Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke: A-

From the back cover:
Flung far across the universe, from star to star, faced with monsters, magicians, and maybe new friends… an Earth girl named Zita must find a way home.

I’m always impressed by children’s fiction that doesn’t underestimate its audience, especially stories with multiple plot threads that wind up stitching together in a way that’s both surprising and perfect. Holes by Louis Sachar is the best example of this that I can think of, but Zita the Spacegirl does an admirable job, too.

One sunny afternoon, Zita and her friend Joseph discover a smoking hole in a field where something fell to Earth. Despite fretful Joseph’s entreaties, Zita clambers down and discovers a big, tempting red button. She pushes it, as you do, and a portal materializes. Strange tendrils snake out and grab Joseph before the portal zaps shut. Though she flees initially, Zita is unable to leave Joseph to his fate, and so summons the portal once more, jumping into it herself. There’s no dialogue throughout this section, which employs some excellent nonverbal storytelling to convey Zita’s state of mind as she steels herself to do what she must.

She winds up on a strange world full of bizarre creatures and peculiar robots. Some are adorable, like the Miyazaki-esque grass-clod critter, and some are sweet, like the hulking and clay-like Strong-Strong, who carries her away from a robot altercation. In quick succession, she spots Joseph being whisked away, the button is stepped on, and she meets Piper, an unscrupulous inventor who offers to repair the button. After perusing a book of creatures (which contains an entry for “dozers,” which simply must be an homage to the doozers of Fraggle Rock) to identify Joseph’s captors, Piper points her in the right direction for a rescue and pretty much washes his hands of her.

Along the way, Zita is joined by a variety of creatures and encounters still more. First is Mouse, the giant mouse Piper travels with, but she later runs into a mobile battle orb called One, meets a rickety and timid robot calling himself Randy, and is reunited with Strong-Strong. All of these critters are loyal to Zita, who is smart and brave and emotive, and defend her against mechanized predators and turncoats alike. The plot is clever and satisfying, but it’s actually the bond between Zita and her friends that’s the best part of the story, and I was happy that she didn’t need to part with them all just yet.

Although I did like Zita the Spacegirl very much, a couple of things bugged me. First, the existence of how the button came to be is not explained. It’s powered by a missing part from Randy, so… did someone take that power source, affix it to a button, and send it to Earth specifically to transport Joseph? I think that they probably did, but it’s never outright specified. Also, One tells Zita she’s “many thousands of light years from home.” How does he know that? Does he recognize she’s from Earth? Are humans regular space travelers on this planet? What year is it supposed to be in Zita’s timeline, anyway? Probably these are the sorts of questions only a stodgy grown-up would ask so I should loosen up already.

Hatke’s art is beautifully suited to the story. As I mentioned, he does a terrific job conveying actions and character emotions through nonverbal storytelling, something I am always a huge fan of. All of the color is lovely, and he does some really nice things with light, from the warmth of a sunny scene to a brilliant beam in a climactic moment. Additionally, the creature designs are quite imaginative; I think I will always remember the little scavenger bot who emits a little heart when it spies a bit of scrap that suits its fancy.

In the end, Zita the Spacegirl is a thoroughly charming story that any kid would probably enjoy. Even better, the cliffhanger ending and author’s acknowledgments promise “many more” adventures for our plucky heroine. Count me in!

Additional reviews of Zita the Spacegirl can be found at Triple Take.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Foiled by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro: B-

From the front flap:
Aliera Carstairs doesn’t fit in. She’s invisible at high school. She’s too visible at the fencing gym. Aliera’s starting to wonder… where does she belong?

Tenth grader Aliera Carstairs has established a routine: go to school, go to fencing class, go home. On Saturdays she plays a table-top RPG with her wheelchair-bound cousin, Caroline. She’s exceptionally good at fencing, but that doesn’t seem to matter much in her daily life, the drabness of which is conveyed by the art’s uniformly greenish-grey color scheme (also indicative of Aliera’s color blindness). When a cute boy named Avery Castle transfers into her high school and is assigned as her lab partner, Aliera forgets the golden rule of fencing: protect your heart.

