"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · series

{comic} a secret worth sharing

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

First Second, 2015

My copy was an Advanced Readers Copy thanks to First Second & NetGalley

Welcome to Stately Academy, a school which is just crawling with mysteries to be solved! The founder of the school left many clues and puzzles to challenge his enterprising students. Using their wits and their growing prowess with coding, Hopper and her friend Eni are going to solve the mystery of Stately Academy no matter what it takes!–publisher’s comments

In short, this book is fantastic!

The images and paneling are straightforward cartoon expositions. The reader can relax into the non-threatening artistic rendering and engage with the energy of the image and dialog. Hopper is a firework and Eni is smooth. Yang has a great sense of comedic timing and manages a pleasing plot revelation now and again. Secret Coders is smart in that it is educational and—super important—entertaining.

In his closing note to the readers, Gene Luen Yang writes:

“Coding is creative and powerful. It’s how words turn into image and action It truly is magic. Mike Holmes and I made the book you now hold in your hands because we want to share a bit of that magic with you, and maybe inspire you to become a magician—a coder—yourself.”

Yang and Holmes provide puzzles and the space to solve them without their feeling out of place in the narrative. The code-work builds in complication, leaving the last as an aspect of the cliffhanger. I’m looking forward to volume 2 for the sake of not only the mystery laid out in the story, but I want to know if my solution is correct.

—-

recommendation: for lovers of sports and/or math, mysteries and humor. an easy sell for STEM, so gift this one to the classroom and school library, friends.

 

"review" · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · series · wondermous

{book} not in the least beastly or dreadful

Months later (deep, regret-filled sigh) a post on one of my favorite new books.

“A marvelously funny mystery that feels refreshingly original while yet channeling the best of Dahl’s characters and Grimm in storytelling.”-my staff rec at work.

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls by Holly Grant

Random House, 2015.

Hardcover, 294.

Wondering what could possibly follow the genius who is Kazuo Ishiguro and his novel The Buried Giant, I was slumped into Picture Books and puppy-like Juvenile Fantasies. I was contemplating the cure-all (Calvino) when I shelved The League of Beastly Dreadfuls.

“Warning This book is chock-full of DREADFUL things (Calamity! Evil plans! Attack poodles!) and is NOT suitable for Nice Little Boys and Girls. Take my advice…practice your posture instead. –Miss Drusilla Jellymonk, Etiquette Expert.” –Back Copy

“Anastasia is a completely average almost-eleven-year-old. That is, UNTIL her parents die in a tragic vacuum-cleaner accident. UNTIL she’s rescued by two long-lost great-aunties. And UNTIL she’s taken to their delightful and, er, “authentic” Victorian home, St. Agony’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

But something strange is going on at the asylum. Anastasia soon begins to suspect that her aunties are not who they say they are. So when she meets Ollie and Quentin, two mysterious brothers, the three join together to plot their great escape!”–inside Jacket Copy.

Have you noticed how difficult it is for an author to pull off the Dahl-esque; especially American authors? Holly Grant is marvelously Dahl-esque in The League of Beastly Dreadfuls. But that isn’t the only reason to pick up your own copy. Grimm came to mind, for instance. But for all the fond reminiscence of favorite childhood storytellers, Grant demonstrates an originality all her own. That expansive imagination proves rather daring (e.g. the mice are genius, as is the tragic flatulence). The pacing both in action and humor is perfect, and the narrator not too clever for its own good. You must read this one aloud.

You know those scenes where the protagonist overhears the villain murmuring about their impending demise and they fail to confront said villain about it? There is a glorious moment (on page 67) where Anastasia asks an Auntie about a strong inference muttered under the breath. Anastasia is rightly terrified by this point–and so was I, thus my pleasant surprise when Anastasia quite forcefully inquires after just what did Prim mean. The author does not imperil her protagonist comfortably and the escape attempt will have all sorts of horrible inconveniences. “Saint Agony’s Asylum for the Deranged, Despotic, Demented, & Otherwise Undesirable (that is to say, criminally insane)” is not some quaint Victorian fixer-upper. And Anastasia is not in the least casual in her observation that “every day at St Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather” (59). The contemplation of the photographs of past children was chilling. And despite those delicately sipped cups of tea, the ‘weirdly dentured’ old ladies are blood-thirsty.

so good.

