Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke: A-

Zita the Spacegirl CoverFrom the back cover:
Flung far across the universe, from star to star, faced with monsters, magicians, and maybe new friends… an Earth girl named Zita must find a way home.

I’m always impressed by children’s fiction that doesn’t underestimate its audience, especially stories with multiple plot threads that wind up stitching together in a way that’s both surprising and perfect. Holes by Louis Sachar is the best example of this that I can think of, but Zita the Spacegirl does an admirable job, too.

One sunny afternoon, Zita and her friend Joseph discover a smoking hole in a field where something fell to Earth. Despite fretful Joseph’s entreaties, Zita clambers down and discovers a big, tempting red button. She pushes it, as you do, and a portal materializes. Strange tendrils snake out and grab Joseph before the portal zaps shut. Though she flees initially, Zita is unable to leave Joseph to his fate, and so summons the portal once more, jumping into it herself. There’s no dialogue throughout this section, which employs some excellent nonverbal storytelling to convey Zita’s state of mind as she steels herself to do what she must.

She winds up on a strange world full of bizarre creatures and peculiar robots. Some are adorable, like the Miyazaki-esque grass-clod critter, and some are sweet, like the hulking and clay-like Strong-Strong, who carries her away from a robot altercation. In quick succession, she spots Joseph being whisked away, the button is stepped on, and she meets Piper, an unscrupulous inventor who offers to repair the button. After perusing a book of creatures (which contains an entry for “dozers,” which simply must be an homage to the doozers of Fraggle Rock) to identify Joseph’s captors, Piper points her in the right direction for a rescue and pretty much washes his hands of her.

Along the way, Zita is joined by a variety of creatures and encounters still more. First is Mouse, the giant mouse Piper travels with, but she later runs into a mobile battle orb called One, meets a rickety and timid robot calling himself Randy, and is reunited with Strong-Strong. All of these critters are loyal to Zita, who is smart and brave and emotive, and defend her against mechanized predators and turncoats alike. The plot is clever and satisfying, but it’s actually the bond between Zita and her friends that’s the best part of the story, and I was happy that she didn’t need to part with them all just yet.

Although I did like Zita the Spacegirl very much, a couple of things bugged me. First, the existence of how the button came to be is not explained. It’s powered by a missing part from Randy, so… did someone take that power source, affix it to a button, and send it to Earth specifically to transport Joseph? I think that they probably did, but it’s never outright specified. Also, One tells Zita she’s “many thousands of light years from home.” How does he know that? Does he recognize she’s from Earth? Are humans regular space travelers on this planet? What year is it supposed to be in Zita’s timeline, anyway? Probably these are the sorts of questions only a stodgy grown-up would ask so I should loosen up already.

Hatke’s art is beautifully suited to the story. As I mentioned, he does a terrific job conveying actions and character emotions through nonverbal storytelling, something I am always a huge fan of. All of the color is lovely, and he does some really nice things with light, from the warmth of a sunny scene to a brilliant beam in a climactic moment. Additionally, the creature designs are quite imaginative; I think I will always remember the little scavenger bot who emits a little heart when it spies a bit of scrap that suits its fancy.

In the end, Zita the Spacegirl is a thoroughly charming story that any kid would probably enjoy. Even better, the cliffhanger ending and author’s acknowledgments promise “many more” adventures for our plucky heroine. Count me in!

Review copy provided by the publisher.


J’s Take on Zita the Spacegirl

Zita the Spacegirl CoverI think I first saw an ad for this in Shelf Awareness, a book industry newsletter. The artwork is really eye-catching and appealing, especially combined with the title. How can you not be drawn to something called Zita the Spacegirl?

There aren’t enough spacegirls, if you ask me.

Since the first thing I did when I went to read it was stare at the cover a little while, I’ll start with that. Zita appeals to me because she looks like a kid. It could easily be a boy in that outfit, except that it has a little skirt-like flare to it that most boys probably wouldn’t wear. She doesn’t look older or more feminine than a girl that age should look. Not that I’m entirely sure of her age, but I’m guessing somewhere between 7 and 10.

The art appealed to me throughout. I think it’s the combination of bright colors (the whole book is in color, score!) and fun characters yet within a realistic sort of style. You know how in some manga the character reactions are unrealistic? People facevaulting onto the floor, sweatdropping left and right, and going SD for no reason. Unless and until you’re used to that, it’s kind of annoying and distracting. There’s none of that in here. All of Zita’s expressions convey her emotions, very well I might add, and not in an over-the-top way.

Oh! So the basic story is that Zita and her friend come across a crater left by a ‘meteoroid’, which misnaming I can forgive because it’s in the mouths of the characters and they’re kids. They discover a mysterious red button in there. And naturally Zita pushes it! Her friend, Joseph, disappears through a portal that opens up.

And the next bit is like the best bit of the book, I think. We get several pages of no dialogue. The author/artist, Ben Hatke, also resists the urge for Zita to have an internal (or external) monologue. We have no idea what she’s thinking. Except that we totally do. Just by looking at the panels. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you draw/write a graphic novel.

