I believe that reading the right book can be a transformative experience. As a mother, former longtime bookseller and ardent reader of children's literature, I want to help kids start their reading journey on the right path. Insightful reviews and excellent suggestions of similar titles will ensure that readers are never without a good book in hand.
This Review Originally Appeared on August 19, 2016
Honor Girl is Maggie Thrash's graphic memoir that was released last year and garnered awards and attention. Thrash chronicles the summer at an all girls camp where, having just turned fifteen, she falls in love for the first time.
Maggie's mom and her grandma went to Camp Bellflower, set deep in the Kentucky Appalachians. Every summer, on the first night of camp, the Honor Girl, chosen on the last night of camp the summer before, is serenaded. At the end of the song, the Honor Girl's candle is used to light the candles of all the other campers. Thrash writes, "the criteria for Honor Girl were vague, with no particular definition. It was just the one who seemed, in an unmistakable way, to represent the best of us." Maggie is reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, her favorite Backstreet Boy is Kevin Richardson and she wears a leash at night that tethers her to her bed and keeps her from sleepwalking. The details of 15-year-old Maggie's life are mundane yet so genuinely real. Thrash is a gifted writer, making the quiet, everyday minutiae interesting and engaging. It's easy to get inside Maggie's head, feel what she feels, be fifteen.
Thrash tells the story of her first crush in all its thwarted, unconsummated, painful truth and it happens the way that I am sure most first loves happen, not the way they play out in fiction, especially YA fiction. Her crush, Erin, a 19-year-old counselor and astronomy major at college in Colorado, is not unknown to Maggie. But, she begins to feel differently about Erin after she gives her a routine lice check, running her fingers through Maggie's hair. Thrash uses wordless panels to illustrate this seen and as you scan you can feel something turning on, waking up, or beginning to slowly burn inside of Maggie. Thrash's skill as a visual story teller deepens the story immensely. Her illustration style is markedly different and less polished than many other graphic novels I have read. I'm still learning how to write about the art work in graphic novels and often look to other reviewers to help me shape my thoughts. I turned to Monica Johnson'sreview for The Comics Journal and found that her words describe Thrash's style (and the unique abilities that graphic novels have over other forms of writing) better than any I could find. Of Honor Girl Johnson writes,
Thrash certainly has drawing skills, but they're her own, and they're specifically savvy for the story she is telling. Her bare-bones line drawings colored with watercolor pencils seem to be channeled directly from her 15-year-old self. The drawings have the rawness and bright-eyed directness of the teenager depicted in them, who can't hide behind a catalog of romantic experience and mastery. This is part of the brilliance of the comic medium itself - the way images work in concert with the literal to tell a deeper, much richer story - and Thrash really hits the mark with it. The drawings are so believably vulnerable, which is maybe why her story feels so devastating.
Johnson's use of the word vulnerable is well placed, both in describing the illustrations, Maggie and Erin. Maggie and Erin have moments of vulnerability and missed opportunities. Erin is a counselor for the junior girls and Maggie is a senior girl, so they don't have many chances to run into each other alone. Then there is the fact that, in the eyes of the law, Erin is an adult and Maggie is a child, not to mention that, even though it's 2000, this is the South and a Christian girl's camp and being openly gay is not accepted. Maggie shares her feelings about Erin with friends and finds sympathy and support. They keep Maggie's secret and also nudge - or shove, in the way that teenage girls do - her toward Erin. In a meeting alone between Erin and Maggie, Maggie knows that Erin has made a move, and now it's up to her to make the kiss happen. But, filled with self doubt, she can't make it happen. She can't be that vulnerable.
While Honor Girl is a memoir about first love, it is also, if peripherally about being gay. Maggie is pulled aside by the head counselor who starts wide, telling her that her parents could sue the camp for statutory rape if her relationship with Erin goes any farther. Circling in for her target, she tells Maggie that it's, "her job to make sure everyone feels safe" because camp is a place where "girls can be totally innocent and free, maybe for the last time in their lives." Maggie assures her that she does feel safe, to which the response is, "Everyone else needs to feel safe, too. From you. . . Don't ruin it for everyone." The brutality of that moment is hard to read, especially because I think most of us, most women, experienced a time in our adolescence when an adult betrayed, disappointed or backhandedly told us not to be ourselves and those words go deep.
