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Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

by Kate DiCamillo; ill. by K.G. Campbell

Candlewick Press, 2013

233 pages

Finding inspiration in the sublime or the exceptional is fairly easy: the girl who bravely battles the wilderness, cancer, or a super-villain is an obvious candidate to inspire the next generation of women.

The problem is, most girls don’t live that kind of life. So while books about extraordinary people and situations are important, so are books that celebrate the ordinary or even oddball. That’s where most girls are going to find a point of identification and, by extension, of inspiration.

Which brings us to Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, illustrated by K.G. Campbell.

Preteen Flora Belle Buckman is a character many girls can easily identify with. She lives in an ordinary middle-class home in an ordinary middle-class neighborhood. Her clothes, her bedroom, her dad’s car, her street – they all look like anything or anyone you’d encounter in your own home or city.

Flora also faces challenges many girls can easily identify with – the kinds of problems that are a part of many ordinary people’s lives. Her parents are divorced, she and her mom don’t quite connect, and she misses her dad, whom she sees only on weekends. She copes by escaping into her favorite hobby and by detaching herself from her peers and family. She calls herself a “natural-born cynic” and takes “Do not hope; instead, observe” as her motto.

Flora’s life becomes suddenly un-ordinary, however, when Ulysses the squirrel appears. Flora rescues the rodent after he suffers a run-in with neighbor Tootie Tickham’s vacuum cleaner. The accident endows him with superpowers: super strength, the ability to fly, and the ability to compose poetry (though he has to type it, since he does not receive the power of speech).

Being devoted fans of comics, Flora and her dad know that every superhero must have an arch-nemesis – and they quickly figure out that Ulysses’ is none other than Flora’s mother. With the help of Tootie, her great-nephew William Spiver, and Mr. Buckman’s neighbor Dr. Meescham (who tends to speak in wise but enigmatic axioms), father and daughter set out to save Ulysses from his climactic encounter with the enemy.

If all this sounds a bit oddball, it is – deliciously so. Flora & Ulysses is the geek’s version of Judy Blume’s middle-grade problem novels. The characters are all a little wonky, comics and superhero references are everywhere, the kids are incredibly smart, and there’s a touch of magical realism to boot.

Overlaying it all is DiCamillo’s classic wry humor and barely self-conscious lyric phrasing. Campbell’s beautifully-shaded, animation-style pencil illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.

Being a geek myself, I would have loved this book even if there were nothing inspiring about it, but of course it is inspiring, or I wouldn’t be writing about it here.

Flora’s friendship with Ulysses calls out all the best in her. It opens her heart, commands her courage, and pushes her intelligence to its limits. It also leads her to call out the best in others: she gives Tootie a chance to be decisive and brave, her father a chance to reforge their bond, Dr. Meescham a chance to nurture others, and William Spiver the chance to belong. By book’s end, she’s even pulled her own denial-steeped mother back to reality.

This all happens through means that are kooky rather than heroic, but perhaps the quirkiness is what helps make the messages unforgettable. Flora & Ulysses tells girls that changing things for the better – whether in their own lives or the lives of others – is not just for superstars, the popular, or the beautiful. However “outside” they may think themselves, there are people waiting to welcome them in and befriend them. Hope is for everyone. And extraordinary opportunities to become an even better version of themselves are waiting right in their own backyards.

Which all means that, for ordinary girls facing ordinary problems, Flora is a heroine for the books.

 

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Bone

by Jeff Smith

Graphix/Cartoon Books

11 volumes

If ever there was a graphic-novel epic, Bone is it. This fantasy saga spans nine main volumes, plus two prequels. It’s a true Tolkienesque fantasy, complete with a fully realized universe, gripping action, and a nail-biting quest for truth and victory over cataclysmic evil.

Bone is primarily the story of three cousins: Fone Bone (the main character), Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. As their names imply, Fone Bone is plain but genuine and loyal, Phoney Bone is a selfish charlatan, and Smiley Bone is a happy but brainless goofball.

The story begins with the three cousins wandering in the desert–they’ve been run out of Boneville by citizens who are sick of Phoney’s endless schemes. Trying to find their way home, they stumble instead into a lush valley where fierce rat creatures roam the woods, a force called “the dreaming” underpins the universe, and dragons and a special race of humans called Veni-Yan-Cari maintain the dreaming’s balance.

Fone, separated from his cousins, falls in with Gran’ma Ben and her granddaughter Thorn, who live alone on a cow farm in the forest (more about them later). Phoney and Smiley, meanwhile, fall in with Lucius Down, a gruff behemoth of a man who owns a tavern not far from Gran’ma Ben’s farm.

The three cousins soon reunite and, together with their new friends, face down the mysterious Hooded One, who is plotting to unleash the evil Lord of the Locusts on the valley.

Fone is himself an inspiring character. He begins the story as a frustrated hand-wringer, angry with Phoney’s schemes but powerless to effect real change. By epic’s end, however, he’s become a quietly courageous hero and the leader of his family. He is an Everyman who rises to challenges he didn’t even know existed.

But he, of course, is not my focus. Which brings me to Bone‘s super secondaries, Gran’ma Ben and Thorn. Over the course of the story, Fone discovers that both these women (as well as Lucius) are not what they seem: each has a deeply hidden history that proves crucial to the outcome of the story.

That hidden history is immediately apparent when we meet Gran’ma Ben. By the end of the first volume, we know that she can wrestle full-grown cows, kill rat creatures with her bare hands, and run at racehorse speeds. In other words, she’s tough to the point of being superhuman. There are also hints of a complicated past involving Lucius, who turns out to be a powerful warrior in disguise.

I won’t spoil the surprise of Gran’ma Ben’s true identity, but suffice to say that her concerns range far beyond the borders of her little farm. She’s something of a Gandalf figure: wise, with hidden connections to the unseen, but fallible and saddled with the heavy task of inspiring a new generation to finish the fight she started years before.

Gran’ma Ben is an inspiring reminder that age and experience are relevant and often game-changing. She’s the kind of character who might prompt girls to seek out strong female mentors–or even one they can remember decades later, when they’re entering middle age and wondering if they still have value in our youth-obsessed culture.

As for Thorn, she turns out to be the lynchpin of the entire story. Like her grandmother, she has a secret identity; but unlike her grandmother, she doesn’t know it. And when her true identity comes to the surface, she’s not entirely sure she wants to accept it.

For girls facing an unexpected ordeal–the death of a parent, serious illness, a sudden cross-country move–Thorn is inspiration incarnate. Her transformation from unassuming farm girl to capable leader is gradual and authentic, full of plenty of missteps and backward glances but ultimately successful.

If Fone is the story’s Everyman, Thorn is the Everywoman: the ordinary person who proves to be extraordinary. She’s the classic everyday-citizen-turned-questing-hero(ine), the character who makes girls stop and think, “Maybe there’s more in me than I thought.”

Ultimately, Bone is a worthwhile read on any account–but these two strong women elevate it to must-read status.

Smith has now published a second saga set in the same universe, Bone: Quest for the Spark.

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Tower of Treasure

by Scott Chantler

Kids Can Press, 2010

112 pages

I’ve been on a graphic novel kick lately, though I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because a lot of great recommendations are making their way to me. Maybe it’s because, in my other life as an omnivorous reader, I’ve been working my way through the polar opposite of comics: a wordy, un-illustrated, 21-book saga about the Napoleonic War. Or maybe it’s just because it’s been a while since I’ve read much in the genre.

Whatever the case, I’m taking you along for the ride.

My latest discovery is Scott Chantler’s Three Thieves series, which features 14-year-old acrobat Dessa and her friends Topper and Fisk. In Book One, Tower of Treasure, we meet the main characters and follow them as they attempt to burgle the queen’s treasury (the tower of the title).

Set in a fantasy facsimile of medieval Europe, the story begins with Dessa and her friends visiting the city of Kingsbridge. They are part of a traveling circus, with Dessa’s tightrope act as the centerpiece. Fisk’s job is to draw crowds with feats of strength; Topper’s is to pick the audience’s pockets while they watch Dessa perform.

Dessa, we learn, has joined the circus to look for her brother, who went missing years before when a mystery man burned down their home. When she and Topper bungle her act, the circus owner turns them onto the streets. Hungry and depressed, Dessa reluctantly joins the devious Topper and simple-minded Fisk in their unsuccessful effort to empty the royal bank account.

They end up in the custody of Captain Drake and the Royal Chamberlain, who turns out to be the villian Dessa’s seeking. He tries to have the three friends executed, but they escape–as does he, leaving behind a room and journal full of curious experiments and notations.

Drake, who is good-hearted but loyal to a fault, follows the queen’s order to pursue Dessa and her friends. Dessa and her friends, meanwhile, set off in search of the Chamberlain.

I chose this book for review because, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s rare to find kid-friendly heroines in graphic novels. They tend to be more along the lines of Lara Croft–ostensibly strong female figures but really just barely-clothed, overly violent sex objects designed to appeal to adolescent boys’ hormones.

Dessa, on the other hand, looks like a real girl. She has a trim but genuine female shape, bobbed hair that drops into her face after she’s been running, and a spray of freckles across her nose. In other words, girls can identify with her without saddling themselves with unhealthy expectations about their bodies and sexuality.

She also has a true friendship with her male buddies–she’s not just there for them to ogle or rescue from danger. They genuinely like her and admire her skills and cleverness. When they join her on her quest, it’s not because she’s a helpless girl; it’s because they all need each other.

Plus, I’m a sucker for books with girls in atypical roles. An acrobat girl–especially one who uses her skills to escape from prison and a horde of soldiers–is an unusual heroine, to say the least. Her chutzpah in confronting the Chamberlain and the queen, not to mention her daredevil stunts, are just fabulous.

Finally, I love when a book expands a girl’s range of identification. Tower of Treasure is that kind of book: it gives girls an unusual and new list of people they can be and things they can do. Are they likely to find themselves in need of a model for escaping from prison or calling out a greedy queen? No, but they might need encouragement to pursue a passion for gymnastics or stand up to a bully.

This is even the kind of book that, later in life, may become the inspiration for a career spent pursuing justice or fighting corruption. For my part, it gives me hope that legions of little girls will read it and feel stronger because of it. Plus, I can’t wait to see what else Dessa will do.

As of October 2013, Scott Chantler had released three volumes of Three Thieves, with another four slated for publication. The series is best read as a single story.

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