As you might guess, she goes to rescue Joseph. And she finds herself in this weird place, probably another planet, surrounded by weird creatures, probably aliens. Only there’s a meteor coming. Utoh. So she needs to find Joseph and get home, before the whole planet is destroyed.

Along the way she meets people/creatures/robots and makes friends. Some of them are quite unlikely friends, especially at first. A giant mouse, maybe. A killer robot? Ummm..

For a bonus, one of the characters is reminiscent of, or perhaps meant to be, the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Who I’m rather drawn to.

To not give away the whole story, I’ll go back to talking about what we can see, rather than what we read. There are a lot of different creatures, so that it’s fascinating to look at all of them. Some of them look familiar. Some in a vague way, where you’re not quite sure if you’ve seen them somewhere before or not. Others that you could say ‘That’s Star Wars’ or ‘That’s Fraggle Rock’. But still, never exactly the same as from there. Just that they seem to have been used as inspiration, and that they’re there as inside jokes.

If it still needs to be said, I quite liked Zita the Spacegirl. Even her outfit with the sashlike Z on it. Maybe I’m just a sucker for Zs (for the same reason I like the names Diego and Alejandro). The story rings true as a girl’s story. By that I mean that she gathers friends along the way to help her, rather than bullying through it alone.

You know, I have not a single negative thing to say about this book. Even the 11$ pricetag seems reasonable for a full color graphic novel of this size. I’d be quite happy to recommend this to a kid, of any gender, and I look forward to reading and viewing more adventures of Zita the Spacegirl.

I feel like I should close this with a tagline. But I don’t know that Zita has a tagline. There, there’s my negative thing. She needs a tagline.


Zita the Spacegirl (Ben Hatke)

The Plot
Zita and her friend Joseph are on their way home from school when a meteor crashes nearby. Upon finding a mysterious red button concealed within the meteorite, Zita naturally wants to press it — and press it she does. After this results in Joseph being kidnapped by aliens, Zita finds her courage and goes after him, knowing that she may be his only chance of getting home again.

My Thoughts
First impressions are key, they say, and this graphic novel makes a marvelous first impression. The book is in full, vibrant color and composed of sturdy, thick paper pages which not only don’t bleed through, but which look and feel like they’ll stand up very well to small hands and repeated readings.

Zita manages to live up to the great first impression. The artwork, a pleasing mixture of cute and weird, manages somehow to present a detailed and exciting setting while still remaining simple enough that the panels never feel cluttered and the characters overpowered by the backgrounds. As the story got underway, part of me couldn’t help trying to picture how the graphic novel would translate to a movie — and if said movie should be animated by Studio Ghibli or done in live action by the Jim Henson Company. (Sorry, Disney-Pixar, I don’t think you could handle it.)

The story itself is straightforward: girl in a strange land collects a group of rag-tag misfits and heads off to find the wizard summon one of the four gods rescue her friend, but it’s very well-done and effectively told through the artwork and dialogue. I was hooked from the beginning, when Zita and her friend Joseph encounter the meteorite (called a meteoroid in the text, which I’m pretty sure is only what they’re called when they’re still in space) and the mysterious red button. Joseph’s abrupt abduction leads to easily the most realistic reaction I’ve seen in a long time: Zita panics and runs away. But she masters her fears and comes back again, making her effort to rescue him clearly much more considered (and brave!) than a story in which she impulsively and recklessly leapt through the portal right away.

I really had only one major problem with this work. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of it, but it’s not a minor concern, either. It is this: after I finished the book, I sat back with a feeling of vague confusion. I could not remember a single identifiably female character other than Zita — not just among the named characters, but even as scenery in the background*. Then I wondered why I remembered all of the other named characters as male. Some of them were robots, and surely they weren’t assigned a gender? So I went back through the book again, and as it turns out, my impression was unfortunately correct. Not only is Zita the only identifiably female character in the book, every other named character (with the exception of Strong-strong) is referred to with a male pronoun.

I was shocked by this. Was this an oversight on the author’s part, or a conscious decision? Either way, it doesn’t look good. The default gender in the universe should not be ‘male’. Unfortunately, this is pretty common in properties which are aimed toward a cross-gender or male market — but that doesn’t make it okay, less offensive, or less obvious to girls that they’re being dissed. (I was one of those girls, and marketing people can say all they like about girls being willing to watch/read/enjoy things with boy characters — it may be true but we NOTICE.)

The book is good, and I’d like to see more. I can’t give author Ben Hatke a ‘bye’ for this, but I can hope he will strive to provide a more gender diverse cast in any future Zita installments.

*Toward the end, there appears to be an extremely random cameo by Marzipan, but I don’t know if I want to count that.

In Short
Zita the Spacegirl is fantastic. As a character, Zita is believable, interesting and charismatic. The artwork supports the story perfectly, and makes it feel like a movie even while remaining still on the page. I’ll certainly be purchasing a copy of my own, and I’ll probably be recommending that the library purchase it as well. The one major flaw in this work is an egregious gender imbalance, with Zita being the only female character I was able to identify in the entire book — I’m hopeful this is something the author will correct in future installments.

A review copy of Zita the Spacegirl was provided by the publisher.