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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Bob Graham
Candlewick (reprint),(August 2002)
In a house the color of the sun and the shape of a lightning bolt, a baby woke up in his crib. Not just any baby. He was a superbaby--son of superheroes Captain Lightning and Madame Thunderbolt. Imagine him behind those yellow walls, his fingers curling and his feet kicking. His name was... Max. His parents--legendary catchers of thieves and bullies--loved Max dearly. "You can walk already," said Max's dad, "and you can talk already, and I think that you'll soon be . . .
"flying like a bird!"
"He'll be a superhero, just like us!" said his grandma. "But first he'll need to fly!" said his granddad. Although they bounced him and bumped him, and threw him like a feather on the wind . . .
Max did not fly. He just floated gently back to earth.
--Max Bob Graham, p. 1-6.
What's a young superhero to do when he can't fly like all the other superheroes in his family? Max faces just this problem, often hearing his family wonder and worry why he hasn't flown yet. But one day, Max solves the problem for himself when he leaps into the air to save a baby bird falling from its nest. Max is a fantastic superhero picture book--it has a rich, well-written, enjoyable story; superhero fantasy; human interest; and fun, humourous illustrations. Max shows a human side to superheroes; it's about Max and his superhero family in their day-to-day life, which is not often seen in comics.
Graham's story has depth--it has emotion, a problem for the hero to overcome, and human connection. It also has the spice of superhero fantasy, and this adds a delightful flavor to the book, sure to appeal to superhero fans and to readers who like heroic characters. There is a focus on family and acceptance, and this brings a heartwarming, uplifting feeling to the story, as does Max's success.
The story is compelling, and has a good build up of tension; readers will feel empathy for young Max, who can't fly when the rest of his family can, and will want to keep reading to see him succeed. Graham knows show to make the reader care about Max and bring good feeling to the story; he shows us the pressure Max is under to fly from his parents and grandparents, and school scenes where Max is ridiculed for not being able to fly or be a hero like his parents, and then, once Max can fly, shows us his family being proud of him, and school scenes where Max flies. Graham writes well, using believable dialogue, carefully chosen words, and a variation of short and longer sentences, all of which increase the impact of the story, and help the story move quickly.
The ending is satisfying, with Max being accepted by his parents and flying along with them, happily being a part of it all. It is also encouraging for readers, knowing that Max's mom doesn't care if he catches crooks and bullies, but accepts and loves what he is--a small hero, doing quiet deeds, things that most anyone can do (with the exception of flying to the top of a telephone pole to rescue a cat).
There are positive messages entwined throughout this book, such as that everyone is different and it's important to accept differences; that it's important to be kind and to help others when you can and that that is being a small hero; and that love, acceptance, and family are important. The book has a warm feeling, with caring parents who take pride in Max's accomplishments and gently encourage him, and the wonderful moment where Max finally flies--to save a baby bird.
Graham's watercolor-and-ink illustrations are cartoonish; characters are loosely drawn, with round pudgy noses and bodies, small dots for eyes, ink outlines, and bright colors. The illustrations are perfect for young readers and superhero fans alike; they poke gentle fun at superhero outfits (with what looks like star or lightning-bolt underwear on the outside of blue tights), the superheroes aren't overly muscular and fit (Max's parents both have a bit of a belly, which is more realistic and fits with the average reader), and yet they keep the feeling of superheroes and some of the comic conventions, such as superhero costumes and masks; some sound effects printed out in text; and superheroes being good and strong of heart. It is refreshing to see regular people in superhero outfits; bodies that are lumpy and not model quality, but people who are obviously kind and caring and are superheroes. This gives a good, subtle message about accepting your body and being who you are.
The illustrations are laid out in a pleasing manner, varying per spread, with some illustrations bleeding right to the edges of the page, taking up a full spread, half a page, or page and a quarter, and other smaller illustrations appearing within a thin-line border, two or more per page. Some of the smaller illustrations grouped together also show a sequence of events, or appear as small linked scenes. In many illustrations there are a lot of details to look at, of characters engaged in activities or of objects around the room; curious readers will enjoy poring over the details.
There are fun superhero details in the illustrations, such as seeing Max's dad floating near the ceiling in their living room; a framed newspaper article of Max's famous super-hero parents hanging on their living room wall; Max in a diaper and superhero top, cape, boots, gloves, and Max; the family dog wearing a mask just like everyone else; Max's cape hung up on the coat rack in his classroom; the lightning-bolt shape of the family home; and the whole family floating along in the wake of a jet, passengers in the jet craning out the windows to watch them. There is a focus on family life in the illustrations; we see Max's dad changing Max's diaper, see the family sitting together in the living room, and see them hug each other.
Graham's illustrations use great pacing and have a sense of drama; Max's flying debut is pictured in a full-page spread, which highlights the dramatic event, and a series of smaller illustrations shows the dramatic movement from when Max first spies the bird about to fall, to his racing down through the house, to running out to catch the bird. Through the illustrations, we see Max being kind and becoming a hero once he flies, through his rescuing a cat, rabbit, butterfly, and various bugs, and stopping traffic so ducks can safely cross the street, and this is heartwarming. The closing wordless illustration gives that extra beat needed to wrap the story up and bring good feeling.
Max and his family are always the brightest splash of color with bright red and blue uniforms, and this helps them stand out in the illustrations. Superhero fans may see a hint of Superman in the costumes, with the blue suits, red capes, and red boots.
Max is an enjoyable, heartwarming superhero book, extremely well written and illustrated. If you like superheroes, fantasy, or just a good story, get yourself a copy of this book! Highly recommended.
-Added May 2007
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