Look, I hate to burst your bubble but not every picture book illustrator born is necessarily cut out to write his or her own graphic novel. It’s an entirely different set of muscles, after all. Melding text and image well enough to sustain a story means having a firm grasp of what does and does not work as a comic. So I know you might have gotten all excited when you heard that Don Wood had written a graphic novel, but don’t be happy because a great Caldecott-winning illustrator has dipped his toe in a new format. Be happy because the man is good at it. Crazy good. He may have amused you with King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub or entertained your children with his The Napping House but sister you ain’t seen anything like to compare to his breathtakingly beautiful Into the Volcano. The past ten years have seen incredible strides in graphic novels for children. Into the Volcano appears to be the next logical step in the process. A full-color adventure with double crosses, death-defying escapes, and personal growth, it has no equal.
The Pugg brothers Duffy and Sumno are just sitting in their classroom in the dead of winter one moment and the next they’re being whisked off to the island nation of Kocalaha. It seems their Aunt Lulu has been longing for a visit from her nephews and Duffy, for one, is thrilled. Sumno’s far more reticent and likely to complain, a quality that doesn’t serve a person well in Kocalaha. Soon they meet their cousin Mister Come-and-Go who disappears and reappears without a warning. They meet the beautiful Pulina, her boyfriend Kaleo, and Mango Joe, a fellow in the witness protection program. But not all is right on this beautiful island. Why won’t Auntie let the boys talk to their dad on the phone? Why is everyone so gung-ho certain that the boys should go on this “expedition” that they’re told is done for all the tourists but seems to mask a sinister plan. Before Duffy and Sumo know it they’re dodging lava streams and spelunking in dangerous territory. But in a world where no one is what they seem, people of seeming weakness can find the strength to do what must be done.
I’ve been saying for a while that at some point an artist is going to create a graphic novel so visually stunning that the American Library Association will either have to start handing Caldecott Medals over to comic books or create an entirely new award for them. We’ve come close in the past. Mouse Guard was beautiful, but the story didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. The Arrival would have been ideal, but the book wasn’t originally published in America. Into the Volcano, though… now here’s a title with potential. The entire enterprise is so lush you find yourself just poring over the images for long periods of time. Honestly, I could see a real push put to have this considered as the very first graphic novel worthy of a major children’s award. Yet in many ways, it may come down to the way in which it was drawn. According to Scholastic’s press material, Mr. Wood drew AND colored this entire enterprise on the computer. No fully computer created children’s book has ever won a Caldecott, and perhaps none ever will. If there was a candidate, however, this would be it.
At the beginning I found Wood’s boy heroes off-putting. With their snub noses and blunt faces, they resemble nothing so much as a pair of kids that could have jumped out of a Maurice Sendak book. Maybe We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. Wood utilizes the grotesque in a variety of ways. Sumno is a dislikeable character in a lot of ways so the book makes him the more unattractive of the two, both personally and physically. Aunt Lulu’s sheer mass, weight, and injured foot will focus on her entirely one moment and then close in on her long grotesque toenails. Yet everything that I initially found off-putting in this book eventually grew on me. My resistance must have fallen apart entirely when I got to Chapter Seven: Lava in the Water. Trust me.
It takes skill to build the kind of excitement and tension Wood conjures up here. I wish I could get a sense of what comics Mr. Wood looked at before writing Into the Volcano. He’s said in the past that he’s a Carl Barks fan, but that doesn’t explain what I see here. How did he learn to draw these action sequences? Who were his other influences? His references? Because when push comes to shove and people are fighting nature (lava, earthquakes, tides, and waves) you can’t help but be sucked in. Reading Into the Volcano you have no sense that this is the man’s first book of this kind. Clearly there are years and years of work in this pup. The biography in the back says five. It shows.
And take a close look at Wood’s style here too. The sheer range of artistic styles and impressions… I mean this man has scope. There’s a weight and a breadth to his art that we just haven’t seen in graphic novels for young readers before. And just look at his ability to play with light and textures. As one of a million examples, take a close look at the sequences where the small boat is trying to navigate the rapids past streams of hot lava. Wood has managed to draw or illustrate the effect of hot orange light beneath water and steam. Now look at Aunt Lulu in all her full fleshy glory. You can practically feel her sweat and smell her moist possibly perfumed body. I mean this woman has a physical presence that seems to extend beyond the page. And look at how he changes angles in his panels. We’re constantly looking at each scene from every possible viewpoint. It’s as if Wood had a camera and he’s using it to swing around his action, now below in the water, now up above.
I should probably talk about the story too, eh? Certainly Into the Volcano hits on all cylinders in terms of visuals but how does the writing itself stand up? Well, it’s complicated. The story concerns the boys Sumo and Duffy and we watch as Duffy accepts and enjoys everything new while Sumo cowers and questions. For much of the first half Duffy is clearly the stronger, braver kid but as time goes on Sumo’s suspicions appear to be well founded. Some younger kids may have a hard time figuring out who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy from moment to moment. Sometimes you think you’re rooting for the heroes and the next minute they appear to be villains. The plot requires a close reading, but it holds up (particularly on subsequent re-readings, which is crucial). In a way, this title is perfectly positioned to appeal to younger kids in terms of its danger and heroes and to older kids who need a complex story to bite into.
I’m the kind of person who wants to label everything. To slot every book into a neat little category, even if I didn’t know the category existed before I read the book. For example, name me the greatest children’s book out there about volcanoes. They exist. I know they do. But until now I’ve not seen or read a book that really worked factual information with a breakneck plot as seamlessly as Into the Volcano. And more to the point, I’ve never seen a graphic novel written with a child audience in mind that was as out-and-out beautiful and gripping as this puppy here. Read it cover to cover and you will find a title like no other that is sure to make a few waves when it hits bookstore and library shelves. A true original.
Notes on the Cover: An interesting choice. They could have opted for one of Wood’s volcanic views, but instead they’ve decided to make it very clear that this is a graphic novel right from the start. By placing panels right front and center on the cover they’re essentially declaring loud and proud that this is a comic book and devil take the consequences. I can’t think of another children’s gn that has done the same. Yet another example of publishers openly embracing the genre.
Other Blog Reviews: Educating Alice, A Year in Reading, and The SF Site