________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 7 . . . . November 21, 2008

cover No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure.

Susan Hughes. Illustrated by Willow Dawson.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2008.
80 pp., pbk. & hc., $8.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55453-178-3 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-1-55453-177-6 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Male impersonators-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Transgender people-Biography-juvenile literature.
Women adventurers-Biography-Comic books, strips, etc.-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Julie Chychota.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.

excerpt:

About 15 years after Hatshepsu became pharaoh, her nephew grew old enough to take power. No one knows whether or not Hatshepsu gave up her throne voluntarily.

Around this time, Hatshepsu disappeared. She may have retired or perhaps died. Some even say she was murdered.

Hatshepsu's name was erased from many monuments and replaced with Thutmose III's name.

For centuries, no one knew the unacceptable truth that a woman had once been pharaoh — or where Hatshepsu's remains lay. In 2007, her mummy was finally identified in an unmarked tomb.

 

No Girls Allowed is simultaneously edgy and rounded, an instant hit of innovative storytelling. Here, Willow Dawson's sharp black and white illustrations are paired up with the pared-down, smart "biographical tales" penned by Susan Hughes. Together, author and illustrator take possession of and own that no-man's-land between fact and fiction, image and text, to recount, in comic book or manga format, the life events of seven legendary women who masqueraded as men.

internal art

     The book's sweeping scope begins with the portrayal of Hatshepsut, later known as the pharaoh Hatshepsu, in Egypt, 1500 BCE, and concludes in the nineteenth century with the account of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who fought in the American Civil War as Private Lyons Wakeman. In the intervening pages, readers are transported to China, Scandinavia, France, and Great Britain, where they meet Mu Lan, Alfhild, Esther Brandeau, James Barry, and Ellen Craft. No one knows for certain whether Mu Lan and Alfhild were actual human beings or merely credible literary heroines (perhaps based on real women), but the rest are verifiable historical persons. In any event, the common truth of their stories remains: despite their differences, each one at some point in her life disguised herself as a man to escape the constraints and constrictions placed upon her by virtue of her sex. Individually and collectively, they circumvented the rule of "no girls allowed."

     It is easy to get caught up in this fine mesh of words and images. The book's smyth sewn casebound hardcover is reassuringly solid (it also comes in paperback), and its pages are smooth and weighty. The top one-third of the front cover uses bold, not-quite-primary colors: the title appears in gold against a dark cyan elliptical wedge, with the subtitle in black on a tomato-red banner. The remaining two-thirds depicts Mu Lan, military helmet in hand, flower tucked in her hair, a study in confidence and composure that contests the title.

     Inside, while one might expect Dawson's black and white drawings to eclipse Hughes's prose, this is not the case. Not to diminish the strong pull exerted by the illustrations, but one's eye gravitates readily toward the narrative boxes, speech balloons, and thought bubbles, as if seeking linguistic anchors amidst the splash pages, splash panels, and other framing techniques teeming with pictorial details. The compellingly written text, which relies mostly on simple and compound sentence structures, is snappy and to the point. It condenses the tales and distributes them relatively evenly over 70 pages, although some chapters rely more heavily on narrative (Barry, Wakeman), whereas others privilege dialogue (Brandeau, Craft). Still, at least one panel per chapter appears sans caption, as if words are not adequate or immediate enough at times, and recurring visual motifs, such as the crows in the Wakeman chapter, contribute to the mix. In this tug-of-war between image and text, then, readers are the real winners, for they get to enjoy the richness of the two side-by-side.

     The tone of the book likewise strikes a balance. Its dialogue retains a flavor of the formal speech ascribed to times past, but combines it with informal constructions, such as contractions and sentence fragments, for an accessible, contemporary feel. Additionally, No Girls Allowed captures both the humor and pathos in its subjects' situations. Serious scenes involve the women suppressing their outward signs of femininity and include James Barry's unwinding the binding from around her chest (p. 50) and Sarah Rosetta Wakeman's cutting off her hair (p. 70). Counterbalancing that are humorous moments, one of which occurs when Alfhild discovers other women Vikings posing as men (p. 34), and another that transpires when, with wry foreshadowing, "COUGH! COUGH!" issues from the mouth of Thutmose II (Hatshepsut's half-brother/husband) in the frame immediately preceding the one that informs readers of his illness and death (p. 9-10).

