Many comic artists have moved into creating children’s books, including Ivan Brunetti, Kate Beaton, and Andy Runton. There’s not that much difference between the two formats, mostly a matter of whether the words appear in balloons or as captions. Children’s books tend to be shorter and focus on the images.
Sara Varon has also put out children’s books, which isn’t surprising, since her style is so welcoming and she tends to draw humanoid animals or ambulatory treats. Her newest book, New Shoes, merges the strength of children’s books — strong central images and adorable characters — with a longer, more meaningful story in a substantial graphic novel for ages 6-10.
It’s the story of Francis, a donkey who makes excellent shoes. A famous singer, Miss Manatee, has commissioned a new pair of shoes from him (I know, it’s dealt with later in the story), but his supplier of wild tiger grass, which he has woven to make the shoes, has gone missing. Francis and his parrot friend Rhoda set out to find Nigel, the squirrel monkey who gathers the grass.
There are so many charming things about this story. The animals work together to build a functioning economy where craft and creativity are valued. Everyone has different skills, and they trade what they know or produce for other things they need. The community shares enjoyable activities, like spending time together listening to music. The details of shoe making, if animals made shoes, are laid out in thoughtful detail, to inspire readers to think about how basic things are made, and how they might be different in a less industrialized environment.
There’s a voyage with plenty of adventure but not too much danger, as Francis leaves his village to travel into the jungle. All of the conflict is explainable through actions taken, and everyone has understandable motives for what they do. The length of the story — almost 200 pages — means there’s time for wonderful images of the animals spending time together or walking through the village.
There’s a love of learning on display, as Francis makes sure to take guidebooks on his journey because “he didn’t want to seem provincial if he ran into animals he’d not seen before.” (Examples from these books are quoted in the text, for additional educational value.) He’s also polite in talking to new acquaintances, gaining valuable insight from their experiences beyond his own. And he learns to swim!
I’m impressed by how well Varon draws her characters. They’re simplified, basic enough that they can be copied by young readers, but she still manages to have them express body language and common activities. Most of the pages are single images, which provides a substantial sense of place. Varon has spent time in Guyana, which inspired the richly envisioned setting, and there are a number of pictures in the back of her travels there. The reader isn’t hit over the head with lessons and morals, but there are plenty of good messages and behavior shown, whether it’s sharing with new friends or being open to new experiences. I want to live in a village like this one!
New Shoes is due out in comic shops on March 21 and bookstores on March 20. It can be preordered now from your local comic shop with Diamond code JAN18 1697. (The publisher provided an advance digital review copy.)