The subtitle of this book is “A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up” and that’s basically what it is. The first half of the book, the puberty / bodies part, dragged a little for me, but the second half, which talked about gender, sexual attraction (or lack thereof), and especially consent, was great. There were some really clear metaphors for understanding, again especially about consent (including one that even might bump the tea metaphor out of first place!). The book is sort of narrated by five teens of different races, genders, and sexualities, but who don’t really have distinct voices and sometimes come off as really didactic.
by Varian Johnson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Maureen and Francine Carter are starting sixth grade. Suddenly Francine wants to be called Fran by their friends, and is trying to be her own person, which makes Maureen feel left behind and sad at the loss of their previously close bond. She and Francine are not in all the same classes and she was even signed up for Cadet Corps, which her parents think would help with her self-confidence. But she’s so bad at marching that she’s in danger of her first non-A report card grade ever – unless she runs for sixth grade student council. The only other person running for president is, of course, Francine. Fighting and smear campaigns ensue and their parents try to find ways to end the rivalry, but in the end the girls have to get to a place of apology and forgiveness on their own.
For fans of: Raina Telgemeier (Sisters, Drama, Smile)
by Terri Libenson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
I had been so sure that the twist in Invisible Emmie was that Brianna was not real, but it seems she is very real in this fourth installment in the graphic novel series! Brianna’s seventh grade year is told in flashbacks from her Bat Mitzvah day in June back to 8 months earlier, and moves chronologically up to the big day, mostly exploring how she prepares and also the friend/classmate drama that leads up to it. Basically, rumors start to fly about what her party will be like, and some of the “cool” kids try to get on her good side to get an invite. Two of the popular girls manage to get invited but Brianna finally comes around to the realization that they are just using her. Mostly she resists this because her former best friend says it, and they are going through a rough patch since her BFF is starting to become close with someone else.
I liked watching how Brianna changed over the course of the year. I did think that the two popular girls coming to the party and feeling sad and left out was a bit of a stretch, but otherwise loved how maturely Brianna dealt with the whole situation. She also really grapples with her relationship with Judaism and why she’s doing the Bat Mitzvah in the first place, if not just to please her mother. (Brianna’s father is not Jewish and she has not gone to Hebrew school consistently; her parents are also divorced and fight about the Bat Mitzvah a lot.) In the end, Brianna and Emmie make up and are friends again, and Brianna learns to accept Sarah a little more too.
by Jen Wang
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Christine Wong and her little sister live a very disciplined life. But when their parents offer their spare unit to a community member in need, Christine gains an unlikely new friend. Moon Lin is artistic and unpredictable in ways that Christine learns to appreciate, and opens her eyes up to new things like dancing and painting her toenails. Her parents don’t always approved but show themselves to be adaptable in the end. The only problem is that Christine is a little jealous of the freedoms that her friend enjoys, with an unconventional and Buddhist single mother so she anonymously sets Moon up for teasing from their other friends. But then Moon has to have surgery and Christine is ashamed of how she has hurt her and they make up in a very touching way.
Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends – only for two months in the fall when they both work at the pumpkin patch together. On their last night working there before they go off to college, Deja decides that it’s time for Josiah to tell the girl he’s liked for four years how he feels. They go all over the park to try and find her and have adventures along the way that make them realize that they actually like each other (and Josiah finally talks to the girl and realizes that she’s pretty terrible). It reminded me in some ways of Sorry For Your Loss. I also liked that Deja is bisexual because there aren’t too many bi characters out there.
by Raina Telgemeier
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Another autobiographical story by the fabulous Telgemeier. At first I wasn’t sure how relatable Raina’s story of her anxiety and obsession with food was, but by the end, when she shares at a sleepover that her “deepest, darkest secret” is that she goes to therapy, her friends’ reactions convinced me otherwise. Her eventual friendship with the mean girl showed that she too had her struggles that were similar in their own way to Raina’s. Raina’s story also included a friend who was stressed about moving to a neighboring town. The friend is also teased for bringing “weird” food (I think she is Korean and brings things like kim chi for lunch) and Raina and her friend stand up to the teasing. Overall, a solid story about an unpleasant aspect of growing up. I could see this story helping other kids with anxiety feel less alone, and kids without it feel more empathy toward their classmates. It kind of reminded me of Because of Mr. Terupt in that way.
by Remy Lai
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Eleven-year-old Jingwen moves with his mother and little brother to Australia from an unspecified Asian country (Singapore? China?) and he feels like he’s moved to Mars. Moving to Australia and opening a bakery (called Pie in the Sky) had been a family goal for a long time, but a year after his father’s sudden death in a car accident, Jingwen’s mother decides to take the plunge anyway. As a single mother, she can’t open the bakery her husband had dreamt of, but she works in one with a very compassionate boss who lets her change her schedule as her parenting needs evolved. This is partly because, despite stern warnings not to use the oven, Jingwen and Yanghao find loopholes and use it anyway, because Jingwen is convinced that if he can only make the twelve cakes his father wanted on the menu at Pie in the Sky, everything would be all right. He also struggles with learning English and making friends, though those turn out all right in the end. There’s also a nice elderly neighbor who is sometimes drafted into helping watch the boys who Jingwen hates at first but comes around to in the end.
