Little Robot

MONDAY logo 2015

It is Monday. My sons have another snow day, even though there is no new snow on the ground. The snow is coming, or so they say.

Little RobotI recently got a copy of Little Robot by Ben Hatke (published by First:Second). My ten year old son, Alex, took it. He does that a lot. We “share” books, which usually means he keeps them in his room and feels a disturbance in The Force when I manage get my hands on them. So far he has claimed the Timmy Failure series (by Stephan Pastis), LumberJanes (by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson) and anything by Matt Phalen or Gene Luen Yang

When I mentioned I wanted to write about Little Robot, he ignored me and kept playing MineCraft. Did I mention he is 10? I started with a general “what did you think about the book?”

Alex: It’s good. It’s more for little kids, except for the no underwear situation.

I made him close MineCraft and talk to me because I did not understand anything he was saying, plus … snow days. Tried again and this time things made much more sense.

Alex: First off, I liked it. I know it is supposed to be for little kids because a) the main character is a little kid, and b) there isn’t much reading and you know, teachers wouldn’t think it was really reading. Also, little kids might not ask too many questions.

Me: Questions?

Alex: Yeah. First off, where are her (main character’s) parents? She’s got a brother who goes to school and then POOF, she’s out of the window and exploring. Also, why doesn’t she have any clothes on? I mean, if she’s old enough to go make fake robot art, repair real robots, and find dead animals. Shouldn’t she be wearing pants? Or, shoes?!?

Me: How do you know the main character is a girl? And, what about the little robot?

Alex: She’s wearing a nightgown (eye roll and implied DUH!). Also, she’s too nice. I think a boy would have on shorts and no top (redacted conversation about nipples). The robot? The main one? I think it’s a boy, but that’s probably because there isn’t anything boy or girl-ish about it and I’m a boy, so I think of it as a boy.

Me: So if you were a girl?

Alex: First off, no. But, I’m guessing a girl would think the robot was a girl. I guess the author was pretty smart that way. It’s a book for all little kids.

He returned to MineCraft to build an entire city scape that rested on top of layers of TNT. He planned on blowing it up later in the afternoon while he videotaped the explosions. He’s 10.

Writing Women Well

MONDAY logo 2015

I read books because I love reading. I also read because I research literacy and literature. I recently had to admit I have a bias, grounded in lie experience, and because of this bias I have made a study of the authors of the graphic novels with women and girl protagonists. I hate to say it, but I really thought I was going to call guys out on the ways women and girls are over-sexualized objects. I was saving up a big rant about MEN and WOMEN and ALL THE THINGS. But, I can’t. I have to listen to the data and the data says it is more complicated than simply men and women, because sometimes guys get it right, too.

Nimona

Lumberjanes_Cover

First, a woman who writes terrific girls and women. Noelle Stevenson has successfully written two of my favorite graphic novels, Nimona and LumberJanes. There is something about the giddy, no holds barred, ridiculous nature of her books that keeps me coming back to read and reread. Whats more, is these books feature women and girls as flawed, interesting, complex protagonists that learn and grow.

Lumberjanes, features a group of friends at summer camp who stumble, fall, leap, and crash into adventures. This is NOT a “girl book” where boys will be lost or uninterested. The goofy-adventurer spirit will attract both boys and girls. My ten year old son and I keep stealing the book from each other.

Nimona is different, but still has a lightness to the story. Stevenson’s overly exaggerated style fits the story of a young girl (who happens to be a shape shifter) joining forces with Lord Blackheart (the evil villain) to over through the government — or something like that. But, it is also a story of friendship and redemption.

Oh! And both books have gay characters that don’t suffer or die or live awful, lonely lives because of their sexual identity.


 

And then there is Barry Deutsch. Remember when I mentioned that I kept thinking that the problem with over-sexualized girls in graphic novels was male authors? Well, I was wrong. It isn’t that easy to point fingers at any one group or the other.

The Hereville series is … wonderfully odd. It features an 11 year old girl, Mirka, who is smart, seeks adventure and is an orthodox jew. She lives in a modern day orthodox community with her father, her brother, her sisters, her step-mother, and the memory of her mother. Mirka isn’t interested in learning how to be a good wife and mother. Instead, Mirka wants to slay dragons, fight witches, battle trolls, and save her sister from an evil fish who grants wishes.

