Rise of the Halfling King: Tales of the Feathered Serpent

Mystical elfin beings, a monster serpent, a boy with a magical birth, a vengeful king, even a sweet monkey sidekick, this first in a new series of Mesoamerican-inspired graphic novels has fantasy action covered. Acclaimed author and teacher David Bowles provides the story while the art is by his daughter, Charlene Bowles, in her graphic novel debut. 

It’s a hard book to sum up, each piece of the tale is woven inextricably into the next. Set a thousand years ago in the Yucatan peninsula, the story follows Almah as she goes from a young woman seeking a powerful token from the jungle realm of the aluxes to a witch who has helped her town grow and prosper. But the aluxes also gifted her a special drum that would announce a new king of the Uxmal. She hides the drum and a cruel king rises up, one who tells the people they only need the king’s priests and they must forget the aluxes and shun the witches. Almah prays to the Goddess Ixchel about her deep loneliness and finds a strange egg on a walk in the hills. A baby hatches from the egg, growing into a young boy, but never aging past that. The boy, Sayam, learns Almah’s traditional magic and a prophecy has him squaring off against the cruel king in a special trial.

The story comes from the author’s YA-aimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico. The Maya culture becomes a living, fully developed world in the graphic novel, full of lush colors and a great combination of iconography and realism. The cities, the agriculture, and the writing system are highlighted. The blend of religion and magical creatures creates an exciting power source that today’s readers of Greek myth-inspired fare will love. The aluxes are said to have gone in hiding when humans appeared, living thousands of years and shepherding magic. Shown shorter than our heroine, Almah, they have rounded features and intricate costumes that recall real Maya artifacts. David Bowles plan to portray the cohesive and vibrant mythological world of the Maya is very well executed.

The book is as fun to read as it is culturally enriching. Due to its focus on legend-building, the characters don’t have a lot of depth or development on their own, what we learn in the short descriptions of the cast list at the start is thorough. They stand in for common character types: wise and faithful Almah, hardworking and precocious Sayam, ruthless sorcerer Zaatan Ik. You still come to care about the characters and cheer on their successes. Their interactions feel realistic. Charlene Bowles’ gets a lot of emotion out of her modern cartoonish style, with angular faces and thick lines that are similar to standard realistic middle grade graphic novels. The build of the story and the action that comes from the many magical trials and tribulations is more than enough to make the book engrossing. The art has a sense of movement and glowing life that jumps off the page.

As with the mythology and fairytales of most cultures, there are some dark concepts in Rise of the Halfling King. A giant serpent eats the mummified dead of a village and is put down in an attack that is gory in theory. The experience of reading that section was fun and thrilling rather than frightening, it was only in looking back over the book a few times that I realized just how dark an episode it was. It has some slapstick moments, full of sound effects, and comes off as a suspenseful but action-packed time. The moody purples and grays of the underground mausoleum and the snake provide the appropriate dread, but Sayam, Almah and the clever but clumsy spider monkey Maax pull the reader along in a way that will not freak out the young readers it’s aimed at.

The publisher’s age range of 8-13 feels true, with a rich enough world to interest the older of that range but a brightness that still works for the younger. The page count is low and and the story flies by, when the series reaches the ten volumes David Bowles plans in his post script it will make a satisfying stack for many a fantasy and myth-loving reader.


Rise of the Halfling King: Tales of the Feathered Serpent
By David Bowles
Art by Charlene Bowles
ISBN: 9781947627376
Cinco Puntos Press, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-13
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Highlights: Mexican-American
Related to…: Book to Comic

Donut feed the squirrels

Many publishers are getting graphic novel imprints and it’s exciting to see new creators with a fresh look creating comics for kids. I’m especially pleased at the excellent offerings for beginning and intermediate readers, as I work a lot with this age group and they love comics!

This series starter comes from Random House Graphic and an experienced picture book creator, Mika Song. It’s an adorable story about two squirrels, Norma and Belly. Now, in the interest of honesty and my own experience, I have to say that squirrels are not like this in real life. But in the story, Norma and Belly, well, you’ll see.
One fall morning Norma wakes up Belly for pancakes. They’re in the middle of their pancake dance when disaster strikes—the pancakes burn! Belly is comforting Norma, when they smell a new smell. “It smells like crispy sugar, oil, and a hint of linden flowers.” Joined by all the hungry squirrels, Norma and Belly discover a food truck and doughnuts! They quickly hatch a plan to exchange chestnuts for doughnuts for all the squirrels, but it’s very complicated and involves roller skates, weevils, and a stopwatch.
Song’s artwork, which I have appreciated in her previous picture books, is a lovely accompaniment to this gentle and sweet story. Soft browns and greens fill the simple panels and quick, sketched lines and splashes of color fill in the tall and sneaky Norma, plump and kindly Belly, and all their squirrel friends in a rush of browns and quick lines. The little girl who inadvertently supplies the roller skates has a purple helmet, brown skin, and straight black hair. The doughnut machine purveyor is one of the most interesting side characters—his initially grouchy exterior, conveyed with a few quick lines on his face and downturned mouth, eventually cheers up as he discovers the squirrels’ present, and all ends happily with a flurry of brown squirrels and a colorful line of people looking for doughnuts. Subtle bits of humor, like Belly warning away the weevils, spot the pages and the spare, simple text fits well into the soft washes of color in the illustrations.
The aura of kindness and gentle humor that pervades this story will make it a favorite with sensitive young readers and anyone who likes watching the antics of squirrels. Hand to fans of Narwhal and Jelly, Elephant and Piggie and to readers not yet able to read Stick Dog. And don’t forget to pick up the sequels as Norma and Belly explore more potential food sources!

Donut Feed the Squirrels
By Mika Song
ISBN: 9781984895837
Random House Graphics, 2020

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)
Creator Highlights: Filipino-American

Twins

Maureen is nervous about starting sixth grade. As a new middle schooler, she will have to navigate new and confusing class schedules and all kinds of new expectations, and Maureen isn’t sure she’s ready. Still, at least she has her twin sister, Francine. They’ve always done everything together!

Except that suddenly, Francine is different. She’s taking different classes from Maureen, and joining different clubs. She’s changed her style so that the two of them look less alike. She’s even going by Fran. Maureen doesn’t know what to do. She hates the idea of drifting apart from her sister—not to mention the awkwardness of splitting up their friend group!—and is frustrated with Fran for acting this way.

Maybe that’s why she decides to run against Fran for student president. The good news: she has new friends who will help with her campaign. The bad news: Maureen is shy and a nervous public speaker, and doesn’t really know what she’s doing, and now Fran is mad at her for joining the race. What has she gotten herself into?

This realistic, relatable middle-grade story deals with changing relationships with family and friends, building confidence, and challenging yourself. The heroine, Maureen, has a good heart but also realistic, understandable flaws. It’s easy to sympathize with her insecurity and fear of change, even while it’s clear that Fran has the right to strive to be seen as her own person rather than part of an interchangeable set of twins. Though Maureen’s initial decision to run for student president stems partly from spite and frustration with her sister, she does develop a meaningful platform and is able to use the experience to connect with friends and, ultimately, with Fran.

While Maureen is the clear protagonist of the book, Fran is a prominent and interesting character. At first, her motivations are a mystery to Maureen: why would her sister, always happy to share the same classes, activities, and friends, suddenly want to change things up? But as the twins reach out to each other and reconnect, Maureen—and the reader—learn that Fran has a very different perspective on their relationship.

Rounding out the book is a rich cast of supporting characters: the twins’ parents and half-brother, their shared friends and Maureen’s new friends, and one influential teacher. There are also various incidents and subplots, like Maureen’s friend’s ambition to become an ROTC squad leader.

The cast is diverse, and largely composed of people of color. While race is not a major component of the story, Maureen’s experience as a Black girl is definitely not ignored. Observant readers will appreciate small touches like Maureen and Fran wearing hair bonnets to sleep. And while the word “racism” is not used, it is clearly in play during one incident at the mall when a white store clerk brushes off Maureen and her friends, making it clear she does not take them seriously as customers. Refreshingly, there are consequences: the clerk is reprimanded by customers, who decide to shop elsewhere. By the end of the book, the shop’s “Store CloseOut Sale” sign is visible in the background of one panel.

The art is clear, colorful, and consistent, and the characters expressive without being cartoonish. Maureen and Fran can sometimes be a little easy to mix up— understandable for identical twins!—but their clothing and hairstyles, plus context clues, help differentiate them. The backgrounds consist mostly of school hallways, classrooms, and Maureen’s home, and while they remain firmly in the background, they match the characters well in their level of detail.

