Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, May 13, 2019

Monday, May 13, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Queen of the Sea


Walker Books US: Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Walker Books US: Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis Walker Books US: Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis Walker Books US: Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Queen of the Sea

by Dylan Meconis

In this spirited graphic novel, Dylan Meconis (The Long Con) imagines an alternate history based on a dangerous time in the life of Queen Elizabeth l, told from the point of view of an orphan girl with a secret past. Altering events and names enough to create her own world, Meconis nevertheless preserves the historical detail of the Tudor period and the wild, windswept beauty of a tiny British isle.

"I wasn't born on the island," Margaret tells readers, but she has lived on the tiny, rocky speck as long as she can remember. Raised at the convent of St. Elysia, her only clues to her past come from the nuns and servants who have charge of her. Unfortunately, they give only surface details--no one, not even the wise and benevolent Prioress Sister Agnes, will tell her who her parents were. Margaret's best guess is that she came from the much larger island of Albion, Meconis's version of historic England. Although content in her cloistered upbringing, Margaret feels lonely as the only child on the island--for youthful companions, she has only religious statuary and a portrait of Princess Eleanor, second daughter of King Edmund. Her life changes for the better when she meets William MacCormick, a laird's son about her age, who comes to live on the island with his widowed mother, Lady Cameron. Though William's plumed hat, fur-trimmed coat and arrogant words make a poor first impression on Margaret, three years later "it was as if William had always lived on the island" and the two tweens are inseparable.

However, when circumstances conspire to send William to join his male relations in the prison of Highwall Keep on Albion, Margaret learns that her beloved island is also a detention camp. Rather than devout women called to serve their saint, the sisters are noblewomen who committed real or perceived crimes against the king. They are forced to live at the convent, where many choose to take holy orders. Like the sisters, Margaret cannot leave without committing treason, though Sister Agnes refuses to explain why the king imprisoned her as a baby.

When civil war breaks out on Albion following Edmund's death, Princess Catherine seizes the throne and sentences her sister to imprisonment. On a rain-drenched night, Princess Eleanor and her imperious chaperone arrive at the island. Cross and demanding, the princess proves a challenge for kindhearted, plainspoken Margaret. Cagey Eleanor's affections run hot and cold, but when Margaret learns she spent time at Highwall Keep, she sees in Eleanor a means of learning William's fate. An uneasy alliance forms between the girls, but Eleanor's friendship carries a high price for Margaret, who soon finds herself drawn into a dangerous plot and confronted with the truth of her own origins.

Readers age 10 and up are sure to fall in love with loyal, clever Margaret, whose wholesome appeal remains refreshing throughout. In Eleanor, Meconis flawlessly balances the facets of Elizabeth I's complex personality: she is by turns brilliant, entitled, mature and imperious, each mood telegraphed by pitch-perfect facial expressions. Although often perplexed by this mercurial new presence in her life, Margaret's buoyancy and grounded perspective make her more than able to stand up to Eleanor; their uneasy relationship with its implied power imbalance drives the plot as unsophisticated Margaret finds herself drowning in political intrigue.

Meconis's hybrid work uses a traditional graphic novel format featuring hand-drawn comic panels and lush, full-page spreads with Margaret's journal-like text passages. Perhaps mimicking the confines of Margaret's convent life, the panels are neat and ordered, each packed with expressive, lively illustrations, while the full-page spreads take advantage of blank space, giving Margaret room to break the rigidity of her borders. These digressions are accompanied by a purposely naïve illustrative style, with Merconis's ink-and-watercolor drawings matching her chatty, informal tone. Her illustrations feature feather-soft green, terracotta and blue-gray, keeping the nearness of rock and sea a constant presence and bringing the the island to vivid life. Although the characters acknowledge King Edmund instead of Henry VIII and pray to the Sorrowful Son instead of Jesus Christ, Meconis keeps historical pastimes and daily lives true to the time period. Readers will learn the table signs the nuns use during their silent meals and find traces of the "Old People" who left barrows and standing stones on the island. In one humorous instance, a frustrated Margaret learns embroidery at Lady Cameron's side, supply lists and stitch names spooling above her harried face as peridot leaves, burgundy blooms and goldenrod stars (actual embroidery Meconis scanned into her art) dance around her serene tutor. Through these rich asides, classroom and book club extension activities practically suggest themselves (Meconis even includes a "terrible gruel" recipe for an authentic taste of commoner sustenance).

