Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Thousand Words

Thank you, Brian Selznick. Well, actually, I'm sure I can't ascribe the relatively recent ascendancy of graphic novels and other books with important visual elements entirely to him, or rather to his award-winning, about-to-be-a-movie The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but it sure as Dante's Inferno didn't hurt. Shaun Tan helped, too, I'm sure of it. Oh, and Marvel Comics. Don't forget them. Plus Marjane Satrapi and Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale. Not to mention Jarrett J. "I Can't Spell His Name without Looking but at Least I Can Spell Scieszka" Krosoczka. At any rate, we're seeing some really wonderful graphic novels and variations thereof.

The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Rebecca Guay

One that has been received with less fanfare than I would like is The Last Dragon. Apparently Jane Yolen had a great time creating Foiled (2010) because she's back with another GN, though it has a very different style. Foiled was low fantasy, but The Last Dragon is good old, glorious high fantasy, complete with village blacksmiths and herbalists and that titular dragon. The book has been published for the adult fantasy market, by the way, but it has definite YA appeal—and nothing in particular to worry parents of teens, if you don't count the baby who gets eaten by a dragon (offstage).

Despite the book's traditional trappings and its lush look, created by Rebecca Guay, it is not your great-grandmother's fairy tale. Oh, it reads like a fairy tale, but Yolen throws in some semi-scathing ideas about what makes a hero, or how a real hero might be made: from encouragement, foolhardiness, and kite strings.

Our story begins in a far-off land, on the island known as Meddlesome, where, unbeknownst to humans, the very last dragon's egg has stirred and begun to hatch. Meanwhile, a village herbalist is raising three daughters—practical, dour Rosemary; beautiful, empty-headed Sage; and talented, disobedient Tansy, who is a trial to her mother.

When Tansy and her father discover a plant called fireweed or flamewort, they dismiss the legends that say it only grows when dragons are around. Then Tansy's father disappears, and Tansy wonders if the legends might be true. At last the dragon is sighted; it has quickly developed a taste for humans and their beasts. The villagers gather rather hopelessly to plan their defense. One strategy is to send some of the village boys by boat to the mainland to fetch back a hero.

Naturally, the boys find all sorts of liars and thieves. At last they find a man who looks like a hero, but it's up to Tansy to shape this con artist into the real thing. And there is still the dragon to be defeated, one way or another.

Yolen's text is well paced and well written, as always. Guay's artwork flows beautifully around the words, burnished in dull golds and greens with touches of red throughout, so that the whole thing appears to have been painted on parchment.

Here's an excerpt from early in the story:
The isles ran red and dark with dragon blood till all of them were gone.

Or so the humans believed.

Two hundred years later:

At sunset the low tide scrapes the beach, pulling cold fingers through the sand and rock.

One great mother tree, older than the long-ago dragons, feels her roots loosening. Slowly, like a mountain, she falls with a crash into the water, giving up her adopted child, the egg she has cradled for so long.

This book is more for the fantasy lover than for the comic book crowd, though hero Lancot is deliberately drawn in ironic imitation of all those chesty superheroes. Overall, The Last Dragon is rendered as if it were a retelling of a lost fairy tale. The first few pages evoke medieval manuscripts, in fact. It's a beautiful book, and it's going on the shelf with my growing collection of excellent graphic novels.

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

This YA graphic novel is garnering starred reviews right and left, and no wonder. Anya's Ghost is a perfect rendering of what it means to be an outsider, or at least, to feel like one, which is more to the point. The book also has fascinating things to say about crushes and being true to oneself.

Anya is a Russian immigrant who's trying very hard not to come across like one. Having arrived in the U.S. in kindergarten, she has dropped her accent and learned to blend in. She tries very hard to avoid a more recent Russian immigrant, Dima, hoping she won't be lumped in with him.

After an embarrassing incident at school, Anya flees into a little wooded area and falls into a deep hole. At the bottom, she isn't just frightened by her predicament; she discovers a skeleton and meets the ghost of another girl who fell down the hole and was never found.

It will give you an idea of Brosgol's humor to learn that when Anya's shouting brings a teenage boy to the top of her prison and she yells, "HEY, GET HELP! GET SOMEBODY! I'M HURT!" he calls down, "Are you a hot chick? You kind of sound like a hot chick." Anya makes a priceless face and then replies, "Incredibly hot. You cannot even begin to imagine."

Thanks to a little bone that has somehow gotten in her backpack, Anya's ghost follows her home. At first the ghost seems sweet, telling Anya her sad tale of a soldier boyfriend lost in the war, a vicious attack on her family, and that fateful fall down the hole. Emily begins to help Anya with her tests in school and with getting the attention of Anya's crush, a basketball player. She even pushes Anya to get invited to a party where Sean will be and helps her pick out an outfit. A really slutty outfit.

Huh? Is this simply a matter of bad taste? Well, no. Let's just say that Emily is not quite the person she said she was, and it may not be easy to get rid of her. Watch out, Anya—you've been haunted!

