All Ages

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Read Like a Kid - I've got owls on the brain

I had a weird things for owls when I was a kid and I'm pretty sure it all stemmed from my unhealthy obsession with Bubo from Clash of the Titans. I wanted a mechanical pet owl pet crafted by Athena so bad! The fascination didn't stop there. In grade 8 art class we had to do this project that consisted of tracing an animal with india ink on glass, coloring it with magic marker, blocking out the "white" space with this thick black toxic paint, putting crackled tinfoil behind the glass and then into a frame. I thought it was a pretty cool craft so I picked an owl and ended up giving it to my mother for Christmas. Months later, after some minor family misfortunes, my mother was convinced that the owl was casting the "molochia" or the Italian evil eye on us and my artwork was cast to the deepest regions of one of our closets.

Which brings me to two works where owls feature prominently -- the YA novel HOOT by adult novelist Carl Hiassen and the latest all-ages graphic novel from Top Shelf Comix, OWLY by Andy Runton.

HOOT is about Roy Eberhardt, a 'new kid' to Trace Middle School, who not only has to deal with the class bully and the daily grind of school but his own curiosity when he spots a bare-footed boy running away from the bus one day. Upon further investigation, Roy finds himself caught in the middle of a battle between an environmentally conscious runaway and a corporation who wants to open a new pancake house ontop of the habitat of a burrowing owl colony.

It's really hard to say anything bad about a book that's won so many presitgious awards, including the Newbery Honor Book award. It's not that I didn't like HOOT -- it's a good story -- part slapstick, part mystery and part preteen drama. In fact, the most interesting element of HOOT is its introduction of the idea that kids can be activists and not in that cheesy "save the whales" kind of way but a more genuine call-to-arms. HOOT is one of many books currently on the market where adult novelists try their hand at writing a kids book. We saw this last year with Michael Chabon's Summerland, which has received mixed reviews. With HOOT I just felt there was an off-putting distance between the author and the reader that left me a bit cold.

Far from distant in any way is Andy Runton's first all ages graphic novels about the everyday adventures of an owl entitled OWLY. Owly is an innocent bird with his heart in all the right places. In the first half of the book, Owly nurses a worm back to health, instead of eating him, and the two end up becoming best friends and roommates. In the second story, Owly and Wormy befriend a couple of hummingbirds. But when winter approaches their friends must leave, but Owly and Wormy realize that goodbye isn't always forever when their friends return the following Spring for more fun.

To be honest, I was a bit hesitant when I found out that OWLY was a wordless graphic novel. Part of me felt that it was more important to grow the category of children's graphic novels with stories that could be used legitimitely in a classroom setting to get reluctant readers interested in books. Pushing aside my ignorance, I did a little research and realized that Runton's optimistic, simple stories of friendship follow a long tradition of of wordless material from renowned picture book illustrators like Raymond Briggs, Eric Carle and David Wiesner.

I also found this great quote on the Weber County Library's website:
"Wordless picture books serve as the initial step towards real reading. Their stories are told entirely through a sequence of illustrations. As children follow the pictures, they verbalize the action in their own words, a process that builds vocabulary and comprehension skills. Children may interpret the stories in their own way, and in the process, learn that stories have a beginning, middle, and an ending."

So in order for a children's graphic novel to be successful in providing this initial step towards reading, clear sequential storytelling must be in place. Runton accomplishes this with ease. Not only is OWLY easy-to-follow but Runton's ability to convey emotions in animal characters with just a slight smile or the raising of an eyebrow is incredible. Clearly, there is more than enough room for OWLY in the growing children's graphic novel canon.

2 Comments:

  • Owly is one of the best GNs I've ever read. Here's a review I did of it and watch for my interview with Andy coming in Comic Book Digest #3. http://www.brokenfrontier.com/reviews/details.php?id=42

    By Blogger Mike Bullock, at 7:11 AM  

  • i very much dissagree with your blog about HOOT!!! i thought it was a wonderful book and vrey well written! i adored the story line and i think it is very sweet and a very good insperation for childen and adults. I know it was for me. I would have to say that Carl hiaasen is now one of my favourite authors and Hoot is definatly my favourite book of all time!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:32 PM  

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