This adventurous historical fiction romp could well be this generation's successor to Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdie, but its deep dive into the complicated dynamics of friendship should also make it a surefire hit with fans of Raina Telgemeier or Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham's Real Friends. Meconis's threaded needle piercing the last page suggests she might return and embroider further chapters of Margaret's adventures. Graceful and passionate, Queen of the Sea is destined to become queen of hearts. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Walker Books US, $24.99, hardcover, 400p., ages 10-up, 9781536204988, June 25, 2019

Walker Books US: Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Dylan Meconis: Inviting Curiosity

(photo: Chris Higgins)

Dylan Meconis is a cartoonist, writer and illustrator who created the graphic novels Family Man, Bite Me! and Outfoxed, which was nominated for a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award. She lives with her wife in Portland, Ore.

What was the inspiration for Queen of the Sea?

This book has several points of origin, both personal and historical. When I was the same age as the protagonist, Margaret, my family spent a lot of weekends and vacations in a tiny, unincorporated beach town out on the Washington coastal peninsula. As an only child, that meant many hours to myself, exploring the shoreline and the backwoods, or holing up with a book, writing project or drawing pad, so there is a great deal of me in Margaret.

In terms of the historical setting, I was enjoying the work of Terry Jones and Lucy Worsley when I first started developing this story. They've both created popular history work that explores the daily lives of people in the late medieval and Renaissance eras, and does it in a way that is bright, lively and humane. It's an invitation to curiosity rather than a lecture, and explores themes and personal experiences more than Dates of Battles and Important Documents. I wanted to capture some of that for a young audience.

I also realized there is no shortage of expertly researched and beautifully executed fictional takes on Tudor history. I didn't feel like I had anything special to add there, at least not in a way that felt responsible and respectful of the real people whose lives I'd be fiddling with. Instead I picked out all the "good stuff"--settings, premises and a few relationships and personalities--and built around it.

What was your research process for learning about daily life in this time period?

I live in Portland, Oregon, where we're blessed with a remarkable public library system. I made appointments with research librarians who helped me track down academic articles in online databases, digitized versions of out-of-print books and material from the stacks. Because the convent on the Island is so isolated, and the residents have such simple needs, I could draw on details of daily life from a broader swath of history than just the Tudor era--some of the things the nuns do, like using sign language at meals, are holdovers from centuries past!

I also have to give so much credit to the authors, costume historians and sundry other nerds who compile their own research findings online for the benefit of the masses. Details like "how should a commoner address an earl" and "what games did children play" or "what's actually in gruel" are so much easier to find now than they were in the past, with complete bibliographical sourcing, too.

What do you feel Queen of the Sea has to say about the lives of 16th-century women?

While it was a society that massively privileged men in public life, women of all stations led full, complex and influential lives. In history class we hear all about how men related to each other, but women had their own vibrant inner society as well. We just don't hear about it, or we hear about the "exceptions" like Elizabeth. 

Are there greater inherent challenges in writing for young readers than adult readers?

Writing for young audiences requires me to be honest and vulnerable in ways that adult fiction doesn't. For grownups, I can sort of stash my tender feelings under a protective coating of Theme and Imagery and Subtext, or technical stunts and referential humor. Children's literature has those things, too, but your heart has to be right in the middle of the plate. The practical stakes of many children's stories may seem low to grownups, but the emotional stakes are always, always high.

On the plus side, I know that no pun is too terrible to include.

How does working in a hybrid format differ from working in a pure graphic novel format?

What the more prose-heavy sections allowed me to do was condense some of the stories-within-a-story, and to deliver exposition or sum up less eventful stretches of time in ways that were more fun than a block o' text but still more efficient than a comics version would be. I intentionally kept the panels-per-page ratio very low in the comics sections, knowing that if I ever felt something had to be more densely packed, I had other options.

How did you create your digital illustrations, and how were the embroidery thread details inserted?

I drew all the initial rough art digitally, using a Wacom Cintiq tablet and a comics-specific illustration program called ClipStudio Paint. For the comics sections and most of the graphics and spreads, I would print out those pages and, using a lightbox, trace the lines onto watercolor paper with an oil-base pencil, then color them with watercolor paints, and firm up small details with colored pencils.

For the embroidery, I drew some designs, and then my friend, comic artist and crafter extraordinaire Erika Moen, translated them into actual stitching for me. I suggested stitches to use in a few spots, but otherwise told her to interpret however she saw fit. Then I digitally scanned the resulting embroidery and cleaned it up in Photoshop so I could drop it all seamlessly onto the final digitized spreads. I also used digital trickery to recolor the floss so it would fit my color scheme.

Can we expect a Queen of the Sea sequel?

I have several top-secret projects on the boil, both my own work and in collaboration, and I'm excited to say that almost all of them are aimed at young readers. As for a sequel, I certainly hope so. I do know what happens next, and Margaret certainly has more to say. --Jaclyn Fulwood


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