Tag Archives: graphic novel

Book Review: Flat Characters and Assumed Context in a Hole New World

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.

I read A Hole New World to be better equipped to run a corporate-organized book discussion that used this and three other young reader titles as its jump points. I read the book in a day (after finishing Odd Gods). I am not its intended audience. I have neither played Minecraft (or really any other video games past a few rounds with friends) nor watched the PopularMMOs YouTube channel. I think I missed a lot of this book’s context. There was not a great deal of explanation of… anything. I know enough about Minecraft to have recognized Bomby as a Creeper when he appeared in the illustrations at last, but I haven’t any knowledge of what a Creeper is and what characteristics of Bomby’s persona are typical or atypical of its species.

I feel like I was being told what these fairly flat characters are like rather than being shown how they are. Jen is bubbly but clutzy; Pat says early that she often falls into the craters that Bomby makes. I did like that Jen is portrayed as a great swordswoman and bubbly and pink.  She and Pat are a steady (maybe married) couple.

Pat is the Hero™. He uses his sword to get out of most situations, but is somehow also the more cautious of the couple, looking down instead of forward and so avoiding falling into holes.

Carter, the one dark-skinned character, is a rival for Jen’s affection that Jen likes as a friend despite Pat’s protestations. Maybe he and Jen were previously in a relationship; maybe they were not. Pat is almost unsettlingly antagonistic towards Carter in his “defense” of Jen. Writing about this gets weird because I don’t know how close the characters in this self-insertion fiction are to their real counterparts, so I’m not going to write about it anymore, but just remind everyone not to let your partner try to distance you from your genuine friends.

The villain Evil Jen excuses her desire for world domination and causing a zombpocalypse with a tragic backstory about being thought unattractive for having overlarge lips. (Otherwise she looks “just like” Jen. What?? Making a trait deemed typically attractive unattractive does not a feminist or a body positive message make, just as the “real women have curves” slogan excludes another group of women from womanhood instead of creating a more inclusive view of femininity.)

Every other character passes in a few pages, which is almost a shame because how can you only wave at characters like a grumpy boat captain named Captain Cookie who we are told previously rescued the protagonists or a rebellion leader named Mr. Rainbow who is a rainbow-wooled sheep with access to magic loot boxes and a palatial hideout?

With Carter’s help and Mr. Rainbow’s help, Pat and Jen fight Evil Jen’s zombie minions to venture deeper into this hole new world, seeking to rescue their friend Bomby from Evil Jen.

All in all, I felt like an outsider reading this. The whole thing felt jagged and unfinished as a book detached from its webseries. But I think—I hope—that fans of the webseries won’t find it so without context, seeing the whole book as more of a tribute than as a separate entity. It’s a rare film that stands up to its original book. Maybe that goes backwards too.  But I definitely wish there had been more character-building and more “show don’t tell.”

**

PopularMMOs, Pat and Jen. A Hole New World. Illus. Dani Jones. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by PopularMMOs’ Pat or Jen, Dani Jones, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: New Kid is Important and Eloquent

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

I read an ARC of Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, New Kid. Actually I’ve now read it twice. In the ARC, most pages were left in grayscale.  The finished novel is fully colored.

The book opens on Jordan Banks’ first day at a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School, which touts itself as a premier education, but which his father points out does not look to be a particularly diverse environment. Jordan is picked up from his Washington Heights home by his guide Liam and Liam’s father, who warns Liam to stay in the car with the doors locked when he goes to the door for Jordan.

Of every book I have ever read, this one perhaps best illustrates the harm that microagressions, even thoughtless ones, cause. There aren’t many African American students in Jordan Banks’ new school. He and other students (and staff) of color are subjected to stereotyping in a multitude of ways by their peers and the school staff, some of them acting intentionally cruelly and others not even aware of their racist acts. This comes out even in the types of books that the librarian recommends to the students of color versus the ones that she recommends to the white students. Drew in particular is forced to endure one of the teachers unable to remember that his name is not Deandre, the name of an older African American student in the school, though every African American character including one of the teachers faces this problem.

Jordan has to code-switch between his mostly white school and his Washington Heights neighborhood. This too is very elegantly and succinctly described, the nervousness of moving between the two worlds, the burden of having to do so, the exhaustion caused by such hyper-awareness of the environment.

