Here in Sueño Bay, Robertson Island, it rains over two hundred days a year. Central Shores back on the mainland gets less than forty-five days. Oh, and there are earthquakes.
Why would anyone live here? I’ve been here three weeks…
My name is Oliver. Tonight I’m booking my ticket back to Central Shores. The bus leaves Sunday. So one more day of Sueño Bay.
In this first volume of the new graphic-novel “Sueño Bay Adventures” series for early-grade readers, young orphan Ollie finds himself moving in with his grandfather on a remote Pacific Northwest island where his first impulse is to book a ticket on a bus back to his hometown. Hearing of mysterious monsters at a trailer in the forest, a trailer owned by their grumpy gym teacher Ms. Grundle. Ollie and his schoolmates Kay, Jenna, and Sleeves investigate and free two racoon-like creatures from the trailer, only to be pursued by Ms. Grundle. Discovering that racoon-like creatures are legendary “moon creatures” who need locally available moon crystals to live, the four take a boat to Shadow Island to bring the creatures home, and there they are shipwrecked and pursued by moon creatures who’ve turned into monsters in the absence of life-giving crystals. Encountering Ms. Grundle again, they learn that she is trying to protect the creatures and find a supply of the dwindling crystals. The group unearth a lode underneath a rockslide and the monsters turn back into harmless moon creatures.
Although the story starts off with a fairly light premise and is sometimes short on the backstory legend, this breezy graphic novel gradually wins over the heart of the reader, using devices such as the cute moon creature who follows Ollie home (who he names Conker after the chestnuts he feeds it as a snack), the peril faced by the group as they shipwreck on the island, and Ollie’s own sense of isolation and loneliness, illustrated by the brief appearance of his grandfather who yearningly asks Ollie if he’s eating in his room once again.
Ollie is a sympathetic character, but each of his newfound group of friends stands out as well: Kay is a fountain of gossip and knowledge and lives in a converted bus outside her home; Jenna is rule-bound but as resourceful as she is cautious; her younger brother Sleeves is whiny and runny-nosed but frequently saves the day when he notices something the others don’t. When Sleeves and Ollie are trapped in a cave ditch after being pursued by the monsters (mainly Sleeves’ fault because he jumps into the ditch instead of helping Ollie climb out), it is Sleeves who thinks of using his life vest whistle to alert Jenna and Kay, and it is he who later recalls that there were crystals in the cave, eventually leading them to the buried lode. When Ollie gets upset and screams that he has no family here and wants to go home to Central Shores, it is Sleeves who suggests that maybe he has a home in Sueño Bay after all.
The character of Ms. Grundle is the only one that seems a bit one-dimensional, being painted (and assumed by the kids) as a stereotypical ugly, evil villain, right down to an unrealistically hooked nose. Readers may wonder why, other than her reputation as a strict gym teacher, the kids assume that she must be performing evil experiments on the moon creatures, and why she acts “evil” even in scenes where she is alone. When she turns out to be not a villain but part of a family long-devoted to the well-being of the moon creatures, her observation that “I can be a touch abrasive at times” does not completely square with her “I’ve got you meddlers” as she pursues the kids. Still, the transformation of an unlikeable enemy into a quiet hero is important to the gentle resolution to a story that stays just this side of frightening for the youngest readers.
As a graphic novel, the book follows the tradition of multiple panels with varying points of view and scale, demonstrating rather than describing actions as well as using facial expressions to show emotion. In this, it might occasionally be confusing to the younger readers that it is intended for. The text is almost entirely made up of dialogue, capturing the essence of young to middle grade kids well, but it will, nonetheless, likely provide a fairly long and engrossing read, requiring sustained attention (and review) of panels in order for the story to emerge. The illustration is full of an endearing sense of place as well as of most of the characters, but it is less successful in its depiction of the moon crystals and their aura, depicted in cartoonish, largely white space; however, the review copy is as yet uncoloured and the final version may deal with the supernatural elements more successfully. A charming read and a promising start to a new series.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and Vice-Chair of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations-Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques.