Three Thieves: The King’s Dragon, Book Four

kings-dragon
   
This fourth volume in the Three Thieves series focuses on the backstory of the main villain of the piece, Captain Drake. Told alternatively in a palette of bright colours (the present) and black-and-white (flashbacks and memories), this volume explores the rationale behind the actions of a character who, in previous volumes, has been (pardon the pun) portrayed as an unsympathetic black and white character with little depth. The book also has a darker tone than the previous books, a prelude, hopefully, to a deepening story arc beyond the basic but satisfying quest story that has already been established.

Our intrepid heroes barely make an appearance here. The reader is reminded that Dessa has been hurt, and that Topper and Fisk have taken her to a remote monastery to allow time for her broken leg to heal. The reason for Captain Drake’s unending persistence in attempting to capture the three thieves is unveiled through the flashbacks, while the action of the overall storyline remains fairly static–allowing time, perhaps, for Dessa’s leg to heal? That is not to say that the book is lacking in action, but most of the action has already happened in the past. When Dessa does make an appearance, during the third act of the book, fans will be cheering her on as she maneuvers around the great captain and makes her clever escape into the next installment. Her two companions, Topper and Fisk, only make an illusionary appearance in this episode. The story ends on an ironic and mysterious cliff hanger.

Brief splashes of humour are still found in the story, both in the dialogue and the characters’ nonverbal reactions. Chantler’s artwork is clean, with a focus on the characters’ faces and body movements rather than backgrounds, which are often simply a wash of an appropriate colour. The black and white segments are primarily awash in gradients of greys, somber and thought-provoking. Action-packed and character-driven, The King’s Dragon is a welcome and recommended reading experience for younger readers.

Three Thieves: The King’s Dragon, Book Four
by Scott Chantler
ISBN: 9781554537792
Kids Can Press, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12

Elephants Never Forget: Big Top Otto, vol. 2

bigtopotto.jpgBig Top Otto picks up right where Big City Otto left off, with Otto the elephant and his buddy Crackers the parrot still far from their home and searching for Otto’s long-lost friend Georgie the chimp, who was abducted by the dreaded Man with the Wooden Nose. When Otto and Crackers meet a retired circus bear, they follow her tip and ride an old-fashioned railroad pull cart toward the corrupt circus that may be Georgie’s new home. As tends to happen with Otto, however, his quest isn’t as simple as it seems. In a frenetic series of events, Otto manages to fly through the air on inflatable French fries, drive a car shaped like a peanut, sneeze himself to the goalposts in a football game, and jump off a cliff into a river while driving the peanut car! You get the idea: it’s one adventure after another with these two, all pumped out at lightning speed so that it’s easy to forget where they’re going and why. In fact, all the action crammed into these 88 pages could be why the story tends to meander and lack any emotional heft, despite the animal-protection theme running throughout.

But perhaps that’s not the point. The story is not the star here, Otto is, in all his full color glory. Drawn in pen and ink, and colored digitally, the artwork is fantastic. Clearly influenced by the classic Sunday funny papers, Slavin varies color tone themes to fit each setting, and featured characters and secondary characters are all drawn with the same attention to detail, as are the backgrounds. The panel arrangements are fun and varied but not distracting, with insets for close-ups and odd-shaped frames for Otto’s dreams. Lots of sound effects pop out in otherwise near-wordless panels and carry the action forward (“clickety-clickety-clickety” for the train, “fwoop!” for the football twirling in the air, and of course “ah-choo!” for Otto’s massive, stadium-exploding sneeze).

There is definitely a Loony Tunes feel here, with many pop culture references and peppy banter between the characters. As in Big Top, there are incongruities that may stump an adult reader: Why does the circus have performing animals when the animals speak and stand upright just like humans? Why does the Amazonian panther speak broken English when the African elephant speaks perfect English? And how do new-to-America Otto and Crackers know the words to “Georgia on My Mind”? Never mind, because these lapses in logic will likely be overlooked by middle-grade readers who will instead relish Otto’s slapstick antics, Crackers’ sarcastic asides, and the lush, colorful artwork.

Elephants Never Forget: Big Top Otto, vol. 2
by Bill Slavin, Esperanca Melo
Art by Bill Slavin
ISBN: 9781554538065
Kids Can Press, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: 8-11

Bigfoot Boy, vol. 2: The Unkindness of Ravens

bigfoot-boy-2Although this is a sequel to Into the Woods, published in 2012, readers can enter the storyline without previous knowledge of the characters and their relationships to each other and to the prominent Bigfoot reference on the cover.

