The first book in the Ottoline Series, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, is now available in paperback. Full of superb illustrations and details, this is a great book for an emerging reader.
All the books by the team of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell that I have ever encountered have knocked my socks off. The combination of creative creatures, wild circumstances and great adventures in their Far-Flung Adventures is pitch perfect for the younger crowd, where are their series for older readers, The Edge Chronicles, adds suspense, life threatening danger and occasional violence and even death. Sort of Tolkein for the pre-teen... Their newest series, Barnaby Grimes is set in a Victorian London. Barnaby, who has a nose for intrigue, is a tick tock lad who jumps from rooftop to rooftop in the poorer, crowded part of the city in which he lives and works. The Ottoline series represents Ridell's first chapter book on his own, and, as to be expected, it is spectacular.
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat is a treasure chest of visual details, oddities, maps and diagrams included, with touches of red highlighting the intricate illustrations (Ottoline Goes to School is accented with blue. No word on what color will brighten Ottoline at Sea, book three). The cast of characters include wonderfully strange creatures, villains, absent parents and disguises. Ottoline lives in in the Pepperpot Building, number 243 with her parents, Professor and Mrs. Brown, who are collectors and world travelers and have amassed such wonders as a four-spouted tea pot collection and a shelf-full of emperor's hats, to name a few. Ottoline herself is a collector (of odd shoes and postcards, all of which are sent to her by her traveling parents) and a graduate of the Academy of Subterfuge. Mr Munroe, who resembles Cousin Itt from the Addams Family, but with bare-human like feet showing from beneath his hair, cares for Ottoline when her parents are traveling. More than anything, Mr Munroe hates to get wet, take baths and have his hair brushed. However, Ottoline loves to brush his hair when she is in a thinking or planning mood, which happens often because she is a bit of a mystery hound, and Mr Munroe submits to her whim. The relationship between Ottoline and Mr Munroe is very well developed and touching. My favorite part of the book is when, separately and on separate occasions, both Ottoline and Mr Munroe find themselves eavesdropping, but confess that they keep this pastime a secret because they each believe the other would disapprove. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat finds the duo investigating the disappearance of lap dogs and diamonds. After finding a trail of clues, Mr Munroe bravely volunteers to go undercover to crack the case and trap the cat burglar. The climax involves a very funny scene which depends largely on the services of the many businesses employed by the Brown's to keep Ottoline's life running smoothly in their absence. This housekeeping staff includes Marion's Bathroom Supplies, the Smiling Dragon Clothes Folding Co., the Happy Nest Bed Makers and the Home Cooked Meal Company.
Although different in both plot and illustration style, the Ottoline books remind me of another favorite trilogy of mine, The Fog Mound by Susan Schade and Jon Bueller. Both books combine a great fantasy story combined with a mystery and brilliant illustrations with different colored highlights for each book. To see more of Chris Riddell's excellent illustrations, visit his website. The works of the team of Stewart and Riddell can also be viewed at the great websites for their other series, Far-Flung Adventures and the Edge Chronicles. All three websites are geared towards kids and have Mr Riddell's great illustrations, some animated, as well as some fun games and tons of information about the books.
Artemis Fowl by Irish author Eoin Colfer (pronounced Owen) is an impressive series of books that is a mash-up of fantasy, science fiction and spy novels with a twelve-year old genius at it's heart. And, amidst all the spectacular weaponry, reconnaissance gizmos, fairies, trolls, dwarves and centaurs, the characters are truly the heart of the books. Colfer takes such care and precision with the intellects, emotions and motivations of his creations, human or magical, that it is difficult not to be drawn into the stories regardless of your genre preferences. There are so many intricate, interconnected details that it is near impossible to describe this book with a handful of sentences. The short(ish) line that I give at work at the bookstore when trying to hook a reader goes like this: Have you heard that story about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Well, Artemis Fowl is a child genius and he decides that he is going to figure out how to trick the leprechauns and fairies out of their gold. Except, these aren't fairies like Tinker Bell or leprechauns like the Lucky Charms guy. These creatures have an amazing collection of special weapons and magical abilities. And there is a kleptomaniac dwarf who is capable of passing gas with the intensity of a cyclone and most of them, except the trolls, are about three feet tall. The longer description that truly does justice to Colfer's writing is as follows...
Artemis Fowl II comes from a long line of dubious and very wealthy Fowls. His father, hoping to capitalize on the break-up of communist Russia, invested a "huge chunk of the Fowl fortune in establishing new shipping lines to the vast continent. New consumers, he reasoned, would need new consumer goods." Unfortunately, the Russian mafia did not take well to Fowl's plans and launched a stolen missile at the Fowl Star, upon which Artemis Fowl I and his manservant were traveling, along with 250,000 cans of cola. Artemis Fowl I's manservant, Butler, also had a fascinating lineage. In fact, it is believed that the common noun "butler" originated from the unusual arrangement that began when Lord Hugo de Folé contracted Virgil Butler to be his bodyguard, servant and cook for one of the first great Norman Crusades. In present times, Butler children are sent, at age 10, to a special camp in Israel where they are taught the skills (including Cordon Bleu cooking, marksmanship, martial arts, emergency medicine and information technology) needed to guard the latest in the Fowl line. When there is not a Fowl in need of a Butler, they are snapped up by royal personages for work as body guards.
When we first meet Artemis Fowl II and Butler, nephew of the Butler who was on the Fowl Star, they are in Ho Chi Minh City on the trail of one of "The People," a race of magical creatures who have migrated underground as the human population (and general intolerance of those unlike them) encroached. Through internet research and offers of money, Artemis has found someone willing to lead him to a fairy living above ground with the "mud people," as humans are called. He is in search of a fairy because he has decided to rebuild the Fowl fortune by acquiring the archetypal leprechaun pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But, to do this he must first get his hands on (and decipher) the Book of the People, which is the instructions to "their magicks and life rules." Colfer creates his own fairy alphabet and includes a message for readers that runs continuously along the bottom of the pages of all the books in the series. For readers who are not also code breakers, the Artemis Fowl Files, reveals the code, among other cool things related to the series. After exhausting his computer resources, Artemis breaks the code on his own with the use of an X-acto knife and copies of the pages of the Book. From there, his plan is set in motion and his attempt to kidnap and ransom a fairy takes up the rest of the book. The machinations of Artemis's mind and the way that he seems to be able to see all possibilities and prepare for them, even beyond the inimitable abilities of Butler and his extensive training, is a delight. Artemis's plans are his alone to know and the reader witnesses them unfold along with the fairies, never knowing for sure what he has up his sleeve and what might bring him down. If not a rampaging troll, then what?
Among The People, Julius Root, Holly Short, Foaly and Mulch Diggums are equally as fascinating to watch face the dangerous, above ground situation Artemis has lured them into. Commander Root, a cigar chomping curmudgeon who returns to active duty to lead the team sent in to rescue Holly is an ultimately lovable character, kind of Lou Grant to Holly's Mary Tyler Moore. As the first female officer serving LEPrecon, an elite branch of the Lower Elements Police, Holly Short has a lot to prove and Root holds her to an even higher standard because of this. When she overlooks an important fairy Ritual that is required in order to recharge her magical battery, she puts herself exactly where Artemis wants her, and he couldn't have chosen a better victim. With the help of Foaly, a technological genius, and paranoid centaur who believes that human intelligence agencies are reading his thought and therefore wears a tinfoil hat at all times, Root and his team enter the Fowl estate prepared for a fight they are sure they will win. When things don't go as planned, Mulch Diggums, a dwarf who has allowed his magical abilities to lapse, thus freeing him from arcane fairy rules and rituals and therefore allowing him to enter human homes at will, is allowed a temporary release from prison to assist in the emergency. Mulch tunnels his way to Fowl Manor, performs his task and fakes his death. As the situation continues to spiral out of control for both Artemis and the fairies, a last ditch effort is made at a rescue that puts everyone in grave jeopardy - humans and magical creatures alike, but also puts Artemis in a position to garner empathy - and a wish - from Holly.