I don't know which I like more, the ghost plot or the way the rest of Anya's life is portrayed, from her mother studying for the citizen test to her quarrel with best friend Siobhan and her fears about being fat. No, wait, I love Brosgol's depiction of the horrors of high school gym class!

Anya's Ghost is a fresh and perfectly aimed story about teenage fears. I'm sure someone could have a field day with the symbolism of the ghost as the dark side of any girl, let alone Anya, but you don't need to go all "literary analysis" to enjoy this terrific graphic novel. Just relish the storytelling. And make sure there aren't any finger bones in your backpack.

Note for Worried Parents: There is quite a bit of smoking in this book, also a teen party and a boy who obviously uses girls sexually. Everything is handled tastefully, however, with a positive message about not caving to peer pressure or trying to please a boy.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg and a bunch of illustrious writers

As Lemony Snicket explains in his introduction, for many years, teachers have used The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg as a set of great story starters. The book is a collection of marvelous illustrations, each with a cryptic sentence or two that just begs for more.

Here, in this new volume, is the more. That is, some bright soul got the idea of having a group of well-respected authors write short stories to go with the mysterious illustrations. The writers are, in order of appearance in the book, Lemony Snicket (introduction), Tabitha King (Stephen's wife), Jon Scieszka (told you I could spell it), Sherman Alexie, Gregory Maguire, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Linda Sue Park, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, M.T. Anderson, Louis Sachar, Chris Van Allsburg himself, and Stephen King.

The phrase "a veritable who's who" comes to mind.

Now, it's been my experience that short story collections tend to contain 1-2 great stories, 4-5 good stories, and several that don't cut it. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick beats this trend to some extent. There aren't any truly rotten stories in the book. However, there are certainly some standouts. The other thing I noticed is that at least half the stories seemed better suited to an adult audience than to kids. Here is a brief commentary on each one:

"Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" by Tabitha King—It may take a few pages for the reader to realize that the narrator is a special needs child, perhaps a boy with Down's Syndrome. This is a lyrical story about baseball, the moon, and imagination, but its beauty may not be appreciated by children as much as it will be by adults.

"Under the Rug" by Jon Scieszka—The mastermind behind the Guys Read project gives us a humorous horror story with unapologetically gruesome boy appeal. It's about a boy, his grandma, and a lump beneath the rug. Also about the way kids clean house, which is to say, not very diligently. Fun suspense with a twist. (See guy wielding chair, below left.)

"A Strange Day in July" by Sherman Alexie—The brother and sister twins in this story aren't at all nice. In fact, as the author points out often, they are strange. But these budding sociopaths, the terrors of the community, may just get their own when they invent another sister. I wouldn't share this tale with anyone under the age of 10, but it is creepy-cool.

"Missing in Venice" by Gregory Maguire—Magical realism blossoms into fantasy in this satisfying story of a boy adrift in Venice, at the mercy of his money-hungry stepmother and her scorpion of a lawyer now that Linus's father has died. When Linus meets the Queen of Gingerbread and steals something from her, everything changes.

"Another Place, Another Time" by Cory Doctorow—An old-fashioned story about a boy whose father goes to sea. It is also about the physics of space and especially time. The science dialogue feels a little dry, but the discovery of the old handcar, which Gilbert and his friends christen Kalamazoo, adds wonder and adventure to the narrative.

"Uninvited Guests" by Jules Feiffer—I wasn't in love with this story of a children's book illustrator whose creations come to life after his wife leaves him and his house catches on fire. What starts out as Alice in Wonderland ends up being about death, with a very adult sensibility.

"The Harp" by Linda Sue Park—I found the message in this one distracting, but maybe kids won't notice. A girl and her sister are trapped in the woods by a wizard who wants to teach them to stop bickering. One of them is turned into a frog, and she has to learn to play the harp. Of course, she can only do this with her sister's help. The other plot strand tells of a very angry boy who has lost his mother.

"Mr. Linden's Library" by Walter Dean Myers—The author does a nice, slow build here. Carol Jenkins visits an old man who lets her borrow his books, but what she really wants to get her hands on is the strange book he is reading. This story may be too quiet for some kids, but I liked it. I was especially pleased by the way Myers wrapped up the story, yet kept the spell of suspense going, just as Van Allsburg's mysterious illustrations do. (See sleeping girl with book, below right.)

"The Seven Chairs" by Lois Lowry—Another one that may read a little older, but a well-told tale for all that. We learn of a group of baby girls who float in their cribs in the year 1928. Only one of them keeps it up, honing her craft over the years. But the most interesting thing about Mary Katherine ("MK") Maguire is that she discovers seven chairs which have the ability to join her in floating. It's odd and fun to follow her as she finds each one. Years later, MK visits a Gothic cathedral. Is there a reason she studied French?