With relatable characters and lots of heart, this will appeal to fans of other middle-grade contemporary realistic comics. Hand it to readers of Raina Telgemeier, the Babysitters Club graphic novels, Roller Girl, and Jennifer Holm’s Sunny series.


Twins
By Varian Johnson
Art by Shannon Wright
ISBN: 9781338236132
Graphix, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Ages 8-12 / grades 3-7
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: kids, Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Traits: African-American
Creator Highlights: African-American

Farmhand, vols. 1-3

Rob Guillory’s Farmhand classifies itself as dystopian/horror/humor, but it’s the Southern Gothic exploration of family and secrets that really drew me in. After a seven year run as co-creator and artist of the award-winning dystopian horror comic Chew, Guillory decided to return to his writing roots, pulling double-duty for his new series. In his blog, Guillory talks about the image of a tree growing limbs popping into his head and how in developing the idea he landed on a Black farmer because it wasn’t a story that’s been told. In most narratives, a Black man in a field is a story about slavery; Guillory makes his central farmer a Black man dressed in classic bib overalls but driving a cutting-edge agricultural marvel. Guillory revels in wordplay frequently in Farmhand, for both comedic and poignant effect. So “farmhand” refers to Zeke Jenkins, the son and hero of the story whose father, Jedidiah, has created a new combination of farming and medicine that allows for organs and limbs to be grown on a farm. It also stands for the symbol of the Jenkins Family Farmaceutical Institute, a hand sprouting a seedling in place of a thumb, and the greenhouse full of trees growing full arms. Lastly it’s a reminder that the person you likely picture when you think of a farmhand is limited by stereotypes. Guillory flips common conceptions with several characters in Farmhand, including Zeke’s wounded army vet sister Andy, bioengineer Dr. Monica Thorne, and Tree, a hulking ex-pro football player turned pastor.

Currently comprised of three paperback volumes or 15 single issues, Farmhand follows unemployed writer Zeke as he relocates his wife and children to Freetown, Louisiana, the rural town he grew up in. He reconnects with his estranged father Jed, whose medical agribusiness has invigorated and corrupted the town. A mysterious vision turned Jed from a mediocre commercial farmer to the inventor of the Jedidiah Seed, which functions as human stem cells that can be cultivated like plants. While transplantation of limbs and organs has become cheap and easy with his new technology, there are signs that the seed has started invading the flora and fauna of Freetown. Worse, strange new growths and psychological afflictions have manifested in patients who received previous transplants. Zeke struggles with becoming entrenched in the troubles surrounding his father’s farm while still letting his young kids get to know their grandfather. Andy works side-by-side with her father, leading the company and farm security. Dr. Monica Thorne, the woman who helped Jed develop the seed, has emerged from obscurity to run for Mayor of Freetown and reopen old wounds in the Jenkins family. Festering under everything are decades of secrets and lies, the unearthing of which drives the characters as much as the spiraling medical-eco disaster.

The series unfolds slowly, with Vol. 1: Reap What Was Sown laying the groundwork by developing the main characters, the town, and the farm. Vol. 2: Thorne in the Flesh focuses on the farm’s response to the plagued Transplants converging on the town and the outbreak of the seed. Vol. 3: Roots of All Evil digs into the villainous plot overtaking the story. Guillory anticipates a final length of 24 to 30 issues and it’s clear he’s taking his time building and revealing complex characters and plot lines. It’s hard to go into much detail without providing spoilers—even naming the villain gives away part of vol. 1. There are plenty of action sequences, including fighting spies from foreign companies and defeating veiny, bulging diseased animals. Mostly, it’s not the action that moves the story forward and it’s by no means action-packed. The slower pace pays off with well-developed characters who have emotional depth and realistic interactions, despite the phantasmagoric setting. There’s a lot of humor and pathos in moments between Zeke and his wife Mae. The sibling bond between Andy and Zeke is a keen balance of trauma-forged camaraderie and quick-rise anger. Jed and Dr. Thorne are multifaceted older characters that are frequently lacking in comics.

The themes in the story are deftly handled. The unknown origin of Jed’s seminal vision creates a shaky foundation for examining faith in the story that is just starting to come to a head by the end of vol. 3. The role of racism is in an undercurrent of tension in the first two volumes. When Andy is menaced by an over-entitled farmer’s son in a bar, his attacks are laced with racial undertones. The third volume tackles the subject head on with the origin of the town and ancestral tragedy. One of the things that makes the story really get under your skin is that the Jedidiah Seed and farm is the only part of Farmhand that is dystopic, the rest of the world appears to be the same as our contemporary one.

