Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Power Pack Iron Man and Jellaby

Iron Man Power Pack by Marc Sumerak, Marcelo Dichiara, Gurihiru (Marvel)

So far in this series, the Power Pack has teamed up with Spidey, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Hulk. This time it’s Tony Stark’s turn to guest star in this wonderful all-ages comic. Kids love Power Pack because the kids are heroes, not sidekicks, and the stories and art appeal to girls as well as boys. The art is clean and colorful, with a bit of an animation feel to it, which I know old-school comics fan lament, but I think it’s a smart choice in the effort to get kids to read these comics. I preferred the art when Gurihiru Studios were doing the pencils as well as the colors – Dicheria’s work just isn’t quite as good – but Sumerak’s writing is always great.

Power Pack always has the right balance of humor and adventure and, unlike some of Marvel’s other “all-ages” comics, Power Pack is always appropriate for younger kids. Even when Venom took over little Katie Power, it all managed to be good fun. It’s a superhero comic so fighting is a big part of the story, but they keep it down to a kid-friendly level – it’s about stopping the bad guys, not hurting them. My favorite part was in Iron Man Power Pack issue #4 when Tony and the kids have to neutralize a phalanx of re-animated Iron Man tech. It gave them license to unleash total destruction without hurting anyone – smart thinking in a kids’ comic. I think adult superhero fans can enjoy these books if they let go of the continuity issues and just read them the way they did when they were kids – there’s plenty of action, surprises and laughs for everyone.

You get a bonus in the back of each comic with Chris Giarrusso’s awesome Mini Marvels. They always make me laugh, but I’m sure I’m missing half of the jokes because I’m not a True Believer. (Oh, and Chris Giarrusso has the best website in the known universe.) However, with the comics you also get several pages of ads, some of which are not very kid-friendly. I’d say buy the trades for libraries and classrooms (available in library bound editions) to avoid the advertising, but then you don’t get the Mini Marvels, which is a bummer.

Sarah says: Power Pack are these four kids, they’re brothers and sisters, and they have superpowers. One of them can defy gravity, one of them can fly real fast and run real fast, one of them can turn bigger or smaller or into, like, a cloud or something, and the youngest one, which is a girl, can shoot out energy from her hands. They have these yellow rings around their bodies that are like floating in the air and they go zzzzhhhhht and put their costumes on for them. In the Iron Man Power Pack series they meet Iron Man and have to help him with the Puppet Master. It was really good and basically anybody would like this. My favorite character is probably Katie because she is the youngest one in the Power Pack and she has strongest power. I like the part when Iron Man has to attack his own suits at a museum. It’s kind of scary for four-year-olds, but it wouldn’t scare the poop out of them or anything, it would just be a little scary because there’s lots of fighting and a girl gets kidnapped. But there’s no blood or gore or anything like that. I like the little Mini Marvels at the end because they’re always really funny. It was an Iron Man Mini Marvel this time and he gave everybody Iron Mani-ish suits, and there was an elephant named Steve. I like Steve.

Links to previews of all the Power Pack comics are on Marc Sumerak’s site.

Jellaby by Kean Soo (Hyperion)

Having read the Jellaby story in Flight 3, I was prepared for this book to be a festival of cuteness, and most of it is certainly adorable. Jellaby is the most loveable monster since Cookie, and the heroine, Portia, and her little friend Jason are cute as the dickens as well. The only small complaint I have about the art is the Tylenol caplet-shaped eyes on the human characters – humans without pupils feel a little creepy to me. Even so, the characters are all likeable and the relationship between the two kids feels realistic, complete with squabbling and bickering.

So I’m enjoying this totally adorable story of a girl and her monster friend when suddenly I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. In a flashback, little Portia is sitting on a bench in a police station, waiting for her mom, when the rather scruffy man next to her tries to strike up a conversation. I don’t want to give away any more, but I must tell you that this scene really made my skin crawl. I think that in another book it might not have had the same impact, but when dropped into the middle of this cuddly-wuddly story, it was really unsettling. The man shows up again toward the end of the story briefly as well. Personally, I think this juxtaposition of sweet and evil makes the book more interesting, but parents should be aware that it might scare very young or easily frightened kids. Oh, and there is one use of the word “friggin” by a bully, just so you know. I’d say Jellaby is best for 8 and up because of the fright factor. You could certainly read the book to your very little ones and surreptitiously skip those pages and they’d still enjoy the story.

Sarah says: Jellaby is about a giant purple monster that meets this girl. She takes care of it and it’s really cute and I don’t want to say much more because I would give it all away, but it’s really cool and one kid likes carrots who is her best friend. And they, like, try to get the purple monster, Jellaby, back home. And Jellaby’s learning English and it’s really cute. I think anybody would really like this book but some of it is kinda freaky – the tiniest fraction of it is scary because there’s this evil crow dude who shows up in her dreams all the time and he scares me. The whole book is purple and red and black and white, with a little bit of orange, but I didn’t even notice because the story was so good.

