Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (2015)

One of the cool things about the teenaged girls in my life having less-than-perfect organizational skills is that friends sometimes leave interesting things at our place rather than just piles of dirty clothes, shoes, make-up, questionable forms of former-food stuffs…

The other day I stumbled upon a graphic novel, Lumberjanes, the owner of which has apparently disappeared into the Black Hole of Lost Friendships. Perfect, I said: I can read that and pass it on to the Women’s Family Shelter, which is where old clothes and reviewed books from our house go to live a second (or third) life.

Lumberjanes

Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis; Illustrated by Brooke Allen; Colours by Maarta Laiho; Letters by Aubrey Aiese

I’d heard of Lumberjanes; in fact, I recall seeing it on a display table at Emerald City Comicon, but foolishly passed it by. A shame, really, as I could have got a special “Emerald City Comicon special cover”…

My daughter tells me that the novel is strongly feminist, and fun, but that really is not giving the cleverness its due. Adventures are had! Canoes are paddled! Inter-textual allusions are made! Stereotypes are overturned! Puns are constructed! Math is employed! Lumberjanes has something for everyone. Seriously. Or not.

I had to admit, though, that I was not sure if there was going to be any degree of humour as I began, nor was I sure there would be any disrupting feminist portrayals. The introduction is a very artfully constructed expression of an ideology strongly paralleling that of the Girl Guides of Canada—without the imperialist military history—and thus deeply normalized in my own experience of being a teen. The textual precursors to the graphic narrative in each chapter likewise seem to present the characteristic woodcraft challenges Girl Guides engage in (or used to) and the social and emotional development they strive towards. Sort of.

There is an underlying sarcasm to the tone of the Lumberjanes Field Manual that increases as the novel progresses. For the “Everything Under the Sum” badge, for example, Lumberjanes are expected to “map accurately and correctly from the country itself the main features of a half mile of road, with 440 yards each side to a scale of two feet to the mile, and afterwards draw the same map from memory.” She must “be able to measure the height of a tree, a telegraph pole, and a church steeple”; “to measure the width of a river estimate the distance apart of two objects a known distance away and unapproachable”; and “have a basic understanding of theoretical mathematics and the basic laws of physics.” (I wonder if this is actually taken from some archaic nautical test book?) The basic knowledge of theoretical mathematics, though, does turn out to be crucial. A bit of plot now to elucidate…

Lumberjanes Jo, Mal, Molly, April, and Ripley are infamous for sneaking off from their cabin leader, Jen, and getting into trouble. At first, on their “Up All Night” badge, they encounter a pack of demon foxes with three eyes, who tell them to “Beware the Kitten Holy…” Jo picks up an oval metal disk, like a Celtic scarf toggle, that doubtless has a role the plots of future volumes of the series. We see this symbol again when the Scouting Lads become possessed by evil powers, but that is our only hint. In their “Naval Gauging” badge, the Lumberjanes encounter a river-monster (again with three eyes); and an eagle (with three eyes) steals their chocolate bar. In trying to retrieve it, Ripley inadvertently opens a downward spiralling tunnel, which she immediately jumps into because: Tunnel. Adventure. Lumberjane. Duh.

They find themselves in a cavern with no way out but forward. This is the crux of the story, and the allusions to other adventure narratives are beginning to be unmistakable. There are of course Mal and Ripley as names (and one wonders that little bit about Jo and Louisa May Alcott). Also the trope of the spiralling descent into the underworld, and the challenges to overcome to move forward. And Molly’s echo of The Emperor’s New Groove surprised aside when she leans against a lever in the wall: “Why is that even there?” The nature of the challenges themselves are especially familiar: arrows shooting across the tunnel triggered by a step, Molly reaching back under a falling stone door to retrieve her hat, and the maze of stone pillars crossing a chasm, with numbers rather than letters that need to be jumped on in the right order. And now we are back to the “Everything Under the Sum” badge: rather than the name of Jehovah that Indiana Jones needs to recall from his classical studies, the Lumberjanes must follow the Fibonacci series, in which, Jo tells us, “each number is the last two numbers added together: zero, one, one, two, five … All the way to infinity and beyond! [!] Or in this case, 233.” This is followed by Molly sorting out an anagram carved into the wall of the cavern, which leaves them, as in childhood games, “Home free!”

But tropes are also overturned: when they steal borrow the golden bow and arrows from the plinth that is significantly not booby-trapped like the golden head in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they considerately leave a note explaining that they will return it. And in their encounter with the Scouting Lads, gender stereotypes are flipped. The adventurous girls, battle-weary, with scratches and poison-ivy stings, are brought into the homey cabin of the nurturing Scouting Lads and given tea and cookies. The Scout Master, on the other hand, is the quintessential he-man. After lambasting the boys for entertaining “womenfolk,” he slams out of the cabin: “I AM GOING TO CATCH A FISH BY WRESTLING IT AWAY FROM A BEAR.” To which April comments in stupefaction “Wow…” and Barney replies in the language of teenaged girls: “I know, right? He’s the WORST.”