I feel like I’ve painted a fairly dark and serious portrait of the series so far, but really it’s full of wry humor and zaniness. The art is cartoonish and shows the body horror and grotesque elements with a combination of whimsy and teeth. The characters’ faces are full of emotion and their body language is animated with dynamic energy. There’s a lush quality to the color and lines of the art that feels different from Guillory’s previous work on Chew. While some may find the stylized art off-putting compared to more realistic art styles, I think it’s the perfect campy counterpoint to the substantial story.

Farmhand earns its Mature rating through gory violence and horror, with no sex, no full nudity and little language. Fans of comics Bitter Root, Chew, Black Hole and the works of Joe Hill will find much to sink their teeth into, as will fans of Stranger Things, David Cronenberg, and Michael Crichton. This comic belongs in every adult graphic novel collection.

Farmhand, vols. 1-3
By Rob Guillory
Art by Taylor Wells
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781534309852
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781534313323
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781534315907
Image, 2019-2020
Publisher Age Rating: Mature
Series Reading Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult
Character Traits: Black, Missing Limb
Creator Highlights: Black

Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

In his poem Harlem, Langston Hughes considers what happens to a dream deferred: “Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” he asks, “Or fester like a sore—/and then run?” Of all the visceral similes Hughes contemplates, however, it’s the final, fragmented question that rang through my mind again and again as I read Joel Christian Gill’s memoir Fights. Italicized, positioned all by itself at the end of the poem, the line punches straight to the gut: “Or does it explode?” 

Gill’s memoir is painful, fractured, and violent. A mostly chronological memoir bookended by a prologue and epilogue set in the present day, Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence tells the story of Gill’s growing up. From the deaths of Gill’s father and grandmother to unrelenting sexual abuse at the hands of family members and family friends to a barrage of violence directed at him by bullies and racists both in and out of school, the memoir shows clearly how young Gill was pushed to the point of explosion, lashing out with a combination of numbness and violence. Rays of light shine through in unexpected friendships, acts of kindness from a caring neighbor, and when Gill discovers the power and joy of reading books and creating art, but the lion’s share of the book is a depiction of a childhood almost relentlessly filled with trauma. While this relentless trauma often appears to the young Gill of Fights as an inescapable cycle, he is eventually able to escape the chaos and abuse through stable relationships and his own work as an artist.

Gill’s artistic style is cartoonish, with bold lines, mostly matte colors, and sometimes exaggerated expressions of motion or emotions. Effective symbolic motifs to represent different emotional states are used throughout, such as a flame appearing over a character’s head to indicate a flare of rage, or a character’s face sinking into deep water to indicate a sense of overwhelm and despair. Though the cartoonish style at first feels like jarring contrast to the heavy subject matter, it ultimately serves as a bridge, making both the pain and, unfortunately, the normalcy, of these traumas approachable and recognizable. Unfortunately, the narrative is at times disjointed and almost inclusive to a fault: portions of Gill’s childhood and adolescence could have been excised without any real loss to the narrative, and such paring down would have allowed space for the more aching, triumphant, and generally profound moments to resonate more strongly.

Classified as a memoir for adults, Fights would also appeal to older teens. While the book does clearly reference the multiple sexual assaults Gill experienced as a child, there is never visual depiction of said assaults. Violence, including threats of gun violence, is also an integral part of Gill’s story; however, this violence is always positioned as exhausting, stressful, and scary—a last resort and something to be avoided whenever possible. Precisely because of the frankness with which Gill chronicles his own experiences, this book could speak to older teens just as surely as to the adult audience for which it’s intended. An intense and sometimes painful read, this memoir is also a powerful account of growing up in both the urban and rural South during the 1980s as a Black boy who has few looking out for him beyond himself. 


Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence
By Joel Christian Gill
ISBN: 9781549303357
Oni Press, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 18+
Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: African-American, Black

Creator Highlights: African-American, Black

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection explores the identity, imagination, and struggle of cartoonist Yao Xiao. Baopu is a monthly, serialized comic published in Autostraddle, a online community dedicated to publishing independent, progressively feminist, queer media. Thus, Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection allows us to enter the universe of a bisexual, Chinese-American emigrant woman, an identity not often, if ever, shown in popular media. The collection includes both never before seen comics and fan favorites.

