In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Grabbing life by the braids

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I hope your visit with John Muth to see the baby panda at the National Zoo went well yesterday -- I can't wait to hear about it! Our wildlife sightings recently have been limited to some chilly squirrels and pigeons, and we're looking forward to spring.

The graphic novel obsession in our house continues unabated, and I'm feeling extremely lucky to be raising kids at such an amazing time in the explosion of the form. I remember the hours I spent with book after book of Archie comics, which I loved despite the bad jokes and reductive gender stereotypes. Instead of reading about the good girl (Betty) and bad girl (Veronica) fighting over Archie's attention, my daughters have spent the last couple of weeks getting to know the active, awesome heroine of Rapunzel's Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale.

Our friend and fabulous YA and middle-grade author Tui Sutherland recommended the book in a recent comment on the blog. It's a graphic novel retooling of the classic Rapunzel story, set in an alternate world with a Wild West flavor. In this version, Mother Gothel is a slave-driving overlord who uses "growth magic" to keep the countryside around her green oasis barren and forces locals to work in her mines under dangerous conditions. The growth magic is also responsible for the incredible length of Rapunzel's hair. Rapunzel discovers her true parentage at age 12 (her real mother is one of Mother Gothel's mine workers), and Gothel imprisons her in a tiny room at the top of a giant tree. There's a palpable sense of the difficulty of Rapunzel's solitary confinement, but she uses it to get herself in shape:

At age 16, she breaks herself out of the tower room and goes adventuring, planning to save her mother and defeat Gothel. Rapunzel teams up with the crafty but somewhat hapless Jack (of beanstalk fame). Their relationship is decidedly one of equals: there's mutual respect along with the budding romance, and they work together well to trick and fight their way to a satisfying ending. Rapunzel provides the moral center, expecting the best from people and urging Jack to give up stealing; Jack watches Rapunzel's fighting skills with admiration, and proves to be a quick thinker even when outgunned. A word about guns: as Tui noted in her comment, there are a number of them in the book (Wild West and all that). However, our heroes go farther than not using guns themselves: they actively remove guns from their opponents, Rapunzel by using her braids as a lasso and a whip:

It's pretty badass, in a kid-appropriate way.

Calamity Jack is a worthy sequel. This one is narrated by Jack, and takes place in the city of Shyport, a steampunk world filled with gadgets, floating houses, evil giants, and pixies.

We get Jack's backstory: he's a petty thief, a disappointment to his widowed mother, with a propensity for tricks that don't quite work. He's also Native American, a fact that is woven in thoughtfully but not too heavy-handedly via illustrations and a few references to an inherited war band and a fringed jacket of his father's.  The story here involves Jack and Rapunzel, along with a couple of other good guys, teaming up to fight the giant Blunderboar. (Rapunzel's hair was shorn at the end of the previous book, but she still keeps her braids coiled at her waist as weapons. Another detail I love: in both books, Rapunzel trades her dress for an outfit with pants, the better to climb buildings, leap over rocks, and slingshot herself towards her opponents.) Blunderboar has leveraged the threat of giant ant-people to take control of the city. Our heroes solve a mystery and save the populace, again as equal partners. And my daughters get another awesome heroine to tuck into the pantheon they're creating for themselves.

Love, Annie


  1. Oh yay, I'm so glad you guys liked it, too! We just got Calamity Jack and the beginning did freak out Jonah a little bit -- but the wonderful thing about graphic novels is we were able to flip ahead a few pages and see that Jack escapes the giant and is clearly off having adventures with Rapunzel again, so he felt much better after that. I have to say thank you to you, too, Annie, for recommending the Bink and Gollie books on here. SO MUCH LOVE. Both of my bears can't get enough of them! Which is great because I love to read them, but also wonderful because hearing my 22-month-old going: "Where's Bink and GOLLIE? Where's Bink and GOLLIE?" is kind of too hilarious. Now I'm on a hunt for more series like that and Nate the Great! :)

  2. Hey, Tui. Here are a few. We've talked a little on the blog about DiCamillo's Mercy Watson series, which should fit that bill. Also, Nate the Great has a new-ish cousin Olivia Sharpe with a series of her own. Henry & Mudge series (blog entry on that - I can't figure out how to put links in a comment). Mr. Putter & Tabby. These are all kind of glorified early readers, laid out with lots of pictures and usually with numbered chapters. And of course there's Lulu and the Brontosaurus (also blog) which will inspire your children to chant about dinosaurs. Enjoy!

  3. Thank you so much, Deborah! We've met Olivia and Henry and Mudge, but not the others, so I'll definitely go track them down...I really appreciate the suggestions! :)