Getting a Little Graphic
One of my all time favorite groups of books is those with illustrations. Example number one is the recent Printz Honor title by Daniel Handler. Knowing Handler only for the Lemony Snicket books, one would approach his contemporary YA title of teen heartbreak with more than bit of skepticism in his heart. And yet, Why We Broke Up with powerful, prescient illustrations by Maira Kalman, is one of the most honest depictions of teenage life that I have come across. Handler has tapped into his inner high school self on a level that is impressive and created a protagonist in Min that readers will feel an instant rapport with.
The story plays out in a long letter, broken into brief chapters that address every object in the box of memorabilia that Min is returning to her ex-boyfriend Ed. The relationship was short, intense, and filled with all the drama that cross-clique dating can bring, which Handler exposes with care and precision. Why We Broke Up begins with the relationship already ended and Min carefully documenting in her letter why she is giving each item to Ed. Through these "souvenirs" she takes readers into every aspect of their couplehood, from the first long conversation, through dates big and small, meeting family members, altercations with an ex, and the most difficult moments when they mingle with each other's friends. Far from a typical teen romance, Handler instead looks at how much more there is to teen dating than simply the dating part. Min notes more than once how she wished the two of them could just have disappeared into some utopian ideal where nothing and no one else would exist. And yet as much as she dreams of this happily ever after land, she can't help recounting the times that she and Ed didn't quite mesh. It is those moments, which increased as the relationship continued, that finally became too much to bear. And so by the final pages when she details that last thing that broke them up, the reader will realize just as Min did, that they were headed there from the very beginning.
Why We Broke Up is a flashback that anyone could have, regardless of whether one is a jock or sort-of "arty." It is about all the ways you try to make a relationship work and yet just can't seem to do the right thing at the right moment, how you have to work all the time at trying to figure out what that right thing is. (There is an especially poignant moment when Min attends Ed's basketball game and struggles to care enough to pay attention, waving the pennant that marks her as a girlfriend, wondering why she is there and what she is supposed to do with the thing when it is over.) Page after page after page, Handler strips away at all the little lies we tell ourselves about who we are and who we can be; he makes clear that knowing who we are from the very beginning could save us so much time when it comes to life and love, and yet who can resist that sudden attraction, that curiosity for difference, for being loved? And that's the kicker, Min and Ed did love each other and did try, but it just couldn't work, just like we always knew.
As sublime as Handler's narrative is though, Kalman's illustrations give us the pennant and the map and coat and condom wrapper, and as the story progresses the pictures, which begin each chapter, cause readers to linger more and more. Now of course, we know what is coming, and so we pause for a moment to consider what the cookbook will tell us, or the umbrella...
I think illustrated books are a particularly good format for biography and graphic novels and add an essential element to the genre that makes them especially appealing to reluctant readers. Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love is an example of a biography that excels with authors Patricia McKissack and Frederick McKissack, Jr., along with illustrator Randy DeBurke tackling a woefully overlooked American.
Nat Love was born into slavery in 1854 and became the most famous African American cowboy in the Old West. He knew Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid, he rode the range from Texas to Dodge City, and crisscrossed Indian Territory involving himself more than once in gunfights. His horse-breaking ability was legendary and is a big part of the graphic novel. In many respects the McKissacks have written a L'Amour-esque western in Best Shot in the West, giving it all the frontier appeal and excitement of Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen's finest. The fact that Nat Love was a real man who overcome historical adversity to live an epic life just makes the book that much more appealing -- and perfect fodder for book report assignments.
Illustrator DeBurke, well known for Greg Neri's searing title Yummy: The Last Days of Southside Shorty, contributes evocative drawings on each page, washed in colors ranging from near black and white to startling reds and greens when the story warrants. This treatment lends the book a nostalgic feel that fits well with the way the story is framed, as if Nat Love is sharing his memoirs. (As explained in the author's note, Love did publish an autobiography, which the title is based on.) Overall Best Shot in the West is another example of what Chronicle Books does so well -- a beautifully designed title that impresses as both story and design.
In both Keshni Kashyap's Tina's Mouth and Faith Erin Hicks's Friends with Boys, the authors take a long look at high school life and use the graphic novel format to convey both humor and pathos. Tina's Mouth is subtitled "An Existential Comic Diary" and is framed around a class philosophy assignment where sophomore Tina writes letters to Jean Paul Sarte. The big question (the biggest question actually) is "who am I, really?" and Tina has a lot of thinking to do on the way to an answer.
