Babymouse is growing up! I recently learned that the perky heroine of twenty graphic novels for young kids started this school year as a middle schooler. Yet the safe haven that school provides this fantasy character is not what students actually experience these days in our gun-riddled culture.
Lights, Camera, Middle School! (2017) is the first in a new series about the wise-cracking, imaginative rodent, who daydreams in pink. Her earlier (mis)adventures have ranged from supposedly being Queen of the World (Babymouse # 1, 2005) to being an Olympic champion who Goes for the Gold (Babymouse # 20, 2016). Along the way, these best-selling humorous books have won numerous awards, including a prestigious Eisner Award in 2013 for best graphic publication for early readers.
In the new series, labelled “Babymouse Tales from the Locker,” Lights, Camera, Middle School! describes how Babymouse’s joining Film Club is part of her adjustment to that new environment. Her difficulties, while humorous, are very real. As she says early on, “The hardest subject in middle school . . . was friendship.” The second book in this series, Miss Communication, dealing with social media in middle school, will be published in July, 2018. To distinguish these books, written for older readers, from the first series, the sister-brother team of author Jennifer L. Holm and illustrator Matthew Holm has explained that “We switched up our procedure a bit . . . [from] a traditional graphic novel.” Matt Holm describes the new look as “more like an illustrated chapter book.” Since this book includes graphic novel sequences, however, I would call this work a hybrid novel. I first discussed that graphic trend here in 2014, and recommended another hybrid novel here in 2016. (Using the term “hybrid novel” in a search will help you and tween or teen readers find works which similarly mix pages of prose with graphic novel sequences.)
In the narrative of Lights, Camera, Action! Jennifer Holm displays the insights into character and command of dialogue that figure in her award-winning all-prose novels for tweens. (I mention some of these Newberry Honor books in a review article here.) Babymouse comes to understand how her outrageous demands as director of the Film Club’s movie epic “Au Revoir, Locker” have alienated the cast and crew. We see her salvage her friendships even as we enjoyably witness how Club members translate her grandiose schemes (for the Eiffel Tower . . . and elephants, too!) into middle school “work-arounds.” Babymouse’s interjecting bits of French into conversations shows how she wishes to be sophisticated, while bold face type conveys the natural rhythms of her less affected speech. Her kid brother Squeak and grandfather are also memorable characters in this Babymouse work, along with Wilson the weasel, George the giraffe, Lucy the bat, and catty Felicia Fuzzypaws.
Illustrator Matt Holm’s graphic novel sequences in this book carry the storyline along with witty impact. I particularly enjoyed the pages in which Babymouse imagines being attacked by a monster in her locker. Small panels overlapping a larger one communicate her race to escape, while the use of dark background and a shift in perspective show her terror as a horde of angry lockers pursue and surround her! Then the school bell rings, and our heroine is back to safe reality. At other points, single illustrations complement the author’s words tellingly. For instance, a zombie-like teacher filling a blackboard with homework assignments humorously explains the words “And everywhere you turned, someone was trying to eat your brains.” Despite Babymouse’s misgivings and some actual failures, her middle school really is a safe environment in which to learn and grow. The Holm siblings do a great job of communicating this positive message in a way that engages readers of all ages, not just their targeted audience of 8 to 12 year-olds.
And yet—while I definitely recommend the new Babymouse series, looking forward to its next volume—its wholesome portrayal of middle school contrasts so vividly with school images recently in the news. I cannot get those out of my mind. Schools today are not the safe environments portrayed by the Holms . . . but not because of any of the situations Babymouse fears. This past Valentine’s Day saw the single-shooter slaughter of unarmed high school students and staff. Parkland, Florida has now been added to the litany of school shootings which in recent decades has included middle and even elementary schools. Without school guards, metal detectors, or police officers, Babymouse’s school settings resemble those of more innocent eras, not today’s wary fortresses. The Mouseketeers of my own youth might have fit into Babymouse’s carefully framed and expertly crafted world. I may bring this up to Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm when they visit the Twin Cities later this month. The celebrated creators of Babymouse and other memorable characters will be here to accept their well-deserved Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota.
Such thoughts led me to see if any graphic novels or comics have dealt with school shootings. As a result, I am now waiting for mail delivery of the hybrid novel Jamie’s Got a Gun (2014). Written by Canadian educator Gail Sidonie Sobat and illustrated by Spyder Yardley-Jones, it is told from the point-of-view of a teen as he plans a shooting. Will that tragedy be averted? I will need to read the book to find out and evaluate it overall. I decided to pass on the DC Comics series Hard Time (2004 – 2005), as its treatment of a school shooting is framed for adult readers, ones especially interested in odd superpowers.
My literature search turned up many more all-prose novels focused on school shootings. Some are already downloaded or now on my library request list. Violent Ends: A Novel in Seventeen Points of View (2016), edited by Shaun David Hutchinson, sounds particularly interesting. Its seventeen chapters, written by seventeen different authors including Hutchinson himself, deliberately exclude the viewpoint of its teen-age shooter. Instead, the book portrays the views of the six people he killed and the five he injured. Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (2014), told in a single day as a teen prepares to shoot someone else and himself, is also now on my reading list. It includes the would-be shooter’s meetings with four individuals who have shown him kindness, including a home-schooled girl and a teacher who himself survived the Holocaust. After finishing all these emotionally-intense books, I suspect I will be happy to return to the humor-filled, sharp-eyed but warm-hearted school corridors of the Babymouse books!