Sometimes it feels to me that when it comes to realistic stories about learning and growing the comic strip world for kids used to have some serious advantages over the comic book world for kids. Used to be that newspapers provided the primary way most kids read comic panels. Then comic pages started to stultify, reprinting the same dull strips ad nauseam, often long after the original creators died. After that the newspapers themselves started to drop as people moved to online content for their news. Combine that all with the rise of graphic novels for kids as legitimate library-worthy fare and it’s a perfect storm. The comic strip is dead! Long live the comic strip! Bridging the gap between the past and present is Jimmy Gownley. If we take the idea that smart talking kids were best promoted by Charles Schulz back in the day then Gownley’s Amelia Rules! series is its natural successor. The difference between the two, however, comes down to change. Unlike Peanuts you can watch the characters in Amelia Rules! grow and progress with each chapter, even as Gownley himself grows and progresses as an artist and a writer. Now with The Meaning of Life and Other Stuff he lets his characters look back a little and reminisce about what it was like when they were younger, even as they step into their ever shifting futures.
Amelia Louise McBride. Child of divorce. Apple of her Aunt Tanner, rock goddess’s, eye. It’s been years since Amelia moved to Pennsylvania from New York and played superheroes with her friends. Now their old hideout has fallen to pieces, and there are other changes as well. When a member of the school cheerleading team gets injured it’s time for the alternate to take over . . . and that’s Amelia. Add in the fact that Tanner’s on tour and not emailing her back, the principal is riding her hard, she’s remembering past wrongs that need to be righted, and then there’s Joan’s father serving overseas . . . It’s a big year for Amelia this time. Give it this much, though. It’s never boring.
Gownley has said that he grew up with Peanuts and at first his series felt like an extended version of the classic strip. Since then, however, he’s created six more chapters in the series and one Christmas special. With each addition he’s gotten a little more serious too. One of the things I’ve always respected about these books is their serious undercurrent. Fears run rampant through these books, whether they’re fears of abandonment, abandoning, not being a good person, or concrete worries about losing a parent. On top of that, Gownley has a tendency to throw in Amelia’s thoughts on life, love, living, friendship, etc. in each chapter of this series. These ruminations have the potential to be didactic and postulating, but Gownley’s pretty good at tone. Understandably some books are better at this than others, but in the case of The Meaning of Life he seems to scale back the bigger questions by the end to concentrate simply on what one does when a friend is in trouble. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s sort of an answer to the title itself. What’s the meaning of life? Being there for the people you care about. Could be a cheesy message. Isn’t.
Each book in the series also steps the art up a notch. It’s consistent, to a certain extent. You wouldn’t pick up the first book in the series (The Whole World’s Crazy) and think it was from a different artist’s pen. That said, Gownley has more and more fun with borders, perspective, p.o.v.s, and so on with each title he writes. In this particular book he even manages to include the faded remains of scotch tape on some of the older memories, which I appreciated. The colors are done entirely on a computer, but in a good way. It’s not jarring. There’s even an odd section where Gownley tries his hand at some pseudo-manga, but the less said about that the better. Overall, you won’t have anything to complain about visually here.
Now seeing as how this is the seventh book or so in the series the question of whether or not you need to read them in order does arise. Heck, do you even need to have read a single Amelia book prior to this one for the story to make sense? On the one hand, the book does sort of stand on its own. Gownley provides a handy dandy cast list at the start for folks who may have missed an issue somewhere along the line (it’s not exactly updated, though, since some of the stuff listed there is out-of-date). After reading this book through I think I can say that you can read it on its own if you’ve read at least one or two Amelia books before, but don’t try leaping into the series at this point. For one thing, the physical appearance of Rhonda will completely throw you. At some point she did something to her hair and she now appears far less demented than she does in the book’s flashbacks. For another, this book won’t be nearly as satisfying as it is if you aren’t aware of some of the trials the kids have resolved. Reggie’s sudden interest in Rhonda, for example, or Tanner’s return.
I’ll admit that I harbor a bit of an Amelia Rules! addiction. I have a hard time not reading and rereading the series constantly. Partly I think that this is due to the quality of the books. Partly it’s due to how long and satisfying each one is (set aside far more than the customary 15 minutes for each one of these). For kids who love books like Smile and other realistic comics, the Amelia series is a must read and this newest chapter a necessity. A strong continuation of a beloved character.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Other Blog Reviews: Secrets & Sharing Soda
Professional Reviews: Kirkus