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Mark Crilley never intended to write young adult novels. Instead, he considered himself much more of an artist and illustrator than a writer. Still, after his first comic book gained popularity and a publisher encouraged him, Crilley launched his highly successful graphic novel series about the adventures of a strong young girl named Akiko.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Education and Plans for an Art Career
Crilley was born in 1966 into a family that always encouraged his art. Raised in Indiana, he spent his teenage years sketching and becoming well-known in his high school for his consider able drawing talent. Not only did he hone his artwork skills; he also spent time in the drama department, developing a stage presence that has helped him pursue a substantial speaking career as an adult. It was not until he was in college, however, that he truly considered art as an occupation. Under the mentorship of writer/illustrator David Small at Kalamazoo College, he refined his skills and began considering publishing as a career.
After graduating from college, though, Crilley spent five years teaching English in Taiwan and Japan. While there, he developed the character of Akiko, a fourth-grade girl who embarks on a series of adventures on a planet named Smoo. Once Crilley was back in the U.S., the comic book was picked up by Sirius Comics and published in 1995. It eventually found its way to Random House Children’s Books, where editor Lawrence David encouraged Crilley to expand his narrative. Working together, they developed the Akiko storyline into a larger series of young adult graphic novels, published in 2000. The stories gained a popular audience, earning an impressive twelve Eisner awards, the highest award given out by the comic book industry.
Crilley’s work came out as a genre of Japanese comics called “manga” was finding popular success in the West. By the time the Akiko series debuted, the distinct style of manga (and the animated version, called “anime”) were recognizable to and adored by American youth culture. Crilley’s work also appealed to the growing trend of strong female characters in young adult fiction, showing girl characters as strong, independent, and capable of having their own adventures.
Works in Literary Context
Young adult literature often features a seemingly unexceptional child who turns out to possess extraordinary gifts and heroic potential. Often the main character is orphaned or otherwise without regular parental guidance and is somehow different from his or her peers. The character is often an unlikely hero, overlooked by the crowd as not having any enviable qualities. Akiko, a Japanese-American ten-year-old in the first novel, follows this pattern by being taken from Earth because King Froptoppit believes she has special powers to save his son. Although shy and reluctant to be any kind of leader, Akiko sets out on a series of adventures and finds she has more strength than she imagines. Along the way, she meets several unusual characters who join her in her quest, among them Mr. Beeba, Poog, and Spuckler.
Manga and Graphic Novels
The Akiko stories have grown out of the popular Japanese manga genre. While comics in the United States are generally viewed as children’s literature, the Japanese tradition is broader. Offering comic books and their extended version, the graphic novel, for readers of all ages, manga is often divided into stories meant for boys (called shonen) and those aimed at girls (called Shojo). Crilley’s work focuses on a girl hero and could be loosely considered shojo. Crilley’s Akiko character exhibits standard features of this genre, including special powers and striking, unique fashion statements. Crilley’s illustrations also incorporate the large-eyed characters most often associated with manga characters. The Akiko adventures take the main character away from everything familiar and place her in unlikely scenarios where her strength and loyalty are tested.
Works in Critical Context
The Akiko Series
Crilley’s work has been well-received from its initial publication. From an underground following of his comic book to a legitimate reading audience, Crilley’s books use adventure and unexpected twists to entertain. Critics praise his Akiko series for its avoidance of violence or adult humor, instead crediting Crilley with creating interesting characters and a charming story. Diane Roback and Jennifer M. Brown at Publishers Weekly say that Akiko has a ”global flair,” and Chris Sherman at Booklist credits Crilley with writing a ”fast-paced” story that keeps readers ”wondering what will come next.” The Akiko books are also recommended for children who might not otherwise read. Shelle Rosenfeld of Booklist says Crilley is a good choice for ”reluctant readers or children making a transition from comics to novels.”
- Abbot, Alana. ”Miki Fallas: Winter” (Book review) School Library Journal. 54.7 (2008): 119.
- ”Akiko and the Journey to Toog” (Book review) Publishers Weekly. 250.39 (2003): 67.
- ”Akiko on the Planet Smoo; Akiko in the Sprubly Islands” (Book review) Publishers Weekly. 248.25 (2001): 83.
- Goldsmith, Francisca. ”Akiko and the Alpha Centauri 5000” (Book review) Booklist. 99.18 (2003): 1660. ”Mark Crilley: Cult Cartoonist” Entertainment Weekly. 438-9 (1998):90.
- Akiko’s Homepage. Random House Kids Website. Retrieved September 7, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com/kids/akiko/.
- The Official Website of Author/Illustrator Mark Crilley. Mark Crilley.com.. Retrieved September 7, 2008, from http://www.markcrilley.com/.
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