To visit a natural history museum is to find yourself keenly interested, perhaps unexpectedly so, in bones. You may have thought plenty about the dusty archeologist who discovered those bones, but you might not have spent much time considering the person (or people) whose work is to assemble those bones into the shapes you see in the museum. Those bone-constructors bring the creatures back to life, resurrecting them in our minds-eye, into something we can imagine with flesh and fur, body and spirit. And imagine we do. We all know what a Stegosaurus looks like. Or a Tyrannosaurus Rex with his tiny arms? The bones are what give us access to that picture; however, there is much we assume when we add to the bones. Perhaps the leathery skin of the stegosaurus wasn't grey or brown but rather iridescent? Perhaps the skull was covered in long, flowing hair? Does that change the way we see, understand, and feel about the stegosaurus?
Kat Leyh's new graphic novel Snapdragon is a great example of what happens when we all choose to focus on the bones, the stuff of ourselves, the true beings we have inside that may or may not match what can be seen on the outside.
Oh, and there's also a character who puts skeletons together. She may be a witch. She is definitely more than she appears. In fact, all the characters in this book defy expectations. The main character is named Snapdragon, following the family tradition of naming your daughter after your favorite flower. Snapdragon is the perfect floral name for this girl as she is anything but sugar and spice. At one point, her mom asks, "Do you feel like you're a boy? Like the way Lu's a girl?" And Snapdragon replies,
No, mama. I'm just . . . I'm not like other girls. I wondered if maybe I was really a boy, like Lulu's a girl . . . but that don't feel right, either. . . I feel like a girl. . . . I just don't act right.
What follows is powerful, and it occurs again and again throughout this book. Snap's mama turns off the car, turns her body all the way to her daughter, and says,
Let's get one thing straight. You stood up for yourself, and your friend, against a bully - - so you act just fine. I'm proud of who you are, baby - - and I don't want you actin' any other way. Got it?
What's remarkable about this story is that the "differences" each character is dealing with are not the main tension of the story. There's a moment, but that's all it is. After the moment of recognition, those around him or her just keep right on, hardly blinking in their insistence that whoever you are is just right. Over and over, I kept wondering what it would be like if every child grew up in a world like this one, where "different" was the norm, each set of bones covered over with love and acceptance.
So, if the differences aren't the main tension of the story, what is? More accurately, what ARE the plot points around which this story spins - because there are plenty. Suffice it to say there is unexpected friendship, love over and across years, family complications, dogs, possums, ghosts, and magic. I told you about the witch, right? If that all sounds like more than one graphic novel can reasonably manage, think again. It's all there, and it all works. Just like an intricate skeleton giving shape to its living thing, the bones of this book are complex yet sensible, mysterious yet relatable, solid and sure and sometimes completely unexpected.
The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.
OST: There will be lots of voices championing Snap and her fellow wonder-characters, but I doubt the committee will go with graphic novels two years in a row.
Previous titles under consideration:
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
A Many Feathered Thing by Lisa Gerlits
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan
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