Owly: The Way Home (in Color)
I’ve adored Andy Runton’s Owly since I saw it over a decade ago. The first book, The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer, was originally published in 2004, fifteen years ago. It was unique for being wordless and adorable, far from the then-usual material for an indy comic company and creator.
The comic business has come a long way since then. There are many more markets, including the ever-growing kids’ comics audience, and a lot more options for publishing. So Owly is now being reprinted by Graphic (Scholastic).
The puffball-with-giant-eyes look of the title character hasn’t changed in Owly: The Way Home, but a lot else has. The book is now in color, which looks great. And that makes the work more approachable and likely to achieve a wider reach, since there are those who won’t read a black-and-white comic. I have no issues with that change.
What did disturb me was the addition of dialogue. Every animal, every character, except for Owly, now has word balloons. In the original story, when communication was needed, there were pictograms that conveyed meaning, but most of the time, Runton’s cartooning was sufficient. Now, a bird sitting on a bowl of seed says “Hey! It’s a big bowl of seed!” Bugs in a jar say “Help! We’re trapped!” Narration boxes tell us what we’re seeing and what Owly’s thinking. Before, it was charming to see Owly with a lightbulb over his head, showing he got an idea. I didn’t need a line of text telling me “He gets an idea!”
Perhaps the feeling is that younger readers aren’t as accomplished reading images. But there are two problems with that idea. The first is that, with this overly cautious hand-holding, they’re never going to learn. The second is that the book is rated for ages 7-10, grades 2-5. That’s not particularly young. Given the simplicity of the two stories involved — Owly helps new friend Wormy find his parents, and they make friends with a pair of birds — putting in redundant text makes the book feel like it’s aiming younger or talking down to the reader.
I’m glad to see such a great book get the potential for a new, much bigger audience, even if I’m disappointed at how much the publisher seems to underestimate them. Comparing the new work to the original just reminds me how skilled Runton is, since the added text I mostly found unnecessary and irrelevant.
The new edition of Owly: The Way Home can be ordered now from your local comic shop with Diamond code NOV19 1761. It will be $10.99 and available in early February 2020. A hardcover version (NOV19 1762, $22.99) will also be available. (The publisher provided an advance digital review copy.)