Giants Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre (First Second, April 10, 2012, ages 7 on up) is one of my favorite books of the year. It does absolutely everything that I think a graphic novel for kids should do. For starters, the day it arrived in my house both my boys (8 and 11) read and then re-read it, and have enjoyed it multiple times since then. And I myself can't think of a graphic novel for kids I've enjoyed more (yes, even more than Zita the Spacegirl).
The story starts when young Claudette learns why her small French town has a wall around it. The XXXIL Marquis de Mont Petit Pierre set out one day to kill the "Baby-Feet Eating Giant" who was terrorizing the town....but instead of slaying the giant, he came home and built the wall to keep everyone safe inside. Claudette is outraged, and, afire with heroic dreams, she decides to slay the giant herself!
She is not deterred by the fact that her father, the town's blacksmith, lost both legs and an arm in an encounter with a dragon, nor does she pay much attention to the wise words of her father's colleague, Zubair--"Most monsters can be reasoned with. They do not wish to die." (page 22). Nope, Claudette just wants to SLAY! and become a hero.
So Claudette convinces her best friend, Marie, the daughter of the current Marquis, who dreams of being a princess, and her little brother, Gaston, a rather timid child who aspires to twin careers as a sword maker and a master chef, to set out with her to find and slay the giant.
Their path to the giant's mountain is filled with magical obstacles--which are overcome thanks mainly to Marie and Gaston. But when they find that Claudette used some underhand rhetoric to convince them to come, they won't go any further. Claudette sets out through the dark and stormy night to defeat the giant alone. Until her own nerve breaks....and it's up to Marie and Gaston to convince her to take up the quest again.
And in the meantime, once the adults have realized the children are gone, they set out themselves (including Claudette and Gaston's dad, in his wheelchair). Amidst their somewhat bumbling incompetence, Zubair comes into his own as the only truly knowledgeable, powerful adult in the story.
And I'll stop summarizing right there, except to add one last little spoiler--Claudette gets the ending she wants!
The story was tremendously satisfying as a story--the introduction of the Danger, the Quest, the mischances along the way, and the final confrontation taking a pleasing twist. But what made me love this one is the characters, who defy the expectations and normative categorizations most beautifully.
Marie wants to be a princess, and Claudette, tomboy though she is, is a supportive friend, agreeing to be a lady-in-waiting. Being a princess, in this book, is a little bit about frivolous things, but Marie is not dismissed as vapid. Instead, she gets to use her intelligence to save the trio from a very sticky situation, and by the end of the book, she's considering become a diplomat. For girls who want to be heros, but like dresses, and know that sword-fighting is not a possibility, Marie is an empowering character.
Gaston is timid, and starts at shadows, but is forced to be incredibly brave to save the others--fairly standard. What is less typical is his burning interest in haute cuisine, celebrated by the other characters, combined with a longing to learn the craft of sword making at his father's side.
And as for Claudette--she is, to a large extent, the stereotypical tom-boyish girl who wants to be a warrior, but that stereotype ends up being subverted--violence is not the answer to this particular problem.
It's all summed up rather nicely in this extra strip, from the book's website:
The character who most intrigued me, though, is Zubair. At first I thought he was simply the assistant to Claudette's blacksmith dad, but by the end of the book it became clear that not only was he incredibly strong--he carried Claudette's dad's wheelchair up a mountain-- he was incredibly wise, knew more about magic and monsters than anyone else in the book, and obviously had a whole tremendously interesting back-story. And although it strays perhaps too close to the cliche of the Mysterious Exotic Other, I was pleased to see that this most puissant of all the characters was black.
The creators, in subtitling their website The Chronicles of Claudette, do suggest the possibility of other books about Claudette and co.--and indeed, even though the threat of the giant is no longer an issue, if I lived in Claudette's town, I wouldn't be in a hurry to take the wall down. There are things out there that I would be very wary of indeed....
The pictures were tremendously appealing (apart from my own dislike of boys drawn with little hair, ala Gaston), and they were clearly drawn, and worked well with the story, such that even a reader who is somewhat graphic novel challenged (ie me, because I am use to reading fast fast fast which doesn't work with pictures) found it all pleasing and easy to follow. Here's a sample:And here's an inking demo from Rafael Rosado.
Anyway, I loved it and my boys love it and I bet just about any kid of upper elementary school age would enjoy it too. In my ordering of graphic novel readers by age of reader, I'd slot it just before Zita, which in turn goes just before the Bone series, with Ghostopolis coming next (my 11 year old, reading this over my shoulder, thinks Bone would go before Zita. I think he's wrong).
Other reviews: 100 Scope Notes, Paige in Training, Musings of a Librarian, and Indie Comic Review
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher