Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Be Prepared

I have never been to summer camp, and I am not of Russian descent, but I sure found a lot to relate to in reading Be Prepared. This tale of Vera, a 10-year-old girl who strives to fit into American culture is full of empathetic moments, moments of levity, and the pathos of being a tween. The artwork is impressively expressive, and it suits the well-paced and -plotted narrative beats to a T.

Vera's mother is Russian, in school, and trying to make a better life for her and her children. Vera is trying to keep up with her middle class American friends, which in her mind involves buying stuffed crust pizza, the right brand of soda, and the right kind of doll, as well as hosting slumber parties. None of those things are on her mom's radar. And what's worse her versions of all of them are uniquely Russian-themed, and to Vera's (and her friends') sensibilities completely off-brand and embarrassing.Vera's solution is to go to summer camp, just like her friends do, and she convinces her mom to send her brother and herself off.

The camp she goes to is not what she expects. It's a special camp for children of Russian lineage, and they celebrate that heritage in specific ways. Also, because of her age, Vera gets assigned to the older girls' camp, so not only does she not know anyone there, she's also the youngest girl and living with two of the oldest girls who have been going to the camp for forever. Consequently, she has a tough time making friends and simply wants to go home. Also, she has to shower and go to the bathroom in an outdoor toilet, which is a disgusting and unsavory experience.

Over the course of a few weeks however she does learn a few things about herself and how to (and also not to) make friends. She also earns a bunch of merit badges. Looking back at what I've written, it now seems that everything I've described looks pretty formulaic and familiar, but I feel that this book has a specific charm and delivery that makes the proceedings vibrant and new. The characters are not one-dimensional but nuanced and interesting. And by the end of the book, I felt very attached to them, which left me yearning for more because the ending is open-ended.

This book's creator Vera Brosgol is an accomplished illustrator and animator. She worked for Laika on a number of animated films like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and Paranorman. She also has published a children's book Leave Me Alone, which won a Caldecott Honor, and the graphic novel Anya's Ghost, which won an Eisner Award. 

All of the reviews I have read of this book have sung its praises. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "While the culturally specific references will particularly resonate with kids of Russian heritage, the larger story will strike chords with any kid who has ever struggled to find a place to belong." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded, "By turns sardonic, adorable, and noble, Vera is a beguiling hero who learns how to recognize who's really on her side." Elizabeth Bush wrote that "Brosgol's illustration skills fully match her convincing narration in this autobiographical graphic novel."

Be Prepared was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Friday, April 20, 2018

One Day a Dot

One Day a Dot is a simple and ambitious book. It tells the story of the universe from the Big Bang until the present day, in 33 pages, and its audience is elementary school age readers. The snarky part of me wants to call this book a compact Cartoon History of the Universe for first graders, but it's more unique than that.

Of course, some of the scientific concepts are abridged or presented in simple manner, but what is communicated is told in forthright, clear, and apt fashion. Dots stand in for all kinds of concepts, from atoms to planets to cells. Sometimes this simple characterization works well, such as when the unique qualities of the Earth are described, which in turn led to the development of life. I also think it worked well as a platform for how single cell creatures evolved over time into different forms and eventually multi-cellular ones.
I also think that the latter pages, where the descriptions of the various animals from prehistory fall and give rise to mammals is well described. And I very much appreciated how the specific niches human beings have been able to carve out were attributed to how they used their brains to make up for particular physical attributes or abilities that gave other animals advantages. For instance, they did not have claws, but they could make weapons; they cannot fly, but they have developed the ability to flight via science. Those explanations were made in very elegant fashion, though they also smack of humans being perhaps pre-destined to control the Earth.

Overall, I think that this book is spot on, information-wise. My biggest issue with this book lies in how it anthropomorphizes some of the dots, because I do not think that plant cells have the concept of loneliness that led them to want to reproduce. Apart from that quibble, amateur scientist that I am is pretty satisfied with what I have read here. I think that this book would even appeal to those who are more religious in their understandings of science, as the authors leave a lot of room open for speculation of origins and perhaps even a plan/progress to the developments described in these pages. I don't think Richard Dawkins would necessarily love this book, but I do think that it could be used to introduce young people to some pretty heavy duty concepts.

