The Secret of the Stone Frog by David Nytra (Toon Books/Candlewick Press, 2012)
Toon Books is a new-ish comics/graphic novels imprint that is meant for children ages 4 and up and The Secret of the Stone Frog by David Nytra is their first full-length book meant for children ages 5 and up. Toon Books has some big players in charge, including Art Spiegelman, the artist and author of the classic graphic novel Maus. I didn’t know all of that before I started reading The Secret of the Stone Frog, but it’s easy to see that it’s true now. The art in The Stone Frog is, quite frankly, unlike anything I’ve seen in contemporary comics. Because it’s a complete throwback to older comics and stories. If Nytra does have a contemporary idol, I think it’s Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator behind Studio Ghibli and My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away.
So, it’s pretty obvious that I loved the art right? These images are sumptuous and detailed and just so pretty. I loved the way he drew the children. They almost felt animated, their clothing had such movement. The story itself is, well, meant for a five-year-old. It’s enjoyable for an adult reader, though it is a little simple. The children must find their way home and so must follow the paths behind the stone frogs. Along the way they encounter a woman with human-sized bees as pets, commuting fish, a nasty pick-pocket, a police station that’s alive, and more terrifying, but amazing nightmares.
That’s the thing. This isn’t a storybook that sugarcoats dreamland. It’s a scary place! It’s also a beautiful place. Since we’re grownups reading this story, we are looking for meaning and when we find out that Leah’s parents think she should move into her own room, that she’s too old to share a room with her little brother Alan, we know that this moment is important. It’s an important milestone in her life that is bittersweet. She doesn’t want to leave her brother and be thrown into the world of grownups. Because that’s a terrifying place, not unlike dream world. But as long as you can travel it with your brother, it can also be beautiful and fascinating.
If you are a fan of Miyazaki, Little Nemo, or Alice in Wonderland, I think you’ll find a lot to like in Nytra’s comic. You can read sample pages of this beautiful comic on the Toon Books website.