Everything about the day was normal before Petro broke his grandmother’s vase. Petro, who is an ungrateful young boy, breaks the vase while throwing a tantrum and then, struck with contrition, sets out to make it up to his grandmother. But when he gets to town, he sees a strange sign warning about fleas—and that’s just the beginning.
This whimsical, black and white graphic novel spins out the yarn of Petro’s fantastical journey. Finding the town occupied by the frightening Flea King and his army of minions, Petro embarks on a quest to capture the Flea King so he might replace his grandmother’s vase with the promised prize money. Petro encounters many characters and situations along his way. He’s imprisoned in a birdcage by a kapre and escapes the fierce adarna bird through teamwork. He’s even swallowed by a whale at one point, and, meeting in its stomach a little man and a monkey, helps the three escape by using a sling-shot fired spicy pepper aimed at the whale’s uvula! Elements of these thrilling adventures are drawn from Filipino folklore and literature, and the very few words of text that are included in the book are in Filipino. Readers who don’t speak Filipino should have no trouble getting the sense of the text without translation due to the expressive illustrations which, while appearing simple at first glance due to their thick lines and black, gray, and white tones, are full of surprising details.
Though the sheer speed and fantasy of the plot does sometimes result in confusing moments, many readers will find themselves swept away in the story’s magical characters and slapstick humor regardless. Petro and the Flea King is accessible to a wide range of readers due to its near-wordlessness, but elementary and middle-grade readers will likely find it most appealing: some will find the physical humor and imaginative scrapes Petro finds himself in most compelling; some will find themselves curious about the Filipino cultural elements threaded throughout the graphic novel. An introductory note written by publisher Jean Marie Munson contextualizes the Filipino influences of the graphic novel. She writes of how she always wanted to see “familiarities of [her] ethnic identity in pop culture” growing up and that she hopes the reader will “take away from this book how wonderfully colorful Philippines (sic) storytelling can be…”. (The note is not translated into perfect standard English but is perfectly comprehensible nonetheless).
The combination of near-wordlessness and a fantastical, fast-moving plot results here in a tale that is sometimes a bit difficult to keep straight, but this drawback is outweighed by the graphic novel’s humorous spirit, rich infusion of Filipino folklore, and dynamic illustrations. Petro and the Flea King is an invitation to suspend disbelief and enjoy each new transformation, capture, ally or enemy that Petro encounters.
Petro and the Flea King
By Kenneth Kit Lamug
Publisher Age Rating: All Ages
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Traits: Filipino,
Creator Highlights: Own Voices