You may have heard the name Kazu Kibuishi before. Kibuishi is the creator of the Amulet series. (See my review of Book 1 here.) Now Kibuishi has put together an intriguing graphic anthology. Apparently he asked each graphic artist to start with the idea of a mysterious box and go from there. Here's a look at what they came up with:
"Under the Floorboards" by Emily Carroll
A girl finds a little wax doll in a box under the floorboards. At first the doll helps her with her chores, but then it starts causing trouble for her—and growing bigger. How will she stop the doll before it ruins and maybe even takes over her life?
"Spring Cleaning" by Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier
When Oliver's dad tells him to clean out his closet, he finds an odd puzzle box that he tries to sell online. Instantly wizards start showing up at the house, trying to buy the box. He runs to his friend's house, where further online research shows the probable origin of the box. Now they just have to figure out what to do with it.
"The Keeper's Treasure" by Jason Caffoe
A young treasure seeker braves dangers to find a secret maze and the monstrous man who guards it. But is he really our hero? The keeper of the treasure seems to value imagination over the gleam of gold. The treasure seeker leaves, satisfied, but none the wiser, while readers might find some real wisdom in the treasure keeper's approach to life.
"The Butter Thief" by Rad Sechrist
A young Japanese girl's grandmother captures the little spirit who's been stealing butter from the family kitchen in a box and buries it out in the backyard. The girl goes out that night to dig up the box and see what's inside, but the angry spirit turns her into a being as small as he is. Only the promise of more butter from the kitchen might entice him to turn her back...
"The Soldier's Daughter" by Stuart Livingston
When Clara and her brother get the awful letter telling them their soldier father has been killed in the war, Clara is determined to kill her father's killer in revenge. Her brother questions her choice, so she calls him a coward. But instead of revenge, Clara finds a mysterious man with an even more mysterious box—and one more chance to talk to her father.
"Whatzit" by Johane Matte
Deet's grandpa is going to give him a special job in his intergalactic factory, checking off inventory before the product ships. But some of the more senior employees aren't too thrilled about Deet's promotion, and Deet finds an odd box that's not on his list. When he opens it, the creatures inside escape in a Pandora's pandemonium of knocking over still more boxes. Wait till you find out what the product is, let alone how Deet manages to solve his problem.
"The Escape Option" by Kazu Kibuishi
Kibuishi concludes the collection with a short fable about a boy who is offered the chance to escape the destruction of Earth. Only the destruction isn't a question of alien attack, it's a matter of environmental disaster. James makes an unpredictable choice, which is just as well. Turns out the alien who found him wasn't telling him everything he knows.
Half the fun of reading this book is seeing the styles of the different illustrators. We get more realistic approaches like Caffoe's and Kibuishi's, along with more cartoonish work from artists such as Matte and Roman and Telgemeier. Since all of the other illustrators use ink outlines, it's nice to see what Sechrist does without them. Matte's work has a bright, Loony Tunes vibe, while Carroll's and Caffoe's are hauntingly atmospheric. All of the artists are highly accomplished, and a look at the thumbnail bios on the last page explains why. It looks like most of them work together in animation at places like Dreamworks, and I'm sure you've heard of Raina Telgemeier's award-winning graphic novel, Smile.
In terms of storytelling, Caffoe's, Livingston's, and Kibuishi's segments are the most didactic, but the stories are still worth reading and hold together well—especially Caffoe's with its delicate humor. You'll have seen the basic plot of "Under the Floorboards" before, but Carroll's artwork and the final solution are satisfyingly fresh. For fun and entertainment, nothing beats the plot and dialogue of "Spring Cleaning," though "Whatzit" comes close. And "The Butter Thief" offers us a nice new take on both the character of the pesky house elf and what happens when a child magically shrinks.
This book could obviously be used as a set of story prompts for students to write and illustrate their own tales about a magic box. The very different takes on the premise in Explorer will show students that they, too, can come up with an all-new approach to the magic box story. The book could also be used to discuss concepts like tone and theme, which are sometimes difficult for students to grasp.
But you don't have to be a teacher to appreciate the artistry of Explorer: The Mystery Boxes. Just a fan of good graphic art and storytelling.
Note: Illustration above left is from "The Keeper's Treasure" by Jason Caffoe.