Born in India, Tina lives with her parents and older sister who has a degree in architecture but has moved back home to "figure things out." Meanwhile, her older brother lives and works nearby and surfs Indian dating sites to find the perfect match. Tina is a pretty good student, a decent violin player, and a "bit of an intellectual." In her diary she explores what it is not to fit into any well defined clique (Handler's Min would certainly understand). There is also the horror of losing a best friend and the added difficulty of parents tied to one set of traditions when you are yearning for something else. Mostly though, Tina finds herself in classic teen situations and through crush, heartbreak, and high school horror, readers will nod along, smile, and also, because of the deep questions posited by this very engaging protagonist, have a few deep thoughts of their own. If it was easy to figure out who you are then we wouldn't have a widely accepted term like "midlife crisis"; anyone who thinks it's easy for teens clearly isn't appreciating the sort of challenges even a steady middle class kid like Tina is going through.
Friends with Boys adds a slight paranormal spin to the high school story as freshman Maggie, entering the classroom after years of homeschooling, not only has to navigate the strange new world of fitting in but is also haunted by a very sad ghost. The haunting is nothing new, but it seems more plaintive of late, and, frankly, Maggie has enough going on with making friends and dealing with three older brothers (all of whom are in high school as well). She wishes the dead lady would just tell her what she needs so they could go about resting her in peace. On top of all this is the fact that Maggie's mother left the family, her father is the rather busy chief of police and the kids who are her best prospect for friends are not exactly everyone's idea of most "suitable" (shaved heads, multiple piercings). Maggie perseveres, gets into an altercation with some bullies, steals something that she thinks will make the ghost happy, and finally -- finally -- tells her brothers what is going on. Everything works out because Maggie is very good at choosing friends, which really is what Friends with Boys is all about.
Hicks also contributes the illustrations in her title, using a big-eyed manga style that is reminiscent of Bryan Lee O'Malley with heavy shading on most of the panels. Tina's Mouth is illustrated in a more understated and elegant way by Mari Araki, which works well with the many sections of the book that are text heavy. In both cases you have illustration that matches the narrative quite effectively and complements the stories rather than competing with them. Tina's Mouth has a shot at sitting nicely in teen-adult crossover territory and I hope it does; the comparison to Persepolis is richly earned and certainly deserving.
For fantasy lovers, Nunzio DeFillipis and Christina Weir have a new graphic novel series in Avalon Chronicles. The first volume, Once in a Blue Moon, introduces teen protagonist Aeslin Finn and the strange set of circumstances that have her traveling between two realms, one of which that looks a lot like Camelot, except it includes a flying dragon who apparently has been waiting for Aeslin to show up.
Early on, readers learn that Aeslin's parents often read her stories from a book about a fantasy kingdom named Avalon. Her childhood was marred however by the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of her father which resulted in the end of all the storytelling. Flash forward and teen Aeslin is hanging out in school (with a uniform right out of Britney's "Oops I Did Again" video) and her mother is running for town mayor. There isn't much remarkable about her life which makes the discovery on the way home of a new store, a store Aeslin and her friend Meg are quite certain was not there at all yesterday, all the more strange. Of course they go in, of course the proprietor seems to be a cross between Santa Claus and Yoda, and of course Aeslin buys a book, the apparent sequel to her beloved Avalon Chronicles and heads home to read it. After a wistful few words are spoken Aeslin suddenly finds herself whisked away into the actual pages. Just like that, she's living a fairy tale.
The premise works because the authors have a sense of humor about it and both Meg and Aeslin perform exactly as you want them to in their respective situations. Meg grabs the book, leaves a cover story note for Aeslin's mother, and goes back to the store, which has, of course, disappeared. Meanwhile Aeslin has quickly figured out that everything looks exactly like the Avalon storybook, so there is no wasting time wailing about her situation. She knows where she is, she knows the story, so she has the good and bad guys figured out (which is disappointing since one very cute knight is apparently working for the bad guys), and she is impatient to get back home. Aeslin ends up stumbling upon the mystery store again and learning a thing or two about what is going on, but that doesn't help with her immediate and very complicated situation (the short-skirted school uniform kind of makes her stick out, and there are bandits, and she has to find the guy who wrote the book so she can get back, and there is a huge good-guys-versus-bad-guys struggle going on, and, well, she just might be the chosen one). It's really turning out to be a very difficult day for our girl, that's for sure.
