Moose Justice! A Review of Moose by Max De Radiguès

Moose

Max De Radiguès

Published by Conundrum International, 2015

Disclaimer: this graphic novel depicts graphic physical and sexual violence. Please consult your guardians before reading this book.

The Story: Joe is being relentlessly bullied, both psychically and psychological, at school by Jason. It is in the natural world that Joe finds some peace and comfort, but when Jason bombards Joe’s one place of safety, a chance event leads to a shift in the boys’ power dynamics and leaves Joe with a difficult moral dilemma which will have you questioning not only the choice Joe makes, but the choice you would in his shoes.

What Wallace and I Think: Moose was originally written in French and appeared as mini-comics that were eventually published as a collection. De Radiguès translated Moose into English, and the English version was very recently published by the Canadian publisher, Conundrum.

De Radiguès’s comic is drawn simply with black and white images. It feels like a quiet story, as there is little text, and often there are full pages with no text at all. The scenes in which Joe is bullied by Jason are filled with the verbal and psychological abuse that Jason spews. But when Joe is alone, often immediately following these bullying scenes, the reader instead is shown how Joe is coping visually. Indeed, we rarely read any dialogue that is spoken by Joe, and when he does, often the speech bubbles and text are drawn “wobbly” to indicate the difficulty Joe has speaking for himself (and by extent standing up for himself, for this has dangerous consequences).

Though the comic is drawn simply with clean lines, De Radiguès details the bullying Joe faces in a way that, at least for me, brings a complex emotional rise out of the reader. The injustice, unfairness, and out-right cruelty of Jason to Joe is the focal point for much of the story, making the reader side completely with Joe, as there isn’t any sympathetic explanation for why Jason acts the way he does. Making Joe so sympathetic, and Jason so completely unsympathetic, indeed a hateful character, is part of the complexity of the graphic novel, for it makes the moral dilemma in the latter half of the book all the more complicated. Making Joe such a victim and Jason such a villain is a trap! And I fell right in! For me, without giving anything away, the novel’s climax and end led me to interrogate the hatred I felt towards Jason (that had me wishing he could experience some of his own medicine), and whether Jason’s fate is justified by his treatment of Joe (for I was wishing something horrible would happen to Jason through most of the book), and of course led me to wonder what decision I would make in Joe’s position, and the moral implications of what my decision would be.

Moose is a fast read (took me about half an hour) but it made me reflect long after I had finished reading it. I felt uncomfortable with what I discovered about myself during these reflections. As someone who tries to live by the creed of “Do No Harm,” and bell hook’s call to choose love, because doing so is a revolution, I was shocked at the vehemence of hateful and violent thoughts I had towards Jason. But I think this is exactly what the graphic novel is designed to do. It is the graphic novel’s ability to haunt you after reading that makes this something young adults and adults should read. If you are in school, and dealing with situations similar to Joe’s, it may open up an interesting space to interrogate your own feelings and position. This graphic novel is powerful not only due to the story it tells, but in its implicating gaze outwards towards the reader.

And there’s a Moose. So, read it peeps!

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Good Grief!: Review of Bug in a Vacuum

Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt

Tundra Books 2015

The Story: A wee little fly and a dog’s favorite stuffed toy get sucked into a vacuum, causing both the fly and dog to experience the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, despair, anger, and acceptance.

What Wallace and I Think: Grief and the stages one goes through to cope with it is such a unique and interesting topic for a picturebook. I especially appreciate that Watt explores two types of grief within the text. For the dog, whose favorite toy has been sucked in the vacuum, it is grief over losing a loved one (and no, the dog does not get his toy back, which teaches a valuable lesson about loss). For the bug, who suddenly finds himself stuck in a vacuum, it is grief that comes from an expected and uncontrollable change (so your child might relate to this in terms of having to move, change schools, start a new school/daycare ect). What is particularly nice is that Watt deals with this heavy subject matter with humour. The picturebook is not a downer, nor does it trivialize the bug and dog’s grief. It strikes a perfect balance of respecting the characters’ emotions with humour. It is a book you can come back to with your child, or yourself J, when a sudden change or loss has occurred to help give voice to difficult emotions. Plus there is a happy ending, leaving the reading on a positive note.

