Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Queen of the Sea

I loved this book so much that it made me want to kick myself for not reading it sooner.

Queen of the Sea is magnificent, an epic historical drama told in an incredibly artful way. I spent a few days reading it because I wanted to savor the plot and revelations, and the ending left me with goosebumps.

This tale of historical fiction revolves around 11-year-old Margaret, who has spent her entire life growing up in an island convent off the coast of Albion (an analogue for England). As we learn more about her and her world, we come to learn that she is living in a fictionalized version of Tudor England, complete with royal intrigue, coups, and retribution aimed at political enemies.

However, none of that seems particularly important in the day-to-day routines of these isolated women who spend their days praying, sewing, and preparing food. You would think it would be boring to observe all of this minutiae, learning about how these nuns pass their days, use specific hand motions when they are to be silent, and sew intricate designs into their fabrics, but it's all presented in utterly compelling ways that contribute to a fully-realized world.

Part of what I admired most about this book was how much care and attention was spent depicting the island and its inhabitants. But what really kicks the book into a different level is how it also layers in an intricate plot about how the power struggles in the royal court reverberate across the realm and end up making an impact on life on the island. Margaret begins to notice more and more, and she starts asking questions. The answers are not always very reassuring. The nuns are not quite who she thought they were, and when she starts learning who she might be, her world really starts going topsy-turvy.

The artwork, plotting, colors, and informational text all coalesced into an organic whole that I did not want to stop reading. The characters are so vibrant, and the artwork just brings everything to life. Historical fiction is not usually high on my list of reading preferences, but this book is exceptionally well-done. It's a masterpiece, and I feel it would be popular with a wide array of readers, both young and old.

This book's author Dylan Meconis impressively did all the artwork, coloring, and lettering here. She has been a comics creator for a good while now, producing an eclectic set of webcomics/graphic novels, including Bite Me! (The French Revolution with vampires involved), Family Man (18th century university life and werewolves), Outfoxed (about a laundress and a magical fox), and The Long Con (a post-apocalyptic tale set at a comic con). She also drew a graphic biography of psychologist Harry Harlow called Wire Mothers. She speaks at length about her work on Queen of the Sea in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Elizabeth Bird called it "Impossible to forget, undeniable in its delights." Kirkus Reviews ended their starred write-up, "With its compelling, complex characters and intrigue-laden plot, this will have readers hoping it’s only the first of many adventures for Meconis’ savvy heroine." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, "The island world is richly developed, both in its physical particulars and its close-knit community (fascinating digressions into topics such as convent time, hand gestures used at table, and chess and embroidery flesh out daily life), and Margaret proves herself an endearing heroine with a strong voice full of humor and wonder."

Queen of the Sea was published by Walker Books, and they offer a preview and more here.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Isle of Elsi, Book 1: The Dragon's Librarian

I am going to be brief: The Isle of Elsi was a delight to read. I have not read such a fun book in a while. It features puns, clever word play, a weird wizard, a feisty dragon, and a plucky protagonist who just won my heart. Even the two young Mulch brothers who bully him and steal his lunch (when he remembers to bring it to school) turn out to be interestingly nuanced characters. I am so glad that I heeded whomever's Tweet I read that suggested this book. It was so much fun. Go buy it now. Or go check out the webcomic version and then go buy this volume. It's totally worth it.
The plot revolves around a boy named Rex Jargon, Jr. or R.J., Jr., as he likes to be called (palindromes are a common theme in this book - just check out the title). He has a penchant for puns that gets him in trouble at school and also gets him fired from a job he really needs. Ten years ago, his father left on a quest to stop a dragon from destroying their town. He was apparently successful, but mysteriously never returned. In his absence, the town declared him a hero. However, when this book begins, the dragon returns, and R. J., Jr. takes it upon himself to vanquish it and also learn what happened to his dad. His quest takes him to all sorts of strange places, and the way that he eventually solves these mysteries is clever and wonderfully fulfilling.

