Real Friends

Real Friends coverFrom the author of Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack comes another graphic novel of a different sort.  Real Friends by Shannon Hale is a memoir that shows the friendship struggles Hale experienced in her early school years.  Hale’s experiences are surprisingly relatable, from the fun moments of dress-up and story-writing with friends to the struggle of wanting to be popular or part of the group one’s best friend is in.  Additionally, LeUyen Pham’s artwork suits the style of the story, and I appreciate some of the themes Hale incorporates.  For instance, Real Friends shows the importance of kindness and reminds readers that sometimes they should avoid certain relationships if they are unhealthy.  I also like Hale’s honesty in not trying to sugarcoat the story, even though she admits in the afterword that she was tempted to change the ending.  Hale’s overarching goal is to let children in similar circumstances know that they are not alone and that they can make it through their own struggles.  However, while Hale’s intent with Real Friends is admirable, I think the book’s purpose overshadows the actual story and probably pushes away her target audience.

I have noticed that graphic novels tend to be a tough medium for serious stories, retellings of classics, and nonfiction.  Often, the result seems contrived, with choppy transitions and wooden dialogue.  Further, sad stories tend to make the whole graphic novel dismal, with no sunshine to break through the clouds.  Like other novels I’ve reviewed that fall into these categories, Real Friends has some merits, but I think Shannon Hale might have been more successful with a regular book instead of a graphic novel.

When I finished Real Friends, I happened to look at the back cover and started perusing the reviews.  That’s when I realized that all the rave reviews were written by adults.  “What do actual children think of the book?” I wondered.  After all, children are the best judges of whether Real Friends was a success.  Though I can’t speak for other children, I do know I wouldn’t have wanted to read a story that sad when I was a kid.  I would have chosen a fun book every time.

arrietty pic


Note: I just discovered that Real Friends was apparently successful enough to merit a sequel.  Best Friends was released two days ago and appears to pick up where the first book leaves off.

Calamity Jack

Calamity Jack Cover“I think of myself as a criminal mastermind…with an unfortunate amount of bad luck,” admits Jack (4).  And with these words, Shannon and Dean Hale launch their latest graphic novel, Calamity Jack, in which Jack from Rapunzel’s Revenge returns – this time starring in his own tale.

Calamity Jack is set in Shyport, a metropolis miles away from the western wilds of Gothel’s Reach where Jack and Rapunzel first met.  Shyport is populated by townspeople and thugs, as well as fantastical creatures like brownies, giants, Jabberwocks, and Bandersnatches (a creative nod to Lewis Carroll).  And then there’s Jack, who realizes at the early age of two that his calling is thievery.  Jack also discovers this depressing equation about himself:  Jack + Great Plan = Unforeseen (Usually Calamitous) Results.  Not disheartened, Jack doesn’t let bad outcomes squelch his ambitions.  As a result, he accidentally demolishes his mother’s bakery, angers a giant, and has to leave Shyport in a hurry.  Out west, as told in Rapunzel’s Revenge, Jack meets and befriends Rapunzel and helps her overthrow the witch Gothel.  Jack then returns home with Rapunzel to rebuild his mother’s bakery.  All’s not well at home, though.  Shyport is under attack from sizeable and ferocious Ant People, and Jack’s enemy Blunderboar is now in control of the city as head of a police force of giants.  It’s up to Jack, Rapunzel, a pixie named Prudence, and the newspaperman Frederick Sparksmith the Third to uncover the truth about what is happening in Shyport and save the city.

CollageAs the plot unfolds, Jack struggles with the consequences of his larcenous past.  Jack had planned for the act of thievery which landed him in his present trouble to be his final heist and to enable him to restore his mother’s bakery.  Instead, Jack’s “ends-justifies-means” methodology results in the obliteration of the bakery and disaster for himself, his family, and his city.  Perhaps the authors intend this for reasons beyond the storyline.  Perhaps they want Calamity Jack to show the problems of pragmatism and the unforeseen consequences that stealing can have – even after the thief has reformed.  In fact, though not as elegantly executed as “A Retrieved Reformation” by O. Henry, Calamity Jack contains similar valuable insights.

In addition to these direct ramifications of his thieving, Jack also struggles with how his past will affect his future, even though he has reformed.  If Rapunzel discovers he used to be just like the bad guys she’s always defeating, will it destroy their friendship?

Once again, Shannon and Dean Hale have woven a story worth reading, and Nathan Hale has brought it to life with his art.  Characters, setting, story, and themes all combine to make Calamity Jack a fun adventure and an excellent sequel to Rapunzel’s Revenge.

arrietty pic


Rapunzel’s Revenge

Cover of Rapunzel's RevengeTwelve-year-old Rapunzel lives with her mother Gothel in a walled villa.  Life should be perfect for Rapunzel, for Gothel is a rich and powerful witch, rules the surrounding land, and provides Rapunzel with a carefree existence.  Yet Rapunzel has dreams that puzzle her, and she feels that if she could only look over the wall of the villa, everything would make sense.  The only drawback is that Gothel keeps Rapunzel from ever leaving the villa and guards it with vigilant sentries and high walls.  Despite being forbidden to leave, however, one day Rapunzel secretly scales the walls and enters the outside world – only to find the people starving and in rags under Gothel’s oppressive rule.  On top of this, Rapunzel discovers Gothel is not her mother when she encounters her real mother and finds the answer to her strange dreams of another life.  Events deteriorate from here for the young heroine, though, for the guards catch her outside the villa, and when Rapunzel confronts Gothel with the truth, Gothel banishes her to a distant forest.  After Gothel imprisons her in a tree-tower, Rapunzel is dead set on rescuing her true mother and wreaking revenge on Gothel.  And notwithstanding being stuck in a tall tree, Rapunzel lays her plans, preparing for her escape and revenge.

Though its premise may sound much like its namesake fairytale, in Rapunzel’s Revenge husband and wife Dean and Shannon Hale creatively twist a well-known fairytale into a lasso-twirling, Wild West, magical story.  Not to mention a graphic novel.

With the help of artist Nathan Hale (not a relation of the authors), the Hales craft a colorful and entertaining novel.  The characters are quirky and memorable, and the authors change (and Westernize) them enough to keep them from becoming cliché.

What really brings the characters and story to life, however, is the artwork.  The panels are generally well laid out and easy to follow.  The colors are vibrant, and the action so animated it almost pops off the page.  Best of all are the expressive faces of the characters which verify the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.”RR Illustration

Although the nominal theme of the book is revenge, the authors spend very little time on the theme, and they primarily treat Rapunzel’s plan of vengeance light-heartedly.  In fact, other themes – like friendship and helping those in need – stand out more and receive a greater focus than revenge.

Rapunzel’s Revenge by Dean, Shannon, and Nathan Hale is a comical graphic novel, and the authors’ execution of both its art and story is excellent.  Best of all, it’s filled to the brim with fun and good humor.

arrietty pic