We have this one in our graphic novel section even though it’s one of those hybrid books and it’s actually more paragraphs than panels. The author made good use of the dual formats most of the time, especially by using aliens to show Jingwen’s gradual turning into a Martian (I mean getting used to Australia), exaggerating the drawings and using dead-on facial expressions to great effect. I was very surprised at how long Jingwen went in school without getting additional help due to his lacking language abilities, but maybe that is a difference between Australia and the US. Jingwen and Yanghao would have immediately been assessed and placed in an ELL class before even being put into their regular classrooms to make sure they had enough English to understand their classes, but in this book they are in their regular classrooms right away and Jingwen goes months not understanding a thing before he finally realizes that his teacher wants him to stay after school for tutoring help.
I loved the relationship between the brothers. Yanghao is only a year behind Jingwen in school, but two years in age, and is so much less mature. Most of the time he sounded six instead of nine, bouncing off the walls and being impulsive and getting them both into trouble. Jingwen is definitely the more responsible of the two, far beyond his eleven years, and resists learning English (finding his brother’s ability to pick it up annoying) and mourning his father. There are some tender moments between the two and it just felt like a very realistic relationship to me. Also, I really wanted cake at the end of this book.
One more note – it’s unclear where the family is from, but it’s possible that they are from Singapore or Indonesia, and/or the story is based loosely on Lai’s upbringing, which would make this book #ownvoices so I’ve included that tag just in case.
Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman
Overall: 1 out of 5 stars (unfinished)
I had to stop reading this one because it gave me a headache. I mostly picked it up on a recommendation from a colleague, and because Roman was married to Raina Telgemeier (not just gossip – this GN spree was brought to you by a spunky 8-year-old who loves Raina so I’ve been looking for other graphic novels that she could read while she waits for Raina’s next book HURRY UP RAINA). Anyway, plot. Was there a plot? I’m not sure. A kid starts school at Astronaut Academy. There are other kids. There are teachers. There are dinosaurs you learn to ride…? There are magic flying buses that join up Power Ranger / Transformer style to create Metador. I couldn’t really follow what was going on because it reads like a little kid wrote it and makes no sense. But maybe some kids would like that? Probably kids who like Captain Underpants. I feel no need to finish this.
Goldie Vance has been compared to Nancy Drew, and very rightly so, but with a modern feel. Goldie still lives in the 1960s, but is interested in (and holds hands with) a girl. She is very precocious and also a very good detective. She gets into far more action-movie sequences than Nancy, which were exciting to read (if you like suspending belief). Goldie is also in high school (she works as a valet at the hotel her dad runs) and has a vendetta with the daughter of the owner of the hotel. She races cars like in Grease, which was also fun. I liked that the mystery wasn’t straightforward and took actual brainpower and observational skills to solve.
Peanut tells the story of Sadie, who wants to stand out at her new high school and decides to tell everyone that she’s deathly allergic to peanuts. However, her lie soon gets much more complicated than she imagined, having to lie about epi-pens and reading ingredients carefully and even keeping her boyfriend away from her mother. Eventually, as you might guess, she gets caught in rather a dramatic way when someone catches her eating something suspected to have nuts in it. EMTs are called and the school nurse and teachers are panicked. Sadie, who has wanted to come clean at least with her close friends, is left a laughingstock, especially by the popular girls she had once wanted to befriend. The story ends with hope, though, of her earning back her boyfriend’s trust, if not exactly all her new friends. I thought this made for an excellent cautionary tale about the very likely outcome of a lie like this. The flipside, where real allergies are not taken seriously, is not really addressed, which is too bad. I was right with Sadie as she made every decision and felt for her desire to fit in, even as I knew where this was heading. We squirmed uncomfortably together as she realized how much she had to lose by confessing her lie, and just had to sit and watch it play out.
