I know, I know, I promised you a Charles Darwin book list, and first I give you the Liddy family and now this– don’t worry, you’ll get it! (I still love those books, but I’m easily distracted, as we all know.)
But I just read the most fantastic graphic novel and I have to tell you about it while it’s: a) fresh in my mind, and b) NEW. AVAILABLE. BUY IT NOW. (I got it at my local Children’s Book Shop, you can surely buy it at yours!)
I’m still pretty new to the graphic novel medium, but, boy do I love it! Especially done so well as Dylan Meconis’s Queen of the Sea is: it feels fresh, new, yet timeless. It will last. Graphic novels done properly have everything I love about really good picture books, but on steroids. (Or maybe picture books done properly are like perfect graphic novels pared down to the pristine essentials. I don’t know which way it really goes, but they’re obviously related.)
The point is this: Dylan Meconis, in this case, is both verbal and visual storyteller and she gets it on point in both regards. This is perfect and you need it in your life. I’ll tell you why.
So, the story is set in Albion at the end of the reign of King Edmund, who leaves behind him two daughters: Eleanor, who ought to take the throne, and Catherine, who does take the throne, and rules with a high and bloody hand. The story is a loosely-veiled alternate history of the early days of Queen Elizabeth I, in fact, and it’s really got everything in it: folklore, mystery, history, a recipe for Truly Terrible Gruel, allegory, A FREAKING EMBROIDERY LESSON– I kid you not, this book is packed… and it never, for a fraction of an instant, feels overwhelming.
The story is gripping and moves along at a beautiful, measured pace, doubtless in part because the text is pared down to move quickly, but the art is so dynamic and blossoms so vividly on each page that it slows you down to catch each glorious detail. And the interjections about the monastic life, embroidery, and folklore simultaneously slow things down a bit more (“ah,” you catch yourself thinking, “what an interesting side note!”) and enrich the text (“oh,” you think ten pages further along, “that’s what that was for!”).
It’s a feat of storytelling genius, in other words. If Alan Moore could possibly have written for children, it might look something like this. OK, if you know Alan Moore’s work I just blew your mind, and if you don’t, you’re confused. Let me explain: a) To fans of Alan Moore: I know, the thought of Moore writing for kids is laughable, and the idea of comparing anyone to his genius is sacrilege. Stay with me a moment. b) To the uninitiated: Alan Moore pushes boundaries with his storytelling (the whole fictionalized history thing makes me think of that) and he also creates verbal mosaics of different styles, voices, and ideas. Dylan Meconis does this brilliantly with her wide array of characters and formats, from hagiography to history to witty and biting dialogue about chess, and so much more.
One of the overarching feats of Queen of the Sea is that it’s fresh and new, and a lot of that is down to the voice. It’s so easy for history books to get it wrong, but this is written very specifically for children without talking down to children, on the one hand, or speaking to adults while pretending to be for children, on the other hand.
The story is thrilling, the art is beautiful, and my six-year-old daughter is fascinated by it to a degree I find unfathomable. (It’s way, way too old for her and all she know is that it’s about a girl beside the sea. She’ll get there in four years, approximately.) That’s the attraction of the art at work. But the attraction of the words is just as strong: my brother-in-law was visiting, and he must have gotten about halfway through it, just drawn in by the story and the art, in the few hours he was in the house, while simultaneously being a charming guest. That’s how quickly the magic works.
And that’s the other wonderful thing about this graphic novel, although I feel sort of bad saying so: It’s so quick and easy to read. I don’t mean it’s “easy” as in “light” or “fluffy.” It’s just that it took me about two hours to read the whole thing. That’s it. Then I thought about it and went back over it and am now gushing to you, so it stayed with me. But graphic novels move. They move fast.
That makes me think about audience. This is obviously– perfectly– a book for nerds. I’d have loved it as a history nerd in middle school. (Around age 9 or 10, probably, or any age over that.) But I wonder whether it wouldn’t also entice a reluctant historian? “Who are these dead people I have to learn about?” I imagine someone whining. “Well,” says Dylan Meconis, “let’s talk about that, shall we?” It’s a hook into another world, just like any great work of fiction, but it’s also a hook into the world of history.
And that’s why I think it’s going to last. It’s not just a work of fiction, it’s also a work of history. And a good one. Good histories and good novels last. This is both, and I think it will prove timeless as a representation of how a brilliant twenty-first century mind grappled with the sixteenth century. I hope it does. And I hope for two other outcomes: a) That others will look at Dylan Meconis’s groundbreaking work and decide to follow in her footsteps in their own way, and b) that Dylan Meconis will continue writing and drawing for children. We need her work!