written and illustrated by dan santat
First Second Books
dan goes to europe a withdrawn young teen and comes home with experiences and the desire to climb out of his shell
given that my previous post was a bellyacher about there not being enough graphic novels, i'm nonetheless gonna gush over this new memoir from illustrator dan santat. as a member of the tail end of the free-range generation, he gets to show-and-tell young readers what they're missing out on and gives the sensitive kids some hope that all that middle school angst will one day be a thing of the past.
dan is a SoCal kid who seems to find himself petrified and humiliated by his daily life. to fill time at a class assembly he is asked to recite a poem and is mocked mercilessly. he is told that a girl likes him, like, a lot, and when he goes to make his move she shuts him down horribly. when going to a last-day-of-junior-high party he is constantly worried about whether or not he and his friends have been expressly invited (they have not) and freezes up when the police arrive to shut it down.
what young dan needs is a trip to europe where drinking beer, stealing a bike, and kissing a girl's ear with fondu cheese on his lips are prized moments.
as a sort of extended school trip, dan has two new buddies who help keep him grounded while they travel through england, france, germany, switzerland and austria. they'll see some sights, stay with a family for a week as part of an immersive experience, and as would be the case for any such coming-of-age story, there is a complicated love interest. he'll get shown around by a pair of hip French teens who introduce him to a late-night club scene and drop him a mix tape (or, kids today, you with your instant sharing of spotify playlists, you're really missing out here!) that will, no doubt, make him cooler than most of the kids back home. he will be taunted mercilessly by a trio of girls from his school who, by the end, will come around to recognize dan's growth over the three weeks and decide he's actually pretty cool. and, by sheer luck, he'll finagle his way into the semi-finals at Wembleton where he'll get to see John McEnroe play as part of a memorable last-day-in-new-love paradise.
and by admitting this here, i am not-so-secretly jealous that i didn't get to do something like this before i started high school. and if it was available, i either pretended it was stupid or ignored it out of my own total insecurities.
after some brief "before" scenes and backstory, santat jumps into the trip with little fanfare (besides a typically awkward sendoff with his parents) and backfills relevant scenes with vignettes for context in a way that is so simple and understated that they barely jostle a reader from the story at hand. dan isn't the only one changed by the end, and the changes are equally subtle as they show that he wasn't the only one who needed this emotionally-expanding experience. more importantly, i can't imagine a better way to show other young artists the potential benefits of experience gained from visiting other cultures.
one nifty thing up front is a QR code that not only takes you the santat's author page, but also contains a link to a spotifiy playlist recreating the mixtape dan was given back in 1989. i can say with some authority that, excepting the french ye-ye and german punk songs, this playlist is a good place for young readers to take an audio trip through the past as well. more than just a playlist for a book, it's the closest santat could hope to get to giving a mix tape to every reader, and is some really smart added content.
at the end, santat does some obligatory explaining about how the beer tasting in the book -- perfectly legal in germany at the time -- would not be allowed today, nor would smoking (as the girls do on the plane, back when that was still a thing), and that stealing a bike is wrong. but he starts by saying this was when he started to like himself. that's actually key right there, that the true sum of all these fragments of memories is that he learned who he was and was all the better for it.
so i'll end with this: i picked it up just before bedtime intending to read a few pages to get the feel for it, and was unable to stop until i'd finished. all 300-plus pages of it. i won't be the only one.
this is probably gonna sound more cranky than it should be but...
in the marketplace of ideas i can see a valid need for an open discussion on the merits of whether a particular creative thing (in this case books) adds value or achieves a certain level of status worthy of mention. or not. within the spectrum of taste, many people will land somewhere on the like/dislike arc, and in standing up for their beliefs a multitude of topics and ideas can be shared in a way that may change or alter another's view, or cause them to dig in and insist their viewpoint is the correct one.
one of the things ported into the world wide web of ideas is the notion of flattening the loftiness of academic analysis. criticism was for critics and academics to dictate, with fledglings tussling for a seat at the table, an opportunity to show off that they, too, can think the big thinks.
