My daughter and I have read a lot of books together this year. A LOT. But, as the year winds down and I find myself looking back at our favorite books of 2012 – the instant classics, the bedtime staples, the required road-trip reading – I keep coming back to Giants Beware!, a fantastic, tour de force graphic novel by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, which stands as one of the best examples of comics for kids that I’ve ever read.
And, because due diligence is important, I did check with my daughter before bedtime last night and she did authorize me to, quote-unquote, “tell your blog, Dad, that Giants Beware is my favorite new book I read this year.” So, it’s unanimous – Giants Beware is Building a Library’s Best Book of 2012.
What’s so great about Giants Beware? It’s hard to know where to start. I’ve been trying to review it for most of the year, but there are times when I like a book so much that I almost find it impossible to write about it. I find myself tripping over my words, unable to express how much I enjoy the book in question, until I’m halfway tempted to just type “Book am good. Make me happy” and be done with it. But Giants Beware does so much right, it deserves better and, thus, here we are.
With Giants Beware, Aguirre and Rosado have created a blockbuster reading experience. What I mean by that is – this graphic novel is so smart, exciting, accessible, and entertaining that, if it was a movie, it would make $500 million dollars at the box office. The experience of reading Giants Beware is akin to watching a Pixar movie. (One of the best ones.) You just sit there amazed at being told a story with such obvious genius and craftsmanship and also at how you and your child are both able to appreciate it on multiple levels.
That is all to say, I really, really like Giants Beware and so does my kid.
The story revolves around Claudette, a headstrong tomboy who’s always clutching a wooden sword and who can’t wait to one day leave her provincial village and prove herself as a mighty giant slayer. Her father, the town blacksmith, used to be a renowned adventurer (and is now missing a few limbs due to those adventures), and Claudette is aching to follow in his phantom footsteps. She especially wants to set off on a quest to a local mountain range to hunt down a legendary local giant with a reputation for eating babies’ feet. (Aguirre and Rosado are able to make the alleged baby-feet-eating into something that’s really funny as opposed to downright chilling.)
Claudette is just a fantastic creation – she’s so singularly obsessed with killing monsters that she can barely see anything else in the world. She’s funny, clever, earnest, and loyal – her loyalty particularly shines through when it comes to her best friend Marie and her little brother Gaston. (One of my favorite Claudette lines comes after she dispatches some bullies who were picking on Gaston – “Violence is not just efficient. It feels good, too.”)
However, Claudette is so obsessed with slaying the feet-eating giant that she tricks Marie and Gaston into accompanying her on a giant-slaying quest – a quest that was expressly forbidden by both her father and the town’s ruling Marquis (who happens to be Marie’s father). As the kids set off across the countryside towards their date with a giant, pursued doggedly by their annoyed parents, they encounter witches, haunted trees, mad river kings, and a wide variety of fairy tale oddities, experiences that help them test their meddle, conquer their fears, and learn a lot more about the strange world around them.
Giants Beware is a very fun read that really connected with my daughter. It’s a longer graphic novel – around 200 pages – but, the first time I finished reading it to her, my daughter asked me to immediately re-read it, which has never happened before. But the re-read factor isn’t the only reason why I regard this as our favorite book of 2012. While, I’ll admit, there were books we read this year that packed a deeper emotional punch (a tear-jerker, this ain’t), Giants Beware is just an exceptionally accomplished piece of work, a work that shouldn’t be trivialized just because you could accurately describe it as “a fun adventure.”
And, personally, one of the main reasons why I think I’ve responded to Giants Beware so strongly is that it expertly plays with so many of the children’s literature themes and tropes that I keep obsessing about on this blog (to the point where it almost feels like it crawled out of my subconscious at times). For example, let me list FIVE areas where I think Giants Beware really, really excels:
1. It’s an Ideal Comic Book for Kids
Recurring readers know that I’m a big proponent of exposing kids to comic books and graphic novels, but, as I’ve complained about before, most comic books aren’t designed in a way to make them accessible to developing readers. The vast majority of so-called “kid’s comics” have miniscule font sizes, hectic layouts, and little-to-no concern with helping new readers follow their way throughout the story. Giants Beware, on the other hand, excels at making itself both accessible and appealing to younger readers. The text is extremely readable, the layouts are clean and clear, and the visual storytelling is top-notch. Even though it’s 200 pages long, Giants Beware is a very quick, readable work for kids. I’d almost equate it to a beginning chapter book, along the lines of a Mercy Watson book, and there just aren’t that many kid’s graphic novels out there that pay such careful attention to the needs of new readers.
2. It’s a Book with a Princess That You Won’t Hate
My most-read post of all time is my “Six Princess Books for Parents Who Really, Really Hate Princess Books” article, so my radar always goes up whenever I see a princess-type character in a book I’m handing to my daughter. In Giants Beware, the character in question is Marie, Claudette’s best friend and the daughter of the town’s Marquis. When asked if she thinks she’s a princess just because her father runs the village, Marie dryly responds, “I don’t think I’m a princess. I merely aspire to become one.” And she really does aspire to be a princess. Marie tests herself with mattresses and peas (the old standard), she takes etiquette classes – she views being a princess as a noble profession of sorts. And, in that way, Aguirre offers up a unique take on the whole “storybook princess” ideal that I’ve never really seen before.
