Thursday, May 30, 2013

Calamity Jack

This sequel to Rapunzel's Revenge focuses on her accomplice, the titular Calamity Jack. Just as that book recast classic fairy tale stories into a different, Southwestern flavored mold, this one makes Jack into a young Native American who is prone to chicanery:

Because of the urban setting, a lot of this story has more of a steampunk feel to it, with crazy inventions and imaginative urban structures. Jack and his family live in a city where they own a bakery. One of their clients is named Blunderboar, a large, imposing, and rich figure who lives in a high-rise building:

Eventually, Jack embarks on a bunch of petty thefts and cons, which lead to him getting a goose that lays golden eggs, being ostracized from the community, and his mother being held thrall in Blunderboar's giant clutches. After his adventure with Rapunzel, he returns to make things right. He finds that the city is in horrible disrepair. He cannot rescue his mom easily because the giant has enlisted the aid of fantastical creatures such as

a Jabberwock, and a Bandersnatch.
Also, the city has been overrun by giant ants who wreck buildings and all kinds of institutions but curiously leave Blunderboar's holdings alone.

BRAID: Kills bugs dead.
In the end, Jack and Rapunzel enlist the aid of the impressively named Frederick Sparksmith the Third with his bevy of gadgets and a pack of well dressed and coiffed pixies in their quest for justice and freeing Jack's mother. Jack sees Freddie as a rival for Rapunzel's attention, which adds a dash of intrigue to the proceedings.

Calamity Jack is another collaboration between a bunch of folks named Hale. Shannon and Dean are the married couple who wrote the story. Dean is a computer programmer, and Shannon is a YA author with a number of books under her belt, including the Newbery Honor book, Princess Academy. The art was provided by Nathan (no relation to the other two), who has created a few picture books and two of the best graphic novels about US history I have ever read as part of his Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales series. His art here is still lively, colorful, and full of energy.

Reviews I have read about this book praise it, though not as highly as Rapunzel's Revenge. Ana from The Book Smugglers felt this book worked well as a stand alone volume and "very much enjoyed it." Snow Wildsmith wrote that readers "will thrill at Jack and Rapunzel’s most recent adventures, though librarians should be sure to have volume one ready just in case their readers haven’t seen it. Together the two books are a great start to a terrific series and readers will be eager to see what mishaps befall Jack and Rapunzel in books to come." Nicki from Fyrefly did not enjoy this book as well as its predecessor but still concluded "it's good fun."

A list of honors and reviews from the book is available here from its publisher Bloomsbury.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Rapunzel's Revenge

There is much debate about what a princess should be (one of the most recent examples being about Merida from Pixar's Brave), and the Rapunzel of this book definitely goes beyond the trope of a pretty, young woman who needs to be rescued. The plot begins with a princess who is somewhat at odds with her mother growing up:

As she gets older, she grows bolder and after some misadventure learns that things are not quite what she thought they were:

So she is imprisoned in a tall tree (not a tower) where she is left to dwell on her choices while growing her hair out very long. Through her own machinations, she escapes and has to fend for herself in the forests and assorted other rough country. Fortunately for her, she has learned many useful skills to assist her survival.

She ends up meeting up with a wily character named Jack, who carries around a goose for some reason, and the two become outlaws trying to avoid the authorities while hatching a plan to overthrow the queen's iron grip on the overtaxed populace.

The poster sums up well for me what I like most about this book. It takes many commonly known stories and story elements and combines them into a mixture that is simultaneously fun, funny, and full of adventure and energy. Rapunzel here is a capable and adept figure. Jack is a slippery con man with a possible good streak. They have clever interactions and experience interesting situations and places. This book has many elements, from fairy tale and western elements filtered through high adventure, with beautiful images to wonder at and through, and their combination is satisfying and amusing in the best way.

Rapunzel's Revenge is a collaboration between a bunch of folks named Hale. Shannon and Dean are the married couple who wrote the story. Dean is a computer programmer, and Shannon is a YA author with a number of books under her belt, including the Newbery Honor book, Princess Academy. The art was provided by Nathan (no relation to the other two), who has created a few picture books and two of the best graphic novels about US history I have ever read as part of his Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales series. His art here is lively, colorful, and full of energy that makes the narrative hum. This interview with all of the Hales casts more light on the creation of this book.

The reviews I have seen about this graphic novel have been positive. It received starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. Kirkus Reviews praised Rapunzel, "A dash of typical fairy-tale romance, a strong sense of social justice and a spunky heroine make this a standout choice for younger teens." Jennifer O'Donnell called it "a non-traditional take on the age-old fairy tale...that will likely appeal to tween girls looking for a little adventure." John Hogan concluded that "this Rapunzel is so much more interesting to read about than what the Brothers Grimm offered."

