Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Graphix for Girlz -- a pair of book reviews

Last week, I read two very different graphic novels for girls. They are for different target ages and cover very different material, and yet both are about art and about the need to honor individualism.



First, I read To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel, by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel, which is essentially Siena's autobiographical account of her successful drive to become a teenaged ballerina, a career she ultimately left. And yes, the illustrator is her husband, who is also the editorial director of First Second books, the publisher of said graphic novel (and also the publisher of American Born Chinese, the Printz award winner for 2007 and a National Book Award finalist in 2006 The detour into Mark Siegel's role at First Second is a bit of a digression, but I believe it explains a lot about how this wonderful book got made when it otherwise might not have been considered acceptable in the graphic novel market. It won a Sibert honor this year, given by the ALA for best informational book. (Team Moon won the category.)

To Dance follows young Siena from the age of six, when she first wanted to dance but was told she wouldn't be able to due to flat feet, to her journey from Puerto Rico to New York City to study at George Ballantine's School of American Ballet, to performing onstage at Lincoln Center. The book doesn't romanticize the journey, but details the practice and dedication required of young dancers who seriously want the ballet as their career -- including injuries, missing school, and more. And the sacrifices aren't all professional, either -- personal lives are also affected, including the relationship between Siena's parents: her mother lives with Siena in New York, while her father spends most of his time in Puerto Rico.

Simplified, this book is a memoir. But truly, it's more than that -- it is both an homage to the world of ballet (and to some of the major players in it, including Mr. Ballanchine) and a true-to-life informative essay on what the life of a serious dancer is like. And the illustrations are truly lovely and evocative, perfectly targeted for the middle grade female readers at whom the book is aimed (inside the cover reads "Ages 8-14").

Here's an excerpt from the Simon & Schuster website:



If you haven't checked out To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel, you have missed something special. A must-buy for young dancers.

The second graphic novel I read was The Plain Janes by the wonderful Cecil Castellucci (), illustrated by Jim Rugg, out from Minx, DC Comics's new imprint for teenage girls.



The Plain Janes tells the story of Jane, a teenager from New York City who is involved in a terrorist attack (I'm guessing -- there's an explosion for sure, and her parents no longer consider the city safe and take her to suburbia once she's recovered enough from her injuries). Jane is full of urban edge and decidedly unhappy with her new town and high school -- until she meets three girls at the "rejects" table, all named Jane -- Jayne, the brainy science geek, Jane, the drama geek, and Polly Jane, an athlete who doesn't always get the playing time she deserves. Together, they form a guerilla movement -- they're going to create public art. The acronym for their organization? P.L.A.I.N.: People Loving Art In Neighborhoods.

With each act of guerilla art, the girls bond more closely together. Jane (the main character) learns to fit in a bit, dabbles with romance with a truly stand-up guy (who meets a completely unwarranted fate, in my opinion), and expands the Janes to include James, a gay male misfit from the school.

I didn't understand the nearly fascist police officer's motivation in this one, and why the town would countenance the extremely harsh curfews that escalate throughout the book when the art exhibits were all reversible, relatively harmless stuff. But I did like the spirit of the story and the idea of forging connections with people who appear to be so different. The absence of any truly adversarial teen was an unusual choice, but it worked in this book -- although perhaps if there had been a teen adversary, it would have seemed a wee bit more realistic somehow.

This one is for teenage girls, as I mentioned before, including as it does a makeout scene and some other scenes mildly inappropriate for younger readers. Overall, I'd have to agree with the twenty-five year old guy who writes Green Lantern Buzz: "It's not mind-blowing or going to change your perspective of comics if you're already a comic book fan, but it's a wonderful read and very intelligent."

Want to see a little bit of what I'm talking about? They check out this teaser from the Minx site. WARNING: It opens with a strobe. Click at the top right corner of the book to turn the pages -- it was a bit persnickety about turning on my computer, but it managed. (An aside: You can also see a teaser for the new title out in June, Re-Gifters.)

Look for the sequel, Janes in Love, in the unspecified future (it's neither written nor inked yet). And according to a semi-reliable source, Cecil and Jim have plans for as many as two more after Janes in Love, but I suppose time will tell.

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