Rather than turning Marie into an overly-prim, sparkly-princess sop of a girl, Aguirre really portrays Marie as a very driven, career-minded young woman. Yes, she wants to be able to feel a pea through twenty mattresses, but that’s just because she sees it as part of the job requirement. She’s actually interested in the practical applications of being a princess and, as the story progresses, her knowledge of formalities and etiquette actually saves her friends’ lives at one point. And, towards the story’s conclusion, Marie eventually realizes that her dream job (i.e. “princess”) might actually go by a different name (i.e. “diplomat”). I honestly can’t think of another kid’s book that has found such a clever way to interpret the iconic princess role as a proto-diplomat – re-imagining a princess as a Hillary Clinton figure – but it’s a really impressive accomplishment and made me proud to share the book with my daughter.
3. It Handles Gender Really, Really Well
I’ve already told you about its two aggressive, strong-willed female leads, so you may have a pretty good indication that Giants Beware is a fairly gender-progressive book, but I also have to mention what an excellent job Aguirre does with the character of Gaston, Marie’s younger brother. Gaston is a conflicted kid. He aspires to be a pastry chef, which completely bewilders his rough-and-tumble father, but he also wants to learn the family trade – blacksmithing. In a lesser work, Gaston would’ve been portrayed as a slightly fey and feminine kid who stood as the polar opposite of his working-class father, but Aguirre and Rosado went in another direction and made Gaston infinitely more interesting.
The authors realized that a boy could enjoy both making delicate pastries AND iron-forged broad swords without the two passions conflicting or without causing any gender confusion. Gaston is just a kid who loves creating and, in his own mind, he has no problem with his dueling interests. He doesn’t assign a gender to either cooking or blacksmithing. Neither is a boy or a girl task. He just enjoys them both. The journey in Giants Beware is watching Gaston’s father realize that the role of chef and blacksmith don’t have to be mutually gender exclusive and that a kid who can make a dynamite chocolate roulade should have no problem taking over the family’s iron trade. It’s a small detail in the scope of the overall book, but, again, it’s just one of those little touches that elevates Giants Beware above the rest.
4. It Has Fun with Fairy Tales
I love skewed takes on fairy tales and Giants Beware has a lot of fun playing with the conventions of folklore. The story actually opens with a local townsman telling the legend of the baby-feet-eating giant, a story that Claudette immediately starts challenging. And, along their quest, the children find themselves trying to survive encounters with a variety of fairy tale icons (a witch with a magic mirror, an underwater king), but Aguirre and Rosado never play the legends completely straight. The mythological creatures in Giants Beware are always familiar but feel new, and their various idiosyncrasies are always designed in ways that help highlight and develop Claudette and her friends. This is a book that really excels at world-building, and the misunderstood magical wilderness outside of Claudette’s village feels extremely well imagined and lived in. Aguirre and Rosado have already announced that they’re working on a sequel to Giants Beware and it doesn’t surprise me. They obviously have a lot more to say about the fairy tale genre and I can’t wait to hear it.
5. The Artwork is Gorgeous
Rafael Rosado is an amazingly talented illustrator and there is a real iconic beauty to his design work in Giants Beware. I compared the graphic novel to a Pixar film earlier and that’s partially because reading a story illustrated in Rosado’s expressive, animated style almost feels like watching an expertly-produced cartoon. His skill with sequential storytelling and character work just carries your eyes across the page and makes Giants Beware simply a delight to read. (It’s no surprise that Rosado is a veteran of the animation industry.) I kept finding myself comparing Rosado’s design to the work of Bink & Gollie‘s Tony Fucile (another animation heavy-hitter), and that’s great company to be in.
So, as I said before, that is all a very, very long-winded way for me to say – I really, really love Giants Beware and so does my kid. It was our favorite new book we read this year and we can’t wait for Claudette and her pals to head out on more adventures.
If your kid likes comic books, they will love this book. If your kid has never read a comic book or graphic novel, but you think they’d be interested in trying one, I can’t suggest a better one to start with than Giants Beware.
THE DETAILS ON GIANTS BEWARE:
AGE RANGE: The stated reading level for Giants Beware is 7 and up, but my five year old didn’t have a big problem with it. There’s nothing objectionable or particularly scary in the book – no scarier than your normal spooky fairy tale – so you could definitely read it with much younger kids. The only thing really younger kids might take issue with is the length, but the book is episodic enough that you could break up the reading over several nights.
PAGE COUNT: 202 pages
RELATED WEB SITES: Here’s the link to the official First Second/Macmillian page for Giants Beware where you can find an extended preview of the book (with lots of art), videos, an interview with the creators, and more. Rosado and Aguirre also have their very own official Claudette page – GiantsBeware.com – where you can read their blog, learn about their plans for a sequel, and contact the creators.
If you go here, you can find a link to the AMAZING downloadable activity guide Aguirre and Rosado created for Giants Beware. Lots of publishers occasionally put together some downloadable coloring pages or word searches for their kid’s books, but the Giants Beware activity kit is really something special. It’s got coloring pages, a guide to drawing the characters, puzzles, a recipe – I’d gladly pay for a coloring book this cool, but they’re giving it away for free, so enjoy it, dear readers. (It’s even more free if you print it at work!)
BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: Buy it. It’s really good. Honestly. You won’t regret it.
IF YOU LIKED GIANTS BEWARE, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke – Another fantastic graphic novel with a great female lead published by First Second Books (love those guys). But, rather than a fractured fairy tale, this is an uber-fun serialized space adventure in which a determined young Earth girl named Zita follows her friend through a portal to another world and finds herself making allies and enemies – and becoming a hero – as she tries to save her pal. The story structure is very, very similar to Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (one of our favorite movies) and Hatke’s genial, exotic space epic is an extremely fun read. Worth checking out.