Fish Girl, by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli; Clarion Books, $25.00, 185 pages, ages 7-10.
On a lonely stretch of seaside boardwalk stands a modest three-story building hiding a big secret: inside resides the mysterious Fish Girl, watched over by King Neptune. For a small fee, visitors are welcome to glimpse the girl for themselves. Fish Girl feels protected by Neptune and believes his stories–that she is the last of her kind, that this building full of exotic fish is the last refuge of his realm–until she befriends a neighborhood girl, Livia. Now, the mermaid (soon to be renamed Mira) wants to enjoy life on land, but an inability to talk and lack of legs hampers the process. Slowly, with steady determination, a little yoga, and some magic, Mira’s lonely life changes forever.
Three time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner (Mr. Wuffles!) and Donna Jo Napoli (Albert) debut their first graphic novel with an exploration of trust, betrayal, and bravery–Mira is kept in what amounts to a water-filled cage, lied to about her family, and forced to perform tricks for money. Adults will no doubt make comparisons to children and young women conscripted into all sorts of unsavory labor around the world, but the mermaid element keeps this story squarely rooted in fantasy and will not spook young readers. Interestingly, the protagonist is mute–most of Wiesner’s best-loved books are wordless, relying on visual storytelling. That’s not to say Mira doesn’t share her thoughts–somehow, she communicates with her underwater and oxygen-breathing friends, and cultivates a language of friendship with Livia. Deft interplay of myth and contemporary folklore make this splashy story hard to resist.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Fox? by Benjamin Renner; First Second Books, $15.99, 188 pages, ages 5-8.
Can’t a fox get a break? Apparently, no–not even the fluffy egg-laying hens are afraid in Benjamin Renner’s mapcap graphic novel making it’s English-language debut next month. Originally published last year in French as Le Grand Méchant Renard, the book chronicles the woes of a wannabe terror, a hungry fox whose antics only provoke the ire of his intended victims. Even under the tutelage of the old master of fairy-tale disaster, the wolf, this fox “as ferocious as a geriatric tortoise,” appears destined to nosh on berries and twigs for the rest of his days. At least, until the wolf hatches a plan to steal some eggs. The fox succeeds, but can he bring himself to eat these fluffballs? And what happens when he develops an attachment to his brood–who soon enough believe themselves to be baby foxes? Will the new family escape the clutches of the scheming wolf? Will the hens have pity on a poor fox seeking redemption? Renner’s slapstick, subversive, and sly saga will keep readers of all ages clucking with joy. While the artwork certainly has the feel of a cartoon strip, there’s a freshness and sophistication here that reveals a master at work. Pre-order this finely executed graphic novel to ensure hours of summer reading enchantment.
The Return of the Honey Buzzard, by Aimée de Jongh; Self-Made Hero, $22.95, 160 pages, ages 14 and up.
We may have entered the holiday season, but some people find this time of year downright depressing, and children (especially teenagers) can be as vulnerable as adults to downshifts in mood. To soothe wayward souls, Aimée de Jongh’s debut graphic novel poignantly deals with bullying, death, grief, and finding hope in the aftermath of trauma.
Simon is a third-generation bookstore owner forced to sell his shop during an economic downturn, and driving home one day he witnesses a suicide. While processing his emotions, memories from Simon’s childhood come surging forth, and through conversations with a mysterious girl named Regina, Simon’s long-repressed guilt over a friend’s death takes over all his thoughts. Did he ever process his friend’s untimely demise? Why does Simon blame himself for what happened to his friend? Why can’t he let these feelings go? de Jongh’s stark pen and ink illustrations are appropriate counterpoints to the difficult topics she explores. A deceptively quick read, some teenage readers may get tripped up by the author’s discussion of magic realism, but the illustrations do a good job of merging the protagonist’s daily life with allegorical elements.
Return of the Honey-Buzzard explores gun violence and suicide, and includes some strong language, but is a sensitive and powerful selection for teenage readers who themselves may be in crisis. It is also a reminder that actions have consequences–for better and for worse. But we have to face our choices, no matter how painful, in order to make progress. As Simon says in the text, “Sometimes you have to make a fresh start to survive.”
Images copyright 2016 Aimee de Jongh. Reproduced with permission from Self Made Hero.
Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey, by Nick Bertozzi; First Second Books, $16.99, 128 pages, ages 12-18. (Publication date: June 17, 2014)
Amateur and professional explorers worldwide will mark the centennial of Ernest Shackelton’s ill-fated yet miraculous voyage to the Antarctic this year. Entire documentaries and symposiums are devoted to understanding how the entire crew survived in polar conditions after their ship became trapped and ultimately crushed in pack ice. There’s even a cruise called the Shackelton 100 that will recreate the route of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
For adventurers staying close to home, Nick Bertozzi’s graphic novel replicates the voyage through a riveting and wholly original approach to telling this story of survival. Historians have meticulously documented the expedition, but in this account Bertozzi changes the point of view by inviting the reader onto the Endurance alongside the captain and his crew. Each panel illustrates the minutiae of life aboard a sea vessel – from chronicling Mr. Orde-Lee riding a bicycle across the ice, to a chapter called “Last Dog” which delicately handles the issue of starvation and self-preservation.
Bertozzi’s black and white illustrations overflow with visual detail while creating a solid and engaging story. Ships, men and various polar creatures are at once grand and familiar. While the author is quite deft depicting each man in the story, Shackelton stands out from his crew; a tall, dark-haired commander determined to bring all twenty-eight crewmen home after almost two years lost at sea.
Writing and illustrating stories of great explorers seems second-nature to Bertozzi, whose previous work includes Lewis and Clark, an equally inventive examination of two great explorers. Could Amelia Earhart or Thor Heyerdahl be next?
@01FirstSecond For #TBThursday, Nick Bertozzi’s stunning graphic novel on Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated voyage gets a second look.
Apollo: The Brilliant One (Olympians Book), by George O’Connor; FirstSecond Books, $17.99, 80 pages, ages 9-14.
Though beautiful, intelligent, and immortal, the gods of Ancient Greece were imperfect beings–Zeus had a thing for mortal women, Ares was a brutal bully, and Poseidon was wrathful and moody. Perhaps none embodied the spectrum of human behavior more than Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto. At once selfish, impulsive and cruel, handsome Apollo was the god of prophecy, healing, and poetry, and was the most widely worshiped of the Greek gods.
In this, the eighth book of George O’Connor’s Olympians series, Apollo’s greatest stories are recounted by each of the nine muses, including the god’s auspicious birth on the island of Delos, his many romantic misfortunes, and even the fateful contest of Marsyas and Apollo, where the unfortunate loser is flayed alive. O’Connor matches his vibrant illustrations with excellent, thoroughly researched writing that makes for dynamite reading. Back matter includes a glossary of terms, discussion questions, bibliography, and age-appropriate sources for further reading. Children reluctant to learn about Greek mythology will quickly reverse course after plunging into this or any other of O’Connor’s books, and die-hard fans will relish uncovering hidden details throughout.
Apollo provides a brilliant entry into the world of the Greek mythology, and reminds us that ancient stories provide a greater understanding of our culture and ourselves.