This book was a collaboration of writer Ian Lendler with illustrators Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. Lendler has written a number of children books as well as the Stratford Zoo graphic novel series. Paroline and Lamb have won an Eisner Award for their work on Adventure Time comics, and Lamb has also colored a good amount of notable graphic novels. Lendler speaks a little about his process for writing One Day a Dot in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. However, Kirkus Reviews took issue with the implications of this book, stating  that "the oversimplification of ideas creates an underlying implication that animals are the only living things and that humans are superior beings; there is no hint of ecological interdependence." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded that it should inspire "spirited debates." Amanda MacGregor called it "a beautiful and vibrant picture book."

One Day a Dot was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

March: Book Three

I have been remiss in reading this book, especially since it won a National Book Award. I thought that the second book in the trilogy was better than the first one, and this third volume is just as excellent. Mostly it covers the events of the march from Selma to Montgomery, a pivotal event in US civil rights history and an impetus for the passing of a national Voting Rights Act.

As with the other books in this series, it is simply amazing just how much John Lewis was involved in during his life. This book covers much ground, giving light to a tumultuous and important era of US history, showing the brutality of racism, the courage of those involved in the movement, and the eventual positive effects of non-violent protest. This book is an emotional roller coaster, but it's not simply cheap drama. The events it chronicles are still vital to our present day circumstances, and I daresay it should be read by people young and old, in-school and out. It's an important tale, and it deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Congressman Lewis and his staffer Andrew Aydin penned the narrative, and it was illustrated by Nate Powell, a veteran and expert creator with a long list of praised works, including the graphic novels The Silence of Our Friends, Swallow Me Whole, and Any Empire. As you can see from the excepts, Powell's artwork is dynamic and energetic, and he makes excellent tonal use of black and white to tell riveting, moving, and powerful tales, even when people are simply speaking. All three creators speak about their work on the March trilogy in this interview.

Not surprisingly, all the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Michael Cavna concluded, "This is, flat out, some of the most immersive graphic-novel art I’ve experienced in years." Oliver Sava called it "an essential read in a turbulent political climate." In a starred review from the School Library Journal Mahnaz Dar summed up, "This essential addition to graphic novel shelves, history curricula, and memoir collections will resonate with teens and adults alike."

March, Book 3 was published by Top Shelf, and they have lots more info about it here. Its list of honors is historically impressive:

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Peter and Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths

Peter & Ernesto is just like the title says, a tale of two sloths. Day after day they live in the same tree, eat the same food, and play the same game where they name the shapes they see in the clouds. One day, however, Ernesto announces that he wants to see not just that piece of sky but the whole sky, so he embarks on a grand journey. Peter is more of a worrier and homebody, and he warns Ernesto about the many potential dangers out there, including bears, but to no avail. Not to spoil anything, but the rest of the book follows Ernesto on his trek while Peter eventually decides he should follow up and check on his friend. Both of them, in turn, have their own set of discoveries and adventures.
This simple yet affecting tale was fun to read. It's the best kind of all ages book, and I feel that  contains a good amount of detailed world-building in terms of if its locales and characters. I very much liked Ernesto's spirit of adventure and optimism. I also admired Peter's sense of loyalty and reluctant bravery. Both run into a motley array of other creatures, and they all have strong personalities that are entertaining to boot. The various settings Ernesto sees are all simply yet strongly portrayed. Overall, I loved the amount of energy and information the author conveys in his line work.

