By Geoffrey Canada, adapted by Jamar Nicholas
Publisher: Beacon Press
Format: Softcover, 6 x 9, Black & White, $14.00
Reviewed by: Diamond BookShelf
"I remember clearly the time in my life when I knew nothing of violence and how hard I worked later to become capable of it." Fist Stick Knife Gun depicts Geoffrey Canada's life growing up in the South Bronx, illustrating the presence and impact of violence from some of his earliest childhood memories into his adulthood, when he eventually became an activist for change and president of the Harlem Children's Zone.
Originally published in prose form in 1995, this graphic novel adaptation by Jamar Nicholas focuses on Canada's personal reminiscences; presented as a series of vignettes centered around harsh lessons in social survival, from learning not to trust both authority figures and peers to learning the rules of fighting with fists, knives, and ultimately guns. Each story begins with a single iconic image of an object: a knife, a basketball, a book, a handgun. All of these objects inform Geoffrey's youth and later choices in adulthood.
With each lesson Geoffrey becomes tougher, less helpless and more skilled in tools of violence used to gain control over his surroundings. However, he also discovers that these same survival techniques also perpetuate the culture of violence that makes them necessary. Both knife and gun give Canada a feeling of security and control, but he finds himself becoming reckless in this need for control and ironically puts himself in greater danger.
While the power of Canada's story is in its words, the illustrations bring them to life. Nicholas depicts the tension of violence without ever glorifying it, and is particularly skilled in depicting characters who can appear monstrous and recognizably human at the same time.
At a time when bullying has become a hot topic in politics and the media, Canada reveals a world where the qualities of a bully - distrust, aggressiveness and lack of empathy - are necessary for survival and are fostered in young Geoffrey by those who care about him. It is an uncomfortable reality, where fights can erupt at any time, escalate to a dangerous degree and never be mentioned afterwards. Acknowledging this reality and refusing to accept that this is the way things should be are central to Canada's work.
It's not entirely clear who the intended audience is for the graphic adaptation of Fist Stick Knife Gun. It provides an opportunity for children in similar situations to see themselves acknowledged with sympathy and encouragement. However, graphic language and, of course, violence may lead to this book being deemed inappropriate for young readers. It may be a better fit for adults, those with the ability to understand Canada's message and the resources to work towards a better future.