Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review -- "Anya's Ghost" by Vera Brogsol

Disclaimer: I, unlike the pre-teens and teenagers I taught for years, have a weak constitution when it comes to the macabre.  In film form, anyway.  And while yes, it is embarrassing that 12 year-olds have stronger stomachs for slasher films than I do, I take some small comfort that at least recently I have grown to appreciate a melancholy tale or two in print form.  A perfect example -- I love Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead in comics form.  But there’s no way I could handle watching the TV adaptation done by AMC.  Maybe I’ll get there someday.  Baby steps, you know?

So with my limited exposure to this genre of literature, I’ve identified a few go-to writers who can scratch this curious itch.  I’ve recently become appreciative of Neil Gaiman’s particular take on the darker side of life, gobbling up the comics, children’s books, and novels he’s penned.  I was even lucky enough to see him speak about his novel Neverwhere as part of Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program this past winter.  So when, during this talk, he mentioned that Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost was one of the only new books he was really excited about, I knew I had to give it a shot.  Spoiler: I wasn’t disappointed.

Anya is a strong-willed teenager who is evidently so concerned with fitting in that she actively shuns her Russian heritage.  Anya worries that her mother’s “greasy” traditional Russian breakfast will cause her to gain weight.  She actively avoids Dima, her fellow Russian immigrant classmate, whose thick accent she finds embarrassing.  She even introduces herself to her crush as Anya “Brown” (rather than using her actual surname, “Borzakovskaya”) so clearly focused is she on assimilating fully into popular American culture.  

Deciding to skip school rather than deal with all of the pressures that can drive a teenager crazy, Anya literally stumbles upon the ghost of a girl who has trapped in a well for 90 years.  When Anya is rescued from the well, she unknowingly brings the stowaway spirit Emily with her.  And though using Emily in school as an intangible talking cheat sheet does seem fun at first, Anya’s obsession with popular culture and ‘hooking up’ Anya with a hunky jock quickly wears on Anya’s nerves.  When Emily feels that Anya no longer needs her, Emily’s true nature (as both a ghost and a young girl with a hidden past) begin to surface, and Emily is forced to enlist Dima and a public library (how lame!) to figure out Emily’s secret.

It’s this idea of the difficulties in establishing one’s own identity that gives Anya’s Ghost such power.  Emily’s passionate pursuit of modern popular culture mirrors Anya’s quest to seem as ‘American’ as possible, and this struggle to fit in should seem quite familiar to any teenager who opens Anya’s Ghost.  Fittingly composed in grey tones, Brosgol’s art is accessible, clean, and expressive.  Because of her ordeal, Anya’s experiences a myriad of emotions, and Brosgol is able to accurately embody these emotions in the contortions of Anya’s face.  The plotting of Anya’s Ghost is well-balanced, with fast-paced action scenes interspersed amongst the quieter character moments, which should appeal to teen readers who enjoy suspenseful reads.  I will point out, however, that there is some fairly mature content here, including Anya’s obsession with smoking and her attempt to dress provocatively (at Emily’s suggestion) in order to attract her crush.  These moments, however, are meaningful in the larger thematic context the story.  Finding where you fit in the world is tough for a teenager -- alive or dead.  And though it takes a supernatural encounter for Anya to realize that there are more important things than popularity, it is still an important lesson learned, and one that will not be lost on teen readers.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Achievement Unlocked -- "Level Up" by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham

If there's one thing that nearly all teenagers are adept at, it's escapism.  And hell, who can blame them?  School, peer pressure, zits,'s enough to make any sane person crawl into a hole.  These challenges can be even more intense for many first generation Americans, as the examples of risk and sacrifice set by their parents can be intimidating, to say the least.  When confronted with his father's death, Dennis Ouyang -- Level Up's awkward teenage lead -- attempts to finds sanctuary from such pressures in video games.  But try as he may, he cannot escape the life his father wanted so strongly for him to lead.

That is not to say that Level Up doesn't have its moments of levity.  Romantically, Dennis is both the pursuer and the pursued, and negotiates the two as many teenagers do -- by making a whole lot of mistakes. Dennis dumps his video game friend the moment he first succumbs to the pressure of his father's hopes for him, learning only much later what a mistake it was.  It is Yang's ability to balance the everyday teenage drama with more difficult issues such as ethnic identity and death that makes his work such a great read for both teenagers and adults.

