I learned about this lovely graphic novel through the kidlitosphere listserv as Heidi Estrin & Barbara Krasner from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee were arranging a blog tour for Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins and Illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh.
When I learned that the book has just recently won the Sydney Taylor Honor Award, I knew I had to be part of the blog tour since the book is a perfect addition to our Award-Winning-Books Reading Challenge that we are currently hosting this year. It’s also a perfect add-in to Nonfiction Monday which is being hosted this week by Capstone Connect. We also have an interview scheduled with Anne Timmons and Mo Oh for Interview Wednesday this week as part of their blog tour, so do watch out for that one.
Vienna in the 1930s and England in the ’40s. The book is divided neatly into eight chapters. The first six chapters (essentially the bulk of the graphic novel) deals with Lily’s experience in Vienna in the 1930s as a young girl, where she was described to have “experienced the best of everything” – with her father being a big shot manager for the Holland America line which provided cargo shipments and luxurious cruises for the wealthy.
She experienced what life was like when it was still sweet: attending dancing and classes, having her artworks on exhibit at the museums, and the entire world her playground. Things changed drastically when the Nazis came to power and Austria formed a union with Germany called Anschluss - this legitimized the gradual torture of the Austrian Jews, confiscation of properties, relocation of displaced Jews who were driven out of their own homes – among others.
As lighthearted as the narrative attempted to be, there were still several instances when I just had to stop in quiet reverie, close the book for a few minutes, before returning to it again – just imagining that the burning of synagogues (with people inside) actually happened – such burning hatred, blind obedience, and atrocities committed by people against one another – leave me dumbfounded.
It was good that Lily’s parents were able to make arrangements for her through the Kindertransport in 1939 where Jewish children under the age of seventeen could travel out of the country, provided that they find a sponsor in England who would agree to take them in and be responsible for them.
While Lily’s condition significantly took a turn for the better in England – she was undergoing her own private war with her British sponsor who treated her like a servant. She was unfamiliar with the cadences/nuances of British language – it also took her awhile to adjust to the differences between high tea, afternoon tea and dinner which were radically different from the way she experienced mealtimes back in Austria – all these, alongside her burning homesickness and worry for her own parents made life very difficult for her as well. She eventually ran away and walked all the way to Leeds to become a helper/nanny. This is a far cry from her usual charmed life in Austria steeped in arts and culture and dancing and beauty.
When the war came to England in September 1940 as Germany started daily air attacks on major cities in England (called the Blitz) – Lily’s services became even more indispensable as she volunteered at the Leeds Maternity Hospital.
Given such grim realities, England was also blanketed in suspicion, despair, and inevitable paranoia – and a great number of Jewish refugees/survivors from neighboring countries were classified as ‘enemy aliens’ and were transported to internment camps – some as far away as Australia. Due to some unfortunate twist of events, Lily was likewise perceived as an enemy alien – it was good that she turned herself in to the authorities – who then, sent her via the Kindertransport (aboard one of her father’s old ships, Rotterdam IV) all the way to America.
Navigating the Big Apple. Lily was soon reunited with her parents in the United States who also managed to survive the war in Vienna – the details here were sparse. Except for Lily’s mother experiencing great pain caused by a soldier kicking her in the stomach – (which then necessitated a medical operation as they were in the United States) – there were no details included as to how they survived or whether they were kept at concentration camps while they were in Austria.
The graphic novel ended with Lily studying comics and drawing sample panels as her mother noted from the daily papers that a comic book publisher is looking for artists. Knowing their daughter’s talent in art, Lily’s parents continued to affirm and encourage her. Lily became very famous for her comic series Señorita Rio, a Brazilian nightclub entertainer who is actually a counter spy, fighting Nazis in South America. Through her comic strips, Lily triumphed over her tragic experiences and found a way to transform them into something that gave her creative mind and artistry free rein.
Endnotes and Musings.I have read quite a few books and graphic novels about the Holocaust and watched a number
of films depicting these events in our history. While I am sure that the real experience must be very different, it provides me with a glimmering snapshot of the darker side of human nature. I understand that the author/illustrators also needed to take into account which aspect of Lily’s life to highlight in this graphic novel. While it would provide a good introduction to younger audience about the Holocaust, it proved to be a tad underwhelming for me. Having read Maus I and II and Raymond Briggs’ Ethel and Ernest to my nine year old daughter a year ago – we both felt that this particular graphic novel is a condensed version of the Holocaust experience. While still extremely powerful in the lovely images and the thoughtful narrative, it also leaves a mature reader quite a number of questions. I would be interested to know more about Lily’s experience as a nurse aid in Leeds, what her parents’ lives were like when they were in Austria, and how Lily managed to become successful eventually in comics, given that it was a genre dominated by males at the time. I feel that there are so many more that can still be explored in future book projects with Lily Renée, given the richness of her life.
About the Author and Illustrators. These bio were taken from the graphic novel:
Trina Robbins is the Eisner and Harvey Award-nominated author of numerous nonfiction and fiction books and comics for children and adults, including several histories of women cartoonists. A pioneer in comics herself, she took part in the underground comix movement in the 1960s and illustrated the Wonder Woman comic book. Most recently, she authored the Chicagoland Detective Agency graphic novel series. She lives in San Francisco with her partner, comics artist Steve Leialoha.
Anne Timmons was born in Portland, Oregon, and received her BFA from Oregon State University. In addition to her collaboration with Trina Robbins on the Lulu Award-winning GoGirl!, her work includes the Eisner-nominated Dignifying Science and Pigling: A Cinderella Story for the Graphic Myths and Legends series. She has illustrated and painted covers for children’s books and provided interior and cover art for regional and national magazines, including Wired, Portland Review, and Comic Book Artist. Her art also appears int he anthology 9-11: Artists Respond and is now in the Library of Congress.
mo oh likes to draw. She also likes to read, bake, eat (mostly eat), make plants grow (mainly for eating), and sit in the sun. She graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies with an MFA in cartooning and works on and off as a sketch/concept artist for a small game company. She lives in Massachusetts.
Exploring Mauthausen – A Photo Journey for Nonfiction Monday Enthusiasts. I was in Austria, May of last year and our hosts were kind and generous enough with their time to bring us to Mauthausen Concentration Camp – an experience that I will never forget for as long as I live. Since Lily is originally from Vienna, I thought that it would be good to share some of the photos that my travel buddy (Professor Tuting Hernandez) and I took while we were at the Mauthausen Camp in Austria.
Here is a very short video clip that was on loop in one of the rooms in the Concentration Camp – I have done a recording of the video clip – here it is:
Award-Winning-Books Reading Update: 6 of 35
PictureBook Challenge: 18 of 120
Reading the World Challenge Update: 1 of 7 (nonfiction book)
Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins. Illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh. Published by Graphic Universe, an Imprint of Lerner Publishing Group, 2011. Book borrowed from the community library.