"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · recommend · Uncategorized

{comics} el deafo

El Deafo by Cece Bell.

Amulet Books 2014.

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it’s just another way of feeling different… and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend? —Publisher’s comments.

Besides making many of last year’s Best-Of lists, Cece Bell’s El Deafo has also been picking up significant Honors and Awards. You’ll hear it described as important, and the insight Bell is able to share from her childhood is, indeed, valuable. I love just how familiar the character Cece is, despite her bunny-like appearance. Cece is flawed and more than occasionally frustrated and frustrating.

Many will find Cece humorous; and likely charming when she begins to identify with Batman and creates a super-heroic identity all her own in El Deafo. I think I either under- or over-identified with her earnestness to be normal and befriended. The angst felt stretched and I desired a few chapters fewer. When we tell our children that it may take time, trial and error to find a good friend, we usually hope for and suggest the BFF will show up within two errors. However, it really does take a while to learn how to communicate, to read others’ lips (words/actions) and to articulate for ourselves.

 

El Deafo is really well thought-out. It wasn’t an easy read for me, entertainment-wise, but I could immediately appreciate just how well-crafted it is, how coherent it continues to be into second and third readings. I loathe to fall into the fallacy of guessing authorial intent, but the immovable yellow box of text manning the upper edges of panels had to make sense of itself. It otherwise needed to move. (And if you find it difficult to deal with in the first half, you’ll learn to adjust to it in the end.) I questioned the choice of a bunny and the adorable-ness of the artwork in a book I wanted to pitch to the upper-grade-schoolers reading Raina Teglemeier’s Smile and Sisters. I understand the genius behind choosing an animal that is all about their ears in a book about hearing. I can get how seeing yourself as different could manifest in a decision to use an ‘other.’ For readers who are moving away from perceived childishness, it reminds us that one thing that transcends childhood is fear of isolation and loneliness. Okay, that was depressing—and the book is not depressing. El Deafo is just quite realistic and in need of the anthropomorphic.

El Deafo is going to be educational. El Deafo is going to remind people that graphic novels make for great literature for young people—especially the young grade-schoolers who won’t mind this becoming a part of their summer reading lists. It is going to make us all more thoughtful about what and how we communicate with one another. We can get creative and imagine the ways and means to cope with difficult situations.

Spoilers: Cece does find a healthy friendship by novel’s end. She learns a great deal about herself and others along the way. She’s pretty special as characters go, because she is so incredibly (painfully, at times) normal.

——

Of note: “A Note from the Author” is excellent reading as well, so do not forgo it.

recommended: for readers of Teglemeier Smile and Sisters, Hatke’s Zita Spacegirl, and Gownley’s Amelia Rules!  It will likely appeal more to readers of issue-driven books like Wonder (Palacio), Out of My Mind (Draper), and Mango-Shaped Space (Mass), but I wouldn’t eliminate those leaning toward Fantasy.

{images are Cece Bell’s}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · young adult lit

{comic} the art of shadows

will and whit coverWill & Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge

Amulet (Abrams), 2013. Trade Paper, 192 pages including “soundtrack,” author’s “inspiration board” for book, & recipe for “Blue Crush Cookies. ages 12 & up.

Laura Lee Gulledge’s debut Page by Paige (2011) involved not only a great story about moving to a new place, finding new friends, romantic drama, and discovering the self, but it was full of inspiration for creative-minded readers and indie-scene and nerd-world allusions. Her sophomore return of story, inspiration, and pop culture is just as satisfying.

“This is the story of how I escaped my shadow.” Will (end of “chapter one”)

Will and Whit Illustration

Wilhemina “Will” Huckstep is all about old fashioned things, helping out her Aunt at the family antique shop, creating lamps out of found objects, and “unplugged” summer adventures with her friends before her senior year of high school. But as Hurricane Whitney charges towards her small Virginia town, so does the one year anniversary of her parents death. And with the promise of an extended blackout, her fear of the dark intensifies. Fortunately, Will is not alone. She has a loving aunt, her best friends Autumn and Noel, and a new creative venture (replete with new pals) when she discovers an arts carnival has been formed in town.

