It's surely within the grounds of possibility that, one day, I'm going to read a graphic novel published by First Second that just plain sucks. Nobody can keep up the streak of thoroughly varied hits that they're maintaining without adding a miss at some point. Right?
Well, it hasn't happened yet and it certainly doesn't happen here. If anything, they keep getting better! It surely doesn't hurt that this is another translation of a French graphic novel, following the utterly gorgeous 'Castle in the Stars' by Alex Alice. Like that book, this was also published in two volumes in the original French; unlike that book, First Second made the excellent decision to combine them for the English language release.
The writer is Joris Chamblain, who has other books to his name but really shouldn't be this good this quickly. These two episodes in the life of Cici Armand, aged ten and a half, are aimed at children, especially girls, but this grandfather almost bawled at a couple of points because Chamblain had tuned the emotions so perfectly and then plucked them just right.
The artist is Aurélie Neyret, who provides the perfect accompaniment to Chamblain's story. Because he writes so well about emotion, she had to paint it to the same calibre and she succeeds magnificently. While the core cast is relatively small, there are many characters at hand and Neyret doesn't save the good stuff for the leads. There are many instances where a character only appears for three frames to run through a different emotion in each, and she nails it absolutely. There are characters who never intersect with the main story, merely share the same frame as background, and we can see stories of their own written all over their faces. It's fantastic art.
Cici is an engaging child, who wants to be a writer. Her single mother (we never meet a father) is supportive of this goal and has her write a journal because that's writing too. While there are pages of mundane entries to give us a background into who Cici is and who the key people in her life are (in addition to her mother, they are her best friends, Lena and Erica, and an elderly neighbour, Mrs. Flores, a famous author), the vast majority build a pair of stories, one about Mr. Mysterious and one about Mrs. Mysterious, who are not related in any way other than that they're both the beginnings of mysteries that Cici just has to unravel.
And boy, does she have to unravel them! She's a driven creature, which works out fine in the first half but does some damage in the second, leading to appropriate ramifications.
Mr. Mysterious is an old man who walks into the woods every day with cans of paint. Cici sees him from her vantage point in the girls' secret hideout in one of the trees and decides to follow him to figure out what he's up to. The title of this story is 'The Petrified Zoo', which hints nicely at what's to come without giving away any of the magic that arrives both with the solution to the mystery and after it.
Mrs. Mysterious is an old woman who gets off the bus at the same time every week with the same library book under her arm. Cici notices her from the café across the street from the bus stop and, just like before, decides to follow her to figure out what she's up to. This story is 'Hector's Book' and, while the magic takes longer to show up, it shows up so powerfully that it's going to be difficult to avoid a teary reaction, however old and inured to sentimentality you might think you are.
So the stories are similar thematically, certainly episodes in what could easily be a longer series, but they're also different in detail and emotion. While they each concern themselves with the way older people react to change, keeping something alive in the only way possible to them, all as seen through the eyes of a child, they're also opposites in their ways: the first manifests itself externally, gifting the illustrator with magnificent opportunity, while the second story is acutely internal.
I really liked the connection between generations, which oddly skips one. For all the connections to the old folk that Cici builds, she has trouble connecting to her mother. Fortunately, those old folk aren't stupid and are both able and willing to set her on the right track in the gentlest way possible.
I also liked the way that her journal is spelled correctly throughout, appropriately, of course, given that 'Cici's Journal' is subtitled 'The Adventures of a Writer-in-Training'. Chamblain (or at least Carol Klio Burrell, who's the translator into English) finds the right voice for a ten-year-old girl but refuses to have her misspell words or write letters backwards, as so many authors would do, and I'm very thankful for that. The only odd counter that jarred me was that the English language version retains all the French names but mysteriously changes euros (I presume) to dollars in a single minor frame and that seemed ridiculous to me.
After giving a big thumbs up to a sneaky 'Three Investigators reference, I have to say that there's next to nothing negative to bring up. The worst thing I can say is that it's inherently safe, with the dangers of reality carefully removed (Cici's mum does make her carry a cellphone with her and check in from time to time, but there's nothing that might warrant her needing it in this book). I have to add, though, that while some readers may find Cici's free-range behaviour troublesome, I found it refreshing. Kids have to discover reality themselves and parents can't really prepare them for it, merely ensure that they're equipped to survive it when it manifests itself.
What all this means is that 'Cici's Journal' has a notably European outlook and I wonder how well it'll play to an American audience. I'd still recommend this book heartily, though, to both Europeans and Americans and not only to little girls but to readers of all ages and genders. Just keep a tissue handy. ~~ Hal C F Astell