Cardboard. By Doug TenNapel. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Heron’s Path. By Alethea Eason. Spectacle. $9.95.
The usual tropes of fairy tales – mysterious strangers, contact with the otherworldly, transformations both internal and external, and of course good vs. evil among both humans and supernatural beings – are constantly rethought and reworked by modern authors, testimony to the continuing power of the old stories and storytelling methods, and (for those of a Jungian bent) to the archetypes on which fairy tales and similar stories of magic and wonder draw. With very different approaches, these two books dip into the fairy-tale universe and look at elements of it in ways intended to appeal to worldly 21st-century young readers.
Doug TenNapel’s Cardboard has multiple fairy-tale elements, but it has more heart and soul than many traditional fairy tales, plus excellent drawing (with coloring by Der-Shing Helmer) and pacing matching that of TenNapel’s Ghostopolis and significantly surpassing that of his Bad Island. There is the down-on-his-luck protagonist (here, a carpenter named Mike who cannot find work because of the stagnant economy); the mysterious purveyor of magic (here, “Old Man Gideon,” who sells cheap toys and offers a certain cardboard box to Mike for exactly the 78 cents that Mike has left in his pocket); the magical rules that must not be broken (Mike must return any leftover cardboard scraps and must not ask Old Man Gideon for more cardboard); the quest (external, through a cardboard city, and internal, through acceptance of the pain of loss and therefore the ability to move on in life); and so on. Mike is a widower who is trying, with little success, to do all the right things for his son, Cam, whose birthday is the occasion for Mike getting the cardboard box. Next door to Mike and Cam lives Tina, an attractive woman who is clearly interested in Mike – an interest he does not reciprocate, because he still mourns Carol, his wife. The “bad guy” in the story is a boy named Marcus, who – with his friend, Pink Eye – lies, steals and manipulates in order to get the magic cardboard for himself and use it to create an army of cardboard slaves that will worship him as their king. Marcus has his wealthy parents wrapped proverbially around his finger, and manages to get them to leave him home alone so he can proceed with his selfish and ill-fated plans. Standing against him are Mike, Cam and a cardboard boxer named Bill, the first creation of Mike and Cam and a worthy, upstanding character who wants, like Pinocchio, to be a real person (he even studies Plato). Mike bypasses the “no more cardboard” rule by using his carpentry abilities to make something that will make more cardboard, which is sort of like wishing for more wishes. As in any fairy tale, this rule-bending, although done for good motives, is sure to end badly, and so it does – when Marcus steals the “factory” and uses it to start constructing a cardboard world reflecting his own twisted mind. The story sounds rather silly when described in plot points, but it does not play out that way, because TenNapel keeps pulling bits of reality into the fairy-tale world: Mike rescues Tina from a cardboard monster, and she says he is her hero but that that isn’t enough after the way he has been treating her; Cam builds small cardboard replicas of both his parents, and the cardboard Carol plays a significant role in getting Mike to look inward and move on; Marcus eventually looks inward, too, and realizes – in a key scene – that his own fears and uncertainties are reflected throughout the cardboard kingdom and that he isn’t really much of a human being (all right, this isn’t particularly realistic, but it makes good dramatic sense). Bill’s eventual heroism – and the clever end-of-book twist resulting from it – are high points. So is what happens when Marcus confesses to his father – a scene that leads, in a neat buttoning-up, to a rapprochement in Marcus’ family and a perfectly reasonable job offer for Mike. There is humor scattered throughout the book, too, as when Old Man Gideon spins a thoroughly ridiculous story about where the magic cardboard originated and when Bill, getting the worst of it in a fight with another cardboard boxer, is asked by Cam, “How many fingers do you see?” and replies, “Nevada.” Most important of all, this is a graphic novel, and the graphics are remarkable, whether TenNapel is presenting the standard “ka-pow,” “krakk” and “wa-bump” of comic books, showing a close-up of a character’s eyes with the rest of the panel black, creating a horde of monstrous hermit crabs, moving the characters through an increasingly surreal scene of a cardboard city and forest, showing a two-page spread of Bill and Mike fleeing, or producing multiple super-dark panels in which a cloudburst destroys the cardboard evildoers – which, like all cardboard entities, are ruined by water. The genuine family and interpersonal issues in Cardboard give the book its strength, even as the fairy-tale elements give it its resonance – and the art, with its clever use of shadows and shading, its understanding of comic-book traditions and its use or bending of them, gives it visual power and striking effectiveness.
A traditionally written novel with fewer surprises but with its heart equally in the right place, Alethea Eason’s (+++) Heron’s Path combines a fairy-tale transformation with the traditional notions of very different girls, raised as sisters, whose fates are intertwined – and of a supernatural conflict between good and evil beings. The girls are Katy and Celeste, teenagers whose grandfather was married to Olena, a medicine woman from a mysterious tribe called the Nanchuti. Olena still lives on the farm across the river Talum from where the girls live with their parents. The old woman is something of a spirit guide: “Time passed for Olena the way trees grow,” says Katy, who narrates the book, “and both Celeste and I forgot about the minutes ticking away.” Katy and Celeste do not always get along, and Celeste’s personality bewilders Katy: Celeste is usually on her best behavior around adults, but not when Katy and she are alone together; and Celeste hears voices that seem to call her into the woods, where she goes frequently (“‘I have another home, Katy, and they want me to go there,’” says Celeste at one point). There is obviously something magical about Celeste, and it will obviously fall to Katy to find out what it is and set Celeste free to fulfill her destiny; and in fact this is exactly what happens. But if the progress of the plot is not particularly surprising, the sensitivity with which the story is told and the genuineness of the emotional connection between the sisters make Heron’s Path a satisfying read. As for the evil and the conflict that bring the book its tension, these exist in two ways. In the real-world aspect, Katy and her family represent settlers bringing potentially destructive change to the old Nanchuti way of life (the book is set in the early 1900s). In the supernatural sphere, the Nanchuti ancestors, the Old Ones, are at war with dark spirits called wei-ni-la, and each of the girls has a role to play in that ongoing battle. This is a short book, almost a novella rather than a novel, but it is a richly told story whose resonance is independent of its length. As different as Heron’s Path is from Cardboard, both the books owe their success to certain elements that they have in common – specifically, the placement of everyday family issues within a world where fairy-tale and mythic elements coexist uneasily with the mundane. And both works succeed in large part because they focus primarily on how the supernatural affects the lives of ordinary people – people much like the young readers that both authors are seeking to attract.
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