Monday, July 22, 2013

Nonfiction Monday: Primates: The fearless science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

A lot of talk about this new nonfiction graphic novel is going around, so I borrowed it from another library. Being the independent (i.e. cranky and opinionated) reviewer that I am, I can see that it's intriguing but I also see some issues with the story.

This is a combined narrative of three women who studied primates. It begins with Jane Goodall, who loved animals and, after meeting Louis Leakey, suddenly found herself studying chimpanzees. The story then segues into the similar life of Dian Fossey and her study of gorillas. Finally, it introduces Birute Galdikas and her life with the orangutans. The story concludes with some thoughtful reflections on where each woman is now and how her research changed her life; Galdikas eventually separated from her husband and married a local man who understood that she would not be leaving the jungle. Dian Fossey lived a difficult and controversial life and it ended tragically. Jane Goodall managed to combine both worlds and transition from her research to become a public figure, speaking out to save chimpanzees.

An afterword talks about the difference between fact and fiction, and how the authors blended both to write a narrative about the three women. A bibliography of resources on all three women and related articles and books is included.

The illustrations reminded me of Lucy Knisley's neat, tidy lines and soft colors. The story is laid out in neatly organized small panels and there's an oddly clean look to everything, even when the women are sifting dung or covered in mud.

This is certainly a great introduction to the complicated lives of three important women. It hints delicately at the controversies and issues surrounding them, from Leakey's penchant for young, single women and his weird ideas about research, to the lack of scientific credentials and their sometimes rocky personal and public relationships. It talks honestly about the differences between the initially romantic view of Goodall and Fossey and the harsh realities of research alone in the jungle and trying to move between two worlds.

I found the blending of the three stories somewhat confusing. Although the three women are drawn differently, it was hard to tell sometimes when they had moved from one to another, especially when they were younger. Mainly, however, I wonder who the audience for this book really is. The art has a friendly, uncomplicated feel with a light comic touch and just looking at the pictures I'd expect it to be for a much younger audience. However, the story itself touches on more adult themes (the women's relationship with Leakey and others, Fossey's death, etc.). Then again, these situations are all very glossed over, sometimes so much that you can't even tell what they're hinting at, which was annoying.

Verdict: Although I'm not sure of the audience for this (and nonfiction graphic novels don't do well at my library) and I did find some of it confusing, it really is a good introduction to three influential women and the art is very attractive. I'd probably put it in teen and see what happens.

ISBN: 9781596438651; Published 2013 by First Second; Borrowed from another library in my consortium; Added to the library's order list for further consideration


Resh said...

Interesting review! We have read a lot about Jane Goodall and her work, so it would be nice to introduce readers to others who have done similar important work. Maybe the book merits reading just for that reason? Its also interesting to see the personalities reflected in real life situations. Not sure what the impact would be though.. thanks for sharing the review on NF Monday.

Roberta said...

Oh my, having learned a bit about the lives of these women from other sources, I can see why this book might be hard to shelve.

Interesting choice by the authors to combine fact and fiction, as well. I am a bit disconcerted by the thinking that biographies need to be made more interesting by adding fictional elements.