Saturday, July 19, 2014

Secret of the Stone Frog

We have read so many fascinating, quality books from TOON Books.  It does my heart proud that Gloria particularly is a comic book reader.  I've mentioned before how it will take me awhile to blog about books from TOON.  That is primarily because Gloria steals them from my blog pile to pore over them.  She is a strong reader at 5 1/2, and could read chapter books if she wanted.  But unlike Frances, she's not been interested in tackling chapter books.  While Frances sees chapter books as a sign of being a big kid and a strong reader, Gloria prefers to pull down a large stack of picture books from the bookcase, or catalogs to read.  But she has now finished her first long book, and I am especially pleased that it is a graphic novel.

The Secret of the Stone Frog was sent to me almost two years ago.  It was the very first graphic novel  that TOON had produced.  Let's start with the book design.  It is gorgeous - a rich red with faux binding on the corners and spine.  The frontispiece is slightly inset, and the front cover illustration is done in black and white.  There is a bookplate printed inside the front cover.  The edges of the paper are deckled.  All of this effort together gives an expensive air, but more importantly, it also gives off an old-fashioned feel.  It sets the tone for the book right from the cover.

So then the reader isn't surprised when they meet Leah and Alan, who awaken in beds, under a tree.  Under a tree?  Yes, their beds have appeared under a large tree.  And that isn't the oddest thing that will happen in the course of this book.  In their crisp white pajamas they look around in bewilderment.  As they are trying to decide what to do, a voice intones "If it's a way home you're looking for It's right behind me.  Look no more." (p. 5)  The voice belongs to a stone frog, who gives them more advice: as they travel, they should watch for other stone frogs to ask for help.  And, most importantly, they should stay on the path.

Leah is older, and a little more conscious of the rules.  She is quick to obey the stone frogs, and navigates down the path.  Alan, on the other hand, is young and impetuous enough that his hunger trumps the stone frog's warning.  He convinces Leah that a house they glimpse through the thicket might have food, so off the path they go.  As they approach the house, they stumble into a garden filled with enormouse bees.  Then they meet the beekeeper, a lady dressed in vaguely Victorian attire, but with an absurdly, disproportionately large head.  She seems kind enough, so Alan and Leah follow her into her home.  The beekeeper serves them a fabulous tea, with an assortment of enticing  things to eat.  As Alan and Leah dig in, all thoughts of disobeying the stone frog have disappeared.  And when the beekeeper asks questions of Alan, he obligingly answers.  But as Alan speaks, a bee darts out and begins to carry away his words.  Alan is struck dumb, as Leah fights the bee to get her brother's words back.  When she stuns the bee, it makes the beekeeper furious.

As Leah and Alan race down the path, trying to outrun the beekeeper and her mob of her angry bees, they swear they won't divert from the path again.  There are a whole host of awesomely odd characters waiting for them off,the path, though, and it's where all the fun is.  They discover large rabbits and fish waiting for a train.  The ordinary and extraordinary are all jumbled together in one big adventure.

At the same time as I was reading The Secret of the Stone Frog I was reading a book of critical essays on children's literature called Only Connect.  In an essay by Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr., I found this quote: "Effective imaginative literature is an amalgam of the new and strange - what taxes credulity and complacency - with what is somehow believable, authentic, and immediate." (p. 47)  This quote really struck me as applicable to this graphic novel.  This is why waking up under a tree isn't very surprising to Leah and Alan.  They begin to solve the problem of how to get home, but never stop to ask how they actually got under that tree.  There is that combination of the strange and the believable here.  After all, the children did wake up in their own beds.  Another example of this are the fish waiting for the train in the station.  There is an enormous disparity in the fish, eager to go home.  Again, Victorian style is a commonality, but there are short fish, tall fish, fish in cravats, fish with bow ties.  And I'm sure you could superimpose this picture onto a picture of commuters in any big city, and they would look very similar.  The waiting behavior (eyes straight ahead or slightly raised, arms at sides, near each other but not touching) will be recognizable to children.  The odd-looking fish are the mystery here.

I'm sure you may be drawing parallels to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as I did while reading.  Like Alice, Leah and Alan are forced to negotiate foreign rules and cultural norms while on their quest to return home.  They both get into trouble when they go off the proscribed path.  The weird and familiar are all intermingled in both books, along with a dream-like quality to the adventure.  And both adventures are bookended by sleep.

This adventure eventually has a happy ending, but one of the things that Alan is trying to understand throughout their adventure is that it has been decided that Leah will be moving out of the nursery and into her own room.  It is one of those transitions of childhood, and could serve to make Leah and Alan more disconnected than they are now.  During the story, they are wound closely together physically - one always has their arm around the other, or Alan will hide behind Leah's nightgown.  The transition to a new, grown-up room for Leah reminds me of Wendy in another classic novel, Peter Pan, where the transition out of the nursery is inevitable but mourned by all involved.

The illustrations at time reminded me of Tenniel's illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  The beekeeper, with her indignant expression and overly large head, reminds me of the Queen of Hearts.  Nytra's style is very detailed and specific, with lots of background crosshatching.  All of the crosshatching gives texture to each panel.  It adds to the gloom and opressive feel of each page as the children wind along another unfamiliar path.  The children are dressed in pure white pajamas to help draw the reader's eye towards the children in every panel.  Every character's facial expressions are easily discernable, helping children interpret the mood of the story.

While this is billed as a graphic novel,  that does not mean that the text is novel-length.  There are not very many panels with more than a sentence of text.  Confident younger readers will enjoy this adventure just as much as older children.  Gloria said that this book was "really weird but awesome" and she's right.  The fantasy in this story will appeal to older readers, but younger readers will love it too.  I'm not sure even I have made sense of it, even after repeated readings.  I love that about this book.  Readers will continue to make connections to it long after they've closed its sumptuous covers.

The Secret of the Stone Frog.  David Nytra.  TOON Books, 2012.
"Children's Reading and Adults' Values."  Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr.  Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature.  2nd ed.  Oxford University Press, 1980 (p. 39-54).

The Secret of the Stone Frog was sent by the publisher by request.  Only Connect is from my personal library.

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