Here are two more of the Cybils Middle Grade Graphic Novel finalists. Coming back to write these reviews reminds me that I still haven’t read the only one I couldn’t get from my own library – Suee and the Shadow. The interloan request is now placed!
The Dam Keeper by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi. First Second, 2017.
This graphic novel is based on movie short and combines several elements to unique effect. Adorably cute cartoon animals in a magnificently painted background face down terrible dark events. Young Pig has been raised by his father to tend the Dam that keeps back the waves of Dark. And the Dark is a terrible thing. It took Pig’s mother in the past, and one day, his father walks out into the Dark. Now Pig tends the dam on his own after school, as the waves of Dark get larger and closer together. When a wave of dark washes them out of the city, he’s joined in his quest to get back and find a fix for the dam by his friendly classmate Fox and her grouchy friend Hippo. The words are few, and the art beautiful. The scenes of the dying mother at the beginning were disturbing enough that my daughter refused to read on, so this is one for kids who like their stories on the darker side. There is definitely room for a sequel here!
Where’s Halmoni? By Julie Kim. Little Bigfoot, 2017.
This story, the winner of the Cybils award in this category, hover on the border between picture book and graphic novel. My library has it in picture books, and it is picture book sized, with many full-page spreads. But it’s long for a picture book and put together following graphic novel conventions regarding text placement and sometimes using panels.
All that aside, the book is captivating if straightforward. Two children come home from school to find their grandmother, their Halmoni, missing. They can smell her wonderful cooking, though, so they know she hasn’t been gone long. When they follow the giant tiger footprints through a window, they find themselves in a fantasy Korea. Here it’s clear that these are Korean-American children who’ve grown up hearing but not speaking Korean. They meet various creatures from Korean folklore, who all speak to the children in Korean – the characters are written artistically above, with the older sister telling her brother what she catches of it. Everything is translated in the back, but it’s fun to go through figuring things out with the kids. They meet a trickster rabbit, friendly goblins, that fearsome tiger, and a bushy-tailed fox (more familiar to me as the nine-tailed fox.) Despite some nervous moments, the children are never in too much danger, thanks to little brother Yoon’s seemingly bottomless backpack of snacks. I was pleased to see that, though the children are never quite sure what happened to their grandmother, it’s clear to the reader that she was having adventures of her own. I’ve left the art until last, but it is worth mentioning – stunning painted art, in vivid colors that both echo traditional Korean art and feel up-to-the-moment. This was a hit with both my children as well as myself.