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Review: Gabby & Gator

Gabby is a shy vegetarian whose hobbies include recycling, gardening, and playing the tuba. Gator is, well, an alligator whose passtimes include blogging and snacking on housepets. Both feel lonely and misunderstood, she for having “uncool” interests, he for capitulating to his hunting instincts. When a bully steals Gabby’s hat and mocks her, Gator intercedes on her behalf, thus initiating a sweet, if improbable, friendship.

Gabby & Gator
By James Burks
Rating: All Ages
September 2010, Yen Press, ISBN: 978-0759531451
192 pp., $16.99

James Burks’ energetic illustrations and simple, grid-like layouts make Gabby & Gator accessible to a wide range of young readers, even those who’ve never read a graphic novel before. The color palette is bright and cheery without being garish, while the background illustrations provide enough interesting detail to reward multiple readings. Though Burks’ script is smart and funny, he lets the artwork carry the burden of the storytelling. The introduction provides an instructive example: in just a few pages, Burks shows us how Gator evolved from a child’s beloved pet to a pet-eating menace living in the sewer. All of this is accomplished with a minimum of dialogue and a few carefully chosen details: an advertisement for mail-order alligator babies, a telephone pole plastered with images of missing pets, a silhouette of Gator with a leash dangling from his mouth. (None of the dog-eating is shown directly, though it is implied.)

The story addresses a variety of familiar social problems with humor. Gabby, for example, is bullied mercilessly by the class jock — a pattern of harassment which she ends with an impressive display of nerdly bravado, bolstered by the confidence that comes from having a close friend. Gabby and Gator’s relationship offers its share of teachable moments as well, as each learns to accept the other despite major philosophical differences about food. (In a nice touch, Gator dutifully tries to drink a vegetarian smoothie that Gabby prepares for him, even though the color and smell make him recoil.)

Much as I liked Gabby & Gator, I wondered if there was a discrepancy between the format and the intended audience. The hardbound presentation and cover image suggest a picture book, yet the tone and the characters seem more likely to appeal to slightly older readers in the eight-to-ten-year-old range. Some of the story’s themes transcend age, but others — especially Gabby’s quest to “find someone who will accept me as I am” — won’t resonate with really young readers, as they have a very different sense of self than someone Gabby’s age. (To judge from her room and her hobbies, I’d peg Gabby as a fifth or sixth grader; most brass players don’t begin studying an instrument until they’re at least ten years old.) Some of the humor, too, seems more likely to appeal to slightly older kids; I’m not sure how many kindergartners will grasp what’s so wickedly funny about Gator’s confessional website, “Diary of a Dog Eater.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Gabby & Gator is anything less than delightful; Burks’ story is funny and smart, filled with wonderful sight gags that will appeal to kids and parents alike. Age-wise, however, I find this a tricky title to recommend. Some kids in the four-to-seven range may well enjoy reading it with an adult, but I think the script skews a little older than the presentation. My suggestion to librarians: buy it for your kids’ collection, talk it up to your patrons, and see who checks it out the most. Anything this funny and well-crafted will circulate.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Gabby & Gator will be released on September 28, 2010.

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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