Deutsch, much like Stevenson, uses a cartoonish style with lots of color and motion. The characters are sometimes dramatically overstylized with huge noses, crazy hair, and enormous fins. Mirka is a pain in the butt to her stepmother, sometimes she’s not a great sister, and most of the time she is simply not listening. The orthodox family life is shown with respect and love. Deutsch provides the reader with yiddish expressions that flow from Mirka and her family with ease.

Both of these authors have created characters and worlds that draw readers in, invite us to ride along in the adventure, and leave feeling that the world is a little goofy, but definitely, a better place.

Black History in Graphic Novels

MONDAY logo 2015

There are many conversations going on right now about the ways slavery is being depicted in books written for children. If you are interested in the issues take a few minutes, or hours to investigate. A good place to start is with the terrific blog Reading While White.

My interest here is to address a few graphic novels that I think have get it right. Oh, and yes, I realize it is NOT February and therefore it is NOT Black History Month, but I am going to go ahead and do this anyway.

Strange Fruit CoverJoel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narrative From Black History  (2014) is a fantastic collection of nine all but unknown stories of great African American men that the standard American history has forgotten. The stories are written in comics format, using a rich, but muted color palette and cartoon-y but fairly representational people.

The short tales are both beautiful and tragic. Gill doesn’t sugarcoat anything about the historical place African-Americans have held. In fact, Gill plays hardball with slavery, oppression, and the general ugliness that African Americans have experienced.  For instance, Henry “Box” Brown’s tale opens with a small group of slaves picking in a field, one is getting whipped by a White man on a horse, and Henry exclaiming “This Sucks”. There is not space in the graphic novel for quibbling about whether or not slaves were happy in some circumstances, at some time, with some people. According to Gill (and any reasonable person who has experienced any level of oppression) no one liked being a slave. No. One.

But, the book isn’t perfect. After reading it for the first time I was struck with one glaring omission. There are no women heroes in Strange Fruit. None. There are women, but none are terribly important. In fact, the book flunks The Bechtel Test for women in a spectacular fashion. I say this because Gill has admitted to the error multiple times; in public, in private, on social media, and on TV. All over the place. And, his reason? Male privilege. Simple. He gets it and he is fixing it.

His next project features stories of black heroes that are women.


The most recent addition to Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series of historical graphic novels is The Underground Abductor.

If you have never read one of Hale’s (and yes, that is his real name. I met him once and made him show me his ID) graphic novels you are missing out. They are fun, interesting and accurate which is no small feat for any author.

This edition focuses on Harriet Tubman’s life and her involvement with the underground railroad. But, what makes this volume most interesting to me is that it begins with an account of her childhood as a slave and her experiences being rented out to other farms. Then the tale moves through her young adulthood, her marriage, and her escape to freedom. But, her story doesn’t end with her own freedom. Instead, she returned to her home in Maryland many times to act as a navigator for other people who wanted to escape slavery.

This book has a strong female protagonist, who talks to other women, and to other African Americans, often times about things beside men and White people. There are also maps, jokes (but never jokes about slavery), and footnotes that steer readers other interesting stories.

Both of these books focus on African Americans, which is fine. Ideally, I would like a discussion of race that goes beyond the classic Black/White dichotomy and includes people who fall along the color spectrum.

Great books are not perfect books. They don’t need to be. What great books need to be are books that explain the complex systems of inequality that our history is riddled with, written so kids can read them and start having conversations about race, justice, gender, and sexual orientation.

The Girls of Summer

MONDAY logo 2015

I’ll be focusing the blog this year on issues of representation in graphic novels. It took a while – almost all of last year – of reading and writing to understand how and why this was an important area for me to take on.

Here is the first set of graphic novels I have read for 2016.

Roller GirlRoller Girl by Victoria Jamiesan (Dial book for young readers, 2015)

This book passes The Bechdel Test* within the first page. The book centers around Astrid, her best friend Nicole, and her longtime nemesis Rachel.