"The Third-Floor Bedroom" by Kate DiCamillo—Again, I feel like this story is for adults or at least for more sophisticated readers. However, it really got me; it's one of my favorites in the collection. We read a series of letters from a girl called Pearlie to her soldier brother. Pearlie is a passionate, angry child who has lost both her parents and feels abandoned by her brother. She stares out the attic window and looks at the birds on the wallpaper, wishing they could fly away. Wishing she could fly away. And then she gets sick. I suppose I wouldn't go so far as to call Pearlie an unreliable narrator, but her shifting perspective sweeps us along in a wonderfully well-crafted way.

"Just Desert" by M.T. Anderson—No, that's not a typo. It's a play on words from Van Allsburg. Anderson's story is thoroughly engrossing and takes a twist I really didn't see coming. But then, we are talking about one of the most creative minds in children's fiction! The ending is pleasingly chilling.

"Captain Tory" by Louis Sachar—A subtly well made and touching story. Captain Tory visits the doughnut shop down by the wharf every morning for a cinnamon doughnut and a cup of coffee. Captain Tory is a ghost. Then one morning he visits the hardware store instead, which pleases Paul. One of the best in the collection, in my opinion.

"Oscar and Alphonse" by Chris Van Allsburg—This one has been anthologized previously. Oscar and Alphonse are caterpillars who spell out words, but only for Alice. Meanwhile, her older brothers and her father are trying to solve a great physics problem, the Farkas Conjecture. Parts of this story may be over young readers' heads, but they'll like the way Alice and her caterpillars are wiser than the grown-ups. The ending hangs rather, but that's what you would expect from the guy who made all those mysterious Harris Burdick illustrations in the first place. (See photo of Allsburg, below left.)

"The House on Maple Street" by Stephen King—I was never a big horror fan, so I didn't get into King's books. Then I read On Writing and was very impressed. So I wasn't surprised by how real this story felt, how odd and enthralling it was. Four children discover something strange about their house in between worrying about their mother's migraines and their stepfather's cold heart. Then oldest boy Trent comes up with a plan to make everything better.

I should mention that The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is beautifully designed, heavy and luxurious. Each story is introduced by a sort of monogrammed HB followed by a smooth book plate version of the illustration. The designer capitalizes on those great brown tones from the original. It's one of the prettier books you'll see this year.

Teacher/Writer Stuff

I have a new day job writing teacher's guides for elementary history books, so I've got curriculum on the brain... Then again, maybe this is more of a writer thing. But it occurs to me that besides using the Harris Burdick pieces as writing prompts with the words, you could get rid of the bits of text and come up with your own. The following are mine, but see if you can write some, too. Or try this with your class!

Warning: Also, don't let your students read the stories in Chronicles if you want to use the Mysteries as writing prompts. Share the new pro stories only after letting kids come up with their own, or they may get derailed.

"Archie Smith, Boy Wonder"—When they were big enough, his dreams escaped.

"Under the Rug"—I tried aiming for the little table, but I couldn't see anything, and the man kept yelling horribly.

"A Strange Day in July"—"They said no fireworks," I reminded her. "That's alright," Lindsey told me, "Watch."

"Missing in Venice"—Grandma couldn't get a building permit.

"Another Place, Another Time"—Henry blew on the sails, and the handcar began to move.

"Uninvited Guests"—Someone had taken the sign down, but I remembered what it said.

"The Harp"—Last time it was a clarinet made from a giant's toe-bone.

"Mr. Linden's Library"—So that's where the briars came from. She kept her eyes shut.

"The Seven Chairs"—Sister Ascenza Ignatius was allowed to float on Tuesdays. This was a Friday.

"The Third-Floor Bedroom"—The first snowflake wandered down from the sky, not to be mistaken for the last bird, which still hadn't arrived.

"Just Desert"—It isn't easy carving a carriage.

"Captain Tory"—"If I call the ship," he asked, "will you tell them Gasche lost the key?"

"Oscar and Alphonse"—When I opened my hand, the magic beans had turned into caterpillars.

"The House on Maple Street"—It was the best Christmas, and the last.

You see? The mysteries continue to call to us. Used the right way, a piece of art can paint words in the air. We may be a little worried about the state of the picture book these days, but never fear: there are people in the world of books who are doing new and wonderful things with pictures.


Anonymous said...

Jarrett J. "I Can't Spell His Name without Looking but at Least I Can Spell Scieszka" Krosoczka


I appreciate your reviews-- some of these I've seen reviewed elsewhere, but now I have a much clearer idea of how they might fit into my library's collection...

LinWash said...

I'm excited about the many great graphic novels being produced. I read Anya's Ghost and found it excellent. I also loved Jane Yolen's Foiled, and had The Last Dragon in my hand, but was put off by the $29.99 cost. Maybe if I had a gift card I would get it. (I'll add it to my Christmas list.)

KateCoombs said...

Lin, I didn't realize The Last Dragon was so pricey! Well, it does make a good gift book; it's very pretty.

KateCoombs said...

And thanks, Amy! Some day I'll learn to spell Lunch Lady Guy's name, too. :)