Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Image“He wished that he was with his mom in her library, where everything was safe and numbered and organized by the Dewey decimal system.  Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system.  That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad.”

Ben’s mother worked as the librarian in their small town, until she died in an accident, leaving Ben alone and lost.  He never knew his dad.  Now he lives with his aunt and uncle, who are kind, but after losing his mom, he can’t help but wonder about his father: where is he?  Who is he? During a thunderstorm, he discovers a mysterious message that he thinks could be from his father, and he is determined to get to the bottom of things, even if it means getting to New York City on his own.

Half a century earlier, Rose is being pushed to learn to lipread.  She rebels, cutting up her lipreading primer and turning it into a diorama of New York.  She keeps a scrapbook of her favorite movie star, and goes to all her movies.  Even though she can’t hear, Rose can still go to silent movies, and read the dialogue, like everyone else.  When she sees a newspaper headline that says Lillian Mayhew, her heroine, will be in New York soon, Rose sets out for the big city.

Rose’s part of the book is told entirely with Selznick’s intricate, enchanting pencil sketches, while Ben’s storyImage is told with words.  The effect, much like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is rich; this, like its predecessor, is a book to be treasured.  Indeed, Wonderstruck shares several similarities with Selznick’s previous book:  orphan protagonists, museums, secret messages, and adventures that take place in very important cities. I especially loved that the two books were so similar, because I felt bereft after I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret, as though there was unlikely to ever be another book that made me feel the same way.  I shouldn’t have worried, though: with the release of Scorsese’s magical film rendition of Hugo, followed by Wonderstruck, the stories aren’t over.

ImageMy advice?  This is a book for sharing. Read it to your classroom after recess: the mystery will keep the students engaged, while the ethereal illustrations will inspire even the most timid budding artist.  Read it to your children, to anyone you love who cares about Deaf culture, dioramas, paper art, the American Museum of Natural History, libraries, adventures, thunderstorms, or New York. Read it with hot chocolate and a mind ready to marvel.  Selznick’s world is meaning-rich and stocked with secrets.  He is clearly an author that has not forgotten what it like to dream.  Let’s all hope he has another book dreamed up for us, and soon.

Happy Reading!

Wonderstruck website: http://www.wonderstruckthebook.com

Selznick, Brian. Wonderstruck. Scholastic Press: New York, 2011. 635 pp. (I promise, it doesn’t feel like it at all; you are going to wish it would last forever.)  Ages 10 and up.

If you liked this book, try The Invention of Hugo Cabret or the shorter graphic novel, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.

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Castle Waiting by Linda Medley

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“I’m Lady Jain Solander, Countess of Carabas. I’ve journeyed many months, hoping to gain sanctuary at the legendary Castle Waiting.”

This is Sleeping Beauty like you’ve never heard it before. The king and queen are just, generous rulers, but have no child.  When the long-awaited baby is welcomed into the world, a vengeful witch places her under the familiar curse.  Thus begins the story of Brambly Hedge.  However, it is what happens after the curse that makes this graphic novel special.

After the princess is awakened, and runs off with the prince, we get another “Once upon a time”.  This section of the story involves a convent of bearded nuns, mischievous imps, a castle that stands as a refuge for all that might require it, a despot ruling over the local mill, and a lot of gumption on the part of the characters.  Oh, yeah-and a library and a whole barnful of puppies. See, after the Sleeping Beauty part, Sonorus (the town) fades away; businesses move out of the region until all that’s left are the mill and the castle, which has become a self-sufficient refuge, rather like a commune.  The story centers around a pregnant woman, running away from a mysterious past.  (Don’t worry, you’ll learn about that bit later).  She flees to the castle, and when she gets there, all of the inhabitants reveal, slowly, their back stories.

