Colleen Madden has created a handful of picture books, but this is her first graphic novel and, although the plot falters in a few places, it’s overall a spooky delight.
Shelley Frankenstein, a little girl with exuberant black curls who generally sports a white lab coat, loves all things spooky and scary; from bad haircuts to creepy noises under the bed. She’s determined to emulate her ancestor and create a truly terrifying monster. After all, she’s got a whole castle and the inspiration of the historic monsters who live in on the grounds, including Frankenstein’s Monster, his Bride, and the Werewolf.
There’s just one problem; her parents, dressed in classic Edwardian garb for a family meal, refuse to allow her out at night to pillage graveyards. They’re more interested in veggie bacon than in her ambitions! With the help of Iggy, her blond-haired, rosy-cheeked little brother, she scours the castle for leftover toys she can use to recreate her ancestor’s fearsome experiments.
Unfortunately, far from being scared, her little schoolmates (dressed in costumes varying from sweaters and leggings to lederhosen) adore her creations. The cronkey! The boagiraffe! Each one is more adorable than before and Shelley is losing her cool when she tries one more time and makes… Cowpiggy. This time, she’s sure she’s discovered the secret to bringing to life a truly terrifying creation.
Unfortunately, Cowpiggy doesn’t live up to her expectations, so she takes her to be trained by the monsters in the apartments beneath the castle. When Cowpiggy emerges, she’s truly fearsome – but is that what Shelley really wants? It will take an encounter with a wise women and her horde of bunnies, a blizzard, and some thoughtful guidance from her parents before Shelley figures out how to continue the legacy of the Frankensteins.
Madden’s art is adorable, with plump-cheeked children, cozy striped sweaters, and hordes of darling bunnies. Readers will giggle at Shelley’s continued failure to make a spooky monster as each creation appears, more adorable and cute than the last. Shelley’s face is emotive, from her diabolical eyebrows, to her sadness as she realizes what it’s really like to be truly scared and alone. Cowpiggy, of course, is adorable, even when she’s being mean, with the body of a pig and the spots and stubby horns of a cow. The udders of the original “Lady Marigold” cow toy neatly disappear in the monster-making process, and when she’s not brainwashed into monstrousness, Cowpiggy bounces around the scene spreading smiles and little hearts everywhere she goes.
There are plenty of callouts from the original story, including Cowpiggy’s exile into the snow, after she follows her creator’s directive and scares the kindergarteners, as well as minor bits of wordplay and humor, like the glowing red eyes of “Creepy Jenny.” The plot does get a bit convoluted towards the end, especially when the old lady and her bunny horde are introduced. The message that nobody likes to be truly scared is confusing, although most kids will easily pick up on how Shelley has been violating boundaries and needs to be more respectful of others’ feelings.
While not perfect, this is a delightful series opener for young readers who enjoy a mildly spooky romp without being really scared. Hand to fans of Franny K. Stein or Junior Monster Scouts and other humorously scary beginning chapter books and graphic novels.
Shelley Frankenstein!: Cowpiggy, Book One
By Colleen Madden
Top Shelf, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)