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I enjoyed the art in the book immensely. There is very little text, so most of the story is told through images and clever advertisements on household items with jokes hidden in the ads for the adult reading to their little ones, which also gives the whole setting a very 50s-60s Mad Men ad feel (in other words, Don Draper would approve of this book). There is TONS to look at on each page, making this a book that would be ideal for re-readings, and probably one kids will be asking to be read again. With there being so little text, it is one younger kids can “re-read” on their own.The book is longer than your average picturebook. More bang for your buck! But because it’s longer, be aware that the first time reading it may have to extend past one story time. However, when you’ve gone through it once and know the story, I think rereading could go quicker with your child wanting to flip to favorite parts, and maybe focusing on different pages with each reading.

This would be a wonderful addition to anyone’s library. The bug is feisty, the dog is adorable, and the message is important. I’m passionate about destigmatizing mental health issues, and picturebooks like Watt’s is a step towards doing so. This could be read to children as young as toddlers, and could be an interesting teaching tool in classrooms with elementary age children.

And of course Wallace likes anything that features a dog, so he gives it five paws.

Review: SuperMutant Magic Academy

SuperMutant Magic Academy (2015)

Jillian Tamaki

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Warning: This graphic novel includes sexual content, has references to drug and alcohol use, and is geared towards high school students. So, if you’re not yet a high school student, please ask your guardians’ permission before reading.

The Book: SuperMutant Magic Academy is a collected anthology of some of the most popular comics from Jillian Tamaki’s comic blog of the same name (checked out mutantmagic.com here) Due to its being a collection of short, stand-alone comics, there is not a traditional narrative plot (until the last fifty or so pages), though the more you read the more you learn about the individual students.  The story is set at a boarding school, but less attention is paid to the magical mutant classes than to the students navigating their external (zits!) and inner (what does it mean to be alive!) crises. So do not expect a Harry Potter-esc book. If anything, this is a fantastic distortion of Harry Potter created expectations.

What Wallace and I Think: First, a little information on Jillian Tamaki. Not only is she Canadian, and grew up in the same city as me, but she was once the center of a debate that helped to change how we look at comic artists. The graphic novel Skim (2008) was written by Jillian’s cousin, Mariko Tamaki, and illustrated by Jillian (another school story, and it is an amazing book  you should check it out, especially if you find you like Magic Academy). Skim was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, but only Mariko Tamaki was listed in the nomination. The comic community was outraged (and rightly so). A graphic novel’s images are just as important, if not more so, as the text, and leaving Jillian out of the nomination was ignoring her important and imperative contribution to what made the graphic novel so wonderful. An open letter was circulated and sent to the Award committee, and was successful in including Jillian as a nominee.

Back to Magic Academy! This collection is weird, wacky and wonderful. The humour is dark and touches on subjects such as the students’ existential, romantic, and technological crises. Some of the jokes fall flat, but due to the short narratives of the individual comics, if one comic isn’t your taste you can quickly move along. I also wonder if some of the humour is aimed more at adults reminiscing about their teenage years, than at actual teenagers. Though, the majority of strips can be easily relatable to young and old, such as one of my favorites. During an assembly two main character have this conversation:

Marsha: When I was a little kid, I thought I’d be free when I could go to school. Then I thought I’d be free when I learned how to fly a broom. THEN I thought I’d be free when they stopped forcing us to take gym class. But then you just get use to it. And you find something else to chafe against. I guess you’re always gonna be unsatisfied with something. That is so depressing.

Wendy: Well we do graduate next semester.

Marsha: WHAT? WE GRADUATE?

Wendy: Haha! What? Did you forget?

Marsha: I guess I just figured we’d be stuck in here forever . . . (153)

The feeling of being trapped in an never ending school cycle seems easily relatable to both an adult looking back on their school experience, as well as a teen still stuck in that cycle.

However, there are others, such as when a group of girls start freaking out because Wendy has a grey hair (“OH MY GOD, pull it out!”), and their completely white-haired teacher tells them “Okay girls, that’s enough. Back to work” (100). This appears more aimed to the adult obeserving their younger selves through teenagers/children in relation to their current older status. There is also a lot of jokes surronding teachers, and students asking them if teaching is really what they wanted to do with their lives, that would hit home more with an older reader than I expect it would with a teen who has yet to really feel the pain of upset expectations.