I never thought of myself as a lover of action books, but Colfer's combination of intricate characters and plot twists that are impossible to see coming have kept me reading each book in the series from start to finish. My husband and daughter have enjoyed this series as well. I have even found my 12 year old son, who avoids fiction as a rule, listening to book one on audio. Speaking of the audio, the story is brought to life by the British actor Nathaniel Parker, and are definitely worth giving a listen. The series has just been issued new covers and all six titles are available in paperback now. Aside from the great illustrations that grace the covers, the spines now, finally, thankfully, bear NUMBERS so that readers can be sure to tackle them in order, which is as follows...
Artemis Fowl and the Arctic Incident
Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code
Artemis Fowl and the Opal Deception (one of my favorites in the series)
Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony
Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox
Artemis Fowl and the Atlantis Complex
Every Soul a Star is now available in paperback and I would like to call it to your attention - again. My apologies to those of you who read this review when it first posted, and to those of you who haven't read it, I hope you are inspired to seek out this spectacular book!
With her latest novel Every Soul a Star, Wendy Mass confirms that she is the young adult version of the literary novelist AS Byatt. Like Byatt, who often weaves the subjects like the study of ant colonies, works of art and poetry into her stories and books, Mass has a scientific, philosophical knowledge that she is able seamlessly sew into her works that always focus on the small (and sometimes big) things in life that shape us as human beings.
Every Soul a Star begins with three quotes and a definition, the title of the book coming from Plato's "Timaeus." The title is thought provoking and works on many levels, referring both to the self discovery and growth of the main characters as well as the phenomenal astrological event that serves as he catalyst for this growth. While the three main characters in Every Soul a Star, each of whom narrate their own chapters alternately, sometimes covering the same events from different perspectives, aren't chocked full of as many unique and quirky characteristics as Jeremy and Lizzy in Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, they are just as compelling and maybe even a little bit more real because of this. The three narrators, Ally, Bree and Jack, have corresponding symbols at the bottom of each page to indicate who the narrator is. Ally, short for Alpha, which is what the brightest star in any constellation and who's symbol is a crescent moon, begins the book. True to her name, Ally shines brightest and is afforded the most emotional growth and insight in her story. Bree, the star symbol, thinks of herself as a star - a fashion star in training - comes to appreciate the other kinds of stars in the world. Jack, a quiet disaffected loner who loves science fiction and drawing space aliens in his notebook is the planet symbol.
The three, who are all at some point in their thirteenth year, meet at the Moon Shadow campground, purchased ten years earlier by Ally's parents who knew that it would "be the only patch of land in the entire country to lie smack dab in the path of the Great Eclipse when it passes overhead." Home schooled by parents who are interested in astronomy and surrounded by others who share that interest and visit the campground for its various astronomically themed events, Ally is an expert, often giving lectures to the campers. Bree is there with her scientist parents and super smart younger sister Melanie because they have just bought the camp and are relocating their family, much to Bree's distress. Jack is at Moon Shadow because he has agreed to be his science teacher, Mr Silver's, assistant on a Great Eclipse tour he is leading in lieu of attending summer school to make up for the science course he failed. Of all the characters, Jack is the most introverted and initially seems at risk of falling through the cracks. With his father who left before he was born, his SD1, SD2, SD3 (step-dad one, step-dad two, etc) and his secret stash of junk food and science fiction novels in his tree house, he seems borderline depressed. But, soon into his story he begins to open up through his relationships with the young kids on the tour and the sense of responsibility he gains through this.
Both Ally and Bree are devastated by the thought of leaving their homes for such radically different environments and, once they befriend each other, they plan a sort of "Parent Trap" scenario that will hopefully convince their parents to change their minds. Of course, Bree has to explain what "Parent Trap" is to Ally since she has never heard of the movie, living miles away from civilization for the last ten years. The plan fails, but both girls gradually come to accept their fate, the Great Eclipse at the end of the story serving as a keystone event in all three of their lives, something so universally special and unique that they realize that there is no way they can go forth from that day without being changed. Within these personal stories, Mass threads information about stars, planets, eclipses and even space aliens. The Moon Shadow campgrounds have five unusuals, interesting attractions to draw in visitors, which includes the Alien Center, a room with a computer dedicated to sweeping the sky for alien transmissions twenty-four hours a day and is part of SETI, the organization that is involved in searching of extraterrestrial intelligence. Campers can sit in front of the computer waiting to be the first to witness an alien signal coming in.
