Tegan and Sara are twin sisters, living in Calgary, Canada, ready to face their first year of junior high together. They’ve been inseparable their whole lives but things aren’t so certain these days. Tegan and Sara: Junior High, by Tegan Quin and Sara Quin themselves, with art by Eisner Award winning artist Tillie Walden, tells the story of one year in the life of the twins as they discover who they are, both together and apart.
Their dad has a new girlfriend. Their best friend isn’t going to the same school as they are. People keep getting them confused and even calling them clones. The sisters have always been close, but maybe junior high is the time to start to explore who they are outside of being a duo and who they are as individuals. Their bodies are changing so quickly that it feels unexpected, like being caught off guard with a tampon on the very first day of your very first period. Drama happens within their new friend groups. There’s crushes on cute girls and the beginning of understanding their queerness. There’s a guitar in the garage and the growing desire to put all those feelings into a song.
Tegan and Sara: Junior High is the latest addition to the Tegan and Sara universe, which consists of not only their music, but their memoir about their high school years, aptly titled High School, and a subsequent television show based on it. Middle grade readers may not be as familiar with these previous outputs. However, no prior knowledge of the duo is needed to appreciate the story being told here; at its very core, this is a story about two sisters.
Unlike many other graphic novel memoirs for middle grade readers, the book does not reflect the time period when it actually happened, which was the early 1990s. Instead, it has been moved to the present day, potentially making it more relatable for its intended audience. These stories are timeless, there will always be certain aspects of the tween years that are inescapable, but making it modern may help some readers connect more with the story being told. It’s current but not too current. The characters have cell phones and watch streaming videos, but it never overtakes the story.
Readers seeking a realistic look at these in-between years will enjoy Junior High. It may not be as bright and fast paced as other graphic novels about similar years, but there is something reflective and honest about the combination of Walden’s art and the Quins’ story. The warm colors add a calming sense to the stress of tween years. The conversations between the sisters that begin and end each chapter are a highlight. Readers learn more about their individual inner thoughts and also their close connection to each other.
Tegan and Sara: Junior High will appeal to readers of Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Friends series or Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm’s Sunny series. This graphic novel also has crossover appeal for some teens, especially those who have enjoyed Walden’s previous graphic novels. The book is a charming, optimistic look at seventh grade and all the possibilities it brings.
Tegan and Sara: Junior High By Tegan Quin, Sara Quin, Art by Tillie Walden Farrar Strous Giroux, 2023 ISBN: 9780374313029
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Canadian, Lesbian Character Representation: Canadian, Queer
Machine Boy, our protagonist, falls from the sky and accidentally lands in the domed city Mega 416. He destroys everything in his path, including an elderly couple’s large tomato garden that was bursting with beautiful, ready to pick fresh tomatoes before the elderly man is able to alter Machine Boy’s programming. Unfortunately the extreme stress from the event causes the man to pass away from a sudden cardiac arrest. Machine Boy, despite being filled with mechanical parts, now seems to possess a bit of heart. We see tears streaming down his face as he watches the Grandfather breathe his last breath. The newly widowed Grandma and Machine Boy, with bumps along the way, form a partnership.
Grandma teaches him how to do all kinds of things that she can no longer physically do. He learns karate, battles beasts in the sewers beneath his school, rescues cats from trees, and runs errands for Grandma. Together they even rebuild the greenhouse into a spectacular and enviable structure filled with delicious and plump looking red tomatoes that are perfect for making fresh spaghetti sauce.
This book reads and looks like a cross between manga and a graphic novel. There are a lot of action and fight scenes with dramatic word bubbles popping out off the pages. It’s very light on text with simple vocabulary. The characters display a lot of manga style facial expressions with big tears and big emotions bursting from their faces. There’s a mix of fantasy in this sci-fi adventure with animal-like characters and images of mythical creatures like unicorns tossed around.
This adventure didn’t pack the punch that I anticipated from the wonderful blurb we see across the front cover from the outstanding author, Faith Erin Hicks, who described the book as, “Astro Boy meets The Iron Giant, a sweet, funny, action-packed story for every sci-fi loving young reader!” There isn’t a lot of text for children to read to continue improving their grasp of the English language, so it wouldn’t be an excellent choice for educational purposes. Additionally, I found the book didn’t grab my attention and hold it throughout the story. Overall, this book isn’t bad by any means, but I wouldn’t say that I highly recommend adding this to your collection. There are so many other exciting and beautifully done action-packed graphic novels out there to choose from that could also help youngsters with their reading comprehension.
