Monday, April 14, 2008

Flight Explorer (and a rant about language)

Flight Explorer, Volume One. Edited by Kazu Kabuishi (Villard)

It’s time to discuss something that I know is a sore subject: “adult” language in children’s books. Now, before you go crying censorship or expounding on how you read Punisher when you were ten and it didn’t hurt you a bit, please understand that my personal feelings on this matter don’t always match my responsibilities as a teacher. My own kids know all the “bad” words; they read them in books and hear them in movies, they certainly hear them at school, and I really couldn’t care less. Words are words and we talk about when and where and by whom they are used. However, when it comes to being a teacher in a public school classroom, there are certain words that are completely off-limits if I want to keep my job.

I’m constantly dumbfounded by the inclusion of just one or two of these words in works aimed at the children’s market. One of the most surprising examples I can remember is in Tommysaurus Rex by Doug TenNapel. This touching tale of a boy and his dinosaur would be a welcome addition to any children’s collection except for one panel: when Tommy is dropped off at his Grandpa’s house, Gramps calls after the parents: “…Go have fun! Go have some sex! Call me when summer's over!” Because of that one panel, that one line, I can’t donate the book to our school library or have it on the shelf in my classroom. Was that panel really necessary? I don’t think it adds anything at all to the story and could easily have been left out. Obviously TenNapel and his editors felt differently, but that decision means that many children’s librarians and teachers won’t buy it.

This leads us to this week’s review: Flight Explorer. The Flight series has seen great success and is, in my opinion, showcases some of the most creative work being done in the medium today. Every anthology has its hits and misses, but the quality level overall in the Flight books is very high. Most of the stories are truly all-ages, with something for everyone, but there are a few small moments here and there that have led children’s librarians and teachers to keep these volumes off their shelves.

On the Flight blog, Kazu wrote, “After hearing from many booksellers and librarians that there weren’t very many high quality all-ages comics available for their youngest readers, we decided that a volume of Flight containing only the stories with the youngest readers in mind would be a great solution to the problem.” Hurray! What a fabulous idea!

Um, well, it would have been, with one – actually two – very small exceptions. While the stories in Flight Explorer are imaginative, colorful, well-written, and appeal to not only kids but to everyone, I cannot bring it into my classroom or give it to the school library.

In the story Missile Mouse, the eponymous character says, “Holy crap!” and “Oh crap.” That’s it. The same word, used twice, has cut this book out of many classrooms and libraries in America.

Lest you think, “Aw, that’s no big deal. Kids use that word all the time.” Yes, they do, when adults aren’t around. If they use it in the classroom they will be reprimanded and/or punished, so I can’t very well give them a book with crap in it, can I?

The kids in my class really struggle with reading, so I have a large selection of comics and graphic novels available in the classroom, hoping to stimulate their interest. Two of them were reading Lions, Tigers, and Bears and ran up to me yelling, “Ooooooh, there’s a bad word in this book! I’m gonna tell my mom!” Turns out the word was beastie, which they thought was bastard. I’m 100% sure they can decode the word crap.

I highly recommend Flight Explorer for both kids and adults. Buy it for your kids, your niece and nephew, grandkids. But unless your community has a tolerance for the word crap (and that word is definitely less onerous than when I was a kid), I can’t recommend it for elementary classrooms and libraries.

The girls and I reviewed each story individually – here are our favorites. As a reminder, Shelby is 12, Sarah is 9, and Tracy is the mom.

Copper by Kazu Kibuishi
Sarah: This is the second Copper story I’ve read in the Flight books and I like them. The mushroom-tree things in it are funny.

Shelby: I liked the art, especially the mushroom tops, and I like the dog and Copper.

Tracy: This short piece really stimulates the imagination. Where are Copper and Fred going? Where have they come from? I could almost feel what it would be like to jump from mushroom to mushroom.

Egyptian Cat: Perfect Cat by Johane Matte

Tracy: The story revolves around a cat living in an Egyptian royal family who becomes jealous of another cat who seems to be a palace favorite. Turns out that being the favorite gets you mummified as a gift to a goddess. Sarah actually didn’t understand the ending – I had to explain it to her. The jealous cat is such a great character; Matte manages to get a huge, Tex Avery-style range of facial expressions out of him. In fact, the whole story really plays in my head as an animated cartoon. It’s refreshing that the story doesn’t have a standard happy ending, though some little girls I know might be upset by it.

Sarah: This is probably one of my favorite stories in this. I like the way the different animals have different voices in the speech bubbles. I really liked the story, too, because it was really funny and it was also kind of sad.

