The world can be a scary and confusing place for just about any 13-year-old. For Russell Pruitt, the main character of David Small's gripping new graphic novel Home After Dark, it can be downright terrifying.
Small is the illustrator and/or writer of 40 children's books, with Caldecott honors and medals among his awards for such books as The Gardener and So You Want to Be President? His 2009 graphic memoir, Stitches, about his experience with cancer at age 14, was a finalist for the National Book Award. (Both Stitches and his new book are aimed at teen and adult readers, not younger kids.)
Like Stitches, Home After Dark focuses on the hellish side of adolescence, although this time the main challenge is bullying instead of cancer. The book opens with images of young Russell standing in front of a Christmas tree, but his boyhood in Ohio in the early 1960s is not exactly idyllic. His dad, Mike, is a Korean war veteran and an angry man; the reason for his parents' escalating fighting becomes clear when Russell's mother runs off with his father's best friend. The boy and his dad pack up and head for California, ending up not on a sunny beach but in a bleak little town called Marshfield.
There they rent a room from the Mah family, a Chinese immigrant couple who run a restaurant. The Mahs' home is a quiet little oasis, but as he rides around town on his bike Russell finds a more threatening atmosphere, from racist neighbors to the ominous sight of a litter of kittens hanged in a fence.
Mike is hired to teach English at San Quentin prison — not exactly his dream job — and Russell gets ready to navigate a new school where he is sure he'll be an outcast. Even after the Pruitts move into a house of their own, kindly Mrs. Mah continues to deliver their meals and to take an interest in Russell's welfare, more so than his father does. Mike seems mainly concerned with how "manly" Russell is, needling him for things as practical as heating up dinner: "The last thing I need is my son becoming a hausfrau."
Russell is right about school — he's picked on immediately — but he's quickly befriended by Warren, another self-described outcast. Warren lives with his doting (if eccentric) grandmother, and he's fun and free-handed with money, which impresses always-penniless Russell. But when Warren makes a sexual overture, Russell is frightened and confused enough to cut off the friendship. In those times, there was no one a kid could talk to about such things without putting a target on his own back.
Left to his own devices while his father works, Russell soon falls in with two other boys, Kurt and Willie, whose hangout is a trash-strewn arroyo where they smoke and drink and stir up trouble. Willie is a pleasant enough kid, but Kurt is a bully, the kind of worthless creep whose only skills are flinging insults, lying and picking fights with people weaker than he is. At first Russell is relieved to be under his dubious protection, but Kurt's nascent toxic masculinity will take a terrible toll.
Then Mike disappears, an abandonment that leaves Russell homeless, his life unraveling in a frightening sequence of events before he finds unlikely shelter.
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Small's illustrations are a powerful part of the story. His loose but elegant ink drawings with washes are uncluttered but wonderfully expressive, from the menacing grill of Russell's father's car to Kurt's eagerly cruel sneer and Mrs. Mah's kind face and dignified posture.
The graphics work beautifully with Small's text, which alternates between dialogue and Russell's thoughts. The writing shares the understated style of the illustrations, allowing both elements to surprise the reader with their emotional punch.
Russell's story may be set some 50 years ago, but it's all too contemporary in its concerns — a story that might be even more urgent now.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.