Wandering Son 1 by Shimura Takako: A

Book description:
The fifth grade. The threshold to puberty, and the beginning of the end of childhood innocence. Shuichi Nitori and his new friend Yoshino Takatsuki have happy homes, loving families, and are well-liked by their classmates. But they share a secret that further complicates a time of life that is awkward for anyone: Shuichi is a boy who wants to be a girl, and Yoshino is a girl who wants to be a boy. Written and drawn by one of today’s most critically acclaimed creators of manga, Shimura portrays Shuishi and Yoshino’s very private journey with affection, sensitivity, gentle humor, and unmistakable flair and grace. Volume one introduces our two protagonists and the friends and family whose lives intersect with their own. Yoshino is rudely reminded of her sex by immature boys whose budding interest in girls takes clumsily cruel forms. Shuichi’s secret is discovered by Saori, a perceptive and eccentric classmate. And it is Saori who suggests that the fifth graders put on a production of The Rose of Versailles for the farewell ceremony for the sixth graders—with boys playing the roles of women, and girls playing the roles of men.

Wandering Son is a sophisticated work of literary manga translated with rare skill and sensitivity by veteran translator and comics scholar Matt Thorn.

The main thing I kept thinking about while reading Wandering Son—beyond the continuous undercurrent of general squee—is how things that seem insignificant to one person can be secretly, intensely significant to someone else.

Wandering Son begins simply. Nitori Shuichi (the translation retains Japanese name order) is an extremely shy fifth-grade boy, and as the volume opens, he and his sixth-grade sister, Maho, are preparing for their first day at a new school. Upon arrival, Shuichi is instructed to sit next to Takatsuki Yoshino, a girl so tall and handsome that she’s called Takatsuki-kun by her classmates. They become friends.

One day, when Shuichi goes to Takatsuki’s house to work on some homework, he spies a frilly dress hanging in her room. Perhaps Takatsuki didn’t mean much of anything when she suggested that Shuichi should wear it, but it’s an idea that refuses to leave his head, despite his protests that he isn’t interested. He ends up taking the dress home and giving it to Maho, but its presence in their shared bedroom taunts him.

At this point, Shuichi isn’t thinking about things like gender identity. He’s ten! Instead, he’s dealing with processing the new idea that he could wear a dress and that he might even want to. Slowly, and bolstered by interactions with another encouraging classmate, he begins experimenting. First, he buys a headband. Then he tries dressing as a girl while no one else is home. Finally, when Takatsuki reveals her own treasured possession—her elder brother’s cast-off junior high uniform—he tries going out as a girl in public, with Takatsuki (as a boy) at his side.

One wonders what would’ve happened to Shuichi without Takatsuki to set the example. Would he have become aware of these feelings within himself eventually or been somehow unfulfilled forever? Her comments and her acceptance mean more to him than she knows, as he has a habit of internalizing things that are said to him. After an adorable turn in a female role in a drag version of The Rose of Versailles at school, for example, Maho conversationally notes, “You should have been born a girl.” Again, this is a concept that’s new to Shuichi, but one he gradually comes to believe is true. When his grandmother promises to buy him a present, he visualizes his female form and realizes it’s what he most wants. “Even grandma can’t buy me this.”

I had no problem seeing Takatsuki as a boy throughout, because of her inner certainty and obviously boyish appearance, but Shuichi was more problematic. The moment he confronts the mental vision of what he feels he should be, however, and realizes that he truly wants to be a girl, he starts to become one for the reader. By contrast, it’s shocking when the onset of her first period reminds readers that Takatsuki is biologically female. Though she mostly projects a confident air, her anguish at the undeniable truth that she is not really a boy is intense.

The story is subtle, simple, poignant, and innocent. The tone is matched by Shimura’s uncluttered artwork, which features big panels, little screentone, and extremely minimal backgrounds. These factors combine to make the volume go by quickly, and all too soon it’s over. While waiting for volume two, in which Shuichi and Takatsuki will progress to the sixth grade, I suspect I will have to console myself with the anime adaptation, currently available on Crunchyroll.

The first volume of Wandering Son—published in English by Fantagraphics—will be available in June 2011. The series is still ongoing in Japan, where it is currently up to eleven volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Castle Waiting by Linda Medley: A

castlewaitingBook description:
A fable for modern times, Castle Waiting is a fairy tale that’s not about rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, or fighting the ultimate war between Good and Evil—but about being a hero in your own home. The opening story, “The Brambly Hedge,” tells the origin of the castle itself, which is abandoned by its princess in a comic twist on “Sleeping Beauty” when she rides off into the sunset with her Prince Charming. The castle becomes a refuge for misfits, outcasts, and others seeking sanctuary, playing host to a lively and colorful cast of characters that inhabits the subsequent stories, including a talking anthropomorphic horse, a mysteriously pregnant Lady on the run, and a bearded nun.

