Comics Alternative for Young Readers: Reviews of Feathers, The Only Child, and Teen Dog

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Adventure, Isolation, and Jeff Spicoli


Gwen and Andy are back in 2016 with three new graphic novels for young readers. The two people with PhDs first discuss Feathers, by Jorge Corona with Jen Hickman (Archaia/BOOM! Studios), a title about a strange boy with feathers named Poe who watches over the Maze, a large city consisting of the poor and disenfranchised, and whose children are actually called Mice. In the center of the city, enclosed within a great wall, live the wealthy and cultured, including a young girl named Bianca, who longs for adventure and discovery within the Maze. But there’s a mysterious evil presence at work in the Maze, something that neither Poe nor Bianca knows about. Corona himself has said, “If you think about it, Feathers is like Spider-Man in a Dickensian world.” Gwen and Andy both commented that Feathers is an engaging story with a European feel.

Next, Gwen and Andy discuss The Only Child (Penguin Random House), the first graphic novel by Guojing, an illustrator who studied fine art at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts in China. Gwen set up the story by reading from Guojing’s author’s note that explains the inspiration for her text: “The story in this book is fantasy, but reflects the very real feelings of isolation and loneliness I experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China.” Guojing goes on to say that though she often stayed with her grandmother when her parents had to work late, she was also often alone, as were almost all of the children she knew. Guojing recounts an experience she had that inspired some of the action of The Only Child. She writes,

Once, when I was six years old, my father put me on a bus to grandmother’s house before he left for work. I fell asleep, and when I woke, the bus was almost empty. I panicked and ran off. There was no one to help me, so I started walking. I cried as I walked, following the electric lines of the bus. Luckily, I found my way back to a road that looked familiar and eventually reached my grandmother’s house three hours later. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that it is easy to become lost, but if I look hard enough, there is always a path — like the electric bus lines — guiding the way back home.

The Only Child is a silent, or wordless, comic, drawn in hues of gray, black, and white, with panels that are foregrounded against a light brown background. Both Gwen and Andy note that the text is reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s extremely popular and influential comic, The Arrival. However, whereas Tan’s text was primarily focalized through an immigrant adult and the other adult immigrants whom he meets, The Only Child focuses on a young child, a girl who appears to be five or six years old. The opening pages demonstrate that while the girl has many toys and an active imagination, she quickly tires of doing things on her own.

Gwen explains how The Only Child includes a classic plot structure in children’s literature: the home-away-home pattern, in which a young child feels discontented, leaves home in order to pursue adventure, but quickly realizes that she is homesick and attempts to get back. The film version of The Wizard of Oz is one such text that our listeners may know well, but many others will undoubtedly come to mind. This plot structure is meant to instruct children that they need to create a balance between independence and dependence, something that Guojing emphasizes in her text.

Andy and Gwen cannot say enough about the beauty, artistry, and depth of Guojing’s debut graphic novel The Only Child. This text is geared towards young readers, but would be a fine addition to anyone’s comics collection.

The final book discussed is a fun, carefree ride called Teen Dog by Australian creator Jake Lawrence (BOOM! Box). Teen Dog — a book about a super-cool dog who loves life and pizza — remind Gwen of several John Hughes films from the 1980s and for Andy brought to mind a kinder, gentler Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Both feel that Teen Dog is a great read for reluctant readers with its early short chapters and engaging, colorful illustrations.

National Ambassadors for Young People's Literature: Gene Luen Yang (2016-2017), Kate DiCamillo (2014-2015), and Jon Scieszka (2008-2009)

National Ambassadors for Young People’s Literature: Gene Luen Yang (2016-2017), Kate DiCamillo (2014-2015), and Jon Scieszka (2008-2009)

To end the show, Gwen and Andy discuss the exciting news that comics creator Gene Luen Yang has been awarded one of the highest honors in the literary world when he was named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2016. This honor is given out annually by the Children’s Book Council, the Every Child a Reader (ECAR) initiative, and the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Yang has chosen “Reading Without Walls” as the theme for this year, and in his acceptance speech, he asked young readers to read outside their comfort zones, noting

Books can be ambassadors for you, too. Books can help you understand people from other cultures, religions, and ways of living. Books can help you understand topics that you find intimating. Find a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you or live like you. Find a book about a topic that you don’t know much about. Find a book that’s in a format you’ve never tried before: a graphic novel, a words-only novel, or a novel in verse. Read without walls and see what happens.

Andy, Gwen, and everyone at The Comics Alternative extends their congratulations to Gene Luen Yang. To learn more about his comics, including American Born Chinese, The Shadow Hero, Boxers & Saints, Secret Coders (with Mike Holmes), and to read his acceptance speech in its entirety, visit his website.