Thrash bookends Honor Girl with an event that takes place two years after her summer with Erin, but seems to play itself out the same as it did at Camp Bellflower. As Johnson says wisely in her review, "If you don't let people know that they are wanted, they will go away. Love relationships are fragile opportunities. They need care and attention. They need those moments to happen." Honor Girl is a powerful, bittersweet reminder of this.
Witch Boy byMolly Ostertagis the story of Aster, a boy growing up in a magical community where power (but not necessarily ability and talent) is divided along gender lines. Boys, "grow up to be shapeshifters; girls into witches. No exceptions." Aster finds himself impossibly drawn to witchcraft, secretly observing the lessons his Aunt Vervain gives to the girls while facing bullying from the boys, who are beginning to discover their animal spirits. When one of the boys goes missing during shapeshifting practice, Aster believes he can find him - using witchery.
As Aster struggles with his passion for witchery and the idea of breaking a longstanding tradition, he learns a dark family secret while also making friends with someone outside his community, Charlie. Charlie is laid up with a broken leg, forced to shoot hoops from her seat in a lawn chair in the driveway. Recognizing that there is something different about Aster, she is very accepting and interested in his world. Ostertag does a superb job building Aster's world and making its existence alongside our world completely believable.
The dark family secret that Aster learns about is also part of the reason that this strict tradition about shapeshifting and witchery exists and also what is behind the disappearances of the boys. With Charlie's help, and even a bit of guidance from his grandmother, Aster finds a way to rescue the lost boys and fight the powerful force behind their disappearances. Witch Boy is definitely a parable about gender conformity that some young readers will recognize. As an adult reader, this aspect of the story, along with the effortless diversity of the characters in the book are what impressed me most about this debut work from Ostertag. However, the fantastic world she created and story she spun within it are a very close second. Witch Boy is an awesome graphic novel that is immediately engrossing and leaves you wanting more.
Book 2 is out now, Book 3 is coming in November, 2019
In an interview from 2018, Tillie Walden described On a Sunbeam, which first appeared as a free webcomic, as a "gay space comic that follows a large cast of characters. It deals with lost love, bullying, found family - I'm honestly trying to remember what it's about! It's been a while since I drew that book, and I'm a little rusty. I promise you, it's fantastic, and you can read it all online for free!" Walden's description, and her humor, give you a good idea of what a seeming dichotomy she is. Her books, including the Eisner-Award Winning Spinning, are emotionally raw, real and sometimes intense, On a Sunbeam included. They are also stories you fall into and stay immersed in, even when the book is closed. This was especially true for me as I read On a Sunbeam, which I went into knowing almost nothing about. Initially, I read in fits and starts, struggling to make sense of the world of the graphic novel and the past (shades of blue) and present (oranges, reds and purples) timelines. Of the occasional use of yellow in On a Sunbeam, Walden said in an interview, "I feel like the yellow represents the reality for Mia (the main character). The moments that are hard, that are wonderful, any moment that blazes with an emotion so strong that it pulls Mia and the cast down to the ground, to themselves, has yellow." This is a fantastic insight from an author who also says, "It's always strange to me when I hear people describe the themes they see in my work because I'm usually unaware of it." I totally appreciate that honesty and it's a testament to Walden's gift as an artist that themes arise for every reader.
