Pirates may be out this year but that hasn’t stopped The Unsinkable Walker Bean from being a successful high adventure story for young readers in the tradition of series like Tintin. Walker Bean has been given a serious task from his dying grandfather: return a cursed skull that caused his illness to its rightful owners—a pair of merwitches that live deep in the ocean. Various groups try their best to steal the skull away including Walker’s own greedy father, a band of pirates and a mysterious doctor who doesn’t appear to be what he seems. As a stowaway on the pirates’ ship, Walker, with the help of his new friends Shiv and Gen, must outwit everyone who is after the skull and journey to the merwitches’ trench before they find and destroy them all.
The Unsinkable Walker Bean
Age: 10-14; Grades: 4-8
First Second, August 2010, ISBN 978-1-59643-453-0
208 pages, $13.99
Much of the talk about graphic novels for kids is geared towards engaging reluctant readers and rightly so. However, a book like The Unsinkable Walker Bean is sorely needed for the often forgotten advanced readers who want a graphic novel with a higher level of complexity—something with a bit more meat on its bones, a challenging read. Renier has created a character that kids can relate to—a bookish, pudgy reluctant hero. He resists the natural tendency in a pirate story to make the main underdog character develop into a dashing pirate. And this book is clearly not your typical pirate story, in fact, it’s far more epic. At the beginning of the book, Renier sets up the story’s unique mythology, referring to the people of Atlantis and the origin of the merwitches, and provides a striking image of them surrounded by walls constructed of glowing skulls and bones. Walker’s quest to return the cursed skull to the merwitches’ trench may remind readers of Frodo’s task in Lord of the Rings, also firmly planting this story as truly epic.
To offset the epic seriousness here, Renier throws in a touch of whimsy throughout the book. Readers are thrown into the story and once the narrative momentum begins, the action doesn’t stop until the very last page. There are no chapter breaks and readers are thrown, dragged and pushed in every direction as they follow Walker’s adventure. There’s an interesting steampunk quality to the story with Walker’s various inventions and the other found gadgets including a powered bottle that automatically delivers messages to the addressee when thrown overboard and a steam-powered robotic tea pot.
Renier wears his artistic influences well and graphic novel enthusiasts will recognize both Johann Sfar’s and Herge’s touches throughout his work. The book includes a number of gorgeous double page spreads that include an incredible amount of detail. Young readers will pore over these spreads and enjoy picking out the various details like a Where’s Waldo book. In fact, one scene where Walker and Shiv visit a market square, readers will spot Captain Haddock from the Tintin series, confirming Renier’s love of Herge’s comics. Renier is all about the small, artistic details, which makes Walker Bean a joy to read however some visual details are important to understanding key plot points and are so subtle they might be missed by younger readers.
By the end of the book, Renier leaves readers both satisfied and hungry for more. He manages to tie up the main plot threads of the book but leaves many questions and mysteries unsolved like what are the true intentions of the merwitches, what’s the connection to the citizens of Atlantis and what exactly is Dr. Patches and why was he so interested in the skull. Hopefully some of these will be addressed in the second volume of the series.
The Unsinkable Walker Bean is a rare treat that combines adventure, friendship, mystery and fantasy in a complex and satisfying package. Highly recommended for both school and library collections.