Words and ideas like "solar particles," "Orion Nebula," and "Baily's Beads" are dropped into the story frequently and unobtrusively, and explained as inconspicuously. You almost don't realize until you get to the end of the book and read the author's note and further reading (very informative and useful) that you have read a story so jam packed with information. Yet, the stories of Ally, Bree and Jack never take a back seat to the astronomical aspects of the story, but are impeccably intertwined with it. Having never seen a complete solar eclipse myself, in person or on television, Mass's descriptions were compelling, especially electricity of the group excitement at witnessing this event together. And, best of all, we get to witness it three times as Ally, Bree and Jack each describe the event.
There are hints at romance in this book, but it is not because of this that I would recommend this book to a more mature reader. While the story itself, the activities and excitement leading up to the eclipse, are entertaining on their own, the subtle evolution of the characters, even the secondary characters, is so marvelously written that I would hate to think of a reader missing it. However, Wendy Mass's books, like all great books, can be read and enjoyed on many levels and that is the most important to keep in mind when a child chooses a book.
The Trouble with Mark Hopper, the second yound adult novel from Elissa Brent Weissman secures her spot on the shelf next to the great "school story" writer, Andrew Clements. Her first novel, Standing for Socks, another school story, follows the life of a girl who makes one, seemingly harmless choice that leads her life in many new, not always great, directions. The Trouble with Mark Hopper takes a coincidence and turns it into a remarkable, surprising and ultimately redeeming story.
Mark Geoffrey Hopper has a reputation, and not a good one. A sixth grader who has spent his academic career achieving a perfect record as well as arguing with teachers and administrators alike over grades, he is known by all and liked by few. As Weissman describes him, "Mark Hopper was smart. And he knew it. But he wasn't smart enough to know that nobody wanted to be reminded all the time of how smart he was and how he knew it." Mark has an older sister named Beth who teases him relentlessly and a father who has recently moved out of the family's home. He has spent the last year preparing to enter the statewide Mastermind Tournament, a contest that was won by his father three years in a row when he was a middle school student. Mark wants what he wants when he wants it and he thinks that his academic performance and hard work justify his rude, condescending behavior to those around him. When another boy with the exact same name as his moves to town over the summer, Mark's life and attitude are thrown into chaos.
The other Mark Geoffrey Hopper has moved to Greenburgh with his mother, his Grandpa Murray and his older sister Beth, who has been accepted at the Lefko School for Science where she will be pursuing her passion, the study of earthworms. Mark's father has stayed behind in at their old residence while he looks for a new job and tries to sell their house. This Mark Geoffrey Hopper is not an honors student and not bothered by this. This Mark is an artist and looking forward to his new art class and joining the after school art club. However, things don't go quite as planned. The novel kicks off with a very funny scene that involves office staff at the middle school both Mark Hoppers will be attending and a crazy round of phone calls. When Mark Hopper gets sent Mark Hopper's schedule, which includes an art class rather than band, he is incensed and calls the office to rectify the matter. When Mark Hopper does not get a schedule in the mail, his mother calls to register him, making sure that they place him in art art class. Weissman often refers to Mark Hopper and Mark Hopper in the book without distinguishing which Mark is which. However, her writing and plot are so sharp that this doesn't confuse the reader at all, but adds to the fun of the book.
And this is a fun and funny book. But, The Trouble with Mark Hopper is also a poignant look into the life of a boy who is going through a rough spot in what turns out to be a life changing year. When (the new) Mark Hopper sees that he is registered for all honors classes, he assumes that his new school, or someone, must think he is pretty smart and, in an effort to please his parents, he decides to give these harder classes a try. After his first math test, the other Mark Hopper manages to humiliate him in front of the whole class by reading his low score out loud. The very wise math teacher, Miss Payley, makes Mark apologize then assigns him the task of tutoring the other Mark every Wednesday after school. This turns out to be the best thing in Mark Hopper's life, but not the other Mark Hopper's. The new Mark spends his time learning what kind of kid Mark Hopper is then regretting every mix-up and ill treatment that results from this. It turns out Mark and Mark even resemble each other quite a bit. Mark Hopper knows that he needs to submit a creative work, besides the recording of his bassoon solo, for the Mastermind portfolio and, when he notices what a good artist Mark is he decides to try to befriend and surreptitiously learn from him. This becomes even more crucial when Mark learns that a new category has been added to the Mastermind Tournament, one that he is especially unskilled at - teamwork.
