Top Secret Summer

by Aaron Renier
(Top Shelf, 2005)

There's something irresistible about those old, wide-ruled spiral notebooks. It may be scientifically impossible to have them for more than a day without writing or drawing somewhere in them. Own one for a month, and, whatever your age, someone will have written on the cover with a marker. Something about those blank pages and unassuming covers just begs for creation. And any such notebook left unattended cries out to be perused, whether journal or science notes, as though it must hold some deep, dark secret.

Aaron Renier's Spiral Bound: Top Secret Summer does indeed hold such a secret. With a wonderful book design that captures perfectly the essence of every battered spiral notebook through the years, he invites readers to spy on an unusual small town. It's a town populated by rabbits, elephants, dogs and birds, with whales in habitat pods and turtles in underground burrows. And it's a town with a story. It's a story of monsters, mad science, deep underground newspapers and an old secret -- a secret that threatens to turn an innocent town of anthropomorphic creatures into a fear-driven army. A secret whose solution lies in the hands of art students. And a rabbit reporter who travels in paper-mache disguise. And a very confused elephant named Turnip, experiencing the trials of artistic creation for the first time.

Renier's soft, cartoony art style and essentially innocent characters don't seem especially suited to a tense mystery. His art has a reminiscence to illustrator Richard Scarry's work that will have many readers attempting to find all things in the picture beginning with B. But Renier's detailed backgrounds and tight, occasionally claustrophobic layouts possess a sense of maturity that, combined with the nursery-school innocence of the character designs, create a feeling of surreal drama. At the same time, his boisterous characters always invite full involvement with the intricate story happening over, under, around and to them.

Spiral Bound is a mystery with a teenager's sense of drama, an adult perspective and enough excitement for the most discerning child.

by Sarah Meador
4 March 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.