Graphic novels have enjoyed a renaissance as of late. Once the domain of men wearing capes and tights, comics evolved in the underground comic culture with the likes of Eisner, Spiegelman and Gaiman. With the introduction of Japanese and Korean comics to chain bookstore shelves, as well as the newer trend of the graphic novel memoir, there are many options for the discerning adult.
But with the explosion of options for adults, there are fewer choice than ever for children who aren't interested in manga. While there are plenty of shonen and shojo comics out there, many superhero comics are either too dark or too sexualized to hand to a mid-grade child. The ones based off of the cartoons, likeTeen Titans Go! and The All-New Batman: The Brave and The Bold are still fine, but again, these are of the capes and tights variety.
Jane Yolen is a well-respectd author who has won awards as varied as the Caldecott medal and two Nebulas, as well as a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. If anyone could bring the graphic novel back to children, it would be her, and she does.
The Last Dragon, illustrated by Rebecca Guay, delivers a well paced, dramatic, enchanting story from beginning to end. A healer with three daughters, called Rosemary, Sage and Tansy after their father's affinity with herbs, disappears one day while he's out gathering. Just the day before, Tansy found a flower that could only be Dragon's Bane, known for burning any flesh that it touches, and being powerful enough to set fire to dragons. Legend has it that Dragon's Bane only flowers when there's dragons nearby, but none have been spied here in centuries. But as more and more large animals, and eventually people, start disappearing, only one conclusion can be made.
Dragons have returned.
As the boys in town go off in search of a hero, the Healer's daughters cope in their own ways as well. Rosemary, kind but not pretty, starts being approached by suitors who see her father's house and status and want it for themselves. Sage, pretty but not bright, holds out hope the longest and is the family cheerleader.
Tansy, on the other hand, set to follow in her father's footsteps as a healer, starts researching the folklore about dragons and how to defeat them. When the boys come back with the most heroic man they can find, perhaps Tansy will make good use of the knowledge she's gathered to help their "hero."
The story teaches a lot of the lessons that young adult literature tends to teach. It shows that being heroic isn't the same as not being afraid. It shows that cleverness can come in just as handy as brawn or a sword. It shows that a town can come together, each doing what they're able, to face a seemingly unbeatable foe.
But something must also be said about Rebecca Guay's amazing art. Beautiful, painted scenes set the tone for a classic fairy tale without putting off the younger crowd by being childish. Tensions is built up by avoiding showing the monster in its entirety until later in the story, and while the panels are wonderfully detailed, it never comes off as too fussy or cluttered.
This is the perfect book for the reader who has grown up with Diana Wynne Jones and Brian Jacques, but might not be ready for Fables.
Highs: Not every guy telling stories at the tavern qualifies as a bona-fide her, you know.
Lows: Does every dashing hero have to win a maid's hand?
Verdict: An amazing addition to young adult literature, and a great bridge from picture books to graphic novels.