Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Land Without Color by Benjamin Ellefson

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a middle-grade ebook and it was odd because the first chapter seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the chapters that come after. The first chapter is about four kids named Brandon, Derek, Paul, and Steven playing kick-the-can with some younger kids; then they go fishing. They disappear from the story at that point, and in chapter two and every chapter after that, the story is about a kid named Alvin, who gets this never-pop bubble gum for his birthday, and finds he can blow giant bubbles without the gum popping, one of these bubbles which carries him into a magical land where everything is grey. There are no other colors because they're been stolen by the goblins.

I began wondering if the grandfather who the kids visit in chapter one is the same person as Alvin, and the story is a flashback starting in chapter two. The last chapter confirms that it is. It just seemed like the writer had forgotten what he started writing about! There were one or two other, minor, issues, such as this sentence: "he saw the path before him stop directly into a sheer cliff" which could have been worded a lot better! There was also a disconnect between some of the images and the text, for example where we're told a general is wearing a "camouflage military uniform of red, orange, yellow," but where the illustration shows no camo, only your usual olive drab (or in this case gray drab!). In general, the story was well-written.

I have to question some of the choices here, though. The underlying theme of the story is that good nutrition brings color to your life and health, and I concur that good nutrition is sorely lacking in far too many lives. A third of the US adult population is obese, which adds something like one hundred fifty billion dollars to national healthcare costs, and it also means that the overweight are paying $1,500 dollars a year more for healthcare. That's the real reason behind the health industry trying to get people to lose weight. Don't ever forget that they're not charities, and their motivation has nothing in common with actually caring, rest assured!

Thirteen million children in the USA are obese, but a healthy diet needs to be more than simply eating vegetables. Fruit is mentioned, but it's the overriding obsession with vegetables I don't get. There's no mention of cereals or dairy, or of a balanced diet. A real diet needs to be a whole mind and body affair, including exercise and yes, including some moderated junk food. Remember, your body needs sugar, it just doesn't need as much as you think it does, and the excess goes straight to the fat factory.

The oddest thing about this ebook though, was the images, which are black line drawings on a white background. I typically have my Kindle app set to white text on a black background to save on battery power. I imagined that the images were designed with a white page and black text, so I tried to switch colors to see if it made any appreciable difference to how the images appeared in the text, but the only options the Kindle app on my phone offers for background screens is black, sepia, and pale green! Who ordered that? It's one more reason why I call it a crappy Kindle app. You'd think with all the money Amazon is minting, they could offer a better app than this, but maybe they don't care. Maybe they'd rather have you shell-out for a Kindle reader with the attendant limited functionality. I've been there and done that. I don't want to go back.

The thing with the white image background is that it butts up right against the text, making the text look like it was cut off. The first image I saw, I thought it had been accidentally placed right on top of the text, but I realized after a moment that it wasn't. If the images are at the left of the screen, then there's a gap between them and the text, but when the images are on the right, as almost all of them are for reasons unknown to me, the text butts right up to the white image border and looks truncated. I am not fond of Amazon's Kindle app!

On the iPad, the kindle app does have the option for a white background and the images and text looked fine there, but I still prefer to have white text on back for battery conservation so maybe authors should give some thought to how they design their images. The more wear and tear on the battery, the sooner it's going to die and have to be junked, and a new one purchased, which costs energy and resources to make. Recycling doesn't start at the trash can. It starts when a product is produced.

This image issue is a definitely a peril for writers who try to illustrate their stories. You cannot count on the ebook rendering them as you envisioned them for the print version. The simple solution would be to have the image background transparent, so that it merely shows through whatever background the reader chooses for their Kindle reader, but if your background is black and your line drawings are also black, then the image will disappear into the background if your reader chooses a black background screen, so you can't really win! I like my ebooks, but this is one reason why ebooks fail when compared with print books: the writers and illustrators lose all control over how their work is viewed.

The other issue I had with the images was that the way Alvin was drawn made him look like a grownup! Seriously. He did not look like a middle-grade student; he looked like a midget adult. So for me the images were a fail. They really contributed nothing to the story, and were not particularly well-done. They weren't a disaster by any means; they were okay, and maybe younger children will like them, but for me they didn't work. That said, the story was engaging and descriptive enough that it would have done well without images. It had lots of oddity and weirdness which I tend to like.

Having been carried into colorless land, Alvin tries to find people to ask where he is. On a point of order, gray is a color! If there were literally no color, then the world would be black (and part of this world is), but since we consider black to also be a color as opposed to what it really is (the absence of light and color), then using gray, as most writers do, is fine, I suppose.

The first 'person' Alvin meets is a squirrel which can talk and which becomes his traveling companion. He next meets a mouse which also talks. All the people he meets are gray except in rainbow city, and even there, they are struggling to maintain their color, eating free junk food dispensed by the King, which supplies some color. Some of them are missing their head. The junk food is also part of the underlying theme, and I commend the story for that.

I did have a bit of a problem with this being a 'great white hope' story where the interloper rescues the natives who can't help themselves. In addition to that, it was a case of a knight in shining armor rescuing the helpless princess, which is far too Disney for me, but balancing that, the main character was a black kid, which is far too rare in stories, so it gets kudos for that! What a tight rope the author walked, in trying to get past my filters! LOL!

On this same topic, the author has a short bio note at the end in which he proudly mentions his "four beautiful daughters" and I have to take issue with this as well. Is the only thing a writer can say about women is that they're beautiful? It's degrading. And no, I don't buy that it was meant in a generalized sense either, because then he could have said "four wonderful daughters" or something along those lines. the problem with endless claims of 'beautiful' is that the word becomes completely meaningless. If everyone is beautiful then the word has no value, because it literally means nothing to describe a woman as 'beautiful'.

My problem here though, is that I have to ask: do these daughters have no other qualities? He couldn't have described them as "four smart daughters"? Four industrious daughters? Four accomplished daughters? Four loyal daughters? Four talented daughters? Four loving daughters? The only thing he can think of in relation to a woman is skin deep? It's shameful. It really is; however, this is a different issue the story he tells, so I'm not going to grade his book on his attitude towards women when that misguided attitude isn't expressed in the novel, so he gets a bye on that one!

Meanwhile, back at the story, Alvin has to battle sinking land which, when he illegally picks flowers, delivers him to the underground prison for goblins. He has to deal with the idiot Crimson Guard, the idiot King, and a two-headed dragon. He has to visit the goblins who strike terror into everyone, and he has to figure out the real reason for the color drain, in which he gets a lot of help from the mouse who seems to know everything.

All in all, and criticisms aside, this was a fun story and will offer young minds a lot to think about. It has a lot in common with Gary Ross's movie Pleasantville which has a similar basic theme, but which is a different story intended for an adult audience. It also has some things in common with Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey (which has nothing to do with the "fifty shades" trilogy. I recommend this novel for middle-graders, but I wouldn't want to read a sequel to it.