Posts tagged ‘Children’s Fantasy’

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

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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.

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon.jpgTitle: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Narrator: Michael Page
ISBN: 9781491502167 (audiobook)
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 12 hours 51 minutes
Pages: 475 pages
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014. (audiobook) Candlewick Press, c2014 (hardcover)

She is an insane old woman, though Cat, but at least I’m safe in the warmth, and she knows ho to cook. The old woman was ladling pink broth into a bowl whose sides were etched with obscure runes. “Drink up, my dear. I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” […]
Cat demurred and said, “Who are you really?”
“I’m Queen Victoria. I’m Nellie Bly. I’m Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean — what difference does it make? I’m hungry and I want to eat, so do my bidding.”
“I couldn’t dare take your supper. I have nothing to pay you with.”
“You’re not taking my supper, you’re supplying it.” (141-142)

Gregory Maguire creates a tale reminiscent to the Prince and the Pauper. Even though Ekaterina isn’t a princess, she has many more advantages than Elena, who is essentially starving to death as she tries her best to care for her sick mother after her father has died and her two brothers taken away from home. A lightning strike forces their unlikely meeting, and Elena finds herself in an enviable position when the Ekaterina’s train takes her away from the poverty and towards the Tsar’s palace. She hopes to use that opportunity to reclaim her brother from army conscription, but she doesn’t know that Ekaterina is hot on her trail with her own transportation. In their travels, they realize that Russia might be in more trouble than either girl, and are recruited by the fabled folkloric witch Baba Yaga to solve the problem of melting ice and disappearing magic.

Michael Page’s voice is properly moderated between the high pitched, stereotypical screech of Baba Yaga and the clipped tones of the prince (although he does sound vaguely English and not Russian). Even the two younger girls have slight differences that easily distinguish between the educated Ekaterina and the more rurally raised Elena. The sweeping landscape is described beautifully, and Elena’s situation is especially heart-wrenching when readers realize the troubles behind her meager existence.

Maguire’s tale is less impressive, for if readers are familiar with the story of the prince and the pauper, then they essentially have the plot of the first part of the book. The second half pairs the girls on an adventure to save Russia. It’s discovered that the floodwaters and dampened winter and magic are connected, involving the firebird and ice dragon. I was unfamiliar with the ice dragon legacy, and was intrigued by my introduction to this Russian myth. By the end of the novel, the twist, feel good resolution revealing the cause of the trouble is somewhat moralistic and preachy, encouraging the human race to whine and want less and focus more on reducing the wants of others. It’s an unexpected altruistic message, and while anti-materialists might appreciate the thought, I was disappointed that such a long journey yielded so little action in the conflict.

The magic in the story is supplied by the magic that the girls encounter through their association with Baba Yaga, who has multiple distinguished and unique traits including her unpredictability, attitudinal house which reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, sarcastic shape-shifting familiar, and pattern of speech which allude to time travels or future premonitions. She is by far my favorite character in the whole story. I can only imagine the fun Maguire must have had in writing her scenes considering the fun I had reading them. Her nontraditional exclamation “Honey Buckets!” became a term of endearment towards her guests, who while certainly unpredicted are not entirely unwanted, regardless of what she alludes. I find that same sort of unexpected endearment towards her in what ultimately is a overly long, predictable plot. Extreme fantasy and fairy tale/folklore fans might appreciate this exposure of not-often portrayed Russian mythology, but most will probably loose interest before the quest even begins.

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