I think this book is geared toward upper elementary or middle school readers. There is some adolescent innuendo (mostly about undergarments) but nothing really offensive or over the top.

Rapunzel's Revenge was published by Bloomsbury. There is a sequel to it called Calamity Jack, which I will review coming up next. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics from an Unpleasant Age

Middle school can be an awkward age for some, and this anthology captures much of what can be a turbulent time. The stories range across many themes, including:

Raging hormones
Physical changes
Fashion choices
Schoolyard scuttlebutt
Eternal questions
Figuring out what to do with your life
Coping with school
Dealing with cruelty
Being cruel to others
And awkward social situations
The creators in this book include a good range of well established creators, including Dan Clowes, Ariel Schrag, Lauren Weinstein, Joe Matt, Aaron Renier, and Dash Shaw. As you can tell from the images, they vary stylistically, as do the stories, some being funny, others instructive, still others sad or dramatic. The standouts for me are
  • Schrag's "Plan on the Number 7 Bus," about the dangers of teens trying to get around on public transportation while gossiping. 
  • Cole Johnson's "Tina Roti," full of dark humor observations about a girl dealing with ennui while trying to fit in at a new school.
  • Shaw's "Crater Face," a gross and touching look at a boy trying to deal with acne and girls.
  • Gabrielle Bell's "Hit Me," a compelling and bittersweet tale about figuring out ways to deal with bullies, parents, and people in general.
  • Renier's "Simple Machines," an ultimately uplifting story about a boy dealing with ADD, school, and life.
  • Schrag's "Shit," another gross story about friendship and a weekend trip on a houseboat, highlighting the pitfalls of using its toilet.
I felt that there was so much in this book to enjoy, laugh at, and/or sympathize with. The stories are obviously heart-felt and well crafted by creators who know what they are doing. Even though some of the tales are excerpts from larger works, I still feel that the glimpses we see into those worlds are worth exploring.

This anthology has received much support and praise. It was named one of the New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age in 2008. It received a starred review from Booklist. Ned Vizzini remarked that it was "excellent, and the variety of the art ensures that the reader never gets bored." The reviewer at Publishers Weekly wrote, "This collection should help those in the midst of similar social travails realize that they, too, will someday look back and laugh at it all."

This anthology is a black and white kaleidoscope cast on the experiences of adolescents, and all of the stories smack of realism and moments that many can relate to. As a consequence, they deal with issues that teens deal with, including questioning authority, sex, drug use, drinking, and trying to make and keep friendships. These features have made this book somewhat controversial in some places and likely to be targeted for bans. There is some mature language throughout as well, though nothing worse than can be found in a YA novel or students' lives.

Stuck in the Middle was published by Viking

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry

I called the first volume in this series "terrifically fun," and I am happy to report that the good times keep rolling in this second volume. From the outset, it is apparent something is off at the Academy at the beginning of the school year:

The problem is that there is a monster lurking in the school that can appear to a student to be the person they have a crush on, and when they give their hearts to it, it devours them. This is not figurative but literal because, like video game characters, the students at Astronaut Academy have and can earn multiple hearts. They need at least two to participate in team sports, so the loss of hearts threatens their participation in the annual Fireball tournament, but the loss of hearts also can bring more dire circumstances:

Luckily, the students are resilient and have methods for dealing with adversity:

Words of wisdom from a little boy in a spacesuit
Unfortunately, the administration takes a hardline stance to the situation, banning love at the school. Simple flirting results in detention, and the watchbears are vigilant about making sure the students do not become too chummy with each other. I cannot help but notice a sort of meta-commentary here with clueless adults over-reacting to situations and analogues to real-life issues such as a perceived need to protect students with armed guards. So there is also some veiled social commentary folded in with all the fun, frivolity, and fantastic elements of the school.

In all, these elements combine to make a very compelling and fulfilling reading experience. I thought the characters are all given their own moments, and their personalities are well-defined. Their interactions are hilariously familiar, with the ways that they speak to each other being both realistic and witty. If I were a kid again, I would totally want to attend this school.

Dave Roman created this second great romp, which was originally begun online as Astronaut Elementary. He has created a number of other webcomics, including the Harvey Award nominated Quicken Forbidden and Agnes Quill. He won the 2005 Web Cartoonists' Choice Award for Best New Character Design for his work on AE. Reportedly, he is also well on his way to planning a third book in this series.

There are many fun elements in this book, like I have said, and the reviews I have read comment positively about them, though some hedge that perhaps there is too much going on. Kirkus Reviews called the book "definitely goofy," and commented on how deceptively complex it is. Charlotte also commented that the book is potentially convoluted and may not be so accessible to those who have not read volume 1, but she also added that it would be difficult to dismiss the "combination of words that read themselves out loud in your head and pictures that make you smile like crazy."