But he wants the same intimacy with all of his friends and seeks on the advice of his grandfather to find a way to hang out with all of his friends together.

For these illustrations, the ways in which Craft captures the myriad ways that internalized racism effects his protagonist, I cannot recommend this book enough especially to white people, especially to white educators. It is such a poignant reminder of the harm that we can unknowingly or unthinkingly inflict on kids just trying to get through the day, fighting for their dreams. It’s not even a difficult or long read. I think the last time I read it, it took only a day, maybe two.

Jordan himself is such a likeable and relatable protagonist.

In the end, Jordan even takes pity upon the bully of his school year, whom earlier that year he had helped to finally get his comeuppance by standing up for a falsely accused friend.

This is the story of Jordan’s navigating this new, predominately white space, coming to figure out how he can be himself and grow in such a space, and how he can improve that space for himself and for his classmates of every color. And his confrontations with injustice are painted as not requiring a great deal of forethought or planning. There is nothing elaborate about his calls for justice. He merely speaks up for himself and his friends when he sees injustice. I think that too is important.

In sum, go read this book.

*****

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Jerry Craft or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Poor Mythological and Tired School Representation in Odd Gods

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.Spoilers have been whited out. Highlight the space between the brackets to read.

I am going to start out by saying that this book I read because work “required” it rather than because it is anything that I would have chosen. The necessity of my reading it (to be able to feel adequately prepared to lead a discussion using this book and three others as launch points) has colored my reading, and despite the event going fairly well overall, I can’t un-color my opinion.

I read an ARC of this book over two days. The ARC was missing a few illustrations, and several of the illustrations I think were unfinished, still having a more sketchy quality than others in the book.

David Slavin and Daniel Weitzman’s Odd Gods, illustrated by Adam J. B. Lane, is a middle school of cliques and stereotypes, “bathroom humor,” bad puns, and representations of mythological characters that are largely unsupported by ancient canon. Adonis and Oddonis are twin boys born to Zeus and Freya. Let’s start there. Zeus isn’t one to create a stable household. Would he have bedded a Norse goddess? Almost certainly if opportunity presented itself. Would he have stayed with her? Almost certainly not. Hera is completely absent from Slavin’s mythos here. If she hadn’t been, Freya would have been roasted, starting a war between the Vanir and the Greek gods. If Odd’s mother had been Hera and not Freya, he probably would have been cast off of Mount Olympus like her other imperfect son by Zeus. The Greek Adonis is mortal, not a god, or at least he began that way, and his death gave rise to the anemone and a festival commemorating his death. DON’T look for this to help you ace your mythology test, because it won’t. Go back to Riordan for that.

Here Adonis is a god, the Greek ideal in contrast to his odd twin brother. The gods are the cool kids of the school who bully and cheat their way to the best of everything that the middle school has to offer. The odds are the rejects of the school. It’s a tired trope that I’ve seen better done. In this school they seem to be split near 50/50, though we only get a few main characters from each pack: Adonis, Poseidon, Heracles, and Aphrodite vs. Odd, Mathena, Germes, Puneous, and Gaseous.  (Note that that’s only two girls in a horde or boys too.  I think this might pass a Bechdel test if I am correctly remembering the math teacher to be a woman, but the only interaction that I concretely remember is between any two women in the whole story is Aphrodite bullying Mathena, so if it passes, it doesn’t pass well.)

Math is singled out in this novel as a particularly abhorrent subject, and Mathena is the only god relegated to Odd’s group of outcasts.

[SPOILER] Odd ignores his classwork and study in favor of planning his campaign against his brother for class president and nearly looses by default when it is revealed that he is failing math. Despite spending his time with the goddess of math, he has failed to ask his friends for help when he needs it, or failed to see the importance of study, or both. He does apologize to his friends, and work hard to recover from the mistake, and his hard work is rewarded. [END SPOILER]  That is laudable, a good lesson: ask for help and work hard, and you might be rewarded.

Odd and the “odd gods” come to grips with their oddness by accepting and acknowledging their quirks and that the things that make them unusual make them individual.  The gods acknowledge odd quirks in themselves too (particularly fears and superstitions), and tout themselves as individual too because of them.

