Novel Approaches

What novel approach to writing may you find on your next library or bookstore visit? Here is one you already may have encountered …

Invention of Hugo Cabret and WonderstruckPart graphic novel, part prose: this mixed-genre form of writing has gained popularity since the debut of Brian Selznick’s delightful The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007). That Caldecott award-winner and Selznick’s acclaimed Wonderstruck (2011), with their twelve-year-old protagonists, are both subtitled “A Novel in Words and Pictures,” each consisting of more than one-third pictures. As Selznick himself points out, though, those books’ eloquent pictures are completely wordless—their many double-page spreads are like motion picture images, zooming in and out of close-ups, or like the wordless panels inside some comics. A gifted author/illustrator, Selznick has yet to tackle the multi-paneled pages, with dialogue balloons or prose boxes, typical of graphic novels. That more typical format has appeared with growing frequency in books for kids and young adult readers.

Today I want to spotlight two recent, stellar additions to this genre-bending trend some people have labeled the ‘hybrid novel.’ Anyone young at heart will take pleasure in the madcap antics of Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (2013), written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell, even though the problems and pleasures of ten-year-old Flora and super-squirrel Ulysses are clearly designed to tickle kid readers. Chasing Shadows (2013), written by Swati Avasthi with graphics by Craig Phillips, which focuses on high school seniors and the aftermath of violent, death-dealing crime, is aimed more towards young adults, an intriguing but not light-hearted ‘read.’

Flora & UlyssesSo different in tone, these books are alike in the seamless, effective ways in which their graphic portions advance plot, deepen character, and explore themes. I was surprised to learn that Kate DiCamillo, an award-winning author, had originally written Flora & Ulysses entirely in prose. In an interview, DiCamillo admiringly says that Candlewick Press’s editorial and design departments had the “brilliant” idea to incorporate graphic elements into this novel. Knowing this adds luster to K.G. Campbell’s achievements in so smoothly “illuminating” this work, using one of his preferred media, pencil, with ongoing direction from his editor and input from DiCamillo.

Several pages of wry graphic novel preface Chapter One. We are shown how, “IN THE TICKMAN KITCHEN, LATE ON A SUMMER AFTERNOON…” Donald Tickman’s gift of a super-duper new vacuum cleaner leads to both disastrous and marvelous occurrences. A squirrel superhero is created! As it sucks up everything in sight, dragging poor Mrs. Tickman straight out of the house, the vacuum’s headlights and intake port are drawn as bulging eyes and a gaping maw, expressive features that are echoed by the rapidly-changing fright, dismay, and disbelieving laughter that play across the Tickmans’ faces. Later, Campbell demonstrates his deft ability with wordless panels too. A sequence of varying sized panels depicts the super strength of Ulysses, now able to lift the vacuum that had sucked him up, rattling his brain and body into a fantastic transformation. This sequence extends DiCamillo’s gently humorous rendition of Ulysses’ limited view of this change: “His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t even known existed) had suddenly been flung wide.” Towards the end of the book, in a nighttime sequence that is practically wordless, Campbell also shifts viewpoints and plays with panel shape and size as he shows Ulysses literally flying away from danger—now able not only to perceive danger but to act in super-heroic ways to defend himself.

Flora & UlyssesUlysses’ new world is shaped by the experience and interests of ten year old Flora, for whom comic book super heroes such as the “Great Incandestro” are as real—and more understandable—than her divorced parents. Her romance-writing mother and always-introducing-himself father are larger than life in their foibles, as are the other characters and events in this fantastic novel. Yet the emotions depicted in these Illuminated Adventures are real: children’s need for the supportive love of parents, young people’s need to name themselves as they grow as individuals, the pain and problems that come with divorce, the healing and strengthening power of friendship. Is the “Squirrel Poetry” in the Epilogue, purportedly written by Ulysses, too pat or just right … ? It may depend on the reader. Or, as eleven year-old William Spiver, another wonderfully over-the-top character in the book remarks, “The truth … is a slippery thing. I doubt that you will ever get to The Truth.” It is that kind of observation that for me makes fanciful Flora & Ulysses a nourishing read as well as a delightful confection.

