My fall’s reading has been not nearly so prolific as the summer or spring had been. Since Icon wrapped up in October, I still haven’t finished the small pile of graphic novels sitting on my shelf, gazing at me, forlorn. NaNoWriMo happened and I was focused on trying to break barriers in my own writing and, frankly, November had been a rough month for everyone.
It’s a good thing I started out with Lumberjanes, then. This comics series, bound up in four-issue trade paperbacks, hovers somewhere between young adult and middle grade. Though nominally a fantasy adventure book, it’s a little more unrestrained in its fantastical exploration than I’m used to seeing in YA. The art style is vibrant and compelling, but the human figures are stylized enough that the age of the protagonists stays ambiguous. The summer camp environment and the bright and cheery atmosphere give it an overall middle grade vibe.
Fortunately, I like middle grade books a lot. Often, I enjoy them much more than YA books, although the latter feature older protagonists, more complex plots, and are more likely to overtly tackle difficult issues. I don’t know why, but there’s a condensed simplicity to a good middle grade novel that really no other genre can match. Lumberjanes definitely fulfills that need.
The main plot lays out a clear beaten path, with all the necessary hints and foreshadowing to serve as road signs. The mysteries that piece together the story arc lie in plain sight, ready to be picked up and run away with. Why would the forest around a girls’ summer camp be filled with mystical three-eyed critters, or Indiana Jones-style buried tombs? What secrets does the camp’s mysterious, tattooed head counselor hide? My conspiracy-filled brain wanted to assign sinister motivations to just about everyone, and I constantly had to remind myself that this is — probably — not that kind of book.
The book’s appeal lies in the strength of the ensemble, five lively and adventurous girls who are always ready to answer the call. A predicament that ends up with the normal parents’ nightmare at the center of every children’s adventure novel. Namely, children investigating mysterious noises in the night, punching foxes, defusing booby traps, and all manner of terrifying activities. It’s not what parents send their kids to camp to learn, but it is what we readers are here for.
The Lumberjanes make the very best kind of adventure protagonists. They’re brave, curious and quick on their feet, and have that marvelous quality of believing what their eyes see over what they are told. Every misadventure they get into echoes one of the skills that the Lumberjanes organization is supposedly trying to cultivate in its girls. Still, there’s a sharp but quiet tension between the prescribed skills and the strange uses that the girls find for them. It’s best encapsulated by the sign that stands at the entrance to their camp, where the words “hardcore lady types” were painted in to replace the more mundane “girls”.
My favorite thing about Lumberjanes, after the vivacious, colorful art and the wildly inventive supernatural, is how simply it treats the girls and their unique natures. Each one has likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and they are all different from each other. As real girls are. Except instead of drawing attention to it, the book treats this fact as the most normal and natural thing in the world. No comment is made about whether girls should or shouldn’t be good at math, know how to tie knots, and so forth. The closest thing to explicit gender commentary hides in the girls’ surprise meeting with a troop of boys from the adjacent camp, whose gentle friendliness and tea-serving habits are contrasted with the camp manager’s rougher, more aggressive persona.
Lumberjanes is a delightfully chaotic adventure, and I recommend it heartily to anyone looking for something bright and beautiful to read.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.