Monday, August 04, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #216: Spiral-Bound by Aaron Renier

There's a kind of story setup -- I don't think it has a name -- in which characters who are specifically defined as children live independently, usually in a homey town or city of other kids. Most of the examples of these stories are for kids, of course -- childrens' books and graphic novels, TV shows, games like Animal Crossing -- and the point is obvious: it creates a world in which kids can be free to act, to control their own destinies, to define the stories and have their own adventures.

Aaron Renier's first graphic novel Spiral-Bound -- published by Top Shelf in 2005, several years before The Unsinkable Walker Bean -- is not a pure example of that form, since the town of Estabrook does have adults in it. But the kids of Estabrook have the kind of freedom and activities that kids in the real world never did have, staying out late to see rock shows, taking jobs at literally underground newspapers, and, inevitably, being smarter and more resourceful and wiser than their parents.

(That's the hallmark of this hybrid version: if there are adults in a world where kids have agency, the adults must be wrong, and the kids must show them to be wrong. And the adults inevitably are wrong because of their own hard-headedness and because they're too tied to the past -- only the kids can see the world as it is now, and find the ways to turn it into a newer, better world.)

Spiral-Bound tells the story of one summer -- not even the whole summer -- in the life of Estabrook, focusing on two young protagonists. Turnip is a shy and timid boy, an elephant. (As usual, the people of Estabrook are various animals -- I'm not sure if these kind of stories descend from Aesop or Richard Scarry, but I suspect the latter.) And Ana is a fearless, crusading rabbit girl. They each have friends and parents, but they're the most important characters, the central figures in the action.

Turnip joins the sculpture class of Ms. Skrimshaw, while Ana joins the staff of The Scoop, a newspaper of pseudonymous editors and reporters that works from a secret network of tunnels underneath Estabrook. And those two avocations throw the two of them, separately, into the biggest secret and fear of Estabrook.

You see, there's a park in the heart of town that's chained up and left entirely alone, because in its pond lurks a monster that eats Eastabrookians. (No one seems to know of anyone who was eaten, but the pond was emptied of its inhabitants years ago, and there's definitely a monster, which no one has seen clearly.) The adults are terrified of the monster -- so terrified, in fact, that they're willing to feed anyone to the monster that wants to open that park back up at all. (And the leader of the frightened, angry, conservative adults is of course Turnip's father.)

It all comes to a head in that park, by that pond. And of course things aren't quite as the adults think, and the kids turn out to be more caring and better than their parents -- because we all want to live in a world where each generation is that much better than the one before it.

Renier tells this story crisply, transitioning easily between scenes, and often leaving details implied rather than hitting every point explicitly. (A major sculpture from the class is destroyed off-panel, and we need to realize what happened from implication.) That makes Spiral-Bound an odd hybrid: it's probably too sophisticated and complex for a lot of the real kids the ages of his protagonists, but too kid-focused for most adults. Still, it's a great story for smart kids, thoughtful teens, and adults who aren't afraid to be a little childish.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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