MMGM and #IMWAYR (2/8/2021): Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne
Before we get to today's post, I want to mention that, in case you didn't see my post on Friday, I have created a new rating system for my blog that I call Ratings for the Graphic Novel-Averse! This rating system is designed to tell readers who don't usually like graphic novels how much they will enjoy the graphic novels I review. The higher the score, the less likely you are to be frustrated or weirded out by the book! (Note that the scores have nothing to do with the actual quality of the book—that's what my regular rating system is for.) Click here to learn about what each rating means and to hear some tips on getting started with graphic novels if you've never made the jump before!
Also, quick complaint session: I have been locked in a battle of wills with technology this morning. First, I finally managed to place an order on the CVS website, even though it kept randomly going out and saying "Access Denied" and not coming back for 10 minutes. Also, our home Internet keeps randomly going out, so I've been trying to figure out whether the problem is with our Internet company or with the modem and router that we bought ourselves—that's how I discovered that live-chat with Netgear support for the modem costs money after 90 days of ownership. That is ridiculous. In short: technology = yuck.
With that, it's time for our second review in Four Weeks of Witches, the completely arbitrary blogging event I made up because I bought an enormous volume of graphic novels with witches! Today's post is on the graphic novel Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne.
|Note Blob Ghost and Beetle at|
the top by the Stonewall Honor
medallion (!!!), and Kat between
the author's name.
You've probably noticed that I try to keep track of who recommends books that I review, so that I can thank them for their discerning taste (am I complimenting them or myself?), but of course when I made my Christmas list and put this book on here, I didn't write down who recommended it, and I still can't figure it out even after searching practically everyone's blog. (I saw that Book Cart Queens mentioned it a while back, but that seems too long ago. Still, kudos to them for getting it read so long ago!) To whoever did recommend this, I must give them so many thank-yous, because Beetle & the Hollowbones is utterly fantabulous! I moved this book way up on my reading list (from an unspecified date long in the future to now) because, during the ALA's big batch of book awards (say that three times fast) last week, they awarded it a Stonewall Honor! (FYI, the Stonewall Awards are for LGBT+ representation in kidlit.) With that, let's jump right in!
Beetle & the Hollowbones is set in the town of 'Allows, where magical creatures are commonplace and witchcraft is taught in school. While many students attend private schools to learn sorcery and receive the crystals that help them complete it, our 12-year-old goblin protagonist Beetle is homeschooled by her grandmother, who teaches her the less glamorous goblin magic. Beetle longs to learn sorcery and struggles with goblin magic (riding a broom in particular is not her strong suit), but considering she has her best friend Blob Ghost and her adventures with them at the town mall to help her get through things, she's in a pretty good place overall. But the return of the Hollowbones shakes things up. Kat Hollowbone and Beetle used to be friends, but Kat's time in private school (and over two thousand social media followers) makes Beetle worry that Kat might be way too cool to be seen with her. The bigger issue, though, is Marla Hollowbone (who Kat, her niece, is apprenticed to). Marla's plan to destroy the mall that Beetle and Blob Ghost spend time in is a bigger issue than it might seem, because Blob Ghost haunts the mall and is unable to leave...so destroying the mall just might kill them. (I mean, they're already dead, but still...really kill them.) With less than a week before the demolition, Beetle has to navigate the confusing world of friendships, attempt to get her magic under control, fight back against Marla Hollowbone's despicable nature, and save her best friend's life. (Talk about a to-do list.)
