December 10, 2008

Into the Volcano

Into the Volcano by Don Wood is a rush.  I'm not up on the biographies of all of my favorite children's authors and illustrators and had actually wondered to myself in passing over the last couple of years what ever happened to Don Wood?  Remember those amazing picture books he did with his wife, Audrey back in the 80s and 90s?  Heckedy Peg, King Bidgood's In the Bath, The Napping House and more?  Some of the best ever, no exaggeration.  Then Audrey and her son have been publishing books solo and collaborating but no Don.  Had they divorced; had he died?  I wondered, but never looked it up.

Then I start seeing advance reviews of this puppy in the late summer and I think, wow, he's gone and shifted his whole paradigm on us.  He has been busy.  Not a picture book this time, a graphic novel.  Not painstakingly perfect paintings, but computer drawn and colored this time around.  Not a book for young  readers, but a middle-age and above adventure.

Whoa.  Took me a few to wrap my mind around it.

I have to say up front, unless it wins some awards I don't see this being a huge seller unless it gets a big push at book fairs or something.  It's got all the elements it's target audience will enjoy, but the target audience won't know who Don Wood is and since it's not part of a series or anything, they won't be on the lookout for it.  They're parents won't buy it because they won't hear about it unless it gets some end-of-the-year book list or award play.  And it's wonderfully dark in places which might put some off.

But us bloggers do what we can.  It's already been well-received by 100 Scope Notes, Fuse #8, Educating Alice, Wilson Knut, A Year of Reading and more.  So here's hoping it finds it's way into the hands of some readers and grows its audience.  Recommend it to the Hatchet and Holes crowd.
I must also say, I wasn't immediately blown away by the art, even though it is a highlight.  It was so different from his previous work and not at all mainstream graphic novel-ish that it took me some time to appreciate what he was doing.  Then the personal nature of the art and hand-lettering grew on me and by the end I couldn't wait to turn back to page one and start over.

The story is gripping as well, so even if you aren't a fan of the art, you'll be too busy trying to find out what happens to the main characters to quibble.  It's a fantastic adventure yard in the best Gary Paulson tradition with a little Tom & Huck, Stephen King and Treasure of the Sierra Madre thrown in.

These two Samoan-looking brothers are whisked out of school in the opening, hastily introduced to their large and intimidating "uncle" and sent off to their mother's home island to meet their "auntie" while Dad travels for some important business and mom is off in Borneo doing research. In no time they are on a breathtaking island with a colorful cast of characters wondering along with the reader just what the heck is going on?  It starts to dawn on them that almost no one is exactly what they seem and that they might even be in some kind of danger.  This is pretty well confirmed as they are taken on an expedition into the bowels of an active--and I do mean active--volcano.

The best part is the sense of place.  The island and caves and water and volcano are to this story what the desert camp was to Holes--practically a character unto themselves.  Apparently Don Wood is living this life in Hawaii and it infuses the book with a wonderful and terrible beauty all its own.

There are many questions left unanswered by the end (why exactly did Dad send them?), but no important ones.  The important stuff--courage, fear, family--is dealt with quite starkly (I wasn't kidding about the Stephen King reference) and the catharsis it provides is, like I said before, quite a rush.  An amazing performance and a real achievement.  I can't wait to see what he's got in store for us next.