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GC4K Book Club: Ghostopolis

I’ve read other books by Doug TenNapel and always enjoyed the read.  Monster Zoo was a hit with the Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee a few years ago and I also really liked Flink and Black Cherry (for adult readers).  So I was excited when Ghostopolis arrived on my doorstep.  A book about a kid who gets trapped in the afterlife?  With fart jokes?  What’s not to like, right?  Knowing that a few of the GC4Kers are also fans of TenNapel’s work, I decided to ask the group what they thought of the book.

Doug TenNapel
Rated: 8-13
Scholastic Graphix, July 2010, ISBN 9780545210270
272 pages, $24.99

Many thanks to Scholastic for providing enough review copies to go around.

From the cover:  When Garth Hale is accidentally zapped into the ghost world by Frank Gallows, a washed-up ghost wrangler, he discovers that he has special powers.  Soon he finds himself on the run from the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, who wants to use Garth’s newfound abilities to tighten his grip on the spirit word.  After Garth meets Cecil, his grandfather’s ghost, the two search for a way to get Garth back home, nearly losing hope until Frank Gallows shows up to fix his mistake.

Doug TenNapel has never kept his faith a secret, which is something I both like and find irritating at the same time.  I like that he is able to incorporate what he feels strongly about into his stories, and at the same time I don’t want to be hit over the head with a message.  In Ghostopolis, subtlety is not the name of the game.  I know that a few of us are very religious, while others of us are lapsed or not religious at all.  Did the Christian themes in the story affect how you read and reacted to the book?

Robin Brenner: As someone who didn’t really know the full story of Christ until college and found my friend’s bat mitzvah very cool, I have very little actual experience with organized religion.  On the other hand, I do have a sense of what faith can be — my dad, as a physicist, reminded me as a teen that believing in particle physics and cosmology frequently takes just as many leaps of faith as religious belief.

With TenNapel’s work, I’ve never been unnerved by his expressions of his beliefs, nor have I felt like they were being forced upon me as a reader.  I’m perfectly happy to understand how other people experience their faith even if I don’t share their beliefs, and in TenNapel’s case I think I just expect it will come up at some point because it’s part of how he sees the world.  I love that he does it with humor as much as with sincerity, and that he’s examining it all on the page for us to see.  It never feels like a lecture, but more like an exploration, and that’s just fine by me.

Kate Dacey: I found the passages with Joe, the ethereal Tuskegee Airman, a little precious. He’s a character type we’ve seen in movies like The Green Mile, a sacred African-American figure whose only purpose is to redeem other characters. Young readers won’t pick up on this, of course; I’m coming to Ghostopolis with degrees in American History and American Studies under my belt, so it’s hard for me to ignore the racial subtext attached to this character. I imagine that some ten-year-olds will see parallels between Joe and Christ — especially if they’ve read, say, the Narnia books, which are also pretty explicit in their Christian orientation — but I don’t think that will have much of an impact on a young person’s understanding of the book.

What I think TenNapel does well, however, is use his characters to illustrate the basic tenets of Christianity — refraining from judgment, helping others in need, finding the courage to oppose evil — in a low-key fashion that works well for readers who are religious and those who aren’t.

Snow Wildsmith: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, Kate. I am usually fairly annoyed by that type of character, but it didn’t bother me here. For me it made sense that Joe would be a Tuskegee Airman, because he was being seen through Grandpa’s eyes. Grandpa loved flying, so therefore he saw Joe as a heroic pilot. Of course, the problem with that is that the issue of Grandpa being a pilot is only brought up at the beginning, before it is dropped abruptly, so that particular plot thread doesn’t hold up as well.

Esther Keller: It’s interesting. As a school librarian, I don’t actually teach set classes, but I do have a hand in teaching research skills and by extension reading skills.  One of the things I emphasize a lot is prior knowledge. My colleagues and I find one of the greatest challenges we face with our students is their lack of prior knowledge. That said, I think sometimes too much knowledge can ruin a good story.  When I first read C.S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I had little or no knowledge of Christianity and all similarities went right over my head.  And let me tell you, while I know a little bit more about Christianity today, I did not know about TenNapel’s beliefs and I read this as purely a good story!  Reading this discussion has made me think: oh, yeah, I get it. But I never read it that way.  This was just about a living kid who gets stuck in the afterlife, whatever that may be, before his time and his adventure in getting out.

Snow: I agree with Robin’s point here about TenNapel’s work never seeming like a lecture or preaching, as the case may be. As an agnostic who was raised in a traditional Methodist family (my grandfather and his brothers were ministers, my father is a lay speaker, my mom sings in the choir and teaches Sunday School), I am a little skittish about being preached to. I know what my struggles with faith are and don’t need someone rubbing my face in them. What I like about TenNapel’s work is that he offers up characters who are also struggling. He doesn’t make it seem like their struggles are insignificant and he doesn’t make it seem like they are saints whose good deeds can never been equaled by mere mortals. All of the characters in Ghostopolis have problems for one reason or another. I appreciated seeing how they faced those troubles down and tried to do the best that they could.

