Hidden Systems: Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day by Dan Nott (author and artist) is an enlightening nonfiction graphic novel divided into three main parts. The first part explains the development and infrastructure of the internet. Next, Nott outlines the history and current forms of electricity. He closes with an examination of water systems, which includes the natural water cycle and how humans use water. These three systems are hidden in plain sight and taken for granted until they malfunction, or cease to function altogether. Nott’s goal is to provide an understanding of how these vital systems actually work and how we need to improve them to reduce harm to the environment and to communities. In doing so, we can also sustainably ensure necessary access to all people.
The book is well organized with a table of contents, symbols key, introduction, conclusion, citations and a bibliography. The book is text-heavy, but the historic and scientific explanations are well supported by the illustrations. The panels are mostly in a grid pattern with artwork that depicts people inventing and interacting with various technologies as well as the physical components that comprise these infrastructures. Humorous facial expressions and asides make this book fun and encourage the reader to pay close attention. The restrained color palette keeps the packed pages from looking cluttered. Overall, Nott’s artwork is detailed and wrought with care.
Hidden Systems is cataloged as a children’s book. I found many concepts in this book to be complex and better suited for older readers and teens. Some of these concepts include colonialism and inequity of access. For example, communications systems that began with telegraph lines map geographically with colonial outposts that used communication to maintain control. Much of today’s infrastructure still follows those original lines, so that places of power are more advanced with communications while historically subjugated places are trying to catch up (p. 26-31). Another complex concept is that poorer communities and communities of color typically bear the burden of ill health caused by emissions from coal-burning power plants (p. 113). A mention of dams being financed with debt by the World Bank (p. 210) could confuse the reader who lacks knowledge of the global economy. A teacher, parent, or other adult may help a younger reader parse through these facts.
Recommend Hidden Systems to curious older kids and teens with interests in engineering, inventing, and science in general.
Hidden Systems Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day By Dan Nott Penguin Random House, 2023 ISBN: 9780593125366
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Queer,
Soothe your spirit with Melanie Gillman’s (they/them) lovingly rendered Other Ever Afters: New Queer Fairy Tales. I first became acquainted with artist and author Gillman with their webcomic-turned-print series As the Crow Flies. I was enchanted by their colored pencil artwork and queer-themed storytelling. They channeled those same elements into this collection of seven original fairy tales, complete with table of contents, introduction, and conclusion.
The stories spotlight LGBTQIA+ characters with a total emphasis on women and nonbinary/transgender protagonists (frequently not specified). Main characters are people of color in 4 of the 7 stories. Instead of tired fantasy tropes, Gillman offers themes such as agency, community, acceptance, romance, and self-reflection, all wrapped up with queerness. The tales still have all the furnishings of the fantasy genre—knights, princesses, magical creatures, quests—with a new, refreshing flavor. The stories are all so strong that I can’t pick a favorite. Maybe “Goose Girl,” in which a princess learns important lessons from the titular peasant and does the unexpected; or possibly “Sweet Rock,” in which we find out what happens to the girls who are annually sacrificed to the giantess. Another contender for favorite story is “The Fish Wife,” where a mermaid and a plain, lonely woman fall in love and make sacrifices for each other.
Gillman’s art is soft, rich, and colorful. They convey emotion and detail beautifully without overwhelming the reader with minutiae. The large, clear lettering is easy to read. The immersive nature scenes are exactly what you’d imagine a fantasy setting to look like. The artwork and story mesh together perfectly. Aspiring artists, take note.
This gentle and cozy collection fits in with the current boom of queer-centered modern fantasy books (think The Prince and the Dressmaker;The Deep & DarkBlue;The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich;Magical Boy). Add it to your library’s young adult comics collection. This book definitely deserves a spot on your shelf.
