Don’t let its cute manga-inspired art fool you. Matchmaker, the queer slice-of-life comic book by Cam Marshall, addresses plenty of serious topics in its compact print volume, such as: staying safe during the Covid-19 pandemic; the stress of being unemployed or underemployed in a capitalist society; work life balance; and asserting and affirming sexual and gender identities.
In six chapters, the book reveals the lives of three young friends struggling through life and searching for romance, with fully realized side characters to round out the story. Transgender, nonbinary lesbian Kimmy attempts to set up gay cisgender Mason with the perfect guy. Meanwhile, Kimmy develops feelings for their mutual friend Marlowe. The relationships unfold at a natural pace while the reader waits to find out if Kimmy’s matchmaking will succeed. Romance is the core of the plot but subplots such as artist Marlowe’s wrist injury; animator Mason’s desperate search for decent paid work; the friends’ thorough efforts to protect immunocompromised Mason from Covid while others remain lax; and Mason’s sister Sam’s questioning of sexual identity balance out what would otherwise be a one-dimensional story.
Marshall’s art is in black, white, and gray. It is arranged in panels with full page artwork at the beginning of each chapter. The dialogue and images fit neatly within the panels and each enhances the other, especially in terms of humor which is depicted textually and pictorially. Exaggerated facial expressions and well-placed onomatopoeia give a fun, goofy vibe to the story. Picture a winking Marlowe handing a receipt with her phone number on it to love-struck Kimmy with a BAM! while Kimmy’s eyes spiral in a classic “knocked out” expression (151). The print book is about 5.5 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide, an unusual size for an adult section book. But it’s conveniently portable and surprisingly, the art and text are not negatively impacted.
The youthful sense of humor, timely existential woes, and art style of Matchmaker will mostly appeal to folks in the mid 20s to mid 30s age range. Recommend this charming book to fans of slice-of-life stories such as Giant Days or Wet Moon.
Matchmaker By Cam Marshall Silver Sprocket, 2023 ISBN: 9798886200294
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Nonbinary , Character Representation: Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Nonbinary, Trans, Depression
Juniper and Hadley are good friends living in Larkspur, a town of fantastical people where horns, gills, and vibrant skin colors are commonplace. Juniper is an apprentice baker, while Hadley is a musician hungry for adventure. After a bakery customer requests an unusual pastry, the two friends volunteer to gather ingredients in the nearby forest. On this errand, they learn that a mystery creature is eating local crops, and they decide to investigate. Soon, Juniper and Hadley are meeting unusual creatures, making discoveries about themselves, and helping to mediate between the townsfolk and a magical new friend.
This is a gentle story full of well-intentioned characters. There are no villains, only misunderstandings, and no one gets hurt. In addition to the main plot, which involves respecting nature and animal habitats, there is an emotional arc in which Hadley becomes more comfortable with their nonbinary identity and Hadley and Juniper finally acknowledge their mutual crush and get together as a couple.
In addition to having no violence, this book has no sexual content beyond a quick kiss. There is a little discussion of gender: Hadley feels insecure about their nonbinary identity, and is reassured by a conversation with a fey who explains that most fey “don’t really relate to gender at all… a rigid binary like that doesn’t exist for us.” The publisher recommends the book for ages 12 and up, but I think it would be perfectly appropriate for kids a few years younger as well.
The art is straightforward and character-focused, with simple backgrounds and sparse detail. The color palette is soft, leaning heavily on earth tones, especially in the settings. The page layouts vary: there are many full-page images, especially when magic is involved or a new location is introduced, but other pages are divided into anywhere from two to six borderless panels. The art matches the relaxed pace and gentle feel of the story, making for an easy, comfortable read.
There is some bonus material at the end of the book; a rough recipe for the mushroom galettes that sent Juniper and Hadley into the forest for ingredients, and some character sketches of the two protagonists. The author’s bio reveals that Fern Haught is nonbinary like Hadley and works in a bakery like Juniper.
Cozy fantasy has been gaining popularity recently, and this book is a great example of that genre. Hand it to fans of The Tea Dragon Society and other readers who like their adventures sweet and not scary.