The artwork in this book is clear and colorful. Characters' emotions and reactions are fantastically rendered, and the action is well paced and suspenseful. I also appreciated the preponderance of wordplay that complements the artwork and makes the whole enterprise joyful and entertaining. I am looking forward to following R. J., Jr.'s further adventures as well as future volumes in this series.

This book was created by Alec Longstreth, an Ignatz Award winning artist. He's created a few series and comics, most notably the autobiographical Phase Seven Comics. He speaks about his works and career, including the beginnings of the Isle of Elsi in this interview.

All of the reviews I've read of this book have been full of praise. Sean and Derek called the webcomic "one of the most best place to order levitra online impressive that they’ve discussed on the show," and added, "Not only are the art and storytelling top-notch, but the design of the website is a big draw, as well." Heidi MacDonald wrote, "The writing is a bit sharper than the art, but it all goes together in a delightful way."There are more reviews at Goodreads, where the book has a 4.70 (out of 5) star rating as of this writing.

The Dragon's Librarian was published by Phase Seven Comics, and there is a preview and more info about it here. Current episodes of the webcomic can be found here. And you can also check out his Patreon page and give him some support.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Green Lantern: Legacy

Last year, DC Comics started an imprint that published YA book versions of their characters written by prominent YA authors. I read one of the first books, Mera: Tidebreaker, because I like the character and was interested to see how these books looked. I really enjoyed it, and so I turned to another book I have heard good things about, Green Lantern: Legacy. I think it helped me that I have a familiarity with the Green Lantern Corps and its complicated comic book history, but I don't think it would be a necessity for a new reader just checking out this book. What I found here was a very compelling story that left me yearning for more. Its foundations lay in a familiar, human story, which I think helped sell the superheroics better.
This book's protagonist is Tai Pham, a 13-year-old boy of Vietnamese descent who lives and works with his family in their market in Coast City. This market is one of the cornerstones of the Vietnamese-American community, and it is frequently a target of racist attacks. His grandmother is a very prominent figure in the community, and when she dies he learns that not only was she a Green Lantern, one of the greatest protectors of the Earth, but her power ring has chosen him as its new bearer. That means that a huge burden has been placed on his shoulders, and he has to learn how to deal with it.
However he does not have to go it alone. He gets mentoring from veteran Green Lantern John Stewart, and also receives support from two of his close friends, who form a sort of "Scooby gang." Much of this book focuses on him finding his footing while also dealing with the overtures of billionaire Xander Griffin, who wants to gentrify Pham's neighborhood. I very much appreciated how unique this Green Lantern tale was, with Tai incorporating his cultural heritage not only into his costume but into how he exercised his powers. I found much to celebrate in this book.

Although I found this book very compelling and could not stop reading it, I also felt in hindsight that it is only so much prologue. It spends a long time setting up this character and his world, but in the end it seems more like the launching point for a series rather than a complete journey on its own terms. Certainly, I'd be up for more adventures of Tai (as far as I can tell, no sequel is of yet forthcoming), but I was a bit disappointed when this book just suddenly ended. Still, if the worst thing about a book is that it left me wanting more, that's not a bad thing.

This book was written by Minh Lê and drawn by Andie Tong. Lê is the author of a number of picture books, most notably Drawn Together, a multiple award-winner illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat. As far as I can tell, this is Tong's debut graphic novel. His artwork here is typical  of superhero comics, and he excels at capturing people's facial expressions and energetic postures. I think this style especially pops thanks to the admirable coloring by Sarah Stern. Lê and Tong speak more about their work on this book in this preview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Community and compassion combine in this fresh take on comic-book tradition." Tim Chu wrote, "For the middle school reader, this graphic novel is a quick read that can open up a new universe of stories." There are more reviews at Goodreads where this book currently has a 4.20 (out of 5) star rating.

Green Lantern: Legacy was published by DC Comics, and they offer a preview and more about it here.

