Tuesday, February 14

Zita the Spacegirl

by Ben Hatke  
First Second  2011   

Sucked into a portal through another dimension, Zita must rescue her friend and find a way home before the world she is on is destroyed. Oh, but it's so much more fun then all that! 

Winner of this year's Cybil Award for Best Middle Grade Graphic Novel.

While playing one day Zita and her friend Joseph discover a small crater with a small device at it's center, a device with an irresistible red button to push. Joseph the worrywart thinks they should report their discovery but Zita's all for adventure and with a mighty THOOM! a portal opens before them. Before they have any time to react a gob of tentacles emerge from the portal, grab Joseph, and then the portal closes. Collecting herself from fear and guilt, Zita decides she must rescue Joseph, and with another push of the button...   

Zita lands in a parallel world where the inhabitants are either trying to escape or prepare for the destruction of the planet within three days. The clock is ticking, Zita has to find her friend then find her way home, but not without a sci-fi heroes journey that includes magicians, robots, giant rats, and some monstery looking aliens, all of varying temperaments and trustworthiness. in the end when all the threads come together it looks like either Zita or Joseph can return through the portal but not both. Adventurous Zita understand that if one of them is likely to find an alternate way home it will be her, and with that resolved and a small band of new friends Zita is poised to begin a series of new adventures.   

click to enbiggen
Zita the Spacegirl is, honestly, the most satisfying middle grade graphic novel in the past year. I might not have read everything, and I might be forgetting something along the way that could have held its own against Zita, but if anything else was that good you'd think I'd remember. Is it Shakespeare? Heck nah. Is it fun? Yup. Perhaps not at the same level as Jeff Smith's Bone series, but in that general ballpark in terms of visual fluency and story pacing. If Hatke can manage to tease a mythology out of this parallel world and give Zita a sense of destiny and depth then I'll be really excited to see how the story plays out in future editions. 

Of the other finalists in the Cybils graphic novel category Zita the Spacegirl was the best paced, most engaging, and free of the problems that sank its co-nominees. From my perspective Dan Santant's Sidekicks felt slight (and sadly predictable) by comparison, Selznick's Wonderstruck and the collection Nursery Rhyme Comics both suffered from inappropriate categorization that might have made them winners elsewhere (middle grade fiction on the former, picture book for the latter), and Barry Deutsch's Hereville includes some unique problems that deserves a review all its own.

Something that came up when the judges were deciding on how to word this selection for the Cybils was whether or not to mention the book's boy-friendliness. I was against saying anything official for the award because it wasn't really a criteria for discussion nor was it a deciding factor. While I do believe that there are things writers can do to make books more boy-friendly I am also firmly in the camp that believes boys can, and should, be encouraged to read everything no mater the gender of the main character. Some books, like Zita the Spacegirl, make this an easier proposition however.

Tuesday, February 7

Me... Jane

by Patrick McDonnell  
Little Brown  2011  

A picture book biography that's more picture book than biography. And that's not a bad thing.  

A little girl named Jane is given a stuffed chimpanzee which she names Jubilee. She treasure Jubilee and takes him with her wherever her boundless curiosity leads. Together they climb trees and observe chickens and take a full interest in all the natural sciences a girl can explore in her own yard. Through the books she reads she dreams of far away places and helping animals in the jungles. And at the end of the day when she tucks Jubilee into bed with her she dreams all these things, and when she wakes up she is Dr. Jane Goodall, living among the primates of Africa, her dream come true.  

While there are biographies for all ages I would propose that the trickiest is the picture book biography. There is an old tradition of birth-to-death biography that attempts to use childhood as a sort of blueprint for explaining how events shaped the subject as an adult but this isn't without problems. Occasionally a subject's life doesn't have a cohesive progression where life elements can be tied together to tell a story. This will lead to a loose buffet of events that forward a narrative agenda but do disservice to the overall accuracy. Another approach is to appeal to the younger reader through telling the subject's story of who they were as young people, assuming a reader will automatically be more interested in the character of the subject by seeing them as youngsters. The problem with this slice-of-life approach is that the facts need to be molded to match the perception of the adult as a subject. A middle grade biography of Ben Franklin might include his industry, his bent toward invention, and the cruelty he experienced as a journeyman working for his older brother while neatly skirting the issue of his being a runaway or attempting to steal his best friend's girl because these muddy our preconceptions of how a founding father should have behaved.  

Huh, how did I get all the way up here on this soap box?

In Me... Jane what we get, technically, is a slice-of-life biography of a girl who loves zoology. McDonnell captures Jane's carefree childhood in a way that is free of period detail which makes it feel universal. There are subtle clues that Jane's story reflects back to an older time – broken text (Old Bookman?) printed over faint images from the 19th and early 20th century books Jane would have read – but the effect is almost too subtle to register. It give the story a different feel but not necessarily a sense of events taking place at an earlier time. This isn't really a problem, just not as effective as I think it was intended.

