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Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Fine Example of a Really Bad Graphic Novel

Lechner, John  (2009) Sticky Burr:the Prickly Peril  New York:  Candlewick

Usually when I read a bad book I don't bother reviewing it.  What would be the point?  It is not like anybody out there is looking for books to not buy. 

But sometimes people ask me how to tell a good graphic novel from a bad one, and I have a hard time answering that -- I think because it involves a lit of different variables.  And sometimes it is a whole lot easier to say what is wrong with something that what is good about it.    I recently read Sticky Burr: the Prickly Peril and it nicely exemplifies everything that can make a graphic novel (or any kids' book really) truly horrid.  My deepest apologies to John Lechner who wrote Sticky Burr: the Prickly Peril.  I am sure he was giving it his best shot.  No apologies to the publisher, Candlewick, however.  They are an excellent publisher and really should know better.

So what is wrong with Sticky Burr? Let's start with the most basic things.  A graphic novel at its best works because it combines words and pictures so closely that the synergy between them is what tells the story.  This means that the image has to tell a chunk of the story and the images need to tell the other chunk.  Often in Sticky Burr the words or the images are working alone.  On the opening page for example, one character says to the other "Spiny Burr, what is all that racket?"  All what racket?  There is nothing in the movements or positions of the other characters on that page that would indicate that anything other than a calm conversation is going on.  The words have to do the work on their own.  In other cases, the words and images are both doing the same work.  Later in the book, Sticky Burr is caught on a leaf growing on a branch that protrudes from a wall inside of a deep ark pit.  We can see this quite obviously from the image.  So why is Sticky Burr saying "I got stuck on this bramble,"?  That is obvious.  Why not have him say something that could advance the plot, tell us something we don't know, or clarify something that we cannot see in that moment?

Secondly, if you must write a story about burrs (the kind that get stuck to your jeans when you walk through the woods) must you name them with names that seem cribbed from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or the Smurfs?  To do so seems to me to be talking down to your audience.  If you want to make Burrs believably real, think about what kind of names such creatures would really have.  If all burrs are sticky, why would one burr pick that as an identifier?  It would be like calling a human Humanoid Human.  That is nothing but talking down to your readers.  Younger audiences are younger, they aren't incapable of thought. 

Next, one of the things I have always enjoyed about graphic novels is the way the hand lettering allows us to get a clearer sense of the emotion and emphasis that the creator of the graphic novel is trying to get across to us.  Computer lettering lends the entire book a sterile feel.  It takes a little longer to hand letter, but it is worth it.

At several points in the book we have a separate section that gives us a story from the perspective of Grumpy Burr or Angry Burr or Disenfranchised Burr or whoever.   These interruptions in the flow of the story appear to exist only to provide some first person narration -- almost as if the publisher wanted to argue that the book will help teacher address one of the common core standards for Elementary Language Arts.  It doesn't advance the story at all. 

The plot is remarkably simplistic (it reminds me of the basic plot to any and all Superfriends episodes.  Like that cartoon from the late seventies, this story involves a disgruntled member of a community who betrays his former friends and unleashes scary monsters which our heroes, using remarkable skills, swiftly dispatch. 

If you want to see what a good graphic novel for little kids looks like, check out Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke or Jellaby by Kean Soo.  Avoid Sticky Burr at all costs. 

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