Monday, June 15, 2020

White Bird: A Wonder Story

White Bird was the big winner at this year's Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, winning both the Best Middle Grades Literature and Book of The Year honors. It is set in the same universe as her hit YA novel Wonder, a best-seller about a young boy named August, born with a severe facial difference, who deals with bullying at school. It also was made into a major motion picture. There have been other works set in this world, including the short story collection Auggie and Me, where the main character of this book was introduced.
August's main antagonist, Julien, is a key figure in White Bird, as it is through a correspondence with his Grandmère (named Sara) that he gets to hear her story. When she was a girl, she lived in France during the Nazi occupation, and a family took her in and hid her away. She endures a whole spectrum of emotions and tribulations during this ordeal, and this graphic novel chronicles the many trials she endures as well as the peril that her host family put themselves in their quest to protect her. From the many actual holocaust accounts I have read or viewed, I can say that much of what transpires in this book hews very closely to reality. This book is a moving, harrowing account that lays bare the horrible reality that people endured in the past and that many people still have to contend with, a point hammered home with Julian's participation at a pro-immigration protest at the end of the book.

There is only one quibble that I have, and it has to do with a touch of magical realism that tinges the ending of Grandmère's story. I get the dramatic effect, but it also was a bit jarring to me given that so much of the rest of the book was deeply rooted in realism. It did not ruin things for me, but I felt it was a bit discordant with the rest of the narrative. Still, I feel that this book is a worthy addition to any classroom library, and it will be attractive to fans of other books by R.J. Palacio set in this world.

What is especially impressive to me about Palacio's work is that not only is she an accomplished writer, she is also a wonderful illustrator. She drew this book herself, adapting her own prose in very effective and impactful fashion. There may be a lot of "talking head" type layouts, but she captures character's gestures and emotions well, telling a tale full of drama and suspense. She has also designed book jackets and drawn a number of picture books, including Peter Pan: The Original Tale of Neverland and Ride, Baby, Ride. She speaks extensively about the evolution and inspirations of White Bird in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been very polarized, either full of praise or offering major critiques in terms of tone and content. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it "A must-read graphic novel that is both heart-rending and beautifully hopeful." Esther Keller praised the artwork, "There are moments of joy between Julien and Sara, and the artwork captures those moments in such a haunting way. Contrasted with the scary moments, the story will grab readers." Hillary Brown offered a contrasting take, writing "Preaching and hoping the message sinks in is basically just hoping for divine intervention, which is exactly what happens to Sara when she’s about to be caught, not just once but repeatedly." Boris Fishman concluded that it is "full of neat coincidences, grown-up clichés, sentimentality and stock portraiture. However, the story does end on the 'right' note with Julian inspired to engage in social activism of his own. Should that be enough?"

White Bird was published by KnopfBooks for Young Readers, and they offer more information about it here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Stepping Stones

I love and have read almost all of Lucy Knisley's graphic novels, and this one is her first foray into fiction. Stepping Stones is the story of Jen, a teenage girl who does not get what she wants. When her parents get divorced, her mom and she move into the country, even though she prefers city life. She has to deal with her mother's annoying, know-it-all boyfriend who keeps calling her Jenny. She has to tend to chickens and also help run the stand at the weekly farmers market, even though she struggles mightily with math. Finally, she has to share her bedroom on weekends with her mom's boyfriend's two daughters, with the older one being the golden child who can do no wrong.
All of these adversities contribute to a story that vividly portrays the sorts of emotions that go along with Jen's situation. I very much appreciated how it shows them in a nuanced way where she does not merely come off as an entitled brat, but shows how she is a child caught up in the wake of adults' actions. Also, although Jen does find certain silver linings in her new life circumstances, not everything resolves so neatly. I think the message that life often entails disappointment and compromise is a realistic one that respects what its readers might be going through. It offers no false promises. All of these messages are really driven home not only by the main narrative but also by the copious author notes that follow where it comes out that much here is based on Knisley's own childhood experiences.

