Identity crises have long been a staple of teen stories and Huda Fahmy’s debut YA graphic novel gives us a fresh take on trying to find out who you are and where you fit in. While fans of Fahmy’s autobiographical webcomics and previous books, Yes, I’m Hot in This and That Can be Arranged, will recognize some of her family members, this story is fiction inspired by her high school years.
Huda’s family moves to Deerborn, Michigan, an area with a large Muslim population to get beyond the troubles one of Huda’s older sisters encountered in school. Huda realizes she can’t rely on her identity as “hijabi girl” anymore. As she takes stock of her interests, tries new things, and examines the teens she hangs out with in school, an easy identity continues to evade her. When the school overreacts to a student bringing a homemade clock to school Huda is reminded that in addition to finding herself she has to fight off the prejudice heaped on Muslims in America.
Fahmy’s writing brings her usual brand of zippy humor tinged with self deprecation and candid vulnerability, perfect for tackling teen subjects from getting your period in class to asking out a boy to facing bigotry from a teacher. She reminds readers in the beginning that she’s telling the story of one Muslim teenage girl, not all Muslim teenage girls. As she moves among her academic-focused family full of sisters, Muslim girl classmates with a variety of interests, and begins going to halaqa, a group focusing on Islamic studies, she shows readers a diverse world of Muslim women and their ideals, a subject too many people have too narrow a view of. Current and past teens (like myself) will laugh or cringe in familiarity with Huda throughout the story. Her mother’s constant support and suspicion are a great running thread.
The visual format of Huda F Are You? makes it immediately clear that Huda cannot be contained. It’s a messy story about finding your identity and the vibrant, cartoonish art often takes up the whole page, no panels, no margins. There’s a complete break with the webcomic strip format daily Fahmy readers are familiar with. Her complex visual play with panel size and placement introduces a great sense of energy and motion. It feels like the jumble of high school life. Full page splashes often establish settings with comparatively lush backgrounds to carry over for paneled scenes that follow with mostly blank backgrounds. The use of color is spare and flat in most character interactions but features splashes of brightness and texture at just the right moments to land a gross event, such as a wave of menstrual blood. Huda’s family and school feature a wide variety of skin tones. Every graphic tool is used for maximum expressive impact, giving a lot of life to the simple drawing style. It fits in next to Raina Telgemeier’s style but is its own thing.
I am unfortunately writing this review when a vocal minority of people are trying to get stories that show the diverse experiences of American youth thrown out of schools. I haven’t seen Huda F Are You? join this list, but since it makes clear the impact of Islamophobia in a high school I wouldn’t be surprised to see it targeted. Teens (and tweens) should read this because it’s hilarious and true to what many teens experience as they test out their identities, and also because it centers strong, smart Muslim girls. It shows the prejudice they face in everyday casual situations and in bigger institutions.
Huda’s age and concerns in the story will place this in the teen section over juvenile, but most middle school readers can enjoy it as well and it should have a place in middle school library collections. I’ve had girls that young coming to the info desk for Fahmy’s other collections for the last couple of years. Readers who’ve aged up from middle grade realistic school stories will love this book, in particular there are a lot of parallels to New Kid. I’d really just like to hand this one to everyone that walks into the library, it’s a fun read and it makes you think about high school from a perspective that doesn’t have a lot of representation in the media in general.
Huda F are You? By Huda Fahmy Dial Books, 2021 ISBN: 9780593324301
Publisher Age Rating: YA
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Muslim, Character Representation: Muslim ,
Sabaa Tahir’s popular An Ember in the Ashes series gets its first graphic novel prequel, A Thief Among Trees. Elias Veturius, one of the narrators of the Ember series, is a fiver, the second-lowest rank of students at the Martial Empire’s Blackcliff Academy. In Blackcliff tradition, fivers are sent into the wild for four years without any resources or help, and if they survive those four years they become cadets. The few fivers who survive to become cadets each receive a silver mask, a major step in the process of becoming Masks, the Martial Empire’s ruthless warriors.
Elias and his friend Helene Aquilla—also a popular character from the Ember series—sent on a mission to steal vials of potent poison from the island where it’s distilled, along with their friend Octavius, or Tavi. Going against Blackcliff’s sadistic dog-eat-dog approach to training, Elias and his friends convince a group of rival fivers to team up to steal the poison. They succeed, and half of the group escapes the island with their vials intact.
Unfortunately, Marcus and Zak Farrar, Elias and Helene’s rivals in the Trials to become Emperor in An Ember in the Ashes, make off with one of their vials. Returning from the mission without the correct number of vials would be a death sentence, so Elias, Helene, and Tavi must stay behind and steal the diluted poison to distill.
