This set of reviews includes graphic novels for older readers, younger readers, and those somewhere in between. I’m officially against categorizing books by age, but this set has such a wide range that I’m organizing it roughly by age appeal with the hope that you can find what you’re most interested in clustered together here.
Thanks to the generous publishers of these books for providing me with review copies in exchange for my honest opinions.
Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin Who Ignited World War I by Henrik Rehr
Henrik Rehr’s Terrorist is a brave graphic novel, newly published in the US. In a time when “terrorist” conjures up nothing positive, Rehr gives us the story of Gavrilo Princip, the self-described terrorist whose assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand touched off World War I. Rehr never asks readers to condone the actions or sympathize with the emotions of Princip and his associates, just as we are never required to condemn them. We are simply asked to see and understand how the mind of a terrorist works, and then we are free to apply our own ethical rubrics to the documentary we’ve been presented. If Rehr has a political agenda in this book, it was not obvious to me. I can easily see how rich discussions can emanate from this book, and I can easily think of a dozen students who would find this book fascinating.
The black-and-white artwork is dramatic, almost resembling etching in places. Although some of the characters are hard to distinguish, the overall visual effects are compelling. The political discussions weigh down the narrative in places, but Rehr creates a suspenseful plot as he alternates between the activities of Princip and the Archduke as they move toward the moment of the murder.
Terrorist is a worthwhile addition to middle school and high school classrooms and libraries.
Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash
In this graphic-novel memoir, 14-year old Maggie finds herself at an all-girls summer camp transitioning from a celebrity crush on Backstreet Boys singer Kevin Richardson to a very real crush on Erin, one of the camp’s counselors. What I love about Honor Girl is its authenticity. Complex emotions are rendered accessible without simplifying them. Maggie isn’t trying to be a lesbian, or really anything other than a person figuring out what her emotions mean. And imagine doing that while surrounded 24 hours a day by teenage girls and only teenage girls. I’m crossing over into cliché here, I know, but author Maggie Thrash had me living her life while reading Honor Girl.
Thrash made all the right choices as she created this book. The free-form artwork is a perfect way to convey this story as it seems like how a 14-year might doodle her way through memories. The colors are slightly muted but not somber, which also reinforced the life-like quality of Honor Girl. Thrash also gives us several catchy uses of panels, sound effects, and perspective.
I hope Honor Girl finds its way into the hands of many readers. Although clearly appropriate and important for high school classrooms and libraries, those choosing books for younger readers should be aware of several instances of profanity. Thanks to Candlewick Press for so consistently producing such high-quality works of literature for young readers.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
The Sculptor is a powerful and interesting graphic novel, and it is a novel. David Smith is a twenty-something sculptor who is at loose ends artistically, financially, and emotionally. He makes a Faustian deal and, sure enough, things begin to swing his way. Author Scott McCloud creates fantastic sculptures that leap from the pages in ways that transcend the possibilities of actual sculpture.
The interplay between life and art is a primary theme in The Sculptor, and the plot is suspenseful and well-paced. The best audience for this book is probably comics fans interested in what it means to have an artistic life. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the “kid appeal” of this one is all that strong, although I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
Manga Classics: The Scarlet Letter by Stacy King
I’ve always taught Nathaniel Hawthorne through a selection of his stories rather than investing class time in his longer works. Hawthorne’s themes emerge clearly in the shorter works and students experience the flavor of early American Romantic writing through lessons that take one day rather than the extended time required to teach a novel. Now along comes this Manga Classics edition from Udon Entertainment that reinforces those themes so critical to understanding Hawthorne and early America: hypocrisy, sin, isolation, etc.
At first I was a little put off by the idea of rendering Hester Prynne as a doll-faced manga character. But you know what? It works. Hester is an imperfect older adolescent set upon by those who surround her. Reverend Dimmesdale is also presented as only slightly older than an adolescent, which also works. So these early American puritans have more in common with typical manga characters than one might think.
The artwork conveys the central story line very well, although some Hawthorne threads have been condensed or taken out. The emotions come through clearly, although I was distracted by the blank backgrounds in many of the panels. The best manga is intricately detailed, and this comic falls short in that area.
This manga version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is well worth adding to libraries and classrooms.
Oyster War by Ben Towle
Pirates are rapidly depleting the oyster supply along the Eastern seaboard in the years after the Civil War. Civic leaders call in Commander Davidson Bulloch, a blustery submarine officer fond of spouting inspirational quotes although with at least one mangled word. Bulloch agrees to assemble a crew and go to war against Treacher Fink and his band of oyster pirates in Oyster War, a grand adventure that looks and feels like a throwback to the comic adventures of the 1930s.
