CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 16. . . .December 17, 2010.
Stargazer. (Volume 1).
Ottawa, ON: A Van Allan Studio Book (www.vonallan.com), 2010.
114 pp., pbk., $15.95.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Rebecca King.
Stargazer's story begins in a "prologue" before the title page. The main character, Marni, is struggling to deal with the death of a much loved grandmother. As they dress for the funeral, Marni's mother seems to be impatient with the depth of her grief,.
After the funeral, Marni's mother presents her with an odd-looking object about the size of a backpack that belonged to her grandmother, saying," I think she would have wanted you to have it ... don't break it." The object had been an important part of Marni's relationship with her grandmother, as is illustrated by photographs Marni has of her grandmother with the object. Marni's mother then disappears from the story-she "needed some space." Marni's father turns out to be her grandmother's child not Marni's mother as might have been supposed by her mother's presentation of the object. He makes an effort to be supportive and suggests that Marni have a couple of friends over for a backyard campout.
Enter Sophie and Elora. Sophie has hair the same colour (in the black-and-white illustrations) as Marni's and is distinguished by always wearing a checked cap and glasses. She comes from a family of Irish heritage and is dropped at the local folklore centre (more often after her grandfather's death) and is studying the pennywhistle, which her grandfather played. Elora has long dark hair and refers to always eating traditional Chinese food at home. The girls are sympathetic to Marni's recent bereavement and discuss how parents sometimes seem to shut kids out at such a time.
After pizza in their tent in the back yard, the girls share stories about special objects they have brought with them. Elora has brought a spyglass and a sketch book, Sophie has brought her pennywhistle, and Marni has her granny's thing. When all three girls touch the thing simultaneously, there is a blinding flash of light and the thing disappears. When Sophie leaves the tent to go to the house, she discovers that they have been transported to a different world with two Saturn-like planets hanging low in the sky and no moon and no big dipper. The girls cower in their tent until daylight, then pack up their things and, though fearful, begin to explore the strange landscape. They discover ancient statues of aliens and a "neat building" inhabited by a robot that becomes their companion. They then make their way to the river they had seen in the distance where a self-propelled vessel (which strongly resembles a Viking ship) provides them transportation down the river toward a tower where they hope they will find help in getting home.
Thus ends Volume One.
Had I found the plot of this book, Von Allan's second, more exciting, I might have cared that volume one ends just when something might be happening.
This book is a mish-mash of a girl trying to deal with grief, multicultural friendships, and travel to an alien planet. The author seems to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, things that an experienced reader knows will come back later in the story. The story seems contrived and heavy-handed. The girls seem to be cast as stereotypes: the Asian girl who never get pizza at home, and yet says "oy"; the girl with the Irish heritage sings folk songs for pages. The illustrations don't illuminate the emotions of the girls; in fact, their facial expressions are often inappropriate for the situations. The pictures are merely an inadequate substitute for description. There are times that an illustration can convey more than words can say on their own, but that doesn't happen here.
The characters are difficult to distinguish by their actions or emotions, or by their faces. Sophie always wears a hat and glasses, but her hair appears the same colour in the black-and-white illustrations as Marni, who almost always has freckles, and Elora has dark hair, but the girls' facial expressions are always similar. When the mother, who had appeared in the prologue, reappears to give Marni the "thing", her actions were so different I assumed on first reading she was an older sister. Their faces are almost identical, including Marni's distinguishing freckles. In fact, their two faces are almost identical to the grandmother's face, complete with freckles as well.
Allan doesn't seem to understand or play with any of the conventions of graphic novels. His frames are extremely regular, and there is often almost no movement from frame to frame. In fact, on page 13, the two middle frames are exactly the same and include only eight words of dialogue. The characters move through a silent world; there a no sound words, no "biffs", "swishes", "ticks, "blatts", "tweets". There is very little movement, and Allan rarely uses the little lines that indicate action. There is no narration; we are given only the conversation of the characters, which unfortunately is too often just snarky and sniping. The girls move through a landscape where they wait for things to happen. They take few actions. Even their food is miraculously provided for them. Stargazer is an adventure story with virtually no adventure.
There are frequent continuity issues. On page 6, Marni's skirt changes pattern between the left and middle frames in the bottom row. The bed in Marni's room changes position- from sticking out into the room to being along the wall from page 8 to page 13. Hearts appear and disappear from the same section of panelling/wallpaper in Marni's room, pages 14 and 15. The trees outside the "neat building" change from thick trunks to willow-thin branches in different frames of pages 47 and 48. Sophie's hat changes from cross-hatched to diagonal stripe and back again twice on pages 60 and 61.
Beyond the continuity issues are issues of logic. The "Viking" ship has, when it first appears on page 61, a sail filled with a breeze, which would have made it impossible for the girls to move it away from the dock, and it has room below decks for the characters to stand up straight yet floats in water that is only ankle deep on the characters (page 69). Marni finds a sword that "needs a good polish to shine it up", but light glints off the blade (page 67).
Allan's use of diagonal stripes and checkerboard patterns is heavy-handed and annoying. One wall of the interior of the tent, pages 16, 17, is diagonally striped, as is the hallway outside Marni's room, page 12. A strong checkerboard-patterned blanket dominates two frames on page 59 and reappears in the sail of the "Viking" ship, page 61. Some of these attempts to supply texture to the backgrounds might have been mitigated by the use of colour. Today, when classic graphic novels, such as "Bone" and the "Usagi Yojimbo" series are being reissued in full-colour versions, it is a shame that a new graphic novel doesn't take advantage of improved printing techniques to appear in colour.
I don't always trust my initial opinion of a book; sometimes I am too charitable or too harsh. Consequently, I frequently like to test books, especially short ones, with other readers. placed Stargazer with three other readers: one 28-year-old who has been a fan of Manga and YA fantasy, one grade nine student who reads the "Bone" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, as well as more serious YA novels, and one very advanced reader from grade 4. Their response was similar-a nose wrinkle and a "meeh". While not exactly hating Stargazer, they did not recommend it for others. Note: the 28-year-old is my daughter, and the more we discussed the book the more we both disliked it.
From reviews of Allan's previous work,the road to god knows..., I expected a more serious storyline than appears here. Aside from the funeral at the beginning and the shadowy figures who appear to Marni at night, we have an attempted adventure story that fails to connect with this reader. A final question might be "If there were no pictures would you think it was a good story?" In this case, the pictures are not strong enough to redeem the weak story line.
Rebecca King is a Library Support Specialist with the Halifax Regional School Board in Halifax, NS.
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