Tag Archives: graphic novels

We Geek Out at the Book Festival

I’m catching up on some old business, but I’d be remiss not to write about the fun we had doing two days at the National Book Festival.  In case you don’t know, this is a massive festival on the National Mall where authors of all genres as well as book supporting organizations like C-SPAN, PBS and Reading is Fundamental all turn out to give talks, sign books and promote reading books.  Past talks are already up on the website of the book festival and I’m sure this year’s will be as well before too long.  Check it out here.

The Good…

We saw a bunch of authors for a short spell in various places and got to hear Michael Buckley read a bit of the newest (unpublished) Sisters Grimm book, Harry Bliss draw a bunch of cute pictures, Jon J. Muth talk about Zen, and Bob Shea talk about becoming a writer and illustrator.  For the kids, one of the Saturday highlights was seeing Tomie de Paola, who talked about becoming an artist and taught everyone to blow three kisses the way Strega Nona would.  They also enjoyed getting free Magic School Bus books and meeting a costumed Ms. Frizzle.

The Best…

One of the best things quite surprised me.  I dragged the kids in to hear the first part of Rita Williams-Garcia’s talk.  I adore her books.  I reviewed One Crazy Summer awhile ago here.  She was so sweet and clearly a little nervous.  Then she told a couple of stories from her childhood – about growing up without enough and having to draw on her inner resources.  I pulled the kids away for something else I thought they would enjoy more.  Later on though, they talked about her speech and were clearly very affected by it.  I was impressed.

The next highlight was William Joyce.  He came in dressed in some excellent gear – a helmet, goggles and a fake jet pack.  Then he proceeded to give an wonderfully nutty speech about crazy relatives, becoming a children’s book author, and all the guardians of childhood from his new series.  He walked a fine line where he never gave it away that he didn’t believe in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so forth.  In fact, I’m sort of convinced he does.  I don’t review fiction picture books often for this blog, but we had already read Joyce’s brand new book The Man in the Moon and were simply amazed.  It’s beautiful.  The illustrations and the zany elements of the story are pure Joyce, known for his Dinosaur Bob and the Family Lazardo and Rollie Pollie Ollie.  However, it’s also got a magical quality to it and the illustrations are slightly gothic and steampunk influenced.  I highly recommend it.

The final highlight was definitely Kazu Kibuishi, who writes the Amulet series.  BalletBoy asked him at his talk about the fifth Amulet book, and he told us he was working on it right now, then he pulled the binder out of his bag and showed off the pages before quickly closing it up!  Wow!  Mushroom asked about his characters and we got another cool answer.  I appreciated hearing him talk about his Miyazaki influences and hearing that his great Flight series is going to be rebranded under the Flight Explorer label for younger readers.  Overall, it was just a true geek out moment.  Later on, we stood in line so BalletBoy could get his copy of the third book signed.  We’ve already read the fourth one, but from the library, so it probably wasn’t okay to get that one signed.  He drew BalletBoy a picture in the front and I gushed my thank yous to him for doing what he does for young readers.  I really mean it too.  He said immediately that there’s not enough out there and it’s so true.  There’s more coming out, but kids need high quality graphic novels like his, books that respect the readers.

After we left, BalletBoy clutched his signed book all the way home (yes, even the Metro ride).  Then he paid the series one of those ultimate compliments from a kid.  He declared he wanted to be Emily, the protagonist, for Halloween.  So, now I need to come up with an awesome costume.  He has also declared that he needs me to be Miskit, the giant pink bunny robot.  Hmm…

The Bad…

Not exactly bad, but we were pretty amused by this organization, which tries to get parents to read aloud 15 minutes a day to their kids.  When they asked the kids if the parents read aloud for 15 minutes a day to them, Mushroom rolled his eyes at them and BalletBoy looked very confused.  “You read way more than that,” he told me.  And Mushroom added, “Everyone reads aloud more than that.”  Oh, would that it were so, kiddo.

This year the festival introduced a “Family Storytelling Stage” sponsored by Target and featuring a mix of storytellers, authors and bands, including Justin Roberts and other kid friendly musicians.  Great idea, right?  Well, I guess it could have been, except when we were there, the emcees were Disney channel emcees and they spent the whole time trying to encourage kids to watch Disney, Disney Junior, Nickelodeon and Discovery Channel.  You all know I’ve got nothing against TV.  I love TV.  My kids watch TV, including things I think are excellent that were produced by those outlets, such as Phineas and Ferb and Avatar: The Last Airbender.  But do kids need a pep rally to watch TV?  I was pretty disgusted by it all.