In the end the two things I'm going to take away from this book will be McDonnell's depiction of Jubilee and the ending where the story jumps from young Jane going to bed to dream and the reality of her dream come true. There is a certain talent required to make a stuffed animal come to life in a drawing which I don't think every artist or illustrator can do. I don't know if this will somehow revoke my MFA but Winnie the Pooh and all his friends always looks to me like a diorama of paper doll cutouts. I don't care how old you are, if you want to buy into the stuffed animal as a living, breathing creature then you have to find a way to convey that sense of life while remaining true to the nature of an expressionless doll. I've always loved, for example, how Bill Waterson managed to draw Calvin's companion Hobbes as both a lifeless toy and a vibrant tiger. Waterson's conceit was that we could see both the adult and the child's view of Hobbes, how that tiger knew when to play possum and how to deliver a punchline when no one else was around to hear it. McDonnell, on the other hand, finds ways to pose Jubilee that he appears to exhibit expressions and life without defying the physical laws that make up a stuffed chimp. Jubilee's permanent smile can appear focused, inquisitive, and expressive simply by the way he is placed within the scene. He becomes more than a companion, he becomes a reflection of Jane's innocence and wonder, and is really a brilliant little detail I think a lot of young illustrators could learn from.  

The ending, the jump from young Jane to contemporary Jane, wakes us from her illustrated childhood to a full color photo which, in doing, wakes us from the dreamtime of Jane's childhood dream into a "dreams come true" reality. It's an effective, judicious use of a single photo to underscore the link between childhood and adulthood without belaboring the point. In doing so McDonnell also manages to take a slice-of-life biography and turn it, with two flips of a page, into a near-full-life story by simply suggesting that the details between point A and B are inconsequential. And they are, as they should be, to a picture book audience.  

Although I'm late to the party on this review, I understand now why people were abuzz when this came out.

Friday, February 3


by John Rocco  
Disney / Hyperion 2011

On a hot summer night New York City encounters a blackout, bringing out the best in people. A far cry from the blackouts a few decades back!  

All the little girl (or long-haired boy) wants to do is play a board game with her family. His/her sister is too busy talking on the phone. His/her dad is up to his elbows in oven mitts in the kitchen. His/her mom is on the computer, all of them too busy for a game. Then the lights go out, everywhere. Without electricity the boy/girl is frightened but soon realizes there is nothing to be afraid of. They head to the roof where they discover the stars, almost always obscured by city light, as well as people bringing their hot summer lives to the rooftops. They head down to the streets where others are taking advantage of free ice cream and opened fire hydrants. In a single moment the city is turned from sweltering misery into a massive block party.  

When the lights come back on everyone returns to their normal lives, but not everyone: keeping the spirit of the blackout alive the little boy/girl's family leaves the lights off and plays a board game together by candlelight.  

There is a grand tradition in picture books to address and capitalize on childhood fears. Being afraid of the dark is common, but by focusing on a blackout this fear becomes much larger. After all, a child afraid of the dark can be placated by a nightlight or an open door with hallway light streaming through. But to have an entire metropolitan area go to totally dark could seem like the end of the world. Rocco minimizes the fear by highlighting all the better parts of what can happen in this scenario -- after all, if a blackout meant the neighborhood ice cream shop starts giving away ice cream, as happens here, how bad could things be? In fact, given the positive experience I could see some readers anxiously awaiting summer for the hope of free ice cream and game night with the family. Also, if the book gives some parents pause in considering the need for an emergency kit, all the better to be prepared.  

As with a true blackout there is also a sense of out-of-sight, out-of-mind involved here. The particular block in Brooklyn depicted here will likely enjoy a much better blackout experience than those neighborhoods that might be more economically depressed. But then, with the blackout, who would know? Televisions wouldn't be transmitting reports and aside from a few battery powered radios (do people own radios anymore?) the blackout people experienced would be the only blackout people would know.  

I don't fault Rocco for giving us a rosy picture of a blackout, or for the message that younger readers should not be scared of such things. My only hope would be that it doesn't take this book, or a similar event, to trigger a family to consider more quality time or better appreciate the stars obscured overhead.

Wednesday, February 1

Worlds Afire

by Paul B. Janeczko  
Candlewick 2004  

A circus tent. A catastrophic fire. The voices of those who were there, victim and witness, their stories in verse.  

On the afternoon of July 6, 1944 a fire broke out at the Ringling Brother's Circus while in performance in Hartford, Connecticut. The tent canvas had been waterproofed with paraffin and gasoline, a combination that turned the entire circus effectively into "one huge candle / just waiting for a light." No one knows how it began but once the tent caught fire it was only a matter of moments before it was engulfed in flame. 500 were injured and 167 people died, and Janeczko has chosen to let the voices of the people involved tell the story from their own perspective.  

Janeczko leaves it up to the reader to pick up the clues within each poem to guess who survived. The poems are separated by three parts, or acts if you will. Part 1 gives us what people were thinking and doing just before the circus. Some were excited kids, some were circus performers getting everything ready, and piece by piece, line by line, we get little details that anticipate the disaster to come. Part 2 deals with the disaster itself. What it was like to be dealing with large cats when the fire broke out and people were running everywhere. What it looked like from under the bleachers by a kid who was collecting the change that fell out of people's pockets, how he was able to cut a hole in the side of the tent with a pocket knife and escape. Part 3 covers the sober aftermath as survivors and townspeople come to grips with the horror. A soldier anxious for active duty overseas finds working morgue detail more gruesome than the war he is about to head into.  

With an economy of image and detail Janeczko delivers a portrait as alluring and ephemeral as a flickering flame.  There's a very Spoon River Anthology feel to the book, with its ghostly echoes of people from the past reliving a single day – a single, horrific day – in the gentle breeze of a summer day that changed, defined, or took their lives.