Friday, January 15


by David Small
Norton 2009

This graphic memoir about the illustrator reinforces the stereotype of the suffering artist, but does a fine job doing so.

Small recounts the major periods of his life that center around his having cancer as a child that developed to the point where he had to have glands in his neck and half his vocal chords removed. His father, a radiologist, and his emotionally closed mother created an atmosphere of silence in the house that was oppressive and forced Small and his brother to find other forms of escape. For his brother it was playing drums, for Small it was escapism through art. It isn't until the end when Small has begun to make his own life, after years of therapy, that his world opens up beyond the suffocating world of his family. As a portrait of an alienated childhood, coupled with the horror of misdiagnosis, it's a wrenching story that is also full of poignant moments.

Growing up there were always images and stories of people who suffered for their art. Comedians may be the only other profession I know of where suffering is practically a prerequisite. Sure, artists can suffer through elective poverty as well as adverse childhood circumstances, but other creatives seem only to have misery for their bread.

Graphic memoirs are curious in that they tend to present a more stark world of childhood than most fiction. I can't say this is true across the board for all memoirs though I know people who cannot or will not read fiction because it lacks this verisimiltude. What is interesting is how graphic memoirs fare with younger readers and whether they make the same distinctions or if realistic fiction is as real to them due to lack of experience.

What instantly came to mind with Stitches was Alison Bechdel's Fun Home which came out a few years ago. That book had people singing its praises right and left, and recommending it for mature teen readers (due to content issues), but it didn't work for me as a book for non-adults. I couldn't really articulate why until reading Stitches. Both stories feature closeted gay parents and the confusion of not understanding their parent's behavior until the narrator was older, but despite Small's more menacing treatment by his parents his self-portrait comes across better because he personalizes the narrative. Bechdel, a cartoonist, delivers a narrative that delivers a story but very little emotion; Small, an illustrator, conveys the emotions and deals more directly with the symbolism that comes from literally having no voice. Without understanding the child protagonist and their emotion we are left with a child's view of the adult world intended for adults to siphon meaning. Inexperienced younger readers are otherwise adrift in the experience.

I think we're still in the Wild West days of graphic novels for teens and younger readers. The medium grew up outside the world of children's publishing and has yet (if it ever will be) incorporated into the fold. Added to that, the graphic memoir is a form of creative non-fiction with its own set of rules that also tends to fall outside the purview of what is generally created specifically for children. Non-fiction for non-adults is still somewhat viewed as materials for instruction and not necessarily enjoyed in their own right. Graphic novels tend to have a higher profile because of their accessibility (i.e. they look like comics, which makes them an easier sell to kids) but I think this puts an unfair burden on them.

I also happen to believe that both Stitches and Fun House were latched onto as books suitable for a younger audience simply because their protagonists are children. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones features a teen girls who is raped and murdered and narrating from the beyond, but this book was never marketed for younger audiences; if it had been made into a graphic novel I'm fairly certain it would have been. This is an area that deserves more discussion. We either need to open up what we consider to be acceptable material for children, or we need to stop assuming that graphic novels with children as protagonists are automatically suitable because the are "cartoons."

Norton created a dust-up last fall by submitting Stitches for consideration of the National Book Award for Young Readers. Was it because, as some suggest, because they thought they had a better "in" by not competing with novels in the adult category? Because Americans do not take graphic novels seriously as literature? Because Small is primarily known as an illustrator of children's books? No matter, it was a shrewd move for the attention it received but it further muddied the waters of what is or should be considered a graphic novel for teens.

Wednesday, January 13

Venn Diagrams

a young math book
by Robert Froman
illustrated by Jan Pyk
Crowell Company 1972

A picture book for older readers about Venn diagrams? Sure, why not.

I wasn't looking for this book but I saw it on a display shelf at the library and couldn't resist. With it's old school three-color 70's illustrations and the promise of kid-friendly statistical analysis, how could I resist?

The book eases in to the concept of grouping things before setting off to find commonalities and explaining how to diagram them. Beyond a simple visual, the book explains how to take raw data and sort it into overlapping circles with the simple math that goes with it.

All is well and good until the book moves to three circles and an example of a group of kids wanting two of three flavors each. The overlapping circles are established, followed by some discussion of what isn't possible, and then there are a couple trial-and-error examples before the solution is presented. The problem is that the book doesn't explain exactly how that final answer was was accomplished leaving the reader (and that means me) scratching their head trying to figure out a method for deducing this and similar equations.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing because learning shouldn't be an entirely passive activity. The problem is that the book continues with another three-circle diagram situation – and SAT word problem if ever there was one, concerning three suspects possibly sneaking a slice of pie – that not only allows the reader to fumble with trying to figure out the problem but actually hides a crucial bit of information that implicates a fourth suspect. Technically, yes, the diagram would accommodate the guilty party in the center, but to spend four pages explaining how to construct a Venn diagram only to say "Oops, guess we forgot to mention the one person who could complete the mystery" provides the sort of frustration that would turn off some kids to math and statistical analysis.

Barring its faults, I still wish someone had introduced me to Venn diagrams when I was young. A good introduction here on how they work and some practical applications for the future statistician, census taker, graphic artist, or nerdy kid who just likes finding ways to group things.

Monday, January 11

Not THIS Bear!

story and pictures by Bernice Myers
Four Winds Press / Scholastic 1967

A boy has a hard time convincing a family of bears that he isn't one of them. Hilarity ensues.

