The Shadow Hero

Shadow HeroTitle: The Shadow Hero
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Illustrator: Sonny Liew
ISBN: 9781596436978
Pages: 170 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2014

“No no no!”
“But you don’t even know what a superhero is!”
“Of course I know what a superhero is! They’re all over the newspapers!”
“Then why don’t you want to be one?”
“First of all, that costume is ridiculous! What kind of superhero symbol is that?!”
“It’s the character for gold, Hank! Gold is a very, very good symbol! It’s shiny! It’s pretty! It’s worth a lot of money!”
“Nobody’s gonna understand that! And second–”
“You never appreciate anything I do for you!”
“And SECOND, I don’t have any superpowers! I can’t fly or lift a car over my head or anything like that! How am I supposed to be a superhero with no superpowers?!” (25-26)

Some mothers want their children to become doctors or lawyers or teachers. Hank’s mother gets saved from a bank robbery suspect by a superhero, and now she wants her son to be a superhero. Hank’s rational explanation that he has neither an inclination or an ability to become a superhero fall on deaf ears. But when a violent crime hits close to home, it convinces both Hank and his mother to change their minds.

I was especially intrigued by the history behind the story, maybe slightly more than the Gene Luen Yang’s actual story. Yang brings to light a little known superhero, created by an unknown cartoonist (Chu Hing), for an unknown publisher (Rural Home) and starring in just five issues. Speculation apparently abounds at the origins of the superhero but also the relationship between cartoonist and publisher. Never seeing the Green Turtle’s face or discovering his origin, was Hing hiding a Chinese superhero in plain sight against his publisher’s wishes? While we’ll probably never know for sure, Yang gives readers not only a history lesson and a copy of the first full issue, but also a convincing origin story for this nearly forgotten superhero.

Yang mentions stereotypes in his afterward, remarking upon “Hing’s use of racial stereotypes in his depictions of the Japanese” (157). I wonder if Yang (as I suspect) consciously invoked these stereotypes when portraying his characters, especially Hank’s mother as a meddling, overly involved immigrant and Hank’s origin story rings unmistakably similar to Spider-man’s and Batman’s. Don’t miss the cheeky nod towards these counterparts where some characters talk about the new superhero who “dresses up like some sort of owl or vulture or–” (30). But Hank’s character is more Peter Parker than Bruce Wayne, as he muddles through the path to superhero, making his own costume and secret identity name and bumbling his way through fights. I won’t say much about his one special ability, but I enjoyed how Yang incorporated Chinese elements throughout the story. The ending is slightly anti-climatic, but it’s understandable as it doesn’t appear that the original material had many costumed cohorts to battle, but instead fought mortal men in a real world war. Maybe this is another reason it lasted such a short time, since everyone was intrigued and entertained by Joker, Penguin, Lex Luther, and other just as imaginary enemies.

The layout is very similar to comics, with chapters beginning with an expository flashback and ending with the Green Turtle logo. Sound effects are written in brightly colored bubble-letters (Wack, Kick, Smash, Whap, etc.) that contrast against the generally more muted backgrounds. Some of the layouts are unique and very eye-catching, like the wheel-shaped montage of fight sequences found on page 105, making me think of a Zodiac or color wheel. This engaging read could appeal to wide audiences as the superhero genre continues to grow.

This One Summer

This One SummerTitle: This One Summer
Author: Mariko Tamaki
Illustrator: Jillian Tamaki
ISBN: 9781626720947
Pages: 318 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2014.
Awards: Caldecott Honor (2015), Michael L. Printz Award Nominee (2015), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Nominee for Best Graphic Album-New (2015)

When I first came to Awago I was scared to swim in the lake. Then my mom taught me how to open my eyes under the water.
I thought it was something special. Like a power.
Until I told Windy and realized like, everyone can do it if they try. (111)

Rose and her family have gone to Awago Beach for the summer ever since she can remember. It’s there she meets up with Windy, whose family also annually rents a summer cottage. The entertainment of choice for the two girls is secretly watching scary movies they rent from the small store. It’s there that they also eavesdrop on the small town gossip, which seems like it’s all anyone can talk about. Rose’s family has their own drama and trauma that they are trying to overcome, but it seems like this summer it’s more difficult than ever to avoid their real life.