The second volume of this series begins with a storytelling session of contemporary environmental concerns infused with supernatural agency to provide an introduction to the foundation of the storyline: the ability to transform from human to Sasquatch. (Why the story text identifies the being as a Sasquatch while the series refers to it as Bigfoot may be a bigger mystery than can be addressed in this book review.) The telling of the story — which takes place around a campfire of a group of young males in uniform, perhaps boy scouts — is done by a possible First Nations scout leader. The storyteller’s prophetic words, visually complemented by a leading arm, guide readers into the central tale: “Some say he will return when the Forest needs him again. They say the totem will resurface…” (14).

The animated friendship between ten-year-old Rufus, who is visiting is grandmother, and his playmate Penny was established in the previous volume. Penny has introduced him to the pleasures and mysteries of the woods, encouraged his friendship with his pet squirrel, and understands his fascination with the totem found in his previous visit. This totem, when accompanied by the shouting of the word Sasquatch, transforms Rufus into Bigfoot Boy. This time, however, Rufus’ joyful transformation was watched by a cluster of covetous ravens that immediately plot to acquire the totem for themselves. While Penny is pleased with Rufus’s return, she is disappointed that he has been using his transformative powers for trite activities. Penny and her family are environmentalists, stewards of the land, but before Rufus can do much to help out, his totem is stolen by the ravens. What follows is a story of adventure, excitement, friendship, and promise — especially promise, as the book ends with Rufus leaving the woods without his pet squirrel and without his totem. “To be continued…” is the final text placed on a full page illustration of Rufus’s family leaving the woods overseen by a very familiar cloud formation: Bigfoot Boy will return!

Hicks illustrated the story in large, coloured panels that, for the most part, focus on the faces and emotions of the characters. Particularly effective, for this reviewer, were the ravens themselves. The birds are nasty tricksters who, ironically, seem to be unaware of the identity of the traditional character of Sasquatch. “A boy who can turn into a big, red, bearlike creature!” (46). The illustrations offer bold splashes of mostly earthy colours, emotions, adventure and atmosphere even though there is very little use of detailed backgrounds in the panels. The only white spaces are the borders, the gutters, and the speech balloons. The few full page illustrations bleed to the edge of the pages, however, emphasizing the importance of those portrayed moments.

Torres and Hicks have modified First Nations folklore from the Canadian west coast, set it in an unidentified setting, and played with tropes familiar to readers of comic books and popular culture of an earlier era to create a fast moving contemporary tale. According to an interview with author J. Torres, “Bigfoot Boy is kind of a mashup of Captain Marvel (Shazam) and Sasquatch from Alpha Flight” (Grearson). Homage is paid through the illustrations to original inhabitants but not to any particular group of people. The Q’achi totem? Who are the Q’achi people? While I appreciated the storyline and the illustrations so far, I really am sitting on the fence until the series has been completed.

Bigfoot Boy, vol. 2: The Unkindness of Ravens
by J. Torres
Art by Faith Erin Hicks
ISBN: 9781554537136
Kids Can Press, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: 7-10

Cat’s Cradle, book 1: The Golden Twine

Cat's Cradle Book 1Suri, an impetuous orphan, travels around with a caravan, hiding from the caravan leader. Her fellow travelers try to convince her to settle down into an acceptable job, but she is determined to become a monster tamer. Until then, she scrapes by, begging food from vendors and telling tales to the locals for coins. But, the caravan has recently acquired its very own monster to sell to the prince and Suri thinks she might be able to tame it.

Suri is an engaging, adorable heroine. She has the right combination of sassiness, innocence, and earnestness. I found myself rooting for this independent, gypsy-like girl after only a few pages. While the tale could have dipped into the maudlin by focusing on Suri’s lack of home or family, it skips around all that with a dismissive wave, focusing instead on Suri’s sense of adventure and cleverness. This book introduces us to the characters and sets an interesting stage, but I imagine the character development will mostly occur later in the series.

The tale hits a good interest level for the intended age group with just a hint of scary provided by the monsters. The focus is more on fun and fluffy than any kind of horror story. The monsters we meet are intriguing and set the scene nicely for Book 2. While there has to be a more than average suspension of disbelief, the young girl taking on the world story would be attractive to elementary and early middle school students.

The artwork captured my attention even before I read the story. Suri is incredibly cute with giant eyes and a tousled mane. Her Eastern European looking clothes are in remarkable shape considering her lack of a permanent home. Her spunky attitude is coupled with expressive faces. The monsters also are interesting to behold, especially the cat people. The entire book has a dreamy, fairy tale feel with blues, pinks, and tans painting the scenes and characters, but the tale is spiced by the sometimes impish and humorous nature of the characters.

