Sharp Objects and Sharper Kids: Redefining Heroism

What does it take to be a hero? In comics, physical daring and superpowers are typically needed. Spiderman broke new ground in the 1960s when teen Peter Parker realized that “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” Parker had to learn how to be an adult as well as a superhero. Now, I am happy to say, we have some great graphic novels recasting this lesson in purely human terms, with young women learning what it takes to be heroic adults. These are enormously entertaining reads, too.

In separate, fast-paced and fun series, a 10th grader and an eleven-year-old discover that a sharp blade, however skillfully wielded or magical, is not the solution to their problems. While trouncing trolls—and, later, bouncing meteors—these young heroes learn more about themselves and their own, everyday lives. That is the knowledge they need to rescue others and themselves. Meanwhile, we have a blast watching their fantastic adventures!

FoiledAliera Carstairs does not fit in at her New York City high school. In Foiled (2010) and its sequel Curses! Foiled Again (2013), we see how important the sport of fencing is to her. Through hours of hard practice, she may have the chance to compete nationally. If only the practice fencing foil her mother bought at a garage sale were not an enchanted one, revealing that Aliera is the destined Defender of Faerie. If only the handsomest guy in school, her lab partner Avery, were not really a troll. When things and people are not as they seem, what’s a 10th grader to do? What rules should be broken … what promises kept? Aliera’s cousin Caroline, wheel-chair bound with rheumatoid arthritis, is a major character in both books, helping Aliera with strategy.

Writer Jane Yolen and illustrator Mike Cavallaro are a dynamic duo in these books, creating plot, characters, and setting with a seamless mesh of words and images. Yolen plays with language as nimbly as one would expect from this acclaimed, veteran author, known as the “Hans Christian Andersen” of the United States. From witty remarks about “Every verbal thrust … parried,” chapter titles aptly named after fencing moves, and high school banter ranging from monosyllables to casual references to Shrek, Harry Potter, and The Wizard of Oz, not one note rings false. And the pacing is great. One example of how this writing team expertly blends words and pictures is a page in Curses! featuring trolls. After troll silhouettes atop the page tell Aliera that they intend to swat her flat, a mid-page series of five close-ups has each troll individually add: “Flat as a hat.” “Flat as a flounder.” “Flat as a board.” “Flat as a pancake.” “What’s a pancake?” At the bottom of the page, as the trolls march off with prisoner Aliera, an explanation of pancakes follows, with Aliera thinking she is pretty lucky the trolls are this easily distracted.

Curses! Foiled AgainThis variety of panel sizes, shapes, and perspectives is just one instance of Mike Cavallaro’s versatility and flair. The books’ action is also kept brisk with full page and double page spreads, and with pages where the absence of all words heightens tension and suspense. There is smart use of color to distinguish between the everyday world and Fairie, and to show Aliera’s growing ability to see the Fairie creatures infiltrating New York City. Sometimes Cavallero also uses different drawing styles to indicate velocity as creatures zoom, a magical storm rages, or Aliera charges into battle. I can see why Foiled was acclaimed as a YALSA Great Graphic Novel, A Texas Maverick Graphic Novel, and an Amelia Bloomer Recommended Title. I expect Curses! Foiled Again may win awards, too. I wonder if this second book contains the same clue that the first one did—a t-shirt Aliera wears there displays a quotation that became the next title. I think that careful readers may be able to spot and figure out the title of Aliera, Avery, and Caroline’s third, yet-to-be-written adventure.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her SwordAuthor/illustrator Barry Deutsch identifies his hero and her adventures in his books’ titles:  Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (2010) and its sequel, Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite (2012). Deutsch also humorously tells readers a bit about Mirka’s everyday world with an additional line atop each book’s cover. “Yet Another Troll-Fighting Eleven-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl” proclaims the first, while the sequel announces that Mirka is now “Boldly Going Where No Eleven-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl Has Gone Before.” Hereville, as we soon see, represents those rare Jewish communities—such as those in Monsey, New York, and Lakewood Township, New Jersey—where strict religious observance governs all aspects of life. Such Chasidic Jews choose to live apart from the rest of society. Deutsch’s sensitive, even-handed, and wonderfully entertaining depiction of Chasidic Mirka’s first adventure won the 2011 Sydney Taylor Book Award for older readers. It was nominated for the Eisner, Harvey, and Nebula awards, too.

Mirka is a bit of a rebel, hiding forbidden books about monsters under her bed and unhappy about having to learn the “womanly” skill of knitting. How will she balance her genuine faith, the demands of a large family, and school rules and routines with her desire to “slay dragons”? When Mirka meets an unknown creature that she only thinks is a monster, she asks herself, “Am I hero or NOT?”  Rising to that supposed challenge, Mirka gets her magical sword. Yet, to defeat a troll, Mirka finds that sharp thinking and life lessons are much better weapons. You may be as surprised as that troll to see what actually proves to be his undoing! Throughout this book and its sequel, author Deutsch does a fine job capturing the verbal give-and-take of brothers and sisters, the jeers of school bullies, the gentle sarcasm of no-nonsense parents, and the harsher jibes of supernatural creatures. Whenever Mirka and her companions in typical Chasidic fashion use a Yiddish word or expression as part of their speech, these words are asterisked. A brief translation appears at the bottom of the page.

Deutsch’s illustrations sparkle with wit and variety. An amazed Mirka is shown in a two-part panel shaped like an exclamation mark! She is looking off to her right, at an elongated panel containing a tall old mansion. That panel’s top extends upward and inward, to form the peaked roof of the narrow house. Many times, characters’ heads or feet overlap into nearby panels, enhancing the intense emotional connection between scenes. Mirka’s braids whip across panels as she is fighting that first “monster,” and double-page spreads without any panel enclosures capture the furious energy and activity of Mirka’s encounter with the troll. When her younger brother Zindel worriedly follows Mirka, we see him peering around a panel and then pacing around an entire page.   Sometimes panels overlap or proliferate to suggest actions occurring in rapid succession.  In this book where the difference between day and night becomes an important plot element, Deutsch uses different colors for each. Mirka’s dawn triumph is revealed in a combination of soft daytime orange and fading nighttime blue.

Hereville: How Mirka Met a MeteoriteIn Mirka Meets a Meteorite, green enters Deutsch’s palette, as both Earth and then Mirka are threatened by the space rock that, due to her latest dealings with the troll, has crashed to Earth.  Mirka’s amazing race to reach a powerful, helpful witch before this crash occurs is shown in vivid detail, with her large, running figure overlaying many small thought panels. We then see close-ups of Mirka’s anguished face as she struggles to find strength, interspersed with close-ups of other body parts as she tries to rise from her knees or raise a foot just one more time. We turn the page right after seeing Mirka collapse only to see a wordless, double-page spread of the large blue meterorite just above the treetops! The next two pages keep us in further suspense, with images of blinding light, glimpses of a dazed Mirka, and the only words her bewildered, “What happened?” The fantastic answer to this question fuels the rest of the plot.

In this charming novel, a frustrated, very hungry Mirka comes to realize the importance of family togetherness and family history. Being the very best Mirka she can be turns out to be more important than any test of strength or knowledge  And her stepsister Rochel’s sharp wit turns out to be a more effective weapon than Mirka’s sword. You will have to read this fantasy novel to its very end, though, to find out which everyday skill Mirka uses to cushion her own crash landing on Earth.  I do not want to spoil that laugh-filled surprise.

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