This book has definitely made waves, especially since the Media Awards were announced in February. I’ve been struggling with accepting the honorees for the Caldecott Award since they were announced, because they broke the mold so thoroughly this year. The Invention of Hugo Cabret did the same thing when it won the award for 2008, but it seems like librarians were more willing to accept it into their fold because it still was an acceptable acquisition for an elementary school and/or the children’s department. It still met our definition of a children’s book. And while the Caldecott Award does specify that books intended for an audience of up to and including age 14 are to be considered, they are traditionally acceptable reading material for most age levels, and the ability to read something of that length was the only barrier. Now we have a piece of work dealing with sensitive, mature themes, such as teenage pregnancy — and all the various related topics like diseases, contraception, and conception — underage drinking and language. Not really something you would unquestionably hand to a second grader, I don’t care how open-minded of a librarian or how stringently you adhere to the mantra that we do not act in loco parentis.

Several librarians have also raised the concern that graphic novels present a unique question of where the natural separation is between pictures and text, especially since graphic novels blur those lines so frequently. Are speech bubbles considered part of the graphics? Are textual panels or narrative text considered part of the graphics? Are sound effects (picture the BAM and WHACK from early comics) part of the graphics, especially when used in place of an alternative pictorial representation, or part of the text?

There’s a very good reason for asking these questions, which I’m sure the Caldecott committee spent some time considering in their deliberations. The choice of the monochromatic blue/purple conveys the moody atmosphere, but the dialogue and expository text emphasizes the unease and awkwardness that the long-time friendship is suffering. Initially I didn’t care for the graphic novel, probably for this very reason, as the introspective nature of the narrative forces readers to be “in the mood” for that type of thing. It’s a very different story than say Roller Girl (previously reviewed) and therefore recommended for an audience that would appreciate that type of story. It’s a moody portrayal of a young girl’s loss of innocence, as Rose grapples with some very heavy themes. I chose the quote at the top because this is literally the summer where she opens her eyes. There is a noticeable gap between Windy and Rose from the very beginning that continues to widen, and readers understand and accept that, possibly before either of the girls, although I think Rose is coming to that same conclusion.

While it has merits, I’m not sure if it, in my opinion, fully deserves the notoriety that the Caldecott committee has now infamously and infinitely granted it as the first graphic novel to be recognized by that award. It’s was also recognized by the Printz Committee, designating excellence in Young Adult Literature, which is an audience that I think is better able to engage and appreciate the graphic novel’s subtleties. I may be late to the initial commentary and debate, but this is one discussion that I’m sure will go on for some time, and rightfully so.

Roller Girl

Roller GirlTitle: Roller Girl
Author/Illustrator: Victoria Jamieson
ISBN: 9780803740167
Pages: 240 pages
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, c2015.

“By the way, did you see this in the program? There’s a junior roller derby camp, starting this summer.”
“What?! Let me see! Please!”
“It starts next month, right after school lets out.”
And just like that, my fate was decided. I was going to be a roller girl. (24-25)

Astrid’s mother periodically takes twelve-year-old Astrid and her friend Nicole to events for “evening of cultural enlightenment”. Usually they consist of concerts or museums, but this time around it’s a roller derby match. Astrid is hooked from the very beginning, even though she doesn’t own skates and doesn’t know how, and is eager to sign up for the upcoming junior roller derby camp. Nicole though, has not caught the bug, and Astrid worries about attending without her only friend. When she gets there, Astrid realizes that while it may look like fun, it’s also a lot of work, and she’s worried that while she might look like a roller girl with newly dyed hair, is she really ready to compete?

