If you lose your favorite necklace or your butler has been kidnapped, who do you call? Move over Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew, there’s a new detective duo in town, ready to take on any case. They are Simon and Chester, main characters in Cale Atkinson’s new graphic novel Simon and Chester: Super Detectives. Atkinson does double duty as writer and illustrator for this new series, combining his comic style with his humorous storytelling.
Chester is visiting his grandmother and his ghostly friend Simon who lives in her attic. As Simon is typing up his new mystery story, Chester is trying to get him to play, well, something. After going through some old clothes, the duo decide to open their own detective agency. They have their own uniforms, an office in an attic, note pads, and a bulletin board ready to be filled with clues. Now all they need is a case, which so happens to be in the kitchen. A mysterious dog has made himself at home, but neither Chester nor Simon knows who he is or where he came from. Will they figure out who owns this adorable pug and how he wound up in grandma’s house?
Simon and Chester know how to have fun using their imaginations, like all children do. They are ready and prepared for new adventures, even when it takes them into the real world. Children will find a bit of themselves in these characters, and perhaps try to expand their own imaginative playtime. Cale Atkinson uses classic noir and mystery tropes to add humor to his story, such as half-closed blinds and Simon wearing a Sherlock Holmes hat. His artwork style gives his characters their own personality, especially Simon, who shows a range of emotions from surprise to annoyance. As for Chester, he is a bright child who wants to do what’s right, but still have fun with his friend. With more focus on the characters then the background, readers will be drawn into the antics of the characters and their banter with each other.
With its playful storyline and charming characters, the first book in the Simon and Chester series is a good choice for readers in grades 2-4. Public and school librarians should consider this title a good choice for readers who are looking for something similar to other humorous graphic novels, such as the InvestiGators series or books written by Dav Pilkey. A second book in the series will be released later this year, continuing the adventures of this hilarious new duo.
Simon and Chester: Super Detectives By Cale Atkinson Tundra Books, 2021 ISBN: 9780735267428
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11) Character Traits: African-American
Sometimes the message of a book is more important than its medium. A case in point would be Tyranny by Lesley Fairfield, which tells a very personal story of one girl’s battle with anorexia and bulimia. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, over 11 million people in the United States have an eating disorder. Not much attention is called to this fact, though that rate is more than twice the rate for Alzheimer’s disease. And eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. But sometimes where dry statistics don’t succeed in making a point, a personal account that is informed by the experiences of an author who has lived through the experience like Fairfield does.
The book tells the story of Anna, a typical young adult who is trying to get a grip on her problems with anorexia. In asking her inner personal demon, Tyranny, how she got to her current state the story flashes back to her experience just after puberty, where her body image first became a factor. We then follow Anna’s life as she begins to control what she eats at first to fit into trendy clothes, but then to keep herself pretty for a potential boyfriend. But after her first overeating episode at a summer camp, Anna soon feels pressure both at school and in her relationship and resumes her worries about her weight. By the end of the school year, she has both dropped out and lost her boyfriend. It is at this point where Tyranny first makes an appearance in her life. Tyranny is a personification of Anna’s eating disorder, the voice inside her head that tells her she’s too fat, or that she shouldn’t eat, or even when she needs to purge after binge eating. For the rest of the book, through therapy and hospitalization, it is Tyranny that Anna must defeat.
In using a personification for the disease itself Fairfield makes a wise choice. It would be much easier for readers to dismiss a character’s inner thoughts as stupidity or foolishness. By moving the problem into the physical plane for Anna to interact with, Fairfield shows us how dealing with mental illness isn’t just a matter of deciding to think differently. Tryanny, by being distinct from Anna, shows her loss of power in the situation, the fact that her rational thought processes have no control over what the disease makes her do. And Tyranny, drawn as a squiggle of scribbled lines in a vaguely human form, is allowed to take over not only Anna’s life but also the art of any page she is on as well with her expressiveness. Tyranny is able to heap scorn on Anna’s ideas much more dramatically than a real person would.
Artistically, the character of Tyranny is the best thing about the book. Unfortunately the rest of the artwork isn’t quite up to the same standard. Fairfield’s figures often look static and posed. Also her line never varies, making her figures that should draw the eye’s attention to them instead blend in with the background. This problem is only compounded by the grey tones that are used to provide color. Fairfield uses a light grey and a slightly darker one, neither closer to black than white, and again indiscriminately on both background and figures so everything reads to the eye as a greyish muddle. The art as a whole would look less insubstantial if more black and a varied line was used. Luckily, the message of the story carries the weight the art does not.
Even with the reservations about the art, Tyranny is a book that should be on every library shelf in both in school and public libraries. Anorexia and other eating disorders often start as teens begin to go through puberty. And like many other mental illnesses, they are both hard to see right away and easy for their victim or rationalize and justify. Fairfield should be praised for being able not only bring the personal nature of eating disorders to light, but also for doing so with an honest account. Especially when it is in a medium that has a good chance of reaching its intended audience.
Tyranny by Lesley Fairfield ISBN: 9780887769030 Tundra Books, 2009
It’s a normal day in Berlin in 1938; 11 year old Marianne Kohn walks to school and finds the front door locked tight. After knocking for several minutes her teacher, donning a Nazi Party arm band, steps out and hands Marianne a letter. By order of the Ministry of Education Marianne is expelled for being Jewish. This small but poignant scene is just the start to all of the changes in Marianne’s life in Kathryn E. Shoemaker’s moving adaptation of the award-winning novel for children by Irene N. Watts.
