Review of Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke

Zita the Spacegirl

Book One: Far From Home

by Ben Hatke

First Second, 2010. 184 pages.

This is a fun graphic novel that will appeal to a wide variety of kids. We have adventure, humor, strange space creatures, robots, deathly peril, and lots of action.

Zita’s adventures begin when she and her friend Joseph discover a crater with a smoking meteorite. Zita investigates and finds poking out of it a little device with a big red button.

Joseph knows the obvious: If you push a big red button, you are asking for certain doom. Zita, however, cannot resist. She pushes the big red button — and tentacles appear and pull Joseph into a vortex, calling out to Zita for help.

Well, Zita can’t just abandon Joseph when she was the one who pushed the button. She pushes the button again and gets sucked in herself.

She finds herself on a distant planet — a planet that is going to be destroyed by an asteroid in three days. She sees Joseph taken away in a spaceship, and learns that he’s being held by the dread Scriptorians.

So: Zita’s quest is to rescue Joseph and get back to earth before the planet explodes. Along the way she gains some strange companions — space creatures, robots, and others — all with their own quirks.

I like the artwork — colorful, full of variety, and clear in what’s happening. (I don’t know much about art, but this is pleasing to the eye.)

I’m not a big graphic novel fan, but I liked this one enough that I will keep my eyes open for Zita’s further adventures. I like her determination, her loyalty, and her spunk.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch


How Mirka Got Her Sword

by Barry Deutsch

Amulet Books, New York, 2010.
2011 Eisner Award Nominee
Starred Review

Here’s one more review of a book from School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. I hope I’ve convinced my readers to follow the Battle next year!

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels, but when I saw the caption on the cover of Hereville, I knew I had to try it: “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl.” I’m sorry, but that’s one caption I can’t possibly resist.

Hereville gained high praise from Judge Susan Patron in Round One of the Battle:

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, a graphic novel by Barry Deutsch, must be the only book ever whose outside front cover made me laugh. “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl,” it proclaims. Thick, shiny, paper painted in shades of coral, brown, black and white—changing to deep purples and grays in the scary night scenes—feel silky to the touch. Every page is vibrant with energetic pictures, dialogue, sound effects—and extremely minimal exposition.

“The story plays with genres, tilting them on their sides; using incongruity, it skewers conventions. Seemingly we are in the middle of a Hansel and Gretel pastiche, a fairy tale, in which the characters sprinkle their dialogue with Yiddish words, “A klog iz mir: Woe is me!” as well as expressions like “Yaaaah!” ”Mumph!” and “Aaak!” Mirka, one daughter in a large family of sibs and step-sibs, rebels against the traditional role expected of her in the Orthodox Jewish community of Hereville. Rather than learning such “womanly arts” as knitting, she wants to fight dragons. There is lots of very clever stuff here: visual jokes such as an illustration contained within an exclamation point, table legs morphing into trees, and a deliciously horrid troll.

“Wit and irony also abound in the text: a monster pig eats Mirka’s homework, Mirka and her clever, loving stepmother engage in wonderfully funny debates, and some Orthodox traditions are gently poked fun at (“preparing for all that non-working [on Shabbos] takes a lot of work!” and “In Hereville, kids aren’t allowed to have non-Jewish books. So Mirka keeps hers hidden”). I was hugely entertained, even as one tender scene brought tears to my eyes.”

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels, but I know that I will want to read absolutely anything Barry Deutsch writes about Mirka. The setting is utterly unlike any other book I’ve read (a small orthodox Jewish community in the country), but I can relate to Mirka’s fairytale dreams. I love the prosaic nature of her first nemesis — the giant talking pig. You can see she has the heart to fight a troll as well.

This book is funny, magical, insightful, and a joy to read. I can’t wait to find out what Mirka will do with her sword.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of I, Librarian: Rex Libris, Volume I, by James Turner

I, Librarian
Rex Libris, Volume 1

by James Turner

SLG Publishing, 2007.

I apologize to my readers, but I do have a soft spot for Super-Hero Librarians. And that’s what Rex Libris is all about!

This is a graphic novel of the adventures of the amazing Rex Libris, who travels through the galaxies if someone doesn’t return a book. It’s incredibly silly, but quite clever, and definitely diverting fun.

The caption at the beginning will give you the idea:

“Welcome, adventurous reader, to the first issue of Rex Libris, Public Librarian. Here you will find, for the first time in print ever, the tumultuous tales of the public library system and its unending battle against the forces of evil. This struggle is not just confined to our terrestrial sphere but extends out into the farthest reaches of the cosmos… and beyond! The librarian has faced patrons so terrible, so horrific, that they cannot be described here without the risk of driving readers mad. But enough prattle and preamble! Settle back with a cup of coffee and a donut (or other pastry if you prefer), and prepare to enter the secret world of…


The other librarians at the Middleton Public Library are quite interesting, too. I love it when Circe explains to her co-worker:

“Oh, we all mellow with age, dear.

