September 28, 2023


Magic Tree House: The Graphic Novel—No. 5, Night of the Ninjas. Adapted by Jenny Laird from the original by Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Kelly & Nichole Matthews. Random House. $9.99.

The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel: The Graphic Novel—No. 1, The Alchemyst. Adapted by Nicole Andelfinger from the original by Michael Scott. Illustrated by Chris Chalik. Random House. $17.99.

     Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House novels for ages six to 10 have always seemed well-suited to graphic-novel adaptation, and they prove to be so once again in the fifth of the series, Night of the Ninjas. The books’ basically simple stories, added to an underlying touch of the unexplainable/magical, and seasoned with a dollop of education to go with a series of wholesome adventures, work quite well when carried forward as much by illustration as by verbiage. The fifth book in the original series marked some changes to Osborne’s approach: the first four had companion books that gave more information than the minimal factual material included in the adventure story itself – the fifth did not. And the fifth was the start of a multi-book adventure – one requiring eight-and-a-half-year-old Jack and his seven-year-old sister Annie to travel through time and place to locate four objects that will help Morgan Le Fay, whose powers underlie the tree house but who has mysteriously disappeared when the house shows up for the kids’ latest time-travel foray from their home in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. To make the Magic Tree House books work as graphic novels, all that is needed are illustrations of a couple of everyday kids, a high-in-the-trees tree house, and suitable pictures of whatever locations Jack and Annie are going to visit – including pictures of the inhabitants of those locations. Thanks to Jenny Laird’s carefully managed and appropriately paced adaptations and the pleasantly apt illustrations by Kelly and Nichole Matthews, the graphic-novel versions of the stories work quite well. It is, of course, crucial not to think too much about the stories – not to try, for instance, to figure out just how Jack and Annie successfully interact with the inhabitants of ancient Japan, and just why those inhabitants accept the kids’ appearance and clothing (not to mention language) so readily. None of that is the point. Night of the Ninja, in the original as well as graphic version, was and is one of the less-informative Magic Tree House books, with the ninja concept itself reduced essentially to being silent and stealthy, and being physically able to handle lengthy treks and climbs. The mystery of what has happened to Morgan Le Fay, and the introduction of a tree-house mouse that Annie names Peanut, are the biggest points of interest in the story. The greatest attraction of the graphic-novel art is its darkness: more than two-thirds of the book takes place at night or in dark places, and the way the illustrations constantly manage to be dark-on-darker without ever quite becoming scary or, worse, dull, is impressive. Young readers are far more visually oriented now than when the Magic Tree House books began appearing in 1992, and the graphic-novel versions seem, if anything, more suitable for today’s six-to-10-year-olds than the originals. Osborne’s novels do, however, contain more educational elements in most of the stories (although not many more in Night of the Ninjas) – so it would be nice if the graphic-novel versions turn out to interest at least some young readers in tracking down the originals.

     Speaking of darkness and tales told within it, Michael Scott’s six-book The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel fills the bill nicely for somewhat older graphic-novel fans – the original novels were intended for ages 12 and up, and the graphic-novel versions will likely work best for preteens and young teenagers. Scott is an authority on myth and folklore, and there is a germ of truth underlying this series: there really was a Nicholas Flamel, who lived from 1330 to 1418 and was a highly esteemed alchemist. Alchemists were seeking, among other things, the Philosopher’s Stone, which could change base metal to gold and provide eternal life. Scott’s books’ foundation is that Flamel did indeed discover the secret of eternal life, hidden within a volume called The Book of Abraham the Mage, which Flamel has kept throughout the ages and continues to protect. Arrayed against Flamel and his wife, Perenelle, are forces collaborating with the equally long-lived and very sinister Dr. John Dee, who was once a spy for Queen Elizabeth I and is determined to get his hands on the book for his own nefarious purposes. However, according to a prophecy, contemporary teenage twins Sophie and John Newman are in effect “chosen ones” with the power to help Flamel protect the book, and the world, from Dr. Dee’s evil machinations. All this is pretty straightforward magical-adventure stuff, but Scott did a good job throughout the series of novels at keeping the plot moving ahead briskly and maintaining a sense of familiarity of place and circumstance: in The Alchemyst, for example, the twins travel in an SUV across the Golden Gate Bridge while serious magical matters are afoot. Scott’s Flamel adventures are more nuanced and complex than Osborne’s tree-house tales, so the graphic-novel adaptation omits rather a lot of the story’s background and may leave some readers a bit befogged. What is not left out, understandably, is the material that adapts most readily to graphic-novel form: multiple action scenes. Scott does a nice job of arraying the good guys against the bad, and of creating such characters as the Morrigan, Hekate and the Crow Goddess to make the battle scenes attractive – and Nicole Andelfinger wisely focuses her adaptation on the magical realms and conflicts therein that spill into our “humani” world, while Chris Chalik gives the human, subhuman, prehuman and more-than-human characters plenty of individuation that keeps their interactions interesting. Scott’s weakness in the Flamel novels was his irritating tendency to slip into cliché: “The smile curled her lips, but did not light up her eyes.” “These are creatures that have no right to exist outside of myth.” “We really should be leaving.  And right now would be a good time!” Being somewhat cartoonish, words like these, when included at all, actually work better in graphic-novel form than in the original books. So in some sense, what The Alchemyst loses in depth from this adaptation, it gains in effectiveness of narrative and dialogue. As with the Magic Tree House books, and indeed to a greater extent, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel has considerably more depth (if not exactly profundity) in its original form than in graphic-novel dress. The basic excitement of magical good vs. magical evil comes through quite well in The Alchemyst as a graphic novel, but there is a good deal more to Scott’s tale-telling than can fit into illustrated form. Hopefully this fine adaptation will intrigue at least some readers into seeking out the source on which it draws.

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