For me, while I absolutely loved the confusion and discomfort I felt as I read. It allowed me to let go of my brain's need to READ EVERY WORD and UNDERSTAND THE THEMES and PREDICT WHAT WAS COMING NEXT. I floated through the cool corridors of the boarding school where Mia first met Grace (the lost love) and through the tumultuous present, five years later, where Mia has graduated from school and has taken a job as part of a crew that travels through deep space rebuilding beautiful broken down structures. Then I started to realize that there were no male characters in this graphic novel, save Elliott, who is nonbinary. As Rowan Hisayo Buchanan notes in her review of On a Sunbeam for The Atlantic, Walden shared that she had always "intended the book to feature women and queer people." As she worked, she thought, "Wait, why would I even add any men in the background? Why not just gals and genderless pals?" Of Paul, the male cat in the story, Walden said, "If people are sad that there aren't any guys, I can say, 'Hey, at least I gave you the cat.'"
In the same interview, Walden said, "I don't really like sci-fi," specifically because "a lot of it is full of dudes and cold white spaces and capitalism." On a Sunbeam counters this with the (almost) all female cast, the colors and landscape that evokes a magic mushroom trip and - really - no capitalism! There is zero commerce in this book - and don't forget, it debuted as a FREE webcomic, something Walden always points out when talking about the book, even on the blurb for it on her website. At one point, a character gives up her ship and her livelihood to stay on land with her wife and reconnect. At another point, characters reject the crew leader who is an insensitive task master who refuses to learn the proper pronouns for her crew. And, the big, dangerous mission that the crew undertakes, breaking laws and heading into disputed territory, is a personal, not work related one.
I realize I've spent this who review pointing out all the themes of On a Sunbeam, while also pointing out that Walden doesn't think about themes when she creates. As I said, I read, loved, and felt completely wrapped up in this book without knowing any of this and loved it. Now that you know all this, when you read it you will probably love it even more!
With subtly and care, Panetta and Ganucheau have channeled that time in life when you aren't a kid and you aren't an adult and everything is confusing and frustrating and impossible with the creation of main character Ari Kyrkos. Recent high school graduate and son of Greek bakery owners in a small coastal town in Maryland, Ari plans to move with friends to the city and find gigs for their band. But he has to find someone to take his job at the bakery first. Back in town to deal with his recently deceased grandmother's house, Hector, who just finished his first year of culinary arts school, is missing his friends in Birmingham. He copes by baking traditional Samoan treats.
When Hector applies for the bakery job, it seems like Ari can finally pursue his dreams and get away from the bakery he hates. But, things with his friends and bandmates aren't quite as solid as he imagined, and, as he trains Hector in the family recipes, he almost enjoys his work in the bakery again. Very slowly, a romance blooms between Hector and Ari, with Ari acting like a petulant, jealous child when Hector's friends visit, or when Hector makes a visit back to Birmingham. As Ari finally begins to accept the status of his friendships with old high school friends and trust in Hector, he grows into himself. Until a tragedy hits the bakery. How Ari copes with this, over time, shows growth of character and maturing that is so rewarding to see in a work of fiction, and so valuable for young readers. Ganucheau's illustrations are fantastic. Her palette of cool blues captures the coastal town in winter and summer and her two page spreads depicting baking are fantastic. Back matter includes recipes and bonus art.
It's not easy figuring out how to be an adult, and Bloom gives readers a valuable glimpse into those struggles.
Like Lumberjanes, Abrams has had the brilliant idea to give this graphic novel series a middle grade platform. And, they continue to do a fantastic job finding writers to turn graphic novels into novels. The fantastic Mariko Tamaki, co-creator of the Newbery Honor winner This One Summer kicked off the series with Unicorn Power, illustrated by original graphic novel team member, Brooke Allen. For The Backstagers middle grade series, Abrams brought in graphic novel team member Rian Sygh and brilliantly brought on singer, actor, composer and writer, Andy Mientus, best known for his work on stage in Spring Awakening and on television in Smash and The Flash.
Tynion and Sygh have created a fantastic, diverse (visually and in voice) cast of students at St. Genesius's Preparatory High School for boys. There, the crew of Backstagers works to put on the best show possible while coping with demanding actors (Onstagers). They also have access to a door backstage that leads to other worlds, mostly theater related, where a crew of backstagers may have disappeared years earlier. This alternate world is constantly changing in layout and makeup and creatures - or worse - sometimes escape into the world of St. Genesius's. Fun fact: St. Genesius was once a comedian and actor who performed in plays that mocked Christianity until the his onstage-conversion-experience that came while performing in a play that made fun of the rite of baptism. He is the patron saint of actors, lawyers, barristers, clowns, comedians, converts, dancers, people with epilepsy, musicians, printers, stenographers and victims of torture. In Volume 1, Rebels without Applause, we meet Jory, new kid at school who reluctantly joins the backstage crew and immediately gets introduced to Sasha, described as the embodiment of light and energy who loves everything and everyone, who just happens to have a Tool Rat from the alternate backstage world. The crew manages to contain the Tool Rat and make it back safely, although they fail to see the creature with the evil grin watching their return...
I don't have a deep knowledge or understanding of (or longtime participation in) the world of comic books and graphic novels. When I first read Smileby Raina Telgemeier in 2010, I was an immediate convert - to kid's graphic novels - and worked to explore and educate myself in this new (to me) world. But, it seems to be that this genre, or specifically the genre of kid's graphic novels, has been a leader in inclusivity and diversity. In 2017 Brigid Alverson, editor of the Good Comics for Kids Blog, writing for School Library Journal, shed some light on this with her piece, Just Another Day in an LGBTQ Comic and her interview with James Tynion IV. Of his inspiration, Tynion said,
I wanted to write the book that I needed the most, particularly in middle school and when I first started reading comics. . . I was an awkward young kid who was starting to understand that I wasn't straight. I didn't see myself out there and the few bits of gay representation that I saw there were in a stereotypical mold. In building the story, I wanted to go beyond just creating a cast of misfits. I always wanted the book to be about misfits, but I wanted to have different forms of queer masculinity. There are no traditionally macho characters in the book. I really wanted to show how diverse male queerness can be, and when you have a book that embodies lots of different forms of characters it opens it up for you to play those characters off against each other.
Crushes, romance and the opposite of stereotypical masculinity are part of the plot as the crew works in this world and others. Hunter, the carpenter of the crew who has a pink rotary hammer, has a crush on new kid Jory that leaves him blushing almost every other panel. The Backstagers all experience emotions, sometimes in big ways, sometimes in small ways, like when Aziz, usually calm and collected, takes a moment to exhale and cry. As Jon Erik Christianson says in his article for BookRiot from 2017, Blushing Boys, The Backstagers and Toxic Masculinity, "Tynion's script portrays the boys' many feelings as strength - in their communication, compassion, teamwork, friendships, and heroism. Other male-centered properties would paint these moments as as a punchline or weakness. The only Patriarchy Approved™ male emotion is anger, because the it's used to precipitate punching or vengeance (that often involves punching). And there is anger in The Backstagers, but it's not used as a sexy precipitant for sexy violence; it's portrayed as a messy, frustrating emotion that's not superior to reason."
And then there is Beckett, the "mad lighting genius" of the crew. In Volume Two of The Backstagers, The Show Must Go On, the crew hear a cry for help from the backstage beyond and head in to help. There they encounter the techies of Penitent Angels, the all girl's school Beckett went to before transferring to St. Genesius's sophomore year. Beckett being transgender is never part of the plot, it just is. As C.K. Stewart says in his article for Paste, Authentic Trans & Nonbinary Representation in Comics Requires More Than Just a Plot Twist, "The Backstagers doesn't shy away from details that make it clear that Beckett wasn't always the Beckett of today, but there's never a moment where it's painted as a startling revelation." Stewart goes on to lift up Beckett and Tyrion and Sygh, writing, "Trans stories primarily guided by cis writers often center around trans identity in ways that are easiest for cis writers to grasp, giving us those moments of too normal to tell, or stories about bigotry and discrimination. There's a subtle undercurrent at times that the real trans struggle is just surviving long enough for no one to be able to tell we're trans anymore, with no exploration of the ambient hiccups of transition. . . The Backstagers doesn't shy away from details that make it clear that Beckett wasn't always the Beckett of today, but there's never a moment where it's painted as a startling revelation."
