Friday, February 13, 2009

Review - The Fog Mound

Review Contributor: Tanya of www.books4yourkids.com



If your kids love the hilarious Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney, they will love this new series The Fog Mound by Susan Schade and Jon Buller.

The Fog Mound series by Susan Schade and Jon Buller, bills itself as part graphic novel (a comic books for adults - longer plot, less silliness), part heroic fantasy, and an adventure like no other! And it is all true! I LOVE this book!

A week of books with squirrels as main characters - realistic squirrels, cartoonish squirrels, villainous quasi-medieval squirrels - has lead me here to Travels of Thelonious and one spectacular chipmunk. I'm sure it's obvious, but I have to point this out anyway - Thelonious Chipmunk -  Thelonious Monk - get it?!? Maybe I love this book so much because the first jazz album I ever bought was Thelonious Monk's Greatest hits when I was in high school, or maybe because there is a frozen scientist character who resembles the Buddha statue in the garden, or maybe because there is a porcupine named Fitzgerald who owns a bookstore in the City of Ruins. Or maybe because, above all else, this book is such a brilliant blend of words and pictures along with creative new characters and plots that it stands out among all the other books I have read lately. And, while I love this book to pieces, I am going to spend most of this review talking about the innovative blending of genres and just a paragraph on the actual plot. The story line is fabulous and the book was hard to put down, but because it is a relatively short book and I don't want to reveal much more than the unique setting and delightful characters.

As I mentioned in my review of the graphic novel, Rapunzel's Revenge, the first graphic novel I ever read, I am not a fan of comic strips or comic books. And, while I enjoyed Rapunzel's Revenge, I haven't been perusing the shelves looking for another graphic novel or manga to read since finishing it. However, I am happy to say the Travels of Thelonious, which tells the story with chapters that alternate between 5 - 10 pages of graphic novel and 5 - 10 pages of text with illustrations, strikes the perfect balance of visual and textural for me. And, of course, the illustrations, all in blue, black and white, are completely engaging. As I was reading, I would share parts of the story that made me laugh with anyone nearby and was thrilled when my four year old son, who still doesn't have the patience or attention span for me to read chapter books out loud to him, climbed into my lap more than once to hear what was going on with Thelonious, Fitzgerald, Olive and the velocicopter.

In an earlier post I wrote on The Problem with (Some) Boys Books I referenced an article discussing boys, books and reading that suggested that boys learn to read later than girls on average, take longer to read a given text and generally are born with smaller language centers and larger spatial centers than girls and thus are more visual in their tastes. This makes graphic novels the perfect choice for them, however, if they are anything like me they may need to get their feet wet a little bit before jumping into the genre whole heartedly.  The Fog Mound Series is the perfect way to do this, and it might also be a way to keep one foot planted in the world of traditional books and reading as well.

Now, to the story itself!  Thelonious is a chipmunk living on his own in the Untamed Forest, which is inhabited by speaking and non-speaking animals. He is in possession of a postcard with a picture of a skyscraper on it, however,  to the animals of the forest, humans and their creations are the stories of myths since none of them have ever ventured out of the forest and seen where humans once lived and the creations they built. During a storm, Thelonious' house is washed away and he is carried downstream to the City of Ruins. There he sees a scavenging bear, encounters a shady lizard and a helpful porcupine. Somehow, the three of them end up airborne and headed to the Fog Mound of the title, but not without a few bumps and detours first. I won't say anymore because the pictures tell so much of the story and provide so many details to the characters and their environment, and the plot twists are so great, I want readers to be able to discover them on their own. But, there are a few mysteries presented that do not get answered in the first book, such as:  what happened to the humans, what happened to Ragna and Ruby, Olive's sisters who also ventured off the Fog Mound, and what's up with Bill the frozen scientist, why does he look so blissful and why has he shrunk?  Look for some of these answers in books 2 and 3 and maybe even 4 and beyond...

I should have known I would enjoy this book. I always love chapter books that have illustrations, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by remarkable Brian Selznick being foremost in this category (despite the fact that the bestowing of the Caldecott Medal technically classifies this book as distinguished picture book). And, I can't forget the book by the marvelously detailed illustrator and now author, Chris Riddell - Ottoline and the Yellow Cat.

While Selznick's book really is more of a picture book with lots of text and Riddell's book is more of a chapter book with LOTS of pictures, The Fog Mound books are truly chapter books interspersed with sections of graphic novels. During these parts, I often found my eyes speeding ahead, following the action, then returning to read the words. I'm not sure if this is how most people read graphic novels, but I have a feeling that this might be how boys read them, and maybe also why some boys begin to struggle with reading when they hit the age of eight or so - about the time when pictures in chapter books are less frequent, if present at all. If that is the case, I hope that Schade and Buller continue this fabulous series and unparalleled - thus far - genre of books for kids, and that other great writers and artists catch on and contribute their own ideas to this new territory in the world of children's literature.

And, above all else, I am thrilled to report that my non-fiction loving eleven year old son agreed to read Travels of Theloniouss to satisfy book report that required him to read an adventure book, read it quickly and happily. When he got off the bus and told me he had finished it I asked if he'd like to read the second one and he shook his head vigorously, "YES." Needless to say, we sped to the bookstore, despite the fact that I had just worked a full shift there, and boughtFaradawn, which he started reading in the car!

The first two books in this series, Travels of Thelonious and Faradawn are both available in paperback.  Book 3, Simon's Dream, is still only in hardcover.
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