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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Review of Rapunzel’s Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale


Rapunzel’s Revenge

by Shannon and Dean Hale

Illustrated by Nathan Hale

Bloomsbury, 2008.  144 pages.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #2, Teen Graphic Novels

I am a huge Shannon Hale fan.  So though I normally would not have rushed to buy a graphic novel, when I heard that she had written one with her husband (The artist, though having the same last name, is not related.), I simply had to buy it.

This wasn’t up there in the best-thing-I’ve-ever-read territory like her novels, but all the same, this book is completely delightful.  Though, come to think of it, it’s the best graphic novel I’ve ever read.  (Don’t tell my son!)

Rapunzel’s Revenge tells the tale of Rapunzel, set in the old West.  Rapunzel is no wimpy princess, waiting for a prince to set her free.  When she learns at twelve years old what “Mother Gothel” has done to her real mother, and how she terrorizes the countryside, Rapunzel confronts her.  She’s promptly placed in a tower made from a giant tree that Mother Gothel made with her growth magic.  The same magic begins to affect Rapunzel’s hair.

There are some fun things in the illustrations.  I love the three books Rapunzel has in the tower:  Girls Who Get Saved and the Princes Who Save Them, How to Make a Twig Bonnet, and There’s Always Bird Watching.

With nothing to do in the tower, she practices her lasso skills by using her ridiculously long hair, braided into rope.

Finally, after she turns sixteen, her hair is long enough for her to use it to escape her prison.  It’s after her escape that she sees a traveling adventurer who heard about the beautiful maiden in a tower.  She points him to the tower and tells him the maiden is slightly deaf, so he should be sure to yell as loud as he can.

On the way back to Gothel’s villa to rescue her mother, Rapunzel becomes a vigilante, helping people with her amazing lasso of hair.  She falls in with a rogue named Jack who’s been having some trouble with giants.  Rapunzel convinces Jack to help her rescue her mother and bring justice to the countryside, which has been sucked dry by Gothel’s magic.

Here’s a girl who doesn’t need saving!  This imaginative adventure has a heroine you can cheer for.

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Review of Janes in Love, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg


Janes in Love

by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

Minx (DC Comics), 2008.  152 pages.

Starred Review.

The Janes are at it again.  In this sequel to The Plain Janes, Jane’s group of friends (all named Jane), try to give new life to P.L.A.I.N. — People Loving Art in Neighborhoods — with new “Art Attacks.”  However, their funds are running out, the authorities are still against them, and Jane’s Mom reacts badly to news of another terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, Valentine’s Day is approaching, and all hearts are turning to thoughts of love, making life that much more complicated.

I liked this graphic novel even better than the first.  It’s a fun story of a gutsy character, who still believes in her message: Art saves.

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Review of American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang


American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien.
First Second, New York, 2006.  233 pages.
Winner of the 2007 Printz Medal.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008, Number 1, Contemporary Teen Fiction
My son loves graphic novels, but I haven’t read many myself.  However, when American Born Chinese won the Printz Medal for an outstanding Young Adult Novel, I decided this was one I should read.

I checked it out, but didn’t get around to reading it until it was due the next day.  I loved it!  I knew my son just had to read it.  Fortunately, graphic novels are quick reading, so he finished it before the day was over and I could turn it in.

This book is done beautifully.  The author uses the graphic novel form in a way that makes the story better than it would be as a regular novel.  I love the expressions on faces, and the way he uses visual storytelling and creative formats to tell the story.

There are three parallel stories in this book.  First is the story of the Monkey King.  He goes to a party with other gods, and they laugh at him for being a monkey.  He shows them.  Then we see Jin Yang, a boy born in America to Chinese parents.  They move from Chinatown in San Francisco to a place where he is the only Chinese kid in his class.  The third story has the format of a television show.  An American high school kid named Danny somehow has a cousin Chin Kee who’s terribly Chinese.  He visits Danny every year and embarrasses him so badly at his school that Danny’s been switching schools every year.

All the stories beautifully and unexpectedly come together at the end, with a well-told theme of being who you truly are.

At one point in the story of the Monkey King, he meets Tze-Yo-Tzuh, He Who Is, a God more powerful than any other gods.  At first, I was a bit offended when he started describing himself with words used from the Bible:  “I was, I am, and I shall forever be.  I have searched your soul, little monkey.  I know your most hidden thoughts.  I know when you sit and when you stand, when you journey and when you rest.  Even before a word is upon your tongue, I have known it.  My eyes have seen all your days.”

However, as I read on, I realized the author had beautifully placed the God Who Is into this tale about being the person (or monkey god) whom you were created to be.  This is a beautifully told, powerfully presented tale of the individuality God has lovingly placed in each one of us.  Yet it doesn’t come across as a religious story at all.  On the contrary, it comes across as a laugh-out-loud light-hearted comic book story.  Magnificent!

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