Kids don't pretend to be sailors anymore. Did they ever? I think so. There must have been a time when the lure of seaside battles against a hated enemy stirred something proud and deep in the heart of your average child reader. Mind you, I suspect that it's a British inclination. Perhaps in the heyday of John Paul Jones Yankee children would reenact fights above the briny deep but these days if kids do pretend to be sailors, they pretend to be pirates (thank YOU Pirates of the Caribbean). Into this pirate-loving culture plunges Jeff Weigel and his remarkable "Thunder from the Sea". It's as if he made a dare with himself. Not only would he create a book about the Royal Navy battling it out with Napoleon's seaside forces, not only would he make that book a graphic novel, and not ONLY would that graphic novel contain tons of factual information about early 19th century seafaring ways, but he'd also put in enough battles and fight scenes to make it worth a reluctant reader's while. Kids are bugging you for more pirate books? Throw this puppy their way. By the time they realize there isn't a peg legged man to be found it'll be too late. They'll be hooked, and if you read it yourself, so will you.
Jack Hoyton probably had romantic visions of heroism and derring-do when he enlisted as a member of the British Royal Navy. Hardly more than a kid, those dreams were knocked flat pretty fast. Day in the navy consist of plain hard work, no bones about it. It takes Jack a while to get a feel for the job, but he does just in time for some skirmishes with the French. Soon it looks as though his HMS Defender may have a hand in turning the tide against Napoleon's own seagoing vessels. That is, unless they fall into a trap created by one of their own traitorous sailors. Factual information about life on the sea appears in the sidebars of each page. A Bibliography and Recommended Reading list appears at the book's close.
The balance between story and fact must have been difficult for Weigel to get a handle on. For one thing, he needed to parcel out the factual information in such a way that the sidebars never overwhelmed the reader and always applied to something being discussed. On top of that, there has to be a compelling tale at work here. You need to really believe in the trials of Jack Hoyton, even as he makes mistakes and figures out what "doing your duty" actually means. Weigel actually manages to do all of this. The format of the book helps him to a certain extent. While the picture book sized 8.8" X 11.2" may turn off some potential readers (no 10-year-old wants to be mistaken for reading something intended for a 5-year-old crowd) others will get past that initial hurdle and discover that thanks to its horizontal layout there's plenty of room for all the facts and story Weigel's packed in here.
Americans are always put in a kind of a funny spot when we read historical moments in British history that happen to include an Irishman or Welshman or Scot. Our natural inclination is to be sympathetic to that person, since our own country is deeply rooted in rooting OUT the Brits. Part of what I like about Weigel's story is that he exploits that natural sympathy. The bad guy here (spoiler alert, folks) turns out to be Irish and you understand why he's doing what he's doing. On the other hand, our hero Jack makes it perfectly clear why revenging yourself on a nation becomes a tricky proposition when the lives of good men are about to be lost.
As for the art itself, Weigel's been cutting this teeth on comics for years. His is a clean lined style, very distinctive, which has served him well in superhero picture books like "Atomic Ace: (He's Just My Dad)". That superhero feel adapts nicely to this work of historical fiction, surprisingly enough. Sometimes an artist will be far more comfortable drawing his characters in moments of leisure. Other times, that artist might specialize in action instead. Weigel has the rare and rather desirable ability of balancing both downtime and bloody gory action in this book, never overwhelming the reader with one or another. It's a pity that the book was colored on a computer, but as computer coloring goes this title is less offensive to the eyeballs than, say, the "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief: The Graphic Novel". Weigel keeps to a muted palette of blues, reds, and yellows, giving the images a very nice feel.
If I've any objection to the book, it may center on the Recommended Reading section at the story's end. I have a hard time believing that any child finishing this book is going to want to pick up the 1966 "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower" by C.S. Forester or Patrick O'Brian's 1970 "Master and Commander", though I have been known to be wrong. Still, it would make far more sense to suggest more recent titles like Susan Cooper's "Victory" or even something a little American like that neat biography by Michael L. Cooper (folks named "Cooper" love to write this stuff) "Hero of the High Seas: John Paul Jones and the American Revolution". While O'Brian and Forester might make fun books, a slightly more contemporary (and age appropriate) series of selections would not have been out of place.
Of course we've nothing like this book in my library. And truth be told, I've never been asked for a graphic novel on historical Napoleonic sea battles. That said, I have gotten requests from kids on books that involve sailing in some way. Now when they ask for me for such things, I'll be able to hand them "Thunder from the Sea" without a twinge of guilt. If they give it a chance, I've little doubt they'll get sucked into it. It's a world most of them have never been aware of. Virgin territory. Mr. Weigel should be proud.
For ages 8 and up.