Everyday Hero Machine Boy By Irma Kniivila Art by Tri Vuong Image Skybound, 2022 ISBN: 9781534321304
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12 NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Canadian
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
Before opening the cover of the graphic novel, I knew that this was a true story, a memoir that had been originally told in an animated film for the National Film Board of Canada, but I had no other familiarity with the story or the reaction that it would generate within me. I was perplexed when I immediately recognized the setting of the story—I had been at that camp myself, a gift from an unknown sponsor much earlier and, while I distantly recalled much of the camp experience, I had totally forgotten where it was located until I saw the provided map. Memories came flooding back. Like my earlier experience, the author/protagonist was also attending the camp for the first time and, like this reviewer, was more excited about the accessibly of comic books and time to read than anything else!
The camp, in central Alberta, Canada, is located close to the small town of Eckville which, in the 1980s, became notorious because of its anti-Semitic mayor who also was a grade nine teacher in the local school. For several years the teacher, Jim Keegstra, taught his students that the Holocaust was a hoax. This was eventually halted by a parent campaign that resulted in a law case regarding hate and anti-Semitic propaganda. Keegstra was fired, but what was his legacy in the belief systems of those students? “Believing the curriculum was “incomplete,” Keegstra had been teaching Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in his classroom – that Jewish people had an international plot to control the world and were to blame for everything that’s wrong” (17).
To combat Keegstra’s troublesome legacy, the Alberta Jewish communities invited the students taught by Keegstra to the summer camp for a day of basketball and fellowship encouraging cultural understanding. The reader is privy to the initial worries and concerns of Hart and his fellow campers regarding the admission of these students into the camp and their lives. What follows is an illustration of misunderstandings and beliefs…and the natural healing and changing of worldviews through the game of basketball. The illustrations are simple line drawings, mostly in black and white, with spots of bright colors and backgrounds emphatically aiding in the emotional telling of the story. The perspective of the text and the illustrations is that of the children with the colored panels accentuating the outlandish monsters created by their imaginations and lack of knowledge of each other.
In the author’s note at the end of the book he discusses the effect Keegstra’s trial had on him as a grade 6 Jewish student. “Keegstra was successfully convicted of criminally promoting hatred of Jewish people, which was an important test of Canada’s hate speech legislation” (83). Hart continues to explain that the public debate surrounding this trial, although uncomfortable, forced Canadians and others beyond our borders to seriously consider the dangers of racism, the necessity of critical thinking skills, and the personal responsibilities to stand up against hate.
Although the basketball game took place in 1983, the trial in 1985, and Keegstra’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1996, the issues of racism, anti-Semitism, critical thinking, conspiracy theories and the dangers of hatred are not limited to the past.
I was a mother with two young children when the Keegstra Affair came to light. I lived locally and followed the news faithfully but was never aware of this basketball game until now. This is a story that needs to be read and revisited both the in the original filmic version and this newly published graphic novel again and again. The book includes an introduction, follow up to the trial, study questions, and a glossary. It is a concise and accessible entry to the ease of spreading conspiracy theories, fake news, misinformation, and hatred. Highly recommended for school and public libraries.
The Basketball Game By Hart Snider Art by Sean Covernton Firefly, 2022 ISBN: 9780228103912
Publisher Age Rating: 12+ Related media: Movie to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Canadian, Jewish Character Representation: Canadian, Jewish
The nineties were a time when a company could sell a comic simply on the artwork, of what many would call style over substance. It was a time of holographic covers, collector’s issues, and the gorgeously-rendered characters within these books all possessed a gritty, acerbic aesthetic and attitude (in short, a typical ‘90s attitude). Some might look at these kinds of characters with a feeling of nostalgia while others might simply find them exhausting. The main character in Purgatori: Witches Get Stitches, the latest Purgatori collection written by Ray Fawkes and illustrated by Alvaro Sarraseca, highlights this dichotomy.
The character of Purgatori looks more devil than vampire, complete with fiery red skin and leathery bat wings. She is a thousands-year-old vampire who sustains herself from the blood of others, not only stealing their life essence, but also their memories. Feeding adds to Purgatori’s own skills and abilities, but it also leaves her with a swirling cacophony of memories and emotions all struggling for dominance. A coven of young witches seek to take advantage of this and use Purgatori for their own selfish purpose. Purgatori must stop them before she begins to lose control of herself.
Ray Fawkes inserts some interesting folklore creatures and the people who hunt them, but the very nature of Purgatori, and Fawkes’s rendition of her, makes Purgatori a character that doesn’t seem capable of having her own identity. Purgatori is basically a cypher who absorbs the memories and personalities of those upon which she feeds to the point that she is swept away on the experiences of her victims. She even comments on how she feeds on bad people for awhile, until she becomes bad, then she feeds on enough good people to point her moral compass the other way. Purgatori has a distinct lack of agency in her long-lived existence, and with her dialogue being mainly snarky and suggestive one-liners doesn’t allow her to be a multifaceted character. Purgatori’s dialogue also affects the story. When humor is purposefully inserted into horror, it creates moments of levity in what could otherwise be suffocating darkness. When humor is used too much, it saps all the tension from the story..
Sarraseca’s artwork offers some eye-catching horror moments, such as the shapeshifters Purgatori encounters and the witches combining more than just their energies to attack her. However, it doesn’t detract from the scantily clad, centerfold-adjacent renditions of the heroine, whose uniform is a black leather bikini. Purgatori isn’t contorted into unnatural shapes that defy physics and anatomy, but there’s also no denying that Purgatori’s pin-up looks are a major part of the book’s appeal. The book tacitly admits this in their cover gallery by inserting photos of a few professional models dressed up as Purgatori among the other sexualized drawings of the book’s star.
As for this book’s purpose in a library’s collection, it might find some circulation among other gen-X and millennial males who spent their hard-earned money at their local comic shops, and in that vein, it could even be considered an artifact of a long-ago age. But unless a library has a collection featuring other pin-up fantasy comic heroines like Vampirella and Lady Death, this book could probably stand to be lost to history, or at least passed over when making selections.
Purgatori: Witches Get Stitches By Ray Fawkes Art by Alvaro Sarasecca Dynamite, 2022 ISBN: 9781524121679
Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Canadian,
I am beginning this review with two caveats. First, I am a mother of a daughter who works in the trades and while she has not worked in Fort McMurray, she has experienced many of the same behaviors that Kate Beaton confronted in her two years in the camps. Second, I am an Albertan who has visited both the city and the camps in the oil field areas numerous times. Throughout the several readings of this graphic novel I was reminded again and again of the stories from my daughter and the observations I took away on my short visits. The contradictions innate in the oil-rich area around Fort McMurray has become better known outside of Canada in recent years, but it has always been controversial for the Canadian culture, economy, and, more even more recently, politically.
This was an amazing read, one that I highly recommend for everyone but especially for young women going forward in a disastrous misogynist society. Beaton’s memoir explores through her dialogue a myriad of complex issues including abuse of economic and human resources, lack of respect for the Indigenous inhabitants and culture, sexual harassment and rape, commodification, environmental destruction, isolation, and personal identity. These conversations, and graphic novel, begin with the home life she had before leaving her small town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to travel across the country for lucrative jobs in the oil sands of Alberta to pay down student loans. She was 21, naïve and unknowing, when she arrived. Her readers, through her bleak illustrations and chronological recording, journey with her in her personal discoveries of the enormity of the environmental tolls on the land and the people who work at the various sites.
When hundreds of ducks are snagged in a hazardous tailings pond and a co-worker dies in an onsite accident, Beaton becomes highly cognisant of the global and environmental consequences of the tar sands and camp life. At the same time, she must also contend with the rampant sexism, sexual harassment, and crassness of many of her male co-workers and bosses who have also come from away (the Maritime provinces). Her use of dialogue is effortless and natural, bringing the various characters to life, including Kate herself. There are flashes of subtle and wry humor that provide a welcome balance to the reading experience. Her use of muted grays and the proliferation of wordless panels exemplify the vastness of the landscape and the giant machinery. Beaton’s layout of mostly small panels emphasized the confined environment for the workers and herself. Her illustrations of the interiors reveal the limited spaces and rooms crammed with bed bunks, other furniture, and tools. These interiors are in direct contrast to the vastness of the exterior landscape and sky that she brings to life so effectively, often is full page spreads.
