December 12, 2013


Titanic: Voices from the Disaster. By Deborah Hopkinson. Scholastic. $7.99.

Big Nate: I Can’t Take It! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Whether serious and somber or slight and silly, some stories are told more effectively with intermingled words and visuals than they would be with words alone. Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is really voices and pictures from the disaster, not only photos but also such items as the menu for the ill-fated ship’s First Class dinner, a partial transcript of post-disaster testimony by a crew member, a distress telegram sent from the Titanic shortly before the ship sank, and much more. These visual elements, plus photographs of crew members and survivors, of the furnishings of the Titanic (shown by using photos of the very similar ones aboard its sister ship, Olympic), of actual pictures of lifeboats and artists’ often-fanciful depictions of the ship’s sinking, appear throughout Deborah Hopkinson’s well-researched and well-written book, which stands above the innumerable others on the Titanic because it tells the story in simplified form – for young readers – but still with a considerable amount of depth. Originally published last year for the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking and now available in paperback, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster humanizes the story by telling about individuals aboard the ocean liner, quoting numerous people who were there or who reported on what happened, and including wrenching letters written by survivors about what they endured and the people they lost. The sinking of the Titanic has been told many times and discussed not only in engineering terms but also in many allegorical ways – often involving the claim that the ship was “unsinkable,” in retrospect a statement of extreme hubris. But Hopkinson shows that the tragedy of the ship’s destruction was above all a human one, affecting not only those who lost their lives and their immediate families, but also people throughout the world who found themselves touched in one way or another, directly or indirectly, by what happened on the night of April 15, 1912. Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is scarcely the last word on the ship; it is not intended to be. But it is a fine overview of what happened, both descriptively and visually, and a highly impressive job of historical research and of presentation that clarifies events for young readers without over-simplifying a complex situation.

     Simplification is what comic strips are all about, but some of them still manage to use the words-and-pictures format to tell interesting ongoing stories even as they amuse readers. Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate is one such: the exaggerated antics of sixth-grader Nate Wright have just enough reality underlying them to ring true to adults and preteens alike. In the all-color, all-Sunday-strip collection I Can’t Take It! are the usual elements of Nate’s world: annoying older sister Ellen, completely clueless father, teacher-who-is-the-bane-of-Nate’s-existence Mrs. Godfrey, well-meaning but irritating neighbor dog Spitsy, best friends Francis and Teddy, and the numerous cartoon characters drawn by Nate himself – Peirce says he was a budding cartoonist when he was Nate’s age, so of course he has made Nate one as well. Nate’s cartoons – always in black and white – are among the more unusual story elements in Big Nate, featuring TV personalities Chip Chipson and Biff Biffwell, celebrity psychologist Dr. Warren Fuzzy, another doctor named Luke Warm, show host Ken Doolittle, and so on. Nate uses the comics to comment on the people and events around him – and as often as not gets into more than his usual helping of trouble as a result. Not that the usual helping is all that small: school-work avoidance, relationship issues, family confusions, and Nate’s own inflated sense of self-importance combine to produce plenty of opportunities for self-humiliation, from which Nate always manages to bounce back (a big reason for his attractiveness as a character). A collection of Sunday strips like this one lacks the continuity of one that includes dailies, but Peirce does a good job of keeping these Sunday ones self-contained while making sure they fit firmly into Nate’s world. One strip has Francis and Teddy timing Nate to see how quickly he gets detention – he manages it in 43 seconds, a personal best (or worst). Another has the boys looking at a 15-year-old yearbook featuring a “hot” teacher, who turns out to be Mrs. Godfrey before her marriage – resulting in Nate feeling “very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very sick.” Nate struggles with tests, sports, his always-jam-packed school locker, his baseball team’s name (the Doormats), his crush Jenny, the too-perfect exchange student Artur, and many more features and foibles of everyday life. The melding of drawing and writing in Big Nate is always well done, with Peirce’s storytelling a seamless blend of the verbal and the visual – and, consistently, a highly enjoyable mixture.

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