Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Kid Lit: Martz, Sowa/Kotomycko, Wilson

Let's take a look at a few books for kids that have come my way recently:

Evie And The Truth About Witches, by John Martz (Koyama Press). This is an illustrated picture book by Martz. Its small size belies the sharpness of its wit, the gentleness of its big plot swerve, and the shock of its ending. Unlike the other books in this article, the tightness of the plot is absolutely crucial to its success. As it says on the back, "Evie wanted to be scared." To that end, she went to a bookstore, where she found a book called "The Truth About Witches". She was told that no matter what, do not read the last page of the book aloud. The book was about the usual witch stories: how they are horrible and cruel and want to eat children.

Martz' page detail is fiendishly clever and thorough. When she reads the book, a witch appears and takes her away to a far-away land. The witch compels her to move to a house where she's told the other witches are very hungry. Evie thinks she's done for until the witches reveal that the book was propaganda, and that witches are kind. She proves it with a wonderful montage of parties, playtime in the park, gardening and lavish feasts. Everyone is kind to her that she wants to be a witch, too, and there's a cute segment where the first witch we meet gives her her hat. Then comes the end twist (which I won't reveal), which works so incredibly well because of Martz' masterful use of misdirection. He pulls the reader one way (witches are evil, beware the book!), then pulls them in another direction (witches are delightful!), then ends the book with a specific reference to the book. This is a great kids' book for those who might want a conceptual scare.

That Night A Monster, by Marzena Sowa & Berenika Kotomycko (Odod Books). You have to hand it to Tom Kaczynski. He resolutely resists formula in his publishing decisions, especially with regard to his kid lit imprint, Odod Books. This book by two Polish artists (a writer-artist duo) is genuinely bizarre, surprising and hilarious. Of the three books featured in this column, this is the one my daughter enjoyed the most, both because of the pacing and the strange mystery surrounding the book. It's that pacing and weirdness that carries the day, because there's no real plot; it's just an episodic day in the life of a family. Except that young Tommy walks into his parent's bedroom to wake them and sees that his mother has been replaced by a big fern. The genius of this book is that makes no distinction between Tommy's imagination and his anxieties, seeing them as part of the whole package.

Despite the promise of action in this book, most of that is left in the imagination of the child as he thinks of worst-case scenarios. When the fern explains that his mom is still there under all that foliage, that kicks off the magical-realism aspects of the story. The fern is not a metaphor or a dream; the fern is a fern. Tommy's mom had gone to a party where her friends messed with her hair and she (presumably) got drunk. It certainly gives the term "potted" a new meaning! The end, when his mom gets a cactus-inspired hairstyle is one of many quirky moments in the book. My daughter loved this book, howling with laughter at the silly parts and tensing up with suspense at its initial mysteries. The elaborate, painted designs of Kotomycka are essential in crafting this fully-realized world that's both mundane and strange, along with figures that are stripped down but highly expressive. This is a "sticky" book, meaning that even though the plot is a mere trifle, it lingers in the memory.

Ghost Queen, by Britt Wilson (Koyama Press). Wilson's work is bigger, broader and louder than the other books on this list. It's a family magic book, where the children of a witch and their anthropomorphic frog friend have to confront the legacy of an ancient menace. Wilson's comics for Koyama always have a supernatural element, but their essence is really that of a family caper. It's the classic trope of kids being given responsibility, kids then blowing that responsibility and creating a huge mess, and then the kids ultimately figuring things out and cleaning things up at the eleventh hour. Books like this feature the kids trying to crack a kind of code in order to clean up, and the action and pacing is cranked way up to give the book a sense of manic energy. The actual characterizations are thin, and in this book, they are specifically meant to match the characters we meet from the past in the prologue. The titular villain is less a character than a plot contrivance designed to cause as much chaos as possible.

In that sense, this book has some Dr. Seuss qualities in terms of its exponentially stacking series of calamities, fake-out solutions and funny twists. More than anything, there's that shared anarchic energy, where the story feels like it's about to go completely off the rails into total lunacy. The big, loopy, rubbery character designs match that energy and give it a safe harbor for younger readers. Even the ghost queen herself is big and squishy; it's still a threat, but it's a cute one. My nine-year-old daughter read it and enjoyed it, but it didn't capture her imagination beyond that in the way that Luke Pearson's Hilda books or Lewis Trondheim's Monster books do. That would be assessment as well: pleasant enough to read but not especially memorable. Everything goes by so fast that it's hard to hook on to anything, even when there are a couple of small character moments.

1 comment:

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