The Baker and the Bard A Cozy Fantasy Adventure By Fern Haught Feiwel and Friends, 2024 ISBN: 9781250828507
Publisher Age Rating: 12 and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Nonbinary , Character Representation: Nonbinary,
Magnus, Zoey, Pickles, and Tonka are four doggy pals who are playing their first game of Dungeons & Dragons. They’ve made their characters: Zoey plays a thoughtful cleric, Pickles a swaggering fighter, and Tonka a playful bard. As game master, Magnus sets the scene and plays all the other characters, like villains and townsfolk.
The adventure is off to a great start. After retrieving a lost magical collar, they are the toast of the town of Tail’s Bend. (The town is, of course, also populated with dogs, so they toast with hot dog water.) But Tail’s Bend has another problem: all the squeaky toys in town have disappeared, and the mayor’s son Squish—who is just a puppy—has run off to look for them. Sounds like a job for the DnDoggos! With the real-life players rolling dice, getting creative, and taking plenty of snack breaks, their characters brave a creepy forest, magical monsters, and a doggy gang that is up to no good.
This cute, funny story doesn’t require readers to understand Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, the players in the book are new to the game, so Magnus sometimes gives a brief, beginner-friendly explanation of how something works. Readers who are familiar with D&D, however, will get an extra kick out of some jokes, like the fact that the players keep asking random villagers their names, forcing Magnus to scramble to name them.
Because D&D includes combat, there are a few battle scenes in the in-game portion of this book. They are totally bloodless, and often a bit silly, with the only harm done to a couple of supernatural monsters. There is never a real sense that any dogs might get seriously hurt. (And if they get a little hurt, well, that’s what the cleric is for.)
The art is colorful and active. Each of the DnDoggos looks similar to the dog playing them, but the fantasy world and its characters are far more detailed than the players at their gaming table. This makes it easy to remember which character goes with which player, but also easy to tell whether a given panel is set inside or outside the game. It also helps that the DnDoggos are outfitted as adventurers, dressed in medieval tunics, cloaks, armor, and such, while the doggy players do not wear clothes. There is lots of variety in the page layouts, with regular panels interspersed with borderless panels that spill across whole sections of the page, giving a sense of uncontained exuberance and movement.
Silly jokes abound, both in the fantasy world and at the gaming table. Some of the humor is based on the characters and their personalities—Tonka plays a bard with a magic kazoo, Pickles has very little tact, and Zoey can’t lie even to the bad guys—while some is about D&D or about dogs. The jokes keep things light, which works well given the overall feeling of friends having fun together, inside and outside the game.
This is a fun, silly romp with cute dogs and an accessible introduction to what a session of Dungeons & Dragons looks like. Hand it to anyone with an interest in D&D, whether or not they have played before.
DnDoggos vol. 1: Get the Party Started By Scout Underhill Art by Scout Underhill Feiwel and Friends, 2024 ISBN: 9781250834348
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12 NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Queer, Nonbinary
Soothe your spirit with Melanie Gillman’s (they/them) lovingly rendered Other Ever Afters: New Queer Fairy Tales. I first became acquainted with artist and author Gillman with their webcomic-turned-print series As the Crow Flies. I was enchanted by their colored pencil artwork and queer-themed storytelling. They channeled those same elements into this collection of seven original fairy tales, complete with table of contents, introduction, and conclusion.
The stories spotlight LGBTQIA+ characters with a total emphasis on women and nonbinary/transgender protagonists (frequently not specified). Main characters are people of color in 4 of the 7 stories. Instead of tired fantasy tropes, Gillman offers themes such as agency, community, acceptance, romance, and self-reflection, all wrapped up with queerness. The tales still have all the furnishings of the fantasy genre—knights, princesses, magical creatures, quests—with a new, refreshing flavor. The stories are all so strong that I can’t pick a favorite. Maybe “Goose Girl,” in which a princess learns important lessons from the titular peasant and does the unexpected; or possibly “Sweet Rock,” in which we find out what happens to the girls who are annually sacrificed to the giantess. Another contender for favorite story is “The Fish Wife,” where a mermaid and a plain, lonely woman fall in love and make sacrifices for each other.