Tamaki gives us a plethora of interesting characters who struggle through high school, and with the thought of leaving it. My favorite may be Everlasting Boy. Most of the strips centering on him show him dying and returning to the earth. He often seems sad and lonely. We discover he has been around since the beginning of time, has lived as other organisms, and has not just called earth home. Yet, he is humble about his vast experience, for example: “Everlasting Boy, do you thinking this is the best time to be alive?” “You mean, throughout the course of history?” “Yeah.” “Depends on who you ask, really.” (165).

Though I enjoyed the anthology, I found the characters so engaging I longed for more of a cohesive plot-centered narrative that would develop these interesting characters more fully. I know this is asking too much of an anthology of collected comic strips, but I found I loved the last section of the book because it offered more of a traditional narrative.

I recommend this book to high school students, as well as adults with a good sense of humour 🙂 (especially teachers) and give it a 4/5

Review: I Want My Hat Back

I Want My Hat Back

Jon Klassen (2011)

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The Story: A bear has lost his hat and he wants it back, so he very politely asks all the forest animals: “Have you seen my hat?” to which they all answer “No.” When all hope seems lost, the bear has a startling revelation, he HAS seen his hat, and he’s going to get it back!

What Wallace and I Think: This simple story’s humour, largely about taking people at their word, is found between the text and image. It is the gap which lets children in on the joke before the bear, putting them in an attractive place of power in the reading. Children will know who has the bear’s hat long before he does, placing them into the action of the book. When the bear asks “Have you seen my hat?” he can be addressing the children outside the book as well as the animals inside of it. I believe it is the book’s invitation to readers to take part that makes it an enjoyable read and reread.

Picturebook scholars often talk about the “drama of turning the page” as a special aspect of picturebooks. Klassen’s book utilizes this drama wonderfully. The last half of the book relies heavily on this drama to create its humour, something I believe adult readers will find equally as hilarious as the children they’re reading to. My favorite instance of page turning drama takes place when the bear finally realizes who has his hat. Despondent, the bear lies defeated on the ground. A forest animal asks the bear, “What does your hat look like?” (npg) The Bear answers, “It is red and pointy and . . .” (npg). If children had not realized thus far that they’d seen the hat, this description offers the last chance for them to join in on the joke before the bear. The drama comes in the ellipses. Will the bear realize as well that he HAS seen his hat?!

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Turn the page, and the bear has bolted up, eyes wide open, the background drenched in red “I HAVE SEEN MY HAT.” Drama ensues.

Klassen in a master at creating books that give readers more information than the characters, which empowers the readers. It is this sense of empowerment, being in on the joke, which makes the book attractive. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (click to see my review) is another wonderful example of Klassen’s style.

This picturebook is best suited for toddlers up to age four or five (or well beyond if like me, you seem to have the same sense of humour as a two year old). I give this picturebook a 5/5

Review of Migrant

Migrant (2011)

Written by Maxine Trottier, Art by Isabelle Arsenault

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The Story: Anna feels like a bird because her family moves north in the spring and south in the fall. Her Mennonite family lives in Mexico during the winter, and travels all the way up to Canada in the summer to work on farms harvesting fruit and vegetables. Anna often wonders what it would be like to stay in one place.

Maxine Trottier explains that people like Anna’s family helped to build Canada and the United States (and continue to), and that they live difficult lives. Often, because their first language is Low German, they cannot understand English or Spanish. The houses that are available for rent are shabby and expensive. There is no union to protect these migrant workers, and they are often not well received by employers or communities. Trottier argues that “We all need to remember just how our country was built,” (npg) and it can only be assumed that Trottier hopes to remind us of this history through the picturebook Migrant.

