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
Elle-Q has become a bona-fide pop sensation basically overnight, singing her way into the hearts of her fellow middle schoolers in her viral online videos. But behind the mask and flashy outfits, Elle-Q is hiding a big secret, one that would be sure to surprise the students at Rainham Middle School: she’s actually Mia Tabolt, their quiet, autistic classmate.
Bullied for years by popular girls Laura and Jess and the rest of their clique for her autism, Mia doesn’t feel like she can be herself at school. But when she’s with her best friend Charlie, she knows she doesn’t have to hide anything. Plus, they’re the person who’s been creating the awesome beats Elle-Q sings to!
When the chance to perform in a local talent show comes up, Charlie thinks it’s the perfect opportunity for Elle-Q to go live in person, but Mia is hesitant. Will her overprotective mother ever understand what she’s truly capable of? Will the bullies judge her for even trying? Will her friendship with Charlie survive her uncertainty? Mia’s got a lot of choices to make, and only she can decide if she’s going to stick with what she knows or break open the box the world seems determined to stick her in.
It’s so much fun to see an alter-ego story that centers an autistic character, especially one where the alter-ego isn’t fictional or imagined. Elle-Q isn’t just a character that Mia writes about, a version of herself who lives in a comic or in a game with a friend, or even just in her own imagination as a story-within-a-story. Instead, Elle-Q is a stage persona, which is something that’s incredibly common for lots of musicians and artists, even big name, well-known allistic (non-autistic) ones. In that respect, what Mia and Charlie have created is a tale as old as show business itself, even if the concept of Elle-Q did start as Mia’s idea for a Dungeons and Dragons character.
Purple-haired and bedazzled, Elle-Q is a loud, vibrant, boisterous version of Mia, the complete opposite of how she’s presented herself to everyone she knows her whole life. She’s a version of Mia who allows herself to be everything people around her judge her for or, in the case of her mother, actively try to make her suppress. Rebecca Burgess does not shy away from showing the detrimental effects of intent versus impact that often occur from the actions of overprotective parents of autistic children. While Mia’s mother may think she’s trying to shield Mia from a harsh world by trying to have her act and be more “normal” (in this case: neurotypical), she’s actually telling Mia that her natural instincts and even bodily functions, like stimming, are not acceptable, not even to her own mother. The effect this has on Mia’s self-esteem is not so different from the effects of Laura and Jess’ years of bullying, and while it’s hard to read, it’s unfortunately incredibly realistic for many neurodiverse youth.
Additionally, while realistic from the perspective of middle schoolers and how friendships are made, the redemption arc Laura receives (partially through being an Elle-Q superfan) could perhaps be approached with caution by young readers. While sometimes you do overcome your differences to find common ground and real connection, no one should ever feel pressure to befriend their former bullies, even when those bullies have worked to redeem themselves.
Through Burgess’ vividly delightful art, readers will feel the characters’ big emotions right along with them, especially when they use a manga-esque style to highlight overexaggerated facial expressions. Emotions are definitely a strength of Burgess’s; the panels depicting the internal and external sensations Mia experiences as she moves through the world as an autistic person are visceral; lightning bolts and dark clouds surround her in moments of sensory overload; a metal panel with rivets is drawn over her mouth when she feels silenced, etc. While the majority of the main characters seem to be depicted as white, including Mia, Charlie is Black, and another member of the popular clique seems to be Black-coded as well. The almost watercolor-like feel of the digitally created art lends it a softness that is just the right vibe for this story.
Mia’s experience of confronting stereotypes and expectations head-on, standing up to bullies, and learning how to be herself is a story that’s at once universal while also being specific to marginalized youth. She is a welcome and important addition to the growing canon of autistic characters in children’s literature. Speak Up! has something in it for many types of readers, and is a recommended read for all libraries that serve tweens and teens.
Speak Up! By Rebecca Burgess Quill Tree, 2022 ISBN: 9780063081192
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Asexual, Queer, Nonbinary , Autistic Spectrum Character Representation: Autistic Spectrum
Anya lives in a nocturnal desert village, a close-knit community where all kinds of people work together to survive. Every aspect of life here depends on the magical pollen of the Night-Flower tree, and the tree depends on the pollination of the Moon-Moths. These creatures are fragile, needing the protection and care of a Moth Keeper. The Moth Keeper spends every night—when the village is awake – out in the desert with the Moths. The position is a lonely one, but vital to the community. That’s why Anya, who wishes desperately to be useful and valued, has pledged to become the next Moth Keeper.