Beetle & the Hollowbones is one of those books that is so good, you can't help randomly clapping your hands and squealing with delight as you make your way through the pages! (Or maybe that's just me. But still.) There's quite a bit I want to praise here, and I think the best way to go here is to start with the characters—I loved Beetle, Kat, and Blob Ghost so much that they are each getting their own paragraphs today. First, Beetle. As the protagonist, Beetle has the unenviable task of being a relatable and childlike protagonist that kids will see themselves in...but also having amazing character traits hidden in plain sight in order to show readers that they, too, have amazing character traits to be proud of. It's a difficult set of contradictory attributes to check off, but author Aliza Layne ensures that Beetle checks them all off with aplomb. Even in a world as spooky as 'Allows, Beetle is still having pretty normal human experiences—being frustrated with her potions homework, worrying about how she stacks up to the popular kids, and geeking out over her favorite TV shows and making fanart and fanfiction about them (OK, I don't know how many kids make fanart or fanfiction, but I'm sure plenty of them are familiar with it). These character traits, combined with Layne's expressive and carefully calibrated facial expressions, ensure that Beetle feels as real as any character could. And yet, Beetle isn't just real, she is likable, to the point where you'll be rooting for her, feeling what she feels, and occasionally feeling pulled out of the story just to think about how totally awesome she is. Beetle is loyal, and she is caring. She is not the sort of middle-schooler who ditches one friend for another or leaves them behind in their time of need. Beetle makes those around her feel loved, and she is out there fighting her friends' battles before even they are. I certainly get that many middle-schoolers struggle under peer pressure and judgment to maintain genuine friendships with even one person, let alone more than one—I certainly have my own skeletons in the closet of people I should have been nicer to, and I'm sure you all do as well. But the fact remains that it's nice to see a character who has figured out that she can be friends with more than one person—and not just be friends with them, but be a friend to them. So, in short, Beetle is awesome.
I'm saving Blob Ghost as the big finish of characters, so let's talk about Kat next. From what I knew about this book before starting it, I thought that (a) Kat was going to be the obnoxious popular girl antagonist and (b) Beetle was going to fall for it and ruin her friendships that mattered. I've already pointed out that point (b) did not happen at all, and I am thrilled to see that point (a) did not either. First of all, although Beetle is tempted to compare herself negatively to Kat, Kat isn't antagonistic or judgmental. In fact, she is just as much of a delight as Beetle, from the very beginning of the story! (She wears cat ears just like Bridge from Goodbye Stranger does, which certainly helps.) Kat definitely is an impressive sort of kid—she has a flourishing online presence, she's great at sorcery, and she finished school early to jump right into an apprenticeship. But behind that extra-polished image, there's more to Kat. Facing high expectations from her family, Kat has had to forgo a lot of fun and happiness to get to where she is—fun and happiness that she rediscovers after reconnecting with Beetle. But there's more to it than that. Kat's aunt, Marla Hollowbone, isn't just the villain of the story—toward her niece and apprentice, she's abusive, plain and simple. Marla attempts to control Kat's every move, belittling her constantly and using her power over Kat and her future to threaten her and keep her in line. Kat starts making excuses for her aunt, fearing that the future she's worked so hard to build will fall apart if she does anything about her situation. Toward the end of the book, the situation escalates into physical abuse (in a magical, MG-appropriate sort of way, but still). The mind tricks abusers play on their victims to keep them submissive and feeling like they have no other options are in full view in Beetle & the Hollowbones, and it's a good thing the rest of this book is upbeat, because seeing Kat, who you've grown to love, in such an awful situation is...well, it's not fun. But it certainly is well-done on Aliza Layne's part, and it is also kept to the absolute minimum necessary to get the point across, with none of the typical MG wallowing in misery.
Quick interjection: I've made this book sound horribly depressing with all that, which is yet another false assumption about Beetle & the Hollowbones! Before we get to the ultimate source of joy here, which is Blob Ghost, I must mention another source of awkward joy: the growing romantic tension between Beetle and Kat. (They don't give out Stonewall Honors just for one character using they/them pronouns, after all—thankfully, the situation isn't that desperate these days.) I don't want to spoil too much here, but I will say that where there is quite a bit of the typical MG awkwardness that comes with crushes, there is also a surprising amount of maturity involved, considering that Beetle and Kat are insightful characters who really do bring out the best in each other. I normally can't stand romance in MG books (it just seems way too young), but I felt like, in this case, the characters are wise enough and the depictions are reasonable enough that this route was a good choice, especially considering there are way too few depictions of same-sex crushes in MG books. It makes me glad to know that LGBT+ kids will have characters as great as Beetle and Kat to look to as representation of their feelings!
