Robot reviews | Three neat kids books: <i>Leo Geo</i>, <i>Pandemonium</i> and <i>The Shark King</i>

Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the EarthBy Jon ChadRoaring Brook Press $15.99.

This is a clever, literally slim book, designed as skinny as possible in order to highlight its central conceit. You see, the running gag here is that you have to turn the book sideways to follow Leo on his downward trek to the Earth's core, and then turn it another 180 degrees as he heads back up.

The book combines science with fantasy, with Leo discovering lost worlds filled with crazy monsters while spouting out science facts like "Some countries like New Zealand and Iceland harness the awesome power of lava for their own uses in heating and generating electricity. Though the juxtaposition of fantasy and hard facts seems a bit jarring, it actually adds to the book's charm. There's something about a guy standing on a giant underground ogre while discussing thermal generators that's too silly to dislike.

Though Leo himself is one step up from a stick figure, Chad fills the pages with as much detail as possible and his ornate underworld scenes take on a "Where's Waldo"-like mania at times, especially as he eschews panel borders to instead depict various versions of Leo crawling across a wide (but narrow) vista. Basically, it's a fun introduction to geology that the elementary-school set will really dig (sorry, couldn't help the pun).

I've got a soft spot for the Toon Books line in general, but I think this might well be the best book they've released to date. R. Kikuro Johnson (remember him?) brings all his abilities to the fore in adapting this Hawaiian folk tale about a young woman who is seduced by the shape-changing king of the sharks and has a son, who finds himself trapped between the human world and that of the sea.

It's masterfully told story. Johnson has come a long way since his Night Fisher days -- his art is much more assured and confident. His line has become much more simplified, adopting an almost cartoony minimalism -- David Mazzuchelli and Alex Toth seems to be strong influences -- with lots of heavy spot blacks to help denote form and shape. His use of color here is also extraordinary, judiciously using pastel-like greens and blues to convey the lush tropical island environment. it may be early, and it may seem odd for a book aimed at very young readers, but Shark King might easily end up on my Best of 2012 list. Even if you don't have kids of your own, even if you snub children's comics like nobody's business, you owe it to yourself to check this book out.

Pandemoniumby Chris Wooding and Cassandra DiazScholastic, $12.99

I fully expected to hate this book. Everything about the cover just screamed "generic young adult fantasy/manga-styled slog."  But -- surprise, surprise --  I didn't. In fact, I found myself surprisingly charmed by this generic young adult fantasy OEL manga, mainly thanks to Wooding's sly sense of humor. True, the plot is about as hoary as it gets -- young Seifer is plucked from obscurity to serve as a lookalike fill-in for the realm's prince and does a better job than his predecessor -- but thankfully Wooding refuses to take any part of the story seriously and constantly fills the book silly asides. Diaz's art is a bit too stiff and her characters are wooden - she needs a few more life-drawing classes (or a Burne Hogarth book) but her layouts are dynamic and her use of color help provide a nice set gothic mood and keep the plot proceeding at a clip pace. At any rate, I doubt most of the book's problems will even be noticed by its intended audience.

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