Baopu is a Taoist word used to illuminate the importance of simplicity and the ideal of living in a simpler state. Xiao clearly exemplifies this ideal through her work. The artwork is understated and the writing is accessible. The use of simplicity in Xiao’s artwork conveys a feeling of intimacy. Every comic in this compilation seems like it could have easily come directly from Xiao’s diary. And, frankly, this makes her comics likeable. Regardless of your identity, Xiao’s artwork is relatable. Xiao portrays herself in pseudo-minimalist drawings throughout each comic. In fact, her line work is so uncomplicated that her character is often only identifiable by a triangular hat differentiating her from the characters around her. While some readers may find the lack of detailing in her work frustrating, others will find it endearing.

As for the actual writing in this collection, once again readers may find themselves divided. Some of Xiao’s writing, such as one comic highlighting her frustration to pick a—literal—box, may read as cliched and a bit saccharine. However, other comics, such as those highlighting her loneliness as an immigrant, are quite poignant. One notable comic, titled “Quiet Night Thoughts” illustrates a poem by famed 7th century Chinese poet Li Bia. Xiao beautifully applies a poem written during the Tang Dynasty to her experience as a Chinese-American in the 21st century.

Given the independent nature of this publication, no particular age group is ascribed to the book. However, this book will mostly likely be appreciated by teens and emerging adults. Another issue with the independent publishing of this book is availability. This title most likely will not be available to libraries unless purchased from the publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing, or Amazon. And, ultimately, may not be worth the investment.

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection is a sweet, engaging book. However, for a comic collection, the book is short at 128 pages. The collection feels incomplete. As a reader, I found myself wanting more. Xiao is clearly a young, very promising comic artist. I would love to read a more comprehensive volume of work from her. While I cannot recommend that this particular book be added to your library’s graphic novel collection, I would highly recommend that prospective readers take a look at Xiao’s professional Instagram account (@yaoxiaoart) and published work on Autostraddle. Xiao is a competent artist and cartoonist. More is certainly to come.

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection
By Yao Xiao
ISBN: 9781524852450
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: (16+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Chinese American Bisexual, Queer
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers

In his introduction to Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, author and illustrator Ben Passmore writes, “I know you picked this book up thinking you were gonna read a whole lot of wokeness from a mad inspired and inspiring melaninated revolutionary King” And I’ll admit, he was relatively spot on for me—I thought I would be reading a collection of comics that would educate me about my unintentional racism and about the lived experiences of Black people in America. Reflecting on that thought, it seems a rather stilted expectation; luckily the collection did that, but had even more to offer.

The original Your Black Friend by Passmore was published as a 12-page zine by Silver Sprocket in 2016. It was nominated for an Eisner, won an Ignatz Award, and made it on NPR’s 2017 list of 100 Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels. Your Black Friend and Other Strangers was republished in March 2018 as an anthology of Passmore’s previously published pieces, as well as some of his new work. In the title piece, which is summarized in this three-minute animated clip, Passmore narrates his experiences as “your Black friend,” navigating the constant spectrum of racial expectations White people have, regardless of whether they view themselves as allies.

Because I can’t describe it better myself, I leave Silver Sprocket’s description of the comic to list the topics included in the anthology: “race, gentrification, the prison system, online dating, gross punks, bad street art, kung fu movie references, beating up God, and lots of other grown-up stuff with refreshing doses of humor and lived relatability.” Also notable is Passmore’s warning in the Introduction that “There are a bunch of comics in here that are supposed to turn you into Anarchists.” My favorite pieces, like “A Letter from Stone Mountain Jail” or “Whose Free Speech?”, were those that were more narrative- or politically based, telling stories of Passmore’s experiences in protests or his reflections on what political movements (e.g., Black Lives Matter versus Antifa) might actually have a chance of making long-term impact. My least favorite were the ones that were most abstract, such as “A Pantomime Horse I” or “Goodbye.” I found myself just confused at the end of several pieces, flipping back through to see what I had missed.

Passmore’s art aligns with the genre of the piece he’s writing. The pieces that are based on experience have a more literal style of cityscapes and corner stores, with large blocks of small text providing background information. However, pieces like “It’s Not About You” or “The Punklord” are vibrant with color and abstract creatures and imagined settings. I like the punk influence of his art—the characters with mohawks, piercings, gauges, and tattoos—as well as just more “realistic” characters with beards, dreads, hoodies, and suspenders. There is some violence and “gore,” but most of that is relegated to the more fantastical pieces of the book. (However, at one point two punks do end up biting, shooting, then beheading a police officer… but when the characters look like they belong in a punk adult version of the 90s Doug cartoon, it’s not as gory.)