I swear, I will end this review after two more paragraphs. First of all, we get to talk about Blob Ghost! You might not think this book could get any better, but Blob Ghost may actually be the single best part of this entire book. Which is impressive. Quick facts about Blob Ghost: They are a ghost. They are also a sticky gelatinous blob. They use they/them pronouns. They are stuck living in and haunting a mall, without any parents or guardian figures—just a sad little bedroom and a pet pill bug (talk about a scene that breaks your heart). They speak in pictograms, not words. And they are absolutely, ridiculously adorable! OK, have I sold you yet? I would not have thought that a character that does not speak words could be so wonderfully deep and delightful, and yet here I am, as ready as Beetle is to jump into this story's world and protect Blob Ghost from any harm that could befall this new national treasure of a character! Blob Ghost is wonderfully childlike, but also brave and ready to return the favor to Beetle when she is in danger. Their kind heart makes their predicament all the more awful, and it totally makes sense how it could be scary for them to see their only friend befriending someone else (even if their friend is someone as responsible and caring as Beetle). Aliza Layne's immense artistic talent brings Blob Ghost to life, whether they are slightly melting from the heat of a coffee cup in the mall café with Beetle, spraying little droplets of ghost everywhere while sitting in the vibrating mall massage chair, or just grinning in an infectiously adorable manner! And never fear that Blob Ghost ever gets the short end of the storytelling stick—they get plenty of backstory and some wonderful character resolution and development at the end of the book! I did not know it was possible to create characters as lovable and delightful as Blob Ghost—but that's just the talent of Beetle & the Hollowbones.
Last paragraph, I promise!!! This is the speed round of random fabulous stuff. Unlike some graphic novelists, Aliza Layne does a great job of juggling plot events, character development, and pacing throughout this story, ensuring that this story is just as deep and enjoyable as any prose novel could be. Her artwork also has a truly wonderful style, with plenty of emotion and action but also a willingness to be still and highlight important moments with breathing room when necessary. The painted art style and beautiful colors provided by her, Natalie Riess, and Kristen Acampora allow the vivid world of 'Allows to shine—this book really is a feast for your eyes in the way that a bag of Halloween candy is a feast for your stomach! (Except without any stomachaches.) Layne does a great job bringing 'Allows to life—the magical mall, with giant bug janitors, creepy mall shops, and gumball machines that dispense screams, is certainly a highlight, but the rest of the world is pretty great as well! The witchcraft in the story could have been a little bit more developed, but that wasn't much of an issue considering how great everything else is, and I felt like the magic behind Kat (an undead person) and Blob Ghost was reasonably logical. Also, Beetle's relationship with her grandmother, who takes care of her and homeschools her in goblin magic, was excellent as well! Beetle's grandma is a truly kind woman who uses her magic to take care of the village, but she's also fierce just like Beetle and ready to take bad guys down when necessary. And I loved how Beetle and her grandmother navigate practicing/seeing the value in their species's magic while also being free to explore other types of magic as well.
Beetle & the Hollowbones is ridiculously fun to read and ridiculously delightful to think about. I'm not so surprised by how well-crafted or groundbreaking this book is (though it definitely is those things) as by how utterly joyous and fun it is! Beetle, Kat, and Blob Ghost are characters that will stick with me for a long time (honestly, I'm tempted to write fanfiction about them, if I ever get into fanfiction), as will the knowledge that this book reminded me (as many tend to do, to be fair) of how much I love reading! I really hope you all will give this book the chance to bring you joy—I don't see how it can fail in that mission!
That's all for today! Stay tuned for next week's pick for Four Weeks of Witches!
Update (June 30, 2021): My rating is: Really good!