While this plan requires him to be friendly and even pleasant to Mark, it also brings the boys closer and allows them a greater understanding of each other. Mark suggests that Mark stand up for himself once in a while, both to teachers and students, while Mark let's Mark know that he should try saying "thank you" and "your welcome" instead of "yeah" and "I know" when someone tries to help him. The scenes in which the boys come to appreciate each other and work together, be it to exact revenge on cruel classmates or scheme to win the Mastermind Tournament are among my favorites in the book. As the story unfolds and Mark's complicated home life and desire to please and connect with his absent father unfold, the novel takes on a depth that is appropriate and ultimately rewarding. Often times, when reading a "real life" young adult book, I find myself thinking, "That couldn't really happen," or, "Would a kid really say that?" But, I never once found myself questioning this book, the motives and actions of the characters or the climax of the book that I did not see coming. The resolution to Mark Hopper's scheming in order to win the contest had such a ring of reality to it, as does the well timed ending, that I couldn't help cheering for both Mark Hoppers. Weissman's skill at writing a highly unlikable but realistic character in Mark Hopper is superb. It could have been so easy to make him over-the-top and totally obnoxious. Instead, his motivations are slowly revealed, as are his transgressions making his change of heart all the more rewarding for the reader.
School stories have never been a favorite of mine, as a child and adult reader. However, since I started reading books with reviewing them in mind and reaching outside of my genre comfort-zone, I have found some really enjoyable, excellently written stories. While the pace of a school story is definitely different from that of a quest-oriented work of fantasy, I have learned that that doesn't mean books with a realistic setting are devoid of suspense. Once I hit the half-way point in The Trouble with Mark Hopper, I found I could not put the book down, much to my surprise. I am so grateful and excited to become acquainted with established authors of school stories like Wendy Mass and Andrew Clements as well as newer authors like Grace Lin, Julie Bowe and Elissa Brent Weissman. I look forward to reading the next book from Ms. Weissman and can't wait to see what brilliant plot twist she will throw at her well written, fully formed characters next.
Readers who enjoyed this book might also consider:
The School Story by Andrew Clements.
The School Story by Andrew Clements.
The Year of the Dog and
The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin.
My Last Best Friend and My New Best Friend by Julie Bowe.
The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin.
My Last Best Friend and My New Best Friend by Julie Bowe.
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass.
Standing for Socks, the debut novel from Elissa Brent Weissman employs one of my favorite plot devices in adult literature, children's literature and even movies, namely, how one, seemingly miniscule, unconscious act can shape and change a person's life forever. In Standing for Socks, fifth grader Fara Ross unwittingly wears one white and one dark grey sock to school and starts a kid-sized revolution.
Fara, the only child of socially and environmentally conscious parents, shares their views and is an active supporter of these causes at school. She has a close-knit, comfortable relationship with her best friends, Jody, the budding journalist, and Phillip, artistic but clumsy. She is a good student who is looking forward to going to middle school and maybe even winning the Harvey Award for Outstanding Student at the end of the year assembly. Everything seems perfect - except for one or two seemingly small things. Fara's unintentional sock mix-up garners the attention of kids and teachers alike, all of whom like the message she seems to be sending, namely, this is a free country with freedom of expression and socks don't have to match! All except one, and that one, Melodee Simon, makes it her mission to step back into the spotlight that she (and her mother) thinks is her right. When Fara decides to campaign for sixth grade president, her sock popularity seems like the perfect launching pad to promote her school and earth friendly ideas, even though she finds she is growing tired of the responsibility she feels to keep up her statement on individuality.
