By David Nytra
80 pages, black and white
Published by Toon Books
Toon Books is known for creating a smart synthesis between children’s books and graphic novels; their books appropriate the storytelling traditions and techniques of both and turn them into a bridge between the slightly different formats. With The Secret of the Stone Frog, though, Toon has published a full graphic novel for younger readers by David Nytra. And as it turns out, it was well worth the wait with a graceful, dreamy story that captures the imagination.
Nytra’s plot for The Secret of the Stone Frog is a fairly simple one; children Leah and Alan wake up in a strange forest and try to find their way home, with only a series of talking stone frog statues to help guide them back. As they stray from the frog’s path, though, danger quickly finds them over and over again. It’s the sort of structure that allows Nytra to hang just about anything he wants on it; as soon as the duo leave the path, all sorts of strange things can appear with only Nytra’s imagination as the limit.
Nytra’s story is the sort that’s well built for the graphic novel format. There’s one part in particular that uses a convention that wouldn’t have the same effect in any other medium, as a massive bee grabs a word balloon coming out of Alan’s mouth and starts to cart it away, rendering him mute. Only once Leah is able to chase down the bee, get the balloon back, and roll it up so she can feed it back to Alan is he able to talk again. It’s a great nod to the way that comics work, and it’s that sort of cleverness that made me tickled by The Secret of the Stone Frog. As mentioned earlier, just about anything can happen in this book; in many ways it reminds me of Winsor McCay’s classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, as things start out rather normal and then start twisting and changing the more you look at them.
Nytra’s art also has a certain similarity to McCay’s comics in the way that he draws his characters. They’ve got very loose features (perhaps so that it’s easier for children to identify with them?) and their expressions are always one of wonder and excitement, similar to Nemo’s wide-eyed looks back in the day. The rest of the art serves as a start contrast to his two protagonists, though; it’s very richly detailed, with so much packed onto the page that if the credits hadn’t mentioned what tools Nytra used you’d assume it required computers to get all of those little lines onto the page. Everything from massive rabbits to ambulatory fish in three-piece suits comes to life here, and in a way that will have you staring at the art for hours.
One thing that I appreciated was that while there’s one very small moral embedded into the story—it’s only by not listening to the advice of the stone frog that Leah and Alan find themselves in trouble—it’s never particularly overt. Instead it’s a tumbling, jaunty story that pushes them from one strange encounter to the next. The lack of overtness is part of the key of the charm in this book, too; most older readers will quickly pick up on the fact that Leah and Alan are dreaming, but Nytra never states it point-blank. Younger readers can enjoy the story in its own right, and as they grow a little older pick up on the additional nature of the story.
The Secret of the Stone Frog might be both Toon Books’ and Nytra’s first graphic novel, but hopefully it won’t be the last. This is a real joy to read and I’m already eager to see more. Younger readers will enjoy the adventure and anything-can-happen attitude, while older readers will also get out of it a strong appreciation for the amount of craft that goes into the art. This is the sort of gift that when you buy, you run the risk of quietly sitting down and reading it for yourself, first.