Literally haunted by his father's memory in the form of four tiny angels that only he can see, Dennis flip-flops between accepting the life his father had planned for him (as a gastroenterologist) and carving out a life of his own.  These angels attempt to instill in Dennis "the will to endure", which, as anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows, is no small task.  Here, Yang flexes his unique skill of using magical realism to convey complicated messages about race and identity.  Thought the plot in Level Up is less nuanced than in American Born Chinese, Yang's best known work, the import of the magical aspects of the story remains.  These angels are relentless in their pressure on Dennis to "fulfill [his] destiny;" so that the effect of this device is to leave the reader feeling that this is not simply the wish of a 'bossy' parent, but something much greater.  With the help of his med school friends, he finds a way to cope with these expectations, eventually confronting the angels.  In this moving scene, Dennis gains insight into his father's own struggles, setting him on the road to understanding just why his father believed so intently in his son's 'destiny'.

One need not be the children of immigrants, however, to appreciate Dennis' difficulties, and in this way Yang offers teenage readers what many so desperately crave -- inspiration that they too can one day take control of their own lives, whether inspired by or despite the wishes of their parents.

Pham's art is reminiscent of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series in that it is not meant to dazzle with technical mastery, but only to function effectively as a storytelling vehicle.  Simple figures, colors, and layouts are all that is needed, as long as those stick figures communicate a message that words alone cannot.  What works for Diary of a Wimpy Kid works for Level Up; clean, straightforward storytelling that in its simplicity somehow accentuates how complex adolescence and young adulthood can be.  Coupled with the sincerity and heart present in all of Yang's work, Level Up is an achievement indeed.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review -- Super Dinosaur #1 by Robert Kirkman and Jason Howard

Here’s the thing about writing for young adults: it’s extremely difficult to avoid being either too cutesy or too mature.  Robert Kirkman (Invincible, The Walking Dead), through his signature blend of silly humor and nonstop action, deftly navigates the precarious Young Adult terrain in the new series Super Dinosaur, the first issue of which was released this week by Image Comics.  Helped immensely by Jason Howard’s clean lines and smooth visual storytelling, Super Dinosaur provides young adult readers just the right blend of adventure and comedy to keep them wanting more by the time the issue comes to its dramatic cliffhanger end.  And, honestly, it’s a whole lot of fun for adult readers as well.

The titular Super Dinosaur (or SD for short) is a talking, armored, armed Tyrannosaurus Rex from the middle of the earth.  SD, Derek Dynamo (his teenage best friend and the son of the famous Doctor Dexter Dynamo), and Derek’s robot Wheels use their well-balanced combination of intellect and some pretty awesome robotic artillery to battle the evil Doctor Max Maximus.  Though Derek loves teaming with SD and Wheels to launch fists and missiles at evil robots and Dino-Men, his biggest concern is that his father’s mental capacities are slowly fading.  Like many teenagers, Derek has to grow up quickly, covering for his scientist father’s increasingly frequent  mistakes by finishing his work, afraid to let his father know that he is not quite the scientist that he once was.

Super Dinosaur works so well because it manages to create a hero in Derek that young adults can relate to and aspire to be.  He’s a seemingly normal teenager who cares deeply about his father and his friends (even if they are a nine foot tall dinosaur and a robot) and who loves adventure.  Though he hasn’t been gifted with tremendous physical strength, his intelligence and empathy for his father inspire him to fight for what is right.  Kirkman’s choice to have the Dino-Men as the villains is a thoughtful device to soften the impact of the violent acts that the heroes inflict upon their enemies, while providing the page-turning action that young adult readers expect.  In the end, however, it is Derek’s relationship with his father that provides the drama that drives this story.  Teenagers, maybe more than any other age group, understand what if feels like to be powerless, and should instantly respect and admire Derek’s efforts to protect his father.  

Super Dinosaur is a fun-filled, action-packed adventure for readers of all ages.  Howard’s art style is perfect for new comics readers, as the colors are vivid and the action is dynamic yet easy to follow (a concern expressed by many readers new to comics).  Kirkman and Howard have a hit on their hands in Super Dinosaur, and readers should be excited to read what comes next.

BONUS: Read a 13-page preview at Comixology.