Astrid is having a bit of a rough patch. The book takes place during the summer between 5th and 6th grades – which means the dreaded MIDDLE SCHOOL YEARS! She is having a hard time with her best friend (maybe ex-best friend?), hitting puberty (and it is hitting her back), and learning what it means to try and fail and try again. Astrid is spending the summer at Roller Derby camp with Zoey, a new friend, lying to her mom, avoiding or confronting Nicole and scheming retaliatory attacks against Rachel. Oh, and she’s dreaming of being her roller derby teams jammer and scoring more points than any other junior derby girl in history.

Jamieson’s illustrations are rendered in full color on a heavy matte paper which gives the book a comforting heft. She uses fairly regular panels, interjecting occasional two-page spreads with full bleeds along with small focused peek-a-boo panels (all that means it is a good balance between regular panels and surprises). The people look like people, representing different sizes, shapes and colors without being stand-ins or tropes. The supporting cast of characters aren’t fleshed out well, but they are not simple tropes or stereotypes either.

Astrid learns some hard lessons. Over the course of the book she finds she isn’t a great friend a lot of the time, she needs to work hard to get what she wants, and sometimes her mom is right (I love that bit more than I probably should).

I highly recommend Roller Girl for upper elementary and middle school readers.


SunnySideUp

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (Graphix, 2015)

Holm’s book passes The Bechdel Test* but it takes a while before a second, named female character is seen.

Sunny, the main character, is a young girl who is spending the summer in Florida with her grandfather instead of the shore with her family and best friend. One of the things I love about this book is that it is visually straight forward but the narrative is complex and nuanced. That isn’t something you usually see in books written with young readers in mind, but Holm and Holm manage to balance a difficult subject deftly.

Difficult elements of Sunny’s life are revealed slowly and most often through the illustrations and flashbacks. It is difficult to pinpoint when it becomes clear that Sunny’s home life isn’t all smiles and terrific-ness. On page 24 and 25 we see her and her (so far unnamed) best friend hanging out and planning summer vacation. We ‘hear’ Sunny’s little brother crying when he is supposed to be taking a nap. There is an odd exchange about Sunny’s brother changing into someone who is “terrific”. Although she indicates the crying brother, there is more to the scene. There is an unanswered question that lingers.

Dale, Sunny’s older brother is cool. He doesn’t follow rules, smokes, seems to have trouble with his teachers, hangs out with the wrong kids and, eventually, it is clear he’s dealing with a growing substance abuse issue.

So instead of going to the shore, Sunny ends up in her grandfathers retirement community. We meet Sunny’s grandfather, his friends, and Buzz, a young boy who introduces Sunny to comic books. As the summer progresses we see Dale’s story unfold in flashbacks. Finally Sunny breaks down, admitting to her grandfather that she feels all kinds of  (misplaced) guilt about Dale.

The visuals are pure Holms – and I mean that in the best possible way. The book is treated with full color illustrations with lots of white space to help readers think and understand the transitions. The people are a bit on the abstract/cartoony side but nothing that takes them too far afield. The paneling is consistent throughout the book. Perhaps most importantly, the book is designed to aid in comprehension. Although it is full color the speech and thought bubbles are predominately done with a white background with black text that is easy to read. They use tails to clearly indicate who is talking, and even use separate bubbles with connecting tails when the dialogue is too long to easily fit within a single bubble. The text never feels crowded or hurried.

I applaud this well crafted book and highly recommend it for elementary (and above) readers.


*The Bechdel Test: 1) Are there 2 NAMED female characters; 2) Do they speak to each other, 3) about something other than men?

What Are You Reading? January 19, 2015

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Timmy Failure

I am reading the third Timmy Failure book by Stephan Pastis, We Meet Again, with my 9 year old son. The books are a terrific series that are getting better over time.

The basic premiss is a simple one – Timmy is an odd kid who lives with his mom and his polar bear named Total with whom he runs the greatest, but as yet unknown, detective agency. The agency is called Total Failure Inc.

What makes these books so terrific is the Timmy’s absolute and unwavering confidence in his own abilities as a world class detective, even though he has never come close to solving an actual case. He is one of the most unreliable and completely self-deluded narrators I have seen in literature. And it is this strong and completely ridiculously wrong-headedness that makes Timmy so lovable.