and to be honest, it's fun to stand tall and sound off in public, to make a declaration and stand by it, come hell or high water.
but what we have witnessed in these digital times is the commodification of opinion -- not just in artistic criticism, but in news, politics, everything -- which in turn has changed both the nature and the value of critical thought. we go online and look to reviews in order to cut to the heart of whatever is on offer and wade through the thickets of opinion in order to find the one true nugget we can sink our teeth into. but we are also witnessing the rise of bot-driven drivel devised to sway us toward a specific aim, or at least buffer the true criticisms enough to make them difficult to locate.
i came into criticism of books (kid lit, mostly, and movies before that) out of a genuine love for the things i was into. when i started it was both on radio and in the go-go 'zinester scene of the 90s. diverse voices were hard to come by, hard to find, and the mainstream sources were already consolidating into a mushpot of their own greed. it was exciting to come to something fresh and try to find a unique angle, not so much to show off (okay, maybe a little) but to hold up a hand to Big Name Critics and say "hold on there!"
now, there are hundreds and thousands and millions of voices out there. everyone a critic, and seemingly out for their fifteen seconds of fame as quickly as possible. with comment sections for every piece of input, any critical note can be countered by an army of trolls doing everything from calling you names to threatening your life. suddenly, everyone's opinions are more important than your own, especially after you've thrown yours into the tubes and wires of of the crit-o-sphere.
i sat at my laptop intending to carpet bomb a recent read that left me furious with most of it, yet at the same time unable to deny that it touched on a couple raw nerves. it is a YA title that likely had its (author's) heart in the right place, but it was... subtly moralistic and perhaps a little irresponsible in sending the reader a message of "don't worry, it'll be alright" when the underlying facts would suggest it might not ever be alright.
yes, i'm vague-critiquing, because in the end i realized that somewhere between the "bad publicity is still publicity" and "if you can't say something nice..." there is a whole sea of reviews being tabulated and aggregated and, now with AI, being used to train algorithms into purpose-driven data points. a bad review used to be a conversation starter, a chance for reviewer and reader to sit for a moment and share in an invisible dialog. no one was attacking the other (or the original writer, mostly) but instead were in a sort of hippie-feely share fest to form a way of thinking about a small shared piece of the world.
a bad review now invites vitriol, it invites legions of defenders to rise up and slay the reviewer for daring to expose flaws and doubts and raise questions. in truth, all people want is to know how many stars you would give a title so they can decide how much they want their biases confirmed. one person's one-star review becomes another person's attack meme designed crush dissonant opinion.
i cannot say i will never write a negative, critical book review in the future, only that if and when i do it will be because my heart and/or brain has become engulfed in flames that can only be put out through the expulsion of words words words.
a true story
by dave eggers
illustrated by julia sarda
a picture book about moving a now-historical mansion, told in a slightly annoying narrative tone, overlooking the privilege and history of forced native american resettlement at the end of the 19th century.
roast me all you want about political correctness and woke culture, but the "truth" of this story is slim and merely adds to the already-saturated expanse of work dedicated to western expansionism and european dominance of native cultures.
oh, but it's only a picture book for kids, there doesn't have to be anything political about it! lighten up. man!
but the unwritten prolog, the whole reason this story even exists, was because about 20 years prior to the events depicted here, native tribes of nez perce, among others, were cleared away. this left the wood river valley open for new settlers and prospectors who -- lucky for them, not so for native tribes that once hunted and fished there -- discovered silver and lead in rich quartz deposits that would make them richer than croesus. (croesus, former king of lydia back in the BC days, known for his wealth, whose name was also used for a mine in the same valley. you know, just to give you a sense of how rich this particular seam of mining was viewed).
