Poppy & Sam series

When the first Poppy & Sam graphic novel was published in 2018, there were very few titles for beginning chapter readers in the graphic novel format, so the introduction of sweet Poppy and her quirky companion Sam was a delightful addition. Forward several years, the graphic novel landscape for young readers has expanded exponentially and the pair are still hunting down mysteries in their garden home. Fortunately, Poppy & Sam are still a unique and attractive option and I think they should be more widely known, especially in libraries and schools that serve young readers.

In their first adventure, The Leaf Thief, we meet brown-skinned, black-haired Poppy and her friend Sam, a little panda bear with a cheerful red scarf. The miniature friends live comfortably in a garden, their houses made out of pumpkins and squash and with all of the plants and garden creatures as their friends. When their friend Basil loses some of their best leaves, Poppy tries all sorts of investigation techniques until one of her ideas finally helps her identify the culprit. Their second adventure, The Mole Mystery, leads them on a fun exploration of the garden and surrounding fields and forest as they search for their friend’s missing glasses. Finally, in The Search for Sleep, it’s time for hibernation, but Poppy just can’t sleep! Will they find the solution?

Cathon, a Canadian animator and comic artist, has a few adult titles available, but Poppy & Sam are her only children’s titles available in the U.S. Her art is delicate and colorful, with a strong emphasis on the natural world the two small friends inhabit. Poppy usually appears in a red shirt and green shorts, her black hair in a big bun, with straight-cut bangs. Sam is a cartoon panda bear, his body consisting of two white balls, snowman-style, with black ears, eyes, and nose. He sports a red scarf, which becomes a red nightcap in their third adventure, and is a little more timorous than Poppy, following her lead on their adventures. While Poppy generally sports a cheerful smile, Sam is more likely to look worried, scared, or, most often of all, hungry!

Their tiny world will be most attractive to miniature-loving readers. Smiling ladybugs, bees with tiny handbags, and fluffy spiders busy knitting, populate the garden. In their first story, many of the flowers and plants have faces, like their friend Basil. However, in their further adventures, Cathon seems to have largely abandoned this plotline and the active characters are only bugs and small animals, from pink worms to fluttering butterflies. Poppy and Sam, and their animal friends introduced in each book, have cozy underground homes or rooms carved out of pumpkin and gourd shells, with furniture, little lamps, and tidy stores of berries, nuts, and seeds. Even in the fall, the garden proliferates with a variety of greens, picked out with bright spots of red, yellow, and softer autumn colors.

The panels are large and the illustrations, though detailed, are simple. The storyline is told through a combination of wordless art and simple dialogue, presented in brief, simple sentences. Young readers, even those new to the graphic novel format, will be able to follow the simple storylines while decoding the text without too many challenges. The books also introduce some more complex vocabulary and concepts, like hibernation, and encourage readers to look carefully through the different clues to follow Poppy to her conclusions. There’s gentle humor throughout the stories and they work equally well as read-alouds as they do for independent reading.

These stories are ideal for readers who are ready to move on from easy readers like Elephant and Piggie to more complex stories and text, but aren’t ready for, or interested in, the more raucous humor of Dogman and other popular graphic novel series. They are ideal for introducing the graphic novel format to parents and caregivers who are concerned about content and will especially attract readers who like gentle, comforting stories with attractive artwork.

Poppy & Sam
By Cathon,
Owlkids, 2018-2020
Vol 1 ISBN: 9781771473293
Vol 2 ISBN: 9781771473798
Vol 3 ISBN: 9781771474184

NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)
Creator Representation: Canadian

Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story

In this moving narrative about his father’s experiences in escaping Nazi-occupied Belgium to his eventual safe arrival in Canada, Cary Fagan effectively and efficiently offers contemporary young readers with relatable background information about this historical era.

Fagan’s introduction to Maurice Fej­gen­baum begins abruptly; the reader is thrown immediately into the apprehension, chaos, and confusion experienced by the fourteen-year-old protagonist and his Jewish family as they frantically pack their belongings to flee persecution in Brussels. Along with the approaching lack of freedom, Maurice, who changed his surname to Fagan when he immigrated to Canada, articulates the everyday losses that the family is experiencing as they are displaced from their community. The family travels by train to Paris, Spain, and Portugal to finally escape to an internment camp in Jamaica, where there is little independence. Fortunately for Maurice, he finds a great deal of family and community support, along with some camp administration assistance. This support gives Maurice an informal but valuable education and the ability to obtain a second-hand English language dictionary, which becomes both his English language teacher and his talisman in his successful journey to becoming a lawyer at the University of Toronto in Canada.

It is Maurice’s thirst for knowledge and the strength of his family support that creates a foundation of hope against the ravages of war and antisemitism. His informal education does him in good stead as he applies to the local high school, Jamaica College. “I have learned the smallest act of kindness can make a huge difference” (41). This lesson is exemplified throughout the graphic novel, adversity is faced and overcome with the aid and kindness of those Maurice and his family meet in their struggle for autonomy.

The book as an object is deceptive as it appears to be a picture book intended for younger readers. However, opening the covers immediately dispenses with that assumption. The sepia illustrations and the panel layout illuminate the perils the family faces leaving their home, crossing Europe, and the tossing seas that accompany their voyage to Jamaica. As with the text, the illustrations offer lightness and hope within the borders of the horrifying wartime experiences while at the same time being authentic portrayals of them. The dangers and horrors the refugees experience during wartime are not sugar coated by either the text or the illustrations. The color palate used by Mariano contrasts the sombre colors of war with orange backgrounds that illuminate the memories, and future plans held by the individual members of the family. The facial expressions, especially the mouths, of all the characters add to the immediacy and emotions of the moment and effectively enhance the engagement of the reader.

The supplementary Author’s Note comprises additional his­tor­i­cal background, pho­tographs of the family and the ship, and doc­u­ments of the Fagan family. It includes the poignant photograph of the mended, faded red dictionary now residing on the author’s own desk. It also delineates the loss of the rest of the extended family in the Holocaust. The dictionary of the title, while not a major focus of the story, plays an invaluable role in this tale, cementing the past with the present by demonstrating Maurice’s perseverance and hopefulness and witnessing the strong familial connection of the author to his father’s story.

Fagan’s family story of survival and persistence continues to be relevant in today’s time of turmoil, unrest, and continued and renewed antisemitism and is highly recommend for elementary school and public library collections.

Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story
By Cary Fagan
Art by Enzo Lord Mariano
Owl Kids Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781771473231
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Jewish
Character Representation: Canadian, Jewish