Graphic novels are an excellent tool for combating the well-documented “summer slide,” encouraging kids to practice their reading skills while reminding them that reading can be a fun, pleasurable activity. Last month, my colleague Esther Keller helped the Good Comics for Kids team assemble a summer reading list that offered parents and librarians suggestions for enticing kids to continue reading over the summer. Below, I offer a more detailed assessment of one of the titles on that list, Akira Toriyama’s criminally overlooked Sand Land (VIZ), a rollicking sci-fi adventure that’s surprisingly sophisticated. I also take a look at one of the summer’s most eagerly anticipated releases, Chi’s Sweet Home (Vertical, Inc.), a charming comedy about a family that rescues a stray kitten.
The Yamada family — mom, dad, and four-year-old Yohei — live in an apartment complex that prohibits pets. When they find a frightened kitten in a neighborhood park, they try to do right by her while observing the rules: they take her home, give her a bath, then set out to find her a new owner. No one seems interested in adopting a stray, however, so the Yamadas decide to keep Chi (as they eventually call her), forcing them to go to extremes to conceal her from their neighbors.
What makes this warm-hearted comedy a winner for the under-twelve crowd is the deft way artist Kanata Konami shifts between the Yamadas’ perspective and Chi’s, giving us both the human and the feline take on such pet ownership rites of passage as going to the veterinarian and housebreaking. It’s a neat trick that encourages young readers — especially those agitating for a pet — to think about the responsibilities associated with caring for an animal, and to consider how an animal feels when arriving in a new home. The other big draw — if you’ll pardon the pun — is the artwork. Strong, simple visuals carry the story, making it easy for younger readers to figure out what’s happening when the vocabulary proves too challenging. As an added bonus, the artwork is in color, making it even easier for manga newbies to “read” the images.
Objectionable Content: Yohei and Chi struggle with toilet-training issues together, leading to some inevitable scenes of bathroom humor, but otherwise Chi’s Sweet Home is a G-rated affair.
The Bottom Line: Chi’s Sweet Home is a great choice for elementary school students making the transition from picture to chapter books, as each story is just eight pages, but the artwork and characters will appeal to animal lovers of all ages. Very young readers may struggle with Chi’s voice-overs, which are rendered in a babyish lisp (sample: “That was scarewy!”), but students in grades three and up should be able to handle the text without too much adult assistance. The humor is sweet and universal without being saccharine, making Chi’s Sweet Home a solid recommendation for boys and girls. The first volume is available now; the second will be released on August 24, 2010.
By Akira Toriyama
Rating: All Ages (9 and up)
2004, VIZ, ISBN: 978-1591161813
$7.95, 224 pp.
Though Sand Land’s citizens have lived through drought and warfare, their despotic ruler seems intent on making them suffer more by depriving them of water — a precious commodity in this desert country. Sheriff Rao, a former military general, embarks on a Robin Hood mission to find the king’s secret water supply and restore it to the people, enlisting demons Beezlebub and Thief to assist him.
Like COWA!, Akira Toriyama’s other novel-length story, Sand Land is an outstanding example of what kids’ comics can be. The artwork is imaginative and expressive; the characters are larger-than-life yet easy to identify with; the action scenes are dynamic and fun; and the jokes are perfectly calibrated to appeal to a ten-year-old’s sensibilities. At the same time, however, Sand Land grapples with some surprisingly adult themes. During his military days, for example, Sheriff Rao unwittingly participated in the massacre of a peaceful tribe, while Beezlebub and Thief must endure fearful glances and withering, bigoted remarks from humans who give credence to ill-informed demon stereotypes. Toriyama handles the issues of genocide and racism in an age-appropriate fashion, with heartfelt conversations and dramatic situations that allow the characters to achieve catharsis. Though these deeper themes enrich the narrative, Sand Land, is, at heart, an old-fashioned adventure story, filled with battle scenes (Rao, Beezlebub, and Thief steal an army tank when their Jeep breaks down), monsters, and plenty of amusing banter among the traveling companions.
Objectionable Content: Almost every chapter has a brief episode of bloodless cartoon violence (e.g. tank battles, fist fights). Toriyama’s choice of character names — Beezlebub and Lord Lucifer in particular — may raise eyebrows in some communities, though it should be noted that neither Beezlebub or Lord Lucifer bears any resemblance to the Christian Devil; all of the demons in Sand Land are moral and willing to cooperate with humanity for both races’ mutual benefit.
The Bottom Line: Like Chi’s Sweet Home, Sand Land is divided into short chapters of fifteen to twenty pages, making it a good choice for readers who are just developing an attention span for longer, more intricately plotted stories. Sand Land‘s mixture of monsters, tanks, and goofy jokes will certainly appeal to boys aged nine and up; the military theme and lack of female characters, however, may prove stumbling blocks for girls who don’t have a strong interest in science fiction or fantasy stories.