Posts tagged ‘Children’s Fantasy’

The Tea Dragon Society

Tea Dragon SocietyTitle: The Tea Dragon Society
Author/Illustrator: Katie O’Neill
Lettered by: Saida Temofonte
Designed by: Hilary Thompson
Edited by: Ari Yarwood
ISBN: 9781620104415
Pages: 72 pages
Publisher/Date: Oni Press, Inc., c2017.

“I don’t want blacksmithing to be forgotten. . .
. . . I want to keep making objects for people to love and give them a story. Maybe one day, someone’ll think about who gave it to them or where they bought it. Or who they shared it with. Or who owned it long ago.
. . . That’s a kind of magic, isn’t it?”
“I believe it is.” (56)

Greta is learning from her mother the art of blacksmithing, an old skill that made blacksmiths as important as magicians but now is a dying art. Upon encountering a dragon in the market, Greta returns her to her owners and begins to learn how to care for the unique creatures. Tea-shop owners Hesekiel and Erik have recently picked up a stray of their own, a promising prophetess named Minette who is suffering from self-protective memory problems. All these stories converge into a year long collection of vignettes exploring friendship, loyalty, and memory.

These are sweet characters occupying a world where its residents have a mixture of human and animal attributes that don’t seem to phase anyone. Pale-skinned Minette has tiny antlers, a tail, and cloven hooves, dark-skinned Greta has horns that are smaller versions of her mother’s and a squared off nose, and Hesekiel’s gray fur, elongated face, ears, and bent legs remind me of a kangaroo. The two most human characters are Greta’s dark-skinned father and wheel-chair bound Erik, also dark-skinned (but lighter then Greta and her father), with braids mimicking those of his magic wielding partner, Hesekiel. A group photo from another time shows several other types, including something resembling an abominable snowman, possibly an escaped elf from Lord of the Rings, and someone with a long bushy squirrel’s tail. The diversity is never remarked upon, and the small cast of characters makes the whole community feel very intimate and close. It’s not just diversity in physical attributes, but in relationships (same sex vs. heterosexual) and professions (mom is a blacksmith).

It’s also surprisingly tight-knit, as even in the market scenes you see no one besides the named characters. There is no supporting cast except for that one previously mentioned group photo shown during a retold story and a blink and you’ll miss it (I know I did) street vendor and no customers even though we come in contact with four business owners. The story is equally narrow in plot, as Minette’s memory loss is relayed as a matter-of-fact, and just as easily brushed off as it’s not a problem because she’s making so many good new memories with people who care about her.

The dragons uninspired names reflect the tea that they are used to create. Half have round, squat bodies like dogs, and the other half are more slender and serpentine in nature, with the narrower tails that have a puff of fur at the ends. In fact, the non-textured coloration means none of them have the scales that most people picture when the word “dragon” is used. Unique attributes are given to each dragon that make them seem more like Pokemon. More intriguing is Greta’s sidekick Brick, who seems to be an animated burning coal that does nothing but follows Greta around, although he also seems to get left out of events regularly. How did he come into existence? What is his purpose? He reminds me of the soot sprites from Spirited Away.

You can tell that this quirky society is an act of love for the author, and its quiet moments will allow readers to have a quiet moment to themselves with this book. It’s a simple meandering plot with very little tension, action, or mystery. More of a character study, it’s done so beautifully that you probably won’t mind, but instead hope to be reunited with them soon. This is the quintessence of a feel good story.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

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The Witch Boy

Witch BoyTitle: The Witch Boy
Author/Illustrator: Molly Knox Ostertag
ISBN: 9781338089516
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2017.

“I don’t understand why Juniper and Hazel and them can all learn how to talk to trees and make potions and do spells and I can’t. It’s not fair.”
“But, Aster, that magic isn’t for you. How many times do I have to explain that?”
“But I want to learn it!”
“Women and men have different types of magic, and witches pass down their knowledge from mother to daughter. That’s how it is and how it’s always been, my son.
But it’s not like there’s nothing for you! Soon your shapeshifting will begin, and with it, the ability to see demons and to fight them. You’ll be one of the men.” (7-8)

In an insular community in the woods, a family of witches and shapeshifters pass along their skills to their daughters and sons, respectively. All except for Aster, who is more interested in learning magic and spells then shape shifting. When first one, and then multiple, young shapeshifters go missing, the family rallies to find them, but they still don’t stop to listen to Aster’s findings. Past problems come back to haunt them, and Aster might be the only one who can figure out what’s going on in time to stop it.

I find myself evaluating my views about this book. I originally felt that this is a relatively heavy-handed, thinly-veiled allegory of coming out as transgender, which a number of reviewers and bloggers have mentioned. However, I am reminded of Tamora Pierce, who wrote the Alanna series about a girl becoming a knight and assuming the disguise and role of a boy in order to accomplish her goal. Upon reading that series when I was younger, and even today, it never dawned on me to make those same assumptions about Alanna. Alanna was simply a tomboy, much like myself at that age, who enjoyed pursuing hobbies that were typically deemed masculine. Aster, in the same way, doesn’t want to be a woman, he just wants to do things that are identified in his society as feminine. That’s not transgender, but instead it’s fighting societal stereotypes of gendered activities.

I think the difference between my perception of Alanna and Aster is not only the modern day awareness of non-gender conforming actions, but also the use of this characteristic in the stories. Alanna’s story, while dependent upon keeping her identity a secret, has other traits that appear throughout the story, such as her impulsiveness, reluctance to ask for or accept help, her fears and hopes and dreams and motivations. Aster wants to do what “girls” do and has the magic of a witch inside of him, even though everyone else perceives him as a shapeshifter and expects him to be a shapeshifter. He seems quiet, but he is dedicated to his family, even though they continue to deny him his desires. That’s the entirety of our knowledge about his personality. The story is dependent upon the “I want to do what I’m not allowed to do” troupe with very little backstory or explanation of how or why events proceed as they do. His entire purpose is to be recognized as someone who can perform feminine tasks, which doesn’t yield itself to much engagement from readers.

There are a number of additional questions regarding the background of the characters. They all seem to be related, but there is no information about where the in-laws came from and how people who married into the family acquired their powers. What prompts these disappearances to begin now, after all these years? Even after the cause of the disappearances is discovered, the culprit’s consequences are left unresolved. As already discussed, the transgender analogy is not quite the appropriate term, but if you insist on using it that label also falls apart at the end, where one of the characters claims to have a little bit of both witch and shapeshifter. Is that a nod to individuals who identify as pansexual or intersex? Instead, I think it’s meant on commentary that men and women can pursue tasks regardless of if they are seen as masculine or feminine in nature.

The artwork is similar to a lot of the graphic novels produced by Graphix, with solid, digital illustrations. I’m beginning to hope that in the future we see more variety in the artwork of graphic novels done by that company. They have good stories, but there is a sameness that is starting to make their work distinguishable from other publishers. The scenes where we discover the cause of the boys disappearances are appropriately scary and thematically colored in a wash of red, definitely distinguishing it from the more cheerful and vibrantly colored outdoor daily scenes.

It’s a nice story, but I feel like the commentary on it’s merits might be misguided. A sequel arrives on shelves later this fall, so we’ll have to see if more character development occurs. Aster’s new friend Charlie takes center stage alongside Aster on the cover, so maybe more interplay between their two lives and worlds will give us more interest and insight in their personalities then the one-dimensional portrayal provided.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

The Marvelwood Magicians

Marvelwood Magicians.jpgTitle: The Marvelwood Magicians
Author: Diane Zahler
ISBN: 9781629797243
Pages: 188 pages
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, c2017.

“Stand there, and look at the pendulum,” Master Morogh ordered Bell. Bell planted himself in front of the metronome, and Master Morogh started it up. Click-clack, click-clack it went, back and forth. Mattie watched Bell fearfully. It took only a couple of moments for the light to leave his eyes. Like the frat guy and the woman before him, his expression went slack and lifeless.
“No!” Mattie said again. She started for the stage, her heart pounding. “Bell, come back here!” But Bell couldn’t hear her. […]
“Bell, wake up!” Mattie cried. There was something wrong here, something very wrong. (90-91)

Mattie Marvelwood’s big mouth and mind-reading have gotten her in trouble again, resulting in her gifted family being fired from the traveling carnival where they worked.  They think themselves lucky when they stumble across a circus, with ringleader Master Morogh instantly adding their acts. The circus has two tigers, an elephant, and another family, with a daughter who instantly becomes Mattie’s friend. But something isn’t right, as one entertainer after another begin to lose their talents. Some are more ordinary, like singing and tumbling, but the Marvelwood’s abilities are more magical in nature. Suspicious that Master Morogh might be the mystery manipulator, it’s up to Mattie to save the day, without losing her own abilities in the process.

