Review of the Day: Bolivar by Sean Rubin
It took a year and a half for me to notice, but by then it was too late.
I moved to the Chicago area from New York City in what can only be described as a fairly seamless transition. Going from one large metropolitan area to another large metropolitan area, albeit one with suburbs, didn’t prove to be a huge a shock to the system. Job in place? Check. Car acquired? Check. House purchased? Check. Yup. Seemed I had everything sewed up in a neat little bow. And it wasn’t until much later that I learned a shocking fact about my new home. I was at work one day when out of the blue I asked my colleagues, all innocence, “Hey, guys? What’s the big famous children’s book character based in Chicago?” Their silence sliced through my heart. In NYC you just don’t know how lucky you are. There’s Eloise in her Plaza, Peter and Willie in Prospect Park, and any number of books being churned out every single year as little paeans to the city that never sleeps. I never thought of it as an exclusive right. I mean, Paris has Madeline, doesn’t it? But soon enough it became clear that for all its charms, most major cities in America lack that most basic and unassailable right: The right to have some famous children’s books set in your town. You might think then that when Bolivar passed under my nose I sneered at it. That I found it yet another Manhattan love letter like so many that had come before. Well, I tried, I really did, but that lasted all of two pages. Instead I was sucked into a book that loves New York City so well that it can accurately depict the view of Zabar’s from the subway. So move over, Lyle Lyle Crocodile and your East 88th Street digs. Looks like there’s a new reptile in town, and his apartment on West 78th Street may well eclipse everyone who came before. Manhattan loves a dinosaur.
If you were a dinosaur, where would you choose to live? You might think somewhere remote, far from the crush of humanity. But what if you were a big time fan of museums, bookstores, music, and The New Yorker? What if you really liked people, and didn’t want to eat them? New York City might be the right place for you. The crazy thing is that in a place like Manhattan (specifically the Upper West Side) Bolivar the dinosaur lives in complete and perfect peace. Why? Because everyone in the city is too busy to see what’s right in front of their noses. Everyone, that is, except for a kid named Sybil. Like the oracle that shares her name, no one believes Sybil when she says that a real live dinosaur lives next to her apartment. Trying to photograph him is a bust. Stalking doesn’t help. It really isn’t until there’s a mix-up in the Mayor’s office that Bolivar appears in the spotlight and finds himself relying on someone else. Someone who was right under his nose all the time. It seems that failing to notice the extraordinary is not a uniquely human trait.
Part of what makes this book so interesting is that upon picking it up you’re not exactly sure what it is. What we have here is a strange kind of graphic novel/picture book/bedtime novel hybrid. The publisher is Archaia, known for their comics, and indeed there are a enough speech balloons to indicate that’s where it should be shelved. But the size of the book, and the narrative text that appears fairly regularly, definitely makes the book feel more like a very long picture book. A 224-page picture book, to be precise. You see the problem. Even as recently as ten years ago, librarians would have been tearing their hair out, desperate to figure out where to catalog this puppy. These days it’s a post-Hugo Cabret world, baby. The blurring of the traditional lines hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. If I was a betting woman, I’d say that since the publisher is Archaia, most libraries and bookstores will shelve Bolivar in the graphic novel / comic book section. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because due to the sheer number of picture books published in a given year Bolivar would disappear in a sea of other, mediocre dinosaur tales faster than you can say ARK-EE-OP-TER-RICKS. Graphic novels, in contrast, are few and far between. In a given year, true quality middle grade graphic novels hardly ever surpass the number fifteen. That said, when parents look for bedtime fare (which this book most certainly is) they don’t often head towards the comics. Hopefully the enterprising souls that select this for their libraries and bookstores will also know how to market it properly. It deserves a bit of attention.
There’s a moment in one of the books in The Borrowers series (I think it’s The Borrowers Aloft) when Arrietty asks her father why she and her other tiny family members are able to so freely fly in a tiny hot air balloon above people’s heads and not be spotted. Her father answers that big people spend an inordinate amount of time looking down, not paying attention to anything that rests higher than their sightline. It’s funny, but that line has stayed with me for years and years. The idea that you can be so wrapped up in your own head that you miss seeing something marvelous. So no, I didn’t find the idea that Bolivar could essentially walk through the streets of Manhattan, and even go so far as to inadvertently impersonate the mayor, all that far fetched. When I lived in the city I’d plug my earbuds in and shut out a city that tried every day, as hard as it could, to grab my attention. There could easily have been dinosaurs wandering the streets, you bet. Probably more in the Village than the Upper West Side though, eh?