The Ugly…

This year at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, they provided water for people for the first time via big water dispensers where you could refill your bottle or cup.  But the Book Festival folks decided to go with untold boxes tiny plastic bottles for everyone.

That was nothing compared to the “prize” you see above from the PBS Kids tent.  It’s a piece of sticky plastic with an online only PBS Kids character on it that you put on your phone to keep it from sliding around.  I just…  am speechless.  Who is this really for?  Why did they give thousands away?  Why do children need a thing for phones?  Why would adults want a phone sticker with a very obscure children’s character?  You guys, I’m not much of an environmentalist.  I recycle, I bring my bags to the grocery, but that’s about it.  But this is really bread and circus level waste, right?  And at a book festival.  I’m just sort of ashamed for us as a society.

Graphic Novels Roundup Again

A quick graphic novel round up for you.  We continue to dig through the library offerings.

First up, I read the book The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan.  This graphic novel is aimed at older middle grade readers.  It was unique, to say the least.  It takes place in Dust Bowl era Kansas, about a young boy whose mother is ill and who is beset by bullies.  The style is sketchy and brown toned, to show how dusty and dry everything is.  The art has an ethereal feel to it, which suits the tone of the story.  This is one of those children’s literature selections that I enjoy, but wonder who the intended audience really is because it does seem so unique.  Regardless, the book weaves together complicated themes and has an ending that is open to different interpretations.  It was very different, but I liked it.

Next is a series BalletBoy read.  Salt Water Taffy by Matthew Loux is a chapter book level graphic novel series about two boys on their summer vacation in Maine.  They meet a friendly caricature of an old fisherman who guides them on some bizarre adventures.  In the first volume, they meet a giant lobster monster called “Old Salty.”  The art in the series is bold and straightforward.  I pulled it off the shelf as a possibility for BalletBoy, but I have to say I don’t think much of the books.  They’re more of a conglomeration of random nonsense than a solid story.  But BalletBoy gives them two thumbs up.  Thanks to a timely library trip, he read all four in less than a week.

Next, Mushroom read the book Monkey vs. Robot by James Kolchalka.  I wasn’t much of a fan of Kolchalka’s weird Johnny Boo series for young readers.  This almost wordless graphic novel is intended for older readers, but Mushroom seemed to think the whole thing was hilarious, even without being able to read what little text there was.  Kolchalka’s style is purposefully rough and this story is absurd, but amusing.  Essentially, some monkeys and a robot fight it out in a jungle.  That’s pretty much it.  It’s certainly not a deep selection, but I found it fun as well.

I also read the book Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke.  It tells the story of a girl who gets sucked through some sort of portal onto an alien planet and much find her courage and go on adventures to save her friend.  The art is colorful and fun, filled with funny little creatures of all sorts.  I highly recommend this one.  Zita is a great character, spunky and brave, but the author does a good job of showing how she can be vulnerable too.  The length and reading some of the minor characters’ dialects make it not quite a chapter book level read, so I would say it’s for early middle grades readers.

Finally, the kids have discovered the Ponyo graphic novel adaptation, which comes in four volumes.  In case you’re not familiar with it, Ponyo is an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki.  It’s a beautiful story about a boy who befriends a magical sea girl creature.  Not only is the story great, but the artistic style of the animation is similarly beautiful.  The graphic novel series is made in Japan and therefore is read like other Japanese manga, which is to say, backwards.  The kids have only read the first one, but it did take some getting used to.  Still, I kept thinking it was surely a needed skill for geeky kids to have.  The graphic novel is pretty much exactly the same as the film.  The amazing art comes off just as well on the static page, however, and the story holds up in any form.  Miyazaki’s other films, including Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle, have also been turned into four volume graphic novel sets.

More Worthwhile Comics for Beginners!

Finally.  Finally!  I’ve been waiting with some frustration for some publisher to make some more good early reader comics.  The market is now swimming in amazing chapter book level graphic novels as well as many good wordless graphic novel options, but there are fewer options for early readers.  A bunch have come out, but some of them are so insulting to young readers.  Seemingly many publishers think that just putting anything out there with the words “graphic novel” on it is enough.  I’ve seen a couple of decent individual titles, but the big winner up to this point has been Toon Books, who publish the award winning Benny and Penny titles, as well as many others, including my personal favorite Stinky by Eleanor Davis.  Also, they have an amazing website, which is a nice perk.

