Author/Illustrator: Ben Clanton
Narwhal and Jelly, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Narwhal wanders into unknown waters and meets Jelly–who may or may not be imaginary, but who is definitely a good friend. Together, they do cool stuff like eat waffles (yum!) and make a pod of friends. And even though misunderstandings may sometimes lead to conflict between them, they’re the sort of friends who work things out together and still have lots of fun.
Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is an weird but adorable graphic novel for younger readers (I would say early elementary, primarily) featuring two super-cute sea pals. It is extremely random and whimsical at times (okay, most all the time), but in a way that’s fun and relatable . . . although it’s still a bit too random for me to be wholly on board with it. I can see it being a really fun read for kids, though. Plus, it includes some fun sea-animal facts and features some helpful conflict-resolution skills–something kids in the primary intended readership definitely need to be exposed to. The art is appealingly simple, although the random (again) photographs of waffles and strawberries throw off the vibe a bit . . . or maybe they make the vibe. I don’t know. A bit weird for my taste, but cute and fun. Recommended for early elementary readers.
Author: Roger Langridge
Colorist: Fred Stresing
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Nine-year-old Abigail is having a rough time adapting, what with moving to a new home, adjusting to a new school (in the middle of the school year!), and having her dad being so busy with trying to find a job. He can’t even keep their tradition of going to the zoo for her birthday this year! But things begin to look up when Abigail runs into Claude one day at the playground and promptly decides he’s going to be her new best friend. He’s in need of a friend himself, what with being a yeti, escaped from a government research lab and on the run. Good thing adults can’t see him (although kids can, which quickly makes Abigail popular with the other kids at school); only, the people from the government have special equipment that can find him, and they’re closing in fast.
Abigail and the Snowman is quite the unusual graphic novel. For one thing, although it is most definitely a graphic novel in the way it’s set up, I’m also inclined to compare it to a comic strip (because of the art style) and to a picture book (because of the intended demographic and the sort of story it tells). It’s really cute–definitely a feel-good, happy ending kind of story. I feel like it expresses the challenges of a single-parent family going through a difficult move very well–both from the kid’s perspective and from the parent’s–while still giving us a loving, functional family relationship. It also shows a good development of real friendship and loyalty, especially as both parties are brought to the point of making choices that are sacrificial for themselves for the safety and wellbeing of their friend. I would generally say that the intended audience is elementary grade (depending on their tolerance for a certain amount of violence/scariness; parental discretion advised as there are bad guys with guns involved in the story), although middle-graders would probably also enjoy the story. It’s heartwarming enough to be fun in a different way for grownups as well.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 4.5 of 5
A box tumbles out of a moving truck, only to be discovered by a little girl exploring outside. She opens to box to find a little robot, just the right size to be her friend. These two develop an understanding and a growing friendship, although like any friends they must work through their share of misunderstandings. All is not well, though, as those that made the little robot come searching for it–whether or not it’s willing to go.
The creator of the adorable Zita the Spacegirl has brought us another excellent children’s graphic novel in Little Robot. This is a perfect story for basically anyone; it’s charming, creative, simple, yet engaging. It would actually make a pretty solid easy-reader for children learning to read for themselves. Most of the text is reasonably simple–I actually love that in a few instances where a more difficult concept was being expressed, Hatke actually used a picture in the text bubble rather than trying to use too many words to explain or worse trying to oversimplify the idea. There’s a mild amount of peril, but the ending is happy and satisfying. The little girl in this story (who is never actually named) seems to only be about 5 or thereabouts, although she’s surprisingly precocious in some ways for that age. She’s got a fun personality. Also, points for making her not white and giving her a wrench to carry around and fix stuff. The art in this whole story is Hatke’s typical style–in other words, it’s fabulous. The colors, the lines, the textures, and the angles are all just perfect. Basically, I loved Little Robot and would highly recommend it to anyone of any age.
Author/Illustrator: Hervé Tullet
My rating: 4 of 5
We are presented with a page, completely blank save for a solitary gray spot. Invited to tap said spot, we do and are presented with an explosion of spots of all colors. And now that we have colors to work with, we’re challenged to try combining them to see what happens when we mix it up.
Mix It Up! is certainly not the sort of picture book to which I am accustomed. It isn’t actually a story at all. I’m honestly at a loss as to how to even categorize it. It’s an interactive experience for kids presented in book format; that’s the best explanation I can come up with. A bit more complex that your usual “name the colors” book, Mix It Up! visually and experientially teaches kids color theory, what happens when you mix different colors, how to create shades and tints, that sort of thing. It’s all very vibrant and interactive–rather than didactically telling the reader what’s happening, it invites us to see and discern for ourselves. This book is great for kids that need a bit more interactivity as it asks them to tap, shake, squish, and tilt the pages as they go along; fortunately, the pages are actually sturdy enough to withstand this kind of abuse. As far as recommended age goes, I think Mix It Up! is best suited for a slightly older demographic than most picture books, although it could be pretty flexible. My two-and-a-half year-old niece enjoys the first half, but the latter parts where more inductive reasoning is required are a bit beyond her appreciation yet. I’d say around five would be the ideal age for this book, but it would depend on the kid. For any age, it’s a great introduction to color theory.
Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce
My rating: 5 of 5
Liam has always been tall for his age, getting mistaken for being older than he is and being teased by other children for it. Now at the age of twelve, he’s already growing facial hair and being mistaken for an adult. Which is mostly awful. . . . But it does have its advantages at times. Like when he was mistaken for a new teacher at his new school or when he and his classmate Florida would go to the stores with him pretending to be her father. And ever one to push the limits, Liam begins to see just how far he can go with this “adult” thing–never dreaming that doing so would end up with him being stuck in a spaceship with a bunch of kids looking to him to get them safely home.
So, Cosmic was one of those books that blew my expectations completely out of the water. I had never even heard of the author previously (clearly an oversight on my part), and it appeared both from the cover and the description to be a rather average middle-grade story of hijinks and randomness. Well, the middle-grade hijinks and randomness is definitely there, but average this book is not. It uses humor and a tall tale sort of setting to look at what being an adult is really all about–as well as to examine how much the advantages of being an adult are wasted on actual grown-ups who don’t have the sense of fun and irresponsibility to really enjoy them. It also looks at major themes like fatherhood and the relationships between fathers and their children in a way that is quite touching. But the story never gets bogged down in these themes; rather they are revealed gradually through the improbable and ridiculous circumstances in which Liam and his companions find themselves. It’s very funny–perhaps even more so reading this as an adult, although this is definitely written for a younger audience and is completely appropriate for such, even for a younger elementary grade readership. There’s something of a universality in the midst of absurdity to be found in Cosmic, and I would highly recommend this book.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Zita the Spacegirl, vol. 3
After being wrongfully accused of crimes she didn’t commit, young Zita has been tried and imprisoned on a dungeon world along with her friend, Mouse. She finds herself in a cell with a living ragpile and a talking skeleton–a skeleton whose fingerbones can open any lock. Befriending these two, Zita takes her first opportunity to break out and try to rescue her friend Mouse. Along the way, Zita finds unexpected help as the friends she’s made and people she’s helped along her journey join forces to help her escape.
I’ve said it before, but Ben Hatke’s graphic novels are fantastic. I absolutely loved the first two Zita stories, and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl is the perfect conclusion to this delightful trilogy. While being perhaps a bit darker than the first two (being set almost entirely in a prison setting), the story remains consistent in its emphasis on friendship, courage, and doing the right thing. Zita’s an amazing girl, no question, and the friends she makes are delightful, unexpected, and heartwarming. The art is fabulous, full of quirky originalities. I also love that the story is rich enough to be fun for an adult reader while being clean and simple enough for an elementary-grade reader to also enjoy. Additionally, I liked that the ending of this one was conclusive enough that I’m not searching for a continuation while still being open enough that there could potentially be more volumes in the future (unlike the earlier volumes which absolutely demanded a continuation). I think I would highly recommend The Return of Zita the Spacegirl to pretty much anyone–just read the first two volumes first.
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Illustrator: Paul O. Zelinsky
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In the children’s home where Earwig and her friend Custard grew up, most of the children are excited and nervous when foster parents come through to pick which children they’ll take home. Not Earwig; she makes faces and tries hard not to be chosen. Why would she want to leave when everyone at the home does exactly what she wants them to? But one day, and ugly, wrinkly old woman and a tall, skinny man (whom Earwig could swear has horns) come through and, against all odds, decide to take Earwig home. Not home to a loving family, of course, but to be the witch’s assistant–the ugly woman being the witch, naturally, and a mean one as well. Earwig, not so easily discouraged, takes up the challenge to make this ornery, strange household do what she wants just like the people at the home did . . . and quite a challenge it’s going to be!
If you’ve been around my blog much at all, you’re well aware that Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite authors. Earwig and the Witch was actually a new read for me, and quite the fun story it was as well. It’s a shorter story than most of hers, only 6 chapters, if I recall correctly (I’m not bothering to look right now), but told with all her usual aplomb. The plot is also a bit simpler, making this accessible to a younger (say upper elementary, perhaps?) audience. I think what struck me most about this story is that the main character is, in a sense, rather as awful and ornery as the witch herself–which is possibly why they fit so well together. But the way in which this clever, determined child finds ways to beat the stronger, better-positioned adults is oddly reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s writing at times. I really loved it! Earwig and the Witch is a highly recommended read all around.