May 24, 2018


Tom’s Midnight Garden: A Graphic Adaptation of the Philippa Pearce Classic. By EDITH. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $22.99.

Mr. Wolf’s Class. By Aron Nels Steinke. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     The very best graphic novel adaptations use the form itself as an element in telling their stories. They do not simply show the exact scenes described in their sources – they go beyond the words to use illustrations to highlight the emotions of characters and to make descriptive passages come alive for readers in ways beyond those called up by the original material. There are very few graphic novels with this kind of power – P. Craig Russell’s two-volume adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2014) is perhaps the finest recent example. The adaptation of Tom’s Midnight Garden by EDITH (who uses only one name) is very nearly on the same level. Philippa Pearce’s book is less-known in North America than in England, but it is one of those rare novels that treat children like fully formed human beings who are capable of encountering strange, even unnerving aspects of life and learning from them – along the lines of, say, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. A Carnegie Medal winner after its 1958 publication, the book is the story of a boy named Tom Long, who is sent to live temporarily with his pleasant aunt and stern, straitlaced uncle while his brother, Peter, is quarantined with measles. Tom himself is kept in his aunt’s and uncle’s home because of the possibility that he might have the same disease and be infectious – the measles vaccine was not available until the 1960s. Resentful of the situation and his isolation, Tom broods – until one night he hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike 13. When he goes down to check on the clock and opens the back door, Tom finds himself in a huge, expansive garden rather than the drab, citified back yard of his aunt’s and uncle’s home. This could easily become a kind of Narnia tale at this point, but Pearce takes the story in a very different direction. Night after night, Tom visits the garden, soon making the acquaintance of a girl named Hatty – apparently the only person who can see him. The two become fast friends, sharing their worries, concerns and troubles and having a variety of small adventures. But there are hints that something deeper is going on, as when Tom sees a tree fall in a storm and the next night sees it standing straight, unharmed. The story soon becomes one about ghosts and time – is Hatty a ghost in Tom’s time period, which is clearly later than hers, or is Tom a ghost in Hatty’s, or is something even stranger happening? Eventually Tom discovers that Hatty is growing up even though he remains the same – and at the book’s climax, Tom discovers who Hatty really is (not just “was”), and the two of them try to untangle the strange threads that have bound them together. Tom’s Midnight Garden is a very atmospheric book, and what EDITH does so well with it is to emphasize its settings and the way they reflect the events. The panels are all rectangular – there is no attempt here to use unusual panel shapes for their own sake or for effect, as in many graphic novels. And many of the best panels are wordless: Tom’s first sight of the garden, the look of his bare feet in the grass, the contrast between the outdoors and the prison-like conditions of the dull home of Tom’s aunt and uncle (where Tom’s room actually has bars on the window, left over from its onetime use as a nursery), the first time Tom realizes that Hatty can see him (he sticks his tongue out and then so does she), and so forth. Carefully conceived poses help EDITH bring the emotional impact of the book to the fore, as when orphan Hatty’s dreadful aunt calls her “liar” (a medium-close picture of the aunt grabbing Hatty’s arm), “criminal” (Tom’s shocked, wide-eyed reaction to what is happening), and “monster” (the aunt dragging Hatty away) – followed by a full page of wordless reaction panels. The emotional heft of the story comes through with exceptional clarity in this highly sensitive graphic adaptation, and even though much is, of necessity, left out, everything that matters the most is included and given heightened impact. Young readers who do not know Tom’s Magic Garden may be inspired by this graphic novel to read the book itself. But even if they are not, the adaptation itself so beautifully captures the mood of the book and the thoughtful questions it poses that children who know the novel only as EDITH interprets it will retain much of the effect of wonder that Pearce’s original produces.

     At the opposite extreme from the involvement, delight and thoughtfulness of the Tom’s Midnight Garden adaptation is the first book in a new series that is as straightforward and humdrum as possible. Aron Nels Steinke’s Mr. Wolf’s Class is about a fourth-grade class doing entirely ordinary things – everyday, frequently boring things. The characters are all cartoon animals, drawn in a flat style with little attention paid to anatomical correctness (Mr. Wolf’s bent elbows look especially unrealistic, even by cartoon standards: whatever arm has the elbow bent is significantly longer than the other). It is hard to see what sort of message this book tries to convey, because all it does is take readers through a completely typical day at a completely typical school in which completely typical things happen to completely typical people – well, animals, but none of them has any animal characteristics whatsoever. Samples of dialogue: “What is your name?” “I need to go to the bathroom.” “I’m so sleepy.” “Line up for lunch.” “Five more minutes of recess.” “Can I play?” “Don’t forget your homework.” More than 150 pages of this becomes very, very wearing and very, very tiresome. The purpose of this graphic novel is very hard to discern. Fourth-graders need not read it – they are living it. Third-graders probably should not read it – it gives them little to look forward to in fourth grade. Fifth-graders will not want to read it – it will be old news to them. The largely expressionless faces and flat drawing style make Mr. Wolf’s Class seem like a book that would appeal to the earliest readers, perhaps kindergartners or first-graders, but it is hard to know whether that is the intended audience. Graphic novels need not be over-the-top – or based on classic novels – to be interesting and to communicate effectively. But they have to have something to communicate. Mr. Wolf’s Class simply puts across the idea that in fourth grade, kids do math, read, go to lunch, have recess, and go home. All that is true, but it is hard to see the point of putting such extremely basic information in graphic-novel form. Mr. Wolf’s Class is a (++) book that does little to whet the appetite for the planned followup, Mystery Club – although hopefully the title of the next book indicates that a bit more excitement lies ahead.

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