Elissa Brent Weissman has taken an innovative plot twist (socks) and given us a familiar setting in which it unravels. Fara and Jody, the two main characters, feel like real people - girls my daughter or I even might have gone to school with. The closeness and the hurt that the two experience over the course of the story also ring true. At first, I was surprised when Jody stopped speaking to Fara, but then I remembered back to the slights and oversights that I experienced as a child and how I felt and did the same thing. While the characters of Melodee and her mother are necessarily a bit larger than life to add to the tension and suspense in the plot, Weissman limits their page time. And, really, while Melodee and her mother may be sterotypes, these kind of girls and mothers do exist. Count yourself lucky if you have not run into them (yet.) While the stories of Fara, Jody and Melodee make for a great plot and a realistic and satisfying resolution (and some very funny sock jokes and plays on words), my favorite part of the story involved secondary characters, kids from other schools that Fara, Jody and Phillip befriend. Vickie, Caroline and Zoë, as well as few others, are part of an interesting plot development that dove tails wonderfully with the main plot in the final chapters of the book.
On one last note, I have to say that I think "Fara" is the perfect name for the main character of Standing for Socks. It is a unique and individual name, like Weissman's main character, and out of the ordinary. And, most of all, for me anyway, the name doesn't bring to mind one set visual. In this way, all girl readers can imagine themselves as the main character of this wonderful book and maybe Fara will give them the sense of self needed to make a statement, even a small one that starts with socks. As an aside, when I first began reading Standing for Socks I thought, "Really? Just wearing two different socks can draw this much attention, make such a statement?" It seemed like I might need a willing suspension of disbelief, then I remembered something that happened a few years back at the bookstore where I work when we sold socks. Non-book items have slowly been taking up more and more shelf space at the chain bookstore where I work for years now, much to my chagrin, and, for some reason, we got in a shipment of socks from the little miss matched company. For about $8.00 you can buy 3 socks, all different, but with similar color schemes and patterns. They didn't sell so well and, when the price was marked down, several of my co-workers, myself included, snapped them up. A few weeks later I was shocked to find that all of my co-workers bought 2 sets of socks so that they would have matching pairs instead of mixing them up as they were intended to be worn (and how I wear them...) Wearing mismatched socks (that did, in their own way match) seemed like no big deal to me, but, after asking my co-workers why they weren't mixing it up, I learned that they just couldn't bring themselves to wear two mismatched socks.
Elissa Brent Weissman has a second, fabulous book, The Trouble with Mark Hopper that takes another great twist (two very different boys share the same name) and creates an entertaining, emotionally rich story for young readers. Readers of this book will enjoy the school stories of the master of the genre, Andrew Clements, as well as Grace Lin's books about the budding artist and author, Pacy and Julie Bowe's My Last Best Friend and the sequel, My Next Best Friend.
I picked up Kazu Kibuishi's graphic novel Amulet one day on my lunch break and I was sucked in instantly. As I have mentioned in the past, I was never a fan of the comics as a kid. I didn't even read the Sunday funnies. However, the presence of graphic novels - on the shelves at the bookstore, in the hands of adults and kids - is impossible to ignore and their place and value in the world of children's literature deserves examination and exploration. Just a year ago the kid's section at the bookstore where I work began devoting a whole bay to young adult graphic novels and manga, which is where I found Amulet.
For the uninitiated, here are my lay-person definitions of this and related genres. Manga is a form of Japanese comic book that reads from right to left and utilizes a specific style of illustration. In Japan, people of all ages read manga and they cover a wide range of topics. Not all are fantasy/science fiction based. I have even seen one that deals with a mother of an autistic son. A graphic novel seems to be what comic books have matured into. The plots are a bit longer, more complex and more diverse and, because of the color printing, they tend to cost almost as much as a hardcover novel. However, the graphic novels in the young adult section usually go for almost half the cost and sell for about $10 a volume. The artwork can be spectacular, ranging from dark, moody and painterly to crisp, well defined and minimal. A page can have ten or more panels on it or only one full page illustration. The panels serve as kind of paragraphs, breaking up and moving along the story as well as informing the reader of the emotions and actions of the characters. Instead of words, internal thoughts and feelings are often expressed with facial expressions which, when you consider the fact that characters are often stylized and simplified in a graphic novel, much as they would be for an animated movie, makes it all the more amazing what the artists and the writers' with their textural direction, are able to convey in a work. The winner of the Newbery Award in 2009 for The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman has written several comics, including the very popular Sandman series as well as Stardust, illustrated by the magically elegant Charles Vess, which was made into a movie recently. I have reviewed a handful of titles that I categorized as graphic novels, as an umbrella label, but up until now, Rapunzel's Revenge by Newbery Honor winner Shannon Hale is the only title that truly falls into this genre. Susan Schade and Jon Bueller's fabulous Fog Mound Trilogy, which is a graphic novel, traditional novel combo also bears mentioning.
