Every now and then, I like to do children’s graphic-novel round-ups, and this very moment seems like a good time. There are several rather high-profile graphic-novel releases coming in the next month or two, and I’ve seen some intriguing new stories out there. So, let’s get right to it. I’ll start with some of the lesser-known ones, two that are both, in fact, inspired by or based on Norwegian folk and fairy tales.
Norwegian illustrator, comic book artist, and writer Øyvind Torseter is back with The Heartless Troll, releasing here in the States next month from Enchanted Lion Books but originally published last year in Norway. I always like to see what Torseter is up to (I appreciate the Moomin-like vibe of his artwork), and this new book—a contemporary retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale “The Troll with No Heart in His Body,” translated into English for this edition by Kari Dickson—is, all at once, fun, macabre, and beautiful. It’s over a hundred pages, a swiftly-paced tale of daring and determination, featuring Prince Fred on a quest to save his six brothers from the troll of the book’s title. The troll holds captive a princess, and when Fred meets up with her, the two devise a plan to find the troll’s hidden heart. Once it’s destroyed, everyone will be set free.
There’s a lot of humor here, despite the dramatic plot and frightening troll. (Please, oh, please, can Torseter always be in charge of drawing trolls? The heartless troll is a gorgeous, creepy, spine-tingling mess of line and shadows that will make your heart stop for a moment. Or two.) There are burping skulls, table legs made out of bone, and one very hesitant horse (Prince Fred’s). My favorite detail is the toilet paper dispenser next to the troll’s disgusting (and very tall) toilet, if you can even call it that. It’s dominated by a sort of sweet and swashbuckling humor, and the princess may need saving, but she’s just as resourceful as Prince Fred.
Eric Orchard’s Bera the One-Headed Troll is a beguiling offering. Orchard has said in an interview that this graphic novel is, in part, inspired by the troll stories of many Norwegian folktales. (Incidentally, he talks openly in the same interview about how the story was driven in some ways by his mother’s mental illness and that he created part of it during his own time in a mental hospital. That interview is here.) Bera is a pumpkin-gardening troll, living in a secret cove. Like Torseter’s tale, there are elements of the macabre here: The hideous mermaids in Orchard’s story—and you can forget everything you know about the way mermaids are typically portrayed—is worth the price of admission alone. When Bera finds a human baby, she must save it from Cloote, the former head witch of the troll king. Bera never asked for a life of adventure—she’s fine with the quiet life she has with her best friend, Winslowe, an owl—but she rises to the task and heads out to save the human creature. Orchard gives Bera’s dark, fully-realized world, in a primarily earth-colored palette, a glimmer of hope in her fierce devotion to helping the human. This may be the world of a pupil-less troll protagonist, talking rats, and depraved mermaids, but Orchard successfully captures what is universally human in this riveting story, which I hope is met with a sequel.
Ben Hatke is, undoubtedly, one of the rising stars of the world of graphic novels – and with reason. The man knows how to sequence a story with style and heart. He’s back with Mighty Jack, which is loosely based on the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.” This is the story of a boy named Jack, his mute sister, and their mother, who is single and struggles financially to keep the family above water. Because she must work two jobs, Jack is left at home during the summer, in charge of his sister. One day at the flea market, his sister trades their mother’s car for a box of seeds—she even speaks during the trade, which stuns Jack—and fans of Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series will delight in the cameo here. (Look closely, and you’ll also see in this book Hatke’s protagonist from Little Robot, but if you blink, you’ll miss her.) The menacing (to put it mildly) garden that grows as a result of these seeds wreaks havoc on Jack’s world in more ways than one, even with help from their bad-ass, sword-wielding, home-schooled neighbor, Lilly. What Hatke does so well in his books, one of many things, is establish an emotional connection between his characters and readers, and this is no exception. It’s clearly what is book one of a series, and I’m eager to find out what happens next.
The last two graphic novels I mention here won’t need any help getting any attention or buzz, as both authors are bonafide bestsellers. Jeffrey Brown’s Lucy & Andy Neanderthal hits shelves in early August and follows a family of Neanderthals. The story is filled with Brown’s entertaining, dry humor, but it’s more than just the story of light-hearted goofy family dynamics 40,000 years ago. Two archaeologists make regular appearances to comment upon the narrative and relay fun facts about that time period. Less narrative, more of a fun teaching tool, this one will appeal to history-loving children, especially those already hooked on Brown’s style, as featured in the Jedi Academy series and beyond.
Finally, my favorite of the lot is from the lone woman here, Raina Telgemeier. Ghosts, coming to shelves next month, is a compelling story of accepting change, coming of age, and dealing with impending loss. It features a character with cystic fibrosis, her older sister, and a town filled with ghosts – all wrapped up in a story that celebrates the Day of the Dead and explores what it means. It’s poignant, perfectly paced, and nuanced, featuring (as more than one of Telgemeier’s books do) the close relationship between two sisters. It’s unlike any other children’s book, graphic novel or not, that you’ll see this year. Readers won’t want to put it down.
Though this barely scratches the surface (it seems to be a golden age of graphic novels, huh?), here’s to a solidly good crop of brand-new graphic novels for children.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
THE HEARTLESS TROLL. Copyright © 2015 by Cappelen Damm AS, Norway. Copyright © 2016 by Kari Dickson for the English-language translation. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Enchanted Lion Books, New York.