Meanwhile, the poison is being tested on children from the Scholar Empire, a group that has been subjugated by the Martials for the past 500 years, and the friends have to decide whether it is willing to give up everything they’ve worked for to save the Scholar children.
Though this first volume in a planned trilogy could be read on its own, background knowledge of the Ember series provides context for its elaborately crafted setting. Without knowing the inner workings of Blackcliff’s training regimen, readers may be confused about why young children have been sent on such a dangerous mission. The juxtaposition of the fivers’ naivete against the cruelty of Titus Sisellius, the Mask leader on the island, is significantly more disturbing when the reader knows that fivers are training to eventually become Masks. Still, readers with no familiarity with the Ember series have one advantage; since Tavi is not in it, fans of the Ember series will suspect he is marked for death from the start.
The full-color illustrations are beautiful. The island setting means the predominant colors are earth tones and forest and jungle greens. Each of the main characters looks appropriately young; fivers are between ages 11 and 15, according to Blackcliff rules. Characters are drawn distinctively enough to easily differentiate between them, with one exception: Elias and Tavi look almost identical. As readers progress through the book, they will notice distinguishing features, such as Elias’s aquiline nose or Tavi’s straight bangs. Still, readers may find themselves doing double takes to determine which character is speaking at any given point.
At first glance, one might peg A Thief Among the Trees as targeted for tweens. The main characters are tweens, and they are drawn to look like tweens. While it features violence, it does not include depictions of rape and physical torture, like its parent series. Nevertheless, the bleak and disturbing nature of the Ember world may prove scary to younger readers. Recommend to teen fans of Ember and—with a content warning or two—mature tweens.
A Thief Among the Trees By Sabaa Tahir and Nicole Andelfinger Art by Sonia Liao ISBN: 9781684155248 Archaia, 2020 Series Reading Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Kismet was the first Muslim superhero in comics. From Algeria, he first appeared in 1944 in Bomber Comics to fight Nazis behind enemy lines in World War II. Created by the pseudonymous Omar Tahan, after four issues, he disappeared from the comics arena as abruptly as he arrived. The character was rediscovered in 2007 by Bostonian academic (and Muslim convert) A. David Lewis, who revitalized and reworked the character to reflect contemporary problems. These problems, unfortunately, are the same issues facing the original Kismet: discrimination, prejudice, ignorance, the newly labeled alt-right, and the upsurge of Nazism. Kismet reappears in Boston, fused with activist Qadar Hussein in a deadly fight, and allied with Qadar’s sister Deena and her friend Rabia. With the death of Qadar, Kismet continues to invest his energies to fighting these unremitting evils. His superpower is his ability to see momentarily and instantaneous into the future, only enough to dodge an attack but not long enough to delve into impending actions.
The city of Boston is an active character in this volume through the contemporary landmarks and activities. Along with the strong and proud Muslim identification of the protagonist, this Boston is filled with citizens that are principally minorities and/or female. This Boston is unapologetically interracial and filled with characters of varied religious and sexual identities coexisting to bring the city alive and operational. There are no stereotypes here. Kismet is a man out of the past, but soon, with the aid of his friends, becomes a fighting force for social and political activism.
I found the illustrations muddy with a distinct partiality to dark backgrounds interspersed with infrequent brilliant splashes of reds and greens. Facial expressions are often hinted at rather than clear and I had difficulty at times differentiating characters. At the same time, however, the story arc was easy to follow and the solid characters rose above the muddiness to deliver a strong picture of today’s American society through the eyes of the past. The graphic novel is action packed and very relevant—public libraries for sure and high schools as well would benefit from having it in their collections.
Kismet: Man of Fate By A. David Lewis Art by Noel Tuazon ISBN: 9781949518009 A Wave Blue World, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: Adult
Browse for more like this title Character Traits: Neurodivergent, Multiracial, Lesbian, Genderqueer
[Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.]
What’s it about?
Ms. Marvel is a window into the life of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant family. After a terrigen mist endowed Kamala Khan with superpowers, she became the new Ms. Marvel—a Ms. Marvel whose superhero outfit is a repurposed burkini. Kamala weaves between the worlds of the religious and the secular the same way she weaves between the world of the teen and the world of the superhero: she’s sometimes confident, sometimes uneasy, and never in one place for too long.
Within Kamala’s nuclear family and friend circle, we’re provided a variety of characters who express their faith in a variety of ways. Abu and Ammi, Kamala’s parents, are somewhat secular but strict. They disapprove of drugs, dogs, and dates. On the other hand, Kamala’s brother Aamir rebels through his piety by dressing in traditional dress with a kufi (skullcap). Kamala’s feelings about her faith are complex and contradictory. She’s quick to snark at Sheikh Abdullah’s lecture from the women’s section of the masjid, but she also remembers his wisdom at crucial moments.