Bulloch’s colorful sailors and Fink’s motley crew are wildly entertaining as they go to battle in a plot that is both complex and easily understood. Throw in a dash of historical accuracy and splashes of mysterious maritime legends, and you have a completely satisfying graphic novel that I didn’t want to end.
Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks
Human Body Theater is a thorough explanation of bodily organs, systems, and functions, with a few common maladies thrown in along the way, all delivered in graphics form. The “theater” is hosted by a goofy skeleton who makes appearances at just the right moments when the science starts getting a little dense. The kid appeal of this is probably pretty good if it’s delivered or used in small doses–for example, one bodily system at a time–but only the rare youngster would navigate through the entire book from start to finish. Still, Human Body Theater is a unique achievement in the graphics platform, recommended for homes, schools, and libraries.
Jim’s Lion by Russell Hoban
This is an affecting story of a hospitalized young boy whose dream life gives him the courage to face his waking life. The illustrations take readers into Jim’s dreams and provide perspectives on his emotional state.
Oddly Normal Vol. 1 by Otis Frampton
In an ultra-lite version of Harry Potter, we have Oddly Normal, the daughter of a witch and a human. Because her parents are currently out of commission, she is sent to a school located in a dimension slightly out of sync with the reality we know. There she is looked after by an off-kilter aunt and taunted by those who deem themselves superior.
The story of Oddly Normal is easy to follow, and the drawings are crisp and interesting. Although there are some shortcuts in the coloring, the visual appeal is still strong. Currently there are ten volumes in this saga, but Volume 1 ends with a cliffhanger which might be frustrating for readers without immediate access to the next book.
Oddly Normal is a breezy comic story that will appeal to young readers who want a little adventure mixed with some fantasy elements.
Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang
Secret Coders breaks some new cartoon territory as Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes make the process of coding visually comprehensible. The characters are clever and appealing, and the plot has just the right amount of mystery that doesn’t cross over into labyrinthine chaos. My only gripe is the to-be-continued ending. This episode could have been resolved fairly easily, and I think readers deserve some measure of resolution.
The Misadventures of Salem Hyde: Dinosaur Dilemma by Frank Cammuso
The Misadventures of Salem Hyde is a good series for young readers. With three or four large panels per page and a funny one-liner every couple of pages, the Salem Hyde books are just right for those fans of Babymouse or Lunch Lady. Salem reminds me of Dennis the Menace, but he has some magical powers, which I don’t fully understand.
“Dinosaur Dilemma” involves Salem wanting a pet and needing to do a science project. (Who dislikes science projects more–students or parents?) Salem ends up with a dinosaur egg, and that’s all I’ll say about the plot, except that the ending is exciting and completely satisfying.
If Salem Hyde books are in your elementary school libraries, I’m sure they will quickly become favorites.
March Grand Prix: The Fast and the Furriest by Kean Soo
March Grand Prix contains three little stories about animal race car drivers. The characters are physically distinct, and their expressions are clear, but they don’t really have much personality separating them from each other. The colors are appealing, and the action is easy to follow, but the backgrounds in each panel are plain and uninteresting. Although most of the language and situations are geared for younger readers, some of the technical information about the cars seems fairly sophisticated. The excitement of the races is accompanied by nice morals about family and friends, and the right young readers may find March Grand Prix interesting, but I’m not sure they will exactly hunger for more.
Ariol: Where’s Petula? by Emmanuel Guibert
Ariol: Where’s Petula? is the first book-length episode featuring Ariol, the little donkey with enormous glasses. In this tale, he is invited over to the home of Petula, the young cow who is his current crush. Their families make them both a little anxious, but it all ends well. Along the way, there is some discussion of mythology and rap. The activity in this funny, brightly-colored story is kind of frenzied, but that’s probably how things seem to Ariol.
Lights, Camera, Stilton! by Nanette McGuinness
This colorful Geronimo Stilton tale does a great job of sneaking in a little history with its adventure. All the familiar characters are here, although if this is a reader’s first exposure to the Geronimo Stilton books, plentiful background and character development are provided.
Although this story starts off at a concert given by the famous pop group “Top Direction,” most of it takes place in Paris as the Lumiere Brothers attempt to launch their movie-making enterprise. The Pirate Cats want to steal the Lumieres’ technology, but not if Geronimo and crew can help it!
“Lights, Camera, Stilton!” is likely to satisfy most young readers with its mix of humor (cheese puns galore) and suspense. Although it’s not as weighty, this little graphic novel might pair well with The Invention of Hugo Cabret as they both explore the origins of cinema.
Thanks for reading this! I hope it’s helpful. Your comments are always welcome.