While Aliera begins to fall for Avery despite some decidedly odd behavior on his part, she’s also ruminating a lot on her new practice foil, a $2 find (complete with gaudy “ruby”) that has helped improve her skills. One day, as she’s waiting in Grand Central Station for a tardy Avery to show up to a movie date, Aliera puts on her fencing mask to protect herself from a dive-bombing bird and can suddenly see a plethora of colorful fantasy creatures mingling with the ordinary travelers. She must immediately dispel some kind of evil cloud with her bejeweled foil, learns Avery’s secret (spoiled by Jane Yolen’s thank-you section in the front of the book), and is told that she’s a Defender of the Kingdom of Helfdon, but must receive more details from a Slayer. Or something.

I would like to say that Foiled is a story about a lonely girl finding her place, except she doesn’t quite manage to do so. Instead, it’s more of a prologue to a story about a lonely girl finding her place. I can only assume a sequel will follow. Not that Foiled isn’t enjoyable on its own, however. Aliera is a wry narrator with a conversational style and, though I do not get at all why she thinks Avery is dreamy when he obviously enjoys dissecting a frog way too much, I can sympathize with her excitement that any boy, let alone a cute one, has finally noticed her.

My main problem with the book is the somewhat jerky pace of the narrative. Some scenes are a little too choppy, some scenes of bickering between Aliera and Avery go on a little too long, and at one point, Aliera asks Avery, “What was that all about—the rats, the green glass crown?” except we haven’t seen a green glass crown! I can only assume that something was cut and an editor didn’t catch this reference. The cliffhanger—we end with many unanswered questions about Aliera’s role as Defender—is also awkwardly executed; even just a little more resolution would’ve made it feel like Foiled had functioned like a self-contained story while sustaining a sense of momentum going forward.

If a sequel to Foiled is released, I’ll read it. Perhaps I’ll appreciate this prologue more when I can actually see where it’s headed.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The Color of Heaven by Kim Dong Hwa: C+

From the front flap:
Ehwa, now a confident young woman, finds herself in the same maddening situation as her mother: waiting for a man. Her mother hopes for the return of her roaming lover, and Ehwa, in turn, gazes up at the same moon as her fiancé Duksam, a farmer who has gone to sea to seek his fortune so that he can marry her.

I do honestly want to like The Color Trilogy. I like the idea of a mother and her daughter living together in a rural village in turn-of-the-century Korea. I like learning about food and traditions that are new to me. I like the detailed drawings of the landscape and, especially, the family kitchen. The problem is there’s just so much about the series that annoys me that I simply can’t like it.

The central plot of this volume is that Ehwa’s love, Duksam, has left town to attempt to make a living as a fisherman, and so she is left to wait around until he returns to marry her. Her mother is also waiting for her traveling salesman lover to stop by, so they proceed to have many, many conversations about men and how it’s the lot of women to wait for them. I’m not sure they ever talk about anything but men, actually.

I know that the limited scope of life for a woman in this time and place is historically accurate, and that for a mother to say, “There is nothing better in life than getting married” reflects a period where marriage provided the ultimate in protection for a woman. But still, I can’t help but get fired up by speeches like this:

After waiting and waiting, you begin to lose track of whether it’s the moon or the sun in the sky, and that’s when he comes in with a smile on his face. As soon as you see that face, all is forgotten and you begin chasing after his footsteps once again. That is the heart of a woman.

To be honest, I think a large part of my ire is due to the fact that The Color Trilogy is written by a man. If a woman wrote these things, I’d still be annoyed, but coming from a male author I can’t help but read such statements as downright condescending. Try as I might to view these attitudes through a historical lens, I’m simply unable to get over my knee-jerk reaction.

It isn’t only Ehwa and her mother who are obsessed with discussing men and women. Everyone in town gets into the metaphor that women are flowers waiting for butterflies (men) to alight upon them, and almost all of them talk in language that’s incredibly, ridiculously poetic. In an early example, Duksam says, “I’m going to head for the sea. The sea that’s as wet and salty as your tears, and as bold and clear as your eyes.” Now, I admit that I have little appreciation for poetry, but this sounds to me like something one would come up with as a parody of purple prose.