Both the art and the writing ask for your attention in more than one sitting. I read the collection in one sitting, and it was a lot to take in. However, I will return to it in bits and pieces. There may be some parts that I never understand, as several other reviewers have mentioned similar feelings, but I know there is much in both the text and the art to appreciate repeatedly throughout the book.

I think this a comic worth investing in. It will be a good addition to a memoir collection, and it’s important to include memoirs by authors of color, especially about the experience of racism and activism in America. It’s likely best for readers who are 13 and up. Even younger teens (13-16) will benefit from reading about and gaining a better understanding of race and friendship, and the importance of activism and standing up against brutality and injustice. Many of the pieces have an elevated vocabulary and an expectation for a baseline understanding of anarchism and nihilism, which younger readers will likely lack, but as is evident throughout this review, the anthology is sort of a “mixed bag.” Anyone can find something of interest, but there will be pieces that some readers don’t understand or are just confused by. Ultimately, if everyone just reads at least the title comic, the world might be a better place.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers
By Ben Passmore
ISBN: 9781945509209
Silver Sprocket, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: T (13+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Black
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

Banned Book Club

The Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, is based on the personal experiences of the author, who grew up during a time where South Korea was under a totalitarian government. It begins with Hyun and her mother arguing over her choice to go to school. Her mother wants her to give up school and continue to work in the family restaurant. Hyun ducks out to end the argument and attend her first day of school. Once off the bus, she is surrounded by protestors and police. Tear gas is exploding all around her, people pushing their way through the cloudy air to escape arrest. Hyun makes it to class and the teacher informs her that they need to stay away from Communist activities and not participate in protests.

Hyun wants to remain above the fray and avoid politics. She decides to join the folk dance team. They perform a dance for the school, which ends up turning political. She meets a young man on the team named Hoon who begins introducing her to new ideas. He runs the school newspaper and hides political messages in the articles. Hoon develops a crush on Hyun and the feeling turns mutual. He begins drawing her further into danger. She must decide how far she is willing to go.

The simplicity of the black and white artwork draws you into the horror of the situation. When Hyun first gets on campus, she experiences a moment of contentment. She is on a bus, headed to school, with a smile on her face. The minute she steps out, she is greeted with chants for the President to step down. The scene pulls back to reveal riot police with shields moving towards the protestors. Scenes shift to different angles, adding to the tension and chaos of the scene. There are two scenes of torture in the book. One is brief with the person having scrapes and bruises on their face. The other, while only a few pages seem as if it goes on forever. Part of it is left to the imagination as we see the objects he has been beaten with. The other act is quite cruel with the person’s face being smashed into the ground.

In the beginning, I found the title hard to get into as I had no familiarity or understanding of Korean history. The title Banned Book Club made me believe the story would be about how books changed the lives of students living in a brutal dictatorship. It was this aspect that I kept hoping would appear. After 94 pages the story began to take shape and I could see clearly where the author was going with the narrative. The theme became about how a young girl learns how to stand up and find her voice living with a government who wants to shut down any opposition or free thought. I highly recommend this book and suggest that readers learn about the Gwangju uprising to deepen their understanding. This graphic novel is most appropriate for older teens, but probably will be more appreciated by adults who are interested in historical events.

Banned Book Club
By Hyun Sook Kim
Art by Hyung-Ju Ko
ISBN: 9781945820427
Iron Circus Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: OT

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: South Korean
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

New Kid

All Jordan Banks wants to do is go to art school. Instead, his parents send him to the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School (which is far from his neighborhood and far from diverse), so he will gain opportunities that he might not otherwise. Out of his depth, Jordan finds himself struggling to fit in. Jerry Craft won the 2020 Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards for New Kid, and there are several good reasons for those accolades.

One of the great things about New Kid is that it strikes a balance between serious and light. It follows Jordan through his first year at his new school, where he has new experiences such as trying soccer and baseball and makes new friends, all while dealing with the microaggressions that people of color face in a predominantly white environment. While these issues are not played down, they never overwhelm the main narrative of a kid trying to figure out his new school. The result is a warm, thoughtful, and humorous story.

