The French are different from you and me. They have better comics for their kids. Sure, America’s been doing passably well in the last few years, but take a look at the graphic novel shelves of your local library or bookstore and you won’t be able to help but notice how many of the names there sound distinctly French. Joann Sfar. Guillaume Dorison. Goscinny. The list goes on. While we’ve been frittering away our time with discussions of “New Adult” fads, the French have come very close to perfecting the middle grade graphic novel, and Ariol: Just a Donkey Like You and Me typifies that near perfection to a tee. School stories wrapped in the guise of animal characters, Emmanuel Guibert and Marc Boutavant have managed to create yet another GN that will be cluttering up our American shelves with its presence. And if we’re going to be honest about it, you’ll welcome Ariol with open arms. If the French keep producing books as good as this one, let ‘em. There’s always room for more.
Split into twelve short stories, Ariol follows the day-to-day life and small adventures of an average blue donkey, his best friend (a pig), his crush (a cow), and his friends. As we watch he and his best friend Ramono go to school, survive gym class, and participate in a disgusting but fun game. On his own Ariol contends with his parents, longs for Petunia (the aforementioned heifer), pretends to be his favorite superhero Thunderhorse, and plays pranks. Nothing too big. Nothing too epic. Just everyday school stories from a donkey you’ll love in spite of yourself.
It’s interesting to me how very everyday and down-to-earth Guibert’s stories are. In spite of the barnyard cast (complete with a talking teacher’s pet who also happens to be a fly) there’s nothing magical or out of this world to be found here. Ariol is sympathetic if flawed. His best friend’s a bit of a jerk, but for some reason you don’t hate him. His parents are well meaning without being pushy and his teacher’s put upon. In its review of this book Kirkus said it was “less vicious with the satire” than a lot of the Wimpy Kid type novels out that the moment. I’d agree, but that doesn’t meant the book doesn’t have bite. True it dares to get a little introspective from time to time (Ariol contemplating whether or not donkeys really are as stupid as the prejudiced say) but for every thoughtful contemplation there are at least two instances of characters sneaking fake vomit into their classmates’ changing rooms or nicking movie theater standees behind the backs of their grandmas. Let’s just say there will be plenty of stuff for uptight parents to object to if they really want to do so.
Author Emmanuel Guibert I knew from various graphic novels over the years like Sardine in Outer Space and The Professor’s Daughter amongst many others. Turns out, it’s Marc Boutavant who’s the surprise here. Not that I didn’t already know his work. It’s just that when you see a Marc Boutavant children’s book in America it inevitably stars big headed, wide-eyed children that seem this close to bursting out into a chorus of “It’s a Small World After All”. He’s . . . . cute. He does cute little books with cute little themes. There is nothing to indicate in All Kinds of Families or For Just One Day that the man is capable of giving life to a sardonic aquamarine donkey with superhero aspirations. Yet give life to Ariol he does. The art here is sublime. The style is just straight up panels. No messing with the essential design of the book or anything. Within these panels you can get one story from the text and another from the art. For example in the story “Moo-Moo” I got the distinct sense that the mother of the girl Ariol’s been crushing on was more than a bit aware of the boy’s feelings for her daughter. Little interstitial details make the whole thing fun too. I loved the tiny art at the beginning of each chapter. Some of it tells crazy stories, and others tell the story before the story (if you know what I mean).
The tales found here are universal in the best sense of the word. Yet like the Nicholas series by Goscinny (the series to which Ariol bears the closest resemblance) there is something overwhelmingly French about this book. I didn’t notice it at first. Not when the first story in the collection (“Match Point”) was essentially a one-donkey show of Ariol pretending to win a tennis match and become a rock star too while he’s at it. Not when the second story (“Rise and Shine”) compared the act of getting up to go to school with a person’s birth. Not when the furniture in Ariol’s living room looked more like something out of a doctor’s waiting room than a home. No, it wasn’t until we got to the chapter “Operation ATM” that it clicked. In that chapter Ariol engages in a raucous game of pretend in the backseat of the car as his dad drives. He leaps, he dances, he hides, he throws himself bodily all about and if you’re an American parent like me then you spend the better part of the chapter gripping your seat so hard that stuffing is coming out in clumps between your fingers as you growl through gritted teeth, “Where. Is. His. Seatbelt?!?” Kids won’t care a jot, but expect the parents to lift an eyebrow or two here and there.
Oh. And can I just give a special shout out to Joe Johnson for the translation here? Over the years I’ve come to recognize when a translator goes above and beyond the call of duty. I don’t think there’s a kid alive who will read this book and think the language is stilted or funky. Instead it reads like it was written in English in the first place. There’s only the most occasional slip-up and it goes by so fast that no one will ever notice.
In the end, a school set Animal Farm this is not. It’s just regular everyday stories with the slightest French lilt. American kids will gobble it up right quick and then hunger for more. New middle grade graphic novels are rarer in America than they should be considering their popularity. Here’s hoping funny imports like Guibert and Boutavant’s continue to make up for the lack we feel on our shelves every day.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Nicholas by Goscinny
- Amelia Rules: The Whole World’s Crazy by Jimmy Gownley
- Big Nate: In a Class By Himself by Lincoln Peirce
Other Blog Reviews:
- Free Comic Book Day interviews both Guibert and Boutavant about the series.