What Wallace and I Think: Migrant is an ideal example of how important paratext often is with picturebooks. Without the write-up on the hardcover flaps, and the short history lesson on the endpapers, few children or adult readers would know what the book is actually historically addressing. The picturebook’s text and images are filled with Anna comparing her life to various animals: she feels like a jack rabbit who live in abandoned burrows; she feels like a bee during the day; at night she is like a kitten snuggled under a single blanket with her sisters (For any teachers out there, this book could be a perfect tool in teaching simile, metaphor, and/or illustrated metaphor to students). In the main text there is no mention of her family being Mennonite, though they do wear traditional Mennonite clothing. Though Anna briefly explains her family moves from the south to north and back again (through the metaphor of her family being like geese), we are not told the south is Mexico and the north is Canada. The book could have perhaps benefited from more context being worked into the main text, or, the explanation that ends the book may have been better utilized opening the book.

However, taking the paratext into context, Migrant tells a unique story opening readers and listeners to a different way of life, clearly not linked to just specifically Mennonite migrant workers, but migrant or seasonal workers in general. Trottier makes it clear in her explanation that she wanted to write this story to bring issues of social justice to the surface: “Migrants deserve safe working and living conditions. They deserve recognition for an honest day’s labour. They should be treated with the same respect that is extended to citizens and visitors alike” (npg). Hopefully reading this book to children can spark some interesting discussion surrounding social justice, and the life of migrant workers.

As with so many picturebooks Isabelle Arsenault has illustrated, in the case of Migrant, it is Arsenault’s art which both cements the message to the history, as well as allows the text to transcend the historical background. Arsensault’s illustrations are complex and whimsical, making the reading of this book largely appealing to younger children. Patterns and shapes are repeated throughout the book, linking Anna’s dream world to reality. For example, after imagining her family as geese (geese are drawn wearing hats and head scarfs), the silhouette of the geese is repeated on the following page in the shadows of Anna’s actual family. Collaged triangles that decorate the front and back matter are repeated in the quilts Anna’s brothers and sisters sleep under. Such repetitions visually connect the textual metaphors and similes to one another, blurring the boundaries between literary language and reality. And, personally, I find the red, orange and blue color scheme and the combination of paper collage and crayon drawings visually appealing. Whether or not a child can yet grasp the call for social justice, the art will be appealing.

While I feel the art could engage younger readers, I think the book’s message makes Migrant best suited to children 5 and older. I could see the picturebook being a great discussion and teaching tool in any elementary grade. I give the book a 4/5

Olemaun and Alice

When I Was Eight

Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Art by Gabrielle Grimard

Published in 2013 by Annick Press

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The Story: Olemaun, an Inuit girl, longs to go to school so she can learn to read the outsiders’ books, especially the book about Alice that her sister Rosie reads. Olemaun begs her father to take her to the outsiders’ school until he reluctantly lets her. But school is nothing like Olemuan imagined. A black-cloaked nun cuts off her long hair, strips away her warm parka, and takes away her Inuit name, and calls Olemaun instead Margaret. For weeks Margaret does nothing but chores: scrubbing the floors, washing the walls, dishes, and laundry. Margaret is no closer to being able to read, so she takes her education on herself and teaches herself to read. One day, intended to shame Margaret, a nun throws a large book towards Margaret and tells her to read, and Margaret “confidently sliced through the words without a single moment of hesitation.” Margaret feels powerful from this victory and realizes she is “Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. . . I finally knew this, like I knew many things, because now I could read.”

What Wallace and I Think: This is a picturebook about Canadian residential schools. Let that sink in. I don’t remember being taught about residential schools when I was in school. It may have been mentioned, but there wasn’t any emphasis to make it stick in my memory, and I think this was intentional. Why? Because Canada, our nation, is embarrassed, ashamed, by what was done to Indigenous children in these schools. And what do we do when we’re embarrassed about something? We don’t talk about it, because talking makes the knot in our stomach, lets others know about that thing we’re embarrassed about, that we don’t want other people to know about. It makes us, the person who is embarrassed, uncomfortable.

But those like the Fentons are telling their own stories, so that what was done is not ignored and not forgotten. The Fentons do this by writing a picturebook, to start education about this dark history young. When I Was Eight is the true story of the Margaret Fenton’s experience at residential schools, and she has dedicate the book to “the Indian Residential School survivors who haven’t yet found their voices.” And perhaps it may help those to find their voices if what happened to them wasn’t ignored, and this picturebook is a step is solving this ignorance.

