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But I would not be so all alone, everybody must get stone frogs
on September 17, 2012
It's the old if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods quandary reinvented for the comic book age: If a graphic novel for children references a century old comic predecessor, does it matter if no one gets the reference? This is where it's hard to be an adult reviewing books for children. My frame of reference not only encompasses the books published during my own lifetime, but thanks to copious reading I'm familiar with historical works as well. A kid's perspective is going to be completely different. They've seen so little that everything is new to them, for good or for ill. Now take David Nytra's ambitious, not to mention gorgeous, The Secret of the Stone Frog. Here we have a little book that owes some of its existence to stories like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the like, sure. But what makes my own little heart go pitta-pat is the fact that Nytra has clearly supped from the cup of Little Nemo by Winsor McCay and in every frame of this GN that influence beams through like a bloody searchlight. So, though I'm stuck fast in my own frame of references, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that even if a reader isn't familiar with Little Nemo (a fact that should be remedied post haste) they will still grow hugely fond of Nytra's latest.
In the dark of a gentle forest Leah and Alan wake to find themselves in their beds but very far from home. They immediately make the acquaintance of a helpful, if somewhat maniacal looking, stone frog who points them on the path home. Yet paths are meant to be strayed from and along their travels the kids meet everyone from well-to-do lions to giant rabbits to fish men to a bee woman. Getting home requires finding the frogs, but it also requires one to be smart and resourceful. Fortunately for Alan and Leah, they are precisely that.
TOON Books typically create easy reading graphic novels for the very young set. With Stone Frog they're branching a bit out of their comfort zone to draw in a slightly older set of readers. This is a book tapered towards the 2nd and 3rd graders of the world. You might not realize it at first, but it's a soft storyline. The threats posed by the stone frog's world are no more dangerous than Wonderland was to Alice (sans the Red Queen's penchant for dismemberment). Leah and Alan must face oversized fuzzy bees, angry architecture, and maybe the odd pickpocket (emphasis on the "odd"). Yet Nytra takes care to show that this is a pastoral world full of beauty. We often linger on a view of a wren on a branch or birds in the trees, and the general sense to the reader is that this is a fantasy world that they themselves might want to visit. Or, at the very least, nap in.
The words in the book are very simple and to the point, but here they have a distinct advantage over Little Nemo. If you've never read McCay's classic comic series, the newspaper comic concerned itself with the nightly dreams of a little boy in a nightshirt going on elaborate adventures until he woke up (either willingly or unwillingly). Visually the series had no equal, but when it came to wordplay McCay wasn't exactly the world's foremost linguist. Nytra, in contrast, is capable of giving Leah and Alan distinct and interesting personalities using just the sheerest minimum of words.
Speaking of personalities, can I indulge in a sentence or two concerning the dandy lions? I assume they are lions and not teddy bears as some reviewers have speculated, if only because the phrase "dandy lion" suits them far better than "dandy teddy bear". At one point Alan and Leah fall asleep in a cherry orchard after having eaten some of its fruits. They are discovered by George, James, and Charles, an elaborately costumed pride (the Library of Congress summary calls them "foppish") that are undoubtedly a reference to something specific that I am not quite getting (kings of England perhaps . . . but then why is Charles muffled in a scarf and mumbles all his words?). They are fairly adorable, even if one has the distinct feeling after meeting them that there is a LOT Nytra is packing in here that we're missing. For example, when the children mention that they've met the stone frog, George and Charles exchange this significant look that means something. But what? Basically all I would like at this point is for Mr. Nytra to write a sequel to this book that is all about the lions. Nothing else will appease me.
The age of the book's readers poses an interesting question in and of itself. You may have heard the general publishing wisdom that by and large the 21st century child reader will eschew any and all black and white comics in favor of their colored equivalents. Though this statement does not apply to all kids everywhere, I have noticed that significant swaths of them do prefer color. That's why you've been seeing clever publishers employ a strategic one-color strategy on books like Fangbone, Babymouse, and Lunch Lady. What I would like to know is when precisely this preference kicks in. My thinking is that enjoying color is a learned response and that if you get kids young enough then you'll be able to appeal to their sense of whimsy over their need for a color spectrum. The only danger in this case is that kids might see the sophisticated cover on this book (a cover that is the very definition of class) and think it's too old for them. It may take a bit of parental/teacher/librarian intervention to convince them otherwise.
Do they even make pen nibs as small as Nytra must require them to be? Or does he draw his subjects on enormous sheets of parchment paper then shrink them down to size in post? I don't know and the book isn't saying. However he does it, the results are magnificent. Alan and Leah in their nightclothes make for two perfectly white spaces on the otherwise crowded pages. In the final scene they run helter-skelter through a world where the very paving stones are in the process of turning into something reptilian. Yet with their clear-cut clothing and smart speech bubbles (making a good speech bubble is an art in and of itself) you never are in doubt as to their location. Then there are the details that fill the scenes. Look close enough at Nytra's subjects and you come to believe that this world of his has been built on the back of some other fallen civilization. Alan and Leah pick their way over crumbled stuccos and rotted columns of cities long since gone. Kid readers won't care (just as Alan and Leah don't) but for adult readers it's just another layer in an endlessly fascinating visual experience.
As I mentioned before, for all its fun and beauty, the trick to this book will be getting kids to start reading it in the first place. For the true graphic novel diehards this shouldn't be a challenge, and for emerging readers a simple nudge might be enough. It's those color-centric kids that will prove the hardest to engage. The ones who eschew The Arrival and even Raina Telgemeier's Baby-Sitters Club series for brighter fare. Get them interested and you'll have them proclaiming the greatness of the book to their friends free of charge. And honestly, this is truly a book worth discovering. Beautiful to the core.
For ages 7-12.