After repeated requests from a very picky second grader for “books like Smile and Drama” (full-color, realistic, about girls), I decided it was time to get more acquainted with our YA graphic novel section so I could more easily pull out things for her (we have a couple of second graders who read in that section). So far I’ve only read one book that I would give her, but I already knew the author’s work and would have taken a chance on it. I will persevere – and the results will be here! Four for today:
Just Jaime by Terri Libenson
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Oh how I felt for Jaime. Libenson has a way of hitting the nail on the head with middle school emotions. I was very impressed with Invisible Emmie, her first book in what appears to be this series, but this one lacked the same twist at the end. Nevertheless, it’s a solid read and also solidly in the Drama/Smile camp, all about those middle school friendships that change on you and the popularity games that take over your life. Jaime, who is kicked out of her friend group by stereotypical mean-girl Celia for not being mature, turns out to be more mature and eloquent than Celia. She stops gossiping and becomes friends with some of the kids they used to make fun of. Eventually her best friend, Maya, also leaves Celia and joins her, and they all live happily ever after. I also loved the small storyline with her mom reuniting with an old friend, and one teacher who is very nice to her, which was also lovely. There’s a fair amount of narration in the Jaime chapters (as opposed to the Maya chapters; the narration alternates between the two, in echoes of Invisible Emmie), making it a nice choice for patrons whose parents favor more text.
Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
I felt the title was misleading, because other than her brothers (who arguably don’t count as boys who are friends), Maggie’s main friendship in this story is with a girl, Lucy. But let me back up. Maggie has been homeschooled her whole life and is entering high school with her three older brothers, who have each entered as freshmen. Part (or all?) of the reason is that their mom, who did the homeschooling, has left. Maggie is surprised to learn that her brothers are well-established in school, something that is both to her benefit and has surprising repercussions in complicated school drama. Her oldest brother has some beef with some other guys, but being his sister gives her some street cred. Even Lucy, whose older brother is tied up in some of the drama, is aware of him. Maggie’s twin brothers are also well-known and have their own storyline of going through growing pains of establishing individuality. To round out the storyline, Maggie sees a ghost. Her and Lucy’s attempts to get rid of the ghost land them in trouble and mixed up with the older boys. I wouldn’t exactly call the boys friends though (hence feeling misled). Eventually, Maggie rounds up her brothers and they resolve things, and she and Lucy go on their merry way.
Homeschool-to-school transition like: All’s Faire in Middle School
Mercury by Hope Larson
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars
I found the story a little hard to follow, and not just because it jumped back and forth between two time periods. I was intrigued to re-read my review of another of Larson’s graphic novels, Chiggers, from 5 years ago and see that I also had trouble following that story, which possibly has to do with it being black-and-white (I tend to have more trouble with those than comics that have even one additional color). One story line is of Josie in 1859 in Nova Scotia whose family is taken in by a con man, Asa Curry, who discovers gold on the family’s farm. He intends to marry Josie and when her father won’t allow it, apparently kills him. He leaves Josie with a necklace with something inside it that acts as a metal detector. Meanwhile, in 2009, Josie’s descendant, Tara, finds the necklace. Tara had been homeschooled for a couple of years until her house burns down and her mother moves elsewhere to work, leaving her with her aunt and uncle, who are a little weird about her mom, and same-aged cousin, Lindsay. Tara re-enters school with a bunch of kids who all know her story and joins the track team, which allows her to get to know Ben better, who she apparently looks like and has a crush on. Josie’s story ends with her father’s funeral (and Asa’s death as he is shot trying to escape from jail for the cons and murder) and Tara’s ends with finding some gold, with a touch of magic/magical realism.
by Jerry Craft
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Jordan is starting 7th grade at a private school worlds away from his Washington Heights, New York neighborhood. He has to figure out how to fit in when everyone there seems to be rich and/or white and makes assumptions about him. Craft does a great job of portraying a day full of typical micro-aggressions (being called by another Black kid’s name, a bumbling teacher who’s always asking if anyone’s offended by something he just blurted out, being awkwardly stared at whenever the topic of race comes up). Jordan tries to make friends with a rich Black kid named Maury, but they have nothing in common. He eventually becomes friends with the rich white (but also modest and unpretentious) kid, Liam, who is assigned to show him around on the first day, and eventually also becomes friends with another Black kid, Drew. Jordan and Drew joke around about their micro-aggressions and get called out by a teacher who fancies herself an ally but is arguably the worst offender. My coworker’s and my favorite bit was the description of a book the boys are encouraged to read because it has a Black protagonist, which is hilariously described as being a gritty tale of urban grit and grittiness (or something – I had to send the book onto the next person in line so I can’t quote from it directly). It reminded me a little bit of The Hate U Give in how the main characters code switch in their two very different environments.