While it may be a bit simple for advanced readers, this cute, fun book seems set to be a hit with the late elementary crowd. I am intrigued to see where the series might lead in future books.

Cat’s Cradle, book 1: The Golden Twine
by Jo Rioux
ISBN: 9781554536368
Kids Can Press, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12

Three Thieves, vol. 2-3: The Sign of The Black Rock and The Captive Prince

sign-of-black-rock
   
The first volume of the Three Thieves series, Tower of Treasure, won the 2011 Joe Shuster Award for Best Comics for Kids. The second volume, The Sign of the Black Rock, was a nominee for the 2012 award, now known as the Dragon Award/Prix Dragon. While this review is covering the second and third books in the series, a quick summary of the first book is necessary to place the action and characters in context.

Fourteen-year-old Dessa, an orphaned acrobat, becomes caught up in a plot to rob the Queen’s treasury. Dessa and the other two thieves, Topper, an accomplished pick pocket and dreamer, and Fisk, the circus strongman,  leave the circus when their attempt to rob the royal treasury is foiled. During this episode, Dessa recognizes the man responsible for absconding with her twin brother and, in retaliation for the recognition, she and her friends are sentenced to hang the next morning. But the three are circus performers, after all. They manage to escape and set out to find Dessa’s brother and to journey into the second volume of the series.

The story is immediately continued in this second volume, as the three companions begin their hunt for the mysterious man who Dessa believes is responsible for the kidnapping of her twin. Taking shelter from a storm in the Black Rock Inn proves to be detrimental to the success of their venture, as the inn is also shelter to a group of the Queen’s guards sent to recapture the three thieves. Aided by the wife of the shady innkeeper, the three heroes make their way safely into the third volume of the ongoing series.

The subsequent entry to the series, The Captive Prince, adds another charismatic character to Dessa’s quest to find her brother. The main focus of this volume is on the developing friendship between Dessa and the Prince, which ultimately shapes the direction for the three thieves in their curtailed journey. The epilogue to this volume increases the suspense for the reader to delve immediately into further volumes of their, as of yet, unfinished mission.

This engaging series (scheduled to be seven volumes long) is full of non-stop action, suspense, humour, resonating dialogue, and strong, resourceful main characters who continue to develop along with the progression of the story cycle. The full-colour illustrations focus predominantly on the characters rather than the setting. Many of the panels contain blocks of single panel pastel coloured backgrounds, resulting in a feeling of light and emotion through the use of colour. When the setting is crucial to the storytelling, the colours and more detailed backgrounds effectively and efficiently evoke suspense, mystery, danger and friendship. The cartoon-like characters are individuals with responsive faces and bodies, easy to identify in the flurry of action as well as easy to identify with as people to cheer for (or against) as a reader.

Three Thieves, vol. 2: The Sign of The Black Rock
ISBN: 9781554534166
Three Thieves, vol. 3: The Captive Prince
ISBN: 9781554537778
by Scott Chantler
Kids Can Press, 2011-2012
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12

That One Spooky Night

That One Spooky NightThree short stories about Halloween turn regular trick-or-treating into imaginative forays into the supernatural. In one, an accident outside the costume store means that a young girl goes home with a real witch’s broomstick that comes alive on Halloween night. In the second, two mischievous boys cause havoc all evening, much to their father’s dismay. However, in their nightly bath, someone causes havoc with them, sending them into a deep sea adventure. The third tale delves into the sinister with a group of girls who leave their houses as harmless revelers. Then, they change their outfits to “become” a group of vampires scaring the other kids including a group of bullies. However, they meet up with some real vampire children and are taken home with the intention of becoming the vampires’ treats.

The three vignettes fill their pages with humor, excitement, and just enough spookiness to let you know you’re reading about that scariest of holidays, Halloween. The language is simple enough for early readers, but the stories are clever and exciting enough for all ages to enjoy. The engaging characters are not always lovable, with several trouble-making heroes, but they always remain interesting. However, there is no doubt who the stars are in every tale as kids rule the scenes with imagination and a zest for the holiday and the grown-ups just drag along.

The drawings pair well with the quirky storylines with simple, straightforward lines depicting the characters coupled with more complicated backgrounds. There is a great use of color throughout all three stories. The real world has bright lighting and happy splashes of lime greens and pinks. The supernatural elements plunge the setting into shadows with only the action illuminated. Not a panel is wasted, they all add something to the stories.

All-in-all, these are humorous and exciting shorts with enough horror to send just a hint of a shiver up your spine. They would make a good choice for anyone who is looking for some thrilling tales and Halloween fun, especially early readers.