So as you can probably already guess, I think this is an important picturebook that needs to be read to children. It will take many children outside their own lived experience and help to develop their empathetic sensibilities, and will give voice to many children whose own family members are still coping with what was done to them in residential schools.

I could recommend this book being read to children as young as six or seven (grade one age).

Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Wolf

Virginia Wolf

Kyo Maclear (Author) and Isabelle Arsenault (illustrator)

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The Story: Vanessa and Virginia are sisters. Sometimes Virginia is in a “wolfish” mood: she growls and howls and acts very strange. Vanessa does everything she can think of to cure Virginia’s mood, but nothing works. One day Virginia tells Vanessa about an imaginary, happy place called Bloomsberry, which gives Vanessa a wonderful idea! With her paint brush in hand, Vanessa brings Bloomsberry to life by painting on the walls and transforming them into a beautiful garden. Virginia soon picks up her own paint brush and undergoes a transformation of her own.

What Wallace and I Think: I got to hear Kyo Maclear talk about this picturebook last year. She was kind enough to give a talk to my supervisor’s picturebook class. She was even kinder to talk to me one on one, and we had a great discussion about my research, and how she wants to start a PhD on a similar topic. She was soft-spoken, intelligent, and just, well, as I said, KIND. So, as you can tell, I’m now a Kyo fan for life.

She told us the picture book was born out of her desire to talk about mental health with children. There is still such a stigma attached to issues of mental health, and Maclear expressed that maybe a way to fight the stigma is to get people talking about mental health issues as early as possible. The result is a beautiful picture book that tells three profound stories:

  1. A story of friendship between siblings.

At the most basic level, this story is about the importance of family support, and the love shared between siblings. The images are beautiful, the text is lovely. It is simply a delight to read.

  1. A story loosely based on the real life sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

The picture book also provides the opportunity to introduce children to important cultural figures: author Virginia Woolf, her sister and artist Vanessa Bell, and The Bloomsbury group. As I have said in other posts, intextuality is important in early children’s literature, for it can spark later curiosity. Maybe when your little one is a teenager they’ll be more inclined to pick up Mrs. Dalloway because they’ve already been introduced to Woolf. And hey, if you’re a parent that finds Virginia’s name familiar, but haven’t heard of Vanessa or the Bloomsbury group, maybe your own curiosity will be piqued

I had someone say to me: “this not a great way to talk about depression with children, because they can find out that Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and that could spark the idea to do the same if they’re depressed.” This kind of comment infuriates me. First, it depicts children as sponges that passively receive information. Children are not passive. Don’t make them passive! They have brains. Encourage them to use their brains! When they can talk, they want to talk to you about things that matter, like depression. This comment does an injustice to children. Second, as someone who has struggled with depression her whole life, I can tell you from personal experience that learning about people like Virginia Woolf (who I learned about when I was a young teenager and she meant a lot to me), who were brilliant and created beautiful things, made me stop believing that I was weak, and that I was alone. And I’m still here because I was inspired by Woolf’s life, not her death. Your child, hopefully when they’re much older, are going to learn about suicide. Don’t you want to give them a foundation, the mental fortitude to talk about such things, so they aren’t overwhelmed later?

  1. A story that can begin conversations with children about feeling “wolfish”

I’ve spoken to a few teachers about their experiences of reading this picture book to their classes, and they were blown away with the types of conversations the reading provoked. The students shared stories of when their own siblings, and parents, and friends have felt “wolfish.” They discussed things they did to help their loved ones, and how it felt to have a loved one struggle in this way. Others talked about feeling wolfish themselves, what helps them when they’re feeling this way, and what they wished their loved ones would do for them when they’re feeling this way. This is powerful! The picturebook gave these children the tools to talk about a subject that is insanely hard to talk about.

I would recommend reading this picturebook to even the youngest of children, as even if they’re too young to talk to you about feeling wolfish, the pictures are beautiful. It is a picturebook that children will understanding more deeply the older they get. And like I said, why not give children the tools to talk about something like depression as early as possible?

I give this picturebook a 5/5