Fans of Raina Telgemeier will celebrate that there is another bold, brightly colored, friendship based, girl centered graphic novel for them to find and check out. Astrid is just a tiny bit clueless when it comes to her good friend Nicole and will just not accept that the two could have such drastically different interests. Her acts of rebelliousness — like dying her hair and lying to her mother — are realistic. This non-traditional sport has been gaining popularity and cultural presence, I think ever since the Drew Barrymore movie came out. Author/artist Jamieson is a competitor in real life, and takes the time to explain the game to readers in a way that allows them to learn along with Astrid. I loved that her single-parent family was presented in such a way that I didn’t even notice until the end that her father isn’t mentioned once. We don’t know what happened, and it doesn’t matter because it’s not central to the plot and Astrid has a loving, involved, and supportive parent who acts like a parent. Highly recommended.

Around the World

Around the WorldTitle: Around the World
Author/Illustrator: Matt Phelan
ISBN: 9780763636197
Pages: 237 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2011.

“I will bet twenty thousand pounds against anyone who wishes that I will make the tour of the world in eighty days or less: in nineteen hundred and twenty hours, or one hundred and fifteen thousand two hundred minutes. Do you accept?”
Thus begins Jules Verne’s rollicking adventure novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne’s novel, like his previous books, was an international success. Millions read it and pondered the possibility of racing around the planet Earth. A few intrepid adventurers — for a variety of reasons both known and unknown — decided to attempt the amazing feat. (11)

Author Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days planted in many minds the thought of seeing the world, traveling to foreign lands, and experiencing all that the planet has to offer. Three people who actually set out upon the journey are featured in this compilation biography. First came former miner Thomas Stevens, whose efforts began with a 3.5 month trip across the United States on a big-wheeled bicycle. Once he succeeded with that trip and secured sponsorship, he continued on across the globe, spending a year showcasing the bicycle’s abilities as he went. Two years after he returned, reporter Nellie Bly had the intention of beating the challenge that Phineas Fog set in the novel. Many said it couldn’t be done, and the paper she wrote for even took guesses from readers as to when she’d arrive back. Finally, there was the old retired sea-captain Joshua Slocum, who quietly set sail in a time of steam ships and pirates, spending years alone as he circumnavigated the globe just like old times.

Matt Phelan’s style is almost instantly recognizable once you’ve read some of his works featuring watercolors accented with pencil, ink, and gouache. Thomas Stevens’s story is the most colorful, featuring panoramic landscapes in greens, golds, and reds and a beautiful double page spread silhouetting the rider in front of the iconic Taj Mahal. Phelan briefly touches upon the changes that were happening while Stevens was on his ride, including the development of newer bicycle models and a gasoline engine. Phelan’s portrayal of the trip is the shortest of the three stories in terms of page count, and I do wish we had heard and seen more the trip, especially since Phelan mentions the exorbitant length of Stevens’ own account of his journey.

Nellie Bly’s is more muted, with her bright blue outfit and plaid orange-brown ulster standing out among the grays, whites, and browns of her transportation methods. I was somewhat surprised at his portrayal of Nellie as an impatient, irritable woman, but maybe she has good reason to be perturbed. It’s shown that the deck is stacked against her from the very beginning as she purposes the idea to her editor, is shot down immediately by staff due to her gender, and then she is given the assignment a year later as their own idea. It’s just another reason that I should do some research on a trailblazer in journalism.

Joshua Slocum’s journey sets a very different tone, both in the style of illustrations and the actual narration. It’s a solitary tale of a solitary man who is not in a race against time like Nellie or interacting with many people like Thomas. In fact, the minimal interactions portrayed are with hallucinations, memories, and ghosts from his past indicated with greens and yellows that separate their content from the blues and grays of the seemingly never-ending sea journey. There was no mighty fanfare upon his return, and when the story ends with his disappearance at sea 10 years later, it’s made abundantly clear to readers that this restless man was searching for a life and solace he could not find.