Shelby says: Jellaby is about a little girl named Portia who finds a big, purple monster outside of her bedroom window, so she takes it inside and feeds it and then she finds out that he’s from this weird place behind a weird door. The drawings and the colors are really cute and everything is in a shade of purple or red except for Jason, Portia’s friend, because he has an orange shirt with a carrot on it. I like this book because it’s very cute and it’s a good storyline. I would say this book is for little kids or even older kids except there are a couple of things that aren’t exactly children-ish; the word “friggin” and this guy says, “I know where your daddy’s bones are buried” while he’s handcuffed to a bench and it’s really creepy. If they made a doll or a stuffed animal Jellaby I would totally buy one.

Click to check out some Jellaby short comics and the first couple chapters of the book.

Miki Falls and Diary of a Wimpy Kid

We’re back from our hiatus! Now that we’ve adjusted to the homework load and the school play is over, we have a huge stack of great comics and graphic novels to tell you about. First, let’s be clear about this column – our mission is to get the word out about great comics and graphic novels that are kid-friendly or all-ages. The girls are so busy with homework and activities, I’m not about to ask them to read or review anything they are not interested in. All books reviewed in this column are chosen by Shelby (12) and Sarah (9).

What does all-ages mean? You can read my definition of all-ages here. My litmus test is not whether I would give a book to my own kids, but whether I would feel comfortable giving it to one of the kids in my class (I teach a reading intervention program for grades 3-5). I specify what I feel the age range for a book is based on appropriateness and interest and I will always try to mention anything that might be even slightly inappropriate in a classroom or public library setting.

Now that the ground rules have been re-established, here are this week’s reviews!

Miki Falls: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter by Mark Crilley (Harper Teen)

Mark Crilley’s Akiko stories (graphic novels/comics as well as chapter books) are wonderful kid-friendly sci-fi fare and show up on many “best-of all ages” lists. His newest work, a four-volume set, will appeal to a slightly older and mostly female audience. Miki Falls is Crilley’s own version of a teen romance manga…with a fantasy twist.

The four volumes, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, tell the story of Miki, a Japanese high school student, who falls for the mysterious Hiro. I definitely found myself drawn into the story and I liked the fantasy elements, but it is quite sappy and romantic – I’m sure I rolled my eyes a couple of times in each volume. Crilley’s take on manga is gorgeous; beautifully shaded and just lovely. At times, however, I felt a bit claustrophobic because of the large percentage of “close ups” on faces. When the point of view widens, the art really shines.

Even if you’re not a romantic, this series is really worth picking up for Crilley’s unique and dynamic page layouts. The shattered panels and overlays intensify the action while the placement of captions and dialog is quite intuitive and easy to follow, even for a novice comic reader. I like the page layouts in Miki Falls more than any other book I can think of at the moment.

I’d recommend Miki Falls for teen and tween girls (ages 10 and up). There’s nothing inappropriate at all – the romance is confined to kissing. Miki Falls will pull in not only manga readers but all girls in the age group. Put these volumes in your classroom or library and I’ll bet they won’t spend long on the shelf.

Shelby says: Miki Falls is about this girl named Miki who meets a boy at her high school named Hiro. She finds out that he has something to do with magic. The art is really good, but my friend doesn’t think it is manga. I think she thinks this because she’s used to the regular manga instead of an American version. I like it because it looks cartoony yet it’s detailed and pretty in a way.
The layout of the pages is kind of cool, like when there’s a picture of someone looking surprised he just shows their eyes and then another picture is in between their eyes. The panels are laid out on the page well because they’re not exactly straight all the time; they look like shards of glass or something. It makes it more interesting.
Sometimes things are explained over and over but I guess that’s how it is in love stories. I like that it’s in Japan so there are lots of pictures of Japanese houses, gardens, shrines, etc. That’s really pretty. (I’m obsessed with Japanese stuff!) The way the love and the magic are put together is really creative. Teen girls would like these books because it’s all about how you feel and how popular you are and about love and relationships.

