Better Place

Top Shelf. Sept. 2021. 160p. pap. $19.99. ISBN 9781603094955.
Gr 5 Up–Being a kid is tough: Dylan is too short for the most exciting roller coasters, but everyone says he’s too old to dress in costumes. But his grandfather will still suit up with him and act out space adventures from their favorite comic book. Dylan lives with his grandfather and his loving but stressed mother, Eileen. Worried that Grandpa’s memory has become too foggy, she takes away his car keys and argues about putting him in a retirement home. When Grandpa dies in an accident, Dylan is told that his grandfather is in a “better place.” Determined to find him there, Dylan sets off on a journey, making an unlikely friend along the way. Dylan’s world is colored in monochrome except when he is immersed in his imagination, with bursts of red for the metafictional Red Rocket and Kid Cosmo. Sample pages from their comics feature art cameos by a lineup of guest artists who make these comics-within-a-comic feel pulled from a real comics shop. Adults curse a fair bit, which feeds into a running joke about the family swear jar. Murray casts some judgment about being glued to screens, with outdoor play and imagination shown as a uniquely rewarding bonding experience. Dylan’s conflating of fantasy and reality is almost too precious, but the difficulty of communicating grief and processing mourning is all too real. Dylan, his mother, and his grandfather are white.
VERDICT Big imagination and heart produce a winning adventure that belongs on display next to Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Hey Kiddo, Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants, and Robin Ha’s Almost American Girl.

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