyberpunk writing. One book in particular sounded especially interesting, Frank Miller’s Ronin, which jumped out to me because it was a graphic novel, a comic book. I had spoken with Mafalda about my decision to tackle Ronin, and she made a small suggestion that had huge ramifications for me. She pointed out that since it was a graphic novel, if I was going to respond to it, I needed to address it on its own terms, tackling both the text and the visuals.


Perhaps if I had never written a paper on a comic, I might want to read a few chapters of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and perhaps use that reading to frame how I would talk about image and text, not just plot, when writing my paper on Miller’s time-traveling cyberpunk comic. In retrospect, I don’t remember Ronin all that well several decades later. And I can’t say that my paper was all that groundbreaking. But I can very vividly remember the profound influence Understanding Comics had on me.  Here was a daring manifesto stating that comics were a medium, not a genre, and that it had rules and grammar unique to itself. This was a comic book proving that comics could be used to investigate the medium of comics; it explained how visual juxtaposition, color, line weight, and gutters all worked to make the storytelling in a comic move in the mind of a reader while only using static images and the power of closure.

I can very vividly remember the profound influence Understanding Comics had on me.  Here was a daring manifesto stating that comics were a medium, not a genre, and that it had rules and grammar unique to itself.

But even more importantly, this was a manifesto that said if we were ever to take the medium seriously, we needed to cultivate a new generation of readers who knew the rules of the medium and the limitless possibilities of visual narrative. This was earth-shattering to me in that it made me realize I could write papers on comics in my college classes, as long as I was growing in my sophistication in how I read and analyzed visual texts. Mafalda’s small suggestion was a watershed moment that led to me inserting comics texts in nearly every class that would let me get away with it.  I wrote about Gaiman’s Cain and Abel in my class on the Bible in American Literature. I wrote about Robert Crumb and his Zap Comix in my class on American Literature of the 1960s. And I sought out faculty on the UT English department that would let me explore comics more deeply.

 

Which brings me to the next mentor who provided more than a morsel of encouragement. Somehow, I had heard that Dr. Elizabeth Richmond-Garza had read and enjoyed the graphic novel, The Crow, by James O’Barr. I wondered if she might be someone who could help me read comics in this new way. After a couple emails and face-to-face meetings, we arranged for an ad-hoc reading group that would form the basis of my English Honors Thesis. Dr. Richmond-Garza, one other undergrad student I knew who also loved comics, Michaela Drapes, and I would gather every other week.


The three of us read painted comics, such as Neil Gaiman’s Black Orchid and David Mack’s Kabuki, while tackling reading foundational literary criticism such as Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media and Mikhail Bakhtin’s Dialogic Imagination. We interrogated the comics’ use of memory and non-linear time, looking at the ways David Mack used recurring visual motifs in his books to imply a circular understating of time, cyclical and seasonal, much like the medieval calendar, where the liturgical year and the growing seasons implied spirals instead of lines.


Our semester together opened the way for me to take a second semester to more fully explore one issue of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the issue in which Hob Gadling cheats death and meets Morpheus century after century in “Men of Good Fortune.”


In my paper, I spoke about how Gaiman chose to divest himself the role of narrator, and instead lets the characters speak for themselves, sometimes in text un-paired with a speaker, sometimes using off-page speakers, and sometimes using text clearly paired to a character on the page.  All of which works to create a polyphony of voices, of varying weights and levels of credibility, where no single voice is elevated above any other. This has the effect of making each speaker a potential narrator, though perhaps an unreliable one.


Dr. Richmond-Garza gave me the tools to become a stronger reader, encouraged me to follow my passion, and was my harshest critic as I wrote; not that she was cruel or mean, but that she helped craft my arguments so that they would withstand counterpoint and academic rigor. I have to admit, I was more than a little intimidated by her, and I still am, but her mentorship was fundamental in preparing me to write my Senior Honors Thesis.


Which brings me back to one other person whose encouragement shifted my career trajectory, Tony Wren Goodwin. As I mentioned at the start of this, Tony was a panelist at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference speaking about Diversity in Comics.  After an incredibly rich presentation, I hung around and chatted with Tony. He told me a little about what he did as a teen librarian, encouraged me to continue with my MSLS, but he provided one bit of advice that in retrospect was fundamental to my next decade. Tony said that if I wanted to work in a library and work with comics, I should try to carve a path in youth services. It didn’t matter that the comics I was reading were more likely situated in the adult section, if I wanted to work with words and texts, youth services would open doors that I needed to have open. And he was right. I’ve loved being a youth librarian.


Cover of Mo Willems I Love Really Like Slop!
Mo Willems I Love Really Like Slop!

I’ve had several opportunities to create programming using comics. I’ve been able to influence the collection development of more than one library’s graphic novel shelves. And most recently, I’ve gotten to work at the national level with other librarians like me to create a common core reading list about Latinx comics. And the most unexpected thing about becoming a youth librarian with his heart in sequential art is that I discovered a whole world of picture books that, much like pure comics, meld word and image in a lovely dance. Picture books, when done right, are more than just illustration and text, they are more than the sum of their parts. I’ve fallen in love with writers like Mo Willems, Ryan T. Higgins, Dan Santat, Minh Lê, Yuyi Morales, Matt de la Peña, and Raúl the Third. And these are the new friends I’ve made these last few years, creators who know just the right way to marry image and word.

The most unexpected thing about becoming a youth librarian with his heart in sequential art is that I discovered a whole world of picture books that, much like pure comics, meld word and image in a lovely dance.

These are the stars I highlight week after week in my Hora de Cuentos, who bring such joy and magic to children of all ages and all corners of the world. And so I find myself once again in the library, with a children’s book in hand, unraveling the mysteries of this strange but beautiful language. And so, I think that perhaps if I’m thoughtful and intentional about it, my work at the library can bring a new generation of readers to fall in love with words, much like my mom once did for me. Jonathan exhorted us to view our role as librarians with empathy, using kindness to open our patrons to a world of opportunity.




 









 

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