Laika and Robot Dreams have had all sorts of interesting things happen for them. . . . It's kind of interesting that these are both sort of on the young side; Laika is getting shelved a lot in the teen sections but it's not necessarily meant that way. And Robot Dreams definitely appears very young at first glance, but then many of the reviews caught on that it has strange, unexpected depth to it.I believe that by "sort of on the young side," Siegel meant that Laika and Robot Dreams were being recommended for younger readers than many other titles on his list. And he thought that people might be underestimating the ideal age for Robot Dreams, as I'll discuss soon as I finally finish reviewing the books I read for the 2007 Cybils Awards in the Graphic Novels category.
I have the same thought about Laika, a Cybils nominee in the Young Adult Graphic Novels category, even after the book received an Eisner Award for Best Publication for Teens this year. Aside from the comics format, what makes this a Young Adult book?
Laika is about a cute little dog. At the start there's also a cute little girl who tries to look after that dog. But most of the story takes place within the Soviet space bureaucracy without a teenager in sight; the heroine is a fictional young woman named Yelena Dubrovsky. If Abadzis had published the same well researched, fictionalized account of the first animal to go into orbit in prose form, we'd probably take it as a book for adults. (Abadzis's website about the book shows more about his research.)
That's not to say teens can't get nearly everything out of Laika as older readers can. Rather, it's just another piece of evidence that in our culture the comics format lowers the perceived age of a book's readership.
Laika is, necessarily, a dead-dog story. First Second's front flap compares it to Old Yeller, Shiloh, and Because of Winn-Dixie. But all those books about children losing beloved pets show the main characters learning valuable lessons about life in the bosom of their family. Laika's drama plays out in a workplace, and in the end Yelena no longer feels she can continue working for the space program.
And that's not all! Laika is a dead-dog story set in the old Soviet Union, mostly in the 1950s. We get to see Yelena's crowded apartment and the stultifying bureaucracy around her. As in real life, chief engineer Korolev was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag from 1938 to 1944, and the totalitarian shadow hangs over the whole enterprise.
Even the look of the book is Cold-War dreary. Aside from one or two sunlit pages (one of which showed up in this New York magazine preview, naturally), the palette is drab. James Vining's First in Space, about the chimpanzee that NASA sent into space after Laika, looks more cheery despite having no interior color at all. (Then again, the chimp survived.)
Abadzis's artwork fits his story, though I can't say I found the draftsmanship attractive. Technically, there were interesting touches. For instance, he gives Laika and other dogs their own word balloons as Yelena gets to know them; those balloons appear in color, unlike the humans'.
The small pages are usually filled with lots of small panels, with interesting variations in panel shapes every so often--again as shown in that preview. The lettering squeezed inside those panels was also necessarily small, sometimes at the edge of comfort for my eyes. So maybe that's what makes Laika a book for Young Adults after all.