After the second book, Now Look What You’ve Done, my son Alex characterized Timmy as “sort of sad but going on anyway, the best he can.”

The supporting characters include Timmy’s best friend Rollo Tookus who cares about grades, Molly Moskins who cares deeply about Timmy, and Corrina Corrina (AKA The Beast, The Wedgie, and World Wide Enemy of Da Goodness) who is Timmy’s arch nemesis. She is unaware of her status.

totalThe sketches used throughout the books add a sense of innocence to Timmy and highlight the weird, self deluded nature of the narrative.

Also, the pictures make me laugh. Some of the best pictures are illustrations that align with the text, such as images of Señor Burrito (who happens to be Molly’s girl-cat) as she sits at the table and puts her paws in Timmy’s tea while he interrogates Molly.  Senor B

Pastis doesn’t overuse these visuals, instead he drops them in sporadically but often enough so we learn to expect and relish the craziness that is the world of Timmy Failure.

I asked my son what he’d say to the author if he ever got a chance to talk to him. He responded, “Thank you for writing such an awesome series. I love how Timmy tries and fails so hard. Oh, and TACOS!!!”

That pretty much sums up the books nicely.

—————

In addition to the Timmy Failure series, I have been rereading some graphic novels in preparation for starting a new research project. I’m looking at the representation of women and girls in graphic novels, especially those that feature female protagonists. I’m developing an online form and database in an effort to crowd source data about these books.

One aspect I am looking at in regards to graphic novels is what is known as the Bechdel Test, named for Alison Bechdel author of Dykes to Watch Out For, Fun Home, and  Are you My Mother. In brief, the Bechdel Test simply highlights if women appear as functioning characters in movies and books. There are 3 elements – 1) Are there 2 NAMED female characters; 2) Do they speak to each other, 3) about something other than men?  That’s it.

I went back and looked at a few graphic novels I have in my “might use in class’ pile. Nonewere selected specifically for female protagonists but the results are interesting none the less:

1. Sidekicks by Dan Santat. Fails on the first part of the measurement. Although there are a few women who speak, none are named.

2. The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Passes all parts. There are multiple named women including Hua Chu (Hank’s mother), Red Center (Hank’s love interest), Red’s sister Green, and Mrs. Olson (Hua works for her). All of these women speak, some have conversations with each other about things other than men.

3. Bird and Squirrel by James Burks. Fails. Also fails in another important way … the misrepresentation of Native people and culture. Not only is there only one named female character, she is the “chief’s” daughter. The story centers around Bird and Squirrel landing in a snowy land filled with vaguely Inuit-type penguins who are, of course, in need of saving. The penguins wear face paint, carry spears, have a ‘medicine’ man who lives in a glowing green cave, sees visions and says things like “I listened to the wind”. In a word, this is an awful misrepresentation of some sort of unspecified native culture with a dash of White male missionary privilege tossed in for good measure.

 

 

 

 

What Are You Reading? December 15, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I’m catching up on my reading list and I finally got around to opening up Andi Watson’s Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula. it’s a fun black and white graphic novel with just a hint of romance. Watson is a comics author that is trying his hand at a longCover form graphic novel and he’s pulled off a brilliant balance between simple lines and illustrations and a charming story.

The book begins in the Underworld with Princess Decomposia dealing with her bedridden father (the king), his crazy neediness, all the kingdom’s business dealings, the responsibility of finding a new chef. She is crazy busy, trying to keep all the balls in the air, and stressed beyond her limits.

What I appreciate about Princess Decomposia (Dee to her friends) is that she is the quintessential caretaker to the entire underworld. As she walks from one end of the castle to the other she receives state papers, long letters, and updates about the political goings on. In addition, she spends her days negotiating with foreign dignitaries trying to balance her fathers wishes, the good of the kingdom, and peace.

On top of her more than stressful duties she must hire a new chef. She finally settles on one, Count Spatula. His first action, before even getting the job, was to take careDecomposia of the princess which is something no one else in the castle thinks to do. She has been running around all day, hasn’t eaten and feels lightheaded. He not only rushes to her side, he also pulls tea and muffins from his chefs hat and gets the job. But more importantly, he begins a friendship with the princess.

The illustrations are lighthearted and simple but that is not to say they are simplistic. Instead, Watson takes care to use very few lines to communicate emotion and humor. Although the counts face is not much more than a heart shape with a few lines, he is able to convey a full range of emotions. The other characters are less simply drawn but no less expressive.

Count Spatula is a good guy, even for a vampire, who loves sweets and has a flair for the dramatic. At one point he concocts a set of dessert that rains delicious lemon curd into the guests. His meals are a success, maybe too much of a success for the kind to be happy.

The king is taking an extended, hypochondriac-induced vacation from his royal duties but he is more than happy to direct the court from his bed. And Dee (princess Decomposia) is stuck trying to be both a ruler and a servant to her father. Eventually, with the thoughful council of Count Spatula she begins to delegate and gain some control over her life and her sanity. But, that isn’t what the king wants … he wants to have his cake, and eat it too.

The king decides the count has to go and so he sends her away for a day in the above world. When Dee decides to take the count with her, it leads to a terrible confrontation between the king (who not sick but is rather lazy and selfish) and the princess.

In the end, Dee is in charge of the kingdom and Count Spatula is in charge of the kitchen, but more importantly they are in charge of supporting and loving each other. This is a great story for emergent readers, readers are are just beginning to read graphic novels, and romantics alike.

Count1

Yet Another Reason to Love Gene Luen Yang

Do you have a list of artists that no matter what they do, you are in? I have a few …

P¡nk. She can sing a phonebook, a dictionary, and random encyclopedia entries and I’d go to iTunes and buy the entire album (do we still call them that?) Here are a few reasons I am a huge fan –  her Grammy performance of Glitter in the Air and her tribute to The Wizard of Oz at the Oscars

MAGRITTE-THIS-IS-NOT-A-PIPE-1928-29-553x386

Anything painted by Rene Magritte makes my head hurt in the most wonderful ways. I think the fact that Scoot McCloud used Magritte’s work to explain representations of iconic images helped me better understand some of the layered complexity of graphic novels and comics.

There are others, but in general, what attracts me to artists is a sense of fun, commitment, and flexibility. There is a change over time that you see when artists express their own growth and learning through their performances.

Gene Luen Yang is a graphic novelist that is in the same category. His range in storytelling is amazing. From American Born Chinese in which a young boy, Jin Wang, deals with his own identity, subtle and not so subtle racism, romance, and a crazy cousin. Oh, and toss in is a dose of the Monkey King folk tales on the side just for good measure. I think what makes ABC so wonderful to teach with is the Chin Kee character. He is the best and more excoriating presentation of all of the Asian stereotypes rolled into one disturbing and guilt inducing character. I have had students cry after discussing Chin Kee and all the horror Yang shows the reader by putting it all out there and making it very hard to turn away.

Then, when I thought I had a solid handle on the kind of artist Gene Yang is, he went and created Boxers and Saints. I remain in awe of the historical work that must have gone into this two book set as well as the way he develops the protagonists, Bao in Boxers and Four-Girl in Saints. My friend and colleague Sterg Botzakis wrote a great review over at Graphic Novel Resources.

shadowHeroCover

Yang’s newest novel with Sonny Liew, The Shadow Hero is a million miles away from either ABC or Boxers and Saints and yet it is completely his work.

This book is a solidly middle-grade book with loads of fun, excitement, and dashing heroes, including a few cameos by a SuperMan like character that influences the story early on. Set in 1930s Chinatown – I can’t help but read it as San Francisco – the novel tells the origin story of a little known comic book super hero called The Green Turtle. The Green Turtle was originally written by Chu Hing as a short run comic book but it never caught on like other superheroes of the time.

What makes The Shadow Hero such a rich graphic novel is the complexity of the characters lives. Hank Chu, the protagonist, is a young man growing with immigrant parents. Both Hank’s parents are from China but have very different back stories, as well as different expectations of America. Because of their differences, Hank grows up with a loving but distance and slightly disappointed mother, and a loving and grounded father. Hank dreams of taking over his dad’s shop when he grows up, but his mother has other aspirations.

Sh FamilyHank’s relationship with his mom is … complicated. And that is the element that keeps this books moving forward in interesting ways. All the characters have well rounded back stories that gave me a sense of real life struggle and joy. Oh, that and the painfully bad martial arts training montages, the tricky protection clauses. and the eventual butt-kickery-ness of the hero. All of that.

Sonny Liew’s artwork is at once classic pulp comics with loads of motion and action, and a rather dull color pallets that resist bright white gutters that we have become used to with the high quality paper and printing available today.

SH_Inside_3One comic convention that Liew uses with striking effectiveness are recessed panel groupings. He frames the action as a larger panel with several internal panels showing details and shifts in point of view, while still keeping the larger context in view for the reader.

The effect this has on my own reading is that I am focused on the intimate and furious action as Hank’s mom sews a superhero costume, loosing herself in the task while I, as the reader, am still aware that time is passing.

The Shadow Hero is an immigrant story, a superhero origin story, and a story about the lengths a young man will go to in order to become a hero in his own eyes. I enjoyed reading and re-reading this novel and plan on sharing it widely.

 

What Are You Reading? July 7, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Adding my voice to Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki’s  Unleashing Readers on their great Monday-reading-palooza.

I’ve been catching up on reading that I put off during the teaching year. That means I am reading lots of children’s and young adult books, but it also means I am reading books for me … just me … BWA-HAHAHAHAHA!!!! I revisited Augusten Burroughs DRY, which feels like visiting an old friend who got me through some rough patches. I am also reading exciting academic works such as  Eliza Dresang’s Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age which is  helping me understand reading graphic novels is new ways.

In addition to the reading, summer for academics means it is the season to write. I’m working on revising articles that I hope will be in press soon, as well as a chapter based on work I started on this blog, as well as new articles based on projects that are slow but fruitful, such as looking at representations across Lambda and Stonewall award winning LGBTQ YA books.

But, enough about me. Lets talk books!

——

How-to-train-your-dragon-the-dragon-book

I have to admit a shameful secret – I had never read any of the How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell books. None. Not one. After seeing the second movie ***** SPOILER ALERT ***** and once again being amazed and impressed with the darkness and loss the movies have as part of the over all ethos I wanted to go back to the source material. In both movies something bad happens … Hiccup looses a limb in #1, and a parent in #2. This kind of emotional hardship isn’t seen in most movies today and my sons appreciate movies that don’t talk down to them and pretend life is nothing but rainbows and sparkles of goodness. But, maybe that’s just our family. ***** END SPOILER ALERT *****

I read this with my nine year old son and we were both surprised – in a good way – with the differences between the book and the movie. We discussed the departures from the book, especially the characters – we especially missed the twins and their outrageous craziness but liked the expanded adversarial relationship between Hiccup and Snotlout. When talking about Astrid, my son put it best, “Yeah, she’s cool and all but really? Do we need kissing? We’re kids!”.

The best part of the book? Toothless talks! Well, technically, all dragons talk and Hiccup is able to interpret them for us. Getting the view of the world from the dragon’s perspective was a terrific reading experience. Understanding dragons from thier own point of view allowed for a much more complex story and made Toothless’es act of bravery MORE impressive. He’s a droll little lazy dragon who takes bribes and doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do. In addition, the more than giant dragon called The Green Death is terrific and scary all at the same time.

We are planning on reading the rest of the books as the summer rolls on.

———-

blog-annie-cover

Annie_update

In celebration of a long lived life, I re-read Nancy Garden’s 1982 Annie on My Mind.Ms. Garden (May 15, 1938 – June 23, 2014) was a trail blazer if there ever was one. I’d like to say her book, written in a series of flashbacks by a college freshman at MIT was the beginning of a new era in YA literature featuring healthy, mutually loving relationships between lesbians, but it was not. It still stands out as the exception, rather than the rule and is a book I recommend to teachers, parents and readers alike.

