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Review: Animal Crackers

Gordon Yamamoto is a bully who has just discovered–because of an alien mind transfer of a sorts–that maybe the geek he’s picking on has even more problems than Gordon does. Loyola Chin is a genius whose ability to choose her dreams leads her to discover that the man of her dreams may not be the man she actually needs. Along the way the two of them end up with alien spaceships up their noses and learn a lot about friendship, courage, and faith.

Animal Crackers
Gene Luen Yang
Age: 13-18; Grades 8-12
SLG Publishing, January 2010, ISBN 978-1-59362-183-4
216 pages, $14.95

All creators have to start somewhere, even those who win major awards. Yang, creator of the Michael L. Printz Award winning graphic novel American Born Chinese (published by First Second), started with a self-published comic called Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks. That book, and its follow-up Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order, make up this collection, reissued in one volume by SLG Publishing who picked up the original volumes several years back. There are many elements in Animal Crackers that will be familiar to fans of Yang’s work: the theme of acceptance, the subtle and not-so-subtle references to Christianity, a wide-eyed look at the annoyance that is high school, and just the right touch of goofy humor.

The humor is the first element that will grab readers, which isn’t a bad place to start. The aliens who have taken root in Gordon, and later Loyola’s, noses lead to situations where the characters have to stick first fingers and then TV cords up their nose and when the spaceships are finally revealed, they are shaped like disembodied thumbs. The acceptance theme comes into play second. As Gordon moves from mindless bully to friend of geeks, he does so because he has humanized his victim, realized who the boy really is and how they are similar to each other. Possibly because he works at a high school himself, Yang retains the memory of the frustrations of that time of life in a way that many adults do not. Loyola is a bright girl trapped by longing for something more, while Gordon is just hanging on, trying to get through each day.

Yang is Roman Catholic and religious themes have always been a part of his work. With the exception of his Rosary Comic Book (published by Pauline Books & Media), those themes are rarely as obvious as they are in the Loyola Chin section of Animal Crackers. But even when throwing subtlety aside, Yang does not craft a story where the Christianity is exclusionary. Loyola’s beliefs and her faith change over the course of her journey, but they lead her to be a better person, more accepting, more understanding, and, ultimately, happier.

Yang’s art does not seem to be as rough as it should be for a freshman effort, possibly because he was able to do clean-up on it before the stories were reprinted. If so, this is a good idea, as it keeps the art from distracting from his story and it gives Animal Crackers a smoothness which makes it fit in well with Yang’s other published works, even in black and white. But for readers who want to know more about how the images were developed over time, a short sketchbook is included along with a comic where Yang himself talks about his journey from comic lover to comic creator. That section is motivating and informative, but also lightly humorous, and makes a nice ending for the collection.

As with Yang’s other works, Animal Crackers is a terrific addition to a public or school collection. Church libraries and schools will also want to consider this graphic novel. Yang (as with comic creator Doug TenNapel) is a wonderful example of someone who has been able to successfully merge his Christian beliefs with his art and his work.

This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © SLG Publishing.

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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