Additionally, I am a person who processes the world through fantasy and science fiction. Whereas I might be turned off by a book that looked at faith issues in a realistic, day-to-day setting, books such as Ghostopolis or The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings or The Eternal Smile, by Gene Yang use the fantasy genre to give me the “remove” I need to process deeper thoughts and ideas. That’s something that I’ve always appreciated about TenNapel’s work.

Cover art for GhostopolisRobin: Just to chime in on Esther’s reaction — in my previous reading of TenNapel’s work, starting with Creature Tech and on through Iron West and Monster Zoo, I’d never really noticed his spiritual themes as much as I did in Ghostopolis.  I’ve noticed his return to questions surrounding faith over the course of reading more and more of his work, but it never overwhelmed me as a reader who wouldn’t have noticed as much in the first place due to my own background (or lack thereof.)  The questions of the afterlife were much more, well, present in this story, and therefore his beliefs do come across that much more strongly.

I do agree with Kate that the Tuskegee Airman was the one point that didn’t quite mesh.  His character pushed me out of the story a bit with just how clearly he was there to represent a theory rather than feeling like an integral part of the story.  The fact that he was African American also did smack of the unfortunate magical trope that Kate references, which was more unsettling even if it was unintentional and may well spring from seeing through my own finicky pop culture goggles.

Scott Robins: I’m one of those people who has a very hard time re-reading the Narnia books as an adult because of the heavy-handed Christian themes. Knowing the author’s beliefs before diving into the book, I felt myself on the hunt for the blatant Christian-ness. And while I agree with everyone that the theme of salvation present in the story is highly Christian, it’s not solely Christian. I admit that when Joe was revealed towards the end I found myself groaning especially when the Bone King says “To HIM!” when Garth asks where the ghosts are going. Joe as a God or Christ character seemed plunked in to me, maybe even a bit arbitrary. But that’s only one of issues I had with this book as a whole.

Lori Henderson: I’m one of those in the “not religious at all” camp, and quite honestly, I didn’t really notice the religious/Christian themes. I thought is was just another supernatural story. I didn’t take anything as being specifically Christian or even religious. I didn’t see Joe as anything other than someone that was trying to help others. I would never have even considered it if it hadn’t been brought up. So I have to say it didn’t affect my reading of the story at all.

Eva: Scholastic’s website lists the age range for this book as 8-13, but the Barnes & Noble website lists this as a book for young adults.  I can see reasoning for both ratings.  For whom do you think this book is best suited and why?

Kate: That’s a tough question to answer, Eva. Some of the content seems more mature than the publisher’s age rating suggests — not because the book contains inappropriate language or graphic violence, but because it speaks more to an adult’s experience than a child’s. I don’t imagine that too many eight- or ten-year-olds will really appreciate Jack Gallows’ relationship with Claire Voyant, for example; those passages will be more meaningful to someone who’s actually had to make tough romantic choices. At the same time, however, many of the relationships in the book *do* speak to an eight- or twelve-year-old’s own experiences: Garth’s relationship with his mother is one example; his bond with Skinny, the Nightmare, is another, as it mimics a master-dog relationship.

Robin: I wondered about the Jack and Claire relationship as well — while I definitely understood it as an adult, I wondered what resonance it would have with a younger reader.  Then again I know many kids who’ve thoroughly enjoyed series that had whole chunks of plot that went over their head (His Dark Materials, for example) and didn’t care what we adults were talking about in interrogating them about the greater meaning behind the story.  Sometimes, the story is enough, and they’ll go back, re-read, and see even more later.  In that way, I think this is a story that will improve with re-reading when you have different points of view on the story.

I do think that 8-13 is a reasonable range, but I also think that it’s most likely to appeal to the older end of that range.

Esther: This was one of the books featured at the Scholastic Middle School Book Fair. I only mention it, because I had been saving my copy for this discussion, and it was my first opportunity to see how kids would react to the title.  While it wasn’t a best seller (none of the comics are, because they’re so much pricier than the rest of the novels), it piqued a lot of interest with the kids. I think the premise really grabbed the middle schoolers’ attentions.  Granted, it’s been a while since I read the title, but it wasn’t overly violent or overly sexed. I think the themes will go over the head of most of my students, but there’s enough of a good story for younger readers to enjoy, but older readers might get more from their title, because they have more life experience, more knowledge to get it. I wouldn’t give this to anyone younger than 10, but I don’t see why an 8-year-old can’t read this.

Snow: I think one of the strengths of Ghostopolis is that it has elements that will appeal to different age groups, without those elements clashing hideously against each other. Gareth and his experiences are enjoyable for a wide range of ages, I’d say from about 8 years old on up to teens. He isn’t drawn as terribly young, so teen readers shouldn’t think of the story as babyish. The slight potty humor and the action are another draw for kids through teens. The adult characters should appeal to older readers, but their relationship isn’t thrust too much into the spotlight, so it won’t get in the way of younger readers (probably boys) who don’t want a “kissing book.” The scene where Claire and Joe do kiss and the kiss is immediately interrupted by the King driving the carriage over a pothole made the 10-year-old boy in my head laugh.

Lori: I agree completely with Snow on the age ratings. I really seemed to me that it would appeal to a wide range of groups, with each taking from it what they wanted. I don’t think the young adult rating is completely warranted, but I could see a company preferring to err on the side of caution by going with the older rating.

Scott: I don’t think there’s anything in the book that you can’t find in any fantasy novel aimed at 8-12 year olds, so why the book would be categorized as young adult is a bit of a mystery for me. Maybe because of the ‘spooky’ nature of the book? Does the book have ‘disturbing’ images? Maybe? I definitely agree with Kate that there are some points in the book that don’t really speak to kids, especially the bits between Claire and Jack. Those scenes felt really out of place and I felt they took away from Garth as a character. In fact, I didn’t really think Garth as a characters was fleshed out at all, which was one of the weakest parts of the book for me.

Esther: Scott really proved my point. I too can’t really enjoy the Narnia books now that I’m aware of the heavy-handed religious themes in it, but my first read was quite enjoyable as was Ghostopolis. I didn’t take any extra baggage into reading this title and it was easy for me to just read a good story.  Anyone who reads this title after reading our discussion will have a very different read than I did my first time around.

Eva: I have one last question and it goes back to something you mentioned, Scott.  At the beginning of the story, Garth seems to be the star of the show.  Then he fades into the background and the story becomes about the adults.  I was kind of sorry the focus changed, because to me Garth was the more interesting character.

Scott, you mentioned that you thought Garth was the weakest link.  How do the rest of you feel?  For you, what were the book’s strengths and/or weaknesses?

Esther: It’s funny that you mention this, because while Garth seems front and center in the action, the interesting parts of his story are about his illness and how that plays out being a living-dead person in the after life.  I would have liked to see more of that explored and definitely felt like it was missing.  It was a weakness of the storytelling, especially as a story geared to kids. Because, yes, the adults do take over in the story. (Well, kids might just be used to that!)

I thought the strength in this book was the artwork. I loved the coloring and the effects.  It jumped out at me, and I believe jumped out at my students when they saw this title at the book fair.

In general, I think this will be enjoyed.

Kate: I agree with Esther: Garth’s illness should have been explored in more depth. It would have made the story a little more poignant, and helped us understand who Garth is; as the story reads now, however, Garth’s illness feels more like a plot point, something to get the story underway, than an essential fact of his day-to-day existence. (And don’t get me started on the third-act deus-ex-medica that ensures Garth will be around for more adventures. Grrrr.)

I was also frustrated by how uneven Ghostopolis was. The first sixty or so pages were magical: the pacing was perfect, the premise fresh and interesting, and the storytelling subtle. As more characters and plot wrinkles were introduced, however, the narrative momentum died; by the end of the volume, there were too many loose ends for the author to address, forcing him to jump around too much to bring everyone’s story to a conclusion.

Robin: I’ve been pondering what you’ve all been saying about Garth being the weaker link, and the lack of developing his illness and the desire for many of us to delve deeper into his character.  I too felt, reading along, that I’d expected somehow more emotion or introspection to come from Garth rather than the just have him be the focus around which all the other events pivot.

On the other hand, though, I’m reminded of one of the criticisms aimed at reviewers and in particular librarians (who are overwhelmingly female): that too often we look for an emotional, internal journey when, in fact, in general guy readers are not looking for an internal journey the way girl readers do.  In fact, too much introspection and emotional moments can weigh down a story’s appeal to young male readers.  Whether we like it or not, there are differences in what the genders look for in stories, and humor and action/plot are high on many guy’s lists, and these are just the things female reviewers and readers are less inclined to value.  Obviously, we’re not all women here, and I think everyone is making valid points, but I always like to pause and consider that voice in the back of my head that says, “But what about the target audience?  Am I making this too much about what I wanted from this story versus what they would want from this story?”

Snow: I agree with Robin here. While I can see the points Kate is making now that I think back on the story, at the time I was reading it none of those elements bothered me. I enjoyed the story and that was it. Which is, as Robin says, probably the way most readers will feel about it. Yes there are details that I wish had been followed up on, but the action was good and the art was eye-catching and so, in some ways, the book works just fine.

Eva Volin About Eva Volin

Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.

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