Without much background knowledge of the world of graphic novels, all I bring with me to my reading of Kibuishi's Amulet series is my love of the artwork in illustrated books and an deep appreciation for the films of Hayao Miyazaki, founder of Studio Ghibli. In fact, the image of the walking house above reminded me instantly of Miyazaki's adaptation of the Diana Wynne Jones novel, Howl's Moving Castle, in which there is a house that walks on chicken feet, like Baba Yaga's in Russian folklore. I was thrilled to learn that Kibuishi worked in animation for a time and, when asked who his influences in the comic format are, he replied,
"Hayao Miyazaki and Jeff Smith are my biggest influences. Both of their works reflect the interests they have outside of the comics field. In Miyazaki’s case, his love of children’s literature and his experience as a director of animation shines through in his loose aesthetic and dense, action-packed panel layouts of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. And for Jeff Smith, his love of old comic strips is fused with a grand Tolkien-inspired fantasy story to create the classic graphic novel series. I only hope that every time I draw comics, I’m bringing something new and interesting to the table as well."
Jeff Smith's Bone series of graphic novels (which features and anthropomorphized femur bone as the main character) are HUGELY popular in the kid's section at the store where I work. They sell almost as much as Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which technically are not graphic novels, I suppose, but end up in that section anyway. As an aside, Charles Vess has provided the illustrations for Smith's prequel to the Bone series titled, Rose
Amulet begins with a prologue. Emily and her mother and father are driving down a winding mountain road at night on their way to pick up her younger brother, Navin when a tragic accident leaves the family fatherless. The illustrations in this scene are very intense, despite the fact that the most blood shown is a trickle from Emily's mother's nose. The reader sees the tears and the anguish of Emily and her mother as they realize they are unable to help. As I was reading through this book I kept asking myself, "Why not just write a novel and add some illustrations?" and I realized that this is particular scene is exactly why. There are emotions and internal thoughts that can be conveyed more immediately and precisely with images than words and Kibuishi's work utilizes this quality magnificently, both in emotional situations and scenes of action. Fast forward a few years and the family is moving to a small town in the country to a house owned by Emily's great-grandfather Silas Charnon. Kibuishi freely admits other influences besides Miyazaki and they include movies and video games and other movies like The Neverending Story, The Empire Strikes Back and ET. Readers will notice other influences as well but will ultimately be pleased with the way that Kibuishi makes the settings and characters his own.
While cleaning, Emily explores Silas's study and discovers a hidden Amulet that Navin helps her tie around her neck. In the middle of night the night the amulet begins talking to her, giving her instructions, telling her of the danger her family is in. Shortly after that a noise wakes them and Emily's mother grabs a flashlight and heads down to the basement to investigate. A swirling apparition leads her to a giant, spidery-squid-like creature that inhales her and runs off. The children follow and the adventure begins. Although they won't know it until the second book, they have entered the kingdom of Alledia, an alternate version of planet earth, where a cruel elf king is ruling a land in the grips of a curse that is slowly turning all of the citizens into animals, albeit human-like animals that walk upright and are sentient. Book one finds Emily trying to save their mother from the stomach of the monster and trying to harness the power the Amulet possesses. In this, the children are not alone. They make their way to a house where they find Silas Charnon still alive, although barely. Welcomed by a fleet of robots of varying shapes and sizes, all built by Silas, the children are lead to his bedside. The robots are definitely the comic relief in the book, although they are also serve as the children's guides to Alledia and ultimately their protectors. Miskit, a pink rabbity-robot who seems to have jumped right off of a Pokémon trading card, is both wise and brave, having been created to serve and protect Emily and Navin. Silas dies shortly after meeting his descendants, but not before he informs Emily that the Amulet, should she learn how to master its power, will give her a "great and glorious power beyond anything you ever imagined," including the power to turn back time, making Emily think of her father. Silas tells her to listen to the stone, follow its instructions and gain the power to "shape your own world." But, she must also must choose to take on the role of Stonekeeper and all that it entails or walk away. Despite Navin's shouts, Emily makes her choice.
