Review of the Day: Night On the Mountain of Fear
If y'all aren't into graphic novels then I apologize for the prolific posts on the topic. But, as this review attests, it's not all a bed of roses. 90% of the GNs out there are craptacular. This one is a little less so since it has actual information in the back. Still, I'm ripped into this puppy full force. I figure if you have Scholastic, Inc. on your side, you can afford to take a hit from a minute blogger like myself.
For good or for ill I recently was asked to help pick out graphic novels for children of my library system. I suspect I was asked this partly because I am under the age of 30 and partly because my brother-in-law is a comic book inker. The upside is that I get to see lots and lots of new titles for kids. The down side is that more often than not they're truly terrible. I mean just awful stuff. Now recently Scholastic has been trying to corner the market on quality graphic novels for children. Somehow they missed the "Babymouse" boat, but they've already given us "Bone" and "The Baby-Sitters Club" series. It's not all good all the time though. Recently a co-worker threw a series title, "The Black Belt Club" onto my desk and asked me to read it through. I had no idea when I read this book just how heavily Scholastic was riding on it. Already the first book in the series (this is the second) has been optioned for a film. Go to the book's website and you'll learn about their hopes for an animated series, video games, the whole nine yards. There's just one catch. Unless the books become mighty popular, there won't be much point to all the hyping. And reading it through I have no idea if kids are gonna go in for its "prose and comic hybrid" style or not.
Max has never felt completely at ease as a member of the exclusive Black Belt Club. The club consists of four students who are sent by their sensei into the world to fight evil. Pretty standard stuff. After a disappointing demo team performance he returns to the dojo for a special assignment with his fellows. There they are told by a mysterious magical Native American woman named Grandmother Dancing Feather that there's been an imbalance between the four elements in the world. It's up to the kids to defeat The Hate Master (honestly, that's his name) and get the elements back in alignment. Along the way, Max has to face up to his fears as well as his own sorrows. But it's only through friendship that the four can join together and defeat their enemy once and for all.
The book is a combination of written prose and graphic novel elements. In a way, Scholastic is banking on this series to be a kind of link between straight out comic books and straight out literature. Like "Captain Underpants", this is supposed to bridge the gap. The funny thing is, Scholastic keeps referring to this series as the "first ever prose and comic hybrid". It says this on the book's webpage. Now this is where it gets funny. "Captain Underpants" came up with this style way way before Barnes ever did. And "Captain Underpants" is produced by Blue Sky Press which is an imprint of... Scholastic, Inc! So if Scholastic already has the real "hybrid" credited to their name, what the heck are they doing foisting credit to "The Black Belt Club" books? Just weird. Anyway, what was I saying? Ah yes. This new technique. Well, insofar as it goes, it works. The problem is not in the style but in the writing. THAT, unfortunately, is where it begins to fall apart.
Since the first book, Barnes has kicked up the emotional conflict. Her hero Max still has self-esteem issues and he sometimes doubts whether or not the three other members of the club are really his friends (a legitimate concern). There's also an odd backstory where Max is taken care of by his gruff karate-hating uncle because his father is so often away on business. None of that is really resolved in this book, however. Apparently by the end Max has discovered that, "There was nothing better in the whole wide world than having friends!". Also that, "love is stronger than hate". No real innovation or new ideas here. Barnes is perfectly content to rely on old overused phrases like these, when even a simple rewording could have conveyed the same thoughts without seeming overly trite. And that, unfortunately, is the problem with this series itself. It's just too simplistic. There's lots of fancy action sequences, and the parts with Max on his own are fine, but the moralistic tone is more than a little preachy and self-serving.
Then there are the weird elements. In this particular book, the kids are visited by a magical old Native American woman named Grandmother Dancing Feather. What tribe is she with? It apparently doesn't matter. What does matter is that she represents a kind of condensed be-one-with-the-world combination of every pseudo-Native American teaching out there. In the back of the book we're told that Dawn Barnes did some "personal studies" with a Seneca Shaman and a Ute Shaman. She then takes the very very vague notion of "interconnectedness between themselves [i.e. children] and other living beings" and smooshes it into one big mess. It's not that such ideas aren't legitimate. It's that she's watered and dumbed them down in what she obviously thought was a kid-friendly fashion. Then she takes the rather offensive route of having a magical person of another ethnicity guide the kids. Even EVEN if Barnes had said that the villain was a coyote (which apparently he is) and then explained who coyote was to some Native American tribes THEN she might have tied together a legitimate myth with her video-gamelike storyline. Instead she doesn't seem to want to spoil her tale with anything with that much depth. Pah.
The plot of the book is taken directly from Barnes's belief in a teaching style she has dubbed, "positive dialogue response". A November 1, 2005 issue of Entrepreneur said that this meant, "motivating children with praise rather than fear". Therefore fear is bad in her books. Anger's bad too. Part of the problem with the book is that Barnes equates anger with hate, making both out to be bad. I'm all for the "hate is bad" part, but anger has a real use in this world. It can be used to fight injustice, for example. Blasé people, for all their charms, won't go fighting for what is right if they don't feel angry with the situation at hand. Barnes doesn't quite acknowledge this and the book suffers.
Now Dawn Barnes (who bears a truly frightening resemblance to the Sensei featured in the books) has the credentials to pen this kind of "novel with action graphics". She's called the "Martha Stewart of Karate" in her own press releases. Already the Director of Children's Education for the National Association of Professional Martial Artists (does that make her a DOCENAPMA?) she's apparently a third-degree black belt. A Beverly Hills former ballerina black-belt, but a black belt all the same. A quick gander at her website at this moment in time shows that not much has happened with the book series since it sold its film rights back in July of 2005. In spite of its novel appearance, I wouldn't expect much more to happen either.
When it comes down to it, you can have a good idea for a kind of book, a good set of nonviolent attitudes, factual information on a karate technique, and still end up with a not-so-hotso book simply because the writing is sub-par. For those kids into the idea of karate, the book will be much loved and read. For others, however, the overly hokey writing will turn them away and they'll be far more interested in better books like "Bone". A fine title but nothing to get worked up about.