Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Last Badge

My nephews are both in Cub Scouts. They enjoy the activities and hanging out with friends but they love to get badges. They go camping and learn new skills and sew those badges on to their sashes. They've collected quite a few from what I know. Although unlike the narrator in George McClements, I'm not sure whether they will collect them all. But this was so much more than just a story about scouts. It was a wonderful story whose ending captured my heart.

The story foll0ws Samuel Moss, a scout who is looking to make his family proud by collecting all the merit badges available. All the men in his family have been scouts and each has contributed to the "Album of Scouting Greatness". Samuel wants to be in the album badly and he decided that he needs to perform a great feat to get in. That is when he learns about the toughest possible badge to get, the "Moon Frog Badge." In order to get the badge you have to find the Moon Frog a very rare amphibian. In fact, the Moon Frog only appears once a year, under special circumstances, in a very specific spot. And to make things worse, nobody knows where this spot is. But Samuel is not discouraged. He reads up, researches, and calculates. And finally after moths of work, he finds the location where the moon frog will appear. He and his father set out to find the frog but when he gets to the spot, Samuel is faced with a choice that will effect whether or not he gets his badge. I won't tell you the ending mostly because it is a wonderful surprise that I can't bring myself to spoil.

This was a surprisingly cute story for me, even though I have never been a scout and never been interested in merit badges. Samuel is such a great character, one that we really want to succeed. He works hard to achieve his goal and make his family proud. But it was the ending that made me happiest. It was not just the dedication that Samuel put into finding the frog but the decisions that he has to make. I love that McClements has created a good upstanding young citizen who makes responsible choices. And he does it without being pedagogical. This is a fun story that children, particularly boys will enjoy. But the end makes a larger point.

If I enjoyed the story, the illustrations were icing on the cake. Using collage, digital art, paint, and plenty of silliness, McClements creates an energetic book that keeps the eyes moving. I sped through the book the first time, and then went back through to look at the illustrations a bit more. I was just hooked the first time, and the pacing of the illustrations makes this a quick read. The colors are bright and energetic. The collage work stands out, making those images the most memorable. The character of Samuel, who I assume is done digitally and with collage, is realistic and cartoony at the same time. He dresses like a real child but his large round head and huge mouth remind us me of animated characters. The Moon Frog is an interesting mix of color, ugly and silly at the same time. The book is an odd mix of illustrated images but somehow the hodgepodge of styles makes sense for the book. Very inventive.

This was a book I picked up but wasn't sure what to expect. I was pleasant surprised by the story, which included some very grown-up themes along with some silly images. McClements creates a great character with Samuel and I practically wanted to stand up and cheer at the end. A fun story, interesting images, and a pace that kept me hopping. Good find.

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