Published: March 4, 2014
Maisie Danger Brown applies to astronaut camp never expecting to get in, but soon she’s on her way to the experience of a lifetime. Not because of the advanced classes, the astronaut training, or even the boys, but because one chance exposure to alien technology means that saving the world is now up to her. If she can figure out what the world needs saving from, that is.
I looked forward to Shannon Hale’s Dangerous for a long time, not only because it features a protagonist who is half-Paraguayan and we need more diversity in young adult literature, but also because I wanted to see how Hale would write a superhero novel. Superhero comics and movies make sense, yes, but a superhero novel is something rare indeed. Interestingly enough, however, when I finally read Dangerous, I wondered whether this qualifies as a superhero novel at all.
Plot details on Dangerous were kept tight and, if you prefer to keep yourself in a pristine state free of spoilers, you may want to skip this review. While I will try to keep the information I reveal vague, I cannot discuss my reactions to this story without at least outlining certain plot points. This first plot point, is in fact, the plot. (Please do stop reading now if you wish to be spoiler-free!) From the lead-up to Dangerous, I had some idea that we would be getting a typical story where the hero is exposed to some sort of scientific anomaly, gains powers, and becomes a crime-fighting vigilante. What we got was similar–Maisie is exposed to a foreign substance and gains unusual skills as a result–but diverged, I thought, into science-fiction territory. (Here I reveal a detail of the plot that the plot thought was a secret, but that I think just about every reader understood from the beginning.) After all, the substance is alien technology and is designed to help the bearer fight off an alien invasion. (Really, was anyone surprised that the book ended with an alien invasion? One of those tokens is supposed to give extra intelligence, but no one in the book figured that one out?)
All this raised a question for me: what exactly constitutes a superhero story? Shannon Hale clearly thought Dangerous qualifies. After all, it features a girl with special powers who saves the day. That is what superheroes do. But once aliens got involved, I thought the story was science fiction. Does that mean superheroes cannot feature in science fiction? To say so seems not only overly broad, but also kind of silly. After all, do not a lot of superheroes receive their powers from science gone wrong? Are they not, then, sort of in a science fiction story? One cannot really gain spider powers from a spider bite–that’s fiction! Or maybe this means aliens cannot be in superhero stories? But what about The Avengers? Maybe, I thought, it was the vigilante business. Maisie does not (to her best friend’s disappointment) start fighting crime on the streets. She sees her mission as solely facing the menace that she knows is coming, thanks to the alien technology now lodged in her breast. And that mindset is what made me think science fiction. Because it’s sort of like Ender’s Game, isn’t it? A group of people using special skills to face an alien threat and then going home. Case closed. But maybe I am wrong or maybe the borders we have delineated around genres are too strict. Whatever the case, I started becoming more concerned with this issue than with the story.
There was one other thing that bothered me about Dangerous, though–the romance. Maisie falls hard for a boy anyone can see at a glace must be trouble. He’s clearly a player, one of those stereotypical rich kids who likes to use women to boost his own ego. One wonders when he goes after Maisie what it is he wants from her. Throughout the story, however, Hale provides various clues as to his real motives and it is hard to decide whether he is “good” or “bad” or just playing the field for himself. He often excuses his behavior by essentially admitting he has “daddy issues” and Maisie accepts that. But even if one is inclined to forgive his worst moments, that does not, in my opinion, make him a suitable romantic partner for Maisie. He may want to save the world or just himself, but underneath it all he still was–and, as far as I know, is–a player. He says he cares about Maisie but he still uses her in various ways. Fortunately, readers have one of those infamous love triangles to give them hope that Maisie will not end up with him at all. (Spoilers about the result of this love triangle and other details of the romance.) Like most love triangles, however, this one is not particularly suspense-inducing. The third guy never really had a chance and Maisie ends up with the player. The one who tried to get her to sleep with him while he was using her politically. Isn’t that a nice take-away? Guys can use women, say they are sorry, and have the women take them back.
Dangerous is an exciting, fast-paced adventure that kept me flipping pages until I had finished (really, I don’t remember putting it down, except maybe to eat and then just because society kind of expects that). And yet, in the end, all I remember is the cringe-worthy romance. Very disappointing.
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Writer: Reiko Yoshida
Studio Ghibli films are often filled with the inexplicable, but The Cat Returns may feature the most disturbing premise. Shy high school student Haru saves the life of a cat on her way home from school one day. The cat happens to be Prince Lune, heir to the Cat Kingdom, and the king attempts to show Haru his gratitude by sending her a series of unwanted gifts—culminating in the hand of Prince Lune in marriage.
