Toon Books, long known for their innovative and unique comics for beginning readers, have recently begun expanding into graphic novels for elementary and middle grade kids. Toon has long had a tradition of introducing well-known European artists to the States, and they take this one step further by introducing a comic series almost as famous in Europe as Tintin to a new US audience.
Philemon, an “imaginative teenager,” is introduced along with his friend Anatole the donkey, and his skeptical father, Hector. In his first adventure, Philemon is investigating the mysterious lack of water in their well when he discovers something even stranger: bottles are bobbing up from the well, seemingly out of nowhere. Philemon decides to investigate this curious phenomenon a little more closely and suddenly finds himself on a strange island. Everything there is topsy-turvy. Philemon is bewildered by the strange creatures and plants, but most of all he just wants to get home. But where is he, and how can he escape? And what will his dad say if he ever makes it home?
The endpapers at the beginning of the book consist of a map with two comic panels explaining exactly where the “Letter A” is. There are quite a few extras at the back, including a short biography of the author Fred, a note from Toon editor Francoise Mouly, and additional information on different things mentioned in the story, from Philemon’s name to the history of unicorns and red carpets. The final endpapers recreate the map at the beginning, but also include a page of suggestions for teachers and parents to help readers get the most out of reading this book and other graphic novels.
Anyone who is familiar with French and Belgian comics like Tintin and Asterix will find the art familiar and accessible. However, while Philemon has the same quick, sketched feel of an Asterix comic, with messy hair and quickly repeated details like hands that are oddly out of perspective if you look at them too closely, it still retains a unique style. There are larger, more smoothly created scenes, such as some of the panels set underwater, that showcase the artist’s ability with color and line. Unique characters, like the centaur and well-digger, stand out not only in their odd shapes but also with their personalities, neatly differentiated with a few skillful changes to facial expressions. Some of the buildings have an almost Seussical feel, with their curving lines and vibrant colors and shapes. The book is larger format than most Toon readers will be used to, in order to fit the longer story, but it still includes a good layout of panels, with plenty of white space and a large font that won’t discourage intermediate readers.
This won’t immediately fly off the shelf like perennial favorites such as Bone or Amulet. Its odd, quirky storyline doesn’t lend itself well to booktalking, and many kids will be unfamiliar with the art style and prefer a more cinematic, digital experience. However, if you already have aficionados of other classic comics like Asterix or kids who like funny nonsense stories, give this one a little extra time to catch on and it will find itself a niche in most library collections, primarily among older elementary/younger middle grade readers.
Cast Away on the Letter A: A Philemon Adventure, vol. 1
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12