It's almost Halloween, and there's nothing scarier than vampires to haunt the pages of a graphic novel... or is there? Bree Paulsen's debut graphic novel for young readers, Garlic & the Vampire, features a cover with a protagonist bearing a stake and mallet, but it's hard to be too frightened by the spectre when she is, in fact, a head of garlic. Paulsen's work has a hint of spookiness but ushers in humor and charm on the roots of a varied band of personified vegetables. The story is a suspenseful and clever one of friendship, gardening, and vampire-hunting that ultimately owes its success more to its characterization than to its plot.
The story begins as Garlic has overslept (again!) and is running late to the market to sell her cloves. Once she arrives in a scattered rush to sell alongside her best friend Carrot, we see all the various vegetables partaking in similar efforts, illustrated with Paulsen's dark-hued coloring that provides the perfect palette for a story full of both warmth and fear. Witch Agnes, in whose garden all of the vegetables work, is kindly understanding, and we soon learn how much Garlic loves her little life as a gardener. When Celery comes along to taunt Garlic, though, it becomes clear that he may be the story's real "villain" of sorts, a role that he upholds when things take a sinister turn. The garden crew notices smoke coming from the castle in the village and learns from Witch Agnes that it reportedly was home to a vampire more than one hundred years ago. The vegetables may be safe. but they know the townspeople are not, so devious Celery suggests the natural adventurer to take on the vampire: Garlic. And so the sweet, timid bundle of cloves finds herself tasked with a high-stakes and dangerous mission: to go the castle and do away with the newly arrived vampire.
The adventure is engaging and fun, with the highlight being Paulsen's fantastic detailed visual work. Additionally, Garlic & the Vampire is rooted in themes of bravery, anxiety, friendship, and community, while also teaching a bit about gardening, plant identification and folklore (for example, the fact that garlic is said to ward off vampires, in addition to the other protective charms and myths about vampires that Witch Agnes conveys to Garlic to prepare her for the journey). The graphic novel is an utter delight from start to finish with one exception; there's a bit of oddity in the idea of vegetables selling non-sentient versions of themselves at market, but it's a small hiccup in an otherwise charming read. (Though one other bone to pick: must we demonize celery? It's more than just a vehicle for hummus, soup, and ants on a log!)
Garlic & the Vampire is Bree Paulsen's debut graphic novel, and we can only hope for more such delights in the future. According to the author's website, she is currently at work on a sequel to Garlic & the Vampire—not surprising given how many wonderful supporting characters are featured in the original. This debut may be ideal for middle grade readers, combining dialogue with many wordless but informative panels, yet is one that can certainly be enjoyed by all ages (this "adult" librarian a case in point). The earthy and autumnal graphic novel is great for the harvest and Halloween season but has year-round appeal for those seeking adventurous fun but not seeking too scary a haunting.