With The Backstagers transition to middle grade novel, Mientus creates a third-person omniscient narrator to tell the story of the backstage crew at St. Genesius's with Sygh offering spot illustrations that evoke the world of the graphic novels. While exploring the backstories of the crew, he also introduces a new character, Reo, who is Japanese/Irish. And a witch. Picking up where Volume 2 ended (The Backstagers is an 8 issue series, collected into two volumes with a third volume consisting of special holiday issues) Mientus starts with the cast party for Lease, the show being put on in Volume 2. The Onstagers pull out a spirit board and things take a turn for the worse when the Ghost Light - the light that keeps the ghosts aways - gets broken. You don't have to have read the graphic novels to enjoy Mientus's expansion of the amazing world created by Tyrion and Sygh, but if you haven't, you will definitely want to spend more time with this crew!
I'm not sure what's more entertaining - the story of how Ngozi Ukazu came to write Check, Please or Check, Please itself. During her senior year at Yale, Ukazu, hoping to create some, "Very Serious Art™," she ended up writing the screenplay Hardy, about a hockey player who, "tragically falls for his best friend - a dude." In her foreword, Ukazu, who has a masters in Sequential Art from the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, goes on to say that, being a "Texan, a woman, and a first generation Nigerian, I knew that writing about a white, Boston-born hockey bro would require weeks of anthropological study." Immersing herself in the world of college hockey had the "unintended side effect" of Ukazu becoming obsessed with hockey.
Enter Eric Bittle. A former junior figure skating champion, coed hockey playing, pie baking vlogger from Georgia, Eric is starting his freshman year at Samwell University in Massachusetts. And he is also starting on the hockey team. Told in vignettes, or episodes, some of which are Eric's (nicknamed Bitty by his teammates) vlog entries, stories of friendship, fitting in and facing fears play out over the course of the season and the academic year.
Bitty is baking pies and letting his teammates know he is gay while also coping with his almost paralyzingly fear of being checked in a game. While he doesn't swear or drink the way his older teammates, who live in the hockey "Haus," do, Bitty is definitely, immediately part of the team. Then there is Jack Zimmerman. Son of a NHL legend, captain of the team and determined to break Bitty of his fear of being checked. Jack is standoffish and moody and somewhat mysterious, but, it soon becomes clear that he and Bitty are great together on the ice. In fact, Jack is stunned when the coaches tell him that he's a better player when he's with Bitty.
Check, Please! covers freshman and sophomore year of Bitty's life at Samwell. From playoffs to graduations to getting "dibs" from a departing teammate on a room in the Haus, where Bitty names the ancient oven Betty and brings some flair to the kitchen, Ukazu packs her story with "bro talk" and hockey talk and makes it completely engaging and satisfying. I totally get why Check, Please!, which began with a strong presence on Tumblr and Twitter, has such a huge fan base. As a fifty year old woman who has zero interest in all team sports, I honestly did not think I would enjoy this story so much. It's a testament to Ukazu's gift for creating interesting characters and a completely charming hero in Bitty that the appeal of her book can reach so many.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me perfectly captures the way first love, or that crazy, intoxicating powerful love with someone you can't even believe bothered to look at you that makes you stupid and unintentionally mean to everyone outside your relationship bubble. With adult perspective, Tamaki (and really good teen romance movies) has captured what it's like when you fall in love in the close-quarters-incubator that is high school. Set in Berkeley, which adds a layer of diversity to an already diverse graphic novel, Frederica, or Freddy, is seventeen and so in love with her stunning, popular, charismatic girlfriend Laura Dean, that she has taken her back each and every time (totaling three by the start of the book) that she has broken up with her, including suffering through the public humiliation of Laura flirting with - and hooking up with - another girl at the Valentine's Day dance she was supposed to be at with Freddy. Knowing she needs help, Freddy reaches out to an advice columnist, with chunks of her email to scattered across the story. Freddy's best friend, Doodle, nudges her to visit a "Seek-Her," a psychic who, cryptically, to Freddy, anyway, tells her that she needs to break up with Laura Dean.