Gillman’s art is soft, rich, and colorful. They convey emotion and detail beautifully without overwhelming the reader with minutiae. The large, clear lettering is easy to read. The immersive nature scenes are exactly what you’d imagine a fantasy setting to look like. The artwork and story mesh together perfectly. Aspiring artists, take note.
This gentle and cozy collection fits in with the current boom of queer-centered modern fantasy books (think The Prince and the Dressmaker;The Deep & DarkBlue;The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich;Magical Boy). Add it to your library’s young adult comics collection. This book definitely deserves a spot on your shelf.
Other Ever Afters New Queer Fairy Tales By Melanie Gillman Penguin Random House Graphic, 2022 ISBN: 9780593303184
Publisher Age Rating: 12-17 NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Queer, Nonbinary Character Representation: Lesbian, Queer, Nonbinary, Trans
Most people have awkward phases growing up. These phases might manifest as feeling like a body you’ve lived in all your life has become something totally unrecognizable or the upending of your worldview as what you thought you knew about the world and yourself is suddenly proven wrong. Creator Sarah Myer knows about awkwardness, having been born in South Korea, was adopted by a white couple, and grew up in a rural community where she didn’t see a lot of people who looked like her. She literally illustrates these feelings of not fitting in, along with her evolving sexuality, in her autobiographical graphic novel Monstrous: A Transracial Adoption Story.
Sarah Myer’s work isn’t so much about an awkward period in one’s life as it is about an awkward existence. People in her small town make unfair assumptions about her, many of them born from stereotypes. Unlike her adopted sister who seems to have no trouble fitting in, Sarah has always felt like an outsider. Art, as well as a love of anime, gives her an outlet and a way to connect with people, but she still has bouts of anger when she feels slighted. When Sarah acts out on these impulses, she feels like even more of an outsider.
Myer’s depiction of her childhood and adolescence is surprisingly raw and unflinching. Most would expect an autobiography to be more flattering to its subject, but Myer is willing to show all her flaws, such as an obsession with anime that sometimes alienates people and her tendency to angrily lash out at others. Rather than looking at her past through rose-colored glasses, Myer puts her past under a microscope for the reader while not alienating them. Though she reveals in great detail her feelings of not belonging, Myer presents her life’s experiences and discovering her sexuality in a way that’s relatable for people who also made emotionally painful but ultimately necessary discoveries about themselves.
One of the great aspects of the graphic novel medium is its ability to inject fantastic images into real-life stories through symbolism. The monstrous feelings of anger and isolation Myer feels manifests as something truly monstrous, a thing with sharp teeth and gleaming, reptilian eyes. When she finally confronts this monster, Myer showcases her love of anime with a battle worthy of Power Rangers or Ultraman. Myer also displays a deft touch with facial expressions to show those in her life expressing a range of emotions that isn’t often seen in a straight-up action title.
Those who might enjoy Monstrous, or those who might get the most benefit from it, are teens and adults coming to terms with who they are, whether it’s their bodies, their sexuality, or their own place in the world. The book ends on a high note that helps people who have at one time or another felt more than a little monstrous. It gives them hope.
Monstrous: A Transracial Adoption Story By Sarah Myer Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250268792
Publisher Age Rating: grade 10-12 NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Batcat, a roly-poly, plump, and pink creature with no tail, pointed ears, and magenta bat wings, lives in a tree house and they are just fine all by themselves, playing video games, eating fast food, and watching the stars. Alone. Just the way they like it.
Then, one day, a ghost shows up. Batcat is shocked, annoyed, and extremely displeased, so they travel to the friendly neighborhood witch for a solution. From there they set out on a quest for ingredients for a potion that will solve all their problems. It turns out to be a difficult and miserable journey, especially when Batcat encounters bats and cats, neither of whom are willing to accept them. Exhausted mentally and physically, Batcat makes it back to the witch with the ingredients, only to be faced with the challenge of deciding exactly what they want to do with the ghost in their house and their life.
