October 5, 2012

Frank 'n' Stan 'n' More

        Back in January I wrote about some forms of artificial life, and listed books featuring androids, golems, and more.  But I couldn't recommend any particular books to illustrate "Frankenstein monsters" or zombies in juvenile fantasy.  Until now.  I recently received a review copy of a new picture book entitled Frank'n' Stan, and that was my cue that it was time to do a little digging (in the graveyard?) and revisit some of the artificial life-forms that weren't well represented last time around.  Plus, it's a good time to start getting in the mood for Hallowe'en.  

        Frank'n' Stan, by M.P. Robertson - I enjoyed this book about a boy who tries to build himself a "little brother."  Unlike Shelley's version, the new creature is built of metal and electronics rather than dead body parts, so he's actually a robot.  Also, unlike the original Frankenstein monster, he's a force of pure goodness - just what humans have wished for every time they try to create artificial life: unwavering loyalty combined with a willingness to do unpleasant jobs (in this case, changing diapers).  But despite these significant differences in philosophical tone, Robertson obviously had a lot of fun tying his book back to the original Frankenstein.  The boy scientist's last name is Shelley, and when his little sister is born, her name is Mary…  He finds materials at Byron's Scrap Metal yard…  The climax involves our young hero chasing his creation into a snowy wilderness…  These points may be lost on kids, but they give it a little extra layer of interest for adults.  And it's the pictures that make the book.  They're a lot of fun to look at, with plenty of details that reward careful looking and multiple readings.  Elementary-age children with fantasies of robot playmates (and of being tinkering geniuses themselves) will enjoy this book.  I also appreciate that its message is one of love and acceptance - which may not have much to do with the original conception of Frankenstein, but is much more fun for the entire family.

        [Now, before I go any farther I need to state a caveat.  Normally I don't post negative reviews.  I reckon that this blog is about sharing stuff I love, not about trashing stuff that other people no doubt love.  As an author I hate to talk down anyone else's work, and as a reader I am very well aware that taste is personal and varies widely -- just because I wasn't too keen on something doesn't mean you won't adore it.  But in order to find books on this particular topic I ended up reading a lot of stuff I was pretty lukewarm about.  I wanted to share what I'd found for anyone interested in the topic, but although each of these books had aspects that I liked, I am not raving about any of them.  So I apologize for the somewhat unenthusiastic reviews, and hope that they'll still be useful to you.]

Do Not Build a Frankenstein, by Neil Numberman - This book covers a lot of similar ground to Frank'n'Stan, but with a very different feel.  The illustrations are more cartoon than graphic novel, and the creator more mad scientist than boy genius.  In a nutshell, the message is, "You might think an artificially created friend would be perfect, but it won't be as much fun as you think… oh wait, yes it will!"

Frankenstein, by Ludworst Bemonster - This parody of Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline is definitely a novelty book.  I imagine it has relatively little appeal to kids in its own right, but is amusing if you're very familiar with Madeline and, I suppose, either hate her, or love both her and monsters.  Some of the illustrations were very clever, and I did laugh at Frankenstein's ability to frighten rocks, but I would recommend this one only to the true aficionado of campy monsters (which I am not, so feel free to get a second opinion from someone who is!)

Zombie in Love, by Kelly DiPucchio - I picked this up at the library because I hadn't had any zombie books to mention back in January.  Of course I was looking for zombies as a form of artificial life - beings created from corpses to be slaves of their masters - but the zombie in this book is no one's slave.  This story is of the "zombies are people, too" school.  But although it's a picture book it's definitely another one aimed to appeal primarily (if not exclusively) to grown-ups.  I assume there must be some zombie-mad children out there who would like it, but all the jokes seem calculated to amuse adults.  So yes, cute, with the same sense of humor as Tom Lehrer's "I hold your hand in mine, dear," but what can I say?  I still don't care for zombies.

Konrad, by Christine Nostlinger (translated from German by Anthea Bell.)  There's also an edition entitled Conrad, The Factory-Made Boy - Another take on age-old ideas about artificial life and perfection, this short novel is about a child built by a corporation and programmed for perfection.  The book raises all sorts of interesting issues, about bullying, about what's "natural" or "normal," about goodness, about conformity…  Issues that are central to the development of children's social selves.  I like that Nostlinger lays these issues out for children with an invitation to think about them.  But I found somewhat troubling her portrayal of "normal" child behavior as what I would consider quite appalling, and her apparent double standard that conformity to an ideal of dull perfection is bad, but conformity to this rude "normal" behavior is desirable and indeed necessary.  I guess it's just my good-little-girl soul objecting!  (For a lot more discussion of this book - and people who mostly did not agree with my objections - you can read the discussion thread at Goodreads.)

Doctor Illuminatus, by Martin Booth - Here's another book featuring a homunculus, although in this case it makes only a cameo appearance at the climax.  Most of the plot is an attempt to stop the evil alchemist from creating it in the first place.  I did like the premise of the old house with its alchemical past.  However, I found this novel to have a disconnect between, on the one hand, the short length and lack of complexity of the plot (both of which seem suited to younger readers) and, on the other hand, the scholarly asides and fairly graphic depiction of horrors (both of which seem suited to more mature readers.)  Unfortunately, neither P nor I feels a need to read any further in the series.

[Pictures: He would build his own, art by M.P. Robertson, from Frank'n'Stan © Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2012 (Reproduced with permission by the publisher);
They yelled, art by Nathan Hale, from Frankenstein by Ludworst Bemonster, 2012.]

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