Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan by Rick Bowers

Rick Bowers weaves two seemingly disconnected histories, the creation and immense popularity of Superman with the long and disturbing history of the Ku Klux Klan, to produce a surprising story of how the entertainment industry promoted social justice. The two narratives are brought together when the the Adventures of Superman radio show uses its national popularity to combat the pervasive influence of the KKK in its 1946 “Clan of the Fiery Cross” episodes. 

Bowers provides a brief but insightful history of the KKK, its beginning after the Civil War, and cycle of influence in the U.S. Alternating chapters discuss the modest beginnings of Superman and his rise from comic book to radio show to T.V. and the silver screen. Though not a deep exploration of either subject I learned a lot about both. And so did the teens who read this book in my discussion group.

My book group teens were surprised by the long history and real power the KKK exercised. They also enjoyed the chapters about Superman and how a couple of teenagers were responsible for his creation. In book discussion, we listened to the first episode of the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” (below) and laughed at the Kellogg’s cereal commercials as well as the out-of-date insults used by the teens. They found it hard to believe that millions of kids tuned into this show just because it sounds so cheesy to us today.

Many reviews I’ve read recommend this book for late elementary and middle school readers. Both my teens and I strongly disagreed. This is a great book for high school students and I recommend it for a history class. Bowers shows the significance of using primary sources when doing research as he debunks myths about the broadcast’s use of KKK code words (which Wikipedia still says is true!). The text is dry. I wanted to learn about the subject but it was often simply boring. The original photographs opening each chapter offered little relief. When I asked my teens who would enjoy this book they said: Anyone really interested in Superman or general U.S. history. When asked what age it was for they said: high school students and adults. They were shocked anyone would recommend this to younger students or to reluctant readers. I would add that this is a good choice for a teen who doesn’t care for fiction.

Overall, this is a thumbs up. I learned a lot. My book group teens did, too. We had a great discussion about primary versus secondary sources. We also made a pro con list of who was the better superhero: Superman or Batman. It was an enthusiastic debate.

Publisher: National Geographic Society, 2012     Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 Stars     Source: Public Library
Full Title: Superman Versus The Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate

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