Borrowing from the kiddo: 3 graphic novels by Doug TenNapel

Sometimes, you just have to take a break from reading “grown-up” novels and indulge in a bit of what the kid is reading. And that’s what I did last night. I raided my 10-year-old’s bookshelves and had a terrifically enjoyable time reading three graphic novels by the very talented author and illustrator Doug TenNapel.

First off, how great are these titles?

Bad Island

Herewith, my mini-reviews:

In Ghostopolis, a boy with a terminal illness is accidentally sent off into the spirit world a bit ahead of schedule by an over-eager ghost wrangler. Once there, Garth befriends a skeleton horse, fights off all sorts of creepy bad guys, meets up with some surprisingly familiar ghosts, and has real insights along the way. There’s plenty of action, some dark and semi-scary dudes to contend with, but also a sense of humor and unexpected rays of hope. My son read this one a few months ago, and has been after me to read it ever since.

Next up, I read Bad Island, in which a family sets out on a boating trip, much to the annoyance of their teen-age son and younger daughter. It’s clear that this is a family that doesn’t spend much time together, and the prospect of being out on the water without all the modern conveniences to distract them does not appeal to the kids at all. When a freak storm destroys their boat, the family is stranded on a mysterious island, where nothing seems exactly normal. Adventure ensues; is this island “bad”, or is there some other explanation for all the weird creatures, hidden passageways, and indecipherable markings? Naturally, in order to survive, the family has to work together, and the kids find themselves saving not only themselves but also their parents as they unravel the secrets of the island.

Finally, the glorious Cardboard! In Cardboard, a down-on-his-luck widowed father who can’t find work comes home with the only birthday present he can afford for his son: a cardboard box. But when Cam and his dad build a cardboard man out of the box, it comes to life, and soon so do all sorts of other creatures. Wrapped up in the wonder of this magical cardboard man, they forget the two rules that came with the box: Return all unused scraps, and don’t ask for any more. When the neighborhood bully catches sight of Cam’s new friend, a cardboard war is on — and gets so out of control that the world may actually come to a cardboard end, unless Cam can figure out a way to save them all.

As you can probably tell, I loved all three of these — probably Cardboard most of all. What’s not to love? In each, the adults are well-intentioned but fallible. The kids and adults end up saving each other and saving the day. Love triumphs, not in a gooey way, but by bringing out the characters’ inner toughness and giving them reason to fight for one another. Even a kid who might not think of himself as brave can end up being a hero. And when things get weird, creativity and a willingness to embrace the weirdness just might be enough to get out of a truly tight spot.

The illustrations are glorious — occasionally dark, always inventive, with grotesque creepy-crawlies, truly funny bad guys, and some lovely images of the different shapes and looks of families.

My son, the ever-reluctant reader, is actually willing to read these books without poking, prodding, or being threatened with the loss of TV/computer/video game access. And if that’s not success, what is? I’d recommend these books for middle grade readers, probably in the 4th – 7th grade range… and for adults who enjoy a good adventure with heart as well.

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