As Freddy tries to figure out how to break up with someone who has broken up with her, she finds herself sucked back into Laura's gravitational pull and letting down her closest friends in times of need. In fact, Freddy, in her passive inability to see beyond the attraction of Laura, becomes almost unlikable as a main character. Yet, in becoming so, she seems supremely adolescent and I applaud Tamaki's ability to bring this to the page. I have firmly put my adolescence - and first loves - firmly out of my mind, yet Tamaki's story telling and character development is so skillful that these memories are called up from the darkest depths as I see echoes of my own experiences in those of Freddy. Freddy's growth and change over the course of the novel is potent and the advice that she finally receives is delivered with such clarity and wisdom, it makes me sad that no one - or even a character in a book - had shared that with me when I was young and in love. Throughout the novel, Valero-O'Connell's visual storytelling creates powerful moods and emotions, especially the isolation that Freddy feels in her love for Laura. She also does a great job making it (almost) easy to understand how Freddy could slip into this dark space just to be with Laura, even if she does keep breaking up with her.
(when the world of graphic novels for kids was very different and I still felt like I needed to convince adults that graphic novels are IMPORTANT, VALUABLE and O.K. TO READ)
Oh, how I love Drama, the new graphic novel from the incredible Raina Telgemeier! Telgemeier's first graphic novel, Smile is a masterpiece. Autobiographical in nature, she tells the story of knocking out her two front teeth while in middle school and the years that followed trying to fill the hole in her mouth and cope with the new social landscape ahead of her as she enters her teen years. Telgemeier has a way of writing and illustrating very specific stories that are so real, so genuine and filled with depth and humor. Her books are completely relatable, even if you have never knocked out your front teeth, worked as part of the stage crew on a middle school musical theater production and/or are not currently a tween or teen. I couldn't find any interior images from Drama but I did find this great, short book trailer. Read on for details of the intricacies of the story and what Telgemeier does that I think is so wonderful.
Drama by Raina Telgemeier: Book Trailer - YouTube
There is a great review of Drama by Ada Calhoun that was in the New York Times book review recently in which Telgemeier's books are referred to as "nice-girls-finish-first" and "hobbies-before-hotties" stories, which I think is great, if not a bit reductive. The important thing to remember is that, in the world of graphic novels for middle grade readers, Telgemeier stands alone when it comes to the stories she chooses to tell. As Calhoun notes, most graphic novels have a fantasy settings, perhaps because there is so much more you can show (with art) rather than tell (with words) in a story when you are creating a graphic novel. Barbarian third-graders who travel to Earth, space aliens, magical amulets and anthropomorphized bones are great subject matter when you can tell a long, complex story with illustrations and words. Perhaps because of this, to tell a story set in our world with everyday people and problems might even be more of a challenge in a graphic novel. Telgemeier meets this challenge brilliantly. And, as the mother of a kid who has been a theater geek since middle school, I can tell you that Drama is spot on, from the behind the scenes action to center stage.
Callie Marin, is an enthusiastic, passionate seventh grader who is every bit as vibrant as her purple and magenta colored hair. As you might guess from the cover of Drama, there is more than one kind of drama going on in this story. Act I kicks off with Callie walking home from school with Matt and his older brother Greg, who is also her crush. After getting rid of a disgruntled Matt, there are awkward moments then a sweet kiss on a park bench, initiated by Callie. This is a girl who is not afraid to go for what she wants, and this carries through into the school musical. Callie is over the moon about the choice of Moon Over Mississippi for the musical and her brain starts working on ideas the moment Mr. Madera picks her for set design, setting her sights on a working cannon to use as a prop. She is also excited to make friends with Justin and Jesse, twin brothers who have more similarities than differences, by the end of the story. Exuberant, boisterous Justin is determined to play the lead in the play while the shy Jesse is happy to tag along with Callie and help out with set design. The brothers introduce Callie to the delights of bubble tea and she shows them her favorite book, an enormous tome that covers the productions from the New York stage in photographs, first published in 1932 and updated 34 times since then! While there is plenty of drama getting the show ready for opening night, Callie also finds herself in a whirl of crushes and craziness. The final night of the show, leading lady drama threatens to ruin the production. Telgemeier resolves this dilemma with surprise that will make you cheer. Act VII of Drama finds Callie at the eighth grade dance where another kind of drama unfolds, leaving her confused and a little bit vulnerable, but ultimately making the smart, strong choices we all hope our daughters will make.
