17 09 2012

I seem to be on a real big graphic novel kick lately.  I really enjoyed Smile by Raina Telgemeier, the Babymouse series has quickly become one of my favorites, My Friend Dahmer was one of the most memorable books I’ve read this yearand Bone has shot to the top of my all-time favorites list.




Not to be forgotten is the Amulet series.  These books, by Japanese-American author Kazu Kibuishi, are among the best fantasy adventures I’ve ever read.  The story starts out in an amazing fashion with one of the best hooks in the history of books (I reviewed book one about a month ago), but it’s gone so far that it’s hard to remember how simple things were for the book’s brother and sister heroes – Navin and Emily – back then.

The story begins with the kids moving, along with their mom, to a creepy old house that has been in the family for generations, but was last inhabited by their great-grandfather, the eccentric old Silas.  The mom’s scraping to make ends meet and at her wit’s end, so she moves her family into the house, because the free price tag is all she can afford.

Before they’ve even spent an entire night there, a spooky ghosty octopus-demon thing snatches mom away, taking her to another world/dimension.

Emily and Navin follow, Emily wearing an amulet the kids found while snooping around, and they soon learn that Emily is what is known as a stonekeeper, a person that can connect with the stone in the old amulet to perform some incredible feats of magic.  They go after their mother, while the evil prince of the elves tries to stop them, and before long they meet that eccentric, long-lost great-grandfather and an odd assortment of good guys, like the robot bunny, the tin-man engineer, the ninja fox warrior, and the old man/cat person that pilots a blimp/plane.  

By book four, which is how far I’ve gotten so far, you’re in a totally unique world with its own set of rules, wondering if the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good, because the author throws some incredible twists and turns at you in every chapter.

I don’t know how long this series will go on, but it’s got me hooked, because it’s one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever read.  To top it off, the art work is unbelievable.  In each book there are three or four sections where Kibuishi changes things around – instead of five or six little panels on a page, he makes a few giant pictures that go across two whole pages – these ones make you stop and stare for a while.  The imagination, the artistic talent, the incredible storytelling…. Amulet has it all.

I’ve got book five on hold at the public library, and I can’t wait ’til it comes in.

Bone 7, 8, and 9

13 09 2012

Way back in the day, great stories were written in the form of epic poems.

The Iliad told the story of the Trojan War – a decades long battle started when the Trojan prince, Paris ran off with Helen, the wife of a Greek King.  The Greeks invaded Troy, resulting in a war that lasted 20 years and destroyed an entire civilization.  After that war ended, one of the Greek generals, Odysseus, tried to go home.

The Odyssey told his story, and how he incurred the wrath of the god Poseidon and secured the aid of the goddess Athena who battled with one another to prevent him from getting/help him to get home.  Along the way he fights monsters, storms, and curses for years and years.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of a Mesopotamian King.  Beowulf tells the tale of a fierce Norse warrior called upon to save his whole society.  The legend of King Arthur, the fictional king that was said to unite all the tribes of great Britain, is another epic tale.  The common thread among all these stories are fantastical adventures that cover vast place and time.  

In more recent times, stories like Harry Potter, His Dark MaterialsThe Chronicles of NarniaThe Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, and more for adults, The Dark Tower and A Game of Thrones have all been called modern day epics due to the incredible scope, fantastical characters, and exciting adventures in each of these tales.

I’m going to argue that one more story should be added to this incredible list – Bone.  

Some people look at the Bone graphic novels and immediately discount them as “little kid” books, because the main characters look like silly kids’ cartoons.  And it’s true – Fone Bone, Phony Bone, and Smiley Bone are goofy and cartoony – at least in the beginning of the nine book series.  Don’t let that fool you.  They still have exactly what it takes to be great characters.  The three Bone cousins are up there with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy or Bugs, Daffy, and Porky, or even Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippen from The Lord of the Rings.  

