Bullying. Puberty. Peer pressure. Surviving middle school is not easy, but the latest from writer Louise Simonson and illustrator Sumin Cho sheds some light on how to get through all the drama.

Told in short-story format, Junior High Drama: A Graphic Novel, features the trials and tribulations of four Memorial Middle School students. From mean girls, gossip, and peer pressure to chronic illness, self-esteem, and romantic relationships, tween readers will find plenty they can relate to.

While the content may be familiar territory, what makes the book stand out is its innovative approach to storytelling. At the end of each vignette, the co-creators include an informational section cleverly presented as a mock magazine cover and interview insert. Both offer facts about the issues highlighted within the previous story, as well as inspirational quotes and advice for tweens and parents. A list of resources, such as the Suicide Prevention Hotline, also makes it a great addition to any library’s juvenile section.

Additional stand out features include the back matter, which revisits all the characters through a special school newspaper edition featuring the different clubs and activities that populate the book. It’s also a subtle but effective way to encourage tweens to get involved with healthy social outlets that reflect their interests. Whether it’s anime, theater, sports, gardening, or books, the key to surviving the drama is self-acceptance and a support team who accepts you for you.

The warm and engaging illustrations, done in soft pastels, complement the text while also providing more detail. Through the images, we learn about the characters’ inner emotions, desires, and insecurities. In one telling scene, Cho deftly conveys the motivation behind Kamilla’s reluctance to participate in the school musical by portraying her as a tutu-clad elephant on display for all to ridicule. Specific techniques, such as the fishbowl effect, also parallel the storyline by warping the frame much as body dysmorphia warps self-perception.

The illustrations also create expressive characters that pull readers in through the subtle angling of an eyebrow, curve to the lip, or wink of an eye. Cho goes beyond what the text provides to create a diverse student body comprised of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. She also represents a variety of family structures, which range from two-parent to single-parent to multicultural. The result is an engaging cast of characters who appear throughout the book. Observant readers will enjoy spotting previous characters in the background of subsequent stories.

Interestingly, all the protagonists are female, which left me with mixed emotions. On one hand, I am a strong proponent of girl power, but on the other hand, the addition of a few male characters may have been a more inclusive approach to covering challenges that all tweens face.

The story’s somewhat didactic tone also may run the risk of turning some readers away. Each chapter hammers home a specific lesson or moral, and the simplistic way in which problems quickly resolve themselves by story’s end does not quite ring true. Life, unfortunately, is not always so cut and dry.

Overall, the graphic novel is a fun read that contains a lot of meaty content most suitable for ages 8 to 11. Simonson explores age-old issues tweens can relate to, while the inclusion of social media, texting, and mobile phones keeps the story current. I also commend her for the positive role parental figures play in the characters’ lives. As sources of love, support, and stability, they may border on the overbearing at times, but the main takeaway here is to keep communication channels open.

Junior High Drama: A Graphic Novel
By Louise Simonson
Art by Sumin Cho
ISBN: 9781496547125
Stone Arch Books/Capstone, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 8-11

  • Johanna

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Johanna Nelson is a full-time graduate student pursuing her MLIS at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Through her studies, she discovered a love for the graphic novel format thanks to the likes of Raina Telgemeier and Art Spiegelman. While the two may seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, both masterfully combine narrative and picture to create a compelling, rich story greater than the parts alone. As an aspiring school librarian, who will soon be on the path to teacher greatness through dual certification in education and library media specialization, Johanna also loves to explore the seemingly endless possibilities graphic novels hold when it comes to teaching and building literacy skills, helping English language learners, reaching out to reluctant readers and matching each and every kiddo with just the right book thanks to the wide range of subject matter available in this format. Prior to leading the “glamorous” life of a toiling student, Johanna served as features editor for a cheese and dairy trade newspaper that helped to cultivate her writing skills as well as her love for deliciously unique artisan cheeses – triple cream anyone? She also has held several library positions including page and library specialist in the children’s department of a public library. In her free time, she enjoys embracing her inner nerd through watching Jeopardy!, doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles, bird watching, hiking, sketching, and of course, reading whatever she can get her hands on.

Liked it? Take a second to support us on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!