Friday, February 16, 2018

Bolivar by Sean Rubin

I usually don't like big, bulky graphic novels that are more art than words. Or books about New York. Or philosophical treatises about what people see or don't see around them.

This book has all of those things. I loved it anyways.

The story begins subtly, in the mosaics on the end pages. They show big, green and gray, clawed feet moving alongside a pair of small, human footprints. The title page and opening are lovingly created, showing a busy New York with tight-packed brownstones and patches of green and trees. A voice over announces a new dinosaur exhibit, talking about their extinction. Slowly, the reader realizes there's something... different in the picture. Until the story begins and we know the truth - there is a real, live dinosaur in New York. His name is Bolivar and this is his story.

Text is interspersed with full-page illustrations, alternating with comic panels. Readers will follow along Bolivar's somewhat lonely life, snickering at the sometimes humorous way he lives "The forms said you couldn't have any dogs or cats in the apartment. Bolivar didn't have any dogs or cats, so he was allowed to live there." But someone does notice Bolivar - Sybil. A small, blonde girl next door. Sybil's mother is too busy with work, errands, and life in general to listen to Sybil and her classmates just make fun of her. But she's determined to prove Bolivar really exists. Armed with a camera, she sets out to capture her proof, and in the process explore New York. But things don't end the way she expects; when Bolivar is mistaken for the mayor and outed as a dinosaur by the famous (white, male) paleontologist, Sybil starts feeling sorry for him. Eventually, Sybil realizes that what she really wants is a friend - and Bolivar decides that maybe having just a few people see him won't be so bad after all.

It's disappointing that in such a diverse city all the main characters of the story (besides the dinosaur) are white. However, at least the crowds, people, and various staff show a little more diversity although it's ironic that a story about not noticing what's around you picks such a small portion of the population to focus on...

Despite this drawback, the art is exquisite, full of detail and obvious love for the giant city and its busy inhabitants. Lots of cross-hatching, earth tones, and many clever details fill the story. It's not exactly a middle grade title, nor yet a beginning chapter, but I plan to introduce it to my 3rd and 4th graders. I can see it being used in classrooms as well, for observation and story pacing.

Verdict: I don't often buy Archaia's titles - they tend to be more expensive and leaning towards the artistic rather than the popular. But this charming title will definitely be attractive to my readers (when it was pulled out in our recent unboxing event several kids immediately slapped their name on it) and an excellent book club pick. Recommended.

ISBN: 9781684150694; Published November 28, 2017 by Archaia; Borrowed from another library in my consortium; Purchased for the library


stg03985 said...

I have this book and have read it to my kids many times. I think this review misses the mark with its concern that the paleontologist is "white" and "male." Not only is the paleontologist the foolish villain (hardly a lofty scientific figure to emulate), he can be seen as a commentary on colonialism: The paleontologist tries to dominate, control, and profit off of a vulnerable creature, asserting superior knowledge about Bolivar when in fact he's completely ignorant. He's even wearing the costume of colonialism (pith helmet, etc.). He's also constantly mansplaining about dinosaurs when he's completely wrong, and the little girl is right. When you think about what the paleontologist says and does in the story, how could he be anything else but white and male? It wouldn't make sense for this character to be a woman or POC.

Jennifer said...

Hmm, that's definitely another way to look at it. Interesting!