The book cover has been changed over the years. The original featured a rather dower set of girls on the Staten Island ferry to the current one with a romantic photo of two girls looking at the rings that exchanged as Christmas gifts. But, what is most important is what happens inside the book or, perhaps, what does NOT happen. No one dies, goes insane, gets electroshock or sent to a camp for reprogramming. It isn’t that the romance progresses without a hitch, rather it is that the problems are surmountable, the issues are real, and the solutions are within reach if the girls are brave.

As for the test of time – the book holds up because the story is good and the characters are real.

————-

Plat_Frog

Thank you Jarrett J. Krosoczka for writing Platypus Police Squad: The Frog Who Croaked. I am a huge fan of his Lunch Lady series (see previous post) so I was excited to download the audiobook and start in on it. The story is complex with lots of twists and turns and reads like a great version of noir mystery. Read by Johnny Heller, the audio book  reminds me of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep but without all the drugs, sex and blood  and with more illegal fish.

In this piece of kids noir detective Rick Zengo is the new kid in the squad and Corey O’Malley is the old vet who needs to show him the ropes. They have some  trouble messing as a team but that quickly gets dealt with as they have bigger fish to fry. Yes, they happen to be platypuses, but don’t let their bills fool you, this is a hard hitting, action packed detective story. Although it isn’t as awesomely goofy as Lunch Lady, it still has loads of puns and lots of word play. This is a more serious book that requires the reader to track the story and remember loads of small details that become more important as the story progresses.

A great read aloud for some classes. I also highly recommend the audiobook.

 

 

The Olympians – A Serious Series

George O’Connor is a history guy who has created a series the retells/recalls/reillustrates the Greek mythologies of The Olympians published by First:Second.

So far there are six in the series … Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. Each is a little different, depending on the stories O’Connor chooses to tell, and each relies on the others to fill out the complex and interrelated mythology.

Olympian fam treeAnd what an interrelated  mythology it is! Luckily O’Connor gives the reader this handy-dandy family tree at the beginning of every book. I refer to it often to check and see if I am creeped out by Hades in general, or specifically because he is kidnapping and wooing his niece!!!! And by wooing I mean sweeping down in his big chariot of death and taking Persephone to the underworld and telling her he is going to marry her because Zeus said he could.

The gods marry each other at an alarming rates. They also have affairs with each other, with other immortals, with mortals, and with various and sundry animals. They scheme and plot and generally act like middle school children with too much time and power.

Hades coverO’Connor uses color to evoke mood and set tone effectively throughout the series, but I think he is at his best in Hades. The tale O’Connor tells is also the story of hoe Persephone came to the underworld. I was familiar with the deal she strikes with Hades – she gets a set amount of time on earth in exchange for living with him as his wife/mistress/companion for the rest of the time. But this tells how that deal came about in the first place.

As it turns out Persephone is a surly teenager who pretty much looks like this when she talks to her mother, Demeter.

Hades-14

The image (p. 14) of Persephone having a total hissy-fit at her mother while her friends look on is the perfect illustration of her world. Demeter is a concerned mom who made mistakes as a teen-god and wants to protect Persephone. (Demeter also happens to be the god in charge of all the things that grow and feed the piddly mortals on earth).

More important than the look of scorn from Demeter and general fed-upness from Persephone (I have a non-deity friend with a head strong daughter, and they look like this a lot) is the assault of perky color O’Connor uses to illustrate the world at this moment. The ground Demeter walks upon is a violent verdant landscape. The brush in the background is a rich thicket of dark green foliage. Even the clouds reflect a tinge of light green from Demeter’s handywork.

Hades 22Here, in contrast, O’Connor gives use Hades and Persephone just after he snatches her from that same field and goes to the underworld (p. 22). Hades is darkness and shadows that swaollow light and give back nothing. Notice Persephone’s blue dress is not little more than a muddy, slightly tinted purple color. The background of the panel is a rich darkness bounded by the bright white gutter that sharpens the contrast.

The stark color shift helps set up the tenor of the story. As Demeter searches for her lost daughter, the rich and plentiful earth suffers from her neglect. When we do see some color in Hades’ underworld it is because of Persephone. The earth is dimmer, becoming a shadow because of Persephone’s absence. The underworld is become less drab because of her presence. O’Connor uses color to tap into our visual sense and tell part of the story.

