Jeff Smith -- creator of the epically fantastical, kid-friendly Bone series -- is back. Well...sort of. Tall Tales collects some previously published stories along with some new collaborations with Tom Sniegoski, providing some rounding-out of backstories only hinted at in the original Bone books. Is it mandatory reading for Bone fans? Can someone other than Smith (namely Sniegoski) carry the weight of such beloved characters? Is the name "Big Johnson Bone" supposed to be funny? Let's explore (some of) the answers...
First off, it should be restated that I used the first story arc of Bone (later collected as "Out From Boneville") in my seventh grade Language Arts classes for two years, with amazing results. From a sheer engagement perspective, my students couldn't get enough of this universe. Struggling and successful readers alike loved the humor, the adventure, and the danger that run throughout "Out From Boneville". My school library quickly stocked the entire series and a prequel, and had difficulty keeping them on the shelves. Though not written for children, there's something about the off-color humor combined with the fantastic setting (which, as evidenced by the popularity of series like Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, et. al., is for some reason appealing to adolescents) that grabs young readers and leaves them wanting more. With Tall Tales, these readers should find some, if not all, of those appealing factors.
Simply but beautifully illustrated by Smith, Tall Tales focuses on the ancestor of our heroes from the original series, one Big Johnson Bone. Smiley Bone -- the fun-loving if daft Bone cousin -- and an orphaned Rat Creature named Barnaby tell a pack of young Bone Scouts about the adventures of the most famous Bone of all, Big Johnson Bone. These adventures consist of typical Smith plot devices -- run-ins with cruel-yet-hapless Rat Creatures, help from friendly woodland creatures, and tons of action. The larger, more intricate fantasy narrative that runs throughout the original series is abandoned here for more of an innocent romp, with mixed results.
Though so action-packed it was a really quick read, I found myself frequently looking to the back of the book to check how many pages were left. This was especially the case during the Sniegoski-penned "The Lost Tale of Big Johnson Bone", which occupies more than half of this collection. The same gags repeat themselves over and over, and the conclusion of the story is far too predictable. Sniegoski does, I'll admit, continue Smith's admirable practice of not patronizing young readers. The vocabulary used here is elevated, and includes some idioms particular to either days gone by or to the Bone world itself. This could potentially alienate a struggling reader, but the nature of the comics medium -- as well as Smith's expert cartooning, particularly in his ability to accurately capture a wide range of facial expressions -- fills in the gaps in the reader's knowledge. I was quite happy to see this practice carried over.
As far as appropriateness for the classroom, there is only a couple of instances of questionable language here (the word 'damn'), and I think that names like "Big Johnson Bone" and "The Cobbler Gobbler" will go over most students' heads. Unfortunately, the narrative here is just too thematically thin to be appropriate for whole-class study. Tall Tales would be a better fit in a classroom or school library, guaranteed to be checked out by students who can't get enough of the universe.