Ramm’s goofy cartoon art sends grumpy Batcat fluttering through caves, with a host of purple-black bats who don’t find Batcat quite batty enough, through a cemetery of selfish cats who definitely do not think Batcat is catty enough, and through encounters with skeletons, griffins, and other magical creatures. Along the way there is confetti, explosions, and longings for fast food, jokes, hijinks, and lots of pink, purple, and turquoise puffy art.
Meggie Ramm, who uses they/them pronouns like their creation, which was built from short cartoons they drew for elementary kids during comic classes, makes a central point of Batcat’s duality. They are frustrated and hurt by the bats and cats who insist they be one thing or the other and not their own, unique amalgam of both bat and cat. In the end, Batcat develops empathy for the ghost (whom they have been thinking of as merely obnoxious) and realizes they too might have different sides to their character. It’s difficult to fit a lot of emotional nuance into a short comic book for kids, but I was frustrated that Batcat at no point tried to communicate with the ghost about their feelings, even when they returned, they just suddenly accepted them as a roommate. I think a lot of early elementary books, especially those that push heavily on the “odd couple” friends trope like Frog and Toad, are guilty of one-sided relationships like this and don’t really teach kids that it’s ok to be an introvert, want to be alone, or not be friends with someone who annoys and bothers you. This is definitely an adult perspective, and a somewhat personal one, but it definitely threw me out of the story and made me disappointed with the ending.
Despite my own objections, this is a cute story, specifically encouraging young readers who may feel they don’t fit any single mold, and encouraging everyone to see things from other perspectives. This will be popular with fans of Yi’s Cat & Cat and stories of cheerful grumps like Cranky Chicken, and makes a nice addition to early elementary graphic novel collections.
Batcat By Meggie Ramm Abrams Amulet, 2023 ISBN: 9781419756573
Publisher Age Rating: 6-9
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Nonbinary Character Representation: Nonbinary
A mage awakens in a mysterious field surrounded by sweeping landscapes and crumbling relics. His purpose unknown, he embarks on a journey with stunning magic in tow, meeting a faithful companion or two along the way. Though this is the set up for many a fanciful tale, the mage soon realizes that this world is not kind to wanton adventurers. There are monsters with abyssal maws that can swallow beings whole, creatures that maul and mutilate for their own cryptic ends, and a corrupted force that seeks to end the mage’s wanderings permanently. Death and carnage rule this land, thrusting unrelenting horror and pain onto the mage at every opportunity. It will take all of the mage’s magic, strength, and perseverance to abate the darkness, but seldom does one attempt such a feat and come out unscathed.
Mage and the Endless Unknown delivers a horror fantasy both memorable and unnerving, its mysteries culminating in a narrative readers will want to revisit more than once to see if they can truly decipher them all. The story is conveyed mostly through images without much clarifying text. As a result, an ominous silence follows our protagonists, encouraging a sense of unease as they encounter peril after peril. Readers looking for a story with a clearly defined plot and explanations for its more abstract elements may be somewhat disappointed, but Miller still creates a sort of dreamlike cohesion during its progression. The reader shares the mage’s lack of knowledge about this strange place, which instills a greater sense of empathy for him as he meets creatures that become more frightening and deadly as the journey continues.
Ultimately, the graphic novel’s aloof and ambiguous tone makes it rife with interpretation, leaving the reader with the task of deciding what it means to them. Though Miller gives some context towards the story’s end, there are still questions one may have towards its meaning and purpose. For me, the process almost became somewhat existential, thinking about certain themes like the pains that inevitably come from living, the weight of trauma and fighting to survive, about how, through all of that suffering, one can still achieve a sense of peace and rest. Despite the constant darkness the mage faces, there is a light of hope at the end, one that reassures and soothes old wounds. Mage and the Endless Unknown has a good amount of layers to it, some of them terrifying, some of them uncomfortable, even some wondrous, but at its core there is something that encourages reflection, whether regarding the mage’s tale or our own.