“I’m over 2000 years old. My trouble-making days are long behind me. Wreaking havoc and seducing adventuring heroes is for young people. These days I like to curl up with a good book and a hot cup of tea.”

Meanwhile, Rex is taking on space beings in an effort to get back a copy of Principia Mathematica.

Like I said, it’s all very silly, but we librarians need to be aware of how we are portrayed in literature, don’t we?

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Calamity Jack, by Shannon and Dean Hale

Calamity Jack

by Shannon and Dean Hale
illustrated by Nathan Hale

Bloomsbury, New York, 2010. 144 pages.

Here’s a companion graphic novel to Rapunzel’s Revenge, which was also written by Shannon Hale and her husband Dean and illustrated by Nathan Hale, who, interestingly enough, is no relation to the other Hales.

In Rapunzel’s Revenge, the creators took the story of Rapunzel as sort of a framework for a melodrama set in some sort of version of the Wild West, only with magic and a witch-like tyrant and strange creatures. In Rapunzel’s adventures, she met up with a con-artist named Jack who carried around a goose that laid golden eggs.

You don’t really need to read Rapunzel’s Revenge first to enjoy Calamity Jack. In it, Jack is bringing Rapunzel to the big city where he grew up. In Rapunzel’s Revenge, they rescued Rapunzel’s mother from a tyrant terrorizing the whole area. In Calamity Jack their plan is to rescue Jack’s mother from a tyrant terrorizing the whole area.

We also learn about Jack’s background. Not surprisingly, it involves a beanstalk and a giant. Though like Rapunzel’s Revenge, the fairy tale framework is simply a jumping-off point.

The story is wild, over-the-top, not exactly believable, and melodramatic — but a whole lot of fun. This is a graphic novel adventure yarn with a touch of romance and lots of teamwork, as Jack acquires a rival who’s also interested in Rapunzel. She’s still wielding her braids as a lasso, but it also takes Jack’s schemes to defeat the giants and save the town.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation, by Thomas Siddell

Gunnerkrigg Court

Volume One


by Tom Siddell

Archaia Studios Press, 2007.

I heard about Gunnerkrigg Court at a Youth Services meeting for library staff. Another librarian was urging us to try out graphic novels. Kids love them and they are a fantastic way to pull kids into a love of books. She recommended Gunnerkrigg Court as a particularly interesting example.

Gunnerkrigg Court is based on a web comic, The first volume, Orientation covers the first year heroine Antimony Carter spends at the strange school called Gunnerkrigg Court.

I found the whole volume strange, but strangely compelling at the same time. The illustrations are very well done, and add to the pull of the story.

I still haven’t figured out what kind of a world Gunnerkrigg Court is supposed to exist in. There are gods, sentient robots and shadows, robotic bird sentinels, a demon stuffed animal, and kids that turn into birds. All the teachers knew Antimony’s parents and seem to understand more of what is going on (What is going on?) than Antimony, but they aren’t sharing their knowledge with her.

Here’s the text on the first page:

“Gunnerkrigg Court does not look much like a school at all.
It closer resembles a large industrial complex than a place of learning.
Within the first week of attendance, I began noticing a number of strange occurrences.
The most prevalent of these oddities being the fact that I seemed to have obtained a second shadow.”

That first page is one of the more normal and straightforward pages!

However, besides being strange, the book is also strangely compelling. I think I am going to begin following the webcomic to find out what happens next and to see if they start making sense of the whole world and what kind of cause Antimony’s parents were involved in.

I don’t think of myself as a graphic novel fan, but by pointing me to a good one, my colleague may have begun changing that.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan

storm_in_the_barnThe Storm in the Barn

by Matt Phelan

Candlewick Press, 2009. 201 pages.
Starred Review.

The Storm in the Barn, like L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, is a uniquely American fairy tale, but this one is written in the form of a graphic novel.

Given the setting of the Dust Bowl, this book shows us poor dejected Jack Clark, a kid who’s eleven years old and hasn’t ever seen rain since he was seven. The doctor thinks he may have dust dementia, as his sister has dust pneumonia.

Jack isn’t sure himself. Is it dust dementia, or is he really seeing an evil man made out of a thunderstorm, with lightning in his bag, a man who is hiding in the old abandoned barn and causing all their troubles? If Jack can release the lightning, can he save the country?

The images in this book are haunting and surreal. They will leave the reader wanting to know more about this bit of American history. I like the way the author weaves in Jack’s sister reading from Baum’s Oz books, since telling American fairy tales was exactly what Baum also tried to do, along with Jack tales from Europe that fit right in with Jack’s own story.