That One Spooky Night
by Dan Bar-el
Art by David Huyck
ISBN: 9781554537525
Kids Can Press, 2012

Bigfoot Boy, vol. 1: Into the Woods

Into the Woods (Bigfoot Boy)Rufus is not really looking forward to a long weekend with his Grammy. I mean, he loves his Grammy and all, but what’s there for a 10-year-old boy to do while his Grammy watches soap operas and naps? Well, as it turns out, there’s lots to do!

After his Grammy falls asleep, Rufus ventures outside to the beautiful woods behind her house and meets Penny, the spunky girl next door who is not happy to see some stranger in her woods. When Rufus happens upon a sacred Q’achi totem and puts the totem around his neck, saying the word on the totem, “Sas…qua…tch…,” Rufus turns into Bigfoot Boy!

As Bigfoot Boy, Rufus rules the forest as a sasquatch, but there are other creatures lurking in the woods that aren’t happy a mortal human has found the sacred totem. They’ll do anything, including kidnapping Penny, to get it back. With the help of his trusty new friend, Sidney the flying squirrel, Rufus has got to save his friend and protect the totem —  all before Grammy wakes up!

This fun, fantastical story by J. Torres and Faith Erin Hicks is a great combination of action, adventure, mystery and magic! Rufus and Penny are good foils to each other and each character has a distinct personality. Rufus is just as likeable when he is Bigfoot Boy and the cast of characters rounding out the story are a nice mix of funny and sinister. The turn at the end, which introduces characters that are vying for the totem, sets the book up for sequels. Into the Woods is a book that will definitely draw readers in with its wonderful story.

The charming and wonderful illustrations by the always stupendous Faith Erin Hicks really make the story fun to read. Rufus and Penny are well drawn in her signature style. They’re both so cute, readers will be forced to fall in love with them! Plus, the animals illustrated throughout are just as great — the funny flying squirrel and the scary pack of wolves are each drawn in a way that brings out their individual traits and personality. The book is beautifully colored and the vivid nature of the forest is brightly brought to life. Easy to read panels will engage younger and older readers alike and the word bubbles are clear and thoughtfully used.

What a great beginning to what is, I’m sure, going to be a fantastic series for anyone who loves a little magic mixed in with a trip to Grammy’s house.

Bigfoot Boy, vol. 1: Into the Woods
by J. Torres
Art by Faith Erin Hicks
ISBN: 9781554537129
Kids Can Press, 2012

Elephants Never Forget, vol. 1: Big City Otto

big-city-otto
   
Playing with traditional proverbial sayings such as “elephants never forget,” and contemporary health concerns such as peanut allergies, Bill Slavin has created an endearing, if slightly obtuse, character in Otto the Elephant. The author/illustrator, in a private interview with some of my university students, stated that this book and series began because he likes to draw elephants. While sitting at a comic book convention waiting to sign autographs, he started to sketch an elephant that eventually grew into Otto. The story itself grew out of discussions with his wife, Esperanca Melo, while going for walks together: an organic elephant story? Slavin marries this love of drawing elephants with echoes of classic children’s stories resonating throughout his story.

Georgie, Big Otto’s missing chimpanzee friend, has been taken, not by the Man in the Yellow Hat from the Curious George series, but by a much feared man with a wooden nose. Otto and his friend Crackers, a parrot-shaped Jiminy Cricket character, leave the safety and familiarity of the jungle to follow the trail to the big city of New York. Mayhem, misunderstandings and mystery follows the duo as they experience the big city for themselves. And since Georgie has not been found by the end of this first volume of the series, readers will be following them to New Orleans in their next adventure. Slavin’s acknowledged appreciation of the Asterix series comes through in his pacing of this story.

Slavin explained to my students that he thinks of himself as an illustrator first and this does come through when reading this book. His colourful, lush, expressive illustrations are more effective than the text in relating the adventure. The variety of greens in the first few pages offers the reader a window into the lush environment of the jungle, Big Otto’s natural home. The subsequent use of various greys and yellows evoke the urban setting and the amount of detail included in these panels creates an environment far, far from their comfort zone. The era of the story seems a bit problematic to this reviewer; there are numerous echoes to the 1990s but, at the same time, suggests a time period that includes more contemporary innovations such as email and texting. However, as it is a story about talking animals sharing the page with humans, this is but a minor perplexity.