Telgemeier's superb new book also gives me the opportunity to address something that I have struggled with in terms of writing reviews for my blog, specifically the presence of gay characters in middle grade and young adult fiction. While I wish I lived in a world where the presence of LGBTIA+ characters in a kid's book was so common that it wasn't noteworthy, I come at this from the perspective of a longtime bookseller taking note of the ongoing lack of diversity in kid's books as well as bookseller who is sensitive to the wide range of opinions and emotions surrounding all kinds of diversity, cultural, sexual or otherwise. Because of this, I have not shouted out my excitement at seeing more diversity in kid's books, but I also have not avoided mentioning it when it is part of a story. Amy Ignatow's Popularity Papers series, which is a quasi-graphic novel, is a perfect example of this. One of the two main characters, Julie Graham-Chang, has two fathers while Lydia's parents are divorced, her father moving across the country and starting a new family. In the fourth book in the series, The Rocky Road Trip, the girls take a road trip with Julie's dads that involves visiting the Chinese immigrant grandparents who, in Julie's words, "wanted Daddy to marry a woman and they do not approve of Papa Dad and will not allow him in their house." I think the understated, nonjudgemental way that Ignatow handles this is noteworthy. In Drama (spoiler alert, kind of) Telgemeier presents not one but two gay characters who are kids in middle school. Justin knows he is gay and talks openly with Callie about which boys are cute right from the start. By the end of the novel, Telgemeier has developed and tangled her characters, allowing for a last minute cast change to bring on some serious soul searching on the part of Jesse. And, while it is in the service of the musical, there is a moment that had a big smile on my face and, had I not been at the bookstore reading when I should have been working, a cheer as well, when two boys, one of whom is stepping in at THE last minute as an understudy for the female lead, kiss on stage. That moment was just so rare and wonderful that I had to share it here.
I especially love how Calhoun ends her article and will employ her words here to wrap up my review:
The Horatio Alger of graphic novelists, Telgemeier draws up-by-their-book-bags characters who value hard work and seize a chance that has nothing to do with looks or even with love. While capable of boy craziness, they concentrate on friendship and creative fulfillment. The better Telgemeier’s books sell, the less hand-wringing to do over the next generation. If this is what the youth of America are into, the kids are all right.
Bravo!!! Encore!!! Encore!!
(throwing roses at the stage...)
Raina and her husband Dave Roman, also a graphic novelist at Comicon 2012.
I am compelled to begin my review of The Breakaways with the final words of this review, "Groundbreaking - and as complicated as middle school." Johnson's graphic novel is packed with characters, each one having her/his own complexities and challenges that overlap, interfere and intercede with the others, making it challening to unravel this story for review. But, it is Faith, a black fifth grader being raised by her dad, who is at the center of this scrum and a good place to being talking about this unforgettable book. On her first day at a new school, Faith is recruited (tricked, really) into joining the school soccer team by an eighth grader, and in this she inherits a new, albeit prickly, group of friends who comprise the C team, the Bloodhounds, a mix of girls from all grades. Johnson does a superb, subtle job bringing diversity to this group, from Nadia, who wears a hijab, to Marie, who lives in a trailer and another who lives in a small apartment with her large family, and beyond.
