October 28, 2010

(++++) BOY BOOKS

The Little Prince, adapted from the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. By Joann Sfar. Translated by Sarah Ardizzone. Color by Brigitte Findalky. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $19.99.

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys. By Bob Raczka. Art by Peter H. Reynolds. Houghton Mifflin. $14.99.

The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future. By “George Beard and Harold Hutchins” (Dav Pilkey). Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Although many books for young readers are aimed at both genders, many others are intended primarily for girls, who are frequently more avid readers than boys. But some books, either overtly or through their subject matter, are created with boys in mind. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is not really a children’s book at all, except in some aspects of its outward form. Rather, it is a strange, moving and surrealistic book whose words resonate even in translation: “It’s quite poetic, but it’s not very serious.” “It’s useful because it’s beautiful.” “‘Why do you speak in riddles all the time?’ ‘Because I solve them all.’” So contemplative and philosophical a book may not seem appealing to action-oriented young boys, but in the new graphic-novel format given it by Joann Sfar, it has a whole different level of appeal from that in its standard, lightly illustrated version. With the approval of the Saint-Exupéry family, Sfar, a French comic-book artist, has taken the primary elements of The Little Prince and illustrated them with empathy and a kind of rough beauty. The drawings make perfect sense in context: the distinctly human pilot stranded in the desert; the huge-eyed and human-like but not human Little Prince; the talking cigarette smoke, snake and plants; the peculiar denizens of the planets visited by the Little Prince before he arrives on Earth; and more. The emotion of the Little Prince comes through with unexpected force in this version, as when the viewpoint and the Little Prince’s appearance change significantly between two sentences: “Where I come from, I once watched the sun setting forty-four times in a day. You see, when you’re feeling very sad, you like sunsets.” The personified proud flower, the tentacle-nosed king, the star-counting five-eyed businessman, the huge-eared fox who says “we only understand what we tame” – the drawings of all these and more are interpretations, to be sure, but they are ones that fit the story well and make the graphic-novel format seem extraordinarily well-suited to Saint-Exupéry’s tale. Whether this style will interest more boys in The Little Prince may not be certain, but Sfar (who, by the way, is a man) has certainly managed to make the book…not more interesting, but interesting in a different way.

     The Little Prince is poetic, and that is one reason it is often thought not to appeal to boys. But there is no particular reason that boys cannot enjoy poetry, as Guyku is designed to show. Bob Raczka has a real flair for creating haiku that conform to the required syllabification (five-seven-five) of their three-line format while partaking of young boys’ unique view of the world: “If this puddle could/ talk, I think it would tell me/ to splash my sister.” “We follow deer tracks/ in the mud, pretending that/ we too are wild beasts.” Peter H. Reynolds’ watercolor and digital-color illustrations beautifully capture the exuberance, joy and occasional thoughtfulness of boys, and the book’s design – haiku for all four seasons – is both a brash tribute and a loving one to the ways in which boys’ feelings follow the year. Sometimes it is a picture that makes a page special, such as the one of the very broadly smiling barefoot boy, standing with hands clasped in anticipation: “Pine tree invites me/ to climb him up to the sky./ How can I refuse?” At other times, although the illustration is apt, it is the words’ power that is most impressive: “With the ember end/ of my long marshmallow stick,/ I draw on the dark.” Guyku is a quiet joy, a celebration of both boyhood and poetry for any time of any year.

     It is not, however, as exuberant as The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, or as unremittingly silly. George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the fourth-graders who are creations of Dav Pilkey and who (in Pilkey’s thoroughly odd world) created Captain Underpants, here bring their slightly skewed (okay, very skewed) sense of humor to caveman times, when dinosaurs and cavepeople live together and giant mechanical monsters rampage, while the intensity of kung-fu training leads to remarks such as, “Boy, philosofy make my brain hurt.” Throw in some flip-o-ramas (two consecutive pages designed to be flipped back and forth repeatedly to show people punching each other and stuff) and you have a heaping helping of misspelled absurdity that is utterly ridiculous and completely enjoyable from start to finish. The story, to the limited extent that it matters, involves two boys from ancient Caveland, Ohio, and their sworn enemy, “Big Cheif Goppernopper,” whose travel through a time portal to the year 2222 A.D. unleashes Goppernopper’s descendant’s mechanized hordes upon ancient times “to steal all the trees and oil and water from the caveman days.” That is, until Ook and Gluk, equipped with kung-fu if not brains, foil the nefarious plans with the aid of a baby dinosaur named Lily who helpfully vomits when necessary. A lot of typical elements of modern boy-oriented entertainment are here – killer robots, poop and armpit jokes, and plenty of meaningless violence – but it is all so overdone and so ridiculous that it is hard not to smile at the absurdity even while condemning the stereotypical notions of what boys “must” find entertaining. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional heaping helping of mindlessness – although to avoid a steady diet of it, don’t take Ook and Gluk without at least an occasional dose of The Little Prince and Guyku.

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