Personally, I’m ready to set aside this idea that this is middle school: everyone breaks off into their stereotyped roles, hangs out together in packs of like-stereotyped individuals, and the “cooler” kids bully the individualists, the “kids like me” (I think it rare that anyone sees themselves as a Heather, Plastic, or a jock from such films and books). I think it’s time we start modeling what middle school could be instead of telling kids that this is what middle school was like for me, and this is what it will be like for you. It won’t improve until we tell them that they don’t have to accept what they see. And though many of these films and books resolve by some re-balancing of power, whether the cool kids are knocked off the pedestal or the outcasts gain some power, the model, the beginning framework is still the same.  High School Musical actually resolved this well, better I think than did Odd Gods, with the breaking up of the caste system, the rejection of the “status quo,” the release of everyone to explore their own interests.  I think High School Musical surpasses Odd Gods in part because the kids are given some more control over the things that make them individual, where Odd Gods‘ quirks are inherent and innate.

In the tradition of epilogues destroying a decent ending (I’m looking at you, Rowling), [SPOILER] after Odd agrees to co-president with Adonis because he recognizes that the division between the odds and the gods is toxic, Adonis asks for a recount, undoing any character growth that he had hitherto very briefly obtained via agreeing first to yield to Oddonis and congratulating his brother as the better candidate. [END SPOILER]

Overall, there was too much that I personally didn’t like about this book for me to rate it well. My bar for books based on mythology is set awfully high, and this book took a limbo approach to this high jump competition while relying on tired tropes and negative representations of school atmosphere.

But it was all right.  The lessons of inclusivity and acceptance and equality and standing up for oneself and one’s friends, of hard work and of not being afraid to ask for help, and the forgiveness of friends were good.

**

Slavin, David and Daniel Weitzman. Odd Gods. Illus. Adam J. B. Lane. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by David Slavin, Daniel Weitzman, Adam J. B. Lane, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Giver Questions a World Without Choice

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, guides, and author's and illustrator's bios.

I am reviewing this book from memory; I don’t have it in front of me as I write this review.

Spoilers.

I am the rare reader for this graphic novel adaptation, vaguely aware—it’s true—of The Giver but who has never read the novel, never seen the movie, never seen the play. I was excited to see this graphic novel adaptation and more excited for the very good excuse to take it home to read (I was to lead a book discussion on the adaptation). So I can’t talk about this adaption as an adaptation.

I can only talk about the graphic novel as a separate, standalone entity—which I realize that it is not, but I am probably one of the few to read it who can talk about its conveyance of the plot and the world’s ideas without past experiences bleeding in to color my reading of this.

In a future, highly regulated society where almost every choice is sacrificed along with feelings of desire and perceptions of color and smell that would announce difference and the necessity of choice, and everything from how to dress to when to learn to ride a bike to a martial partner to a career to children that the parents did not birth is assigned by a committee. In order to live with this regulation, the society sacrifices its history, its memories of the former world, which are thrust on a successive line of Receivers only occasionally consulted by the committee before the committee announces its decisions. Each Receiver alone holds memories of war, pain, risk, joy, love, color, difference bar the brief time when an old Receiver trains the new one. The Receiver is chosen by the committee, but it seems that there is some innate quality that makes one a more apt choice (possibly signified by blue eyes though I am inferring this from what I know of Jonas and the second book’s title, Gathering Blue) Before being chosen, the story’s child protagonist, Jonas, begins to experience the color red.

The absence and emergence for Jonas of color was particularly well-conveyed in this form. The graphic novel begins in white and gray, pale blue, and tan for shadow and minimal shading, but color bleeds into the illustrations as Jonas’ Receives more memories of the past at first palely but ultimately in a deep, livid paint of many colors, and the past is always vivid, although the Giver begins Jonas’ Receiving with a red sled on a hill in the snow, easing him into the transition from non-color to color.

I read this story in a day, and the ambiguous ending had me leaving my nest of blankets to run to my housemate to demand to know what outcome the rest of the series reveals. I have to believe that I became invested in this story then, though I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. I don’t actually think that this is a story that is meant to be enjoyed—or if it is meant to be enjoyed, then it is only in the rebellion of the protagonists against the status quo.

Jonas’ is a hard world to accept, but it is not at all difficult to see how some could laud these sacrifices, could laud this version of peace, for “the greater good,” to borrow a phrase from Grindelwald’s propaganda. The Giver and Jonas decide that the world’s way of life is not worth defending, is in fact worth destroying, bestowing pain and memory on the populace by force, and I think the story would have us support the protagonists’ decision.

