06 November 2008

Laika: One-Way Ticket

In March, icv2 ran an interview with Mark Siegel, the head of the First Second comics book publisher. He talked about a couple of his company's big titles of last fall:

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.


Anonymous said...

I have often wondered about the dead dog phenomenon in books. Why do dogs get so consistently killed off?*

It's why I passed on Laika. Couldn't bring myself to read yet another dead dog book.

*There are a few exceptions to this, of course, but they are far outnumbered by the offed dogs.

david elzey said...

I'm going to have to disagree here, fellow judge. I think that Laika is accessible to teens because of the graphic novel format. And I think our culture has a tendency to dumb down its expectations over what it appropriate for teens. I would have gone insane if I hadn't discovered Vonnegut, Lenny Bruce, and Phillip Roth when I was 14. And I am torn about the whole notion of YA books in general because of the way they are marketed to appeal toward lower standards.

I agree, the dead dog thing in kids books is annoying, clearly meant to manipulate a reader's emotions. But with Laika the story is true, so I accept it more readily.

J. L. Bell said...

I think that Laika as a graphic novel is accessible to both teens and adults (especially if the latter squint a bit).

Does saying that it's "accessible to teens because of the graphic novel format" imply that it wouldn’t be accessible to teens (or most teens) if it were in a mostly prose form?

As your example (and mine, and just about every other habitual reader's) shows, teens are usually capable of reading literature created for adults as long as it's interesting.

david elzey said...

As it is currently written, no, I don't think the book work work as prose. This is one of those situations where the illustrations work with the text in a way that balances the "heaviness" of the story.

And I agree, accessible for "teen and up" much the same as Maus.

J. L. Bell said...

There might also be different ways of thinking of "accessible." I think both teens and adults could read a prose account of the Soviet satellite launch. Whether many people of any age would want to is dubious. The graphic-novel format, at least in our current culture, definitely seems more "fun."

Anonymous said...

So, is it a good or a bad thing to take a topic you think teens wouldn't be interested in and dress it up with a graphic novel format to get their attention?

Are you condescending to the audience? Manipulating them against their own right to self-direction? Or are you the mentor bringing teens out into the wider world?

I think teens would have read the Holocaust story of Maus without the graphic novel format. Would they have had any interest in the story of the middle aged narrator? I think teens need to "read up" about adulthood the same way tweens read-up about teenagers. So I am glad when books give them the opportunity to do so.

But the way you have described it makes it seem almost like trickery.

Now that I think of it-- "for the good of the children" is always a danger in this field, in prose, or pictures. I guess it's just important to check our motivations from time to time.

Roger Sutton said...

I thought Laika was for adults, really. First Second does not categorize its books as juvenile or adult but says (said to me, anyway) that they do some of each as well as some-for-both. Thus my raised eyebrows when American Born Chinese won the Printz, which was supposed to be very strict about only being for books labeled YA by their publishers.

J. L. Bell said...

To the anonymous poster, I'm not sure whom you're referring to when you write "the way you have described it." And that's at least partly because you seem to be responding to the questions you've raised yourself rather than the posting or the comments.

I think Mike Abadzis created Laika in comics form because he's a comics writer and artist. I don't think he sat down to make a choice between prose and comics forms, and decided which was more likely to appeal to teenagers.

Later came the question of whom that graphic novel should be marketed to. In our culture, as I've written here and elsewhere, the comics form implies to a lot of people that the material is for younger readers. (Unless there are naked people in it.)

Reviewers seem to have been the first to start classifying Laika as a Young Adult graphic novel, a label I have some trouble with. (The "Young Adult" side, not—for once—the "graphic novel" side.) Or perhaps individual reviewers didn't feel that the book was just for teens, but that teens shouldn't miss it, and their recommendations and the cultural prevalence tipped the book into the Young Adult box.

How do you reconcile your statement that "teens need to 'read up' about adulthood" with the thought that "'for the good of the children' is always a danger in this field"? By "need to," do you mean teens' internal motivations? Or were you also suggesting that reading up was "for the good" of those young readers?

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting comments about First Second's approach to age categories, Roger. I'd noticed, looking at Laika and the publisher's webpages, that there was no handy label.

It's easier to make the case that American-Born Chinese is inherently for young readers since it's about schoolkids. But the Printz rules require some sort of label? Hmmm. Has anyone told the No to Age Banding folks?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I think I was rambling. I didn't mean "teens need to read up" as a controversial statement. I was thinking of shelving difficulties -- brought on by david elzey's comment about Vonnegut. I wouldn't call Slaughter House Five a teen book, but I wouldn't quibble about shelving it in the teen section. So Laika seems a similar case. It gets a Young Adult label because it is not a bad idea to have it in the teen section, not because it is a book intended for YA. Two different kinds of thing, but we only have one label. Once we stick the label on, people see it as a book for 12 and up. This happens with prose books as well, but I can see how the graphic novel format increases the impression that the book is for a younger reader.

Anonymous said...

"Whether many people of any age would want to is dubious."

I didn't that Abadzis was aiming for the teen reader. I don't think the author of Maus was either. But your comment made me wonder, what if someone did? Is it okay to entice your reader into a story that wouldn't otherwise interest him? Or are you putting one over on your audience?

When it comes to reading--with adults, I feel it's caveat emptor. I feel that way about most young adults, as well. Decide for yourself what you want to read. As a writer, though, I feel responsible for checking my motivations from time to time to be sure that I am not being manipulative-- writing something just because I can, that might force a lesson on my reader.

I realize that I wandered off topic. I'm sorry.

J. L. Bell said...

Is it okay to entice your reader into a story that wouldn't otherwise interest him? Or are you putting one over on your audience?

Yes, it's okay, and yes, you're putting one over. That's what fiction is.

You're making people care about characters that don't exist, often in a world that can't exist. There's no rational reason for anyone to be interested in such things. And since readers have never encountered those people or places before, there's no way that they could care about them already.

But good storytelling makes those characters and that world interesting enough for readers to believe in, on some level, and to spend time on.

Another way to look at this issue is if we give readers only what they're already interested in, then culture becomes an endless feedback loop. We'd just be pandering.

david elzey said...

Odd, I know a number of high schools where Slaughterhouse Five is required reading, as are works by Orwell, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, &c. And I know (and have worked in) books stores where those books are shelved in with the teen books.

No, they weren't written for a YA audience any more than I think a number of teen-friendly graphic novels were conceived for a YA audience. But this goes to the problem that comes from the YA label, which is largely for marketing and award purposes.

I've talked to writers who reluctantly refer to their books as YA because, depending on who they are talking to, there are a number of assumptions in people's minds when they say it -- mainly "oh, you write for children. It the same way with graphic novels when they get boxed in as "comics" and where the distinction between comics and graphic novels is slippery.

Perhaps someone with more knowledge can chime in on this, but I believe Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and Zusak's The Book Thief weren't seen in their respective countries (UK, AUS) as teen books, but that's how they're marketed here.

The category of YA is almost as hard to define as graphic novel. There are books suitable for 13 and up, and some I wouldn't recommend to readers under 16 or 17. Without reawakening the "what is YA argument?" here I will say that this same problem of age appropriateness is true of graphic novels across the spectrum. The comic industry doesn't generally make the same distinctions children's publishers do, and therein lies a whole different ball of wax.

J. L. Bell said...

Haddon was established in the UK as a picture-book author before The Curious Incident... I believe that book was published in dual editions for adult and teen readers; British publishers do that sort of thing a lot. I don't know if those editions both came out at the same time, or if the book "crossed over" from one age group to the other.

Zusak was established in Australia as a YA author before The Book Thief. That title was published as a novel for adults there. I wonder if it was marketed here as a YA title because the American publisher wanted to establish him and bring out his other novels for teens as well. Usually Australian culture is rougher than American, so I can't think their editors were more shy about a Holocaust novel narrated by Death.

Big publishing companies are organized with children's and YA books in one division, adult books in another. That means that even if a book can cross over the fuzzy YA/adult boundary, its revenue still has to be assigned one place or the other. A different corporate organization could well produce different labels for books.