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Review: City of Spies

Snow Wildsmith

In 1942, ten-year-old Evelyn is shipped off to New York City to spend the summer with her avant-garde Aunt Lia while her father gets married yet again. Though Evelyn is rich, she’s never been to the city and isn’t sure that she’ll have any fun hanging around with her aunt’s artist friends. So she loses herself in the comic books she creates which feature the adventures of Zirconium Man and his trusty sidekick Scooter. But Evelyn does find friendship with Tony, the son of her building’s supervisor, and soon the two of them are off on adventures of their own–hunting down Nazi spies!

City of Spies
Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan; artwork by Pascal Dizin
Grades 5-8; Ages 10-14
First Second, April 2010, ISBN 978-1-59643-262-8
176 pages, $16.99

Both Kim and Klavan have experience writing screenplays, so even though this is the first graphic novel for all three creators, it is a strong book. Evelyn and Tony are particularly successful creations. They believably act their age–preteens on the cusp of adolescence–vacillating between maturity and childishness depending on the situation. Balancing them out are Lia and a local police officer Brendan. Both feel caught by their routines, unable to be the true artist (Lia) or hero (Brendan) that they long to be. The other characters are as human as the stars. They are grumpy or cheerful, annoyed or helpful, and the bad guys are not as easily identifiable as those who would profile based on ethnicity would believe.

9781596432628 Review: City of SpiesThe plot is engaging, even though the spy subplot isn’t really the point. This is more about Evelyn and the others learning to be who they are than just a spy thriller. But Kim and Klavan don’t neglect their research, so the tale has an authentic feel which brings the historical setting to life. Dialog, clothing, behaviors, all ring true, which ultimately makes the spy story more believable. Dizin’s art helps in that regard. He does an excellent job of switching between the old-fashioned style comic art of the Zirconium Man and Scooter comic books and the real world that Evelyn inhabits. Though the characters are obviously drawn (Tony actually looks a little like Tintin), they are still realistic.

The only sticking point with this work is the age-appropriateness. There is some very minor nudity (the back of a life drawing model), alcohol use, several people are murdered in front of the child characters, and there is some kissing. All of this perfectly fits with the story and brings it sharply to life. However, it means that the book is more appropriate for a middle school audience than for an elementary school one, though middle schoolers are more likely to resist reading a tale starring a ten-year-old. But careful booktalking and hand-selling to historical fiction readers should overcome that hurdle and the book will soon find its niche. A good side read for World War II studies and a nice addition to historical fiction booklists.

This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © First Second Books.

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Snow Wildsmith About Snow Wildsmith

Snow Wildsmith is a writer and former teen librarian. She has served on several committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2's Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on her first books, a nonfiction series for teens.

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