Friday, December 14, 2012

Kid Lit: Upside Down and The Shark King

Let's take a look at some other recent books for kids:

Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, by Jess Smart Smiley (Top Shelf). This is a charming, simply-rendered comic that combines fable and adventure in a story that has some real stakes. There's a strong James Kochalka influence at work here as Harold the young vampire hangs out with some real bats who enjoy pooping on humans. Whimsy goes hand in hand with danger as an evil witch seeks out an immortality potion, Harold worries about being alienated from his family after he loses his fangs at the dentist's office, and there are multiple situations where the odds seem against Harold's survival. This is a comic that's both relentlessly silly and eccentric; there's nothing cookie-cutter about Smiley's design sense, character design or plot choices. That said, the plot is remarkably straightforward in terms of its structure, including burying plot clues early on in the story, various fake-outs, and actual character arc-work. I sensed Chris Staros' hand in perhaps tightening up some of those plot elements, but Top Shelf left Smiley plenty of room to be as weird as he wanted to be, including using an especially lurid and gross color of green throughout the story. This book is a solid debut for Smiley, whose ability to walk the line between winking at genre material and constructing a compelling narrative bodes well for his future.

The Shark King, by R. Kikuo Johnson (Toon Books).  Johnson is an excellent illustrator who normally works in a naturalistic style. For this book, he softened that style up without losing any of his distinctively bold storytelling flair. Johnson, a native of Hawai'i, spins a tale of local myth Nanaue, the son of the Shark King. Bear in mind that this story is aimed at six and seven year-olds, yet there's nothing about it that talks down to readers. The soft approach he uses for his character design gives his characters a fuzzy and inviting appearance, even when disturbing things are occurring. For example, the jaws growing out of young Nanaue's back almost look cute when they snap at people, even if they are actually monstrous. The simplicity of the character design is offset by the complexity of the page composition, as it's filled with panels of differing sizes, tilting splash pages, inset panels, panels cascading after each other, panels without borders and other devices that take a young reader on a journey. Johnson is so good at providing intuitive clues in how to follow a page that even the more advanced of his page designs isn't hard to follow because of the absolute clarity of his character-dominated storytelling. The fact that the story (like most myths) does not end on an unambiguously happy note is another nice touch, one that hopefully will get young readers thinking. Johnson really excelled at this type of storytelling, and I hope he plumbs the depths of Hawai'ian folklore to tell more stores.

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