It’s never easy being the new kid at school… particularly when that school is Astronaut Academy. In this new graphic novel by Dave Roman, Hakata Soy is having trouble fitting in. It’s not regular new kid stuff, either — Hakata is the former leader of Metador, a giant transformer superhero robot, and he came to Astronaut Academy to make a fresh start.
Oh, and there’s a robot doppelganger out to kill him.
First Second Books sent me an advance reader copy of Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity a few months ago, and it was a pretty fun read. It’s targeted at tweens and teens: there’s some action, some romance, a good deal of school-based social competition, and a lot of silliness. The book was just released earlier this month, and I think it’s great reading for both boys and girls.
The drawings and themes are manga-inspired but have their own style, with bold lines and simple facial features. I did like the artwork but I did have trouble telling some of the characters apart, especially minor ones. (Sometimes you really have to go by the hair style and clothes rather than the face.)
Each chapter is sort of a stand-alone story focusing on one of the characters, with a title section like “My name is: Billy Lee — and I go to: Astronaut Academy.” The chapters vary in length and are just little vignettes about the various kids and teachers, but put together there is an overarching plot as well (involving that robot doppelganger, among other things). There are lots of geeky references: Metador is clearly a play on Voltron; the robot sometimes speaks in an 8-bit typeface. One class on humanities focuses on hearts:
Traditionally you start off with only one heart and are given 1-2 additional hearts by parents or guardians. Although money can’t buy you love, extra hearts can be traded or given away as tokens of affection. … Heart containers allow for safe storage and preservation from emotional damage.
(The heart container in question should look pretty familiar for anyone who’s played Mega Man, and Roman plays with the idea of hearts both as health and as a romantic notion.)
The writing is a bit quirky. Some of the characters speak in a purposely stilted manner, like it’s been run through a poor translation algorithm to a different language and then back to English. And there are characters that speak in redundancies like “I couldn’t help but overhear because I was eavesdropping.” I’m sure it was intentional because not every character talked like that, but there also didn’t seem to be a good pattern to me which ones did and which ones didn’t. In general, I’m not a fan of bad grammar, intentional or not. Reading parts of Astronaut Academy did give me the sense of watching a translated dubbed film — sometimes it was funny, and at other times it was annoying.
For the most part, though, I thought it was a clever little book and enjoyed reading it. I liked the way the little snippets added up to a bigger story, which kept me reading to find out how everything turned out. The over-emoting kids are great characters, and the ridiculous principal (who carries a ridiculously large sword) is a hoot. You can see him in this preview, which is also the intro to the book.
For a taste of Roman’s drawing style and sense of humor, here’s a short cartoon he did about Art. (While this isn’t from Astronaut Academy, the book does feature a few bunny characters, too.)
If you’ve got tweens and teens who like a bit of sci-fi that doesn’t take itself seriously, enroll them in Astronaut Academy this summer. (And if they enjoy it, there’s a second volume in the works!)
Wired: Great characters, funny vignettes which add up to an entertaining story, good for girls and boys.
Tired: Some of the characters are hard to tell apart; intentionally stilted language might not thrill everyone.