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Oct/Nov 2010 Reviews & Interviews

Tween Reading, Graphic Style: From Amelia to Allison to Daniel to the Secret Science Alliance

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! When it comes to graphic novels for the tween set (otherwise known as 9-12 year olds) the first title I always recommend is Amelia Rules!. This series (now collected in several volumes by Atheneum) by Jimmy Gownley was first released back around 2000 and is one hundred percent the modern Peanuts title parents are looking for. The four main characters (Amelia, Reggie, Rhonda and "Pajamaman"—he always wears pajamas) are funny as heck and get into all kinds of twenty-first century adventures while firmly remaining the ten-year old kids they are. In other words, Gownley is in touch with his inner (and very spunky) child which is awesome stuff for middle grade readers everywhere.

In the latest collection, Superheroes, the big news is that Amelia and her mother are moving out of her Aunt Tanner's house and into their own. (Amelia's parents divorced in the first book but her father plays a recurring and friendly role in the story.) The move is a big deal as it will take Amelia away from her beloved neighborhood. The new house also brings her close to another group of kids whom Reggie (he's a wee paranoid) has dubbed "THE NINJAS" who might be allied with "THE LEGION OF STEVES!!!!" (All caps and multiple exclamation points are necessary with most of Reggie's announcements.) (And yes, he's a little bit crazy but only in the way every other imaginative ten-year old who dresses up as Captain Amazing would be.)

As you would expect there are plenty of funny run-ins with the new kids who are basically the same as Amelia's crew just living on a different block. There are many typical misunderstandings and crazy moments along the way but things take an interesting turn when Amelia meets Joan and her friends and joins in their zine efforts. This is also when she comes to know Trishia, writer extraordinaire and creator of an ongoing serial: "The Adventures of Princess Trishara". That's when things get mysterious and eventually, very very serious.

First, the Amelia Rules books have an amazing design. The full color pages are glossy and bright and Gownley's realistic (read—non manga) depiction of the kids is right out of Schultz's playbook. There are lots of t-shirts and sneakers, with the exception of Pajamaman whose array of unique sleepwear (and baseball caps) has to be seen to be appreciated. No one is going to get bored looking at these books, that's for sure.

The story in Superheroes is genuine and true; plenty of kid angst that adults will recognize with ease and kids will identify with. As Trishia first becomes close to Amelia and the crew and then abruptly pulls away, readers will know enough to be concerned and the explanation (when it comes) includes a great flash forward and a few awesome panels that are perfect in every sense of the word. It's a kid's world, but kids get sick, and that's all I'm going to share of the final revelation. From beginning to end the Amelia Rules titles are pure delight and perfect gifts for tween readers.

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis has gotten a lot of love from librarians and bloggers and only a quick glance through the pages reveals why. This middle grade adventure (the start of a series I'm sure) has everything a kid wants: smart engaging characters who don't fit in, a truly nefarious villain, one incredibly wicked cool clubhouse/hideout (this is the first one I've seen that utterly puts The Three Investigators to shame) and a ton of awesome inventions. It's all good in other words and so effectively designed that readers can see every inch of all the cool places and cool things and thus won't feel cheated. A graphic novel really is the perfect way to tell a story like this (not to belabor the point but can you imagine if the Investigators books had all been gns?) and if you've got a reluctant reader they are going to jump all over it.

The story begins with Julian, a nerd in the most clichéd sense who has moved to a new school and is desperately seeking to mask his nerdiness. Greta is the tough girl—both odd and intimidating and regarded as somewhat crazy by her teachers and fellow students. Rounding out the trio is Ben, a popular sports hero who struggles to achieve passing grades. Julian finds himself befriended by Greta and Ben who have a secret friendship and hobby. He becomes part of the "SSA" and a lot of fun inventing hijinks ensue. Until the mean and evil corporate inventor shows up and steals from them and then they have to get their secrets back and, well, lots of stuff happens and it's all good.

There are several interesting elements separate from the plot and design that make Secret Science Alliance. First, you have a multicultural cast who manage to straddle the worlds of cool and geek in interesting ways; this widens the book's appeal. Further, Greta's father has a prominent part and as a museum curator he is both loving and intelligent—a perfect example of a parent who embraces his unusual daughter and her friends and celebrates them for who they are. Julian's family is also present and serves as a source of hilarity—a lot of younger siblings, a lot of noise, and parents who love him but don't quite know what to do with him. Combined with the fast running plot you end up with a fun family story about great kids that is a delight to read. Easy to see why this one has so many fans; I hope Davis hears their cries and churns out many more books with this same group.

Alison Dare continues in the long tradition of girl detectives everywhere by getting into all sorts of scrapes but always uncovering nefarious deeds along the way. The daughter of a world renowned archaeologist and masked superhero, plus the niece of an international spy (and master of disguise), Alison is not your typical twelve-year old. Author J. Torres offers up a mix of Indiana Jones and Superman (with some James Bond thrown in for good measure) (I just noticed those are all male protagonists—how frustrating!) in two recent collections: Alison Dare: The Heart of the Maiden and Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures. With crisp black and white illustrations from J. Bone these digest-sized titles are fun (and somewhat snarky) reads for tweens that are looking for more exotic locales and bigger than unusual villains. With its boarding school setting, The Heart of the Maiden should especially appeal although the story collection, Little Miss Adventures, which is set everywhere from a desert archeological dig to facing down international thieves bent on stealing antiquities from a museum, is no slouch either.

I mean, come on—Alison goes to school at St Joan of Arc Academy for Girls! It's too much fun for words! (I'm not sure if the appeal is more that I wish I could have been Alison when I was younger or that the stories crack me up so much but either way, she's a winner.)

Finally, younger readers will find the over-the-top silliness of Daniel Boom to be their liking in The Adventures of Daniel Boom AKA Loud Boy: Grow Up!. This fourth volume in the series finds Daniel and friends on a school field trip to the
K. R. Industries factory. The kids know that many nefarious activities occur there while their parents (many of whom work there) think all is fine and dandy. In short order the kids are picked off one by one, hit by some sort of ray that causes them to act old (and whiney). Daniel holds out to save the day but even he finds himself a victim. Uncle Stanley (head of this group of superkids) then jumps in to the save the day but nothing is as easy it should be and finally—after A LOT of action—the good guys prevail. Just like you knew they would but still, it's a kick to get to that moment of victory.

Daniel Boom is a no-brainer for reluctant readers in particular. Brian Smith's big colorful pictures leap off the page, there's plenty of examples of kids knowing better than adults (better than evil adults) and lots of goofy moments as the good guys find themselves struggling against a sudden onslaught of old age. Basically, Daniel Boom's adventures are silly but that's what they are supposed to be and author D.J. Steinberg pulls it off without being gross or insulting to his readers. They'll graduate out of this series easily to the The Secret Science Alliance, and honestly, that's about the best possible reading progression for any eight year old to ask for.

 

Amelia Rules: Superheroes
By Jimmy Gownley
Athenuem 2010
ISBN 1-4169-8606-5
176 pages

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook
By Eleanor Davis
Bloomsbury 2009
ISBN 1-59990-396-5
160 pages

Alison Dare: The Heart of the Maiden
By J. Torres
Illustrated by J. Bone
Tundra Books 2010
ISBN 0-88776-935-1
96 pages

Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures
By J. Torres
Illustrated by J. Bone
Tundra Books 2010
ISBN 8088776-934-4
96 pages

The Adventures of Daniel Boom AKA Loud Boy: Grow Up!
By DJ Steinberg
Illustrated by Brian Smith
Grosset & Dunlap 2010
ISBN 0-448-44701-8
96 pages

 

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