As a child, I may have found the idea of a human’s marrying a cat a bit unusual, but not as troubling as I do as an adult. There are certain connotations and, well, logistics that present some problems. The film ignores these issues for a considerable amount of time until the cats reveal they do, in fact, have a solution. (Spoiler alert!) They are going to turn Haru into a cat, as well. Viewers might be conflicted as to whether they find this plan relieving, or almost as troubling as the initial proposal.
Beyond all this, however, the movie is pretty fun—a crazy adventure where two cats from the Cat Bureau attempt to help Haru escape from the clutches of the Cat King back into her own world. Exactly why Haru is told to seek the aid of the Cat Bureau is unclear, because they seem to have no relevant experience working in the Cat Kingdom. In fact, beyond “helping people,” their mission statement and job are unclear. However, their skills in intrigue and battle turn out to be extensive, and it makes their escape effort truly exciting to watch.
However the fun and the art are not the only points. By narrowly avoiding life as a cat, Haru learns to know herself and to believe in herself. She becomes confident and independent and is even brave enough to tell one of her rescuers she thinks she is beginning to like him. (He happens to be a cat, too, so the oddity of the film never really ends, but it is something one ultimately grows to accept, or just ignore.)
The Cat Returns is not my favorite Studio Ghibli film. There are ones with characters I like better and with more interesting premises, but it is a movie worth watching for Miyazaki fans, and for cat lovers.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Ponyo is an imaginative movie about childlike wonder and what it means to love unconditionally. The story follows five-year-old Sosuke, who rescues a “goldfish” from a jar in the ocean and names her Ponyo. However, Ponyo is really a magical fish-girl who has run away from her wizard father to see more of the world. She eventually uses her magic to transform completely into a human, but Sosuke must prove he can love Ponyo in both forms, if she is to remain on land. If Sosuke fails, she will melt into sea foam.
As in many Miyazaki films, some of the logistics of Ponyo do not make much sense. Beyond the fact that adults in the movie apparently see no problem with five-year-old children running about a flooded town alone, there are some inconsistencies (or, at least, unexplained circumstances) with the magic. Ponyo’s birth and existence as a fish-girl are themselves in question. Her transformation to human form also somehow upsets the balance of the world, in way that is never entirely clear. In the end, however, the movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief anyway. It is, after all, about a magical fish-girl. So most viewers likely will have no problem overlooking a few other mysteries.
I personally found most of the characters very likable. Sosuke is an intelligent, thoughtful child who seems to have an open heart for everyone around him: Ponyo, his mother, the women at the senior center where his mother works. Ponyo, as a human, can border on annoying since she has a penchant for repeating things, but her exuberance and wonder at all her new experiences are ultimately catching. Even Ponyo’s father, the story’s “villain” has enough complexity and depth to allow viewers to understand the actions he takes to retrieve his daughter from the “evil” humans.
Ponyo’s father also has an obsession with saving the environment, particularly the ocean, which I thought would become a major theme. However, it never truly did. His concern about pollution ends up mostly explaining only his personality; there does not seem to be a larger message for the audience. The real theme of the movie is actually love. The plot focuses on the love between Sosuke and Ponyo, which Sosuke is asked to dramatically prove, but viewers see him exhibit the same type of unconditional love for other characters. His actions ultimately become a model for the adults in the story, as well.
Ponyo is an endearing film that truly celebrates the innocence and wonder of childhood. Many of Miyazaki’s films are about growing up, but Ponyo recognizes that children have valuable talents and worldviews that adults should consider emulating. Both fun and inspiring, this is a great film.
Note: The English subtitles were very different from the English dubbing, with the subtitles being more philosophical and focused on abstract ideas like destiny.
By Sam Garton
Release Date: April 29, 2014
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Summary: Otter lives with Otter Keeper and her best friend Teddy. One day when Otter Keeper goes to work, the pair have an exciting adventure.
Why I Want to Read It: Okay, from the official summary I have no idea what this book is about, but I have followed Otter and Teddy’s adventures for a long time and I was smitten with the pair from the beginning. It seems impossible not to love the charmingly ungrammatical Otter, even when she’s making a mess and blaming Teddy. Dare I hope that not only will this become a series, but that there will also be plushies?
Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Writers: Tetsurō Sayama (comic), Chizuru Takahashi (comic illustrator), Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa (screenwriters)
Teenagers Umi and Shun fall in love as they work together to save their school clubhouse from demolition. A secret from their past, however, threatens to tear them apart.