Bundled in a fur coat and matching fur hat, Little Herman trudges off to see his Aunt Gert. Crossing the forest he is mistaken for a cousin by a bear and taken back to the cave where the other bears receive him like family. The boy does everything he can to convince the bears that he isn't a bear – he eats with a spoon, stands on his head, ties his shoelace – but nothing convinces the bears until the boy does the unthinkable: he refuses to hunker down for hibernation. Pulling off his coat and hat, the boy is revealed and finally convinces the bears he is not one of them. A hasty depature follows.

Myers art was the draw for me here, but I like some of the thornier aspects of the story as well. Her make crayon scribbles of brown to suggest fur with a few simple details added in ink give the illustration a very loose, kid-like feel. It's very gestural and expressionistic without being heavy. As for the story, there's a bit of that childlike fantasy to the idea of a boy being able to hang out with bears and not be in any sort of real danger. There's never the sense that he has to get away or run for his life, only that he really enjoys being a boy and not being a bear.

Of course this book couldn't be written today. The idea of a fur coat, or a boy wearing one, wouldn't fly. And putting a boy in peril with a wild animal, that sends the wrong message in a world were even safety warning tags have to have safety warnings.

Aside from the illustrations, the best thing about this book for me is how simple and entertaining it is, and well-written. I can't usually make this statement for contemporary picture books written by illustrators. So often new books seem to be overly complicated and written with no feel for story. I'll keep holding out hope for newer picture books, but in the meantime there are fine books from the past like this.

Saturday, January 9

abandoned: Any Which Wall

by Laurel Snyder
Random House 2009

Scared away by a condescending narrative voice.

It's been a while since I abandoned a book outright, but I just couldn't keep plowing through. There have been books I wanted to ditch, and others I probably should have dumped, but I've always held out to the end with that hope that maybe something toward the end would redeem the effort. But Any Which Wall just didn't give me a reason to continue beyond the first chapter.

I might have made it through the second chapter had it not been for the prologue. Over the last couple of years I have come to regard the prologue as something akin to party appetizers made from leftovers and canned cheese, heated to a greasy sheen. In almost every case they did not need to be there, and I had sudden memory pangs of skipping over the "boring" matter at the front of books I read as a kid because I was eager to get to the story.

Worse, when the prologue took on that storyteller voice, that condescending tone of a disembodied narrator speaking directly to me from the great beyond, those books were always a sign of pending boredom. Do you have a story to tell me, or are you more interested in catching me in your thrall of your magnificent storytelling cadence? From the moment I could read independently I always had that feeling that the author or storyteller didn't trust me, the reader, to get the story on my own without their hand-holding. I didn't find it quaint, or comforting, or reassuring. I always heard it like the voice of the old lady who never had kids of her own and kept trying to feed me stale, dusty ribbon candy.

And that's what Any Which Wall felt like to me. I could see what Snyder was going for, but it's just not for me. There's probably a great story in there somewhere, and some kids are really going to love this (I'm guessing they're all girls - I'd be curious to interview the boy who voluntarily read and liked this book), but for the swell of positive reviews I gleaned all I can say is that this must have hit a soft, nostalgic spot for some adults and they responded accordingly.

Thursday, January 7

The Brain FInds a Leg

by Martin Chatterton
Peachtree Publishers 2009

It's a teen Holmes and Watson Down Under, with a transgendered Bond villain and animals run amok!

One day, in a fit of odd behavior, a pod of whales gang up and attack a whale watching boat on Farrago Bay, Australia killing all involved. No one knows why and the mystery was never solved.

Two years later, a new kid known as The Brain arrives with an odd demeanor about him and an uncanny ability to puzzle together facts at a glance. Before long he's buddied up with Sheldon, a local whose father owned the boat that was attacked by whales, and together they set off to solve a more recent spate of animal attacks. Playing Dr. Watson to The Brain's Holmes, Sheldon becomes integral in piecing together the mystery that not only will explain what happened to his father but how The Brain lost his parents to a freak accident while demonstrating a device that would increase the power and capacity of the human brain. Naturally there is a lone villain mastermind involved, as well as a surfer who is a spokesperson for a toothpaste company, and some truly odd behavior by the local fauna.

In a word, quirky.

This is the oddest thing I've come across in a while, and I have this itchiness in my brain that wonders if there isn't something cultural that I'm missing. If there wasn't a world full of books I wasn't dying to read I might be tempted to go back and figure out why this book sat funny with me. Not bad, but decidedly off.

Tuesday, January 5


by Matthew Cody
Knopf 2009

Fish-out-of-water helps mutant teens battle evil using wits over brawn.

Daniel's new to Noble's Green, "The Safest Town on Earth," but it doesn't take him long to figure out why: the place is crawling with pre-teen superheroes who use their powers for good and not evil. And by crawling I mean half a dozen kids. And they don't know how they got their powers. And their powers disappear when they turn thirteen.

Sounds a little like Savvy in reverse.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and where there are superpowers there is super evil scheming to bring them down. And once these teen mutants (no copyright infringement intended, I'm sure) have taken ordinary, superpowerless Daniel into their confidence you just know it will fall to him and his superior intellect to do what might and force cannot.


I'm beginning to suspect that the reason superhero novels for kids keep getting published is that they appear high-concept, and thus easier to market than "human" stories, while at the same time playing with (tired) metaphors of good and evil, teamwork, puberty, what-have-you. But these stories are all, almost without exception, as dull as dried toast and as nutritionally empty as a withered celery stalk.

As always, if you want superhero stories, you're better off with comics.