There are 6 books thus far in the series with more to come. My favorites are Hades, Zeus, and Athena, although Aphrodite is fabulous, and Hera is a whole new way of looking at the story of Hercules. Oh! And Poseidon gives more details about the extended family.

Forget it. I love them all.

A few great original graphic novels

It is Christmas week so I decided to write the next installment of what I am calling

A MONTH OF FABULOUS GRAPHIC NOVELS IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER!!!!!

Series have many great qualities but sometimes a story simply stands alone.

——————–

BlufftonI attended the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference held in Boston this year and I got the chance to meet and talk to Matt Phelan. It was especially poignant for me (and for him as well, I can only assume) because I used his first book, Storm in the Barn, for my dissertation. Storm is an award winning graphic novel set in the great dust bowl. There’s a boy, a drought, dust dementia, and allusions to Wizard of Oz, and the magic of abandoned buildings.

Phelan’s second book, set in the 1880s, Around the World, tells the story of three different travelers going around the world. There is excitement, sexism, funny looking bicycles, and pirates as these intrepid explorers circumnavigate the globe.

His new book, Bluffton, is by far my favorite. When I spoke to Matt (and yes, I’m calling him Matt now) about his books and my dissertation he said he feels like he finally knows what he’s doing.

There is not enough good words in the English language for me to talk about this book. I read it along with my eight your old son, Alex, who loves a good story. The novel is set in the turn of the century (beginning in 1908), and follows a young man who lives in Muskegan Michigan, works in his fathers general store, and lives a nice and regular life. The story begins when the train arrives with a load of Vaudevillian performers who stay at a nearby lake front community for some well earned relaxation. It takes a while to understand that we are reading the story of a young Buster Keaton. Buster’s  inventions are lovingly illustrated with such detail we see inklings of his film work.Audience

The illustrations are watercolor on a thick, buff colored paper. The pallet Matt selected provides the depth and gentility I imagine of the time, and at the same time expresses the vibrancy of kids running, jumping, and generally being crazy. At one point early on in our reading Alex requested some quiet time to  look at the pictures by himself, “They are like paintings in a museum.” He wanted time to look and see the details, the characters, and the setting before reading the words.

After about twenty minutes, I wanted to continue reading, so I checked back with him. He was engrossed in the book, looking at a few of the pages with no written words. He looked up and said, “These are like art. I’m glad he didn’t distract us with words”. We discussed when Matt selects full pages, panels, words or no words. We have since finished the book and have started watching Buster Keaton movies.

—————–

Monster Monster on The Hill by Rob Harrell is set in the 1860s English countryside where the cities and towns are happily terrorized by monsters of all sorts. This wonderfully silly graphic novel is a fantasy-alternate reality story where the bucolic country-side town of Stoker-on-Avon is unlucky enough to have a sad-sack of a monster, Rayburn.

Rayburn is a depresses, despondent, and lack-luster monster that can’t be bothered to pillage Stoker-on-Avon any longer. The towns folks, in a last ditch effort to save face, hire a disgraced Dr.  Wilkie (who’s experiments have raised more havoc than Rayburn) to help their monster to pep-up. With the help of the local news boy, Timmy, the three set off on a road trip to visit Rayburn’s old monster school chums in hopes of regaining some of his ferocity.

The illustrations are bright and bold with plenty of action, including running, falling, real pillaging of Victorian cityscapes by Rayburn’s arch nemesis Murk, along with monster training help from Tentaculor (pictured at left), and sound effects aplenty. Harrell’s illustrations are not just visually loudMonster1, but they are also so finely detailed and rich the novel provides fodder for close, careful and repeated readings. Wilkie officeA variety of page layouts including full pages with loads of small, intricate  details, inset panels, and dialogue that moves the story forward.

I must admit to a bias on my part as a reader: I am a real font snob! I  hate fancy fonts that make reading more difficult. Fonts with high kerning rates which makes the letters too close together for me to read easily. Also, loads of swirly serifs, thick lines with small counters (the space within the letters), and all sorts of other horrors that you can read about here on How To Geek. But, my point here is that Harrell escapes the cheesy font-a-palooza of bad book design. Instead, he uses font changes to express emotions, actions, and sounds in the best possible way.