It’s summer in Estabrook, and things are looking up for some of its younger residents. Ana, a rabbit, thought she’d be miserable with her best friend off at music camp. But she gets a job at the town’s underground newspaper, the Scoop, and she’ll get to team up with Em, another friend (and bird) who’s working there as a photographer. Shy Turnip, an elephant, figures he won’t do much of anything until he’s befriended by Stucky, a dog from his class. Stucky suggests Turnip sign up for sculpture camp with him.
The activities seem normal enough, but they end up putting the kids’ creativity, compassion, and courage to the test in Aaron Renier’s very entertaining Spiral-Bound (top secret summer) (Top Shelf Productions). Renier balances the comic adventure with some very perceptive and moving moments and does some terrific world building in the process.
Ana’s first assignment, a preview of the sculpture camp, leads her to investigate one of Estabrook’s biggest mysteries, the Pond Monster. Her investigation stirs up the fears of Estabrook’s adults and puts the sculpture teacher, a whale named Ms. Skrimshaw, in a tough position. Turnip enjoys sculpture camp, trying projects with the various different media, but he worries that he’s not really being creative, just appropriating other people’s styles and inspirations. Ana and Turnip’s activities intersect in clever ways, keeping the various subplots connected and moving forward.
The characters, especially the kids, are wonderful. Ana has the spunky reporter thing down. She’s intrepid and curious, but she’s also thorough, doing research in the library and in the town’s bookstore and grilling sources. She also has some hilarious moments of outrage when people tell her to pull back on the Pond Monster project or notice that she repeatedly uses certain words in her writing. (“But sometimes that’s the most fitting word!” she says in defense of her beloved “impeccable.”)
Renier resists the urge to cute up Turnip’s shyness and uncertainty. The little elephant takes things very much to heart, and he’s hard on himself. When a flustered Ms. Skrimshaw snaps at him, it has real sting because she’s inadvertently touched on some of Turnip’s most vulnerable points. Fortunately, Stucky is as thoughtful and persistent as he is inventive, and he does his best to keep Turnip on his creative track. (“Nobody’s an island, Turnip. You’re going to borrow something from everything!”)
Renier has also given his characters subtly individual voices. Ana is outspoken and declarative, and her conversations with Em have a funky, friendly rhythm. Turnip flusters easily; it’s like he isn’t that used to talking to people, at least about things that matter, and he can’t always articulate the complex things that are going on in his head. It’s a big cast, with camp students, newspaper employees, parents and various other townspeople, and each makes a distinct impression.
The story itself is less consistently successful. The solution to the over-arching mystery is less satisfying than the investigation. That might partly be because Renier has tried to concoct a solution where nobody’s really at fault for the misunderstandings that have preceded it. That’s tough to pull off, and Renier has sprinkled some almost ugly moments of tension into the story. Estabrook’s adults are alarmingly (and a little unconvincingly) prone to mob mentality. They’re driven by protectiveness, but some of their behavior leaves an unexpectedly bad aftertaste. (The illustrations don’t hold up as well in the tenser action sequences, too.)
But the overall feel of the book more than compensates for the rougher edges of the story. Estabrook is a wonderfully rendered fictional environment, and its Noah’s Ark citizens make for charming visuals. Crowd scenes are filled with funny Easter Eggs. I particularly love Renier’s conception of how the Scoop operates, half newspaper and half spy organization. With such a great landscape in place, it will be a shame if Renier doesn’t follow up with a sequel.
Best of all is the fact that the kids end up stronger than they start. Ana proves herself as a reporter through resourcefulness and hard work. Turnip inches out of his shell, making friends and finding a creative outlet. They’re active and inquisitive, learning by doing and having a positive influence on their town in the process. Watching this unfold is very satisfying and a lot of fun.
(This review is based on a complimentary copy of Spiral-Bound provided by Top Shelf.)