Other Ever Afters New Queer Fairy Tales By Melanie Gillman Penguin Random House Graphic, 2022 ISBN: 9780593303184
Publisher Age Rating: 12-17 NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Queer, Nonbinary Character Representation: Lesbian, Queer, Nonbinary, Trans
Cade is a shy, horror-movie-obsessed teen living in rural Texas. Surrounded by homophobia, he figures he’ll never be able to come out as gay, let alone find a boyfriend. Anyway, he has other things to worry about. His family is low on money, so his parents insist that Cade get a summer job at a ranch, which pays better than the more comfortable indoor jobs he would prefer. It’s hard labor, but on the plus side he gets to work with Henry, the teenaged son of the ranch owner. Henry is attractive, mysterious, and possibly interested in Cade. But there are rumors swirling around the ranch. People have died. In fact, the whole situation reminds Cade of a horror movie. Will he be the next victim?
This is a retelling of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, in which a young woman allows her love of Gothic novels to color her perception of the real world. Like the heroine of that novel, Cade sees and hears a few strange things and lets his imagination fill in the gaps with terrifying theories. Changing the Gothic novels to horror movies and the setting to a lonely ranch in modern-day Texas makes for a creative update. Cade’s unease and sense of being in danger are supported by encounters with racist and homophobic locals—a situation based on the author’s own experience growing up queer, closeted, and Latine in rural Texas.
Cade comes from a class background that is underrepresented in teen fiction: his blended, multiracial family is struggling financially, living in a rural area where military service and religion play a large part in many people’s lives. This adds to Cade’s isolation, as there is a lot of homophobia in the local culture. Even his generally well-meaning stepdad casually uses homophobic language. Henry, too, has struggled to reconcile his identity with his church’s condemnation of queer people.
A content note at the beginning advises that the book contains “moments of homophobia, misogyny, racism, domestic violence, animal cruelty, and confronting death.” There is a character whose past includes becoming suicidal and spending time in a mental health facility, and another character uses stigmatizing language about it. And although he is seeing a therapist and working on his anger issues, Henry can be violent, which is an alarming quality in a love interest. There are also a handful of swear words, up to and including the f-bomb. Despite all that, though, this story is not grim throughout. It is, after all, a romance, with plenty of sweet moments and—eventually—a hopeful ending.
The art is cute and expressive, with a simplified realistic style reminiscent of Faith Erin Hicks. The book is two-color, with shades of red and pink punctuated by bold black and lots of deep shadows, especially in the creepy parts. Horror movie fans may notice a few classic film posters in some of the panels.
This is a creative retelling that stands alone. Sometimes sweet and sometimes gripping, it addresses tough topics but also brings humor and smooches. Hand it to fans of Kevin Panetta’s Bloom and Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper.
Northranger By Rey Terciero Art by Bre Indigo Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2023 ISBN: 9780063007383
Publisher Age Rating: 13+ NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
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
Elle-Q has become a bona-fide pop sensation basically overnight, singing her way into the hearts of her fellow middle schoolers in her viral online videos. But behind the mask and flashy outfits, Elle-Q is hiding a big secret, one that would be sure to surprise the students at Rainham Middle School: she’s actually Mia Tabolt, their quiet, autistic classmate.
Bullied for years by popular girls Laura and Jess and the rest of their clique for her autism, Mia doesn’t feel like she can be herself at school. But when she’s with her best friend Charlie, she knows she doesn’t have to hide anything. Plus, they’re the person who’s been creating the awesome beats Elle-Q sings to!
When the chance to perform in a local talent show comes up, Charlie thinks it’s the perfect opportunity for Elle-Q to go live in person, but Mia is hesitant. Will her overprotective mother ever understand what she’s truly capable of? Will the bullies judge her for even trying? Will her friendship with Charlie survive her uncertainty? Mia’s got a lot of choices to make, and only she can decide if she’s going to stick with what she knows or break open the box the world seems determined to stick her in.
It’s so much fun to see an alter-ego story that centers an autistic character, especially one where the alter-ego isn’t fictional or imagined. Elle-Q isn’t just a character that Mia writes about, a version of herself who lives in a comic or in a game with a friend, or even just in her own imagination as a story-within-a-story. Instead, Elle-Q is a stage persona, which is something that’s incredibly common for lots of musicians and artists, even big name, well-known allistic (non-autistic) ones. In that respect, what Mia and Charlie have created is a tale as old as show business itself, even if the concept of Elle-Q did start as Mia’s idea for a Dungeons and Dragons character.
