Elizabeth Rusch, best-known for her nonfiction, science-focused books, turns her hand to her first middle-grade graphic novel with a unique science twist.

Max’s parents are obsessed with cleanliness, which makes his life in muddy Marsh Creek a real pain. He can’t participate in the muddy baseball games, hang out with his kind-of-crush Irie, or do anything interesting. But then, after a stupendous muddy accident, Max makes a startling discovery: mud gives him super powers! At first, he’s thrilled with this discovery, and he and his best friend Patrick come up with some awesome experiments (not to mention a little revenge on the school bully). But everything isn’t muscles and super speed. What, or who, are his parents hiding in the swamp, and are his superpowers good or bad?

In addition to several scientific asides during the book, usually when Max and Patrick are doing research into his new powers, there is a “More to Explore” section at the back that delves into the science of dirt and includes experiments and even a cameo on a Spanish architect (yes, it’s relevant) as well as age processing and other science concepts referenced in the story.

Lawrence’s art is appropriately in earth tones: gray, black, white, and many, many different shades of brown. AMP! publishes a lot of newspaper strips and this graphic novel fits in well with that style; with a bold, clear layout, each individual panel is neatly drawn with minimal background but detailed characters and action, and broad gutters between each. The characters are clearly shown as unique, but there’s not a lot of emotion or personality to work with in this first story, and the art reflects that. The artist does a good job of illustrating the action and filling out the bones of the story, and there are lots of gooey mud scenes.

This first book in a series sets the scene for further adventures, introduces the main characters, and features a lot of scientific information smoothly woven into the plot. The art backs up the story well and fills out a little more emotion in the characters, who are rather one-sided in this introductory story. The “tomboy girl who might be a crush” and “smart, techie African-American friend” feels a little stereotyped and flat, but I expect to see them play more active roles in future installments. As an adult, I have to admit I found the sequence with the bully unrealistic and the parents’ behavior about their various secrets rather creepy, but I doubt that many kids will see it that way. Muddy Max is currently only available in paperback (or prebound through various services), but AMP!’s paperbacks tend to have a good shelf life, since they are not printed on the glossy paper that’s so quick to disintegrate in many comics collections.

This is sure to be a popular title with the middle-grade audience who likes humor, superheroes, science, or just a good story. It would work with both younger elementary students up through middle school.

Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek, volume 1
by Elizabeth Rusch
Art by Mike Lawrence
ISBN: 9781449435615
AMP!, 2014
Publisher Age Rating:7-12

  • Jennifer

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian, Matheson Memorial Library


    Jennifer Wharton is the Youth Services Librarian at Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn, Wisconsin where she maintains the juvenile and young adult graphic novel collections and was responsible for creating the library’s adult graphic novel collection. She is constantly looking for great new comics for kids and teens and new ways to incorporate graphic storytelling in programming. Jennifer blogs for preschool through middle grade at JeanLittleLibrary and has an MLS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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