Spots in a Box by Helen Ward

spots-in-boxWard, Helen. Spots in a Box. Somerville, MA: Templar Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: rhyming picture book

Summary: What’s to be done when you’re the only guinea fowl without any spots? Well you write a letter and order some!

Critique: The rhyme schemes throughout this story are “spot on.” No, really, I’m not just waxing punnetic. War never overreaches or forces the meter with flimflam syntax or nonsensical words. (Just to be clear, syntactical gymnastics and mishmash words are allowed in creative writing, however, only a few authors have succeeded in deploying these tactics with any real skill. Seuss…Dahl…Twain…etc.) Instead, Ward keeps her language tuned up and the story drives itself!

And throughout all the guinea fowl fun had with clots, blots, inky-font dots, and i-topping spots, readers of any age imbibe a subtly conveyed powerful message about how self-expression can be the root of self-fulfillment when it is not designed to merely meet public expectation.

(Guinea fowl fun fact: a group of guinea fowl is called a confusion!)

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This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

This One Summer CoverTamaki, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. This One Summer. New York: First Second, 2014. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction Graphic Novel

Summary: Every summer, teenage Rose and her family go vacation at Awago Beach. She can always count on collecting rocks, playing with her friend Windy, and having an all-around good time.

However, one summer…this one…everything changes and that changes everything. Rose’s parents are fighting, Windy is a little more immature than Rose remembers from last summer, and Rose’s mom is in an inexplicable funk. She refuses to go to the beach to swim, she shuts Rose out of the grown-up conversations, and pretty much ignores her daughter. Meanwhile, there’s a really cute guy working down at the corner store where Rose and Windy go to rent horror movies. He’s way too old, but he’s still really cute, and maybe he likes Rose…or has noticed her. Kinda. But the drama of the older teens hanging at the store takes a turn for the tragic, roping in Rose and her mother.

Critique: 2015 Caldecott Honor Book and 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor Book! Artistically, this graphic novel achieves a lot through its sophisticated treatment of texture, shadow, even sounds. Water acts and feels like water, despite being locked onto a two-dimensional surface. In one series of scenes, Rose encounters boys calling their girlfriends sluts. Naturally confused by the behavior, Rose tries to talk to her mother about it. But the conversation is swiftly shut down because her mom does not like hearing the word slut. But as they walk home, it’s all Rose hears in the whisper of her flip flops: slut slut slut….

A omnipresent sense of foreboding haunts nearly every page of the book. Part of that comes from excellent mise-en-scene, or the hints and symbols lurking in the “stuff of the scene.” For example: traffic and business signs litter the family’s journey to the cottage telling them to stop, turn back, don’t go on. It’s as if the background knows they are headed for trouble.

The text tackles many of the difficult issues facing girls and women. Body image. Puberty. Motherhood. Sexuality. Cultural expectations (What makes a “good girl,” a “good mother” vs what makes a “bad girl” or a “bad mother”). Pop culture representations (Why are girls in horror flicks the reason other people get brutally murdered? Why are girls portrayed as intrinsically stupid or helpless in those movies? Was the choice to essentially “decapitate” one of the girls on the cover of this book an homage to the horror movie genre?).

The authors payed special attention to syntax and punctuation in order to authentically create the adolescent tone of voice. In the opening, Rose narrates: Awago Beach is this place. Where my family goes every summer. Ever since…like…forever. It pays tribute to that evolving sense of self that makes every new utterance matter more than all the antecedents that came before.

In terms of storytelling, the book ends on uneasy footing. It is hard for readers to conclude whether any growth in the characters has actually occurred because the opening images pretty much match the closing images. Synthesis seems to have skipped this story. Rose and her mother gain a slightly less slanted footing, but only by accident, or hearsay. They still seem bound for a future cataclysm, some head-to-head, no-holds-barred fight, the outcome of which we readers will not get to see. And that’s a shame given the unflinching honesty author and illustrator devoted to the rest of the book.