Monday, August 13, 2012


Nelson, O.T. The Girl Who Owned A City. Adapted by Dan Jolley, Illus. Joelle Jones & Jen Manley Lee. Minneapolis, MN: Graphic Universe, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-7613-5634-9. $9.95. Graphic Novel, Ages 11-15.

When a virus strikes and kills all the humans older than twelve, it’s the kids who survive. But without any grownups to tell them what to do, chaos ensues! This classic novel, adapted as a graphic novel, challenges its young characters to recreate an adult world without any guidance.

The novel raises some very interesting social, philosophical, and political issues. The kids make decisions in times of crisis, and the novel shows both the “good paths” and the “bad paths” that young adults choose. As society devolves, Lisa forms a co-op of neighborhood kids (“Glenbard”) who work together to keep one another fed, sheltered, and alive. Logan, on the other hand, forms a gang to bully others into giving them supplies and sustenance. Over time, as “her city” grows and evolves, Lisa feels the heavy burden of responsibility. She says to her younger brother, “Sometimes I feel like the whole place will fall down if I don’t keep track of everything”—a lesson many adults learn for the first time at work, but one that would be familiar to oldest siblings with absent parents, or other similar situations.

Lisa even goes so far as to question whether the struggle is worth it, or if they’d be better off as robots. Her brother says, “Y’know what? If we were robots, we wouldn’t need food…wish I were a robot.” Lisa considers his comment, and responds:
“What fun would it be if we were robots…if everything was automatic and we couldn’t change anything? Just think of a robot, Todd. It can’t feel or choose or gain or lose. It can’t think. It doesn’t even know it exists. Sure, we have a lot of problems right now, but problems are really challenges…and they can make life more exciting if you’re not afraid. I’m proud of how we’re surviving.”
That’s some pretty impressive thought put in the voice of an eleven-year-old character and her younger brother. Not only do characters like this give kids a lot of positive credit (they’re capable of more than we adults usually attribute), it exposes young readers to complex ideas: How do we know we exist? What does it mean to exist in a sensory world? Why do we exist? Does thinking make us exist? Does trial and struggle prove our existence?

The adaptation also has subtle political messages. Todd asks Lisa early in the story why they can’t simply share with their neighbors, and Lisa responds, “If we just gave away the good things we’d worked for…well, what good would it do?” In saying this, Lisa hints at capitalist ideas of working for a reward, for a wage. Later on, she says, “Our freedom is more important than sharing,” again espousing a capitalist model of leadership and governance. But in dealing with the idea of Glenbard being “her city,” Lisa turns slightly more leftist, pondering whether “maybe a city is owned by the people who live there.” Still wanting to hold on to the idea that the co-op she constructed and led belongs to her, however, she asks, “Will it be selfish for Craig to own his farm and his own crops? Why should this [her city] be any different?” Individual property ownership ultimately rules when the occupants of Glenbard cheer for her return and she acknowledges that the fortress is indeed hers: “It’s my city, after all.”

The story leaves readers with a lot to imagine and much to mull over. The graphic novel form revives an older story, making it relevant and accessible for a young audience.

Reviewed by Marisa Behan