Graham Annable was that author, and he has been creating comics and animated work for a good while now. He has been celebrated in both fields and is one of the few folks to have been nominated for both a Harvey and an Academy Award. I know him best from his work on Grickle and also the various comics he shares via his Instagram account. Others would probably be more familiar with his work on animated features like Coraline and The Boxtrolls.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. In a starred review for the School Library Journal Jennifer Costa likened it to the Elephant and Piggie books and summed it up, "Recommended for beginning reader shelves and elementary graphic novel collections." Dustin Cabeal called it "delightful. It’s full of positive energy and gives you so many ways to be inspired." Publishers Weekly stated that "Annable’s gift for caricature and zippy dialogue shines through, as he celebrates his characters’ contrasting temperaments without a hint of snark."

Peter & Ernesto was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here. There is a sequel already slated for next year, and it is called The Lost Sloths. I will definitely check it out!

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter

First off, let me say that I am a sucker for books like this. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite shows ever, and I love the turn-of-the-century England, steampunk-style, monster hunter vibe displayed in these pages. Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter is a fun, action-packed, and sometimes creepy graphic novel. The title character is an orphaned teenager who lives with two servants. The first is Napoleon White, a butler/chauffeur, and the second is his wife Mrs. White, a governess. Together they look after Scarlett and Ravenwood, her family's estate, which is in a state of disrepair since her parents' death. She came into monster hunting as the family business, but she does not just hunt monsters because it is her calling or there's some mystical need, she does it to earn the reward money needed to keep ahead of their creditors.
One obstacle that Scarlett faces is that she is legally too young to hunt monsters, and the local "Watch" is onto her. The second is Count Stankovic, a rival monster hunter who has a special desire to not only foil Scarlett but ruin her life. As there are frequent monster attacks in this version of London, the two adversaries come into frequent contact. And when Scarlett tracks some monsters to their source and sees the Count involved, she begins to feel that he is not only hunting monsters but summoning them as well.

I felt that this book had a great amount of action and intrigue. I can't say that it is the most original or complex plot I have ever read, but it is a fun, well crafted piece of genre fiction. I got sucked into reading the whole thing in one sitting, even though I told myself I was only going to read the opening vignette. It's ghoulishly delightful, and if you like books with gruesome monsters and steampunk weaponry, this one will be right up your alley. Also, I should add that this book has a clear ending, though it leaves the door open for a sequel. I hope that it sells well so we get one.

This book was a collaboration between writer Marcus Sedgwick and artist Thomas Taylor. Sedgwick has written several novels and won the Printz Award for his book Midwinterblood. Taylor is an accomplished children's book author and is most famous for being the first illustrator of the Harry Potter series. I very much like the tone and style of the art here, which I find to resemble an amalgamation of those of Joann Sfar and Richard Sala. It's appropriately creepy, muted, and ominous, perfect for a tale such as this. Both creators speak about their work on Scarlett Hart in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been fairly positive. Kirkus Reviews summed up that it would be "fun for a spooky night, anchored by likable characters and a zippy story." Publisher Weekly wrote, "Taylor’s energetic artwork captures the time and place through the use of metallic grays and browns, while integrating an array of gothic and steampunk motifs." Elizabeth Bush was less taken with the plot and wrote that "this debut graphic novel series chugs along with little more than a workmanlike, repetitious plot of monster appearance/confrontation action scene/Hart-vs.-Stankovic rivalry."

Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Science Comics: Robots & Drones: Past, Present, and Future

I have read all the entries in the Science Comics series published so far, and I am sad to say that this one, Robots & Drones is not one of my favorites. I can also be glad to report that it is still an enjoyable book, as it features excellent artwork and lots of interesting information. By no means is it a bad book; it just did not light my fire the ways some of the other volumes have.

In particular I felt this one lacked a hook that would draw me in and also unify the entire book. Perhaps what stuck in my craw was how hung up the book was on definitions and drawing distinctions on what defines a robot and how other devices and machines (like automatons or remote controlled vehicles) are not actually robots. It seemed to take for granted that the reader would be interested in robots and drones (and I have to admit I was and am), but it did not offer much to put a specific trajectory on that interest. The result is a lot of information, about what robots are (and are not), what computers are (and why they are not robots), and how drones fit into these configurations as well. The lack of narrative thread that left me wondering at times why things were being discussed in the order they were. I just felt like the book was hopping from topic to topic without much context (kind of like this review, eh?).

