YA Friday: ‘Chiggers’ and ‘Thoreau at Walden’
Manga are temporarily in short supply around here, so the usual “Manga Friday” slot is being taken by a close cousin. (Think of this as just another wacky hijink, Patty Duke Show-style.) Instead of manga, I have two books for younger readers that came out earlier in 2008, one very clearly for girls, and the other more gender-neutral.
By Hope Larson
Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Ginee Seo Books, June 2008, $17.99 (hardcover) and $9.99 (paperback)
Chiggers is set at a summer camp, and the major characters are all tween girls. (If I’ve figured it out correctly, they’re all in eighth grade.) The viewpoint character is Abby – she’s the first one to arrive in her cabin, this year, and ends up a little out of step with her cabin-mates. (Larson doesn’t tell the reader this – she doesn’t have any narration – but we see Abby nonplussed several times by her very-slightly-more-worldly friends.
Abby’s first bunkmate leaves very quickly, due to chiggers. (Look ‘em up, if you don’t know. And be glad you don’t live in the same places they do.) And she gets a new bunkmate: Shasta, who all the other girls quickly decide they don’t like. Shasta’s a little full of herself – she’s on medication, can’t do a lot of camp activities, got hit by lightning, is one-eighth Cherokee, has an older Internet boyfriend – but Abby genuinely likes Shasta.
Chiggers is low-key; there are no major events. (Even by the overly-dramatic standards of a twelve-year-old girl.) Abby and Shasta meet, become friend, squabble, make up. Abby also meets a boy who thinks she looks like a half-elf – and I’m afraid I can remember a time in my own life when I would have thought that was a nice thing to say to someone. (Luckily, Abby takes it the right way.)
Larson has a confident, dark line and a slight manga influence, but her artwork is most reminiscent of Jeff Smith, particularly in her faces. I did have a little trouble telling all of her characters apart at first – when there’s a half-dozen girls of the same age in black-and-white, there are fewer ways to identify them – but it all clicked by the end. Chiggers won’t be for everyone – you’d have to want to read a story about tween girls at camp, and most of the comic-shop crowd won’t – but it’s a well-told story about friendship, suitable for tweens but not limited to them, with assured, evocative art.
Thoreau at Walden
By John Porcellino, from the writings of Henry David Thoreau
Hyperion/Center for Cartoon Studies, April 2008, $16.99
This was the third of the deliberately didactic – though all very entertainingly so – books published by Hyperion under the auspices of James Sturm’s Center for Cartoon Studies. (The first two were Houdini: The Handcuff King and Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow; it’s good to see that “educational” books for kids still rely on the solid biography, as they did back in my day.)
Thoreau is a little different than those first two CCS books; it retells the story of Thoreau’s two-year stay in the cabin he built next to Walden Pond, using only Thoreau’s own writings. (Of course, those writings are accompanied by Porcellino’s art, and were chosen and organized by Porcellino to begin with.)
Porcellino’s deliberately simplified art and layouts – down to his only very slightly shaky hand-drawn panel borders – work very well with Thoreau’s message of voluntary simplicity; this was an inspired combination of artist and work.
There’s not a whole lot to say about the story – Thoreau goes into town, is famously arrested, gets out of jail, and then spends a lot of time hoeing beans, looking at nature, writing, and thinking about things. Porcellino makes it all work, and gives a quiet air of philosophic seriousness that well suits Thoreau. The first two CCS books were quite good, each in their own way, but this is possibly even better: a small gem, using comics to explicate and humanize a fusty, hermetic 19th century figure.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.