Purple-haired and bedazzled, Elle-Q is a loud, vibrant, boisterous version of Mia, the complete opposite of how she’s presented herself to everyone she knows her whole life. She’s a version of Mia who allows herself to be everything people around her judge her for or, in the case of her mother, actively try to make her suppress. Rebecca Burgess does not shy away from showing the detrimental effects of intent versus impact that often occur from the actions of overprotective parents of autistic children. While Mia’s mother may think she’s trying to shield Mia from a harsh world by trying to have her act and be more “normal” (in this case: neurotypical), she’s actually telling Mia that her natural instincts and even bodily functions, like stimming, are not acceptable, not even to her own mother. The effect this has on Mia’s self-esteem is not so different from the effects of Laura and Jess’ years of bullying, and while it’s hard to read, it’s unfortunately incredibly realistic for many neurodiverse youth.
Additionally, while realistic from the perspective of middle schoolers and how friendships are made, the redemption arc Laura receives (partially through being an Elle-Q superfan) could perhaps be approached with caution by young readers. While sometimes you do overcome your differences to find common ground and real connection, no one should ever feel pressure to befriend their former bullies, even when those bullies have worked to redeem themselves.
Through Burgess’ vividly delightful art, readers will feel the characters’ big emotions right along with them, especially when they use a manga-esque style to highlight overexaggerated facial expressions. Emotions are definitely a strength of Burgess’s; the panels depicting the internal and external sensations Mia experiences as she moves through the world as an autistic person are visceral; lightning bolts and dark clouds surround her in moments of sensory overload; a metal panel with rivets is drawn over her mouth when she feels silenced, etc. While the majority of the main characters seem to be depicted as white, including Mia, Charlie is Black, and another member of the popular clique seems to be Black-coded as well. The almost watercolor-like feel of the digitally created art lends it a softness that is just the right vibe for this story.
Mia’s experience of confronting stereotypes and expectations head-on, standing up to bullies, and learning how to be herself is a story that’s at once universal while also being specific to marginalized youth. She is a welcome and important addition to the growing canon of autistic characters in children’s literature. Speak Up! has something in it for many types of readers, and is a recommended read for all libraries that serve tweens and teens.
Speak Up! By Rebecca Burgess Quill Tree, 2022 ISBN: 9780063081192
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Asexual, Queer, Nonbinary , Autistic Spectrum Character Representation: Autistic Spectrum
Tony Price is your average high school track star/rebel looking to prove himself to his absent, overworked father. Eli Hirsch is a meek boy with a chronic illness that keeps him from having a stable social life. Together, they experience the eerie events that plague their quaint New England town of Blackwater, such as a terrifying creature that stalks the woods and a haunting presence in the harbor that only Eli can see. As the two face the horrors of the supernatural, as well as a healthy amount of teen drama, they grow closer as friends and, in time, start to feel something deeper for each other.
While Blackwater delivers on its more horrific moments, creators Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham capture a more down-to-earth, character-driven narrative in which the supernatural elements are there more for the development of the main characters rather than to give the reader a scare. This works in the graphic novel’s favor, as Tony and Eli’s relationship is a major highlight of the story. Their romance builds naturally and is constantly being tested through their actions and how they react to the odd goings on around them. There is a slow-burn aspect to their dynamic, which may disappoint those looking to jump right into the romance, but it ultimately culminates in a satisfying payoff to this slight enemies to friends to lovers build up. Other character ties are explored and gain some depth and/or resolution, though there are a few that gain some focus only to lead to loose ends. Since relationships, whether platonic, romantic or familial, play such a large role in the story this lack of resolution gives off a disjointed feeling at times.