will sample 2a

When Will talks about the shadows that haunt, Gulledge interprets them into shapes that relay the underlying anxieties Will is dealing with as the everyday of her summer progresses. The bicycle takes on a shadow of a bicycle built for 3, saddles empty but for Will’s. The shadow of the house is a row of headstones. Life is moving forward despite them, and Will seems determined to continue with it, constructing lamps to ward off the dark corners and still moments where painful things intrude. The storm facilitates a confrontation, but hers isn’t the only conflict.

willwhitNoel, the only male of a trio of friends, has been harboring a crush on Autumn for a long while. But she isn’t going to wait around forever—not that she is terribly ambitious, which is a lament of her highly-motivated Indian physician parents. Noel is perusing Culinary Schools, but Autumn despairs of pursuing much more than her Puppetry, and even there she is shy.

Noel’s younger sister Reese is the light-spirited buoy of the novel, humorously negotiating the necessary shift from IM to in-person gossip and event documentation. Her artistic pursuit? jewelry. The Arts Carnival introduces Ava (a songstress), Blake (dancer), and Desmond (movie maker) as well as potential love interests and a venue for pushing the artists to the next level—which for Will, may be sculpture.

There are plenty of fears going around and while Gulledge does not treat them lightly, she has a deft hand at bringing her characters and story together without sinking the boat early and asking us to tread through suffocating angsts. She tackles hard issues and contemplates different ways of channeling ideas and emotional energies.

I need to try out the soundtrack set out for each chapter. We have most of the songs. Even still, I love their inclusion.  And I have to say that Gulledge’s pop culture references are hug-worthy. I was geeked to read the Sally Sparrow quote (from Doctor Who’s “Blink”), an allusion to Lord of the Rings, and in the cemetery there are headstones for Rory & Amy Williams (shared), Wash (Firefly/Serenity), Joyce Summers and Tara Maclay (Buffy).

I continue to find the storytelling aspect of Gulledge’s b/w illustrations really attractive and fun. Will & Whit is beautifully-fashioned. Gulledge’s work is easy to recommend, and I can’t wait to see what she will come up with next.

WillWhit019-final-660x335-1378827184

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recommendations… girls & boys 12+, if one likes stories about friendship, family and/or contemporary dramas; accessible to fans of comics or no; certainly for the creative-minded, music-scene-infatuated, and/or nerd-girl (or -boy); are fans of Hope Larson, as her work came immediately to mind (which is a good thing).

a concenter-quality read: significant characters of color, diverse community.

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book trailertumblr project bk site (incl. musical)–

my review of Page by Paige

{images belong to Laura Lee Gulledge}

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · series

{book} a rebel alliance

origami yoda jabba the puppettThe Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett: An Origami Yoda Book

by Tom Angleberger

Amulet Books, 2013

hardcover, 208 pages + folding instructions.

Dark times have fallen on McQuarrie Middle School. Dwight’s back—and not a moment too soon, as the gang faces the FunTime Menace: a new educational program designed to raise students’ standardized test scores. Instead, it’s driving everyone crazy with its obnoxious videos of Professor FunTime and his insidious singing calculator! When Principal Rabbski cancels the students’ field trip—along with art, music, and LEGO classes—to make time for FunTime, the students turn to Origami Yoda for help. But some crises are too big for Origami Yoda to handle alone: Form a Rebel Alliance the students must. United, can they defeat the FunTime Menace and cope with a surprise attack from Jabba the Puppett?—publisher’s comments

When I held this up in triumph, coming out of the Library, my 13 year old sighed. With the wisdom of a new 8th grader she had to wonder over the plausibility of middle-schoolers with finger puppets. Did I mention she is attending an Art School? I will ask her again mid-year. Meanwhile I wondered, “Do you not interact with your male classmates?!” I also reminded her that she does interact with her male classmates in math class over geek-sessions regarding certain Doctors both Horrible and Who. I am going to convince her to read The Secret of The Fortune Wookie which is all about celebrating the awesome existence of the SFF nerd-girl. As it was, the brief conversation of shrugs ended with mine, “I find them entertaining, and very pleasantly dangerous.”

