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‘Strange Fruit’ uses the art of cartoon to share history

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
On July 28, 2014
Strange Fruit book cover

The graphic novel Strange Fruit tells the 
obscure stories of African American history.

The history books you had in school almost put you to sleep. They were filled with dates, stats, dead people and towns that aren’t even around anymore. Who really cares about that stuff, anyway?

Author Joel Christian Gill’s new book “Strange Fruit” provides a more appealing way for readers to learn about that which has made their lives easier. His book teaches readers about people that history books have mostly forgotten. 

Shortly after grad school, Gill did a series of paintings that he says freed him from the racism that his father and grandfather endured. But he felt something was missing: he was coming up short in terms of storytelling.

That’s when he started doing comics, telling stories of “obscure Black history.”

One example is the story of Richard Potter, who was born around 1783. After his father ensured his education, Potter spent many years traveling and he became fascinated with magic tricks. He tried, practiced, learned, and tried again until he mastered several tricks and invented some of his own – which eventually made him very wealthy. On his deathbed in 1835, he finally admitted something important: Potter, America ’s first stage magician, was a Black man.

Readers will also learn the story of Theophilus Thompson. After his emancipation, he worked as a janitor. One night, he noticed that his employer had a game set up on a table, and Thompson studied it. He figured out how the strange game worked, and it didn’t take long before he was playing competition chess – and winning. He even wrote a book about it, but one day he vanished. Rumors swirled around his disappearance, but Thompson was never seen again.

In this book, you’ll learn about the Black Cyclone who started his biking career due to a great kindness from family and later, lay in an unmarked grave for more than 70 years.

You’ll read two letters from a man determined to save his daughter from slavery.

You’ll learn about the baddest U.S. Marshall that ever lived that even jailed his own son. And you’ll read the sad, sad story of the Malagites who lost their home off the coast of Massachusetts a mere century ago.

Are you always on your child to read something, anything, except a comic book? It’s time to make an exception: “Strange Fruit” is a graphic novel, and you’ll want them to read it.

Through the art of the cartoon, author Joel Christian Gill tells nine stories of African Americans who did astounding things for the time in which they lived, thereby making differences that resonate today.

These fascinating tales are somewhat marred by weird mini-vocabulary lessons, but those stop early on in the book as the tales progressively get more meaningful.

Ultimately, I liked this book because I think it speaks to kids who want their learning more on the arty side. There’s really no reason that an adult can’t enjoy this book, but it’s geared towards 12 to 17 year olds.

For teens that don’t know enough about history, “Strange Fruit” will wake them up.

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