Phelan includes a short author’s note and bibliography of sources at the end, although I question how many of those resources would be beneficial to children. Epilogues are also included after each of the three stories, giving answers to the inevitable “and then?” questions that would follow a tale of a trip around the world. Captain Slocum’s is the only one played out in graphic novel format. Readers expecting the daring feats that they find in the 39 Clues series will be disappointed, but introspective adventurers looking to whet their appetite on true tales may enjoy the stories and provide a launching point for further speculation on their own future endeavors.

H.O.R.S.E. A Great Game of Basketball and Imagination

H.O.R.S.E.Title: H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination
Author/Illustrator: Christopher Myers
Narrators: Dion Graham and Christopher Myers
Music: Mario Rodriguez
ISBN: 9781606842188 (w/ CD)
Pages: unpaged
Publisher: Live Oak Media, c2014 (audio) Egmont USA, c2012 (hardcover)
Awards: Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Honor Book (2013), Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production Winner (2015),

One day at the basketball court…
Hey, want to play a game of horse?

With those few words, a game that’s as much imagination as it is trash talking and skill, two boys start a game of H.O.R.S.E. The objective is to make a basket using a basketball in the most creative way you can that will prevent your opponent from making the same shot. With flights of fancy involving hands, feet, tongues, skyscrapers and space shuttles, the big question is, who’s the winner?

Although it’s questionable that a single shot is thrown, that’s not the point. The point is this book is pure smack talk. The most quotable line exchange: “Didn’t know I could go left, did you?” “You’re probably a specialist in left … left back, left behind, left out.” The sound effects — such as bouncing balls, scraping chalk on a blackboard, or traversing the stars — are well-connected with the dialogue, and a sound track gives an upbeat, city vibe to the whole production. I’m so glad that there are two narrators, leading an authenticity to the listening experience that starts from the title and continues through the author’s note read by the author. The two narrators even argue over what the page turn signal is going to be! The illustrations keep the focus on the game and the boys, with minimal background details interfering. The dialogue is printed in two different colors, making it easy to distinguish between the speakers. It reminds me of Andy Griffiths “My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad” short story from Guys Write for Guys Read, the original Guys Reads book edited by Jon Scieszka, and you could probably pair the two for a smack talk themed read-aloud session.

Poisoned Apples

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Poisoned ApplesTitle: Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty
Author: Christine Heppermann
Illustrations: Photographs by various artists
ISBN: 9780062289575
Pages: 114 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Simon says touch your toes.
Simon says turn around.
Simon says touch your toes again.
Now wiggle a little.
Simon says he is not a pervert. (16)

The quoted poem was the first that gave me goose bumps in this collection that uses fairy tales conventions to remark on the culture of today’s women. Topics include eating disorders, feminism, and sexual rights, either applied to modern-day or as Heppermann sees them within the original tale. “Finders Keepers” talks about virginity, “Red-Handed” paints Little Red Riding Hood as a smuggler with sexual prowess (“Why, Wolfie, what a big…”), “Runaway” portrays Goldilocks as a rebellious runaway, and Hansel and Gretel themed “Weight Watchers” brings a whole new meaning to fudge bars. It features different formats including a haiku and a villanelle, rare in a genre dominated by free verse. While some appear overly didactic (example, naming a poem “A Brief History of Feminism”), rave reviews from Gayle Forman, A.S. King, and Sara Zarr give this debut author the street cred it rightfully deserves. Perfect for transitioning from Women’s History Month to Poetry Month.

The Sculptor

SculptorTitle: The Sculptor
Author/Illustrator: Scott McCloud
ISBN: 9781596435735
Pages: 496 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2015.
Published: February 3, 2015

“So what if the art thing didn’t work out? Is it really that important?”
“It’s all I have.”
“What would you give for your art, David?”
“I’d give my life.” (32-33)

With those fateful — or maybe fatal — words, David sets the next 200 days in motion. David has spent so many years trying to accomplish his life’s goal of making a name for himself in the art world. But he’s currently a down on his luck sculptor who has no future work prospects, no girlfriend, no family, little money, and will soon be homeless. So he’s spending his last dollars on his birthday getting drunk at a local diner, until two unexpected visitors – one is an angel and the other is death – deeply impact the next six months of his life.

