Here are my picks for the best graphic novels of the year for youth! As always, share your own picks in the comments.
Comics Squad: Recess! by Jennifer L. Holm
The Dumbest Idea Ever! By Jimmy Gownley
El Deafo by Cece Bell
The Graveyard Book: Volume 1 by P. Craig Russell
Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier
Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle by Dana Simpson
Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth by Ian Lendler
Apocalypse Bow Wow by James Proimos III
Brownie and Apollo are two dogs who have been happily living together with their two humans. Their only argument is that Apollo always gets the couch. But then their humans fail to return and the two of them are left alone. Brownie knows the humans will be back soon because he’s getting very hungry and they always come back when he’s hungry. But they don’t return. So the dogs have to figure out how to get out of the house. Apollo tries to break down the door, but it doesn’t work so Brownie thinks that licking the doorknob will help. Apollo knows this makes no sense, but lets Brownie try it. And when he does, a deer leaps through the window and breaks it. Ta da! Brownie and his tongue have saved the day. But when they get out into the world, there are no humans anywhere and now they have to find their own food. Can two rather silly dogs find a way to survive the apocalypse?
This graphic novel is told in distinct scenes, creating a rather movie-like experience reading it. The two dog characters are great foils for one another, Apollo being the more grounded and logical dog while Brownie is rather confused and hopelessly optimistic about everything. Though the book never explains where the humans have disappeared to, readers will happily just go along with the scenario presented thanks to the humor and the silliness.
Proimos’ illustrations are very funny and the way he uses the page is deftly done, making the scenes all the more humorous. Readers of Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s books will be right at home here with the illustration style.
A humorous take on a bleak dystopian disaster, this book will be enjoyed by children who don’t mind a dark side to their graphic novels. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Bloomsbury and Netgalley.
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson
When Phoebe skipped a rock (four times!) across a pond, she accidentally hit a unicorn in the nose, distracting the unicorn from gazing at her amazing reflection. The unicorn was bound to offer Phoebe a wish and though Phoebe tried to wish for more wishes and things like that, she wasn’t allowed to. So Phoebe wished that the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, be her best friend. The two become inseparable, much to Heavenly Nostrils’ dismay at first. Soon they truly became the best of friends, dealing with bullies in unexpected ways, having slumber parties, and playing games together.
This friendship between a girl and a unicorn is filled with great humor, including lots of biting sarcasm which helps offset the cuteness factor. It is not the traditional unicorn and girl relationship either, both of them have unique personalities and sometimes they just don’t get along. It’s those moments of reality that keeps the relationship honest and makes this a graphic novel to celebrate.
Simpson’s illustrations have strong ties to Calvin & Hobbes. Readers will immediately find themselves right at home in the world she creates, one where unicorns are real but sheltered by a Shield of Boringness that keeps others from realizing how special the unicorn is. These plot devices are brilliant and funny.
I brought this book home and my 17 year old immediately rejoiced since she reads the comic online. So you will have fans in your library for this book already. Get it on the shelves for kids and into the hands of adults who will also enjoy it immensely. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow, illustrated by Jen Wang
After a woman gamer comes to present information on gaming and computer science to her class, Anda starts to play Coarsegold. She starts to spend most of her time away from school playing the online multiplayer game. Online she meets another player who encourages her to start killing gold farmers for real life money. So Anda refocuses her battles online specifically on gold farmers, killing them even though they don’t fight back. But something feels wrong about what she is doing and then Anda gets to know one of the gold farmers who has started to learn English. He is a poor Chinese kid who is just trying to survive and loves playing Coarsegold even though he does it for hours as a gold farmer. Anda soon finds herself questioning the morals of killing gold farmers and what is wrong and right in real life and in the game world.
As a gamer girl myself, I applaud Doctorow for choosing to have a female lead in his book about online gaming. It adds another dimension to a book that wrestles with tough questions about gaming and gold farming. Gold farmers are people, usually from poorer countries, who are paid to play the online game, gather materials, and then sell them for real money, something that is against the rules of the games. So the book gets to the heart of people from wealthy countries using those from poorer countries, it looks at working conditions in gold farming companies, and questions the real ethics of the situation, beyond the superficial ones.