Friends, I’ve found it.  A graphic novel fairy-tale retelling with a feminist perspective. The Magical Trinity of ImageBook-Awesomeness-here it is!  Don’t tell my professors, but I read this right in class, with the book crammed under my laptop.  It’s that good!  This is the kind of book I’d like to save, to pass off to my children, if I ever have any.  It retains all of the magical fairy-tale storytelling, but Medley empowers her characters (all of them, not just the ladies), and emphasizes the importance of self-acceptance and bravery, without being didactic.  I love the creativity in the book, too: all too often, it seems like fairy tale retellings stick too closely with what has already been written.  Better still, this is a series! I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one in line.

Happy Reading!

Medley, Linda. Castle Waiting, Vol. I. Lake City Way, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2006. 452 pp. (Don’t be scared about that-it’s a graphic novel! I finished it in two days!) Ages 13-18.

Publisher’s website.  (If anyone has a link to Linda Medley’s site, I would be so grateful!)

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

“Gen, quick, take your mother! Hurry! You’ve got to take care of your mother! Your baby brother is still in your mama’s belly…you can’t die! You’ve got to survive!”

This graphic novel is the first in a ten-volume series, and it is an autobiographical account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Yes, autobiographical.  This really happened to the author, when he was six years old.  At 8:15, the atomic bomb detonated above Hiroshima, and the only way he survived was because he was protected by a concrete retaining wall at school.  He lost his brother, sister, and father: the house crushed his brother, and his father and sister were trapped and burned to death.  At the time, his mother was eight months pregnant, and the shock sent her into labor.  Adding tragedy upon tragedy, his little sister never reached her first birthday: she died of malnutrition.

But I started with the end of the book first.  Before the bomb drops, we learn about Gen and his family: the brother who is sent away to the country to protect him from bombs, the other brother who enlisted in the army, Gen’s father, who believes the war is a senseless, needless tragedy, perpetuated at the hands of rich leaders who are willing to sacrifice everything, including the lives of their citizens.  Everyone is hungry; everyone is frightened.  Even amidst the fear, there are acts of generosity and kindness, though, and it contrasts with the horrors of war, portrayed through a child’s eyes.

I know that for American readers, it is sometimes easy to equate graphic novels with comic books, and therefore associate them with frivolous topics: superheroes and the like.  However, that’s not the case.  Keiji Nakazawa began cartooning his experiences during World War II as a way to heal, and recover from the years of terror, starvation, and death.  Upon seeing his creations, This series was translated into many languages by Project Gen, and the author has this to say about the project:

“Human beings are foolish.  Thanks to bigotry, religious fanaticism, and the greed of those who traffic in war, the Earth is never at peace, and the specter of nuclear war is never far away.  I hope that Gen’s story conveys to its readers the preciousness of peace and the courage we need to live strongly, yet peacefully.”

This is one book that I won’t be forgetting quickly.

Happy Reading!

Nakazawa, Keiji.  Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima. Vol I.  San Francisco: Last Gap Books, 2004.  284 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

All the spells for bringing someone back to you need hair from the person who has left.  How are you supposed to get hair if the person won’t talk to you is gone?  Witchcraft=total crap.

You are never really alone in the city at night.  There are always

taxi drivers

coffee shop people

the 7-Eleven guy

people in their homes

watching talk shows.

It just feels lonely.

It is my pleasure to introduce you to Skim.  Her full name is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, and she goes to a private girl’s school.  In this pensive gem of a graphic novel, Skim describes, diary-style, what happens in her school when the ex-boyfriend of her classmate commits suicide.  Grief counselors visit the school, the popular girls form the Girls Celebrate Life club and Skim observes it all.

You know, that’s the plot, but I feel like just describing it doesn’t do this book justice.  Honestly, the suicide actually is more of the backdrop: the real focus is Skim’s personal musings.  She reads her tarot cards, tries to cast Wiccan spells, negotiates relationships, and struggles with falling in love with an older woman.