But I just discovered some more great options!  Balloon Toons is a newish early reader graphic novel imprint from Blue Apple Books.  They have five titles so far with four more due out in the next year.  Mushroom and I read a couple of them and we’re in love.  Seriously.  I have never seen him laugh while he read a new book himself.  So this is a high recommendation.

The first title we read was Rick and Rack and the Great Outdoors by Ethan Long.  The art is simple and bright with thick lines.  It contains three slightly silly stories, a bit like reading three comic strips.  That was good, but even better was the zany book Adopt a Glurb by Elise Gravel.  The art was purposefully messy with a red and black focused color scheme. There is no story to speak of.  It’s basically an ad for keeping the strange little creature the glurb as a troublesome pet.  Mushroom cracked up when he read about getting the glurb tiny diapers and washing them in vinegar and cranberry juice.

A Cheerful Post-Apocalyptic Tale for Kids

Okay, the post-apocalyptic thing is just implied.  But if there aren’t any more humans left, then I count that firmly as post-apocalyptic.

The Travels of Thelonious: The Fog Mound by Susan Schade and Jon Buller is a hybrid graphic novel.  Chapters alternate between comics and old fashioned text.  It’s a middle grades book, but short enough and illustration heavy enough for many chapter book readers.

The story is about a young, talking chipmunk named Thelonious (get it?) who accidentally gets swept into the ruins of a city and then on a journey to figure out what happened to all the humans, who have become no more than fairy tales to many of the animals.  The comics are well done, in blue and black with a sort of old fashioned, small detailed style.  The writing lies a little flat for me, honestly, but the concept is interesting enough, both in the format and the plot, that it kept me going reading it.  The story had a lot of elements that I think probably appeal to young readers.  There is the mystery of what happened to the humans, but also several other layers of mystery involving a crime boss dragon lizard and a missing bear.  The scenes of Thelonious figuring out how canned goods work and trying on Barbie clothes are imaginative and fun.

Even though it wasn’t the most literary of offerings, I asked BalletBoy if wanted to try it.  He flew through the first three chapters and declared it to be “great!”  So that’s an endorsement for you.  The story ends with most issues unresolved.  There are two more volumes that continue the tale.

Fables Ruined Me for Other Fairy Tale Retellings

Do you know the graphic novels series Fables by Bill Willingham?  It’s not for kids.  It’s a grown-up (or older teen) graphic novels series about characters from fairy tales who have fled their homelands and taken up residence in New York.  If you’re the sort of person who can appreciate graphic novels and can appreciate a premise like that, then they’re excellent.  In the near decade they’ve been coming out, the stories have run the gamut from funny to snarky to dark to emotionally touching and even thought-provoking.  In fact, they’re so excellent that they’ve ruined me for reading all these other modern takes on fairy tales.  Every time I try one, all I can think is, “Fables already did that and they did it better.”

Seriously, I’ve now seen two different middle grades series with similar themes to the grown-up Fables and not been able to appreciate them because Fables just did it better.  Usually, I find that children’s books tackle subjects in ways that I often find more interesting or at least as interesting as adult books.  But apparently not this time.  First, The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley.  I read Fairy Tale Detectives and I tried to read The Unusual Suspects, but honestly, I just kept thinking about how they’d stolen Fables‘s idea.  The premise of this series is that there are refuges from the fairy tale world who are living in, honestly, I think it’s upstate New York.  If you’ve read Fables, they’re not allowed to leave their town, making it oddly reminiscent of the Farm.  Like in Fables, Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk same is the same Jack from all the tales and is a rapscallion who isn’t to be trusted.  The Big Bad Wolf has reformed and acts as the local legal enforcement.  It’s a funny series and reasonably well-written with lots of action and plenty of appeal.  I wanted to like it, but alas.  The trappings were just so similar.  I spent half the time wondering if Buckley had actually read Fables and thought, gee, what a great idea if you could make it for kids!