In a final Indiana-Jones-worthy scene, the Lumberjanes escape the now possessed posse of Scouting Lads and achieve their “Robyn Hood” badge, shooting the anchors of a rope bridge with their “borrowed” golden arrows. They are safe for now, but the evil Scout Master is rallying his troupes for volume 2, Lumberjanes: Friendship to the Max.

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Mouse Vacation (2016), by Philip Roy

roy-mouse-vI really like Happy the Mouse. He makes me… happy. It seems impossible to read Happy’s adventures without at least a giggle or three. I was wondering, when I read Mouse Pet, the third of Philip Roy’s Happy the Pocket Mouse series, whether the humour would be sustained; it certainly has been so far. In Mouse Vacation, the fourth in the series, Happy is bored and wants to travel; John, predictably parent-like, attempts to stave him off. As in Mouse Pet, Happy’s contemplation opens the narrative:

“We never go anywhere.”
“Mmmhmm?”
“We never go anywhere, John.”
“Yes we do, Happy. We go places.”
“No, we don’t, John. When do we ever go anywhere?”
“We went to the store yesterday.”

Planning the vacation, John says, is half the fun. So the two begin to plan. John suggests local nature outings; Happy suggests exotic destinations. Andrea Torrey Balsara’s delightful illustrations make all of the suggestions highly appealing.

Happy’s very-mature-child voice will be familiar to readers of all ages, his self-confidence both engaging and humorous:

“Do you know where our neighbour Mrs. Farrell went last year, all by herself? … Alaska. She went all the way to Alaska, John. By herself.”

You can just hear the derision in his voice: adults can be so dense sometimes. But Happy, in his näiveté, fails to understand the economics of travel to the Taj Mahal, New Zealand, or Egypt. The pair do come to a compromise: Happy is excited to go on an overnight bus trip to the seashore to see the tall ships; John is pleased as a bus trip is within their budget. The pragmatics that John has to consider are a real part of family life, and Roy gives voice to both the child and parent perspective such that Happy, like the child reader, will be satisfied and engaged, even if they are not destined for Egypt.

In Mouse Vacation, Happy the Pocket Mouse learns a little more about how the real world works, with an adult who is obviously loving and considerate. Geography, though, obviously still escapes him:

“Hmmm … Hmmm … John?”
“Yes?”
“Do you think maybe we can stop at the Grand Canyon on our way home from the seashore?”

Too adorable. I want my own Pocket Mouse, almost as much as I want a House Hippo.

Mouse Pet (2015), by Philip Roy

Roy - MouseShortly after I reviewed Philip Roy’s excellent Eco Warrior, a book arrived in the post from the publisher, reminding me of Mr. Roy’s diversity of talent. Mouse Pet is the third in a series of picture books published by Ronsdale Press here in Vancouver; I wonder if the others are as delightful as this one…

The first sign that Mouse Pet is going to be different is that it opens with the protagonist’s voice, not a narrator telling us, well, anything.

“John?”

“Mmhmm?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Mmhmm?”

“You know what I’ve been thinking, John?”

“What?”

“We should get a pet.”

We follow this conversation between the initially distracted adult John and his mouse child/friend Happy, giggling as we go. Roy has nailed the child voice. Happy is inquisitive, thoughtful, and logical in an absurdly childish way. For every brilliant idea that Happy comes up with, John has a legitimate adult rebuttal. It is not tenable, says the frustratingly realistic John, to have a goat in the city. Lola the stuffed goat, now, that might work. Until Lola wants a pet of her own…
 
Roy - Mouse_0001

Couple Roy’s cheeky story with Andrea Torrey Balsara’s bright, expressive illustration style, and you have a recipe for success. The illustrations, even more than the text, offer humour and a scope for learning. When Happy suggests they could move to a farm (for their hypothetical goat), for example, the illustration shows John and Happy in “American Gothic” cosplay.

Happy’s expression throughout is one of childish joy, or wonder, or puzzlement. Balsara’s drawings bring a liveliness to the already cheerful voices of John and Happy as they sort through the logistics of pet ownership. Happy’s innocent joy is contagious; this one will not get old.

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Boy Meets Dog: A Word Game Adventure (2013), by Valerie Wyatt

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.3.

Illustrated by Dave Whamond

Wyatt-BoyWhen I was in elementary school, our teacher would reward us for efficient work habits by giving out pages with fun, topical challenges: for Language Arts, these included word searches, crosswords, and—my favourite—word ladders. Valerie Wyatt’s Boy Meets Dog is a fabulous compendium of word ladders—short and long—each translating one word into another associated word. Thus a “cat becomes a dog,” “a house might become a mouse, and then a moose,” “tiny may become huge,” and “rain can change to snow.” The ladders range in length from 1 change (toy to boy) to as many as 9 changes (safe to whew). Together, the ladders tell a simple story of a toy becoming a boy, and his cat becoming a dog. The two travel through a childish adventure, short ladders to long and back again to the simple retransformation of the boy back to a toy: “But a dog is too loyal to change.”

More than just a story, Boy Meets Dog is, as advertised, an adventure in words. Children will love the excitement encouraged by Dave Whamond’s lively illustrations, and gratified by the fun and interesting language tricks they learn.