Visually stunning and satisfying. These are the first two words that come to mind after finishing. Scott McCloud literally wrote the book on comic books. This graphic novel proves that not only can he talk the talk, he can also walk the walk. The writing and drawings are equally affecting, and in some cases I paused to not only process the plot but also come up for air as I was immersed in this world. The monochromatic colors change the mood with the flip of a page, with one section using a much darker blue color scheme to convey the dark emotions and some panels and pages being completely devoid of color. Some pages are more traditional in their layout, whereas others change the tone of the narrative by either switching from a white gutter to a black one, and in some cases doing away with the gutter completely. The full-page panoramic shots are eye-catching, but the varied layouts add interest and keep readers engaged. Sometimes they feature detailed street scenes with identifiable individuals in the crowd, other times focus on a single character close-up which draws readers into the dramatic relationships, and that unique final sequence feels like a flip book as it follows one character’s descent.

David, the epitome of a starving artist, just can’t catch a break, at one point claiming he’s cursed, being told it’s just bad luck, and asking “What difference does it make?” His grand goals and aspirations are what continues to drive him. He can’t think small, he can’t be confined by what others in the art world dictates. He needs to succeed in a big way and make a name for himself, which is especially influenced by his having to distinguish himself from an already successful artists with the same name. He has made promises to himself that he refuses to break, which bring morals and character to an otherwise selfish and self-centered persona. In fact, he’s criticized for his impatience and his inability to consider anyone else’s needs, whether it deals with his life personally or professionally. His life of ongoing disappointments make it difficult for him to connect with others, and you see through his few relationships how loyal he is to them, although those friends have long recognized that they can’t count on him to “act normal”. His awkwardness in social situations is stereotypical (think of any geeky, artistic character, in any romantic comedy, and you have David) but if you have a problem with the stereotype don’t blame the artist and it’s also endearing to watch David try to navigate this space.

Meg is beautiful. Her unexpected meeting with David is rooted in today’s culture, but we view things from a previously unseen perspective. She is so full of energy and life, even though as we later learn she has her own scars and past to confront and manage. Her spontaneous, optimistic, romantic heart contrast against David’s more pessimistic mood swings, but David comes to realize that he can’t just take those attitudes for granted. Many have complained that Meg is a foil for David’s character development and she isn’t as developed as she could be. I feel that while this is a valid complaint, we see her primarily from David’s perspective when they are alone together, so I feel like this point of view is justified within the context of the story. Meg’s background is a mystery, sure, but that’s because David is so self-absorbed he doesn’t think to ask and when he does she is reluctant to reveal and let him in, going so far as to warn him not to let her push him away. While David’s attraction to her is fast, Meg holds him at bay until she is sure of her own feelings.

The presentation of Death is interesting, and David’s conversations with him bring to mind questions of death, memory, fame, art, and immortality. Some questions that spring to mind for possible discussion, if I ever get around to using this as a book discussion:

  • Do you continue to “live on” after death when others remember you?
  • Is David’s pursuit of fame on par with the pursuit of immortality?
  • How did events in David’s past influence his current goals? What are his goals, and does David accomplish them by the end of the book?
  • Is art for the sake of the artist or the public?
  • How often do artists intend their symbolism in art, is it found after the completion, or is sometimes a square just a square?
  • What qualifies as art, and who decides between underground and mainstream pieces?
  • On page 217, there is a discussion about rules, and how you “can’t break the rules”. Is this true? What are some of the rules that David tries to break and what are some of the rules he tries to keep?

Although some have called it cliched with the presentation of Meg as a “Manic Pixie Girl” and David as the starving artist ready to do anything to catch a break, this hefty tome is definitely thought-provoking. The plot twists, while somewhat expected, are no less gut-wrenching as we watch these two characters try to navigate this world. Portrayals of frontal nudity cause me some hesitation in handing it to younger teens, but high school students could definitely empathize with David’s struggle to make a name for themselves and garner fame as they pursue their own futures.

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