The nights are long and cold, and spending so much time alone beneath the endless desert sky has Anya questioning everything, from her own abilities and worth to whether she even wants to live in the night-village. Are things better in the neighboring sun-village, which sleeps at night and wakes during the day?
Anya’s best friend worries about her, and her mentor encourages her to transition into the job more slowly, but Anya is determined to prove herself. Refusing help and insisting she is fine, Anya pushes herself until she makes a dire mistake. The Moths are lost, and the Night-Flower tree is dying. Can Anya get the Moths back in time to save her village? And even if she does, is there a future for her as a Moth Keeper?
Fans of K. O’Neill’s award-winning Tea Dragon Society books will find in this story a new fantasy world with some familiar touches. Like those books, this has a cozy setting full of kind, well-intentioned characters (who also, incidentally, seem to drink a lot of tea). Both include characters with animal-inspired design elements, like Anya’s fox ears and tail, which are taken for granted as part of the world.
O’Neill’s bio says that they “strive to make books with themes of kindness, inclusiveness, and well-being”. These ideas permeate this story, in which we see what can happen when Anya fails to recognize her own limits, but also see her learn to depend on others and find strength in her community. The editor’s note at the beginning of this book describes this story as being about burnout, which is an extremely timely topic. Here, burnout is treated not just as something that Anya must overcome, but also as something her community must remedy by recognizing that the Moth Keeper job might be asking too much of any one person, and that Anya needs their support.
The artwork is softly colorful, its palette full of twilight blues and the earth tones of the desert. Both inside the village and out in the desert, the settings are full of interesting details and curving, organic shapes. The character designs are whimsical and varied: there are humans, centaurs, and people with wings and feathers or animal tails and ears, and they wear thoughtfully designed clothes and accessories. The lineart is loose and relaxed, drawn with fine lines, so that even the detailed settings feel spacious and spare, not dense or crowded.
There are touches of sadness in this story – Anya comes from an unhappy family situation, another character has not seen his parents in the sun-village for a long time, and Anya meets a wandering spirit with a lonely tale. Ultimately, though, this is a hopeful story of kind people helping and supporting each other. Hand it to fans of the Tea Dragon Society books and other gentle, positive fantasy.
The Moth Keeper By K. O’Neill Penguin Random House Graphic, 2023 ISBN: 9780593182260
Fifteen year-old Desideria “Dizzy” Olsen just knows she’s destined for greatness. One day, anyway. But so far, it seems like everything she tries—from ballet to trumpet—just ends in total disaster. So when a portal opens up right in front of her when she’s about to toss her roller skates into the donation bin along with the rest of the accouterments from her abandoned hobby attempts, it suddenly seems like everything is falling into place after all!
It turns out that fate (and new mentor Chipper) has a new mission for her: take on the mantle of ‘Burb Defender and use her newfound powers (plus super cool gadgets like the Helmet of Helping and the Blaster Bracelet) to save her hometown from evil monsters known as Negatrixes and their bad vibes.
As the pressure mounts and Negatrixes multiply, Dizzy starts to realize that there might be more to being a Chosen One than potential fame and cool superpowers. With her own personal Negatrix looming, will the ‘Burb Defender and her new friends the Rollers be enough to defend Ruseberg from the biggest threat yet?
A sweet, silly, and action-packed romp that touches on Chosen One tropes, new friendships, and figuring out who you are, Getting Dizzy is a delightful and enjoyable read for teens and tweens. Refreshingly, the core cast of characters is diverse without being didactic about it: Dizzy is Latine-coded, Scarlett seems to be East Asian (unspecified), Payton is disabled (born without a left hand), and Av is Black and non-binary. This cast is a reflection of the world teens are currently living in, and it’s nice to see them just exist, and not have their identities pointed out in any specific way. Specific traits of each member of the friend group come into play in a vital way later on, and are things unrelated to their race, gender identity, or ability. Instead, what’s important about each friend are qualities like always seeing the beauty in everyone or being incredibly smart.
With the story opening on a younger Dizzy’s dream of ballet stardom clashing with the reality of name-calling at school, the tone is set right from the start. Fiercely independent (just like her mom), Dizzy isn’t afraid to rise to a new challenge. At least, not at first. Like many young people, she’s a big dreamer who probably wishes life was more like a movie montage, especially when learning to fight the Negatrixes means re-learning how to roller skate (and falling. A LOT — an experience writer Shea Fontana is quite familiar with as a former roller derby player).
