Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer
As expected (and suggested by the title structure), Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer falls squarely in the category of inspirational biographies for young people. It’s written by Trina Robbins with pencils by Anne Timmons and inks by mo oh.
We read, in clear, straightforward text, about how Lily Renée grew up privileged in Vienna, Austria, until the Nazis invaded. I was impressed by how Trina Robbins explains a horrific situation — planned genocide — in a way that’s understandable and not too scary for kids. She chooses particular small incidents, such as fellow students being mean to Lily over her dress, to bring home what that kind of fear and hatred would feel like without giving younger readers nightmares. Artist Anne Timmons provides creative layouts that keep the story interesting while still being easy-to-read. Her figures, as always, are attractive, expressive, and friendly. I could relate to Lily, wanting to be her friend.
Most of the book follows Lily’s journey to England as part of the Kindertransport refugee program in 1939 and her experiences there. She eventually left her host family, due to (the book says) the family’s mother treating her like a servant, becoming a nanny and then a nurse. It’s lightly told, without significant exploration of how scared she must have been, focusing on the survival part. That’s also part of the expectations of this genre, keeping it positive, with more “and then this happened” structure than deeper emotional impact. That makes it seem objective instead of demonstrating one-sided perspective (although I did wonder, when it came to the one-dimensional villain of the host mother, whether she had her own fears and concerns about dealing with a formerly pampered adolescent girl for an indefinite period of time, shedding different light on her actions).
The second half of the book deals with Lily being classified as an “enemy alien” and being evacuated to America, where she’s reunited with her parents. I was interested in the book because of the latter part of the subtitle, the “Comic Book Pioneer” mention. Unfortunately, there’s not much space to get into that. Out of the 76 pages of illustrated story, her work in comics only gets four, and there’s no in-text justification for the “pioneer” word. That’s a context that I, and writer Robbins (The Great Women Cartoonists), bring to the work. I’m not surprised that, for a general audience, Lily Renee’s survival is considered of more widespread interest than her work on forgotten comic titles of the 40s. I still found it a good, inspirational read, especially for young teens.
In addition to the story comic, there are an additional 18 pages of supporting text material, with a glossary, short articles on such topics as concentration camps and English meals, and most exciting, two pages of Lily Renée’s pictures from the period. For more information about how the book came to be, see this interview with Robbins. (The publisher provided a review copy.)