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Review of the Day: Around the World by Matt Phelan

Around the World
By Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-3619-7
Ages 9 and up
On shelves October 11, 2011

Book phenomenons are something, aren’t they? Get the right writer and they can use words alone to inspire people to do the craziest things. Whether it’s Wizard Rock or standing on docks to find out if a favorite character has died, as long as there has been literature there have been people taking books to heart in surprising ways. Around the World in 80 Days may be one of the more extreme examples of this. Had Phileas Fogg not set out to traverse the globe in a matter of scant days, he could not have sparked the imaginations of three intrepid late 19th century individuals. Now you could write a decent nonfiction triple biography of the three for kids and no one would raise so much as an eyebrow (unless it was bad, of course). What’s unexpected is taking these true stories and turning them into a single graphic novel. Inspired by their stories, and even more by their internal struggles, Matt Phelan finds a way to bring to life three striking individuals and their circumnavigation dreams.

In the second half of the 19th century a fictional character set out with a challenge. His name was Phileas Fogg, the book was Around the World in 80 Days and the challenge was inherent in the title. So popular was the novel that it inspired others to travel in Fogg’s footsteps, so to speak. Three in particular come to mind. First, a miner by the name of Thomas Stevens. Thinking that there must be more to life than spending it underground, Stevens was inspired when he saw his very first bicycle. After purchasing one and biking across the country Stevens got it into his head to go bigger. Why not bike around the world? Next up, the intrepid female reporter Nellie Bly who vowed to beat Fogg’s 80-day mark and became a national sensation in the process. Finally there was Captain Joshua Slocum, a man haunted by his own past who sailed around the world over a time span of more than three years. Three people. Three reasons for their trips. Three entrancing stories.

Matt Phelan’s previous dalliance with graphic novels was The Storm in the Barn, a winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. That novel was a curious combination of history and fantasy, rendered in almost uniformly brown panels. With Around the World Phelan switches focus and concentrates entirely on real world events. He seems more comfortable working with real people and their lives than he did dabbling in the fantastical. Not that this book doesn’t have it’s own share of mirages, hallucinations, and monkeys, but through it all are storylines based in fact. For this reason, Phelan makes a mention in the book’s Author’s Note about why he wrote this story. While at first he just thought the collection would merely dramatize these true stories, eventually he came to wonder about why his subjects did what they did. “What were their motivations? What prior experiences might be traveling with them.” He seeks to answer those questions here. How well he does so is in the eye of the reader.

The subjects of this book are also all adults, a fact that proves something I’ve suspected for years. If you want to write a book for young people and you want your protagonists to be grown, you have several options. Generally speaking you can’t write a work of middle grade fiction starring an adult unless those grown-ups are furry woodland creatures or the book is a graphic novel. There are always exceptions to this (Twenty-One Balloons, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, etc.) but by and large that’s the rule. Around the World is ostensibly nonfiction. It shows the lives of real people and follows their adventures. However, unless every word of dialogue comes directly from sources that confirm that they said those exact sentences at those exact times, technically the book has to be considered a work of fiction. And as a work of fiction, it stars adults. Fortunately it also utilizes comics, upping the interest levels and making its adults with their childlike dreams all the more relatable.

Because that really is the question: Will kids find this interesting? The book begins well with a scene from Around the World in 80 Days and suspicion about a gentleman thief. That storyline is just to set you up, however, and kids wanting to know more about the thief will have to read the original book (there are worse things). From there the title immediately jumps into the story of bicycles. I understand why this is, since Phelan is keeping his storylines in chronological order (1884, 1889, and 1895 respectively). Still, it would have been nice if the Nellie Bly tale, with its inherent immediate excitement and cameo appearance by Jules Verne, had happened first. The bicycle section makes for a low-key beginning. One trusts that kids that are picking up graphic novel historical fiction aren’t looking for huge explosions in the first few pages anyway.

As for the art? Artful. I read a black and white version of this story, though the final copies are all full-color. So while I can’t speak to the hues and tones I can at least drop a little praise on Phelan’s artistry. A gentle illustrator, Phelan has always been subdued. Expressions on his characters tend to show their subtler senses. His are cartoons that are not cartoonish, if that makes any sense. Of course about 70% of the men in these stories sport moustaches of varying size and walrus-like girth. Those fellows don’t tend to change their expressions very often, nor do you require them to. With just a dot or a line Phelan can make someone like Thomas Stevens looks appalled one moment and pleased the next. As for the layout of the panels, I’ve always loved Phelan’s willingness to shake up your view of a scene. Like a good movie director he switches effortlessly between close-ups, scenic panoramas, and other angles and approaches. Phelan has a knack for avoiding the static.

I’m a picky comic reader. Fact of the matter is, speech balloons are important to me. You can’t just throw them into a text without thinking about them first. You have to consider what kind of balloon will work best with the story you’re writing. Speech in a comic should blend seamlessly with the images. The last thing you want is for a reader to be pulled out of the story by the way in which the words are displayed. Phelan’s art in this book is, as I mentioned before, fantastic. However the publisher’s decision to place his dialogue in white unattractive squares is odd. Every word spoken suddenly leaps off the page, distracting you from the images. There is no give and take between word and image here, only a glaring difference separating the two. It’s a pity and needlessly distracts from an otherwise remarkable book.

So who knows? Maybe this’ll inspire some kid to read Around the World in 80 Days. Or maybe even vow to take a trip around the world themselves someday. If three people could do it for such vastly different reasons, so too can a 21st century kid. For older students, pairing this with To Timbuktu by Casey Scieszka might make for a great then-and-now compare and contrast of world travel. But standing on its own, Around the World allows us to gape in wonder at those folks that finished what they began. By bike, by sail, by train, they circled the globe and lived to tell the tale. And Matt Phelan knows just how to bring such tales to life. Great stuff.

On shelves October 11th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Check out this trailer for the book, if you’d like to see more of it.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Sounds like a great title! I’ll keep an eye out for it.