No stranger to the superhero genre herself thanks to her experience writing for the DC Super Hero Girls series, Fontana infuses the graphic novel with a solid mix of one-liners, goofy idioms, and moments of seriousness. From quick-witted dialogue like Payton’s quip about leaving the rest of her left arm behind when she moved from Seattle to Chipper’s speech about participation trophies and why sometimes it’s the people who aren’t good at something who get chosen, the dialogue helps Dizzy and her friends feel grounded in reality, even when they’re blasting Negatrixes back into portals with colorful magic. While the superhero antics are fun, teens and tweens will likely find themselves drawn to the themes of friendship, perseverance, and figuring out how to fight against our own anxiety and negative emotions, even when it feels easier to just give in.
Illustrator Celia Moscote, known for their gorgeous work on the graphic adaptation of Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath, succeeds again here in bringing Fontana’s cast and this imaginative setting to brilliant life on the page. The Negatrixes feel scary in a Pokémon-esque, cartoonish sort of way, keeping the terror lower stakes and accessible for both younger and older readers. Emotions are rendered in great facial expressions, and the visual pratfalls are hilarious. The colors are bold and vivid, especially the magic: that sparkles and swirls give off a magical girl element perfect for our resident ‘Burb Defender.
A welcome addition to tween and teen collections, Getting Dizzy is a lighthearted but meaningful compilation of an initial run of four comic issues that leaves readers on a cliffhanger and hoping for a potential sequel. Hand it to fans of graphic novels like Sebastian Kadlecik’s Quince, Sam Humphries’ Jonesy, and anyone who enjoys stories featuring magical girls, superheroes, and the power of friendship.
Getting Dizzy By Shea Fontana Art by Celia Moscote BOOM! Box, 2022 ISBN: 9781684158386
Publisher Age Rating: 12+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Latine, Nonbinary , Character Representation: Assumed Hispanic or Latine,
The boroughs of New York City are filled with the stylish moves of breakdancing teens and tweens. But what happens when they add a twist to their routine? Breakdancing and yo-yo tricks are an unstoppable pair in Gale Galligan’s newest graphic novel Freestyle. The author and illustrator use their skills to create a story with relatable characters having fun expressing their style and flair on and off the dance floor.
The breakdance crew Eight Bitz need to practice every weekend if they want to win the upcoming dance competition. Their team captain is pushing their limits, causing rifts between members. However, things get a bit more chaotic when team member Cory is grounded until his grades improve. Not only that, he is stuck with quiet studious Sunna as his tutor. At first the two have trouble getting along, but things soon change when Cory watches Sunna perform some expert yo-yo tricks. As she flicks her wrist and lets the plastic bauble fly to and fro, Cory becomes mesmerized and wants to learn all the techniques. As the two become closer, however, members of Eight Bitz take note. With tensions in the dance team rising, a few members confront Cory and question his loyalty to the team and their friendship.
Gale Galligan’s artwork and storytelling go very well together. Not only are readers introduced to the world of breakdancing and yo-yo competitions, they are treated to a story of middle schoolers foraging and maintaining friendships while preparing themselves for that next level in their academic careers, high school. Each character has their own recognizable strengths which they use to achieve their goals and weaknesses that they combat in their own way. The cast is very much diverse, with characters of different gender identities and nationalities. There are also pressures of perfectionism and meeting parents’ standards within the story, common occurrences in the lives of most middle schoolers.
What really brings this story to life is Galligan’s artwork and panels packed with slick dance moves and yo-yo throwing action. In double page spreads, tweens are jumping and moving to a hip hop beat while spinning yo-yos fly in all different directions. The artist’s choice of using a bright color scheme adds to the excitement of the pages, giving readers a chance to pore over every single detail. Their research into both activities is prominently shown throughout the story, with characters using different lingos and names to describe routines, movements, and positions.
Illustrator and author Gale Galligan combines the quick moves of breakdancing and yo-yo tricks to create an exciting, heartfelt story of friendship and expression. Public and school libraries should consider this graphic novel in their collections, especially those who cater to devoted readers of Raina Telgemeier and Kayla Miller. Middle school readers and fans of Galligan’s work on The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels will definitely want to give this book a try and perhaps look into the exciting world of yo-yo tricks and dance crews.
Freestyle By Gale Galligan Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022 ISBN: 9781338045802
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Taiwanese-American, Genderqueer, Nonbinary Character Representation: Chinese-American