I’m not sure which is more deliciously wrought, the adrenaline or the ridiculous humor; maybe it is the characters (who manage to generate both). The old ladies are entertaining, in their own horrid way. The Manly Baron aka Mouse Destroyer makes me sigh, and not because of his manly presence. It’s that he is silliness incarnate. I found him and that whole plot twist charming. And the boys, with their Ballad of the Lovelorn Beluga are amusing, to say nothing of awesomely gifted.  But Anastasia is the star: clumsy and resourceful and capable of keeping her wits about her.

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is easily one of my favorite books this year, and I’ve enjoyed some fabulous reads. I found myself laughing aloud and reading huge swathes of it to the daughter. I’m sure I read the “looney gardner” scene (in chapter 4) multiple times to multiple friends; and I may have referenced the line “Podiatrists are, in general, the most dashing of all doctors” (281) a time or three, even though too few have yet to read the novel. Friends were updated at regular intervals and subjected to the mysteries of the novel: plenty of which remain unsolved. Like who is Anastasia and why have her captors taken such a keen interest in her? It quickly becomes apparent that it isn’t just because Anastasia is orphaned by a tragic vacuum incident.

The lovely problem the reader will come to realize is that the author’s imagination could originate any sort of possibility for our increasingly mysterious Anastasia. The reader also comes to the conclusion that they won’t mind terribly much when the author artfully puts off a few questions there at the end. The reader is going to want to read book two (The Dastardly Deed).

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is the kind of smart and entertaining everyone needs off the shelf and in their hands and reading to their favorite human (or mouse).

————–

recommendations: if you love Grimm, Dahl, Ellen Potter’s Kneebone Boy, and/or Adrienne Kress’ Ironic Gentlemen. if you like peril, laughter, and clever narrators. To be read aloud to any and all grade-schoolers (whether they suffer from tragic flatulence or umbrating-related nudity*).

*yeah, you have to read the book.

 

 

 

"review" · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Uncategorized · wondermous

{book} never a nothing girl

Icebreaker by Lian Tanner

Feiwel and Friends, 2015 (orig. 2013).

Hardcover 304 pages

“Twelve-year-old Petrel is an outcast, the lowest of the low on the Oyster, an ancient icebreaker that has been following the same course for three hundred years. In that time, the ship’s crew has forgotten its original purpose and broken into three warring tribes. Everyone has a tribe except Petrel, whose parents committed such a terrible crime that they were thrown overboard, and their daughter ostracised.

But Petrel is a survivor. She lives in the dark corners of the ship, speaking to no one except two large grey rats, Mister Smoke and Missus Slink. Then a boy is discovered, frozen on an iceberg, and Petrel saves him, hoping he’ll be her friend. What she doesn’t know is that for the last three hundred years, the Oyster has been guarding a secret. A secret that could change the world.

A secret that the boy has been sent to destroy, along with the ship and everyone on it…” –Publisher’s comments

I hugged the book before I read it, and you can be sure I hugged it afterward. Why? Because Lian Tanner has written one of my favorite Juvenile Fiction Series (The Keeper Trilogy) and she did not let me down in Icebreaker.

Tanner creates rather than contrives her characters and their conflicts. It takes reading the novel to realize what I mean by that difference between the creating and the contrivance. The characters experience real, important change, within the boundaries of their personality. You labor alongside them in those pivotal moments.

Icebreaker is not for those who like to anticipate the story and control every outcome. Tanner doesn’t make her adventures easy on the characters, why would she make it easy on the reader? Tanner’s characters earn their stunning heroism and heart. That Petrel would arrive to a transformative state is perhaps expected, but what of the others, and what of the winding series of events that traverse the massive and entangle innards of the Oyster? There are clues to mysteries (Crab) for the reader to guess successfully, but the overall the sensation of honestly not knowing what is coming next is marvelous.