I really enjoyed the artwork, which was done with pencil and digitally colored by Whitney Cogar. This technique lends a slightly sketchy aspect to an otherwise clear and cartoony style, a bit of grit that feels right with this story. It is a great complement to Knisley's clearly impressive storytelling and character work. This tale is a very human one, and the artwork brings forth a great amount of personality and feeling.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Painfully realistic, this is a strong addition to the middle-grade shelf." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Knisley balances humor and deeply felt emotion to capture the particular unfairness of being a child at the mercy of parental decisions." Also, in a cool piece of synergy, half of the latest issue of PanelxPanel (#35) is dedicated to interviews and articles related to the book. Knisley speaks more about her work on Stepping Stones in this interview.

Stepping Stones was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer more info about it here. The book is solicited as also being Peapod Farm #1, whiich I hope means we'll get more books with these characters. I'd be glad to see how these characters cope with each other going forward.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Graphic Science Biographies

I recently checked out this series of Graphic Science Biographies. They are slim volumes aimed at middle grades readers to help learn more about prominent scientists from history as well as their particular achievements. I think they are very engaging, and I loved how they do not shrink away from some of the more unsavory aspects of these figures, such as Newton's unpleasant and standoffish demeanor or Einstein's treatment of his first wife. They show these scientists as real people, which I think makes them more relatable and interesting.

On the other hand, the brevity of these books makes them better suited as secondary resources rather than introductory ones. They contain references to other scientists and scientific achievements in ways I think that readers more versed in science history would appreciate. But I do not think that less-informed readers would get those references. Still, these books are well researched, drawn in clear fashion, and very readable.

Marie Curie and Radioactivity chronicles the life of this famous scientist from her childhood in Poland, through her university career, and into her later life and grand achievements. I appreciated how it detailed how the occupation by Russia in particular had an impact on her family and national spirit. I also feel that it well depicted just how laborious her work was, with her having to literally mine huge piles of rock and ore in order to get the minute quantities of radioactive material that she studied.

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution follows the life of this famous naturalist from his childhood where he was hounded by a demanding father to his various travels across the globe. He is depicted as a kind of dreamy wanderer who just wants to observe nature and collect his specimens. I appreciated how it showed that scientists can be quiet, introspective types.
We see the opposite of that sort of personality in Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity. Of course, he is somewhat larger than life, and I appreciated seeing how politically charged his work was. It shows him in multiple contexts, as standing against antisemitism, having to flee Germany during the rise of Nazism, and being an activist against nuclear weapons.
The final book in this series is Isaac Newton and the Laws of Motion. It shows lots of episodes from his life, from his early inventions, to his college career, to his combating counterfeiting schemes. What I appreciated most about this volume is how it shows just how much his interests drove his research as well as how varied his interests ranged. In many ways, Newton was a kook.

I was not able to find out much about the author/artist here Jordi Bayarri, other than he is based in Spain and has created a few adult sci-fi/fantasy series in the past. His artwork here is presented in horizontal fashion, with each page having 4-6 panels, much in the fashion of the newspaper comics collections of my youth. I like the uncomplicated, colorful artwork that tells stories in clear, engaging fashion. Visually, these are some very accessible comics. Each book also has a timeline and list of further readings to help spur more learning about these people.

I was only able to find one review of this series, and it was for the Marie Curie book. Kirkus Reviews called it "A highlights reel of the great scientist’s life and achievements, from clandestine early schooling to the founding of Warsaw’s Radium Institute." They evaluated the whole series, "Engagingly informal as the art and general tone of the narratives are, the books will likely find younger readers struggling to keep up, but kids already exposed to the names and at least some of the concepts will find these imports, translated from the Basque, helpful if, at times, dry overviews."

All of these books were published under the Graphic Universe imprint, and you can find previews and more information about them here.