From Up on Poppy Hill possesses a rare, quiet beauty, the kind that does not fully reveal itself until some time after the story has ended. In part, this stems from the quiet nature of the story itself; it unfolds so simply and so naturally that one hardly feels a spectator of a work of art. Instead, the viewer seems a part of Umi and Shun’s world, a sharer in their joys and in their sorrows. Not until the final scene has faded does the full power of the story hit. Then it is a swift, sharp blow: it hurts in its intensity.
Plot-wise, not everyone may find something remarkable about From Up on Poppy Hill. Two threads intertwine to form the story: one follows the budding romance of Umi and Shun and the other follows the proposed demolition of a beloved school building. The world has seen both before. It is the characters that set this tale apart.
Umi and Shun’s story so easily could have turned into a turbid affair, some sick thing reminiscent of Greek myth or tragedy and its often illicit longings. But the young lovers are so unassuming, so comfortable in their own sense of right and wrong that their very natures forbid such an occurrence. Instead they soldier on, determined to the right thing and not to succumb to despair. Their choice is as uplifting as it is, perhaps, unexpected. And somehow their tears bring light to the hearts of the viewers.
Providing some welcome comic relief to this troubled romance is a whole host of characters, as varied as any could wish. From the sleepy college student who boards in Umi’s house to the somewhat socially inept philosopher to the archaeology students who so desperately want to be “cool,” there is no dearth of endearing quirkiness among the ensemble. None of them, however, ever becomes a caricature or a stereotype; the love the creators feel for each (no matter how minor a role they have) imbues them with individual life. Soon, one feels acquainted with them all, as if they were people and not pictures on a screen.
From any Studio Ghibli film one expects exceptional quality—beautiful art, sympathetic characters, and a whisper of magic. From Up on Poppy Hill, however, gained a special place in my heart. The quiet uprightness of Umi and Shun, and their youthful innocence, contrasted with the confusion and vitality of their schoolmates, enchanted me. They promise viewers that there are still good people in the world, people who long to do right. And they inspire viewers to take a little bit of their courage and their integrity with them.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Eiko Kadono (novel), Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay)
At the age of thirteen, witches set out to live independently for a year in another city. Young witch-in-training Kiki is excited to live in a city by the sea, but she worries that the only magical ability she possesses is to fly. She therefore starts a flying delivery service, but her continued insecurities lead to a loss of her powers. Will Kiki learn to believe in herself before she loses her magic forever?
Kiki’s Delivery Service enchanted me the first time I saw it and it loses none of its power with age. I remember the film fondly as fun and bright, a tale that includes a talking cat, an endearingly awkward boy, and an exciting air rescue. But now when I watch it, I see past Kiki’s bubbly exterior to the deep uncertainty that dogs her every step. She may approach the world with an almost wild confidence and a certain admirable recklessness, but underneath it she’s only a thirteen-year-old girl and she cares more about fitting in with her peers than she does about training. How funny that I never realized before how muck Kiki hates that black dress and what it seems to signify–a separation from other children, an “otherness” that can’t be bridged. After all, from my perspective, who wouldn’t want to be Kiki, setting off for new adventures, soaring fearlessly through the sky on her broomstick, and talking, actually talking, to her cat!
From my new perspective, I realize that a certain poignancy pervades the film. Kiki arrives to an intially hostile city, yet quickly (almost miraculously) settles in, finding herself a place to live, an easy way to earn money, and an invitation to friendship. And yet the entire time she fails to see the things that are in front of her eyes, choosing instead to isolate herself in her high room. Kiki’s aversion to Tombo never made sense to me–he’s the male lead in this film, he’s clearly nice despite his almost stalkerish tendencies, right?–but now I understand that it was nothing Tombo did, but only Kiki’s fear of discovering he didn’t want her after all. It was the same with the children in the car. Like them, I used to think they must have said something Kiki somehow found offensive. But again, Kiki’s only enemy is herself. It is a dark realization.
I mourn a little bit my lost innocence. I remembered this film as having a rather standard plot–the one where a plucky girl momentarily loses belief in herself, but then saves the day. Instead I find a bittersweet story about the tensions inside a young girl as she struggles to gain her independence and to accept herself while always remembering that she is dependent on others and that she will always be different. It’s difficult not to feel pain watching Kiki unwittingly sabotage herself time and again.
And yet, this is a bright and fun story, one where people can fly, cats can talk, and miracles can happen. Kiki lives surrounded by the most extraordinary people, from the couple who take her in with no questions asked to the artist who helps her listen to her heart. This is a world mostly full of love and trust. Time and again Kiki walks into people’s lives and their homes, fearing nothing and finding herself rewarded with friends. Sometimes, now, I find it almost too good to be true.