The two story lines, Emily's struggle to master the Amulet without letting it master her, as well as the fate of Alledia, are very compelling. The world that Kibuishi creates is both magically beautiful and threatening at times. Trellis, the son of the elf king, sent to kill Emily, is truly frightening in appearance but also possibly a conflicted, Severus Snape-like character who will be interesting to watch over the course of the series. Just between the first two books, the growth of Emily and Navin's characters is exciting to watch. Emily, serious and sad, stoically takes on her new role in Alledia. The scenes in which she learns to harness the power of the Amulet and fight off attackers are wonderful. While I eschew violence in movies, the fight scenes in Amulet seem more subtle and subdued than those on film. A lightening-ish stream of light from the Amulet is the weapon Emily yields most often. Their is a sword fight in the second book, but no lost limbs or blood, and I appreciate this. I realize that you can't tell an epic story without battles between good and evil and Kibuishi does a fine job of illustrating this clash without carnage.
I have read through this book several times and enjoyed it more with each reading. As a newcomer to the genre of graphic novels I still feel a bit like I am not reading it right or missing out on a communal language of graphic novels that I am not aware of yet. However, with my love of fantasy, both in literature and film, I find Kibuishi's work immediately accessible. Also, his illustrations are just flat-out beautiful at times. The main characters in the story are simplified in their appearance, but the background settings, whether interiors or outdoor scenes, are detailed and lush. I included as many visuals as I could, but I realize they are small and much of the beauty an impact is lost. I strongly encourage you, if you are the least bit interested, to head to the nearest store and flip through a copy. You will not be able to resist its pull. The only downside is waiting for the next book in what could be a 10 book series! Kazu Kibuishi is also the editor of an anthology for adults titled Flight, which is now up to volume 6. This series is for adults, although there are several stories in each that are perfectly appropriate for children, including Kean Soo's Jellaby series, some of which can be read online at Secret Friend Society. Jellaby is now being published in individual volumes and sold in the children's department. Kibuishi and crew have also started an anthology for kids titled, Flight Explorer, which is wonderful. Finally, Kibuishi has a collection of his comics coming out in January of 2010 and featuring Copper. I haven't seen this strip yet, but based on the description, this story of a fearful boy and his curious dog who build boats and planes and travel to fantastic lands sounds brilliant.
For those of you in Southern California, check out the happenings at Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra, California. Kazu Kibuishi is hosting a workshop at the gallery titled, "Storytelling for Comis and Film." Beginning on September 15, 2009 it will last for seven weeks and each student will leave the course with a ten page comic! The gallery has hosted other kid's book related events and will have more in the future.
This is Kazu's painting titled, "The King's Garden," created for Flight contributor Corey Godbey's incredible tribute to Maurice Sendak and his groundbreaking Where the Wild Things Are, Terrible Yellow Eyes, an amazing collection of works of art inspired by the book.
I discovered the superb, sometimes startling, always imaginative paintings of Bill Carman when writing my review for Kate Saunders' magnificent fairy tale, The Little Secret. Bill did the cover art for the book and I was thrilled get the chance to view unused artwork for the book when I subscribed to Bill's blog. Bill's most recent post features a second painting (left) that he contributed to the online gallery show titled Terrible Yellow Eyes, curated by Cory Godbey. The show is a tribute to Maurice Sendak and his landmark picture book published in 1963, a book that has embedded itself in the consciousness of millions of children in the ensuing years - Where the Wild Things Are. Contributing artists have re-imagined the iconic images of Max and the Wild Things from the book in new and amazing ways, including some 3-D paper creations. I encourage anyone who has been touched by this book to scroll down the website and view the 25+ pieces of artwork that have been created in celebration.
Even better, if you live in Southern California, you get the chance to see the artwork and even some of the artists in person at the Gallery Nucleus located 210 Main Street, Alhambra, California. The show opens September 19 and runs through October 6, 2009.
Below are a few of my favorites, but really, every contribution will bring a smile to your face.