What if going to school, making new friends, and even just the idea of having to participate in a group activity made you feel so awful you wanted to disappear? What if it was much more comfortable to talk to the one friend you do have through a screen and not in person? 

Eleven year-old Rena Villanueva, who has social anxiety disorder, knows exactly what that feels like. She’d much rather hang out in her room playing video games and chatting online with her best friend, Sidney. But her mom and her therapist have other ideas (and the ultimatums to go with them), which is how she ends up a real student at the totally fake-sounding Watsonville Ninja School, suddenly the center of an ancient prophecy.

As she trains to become “The Ghost” with ninja master Dysart and her mom spends all her time creating a super advanced AI, Rena learns that things aren’t always what they seem, and that maybe she’s capable of more than she thinks.

Another girl capable of more than she thinks is Adara Sanchez, creator of Shy Ninja and teenage daughter of writer Ricardo Sanchez. In the graphic novel’s forward, readers will enjoy learning about how the original idea for the story came from a young teen riding in the back of her dad’s car on the way to San Diego Comic Con. Even better? The fact that none of Ricardo’s ideas were good enough for the editors he pitched them to, but Adara’s was (and yes, he immediately gave her credit after pitching it). It’s a sweet account of a father and daughter team working together to take a graphic novel from idea to page.

The Sanchez duo’s portrayal of Rena’s desire to stay in her safe bubble of video games and minimal social interactions where she can be her regular energetic, engaging self feels realistic and genuine, and the discomfort she feels when pressed by her therapist to push herself outside those boundaries feels truthful to the behavioral therapy experience, especially in treatment of anxiety disorders. Additionally, the juxtaposition between her friend Sidney’s unspecified physical medical condition that forces him to stay inside alone in an actual bubble and Rena’s wish to do the same for her mental health presents conflict between the two BFFs in a “grass is greener” way that will be relatable to kids and tweens dealing with their own mental health struggles.

On the topic of representation, for a story with some focus on ninja lore there seems to be very little Japanese representation outside of the historical stories Rena learns about. But there is some racial diversity in our central characters, as best friend Sidney is Black, and Rena herself is coded as Latinx, given her last name and her tan skin. 

And of course, Shy Ninja wouldn’t be the same without Arianna Florean’s vividly colored illustrations bringing an animated feel, absolutely perfect for showcasing the fast-paced action of Rena’s ninjutsu skills and daring missions. Florean’s emphasis on lively, exaggerated facial expressions add to the cartoony vibe, inviting readers to dive into a book that’s just a blast to look at as well as read.

It’s refreshing to see an uptick in middle grade content with mental illness representation as of late, and Shy Ninja does it well, creatively combining realism with chosen one prophecy tropes and adventure in its portrayal of social anxiety disorder. It would be a welcome addition to any library’s middle grade/tween collection, especially where slice of life stories featuring unsuspecting girls who are ready to maybe kick a little butt are popular.

Shy Ninja Vol.
By Adara Sanchez, Ricardo Sanchez,  ,
Art by  Arianna Florean
Humanoids Big, 2021
ISBN: 9781643378633

Publisher Age Rating: 8+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation:  Latinx
Character Representation: Latinx,  Anxiety

  • Maddi

    Reviewer

    Youth Services Librarian | she/her

    Maddi is a Youth Services Librarian at the Charlotte & William Bloomberg Medford Public Library in Massachusetts, where she runs the library’s GSA for teens in grades 6-9, two graphic novel book clubs (one for teens and one for 4th and 5th graders), drawing classes for kids and teens, storytimes, and more. She is also responsible for collection development for the teen graphic novel collection, where (in alignment with the rest of the coworkers in her department) she makes it her mission to amplify queer, BIPOC, neurodivergent, and disabled voices. When she’s not at the library, you’ll likely find her: singing in two queer choirs, drawing or hand lettering something, curled up with a book, or spending time with her girlfriend and friends. Maddi runs the MPL GSA Tumblr at mplchameleon, and tweets bookish things at @littlebrarian.

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