August 12, 2010


Ghostopolis. By Doug TenNapel. Graphix/Scholastic. $24.99.

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey. By Louise Borden. Illustrated by Allan Drummond. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

Busing Brewster. By Richard Michelson. Pictures by R.G. Roth. Knopf. $16.99.

Swim! Swim! By James Proimos. Scholastic. $16.99.

The Fairy Godmother Academy #2: Kerka’s Book. By Jan Bozarth. Illustrated by Andrea Burden. Yearling. $6.99.

     So many places to go… Ghostopolis is not the sort of place you would want to visit in real life, or real death, but Doug TenNapel’s trip there is at the heart of an unusually effective graphic novel, which moves from silliness and absurdity to genuine emotion that really packs a wallop so seamlessly that it is hard to say when it changes character. Part of its excellence is its straightforward introduction – and then use – of bits and pieces of all sorts of supernatural stories, coupled with mundane details that prevent things (at first) from getting too serious. Love affair between a living man and a ghost woman? Got it. Covering a silver belt buckle from Wal-Mart to avoid upsetting a werewolf? Yup. A young boy accidentally transported to a ghost city while still alive – and maybe not the first one to whom that has happened? It’s here. Parodies of film noir characters? Sure: “It’s my brooding, hapless-drifter personality. Chicks can’t resist it.” Benedict Arnold as a hero? Yes, temporarily. An entire world created by a onetime Tuskegee Airman named Joe? Uh, yeah. An eventual “you always had the power to return” resolution along the lines of The Wizard of Oz? That’s here, too, along with a skeleton horse named Skinny and a host of other really odd characters. In fact, there is so much in Ghostopolis – not always logical, not always sensibly sequential, but there – that the book bears rereading, which is not often the case with graphic novels. TenNapel sometimes seems to lose control of one story thread or another, but he eventually pulls everything together, and his carefully crafted illustrations – from silhouettes to highly detailed drawings – are several cuts above the ordinary.

     For a harrowing true-life trip rather than a fictional one, parents whose children love Curious George may want to read The Journey That Saved Curious George – but whether or not to read it to or with children is an individual decision. This is a very well-done book, packed with photos and illustrations, about the escape of the Reys from the Nazis during World War Two and their earliest work about Curious George (originally French and named Fifi) and Whiteblack the Penguin (whose tale was rediscovered many years after the events of this book took place and finally published in 2000). The Reys were German-born Jews – a very dangerous thing to be when the Nazis were on the march – even though they had become Brazilian citizens. The Journey That Saved Curious George takes readers through a time of identity cards, hard-to-get visas, encroaching armies, consular delays and much more, with the Reys sleeping in their coats or with cows in a stable as they attempted, eventually successfully, to flee occupied Paris for Spain, Portugal, and eventually the United States. Louise Borden tells the story in matter-of-fact prose that nevertheless does not gloss over the horrors of the time. Allan Drummond’s illustrations are reminiscent of those in the Reys’ books but have their own color and character. The big question about The Journey That Saved Curious George is its intended audience. It looks like a book for children, but will be far too complex and scary for most kids who love the curious little monkey. Parents who remember their own enjoyment of the Reys’ books may want to keep this story for themselves until their children are old enough to appreciate it.

     Parents who remember a different, closer-to-home journey, or want their children to learn about it, are the target audience for Busing Brewster, which is intended to teach kids ages 6-10 about forced racial busing in the 1970s. The title character, a composite of first-graders, is skewed toward a positive view of a social experiment that tore neighborhoods apart and set blacks against whites in multiple cities. As befits a book for this age group, it emphasizes the good things that black children were supposed to get by going to white schools with “rooms for art and music and a roof that doesn’t leak.” Whites opposing busing are depicted as clearly evil: one protester carries a sign reading “Whites Only – Get Out,” rocks are thrown through the black children’s bus windows, and a single freckle-faced white boy and his father stand for the bad people who are against “them coloreds.” This is an extremely simplistic view of a highly controversial topic – even six-year-olds could handle more nuance than this – but the book is designed for black families and is not intended to be balanced. Yet the author’s note at the end has perspective: “Many blacks and whites honestly preferred that their children attend local schools. …Forced busing failed on many levels, but there is no denying that many black students were provided with opportunities they would not otherwise have had.” Too bad that Richard Michelson chose to be so one-sided in the story itself. The book gets a (+++) rating for at least attempting to handle a very difficult subject.

     After all these heavy forays into worlds real and make-believe, a little lightness is in order, and very young kids will get it from Swim! Swim! The book is listed on the cover as written “By Lerch,” the lonely, hat-wearing fish whose physical journey is not a long one – his tank isn’t very large, even though he says, “this is a big world” – but whose emotional journey is what counts. Lerch wants a friend, any friend. How about the pebbles on the tank’s bottom? He asks them to be his friend, but they do not answer. He asks the diver decoration standing in the tank to be his friend and gets no reply – “Good thing you can’t see tears underwater,” Lurch says after this attempt. Swimming and swimming, Lerch meets bubbles and tries talking to them in their own language, using a huge cartoon “talk balloon” in which the word “blub” is repeated 51 times. Poor Lerch (endearingly drawn by James Proimos at this point with a huge frown and big, sad eyes). Then Lerch encounters a cat, and may be about to turn into lunch – but suddenly there is another fish, Dinah (almost dinner), and everything manages to end happily and with silliness aplenty. Give Lerch and Proimos a (++++) rating – and check out the “recommendations” on the back cover.

     Kerka’s Book, which gets a (+++) rating, is for older readers, specifically girls ages 8-12, and is about a different sort of journey. This second book in The Fairy Godmother Academy series (the first was Birdie’s Book) is tied into an interactive Web site,, which is designed to encourage real-life as well as online challenges through games, music and fashion. The book itself, with a “collectible wisdom card” bound inside, is a straightforward magical adventure set in Aventurine, where selected human girls go to learn about their own internal magic and find out how to harness it in the role of fairy godmothers. Unlike the shy Birdie of the first book, Kerka is outgoing and self-confident, eager to start on the quest that she knows the fairies will require her to complete successfully. What throws Kerka is the nature of the challenge: instead of being asked to track down something physical, she must find her younger sister’s voice – and it is not only her own future that depends on her success. Readers will know from the start that Kerka will eventually succeed; even a scary encounter with a wolf turns out to be just a misunderstanding. “There’s a lot more to being a good fairy godmother than I realized,” one character says after the main adventure is over, and of course that is the point: it is not a simple matter of waving a wand and making magic happen, but requires self-knowledge and the willingness to endure fear and uncertainty – that is, to grow up, but not so much as to disbelieve in the underlying magic itself. Jan Bozarth’s pleasantly written book, enhanced by attractive illustrations by the late Andrea Burden, offers preteen girls an enjoyable and not-too-dangerous imaginary journey with a simple and clear underlying message of self-empowerment.

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