Alabaster Shadows is a middle grade adventure that plays on tropes we all know and love: new kid in town, the secret that the adults are keeping from the kids, evil teacher, creepy basement, secret stairways, and a school loner who ends up majorly helpful to clarify some confusions about this strange, strange town.
Author Matt Gardner expertly creates realistic teen and tween dialogue and plausibly unpleasant adult characters. When Carter and his younger sister Polly move with their parents to Alabaster Shadows, one of the first characters they encounter is the stern, angular Miss Crowe, head of the town’s Community Council. While Miss Crowe meets with Carter and Polly’s parents in the room next door, Carter and Polly get up to some sibling-ish antics, and Miss Crowe is the one to come out to shush them. Oof, harsh. Genre savvy readers expect they will see Miss Crowe again.
In addition to some amusing characters, including a girl named Harley who has two years’ worth of Weekly Journal of Truth subscriptions, and her brother, Warren, who makes fun of her for it (“I’d prefer to keep my references to the non-fiction category, thank you”). Carter and Polly are biracial. While their biracial identities aren’t addressed or explored in the volume, I appreciated seeing a mother who appeared to be African-American next to a father who appeared white. I also appreciated how Carter and Polly’s large hair set them apart from their Caucasian friend group a bit, which felt like a small way for artist Rashad Doucet to acknowledge and embrace the heritage of the characters.
The color palette is warm and expressive: the yellow ochres of the town convey a sense of uneasiness; the blues of the dream world suggest that maybe these dreams are a little too good to be trusted, and the purples range from contemplative to creepy. Doucet blends and blotches colors in each panel in a way that suggests movement and keeps this fast-paced story going.
For all there is to appreciate, emerging readers may struggle here with some abrupt transitions between characters and locations, which occur without announcement and rely on the reader’s tracking. Additionally, I got to the end of volume 1 with no sense of where volume 2 will go. Will I learn more about why the Community Council hates children so much? What overlap is there between the world of the character’s dreams and the world beneath their basements? Some readers may find the lack of satisfying explanations here frustrating.
by Matt Gardner
Art by Rashad Doucet
Oni Press, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12