As the story develops we learn that Marianne’s father is in hiding while her mother does what she can to help keep her family and other members of her community safe. But as neighborhood shops close down and the Nazi police arrest more and more people Marianne’s mother makes a drastic choice: Marianne will change her name and travel away on a Kinderstransporte, a boat used to take orphaned children to new homes in England.
Shoemaker’s black-and-white pencils, with their simple lines and light shading, feel very close to the world of picture books and lend a very welcoming feeling for children who might not be used to the comic book form. But this work is quite clearly a comic and Shoemaker makes effective use of panels and layouts to drive the narrative and tell the story.
Some readers might feel the story doesn’t go far enough in portraying the horror of the Jewish Holocaust. But I would argue that this is a different kind of story. This tale is not about horror but about the sadness of separation of Marianne from her normal life. We see that demonstrated not through extreme events but through subtler moments built around character and relationships. Marianne feels quite shocked, for example, when she learns that her new friend Ernest is part of the Jung Volk, a special branch of the Hitler Youth. In an age where it can be very easy to push aside extreme circumstances that would feel very foreign to readers, this approach makes at least some of the realities of the Holocaust and World War II feel more plausible and accessible to kids.
Being an adaptation, this version carries many of the same flaws as the source material. The mother, for example, is highly idealized and developed very thinly as a character. And we are never given a chance to experience Marianne’s emotions after she fully separates from her old life and takes those first steps into her new one. Despite some of these weaknesses, however, Good-bye Marianne works quite well as a soft entry point into the difficult subject of the Jewish Holocaust for younger or more sensitive readers.
Good-bye, Marianne: The Graphic Novel by Irene N. Watts Art by Kathryn E. Shoemaker ISBN: 9780887768309 Tundra Books, 2008 Publisher Age Rating: 8-11
Alison Dare lives out an adventurous girl’s ultimate fantasy. Her mom is a famous archaeologist. Her dad is a librarian by occupation and a superhero by destiny. Her uncle is world renowned superspy. With this pedigree, she is poised to take on the world. However, to accommodate her parents’ busy schedules and give her a chance at a normal life, Alison goes to a Catholic boarding school with her best friends, Dot and Wendy. Despite this, Alison manages to get into just as much mischief as one would expect from a girl with her family tree.
The volumes are constructed with three distinct stories in each, showing their miniseries origins. These stories range from explaining her parents’ first meeting and father’s superhero origin to her exaggerated school report about her adventures during summer vacation. Some stories follow a predictable pattern while others show the chaos that can swirl around a family with such excitingly varied occupations.
The artwork for Alison Dare fits a lot into each panel. This might be overwhelming for the younger readers the series wants to embrace. The styling and detailed backgrounds give an interesting vibe that an older audience would appreciate, though for them, the stories might then seem a little immature.
The characters’ looks evoke a multitude of memes and stereotypes. The Clark Kent-esque librarian magically becomes a superhero. The skinny blonde is the adventurer while her short, chubby Asian friend is the one who knows all the facts. The superspy uncle hides behind a moustache to catch the crooks. The stories also borrow heavily from famous scenes that may have originally featured Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, which can be fun, especially for any older readers who might be familiar with those tales.
When put all together, Alison Dare lacks an originality that its premise promises. My high expectations for the series might have skewed my perceptions, but, for me, it falls a little flat. Still, the high points are high, and I really enjoyed the episode that involves the fighting nuns and forgetfulness gas. I could also see some high interest, low literacy readers getting a kick out of the series. However, the overall product is like an awkward tween who can’t quite decide how to be a grown up. You know she’s trying her hardest and sometimes it’s cute, but the strange combination of immaturity and being too adult for her age leads to a confusing stage you hope she grows out of soon.
Alison Dare series by J. Torres Art by J. Bone
Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures ISBN: 97808877694 Alison Dare: The Heart of the Maiden ISBN: 9780887769351 Tundra Books, 2010 Publisher Age Rating: Ages 8-11
If this book were a movie pitch, I’d have to say that Alison Dare’s story is the recent reincarnation of The Mummy crossed with Indiana Jones if Indiana Jones were a twelve-year old girl. In slick black and white, J. Torres and J. Jones introduce us to the intelligent, adventure-obsessed Alison Dare, daughter of an archaeologist mother and a librarian/superhero father. Despite her parents attempt to keep Alison reined in a bit by sending her to a boarding school, she and her two buddies still manage to get into their fair share of trouble. Her various and sundry adventuresome relatives are always around to come to the rescue, however, and these infectious tales of adventure and romance revel in the traditions of classic serial adventures. Despite appearances, however, all is not fabulous in Alison’s life–her parents are divorced and the instances that remind her of this painful reality are subtle and feeling. Although this title skews toward a younger audience, I say it’s fit and fun for all–who doesn’t need a witty archeologist-in-training bent on adventure in their life?
Alison Dare, vol. 1: Little Miss Adventures ISBN: 9780887769344 By J. Torres Art by J. Jones Tundra Books, 2010 (second edition)