Kamala expresses a similar ambivalence about being a supehero. The work takes takes her away from friends, sleep, and her beloved World of Battlecraft videogame, and she’s not thrilled about being treated like a kid sister in the Avengers. On the other hand, she gets to save the world.
What is clear, though, is that there are similarities between religious contemplation and serving as a superhero. Both require humans to think of the world beyond themselves, assess their courses of action, and work on behalf of the greater good.
Kamala’s “greater good” is Jersey City, New Jersey. Jersey City is drawn true to real life, with views of the Freedom Tower poking out from across the Hudson River. Jersey City is home to lots of working-class immigrants representing different waves of immigration. Kamala’s best friend, techie sidekick, and quasi love interest Bruno is white, but he also identifies as an Italian immigrant. Kamala’s and Bruno’s relationship faces its expected turns over the series, including a moment where Bruno reveals his love for Kamala and Kamala, despite being boy-obsessed, tells Bruno she’s not about relationships right now.
Even though Kamala and Bruno aren’t in love (or not really, or let’s not talk about it), their verbal sparring and references to nerd and gamer culture are delightful. There are references to RPGs, memes that have probably overstayed their welcome (doge, anyone?), and bitcoin, among others. These small moments don’t come across as gimmicky in the slightest, though I see how they easily could tire the reader—instead, they show an attention to craft.
What’s also notable in the Ms. Marvel volumes is the use of setting, color, and space. I have a hard time reading some superhero comics because I feel the action is too crowded on the page. In the interest of making superhero comics “exciting,” some artists lay in lots of scenes with BOOMS and THWACKS and character close-ups from torso up. Ms. Marvel goes the opposite direction. Instead of crisp colors, colorist Ian Herring gave the series a faded palette, and instead of lots of close-ups, we get scenescapes of a long-legged Kamala Khan making her way across Jersey City.
The two artists who drew most of the series, Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa, have slightly different interpretations of Ms. Marvel. Alphona’s Ms. Marvel is leggy and gangly, and her poofy hair floats around her head defiantly. Alphona’s lines are sketchy and he attends to details around Jersey City like iron trellises and trash cans. Miyazawa’s Ms. Marvel, on the other hand, is sleeker with bolder lines and bigger gestures. The style feels more sci-fi than PATH train. All artists who have taken a hand to Ms. Marvel are keen on drawing her grimaces, pouts, and frustrations of daily life and superhero duty.
Ms. Marvel gives readers an opportunity to cheer for a heroine who looks like them and practices their faith. It takes the attention away from superhero duties as a white male act and shows how a woman of color can be a public servant who gets the bad guys, too. It’s not the only comic that portrays a non-white or non-male main character, but it does so with tremendous heart and openness. Wilson has developed a heroine who is so likeable and relatable to teens, because so many of her concerns are teen concerns and so much of her life is teen life. What teen on the planet hasn’t had to negotiate parent expectations, identity, and getting to class on time?
Ms. Marvel appeals to new graphic novel readers as well as graphic novel fans who are trying out a new genre. The intent in this series seems to be to find as wide a readership as possible. The plot lines are simple and somewhat modular: the core characters stay somewhat stable and there are new villains and characters in every volume who are introduced. If there are some story lines that carry over from previous volumes, they are contextualized and explained clearly.
I also see Ms. Marvel as a bridge between Japanese comics and American comics. There are times that Kamala’s actions and depictions seem more out of an anime comedy—for example, at times her eyes bug a little bit when she meets somebody famous, and when she gets defensive with a friend, her eyes become pin-like and small. Kamala can be endearing even when she’s at her most annoying.
Why should you own this?
The Ms. Marvel series introduced comic book readers to Kamala Khan, a teen in Jersey City who is just trying to balance school, friends, overbearing parents, and World of Battlecraft. Superheroes have never had this much teen angst before. It’s about time Ms. Marvel became a must-read for every teenager on this planet and on any other alternate universe planets, too.
Ms. Marvel Written by G. Willow Wilson Art by Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and others Volume 1: No Normal ISBN: 9780785190219 Volume 2: Generation Why ISBN: 9780785190226 Volume 3: Crushed ISBN: 9780785192275 Volume 4: Last Days ISBN: 9780785197362 Volume 5: Super Famous ISBN: 9780785196112 Volume 6: Civil War II ISBN: 9780785196129 Volume 7: Damage Per Second ISBN: 9781302903053 Marvel, 2017 Publisher Age Rating: T+
Once again, the Ms. Marvel series introduces characters and plots that are relevant to contemporary teens. Kamala Khan isn’t just getting to know the Marvel universe, she’s figuring out the moral universe, too
Depending on how well you know Kamala, you may recall that she’s a pretty devoted gamer. Her vice of choice is online multiplayer games, where she is known not as Kamala Khan or Ms. Marvel, but as SlothBaby. I guess every alter ego needs an alter ego? Within the game, her guild friend, LeetSkillz, starts acting strangely and threatens Kamala by mentioning her address. If her online friends get wind of her true identity it could be bad news.