Tanner complicates her otherworldly stories in painfully realistic ways. Both Petrel (aka Nothing Girl) and the strange boy she rescues have internalized the beliefs of their respective adult worlds—and they have to push back for the sake of everyone. Theirs is a violent and devastated world. The different factions are rational outcomes and hauntingly familiar, yet there is a fine and cutting edge of ridiculousness in the situation. So much of the violence is situated in willful ignorance and incredible egoism. Squid is a still, quiet breath of fresh air.

The presence of tribal leaders’ children in the story is notable; especially the handling of daughters (like Squid) as game-changers. The offspring represent the attitudes of their tribes as well as the opportunity for change. The Braids’ leader, Orca’s daughter, is a horrible fascination and was no doubt one of the most tenuous to write. How to convincingly affect change in relatively few pages, and can we trust it going forward? Nothing Girl and the “rescued boy” (who represent two sets of “others” or factions) are convincing actors, posing in alternate versions of themselves, playing the role survival requires of them. The reader is helped to understand that there is a lot at stake when it comes to who and when to trust—and how to prioritize needs and wants. From the get-go, the question of whether a Nothing Girl should have rescued the boy on the ice haunts the story: Is he worth it? Is she?

The harsh setting is fraught with the kind of danger that inspires courage and resourcefulness, though the survivalist Petrel would downplay such aggrandizement of her reality. Yet while she may not find herself exceptional or worthy of manning the story, the reader will see what her few friends do, worth the risk-taking. She is so earnest, so damned determined and requiring of love. She is so damned familiar.

How Tanner manages to make such a horrible moment near the end, the realization of Nothing Girl as Petrel, to be also humorous… She has great storytelling instincts. Tanner is thought-provoking in unexpected ways, reminding the reader always of perspective (that there is always more than one at play).

Icebreaker combines the most appealing traits of juvenile fiction: an exhilarating imagination and an increasingly necessary imperative: empathy.

I wrote this of Museum of Thieves way back when: “Tanner created a cast and setting of delectable proportions for which I found I was ravenous in Museum of Thieves and will sure to be again in City of Lies.” Go ahead and transpose Icebreaker and Sunker’s Deep; Tanner is a satiating must-read.

——-

Of note: Perfect for tracing the pathways of character development over the course of a plot, no “convenient” gaps to leap over here.

My reviews of Museum of Thieves and City of Lies

 

 

"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{comics} no sleeping beauty

The Rise of Aurora West By Paul Pope; J. T. Petty; David Rubín (Illustrator)

(First Second Books 2014) tradepaper.

Having read Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, naturally I was eager to seek out The Rise of Aurora West. We’d met Aurora West in Battling Boy as the recently orphaned (before our eyes) daughter of Arcopolis’ Science Hero Haggard West. The Rise takes us back to a time where Pope and Petty can flesh out a bit more of the mystery not only behind the up-and-coming hero of Aurora West, but the arrival and rise of the supernatural monsters terrorizing the city. You read with dread their development of a weapon to take down the elder West. The most compelling mystery for Aurora, of course, is the death of her mother and whether her imaginary friend was really all that imaginary–or harmless.

puzzling out the pieces

The ass-kicking adventures are tempered by familial implication and what a violent life-style costs. Haggard had to come to his own decisions about the monsters that haunt them, Aurora must as well. Haggard is driven by the desire to protect his daughter and avenge his wife. How might the ending of Rise and the events of Battling Boy affect the nature of Aurora’s own career as a hero of Arcopolis?

While the characterization in Battling was sound, it was good to learn more about Aurora’s background as well as become more familiar with her own Ms. Grately. Too, Rise sets up intriguing story lines for the next volume and the next issue of Battling Boy adventures. Rise functions successfully as a prequel, but it is a complex novel in its own right–one that would be a shame to miss.

Now for the art. I hadn’t thought nor expected a different illustrator. David Rubín is obviously talented, but I prefer Pope’s rendering of Aurora and company in Battling Boy. The smaller size to the novel was nice. It made me think Archie over epic fantasy superhero, but I was less taken with the aesthetic. The black and white befitting the size. And for a narrative told from Aurora’s POV, a shift in artwork suits the shift in mode.

