All this month, we’ll be helping Children’s Hospital Los Angeles‘ Make March Matter campaign, which aims to raise over a million dollars in March alone for CHLA through the efforts of its corporate partners, among which we are proud to be numbered. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles sees over 528,000 patient visits annually, and is the top ranked pediatric hospital in California by US News & World Report. You can help Make March Matter by simply attending one of the many events or participating in one of the many initiatives being offered by CHLA’s partners (including our event on Saturday, March 17), all listed at www.makemarchmatter.org.
To help remind us all to Make March Matter to support children’s health, we’ll be focusing on kids’ comics and childhood favorites, because we firmly believe that escaping into literature is just as important in keeping children healthy and happy.
If the comics industry is to survive – and it must – then a new generation of readers must discover the singular joys of this art form. As the industry trends toward the current bread and butter of its pre-existing audience and nostalgia, I want to spend this month taking a look forward at books that aim to bridge the gap between readers new and old. I’m talking all-ages comics, in the truest sense. Comics that are written with children in mind that don’t talk down to them, comics that will inspire and move adults the same way they do the younger audience. These, I believe, are the comics that will help us thrive.
First, let’s talk about Craig Thompson’s Good-Bye, Chunky Rice.
I know Craig Thompson from Blankets, which besides being one of the very first graphic novels I ever read, is also the very best. To me, it set the standard for what a comic book could be while telling an achingly beautiful and hilariously human story. Thompson has since released an epic graphic novel titled Habibi, a travelous called Carnet de Voyage, and most recently an all-ages book from Scholastic’s Graphix imprint titled Space Dumplins. I haven’t read any of them. It’s beyond ridiculous, considering that I rank Blankets so high and that I own these books, but I guess that’s it, isn’t it? Blankets is so important to me that I’m nervous to dive into the rest of Thompson’s work. Today, with years between my last re-read of Blankets and this moment, I decided to read Thompson’s pre-Blankets publication… an all-ages graphic novel called Good-Bye, Chunky Rice.
Good-Bye, Chunky Rice is a slim volume about a quiet turtle – Chunky Rice – who decides to leave his hometown and his best friend, a deer mouse named Dandel, to set out on a journey to find something that he’s been missing. We don’t know what that something is, and neither does Chunky Rice – and that’s the core of the book. Every character – from the conjoined twins on the ship with Chunky, to the widower Captain Charles, to his troubled but loving brother Solomon, to the injured bird Merle who harbors a secret – is saying good-bye to someone… and, in some cases, waiting for a return, patient and longing. In some cases, their entire lives become about that good-bye.
At first, I was jarred by the book’s style. Not so much visually, because Thompson was then and is now one of the best cartoonists to ever do it. It’s that Good-Bye, Chunky Rice is unflinchingly adult in its themes, and dark because of it – and not dark the way that comics tried to be in the 80s, but dark in the unsettling truths of its subject matter. It has a complicated structure, using recurring images of the ocean to create a rhythmic pace to punctuate emotional flashbacks to earlier moments in characters’ lives. It’s weird, with moments that reminds me of Peanuts right next to bits that evoke the strange darkness of Rocko’s Modern Life. It touches on the painful difference between love and lust, and the way that trauma can turn affection into hatred. It made me wonder why certain choices were made, why such dark and seemingly mean actions were committed by characters, only to later justify them and make me empathize deeply. Hell, after the first few scenes, I was certain that I wouldn’t like the book – and then, before I was halfway through, I felt myself on the verge of tears when I began to realize the truth about what Good-Bye, Chunky Rice was building. Now, I wish I was still reading it. I wish I could read it again for the first time.
It’s not what an adult would think of as an all-ages book. It’s exactly the kind of book I would have loved – and maybe would have needed – as a kid.
And still do now.
NEXT UP: Princess Princess Ever After