July 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

A Summertime Adventure

For me, August always means the dog days of summer, when the wonderfulness that is a long vacation (if you're lucky enough to be enjoying one) clashes with a heat and stickiness that can give you both a headache and an unnatural longing for Popsicles. August is yellow, in all its good and bad, but at least it's not September, which is school.

So what to do about August? Leave home! Of course this should be done in the most mature and responsible manner possible (blah blah blah), but just go. If you want a model for the right way to see the world, then reach for Casey Scieszka and Steve Weinberg's illustrated memoir of their journeys to nine countries, To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story. After an introduction that explains how they met and became a couple, Scieszka writes about their plan to live and work in China and Mali while also traveling through France, Morocco, Dubai, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burkina Faso (in West Africa). The book chronicles their jobs as English language teachers in Bejing, their subsequent touring though Southeast Asia, and ultimate arrival in Mali, where Scieszka had funding from a Fulbright grant to study the role of Islam in the education system. To Timbuktu is, in essence, exactly how a young couple can see the world without going broke (or relying on parents to pick up the tab).

The decision to incorporate Weinberg's black-and-white drawings directly into the text goes a long way toward making To Timbuktu teen-friendly. (I think illustrations of some kind should be mandatory in any travel title.) Weinberg is especially talented at capturing facial expressions. (He has a long career ahead of him in graphic novels -- Oni Press or Fantagraphics needs to sign this guy up pronto.) Scieszka has chosen to share not only her personal reflections on their travels but also how the couple worked through their personal struggles with their need to write and create art while also earning money. These are age-old dramas and completely identifiable by most readers, even though their moments occurred in a small Bejing apartment or the desert outside of Timbuktu. Scieszka's endearing way of questioning the choices they made and pondering the future makes her a companion who is far less concerned with asserting her travel superiority than sharing her experiences. In many ways, the couple has broken new ground with To Timbuktu; not only is this an illustrated travel memoir, but it is also one that proves teen readers can be an audience for such books. Here's hoping the two of them are just getting started.

For another graphic novel filled with grand travels (and also a kidnapping, some espionage, and a hate-filled reality TV show producer), you simply must read Hopeless Savages: Greatest Hits 2000-2010 by Jen Van Meter and excellent illustrators (Christine Norrie, Andi Watson, Bryan Lee O'Malley, and more). Bringing together the series of stories separately published by Oni Press over the years, Greatest Hits is an exuberant celebration of the family of retired punk rockers Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage. In the first story, Dirk and Nikki are kidnapped and it falls on teen daughter and budding musician Zero to gather her older siblings together and track down their mom and dad. In some ways this is easy; Zero's martial arts champion sister Arsenal and painter brother Twitch are there right away, but when it comes to big brother Rat, things are a bit tougher. Years earlier Rat did the most appalling (and in Zero's eyes unforgivable) thing imaginable: he took a corporate job and removed himself from his family. To rescue Dirk and Nikki though, Rat is mandatory, and, of course, the family comes together and Rat sees the light, but on the route to the big happy moment there is a lot of Zero yelling things like, "Grotty blisters!" and walks down memory lane, and Arsenal kicking butt, and a ton of laughs. In the end, the most important thing happens and Zero's band gets to their big performance on time. Book two involves Zero nearly being expelled from school because a reality TV show on her family broadcasted something that will destroy her chance at love with the best guy ever, and, to save her heart, she steals said footage. Through it all, no one understands her. (Sometimes even having punk rock parents doesn't help when you're maybe getting kicked out of high school.)

In the third book, the Hopeless-Savages take to the skies for Arsenal's big martial arts tournament in Japan. En route they become unwitting couriers for a spy, many people try to get them, more than one grandmother becomes involved, true love triumphs for everyone, and Arsenal kicks copious butt, again. (She's very good at doing that.) The final few short stories show how Zero's band came together and just what it is like to be a kid of infamous parents -- or why we really shouldn't worry too much about the Jolie-Pitt brood if they are being raised half as well as this crew.

I have been a fan of the Hopeless Savages series since the very first book and dearly wish Van Meter would give us more. This is exactly the sort of graphic novel that defies expectations, proving to be funny, smart, and outrageous. It has the broadest possible appeal: both genders will appreciate the family's no holds barred style and anti-establishment attitude, and GBLTQ teens will also find the subplot in book two concerning Twitch's romance to be most welcome. This is the sort of title I would give to any reader who is looking for unique family drama. Hopeless Savages will leave a smile on your face from start to finish.

Ransom Riggs has accomplished a masterful blend of genres in his engaging illustrated novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Not only is it a fantastic adventure, it also manages to include science fiction (time travel), fantasy (shape shifting, levitation, etc.), horror (scary monsters in the dark), mystery (what happened to the children's home of the title), and the much maligned traveling circus genre (because they are never dull).

The book opens with sixteen-year old Jacob living a thoroughly pedestrian suburban life, notable only for the exciting stories long told by his grandfather. As a child, Jacob adored these stories, but now, as a jaded teen, he has become skeptical and even dismissive. It is only after his grandfather's shocking death that he begins to suspect there was truth to them. This reconsideration is precipitated by what Jacob saw in the woods when he discovered his grandfather's battered body -- a glimpse of a monster that has haunted him ever since. Maybe the old man was right all along.

In the weeks that follow, Jacob tries to dismiss the monster as part of what his parents and new therapist decide is a much deserved case of "acute stress reaction." But tantalizing clues left by his grandfather continue to surface. Jacob is worried he might be going crazy, and no matter how scary that monster was, anything is preferable to losing his mind. Or so he thinks, anyway.

The answers, if any, likely will be found in the place where his orphaned grandfather was sent at the outset of World War II, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, on an island off the coast of Wales. With his father along to fill out his lifetime bird list, Jacob sets out to learn where his grandfather really came from and who he left behind. What he finds cannot be true, and yet it also cannot be denied. There has been a war waging for a very long time and Jacob is now part of it, if he can only live long enough to face his enemies.

There are so many things Riggs does right, from outstanding character development to tight plotting and excellent pacing. Mostly though, he makes his protagonist earn his heroic moment. This is no lazy novel where readers learn on page two that the hero has been born into a family that must save the world while he is juggling burgeoning superpowers and a healthy teen social life. Instead, Riggs pulls a Whedon and world-builds like a master, forcing Jacob to uncover every clue, ask every question, and challenge every assumption. He also wraps his paranormal excesses neatly into our own history and, thankfully, does not subject readers to long soulful looks between characters. Jacob is a kid who figures things out, and through his discoveries the plot unfolds, and the story carries you away, just like you hope it will.

As if all that is not enough, Riggs includes numerous black and white photographs, all of which are part of the story and discovered and discussed by the characters. Riggs explains in a final note that these are actual historic photos from a variety of personal collections (all of which he dutifully credits). The novel weaves gloriously around the pictures enriching them with its words as they add great depth with their unique (and sometimes startling) visuals. It's a perfect match of art and story and puts Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children at the top of any best teen books list I would compile for this year. (And big kudos to Quirk for designing Miss Peregrine with the care and attention it deserves.)

For a more traditional fantasy adventure, Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is exactly the sort of title that makes me want to reach for words like "delightful," "charming," and "spunky," but I shall resist. I know if I toss any of those out there you will immediately come up with a vision of the book that includes everything Walt Disney did wrong to Alice in Wonderland and nothing Lewis Carroll did right. Valente channels Carroll perfectly, giving readers the story of another girl who suddenly takes a trip to an amazing place (in this case the protagonist September is invited to Fairyland by the Green Wind) and meets several unusual creatures culminating with a showdown with the evil Marquess, who is all things Red Queenish, but also most definitely different. September handles all of her tricky encounters with great aplomb and no small amount of snark and comes a lot closer to death (by transfiguration into a tree of all things) than Alice ever did.

In many ways, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is very much a twenty-first century response to Wonderland. Valente is telling her readers that yes indeed, you can still go off like Alice, Wendy, or Dorothy, but with the threat level up a notch and the cartoonish aspects removed. (Not that a crocodile or wicked witch were ever without their dangers.) Further, September's distant parents are very real parts of the story, the Marquess is not evil just for the sake of convenience, and the struggles of the Fairyland residents are disturbingly familiar.

