Book Review–Baby’s In Black

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Posted by Danielle | Posted in book reviews, First Second, graphic novel | Posted on 21-02-2012

Baby’s In Black
First Second
Arne Bellstorf
May 2012

This book is based upon a true story.  

Astrid Kircherr is a young photographer in 1960 Germany, when her life is thrown for a loop.  Through Klaus, her sometimes boyfriend, she is introduced to a new band from the UK that is performing at a local bar.  The Beatles…before they were the Beatles.  Astrid and their bassist Stuart Sutcliffe quickly fall in love.  When the Beatles have to return to the UK, Stuart quits and stays behind.  He picks up the paintbrush again and is quickly accepted as a rising star in the modern art world.  He and Astrid, madly in love, are soon engaged.  Their life seems absolutely perfect.  And then…the unthinkable happens.

There’s something special about this book.  Not that it focuses on the Beatles, but because Arne crafts a tale of personal relationships and what makes them work.  He makes it easy to relate to the characters, to sympathize with their struggles of communicating across language but being united by some of the things that make us who we are–music, art, hope, friendship, love.  It sounds sappy I know, but I left the book feeling like I really knew the people that were introduced in the story, especially Astrid and Stuart.  It’s easy to see that Astrid and Stuart care about each other, even while struggling to communicate in different languages.  I think one of my favorite parts is when a friend is asking Astrid how Stuart’s German is coming and she says “he could speak old Siberian and I’d still be in love.”  My one minor grip, and this maybe due to differences in culture since the book was written in German, is that sometimes the transitions between stories are a bit rough.  It seems like we jump scenes and times in a couple places, with no warning or no advanced knowledge, we only know that time has moved forward by comments the characters make, which is a bit different from what we see in typical American story telling.  Once you get into the story though, its easy enough to recognize the pattern.

The artwork really reminds me a lot of David B’s (author of Epileptic) and the type of style that he taught to his students, which includes Marjane Satrapi author of Persepolis.  It’s a very sparse line drawing that captures just the bare essence of the characters and surrounding world, yet is very evocative, especially in capturing the smoky essence of the bar.  In just a few lines Arne captures the the characters and the emotion, the tenderness, the hope that the Astrid and Stuart felt for each other.  I love how in some places the lines leave the panel, as if the energy being created by the characters is powerful enough to transcend the boxes that we may put them in.  Some of the most powerful scenes are the ones right at the end, where Arne captures that feeling of being told bad news.  Where people are speaking around you and you can’t hear them.

I do want to make special mention of the fonts chosen, as it is something that folks are likely to notice.  There are two different types, one hand drawn for the noises (such as ring) but a typewriter type font for the spoken word.  While it might appear a bit different this is what the original looks like as well (at least based upon image searches that I was able to find) so it remains true in style to what Arne chose.  

I really enjoyed this book and found that it made me want to know more about Stuart and Astrid’s lives, before and after the events depicted in the book.  I would highly recommend this book, not just to fans of the Beatles, but to people that enjoy a good biographical story.  5 out of 5 stars.

A review copy of this book was provided by Gina at FirstSecond.

Book Review–"Giants Beware!"

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Posted by Danielle | Posted in book reviews, First Second, graphic novel | Posted on 07-02-2012

Giants Beware!
First Second
Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado 
April 2012

Claudette is a warrior, just like her dad (and perhaps her mom as well.)  She doesn’t want to be anything else in the world.  And after hearing the story of how Marquis Pierre the XXXII chased the giant out of town, but let it go, Claudette wants to find it…and kill it.  But no one is allowed outside of the gate surrounding their town.  How can she be a warrior if she can’t leave the town?  With the help of her best friend Marie (an aspiring princess) and her brother Gaston (an aspiring baker) they escape the town and go hunting for the giant.  Along the way the discover hidden secrets about their town and why they can’t leave.  They also discover a bit more about themselves and what bravery truly means.  Will Claudette, Marie, and Gaston be able to find the giant?  Or where their parents stop the first?  Or will disaster befall everyone?  Read on to find out.

I love First Second titles and this one is no exception. This is one of those books that has something to appeal to everyone, from a well written adventure story to great artwork.  Story wise I really like the character development that occurs during this book’s journey, especially with the three young children.  It’s nice to see a female character that doesn’t want to be princess when she grows up, but a warrior.  And that the male character, even though he wants to make swords, likes to bake as well (and is quite good at it.)  Even Marie, who wants to be a princess when she grows up, shows from the very start she has a good head on her shoulders and by the end is considering being a diplomat.  In other words, the book defies some of the typical stereotypes that you see.  Its a joy to watch these three young children interact and react with the world and discover who they are during the adventure.  I can see this type of adventure/interaction being something that young readers in particular can relate to.  It seems like the creators are hoping to make this a continuing series and I’d definitely be interested in learning more about this town and the secrets it holds. 

One thing that does bother me a bit about the writing in this book is that some times the words chosen don’t fit the age range of the book.  I see the book as being for the elementary school range, but they use words like odoriferous or the discussion on politics at the beginning that just don’t fit that.  While it would let the child come and ask their parents questions about what it means it just seems to be a bit of a deterrent to me for a young reader to really enjoy the book.

I really like the artwork in this book, especially in the opening sequence.  It’s a bit different than the rest of the book as it uses more muted colors and shadows, but it’s really well done.  The rest of the book is done in brighter colors, still very well drawn, and perfect for a young reader.  In fact the style reminds me a lot of Jeff Smith’s Bone, especially in the way the background and older characters are depicted.  They have a lot more detail to them, more age lines on the faces of the older characters, while the children in the story are almost less defined.  It’s as if the artist is giving readers a chance to put themselves in the main characters places, making it easier for the reader to identify with them.  My absolute favorite character designs are Zubair and Claudette’s father, Augustine.  I love the way they move while on their journey to rescue the children and the grizzled looks on their faces.  One of my favorite scenes in the book though is where the children are interacting with the Mad River King and his underwater palace and just the depth and imagery created by the fantastic coloring job in these scenes.

I’d highly recommend this book to any elementary school/middle school reader, especially young girls that are looking for a story where the girl isn’t a princess.  I really hope there are sequels, just to answer some of the questions the author raises, but doesn’t answer.  But, even if there are no sequels this is a good coming of age tell with strong characters and I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.

A review copy of this book was provided by Gina at FirstSecond.