As the family gets split up and each person or duo face their own perils, they learn to stop taking each other for granted and to work together to save the family. While some try to outmaneuver pirates or escape unfamiliar worlds, bookish Claire ends up in a magical library that may hold the key to steering her family toward a happy ending. The story is supported by clean, clever, evocative art that gives each person (and family pet) a distinct characterization. Personality and mood are expertly conveyed with simple lines and partially colored panels that never distract or detract from the story taking place, but support and enhance it.
Told in a total of eight chapters, the overarching plot takes the family from loving-yet-contentious to a point where they can set squabbles aside and truly appreciate one another, adeptly exploring the themes of teamwork, respect, and the triumph of the family bond. The writing strikes an excellent balance with the graphics, and the story itself is appropriate for younger readers without losing appeal for adults either. Readers of all ages will find this a real gem.
Takeaway: Readers of any age who enjoy portal fantasies will love this expertly crafted adventure.
Great for fans of: Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series, FGTeeV’s FGTeev Presents: Into The Game!, Peter Wartman’s The Dragon Prince: Through the Moon.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: N/A
Geert Heetebrij graphic novel “The Undergrounds” an adventure story for all ages
Like “Chronicles of Narnia” without the allegory, “The Undergrounds” is a visually engrossing, child-friendly adventure that celebrates the importance of family and the power of imagination.
Written by Geert Heetebrij, assistant professor of film and media here at Calvin, and drawn by freelance illustrator Jonathan Lareva, the novel’s launch was successfully funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which described the novel as “an all-ages fantasy adventure.”
The family at the center of the story is a very conventional one: the father is the breadwinner, struggling with standing up to his boss and gaining respect from his wife, the mother conforms to superhero-movie female body standards and does all the cooking.
The oldest daughter, Lauren, is attached to her cell phone and disappointed to find that their new home has no cell service, preventing her from connecting with her boyfriend, Mark. Her younger sister, Elyse, is afraid of “creepy-crawlies.” The middle daughter, Claire, is a bookworm with a big imagination, and the only son, Rob, likes to explore and pull pranks. The children argue in typical sibling fashion but also deeply care about each other. The adventure draws them closer as they seek to follow their father’s advice: “You’re family. Take care of each other.”
The family discovers a hole in their backyard which leads to a realm where elaborate stories are being written and played out across worlds. Accidentally angering the pirate king of one of those stories, the family must work together to take control of their story and save the day.
At its heart, it’s a story of competing narratives, and fans of Dungeons & Dragons or other role-playing games will love how the characters are imaginatively involved in the shaping of the story both as it is written and as it occurs.
The drawings add clarity to the sometimes-tangential plot and capture the wonderfully whimsical realm of story. The worlds are separated by color palette, which provides a delightful sense of discovery for the reader as each new one is revealed.
“The creative process here,” Heetebrij said of his collaboration with Lareva, “is a lot like that of a cinematographer storyboarding scenes: the artist senses intuitively what the essence of any given scene or moment is, and then chooses the best cinematography (What camera angle? How close? Which lighting?) to communicate that moment.”
The novel is based on a series of bedtime stories Heetebrij told to his real-life children, and the episodic plot reflects that. “My children and I had fun with it,” Heetebrij said, “They’d mention some random item or character and then I would weave that into a story–or sometimes we would switch, and they would make up the story.” Faced with writing a new screenplay every semester in graduate school, Heetebrij took his children’s advice and turned “the tunnel stories” into a script.
The fairy-tale worlds the family stumbles into are rife with danger, but the focus on the excitement of problem-solving and discovery prevents the story from becoming too frightening for young children.
“The Undergrounds” isn’t just for children, though. C.S. Lewis once said, “Someday you will be old enough to read fairy tales again.” If you’re missing the days of magic portals, good guys winning, and talking animals—or are just looking for an entertaining study break—then “The Undergrounds” is for you.
"A vibrant, entertaining, and memorable adventure with strong characters."
In this debut graphic novel, four siblings discover a passage to a number of worlds, precipitating grand escapades and a great deal of peril.
Neil and Kristen Cooper are relocating their family to a new home, a fixer-upper in a seemingly vacant neighborhood. On moving day, young Rob finds a sizable hole in the backyard, which leads to a tunnel that he; his sisters, Lauren, Claire, and Elyse; and the family dog, Cash, enter. Underground, where surprisingly Cash can talk, are doors leading to various worlds. Over the next few days, the siblings explore a desert, a forest, and many other places and even take some items for Neil’s birthday. Unfortunately, pirates who had already claimed the pieces crawl up the backyard hole and kidnap the entire family. Though the Coopers eventually manage to escape, they are almost entirely separated. Kristen sprints through the tunnel with little Elyse in tow; ever loyal Cash helps Rob evade pirates and track down Neil; and Lauren, hiding in a forested world, stumbles on another danger. But Claire winds up in a giant library, where she encounters strange individuals with a unique ability to help her and her family—or severely compound their predicaments. Heetebrij’s diverting tale, most assuredly a series launch, boasts characters with distinctive personalities. Neil, for example, tries to convince himself he’s dreaming during the initial pirate abduction while Elyse, when scared, clings to the closest family member. And Cash turns out to be a scene-stealer; in an argument with Neil, the canine, who occasionally wears a spray collar, suggests: “How about a collar to shut you up?” Though the pirates supply much of the villainy, there are vivid characters throughout, from fairy trolls to a band of knights. Complementing the writing are the striking and animated images by debut illustrator Lareva. But the artwork’s most discernible quality is the color-defined worlds; the blue-gray library, the dark green forest, and the black tunnel with minimal light provide readers with effortless scene transitions as well as visual treats.
A vibrant, entertaining, and memorable adventure with strong characters.