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 its 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 multi-cultural. 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
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)

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  • Robin B.

    | She/Her Teen Librarian, Public Library of Brookline

    Editor in Chief

    Robin E. Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. She has chaired the American Library Association Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List Committee, the Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee, and served on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She is currently the President of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table for ALA. She was a judge for the 2007 Eisner awards, helped judge the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards in 2011, and contributes to the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. She regularly gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime at comics conventions including New York and San Diego Comic-Con and at the American Library Association’s conferences. Her guide, Understanding Manga and Anime (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), was nominated for a 2008 Eisner Award.

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