With the recent popularity of The Greatest Showman, I wonder if there will be an influx of people looking for circus themed books.If they are young enough, you can give this title to them.  The cover reminds me of the classic cover of The Great Gatsby mixed with Kehret’s Danger at the Fair for some reason, but it’s tamer than both of those books. Mattie is understandably weary of strangers due to her talent of mind-reading and predictably frustrated that her life and family aren’t normal. There is some diversity, with Mattie’s dad being Scottish and her mom being “India Indian.” The mystery is not a “who done it” but more of a “will they get away with it” as about half way through the story you know who is to blame for the missing abilities. Besides Mattie, most of the characters are one dimensional, acting to emphasize aspects of plot or Mattie’s personality rather then develop their own attributes, only being identifiable by their act or relationships to each other. Mattie’s own feelings of her mind-reading talent changes drastically, from exasperation to acceptance in very little time, but the conclusion is solid and ties up all the loose ends. A fast read, entertaining but not very memorable, emphasizing that no matter the circumstances the show must go on and you can trust your family, even when they aren’t related by blood.

Korgi: Problem with Potions

I originally intended to post these in October, but the end of the year got away from me. Since I can’t draw, in honor of Inktober 2017 I searched out a graphic novel to fit each daily theme presented. Now that October is over, I finally have a chance to catch up on my blogging. Here’s my submission for the theme from October 12th: shattered.

Korgi 4 Problem with Potions.jpgTitle: Korgi Book 4: The Problem with Potions
Author/Illustrator: Christian Slade
ISBN: 9781603094030
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Top Shelf Productions, c2016.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken a look at Korgi, to the point where I reread books 1-3 before progressing to the fourth book in this series. Readers realize that Ivy and Sprout don’t always have the perfect relationship that we’ve previously seen, as Sprout gets into a jar of food, tracks footprints over the floor, and breaks a dish before finally getting thrown out of the house by Ivy. It’s then that reoccurring characters the creephogs receive some of the spotlight, as they mistakenly supersize, spotify, and stupefy poor Sprout. Ivy gets him some help, but meanwhile the two brothers we finally met in book three are out for revenge, and wake a skeletal unicorn in their efforts.

Taken individually, the books are all appealingly cute and perfectly suited for multiple age bedtime reads (so long as everyone can see the pages). But the pacing as a series is starting to suffer.  A new character introduced in the final pages is an intriguing addition, but it’s taken us 10 years to get to this point and we’re still no closer to guaranteeing Sprout and Ivy’s safety. In fact, they are probably in more danger then they were in the beginning now that the “big baddy” has started making appearances in the plot. I’m not sure now why the antagonists from the first two books were introduced to begin with, as their actions seem removed from the overarching story. Also, characters Scarlett and Lump, who we saw in previous books, are still included in the (this time more detailed) character list, even though they don’t even make an appearance in book four. Maybe when the fifth one finally rolls around we’ll get some more answers. The illustrations are still engaging and I’m in love with the disguised resurrected unicorn (does anyone make them as plush animals?) but I do wish we were a little farther along. I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of these characters, but I won’t guess when the next book will appear and it’s doubtful original readers will still be interested in discovering the overall conclusion.

The Road to Epoli

Since I can’t draw, in honor of Inktober I searched out a graphic novel to fit each daily theme presented. Now that October is over, I finally have a chance to catch up on my blogging. Here’s my submission for Oct. 22nd’s theme: trail.

Road to Epoli.jpgTitle: The Road to Epoli
Series: Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo (#1)
Authors: Ben Costa & James Parks
Illustrator: Ben Costa
ISBN: 9780399556135
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

Rickety Stitch is a revived skeleton. Although like most of his kind he has no physical brain, his personality pegs him as an anomaly. Working several dead end jobs with his friend The Goo gets him nowhere, as Stitch strums on his lute, trying to capture the song that haunts his dreams. En route, The Goo gets captured and Stitch gets pressed into service of capturing a gnome for a giant ogre-spawn as the only way to rescue his friend. With the help of an imp with questionable motives and morals, a naive gnome, and a no-nonsense unicorn, Stitch discovers that this might be the first step of an epic story, one he will no doubt be singing about when it finally ends.

The vibrant colors used in the illustrations remind me of Princeless or Nimona, inevitably appealing to a broad teen audience. I also feel like this might provide an introduction to the idea of D&D, if only because it feels like multiple campaigns might be in the works, and there are plenty of incidents where readers might questions motives and actions of the characters. Will he or won’t he? The humor inside the story also appears to be aimed at older audiences, as Rickety Stitch is continuously seen drinking in taverns, complaining about job politics, and waxing existentially about his identity and purpose. Whether being stabbed or scorched, Rickety Stitch seems immortal in his ability to avoid any permanent damage. By the end of the book, the plot seems to have been one long set-up for future tales, as Stitch is still struggling to remember the song that plagues his dreams and seems no closer to his vaguely determined destination, although he does finally receive a map for guidance. The characters are more memorable than the story, and I’d be curious to see how that translates for future installments. I feel this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Rickety or The Goo.