Blending elements from a variety of sources—fairy tales, folklore, nursery rhymes—Medley tells the story of the everyday lives of fantastic characters with humor, intelligence, and insight into human nature. Castle Waiting can be read on multiple levels and can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

I check out a lot of stuff from my local library. Most of the time, even if I like something a good deal, I’m content to return it to them with the knowledge that I can check it out again if the desire for a reread hits me. On rare occasions, though, I encounter a book that I love so very much that I can’t abide the thought of not owning my own copy. Castle Waiting is one such case.

Originally self-published by creator Linda Medley, the series was collected into a very nice hardcover edition by Fantagraphics in 2006. The design is rather old-fashioned, calling to mind the story books of my youth, and something as simple as the inclusion of a bookmark ribbon contributed quite a lot to my overall reading experience. Each time I cracked open the book to my marked place I felt like Bastian from The Neverending Story!

Castle Waiting begins with a prologue called “The Curse of the Brambly Hedge,” which is a variation on “Sleeping Beauty.” Everyone is happy in the land of Putney. They’ve got a kind and wise king and the people and commerce of the town are thriving. The one problem is that the king and queen desperately want a child, so they seek the advice of a group of witches in the forest. An evil witch is angry at not being consulted and places a curse upon the babe, which ultimately results in the princess slumbering for a century, the castle being obscured by brambles, and the town being destroyed. A hundred years later, the princess is awoken by a kiss and promptly takes off with her prince, leaving the castle waiting for royalty to inhabit its walls once again.

In the meantime, the castle becomes known as a safe haven for outcasts and the real story begins when Jain, who is pregnant, flees her abusive husband and travels a long way to make it to the castle. Once there, she meets the eccentric residents who are immediately kind to her and extremely excited about the prospect of having a child around the place. There’s Rackham, the beak-faced steward; Dinah, the cook; Simon, Dinah’s oversized son; Sister Peace, a surprisingly fun-loving nun; Henry, the taciturn blacksmith; three old ladies who were formerly the handmaidens of the princess; and Dr. Fell, a reclusive physician. Missing from the gathering is Chess, a traveling knight, though he does show up later.

Life at the castle is peaceful, with only minor irritations arising in the form of a poltersprite infestation and a lecherous river spirit. Jain settles in and is eager to contribute, eventually taking charge of the castle library. When she gives birth—to a green, snout-nosed boy with a tail—everyone fusses over the baby. Adorably, this includes the poltersprites, who watch over him and keep him warm, and gruff Henry, who makes an elaborate ironwork cradle for the child but does not visit him, since he has not yet gotten over the death of his own son.

Everyday life ensues. Rackham and Chess make a supply run into town. Dinah and Jain decide to dye their hair. Henry finally holds the baby. Simon and Peace go fishing. Each of these anecdotes is far more interesting than one would guess. While no one appears to be hiding their past from any other, not much is said beyond hints until a spate of rainy days leave Jain pining for a story and Sister Peace ready to tell one. The final third of the book is comprised of Peace’s backstory, from her days with a circus to her life in a convent. It does drag on a little bit, but it fleshes her out incredibly well. One gets the feeling that a tale as involved could be told about every single resident, and I’m looking forward to learning more about them all.

Perhaps the best adjective I could employ to describe Castle Waiting would be “homey.” It’s all about the pleasures of home and the relief of being amongst family who accept you, even if they don’t happen to be related to you or even entirely human. As the book description quoted above attests, it can also be read on many levels. Taken on the surface, it’s a perfectly cozy and enjoyable story. If one decides to delve more deeply, themes of tolerance and equality can be found gently at work, though by no means do they take precedence over the characters.

Lest all of this sound a bit too quaintly domestic, let me assure you that the story is also quite funny. I giggled many times and even my husband laughed when I showed him a panel that contains a reference to The Ren & Stimpy Show. Alas, there are several other references that I did not get—the most confusing of which has to do with disappearing people leaving piles of oats behind—but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the story any.

With such a wealth of genuinely likable and intriguing characters, each with a story to tell, Castle Waiting seems to have the potential to go on indefinitely. I know I would love to read lots, lots more of it. In fact, even before I’d finished the first book I’d placed an order at the Fantagraphics site for the single issues that will, I hope, eventually be collected into a second hardcover for my collection.