Chasing ShadowsBest friends, Chicago high school seniors Holly Trask and Savitri Mathur confront several kinds of darkness in the aptly-titled Chasing Shadows. Along with Holly’s twin brother Corey, they are “free runners”—daredevil athletes who challenge themselves by running, climbing, and jumping cityscape obstacles. Swati Avasthi’s nimble prose captures the exuberance and rhythmic power of this sport, as Holly reflects, “Run outside and the city is no longer dead concrete and asphalt. It becomes an instrument—my instrument. Per-cuss-ive. I. Wake. It. Up.” Often, the trio practice off-hours in run-down neighborhoods. They have not thought much about other dangers lurking in Chicago until a random shooter kills Corey. Ending the first chapter, that slaughter and its aftermath are the heart of this hybrid novel.

Craig Phillips embodies the death scene in three intense, wordless, black-and-white pages. First, we see a close-up of hands clasping the trigger of a gun, foreshortened to emphasize its muzzle. Next, a bullet speeds from this muzzle and shatters the car window where Corey and Holly sit. Finally, jagged panels, littered with glass shards, show the bullet headed towards Corey and then portions of Holly’s hand as she futilely tries to reach and rescue Corey. In an interview, author Avashti has said that she “wanted to use the graphics for those moments when our words leave us entirely, when they cannot encompass the way the world has shattered.” Phillips’ black-background visuals here certainly accomplish this, especially prefaced by the thoughts Avashti crafts for Holly when she briefly glimpses the shooter: “My mouth goes bone-dry. I can’t manipulate my tongue to say anything, not even to scream. All the words I’ve ever known . . . fra c t u r e”

Chasing ShadowsBoth friends grieve, but it is Holly who cannot stop reliving this event or accept a Corey-less world. She begins to fantasize ways in which Corey’s spirit might be released from a limbo-like place called “the Shadowlands.” Holly visualizes the Shadowlands and its ruler, a half-snake creature named Kortha, in distorted images from the Hindu comic books that Indian-American Savitri shared when they were in grade school together. Like DiCamillo’s Flora, Avasthi’s teens are comics fans, favoring a superhero called the Leopardess as well as the religious adventures that were a mainstay of India’s comic book industry. Phillips skillfully employs a range of graphic techniques to convey Holly’s increasingly desperate, dangerous fantasies: double-page spreads, overlapping as well as variously sized and shaped panels, close-ups on body parts as well as faces, and speech balloons outlined in ways that emphasize emotional content. Describing the many author-editor-art editor-illustrator talks that went into Chasing Shadows, Avasthi has said that she could not have had “better support or people who were committed to the book.” I heartily agree that this team has created a hybrid novel whose graphic portions seamlessly develop one main character’s changing mental state.

As Holly’s fantasies grow more dangerous, they drive a suspenseful plot. How far will she go—and whom will she endanger—in her attempts to defy death? Will another person die before the book ends? Graphics and prose also address important themes: How far should one go to help a friend? What happens to friendship as people change? What is the difference between wishful thinking and mental illness? How much should parents’ wishes influence young adults? How is it possible to understand or misunderstand another person’s religion? Chasing Shadows avoids providing easy answers to these questions—one of its many strengths. Another is its conclusion, which resolves Holly and Savitri’s immediate problems but similarly avoids a falsely ‘happy ending.’

Year of the Beasts and WingerOther ‘hybrid novels’ on my piles of recently-read/to-be-read books include Andrew Smith and Sam Bosma’s Winger and Cecil Castellucci and Nate Powell’s The Year of the Beasts. Have you read these young adult novels? Perhaps there are other hybrid works that you would like to recommend. Hunkering down with a good book or two certainly makes this arctic Minnesota winter more bearable. Brrrr … 

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