Roundabout three years ago I was at an American Library Association conference, trolling the aisles of the convention center for goodies. As always, I kept one eye on the comic aisle, hoping to see something new and different. And there, right smack dab in the center, was this guy. This Jimmy Gownley fella, who not only talked up his self-published graphic novel series Amelia Rules! like it was the second coming of Charles Schultz, but actually handed me the first three books in the series free of charge! No questions asked. I devoured them in the hours before my flight back to New York and found them to be sterling companions. There’s a lot going on in this little series, in terms of plot, graphic choices, and innate humor. Now plucked up by big publishing sugardaddy Simon & Schuster, Gownley has a chance to get Amelia into the hands of more than just librarians. And the first book in the series will probably sell itself anyway. Because if there’s one thing kids like, it’s reading about other kids. Weeeeeird other kids.
Amelia’s new to town. Her parents recently split up and so she and her mom have had to move in with Amelia’s hip, young, musical Aunt Tanner. Things aren’t so bad, really. She’s already become friends with Reggie and his buddy Pajamaman. Then there’s Rhonda, who Amelia professes to hate and who carries an unrequited torch for Reggie. With her friends by her side Amelia tackles everything from tag to school to zombies to Santa. But at the heart of everything she misses her dad, and a camping trip with him shows that the two have a lot of work ahead of them but they’re probably going to be okay. Funny and thoughtful by turns, Amelia’s sure to win some fans, and supply some much needed Calvin and Hobbes-type antics to the shelves of homes and libraries everywhere.
One thing Gownley gives you right off the bat? Plenty of content. Don’t get me wrong, I love kids’ graphic novels like Jellaby and the like, but that’s a GN that most kids can devour in less than 20 minutes. The Amelia Rules! books, however, are long, lengthy affairs, chock full of plots, subplots, callbacks, and storylines where the characters learn and grow. The books may look slim, but just open the book randomly to any page and you’ll see tons of panels and a plethora of words that somehow remain fulfilling without bogging down the story. Gownley has figured out how to pack in the wordplay and still keep the story moving at a clip. And when you consider that each section begins and ends with Amelia talking directly to the reader, that takes some skill.
Looking at how Gownley organizes each page can be informative. It isn’t so much that he changes the point of view and the size of his panels (though he certainly does that too). But the book is apt to go in a million different directions all so that it can advance the story. When Reggie tells weird tales, they’ll sometimes become selections where the images are drawn on graph paper. Comic pauses where nothing is said for a full panel are used to good effect. Plus there are a million tiny details you can catch if you reread each section. I’ll admit that it took me three or four times of going over this book before I realized that Pajamaman’s pajamas tend to show images of what he’s thinking or feeling. Much of the art has been created on the computer, but it’s impossible to say if it’s just the backgrounds and colors or the figures themselves.
It’s got an adult sensibility to it, no question. Kids’ll dig it, but Tanner’s song lyric quotations will definitely sail over their heads. That’s okay. Kids don’t need to get every reference in a book. Unfortunately, there is one aspect of the series that may not bode well for its future. It’s the one element that holds "Amelia Rules!" back and belies the Peanuts comparisons it gets: the use of pop culture. Since this first book originally came out in 2006, the humor has already become dated three years down the road. First there are the mentions of Ann Coulter, P. Diddy, Celine Dion, and the like. Then there are references to things like Cabbage Patch dolls and Raggedy Ann, which no self-respecting child in this day and age recognizes anymore. Consider these bizarre droplets of soon-to-be dated material the only real flaw in an otherwise sterling series.
As a kid, I would have been all over these books. They have exactly what I always wanted in my comics. A regular cast of friends. Slightly fantastical elements that never get too out of hand. Continuing storylines. And I love that Rhonda, the girl who is supposed to be Amelia’s archenemy, is able to come off as sympathetic and human multiple times. In fact, Gownley isn’t afraid to make his main character dislikable once in a while. It keeps things interesting. The whole series is interesting. I’d change things, sure. But Gownley seems pretty comfortable with this world he has created, and kids will go along for the ride. A book that owes its existence to a lot of comics already out there but that is clearly its own beast in the end. Fun. Pure and simple.
On shelves now.
Other Online Reviews: Kidsreads.com
The cool thing is that the book has sort of become a stage musical already. A Very Ninja Christmas can be seen in bits and pieces here. I’ve selected this video since the song is pretty good, in spite of the crappy quality of the video recording itself.
See Mr. Gownley talk about how Amelia came to be for yourself. There’s this one from Geeks of Doom . . . .
And finally, there’s this one from Simon & Schuster: