Saturday, March 05, 2022

The Aquanaut

Santat, Dan. The Aquanaut
March 1st 2022 by Graphix
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Sophia's father and uncle were both scientists who studied sea creatures. When their ship went down in a storm, her father, Michel, drowned after being caught in one of the rooms. Her uncle Paul was unable to save him, and was dragged off the boat by coworkers. Several of the sea creatures in the lab band together, inhabit an old fashioned diving suit, and eventually make their way to San Diego. Paul runs Aqualand, a marine amusement park which has become more amusement and less marine thanks to a Snidely Whiplash style investor who insists on bringing in orcas and other questionable exhibits. Sophia is, of course, surprised that these creatures can not only navigate the suit, but can communicate with her a bit. She tries to hide them at first, but they eventually get out. Her uncle forbids them from leaving his lab at Aqualand, but when they discover the orca, they feel a need to steal a truck, hoist out the poor imprisoned animal, and release him into the sea. This doesn't make the investor happy, and he blames Paul. Paul, still feeling guilty about Michel's death, is trying to save Aqualand, but doesn't have enough time for Sophia. The Aquanaut is living on borrowed time. How will Sophia be able to save the creatures who have become like family to her?
Strengths: When there is an old fashioned diving suit piloted by sea creatures, is there any better format than a graphic novel? The expressions on the creatures' faces under the helmet are just priceless, and I love the fact that the suit often has a knit hat like Jacques Cousteau's crew! The Aqualand setting is really interesting, especially since so many of these parks have come underscrutiny for their treatment of animals. Sophia's relationship with her uncle in the wake of her father is troubled, and exploring this by creating a chosen family for her out of creatures who knew her father is certainly innovative. The real draw here, on top of the well developed story, are the gorgeous illustrations. With his picture book background, Santat knows how to pack a page with all manner of interesting things to look at; some graphic novels have half-drawn characters or settings in the background, but that is not the case here! There are so many good things about this fun graphic novel. 
Weaknesses: I understand that middle grade parents are often written into books only so they can be killed off, but Michel's death is about the only parent death I can think has been so painfully and graphically depicted. I would be aware of this in an elementary library. 
What I really think: Santat's work shows so clearly why a graphic novel that is conceived and written as a graphic novel is usually so much better than a novel adaptation. Santat's illustrations are wonderful, and he is able to tell parts of the story through the illustrations in a way that illustrators translating words to pictures don't always capture. This is especially true of the emotional impact that is shown in the faces of the characters. This was a bit goofy, so kids will enjoy it (my copy of Sidekicks is quickly devolving into a pile of dust after ten years), but there is also a great story behind it. 
Weir, Ivy Nicole. Anne of West Philly
March 1st 2022 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Public library copy

After a lot of experience fostering boys in their West Philadelphia home, siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to foster a girl. They end up with Anne, who is a talkative and exuberant girl given to being highly emotional. Her antics include putting chocolate chips in her pancakes, being squeamish about washing dishes, and being rude to neighbor Rachel, but escalate to getting her new friend Diana sick with liquer filled chocolates and cutting her own hair. She learns to code at school, has a difficult with fellow brilliant scholar Gilbert, and has to deal with mean girl Josie. Marilla is usually exasperated with her, but Matthew understands her personality better, and even makes sure she has an "ugly" Christmas sweater for a school concert that is important to her. When Matthew suffers a heart attack, how will Anne's position with the siblings be affected?
Strengths: Since many of the readers who pick this up (like me) will do so because of a love of Montgomery's original story, it's good that the plot and characters were fairly true to the 1908 version. It's updated nicely, with foster care instead of adoption, the inclusion of computer club, Josie's turn as a mean girl, and the updated neighborhood which still manages to incorporate areas where Anne can exercise her scope for imagination. The illustration of the Christmas sweater even shows it with puffed sleeves. The illustrations are nice, and the reworking succeeds on many levels. 
Weaknesses: Anne's red braids and the Prince Edward Island setting are such defining characteristics of the book, so of course they need reimaging, but it's hard to get my head around as a former fan. It also seemed odd to have a character who was vaguely a person of color, after the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement in 2014 led to so many great books with specific cultural connections. Not really a weakness, just struck me as odd. 
What I really think: I'm conflicted. My students will read anything in graphic novel form (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy has been a big hit), and this was fine, but... why? I was a huge fan back in the day, but it's not that great a story. The big draw for me was Anne's quirky personity, which is just kind of annoying now. I have the graphic novel adaptation of the original, which checks out occasionally, but hardly any of my students manage to finish the original. Maybe I'll purchase this if I can get this in a prebind. 

Anyone else feel that Anne really wasn't that great a friend to Diana, and that Diana hung out with her because there wasn't anyone else around? The reworkings of this story where the two become romantically involved seem especially strange to me because the friendship never seemed that solid to me.

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