Meanwhile, photos have been going around of Clara, a classmate at school. Clara is humiliated and embarrassed about photos that were intended to be shared only with her boyfriend, who claims he kept them private. Ms. Marvel and her friends Mike, Zoe, and Nakia step in to support Clara and befriend her.
It turns out these events are related. Player LeetSkillz unintentionally downloaded Doc.X, a virus designed to spread quickly and take on the traits of its users. Doc.X has the power to control not only technology, but minds, too. Though Kamala can resist it’s control of minds, the virus has an unusual blackmail offer for Kamala: spread the virus into a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility or else the virus will release the love letters that Zoe wrote to Nakia but never sent. Ms. Marvel briefly considers making good on Doc.X’s order before she stops herself: “If I cave in to a bad guy, am I still one of the good guys?” Kamala’s guild meets up in real life and she hatches a multi-phase plan to defeat Doc.X once and for all.
It’s fun to watch Ms. Marvel’s fighting style develop over time from mostly physical force to a blend of strategic thinking, physical force, peer leadership, and a dash of techie know-how. This volume artistically celebrates Kamala’s special brand of dorky superhero in all sorts of ways, from the bags of chips that are by her side when she’s gaming to a physically unflattering depiction of her with her spidery elongated legs or sitting with her guild at a LAN party at the Circle Q. (“Are you nerds seriously having LAN party in a convenience store? Man, this is some peak Jersey right here…”) I always appreciate how the Ms. Marvel volumes buck the old-school trend of female superheroes with idealized and hyper-sexualized physical traits. Ms. Marvel is about kicking ass, not having one.
However, I felt that Doc.X as a villain and the volume itself presented some questions and issues that weren’t explored further or resolved. This seemed particularly rife for potential in a volume about secrets, surveillance, and how we use the internet, because we know Kamala’s weak for Bruno and we know she doesn’t always display the finest judgment when it comes to teen life. I would have liked to have seen Kamala’s personal life enter this volume more, particularly because she says “We all have secret identities. Secret identities, but no secrets, and it sucks.”
This is a terrific volume for those who are already fans, but I would encourage newer readers to start earlier in the series.
Ms. Marvel, vol. 7: Damage Per Second Written by G. Willow Wilson Art by Mirka Andolfo and Takeshi Miyazawa ISBN: 9781302903053 Marvel, 2017 Publisher Age Rating: T+
I’m pretty sure I know Kamala Khan. She’s that student who raises her hand to say something brilliantly wrong. She lets her enthusiasm override reason and common sense. She’s loyal to friends, but she acts before she listens.
Kamala Khan’s superhero self, Ms. Marvel, faces some of the same issues as Kamala Khan the Pakistani-American living in Jersey City. In one panel we see Ms. Marvel leaping from one building to another with the newly rebuilt One World Trade Center in the far distance. In the real world, some (most notably Donald Trump) accused Muslims in Jersey City—families exactly like Kamala’s—of celebrating the destruction of the original World Trade Center on 9/11. In the fictionalized world, this volume’s villains have a similar obsession with order and keeping the peace.
In nearly all of the volumes in the Ms. Marvel series, there are distinct and direct parallels to contemporary issues, and the muted tones and high realism of the artwork is meant to remind us that superhero life and real life aren’t so far apart. If Ms. Marvel were more…dare I say…heroic, these comics could come across as overly preachy and moralizing, as if Ms. Marvel were the Smokey the Bear of racism and classism. Instead, readers are invited to see Ms. Marvel work her way through issues, too. When Captain Marvel introduces Ms. Marvel to Becky St. Clair and her cadre of predictive crime fighters, Ms. Marvel is in awe of the ability to stop a crime before it has the ability to harm others. Tyesha, Kamala’s friend, tries to warn her that such a system could cause new problems, not resolve the problems that already exist. While Ms. Marvel’s evolution from stopping crime to stopping unnecessary oppression is swift and predictable, it is still satisfying to watch.
Characters who have made larger appearances in other volumes make a small showing here, and readers learn more about Kamala’s family life in Pakistan, setting the stage for future international adventures.
The Ms. Marvel series continues to be a refreshing delight for teen readers who are looking for a superhero who is as worried about fighting crime as she is getting a college scholarship.
Ms. Marvel, vol. 6: Civil War II by G. Willow Wilson Art by Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa ISBN: 9780785196129 Marvel, 2016 Publisher Age Rating: (12+)