The Secret of the Stone Frog while eating dinner, then go write out my next column for MTV Geek. But, after reading Stone Frog, I was too excited about it to not start writing a review immediately! (Don't worry, Val -- I'll still get my column to you in plenty of time. It will be just a tad later than usual!)
The story is about Leah and her younger brother Alan, who wake up one night in the middle of the a forest. They naturally start looking for a way home, and a stone frog points them on the path. The kids spend the remainder of the book trying to get back home, encountering various strange creatures. They periodically come across other stone frogs, who continue providing them with directions. But the "bee lady", the anthropamorphic anglerfish, the coachman and the talking police station are decidedly less friendly. As their surroundings get more and more chaotic, the kids find the final stone frog who points them to the door to their bedroom. They arrive just as the sun is coming and, despite the excitement that hasn't worn off yet, they quickly fall asleep.
I don't recall where I heard about David Nytra's new book, but I vaguely remember there being a positive comparison to Windsor McCay. The character designs of Leah and Alan, and the lush, detailed backgrounds are probably the biggest evidence for that. But I also detect a strong influence of Lewis Carroll through the basic plot and story structure, and some of the creature designs seem reminiscent of Carroll-collaborator and Punch cartoonist John Tenniel. What's fantastic about this, though, is while these were pretty clearly influences for Nytra, he's not simply regurgitating their work. Nytra is still working within the same basic type of dreamscape that those other creators worked in, but providing his own world for readers to view.
In Carroll's works, the author primarily worked in the realm of nonsense. The character of Alice was a very logically-minded young girl, but much of her challenge was trying to navigate a world in which logic does not necessarily apply. In McCay's works, his protagonists were frequently just observers to the action going on around them. Little Nemo's biggest challenge was simply to not wake up, so he could see what happened next. Leah and Alan, by contrast, are active participants in the world in which they find themselves and, although it is certainly strange and different, it follows the basic rules of cause and effect. This makes for an interesting and entertaining blend of approaches, resulting in a work that is not derivative of either of its primary influences and charming in its own unique way.
One of the tricks with working in dream worlds is that it can be seen as not really counting. "And then he woke up" makes for something of a lousy ending because readers can feel that all the great adventures they just read about didn't even matter within the fictional context in which they were presented. I think one of the keys is making sure that they dreams are still very well grounded in the characters' reality. Think of the ending to The Wizard of Oz movie where Judy Garland recognizes the farm hands as her companions on the Yellow Brick Road. (I feel obliged to point out, though, that the dream aspect was developed specifically for the movie. The original L. Frank Baum books made Oz a very real place to which Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry eventually moved.) In Stone Frog, Nytra not only makes Leah and Alan's adventures potentially real -- as opposed to specifically dreamt -- but almost poetically alludes to the basis in their normal world for the imagery they saw.
All in all, I found the Stone Frog to be absolutely brilliant on all fronts. I'll fully admit bias in that I'm already a big fan of both McCay and Carroll, so this was right up my alley from the get-go, but the execution on this was exceptional and I can't wait to see if Nytra does anything else in this same vein!