Fone Bone is the Mickey/Bugs.  He’s serious, he’s normal, and he’s loyal.  Phony is Donald/Daffy Duck – he’s angry, he’s temperamental, and he’s selfish.  Smiley Bone is just like Goofy or Porky – he’s happy, he’s silly, and he’s there for comic relief.  Now just imagine that Mickey, Donald, and Goofy find themselves in Middle Earth fighting the forces of evil for the future of mankind.  That’s Bone.  

These cartoony cousins have somehow stumbled into another world, a world in which an evil being called the Lord of the Locusts is trying to take over.  There are incredible bad guys, treacherous journeys, daring rescues,  perilous battles, and all the other things great epics need – evil villains; a chosen one growing into their role as hero; mystical animals like dragons, giant mountain lions, and the horrible rat creatures.

Over the course of the 9 books in the series (plus a prequel story called Rose and a supplement called Bone: Tall Tales), you get as much drama, action, adventure, mystery, and good vs. evil as you do in Lord or the RingsGilgameshBeowulf, or Harry Potter.

Like any great story – epic poem, graphic novel, or prose story – the only bad thing about the Bone series is that it had to end.  It’s a great ending, but I would have loved 9 more books instead.  Thank goodness some one else agrees, because there’s now a new Bone series – new characters and a new adventure in a series of illustrated novels (think Diary of a Whimpy Kid or Wonderstruckcalled Bone: Quest for the Spark.  Those new books are definitely on my “to-read” list.


19 08 2012

There’s Harry Potter, The Lord of the RingsThe Chronicles of NarniaThe Once and Future King, and countless other fantasy novels that can lay the claim to the “be all end all,” the best of the best, the one series that defines the genre.  I’m here today to ask people to consider Jeff Smith’s epic graphic novel series Bone for that title as well.

The world of Bone is every bit as detailed, well thought out, and endless in scope as Narnia.  It’s heroes, the Bone cousins (Fone, Phoney, and Smiley) are as fantastic as Frodo and Samwise.  The reluctant “Chosen One,” Thorn, is as compelling as Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Neo from the Matrix.  Plus, unlike most of those other stories, Bone also has some hilarious moments.

I haven’t finished the 9 book series just yet, but the first 6 books make up the first two of three trilogies that tell the entire story of Fone Bone, a marshmallowy looking creature who, along with his scam-artist cousin Phoney and his goofball cousin Smiley, stumble into “the valley,” a world of mythological monsters and medieval villages.

The cousins are separated at first, finding themselves in an ancient world on the verge of war.  A mysterious hooded figure is trying to awake evil spirits of the past, aided by the rat creatures, a vicious breed of carnivorous monsters.  The Bones are befriended by the last remaining humans in the valley, including Thorn, a beautiful, but sad heroine, Gran’ma Ben, and Lucious, the owner of the Barrelhaven Tavern.

As the story unfolds, more bad guys show up, twists and turns abound, and the characters become some of the strongest ever seen in the fantasy genre.

So far, I’ve read Bone 1-6.  They were the 80th, 81st, 83rd, 87th, 88th, and 90th books I’ve read this summer.  I have three more Bone books to read to finish Bone’s quest, but my quest to read 90 books in 90 days over summer break is over.  

Amulet Vol.1: The Stonekeeper

19 08 2012

If you want to learn how to write a good hook for a piece of fiction, see an example how to grab a reader’s attention and make them – force them to – command them to- want to read more, then read the first pages of Amulet Vol. 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi.

From the opening scene of this amazingly drawn graphic novel, you’re hooked.  You can’t wait to find out what happens, and, unlike a lot of fantasy stories, you don’t get bogged down in a bunch of exposition from there.  Kibuishi finds a way to weave the rules of his world and the lives of his characters into the story.

Emily and Navin have just lost their dad.  Mom has moved them away from everything they know, moving them into a giant, spooky house that you can feel must be loaded with secrets.  Right away you see, just outside of view of the characters, a ghosty, misty spirit lurking in the shadows.  Suddenly, things get real.