The isolation, loneliness, bleak lifestyle, and the lack of normalcy take its toll on the people in the camps. Some people handle it admirably, but so many were physically exhausted and mentally stressed in living conditions as foreign as the landscape. Her portrayal of the people she encounters and the experiences she has had in the various camps is candidly sincere. She relies on her own acute observations, underlining her personal connections with the people, land, and machinery. The graphic novel is commendably honest. The responses to the fate of the ducks contrasted to those of the Indigenous health and land concerns and the mental health of the migratory workers within and without the boundaries of the oil industry was frightening and telling. The repercussions of this willingness to overlook the dangers of the oil fields because of commercial gain underlies her novel but Beaton is never didactic in her remarks. This is a story that honors critical thinking on behalf of readers.
Beaton suffers through several horrendous experiences but maintained her humanity with her online connections and her creation and postings of Hark! A Vagrant webcomics. Her homepage for the webcomic eventually garnered half a million visitors each month and led to the publication of her first picture book, The Princess and the Pony and the printed collections of Hark! The story ends with hope as Beaton pays off her loan and returns to Cape Breton and her newly found career as a successful cartoonist. Here too, unfortunately, there is another repercussion of her time in Alberta. Becky, her sister who also worked in the oil sands, is diagnosed with cancer. Beaton writes about this in her afterword and later in an article for New York Magazine’s The Cut discussing the failure of the medical world in responding to Becky’s symptoms seriously in much the same way as the suffering of other workers and the Indigenous were treated with silence in previous decades.
Honest investigative reports from journalists and books such as Ducks help illuminate that silence and deserve a large audience. Highly recommended for high school students with a caveat regarding the inclusion of sexual abuse and mental distress. This is an essential purchase for public libraries and highly recommended for academic libraries as well.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands By Kate Beaton Drawn & Quarterly, 2022 ISBN: 9781770462892
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Canadian, Character Representation: Canadian,
Rose is an amateur baker working as a waitress in a small town restaurant. When she makes a special dessert for a food critic, she is invited to participate in a baking competition with her childhood friend Fred. This isn’t an ordinary competition though as the contestants are faced with obstacle courses, sabotage, and surprise ingredients like brussel sprouts.
Rose is motivated to win the grand prize in order to attend college at a prestigious cooking school. She is also dealing with her parents’ eminent divorce, her developing feelings for Fred, and a rival who is willing to do anything to prove herself to be the best. It’s no wonder she finds herself distracted and just managing to stay off the bottom in the competition.
This story has all the feelings of a Hallmark romcom. The author/illustrator does a fantastic job of balancing the plot with humor, seriousness, and the competition. The judge makes a lot of corny baking puns, which is a fun recurring joke throughout the story. The illustrations are crisp and with just enough details to convey the emotions and visual cues that readers should be able to easily pick up.
Although there is not a lot of technique explanations in the text, this book does include detailed recipes sprinkled throughout the story. I did not have the chance to try making any of them, but the ingredients look to be standard baking fare and the directions easy enough to follow. Younger readers will need help from an experienced adult to help them understand some of the unexplained terms, but preteens and teens should be capable enough to follow along.
Batter Royale is recommended for any collection aimed at preteens or younger teens.
Batter Royale By Leisl Adams Amulet Books, 2022 ISBN: 9781419750755
Publisher Age Rating: 12+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Canadian, Character Representation: Assumed Black, Canadian,
Stillwater, Vol. 2: Always Loyal takes readers back to a town that’s not only frozen in time, but its residents are unable to die, no matter what bodily harm befalls them. It’s not easy to keep the law in Stillwater. Incarceration and even capital punishment lose their sting due to the town’s immortality. The law is handled by one man, the Judge, who is the absolute authority in the town. That all changes at the beginning of Volume 2, where outside forces are moving in and a faction inside the town is also attempting to fill the sudden power vacuum.
Volume 1: Rage, Rage introduced readers to many of the main players in this story. There’s Daniel, who is a recent resident of the town, having been smuggled out of town when he was a baby by his mother Laura. There’s also town hardcase, Ted, who has aspirations to be, if not the law in Stillwater, then its enforcer. In Volume 2, Ted has brought in some old military friends to help him take control, but there are also new factions making themselves known and they’ve had ample time to plan. People not part of Stilwater’s blessing (or curse) of immortality have died to keep the town’s secrets, but with battle lines being drawn, the town may soon no longer have secrets.