There are previews, extras, and much, much more at the book's official site. This version was published by First Second.

Gina is an awesome person, and I must thank her for this review copy!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Dim Sum Warriors, Volume 1: Enter the Dumpling

Recently at the 2013 AERA Conference in San Francisco I had the honor and privilege of meeting and presenting with a group of comics scholars, Nick Sousanis, Jarod Roselló, Christy Blanch, and one of the authors of today's book, Yen Yen Woo. She described this book as a combination of two major parts of Chinese culture, dim sum and kung fu. Using these cultural touchstones, she was able to create a story and characters that are simultaneously appealing and apt for use in language learning. Interestingly, this book is the English version of a dual language app meant to instruct English language learners (ELLs) who speak Chinese with English.

Knowing that sometimes texts written for educational purposes can be dry, stilted, or just plain boring, I am happy to report that none of those pitfalls are present here. These comics are well drawn, action-packed, and funny. There are fun similes:

There are also interesting characters, like Colonel Quickynoodle:

Sorry, my thumb got in the soup.
Never trust anthropomorphic instant ramen
The main plot of the book involves Prince Porkroast Bao, who is somewhat at odds with the rest of his royal family. The young prince sneaks out to the marketplace and sees situations that do not quite match up with the news and counsel from the palace. His mother coddles him. His father thinks that he is just immature and ignorant of the demands his esteemed position entails, but there does seem to be an intricate subterfuge in play that involves the poor peasant classes, a popular energy drink, and the mighty Dim Sum Warriors, the defenders of the kingdom. This plot culminates in a competition between the four major factions of the Dim Sum Warriors (boiled, steamed, baked, and fried), with the winner given the honor of accepting Prince "Porky" (he hates being called that) into their fold.

This story is full of twists and humor. It was written by Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo, a married couple who have made multiple websites and films. They speak about their work and backgrounds here at their official website. The artwork is dynamic, fluid, fun, and crisply presented by Soo Lee. There is much more about the creators and this work in this interview and also in this article from Publishers Weekly. The app was also written up in Time magazine.

I have not been able to find many reviews about the book online as yet, but I can personally say that it was a delight to read, with a cliffhanger ending that left me yearning for more. Additionally, the reviewer at Publishers Weekly commented positively about "Lee’s delightful illustrations and Goh and Woo’s engaging narrative" in this book version.

This book was published by Yumcha Studios. Here is an online tutorial for using the app version, which is also a quick preview of the story.

Thank you, Yen Yen, for making a great product and introducing me to your delightful work!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

A fresh take on the eternal struggle that is brains versus jocks, Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is as enjoyable and engaging as it is beautifully and playfully drawn. The central issue here is that there is only enough student group funding to pay for one of these things: new costumes for the cheerleading squad or covering the robotics team at a national competition. Things get ugly when the cheerleaders make Charlie, the likeable, laid back captain of the basketball team, the frontperson in the upcoming student class elections. Also running in this mud-flinging campaign is Nate, the captain of the robotics team, Charlie's next door neighbor, and probably best friend. Neither Nate nor the cheerleaders hold back in going after what they want and the result is one ugly election.

Charlie gets caught in the middle of their squabbles, which we learn is nothing new in his life. He also has issues with his divorced parents and has not spoken to his mother in about a year. Although a lot of what I have described sounds vaguely cliched, in execution this book does not really feel like a retread because of how well the characters, their motivations, and their actions are fleshed out. I do not want to spoil anything, but both sides end up having to collaborate with the other more than they would like, and what begins as an "us versus them" plot shifts. Also, the take on gender and personal dynamics is interesting and nuanced, and overall all of these factors contribute to a comfortingly familiar but still fresh and fun feeling.

The collaborators that pulled up this book are Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks. Shen is an author, and this is her first book. Hicks is graphic novelist, webcomics creator, and animator whose growing list of impressive works includes The War at Ellsmere, Brain Camp, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, and Friends With Boys (one of my favorite books from last year). There are a number of comedic and dramatic scenes in the book, and Hicks does an excellent job of depicting them as well as imbuing a lot of personality into the characters. Both creators speak more about their work on this book in this interview

Reviews I have seen of this book praise it for its story, characters, and art. Jonathan H. Liu at GeekDad commented on the story that it "works really well as a comic book" and on the art that "Hicks does a great job of portraying the characters and is able to communicate a lot with facial expressions." The reviewer at Guys Lit Wire wrote that the book struck "a great balance between the humor and pain of being in high school." JD DeLuzio called this book " a standout North American graphic novel that eschews capes, tights, and magic."

A preview and much more are available at the book's official website. It was published by First Second.

A huge thank you to Gina, a wonderful person who sends me review copies of great books such as this one.