All of this understated teenage angst is exquisitely complemented by Jillian Tamaki’s incredibly graceful black and white drawings.  The language is simple, almost verging on sparse, but in combination with the graphics, this is a phenomenal work.  It is perfectly evocative of the quiet trials of being a teenager, the feeling Skim describes as feeling “like I have wings but my bones are bricks”.

Please, please read this book.  When you’re done, pass it on to someone else.  I’m putting it on my Best Ever list right away.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: www.marikotamaki.com

Illustrator’s website: www.jilliantamaki.com

Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian. Skim. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2008. 142 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

If you like this book, try Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, or Indoor Voice, by Jillian Tamaki.

Ok, I can’t resist: one more picture!

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

“It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”

This graphic novel is a super-award winner (the heavy hitters- the Printz Award and a National Book Award finalist nomination).  It is composed of three stories: the folk tale Monkey King, an blonde-haired, blue eyed student whose cousin, a very stereotyped Asian caricature, comes to visit, and then Jin’s story.

Jin’s parents are Chinese immigrants, who met in graduate school.  Until third grade, Jin lived in Chinatown in San Francisco, and had a good group of friends and a community.  However, when the family moves and he transfers to a different school, things get complicated.  Jin has to listen to the tired Chinese jokes, racial slurs and hurtful, ignorant comments of his classmates.  He’s not sure how to defend himself when other students ask if he eats dogs, or if he’s related to the other Asian student in the class.

When he develops a crush on a pretty, blonde girl, and one of the other white students confronts him and asks him not to date her, all of Jin’s internalized self-hatred combusts, and he ends up saying some very hurtful things to his only true friend.

Told in sections that juxtapose myths of the Monkey King, Jin’s internal thoughts, and his life at school, this graphic novel is provocative and interesting.  I finished it quickly, but it left me thinking for a long time after I stopped reading.  The honest reflection of prejudice and commentary on the process of assimilation made for some good dinner-table conversation.

Happy Reading!

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Ages 12-15.

If you liked this graphic novel, this author has written several other books.  Check out Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks or The Motherless One.  If you want to explore books by other authors, my favorite graphic novel is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

I normally put a quote from the book at the beginning of every post, but I can’t for this one-there are no words!  But with this book, the pictures are so beautiful and tell such a good story, you don’t even miss the words.

This is a graphic novel that tells the story of a family.  The country they live in isn’t safe, and they have to immigrate to a new one.  The father leaves first, gets on a ship, and tries to find a job in the new country.  He hopes to save up enough money to send for his family so that they can all be together again.

Life in the new country is strange and hard.  He doesn’t know the language, and all the food looks different.  He tries to find a job hanging posters, but accidentally hangs them upside down because he can’t understand the strange symbols of the new language.  When he goes to buy bread at the store, the storekeeper shows him many fruits and veggies that he doesn’t even recognize, much less know how to cook.  Instead of dogs and cats, there are beautiful, unusual pets that look like magical creatures.  Along the way, he meets other immigrants and, in pictures, they tell him their own stories.

We’ve all read stories about immigrants, but usually, the story is about a specific person moving to a specific country.  But in this book, we don’t ever know the new country, or even the old one.  It could be on another planet, even!  I love it, because it really makes you feel like the immigrant; you understand what it’s like to move to an unfamiliar place and not understand what’s going on.

The illustrations are fantastic.  It’s like looking through an old photograph album, full of fanciful creations and unusual buildings.  You should get to know the illustrator, too, because he just won an Oscar for his short film(adapted from a story) calledThe Lost Thing.

Oh, and if you’re worried about the ending, don’t be-the whole family gets together in the end! I have to admit, I cried a little when they did.  Please don’t miss this book!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.shauntan.net/

Tan, Shaun. The Arrival.Arthur A. Levine Books: New York, 2007.  128 pp. Ages 8 and up.  ISBN. 978-0439895293

If you liked this book, try his other book, Tales from Outer Suburbia, or The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

 

Oh, Kirkus Reviews just posted this about Shaun Tan.  It’s lovely!