Another strength is the cast, particularly Jordan. Through his playful cartoons, the reader gets a clear sense of Jordan as a person, and Craft includes little details that give the character life, such as his fondness for his hoodie and love for superheroes. Craft strikes a balance between sweet, smart, and uncertain in a way that is highly relatable and engaging. The supporting cast are also distinct with their own unique quirks and struggles, and their interactions are true to life.

In addition to a strong story and protagonist, the artwork makes the action easy to follow and captures the actions and emotions throughout the book. Craft also uses the artwork to make his most serious points in a humorous way. For example, there’s a scene at the school book sale where most of the books featuring people of color have titles such as “Escape From Slavery,” their “empowering” messages the bookseller cries exaggerated tears over—a decision that make his points about bigger issues without overwhelming the main story.

Public and school libraries in particular will want to make sure to have it on the shelves as it is a great book for young people, and educators will be excited to know that there is a teaching guide to use in the classroom. Quill Tree Books (which is part of Harper) sets the age range at 8 to 12, and that is a good starting point; that being said, teens, especially those in middle school, will likely also enjoy New Kid. Other reviews have suggested that fans of Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang will enjoy this title. Because of its relatable protagonist and strong coming-of-age plot, readers who enjoy the work of Victoria Jamieson (author of Roller Girl), Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina, and Shannon Hale’s Real Friends should also enjoy New Kid.

New Kid
By Jerry Craft
ISBN: 9780062691200
Quill Tree Books, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 8 to 12

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Character Traits: Black
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

Vindication

Over the past several years there have been groundbreaking works that capture the black experience, especially when it comes to confrontations with police: TV shows like When They See Us, documentaries like 13th, and novels like The Hate U Give. As a white person, works like these have been especially helpful for me to gain insight into the black experience in America and more importantly, have elevated the voices of their creators in a profound and meaningful way. Vindication feels as if it wants to do what these works do so well and capture it for a comics audience, though it falls short.

Vindication begins with the intrigue of a gritty police procedural, though that intrigue doesn’t hold up long. The book opens on a full page set in a courtroom, with main character Turn Washington being sentenced to life in prison for “what [he] did to that girl.” Page two flash forwards ten years into the future, with Turn being released from prison. It will be several more pages until we find out why—a judge overturned the conviction. Don’t worry about the details, they’re essentially moot. What follows is a convoluted plot that will struggle to hold the attention of even the most persistent reader. The twists and turns lead to an unremarkable final reveal that Turn was “framed,” sort of. A crooked cop investigating Turn, Detective Chip Christopher, is also “vindicated,” sort of. It turns out that Chip isn’t the blatant racist we’re made to assume he is at the beginning of the book, he just does shoddy work in an effort to solve cases with disregard to actual facts or evidence. All of this makes for a forgettable reading experience.

At the root of the problem is cumbersome dialogue. There is a plot here, though not one that is particularly engaging, and whatever highlights exist are buried by wasted moments and inconsequential panels. In a medium where dialogue is at a premium and words and pictures must come together for a story to unfold, Vindication’s script lapses into the throwaway dialogue of everyday life to the point of it being detrimental to the book as a whole. For example, in a panel when a character grabs their coat, the accompanying speech balloon is “One sec. I need to grab my coat.” Or when two characters walk into a bar together we get an entire panel with a single balloon of “I’m gonna find a place to sit.” Throwaway dialogue is sometimes necessary. If a character answers the phone, we expect them to say “hello.” But after that, the writing has a duty to lure readers in with active dialogue that moves the action forward. Unfortunately, it’s worth calling out in Vindication because so often the dialogue slips into this rut.

In contrast, Carlos Miko’s pencils are dependable and bring a realistic style that serves the story, though there are select panels where the story progression stalls, like when Turn confronts his brother in a bar and the art repeats itself in a string of four nearly identical panels. Thiago Goncalves’ colors are consistently great and he delivers a muted palette that adds grit to every page. But, despite the art working to save the story, it can’t quite pull off the trick. Even with well laid out panels and smart color choices, nothing can break through the script standing in the way.

Is Vindication an important comic that belongs on the shelves of libraries nationwide? No. Does comics need stories that call out racial injustice? Yes. So if you’re looking for a police procedural full of hard-boiled characters and inexplicable cat and mouse police work, this is the book for you. Just don’t expect much more beyond that shallow dive.

Vindication
By MD Marie
Art by Carlos Miko
ISBN: 9781534312371
Image/Top Cow, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: M