okay, fine. the natives are cleared, a prospector accidentally discovers a mine in a meet-cute between a dog and a gopher, and wealth is amassed. minnie moore was the accidental prospector, and in time was so rich he figured he could sell the mine to a man named miller and retire. or whatever. but he was lonely, so after finding love in idaho he sends his bride annie off to see europe while he builds her a mansion. "the home, we can assume, was known as the miller's minnie moore mining mansion."
we can assume? in a true story? and we can use this assumption as the title of the book?
yes, it's a cute narrative dip, just like later there is the line "there is no better place for horses than idaho. any horse will tell you that." so, yeah, these are small, innocuous cases that don't actually affect the truth of the narrative, and in some ways make it more fanciful, almost tall-tale-adjacent, but it's in the bending and secreting of truths that history is warped. i will harp on about the george washington cherry tree myth any chance i get because it is dangerous to teach absolute BS as historical fact, much less a buttressing of character, and especially dangerous to children. here, in the moving of a house via horse and logrolling, we get a lighthearted tale that ignores the relocating of natives and appropriation of land that made it all possible. are there no other stories of moving houses that could be told, was this story that unique (short answer: no)? does having a cute, possibly entirely fictitious name for a house (we have no proof the owners ever called it this) justify the retelling of it's origin and genealogy?
overall, the tone and visual aspects of this title is extremely reminiscent of picture books from the 1960s, with muted browns, blues, and grays and flat midcentury modern landscapes. its the kind of tale that disney might have animated and told alongside their telling of paul bunyan, a "true" story of a legendary house on the move. but today, in our current climate, i think we would be better served by stories that reflected the cultures historically silenced from this era. and, i'm a little saddened that author dave eggers couldn't do better.
(yeah, that's the title of the "novelette" i just read)
by jason steele
in a world of AI generated text and images, and Amazon genres full of cryptid romance novels, i am sure this fills a niche i'd never considered before; basically, absurdist fantasy. not entirely true, i'm sure its crossed my mind, but this was just... it's out there in a way that makes me wonder if i was just punk'd by a bored high school student. which, oddly, i think makes it perfect for YA readers.
Jessica the wizard arrives to her first day of work at Magical Investments to do a job she seems hardly qualified for, but she's also logy and a glorified mess from having just swallowed a horse whole, her second horse to date. its a strange compulsion, and one she struggles with in terms of being afraid she might do it again. she doesn't want to, and yet... there's that title taunting you.
turns out she wasn't hired for her non-existent (and ultimately inconsequnetial) financial auditing skills but to find out, covertly, who has just stolen half of all the wizard gold in their vaults. her boss, Dr Clash, is convinced its an inside job and believes Jessica can help her solve the mystery. so now it's an absurdist fantasy mystery in a land of wizards.
oh, but wait! there's more!
the primary suspect is Sacrifice, a dark wizard who also fronts a rock band. one look at their gig poster and Jessica is crushing on Sacrifice big time, but Sacrifice is also a bit of a McMuffin to drive Jessica through the noir underbelly of Bloodfist City where she encounters a shadow world and enchanters and, you know, fantasy things. most of what happens is tangential-to-unnecessary at best, there only for the fun of playing with the tropes and cliches of all the genres mixed up in the jumble-tumble. Sacrifice may actually be guilty, but there is a larger, more dangerous energy in Magical Investments that Jessica must dispatch and... where is that third horse, anyway?
all over Amazon there are a bajillion self-published books under 75-90 pages (66 pages for this one), many in the romance genre -- and there is a little romance in here that might make some adults squirm at the thought, but trust me, there is much worse out there that kids are watching on their cell phones every day. so the "novelette" aspect of jessica the wizard eats a third horse is probably filling the gap old pulp sci-fi/fantasy magazines might have once filled. maybe. the writing, it isn't great, and the story operates within the safety of not having to fully explain the physics and logic behind what is going on, but i feel fairly confident that some teen out there is enjoying the heck out of this single-sitting read.
or they're off writing one just like it for a few extra bucks. hey, i've seen Tarantino movies with less substance, and wasted more of my time, so there's that.
I'm cleaning, I'm cleaning again