Rise isn’t the current adventure, but a story of what was going on before Battling Boy arrived on the scene. In a genre that frequents artistic collaborations for design purposes or necessity, I should have better anticipated another hand. Rise sets itself apart from Battling in a good way, and an important way. You’ll want this volume (the first of two) for your collection–just adjust another expectation: that the volumes are not going to fit uniformly on the shelf. Not that Aurora could fit uniformly on a shelf somewhere. Watch out female comic book heroes.

{images belong to Paul Pope; J. T. Petty; David Rubín}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series

{comics} many happy returns

Zita-Cover-300rgbThe Return of Zita the Spacegirl

By Ben Hatke

First Second 2014.

Zita-Interior-FULL-91That the entirety of Ben Hatke’s The Return of Zita the Spacegirl is an epic jailbreak comes as no surprise. From the very first book in the series, Zita has been held against her will—or has she? We know her slip through the portal and into Space was an accident. We know she wants to return home. In the course of the first book, she discovers herself lost more than once and the second risks dangerous compromise. But since then, Zita has become the Spacegirl, how could she possibly go back?

The series has been packed with difficult choices for Zita. I consider such turmoil a favorite one of the adventures’ many charms. Too, that at the center of her conflicts are friendships and her desire to the right thing and do something meaningful. She rejects the accusation that she is “Zita the Crimegirl,” a “danger to society,” but Hatke throws that perspective out there. I mean, she did steal a spaceship and consort with known criminals. Then we come to learn that this particular adjudicator is corrupt. Heart matters, and it prevails; what it isn’t is painless.

Zita the Spacegirl has always been an entertaining adrenaline jolt of adventure with inventive creatures and awesome characters. Zita is sassy, earnest and resourceful. She is caring and yet heartless in the way children can be. Zita has also proven to be intelligently written by a storyteller willing to explore challenging situations that will resonate with his young audience. I love how Zita struggles to maintain courage in the face of difficult circumstances, and where she finds the friends and resources to help her along the way.* I love the persistent themes of identity and loneliness. Love how the forms of imprisonment vary.

Zita-Interior-FULL-141

I was reading through my reviews of books one and two and appreciate the consistency in this series. And Hatke’s stories do not wane, but rather quietly ups the ante. We reach a conclusion that leaves us reeling, literally. The fast-paced and heightened suspense of a spacegirl’s adventure pops and we are left with a wake.

The Return of Zita the Spacegirl was always going to be bittersweet, and Hatke does not disappoint. He writes in many returns and it is completely satisfying. He also writes a gorgeous twist or two. That ending is fantastic. I may have called Hatke a naughty name, but it was with the utmost affection as I laughed out loud and closed the book.

Must own. Add it to the back-to-school list. Shop for the Holidays already. But make sure your library (personal and/or private) has this series.

———-

*Notice how Hatke builds his heroes by trial rather than prophetic gifting. Notice how much the stories value imagination, grit, and daring.

{images are Ben Hatke’s}

fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series

{comic} brand spanking new, except not.

battlingboycoverBattling Boy by Paul Pope

First Second 2013.

One of the things I like about superhero comics is their ability to both maintain continuity and prove regenerative. Need to reboot a character or story? Will do. Has the essence of the hero and their story really changed? No. Even so, it is still hard to break into the superhero realm of comics. Someone is always there to remind you that you didn’t start reading that particular comic early enough, never mind that you have to be born in order to have done so. Comparing storylines and/or creators is a competitive sport and that in itself can be entertaining. I get it. It is also exhausting. It is exciting to have the opportunity to start at the actual beginning with the character for once.

