Summertime is Jack’s least favorite time of year. In the summer, Jack’s single mom has to take a second job to make ends meet, which means that Jack is stuck watching his nonverbal younger sister Maddy all day. When the family goes to the flea market, Jack is stunned to hear Maddy urge him to “buy all the seeds” that a strange man at a booth is selling, and ends up making the deal—at the expense of his mother’s car.
Though Jack gets in big trouble (since Maddy immediately lapses back into speechlessness), he later helps Maddy plant the seeds in their yard. Almost immediately, strange, unearthly plants begin to grow. It quickly becomes apparent that Maddy and Jack’s new garden is full of dangers as well as wonders: some plants grow hands and throw clods of dirt, some expand violently when touched, and some even detach themselves and go on the attack. The kids, with the aid of a homeschooled neighbor girl named Lilly, mostly contain the garden and its dangers at first, but eventually, it all gets too big for them to cope with. What will Jack do against plants that Maddy loves, but that threaten his home and the people he cares about? And where did those seeds come from, anyway?
On the surface, this is a fun fantasy adventure story with a thick vein of mystery running through it. The fantastical plants and the mystery of where they came from are certainly enough to keep most readers engaged. However, there are many deeper themes running through this book as well, the most prominent of which is the idea of responsibility. Jack’s mom reluctantly places responsibility on him: to care for both Maddy and himself and to make good decisions in her absence as she earns enough money to keep the family going. Jack feels a strong sense of responsibility as well, not only for the above but also for containing the garden and its dangers. Maddy’s happiness is so tied up in the garden that when it becomes too big of a threat, Jack faces a terrible choice: should he prioritize his sister’s happiness and mental well-being, or should he eliminate the dangers of the garden in case they become too much for him to handle?
Lilly is an interesting character as well. She is persistent in her curiosity about Jack and Maddy’s garden, and persuades Jack from the beginning to adapt to the garden’s dangers rather than simply eliminating them. She openly experiments with the plants and their fruits, and projects an overall air of utter fearlessness. Jack, overly burdened with responsibility, is clearly enamored not just with her, but with the independence and freedom of choice she represents.
Hatke’s artwork is utterly engaging. He is just as good with the fine details of plants and character faces as with large, arresting spreads and quick action sequences. (The dialogue is also really well done: not one word is superfluous, all of them are well-chosen.) The full page spreads are not only visually appealing, but are perfectly placed for maximum impact in the story. Panels are arranged and sized with good judgement as well; small, numerous panels (sometimes with irregular edges) convey fast-paced action well, and more thoughtful scenes take up more space. The coloring, done by Alex Campbell and Hilary Sycamore, is also spot-on: Jack’s humdrum life at the beginning looks washed-out, but the colors slowly intensify as the book progresses, leaving everything in vivid Technicolor by the cliffhanger ending.
Readers aged 8-12 who like adventure, fantasy, fairy-tale retellings, or mystery will find lots to love in this series starter. Kids who like the Hilo series by Judd Winick will especially love this one as well; the combination of mystery, inventive worldbuilding, and action in Mighty Jack is similar to the Hilo series.
Mighty Jack, vol. 1
by Ben Hatke
First Second, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12