Faith spends her evenings drawing in a notebook where she has created the character of Sir Mathilda, a genderfluid character who is a messenger knight, traveling between kingdoms. Through her travels with and trust of Sir Mathilda, she works out the challenges of her day at school and on the field. There is so much going on and I don't want to simplify any character or her/his experiences, but . . . Sodacan is vegan who drags Faith along with her on a midnight quest to liberate one of the chickens that Marie's mother raises to eat. Marie's best friend and teammate Sammy shares that she is a trans boy during a sleepover, a moment that Johnson presents with thoughtfulness and heart. And again in another moment in the story, with straightforwardness and sensitivity, when, Sodacan overhears Sammy talking about being trans and says, "What does that mean?" I especially love this scene because I feel like it shows young readers that it is o.k. both to not know what something means and also to ask this question. Johnson also models for readers how to ask and respond with acceptance and kindness. Vietnamese-American Huong's busy parents don't have time for her sport and she has to cope with this disappointment. Latinx Yarelis is painfully hard on herself on the field and fifth grader Zoe, a loner who draws fake tattoos on herself while dreaming of the day she can get her own. Zoe and Faith share another one of the book's wonderful moments while hiding out in the girl's bathroom and talking about quitting soccer. After confiding in Faith that she is the only friend Zoe has at school, the only person who talks to her, Zoe asks Faith if she likes boys. Faith, shrugging, says, "Um. I don't know who I like. Maybe boys. Maybe girls," to which Zoe responds, "Really? That's not gross?" Faith assures her it is not gross, telling her she has an aunt in New York who lives with her wife. This gives Zoe the security and courage to tell Faith that she likes girls. Faith's overwhelmingly supportive response is rewarded by Zoe, who says, "You're so quiet and thoughtful. I knew you were the right person to tell."
The Breakaways will resonate with young readers living through the years when so much of existence revolves around finding friends, making friends and learning who you can and can't tell your truths to, usually with a lot of embarrassment and pain along the way. I am especially glad I have The Breakaways as, for the first time in my five years as an elementary school librarian, I have a fifth grade student who confided in me that she is gay and struggling to talk about it with her friends. I am grateful that I have this stellar book to put in her hands and, later, into the hands of students who will find their compassion and understanding of the world will deepening when they read The Breakaways, no matter what their cultural, gender or sexual identity.
The Publishers Weeklyreview of Worm Loves Worm by J. J. Austrian, illustrated by Mike Curato, begins, "How do you explain a revolution to a young audience?" This is how - with a sweetly simple story (with sweetly simple illustrations) about two worms in love. What amazes and surprises me most about Worm Loves Worm is how subtle message that love is love and how powerful the excitement and joy (along with preconceived ideas) of a wedding is. Austrian and Curato achieve the nearly impossible accomplishment of creating a picture book that teaches, or, more precisely (hopefully) opens minds and shifts perspective, while also being a wonderfully illustrated, engaging story.
Two worms fall in love and decide to get married. The officious Cricket steps in saying, "You need someone to marry you. That's how it's always been done." This is a refrain he will repeat often over the course of Worm Loves Worm as other bugs get involved in the wedding planning. Beetle insists on being the best man and the Bees insist on being the "bride's bees." When Cricket says they must have rings for their fingers and the Worms point out their lack of digits, they decide to wear their rings as belts. With every traditional demand placed on them and every hoop that they jump through, the Worms ask repeatedly, "Now can we be married?"
Finally, one of the Bees asks, "But which one of you is the bride?" The Worms respond, "I can be the bride," and "I can, too," and they both don the traditional attire for brides - and grooms. The wedding party looks a little shocked and surprised by this, and of course Cricket chirps, "That isn't how it's always been done." To this, finally, the Worms reply, "Then we'll just change how it's done." Austrian ends his book, "And so they were married . . . because Worm loves Worm."
There has been a vocal push in the world of kid's books in the last few years for diversity on the page. With Matt de la Peña's picture book Last Stop on Market Street winning the Newbery Medal last week, this slow change seems to be picking up pace. Add to this Alex Gino's book from last year about a transgender fourth grader, George, and now Worm Loves Worm, which probably began its official path to publication almost two years before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and it feels like change is really happening.