Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cast Away on the Letter A

In getting ready to review a new season of TOON Books, I realized that I still had a couple from the fall that I hadn't reviewed yet.  And in the case of Cast Away on the Letter A, there will be a new book in the series coming out this spring.  So I wanted to make sure I took the opportunity to introduce you to Philemon now, so you'll know who he is when I talk about him again.

Just the title Cast Away on the Letter A evokes nonsense, mystery and quirkiness.  How, exactly, can you be cast away on the letter A?  What does that even mean?  Well for Philemon, it all begins with a trip to the well.  His father tries to pump water at their spigot, but nothing comes out, so he sends Philemon to the well for water.  When Philemon gets there, he is surprised by a message in a bottle that he hauls up in his bucket of water.  It simply says "Help!"  He can't imagine how it could have gotten in the well, but dismisses it as a prank.  Until more bottles appear immediately in the same well.  Philemon is dying to figure out how the bottles are arriving.  So he shimmies down the rope to get a closer look.  While Philemon's donkey, Anatole, mutters dry comments such as "Curiosity killed the cat, Phil." (p. 15), Philemon slips into the well and is pulled under the water.  As he is gasping for breath, a tide pulls him down deeper and deeper.  One of the next indications that things aren't what they seem happens as a shark swims past bewildered Philemon.

Now Philemon is really in trouble.  He wakes up on a beach as things continue to get weird.  After he wonders what time it is, a clock emerges out of the sand.  Just as rapidly, it explodes.  He believes Anatole has come through the well also - he sees a pair of hind legs - but they turn out to belong to a centaur.  The centaur mentions in passing that they are on an island, which really confuses Philemon.  Philemon runs after the centaur, trips and falls into another hole.  This hole has a little man in it, dressed all in green.

The man introduces himself as Bartholomew, the well digger.  He tells Philemon he's been digging wells for forty years.  Bartholomew was digging a well all that time ago, was sucked into a whirlpool, and never escaped.  He's been digging wells on the island ever since, sending messages in the bottles, hoping he can reverse the effect and get back to his life.  Oh yes, and he explains that they are stranded on the letter A...  Philemon thinks "What's he talking about?  He's off his rocker!  Too many years living alone, no doubt..." (p. 23).  As usual, I don't want to give away too much of the plot in my post.  But this is also such an intriguing book that I don't want to give away too many of the surprises.

TOON Books has translated and reprinted Cast Away on the Letter A from its original French.  Francoise Mouly, who is one of the publishers of TOON Books (but also Art Editor of The New Yorker), recalls "As a teenager growing up in Paris in the late sixties..." (p. 44), she would read the serialized versions of Philemon's adventures.  This story was originally published in 1972, and I was pleasantly surprised at how timeless these adventures feel.  The art has a slightly retro feel to them, but readers can interpret that retro quality as occurring because of Philemon's trip down the well.  That island where he lands feels very much out of time.  As the story unfolds, it is so odd and unbelievable that the reader doesn't expect anything modern anyway.  And the language is plain, so without any dated frills or vocabulary.  It works very well.

Just from the little I've mentioned of the plot, it should feel very fantastic as well.  When Philemon awakes on the beach after his trip through the well, he exclaims "That's impossible! A beach inside a well? But I'm not dreaming.  It's real sand." (p. 18)  He is already having a hard time distinguishing reality from the bizarre world around him.  And who could blame poor Philemon?  He sees a clock grow out of the sand, then explode.  He meets a centaur and a man who has been digging ditches for 40 years.  The influence of fantasy on this story is heavy.  When Philemon begins to hear Bartholomew's story, he says "Then you're the well digger in the legend?'  Philemon goes on to explain "Well, in my village, they tell the story of a well digger who never came back up from the well he was digging forty years ago." (p. 22).  So Bartholomew has become a legend through his disappearance.  And the island is also a place of legend and mythology.  There are also many mysterious elements here, including a bottle tree.  Bartholomew harvests bottles off the tree for the messages in the bottles he sends. 

This title comes from TOON Books' series called "TOON Graphics for Visual Readers".  This is a newer series, which was first issued in Fall 2014.  (I reviewed Theseus and the Minotaur here) and it is designed for a slightly older audience.  I found a Teacher's Guide to Cast Away on the Letter A on the TOON Books website, and it is as thoughtfully produced as everything they do.  The Teacher's Guide ties the book to the Common Core standards, and includes questions that help readers interpret the many layers of the story and the art.  One of the things that I found most thought-provoking about the Teacher's Guide was an explanation about how the story had been originally serialized.  The Guide challenges readers to find the cliff-hangers in the story, where the story would have stopped temporarily until the next issue. 

And, as always, TOON Books does an impeccable job with the back matter.  Inside the back cover is a list of tips for parents, teachers, and librarians.  One of the items noted there is that "Reading TOON Graphics is a pleasure for all.  Beginners and seasoned readers alike will sharpen both their literal and inferential reading skills."  That is so true of this book.  I may have recognized some of the ideas mentioned here, but there is an amazing compendium of elements on pages 44-45 for readers to engage with.  There is a small graphic to help readers tie the element back to a specific place in the story.  There are also page numbers for the citation, and information from other myths and legends that may have influenced the author.  This is incredibly useful for readers and teachers alike.  In her preface to this section, Mouly notes "I knew that in that first slow, careful reading, and every re-reading after that, I would be rewarded with a wealth of hidden treasures."  (p. 44)  Honestly, even with my initial reading (and multiple re-readings to write this post), there are most likely many layers and themes to this story that I've missed.  I'm grateful for the extra help in the back matter.

Philemon's adventure is created of fantasy with a kernel of truth in it.  And I haven't done justice to the book's sense of humor -that will have to be saved for another post.  Philemon is quirky, clumsy, disbelieving, but a lot of fun.  I am looking forward to reviewing another of Philemon's adventures this spring - catch up while you still can!

Cast Away on the Letter A: A Philemon Adventure.  Fred.  TOON Graphics, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review