Now, I’ve just finished reading Shannon and Dean Hale’s Calamity Jack.  This is part of a graphic novel series from Shannon Hale, who has written several more traditional YA fantasy novels with fairy tale themes.  However, this fairy tale retelling, which begins with Rapunzel’s Revenge, has a very steampunk, early American feel to it.  Again, I can’t help but be reminded of Fables.  The character of Jack, while nowhere near as heartless or womanizing as in Fables, is still thrown into a similar setting as his spinoff comic series and is still the same brand of rogue.  It’s fine.  The art is pretty good.  The attitude is fun.  I would even recommend it to kids looking for graphic novels.  Yet, I just couldn’t enjoy it.  The husband, when he saw it on the side table, actually asked if it was somehow connected with Fables.

Now in the last year, I’ve also seen two Brothers Grimm themed quirky fairy tale books come out: The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman and A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.  It must be in the ether.  Both look interesting.  Both have gotten decent reviews.  Yet, I’m afraid to read them.  What if Fables really has ruined me for modern takes on the fairy tales?

Johnny Boo

When I spotted that the children’s section at our library had recently updated the comic books section with some new titles, I got all excited.  Especially when I found two titles that looked appropriate for early readers, the Johnny Boo books by James Kochalka.  I wasn’t familiar with these, but they looked cute, so they came home with us.

The illustrations are simple but amusing.  One character, the Ice Cream Monster, looks like he wandered in from an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba.  There’s even a quote on the back from DJ Lance Rock.  Unfortunately, like that much loved Nickelodeon show that makes me feel utterly uncool for not liking it, I just didn’t get these books.  The text and plots were too simple.  There was a lot of dialogue where characters actually said things like, “This is fun,” repeatedly.  It felt like something a kid would write instead of something written for kids.  BalletBoy set it aside after the first one.  He agreed that the Ice Cream Monster was funny, but I never saw him pick up the second book.

I’m dying for more early reader comics, but good ones.  I know BalletBoy (and Mushroom for that matter) will be on to the world of Lunch Lady and Babymouse very soon, but until then, we’ve read all the TOON Books.

Quick Comic Book Roundup

I read several graphic novels out of the children’s sections over the summer, so I thought I’d post about them all together.

First of all, Mushroom posted about the wordless graphic novels he loves here.  The Adventures of Polo by Regis Faller is a wonderful series for younger kids.  Next, BalletBoy posted about the graphic novel series Owly here.  These are also wordless, but are of a chapter book length and have more complicated plots than the picture book style of the Polo series.  They’re very different series, but both worth checking out.  I think they serve an interesting purpose in that they seem to be preparing the kids to sit and read longer works on their own without help.  However, they do so without the pressure of the newest element in their ability to read: the words.  Instead, they can focus on what they still like most about a book anyway – the pictures and the story.

Next, I finally got around to actually reading a Babymouse book.  It was just as adorable and excellent as I had heard.  The story in the first book is the very common story of a kid (well, a mouse) who wants to be in with the popular kids and can’t quite get there.  What elevates it is Babymouse’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” feel.  Every time she gets bored or life gets difficult, Babymouse imagines a new, fantastical story that reflects her reality, such as when she goes to the wild west.  The visuals, which are all black and white with pink become much pinker when Babymouse imagines.

Also, I checked out a well-worn copy of Robot Dreams.  Like the comics the kids read, this one is also wordless.  However, the plot was probably slightly too complex for my kids not to mention that it was touchingly sad and evocative.  It’s amazing to me how some of the comics (and picture books) with the simplest, cartoony styles, can be so emotionally resonant with the reader.  I really enjoyed it.

However, I enjoyed reading the first in the Amulet series even more.  This book looked and felt like a Miyazaki movie.  I spotted it in the library and remembered that awhile back it was mentioned on Greenridge Chronicles in glowing terms.  I loved it.  The art was beautiful and the story of a sister and brother who lose their parents was fascinating.  The two must go into a strange underground universe and encounter bizarre creatures and danger.  I’m definitely going back for the next two volumes.

Finally, I also read a couple more from the YA section.  First, Prime Baby was enjoyable and short.  I love Gene Luen Yang.  This one wasn’t as brilliant as his The Eternal Smile, however, it was certainly amusing.  It had me laughing aloud.  Second, I read Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy it.  I like Megan Kelso’s style, but the fantastical family saga of war and peace just didn’t connect with me.  The simple style was visually appealing but I kept getting lost about who was who, which is never fun in a graphic novel.