The children’s mom is eaten by the spirit, and the kids, giving chase to the creature, get sucked into some sort of alternate dimension where Emily’s new found amulet seems to be a source of power that can both help her and has the baddies after her.

The action is non-stop, the characters fun and interesting, and the world of Amulet is intriguing.  I can’t wait to read book 2.

This fantastic graphic novel was the 79th book I’ve read this summer on my quest to finish 90 books in 9o days over break.

Tons More Babymouse

19 08 2012

All summer long I’ve been slowly working my way through the Babymouse series.  Honestly, I’ve seen students reading these for years, and they’ve always frustrated me a little – I was of the opinion that they were baby books and had nothing of value for 6th graders.  Boy, was I wrong.

These books are fantastic for 6th graders.  They’re loaded with connections to other texts, to movies, to TV shows, to history, and to real life.  They’re all about imagination, living your dreams, and being happy with who you are.  What could be more appropriate for 12 year olds?

There are a few Babymouse books that never seem to be in at my local library – Like #4, Babymouse: Rockstar – would someone please return that already – but this week I just decided to read all the ones they had, even if they weren’t in the right order (order doesn’t really matter with this series).

First, I read Babymouse: The Musical, which is the 10th book in the series.  As the school drama coach, and a theatre major in college, this one was one of my favorites.  Babymouse’s little imaginings took her into some famous musicals.  The part I liked best was when she found herself in The Phantom of the Opera, because just last month I was in that famous Opera House in Paris.  It’s always fun when the books you read surprisingly connect with things you’ve done in life.

Next was Babymouse: Dragonslayer, the 11th book.  This one ties in all sorts of popular stories from fantasy – Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and, in a really fun way that is typical Babymouse, the Narnia stories.  This, I think, was my favorite Babymouse so far.

I had to skip a few books, but after Dragonslayer, I read Babymouse: Mad Scientist (#14).  This one was a clever way to introduce Jennifer and Matt Holm’s other graphic novel series – Squish.  In this story, Babymouse is working on a science fair project about amoebas, and happens to find Squish.  I’ve already read the first two Squish books, but I imagine kids reading this for the first time, then finding Squish in his own adventures will be pretty excited.

The 15th book, A Very Babymouse Christmas, was another fun one.  Not as clever as some of the other ones, but still a good book.

Finally, I read #9, Puppy Love.  This one is a hilarious look at Babymouse trying to find just the right pet for her.  Look for the scene in which we find out what happens to all of the past pets she’s had that have escaped.  Typical Babymouse right there.

I hope I can get my hands on the few Babymouse stories I haven’t read so far, but I know one thing’s for sure – I will be recommending these to kids in my class this year.  I judged these books by their cover early on, but I’ve learned my lesson now.

These five Babymouse books were the 77th, 82nd, 85th, 86th, and 89th.  I’m reviewing them here a little out of order, but I’m almost done with my quest to read 90 books in 90 days over break.  

Babymouse and Squish

12 08 2012

Babymouse never fails to amuse me.  She’s a perfect cartoon character – based in reality, but with the right quirks to make her lovable.   Her imagination, and the world’s she creates in her mind, puts her in the same category of two of my favorite comic/graphic novel characters of all time: Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes and Amelia from Amelia Rules.  Squish, the only cartoon amoeba that I know of, is the hero of his own series, and he’s quickly becoming as good a character as Babymouse.

In Babymouse’s fifth book, Heartbreaker, it’s Valentine’s Day and the dance is coming up.  Babymouse tries to figure out who might ask her to the dance, escaping often into the pink fantasy worlds she creates in her head.  There’s a long list of boys that Babymouse finds interesting, and that adds to the fun.  In typical Babymouse fashion, every one of the potential suitors and the possibility of them asking her to the dance blows up in her face.

