New Books From Scholastic

Posted by on September 15th, 2010 at 5:51 AM

Rob reviews two new books from children’s publisher Scholastic: Amulet Volume 3: The Cloud Searchers, by Kazu Kibuishi; and Bone: Tall Tales, by Jeff Smith & Tom Sniegoski.

Scholastic is best known as the publisher that distributes the Harry Potter books, a distinction indicative of a remarkable instinct for trendsetting success.  After Jeff Smith finished up his Bone series, Scholastic started reprinting each of its nine volumes in color.  That series became a bestseller for the publisher, launching their comics line.  Another recent success has been the Amulet series, by Kazu Kibuishi.  It fits into the Scholastic formula: bright and simple storytelling, fantasy and quest settings, and clearly-defined characters.  Despite those surface similarities, the Bone books and the Amulet books come from different traditions.

Kibuishi was the founder and editor of the now-defunct Flight anthology.  The anthology quickly went from being self-published to Image to a major publisher, and it spawned a spinoff anthology aimed at kids.  Kibuishi is from the tradition of animation.  Flight emphasized color over storytelling (with some exceptions), with the result being the comics version of empty calories.  Its slickness made it hard to engage, and I found the same was true for Amulet.  It’s to Kibuishi’s credit that I was quickly able to follow the story told in the third volume despite not having read the first two.  Certain character nuances got lost, but the characters were all crafted in such a way as to all have a Moment in the story that reflected a minor resolution of their own personal struggle.

The fact that there are seven different people credited for the book’s coloring was indicative of how important the book’s sheer lushness is in its overall impact.  The color gradients and tricks with light may well be Amulet‘s primary attraction, but I found them distracting and overwhelming.  Much of the book is startling in its familiarity: the search for a ship to find a hidden cloud city was straight out of Star Wars, while the rag-tag group of searchers (and the hand-drawn map) came from Tolkein’s playbook.  Kibuishi’s attractive character design makes this a palatable, if entirely forgettable read.

On the other hand, Smith drew from two competing sensibilities both deeply rooted in comics: Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Carl Barks’ Donald DuckPogo was an inspiration in terms of the woodland setting with talking creatures, and the initial slowly paced storylines.  Donald Duck was the real inspiration for most of the series, as Bone became one long, fluid chase scene.  Smith brought a remarkably clear sense of character design, improvisational quirkiness and human touch to what eventually turned out to be a quest story.  Tall Tales is an altered version of a miniseries that he drew and Tom Sniegoski wrote about Big Johnson Bone, an ancestor of the Bone trio that comprised the series’ protagonists and reader stand-ins.

Frankly, that miniseries was a throwaway trifle; one sensed that Smith was just happy to draw something silly and lighthearted at a time when the main series was bogged down in a grim war story.  That said, the way Smith repackaged that story, added new interstitial material, and incorporated a couple of new stories written by Sniegoski turned into something surprisingly coherent and funny.  The colors are bright but don’t interfere with Smith’s line.  These books seem perfect for a young reader: the right size to hold, colorful and attractive, and filled with cartoony characters that draw in one’s eye.  Some of Sniegoski’s humor is a bit broad and the action he sets up more frenetic than Smith’s easier pace, but it works as a change of pace.  Above all else, it’s Smith absolute confidence in his very simple line that has made Bone such a huge success.  The confidence of his line reflects the clarity of his storytelling and vision he has for his characters, and that confidence has clearly resonated with readers.  Comics that children can enjoy and that pop up in libraries has blossomed as an industry in the past decade, and Smith is as responsible for this boom as anyone.

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