Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"Yeah okay, but... what if... what if the lanterns lead us into some cave full of beautiful mermaids?
"You'll hate yourself FOREVER for missing that. You know you will. Both of you."
"If it keeps us from getting grounded for all of eternity, I think I can live with hating myself."
"YEAH, WELL, WHO NEEDS YOU GUYS?!
"I'll do this MYSELF!"
"Or so I thought."
So Ben did. But he was wrong. Here's the publisher to clue us in on his errant thinking...
"Stand by Me meets My Neighbor Totoro in this astonishing, magical-realist adventure story for middle-grade readers. It's the night of the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, when the town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river. Legend has it that after drifting out of sight, they'll soar off to the Milky Way and turn into brilliant stars.
This year, Ben and his classmates are determined to find out where those lanterns really go, and they made a pact with two simple rules: No one turns for home. No one looks back.
The plan is to follow the river on their bikes for as long as it takes to learn the truth, but it isn't long before the pact is broken by all except for Ben, and much to Ben's disappointment, Nathaniel, the one kid who just doesn't seem to fit in. Together, Nathaniel and Ben will travel down a winding road full of magic, wonder, and unexpected friendship."
Actually, the film comparison that resonated most strongly with me almost immediately after starting this was, in fact, Raymond Briggs' The Snowman. I certainly concur with the magical realism adventure story, but just that sense of going on a mysterious journey to a destination unknown, and also because of the nocturnal element, combined with a new and true friendship unexpectedly found, made me think of that abiding Christmas classic.
I was also surprised just how quickly our furiously pedalling peloton was whittled down to two. I expected it to take a few chapters of attritionally bottling it, one by one, but no, almost immediately we are down to our odd couple of Ben and Nathanial. Until our cast begins to magically grow again as their mystery tour rumbles on, that is, beginning with the appearance of a most perplexed polar bear, who is on a mystical mission of his own to catch some fish. Though perhaps the two journeys have more far in common than it first would seem...
"And that's when we saw him."
"I quickened my pace.
"Something told me it was a bad idea to strike up a conversation with a bear this late at night.
"Even one wearing such a dashing scarf.
"But clearly I was the only one who got that feeling."
"Hi! I'm Nathaniel."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance. Where might you be headed this evening?"
"We're going farther than ANYONE has EVER gone."
"Is that so? WELL! You're in luck, then! That's EXACTLY where this road goes!"
Good old Nathaniel! And so our two boys and their new bear chum commence their epic tandem adventures in earnest, taking in some truly astonishing scenery and engaging in some extraordinarily enjoyable shenanigans en route.
The copacetic countryside is entirely down to Ryan Andrew's astonishing art. Again, just like Briggs' Snowman there is a gentle, almost soft focus to it which captivates and draws you ever deeper further into this unreal odyssey, with the background almost continually melting and rematerialising anew in certain sequences. It provides a never-ending dreamy sense of almost floating motion as the boys try to track the lanterns down the river, yet forever getting side-tracked by some new ever more amusingly implausible development. I think it is his soft pencil shading that produces this effect.
The boys themselves, and the other characters, have an equally substantive degree of emotional life and depth to them as they are drawn. There is a genuinely evocative sense of joy and wonder apparent in their expressions at their remarkable wanderings and exciting encounters. I can definitely see a touch of Gipi (LAND OF THE SONS) here and there, but I was also suddenly struck by some real Charles Schulz' PEANUTS Charlie Brown-esque facial grimaces. You'll know exactly what I mean when you spot them!
As a tale about embracing the outsider and throwing oneself into a new friendship for the adventure it truly is, this tale is truly as heart-warming as a million yuletide logs on the proverbial fire. Happily though, you don't need to wait until Christmas to enjoy this.