Still, I learned lots from it, like when the first robots were created (in the 1600s in Japan, in case you were curious), how the Mars rover maintains itself and its power supply, and the fact that an automatic coffee maker is in fact technically a robot. The opening vignette is a tale of the book's narrator, a fun little proto-robot named Pouli (the invention of Archytas in the the fourth century BCE), which added a playful touch to the proceedings and a much needed sense of continuity. There were also a few other impressive features, like a refresher about simple machines and a great timeline of notable robot/drone inventions over history that closes out the book. If you want to learn more about robots and drones, or if you know a young person who is into them, you could do a lot worse than select this book. It was fun to read; I just felt it was not overall as well composed as other volumes in this series.

Robots & Drones is a collaboration between writer Mairghread Scott and artist Jacob Chabot. Scott writes animated series and comics, and she has another original graphic novel The City on the Other Side in the works. Although he's got lots of credits on licensed characters' comics, Chabot I know best from his work on The Mighty Skullboy Army, which I feel is an excellent and funny series. It stars a cantankerous and sneaky robot, so I was hopeful that his artwork in this book would be equally as charming. I am glad to report it is as good, if not better, than I expected. For those interested in learning more about this book and its creators, you can read an interview with Scott here and an interview with Chabot here.

The reviews I have read about this book have been mixed. Johanna Draper Carlson was lukewarm about it and wrote, "There’s good information here, but I felt as though a lot of space was wasted on irrelevant information, leaving me confused as to just what the purpose and message of the book was." Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "A lighthearted, enjoyable introduction to a fascinating subject."

Robots &  Drones was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Roller Girl

I have had this book on my shelf for a little while now. I bought it at my local independent book store after I had read Comics Squad: Detention and thought that Victoria Jamieson's entry in that anthology was the best part of the book. Roller Girl was a 2016 Newbery Honor book and has a slew of other honors as well. The story here follows a girl named Astrid who is at a crossroads, growing up and becoming more at odds with her mother as well as tenuous with her best friend Nicole. One day the trio attend a roller derby match, and Astrid is completely blown away.
Soon after, they learn that there will be a roller derby camp that summer, and Astrid cannot wait to sign up. Nicole is not so keen on joining and opts instead to attend dance camp, where she has a different set of friends, one of which is very much at odds with Astrid. Complicating matters, she lies to her mother that Nicole is at camp with her, so she does not worry about her getting a ride home everyday. And adding even more to this drama is Astrid's realization that roller derby is very challenging, taxing, and tiring.
What I loved about this book was how it approached all of the physical and emotional adversity Astrid has to face in very real and relatable manner. Over the course of the book, she learns much about friendship, stamina, and herself. I felt that the characters and relationships were complex and nuanced, and that this book was done in a smart way that would appeal both to young people and adults, without insulting either audience. The ending, which focuses around Astrid's first competitive match, does not go exactly as she intended but it's a great learning experience. The conclusion was mostly sweet and just a little bitter, and I'm not going to lie but it made me tear up. I am a total sucker for a story told this well, where all the disparate narrative threads come together in such an artful manner. This book deserves all the accolades it has received (and then some!).

This book's creator Victoria Jamieson is a children's book illustrator and graphic novelist who has since published a few others since this debut. One is the stand-alone volume All's Faire in Middle School,  the other two entries in her Pets on the Loose! series The Great Pet Escape, and The Great Art Caper. She speaks more about her work on Roller Girl in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been celebratory. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and stated that "readers will want to stand up and cheer." Kirkus Reviews also gave it a starred review and wrote that it was "Full of charm and moxie." Esther Keller summed up, "This is a great summer or all-year read that will thoroughly be enjoyed by middle-grade readers."

Roller Girl was published by Penguin Random House, and they have more info about it here.