Battling Boy is familiar to the tradition of old school superhero comics with the paneling, line work, and a pleasing color palette just this side of garish.

battling-boy-paul-pope

We begin with Battling Boy’s origin story. Yet to be referred to as any name other than Boy, our reluctant hero hails from the Hidden Gilded Realm. He is set up to perform heroic deeds for the Acropolis as his rite of passage (a rambling).

battling boy westsAnother hero is introduced in the figure of Aurora West, the daughter of the recently departed Acropolis hero Haggard West. Her apprenticeship under her father was cut tragically short, but she has nerve and weaponry. Her “Alfred” is the impressive womanly amputee Ms. Grately—the only family Aurora has left.

battling boy T RexThe villains are creepy, and the scale of some of the monsters ups the ante for our action heroes. Battling Boy’s arsenal is clever. I love the t-shirt idea (and not just for its merchandising potential). Pope evidences a well-thought out narrative. He amusingly considers the angles, like where Battling Boy is going to reside and cover expenses. The relationship between parents and child is pretty sweet, too. I am trying desperately not to anticipate some looming tragic circumstance, Aurora’s loss is sobering enough.battling-boy-paul-pope-first-second-2013

battling boy

I feel a bit late to the Battling Boy party, but only a little. And now I won’t have to wait so long for The Rise of Aurora West. Battling Boy’s second(ish) installment hits store shelves late September. Yes, already with a prequel and Miss West’s backstory told from her point of view (which we do get portions of in Battling Boy). As for the first prequel published (October 2013), not sure how dedicated I am to getting a hold of the one-shot copy of Haggard West’s story—I wouldn’t say no if you could get my hands on a copy of the limited release…

Paul Pope has hit the ground running with an Eisner for Battling Boy. Battling Boy and Aurora West promise and fantastic series of adventures to grow up with. Too, the series returns us to the warm fuzzy of old school superhero aesthetics, while being all shiny and new and clever with it.

———————

from Michael Cavna’s piece “Paul Pope: With Escapo and Battling Boy, 2014 Eisner Winner Deftly Blends the Old with the New” in the Washington Post

“There are all these classic superheroes we know, but [Battling Boy] is not another Spider-Man or Batman,” Pope says. It’s a new character — we don’t even know his name — and I think [that’s] appealing to kids.”

“With ‘Battling Boy,’ I’m trying to use the rhetoric of the classic Silver Age hero’s story, and tell a genuine story about this kind of coming-of-age — through the metaphor of a superhero being a young person moving into their own,[…] “But I’m doing it through the [comics] language of Jack Kirby, John Romita and Steve Ditko.”

“But kids are getting it for the first time,” he continues. “They’re not aware of Kirby or Romita or Ditko. They might know the Red Skull from the movie, but they’re not going to know him from the comic.

“I’m trying to make a new story using these old tools, I guess.”

———————

{images belong to Paul Pope, & remember to check out his site for more enticing fare}

"review" · concenter · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · short story · Tales · Uncategorized

{comics} lost islands & found creators

Explorer: The Lost Islands 

edited by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet Books (Abrams) 2013.

tradepaper, 128 pages, incl “about the creators.” Library Loan

The highly anticipated second volume to the critically acclaimed Explorer series, “The Lost Islands “is a collection of seven all-new stories written and illustrated by an award-winning roster of comics artists, with each story centered around the theme of hidden places. Edited by the “New York Times “bestselling comics creator Kazu Kibuishi, this graphic anthology includes well-written, beautifully illustrated stories by Kazu (the Amulet series), Jason Caffoe (the Flight series), Raina Telgemeier (“Drama “and “Smile”), Dave Roman (the Astronaut Academy series), Jake Parker (the Missile Mouse series), Michel Gagne (“The Saga of Rex”), Katie and Steven Shanahan (the Flight series), and up-and-coming new artist Chrystin Garland. –publisher’s comments

Can I begin a post about a Kazu Kibuishi affiliated anything without confessing what a fan-girl I am of his work? No. It is a goal of mine to not only own a collection of his work, but be able to gift some away. His Amulet series is an easy recommendation for instilling that comic book addiction in your young. But like his Flight anthologies for the older crowd, Explorer curates excellent talent in which to introduce the young to potential fan-girl and -boy obsessions with various industry creators. See my review of Explorer: Mystery Boxes here and lets take a look at this installment’s theme “hidden places.” [click creator name for link to their website. *=a favorite]

*”Rabbit Island” by Jake Parker (Missile Mouse, illus The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man) pp 4-19.