With an art style that incorporates influences from manga and Western comics, Miller exhibits a great knack for illustrating the uncanny and grotesque. The creatures are drawn with such rigid, realistic detail, providing a stark contrast to our more rounded, charming, and cartoonish-looking mage. Some of their designs defy explanation other than as eldritch-inspired horrors, one sporting a long, wormlike body and tendrils made to literally get under your skin, another a large flying beast with a single gazing eye and a leechlike mouth, the opening of which taking up an entire page. Their designs and presentation have a Junji Ito-esque aesthetic about them, mainly in their bold outlining and how startling they come across when one’s guard is down. While these monstrosities are abundant throughout the graphic novel, Miller balances their presence with a natural world that appears genuinely captivating. Dark forests may appear intimidating with trees that loom and close in all around, but also include gentle waterfalls that house ethereal jellyfish creatures that seem more benign than some of its other residents. Giant mushrooms provide a safe napping space for the mage, while lush, intricate flowers are a source of small comfort. Here, beauty thrives even among such malevolence, which could either be a small reassurance or an opportunity to garner a false sense of security. The backgrounds, with all their enigmatic structures and ruins, hold more secrets of this world, prompting readers to spend time to soak in each page rather than rushing through to get to the next one.
Mage and the Endless Unknown will likely appeal to those interested in a manga-like style combined with darker elements and a vague mode of storytelling. There is a good amount of disturbing imagery in this comic, coming from its inclusion of body horror, gore, and violence, so this title will fare better with an older audience. The publisher has designated the comic as a Teen/Young Adult title, which I believe is apt considering its content. Librarians and educators looking for original graphic novels with unique presentations, memorable visuals, and an engaging mystery should consider purchasing this title.
Mage and the Endless Unknown By SJ Miller Iron Circus, 2023 ISBN: 9781638991199
Publisher Age Rating: Teen/Young Adult NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Nonbinary
Love comes in all shapes and sizes, whether it’s between adventurous pirates, burgeoning demon hunters, smooth spies, or even your average couple trying to make it all work. Young Men in Love, edited by Joe Glass and Matt Miner, showcases all these relationships and more, containing twenty stories from queer creators devoted to exploring the romantic hurdles and queer joy of male/masculine couples. This graphic novel boasts a variety of genres: fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal romance, contemporary slice of life, etc., ensuring that each reader will be able to find at least a story or two to enjoy.
Typical of most anthologies, not every story is going to be as hard hitting as the next one. With an average length of four to eight pages, there are some that struggle to break beyond their concept, leaving the reader more with an idea rather than a fleshed out narrative. The majority of contributors, however, manage to pace their stories so that, though we may not spend much time with these characters, they still leave a great amount of impact. Despite the varying appeal of each story, there is an admirable amount of honesty, vulnerability, and love interwoven within them all. An immense sense of pride lives in these pages that comes from an unwavering self-acceptance and the ability to love openly without shame or fear. Moments of loneliness, depression, and doubt play roles in multiple stories, but they always come around to love in the end, whether it comes from a partner or within themselves.
Given the graphic novel’s notable range in terms of content and themes, there are several stories that display aspects of queerness that are rarely discussed in the community. Ned Barnett and Ian Bisbal’s “Another Name” deals with a trans man realizing his identity and coming out to his partner in what was once a heterosexual relationship, highlighting the fears and anxiety that may come with such a discovery. “Act of Grace,” written by Anthony Oliveira and illustrated by Nick Robles, follows a teen expressing religious guilt to his priest, afraid of how his feelings for a boy may conflict with his Catholic upbringing. Editor Joe Glass, along with Auguste Kanakis, throw in a moving inclusion in “Love Yourself,” which has a character experience the fetishization of plus sized men in the community and how validation and love for someone comes from appreciating and celebrating the whole of them rather than a singular aspect. These are all facets to the queer experience that I have seen firsthand, but seldom are they reflected in media tailored to those they are meant to represent. Seeing these conflicts approached and resolved with such depth and respect allows the reader a touch of hope and comfort, even if they may not entirely relate to it.
Intent on including as many voices and experiences as possible, Young Men in Love also gives a tremendous amount of diverse representation in terms of ethnicity and body type. It shies away from solely depicting the stereotypical skinny, white, gay man, as there are several stories with black, brown, and plus-sized protagonists. What’s so refreshing about these depictions is that, aside from “Another Name” and “Love Yourself,” none of the stories make the characters’ backgrounds the focal point of their conflict. They exist as people foremost, without their identities being a source of added trauma.
