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I spent the weekend reading big piles of children’s graphic novels, prepping for my Eisner judging duties. There were two that stood out to me for the same reason: They demanded more of the reader than just following along. While they are clearly intended for young readers, both are interesting enough to hold an adult’s attention and would definitely make good gifts for a child who will immediately demand that you read them aloud.
Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking, by Philippe Coudray (Toon Books) is actually just the opposite of what the title says: The bear is there, all right, but the thinking is anything but fuzzy. Each page is a little logic problem of some sort, and the last panel is often a little “Aha!” moment for the reader. On the first page, for instance, Benjamin Bear and a friend are having a fishing contest. The friend catches a lot of little fish and Benjamin catches just one big one—which disgorges a ton of little fish when he turns it upside down. In another, Benjamin takes his bird and his goldfish to look at the sea, and once they are underwater they switch places—the goldfish swims in the birdcage, while the bird is safe in an air bubble in the goldfish bowl. Each page has a little twist to it like that, some sort of puzzle or analogy, and I can’t help but think that reading it would make any kid smarter. The last page of the book even gets a bit meta: “I never read comics,” Benjamin tells a friend, “because I am a bear in a comic… So… when I read comics, the reader gets bored.” Coudray has a nice style, sort of a stepped-down ligne claire, with flat areas of color and less detail than, say, Tintin—which is appropriate, given that the book is aimed at first- and second-graders.
Beauty and the Squat Bears, by Émile Bravo, is a fairy-tale satire that manages to mash up a number of different conventions from movies as well as folk tales. The squat bears awake from their hibernation to find a princess banging on their door; she won’t help out with the housework, so one of the bears goes looking for a prince so he can get rid of her. It’s like a random walk through the Disney store after hours, with Cinderella, the three pigs, princes who are transformed into various things, and a snarky fairy godmother. Bravo (and the translator, J. Gustave McBride) keep the language simple, but the dialogue is snappy and snarky. This book thus demands two things of the reader: First, they must be familiar with the basic fairy tale canon, in order to understand the satire; and second, they have to have an ear for language, because the characters talk like smart-alecky kids. Bravo works with a simple four-panel grid but uses a lot of double-size panels, so he can vary the pace of the storytelling without confusing the reader.