Wang’s illustrations are dynamite. She shows Anda as a girl who is built like a real person. She is rounded, comfortable in her clothes, and wonderfully not on a diet! Wang creates an online character for Anda who is powerful but not busty and half naked. It’s a great choice artistically.
Gaming books that actually get the game worlds right are few and far between. Gamers of any MMO will recognize the economy, the style and the play here while non-gamers will find themselves understanding gaming and game economies too. Appropriate for ages 12-16.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raul the Third
Three friends, Lupe, El Chavo and Elirio, work together in a garage where they fix cars. They dream of one day having their own garage. Lupe loves working on engines and the mechanics. El Chavo washes them until they shine with his octopus arms. Elirio uses his mosquito size and his long nose to detail the cars. Their favorite kind of car are the low and slow lowriders. So when a contest with a large prize comes along, they know they have to enter. Now they just have to turn a junker into the best car in the universe, so they head into space to see what they can do. This is one unique read that combines space, cars and great friendship.
Camper incorporates Spanish into her story, firmly placing this book into the Hispanic culture. Her characters are clever done. The female in the group is the one who loves engines and mechanical things, yet is incredible feminine too. The book seems to be firmly housed on earth until one big moment launches it into outer space. The incorporation of astronomy into the design and art of the car makes for a book that is wild and great fun to read.
The illustrations by Raul Gonzalez have a cool hipness to them that is honest and without any slickness at all. Done in a limited palette of red, blue and black, the art has a vintage feel that is enhanced by the treatment of the pages with stains and aging.
This graphic novel is cool, star filled, rich with science, and has friendship at its heart. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Zack Giallongo
When the gates shut at night at The Stratford Zoo, the animals come out to play. They steal the keys from one of the zoo keepers as they leave and all of the cages are unlocked. Vendors walk the aisles selling treats like peanuts and earthworms to the growing crowd. Then on stage, the theater begins with the lion as Macbeth. After meeting with the witches, the question is whether Macbeth will eat the king. Lady Macbeth proposes different preparations to make the king taste better, and Macbeth finally succumbs and eats the king. But then, as with any Shakespearean tragedy, others must be eaten too. This is a wild and wonderful combination of Shakespeare, hungers both human and animal, and plenty of humor.
Lendler takes great liberties with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He combines all of the moments that people remember in the play, from Lady Macbeth trying to wash out the spots of blood to the visits to the three witches and the way their predictions play out. He also adds in lots of slapstick comedy, plenty of asides from the audience and actors, and also shortens the play substantially.
Giallongo’s art is colorful and dramatic. He plays up the drama of the ketchup stains, the growing stomach of the lion, and the ambitions of Lady Macbeth. Comic moments are captured with plenty of humor visually. This zoo is filled with fur, claws, fun and drama.
A perfect combination of Shakespeare and wild animal humor, this will please those who know Macbeth and people knew to the play alike. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Author/illustrator Cece Bell has created a graphic novel memoir of her loss of hearing as a child. At age four, Cece contracts meningitis and the disease takes away her ability to hear. At first Cece attends school with other children who have hearing loss and wear hearing aids, but then she is sent to first grade with a new super-powered hearing aid, the Phonic Ear. Her new teacher has to wear a microphone, one that she sometimes forgets to take off (even when she uses the bathroom) which leads to some rather interesting sounds! But along with these superpowers come some ethical questions and some technical problems. As Cece copes with her hearing loss, she is also living the normal life of a child, attending school, making new friends, all with a big hearing aid on her chest.
Bell writes with a great honesty here, revealing helpful hints about what deaf people need to help them read lips and understand people better, things that other people can help with. There is plenty of humor throughout the novel, making it very appealing. Also adding to the appeal is Bell’s transformation from human to bunny in the illustrations, sending herself as an imaginary superhero flying upwards with her long ears.
While this is a book about a disability, it is much more a book about Bell and how her creativity helped her through times that required a real strength of character. Her sense of humor also helped immensely, and it is her positive take about her hearing loss that makes this such an incredible read.
A top graphic novel for children and libraries, this is a must-read and a must-have. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Released August 26, 2014.
The exceptionally talented and incredibly popular Raina Telgemeier returns with a sequel to her beloved Smile. This is the story of Raina and her little sister, Amara. Raina was desperate to have a little sister, but Amara is not working out the way she had pictured. Now Raina is stuck on a road trip with her sister, little brother and her mother. They are all stuck in a van traveling from San Francisco to Colorado for a family reunion. The relationship between the two sisters is tense, not only because they have very different personalities but also because they are both artists. Then you add in the clear issues of Raina’s parents and you have a dynamic view of a family on the brink of big changes. It’s just up to Raina and Amara as to how their relationship with one another will change.
Telgemeier has created another breathtakingly honest graphic novel for elementary and middle grade readers. Through her illustrations and humor, she shows a family at the crux of a moment that could change things forever. The book though focuses on flashbacks showing the family and how relationships have altered. Readers may be so focused on the story of the two sisters that they too will be blindsided along with Raina about the other issues facing their family. It’s a craftily told story, one that surprises and delights.
As always, Telgemeier’s art is fantastic. She has a light touch, one that invites readers into her world and her family and where they long to linger. Her art is always approachable and understandable, more about a vehicle to tell the story than about making an artistic statement on its own. It is warm, friendly and fantastic.
Highly recommended, this book belongs in every library that works with children. A dynamite sequel that lives up to the incredible first book. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel, Volume 1 by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell
The first volume in a two volume graphic version of the award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman, this book celebrates the original story as well as several top graphic artists, who each take a chapter in the tale. True to the written story, this graphic version has a wonderful creepy vibe and does not shy away from the horror elements. The story is brought vividly to life by this new format and also brings it to new readers who may not have read the written work.
Thanks to the signature illustration style of each of the artists, the book takes different views of the graveyard, the characters and the story. With each change in artist, there is a sense of refreshment and wonder anew. At the same time, the illustrators adhere to certain elements, so that Bod looks like the same character throughout the book as do other main characters. The various ghosts glow on the page, Silas is a gaunt dark figure who commands attention, and Bod himself is a luminous child that is the center of the story both visually and thematically.
Beautifully and powerfully illustrated, this new version of the book is a masterpiece. Readers will wait eagerly for Volume Two. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
This graphic novel is haunted by authors like Neil Gaiman and the Brother Grimm. The tales here are gruesome in the best possible way, frightening and oozy and delightful. Our Neighbor’s House is a strange tale of a family that disappears one by one into the frigid snow following a man in a wide-brimmed hat until there is only one girl left. A Lady’s Hands Are Cold tells of a women married into a loveless marriage who begins to hear voices calling from the walls and floors of the house. His Face All Red is a story of murder and the undead. My Friend Janna tells of what happens when fakery of the occult becomes real and dangerous. The Nesting Place will have your skin crawling, or perhaps it’s what lurks behind your skin. Each story is a gem, strange and beautiful and entirely horrific.
Carroll does both the stories and the art here and they are married together so closely that they could not be extricated. Though they are all clearly done by one person, the art changes from one to the next, definitively showing that you are entering a different place with different people. There are old stories with coaches, horses and corsets as well as more modern tales too.
Yet though they are clearly different, you start each one with that unease in your stomach that Carroll seems to be able to generate through her use of colors and the way that her characters gaze from the page. Something is wrong in each of the stories and you can’t finish until you figure out exactly what it is. The effect is haunting, haunted and wildly exhilarating.
A true delight of a read, this graphic novel for teens is completely disturbing and filled with horror. In other words, it’s perfection for horror fans. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from McElderry Books.