Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you are a wonderfully successful author/artist of a New York Times bestselling graphic novel series about historical events. Hazardous historical events. Let us say that you want to do a new book. You have done fantasy before. You have done picture books before. You’re inclined to do a new kind of book. So what do you do? You create something in the science fiction genre. But is it a tame, average, everyday piece of science fiction? Not exactly. In fact, if I were to describe One Trick Pony by Nathan Hale to you, the only thing I could say would be to say that it is Road Warrior meets War of the Worlds meets Misty of Chincoteague. Don’t believe me? Well here’s the kicker. Those three seemingly disparate elements meld together perfectly. Mr. Hale, I’d say you did it again, but honestly what you just did has never been done before.
It was supposed to be a routine mission. Three teenagers are searching for some long forgotten bits of technology for their traveling caravan. We are in a future where things are bleak for the people of Earth. An alien species known as the Pipers has invaded and they’ve been gobbling up all our metal and technology with frightening speed. Strata, her brother Auger, and their friend Inby may have just hit the motherload too. In a hidden bunker they find an old robot horse named Kleidi and a cache of technology. Unfortunately, their discovery does not go unnoticed. Now they’re on the run from some particularly hostile aliens and roving bands of wild human clans, all in the hopes of recovering a single, magnificent robotic pony. A pony that may be the saving of them all.
At first glance you might think that One Trick Pony bears few similarities to Hale’s “Hazardous Tales” series aside from the art style and the Hangman-esque Inby, but look a little closer. When the review journal Kirkus covered this book they said that it, “blends adventure, aliens, an apocalyptic future, and folklore into an easy-to-read stand-alone.” You want to know how many pages it has in total to do that in? 128. Now I’m an old lady. I’m tired of slogging through thick tomes and books where the authors are incapable of speaking succinctly and to the point. After all these years of condensing such magnificently sprawling historical moments as WWI or the life of Harriet Tubman into his tight little books, Hale is now capable of doing the same for fantastical sci-fi epics. This book is genuinely thrilling, original, funny, and terrifying by turns. I dare say it takes skill to turn out something this short, sweet and standalone-ish.
When I worked for New York Public Library we would read as many children’s books as possible in a given year and then come up with a Top 100 list of titles. It was great fun, but over time I learned that there was one kind of book my NYC librarians would refuse to touch with a ten-foot-pole: This kind. Not science fiction epics (those are awesome). I’m talking pony books. Because let us face it, this book is a pony book at heart. Hale has a kind of weakness for ponies too. In Donner Dinner Party Hale’s comic relief Hangman character was positively obsessed with the fate of one of the character’s ponies. Here the pony may be metal but it’s as brave and self-sacrificing as any Black Stallion. In the pantheon of classic pony books, Kleidi the wonder robot deserves to be remembered.
At the beginning of my librarian career, around 2003 or so, I gave myself an odd little task. I decided to read every single English language post-apocalyptic children’s book ever conceived. This was long before The Hunger Games came out and dystopias were the norm. As it happens, in the 70s and 80s America experiencing a blossoming of freaky deaky books about the fall of civilization. So charged headlong into The Girl Who Owned a City, Eva, Noah’s Castle and so many more. Of course I’ve always had a penchant for alien invasions so The White Mountains series by John Christopher was a real favorite. Granted, it was probably one of the more sexist books out there but I loved the tentacled pyramid-shaped alien invaders. Christopher’s classic is probably One Trick Pony’s closest relative, in terms of sci-fi children’s book predecessors. That said, Hale’s book is clearly in a class of its own. The girls in this book fight and fight hard. The aliens are terrifying, no matter what they look like. And for a concept so simple (they aliens want our metals and technology) I swear I’ve never seen that particular storyline done in a book for kids before.
Kids who love graphic novels and science fiction often only have one single genre to pull from: space travel. Don’t get me wrong. Books like Craig Thompson’s Space Dumplins are amazing, and I can’t help but adore the futuristic conspiracy-theory title The Silver Six by A.J. Lieberman is a treat. Space aliens on earth are trickier. They tend towards the adorable, like Judd Winick’s winning Hilo series or downright goofy like James Kochalka’s The Glorkian Warrior books. If they actually go in for an attack it still leans towards the adorable, as in David Elliott’s Wuv Bunnies from Outers Pace. Creating something in the genre of science fiction that is serious and involves space aliens would cause your average everyday cartoonist to think, “series”. At least five books, right? Now here’s the kicker. One Trick Pony, as I mentioned earlier, is a standalone title. One. That’s all you get.
Now I’ve followed Mr. Hale’s career from his earliest picture books (if you haven’t read Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School you’re in for a treat) to his earliest comics (Rapunzel’s Revenge remains popular in every library system I’ve ever worked in) to today. The Rapunzel’s Revenge books had epic storylines that encompassed fantastical creatures and a range of different settings. Yet for all that they were Technicolor eye-popping wonders, I will make the case that even with its restrained palette of blue and gold, this is Mr. Hale’s best illustrated work. I say this in large part because he’s managed to not only conjure up a believable post-apocalyptic setting, but also distinct characters and, let’s face it, the creepiest aliens I’ve ever seen in a book for kids. The Pipers, as the humans call them, are horrifying. The metal bodies they walk around in on earth are equal parts amorphous and insectlike. But the moment you see their home base in the sky you truly appreciate Hale’s attention to detail. Clearly he is at peace with his inner H.R. Giger. There’s such a fine attention to the biological components of these alien species that eat without cease. Their entire base is almost nothing more than a massive digestive system. It’s a nightmare that somehow manages to reign in the horror just enough to remain palatable to children. And palatable it shall be!
When I worked as a children’s librarian I ran a book group for 9-12 year olds. One girl would come in every week and ask, with this heartbreaking gleam of hope in her eyes, whether or not we had any new graphic novels that week. If she had her way our library would have purchased a new GN every single week of the year. That actually sounds pretty reasonable, but the publishing world doesn’t operate like that. You’re lucky to get more than forty new quality graphic novels in 365 days. So like that girl I wait and I watch and pounce when I see something good or original or even downright strange. One Trick Pony is all those things and more. A magnificent bit of storytelling hidden in a slick, slim little package. Even if you’ve never cared for science fiction, and even if aliens normally bore you to tears, you’ll find something to love about this book. I mean it’s about a girl and her pony, after all. What’s not to like?
On shelves March 14th.
Source: Final sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi
- The White Mountains by John Christopher
- Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall