I run a bookgroup for kids between the ages of 9-13. Like a number of American children in the 21st century, these kids have an overwhelming palate for good graphic novels. I can hand them Robot Dreams or Ghostopolis or Rapunzel’s Revenge, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the title, they devour these books in less than an hour and come hounding me for more. The market simply doesn’t exist to satiate their perpetual GN hunger. In fact, far fewer really worthwhile comics for kids come out than you might expect. For every The Secret Science Alliance there are twenty cheapo faux mangas ready to clutter up my library’s shelves. Fortunately, if you look in the right places you’re bound to find something new and interesting. Now there is nothing seemingly original about some of the aspects of Zita the Spacegirl. The storyline is familiar, the characters give you a sense of déjà vu, and the art feels very Matt Phelan/Raina Telgemeier-esque. That said, what author/artist Ben Hatke does well is dip into a wellspring of familiar ideas to bring us a new world that truly is its own beast. Zita earns her stripes. Good thing too, since your kids will undoubtedly be clamoring for more of her adventures when they get their sticky paws on this first.
Here are some basic rules governing meteoroids. Should you happen to find one in a field and should it happen to contain a device with a big red button, do NOT press that button! It would have been useful for Zita to take that advice when she found the meteoroid and device with her friend Joseph. Needless to say, a button was pushed. After creating an inadvertent rift in space, Joseph is pulled through the hole by a set of furry tentacles. Zita, daunted but intrepid, follows. Her mission? To find Joseph, wherever he might be, and bring him home. Along the way she befriends a host of strange characters like One, the battle orb with self-esteem issues, and Mouse (real name Pizzicato) a large rodent who prefers to communicate with short printed notes. Along with a couple others, Zita sets out to fulfill her mission. What she may find, however, is that while she wins her temporary battles, she may end up losing the war.
Children’s science fiction is only now attempting to slip into the shoes left by fantasy. The standard Alice in Wonderland / Wizard of Oz storyline where a girl finds herself in a new world and befriends strange creatures used to be the territory of your Wonderlands and Ozes. With the appearance of books like The Search for WondLa and Zita the Spacegirl, however, sci-fi now waltzes merrily in the same spheres. We’ve finally hit the point where girls can explore not just alternate worlds but alternate planets as well. I don’t know quite what to make of this. It is interesting to note that like her predecessors Zita does want to find home but we don’t know why. She never mentions her parents or friends. And after seeing all the cool friends and characters in space, what’s the lure of Earth? Hopefully this is something that will be covered in other books in the series. Otherwise, Zita’s ultimate goal is a little less than gripping.
Of course there are some pretty familiar looking figures in this book. Mouse is your large mammalian mode of transportation, like The Cowardly Lion or Iorek Byrnison. Strong Strong is your basically sweet but gigantic companion, like Ludo in Labyrinth. That leaves Piper as the character you don’t know if you can trust (your Han Solo, if you will), Randy as the coward who is more than he seems, and so on. I’m being facetious, but the fact of the matter is that while none of these characters are particularly new in terms of the storytelling, it doesn’t really matter. Sure they’re rote, but they’re reliable. There’s a reason so many storytellers like to use them in their books. And while I have seen them appear in lots of works of fiction and film, I’ve never seen them in a graphic novel for kids before. Not really. The Amulet books are a little too much like the series Bone when it comes to companions, and Jellaby includes only one lovable monster. I do get a lot of kids asking me to recommend books just like those, though. For them, Zita the Spacegirl is a kind of answer to a prayer. Even if the friendships are different, the exciting tone stays the same.
Ben Hatke has a style that at first reminded me of Raina Telgemeier more than any other graphic artist working today. It’s something about how he draws Zita. Telgemeier is behind books like the graphic adaptations of The Baby-Sitters Club or Smile. Then I thought a little bit more about it and felt that Hatke’s book felt a lot like the style of Matt Phelan, particularly when it came out his graphic novel The Storm in the Barn. Yet here the comparisons stop. In spite of the supernatural element to Phelan’s tale, both artists keep well within the realm of the realistic. Hatke, in contrast, has a penchant for combining the cute with the weird. He’ll throw in a realistic creature like Mouse (a Beatrix Potter influence, perhaps?) alongside Zita and her sometime manga-esque expressions. Throw in adorable critters along the lines of Walt Kelly (or, more recently, Jeff Smith) and you’ve got yourself a Zita. His landscapes are also worth noting, making good use of claustrophobic city dwellings as well as vast junkyards and sweeping vistas. I was particularly taken with how nicely he breaks up the action. Hatke isn’t afraid to include wordless sequences to set the pace, or to switch up the panel size and jump cuts when we’re in an action scene. Sometimes I did have a bit of a hard time following one fast-paced moment to the next (Zita gets on an elevator in one scene so quickly that I had a hard time figuring out where she was without the normal visual clues). But generally it works to the book’s advantage.
Yup. It’s fun. Fun is good. With any luck there will be more in the series too, so those of you who live in fear that the books will just end without reaching their natural conclusion will have to hope that Hatke will not leave you disappointed (I watched too many episodes of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon as a kid so I know that particular brand of disappointment). Still, if you have to take it on its own, Zita makes a pretty good series title on its own. This is definitely something you can hand to your kids, boys and girls alike, secure in the knowledge that they’ll take a lot of enjoyment out of the experience. A sweet tale.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
- Triple Take (Who makes a really really good point about “the default gender of the universe”. I wish I’d caught that.)
- 100 Scope Notes
- Read About Comics
- Waking Brain Cells,
- Charlotte’s Library
- BSC Kids
- Comic Book Therapy
- Kids Lit
- Pickled Bananas
- Perpetual Learner
- The Literate Mother
- A star from Kirkus
- Read some fun Zita webcomics here.
- Read the beginning of the actual book itself at Publishers Weekly.
- A fun piece by Hatke in which he explains about balancing his work with the homeschooling of his children. How does he do it all? “I just try real hard.”
- You can’t help but adore this piece he drew for Shelf Awareness. I love how he depicts P.G. Wodehouse.
- Some background information on how Zita came to be.
Video: And here we have a lovely book trailer for the title. Graphic novels do lend themselves to trailers better than most titles, I think.