I’m sure there are those who see the obvious Star Wars tie-ins and think “gimmick” or clever merchandising and continue on to check-out with it or dismiss them out of hand. The clever isn’t in gaining Lucasfilm Limited’s permission, it’s in convincing people that these are harmless easy pop culture fare that are sure to entice the reluctant male reader. Really the intelligence is in the way Tom Angleberger captures the angst, quirk and wit of middle-grade humans, encourages them to continue as such and gives them a voice.

In The Surprise Attack, fears anticipated in the previous novel are realized. The art, music, drama, LEGO-robotics, yearbook, field trips…and yes, even sports are cancelled and replaced with the FunTime educational program designed to send the sane screaming to the fields, I mean, get those standardized test scores back up. Feeling frustrated and powerless, Tommy and others turn to a figure who (however uncannily) has yet to let them down. Under the advice of Origami Yoda (as wielded by the returned Captain Dwight), the Origami Rebel Alliance is formed and Star Wars characters are dispensed with the Origami Yoda characters in mind. [Part of the entertainment in these books is how Angleberger finesses Star Wars story-lines and characters into a vision that is very much his own.] Yes, Angleberger empowers his middle-school students to rebel against the powers that be.

“That’s the crazy thing about this whole rebellion business. You can’t always tell who is going to be a rebel and who’s just going to be lame.” ~Tommy

Protest takes several forms through the course of The Surprise Attack. A few of the core ideas found in the advice: consider risk, timing, and focus. Selfish motives aren’t going to wash, like not wanting to do sit-ups in P.E. The book advocates peaceful protest, for example, Remi would like to do something about colossally annoying path-hogging behavior. In the book it is the three BFFs walking down the hall in a line at their own pace oblivious (or uncaring) that no one can get by. On Larimer it is the three-to-five-or-eight mimicking aforementioned behavior but with the added frustration of teasing you with small gaps that you really wish you could negotiate. Sometimes Angleberger’s books find an echo in the most unexpected ways. Remi and company come up with a plan (with Origami Yoda’s encouragement). It’s good stuff. There are petitions, letters, education and recruitment, fearful explanations to parents…

Arguments are made from different sides: the administrators concerned with public opinion and money and their students’ future;parent’s concerned with their children respect of authority, mental health (i.e. maturity), and their academic career present and future; young people concerned about their whole education and being competitive with their peers at other schools as they proceed into, you know, their future. The challenge is in seeking out the right solution to the problem at hand and marshaling forces behind it. The adults (at first) appear to only need to be in an immediate position of authority. The young people in the novel (and outside of it) must learn to articulate their concerns and persuade others to their side—as well as figure out how to adjust to those surprises that crop up—especially the one involving Jabba the Puppett.

Angleberger does drama and humor well, and most importantly he is thoughtful about it. He is entertaining, and he translates a lot of human anxiety into brave smiles, but he is also very careful with what he would have his audience know. Rebellion is a complex topic and one he tackles rather deftly—you get that much of the novel’s aplomb stems from the author’s confidence in his young characters and their readers.

The novel ends on with one of those “to be continued” ellipses after creating more intrigue than it resolves. Will the Alliance succeed? Is the Dwight/Origami Yoda mystery really as schizophrenic as it appeared in this novel? Will Harvey reveal his hidden crush?*

——————————————–

recommendations: boys, girls, 9-12, not only for fans of Star Wars, though there are references galore. a good read together series… like paper folding, crafty in general, read humor, and/or you live in Texas and attend public schools…

*I’m betting it’s Sara. Watch out Tommy.

L’s previous Origami Yoda book reviews (wherein you’ll get more of my response to the writing style, etc.)

(#1) The Strange Case of Origami Yoda 

(#2) Darth Paper Strikes Back

(#3) The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee

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

{book} the secret of the fortune wookiee

Tom Angleberger is a household favorite. [After borrowing it from the Library, Natalya insisted on owning Fake Mustache —review pending, but know she has read it and referenced it often.] I think Origami Yoda is brilliant and was pleased at how well Darth Paper followed suit. Needless to say, The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee was a must.

The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee: An Origami Yoda Book by Tom Angleberger

Amulet Books, 2012.

hardcover, 190 pages + paper folding instructions (which are available here, too).

Library borrowed.

With Dwight attending Tippett Academy this semester, the kids of McQuarrie Middle School are on their own—no Origami Yoda to give advice and help them navigate the treacherous waters of middle school. Then Sara gets a gift she says is from Dwight—a paper fortune-teller in the form of Chewbacca. It’s a Fortune Wookiee, and it seems to give advice that’s just as good as Yoda’s—even if, in the hands of the girls, it seems too preoccupied with romance. In the meantime, Dwight is fitting in a little too well at Tippett. Has the unimaginable happened? Has Dwight become normal? It’s up to his old friends at McQuarrie to remind their kooky friend that it’s in his weirdness that his greatness lies.
With his proven knack for humorously exploring the intrigues, fads, and dramas of middle school, Tom Angleberger has crafted a worthy follow-up to his breakout bestsellers The Strange Case of Origami Yoda andDarth Paper Strikes Back.—Publisher’s comments.

I know that boys have and will gravitate toward this series, and it is good that they do, but I really encourage the girls to take them up as well—they will especially enjoy Fortune Wookiee. And maybe I am just biased, but I think geeked-out girls are awesome. And awesomeness is a concern in Fortune Wookiee.

Who likes boring? I’m with Tommy, I would choose weird over boring any day. Fortunately for Tommy, he soon finds school weird enough to warrant a case file and is able to leave boring behind. Tommy finds himself faced with two major questions: What force is driving the Fortune Wookie and what is going on with Dwight at his new school?

Students and staff at Dwight’s new school believe they are being Understanding and caring, and Dwight thinks normal is a benefit, but I think any reader will share Caroline, Tommy, and even Harvey’s sense of panic in this situation. Dwight is rapidly losing that which makes him awesome; awesome, not “special.” “Special” is a demoralizing term here and makes anyone not-normal into an object to be pitied rather than a person only looking for acceptance (quirks included). It becomes increasingly creepy how “Understanding” and its principles seem to have a homogenizing effect on the students. The interesting thing about the criticism the book offers is how it functions as more of a cautionary tale than an all-out-dismissal of the intentions behind the actions. So much comes down to how well we know people and make the effort to understand them as they are—presently. Yes, there is a bit about people changing and growing up—something Middle Schoolers would really like people to notice.

The comedic episodes that make up the case file (aka The Fortune Wookie) have plenty say to its young readers even as it commiserates with them. How do we survive middle school with our singular sense of self intact? and seriously, what is the Big Pink, grandma? It is Angleberger’s sense of humor and personality-rich characters that make this read as fun as it is meaningful.

-{left: Han Foldo translates for Chewbacca, of course}

recommendations: any and all middle-grade student, Star Wars fan or no, though fans will get the references the easiest.  (I would love for a Whovian to do a series in Angleberger’s fashion.) for those who like humor; stories about friendship; are interested in activism; and dig origami or kirigami.

of note: >>It helps to read these books in order; Angleberger finesses some of the smoothest transitions between books in a series I’ve seen, but there is a lot of development over its course. >>Angleberger introduces a thread that makes for a highly anticipated next book. Principal Rabbski is implementing a new program that means “so long Arts & Music Ed”…all electives actually. I love how he addresses Middle School concerns beyond relationship troubles. Spend five minutes with N or friends on the subject of music, art, drama, etc. in schools and you will know these young people are not dispassionate on the subject of what is happening in their schools and with their education.

From Origamiyoda.wordpress on the next book

Art2-D2′s Guide to Folding and Doodling: An Origami Yoda Activity Book

Coming in March!
(see, I told you it would be pretty soon!)

This IS a case file, but it’s Kellen’s case file. (Tommy gets a few words in, too. And — unavoidably! — so does Harvey!)

It will be full of instrux for all kinds of stuff. I am really excited about and have worked like crazy on it. I hope you guys are going to like it!!!

And what of Rabbski and The FunTime Menace? Stay tuned….

my reviews of Origami Yoda (2010) and Darth Paper Strikes Back (2011)

{images belong to Abrams (of which Amulet is an imprint)}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · music · recommend · young adult lit

{comic} Page by Paige

Natalya had been acting more peculiar than usual. I figured it was the lingering effects of David Almond’s My Name is Mina which inspired all sorts of strange yet creative behavior. After finally getting to Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge, a comic I had picked up at the Library and N had read and raved about, I understood. In fact, after I finished it, I handed it to Sean and said, “You might should read this.”