Though my cynical older self may have more difficulty accepting Miyazaki’s world, I cannot deny that it is one in which I very much want to believe. I want to believe that Kiki can fly, that she has accepted herself and that that makes all things possible. I want to believe that people are inherently good and that in approaching others I will always find a friend. I want to believe that bright cities by the sea exist, untouched by the horrors of war. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe if enough of us believe, like Kiki, we, too, can achieve the impossible.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
When Mei and Satsuki Kusakabe move to the countryside, they discover the woods nearby are inhabited by magical spirits called Totoros.
My Neighbor Totoro possesses a charm that is, perhaps, all its own. No other film that I can think of, not even from Studio Ghibli, has quite the same blend of childlike belief, natural wonder, and magical strangeness as the background for its story. From the first moments when we see the family ride through the countryside to their new home, audiences know that something extraordinary must await them—and yet everything around them looks perfectly normal. The film just succeeds in suggesting the potential of magic without even seeming to try.
And what a magic the children find! It is like nothing that viewers could have predicted. Its rules are unexplained, its ways strange, and its appearances almost frightening. Yet at the same time it manages to seem benign, even friendly. It is a part of the home and yet also part of nature. It is everywhere, yet typically nowhere to be found. It goes its ways as it pleases, yet never seems standoffish. Somehow, it just is. And audiences accept it as they find it.
The children, of course, are our guides to understanding this new world. They embrace it whole-heartedly, taking its existence for granted and never questioning its benevolence. It is wild and strange, but they trust it with the type of trust only children can bestow and they find themselves richly rewarded. To see the world through their eyes—young, innocent, and unafraid—is a great gift, and one that helps weave the enchantment more strongly.
I am always amazed at the eye Miyazaki has for human nature. The details he imparts to his characters make them come to life and I wonder if I have ever seen an animated child seem quite so childlike as I do when I watch his two young protagonists laugh and shriek gleefully for no reason, or when I see them tripping about the yard totally oblivious to their clothing—to stains, to tears, and to the flashing of undergarments. These seem not to be animations but real people. I half expect them to step off the screen.
Some may find the lack of a well-defined plot in My Neighbor Totoro a disappointment, but I believe that the richness of Miyazaki’s world and the beauty of his character depictions are all that this story needs. It presents to us a moment in two lives, a moment that contains all the meaning in the world. There is love and life and laughter and beauty in that moment, as well as sorrow and loneliness and fear. And if that is not a story, and one worth telling, then what is?
Starting today, April 13, Pages Unbound will be celebrating the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Come back all week long for reviews of some of your favorite stories, including Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro, as well as a look at some of the Studio Ghibli films you may not have had a chance to see yet. Miyazaki’s work has touched our lives for many years, introducing us to magical worlds where castles fly, cats talk, and love is always mightier than the sword. We are excited to discuss these films with you and hope that you will join us! Here’s a sneak preview of what you can expect:
Goodreads: The Boys of Blur
Source: Received from publisher
Published: April 8, 2014
Charlie has never known where he belonged, not with a father who left him and a new stepfather who brought his family to live in a big house that never felt like home. But now his stepfather has returned to the place where he grew up–Taper, Florida, where football is what matters and the boys learn speed by chasing rabbits through the burning sugarcane. Charlie wants to belong here, too, but an ancient evil lurks in the swamps and the only way for him to save the lives of those he loves may be for him to sacrifice his own.
N. D. Wilson consistently defies the expectations associated with middle-grade fantasy. In his latest book, The Boys of Blur, he immediately subverts the genre by introducing not just a main character with a stable, loving family but one who forms part of a racially mixed family. Moments like those, moments when you know the author cares about reaching his or her audience and meeting them wherever they are at, whatever walks of life they are are travelling, are what makes stories special. That was the moment when I knew I was going to love this book.
Wilson actually has a strong track record of avoiding the infamous middle-grade orphan as well as those annoying prevalent “missing” parents. Reading a bunch of books about children with no one to look after them or care for them is rather depressing, not only because I feel terrible for all those unloved children, but also because it suggests in a way that children with parents cannot have adventures. Throw any sort of competent authority figure in the picture and evidently you’re destined for boredom. Wilson’s stories, however, show just the opposite. In his worlds, magic waits around every corner and is free for anyone who comes.
Transporting elements of Beowulf to Florida is, in that sense, a rather genius move. As a young nation, the United States lacks that great sense of depth that makes the magical seem plausible in other settings such as England. However,with a flick of his pen, Wilson creates that magical mythical background for America. Wilson’s may not really reach back to the times of the Anglo-Saxons (though it’s hard to know) but it feels ageless enough to satisfy any young readers who mourned a distinct lack of King Arthurs or Robin Hoods in their own backyards.