But the open ending of the novel, the failure to follow up with the community after Jonas has left and his memories have been dispersed among the community members leaves open the possibility that the decision is wrong, though irreversible. And the consequences of the decision on Jonas and on the toddler Gabe, whom he has taken under his care, are also open ended. They hide and live a life on the run, stumble through exhaustion and dehydration and starvation and cold and heat. They cyclically stumble upon the sight of the first memory that Jonas Receives and Jonas takes yet one more ride on the red sled down the hill towards a village celebrating Christmas.

I think The Giver is meant as a warning. And I think that it is meant to make us question what is most important in life.

In this format, it was a quick but impactful read, raising many questions in the comparison of Jonas’ world to our current society.

What would life be like without the burden of choices? Would we need to sacrifice every choice to be content without choice?

Did Jonas and the Giver make the right choice?

****

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Adapted by and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12-16, Grades 7-12.

This review is not endorsed by Lois Lowry, P. Craig Russell, or Houghton Mifflin.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Be Prepared Reminisces on the Trials of Sleepaway Camp and Adolescence

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

Some spoilers.

I think it speaks very well of Vera Brosgol’s autobiographical graphic novel Be Prepared that I stayed up late to finish this ARC the same night that I brought it home from the store. I think it speaks even more highly of it that more than three months later (how did I leave it for so long?) in reminding myself of the plot for this review, I ended up pretty much rereading the whole of the text without it feeling tired, even though I knew its twists and turns.

The novel plunged me into a perspective to which I really hadn’t given much thought, that of the immigrant Russian American—though the plight of the immigrant is something I think about often—especially just now. I know only a very little about any of Russian history—and what I have learnt has been more from British and Australian period dramas and Disney’s Anastasia than from classes where truth outweighed drama. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from the point too of view of the exiled aristocracy than the average Russian citizen.

But some things are universal: the desire to fit in with peers, the desire to have the best birthday party, the drama of adolescence and the struggle of adolescent friendships, particularly as teens begin to experience romantic attraction, the fear of and longing for stay-away summer camp….

Vera is the odd one out among her more affluent peers in Albany, an immigrant to America, having been born in Russia but immigrated before she turned five. Her mother’s peers are primarily Russian immigrants, fellow parishioners of their Russian Orthodox Church. Vera tries to throw a birthday party to match her classmates’, but her mother relies on gifts and help from the Church, leaving Vera with a party that is more Russian than she’d like. Her classmates leave in the night before the sleepover ends. All of her classmates head to camp during the summer, but Vera has never been allowed to go, the cost being too great. Upon discovering a Russian camp in Connecticut, a place where she won’t be the odd one out, she convinces her mother to accept the Church’s help to get Vera and her younger brother there.

But Vera still feels like the odd one out among the other campers. She is divided from her brother, put with the older of the camp groups in a cabin with two girls, five years her seniors, who have not only been going to the camp for twelve years but have shared a cabin for the whole of that time. The camp requires them to speak Russian as much as is possible, which isn’t a problem for Vera, but she does not read the language well, and she doesn’t know the camp customs.

After two weeks, the only friends that Vera feels that she has made are the chipmunks that she’s fed despite the rules—and even one of them has betrayed her by biting her.

But a chance encounter with a runaway guinea pig wins her a friend at last in Kira, a younger girl from another group. They admire one another, help one another to grow, and encourage one another. Together the two of them set out to conquer camp, to best the boys at last in the weekly capture-the-flag game.

This is a novel about being comfortable in your own skin and in the connections that you make, and about not judging on first impressions. From Vera’s belief in the true friendship of her classmates who abandon her, to her initial exile of Kira because she is younger and always crying over her missing guinea pig, to her belief that her brother is enjoying camp, initial impressions prove wrong again and again.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel. I think Brosgol used some great tricks to keep the story going through periods of stagnation. At one point, a couple weeks of camp activities are expressed in a letter to her mother below the text of which the panels more honestly express Vera’s experiences at the camp. Moments of quiet contemplation are overlaid once by the action of swinging on a play set to give the panel some action. At others her thoughts are related to moments in Russian history, which were informative as well as informing the character.

The graphic novel is such a popular genre right now for middle grade readers, and I think readers will find this at once a relatable and unique perspective on feelings we’ve all had and experiences many of us might have shared.