One would think that a town where literally no one can die means that there are no stakes, nothing really to fight for, but that immortality only lasts within Stillwater’s city limits, and Zdarsky’s story adds dramatic tension by having various factions fight for the direction of Stillwater. With many residents wanting to venture outside its borders, how long can Stillwater remain a secret? This conflict gives this book life where many other stories involving immortality, and basically an inability to die, might stall. Daniel’s place as the audience’s entry point, as well as the tale’s reluctant hero, should keep readers engaged in his individual plight and the overall plight of Stillwater’s citizens. Add in some elements where bodily injury is depicted in all its visceral and anatomically correct glory, and this title definitely earns its rating as an older teen/adult title.
Speaking of bodily injury, this is where Ramon Perez’s artwork shines. The review of Volume 1goes into great detail about Perez’s use of color and linework, but he also doesn’t shy away from splattering the pages with gore. Bodies will be disemboweled, shot, blown apart, and burned, and seeing those same bodies knitting themselves together from normally life-ending injuries cements itself as a horror title, but Zdarsky’s story grounds the tale, preventing it from becoming just a comic about how many ways a body can explode.
Stillwater, Vol. 2 does its part to move the story along and leaves on a very interesting cliffhanger that signals the series could be rocketing toward a conclusion. Librarians that have Volume. 1 will definitely want Volume. 2 to continue the story. Those collection librarians who have yet to purchase either book, and who want to add to their horror graphic novel collection will want to visit Stillwater, a town that resists change, no matter how much blood is spilled.
Stillwater, Vol. 2: Always Loyal By Chip Zdarsky Art by Ramón Pérez Image, 2022 ISBN: 9781534320048
Publisher Age Rating: 16 years and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Canadian
Raina Telgemeier’s breakthrough graphic novel Smile opened the door to a host of memoir-style books for tweens and teens, focusing on the angst of friendship troubles, first crushes, and negotiating the often difficult path into becoming teenagers and onward to adulthood. However, despite the flow of read-alikes, it’s only been in the last few years that a more diverse selection of voices have begun to be heard.
Rosena Fung’s story of a young tween trying to please her family, fit in at school, handle microaggressions as a second-generation immigrant, and deal with her growing anxiety is shaped by her own experiences. She is the daughter of a family that immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada and as a teen she dealt with her own mental health challenges.
Livy stumbles onto the page with a disastrous first day at a new school and the constant presence of Viola, the embodiment of her growing anxiety, who berates and taunts her. She finds refuge in her art and the library, and moments of joy as she makes dumplings with her mother at home. Eventually, she starts to be accepted into a trio of girls she joins for a group project. But the weight of her family’s expectations and the ever-growing presence of Viola keep her off-balance. As she worries that there might be something wrong with her, she grows obsessed with the family gossip about a cousin who has mental health issues and is further distressed by the break-up of the trio of girls she is trying to join. Her issues are exacerbated by the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt racism and harassment she receives as an Asian-Canadian and the child of immigrants. Will Livy break under the strain and what will her parents do when they find out how much she is struggling?
Fung’s artwork packs a huge range of emotions into the pages. As Livy’s anxiety grows, it’s shown as a looming, blue, ghost-like figure that hovers over her and drags along a torrent of negative words, thoughts, and images. Livy swings from wild enthusiasm over the things she loves, with starry eyes and bouncing ponytail, to abruptly recoiling into herself, physically crouching under the weight of the damaging words of family, friends, and her own inner voice. Some of the most entrancing art is the explosion
of sounds, scents, and tastes as Livy relaxes with her mom, creating the food they love together. Some of the most painful scenes show Livy with hunched shoulders and a nervous smile, as she struggles to navigate between the competing pressures in her life. Fung uses her nuanced artwork to show the widely differing personalities and cultures of Livy and Charlotte, the other Asian-Canadian in her friend group. Charlotte is a self-contained person, shown with a short bob, plaid skirts and jumpers, and unlike Livy’s wild emotional swings, she appears to be indifferent to the harassment they both suffer for their heritage. However, as the presence of Viola increases towards the end of the story, Charlotte breaks out of her mold as well. Once Livy is able to work past some of her anxiety, both she and Charlotte are able to deepen their friendship, with Charlotte breaking out of her containment with a genuine smile and banding together with Livy to speak out against how the other girls are treating them.
