The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth
Beautiful artwork makes up for a derivative story, but some “homage” should be acknowledged
Middle grade readers who like The Amulet will probably enjoy Greg Ruth’s graphic novel adventure, The Lost Boy, published by Scholastic. This is a conventional tale, enlivened with beautiful black and white artwork that looks like it’s done in pencil. I have to admit that the cover immediately sucked me in.
Nate Castle has just moved to a new house in a new town, a town filled with tree-lined streets and very curious birds. While he is exploring the house he finds a 1960s-vintage tape recorder hidden in an upstairs room. It has a label, “This is the private property of Walt Pidgin. Top Secret.” Surprisingly, the recorder still plays, and Nate hears a few words of the mystery that haunted Walt, back in the early 1960s.
The strangeness Walt was exploring has not diminished, and when Nate becomes acquainted with the prickly local girl Tabitha, he finds out that Walt was a victim of the story himself. He vanished. Many people in town thought he ran away, but there is much more going on than just a runaway; there’s a wisecracking cricket who rides a Rottweiler, an antique doll that walks and talks, a pugnacious talking squirrel, and a fearsome walking tree-creature called the Vespertine that threatens both Tabitha and Nate.
The story moves back and forth in time, with the recorder as the device that shifts the reader to Walt’s timeline and back to Nate’s. By the second half of the book, Nate, Tabitha and Haloran, a man from town, are deep in the Crow Woods, facing and fighting the Vespertine and its army. Haloran hints that the war they have stumbled into has been going on for a very long time, and that there is a greater adversary than the tree-creature deeper in the woods.
An adult reader will stumble across awkward bits that are derivative or worse; the Vespertine is searching for a “key” to unlock the last of the “gates” that hold them in the forest. It’s hard not to immediately think of Joe Hill’s Locke and Key. In possibly the worst bit of uncited “borrowing,” the squirrel says that an ancient forest queen used the key, and “it rarely took her where she wanted to go, but always took her where she needed to be.” This is practically a word-for-word quotation from Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife. Even the name Haloran, even though it is spelled differently, echoes the character in Stephen King’s book The Shining. With names like Haloran and Tabitha, with magical keys that appear and disappear, sometimes it feels like we’re in an unauthorized King-land. Middle readers, however, probably won’t make those connections yet, and will just enjoy the ride
The story picks up the pace in the second half. Nate and Tabitha need to make moral choices, and their approach to situations differ, which creates genuine tension.
The best thing about The Lost Boy, though, is the artwork. Whether it’s the fine lines that create the children’s faces, the texture of Nate’s hair, looking as if the wind has just tousled it, the tiny cracks on the porcelain of the doll’s face, or the forbidding, shadowy expanse of the forest, Ruth’s touch with a pencil is exquisite and so is his eye for light and shadow. This is a beautifully drawn book and a nice take on a traditional tale. I hope in the next volume Ruth leaves aside the touchstones he’s brought from other work he’s admired, and trusts his own voice and vision more.
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