Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Reviews #20 and #21: Kids' Stuff (Like Censorship and Racism)

by Francis Hardinge
(HarperCollins, April 2006)

by Grady Klein
(First Second, May 2006)

Once again, two books, thematically linked. This time they seem to reveal my penchant for the kids' stuff: one is a fantasy novel geared toward young adults, the other a graphic novel with childlike drawings. It's true, I have a serious weakness for intrepid heroes and heroines, impending peril, swashbuckling, pratfalls, and nonsense. But there's a lot more going on in these two books than adventure and wackiness. Both have managed to effectively engage with several serious themes, while still remaining as entertaining as Saturday morning cartoons.

I picked up a reading copy of Francis Hardinge's book in the store because I liked the cover: a running, scowling girl clutching a goose, her face partially obscured by a banner reading "This Book Has Been BANNED! By the Mandelion Guild of Stationers." * The girl is Mosca Mye, an orphaned, precocious youngster who grew up in a boring backwater and longs for adventure. Sounds familiar, I know, but part of the reason we read these things is for the variations on a beloved theme. The Guild of Stationers hold sway in Mandelion, the big capital city Mosca finds herself adventuring in, and they alone reserve the right to approve or castigate any piece of writing or printing.

Mosca, in fact, is one of the few in her imaginary country who can actually read (taught by her late scholar father), and her love of words draws her to the honey-tongued scoundrel Eponymous Clent, who reluctantly takes her on as a secretary and drags her along to the capital. The plot gets very complicated from here on, and as with most fantasy/adventure stories, trying to summarize it would take too long and spoil the pleasure of the book. Suffice to say that in this beleaguered land, a period of political violence and unrest has settled into an uneasy peace, where the guilds (the Stationers, the Locksmiths, the Watermen) jockey for power on the streets, the insane Duke holds ultimate authority, and religious fanatics as well as free speech advocates are all secretly plotting to change the status quo. Sounds a little familiar again, huh? – but in a very different way.

Mosca's story is in some ways a typical one for this kind of novel: she struggles with her desires for fame and glory and ultimately discovers that some things are more important, and she learns, slowly, who to trust. But the politics of the story are rich and intriguing, and ultimately there are far fewer "bad guys" than one would think. The best part of the book are the floating coffee houses, which float on the river outside of normal law's jurisdiction, and are hothouses of revolutionary dissent. Oh, and the reluctant hero highwayman Captain Blythe, whom you'll just have to read about.

Like her predecessor in intelligent fantasy Philip Pullman, Hardinge ultimately comes down pretty strongly against organized religion, and authority in general, and in favor of individuality, creativity, and especially language. But her delineation of the dangers and contingencies that result in abuse of authority are perhaps more nuanced than Pullman's; even the ultimate villain is allowed a moment of humanity when Mosca reflects on how incredibly attractive power can be. Along with being a super-gripping read (yep, passed my miss-the-subway-stop test) by an author obviously herself in love with original, evocative language, this book might be a perfect way to introduce younger readers to ideas of authority and rebellion, the compromises of politics, and how difficult (but important) it is to be on the right side.

Grady Klein's highly original graphic novel is also about power in an imaginary world. Where Hardinge's was clearly modeled after 18th-century England, Klein's vaguely resembles America (one character is constantly misquoting Jefferson and other founding fathers). But it centers around a secret island, discovered accidentally by a slave trader who wants to expand his business. The island's denizens include Dr. Wong, the (supposedly) Chinese herb doctor and charlatan; Stewart, a giant lobotomized oaf; the money-grubbing, rhetoricizing Governor Snodgrass; the "king," Rex Carter; and Patricia, a possibly paranoid black woman who tries to mobilize her neighbors to kill the fairly innocuous-seeming trader. Through all of this wanders Birdy, the governor's small daughter, who follows the trader off the island after she decides she wants a slave to do her chores. She finds one – a boy named Louis Jones – along with the king's strange plot involving a giant iron robot slave.

It's a weirdly dreamlike story – almost like a child's meandering vision – and treats the heavy issues of racism and corruption with an odd casualness. The chunky, color-saturated drawings and goofy anachronisms (the characters are dressed semi-colonially, but constantly use the word "dude") add to the playful, unsophisticated tone. But this turns out to be a surprisingly effective strategy, as it forces the reader to look at race through a child's eyes, as though seeing it all for the first time. Klein takes his time and lets the art tell the story almost more than the dialogue; the fantastical but immensely satisfactory denouement is communicated entirely through the pictures. It's an example of one of the best things graphic novels can do: using the suggestive power of art to impart ideas that would be heavy-handed in words, and tackling grave topics with the all-encompassing imagination of fantasy.

In fact, both of these books both typify and transcend their genres, proving that the best kids' books aren't just for kids. If you know a kid who reads, I highly suggest giving them one of these, along with HARRY POTTER and GOSSIP GIRLS – and then talking to them about it later. If you're a grownup who appreciates the things fantasy and graphic novels can do, I highly recommend you check them out yourself.

* Two notes on the publishers:
In what I feel is an unwise move, HarperCollins have changed the cover of FLY BY NIGHT so that the banner reads "Imagine a world in which all books were BANNED!" Not only less intriguing, but false in the context of the story, where books vetted by the Stationers do exist.

The publisher of THE LOST COLONY, First Second, is a brand-new graphic novel imprint of Roaring Brook, a division of Holtzbrinck. I can't wait to see what they come out with next.