Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
Girl in the Blue Coat
Defy the Stars

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ding Dong. Yummy Monster Calling...

I’d just like to note that, at this point last year, I was choosing between two books that were mediocre at best. This year, two pretty impressive reads in Round Two, which only promises a great next few rounds!

Yummy: G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke

This short graphic novel, grounded in a real-life story of gang-riddled Chicago not-so-long-ago, is powerful and, at times, moving. Although the work is narrated primarily by Yummy’s classmate, Roger, Neri does an impressive job of capturing a myriad of voices in the community, disparate voices attempting to reconcile the bifurcated nature of Yummy: boy or man? victim or perpetrator? These are the most intriguing and effective moments of the work, perhaps best encapsulated by a quietly devastating moment where two grandmothers embrace, one of a victim, the other of the murderer. The paradoxical nature of Yummy is addressed both through text and image, and the reader’s challenged sympathies continually shift as more is revealed of Yummy’s life and actions. Neri never lets the reader of the hook; there are no easy solutions or easy reconciliations (O.K.--maybe one), and although the ending is cautiously optimistic, a sense of perpetual violence and despair remains.

The artwork and design of the graphic novel is easily Yummy’s strongest element, and, as a vehicle for teaching the sequential image, would be incredibly effective in the classroom. DuBurke’s clever use of gutters and borders comments on the narrative symbolically throughout; open space, internal framing, and angles reveal much of the world that the characters inhabit. And, perhaps most impressively, DuBurke’s use of near-cinematic lighting is remarkable; his use of chiaroscuro is particularly effective in revealing character and setting. DuBurke particularly excels at capturing emotion on the faces of the Chicago denizens, the grief and the anguish; some of the most affecting moments are those where the picture does the narrative work without text.

Ultimately, though, Yummy feels a bit earnest, a bit The Wire-lite. I’m not sure one can instill a sense of verisimilitude in a work that attempts to capture the gritty reality of gang life in a metropolitan city without a bit more “grit.” I understand the intent (perhaps need?) to write a story of gang life suitable for young adult readers, but it periodically feels a bit sanitized. There is much to be admired though, and I would highly recommend Yummy for teachers who are interested in introducing the sequential image form to their students.

A Monster Calls: Patrick Ness based on an idea from Siobhan Dowd with illustrations by Jim Kay

There are books that are sad, and then there are books that are sad. Like guttural-breath-catching and tears-streaming-down-your-face sad. This is that. Obviously, from the first few pages on, an impending death hangs over the novel, and getting to the inevitable is no picnic. There are moments of such horrible complicity compounding the inevitable (I found the intentional/accidental destruction of a clock particularly gut-wrenching) that A Monster Calls is periodically almost too painful to read. We’ve all been there before: that horrible moment when you act out of emotion, pure affect, even as your mind is trying to veto your heart’s reaction, and that horrible moment of realization after the fact that you have, instinctually or otherwise, grievously hurt someone you love. Gak. And when a reader can vicariously feel the pain of a boy who has done just that, you know you’re in the hands of a pretty special writer, and a pretty special narrative.

There is little respite throughout the narrative; this is, like I have already cautioned, a painful read, and I put it aside on more than one evening when I just felt a little overwhelmed with Conor‘s plight. Also, the text itself is hard to read because your eyes are more than a little blurry throughout (actually, full disclosure, I didn’t even make it through the forward without the room getting a little dusty. This should surprise no one).

Jim Kay’s illustrations are remarkably evocative, like Edward Gorey decided to draw some sort of dark pastoral The Cabinet of Caligari, but not before sitting down with a three quart jar of absinthe. The illustrations are used sparingly and thematically, appearing at key moments of the story, at once beautiful and horrifying. Stunning, really.

The writing? Equally stunning. A Monster Calls is, in many ways, a series of allegories wrapped in a fable, and the syntax is accordingly straight-forward and unencumbered. But the use of figurative language and poetic device is unbelievable, certainly “teach-able.” Honestly, I pulled a few passages that would be suitable for a 30 IB class; not because they are rife with difficult diction and complicated syntax, but because the images are so indelible, bolstered through poetic device. It is a real talent to be simultaneously minimalist and poetic, but somehow Ness pulls it off. And some of the thematic paradoxes on which the novel is structured are worthy of a long philosophical discussion with students of any age.

A Monster Calls does veer close to mawkish sentimentality at times, but, for me at least, Ness circumnavigates around Maudlin Island through sparse prose and unflinching honesty (I really hope, however, that no one ever decides to film this--there is no way that the dialogue could be spoken aloud without running aground on said Island). Predictable? Sure. But the inevitable usually is. And the book isn’t so much about predictable narrative as it is about acknowledging The Truth that sits right in front of you.

Teach-ability for young adults? Hard to say. Annabel, as always, is absolutely correct in noting that this book deals unflinchingly with the saddest events in one’s life, and does so honestly and compassionately. But, good lord, one would have to be careful not to mentally scar the children. I, like Annabel, suspect that one’s affective response will be predicated on your “own experience with loss.” Given the right group of students at the right time in their lives, it would be a real honour to teach this book.

The Final Word?: A Monster Calls moves on. I think. I haven’t seen what Jenni or John think….

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