****

Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. Color by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Vera Brosgol, Alec Longstreth, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Search: One Long-Awaited Answer Tangled in Many Threads

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This link will take you to the hardcover collection of all three parts of this trilogy.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

After the close of the television show, the team responsible for Avatar: The Last Airbender and a few fans (Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese among them) began a series of comics that follow Team Avatar beyond the television show and help to bridge the 70 year gap between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. There are currently five trilogies: The Promise, The Search, The Rift, Smoke and Shadow, and North and South. The television series ends with Zuko’s agonized and angry question “Where is my mother?” This second trilogy sets out to answer that question.

Finding graphic novels that appeal to and are appropriate for younger audiences can be difficult (though hopefully getting easier as we booksellers realize the demand and make concerted efforts to point out and to stock graphic novels for children). These are shelved with the adult graphic novels in Barnes & Noble, but there is nothing in these first two trilogies at least that is any more adult than what is in the television series, even though in The Search there are family dramas, madness, and politics. Often, I don’t think we give kids enough credit.  Really I think these stories have more appeal for the 7-17 age range than they do for most adults—at least than for those adults not already familiar with the television series and invested in the characters and the world.

This particular trilogy deals more with the personal stories of the characters than the larger world-building of The Promise.

Four years back now, I read the first part of this trilogy and was apparently impressed. It’s only now that I’ve gone back and read the three parts together (over the course of eight days).

The Search does quite a bit of bouncing backwards and forwards in time. The past plotlines are done in more of a monochrome (red for those that happen within the Fire Nation and blue for those that happen among the Water Tribe). Still, bouncing between the past and the present was distracting.

I see why doing so was if not necessary then certainly expedient, but I would have preferred I think to have one or several longer periods of backstory (some scenes in the present were 4 or so pages) than so many often abruptly interrupted storylines. I would have been quite happy spending two parts of this trilogy learning Ursa’s story and only one part having Zuko discover it and reconnect with his mother. I wonder if the creators underestimated the level of investment that fans would have in Ursa’s story separate from that of Team Avatar—which would frankly surprise me; they set us up for this level of interest, and surely this story was told partially in answer to scads of fans asking the same question that Zuko had done because Zuko had done.

I actually think that this story may suffer from too many storylines. Exciting as they all are individually, especially with the jumps between times, it was a lot to keep track of: Zuko’s quest with Team Avatar plus his sister, Azula’s madness, the letter given to Azula by Ozai that raises questions about the Fire Lord line of succession, then Ursa’s first lover and childhood home, her marriage and subterfuge and exile, her second marriage and new life, plus the story of Water Tribe siblings living in a haunted forest in the Fire Nation to try to find a spirit who can give new faces but tangling with its massive Wolf Spirit pet instead. The theme of reuniting families and restoring old lives runs through all, but in 228 pages of comic it’s all too much. In a 500 page novel, absolutely, but this isn’t a 500 page novel.

Now, all that said, I do want it noted that I read these online, and the format was a scrolling one rather than a facing page layout. That perhaps made some difference.

***

Yang, Gene Luen and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: Parts 1-3. Ed. Dave Marshall. Illus. Gurihiru. Dark Horse, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Gurihiru, Dark Horse Comics, or anyone involved with the graphic novel series or the television series. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Special Edition Picture Book Roundup: Ahoy, Mateys! Activity Books and a Graphic Novel

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pirates_of_the_silver_coastThree Thieves, Book 5: Pirates of the Silver Coast by Scott Chantler. Kids Can, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7.

I read this fifth book in the graphic novel series, Three Thieves, without having read any of the others and without knowing anything about the series, even so it was pretty easy to guess at the plot thus far. Dessa is searching for her missing brother. She and her companions have broken some laws (including laws about theft) doing so, and Captain Drake is trying to track them down. At this point, Dessa has stolen Drake’s horse and has a map to an island surrounded by dark legend. She needs a ship to take her there. Drake is tarrying at a fortuneteller’s stall while he awaits a new horse to go forward. You get the feeling that Dessa and her band are not only protagonists but probably good people too, people you could expect to do some thrilling heroics while committing crime. While the plot might be filled with clichés, clichés are often cliché for a reason. These plots work. They’re exciting, the things of legends. What’s more Chandler plays here with the traditional tale, placing a girl in charge of a band of notorious, misfit thieves, all cast out presumably from their various cultures, and by having the pirate king reveal herself as a woman too. All of these twists and the thieves’ time with the pirates come too easily and too quickly for my taste. I think I’d have preferred to see this all done in a novel, where we could take time to linger in fear before the resolution appears. Having read only this piece of a longer story, I’m not sure that I can judge much of the arc. Drake’s piece of this particular volume was maybe the space of half an hour, tops. Still it was an enjoyable way to spend a few minutes, getting this piece of the story, making guesses about what had come before and what will come after.

