I think I’m writing for people roughly in my position: respectful, interested, only slightly informed. People who might have unexpected or unhelpful resonances with a book about different lives and different traditions on the other side of the world. (Do those old-fashioned clothes from Southeast Asia look like epic fantasy garb to anyone but me?)
I say that up front. If this is your culture, your tradition…well, I hope not to be wrong, or infuriating. But I doubt I will be helpful or insightful; you know this better than I do. Reviewers don’t say that often enough, I think: what you see always depends on where you stand, so I want to be clear about where I’m standing and the things I can see from there.
Enlightened is a graphic novel, published for middle grade readers, about the life of the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha. It’s by Sachi Ediriweera, a Sri Lankan cartoonist, designer, and filmmaker. It is subtitled “A Fictionalized Tale,” and it’s about Siddhartha’s search, but it’s not a work of religious proselytization.
Maybe I should say that again: if there is a Buddhist equivalent of Chick Tracts, this isn’t it. This is a lightly fictionalized biography of a person of world-historical importance, the kind of book young readers will find, hopefully enjoy, and then probably write a report about. Siddhartha’s core insights are presented here, and the path he followed to find them, but the point is to inform, not to convert. 
Edirirweera tells his story slowly and quietly, starting with Siddhartha as a young prince chafing under the restrictions of his over-protective father. Ediriweera drops us into this world without explaining it, but the outlines are quickly clear: medieval-level tech, vast gulfs of wealth and poverty, what seems to be many small kingdoms living together peacefully, a mature and self-contained civilization.
Siddhartha’s is a story about suffering: despite his father’s coddling, he learns that other people suffer, that life is often pain. His people believe that they are reincarnated over and over, living lives slightly better or slightly worse, depending on the choices they made previously.
So Siddhartha grows up, still coddled and kept in the palace, with almost no contact with the outside world. He marries the princess of a neighboring kingdom, Yashodara. And when their son is born, he realizes he must break out and see the real world, and that this is his chance. He does; he runs away from his palace and wife and son and father and luxurious life, to join a monastery and live as a poor monk.
Years pass. Siddhartha has no contact with his old life. He studies and meditates and thinks and talks to other monks. In the end, he comes to a revelation: life is suffering, suffering is caused by desire, and so the only way to end suffering is to not desire. He teaches his new Eightfold Path, he gathers students, he becomes famous.
That leads him back to his old family. In the way of religious stories, there’s a bit of anger, but everyone is completely convinced, almost immediately, by the obvious truth of Siddhartha’s path. And so everyone comes to follow his path, as they can. I may be making this sound like a radical philosophy – and it could be one, in a strict form, all leave-your-goods-behind and break-the-wheel – but there’s a lot of nuance. There’s a huge spectrum between desiring everything and desiring nothing, and Buddha’s path is a positive, peaceful one, as Ediriweera presents it – perhaps even assuming nearly everyone will fail, that eliminating all desire is a project over multiple lives, multiple passes through the world. I don’t see any sense of hurry here: it’s all about letting go of things, and the more you can let go of, the better off you will be in the end.
Ediriweera tells this story quietly, as I said, in an unobtrusive style with a few, mostly light colors overlaid on his black (for figures) and cool blue (for backgrounds) lines. It is a peaceful, undemanding look for the art, and entirely appropriate.
What I know about the life of the Buddha is scattered and random; Enlightened told me that story again in a clear, organized way and explained things to me that I probably didn’t realize I didn’t understand. It’s a fine, meditative, thoughtful journey through the thinking and life of a man we could all do well to emulate – and I hope its path into the hands of the younger readers of North America is simpler and easier than I fear it will be.
 I expect to see various astroturfed mothers pretending to support liberty demanding it be removed from school libraries, though. This is a county where yoga is feared as a gateway drug to Buddhism. And, no, I am not exaggerating .