     Further items that resonate with the same attention to detail involve chapter titles, the dedicatory page, and the back cover. First, every chapter bears a title panel that includes its subject's name in large lettering as well as an illustration of an object or objects synechdochally associated with her. The shepherd crook and the flail of an Egyptian pharaoh appear beside Hatshepsut's name, for example, while surgeons' tools accompany James Barry's. Second, the dedicatory page features 14 images which have been reduced in size from elsewhere in the book, framed and lined up in two rows: the bottom row represents the women as their feminine selves, the top row as their masculine alter egos. This cluster of drawings acts as a visual cast of characters; across the page, the table of contents sets close-ups from that bottom row next to subjects' names. Third, in place of conventional photographs of the author and illustrator on the book's back cover, No Girls Allowed uses Dawson's sketches of the two. Touches like these keep the tone fresh. Two additional short sections, an "Afterword" and a list of "Further Reading," conclude the volume. The former could just as easily have served as an introduction, but evidently the intent was to propel the reader straightaway into the narrative action. As it stands, the subjects "speak" for themselves at the outset — a very satisfactory arrangement.

     The final section is bracingly selective: it lists a total of only seven print resources, one per woman, the earliest dated 1991 and the most recent 2006. The list comprises children's novels and a picture book translation of the poem of Mu Lan as well as nonfiction. For example, Sharon McKay's Esther and Florida Ann Town's With a Silent Companion, both novels, are cited for Esther Brandeau and James Barry, respectively. In this way, No Girls Allowed gently but persistently reasserts its own position that biography is not the exclusive domain of nonfiction. The brevity of the list acknowledges contemporary influences, and at the same time presumes that readers are savvy enough to locate additional resources for themselves.

     One can imagine No Girls Allowed would be difficult to categorize because it falls in-between neat distinctions, not only with respect to format, but also with respect to content. However, the library subject headings in the CIP data on the title page's verso seem to unnecessarily sensationalize the book's contents: the labels "Male impersonators," "Transgender people," and "Transvestites" unduly focus on the women as sexual objects, when, in fact, the book never explicitly discusses or depicts their sexual orientation. The true thrill of No Girls Allowed should, instead, derive from its status as a work of graphic nonfiction about brave, bold individuals who risked their lives for adventure, careers, freedom from oppression, or to protect and provide for their families.

     Specifically targeted to adolescents, this book will just as surely be pleasing to the eyes of adults willing to look beyond the youngish cover design. It will be a must on recreational reading lists, and, given that intellectuals have for some time been predicting a paradigm shift driven by millennial learners, No Girls Allowed might offer a glimpse of classroom texts to come. It offers a model of how to promote the relevancy of the historical accounts even as it simultaneously presents them through the lens of postmodern indeterminacy.

     Maybe it was too much to hope for that someone like the Nova Scotia-born Emma Edmonds (an article appeared in The Beaver Aug/Sep 2002), whose story resembles that of Wakeman's, would be admitted. Canadians will just have to make the most of their modest claims to Brandeau and Barry, since both resided for a time in colonies that later evolved into our country. (A chapter was given to Barry in Stoddart Kids' The Rebels, 2000.) Still, as the author concedes, "There are many more equally fascinating stories of women in disguise that just couldn't fit into the pages of this book..." (p. 79). Let's hope that means there is a No Girls Allowed 2 already in the works.

     Transcripts of interviews with Susan Hughes and Willow Dawson appear online.

Highly Recommended.

Julie Chychota is a third-generation weekend reader of newspaper comics who considers Winnipeg, MB, and Ottawa, ON, to be her home cities.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

NEXT REVIEW |TABLE OF CONTENTS FOR THIS ISSUE - November 21, 2008.

AUTHORS | TITLES | MEDIA REVIEWS | PROFILES | BACK ISSUES | SEARCH | CMARCHIVE | HOME