As there is a separate artist accompanying each installment, there is a vast variety in art styles, ranging from charmingly cartoonish to engagingly realistic. I will forever throw praise onto Nick Robles, who puts so much life into his textures and instills a healthy dose of emotion and drama into “Act of Grace” through his use of lighting and character expressions. There is something Leyendecker-esque about his style where he captures the male form exceptionally well, making it the perfect fit for this collection. I also really appreciated the yellow tinge given to the palette and borders of Paul Allor and Lane Lloyd’s “The Way Home,” producing a nostalgic effect reminiscent of those old comics that had probably been left in the basement for too long. Overall, there is a vibrant rainbow of color throughout the graphic novel, as the reader is treated to vibrant pastels to moody, atmospheric shadows. Each story, as a result, becomes visually distinct and memorable, even if its content may not have lived up to the one that preceded it. None of the art in this graphic novel disappoints, which brings a certain coherence to all the differing perspectives within.
For fans of uplifting romantic stories with happy endings or layered depictions of queer experiences, Young Men in Love will hit that emotional, sappy spot in spades. As a romance comic, the content is fairly clean, with nothing going further than the occasional cuddle or kiss. The featured protagonists range from being young teens to full adults, so it may appeal most to readers fourteen and up. Librarians and educators looking to obtain graphic novels with positive and varied queer representation from queer creators should consider purchasing this title.
Young Men in Love Vol. By Joe Glass, Matt Miner A Wave Blue World, 2022 ISBN: 9781949518207
Publisher Age Rating: 13+ NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Black, Brazilian, British, Canadian, Greek, Latinx, Malaysian, Mexican-American, Bisexual, Gay, Queer, Nonbinary, Trans Character Representation: Black, British, East Asian, Latinx, Gay, Queer, Nonbinary, Trans, Catholic
Vi was supposed to enter Arden High with her twin brother, but then he decided to go off to boarding school. Now Vi is starting high school alone and she is not happy about it. Plus, at Arden High, humans like Vi attend alongside fairies, ghosts, and other magical creatures, so it’s disorienting, to say the least.
But it’s not all bad. Since she doesn’t have to wear a uniform, Vi can finally dress how she wants, in beanies and baggy clothes. She quickly makes friends with a group of quirky outsiders and even meets a cute poet-slash-influencer named Orsino. The only problem is, all of Vi’s new friends assume she’s not interested in guys. So even though she spends lots of time with Orsino, he only seems to think of her as a friend . . . and he wants her help to ask his crush, Olivia, to the Twelfth Grade Night dance. Which is extra awkward, because Olivia? Is into Vi.
Modern high school shenanigans (complete with mistaken identities on Instagram), supernatural creatures, tons of Shakespeare references, and a diverse cast combine in this sweet, spirited romantic comedy. Vi is struggling to figure things out while feeling abandoned by her twin, and it’s fun to watch her make friends and find a place for herself at Arden High. Meanwhile, the romantic misunderstandings and the antics of her new friends and the supporting cast—like the fairy royalty who semi-literally rule the school—make for a light-hearted romp with plenty of winks at anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s comedies.
Vi doesn’t quite know whether or not she likes girls, but she does like guys, regardless of the assumptions people might make based on her androgynous outfits. Olivia definitely likes girls, and plenty of people, male and female, are crushing on her. Vi’s twin is bisexual, as is one of her new friends. The nonchalance and playfulness around gender and orientation are refreshing and mesh well with the Shakespeare-inspired romantic mix-ups.
The art is colorful and active, with detailed and expressive characters taking the spotlight over the more minimal backgrounds. The lineart is relaxed, with a pencil-sketch look, but not rough or unfinished-looking. The colors vary with the scene and setting, and are often used to reinforce a mood (e.g. dappled greens and earth tones in the woods, stormy grays during a flashback to Vi’s father’s funeral, saturated pinks and purples at the Twelfth Grade Night dance). We also get plenty of manga-style sparkle effects, especially when someone interacts with their crush—which, given the plot of this book, happens a lot.