And this really is a story for young readers, one of those classic coming-of-age tales where the hero digs deep inside himself to discover what really matters and what it will take for him to be the kind of person he wants to be. As always, Wilson pulls no punches and the truth may be bigger than expected–in this world, love is what matters and the greatest way to show one’s love is to give one’s life. There is a certain amount of respect from Wilson in laying this down that I think his readers will not fail to appreciate. The young, like the old, are called to give of themselves, and Wilson believes they can do it. That they should do it. Perhaps there is nothing so terrible for children as wanting to be needed, wanting to do good and being told they cannot.
These are the types of themes commonly called “universal”, but The Boys of Blur is deliberately set in a very particular place with a very particular cast of characters. This is a story that seems as if it could never be set elsewhere besides the swamps of Florida and the burning sugarcane. There is that much love poured into the setting. You can identify with a character, the story seems to say, but identification has to go beyond noting the similarities into realizing–and celebrating–the differences. Welcome to Taper, Florida. You’ll learn to love it, too.
The Boys of Blur is admittedly rather different from what I have come to expect from Wilson after reading the 100 Cupboards trilogy and the first three books in the Ashtown Burials series. The magic is a little more subtle. The evil somehow darker, more sinister. But the Wilson trademarks–the magical interspersed with the everyday, the heroes learning what “heroic” really means, the strong bonds among family–are all there. And like every Wilson book, this is a journey you want to take.
Goodreads: The First Escape
Series: The DoppleGanger Chronicles #1
Fourteen-year-old twin sisters Saskia and Sadie Dopple live in Isambard Dustan’s School for Wayward Children where they amuse themselves by wreaking havoc upon their disagreeable teachers. One day, however, a woman comes to adopt Saskia, bringing her to live in a mysterious old house that hides an ancient treasure. Suddenly Saskia finds her life in jeopardy and it is up to Sadie and the twins’ friend Erik to escape the orphanage and save the day.
The First Escape was my first illustrated novel and so I know nothing about the conventions of these particular books, nor what elements would make an illustrated novel considered to be a stand-out. I assume, however, that one does not lightly choose to create an illustrated novel rather than a graphic novel or just a novel; something about the story must make both pictures and words seem integral to the telling. And yet I do not think that the somewhat uncommon format serves The First Escape particularly well.
As far as I can tell, the words were included because they could provide descriptions of people and some background information that would not translate well into dialogue, at least not without taking up a lot of space and creating a lot of expository conversations that might seem forced. The pictures were included for all the action scenes–a lot of fighting, chasing, and escapes were depicted. Sometimes it was like watching one of those action movies where you start to doze off a bit because stuff keeps exploding and you’re not really sure why and you’re not even sure what’s happening or that it even makes sense, but someone somewhere apparently thought it looked cool. In the end, it just seemed a little too utilitarian for me. The story does not feel like it needed to be told as an illustrated novel. Instead, it feels a little like a graphic novel with words added to save the bother of solving the problem of exposition. Or maybe it is a novel that does not want to address how to write good action scenes. Either way, it seems a little off.
The plot proved interesting enough to keep me going through the whole book, however. Sadie and Saskia seemed like they could be good fun (although, in reality, they were rather more mean than high-spirited), as did their friend Erik–a former thief turned honest and eager to try to make it big. Unfortunately, I did not get to know the characters as well as I had hoped. All the action and mysteries crammed into the book left little room for character development and all too often I felt as if someone were just throwing random plot elements at my head. Ghosts! Police! Crazy magicians! Batty old woman! Creepy puppet! Is it a ghost story? A mystery? A boarding school tale? Why choose when you can have it all?
And then the random religious elements crept in. I do not object to religious elements, but these made little sense and were, I regret to say, slightly heavy-handed. A woman named Madame Raphael appears to teach Saskia how to eat peas properly and it is clear she must be an angel. But why is she there? Apart from leading Saskia to a room, she seems to have done little in the way of making sure the day was saved. It just begs the question of whether an angel that one can see is really necessary for the plot. Saskia could have found her way to that room seemingly alone and it could have been clear that some sort of divine will was at work. I can only assume that the angel was made visible so that no one could mistake the religious significance, but I find it hard to believe that a supernatural being would stick around on earth just to teach etiquette.
The First Escape was a quick read and I am interested enough in the characters to try the second book. I hope that the writing and the illustrations will begin to mesh together more naturally and that the next plot will not seem so confused. I also hope we learn a little more about what Madame Raphael is really doing. Whether I continue after that book, however, remains in question.