March 02, 2017
(++++) VISUAL EMOTIONS
Fish Girl. By Donna Jo Napoli & David Wiesner. Pictures by David Wiesner. Clarion. $25.
Big Nate: What’s a Little Noogie Between Friends? By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
A beautiful, moving, mysterious and mystical story told artfully in graphic-novel form, Fish Girl never reveals exactly who or what the title character is – and that is part of the book’s charm. It starts with an old-fashioned seaside sideshow, in which a man dressed as sea-god Neptune pretends to control the waters in a huge tank where the title character, a protective octopus, and a variety of other sea creatures live. The story is one of gradual self-discovery, as Fish Girl, who cannot speak, hears stories from “Neptune” about her origin, but gradually comes to learn that they are false and he is an exploiter, not her protector. The man’s carefully arranged business setup starts to come apart when an inquisitive 12-year-old named Livia spots Fish Girl, whose job is to let people get glimpses of her but never to be fully seen, so as to preserve the “mystery” on which “Neptune” relies. Gradually Livia makes friends with Fish Girl, even giving her a name – Mira, short for “miracle.” And indeed Fish Girl is a miracle of some kind: she is not exactly a mermaid, because while she looks like one, it turns out as the book goes on that she can shed her tail and scales and have fully formed legs, then regain her part-fish appearance afterwards, all quite unintentionally. Very loosely related to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, although not directly correlated with that bittersweet tale of hope and religious faith, Fish Girl is all about Mira’s growing awareness that she was captured – with the octopus who now shares her tank – when she was tiny, and needs to get herself and her captive friends away from the fisherman who caught them so she can live her own life. That, it turns out, is a life on land, and Mira’s eventual parting from the octopus – a creature of great magic, it turns out, since he can expand to enormous size and power as needed, then return to his usual appearance – is but one of many emotional high points of the story. The writing is well-paced and sensitive, revealing matters in due course and functioning through the words and thoughts of the characters rather than through third-person narrative. That is an effective approach that brings readers strongly into Fish Girl’s world. As for the illustrations, they are beautiful and evocative, and at the same time rather old-fashioned, since David Wiesner does not take advantage of all the intricacies of graphic-novel format: he makes his panels different sizes but keeps them square or rectangular, rather than changing their shape to suit elements of the story; and he keeps his characters within panel borders, in comic-book style, instead of having them burst the panels’ confines and overlap the edges that constrict them. When he needs something huge and intense, Wiesner simply spreads it over two pages and has it bleed to the pages’ edges, as when the octopus destroys the building that has been his and Mira’s prison for so many years. Both Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli possess a sure storytelling sense and excellent feel for pacing and emotional exploration, with the result that Fish Girl transcends its rather ordinary voyage-of-self-discovery theme to become a beautiful, strange and compelling story in which not all the questions about Fish Girl are ever answered and not all the loose ends are ever tied up – but in which the concluding message of hopefulness and warmth comes through loudly and clearly.
The emotions are much more surface-level in Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate comic strip and the books that collect it, including the latest, What’s a Little Noogie Between Friends? The central attraction in all the books, and in the strip, is Nate himself, the 11-or-12-year-old self-proclaimed genius who succeeds at absolutely everything, except when he doesn’t, which is most of the time, which is why Nate spends so much effort reinterpreting life’s ups and downs (especially the downs). Nate’s foibles are always good for laughs: convinced that his soccer team is jinxed, goalie Nate suffers through a defeat by a team that has lost 60 games in a row; his longtime crush, Jenny, finds out she is moving 3,000 miles away; he babysits genius first-grader Peter and is determined to force him into hockey instead of figure skating, a plan that goes about as well as might be expected; he goes to the movies and finds himself sitting next to arch-enemy Gina, because there is only one seat left, and that leads to suspicions that the two are on a date, which of course Gina exploits to Nate’s detriment; and then there are Nate’s usual encounters and misadventures with nemesis Mrs. Godfrey, Spitsy the ridiculous dog, loud and over-dramatic Coach John, and Nate’s own father (who in one sequence is himself a coach of Nate’s team, and whose name we actually find out: Marty). Interestingly, it is not Nate but one of his best friends, Teddy, who in this collection utters one of Nate’s own innermost thoughts: “Why does school always have to be about learning stuff?” Nate spends a great deal of his time trying hard not to learn in school, but the fact is that he does have a good mind when he is properly motivated: the very last strip here has Francis tutoring him and warning him that if he fails an upcoming test, he will be doing summer school with Mrs. Godfrey – at which point Nate not only gives the year of a battle but also the month and day. Nate is not as cool as he wants to be, not as independent, not as successful, and not as lovable – at least to those in his world. But to the many fans of the Big Nate strip, he is every bit as enjoyable and involving a character as can be. It is ironic that he is a comic-strip star even though he is never quite able to be the star of his own life. It is because of Nate’s emotional reaction to all the things that do not go his way – and his resilience in the face of so many reversals – that Nate’s life is so much fun to explore, for readers if not necessarily for Nate himself.