Nobody Likes a Goblin

nobody-likes-a-goblinTitle: Nobody Likes a Goblin
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
ISBN: 9781626720817
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2016.

The adventurers took everything.
They took the gold. They took the maps, the books, the gems, and the scrolls.
And they took Skeleton.
So Goblin put on his crown and walked out into the wide world to find his friend. (unpaged)

Ben Hatke’s bright and colorful illustrations are beautiful, but unfortunately the story isn’t as fully realized as the drawings that accompany it. Readers are left with little rationale behind the adventurers’ actions, why nobody likes a goblin, or the goblin’s automatic approval of an unknown becoming their king. I sense influences from other stories (a long-bearded wizard leads a multi-race raiding party and a stolen goose is recovered) but none of the characters are given details that could confirm or deny these allusions. I appreciate the inclusion of a female adventurer and that the damsel in distress wields a sword during her rescue. I loved meeting Hatke at an event this past summer, and bought some of his artwork. This book feels like a collection of loosely related pictures that could have received more support through the narration. Several of my coworkers completely disagree and thoroughly enjoyed the book, so you may find more enjoyment in it than I did.

The Golden Compass The Graphic Novel Vol. 1

Golden Compass Graphic Novel 1.jpgTitle: The Golden Compass The Graphic Novel Vol. 1
Original Author: Philip Pullman
Adapted by: Stephane Melchior
Translator: Annie Eaton
Illustrator: Clement Oubrerie (with Philippe Bruno)
ISBN: 9780553523720
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. c2015. (Originally published by Gallimard Jeunesse, c2014) Adapted from The Golden Compass, c1995.

“Lyra! So that is what they’re teaching you here? Spying!”
“Ouch, that hurts!”
“The wine! It’s poisoned!”
“A spy and a liar. They’ve really done well with your education.”
“I was hiding! I saw! The Master poured powder into the wine.” (unpaged)

Lyra has lived at Jordan College for almost her whole life, and is tired of being supervised by the stuffy professors and scholars who live there. She wants to go on adventures with her uncle, Lord Asriel, whom the head of the school tried to secretly poison on her last visit. Instead, she is whisked away from the dangers of the city, including rampant kidnappers dubbed the Gobblers, by the mysterious Mrs. Coulter. However, Mrs. Coulter has her own agenda, including an association with a board using children to research a mysterious substance called Dust, that multiple groups are racing to understand and control. Heading for an adventure she always wanted but could never anticipate, Lyra is left relying on the help of a group of gyptians and her own skills as she travels to the North, to the land of ice, cold, and not-so-friendly armored polar bears.

I’ve been a big fan of the His Dark Materials trilogy ever since it was first published almost 20 years ago. (Not saying “Man I’m old” prevents me from being old, right?) When I heard they were making it into a graphic novel trilogy, I was excited. I was slightly disappointed to learn that this trilogy of graphic novels is only focusing on the first book, and question the rational behind splitting the original novel in this manner. This first volume leaves off with Lyra’s journey north with the gyptians just beginning, and she still has a long way to travel. The artwork is also not what I expected from a story that deals with fantastical elements and beasts. Muted in tone, with lots of dark blues and dusty orange/reds, the color palette may have been determined by the story’s setting and mood more than the other way around. Lyra’s determination and free-spirited nature is still evident in this portrayal, but quite a few of the more animated facial expressions for her and the other characters strike me as overly exaggerated and at times comical. The number of panels per page (sometimes as many as nine) also necessitates that they are quite small, and so details do not translate well, with the exception being when the artist intentionally makes a panel bigger for emphasis.

The background behind Dust and the deamons has been eliminated almost completely, except for a few quick expository pages and some overheard conversations on Lyra’s part. Readers must pay attention to the illustrations to determine the nature of daemons, including their ability to change shape, the necessity of physical proximity to their humans (I almost typed owners, whoops!) and the ties that bind them to those humans. For readers who enjoy fantasy and the ideas of other worlds, this would be an adequate introduction to the ideas. Make no mistake though, this is a paltry substitute for the real thing, and I’m saddened by the fact that some people won’t be motivated to tackle the original.

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