August 29, 2019
(++++) MYSTERIES, OLD AND NEW
The Mysterious Giant of Barletta. By Tomie dePaola. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Mystery Club: Wild Werewolves; Mummy Mischief. By Davide Cali. Illustrated by Yannick Robert and AnnaLisa Ferrari. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $21.99 (hardcover). $9.99 (paperback).
Real and unreal mysteries alike can be fun for young readers if presented well – and a bit of tinkering with reality never hurts. Tomie dePaola’s The Mysterious Giant of Barletta wears well – it originally dates to 1986 and is now available in paperback. But the “giant” referred to in the title (actually known as the Colossus of Barletta) wears even better, being a bronze statue of a Roman emperor from the empire’s late, Christian times. The exact personage is uncertain but is probably an emperor from the 4th, 5th or 6th century. There is a folktale in Barletta, a small Italian town on the Adriatic Sea, about the statue coming to life and saving the city from destruction by the Saracens; and it is this tale, modified to make it appealing to children, that dePaola retells. To do this, he keeps one major visual feature of the statue – the orb in its left hand – but removes the other, which is a cross held aloft in its right fist. DePaola also makes the clear young-adult features of the statue into those of a child, the better to heighten his book’s appeal to young readers. He does, however, keep the basics of the save-the-town story, which is an amusing one because it violates expectations. Instead of looming over the invading army and threatening it with its giant stature, the colossus, both in the original tale and in dePaola’s version, waits for the army’s approach and then cries. Why? It laments its role as the smallest and weakest of Barletta’s inhabitants and talks about wanting to be as big as everyone else someday. The army, understandably wary of encountering an entire town occupied by much-bigger-than-the-colossus giants, decides that the better part of valor is discretion, and accordingly flees. DePaola dresses up the story nicely by inventing an old woman to be a friend of the giant. It is this woman, Zia Concetta, who makes plans with the giant to save the town, and those plans include finding a very large onion (another dePaola modification) so the giant can cry suitable tears. The underlying story has the sort of good humor characteristic of many folktales, and dePaola heightens its humorous elements to make The Mysterious Giant of Barletta more appealing to its target audience. And appealing it truly is – as much so now as when it was first published more than 30 years ago to delight kids who are now likely to be the parents of the next generation that will be charmed by this book.
Mystery Club, a two-stories-in-one graphic novel, is a more-recent creation, having originally been published in France in 2016. It is also a less-successful attempt than dePaola’s to take traditional legends – in this case, of werewolves and mummies – and make them appealing to contemporary young readers. The problem here is that Davide Cali never quite decides, at least at the outset, whether the basic mystery is whether werewolves and reanimated mummies exist or why they exist and are being used to commit various nefarious deeds. He eventually comes down on the latter side of things, having the mystery-club kids as well as all adults in London (where both stories are set) simply accept the existence of werewolf transformations and mummy invasions, as if such things are a standard part of London life. This does not work very well – nor does the fact that Davide waits until the end of the first story, Wild Werewolves, to have the mystery-club kids informed that they “have an enemy,” who lets them know he is a bad guy by sending them an E-mail signed, “Your enemy, Harnak.” So much for mysteries. The club members themselves are the standard hyper-competent preteens who are supposed to reflect the diversity of the book’s intended readership. Kyle is white-skinned and red-haired, determined to photograph monsters so he can sell the pictures and get rich. Zoey is dark-skinned, hyper-smart and says she does not believe in monsters, until suddenly she (like everyone else) believes in them and decides they are just part of the way things are, ho hum. These two core characters are later joined in Wild Werewolves by white-skinned, green-haired Ashley, who helps Kyle and Zoey figure out what various maybe-werewolves have in common and who actually comes up with the name “Mystery Club.” And still later, large and somewhat overbearing Tyler, whose primary interest is skateboarding, comes along to fill the “typical athlete” role – Kyle being the “typical protagonist/hero,” Zoey the “typical brain,” and Ashley the “typical fashion plate.” The club members, whose quest is started when a stranger giving his name as Lon Chaney tells Kyle and Zoey that he is worried about becoming a werewolf, eventually trace the werewolf epidemic to a baldness cream, whose apparent magic properties everyone takes as much in stride as they take the werewolves themselves. And then, after the announcement by the enemy that he is an enemy (using the name Lon Chaney, which the kids learn belongs to a famous actor in old monster movies), it is time for Mummy Mischief, in which a whole crowd of mummies lurches and prances around until the mystery-club members get all of them back where they belong. This is all for no purpose whatsoever, except to show that Harnak is now using his real name and reanimating mummies because, well, just because he can. Yannick Robert’s illustrations for the first story are colorful but flat, a bit like the tale itself; the second story features art by AnnaLisa Ferrari that is “based on” Robert’s, although why Robert’s itself was not used is a, well, mystery – and a bigger one than either of Cali’s stories. Mystery Club is a (+++) book that is certainly fun at times, but that is neither wholeheartedly humorous enough nor emphatically spooky enough to be completely effective. It will be most enjoyable for young readers who are new to the graphic-novel genre and not quite ready to take either the format or the stories told within it particularly seriously.