My favorite gift of all time was the paperback boxed set of The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien that my mother gave me when I was fifteen. I still vividly remember lying on my bed at my grandparents reading the first few chapters late on Christmas Eve. There was an overhead light in that room, with two large windows overlooking a moonless winter night. There were no curtains, so the dark was very close. Reading through the first few chapters, I got to the part where the Night Riders were chasing Aragorn and the hobbits to Rivendell … and I had to put the book down. The excitement was so high, and my sense of the dark outside so strong, that I couldn’t go on. In hindsight, not sleeping much that night, I should have read more … but the power of the book was so strong that I lived within its pages for the rest of that school holiday. I read the trilogy twelve times in the ensuing years. There are dozens of prized fantasy novels on my shelves because I enjoyed the experience of living in other worlds within the pages of those books. Thanks, Mom, for a gift that changed my life. Books.
If you’re looking for some books that will keep your kids’ noses buried in a book during the holidays, I have a few graphic suggestions. These are my picks for graphic novels I’ve enjoyed immensely this year.
I’ve already written about the Tiny Tyrant books (First Second) … they’re still at the top of my list for gasps and laughs.
In October 2011, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg will release The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn. If you want to be really cool, you’ll buy your young readers The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham’s Treasure. These are the three books on which the (first!) movie is based. By reading the books first, the kids in your life will be experts about what’s coming up. And there are many more Tintin books, so chances are you’ll start a fervent hunt for the other titles. It’s hard to resist Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and the nifty duo of Thomson and Thompson.
In a somewhat similar style, with a soupçon of the superhero comics, there’s City of Spies (by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan, with artwork by Pascal Dizin, published by First Second) featuring the Amazing Adventures of Zirconium Man and Scooter! In June 1942, young Evelyn is sent to stay with her avant garde, distracted, and somewhat neglectful aunt, Lia Spiegelman. Evelyn has a highly evolved imagination and she’s a good artist—both of which produce a comic book with the aformentioned superhero duo. There’s talk of spies everywhere, so they figure prominently in Evelyn’s work. As she and the building superintendent’s son Tony become friends and explore the city, they become convinced there are real spies around them and they seek to solve the mystery. In a breathless adventure, Evelyn and Tony are embroiled in a heart-stopping, spine-tingling, can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough story that satisfies. Even though Evelyn goes back to live with her father, there’s promise at the end of the book of another tale. I can’t wait.
In Cat Burglar Black (written and illustrated by Richard Sala, published by First Second), young Katherine Westree, who goes by K., was raised in an orphanage where the creepy matron trained all her charges to be thieves and pickpockets, benefiting her nefarious goals. When she becomes a teenager, K. is invited to the Bellsong Academy for Girls. Everything about K.’s life is a mystery, particularly her extraordinary abilities as a cat burglar. It turns out that the other girls at the Academy have similar talents … and their headmistress has specific missions planned for them to obtain certain artifacts. Throughout the tale, K. maintains a sense of morality, working to solve the mysteries that surround her. From its spooky characters to its thrills-and-spills, this is absorbing reading.
In four short books, Candlewick Press presents Paul Collicutt’s Robot City Adventures. In this alternate reality, robots live among us, working, acting, serving on the police force, being train conductors … and being trains! That talk! It isn’t always an easy co-existence between robots and humans; there’s a sign of bigotry here and there on the part of both races. I’ve read The Indestructible Metal Men and Murder on the Robot City Express. In the first, a ship sinks one hundred years earlier while crossing the Atlantic, striking an iceberg, and going down quickly into a chilly sea with far too many people still on board. Three experimentally “indestructible” robots and their inventor Henry Greenwood do their best to save the others, but they go down with the ship. Fast-forward to “the present” and the three Metal Men come back to life, each having a homing beacon for the others, and they combine their enviable forces to defeat an evil mastermind. In the second book, Murder on the Robot City Express, the Express is out to set a world speed record and celebrities galore are on board to maximize their publicity potential. From all walks of life, scientists, writers, actors, and sports stars, robots and humans alike are excited about their swift ride to destiny … until one of them is murdered. Who did it? And why? Will Harrison, the conductor, solve the crime before the train reaches its destination? Will the train, out of control, reach its destination or will it send everyone on board to a hurtling death? The other two books in the series are City in Peril! and Rust Attack! Paul Collicutt, the Englishman who writes and draws this series, is interviewed on Graphic Novel Reporter. You’ll want to save this link to share with your favorite readers … they’re going to want to know everything about the mind and talents of said Paul Collicutt.
In Foiled, author Jane Yolen and illustrator Mike Cavallaro (First Second), young teen Aliera Carstairs lives for her fencing lessons. Invisible at school, with a mad crush on cute boy Avery, Aliera takes solace in her ability to impress knowledgeable swordmasters with her skills. Fencing since she was eleven, she endures heat and long hours and grueling work to improve her abilities. She has a superb sword with a fake jewel on the handle … something she picked up at a tag sale for two dollars. When Avery pays attention to her in science, she’s flattered. When he asks her out on a date, she’s elated. Aliera never suspects. Her world changes on that date and nothing will ever be the same again. Aliera develops powers that will satisfy even the most reluctant reader. Cavallaro’s illustrations are outstanding, drawing me so thoroughly into the book that I walked through the subway tunnels alongside Aliera and Avery. A sure-fire gift.
For fans of Rick Riordan’s books about Greek demi-gods and heroes, a good choice is George O’Connor’s Zeus: King of the Gods. From its metallic cover to the Olympians Family Tree I will cherish, to the extensive back matter with notes about the Greek language, links to websites and … that’s just the stuff that isn’t the story. Wrapping the myth of Zeus’ existence in a narrative storyline with wonderfully evocative drawings of the chaos of the young earth, this is a spine-tingling tale of way the new race of gods won their freedom from the Titans. Who can resist this tale of irresistible chutzpah and determination? The ancient myths have never seemed so accessible. The reward is in the last line, “And that is a tale for another day.” There will be more!
Have you tried getting your teen to sit down and read Homer’s The Odyssey? My favorite translation is Robert Fagles. I didn’t pick up the book out of curiosity and become absorbed immediately. I was led to the book by the Hercules cartoons of the mid-1960s, then reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to find out more. When I discovered The Odyssey was set in Greece, I picked up the book and plowed my way through. It’s an exciting tale with unforgettable characters and mind images, worth the travail. Today’s readers have Gareth Hinds’ palpable and luscious graphic novel version of The Odyssey (Candlewick Press). Working in pencil and watercolor, every panel is worth studying. The Cyclops, Scylla, the metal dogs outside King Alcinoos’ palace, Poseidon swamping Odysseus’ boat, and the homecoming … I am so grateful to have these images to look at again and again. It’s what Hinds has done by carefully selecting the language and making it immensely readable that makes this book a must-have for every home. Everyone can, and should, read this version of the classic story.
Whether the young people in your life are readers or haven’t yet discovered that they are, there are graphic novels here to tempt anyone.
Heads-Up Event: For those of you within driving distance of Minneapolis, join CLN for “The Graphic Novel Today,” a presentation by editor Mark Siegel of First Second Books, on February 26th from 1:30 to 3:00 pm at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Minneapolis West in Plymouth, MN. You’ll find more details and registration here.