Giants Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre. First Second Books, 2012. Currently available.
Genre: Middle Grade Graphic Novel
Face Value: I love it. The whole terrific cast of child characters graces the cover, with Claudette front and center, taking the lead. I also love the title – we get a sense of the fantastical adventure upon which these young characters will embark. Also, if you look close, there is the shape of a giant emerging from the clouds – creepy but suspenseful!
I showed this cover to several friends, telling them how excited I was about this book featuring a young female giant-hunter, and they said, “But isn’t that a little boy?” We then launched into long discussions about Claudette’s androgyny and what that means for gender in graphic novels…but I’ll talk more about that once I get to the heart of the review.
Does it break the slate? This is the most tremendously Slatebreaking middle grade book I have read in months. It may even be my most Slatebreaking book of 2012 so far. Not only does it feature a brave, exciting female lead character, it also includes healthy female friendships, a strong brother-sister bond, and a respectful father-daughter relationship. Oh yeah, and the little boy character (Claudette’s brother, Gaston) defies gender stereotypes. So there’s a whole lot of Slatebreaking going on between those covers. First Second Books is really nailing it with the Slatebreaking graphic novel titles for young readers (they also published Anya’s Ghost).
Who would we give it to? Entire elementary school classrooms. I’m serious – this story features elements of the hero’s journey, includes magical elements that would fit well within a fairy tale unit, and I predict it would be a hit with reluctant readers. This is a book that both boys and girls will love. Although the leader of the child giant-hunters is a girl and there are dynamic female characters throughout the story, there’s nothing that marks this book as marketed directly “for boys” or “for girls.” Plus there’s lots of barfing, so that will win over young readers. When you’re a kid, few things rival the hilarity of bodily function jokes. (Ok, I admit it, maybe that’s the case for me still as an adult.)
Review: There is a giant terrorizing the town of Mont Petit Pierre. Most of the townspeople are content to listen to scary stories of the giant and then mutter their thanks for the big wall that protects them from the dangers of the outside world. Claudette, however, is fed up. If there’s a giant out there, then why doesn’t somebody just go out and slay it, already? Claudette is ready to take action, but she needs some help from her two closest companions: Marie, a princess-in-training, and Gaston, her painfully timid but culinary talented little brother. Her dog Valiant helps out quite a bit, too.
Claudette is a rollicking, energetic girl with natural leadership qualities. She has a knack for making adults and children do whatever she wants. She’s headstrong, however, and her tendency to act before she thinks can jeopardize her friendships. Thankfully, her best friend Marie is a very patient person. Although Marie desperately wants to be a princess and loves every minute of her finishing school education, she’s not just a pretty girl in a dress. Marie had empathy far beyond what Claudette can muster and she’s better at handling the emotional challenges of their adventurous journey. She’s also willing to go along with Claudette’s wild ideas, as long as she can still pursue her own royal aspirations. Here’s an example of an early conversation between Marie and Claudette:
“Hey, would you like to be my lady-in-waiting when I’m a princess?”
“Can a lady-in-waiting carry a sword and kill monsters?”
“Of course, but you must address me as ‘your majesty’ and help me braid my hair.”
“As long as I can still kill monsters, I’m fine with that.”
Sounds like a good compromise to me!
Gaston, Claudette’s little brother, is also a character that defies the typical depictions of little boys. He wants to grow up to be like his father and craft fine swords in the blacksmith’s forge, but he also has undeniable culinary talent. He wants to be a pastry chef, too, and serve his customers fine tarts along with the most artfully crafted swords in town. Unfortunately, his father disdains him and wishes he would toughen up a little. Gaston gets scared by any possibility of danger and then barfs his guts out. (Hence the barfing mentioned earlier. Don’t worry, it’s not gross. It’s usually just a picture of Gaston bending out of the frame to puke, accompanied with dialogue bubbles showcasing the appropriate sound effects.) Gaston has to faces his fears on their giant-hunting opportunity and has the chance to prove that he can be just as brave and resourceful as his sister, if the situation calls for it. His dad also begins to see that Gaston is more than just a wimpy little kid. There’s room for a lot more growth in that relationship, but we see the change beginning in this book.
Claudette is the ringleader of the three adventurers. And wow, is she terrific. She crafts a sneaky plan to get ahold of her dad’s top-secret map of the world outside the wall. Then she cons a guard into letting them through to the outside – something that no one is supposed to be allowed to do. Once in the wilderness, Claudette guides the team to the giant (with a few mishaps along the way, of course). She’s eager to kill the beast, but there’s a problem. He’s actually really sweet. It’s a baby giant, and he has no desire to harm anyone. He just wants some friends to play with! Claudette, Marie, and Gaston befriend the giant, but then they realize that the adults who chased after them don’t know how kind the giant is and will try to kill him despite whatever the children say. They stage an elaborate shadow puppet show that, from afar, looks like the flickering shadow of a battle between Claudette and the giant. The adults are convinced, and the kids go home heroes. It’s win-win for everyone.
Kids have the power in this story. It’s one of my favorite things about this book. Whenever adults disbelieve the children simply because they are young, the kids find a way to manipulate the situation in a way that works for them. They understand that the grown-up world does not value children as citizens, so they find their own ways to contribute and solve problems. It’s inspiring to watch these young characters tackle a problem that has the adults in the town so frightened that they won’t do anything about it.
I loved this book, but there was one major problem that I can’t ignore: Zubair, the “magical other” character. Zubair is a large black man that works in Claudette and Gaston’s father’s forge. He is the only character of color in the story, and he is a wise and patient mentor to Claudette. Before her journey, he hands her a little pouch of “magic” which ends up saving the day. He also appears again at the end of the book, wearing exoticized garb and watching over the children. It was nice to have a wise adult character watching over Claudette, but I’m tired of the “magical other” stereotype. Characters of color are used all the time as magical, exoticized “others” who step in like fairy godmothers and fairy godfathers to advise the white protagonist. This problem could have been avoided by including a more diverse cast of characters throughout the book. It stood out as an issue because Zubair is the only character in the entire book with dark skin. I really hope that in future books from this series we get to know more about Zubair and he moves beyond this stereotypical role.
This being a blog about gender in kidlit, we HAVE to talk about Claudette’s androgyny. I like that you cannot tell if Claudette is a boy or a girl just by looking at her. I find that the case with many kids – you can’t just assume gender because they aren’t developed enough to exhibit any of those secondary sex characteristics. However, in my discussions with others about the cover, we wondered if maybe this was a marketing ploy on the part of the artists/authors. Were they making Claudette androgynous so that both boys and girls would buy this book? It wouldn’t bother me so much if Claudette’s best friend Marie were so clearly feminine. I would love to hear reader feedback on this: do you think that Claudette’s androgyny was a character choice made for the sake of the story, or was it market-driven? Share your comments!
There’s just enough left tantalizingly unanswered at the end of the book that we are left eager for the sequel. If the giant wasn’t a threat, then what else is the wall keeping out of Mont Petite Pierre? Why is the marquis sending all of the guards out on patrol? Whatever happens next, there’s no doubt that Claudette, Marie, and Gaston will be ready to tackle whatever threatens their beloved town.
Reviewed from a copy purchased on Amazon.com.