This graphic novel will appeal to fans of the fictionalized memoir genre, and also offers a welcome aspect of diversity to the genre. Readers who struggle with mental health issues or their cultural identity will find much to relate to in this story, while other readers will be prompted to consider how they relate to their fellow students and the experiences of others.
Living with Viola By Rosena Fung Abrams, 2021 ISBN: 9781773215488
If you’ve ever had a disagreement about history, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “It was a different time.” On its face, this is a factual statement—people in the past didn’t share our values, and understanding their worldviews requires patience and curiosity.
Yet “it was a different time” is often hauled out to excuse bad behavior—as if all people in the past shared the same mindset, rendering them constitutionally incapable of recognizing cruelty or unfairness. David Lester’s Prophet Against Slavery debunks this commonplace with the true story of an early Quaker activist who articulated a moral case against slavery decades before the emergence of the white abolitionist movement.
Adapted from Marcus Rediker’s 2017 book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist, Lester’s graphic biography depicts the life of the little-known Lay, who protested slavery at a time when it was neither politically expedient nor socially acceptable to do so. Born in Britain in 1682 and radicalized against slavery during a stint in Barbados, Lay migrated with his wife Sarah to Philadelphia in 1731. Incensed that enslavement was practiced by Philadelphia’s Quaker elite, Lay made it his business to call out Quaker hypocrisy around the institution of slavery.
Benjamin Lay’s activism debunks a second misconception: that protest through direct action was an invention of the twentieth century. In the opening scene of the book, Lay strides into a Quaker meeting, proclaims the evils of slavery, and plunges a sword into a book titled HORRORS OF SLAVERY, spewing fake blood (pokeberry juice) everywhere. Unsurprisingly, a tussle ensues. Born with dwarfism and a curved spine, Lay’s physical difference was probably a factor in the solidarity he felt with other disadvantaged people, while his egalitarian philosophy emerged from his Quaker faith and an early life at sea. His forceful speech and public protests were forever getting him kicked out of Quaker meetings, and later life found him living in a cave outside Pennsylvania, adopting a vegan diet and spinning his own clothing out of flax.
Lester’s grayscale art has a hand-drawn quality that owes something to both old-fashioned printmaking and zine culture—lively and not overly refined, it suits the biography of a man whose politics were fundamentally punk rock. The artist is careful not to caricature Benjamin and Sarah’s dwarfism, and images of the enslaved in shackles—and in one painful image, completing an act of suicide—are sensitively rendered.
Yet wordless images depicting the barbarity of slavery point to a structural problem underlying this book: this story is about slavery, but Black voices are missing from the narrative. Was Lay speaking to enslaved Africans as well as speaking for them? The text is vague: Lay refers to his “dear friend Cudjo,” and states “I have talked with a great many Africans,” but we don’t see these conversations on the page. I counted just one line of dialogue spoken by a character of African descent.
There are obvious reasons that Lay, a white man, would be unable to form meaningful relationships with Black Philadelphians. By the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia would be known for its sizable free Black community, but this was not the case in 1731. Yet I would have liked this book to show more curiosity about the absence of Black voices from the primary sources documenting Lay’s life. We can and should wonder: what was it like to be an enslaved African in 18th-century Philadelphia? What might enslaved onlookers have made of Lay’s theatrical protests and the Quaker elites’ ruthless response?
In Lester’s telling, Quaker attitudes around slavery had begun to shift by the time of Lay’s death in 1759. This, too, is a narrative I would have liked to see Prophet Against Slavery develop more fully—the story of how Benjamin Lay was remembered and then forgotten, and his lasting impact on Quaker political philosophy. Social movements are propelled by communities as well as individuals, and I was sorry that the tight focus on the biographical details of Lay’s life didn’t leave more room for this kind of big-picture analysis.
Despite these caveats, this book is a solid introduction to Benjamin Lay’s remarkable life. It will be of interest to older students and adult readers and is suitable for library collections that emphasize the history of slavery, Quakers, and radical politics.
Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay: A Graphic Novel Vol. By David Lester Beacon Press, 2021 ISBN: 9780807081792
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Canadian, , Character Representation: British-American, Disability, Protestant ,