Despite the focus on romance, this book contains nothing steamier than a quick kiss. There is some deceit and pranking, but the pranksters end up feeling guilty and apologizing by the end. Vi is carrying sadness about being separated from her twin, and also about losing her father, but works through some of those feelings on the way to the sparkly happy ending.
This is an upbeat romp full of mischief and mix-ups but also friendship, family, and finding happiness. Hand it to fans of the Heartstopper series, books by ND Stevenson, and to any young reader looking for a sweet, inclusive rom-com.
Twelfth Grade Night, Vol. 1 By Molly Horton Booth, Stephanie Kate Strohm Art by Jamie Green Hyperion, 2022 ISBN: 9781368064651
Publisher Age Rating: 12-18 NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Nonbinary, Chronic Illness
High school is a time of transition. A time for coming of age. Relationships change. Both family and friends. Some end, others evolve, and new ones emerge. You begin to see yourself in a new light. It’s a time when many are suspended in limbo. For Deb JJ Lee, a Korean-American author and illustrator, their high school years were a time of tumultuous self-discovery. In Limbo is Lee’s graphic memoir chronicling the choppy waters of adolescent relationships and sense of self.
Lee struggles to find their place at home and at school. After emigrating from South Korea as a young child, they struggle with their identity and being other, not really Korean but not really American.
The memoir navigates relationships and emotion with great care and depth. After years of playing the violin, Lee comes to the realization that their passion is art, not music. The transition is difficult. Friends are in the orchestra and their parents invested so much time and money in lessons. This limbo between music and art is the theme throughout their freshman and sophomore year. And, as with the other themes of transition throughout the book, there are moments of dread and moments where the weight is lifted and Lee feels happiness or at least some peace. This is clearly communicated through the changing imagery in Lee’s illustrations. Their posture and facial expressions transition from feelings ranging from bored through sadness and loneliness to contentment if not happiness. During the lowest of lows, the panels fill with black smoke, drowning out everything else. But as they emerge from limbo with greater peace, the illustrations begin to shift as well. Rather than focusing on illustrations, Lee begins to find beauty in the details of every day. The pages turn into intricately drawn slice-of-life illustrations. But the peace is temporary, as they continue to navigate life transitions.
Lee’s story will be validating for many. Childhood friendships evolve and no longer seem to fit, and even new brighter friendships sometimes start to fade. These feelings are both devastating and almost universal for teenagers.
From the beginning it is also clear that the mother and child relationship is strained, another very personal and universal experience. However, as the memoir unfolds, it is clear that this mother is abusive, and that the strain in the relationship is far from universal. There are moments when the mother seems to begin to understand her child. When transitioning from music to art, Lee’s mother supports and encourages them, knowing that she must support what her child’s passions are, not what she wants them to be. However, that moment is more of an exception than a rule.
At one point in the memoir, Lee suggests that their mother avoided scrutiny from CPS because of “tiger mom” stereotypes of Asian mothers. Lee’s relationship with their family is complicated. Lee at times fears their mother, but at other times feels loved and supported. The dad is mostly sympathetic and warm but allows the abuse to continue. The complexity of the family dynamics unfold in the narrative as teenage Lee begins to unpack their trauma, a choice that invites the audience to acutely feel the betrayal.
The story will be validating for many. Lee is honest about their struggles and journey with relationships and mental health as a teen. There are no clear-cut solutions or fulfilling peace in the end, but there is therapy and the sense that they are on their way to self-acceptance.
In Limbo is not an easy book to read. The pace of this memoir is slow and deliberate. It focuses on Lee’s arc as a teen coming into themselves, rather than the events of their high school years. The content is also heavy. The book includes depression, abuse, and suicide attempts. However, for those who find their way to this memoir, it is a rewarding experience. I will highly recommend it to students who are fans of Tillie Walden, weighty memoirs, or anyone who needs reminding that the comic medium is a literary art form worthy of acclaim.
In Limbo By Deb JJ Lee Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250252661
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18 NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Korean-American, Nonbinary, Depression Character Representation: Korean-American, Depression