In understanding, of course, I worried. “Please, tell me I am not like the mom,” I whispered to N; because sometimes I feel like I must be wearing a Mrs. Smiley-face mask in an effort to make everything appear normal, or at the very least more vibrant and optimistic. It comes with the “I’m your mom” kit. It comes with knowing there are decisions parents have to and will make that will cause their children difficulty. It can come with the resentment or exasperation of the child—at least those who are very observant and highly intuitive—and who don’t appreciate the effort. Sometimes we don’t know when to take the mask on or off, especially with our aging children. N put her arm around my shoulder and squeezed, “You’re not.” And then we talk about the story, because while the mom is the focus of some of Paige’s angst, there is so much more.

When Paige’s parents move her family from Virginia to New York City, Paige doesn’t know where she fits in anymore. At first, the only thing keeping her company is her notebook, where she pours her worries and observations and experiments with her secret identity: ARTIST. With the confidence the book brings her, she starts to make friends and shake up her family’s expectations. But is she ready to become the person she draws in her notebook?

Laura Lee Gulledge’s stunning art digs deep into the soul and exposes all the ups, downs, and sideways feelings of being a young adult on the edge of the rest of your life. ~back copy

It was interesting to me how isolated the artistic Paige feels from her parents who are both writers, “I don’t feel totally like myself around them. I bite my tongue a lot. It just makes things easier.” I guess it goes to show parents and children are parents and children, even if they are all artists. But you do quickly come to understand that a sense of routine and expectation has settled into the household, and indeed Paige’s life. And where the move creates an opportunity for Paige to take some risks, maintaining “normalcy” is a natural desire on the part of the family as well. Ah, the conflicts of change…

Page by Paige is an angst-ridden read. Paige is necessarily self-absorbed, a situation she (&/or the author) acknowledges here and there. But the book is her “notebook” where she illustrates her inner life. The transitions of external and internal are part of the charm,and Gulledge has a gift for rendering a narrative without a lot of text; although at points there is a lot of text. Her illustrations are very appealing, I think they would especially resonate with the young audiences of the book; the imagery is highly accessible.

As Paige meets and makes friends, finds a boyfriend, and stretches her artistic muscles, Gulledge creates an optimistic atmosphere of change. She also inspires the reader’s own creativity. Paige takes risks, the positive kinds. Vulnerable in sharing her work, she takes a leap and entrusts it with friends (and later family). She learns the art and pleasure of collaboration. She enacts some cool art projects; the notebook, of course, being a first great idea—inspired by her artist grandmother. Paige’s grandmother came up with a set of “Sketchbook Rules” and the chapters of the book follow these rules. The first is “No more excuses! Draw a few pages each week. Buy a sketchbook.” More than the rules and the notebooks, Paige talks her new friends into projects that are community oriented, or challenge themselves to grow as individuals and artists.

{image from Author’s/Paige’s blogsite, see links below}

The pages are black and white and Gulledge leaves no page to simple panel lay out. Yes, that phrase “a feast for the eyes” comes to mind. It is a “notebook” and for the most part the images and texts are not hard to follow. Pages 8-9 were difficult. One of those, I don’t know how she could have refigured the lay-out, but tracking wasn’t smooth (I tested this on S and N). There were a few other moments of visual gymnastics. So sometimes the rule “Keep It Simple Stupid” was not adhered to. I would like to think that the trickier parts were nice thematic additions, but such thoughts didn’t stick. A minor quibble nevertheless. Page by Paige is a fun book to look at.

The creativity at play may deceive the page-flipper into the thinking the novel a light read. It is actually quite dramatic. The romance portion is sweet, but the friendship and familial angst, to say nothing of the inner drama of constructing an identity, has some weight. Like Paige herself, you get that there is a lot going on with the other characters as well. Their initial introductions of personality take on some nuance; especially with Jules. I really like that Paige makes friends with fellow creative types who deal with identity as an artist and its risks, too. The reader, in a way, becomes just another part of their group, commiserating and becoming excited by like-minded souls. They get to geek-out with one another, dissolving any feelings of loneliness and drawing Paige (and Reader) out of their head, to live and engage in the present.

