The Answer, written by Rebecca Sugar, illustrated by Elle Michalka and Tiffany Ford.
Cartoon Network Books imprint, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
Fantasy picture book, 30 pages.
Not yet leveled.
This is the story of Sapphire, a wise gem who knows the future, and Ruby, a brave little gem who fights to the end. Sapphire would say it’s a short and sad story, but Ruby disagrees.
While the Steven Universe TV show’s mythology and storyline bring some hefty worldbuilding to this picture book, you can read and enjoy it with no prior knowledge. We rarely watch TV, so I learned about the show from writing this review.
The Answer’s unique storyline and format make it a challenging and rewarding book. After the first page, there are three sections. In the center is the main storyline, which tends to get wordy, but also fills us in on a lot of basic information (assuming you haven’t watched the show).
Above and below this section are flowery boxes. In the upper box is Sapphire, a blue gem who looks like a fairytale princess and tells us what’s going to happen in the story before it occurs. In the lower box is Ruby, a red gem meant to fuse with other Rubies in battle, who’s in awe of Sapphire. The two move about their boxes, exchange dialogue, and express emotions.
The next few paragraphs will have spoilers.
Scroll past to stay spoiler-free.
Eventually Ruby changes the story by Fusing with Sapphire. Everyone is so outraged that the fighting ends and they agree to break Ruby for daring to Fuse. However, Sapphire grabs her and they run to Earth! Once here, they eventually Fuse again.
The most obvious way to read this is as a F/F love story. While supposedly the gems don’t have genders, they are referred to as “she” and coded female in the text and pictures. However, there are also more subtle aspects. Sapphire is coded as stereotypically female and has conservative views even as these ways of thinking are leading to her death.
Soldier Ruby has short hair and wears more masculine clothing. She’s small and powerless unless united with other Rubies, but her creative action is incredibly powerful. Given their privileged/laborer status, appearances, and views, it’s possible to read a racial commentary into this as well.
When Sapphire and Ruby Fuse, the Fusion takes on characteristics of both; Ruby’s wrap shirt and leggings combine with a puff sleeve and skirt flounce from Sapphire. Hair and skin merge into a fluctuating red/blue/purple. Aside from the third eye, this is the best fiction picture book I’ve found yet for talking to kids about gender fluidity.
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The artwork brought me joy. Most vintage books tend to be incredibly problematic, so I’m always delighted to find modern works that use this same style but with inclusive content and diverse character.
Triple narration makes this a challenging read-aloud and adds difficulty to comprehension for young readers. Some gems die, which could upset alert children. The vocabulary is advanced (defeated, assigned, dispatched, fuse), and the plot is fairly complicated with wordy explanations.
Part of the delight is the sophisticated way this book defies narrative conventions. Children who don’t have a solid grasp on those will miss out. At points important text is in the handwriting-style text used on the front cover. Also, the main text is not always clearly linear, so children will need to use decoding strategies.
Because of the points above, I’d generally recommend this for third grade and up. However precocious youngsters and families willing to take their time with Sugar’s unusual setup will also be rewarded by this unexpectedly beautiful book.