The novel is first and foremost about a plucky (yes!) heroine who jumps at the chance to have an adventure. She meets Shakespearean witches and decides to undertake a traditional heroic journey. She makes a ferry crossing reminiscent of Charon's and sacrifices part of herself to save an innocent. She finds someone descended (!) from a library and saves a hero. She stands up to excesses and tries to follow the rules, but, unfortunately, everyone gets hungry eventually, and that whole not-eating-in-the-land-of-Fairy thing really is impossible to stick to when you think about it. Mostly though, September is stalwart and true, and while certainly not perfect, she is still all the things the classic heroines aspired to be, while carrying a story wholly her own and managing a marvelous crew of supporting characters. (Valente truly excels with the supporting characters, and they lift the story to a whole other level.) Accompanies by Ana Juan's chapter illustrations, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is indeed, as Neil Gaiman blurbs, "a serious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale." I call it the new classic and salute her for showing that there are still many, many stories to be told.

Finally, if one is going to contemplate an adventure of one's own, it never hurts to consider the great adventurers of the past, and a book like Stewart Ross and Stephen Biesty's Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air will certainly come in handy. From the Greeks to the Vikings to China's Admiral Zen and, of course, David Livingstone in Africa, the fourteen great treks that make up Into the Unknown span centuries and take readers all the way to the moon (via Apollo 11). Ross creates a text is engaging and easily understood, and Biesty (of Incredible Cross-Sections fame)'s illustrations give readers the routes traveled, equipment used, and, of course, a peek inside hot air balloons, ships, and more. This is exactly the sort of title that should be thrust in reluctant readers' hands (or just give it to them). Kids won't be able to look away from the maps and want to know more about the pictures, which is going to draw them into the stories. As a smart added bonus, the chapters are brief and the book can be read in chunks, making it a lot less intimidating than one might expect. My only complaint (and its a common one when it comes to the history of exploration) is that women are woefully overlooked here. With only the indomitable Mary Kingsley present, I can't help wishing that just once one of these books would surprise me and try for a bit more equitable distribution. I do have to give the authors credit for being less Eurocentric than I expected, though; that was a lovely surprise.

Cool Reads: For the younger set, First Second has two graphic novels filled with the best sort of adventure (outer space) any bored fourth- or fifth-grader could want. Dave Roman's Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity is the sort of graphic novel I would have loved as a kid. Written in a series of short chapters it follows "just another day in space school" antics from the perspectives of a variety of students, ranging from spacewalk obsessed Doug Hiro to rich girl Maribelle Mellonbelly. Our hero is new student Hakata Soy, who arrives with a mysterious past, some powerful enemies, and a penchant for attracting the wrong sort of attention. His fellow students alternately speculate on who he is, where he's from, and why he's there. That's when they aren't involved in their own adventures that involve everything from playing fireball to crushing on the most popular teacher in school. Roman writes with a healthy tongue-in-cheek (Maribelle must be experienced to believed), but even with the hyperbole of a robot programed to kill, the heart of this story is kids in school trying to get along with each other and sort out who they are and want to be. This is some of the best kind of science fiction. It has all the fun bits of space but remains ordinary enough to be recognizable to any typical earthbound reader. (Ray Bradbury's fantastic short story "R is for Rocket" is a classic example, and Roman's characters would fit right in there.) The black-and-white artwork is clean and clear, the kid's faces are especially appealing, and it's a funny read that will appeal to the eight-and-up crowd with ease.

I was charmed by Ben Hatke's Zita the Spacegirl from page one, and continued to be surprised by the many shifts and spins the story takes after our heroine jumped through a space portal (activated by a switch found near home) in search of a friend who was kidnapped by aliens. Zita is tough but believable -- more than once she collapses into the sort of worry that any kid would feel upon discovering she was a zillion miles from home on a planet about to be whacked by an asteroid. She gathers together a ragtag band of companions, all of whom have their own issues and end up by her side for reasons both admirable and, well, less than admirable. There is deceit in the ranks, but all becomes clear in the final chapters as Zita finds her friend, finds a way to save this world, and makes a monumental decision about her future.

If Hatke's story sounds simple, don't be fooled; Zita makes a lot of decisions, her plans are thrown more than one wrench, and she finds herself the unexpected rescuer for all sorts of creatures (great, small, organic, and machine) along the way. She is also -- and this is important -- fearless in her determination to do what is right (after an initial stumble). There is so much to love about this kid and her friends and all the crazy things that happen to them. The story is pitch perfect, the full-color drawings beautiful, and the world Hatke develops, just like Roman's school in space, is fully realized. The two books combined will go a long way toward making young readers future SF fans.

Colleen Mondor blogs on books and other literary matters at chasingray.com Her Alaskan aviation memoir, The Map of My Dead Pilots, will be published by Lyons Press in November.