Paper Champion by Shane Jones[Civil Coping Mechanisms; 2014]
Illus. by John Dermot Woods

Imagine your voice swallowing water to make a new language.

That line is not talking about you; it’s talking about your voice as a separate entity with the capacity to swallow. It’s also saying that your disembodied voice can create a new way of communicating simply by ingesting water. The sentence, short and unpretentious, is a wild invitation from author Shane Jones to leave behind reality and explore what lies beyond it, and it’s only one of many such encouragements in Jones’ new illustrated poem/prose hybrid, Paper Champion.

Stella and Boris are a couple that lives at the bottom of the ocean. Their existence is threatened by a lava-spewing volcano that slowly approaches them, destroying everything in its path. Options are limited and the couple has to fight the volcano. Sadly, two humans are no match for a mountainous fiend bent on destruction. A big octopus shows up and helps them, but the volcano is undeterred and continues moving forward. As a result, Stella and Boris end up using a ladder to reach the surface, but even that might not be enough to put them out of enemy’s destructive path.

Paper Champion is a short, punchy narrative about volcanoes, being at the bottom of the ocean, falling in love with a hammerhead shark despite the fact that you’re a minnow, and doing whatever it takes to survive. However, given Jones’ knack for bringing together wildly different elements into his work in a strangely organic way that makes them fit together seamlessly, the story also contains wrestling and basketball references, cameos from various sea creatures, and an abandoned ladder factory, to name a few. Despite this rich multiplicity, the author constantly reminds the reader about the real focus of his narrative:

The underground village was destroyed by the raining lava.

The village was never meant to be.

Most things aren’t.

This story is about Boris and Stella and the volcano.

Jones’ work usually inhabits a unique space that’s somewhere between fantasy, poetry, and standard literary fiction. In this, his shortest work to date, he brings the same elegantly bizarre mix to the table, but the low word count means that it feels more concentrated, almost as if he had written a longer story and then stripped away everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. The result is a short book that’s filled with writing that ignores any differences between poetry and prose while also adapting the anything goes attitude that makes great children’s fiction magical reading experiences. Jones abandoned every rule here, and Paper Champion is an outstanding read with the power to establish its own rules because of it:

They have orange juice because they can grow orange trees on the ocean floor.

Same with lemons and limes.

Same with all fruit.

Except watermelons.

You can’t grow watermelons down there.

Paper Champion is a book for kids written for adults. It’s about surviving, never giving up, and doing a piledriver from the top rope. It’s bizarre and beautiful and unlike anything else out. The illustrations, done by artist and author John Dermot Woods, accompany the text very well and give readers the same sense of witnessing important events that graphic novels offer. Ultimately, however, this brief narrative’s greatest strength is that it grabs readers from the get-go, slams them down with an onslaught of original ideas and fantastic imagery, and holds them there for a three count. Then, arms raised in victory, Jones states his point:

A story can be told any way you want to tell a story.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press) and a few other things no one will ever read. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Rumpus, HTMLGiant, Entropy, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Z Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Word Riot, and a other print and online venues.

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