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Review of Stitches, by David Small


A Memoir

by David Small

W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2009. 329 pages.

It is always poignant when a successful, accomplished adult tells the story of a painful childhood. When the person telling the story is a skilled artist telling the story in graphic form, it has all the more power.

David Small is an award-winning illustrator of picture books for children. His memoir, however, is not for children.

When he was a child, he was given x-ray “therapy” as treatment for a sinus condition. That well-meaning therapy gave him cancer as a teenager, leaving scars both on his skin and on his voice.

The abuse he suffered is all the more poignant in that much of it was well-meaning, and some of it simply neglect. In this powerful graphic memoir, he shows us how the world looked to a little boy and a teen going through difficult things at the hands of those who were supposed to love him.

A moving and memorable story.

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The Eternal Smile, by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

The Eternal Smile
Three Stories

by Gene Luen Yang
& Derek Kirk Kim

First Second, New York, 2009. 170 pages.
Starred Review.

It’s hard to decide how to classify this graphic novel, whether it’s fantasy or science fiction. Since the flavor is more bizarre, mind-tripping science fiction, that’s the primary category I’ll file it under.

The Eternal Smile tells three stories. I expected them to be linked, like American Born Chinese, but these were only related by a similar theme. All involved virtual reality and a person’s (or frog’s) deepest desires. They talked about the disconnect between reality and our dreams, yet how dreams do make us who we are. All three left me feeling thoughtful and meditative and satisfied.

I don’t think of myself as a graphic novel fan, but Gene Luen Yang and a few others are changing that. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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Review of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons



by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

DC Comics, 1986. 

Winner of the Hugo Award.

Starred review.

I finally read Watchmen this week, since I definitely have to take my teenage son to see the movie the day it comes out.  Watchmen is acclaimed by many as the greatest graphic novel of all time, and I can see why.  This book has layers upon layers upon layers of meaning.  You definitely only scratch the surface of all that’s going on the first time you read it.

Set in an alternate 1985, the story begins with the death of costumed hero The Comedian.  Rorschach, another masked hero, thinks there may be a plot against masked vigilantes.  Someone with great power must be behind it, because who else could have thrown The Comedian out a window?

My son is rereading the book in the Absolute Watchmen edition.  The pages and pictures are larger, so it’s easier to see the many important details all lurking in the pages before you even notice them.  As I was writing this, my son noticed another one — that Rorschach didn’t have the distinctive speech bubbles until he really “became” Rorschach.  (I hadn’t noticed that he even had distinctive speech bubbles.)  There are thousands of details planted like that.  This is a graphic novel where you would still notice new details on the twentieth reading that fit perfectly and provide clues to what’s really going on.

This book is a mystery, a social commentary, a science fiction adventure, an alternate history, and so much more.  Mind you, it is a dark story, with lots of sex and violence.  If you wouldn’t be comfortable watching an R rated movie, then you won’t want to read this book.

At first, I thought I just enjoyed it as a work of art.  There’s no question that the book is superbly executed, thought-provoking, and interesting.  However, on reflection, now that I’ve finished it, I find I really did care about the characters.  They grew on me.  I did like them, and they seem like real people, with real concerns and complexities.  For example, I found myself annoyed right along with Laurie when Jon starts talking about what’s going to happen in a few minutes.  Each character is distinctive, with their own hang-ups and desires, and the authors portray that skillfully, and make you care.

Definitely worth the hype.  I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.  And I’m sure I’ll come back to the book some day, and try to pick up a few hundred more details that I missed the first time.

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Review of The Arrival, by Shaun Tan


The Arrival

by Shaun Tan

Starred Review.
Arthur Levine Books, New York, 2006.

The Arrival is an amazingly effective story of the immigrant experience—told in a graphic novel without any text—or at least without any text that we can understand.

The illustrations, beautifully drawn and wonderfully detailed, show us a man leaving his family behind to go on a long journey.  The pictures seem to be telling a historical story of a man traveling to America.

But then he arrives, and we see fantastic animals such as don’t exist on earth (at least that I know about!).  The letters of the text on signs are incomprehensible.  The clothing is different and strange.  The buildings are wild, unfamiliar shapes.

The man must try to find shelter, learn how to use the machines in his dwelling, find food, (including figuring out what it looks like and how to eat it) and find work.  He meets other immigrants and hears their stories.  And above all, he wants to bring his wife and daughter there to join him.

All this is shown to us without any words we can recognize.  By using strange, alien-looking objects and animals, Shaun Tan communicates the strangeness immigrants experience far more effectively than he could ever have done with words.

This book is shelved in the Young Adult section, but can span all ages from upper elementary to adults.  The powerful, wonderfully crafted images will stick in the reader’s mind for a long time to come.

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