***

yhst-137970348157658_2399_460501500Pirate Queens: Notorious Women of the Sea by John Green (no, not that John Green). Dover, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 8+, Grades 3+

This is a Dover coloring book, and if you’re looking for a coloring book that is a little less busy, with blocks a little larger than the average adult coloring book, but not a child’s coloring book with big, goofy cartoons or characters marketed to toddlers or even to elementary school students (as with Disney’s coloring books to accompany their movies), Dover is where you should look. Their coloring pages are realistic drawings, left free of color, and free of the zentangle that busies most adult coloring books. This particular book is historically educational and feminist besides, offering quick snapshots of women in a man’s field, who have been painted out of most histories and legends, from all over the world and from all across the timeline—from 480 BCE all the way up to the 1800s CE, all chronologically listed in the book so as to create a easily tracked history of women and the sea. I know that piracy is not a glamorous and romantic position that, say, Disney’s recent movie franchise has made it out to be and that oftentimes it is neither legal nor kindly, but these are still bold, brash women who made a difference in history and to whom I can respect in some part anyway for that. Some are self-made, some inherited their position upon the deaths of their husbands, some were trying to escape, some were trying to defend their people, but these are women of the sea (not all of them are pirates so much as captains and admirals), and these are leaders.

*****

2771160Maze Craze: Pirate Mazes by Don-Oliver Matthies. Sterling, 2003.

This book is really intended I think for younger audiences. It attempts to create a loose story of the pirate Captain Silver seeking treasure—because that’s what pirates do, right?—and involve the audience in his quest. I can’t say that it’s a particularly well written story, but of course, the story here is not the point—the mazes are. There are different challenges on the maze theme, but I don’t spend a lot of time with mazes, and I didn’t sit down to complete any of the puzzles (all three of these books were gifts I sent off to other people.  Hello, other people!) so I can’t judge the book on those.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: American Born Chinese Smashes Stereotypes and Issues Challenges Directly

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9780312384487

Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is another book that I was introduced to by A. LaFaye in that same History and Criticism of Children’s Literature class at Hollins University, and is another that I have read many times since that class. This is an award winning graphic novel about Jin Wang’s struggle to fit into a predominantly Caucasian America as a Chinese American. It parallels with the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King, a powerful monkey who wants to be a god, but whom the gods refuse because he’s a monkey. Told with a laugh track and canned applause like a 90s television comedy, the third strand of the story, “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” features the worst of Chinese stereotypes in Chin-Kee, a cousin of all-American Danny who so embarrasses Danny that Danny has to change schools each year after Chin-Kee’s visit. The three tales intersect at the end of the book with a lesson to learn to be happy as one is rather than wishing to be something one is not.

This was the first graphic novel I was able to enjoy, though a few others had been put into my hands prior, including Tamora Pierce’s White Tiger, which I’d have loved to have enjoyed. I cannot pretend to have a breadth of knowledge about either comic or manga illustration styles. I have had difficulty particularly with the American comic book format. When confronted with the form, my mind can focus on either the text or picture but not on both. A. suggested that this is a more common problem than I ever would have expected and related to the same reflex that makes me cover my eyes during horror films. In American comic books and horror films, the action is generally directed out of the page at the audience, so I flinch from horror films and dodge the illustrations in American comic books, glossing over the pictures, missing the details they add to the story, and catching only the dialogue. I also don’t approve of the hypersexualization of characters that seems pervasive in comic book illustration.

Yang’s style is more confined to the pages, even the fight sequences only occasionally having a limb extended out towards the reader. His colors are brighter, though I’m not sure what effect that would have on my reading ability unless the brighter colors are more welcoming in the same way that picture book illustrators recommend bright colors to keep a child’s attention and to create a stimulating image. The characters are not hypersexualized but rather of fairly average body type. Most of the illustrations feature forward facing characters and often direct stares, placing the reader in the position of a character, of a confidant or aggressor or opponent, creating empathy in many cases and inviting introspection and close reflection of the characters’ words.