Sarah says: Miki Falls is a really cool story. At the beginning it shows her doing something strange that has something to do with the title and at the end it reveals why she did it. None of the panels are really straight, they’re all crooked sort of. It’s love and romance, if you want that, and it also has a bit of fantasy and fairy tale, too. I think pre-teens would really like it (which is Shelby) and I liked it because of the magic part. It’s really a girls’ story because it’s from a girl’s point of view and it’s all about this lovey-dovey stuff and most boys aren’t interested in that until it is about them.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Diary of a Wimpy Kid; Roderick Rules by Jeff Kinney (Amulet Books)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid spent 39 weeks on the NY Times Bestsellers Children’s Chapter Books list, and was just knocked out of first place by its sequel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid; Roderick Rules. How’s that for comics in the mainstream? The rub here is that this isn’t really a comic or a graphic novel -- it’s actually a hybrid of comic illustrations and text. I found an interview with Kinney in which he says, “I had always wanted to be a cartoonist, but I found that it was very tough to break into the world of newspaper syndication. So I started playing with a style that mixed cartoons and "traditional" writing, and that's how Diary of a Wimpy Kid was born.” In most cases the cartoons are not integral to the story – the text is completely readable on its own – but there are some places where the “punch line” is contained in the illustrations.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid was first published as a webcomic on Funbrain, one of the most popular kids’ educational websites. Funbrain is also running On The Rocks (also called Wally and Osborne) and Silent Kimbly, two really great webcomics for kids (also available at Lunchbox Funnies). Could the new generation of comics readers develop their habit through online comics? Hmmmmm. I think dedicated webcomic sites are unlikely to draw kids in, but putting webcomics on sites where kids are already going feels like a slam dunk.

Because the webcomic was written in the form of a diary, it translates perfectly into book format. The “diary” of Greg Heffley details all the trials and tribulations of middle school popularity, nasty older brothers, and unwanted parental attention. Kinney does a good job of showing the world from a kid’s perspective, but the adults are not all completely useless and stupid, which is usually what you get in this genre. He also manages to keep things pretty tame and appropriate for ages 9 and up while still giving it a realistic feel and a lot of laughs. Kids who start out loving Captain Underpants will easily move “up” to these books. They’re kind of the boys’ version of the Dear Dumb Diary series, though most girls will enjoy the Wimpy Kid books as well.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid illustrates the phenomenon of children wanting to read about (or watch TV shows about) kids who are just a bit older than they are. The protagonist is in seventh grade, which would make him 12 or 13 years old, but the book really appeals to the 9-11 crowd. Shelby (age 12) only read about five pages of the first book before she decided that it just wasn’t for her – “It was supposed to be funny but it was just stupid.”

Sarah, who is nine, loves it.

Sarah says: Diary of a Wimpy Kid is about a boy named Greg whose mom bought him a diary to write down his “feelings.” Instead, he calls it a journal and writes about all the funny things that happens to him. It’s really funny. My favorite character is Manny, who is Greg’s little brother. I like him because he has a huge mouth and he’s really funny and he always gets scared. Some of the other characters are Roderick, his big brother, who is in high school and is the drummer for his band, Loded Diper, and Greg’s best friend, Rowley, who is really dumb and always says, “Come over and plaaaaaaaaay!” which embarrasses Greg a lot. My favorite part out of the two books is when Greg talks about the first day of preschool someone asked him, “Do you like ice cream?” and he said, “Yes,” and so the person said, “Why don’t you marry it?” and he didn’t know that it was a joke so he didn’t want to go back to preschool. The picture is his imagination where there’s him in a suit and a ice cream cone in a wedding dress getting married. It’s my favorite book right now and it’s fun to read over and over because you always laugh out loud. I think most eight-year-olds to adults will laugh at Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Shelby doesn’t like it because she’s a middle-schooler and middle-schoolers don’t like anything, just like Greg in the book!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

All Hail Jon Scieszka!

You must immediately read this fabulous interview with Jon Scieszka (author of The Stinky Cheese Man) who has been named the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by The Children's Book Council and the Library of Congress.

Some excerpts:

It’s important to find out who each kid is, pay some individual attention to that kid, then find out what he enjoys reading. What I like to tell people is that they really need to expand their definition of what reading is. I think that’s the first step, because people are still a little leery about kids reading graphic novels or comic books or any visual narrative. But if you work with kids, like we have, you know that kids respond to that stuff.

I need some gear—laureate swag—and just to come out and be official and say, “Take a break. Comics are OK.” I love Lisa Von Drasek, the librarian at Bank Street College. She’s somebody who knows that you’re not watering down the curriculum when you use comics. If you work with a bunch of kids, like Lisa does, and you see the work that they put into reading a comic or decoding an entire graphic novel, you realize it’s spectacular stuff.
So why would we cut off our nose just to uphold some imaginary standards? And the same thing is true of a lot of other genres that used to be looked down on, like science fiction and fantasy.

The man makes sense. I hope his new title will make people listen!

Death of Abadazad?

I don't know how I missed it, but in September J.M. DeMatteis announced that Hyperion is killing the Abadazad books.

I never thought the hybrid format worked for Abadazad, and the design of those books was pretty unappealing. Here's hoping that it can be resurrected in comics format, because it was one of the best all-ages comics ever.