I’m a huge fan of First Second, as they publish some of the best graphic novels for kids. My favourite kids graphic novel, Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker, is published by them, as well as Best Friends and Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham. I ordered Dungeon Critters, by Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter, for my school library just because it sounded fun and the cover looked cool. After reading it though, I can say it’s so much more than that. In fact, it almost knocks The Prince and the Dressmaker off its top spot, it’s that great.
The Dungeon Critters are a tight-knit gang of animals who go on adventures together. There’s Juniper (or June) the dog, Rose the cat, Prince Chirp the frog and Goro the snake. Between them they have magic, brute strength and cunning to help them fight for what’s right. After defeating a necromancer, an invitation discovered in his belongings leads the Dungeon Critters to The Baron’s ball. The Baron is Prince Chirp’s life-long arch nemesis and Chirp knows that he is up to no good. The gang decide to crash the party and look for clues. With their fancy disguises and fake identities they go to the ball, but Juniper gets mistaken for royalty. She keeps The Baron distracted while the rest of the gang search The Baron’s mansion. With proof in hand that The Baron is up to something, and The Baron’s mansion in flames, the gang head off in search of answers. Just as they start to get some answers, Prince Chirp is summoned back to the palace for ‘The Event’ that his parents are hosting. While at the palace disaster strikes and Juniper is arrested and put on trial. Friendships are tested as members of the Dungeon Critters find themselves on opposite sides of the trial. It is then up to their friends to uncover the truth and help their friends when they need it the most.
I absolutely adore Dungeon Critters! Everything about it is wonderful, from the story and the characters to the humour and the artwork. Everything gels together perfectly to make a graphic novel that is hilarious, action-packed, super-sweet and full of diverse characters. You can tell, even before reading about their process at the back of the book, that Natalie and Sara worked closely together to combine their storytelling talents to create this book. The story flows really nicely throughout the book, as does the artwork. I laughed so hard while reading this book! Natalie and Sara’s comedic timing is spot-on and there are puns galore.
I loved every one of the characters, whether they were the heroes or the villains. They all have a lot of depth to them and history that is revealed throughout the story. Rose and Juniper obviously have some history together (as you can see from the first part of the story) and you discover more about their relationship as the story progresses. There is a fierce rivalry between Prince Chirp and The Baron and its fun to watch this play out. The standout character for me is Goro. He is a gentle giant who is always there when the gang need him, but he’s sensitive too. I loved learning more about him and his boyfriend, Horseboy. I laughed so hard though when the gang’s stuff gets stolen and Goro has to borrow a teeny, tiny shirt.
The artwork is completely stunning, from the character designs and the colouring, to the way that the story flows on the page. Every character, from the main ones to the minor ones (who might appear just once) has its own personality. They’re all really expressive too, so it’s easy to tell their emotions and intentions. The colouring also helps to set the tone and highlight emotions. I like the way that the colours used help to draw your eye in a particular direction, especially when there is a lot happening on a page. Another thing I really like about the colouring is the way that light has been used to throw shadows on faces, whether that is to show villainous intent or determination.
It is the layout of the artwork and the flow from one panel to the next that really makes this graphic novel stand out for me. Natalie and Sara use lots of different layouts throughout the book and your eye is drawn to different parts of the page each time you turn the page. Some spreads have a background image, with lots of smaller panels layered over the top. Another spread might have one thread of the story happening in the background of the page, with another thread of the story playing out in panels down the side. One of my favourite sections of artwork is when Rose and Chirp are setting off the booby traps under The Baron’s mansion. Chirp effortlessly jumps and dives through the lasers, while Rose (being a cat) sees the lasers and tries to pounce on them.
I seriously love Dungeon Critters! I hope Natalie and Sara have more ideas up their sleeves because I need more of the Dungeon Critters in my life. I think I would probably read anything that Natalie and Sara create together.
Dungeon Critters is great for ages 9+ and would be a great addition to a primary, intermediate or high school library. It’s also a must read for any adult who enjoys a graphic novel with magical adventures and a whole lot of laughs.