The sixth book, Camp Babymouse, is just as good.  In this one, Babymouse heads off to camp for the summer with visions of being the greatest scout of all time.  That doesn’t quite work in her favor, and in just about every competition between her cabin and the other kids, Babymouse finds a way to screw it up.  Typical, as Babymouse herself would say.

Squish #2, Brave New Pond, is all about our favorite single celled organism trying to turn over a new leaf at school – stop trading his lunches, be more assertive, and, of course, become popular.  Squish fails at almost all his goals initially, but suddenly things start looking up when a crowd of popular kids want to include him in their group.  Just like in real life, Squish is forced to make decisions between the respect of the cool kids or being loyal to the friends who’ve always been there for him.  I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the last few pages are very satisfying for any kid who’s ever been picked on or bullied at school.

The brother/sister team that writes and draws Babymouse and Squish is remarkable.  For them to come up with so many fun, original stories is incredible – there are now at 16 Babymouse and soon to be 4 Squish books in the last 7 years.  Jennifer L. Holm has been given the Newberry Honor award three times for her books Turtle in Paradise, Penny from Heaven, and Our Only May Amelia, so I can’t fathom how she has the time to write so many quality stories in so many different genres.  Her brother, Matthew Holm, who draws the comics, is also a graphic designer and writer – he’s also a pretty cool guy to follow on Twitter.

Babymouse 5 and 6 and Squish 2 were the 67th, 68th, and 69th books I’ve read this summer.  I’ve almost made it to my goal of 90 books in 90 days over break.  

My Friend Dahmer

9 08 2012

We live in a messed up world.  People go see the new Batman movie and get shot by a lunatic playing Joker.  A group of peaceful folks in Wisconsin got to their place of worship and are killed by a nut.  A woman in my town was pulled over last week by a person she thought was a cop – it wasn’t, and the man pretending to be a police officer dragged her into a cornfield and assaulted her.

TV shows, movies, and books are often an escape from the real world.  Sometimes, however, they offer some insight into what’s going on out there.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf is of those insightful ones.

This book is a graphic novel about Jeffery Dahmer.  For those of you don’t know who that is, he’s one of the crazy people.  He was a serial killer in the 1980s and early ’90s who killed 17 people.

I’m usually not a fan of books that tell the story of horrible people like Dahmer, but this one is different.  It’s not about his crimes.  It’s about his adolescence – the years that turned him into the monster he became.

Derf Backderf, the author and illustrator, went to junior high and high school with Dahmer, so he has a unique insight into how the awkward, strange young man devolved into one of the world’s worst killers.  This book follows Backderf’s group of friends, which Dahmer was loosely associated with, from middle school until just after high school graduation.

The theme of the book, as Backderf looks back at Dahmer’s anti-social behavior and creepiness with 20/20 hindsight, is “where were the adults?”  Knowing what Dahmer would become, you read this book wondering how his parents, the neighbors, the teachers, or the principal never saw the writing on the wall, never realized that this kid needed help, never knew that he was a ticking time bomb.

It’s hard to call this book good or great or awesome, even though the art and writing are incredible – it’s just not that type of book, this one made me feel a little sick to my stomach the entire time I read it – a feeling I haven’t had since I visited a Nazi Concentration Camp in Germany back in 2007.  It is, however, an important book.  It’s a book about missing the signs, not hearing the cries for help, and not noticing when someone falls though the cracks.  What Dahmer did was awful.  He’s not a sympathetic figure, but what he did was preventable if someone would have just seen the signs.

Maybe we can say the same thing for Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and all the other horrific tragedies.  Maybe we could have stopped it if only we were paying attention.

This book, in my opinion, is one that all parents, teachers, principals, school counselors, and middle/high school students should read.  Not because it’s great, but because it’s important.

I’m trying to finish 90 books in 90 days this summer break.  My Friend Dahmer was #54.