Every now and then someone speaks plainly, like when Duksam frankly discusses his fear of leaving Ehwa behind, which had me wishing for more of the same. All of the imagery and metaphor might appeal to some readers, but to me, I would’ve enjoyed The Color Trilogy a lot more had it been more straightforward.

I reviewed The Color of Heaven for this month’s Manga Manhwa Moveable Feast. More reviews and discussion of this trilogy can be found here.

The Color of Water by Kim Dong Hwa: C

colorwater-125The story of Ehwa, as begun in The Color of Earth, continues in this second volume of a trilogy. Like the first book in the series, The Color of Water is mostly about sex. Ever-curious Ehwa discovers some new things in this volume, often spurred along by crude scenes involving fields of phallic peppers or copulating animals. She also begins a romance with Duksam, a sweet-talking farmhand, and starts to understand her mother’s wistful feelings towards her own itinerant lover.

The first half of the volume is pretty listless, consisting mainly of sexual escapades interspersed with countless discussions between Ehwa and her mother in which women are compared to flowers. I singled these mother-daughter conversations out for praise in my review of volume one, but their talks have become so repetitive that now I find these same scenes to be downright tedious.

In the second half of the book, more of a narrative thread develops, as Ehwa and Duksam make some progress in their courtship and Duksam’s elderly employer decides he wants Ehwa for himself, heedless of her mother’s objections. Unfortunately, Duksam is another one that spews flowery language both literally and figuratively, so it’s hard to care much about his relationship with Ehwa.

Still, I applaud the series for not saddling Ehwa with the very first boy she ever liked and allowing her to meet and be attracted to a stranger. Of course, there is one more volume and the back cover promises a story of “first love and second chances,” so perhaps I’d do well to remember the old adage about counting chickens.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa: B

Ehwa and her mother, a young widow, live in the village of Namwon. Ehwa’s mother runs a tavern and bawdy local fellows often attempt to convince her to go to bed with them. When seven-year-old Ehwa overhears a couple of villagers insinuating that her mother is loose, she begins to wonder about the differences between men and women.

As the years go by, Ehwa matures. She sees firsthand how a man’s attentions bring out liveliness in her mother, and meets two local boys that catch her eye. Chung-Myung, a monk in training, returns her feelings but chooses his religious vocation over pursuing a relationship. Sunoo, a refined and educated boy, is polite to Ehwa but leaves town without a backward glance.

Stories of first love can be poignant and affecting if done right, but The Color of Earth unfortunately fails in this regard. The problem is that instead of dealing with Ehwa’s growing emotional maturity, the focus is almost exclusively on sexual maturity. From practically the first page, more time is spent on charting landmarks of sexual discovery—oftentimes rather crudely—than on any other aspect of Ehwa and her life.

Women are consistently compared to flowers throughout the book, and not in a way that is complimentary. A woman’s burgeoning sexuality is likened unto the bloom of a flower, and comparisons are made between the way a flower waits for a butterfly to alight upon it and the way a woman waits for a man to bestow his attentions upon her. Sometimes this metaphor is used well, though, as when Chung-Myung uses the camellia—a flower that blooms only in the winter and therefore never sees a butterfly—to make Ehwa see that it would be better if she didn’t care for him, as he must devote himself to his training.

There are two warring styles in evidence in the art, which features realistically drawn landscapes but almost cartoonish people. While this style works well for the cuter and/or cruder moments, ultimately it bears some of the responsibility for why the story lacks emotional resonance. It’s difficult to take Ehwa’s feelings for Chung-Myung seriously when he always looks so bumbling and childish.

The story does have its good points, the relationship between Ehwa and her mother chief among them. The volume’s final pages also ratchet up the drama, which may bode well for the second and third books of the trilogy. As it stands, though, this first installment is a bit of a disappointment.

The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, volumes two and three in the trilogy, will be released in June and September 2009, respectively.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.