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Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey
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Akiem Aliu doesn’t pull any punches in his new graphic autobiography ‘Dreamer’

The former NHL player lays bare some of the league’s embedded racist structures.

“If you’ve heard of me, you’ve heard of the hazing incident,” says Akim Aliu in his new graphic autobiography Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey. “That was the way I was introduced to the entire hockey world…”

We watch this hazing unfold in three rapid-fire pages at the beginning of chapter five, about two-thirds of the way through the book. By then, we’ve already watched Aliu endure a near-constant barrage of racist verbal abuse, as well as a brutal attack by his teammate Steve Downie that knocked out seven of Aliu’s teeth.

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Akiem Aliu doesn't pull any punches in his new graphic autobiography 'Dreamer'

Kaepernick Publishing/Scholastic

A few pages after we see the hazing, we watch Downie’s shocking attack play out yet again, in slightly different form, echoing the same vicious imagery we saw on page 10. Without question, it’s a horrific incident that deserves our unflinching attention. Unfortunately, by the time we circle back to this bloody, completely unwarranted assault, the book’s nonlinear structure and narration-heavy style have undermined the dramatic impact of this moment. By the time we see the event in its chronological context, we know it’s coming. The tension has been diffused and much of the drama is lost.

Visually, Karen De la Vega and Marcus Williams keep things fresh and exciting with plenty of bright colors and an unsparing use of motion lines. Their bold, crisp, manga-adjacent style is perfectly suited for book’s intended audience of 12-14 year old readers and will no doubt grab their attention. The paneling is brisk and the compositions are clear, though the imagery sometimes feels like it was drawn by an artist who remains too unfamiliar with hockey.

The book’s script, for the most part, is drawn from Aliu’s earlier pivotal essay, “Hockey Is Not for Everyone,” which was published in Player’s Tribune in May, 2020. The graphic novel treatment is the perfect way to bring Aliu’s painful story to middle school readers and make it more accessible to a much wider audience.

Regrettably, the graphic novel version doesn’t do much to elevate the narrative beyond its original format. Several key sections are taken verbatim from Aliu’s original piece, which results in a lot more telling than it does showing. Much of the time it feels like we’re hearing about what transpired rather than watching it happen. The story itself is compelling; the storytelling sometimes falls flat. Free of the constraints of an essay, it would be great to see some of the book’s key scenes play out in more detail. The heartbreak Aliu feels on draft day, for example, is painfully palpable. The page about his supportive friend Mickey, by contrast, almost feels like a footnote. That scene could have been so much more.

Akiem Aliu doesn't pull any punches in his new graphic autobiography 'Dreamer'

Kaepernick Publishing/Scholastic

Aliu’s core message is a harsh and unfortunate truth that a lot of white hockey coaches, players, and fans often don’t want to acknowledge, as it clearly implicates them. Reflecting on the bloody attack he suffers at the hands of Downie, Aliu says, “Out of everything I felt that day in Windsor — the rage, the crippling pain, the sadness — the worst part was the feeling I had right when the fight ended and I got a look at my teammates, my peers, standing in a circle, watching this go on . . . . I never felt more alone.”

As Aliu tells us early in the book, he embraced hockey in the first place to help dispel the emotional isolation and loneliness he felt as a “Black boy with a ‘fro who only spoke Russian” growing up in Toronto. “The speed, the agility, the cold air on your face. There’s really nothing like it,” he waxes. “And the thing in Canada is, skating is the language everyone can speak. You do a crossover, or skate backwards well? All of sudden you’re approachable. You’re one of them.”

The heart-rending truth is that too many white players and coaches did their best to make sure that Aliu never truly fit in. He remained an outsider looking in, forbidden from joining the club, even as his tormenters remain largely unpunished and free of consequence for their actions. Presumably, those racist coaches and players don’t represent the majority opinion, but those of us who stand silent and don’t help put a stop to this sickening bigotry in real time, as it happens, only help to ensure structural racism persists. That’s clearly a heavy message for pre-teen and teen readers. Aliu’s new graphic novel insists it’s also one they can handle.

Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey
Akiem Aliu doesn’t pull any punches in his new graphic autobiography ‘Dreamer’
Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey
'Dreamer' tends to read more like a personal essay than it does a graphic autobiography. Its powerful message is clear, but the story doesn't pull you in.
Reader Rating0 Votes
0
Bold illustrations keep things moving.
The manga-adjacent art style is sure to appeal to young readers.
The graphic novel treatment makes Akim Aliu's story more accessible to a much wider audience.
The narration-heavy style makes it feel like we're hearing about the story rather than watching it happen.
The book's nonlinear structure sometimes lessens its dramatic impact.
7.5
Good
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