Elephants Never Forget, vol. 1: Big City Otto
by Bill Slavin, Esperanca Melo
Art by Bill Slavin
ISBN: 978-1-55453-4
Kids Can Press, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: 8-11

Binky the Space Cat, books 3-4: Binky Under Pressure; Binky Takes Charge

Binky Under Pressure
   
Binky might look like a regular old housecat to you, but he’s much more than meets the eye. Binky, unbeknownst to his humans (or anyone else, really) is a certified space cat. He has the very important mission of protecting his humans and his space station, otherwise known as his humans’ home, from aliens. Now, these aliens might look and sound like innocent flies, but no one is going to tell Binky they’re harmless. As a member of F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel), Binky must be on his toes at all times to prevent those pesky aliens from taking over.

Binky under Pressure

Wow – Binky has really gotten lazy lately. Even though he is an official certified space cat for F.U.R.S.T., he really hasn’t been keeping up with all of his space commander duties. All he has been doing is sleeping, eating, cuddling, and occasionally catching those pesky aliens as they fly in through the window. Things just have to get exciting some time, right? But, when?? Lucky for Binky, in trots Gracie, a cute and cuddly new kitty that’s hanging out at Binky’s until she finds her forever home. But, there’s something suspicious about Gracie. Could she be a Trojan Horse sent by the aliens to defeat Binky once and for all? But, when Binky does learn the truth about Gracie he has his proverbial socks blown off, and readers will, too! Join Binky as he attempts to find out the mystery behind the suspicious kitty and her true intentions!

Binky Takes Charge

Now that Binky has confirmed Gracie’s true identity, passed a super serious F.U.R.S.T. test, and become a LIEUTENANT Space Cat, he knows that he has to step up his game to keep moving up the ranks. First step – train all new incoming F.U.R.S.T. recruits. It’s a very important responsibility, and Binky knows that he is the right man for the job. The doorbell rings…and…it’s a dog?!? Wha?? Yes, F.U.R.S.T. is now P.U.R.S.T. (Pets of the Universe Ready for Space Travel). No longer will dogs, pigs, ferrets, or any other type of animal be excluded because of their non-feline nature. Now, all animals have the chance to protect their humans and their own space stations from alien invasions! But Gordon seems to be the dumbest dog Binky’s ever met. He pees on the floor, can’t keep up with the schedule, and has yet to catch an alien. Binky and Gracie begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Gordon is a super-secret spy, sent to infiltrate P.U.R.S.T. and derail their mission. Leave it to the super-kitties to figure it out!

All of the Binky adventures are written and illustrated by Ashley Spires and would be perfect additions to any library’s children’s comics section. Each book is laid out exactly like a comic book with easy to follow and read panels and illustrations. The color palate is muted using shades of brown, black, white, and blue to bring Binky’s wonderfully rich landscape to life. Little pops of purple, red, and yellow definitely bring the reader’s attention to important parts of the panel, and Binky’s got some great expressions that will get readers laughing. The humor really does come through in these hilarious stories of Binky and his alien fighting ways. And, when readers aren’t laughing at Binky and his hijinks, they’ll definitely be laughing at the amount of “space gas” that Binky blames on the atmosphere. The Binky adventures are cute, colorful, and very funny, and will appeal to lovers of comics and cats.

Binky the Space Cat, books 3-4
by Ashley Spires
Binky Under Pressure ISBN: 978155453504
Binky Takes Charge ISBN: 9781554537686
Kids Can Press, 2011-2012
Publisher Age Rating: 7-10

My Name is Elizabeth!

My Name is Elizabeth coverElizabeth Alfreda Roxanne Carmelita Bluebell Jones loves her first name. She loves that it’s nine letters long and she loves the shapes her mouth makes when she says it. But she doesn’t love when people get her name wrong. Her name is not Liz or Betsy or Beth, and she wants to make sure everyone gets it right.

My Name is Elizabeth! by Annika Dunklee and Matthew Forsythe is a charming story about a precocious pre-schooler. While it’s fairly brief, clocking in at just around 150 words, this would make a fun read-aloud for pre-school age children just learning about their own names and the names of their friends. Forsythe’s bold illustrations are presented solely in black, white, orange, and baby blue giving the book a timeless, vintage feel reminiscent of artists like Ed Emberley. Though it physically looks like a picture book — with a large, square shape and glossy dustjacket — this could be considered a hybrid of a picture book and a comic book. All of the text is presented in speech bubbles, making this delightful book somewhat comic-esque. With beautiful artwork and a fun, child-friendly story, this book would be a welcome addition to any collection.

My Name is Elizabeth!
by Annika Dunklee
Art by Matthew Forsythe
ISBN: 9781554535606
Kids Can Press, 2011