The Avalon Chronicles could very easily be a tired retread or a weak Buffy imitation, but, man, it's just too much fun to snark about. Meg is a solid supporting character with actual valuable contributions to make, Aeslin is funny as hell, and there are plenty of moments in which she can shine as the plot unfolds. There were a few points where I had to roll my eyes (Ten hours on a horse in a short skirt and she's just fine when she gets to her destination? Come on!), but DeFeilippis and Weir throw enough humor our way to keep readers confident that none of this, even the more intense moments, is to be taken seriously. The point is having a good time and with this cast that is not a hard thing to accomplish. Visually, Emma Vieceli's style veers occasionally into manga (mouths gape open, the knight is appropriately star-worthy) but remains closer to Oni Press stalwart Blue Monday by the fabulous Chynna Clugston-Major than anything else. It works, and Vieceli's expressive faces make it clear the characters are visually as much in the joke as the writers intend them to be. The Avalon Chronicles are off to a solid start and promise to provide a lot of pleasure for teens (or tweens) looking for some romantic adventure in their comics.
Finally, author Jessica Anthony and designer Rodrigo Corral have teamed up for a new transmedia offering that includes the book Chopsticks, as well as an app and website. Transmedia is the new frontier in storytelling and Anthony and Corral are certainly making a noteworthy entry with this heavily illustrated title. It follows the story of teen piano prodigy Glory who is struggling to perform in the years after her mother's death. Pushed by her father into concerts in the great halls of Europe, she longs to be back home with her boyfriend Frank. Their desperation to be together is what pushes Glory to her breaking point.
The big plot twist centers on the fact that Glory is not well. There are clues to her increasingly high-strung personality and precipice from which she teeters. At first her father seems callous for insisting she perform, but later he becomes consumed with concern and she ends up in a "rest facility" for performers. It is in the final pages, after her breakdown, that Anthony and Corral deliver their wallop and the reader is compelled to go back over previous pages and reconsider all the book has offered.
Chopsticks does not tell a new story; the trope of fragile young woman driven to the breaking point has been part of the gothic genre forever. What the authors bring is the wealth of illustrations and the further possibilities found in the app and website. A lot of the book consists of single words or phrases on full color pages with photos, diary entries, chat excerpts, YouTube links (which are real), and ephemera like invitations, newspaper articles, or drawings made by the two characters. These are all clues to the relationship and Glory's past. But while it is all very interesting to look at, the one element that Chopsticks hinges on is character development. The book can be as mysterious as it wants to be, but if Glory is not a compelling character, then none of the rest will matter, and that is where I think the authors let down their audience.
Transmedia will work only if there is something to compel others to immerse themselves in the interactive world the authors have created. It's fun to look at close-ups of diaries and photo albums or watch videos, but we have to want to do it. Chopsticks needs readers to care deeply about Glory, but she remains largely a cipher because too little emphasis has been placed on the actual story. It would have served the authors better to have included many more diary entries or letters, something that would provide a deeper look into her mind and impending madness. The style they have chosen seems to be undercutting their audience; it assume readers will be more impressed with flash and color then actual reading. They have certainly created a novelty, but could have created something much more powerful and unforgettable. I give them points for trying something new in such a big way, but wish they had respected their audience enough to give the story equal billing. By the final page I did not care what happened to Glory Fleming next, and that's a shame because, really, I very much wanted to. I'll be watching to see what Anthony and Corral do next however, because I think they are close to creating something very exciting.
COOL READ: There has been a lot of talk about the demotion of Pluto in recent years (I still stand on the side declaring the planet was robbed) and it is no surprise to see National Geographic weighing in on the subject with a new book. 13 Planets: The Latest View of the Solar System by David Aguilar is not just about Pluto however (obviously). It also includes Ceres, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, (originally considered the fifth planet when discovered in 1801), Haumea (in the Kuiper Belt and oddly shaped like a chicken egg), Makemake (named for the Easter Island god of fertility who is also chief god of the bird-man cult) and Eris, which are both so far out there that they make Pluto look close. These relatively unknown additions are all dwarf planets as Pluto is now classified but still interesting and also have moons of their own. Aguilar explores them with the same attention as the major planets, by providing the origins of their names, their locations, a few facts about their composition and orbits, and without fail some funky unexpected trivia. The artwork is stunning, including photos from Voyager 2 and some more fanciful paintings such as one of Triton's ice volcanoes erupting with Neptune in the background.
In terms of information 13 Planets is basic and the standard title you would expect in libraries and classrooms, but it is also beautiful and thus can be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level. The choices Aguilar has made here, to extend beyond the major planets and provide the dwarves equal attention, gives the book a unique direction. It's another one of those middle grade titles that will easily work for older teens who are reluctant readers but interested in astronomy. They won't be talked down to with this one and instead, will likely be downright inspired. (And certainly will be joining Team Pluto!)