Shelby: I like the art because the lines and the coloring are so straight and even that it looks very clean. The ending was a bit gross. I learned about mummies in class. We made a mummy chicken.

Big Mouth, by Phil Craven

Sarah: I loved this one! It’s kind of sad because he tries to be nice to everybody but they all be mean to him. Then there’s a bully and Big Mouth helps the little orange dude.

Shelby: I liked the way that he was drawn with the big, round body, and then the little, round teeth and the little, teeny arms and legs and a little, teeny hat.

Tracy: Any kid who doesn’t fit in will relate to this story about a misunderstood character who finds a friend.

Fish and Chips: All in a Day’s Work by Steve Hamaker

Sarah: I think it was really funny, especially when the fishy self-destructed his body and threw his bowl out to the Earth and he had a little propeller to make it swim.

Shelby: At first I didn’t really get what was going on, but then I could tell that the fish and the cat were a team. The cat only opened the door, though, and the fish did everything else.

Tracy: This is a great little story – Amazing Screw-On Head with a goldfish!

Delivery by Bannister

Sarah: I loved it – it was so funny! As long as you know the basic story of Tarzan or George of the Jungle, either way you wanna go, you’d get it.

Snow Cap: 2nd Verse by Matthew Armstrong

Tracy: The monster reminds me so much of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which is a good thing. This is one of my favorites because it’s achingly cute yet just a little creepy.

Shelby: I liked the art a lot. It’s like when my dog does something bad, like he barfs on the carpet, and he looks all sad and sorry. I still love him, but I know he’s gonna do it again.

Sarah: It was kind of sad when the monster eats the little girl, but it was funny when he spits her out and then she slaps him. It shows her little hat at the end. I think he ate her.

Sarah: I think Flight Explorer is good because it gives you some lessons and stuff. Like don’t get jealous and don’t try too hard to make friends or be nice to people who are different or don’t make fun of people ‘cause you might be wrong or you still love your family or your friend even if they do something wrong.

Shelby: This is like Flight but it’s shorter and cuter.

Links: Flight blog; Newsarama interview with Kazu Kibuishi including preview pages.


At April 14, 2008 at 5:57 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I entirely agree with you and have often been surprised brief whammies of maturity that seem inappropriate in books aimed to kids. It's not something I find to be a huge problem, but it's certainly something I've noticed.

For instance,I was reading the Dan Clowes story in Stuck in the Middle and was kinda surprised by some of the sex language in it - when I first read it, I thought that I had misunderstood and this was actually a book for adults about the middle school experience. Now, I love Dan Clowes and I acknowledge that the story in there was nothing compared to many of his stories for adults, but it just seemed very inappropriate to me.

I recently read a review copy of Water Baby, the upcoming book from Minx, and I was pretty appalled by what I read. I understand the book is meant for teens, but coming from a pretty respected imprint for teens, the coarse presentation of the subject matter was a bit weird.

Kids and teens engaging in bad language and behavior with each other is one thing - we've all been part of that world - but I do find it more than a little sleazy when adults indulge in it in stories meant for kids in some bizarre attempt to relate to them on their own level. What's so wrong with decorum among adults and setting an example? It doesn't mean the kids can't let loose in private, that's part of being young.

At April 16, 2008 at 10:04 AM , Anonymous Doug TenNapel said...

As the writer/artist of Tommysaurus and the father of four that are 6 and under I completely understand the sentiments of this post.

The problem is that I didn't write Tommysaurus for children, I wrote it for everybody. I completely support personal censorship and think it would be wise for libraries and parents to keep some of this material away from children. As a parent, I spend a lot of my time keeping harmful or age-inappropriate material away from my kids, and that includes my own bad language, sarcasm and cynicism I don't want to use in their presence (and I prefer not to use it out of their presence for that matter).

But I was raised by a crass man. My father regularly cursed and I was surrounded by my friend's Playboys, racist jokes etc. and I didn't choose to participate. I knew from early on that I needed to own my values and comport them to my Christian religion without expecting the rest of the world to act Christian.

For the record, I'd bet your library is full of children's books advocating "my two dads" and Global Warming hysteria and I would think it was my responsibility to keep this information away from my kids, not the authors or the library's.

I value and appreciate your position on this. I don't defend my own work's participation in making the air just a little more crass. But I don't see these books as children's books. And while my children have to hear words like "crap" every day, they know that we aren't allowed to use those words.

-Doug TenNapel

At April 16, 2008 at 5:14 PM , Blogger Tracy (Comic Mom) said...

Thanks, Doug, for your reasoned and well-stated response. I think my only frustration with your book is that I love it so much -- I wish I could share it with my class!


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