Harper Collins Childrens Books
This is one of those books that slips under the normal radar of comic people, a new type of comics that bypasses the normal shops, is unmentioned by the comic press. And yet it sells. It sells by the bucketload. In that respect you can file it in the same category as things like Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Geronimo Stilton, Captain Underpants and others – hugely successful series, all with some comic elements. But Babymouse is proper comics.
At my school, with our extensive graphic novel library I’m painfully aware of a problem finding sufficient comics to suit our younger or poorer readers. Whilst good readers in years 3-6 (age 7-11ish) are really well provided for by the likes of Smile, Tintin, The DFC Library, Cinebook titles, Alex Rider graphic novels, Beano annuals and many more, there’s noticeably less for Years 1 & 2 and poorer readers not confident enough to tackle the wordiness of many of those graphic novels mentioned.
We’ve graphic novels from Toon Books, we’ve Andy Runton’s excellent Owly (although that is a problem for some – as it’s wordless pages require a visual literacy that some of our readers just don’t have), but it’s a very difficult task to get graphic novels for this younger age group and our poorer readers.
And it’s these I’ve been looking at getting in over the last couple of months. I want our library to be a completely inclusive one, and I want graphic novels to be a major part of this. Which is where the hybrid works like Captain Underpants and Geronimo Stilton and proper comics like Toon Books prove so wonderful. They speak so wonderfully simply to these younger readers, a valuable introduction to comics, educating them in the language of comics, the strategies they need to navigate a page.
Now, to that list I can happily add Babymouse. A graphic novel you’ll never find in a comic shop, published by Harper Collins, and hugely popular in the US. This is the second book in the series, but I think I’ll be looking into getting the lot for the library – it’s a definite hit with the younger readers.
(Who needs me waffling on, summarising a book when there’s a perfect summary right there on the inside front cover? From Babymouse; Our Hero, by Jennifer and Matthew Holm, Harper Collins Childrens Books)
It’s a very crudely done book, with thick heavy lines – almost a marker pen style. And it’s a simple, obvious story. And you know what? That’s absolutely perfect. Take a simple chartacter my readers can really empathise with – a little mouse who goes to school. That it’s an American school is immaterial, the experience is a shared one, even though the details may be different.
Then introduce some conflict they can understand and sympathise with; a mean bully and a complete ineptitude at handball. Again, even though my readers don’t know what handball is, they can cope with it, doesn’t matter too much – it’s the conflict around it that counts.
And keep it simple. There’s a time and a place for complex page layouts, weird panel transitions and the like. And it’s not in a book to be read by 5-6 year olds. Babymouse avoids these almost completely. Almost. As I was scanning a page in, I realised it read wrong…
(Panel 3 – shouldn’t the ball be going left to right to promote flow across the page? Whatever, it’s a minor point on a great page.)
Like I said, it’s a crude, thick line marker pen style. Few of the pages go beyond 6 panels to the page, and Holm lays his pages out really simply. There are occasional flourishes, but the age of the reader is never forgotten, you can easily find your way through Babymouse, no matter what your reading level.
And the fantasy elements, where Babymouse dreams her way through her days in response to each problem are really neatly inserted into the story, in a way that shouldn’t confuse the reader, merely entertain and give them a great laugh.
(Just the start of one of Babymouse’s flights of imagination – flights she takes her readers on as well)
My only real problem with it? The colour. It’s all done in vivid black, white and pink. And the shame of it is that no matter what we do, there’s always going to be boys out there who just won’t touch this with a barge pole, even though I know they would love it if they tried. Sure I could convince some of them, I’m good that way, but some, perhaps those who needed it most, would resist. And that’s a terrible shame. Maybe the Holms should be looking at a second character, something for the boys? A mouse in blue perhaps? They could go to the same school, heck, they could even eventually have team-ups!
It may not be War & Peace, this little tale of a mouse going to school and doing a couple of things. But it doesn’t need to be. What it needs, what it does so well, is convince a 5 year old to enjoy reading, to devour a story and want more. That it does so well. I’ve a group of 5 year olds waiting to get to my library just for books like Babymouse – I’d just like to find some more examples!