While Paige is finding a satisfying fullness in her inner life and in her outer life with friends, home life has yet to catch up—something she feels the need to remedy (thank goodness). Having grown in confidence, she takes the initiative. Like many situations in the book, it is a bit awkward at the onset but nevertheless heartfelt. One of the most important things Gulledge does marvelously in Page by Paige, is sincerity. As an artist and educator who also grew up in Virginia and moved to New York, Ms. Gulledge translates a rich inner life of Paige onto the page.

One added pleasure to the reading experience: the music/band references.  No doubt N really responded to these inclusions as well. I smiled seeing Badly Drawn Boy scribbled across a character’s tee. There is a “Page by Paige Soundtrack” at the back of the book with a list of bands referenced (e.g. Regina Spektor, Broken Social Scene, Sigur Ros). Another smile: Paige reading Brian Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man.

recommendations: for the artists in the family; fans of comics or no; primarily girls, but I wouldn’t discount the boys on this one; it’s a gentle coming of age; middle-school and up; lovers of music.

of note: I have every intention of gifting N with a copy of this book with a fresh notebook for her writing and a request to participate in and encourage the growth of her artist identity. I think this a good enough idea to share. Maybe I will go with her to pick out her journal, some pens… Maybe we could take a friend or two along… Page by Paige is certainly one to share.

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Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge

Amulet Books, 2011

tradepaper

Paige’s blog

{all images are Laura Lee Gulledge’s}

"review" · Children's · comics/graphic novels · recommend · short story · Uncategorized

{comic} explorer: the mystery boxes

I adore both the Flight and Explorer (for the youth) anthologies, and not because I also adore Kazu Kibuishi. These are great venues to read wonderful stories and find new Artists to pursue. Explorer: The Mystery Boxes is a collection of comics centered around a story object–a mystery box. Each of the 7 stories “represent a unique take on the idea of a “mystery box”” (publisher).

a quick note: you know I love image heavy reviews of comics, but do check out the links (click author name) to get an idea of their work. thanks!

“Under the Floorboards” by Emily Carroll

that creepy wax doll in the box may seem like a good idea at the time, but well…

  “Spring Cleaning” by Dave RomanRaina Telgemeier

why messy closets and hoarding might not be the worst thing when there are greedy wizards on the loose.

 “The Keeper’s Treasure” by Jason Caffoe

ah, the things cartographers and treasure hunters miss.

The Butter Thief” by Rad Sechrist

some house spirits can be a bit fractious when they don’t get their butter.

“The Soldier’s Daughter” by Stuart Livingston (w/ Stephanie Ramirez)

lessons captured in boxes that the most impetuous of us need to learn.

“Whatzit” by  Johane Matte (w/ Saymone Phanekham)

when nepotism, unmarked boxes, and office pranks go awry.

“The Escape Option” by Kazu Kibuishi

a brave young man makes a tough choice, but the right one.

The stylistic approaches to story differ, but there is a consistency in the color and production quality. Of course, I favored some pieces over some of the others, but there will be at least one story for everyone in the family. Sharing the read may lead to a fun activity of writing and/or illustrating one’s own mystery box story.

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Explorer: The Mystery Boxes edited by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet Books (Abrams), 2012

hardcover (library binding), 128 pages (to include a page about the contributors).

"review" · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend

…The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset

Horton Halfpott

or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor

or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset

by Tom Angleberger (w/illus. by author)

Amulet Books, 2011

206 pages, hardcover.

Loved Origami Yoda* so when I saw Mr. Angleberger had another due, I requested it from the Library…yes, it took this long.

“There are so many exciting things in this book—a Stolen Diamond, snooping stable boys, a famous detective, the disappearance of a Valuable Wig, love, pickle éclairs, unbridled Evil, and the Black Deeds of the Shipless Pirates—that it really does seem a shame to begin with ladies underwear” (1).

It was an odd segue to finish watching BBC’s Downton Abbey: Season One (2010) and begin reading Horton Halfpott. Downton Abbey is a series about both the family and the servants who live in the palatial home called Downton. In Horton Halfpott the invisible workings of an aristocratic estate is also featured—Horton being the humblest member of the staff—a kitchen boy, doomed to wash dishes and polish silver for a mere penny a week.  However, I am guessing that a middle-grade boy would find Downton Abbey considerably less interesting than Horton Halfpott, despite the fact that both harbor “unbridled Evil.” For one, there are yet to be any Shipless Pirates, and, two, it would be highly improper to discuss ladies underwear or heroes’ armpits in Downton Abbey.

So Horton Halfpott isn’t nighttime telly or PBS Masterpiece Theater. Nor was it meant. And while Tom Angleberger cites Charles Dickens as inspiration, the 203 pages of Horton Halfpott is considerably more lightly weighted. The narrator caters to the middle-grader who partakes in juvenile humor, knows about various smells, and cares only to stomach the slightest hint of romance—okay, so maybe not just the middle-grader.

The Narrator is a storyteller eager to share this story about Horton Halfpott, and how “the Loosening” made way for all kinds “Unprecedented Marvels.” The Dear Reader is energetically addressed as one who is sure to find the comedy and the heart in Horton Halfpott’s story; as one who can empathize; and as one who can smile at the appropriately “inappropriate” times.

 “When Portnoy S. Pomfrey solved the Case of the Sultan’s Sapphire, the sultan kindly offered to reward St. Pomfrey with anything he wished. St. Pomfrey asked for the hand of the sultan’s daughter in marriage.

When the sultan pointed out that his daughter was already married with three children, St. Pomfrey said he would settle for the “magnificent carriage” parked behind the sultan’s palace instead.

The sultan was too polite to tell St. Pomfrey that this was really the Royal Outhouse. Instead, he ordered the outhouse set on wheels and shipped to England. St. Pomfrey has ridden in it ever since, always wondering about the lingering odor and lack of windows.”(49-50)

Horton Halfpott isn’t a naughty, mischievous boy protagonist just for the sake of it. And he tries to do what is right, even when everyone else is “misbehaving.” He has to be his own person, and  clever, and brave. And he still figuring out what that means exactly.

“Horton was undergoing a Loosening of his own. […] Perhaps, he began to realize, not every preposterous pronouncement of M’Lady Luggeruck needed to be obeyed. Nor every tyrannical decree of Miss Neversly. Nor every unwritten law of propriety that prevented kitchen boys from befriending young ladies” (140).

The characters are marvelously ridiculous; though not to be dismissed, of course. Many are quite dangerous. The ones who hold the power are most especially threatening. Alas, the adventure wouldn’t be much of one without peril, and the villains wouldn’t be nearly so terrifying if they hadn’t resembled Luther, or M’Lady, or the spoon-wielding cook Ms. Neversly.

It is wonderful that the corset is not an Enhancer, but a tormentive restriction that creates the greater horror that is M’Lady Luggertuck. “Imagine being pinched like that day after day, year after year. It could make a nice lady into a mean one. So imagine what it would do to a lady like M’Lady Luggertuck, who was a nasty beast to start” (2). Better is how the corset comes to symbolize repression and indignity in varying degrees for all the characters (and greater society). [Don’t worry, it’s subtle enough.]

One thing I love about the narrative is how the narrator will reference another story—nothing Literary I assure you.

(You’ll notice that forks were not mentioned. Faithful readers will remember that M’Lady Luggertuck had had a fear of forks ever since the events recounted in “M’Lady Luggertuck Hires a Tattooed Nanny.”) (55).

Or

“Old Crotty soon discovered that someone had ransacked M’Lady Luggertuck’s writing desk! This upset M’Lady Luggertuck greatly, since she had several letters in that desk that it would have been best if no one else had ever read. (See “M’Lady Luggertuck Meets a Handsome Frenchman.”)” (66)

There is plenty of comedy and adventure in the course of a mystery of a stolen diamond, and the narrator is keen to engage the reader in it. I think you should oblige him or her. You can save Downton Abbey for another time.

**************

Horton Halfpott had me thinking of Kate McMullen’s fantastic chapter book series Dragon Slayers’ Academy (Grosset & Dunlap); we read this series to Natalya when she was in early elementary school–fun for the whole family.

Don’t let this be only a boy’s book, girl’s will appreciate–at the very least–the character Celia, a independently thinking girl who is quick, and owns a bicycle.

*my review of Origami Yoda.

and Darth Paper Strikes Back comes out late August 2011! yay!

Book’s website.