That’s one of things I love best about this book: It issues a challenge to the reader while being readily accessible, even with its graphic novel form inviting more reluctant readers to read. It takes its challenges of stereotypes to every level, going beyond its text, challenging the belief that a graphic novel cannot have literary value (though this is becoming a less firmly held belief among critics, educators, and parents, I believe). Its illustrations blend manga and American comics while creating something new, its form a metaphor for the story’s message. It speaks openly about racism and race and prejudice.

I don’t admittedly know enough about Chinese mythology or folklore. I believe though that in the spirit of the melting pot, Yang melds Chinese mythology and Christian mythology. The emissaries of Tze-yo-tzuh, an all-powerful god who created the world and everything in it, are a bull, lion, woman, and eagle. A man, bull, lion, and eagle are traditionally used to depict the four Christian Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Journey into the West taken by Wong Lai-Taso and the Monkey King is to see and bring gifts to a humble man in a brown robe and a woman in a blue mantle with a young child. The couple and child look like the traditional representations of Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, and Wong Lai-Taso’s and the Monkey King’s journey west to give them gifts then parallels the journey of the wise men (from the East) to present their gifts to the Christ child in the Christian story.

Yang creates a wonderful piece of fiction, complex and intricate.

*****

Yang, Gene Yuen. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Yuen Yang, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Finally! The Search Finds the Series’ Tone

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Click to visit the publisher's website for links to purchase and a preview.

I dance with spoilers.

Fans of Avatar: the Last Airbender have waited a long time to have these questions answered.  The Search, the latest of the story arcs created in conjunction with the series, published in as a graphic novel series, has promised to answer what happened to Zuko’s mom, the resounding question with which the series closed, and so has a lot of live up to in the minds of fans.

And so far, with the publication of Part 1, I’m impressed.

Though it may stem partially from the way in which I have read the two (the one being a complete, contiguous compilation devoid of the intended breaks and the other being the first of several parts of a story arc), The Search: Part 1, returning to questions of family and honor and leadership, seemed more like several of our beloved episodes (maybe a DVD’s worth) than The Promise.  The main characters of the series here, maybe because they are interacting in situations more akin to what we are used to as viewers (questing and camping alone together), seem more themselves, more fully portrayed.  The inclusion of Ursa’s red-tinted backstory seems to make this half her story and half Zuko’s.

The Search: Part 1 has left us with almost more questions than answers, though we’ve been given backstory for Ursa now and Ozai’s disappointment bordering on dislike of Zuko.  They’ve made me see Ozai in a new and better light, though I’m not sure that that was their intention.  Except that The Legend of Korra makes me suspect the possible twist in this plot will be resolved in a palatable way, the plot would be nail-biting.  I’m not sure how the authors will pull it off, but I’m going to put my faith in this talented team and hope that they know what they’re doing.  They’ve put themselves in a tenuous position, teetering on a knife’s edge of destroying some of the positive messages and some of the complexly interwoven destinies of the original TV series that made it so powerful and tight as a story.

The inclusion of the Wolf Spirit makes me hope that we’re about to get more about the Spirit World.  Several characters have had interactions with the Spirit World: Aang, obviously, as the bridge between the two worlds; Sokka, who was once abducted by a spirit and can authoritatively tell us that there are no bathrooms in the Spirit World; and Iroh, whose trip to the Spirit World has never been fully explained (the explanation that he had an encounter with the last two dragons who led him to understand the true meaning of firebending has never seemed to me to explain his ability to see spirits that others do not).  It seems to me we may get the answers to Iroh’s Spirit World visit as well as the answers as to where Ursa is in this story arc, and that would leave me with few burning questions from the original TV series (though I’m sure that Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko can dredge up more to which I will devour the answers, and I’m still not satisfied with the history we’ve been given of Republic City).

This is a fantastic teaser for the next (I believe) two parts.

****

Yang, Gene Luen, Michael Dante DiMartino, and Bryan Konietzko.  Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: Part 1.  Ed. Dave Marshall.  Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by any of the authors or creators of Avatar, Nickelodeon, or Dark Horse Comics.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.