Although I’d heard of author/graphic novelist Ben Hatke before, I’d never had a chance to read one of his books. So, I was thrilled to read his latest graphic novel for middle-graders, Mighty Jack, which was released in September. This modern retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk was inventive, engrossing, and a lot of fun.
A boy named Jack lives with his mother and his younger sister, Maddy, who doesn’t speak. His mom works very hard to support them, but money is always tight. Jack is often left in charge of Maddy while his mom is working, especially now, during summer vacation. While wandering around the flea market one day while their mom shops, Maddy is drawn to a booth manned by a strange-looking guy, and Jack follows her. He shows them some unusual things and then offers them a box full of odd-looking seed packets.
The pictures on the seed packet are strange designs, not vegetables, and unlike anything Jack has ever seen before. They can’t afford to buy anything, but Maddy is insistent, as is the seller. Somehow, before he knows what is happening, Jack has traded his mom’s car keys for the seeds. His mother is furious, of course, but Maddy is thrilled.
Back home the next day, Maddy immediately starts digging. Thinking that maybe growing some of their own food will allow him to help his mom, Jack joins in. The day before, Jack had noticed – and been drawn to – a girl about his age sword fighting with a dummy in her driveway. The girl, named Lilly, noticed Jack staring and seeks him out. She is also fascinated by the odd-looking seeds and helps them plant them.
Of course, these seeds don’t grow into anything any of them has ever seen before. The garden grows – very quickly – and there are no giant beanstalks, but there are plenty of other strange plants that are even more unique and magical. The three children gradually figure out some of the secrets of their new garden and also realize that it could be dangerous. Luckily, Lilly grew up among three older brothers who liked to play knights and pirates, so she equips the three of them to defend themselves against some of the garden’s more virulent creations.
This is the kind of fantasy that I most enjoy – where fantastical elements are set within a real-life world with real-feeling characters. I was immediately drawn to Jack, Maddy, and Lilly (especially Lilly, a brave and strong girl) and enjoyed the suspense of seeing what their bizarre garden would yield each new day. The illustrations are also my favorite kind in a graphic novel: full-color, realistic pictures of both the human characters and the magical things that come out of their garden. You can see the close, touching relationship that Jack has with both his mom and his little sister in these pictures. I enjoyed this unique take on a classic tale that blends the real world and fantasy so beautifully. It ends with a cliffhanger, so I can’t wait to see what Jack’s next adventures will be!
205 pages, First Second
NOTE: Book 2, Mighty Jack and the Goblin King is planned for release on September 5, 2017.