Monday, July 25, 2016

First Second For Kids: Sturm/Frederick-Frost/Arnold, Reed/Flood, Wicks

Ogres Awake!, by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost. This is the latest in the Adventures In Cartooning! series headed up by the head of the Center for Cartoon Studies and two alumni. Ostensibly designed to teach the basics of cartooning to kids, the trio of artists has also released a series of fun adventure books starring the knight who popped up in the actual instructional books. I had the benefit of my seven-year-old daughter asking me to read this book to her, sight unseen, and she loved the book's humor and sheer "loudness". The book opens with the crisis of the knight seeing a meadow full of giant, sleeping ogres, and the rest of the book is essentially a mad dash by the knight in an effort to thwart the crisis. About midway through, the artists come up with a counter plotline, wherein the knight's clamoring for battle is funneled into the knight helping to harvest food from a garden and chop vegetables, as the wise king beats the ogres by feeding them. The book is chock full of verbal and visual jokes, and Frederick-Frost's thick, brushy line sturdily carries the narrative without being overwhelmed by the book's bright colors. The endpapers, which contain brief tutorials on how to draw the characters and funny poses they can get into, were a particular favorite of my daughter, who loved the natural progression from utilitarian suggestions to sheer silliness, like a horse as a space explorer. It's the rare kids' book that goes all-out in an effort to be simply funny, without worrying about anything else.

Science Comics: Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, by MK Reed and Joe Flood. The Reed-Flood team's last collaboration was the character-centered romance The Cute Girl Network. Flood's preferred thing to draw is more in the realm of monsters, which makes this clever and page-turning account of the history of paleontology right in his wheelhouse. Kicking off First Second's Science Comics line, each cartoonist will have the conundrum of just how to present their given subject in a way that draws in younger readers. Reed's solution was to create a narrative based not so much on the history and qualities of dinosaurs (although that's all here as well), but rather on the history of how scientists (as well as grifters, hucksters and thieves) have understood and classified dinosaurs. Reed focuses on the colorful personalities that populated the world of paleontology in the early days, like amateur fossil collector Mary Anning (who did not receive the credit due her), arch-rivals Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen (the latter of whom sought to discredit the former in academia), and arch-rivals Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope (whose field teams threw rocks at each other).

Reed didn't separate the book into chapters per se, but rather reset things based on the changing nature of scientific paradigms. Starting off in 1800, for example, it is considered to be a fact that the earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs perished in the Great Flood, and there are no examples of them today. Every reset changed those assumptions dramatically, as science not only became more sophisticated but also started to admit to the ways in which new evidence can shatter old paradigms. Amusingly, that was backed up when Reed wrote a chapter that noted how the brontosaurus never really existed, only to have to add an endnote that said that the bronto's existence had been proven. Flood went to town drawing double-page splashes with dinosaurs but was equally up to the task of drawing historical figures. Reed keeps the narrative going with an arsenal of fascinating anecdotes, both about dinosaurs and the people who discovered their fossils. She even manages to explain some of the basics of geology along the way, thanks to her wit. While there are the occasional funny asides, Reed doesn't overdo and trusts in the narrative. Starting off a series about science that demonstrates how science is actually carried out was a smart move, as the clash between staying true to the scientific method and the human need for certainty is key to understanding paradigm shifts and the ways in which human bias can affect knowledge.

Science Comics: Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean, by Maris Wicks. Wicks had a taller order than Reed in talking about the science of coral reefs. Without a narrative to latch onto (other than the ecological one that essentially amounts to "Recycle and ride your bike!"), Wicks was essentially reduced to narrating a slightly whimsical nature documentary. The essence of that documentary was that despite coral reefs occupying a tiny portion of the earth, they are home to a majority of the earth's biodiversity. Once that point is made, she goes into a basic biological explication of the various phyla that can be found in and around coral reefs, all narrated by a fish wearing glasses. It's page after page of slightly cartoony drawings of sea life with amusing asides, scatological jokes and witticisms from the creatures themselves. The book picks up again when it gets into facts about the water cycle and ecological concerns, which is presented earnestly but without preaching. It's simply a matter-of-fact presentation of facts, one that presupposes a great deal of faith in the reader to do the right thing. A bit more restraint on forcing jokes might have made this a smoother read, though as I noted earlier Wicks was in a tough spot and relied on her storytelling instincts to work her way out of it. It's just that at around 120 pages, the book simply flagged once she started rattling off different species and felt padded.

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