Things in the Basement, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke, is a heroic journey through the depths of a basement on a quest to find a lost sock. Milo is in a new house. Well, the house isn’t new. It is old and filled with mysteries and adventure, and Milo is ready to explore in the shadow of moving boxes. However, while busy with twin infant sisters, Milo’s mother needs help finding a lost pink sock, made by his Tia Maria for his sister Lucy. He has been called for a quest, and heroes must answer the call.
Milo ventures into the basement, reluctantly peering into shadows and around corners, until he finds the sock in the mouth of a rat. When the rat disappears into a wall, Milo must follow. In his quest to find the rat and the sock, Milo uncovers unknown depths to his basement, monsters, mountains of socks, and some friends along the way.
The story is a classic hero’s journey into the underworld from the point of view of a child. It is abundantly clear that Hatke respects that point of view, and I think because of that many children will find themselves in Milo and in the story. The plot follows a child-like logic without being demeaning or using it as a punchline. The levels of the basement underworld unfold in the way pretend play with an adventurous child does, with something akin to the “yes, and…” improvisational structure. Turn the corner, embrace the unknown, and move forward bravely. Above all else, a sock must be found.
I always appreciate stories of children who waste little or no time in confusion when falling into a new magical world. There is no need to put up a pretense that this isn’t the exact type of world a boy like Milo could imagine for his basement. He befriends a large eyeball with tentacles instead of a body and a skull that talks in simple images, because why would he not. They were perfectly friendly, and as we all know, heroes need support on their quests.
Hatke’s illustrations perfectly blend the strange, dark, and unusual with enough whimsy to ease the imaginations of his young readers. Most of the book pages have monotone color palettes ranging from sepias to some blue and green. There are occasional pops of intense color for menacing green ooze and Lucy’s lost pink sock. The palette evokes the feeling of epic adventures. It also gives room for the strange details of each basement level to remain in the background, available for those interested in looking with a closer eye, but without taking attention from the story at hand.
Milo is Latino with brown skin, but overall his illustration lacks detail. He has a mop of tousled hair that obscures his eyes. The absence of great detail leaves room for children who want to see their face on Milo’s. Without eyes, we follow Milo’s emotion through his posture and movements. Hatke also has to be similarly creative with other important side characters, such as the skull and the eye, or a shepherd with a bell for a face. For young readers to have empathy for the strange and unknown, there must be some level of familiarity. Hatke accomplishes this balance of making the strange familiar through the character’s emotions, often without the ability to rely on facial expressions. It is a tightrope to walk as an illustrator, but one that Hatke clearly masters.
Things in the Basement made me smile, laugh, and feel all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings. It includes themes of friendship and kindness, but isn’t overtly didactic, and is funny without mocking. It’s a journey with child-sized epic proportions. I highly recommend it for elementary and other graphic novel collections for young and middle grade readers. I truly think children will love this story, along with those of us adults who appreciate authors who understand childhood.
Things in the Basement By Ben Hatke Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250836618
Publisher Age Rating: 6-9 Series ISBNs and Order Related media:
There are probably few who have not yet heard of Reynard the fox. This roguish trickster has slunk his way through European folklore since the Middle Ages, stirring up trouble and defining the vulpine archetype with his cunning, charm, and mischievous nature. Wherever he goes, chicanery is soon to follow, whether by fate or his own design. In Reynard’s Tale, Ben Hatke pays homage to this mythic figure in a new story that sends Reynard to the clutches of Death and beyond, all the while trying to escape capture from his sworn enemy, the wolf Isengrim. Encountering mermaids, old flames, a mechanized sorcerer, and other wonders, the fox travels through a world that seems colder and more brutal than the one he once knew, one that may be ushering in his ultimate denouement.
With a combination of prose and illustrations to tell this tale, Hatke brings a lyrical, magical atmosphere to Reynard’s adventure that is reminiscent of the stories that made him a legend so long ago. The story itself is simple, its structure much like any fable you remember reading as a child, though the tone relishes in a vague complexity and periods of reflection. Its voice is one that, like Reynard himself, has been through a few scrapes, seeming weary at times but still managing to find the energy to keep going. Overall, it contributes to a feeling of winding down, of that one last hurrah before everything comes to its eventual end, mirroring Reynard’s journey. The landscapes he traverses only heighten this theme, as skulls and tombstones are recurring motifs in the background. Events go by incredibly quickly, though the plot never feels rushed as the clever fox hardly sticks around one place for long while trying to evade Isengrim. At times, the story manages to evoke the same trickiness as its protagonist, seemingly going down one narrative path only to take a sharp detour to a place less expected. It is truly a Reynard story told in a fresh, yet nostalgic way with Hatke encapsulating everything there is to enjoy about this perennial character.
Adding to that old world charm is the evocative art style that brings back memories of beloved fairy tales, with its rough textures and clean outlines. Though only giving snapshots of the story, as opposed to the usual flowing narrative illustrations of graphic novels, Hatke perfectly captures the emotions conveyed in the text. There is an undeniable warmth in its more jovial moments, as Reynard catches up with a former lover over a glass of wine. Stillness and depth are prevalent when he reflects on his past deeds and where his path is leading him. And there is urgency in his movements as he dashes away from those that pursue him. Even without the text, the reader can follow events from the illustrations alone, each one filled with a clear purpose and personality. Hatke’s combination of rich prose with an alluring, striking art style delivers an ambiance seldom seen, a sense of an earned weight and maturity from a character that has captivated readers for centuries, even as he is wrapped up in an entirely original adventure.
While the creator is best known for his middle grade Zita the Spacegirl and Mighty Jack series, Reynard’s Tale is for an adult audience that still enjoys the company of fables and their lasting intrigue. Along with the presence of alcohol and partial nudity, the maturity of Hatke’s writing style does not make the comic a great fit for younger readers, though it may hold some interest for older teens. Extensive knowledge of Reynard’s history as a character in the European literary canon is not a requirement for one to understand the story, but it helps to have a basic idea of what he represents for the full effect to sink in, as the book itself does not go into detail of his past. Technically existing as an adult picture book, the placement of this title in a specific collection may pose some confusion over whether to place it in general fiction or the graphic novel section. Due to its marketing as a graphic novel and First Second serving as its publisher, however, I personally recommend the latter. Librarians and educators in search of an engrossing, fast-paced fantasy graphic novel with a unique and beloved identity should consider purchasing this title.
Reynard’s Tale: A Story of Love and Mischief By Ben Hatke Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250857910
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)