If you’re part of that rampant, raving crowd looking for books about illicit underground spelling bees, boy are you in luck!
In Buzz! by Ananth Panagariya and Tessa Stone, Webster just wants to survive his first day of high school. But on the way, he stumbles upon a street brawl of a spelling bee and is quickly flung into a world of spelling battle royales, where spoken letters transform into explosions of force, where champion spellers must go by aliases, lest they be swamped by overzealous fans, and where the secret Spelluminati has darker plans that may involve Webster himself…
Buzz! might be the most fun piece of print material that I’ve read, ever, y’all. It takes talent to take a concept as ridiculous as this and turn it into something more than a B-grade guilty pleasure, and Panagariya and Stone, combined, are that talent.
As one would expect (or at least hope) of a story that is centered on words and wordplay, Panagariya has a blast with all the potential inherent in his topic. Some of his plays are obvious (The main character’s name is Webster. His sister is Merriam.), but the words chosen for the characters to battle-spell are often thematically relevant to the area of the story in which they appear. Beyond that, Panagariya recognizes the basic silliness of his concept, and he runs crazy with it. His story reads like a spelling-bee-turned-Hollywood-action-movie. Webster’s opponents, in particular, become increasingly outlandish in the best way as the story progresses. My favorite was The Cosmonaut, a combat-trained Russian cosmonaut who, through an accident, was left adrift in space with nothing to do but read books and play word games until he was rescued, at which point we’re treated to this delicious description:
“After a while, when he looked into the darkness, the stars themselves seemed to take on the shapes of letters. He was rescued six months later. They said you could see stars in his eyes, carrying messages only for him.”
Stone’s artwork is a massive delight on its own. I was familiar with Stone’s work prior to this book, having followed her delightful (if incomplete) webcomic Hanna is Not a Boy’s Name. (In fact, I discovered this book when researching what exactly happened to the webcomic.) The exuberance established in Hanna continues here. Energy bursts palpably off of every page, facilitated in no small part by the coloring of the artwork. In a clever color design choice, the art is in black, white, and selective uses of golden-yellow—perhaps a visual pun on the “bee” in “spelling bee?” Relatedly, her illustrations of the bees themselves are giddily wonderful to look at. Letters spring dynamically off the page in the early battles, or are illustrated in ways reflective of their word’s meaning. Later battles are illustrated with fun absurdity matching Panagariya’s writing. Especially adept spellers can manipulate the words they spell to have physical effects on their targets, or speak letters into existence for use as weapons, and Stone has as much fun with this as Panagariya does with his plot.
Granted, for all its goodness, it does take a certain sense of humor to appreciate this book. If you see “spectacular spelling battle royale” and instantly think “omg that is so stupid,” you’re definitely not the audience for it. But if you have just enough curiosity to pick it up and flip through it, that’s all you need. After that, you’ll be H-O-O-K-E-D.