Salt Water Taffy by Matthew Loux, 72 pp, RL 2
The five book series Salt Water Taffy by Matt Loux has to be one of the greatest graphic novels to cross my path while working as a bookseller. Of course it caught my attention right away because it was so markedly different from the bulk of the books automatically sent to my store. When I started reading it I realized, graphic novel or not, Salt Water Taffy is also a standout for the plot, setting and magical world that Loux has created in this seaside town. An adventure story about two brothers spending their potentially boring summer vacation in a village on the coast of Maine, the boys encounter a number of fantastical nautical creatures, historical figures, ghosts and fishermen and always come out on top. While I will never say "no" to great illustrations (and, despite being simple black and white, Loux's illustrations are richly detailed, complex and engrossing) I think that this series would also make a fantastic series of straight-up chapter books, too. But, what I like best about Salt Water Taffy is it's mass appeal. My son devoured these as a first grader and we have given them as birthday gifts a few times, much to the recipient's delight. I have even known adults to enjoy them, laughing as they read in bed, keeping some people awake at night...
Loux sets up his story with great main characters in the form of Jack and Benny, eleven and eight year old siblings. Jack, who plays his Game Boy until the batteries wear out, refusing to show even the slightest interest in their home for the summer, is the straight man. Benny, younger and more curious and enthusiastic, takes notice of everything and often has crazy ideas that turn out to be pretty smart (like using a many pronged tree branch to roast multiple marshmallows on.) The town of Chowder Bay has a strong presence in the novels as well. Of this setting Loux has said, "I worked really hard to try and make the environment as important as the characters as well as feeling specifically Maine, or at least New England. Chowder Bay has to be like a 19th century village that time forgot." Loux gets this just right. The town is old fashioned and even quaint, but believable. The first stop for the family is Dr True's Salt Water Taffy shop, replete with overflowing bins offering a multitude of flavors and a mechanical taffy puller in the window. The adventure begins when Benny reaches into a bin and has his finger snapped by a lobster! When he gets his dad and Jack to take a look, it's gone. Little do the brothers know what an ominous symbol this is...
The boys quickly meet up with Angus O'Neil, a crusty old fisherman who knows the secrets of Chowder Bay. In the first book, the boys and Angus tackle Old Salty, an enormous, angry crustacean with a taste for taffy. They go on to meet up with a giant eagle with a taste for hats in the second book. In the third book the boys are haunted by the ghost of Dr True, a 19th century salesman of Dr True's Wonderful Elixir who claims he was murdered by the town hero, Captain Hollister.
Books 4 and 5 represent parts one and two of Caldera's Revenge, the final books in the Salt Water Taffy series. Plodding their way through "The Hidden History of Chowder Bay," a weighty tome given to them by Captain Hollister, the boys jump at the chance to board a spooky whaling ship that appears in the bay. Soon they are searching for the fiercest whale that every lived, Caldera. In the final book of the series, the Benny saves the day when he rescues Jack from a ghost ship while also unraveling the mystery of Chowder Bay.
While I especially love the color artwork that appears on the covers, the interior black and white art is really wonderful as well. I hope the images included here give you a good idea of just how expressive and exciting it really is.