Sure hope you’re a fan of cross-hatching because as an art style, Rubin’s a bit fond of it. And yet, as strange as it may sound, the artist I thought of the most while reading this wasn’t Bill Watterson or Maurice Sendak (though they certainly did occur to me from time to time) but rather Mike Curato. The fine attention to detail as it pertains to the streets of New York City may be done in a different style than Curato, but that same level of detail is there. So is the love. The thing about Rubin’s book is that the artist’s sheer palpitating love for NYC virtually emanates off of the page. At any given time I could randomly flip in the book to some detail or moment that felt like the city. *flip* There’s a wisteria vine, unchecked, climbing up a brownstone. *flip* There’s a painting of Peter Stuyvesant, wooden leg and all, in the mayor’s office. *flip* There’s the orange of the 1 train’s seats (and the requisite tourist ducking their head to try and make sense of the subway map). *flip* Heck, there’s even a teeny bowl of pickles on the table in the deli where Bolivar gets his corned beef sandwiches.
On a grander scale is the setting itself: New York in the early 21st century. After a while the sheer number of locations begins to add up . . . and yet Rubin isn’t trying to earn points by cramming the best-known places into the tale. The Upper West Side is the primary location, with logical trips to places like Central Park, The Natural History Museum, the aforementioned Zabar’s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and more. I half hoped that Bolivar would hop the 2 or 3 at 72nd Street and go to the New York Public Library on 42nd and 5th, but soon I discovered another, very practical, reason for keeping the dino close to home. If Sybil is to realistically follow him around, her travels should be restricted to her immediate corner of the city. This begs the obvious question as to why the reader can swallow the fact that there’s a living breathing dinosaur tromping around Manhattan in the broad daylight while the idea of a kid walking the street alone strains credulity, but that’s a topic for another day.
Happily, Rubin does a good job of keeping his adult jokes to a minimum. When they do pop up they don’t pull a Shrek and rub the inappropriate reference in your face. It’s much subtler than that. For example I was very taken with the moment when Bolivar forgets himself momentarily and believes that a dinosaur is chasing him along with the crowd of people before him. As he tries to escape he murmurs, “Must go faster . . . must go faster . . .” Jeff Goldblum himself would be impressed. There are visual gags for New Yorkers too. “Papaya Czar” instead of “Papaya King” was one of my own pet favorites.
My sole objection to the book pertains to a nonexistent character. There are some unfortunate moments when Sybil’s mom mentions the existence of Sybil’s dad. Unfortunate, I say, because each time this happened it felt distinctly like a holdover from an earlier draft of the book when Sybil even had a father. Sybil’s mom is so clearly a single mother that these lines threw my daughter and I off a bit as we were reading the story and left us uncertain. Was there some negligent father lurking around the corners of the book somewhere? Was the mom in some advanced state of psychosis due to the stress of her job and child and making up a fake husband? Or was it just a typo? You be the judge.
If you read the little biography of Sean Rubin in the back of this book you discover that though he was born in Brooklyn and (if an oblique reference in the Acknowledgements is to be believed) lived on the Upper West Side for a time, he now resides in Charlottesville, Virginia. Which means he’s a transplant like myself. This book may have started when inspiration was no farther than just outside his front door, but in the process of its creation it has become an ode to a city long loved and left behind. The thing is, you don’t have to be a New Yorker, or even like NYC, to thoroughly enjoy this book. Bolivar the dinosaur speaks to the introvert in all of us. That part deep down inside that encourages us to hide away from the world, keep to ourselves, and avoid any and all connections for fear of getting hurt. Dinosaurs may not be around anymore but Bolivars abound. Even little Bolivars who will pick up this book and instantly connect with someone just like them. So for the Bolivars and the Manhattan-lovers, the graphic novel enthusiasts and the parents just looking for a good bedtime story, Bolivar the book is the place to go. Dino-mite stuff.
On shelves November 28th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Lost in NYC by Nadja Spiegelman, ill. Sergio García Sánchez
- Little Elliot by Mike Curato
- Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
- Professional Crocodile by Giovanna Zoboli, ill. Mariachiara Di Giorgio
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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