The rabbits have built a nice little utopia when one especially hard-working (and innovative) bunny salvages a robot and puts it to work alongside him.  Soon, it isn’t only the robot who becomes unrecognizable.

I really dig the color palette, it and the staining/wash and lettering bubbles reminds me of my worn out kids comics from well, ages ago when I was a kid. Not only does it work with the tale-quality of the comic, but it affords today’s youth the experience of their parent’s nostalgia with more contemporary sensibilities. In a way, it is like Will Eisner for kids, but with Jake Parker’s singular drawing arm. And may I say that I find the finish refreshingly absent of dramatic lighting–when I say ‘shiny!’ I want to employ the Whedon-esque meaning.

*”The Mask Dance” by Chrystin Garland pp 20-37 (d)

Nathaniel Hawthorne (minus the religious moral) meets one dancing princess in this mysterious and thrilling tale of a young lady’s night out.

The dark is just dark enough and the color dazzling into appropriately garish. The painterly quality helps animate and lend the light that artificial quality that tonally unsettles. An up-and-comer to watch.

“Carapace” by Jason Caffoe (lead production assistant for Amulet series, contributor for FlightExplorer) pp 38-55

You could easily create a moral from surviving and being nurtured by observing nature and finding a spirit guide, but “Carapace” is a story of friendship, of (im)moveable shelters. It is a nice twist on a deserted island story when the boy isn’t left completely abandoned nor is the island deserted.

Caffoe’s work with color is a stock & trade, but he tells a good story. There is a lot of text and a lot of setting, but there is also an eye for detail that draws the reader in. The island becomes less terrifying and more exotically beautiful, mimicking the camaraderie between boy and crab-ghost-from-the-shell.

{w/out text}

*”Desert Island Playlist” by Dave Roman (Astronaut AcademyTeen Boat!) & Raina Telgemeier (SmileDrama), colors by Braden Lamb (Adventure Time) pp 56-73. (d)

Wow, this one was creative with the playlist theme. The baby-toy is a stroke of genius and helps with the time-travel puzzle. I also appreciate that they aren’t willing to underestimate the youth-audience’s ability to get the “memory” pieces in juxtaposition to text and tale. This is a smart and beautiful story, but then it is Roman and Telgemeier.

The creators are good with movement and use the text with economy. They are as explicit with translating important visuals as is necessary, but engage the reader in creating meaning. The art is accessible, full of movement and just enough cartoon to lighten the tone.

“Loah” by Michel Gagne (The Saga of RexZED: A Cosmic Tale) pp 74-91.

Loah is a special creature, but what is even more remarkable is her friendship. She sees a way out of her crumbling world and she dreams for all of the others, and swears that her friendship helps her to do so.

The movement, like the story is sweeping, but the story itself small and deceptively simple. I am enjoying this thread of neither inhabiting nor leaving these hidden places alone. I’ve been impressed with the vibrant colors up to this point, but Gange’s piece is as magical as the tale he tells. 

“Radio Adrift” by Katie Shanahan (Womanthology: Heroic) & Steven Shanahan (sibling co-creators of Silly Kingdom), colors by Eric Kim & Selena Dizazzo pp. 92-109

Alright, so this one is just stinking cute. Mage-in-training, Wiya needs for her pixie egg to hatch and has attempted every sound possible. And then Radio Adrift drifts in for a limited time engagement. The focus turns outward, especially when Wiya recognizes that she has to refocus the conversation.

The style of artwork is fun, and I enjoy the light shift for the storytelling portion of the story told. This will be effortless in its candy colors, spunky characters and magical turn.

*”The Fishermen” by Kazu Kibuishi, colors by Jason Caffoe pp 110-27. (d)

The captain may have lost it (mentally and physically?), to the greed of a catch of a (literal) lifetime. The story uncovers hidden things both base and incredible, and with an old fisherman and his granddaughter at the helm it is a delightful short story.

Kibuishi is marvelous with scale as well as story. The characters are expressive. And the action sequences are fun, the illustrations managing a great deal of movement between steadying frames.

{images belong to respective artists. be sure to check out their sites, and of course, the book to enjoy more of their work!} {d=diversity in lit}