Children's Books

STORM BOY, Written and illustrated by Paul Owen Lewis, Beyond Words Publishing: Hillsboro, OR, 1995. 32 pages, oversized, hardcover. $14.95 ISBN 1-885223-12-9. Separate Teacher's Guide (in press), $7.

When I was a pre-teen, my mother used to confiscate my favorite comic books -- "The Vault of Horror" and "the Crypt of Terror," lavish with gross revengeful decaying corpses, slimy swamp monsters and the like -- with the ominous remark that such reading material would rot my mind. This mental rot has proceeded into my 60's. I love all kinds of comics (except overly- cute ones) and the modern literary form called "the graphic novel" (long comic book with fancy layout).

Thus I really love Paul Lewis's book, which, despite some rather inconsequential text passages, is really a graphic novel (simple non-paneled layout), though not so sinister as EC Comix (shut down by U.S. law as corruptive to young minds). Its story is carried along a bit by the simple text (suitable for young children), but really told in the pictures, whose combination of humor with a slightly sinister bite will appeal to young children as well as all ages corrupted (or corruptible) by comix and graphic novels.

The story can be told in one sentence: A young boy is swept underwater to a village of the Orcas (killer whales) who feed him, dance with him, then take him home, where he shares what he learned with his beach village relatives.

But the pix, ah, the pix! Lewis has a style that is clearly influenced by Northwest Coast art, with its characteristic formlines and patterns -- but his style is uniquely his own, not the lifeless copies many artists have made trying to assimilate this artistic culture. The Orca people, in their villages, hang their whale suits on their house walls --but they still aren't human. They have bulgy bright eyes under rubbery, solid red eyebrows, huge toothy smiles between plump red lips. They look somewhat sinister, as well as funny. Fat bare feet -- transmogrified whale flukes - - protrude below button and Chilikat-type cloaks. Those big fat feet are much in evidence as they teach the boy their dances and learn his. Their black skins are rubbery. The art style is somewhat cartoony -- hard-edged -- but definitely 3 dimensional, with modeling, highlights, shadows, and blended colors for distance effects underwater and in skies. Splendid, attractive, and a uniquely individual artistic expression, not a copying of another culture's standard style.

The pix carry the story forward, in best graphic novel fashion. Part of the first sentence in the book (on a page of its own) merely says "...and a terrible storm arose." Full page facing, we see the boy's Haida-style canoe overturned by a giant wave, and he is rapidly being sucked downward. On the next page, where he's "washed ashore under a strange sky" (in the Orcas' village), we can tell he's underwater and there is maybe something odd about the blanket- and hat-clad people (whose backs are to us and the boy) because in the oddly greenish-colored sky a flock of "birds" is clearly a school of distant fish.

After the feast and the first (whale-style) dancing, the boy teaches them "songs and dances of his own people", a fair exchange for the gifts they have given him, but it makes him homesick. The whales notice his sadness (clearly depicted in a double-paged spread) and -- by turning into actual swimming Orcas, not the funny-sinister whale people, carry him home, where his mother says they thought him lost in the storm at sea a year ago. The book ends with a long, quietly beautiful high-angle night-shot of the village feasting, learning the new whale songs and dances.

At the end, there's two pages of culture notes -- cosmological, lit'ry -- and boy! you can smell the heavy-duty anthro-grease of ethno-story analysis. ("In an effort to present a degree of authenticity in the telling, a picture-book format has been deliberately chosen in which the text or verbal content is spare and the bulk of culturally significant detail is communicated by art.") Ahhhh, bull. The artist clearly had a whole lot of fun with this book -- the pix -- and hardly needed those few words to move the story along.

Here's one sentence in the book: "A chief's son went fishing alone, and a terrible storm arose." Here's the anthro-grease-gloss for it: "Northwest Coast motifs of SEPARATION: Wandering too far from the village invites supernatural encounters. The boy is out of sight of his village [he may or may not be, he's sure in close sight of land on all sides]. His identity is indicated by the style of the canoe, which is Haida, by the text ('a chief's son') and by his clothing -- his woven cedar-bark skirt is fur-lined, a sign of wealth. Heroes were most often of high caste or rank. He is a Haida prince. Mysterious entrance to the spirit world: In the presence of killer whales the boy is thrown from his canoe into the sea, passes through it, and enters into another realm below." Whew! Some gloss on that sentence, "Chief'ssonwentfishingaloneandaterriblestormarose" ehwot?

There are 3 footnotes to these scholarly notes which invoke a duo of books northwest coast academic tomes, and the seemingly inescapable trendy old Joseph Campbell canned soup, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Like my old ma said, this stuff -- but I mean the culcha vulcha stuff -- can indeed rot the mind, spoil the enjoyment, and with the relentless dedication of true academics continually miss all points. You don't have to, neither do kids. Enjoy this book, forget the notes. I dunno about that as-yet unavailable Teacher's Guide; frankly, I'm rather afraid of it.

I had a pretty good time with the notes, turning back and forth to the simple text, the intricate, classy, funny pix, heehawing around.

My mind was rotted out long ago by EC Comix, just as Ma warned, so I really don't care about the publisher's claim that "careful attention is paid to historical detail, both in the story and the vibrant illustrations" which as a matter of fact it isn't. This is a real vision by a real artist, not some kind of archaeological excavation and distorted reconstruction of dead frags carried out for the money by "authors" who have no ideas or visions of their own, and so they mine Indian sources in substitute. They're always going on about historical accuracy, which is never present in their lifeless thefts.

A portion of the revenues from this book is donated to the Haida Gwaii Rediscovery Program for tribal youth (a tribally-sponsored creative arts program), something one doesn't see too often on books by non-Indian authors (I don't think I ever have on non-Indian authors' commercial children's books about Indians, or allegedly Indian stories), which further marks this one's uniqueness.

Lewis has written/illustrated several other books for children. Most of them have a kind of science theme (underwater life; stars and sky phenomena) that is entirely carried by pictures with a minimal storylet frisking around their edges. One, Ever Wondered? deserves special mention. Ever wondered what the world would be like if the sky were purple? Betcha haven't. Lewis has, and traces the visual consequences -- plants? sunsets? distant mountains? in paintings as fascinating and engaging as they are beautiful, and expresses his optical wonderments in other progressions, too. That book has nothing to do with Indian people or culture, except that all kids love it. After they've pored over it, you can see their paintings or colored drawings have been influenced by it, their eyes are seeing the world differently, with a greater attention to the richness of colors and the way nature lays them out for us in lights, shadows, and non-geometric perspectives. That one is also highly recommended, especially for artistically-inclined Indian youth.

--Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Sunday, August 18, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM