The latest Explorer anthology explores the concept of doors and what’s behind them in a series of shorts that are by turns humorous, fantastical, sad, and inspiring.

Kazu Kibuishi opens the anthology with “Asteria Crane,” a mysterious story about a brave doctor tracking a boy through a strange landscape and, despite the warnings of her colleague, following him through a door that leads…where? Although some answers are given at the end of the story, it remains open-ended, allowing readers to think about the mysterious doors that lie within their own minds and memories. Kibuishi’s well-known style is cinematic and smooth, with expressive faces and deep landscapes that stretch away into the distance, hinting at more hidden secrets. The characters are intermittently outlined in softly glowing white or blue lines, increasing the story’s otherworldly feel. Fans of the Amulet series will be pleased to see another offering from Kibuishi, even though they might want more closure or exposition of the plot.

The second story, “The Giant’s Kitchen,” is written by Jason Caffoe, a frequent collaborator with Kibuishi. His style is different, though, with fuzzier lines and more cartoon-like faces and expressions. The story features two magic-users with very different approaches to magic who get lost on a wild adventure. Briar, the main character, encounters a magical world where she learns a different perspective on spells and life. Many of the strange characters and dialogue are reminiscent of Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, and fans will definitely connect to this short story.

After these two fantastical adventures, the book moves into a more realistic vein with Jen Wang’s short, “Lius 2.0.” Luis is an ordinary boy who, after a particularly miserable day at school, makes an extraordinary discovery that allows him to reinvent himself. But is that really what he wants? The art has a sketchy, doodled style with lots of pencil-strokes and crosshatching. The “be yourself” message isn’t unique, but it’s a different perspective on it and will definitely resonate with kids who don’t feel like they fit in anywhere.

There’s no explicit fantasy in Faith Erin Hicks’ “Two-Person Door,” but the possibility of a fantastical adventure is right around the corner…or is it? In a rural, loosely Asian village, a young boy dreams of exciting adventures and fighting monsters. When he finds a mysterious door he thinks his dreams are about to come true, until the Guardian of the Door tells him he can’t pass through without a companion. And not just any companion—he has to have a girl. Where will Shiro find a girl willing to go on a dangerous adventure? If he does find one, will they have the adventure he’s always dreamed of, or will he get a different perspective on life? Hicks’ wide-eyed characters display strong emotions, and their status as children on the brink of an adventure is emphasized by the looming trees of the mysterious forest. There is a sharp contrast between the dark greens and blues of the forest and warm earth-tones of Shiro’s home, a contrast that reinforces the story’s struggle between adventure and family.

Steve Hamaker brings back his characters “Fish n Chips” in the short “Spring Cleaning.” Jaxer, a super-intelligent fish in a robot suit, and Clave, his anthropomorphic cat assistant, are doing a little spring cleaning in the lab when they discover some old experiments behind a hidden door. But the experiments aren’t the kind of thing you want on the loose, and their close friendship will soon be tested on a dangerous adventure. There are lots of explosions, deadpan humor, and a slick, digital animation style to the artwork, but the story somehow still falls flat, with not enough humor to sustain the bland plot and characters. Fans of the Explorer anthologies will probably be pleased to see these recurring characters, but those new to the books will be confused by the lack of plot or character development.

I was personally thrilled to see a story by Johane Matte included, one in which the cat Horus plays a significant role. “Mastaba” is set in an Egyptian tomb, as a grumpy spirit laments his descendents’ lack of proper respect and his boring and lonely days. But things get a lot more exciting when visitors show up; unfortunately, they’re not the people he’d hoped to see! Will his unwelcome visitors discover the secret door hiding his mummy, or will an unexpected friend save the day? Matte’s humorous cartoons are richly colored and skillfully drawn, with every panel advancing the action from the quiet beginning in the tomb to the wild chaos of the city streets. Although some of the more thoughtful parts of the story may fly over the heads of kids, the humor and antics of the various characters are sure to tickle their funny bones.

The final story, “When is a door not a door?” by Jen Breach and Douglas Holgate, returns to the fantasy adventure genre, with a door reference that caps the anthology neatly. Lato, an adventurous girl, is off on a wild journey through a Scandinavian fantasy world, dodging the many strange and dangerous creatures she encounters with skill and confidence. But when she encounters a mysterious door and gets into trouble, will her knowledge of the forest and its inhabitants be enough to save the day? The art in this story has a more rustic, earthy feel with lots of leafy detail, squirming worms, and grotesque creatures. Lato is a spindly, determined character with lots of enthusiasm and stubbornness, even if she hasn’t quite grown into her feet or herself yet.

The book ends with a brief listing of the contributors and a few sentences about each one. The theme of hidden doors, whether they’re real, magical, or in your own mind, permeates each of these stories, binding them together into a solid roster of shorts that cover a wide range of interests and styles in graphic art and stories. Although anthologies can be a hard sell, the outstanding artistic ability and intriguing subjects of these shorts make this a worthy addition to a must-have series of anthologies.

Explorer: Hidden Doors, vol. 3
by Kazu Kibuishi, Jason Caffoe, Jen Wang, Faith Erin Hicks, Steve Hamaker, Johane Matte, Jen Breach, Douglas Holgate
ISBN: 9781419708824
Amulet, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 9 and up

  • Jennifer

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian, Matheson Memorial Library


    Jennifer Wharton is the Youth Services Librarian at Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn, Wisconsin where she maintains the juvenile and young adult graphic novel collections and was responsible for creating the library’s adult graphic novel collection. She is constantly looking for great new comics for kids and teens and new ways to incorporate graphic storytelling in programming. Jennifer blogs for preschool through middle grade at JeanLittleLibrary and has an MLS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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