One quality of Blackwater worth noting is the normalized intersectional representation shown through the characters. Tony is bisexual and half Puerto Rican, while Eli is Jewish, transgender, and queer. Both of them are disabled, Tony having asthma and Eli having a chronic autoimmune disorder as well as being an ambulatory wheelchair user. The representation varies in terms of what is specifically addressed, ranging from a few panels showing a menorah in Eli’s hospital room to the boys’ disabilities playing major roles in the story. Regardless, the creators treat each facet of the characters’ identity with respect, refraining from making them sole, defining characteristics.
Without a doubt, Blackwater’s standout quality is its use of multiple art styles. Arroyo and Graham’s illustrations alternate between chapters, aiming for a more “unique and dynamic” experience. Each artist creates a moody, spooky atmosphere for this small woodsy town, as the black and white color palette gives it all the charm of an old monster flick. A constant foggy texture lays within the backgrounds, giving a further air of mystery to each location. Though Arroyo and Graham both enrich the comic in their own ways, it may come down to the reader’s personal tastes whether the desired effect of both styles works or not. For me, I found myself more drawn to Arroyo’s chapters, where characters have such expressive facial features that each emotion is instantly recognizable, sometimes overexaggerated in a cartoony way that I really enjoy. Arroyo uses the entire face to her advantage when having a character emote, giving it such a dynamic malleability and making for a great range of expressions. In comparison, Graham’s designs are more static, more reserved, to the point where their features somewhat conflict with what the character is meant to be feeling. Still, Graham greatly contributes to the comic through their lush backgrounds, enhanced by the monochromatic hues. While each style has its own strengths, they both fit the story and tone perfectly.
Blackwater expertly balances a cute, budding romance with paranormal perils and a dash of teen angst thrown in for good measure, giving it an appeal akin to Heartstopper, Teen Wolf, and Riverdale all rolled up into one. Presenting a somewhat light horror, there is nothing too off-putting for those just getting into the genre, aside from some visuals of blood. The publisher gives an age recommendation of 14-18, which fits well with the teen-centric issues of the main characters and overall aesthetic. Educators and librarians that are looking for representative and diverse materials that also give variety in genre and story should consider purchasing this title.
Blackwater By Jeannette Arroyo, Ren Graham Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2022 ISBN: 9781250304025
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Latine, Queer, , Character Representation: Black, German-American, Latine, Bisexual, Queer, Trans, Chronic Illness, Disability, Wheelchair User, Jewish ,
Aydis is the finest hunter and warrior in her tribe. This is something of a problem as her people believe that the role of women is to marry early and start having children. (Preferably boy children, of course.) Her father was allowed to indulge her, however, up until she kissed another girl in the village. Aydis spared him the pain of marrying her off or killing her, however, declaring herself outlaw and leaving all she ever knew behind.
Now, Aydis is on a quest to build a better world, for she knows that the edicts that prohibit women from being warriors or loving other women were delivered from on high by the All-Father Odin. Thus she will free herself and other women like her, starting with the Valkyrie Brynhild, who defied Odin’s whim and was cursed to wait for a mortal to claim her as their bride.
Heathen offers a new view of Norse mythology, which, it must be admitted, is predominantly conveyed through masculine voices. This is largely due to what few stories of the Norse gods have survived to be passed down into the modern era. While the Vikings had a pantheon as rich as that of the Ancient Greeks, we know very little about deities like Eir the goddess of medicine and Saga, who is presumed to be the goddess of poetry because of her name. This is ironic given how relatively progressive their culture was regarding the rights of women.
In this, Heathen is not a historically accurate work. It does, however, take ample inspiration from the Völsunga saga, bringing in Brynhild and her would-be husband Sigurd as members of the ensemble, alongside the Norse gods. The script by Natasha Alterici puts a decidedly feminist spin on these sagas and characters.
Heathen’s portrayal of Freya is a fine example of this. In most of the surviving myths involving Freya, the Viking goddess of love and war is either reduced to the role of a bargaining chip in the games between the male gods and various giants who want her as their wife in exchange for some service or as a greedy harlot willing to prostitute herself for the sake of some fine dwarven jewelry. The Freya of Heathen is lusty and bisexual, as one might expect from a love goddess, but she is also a warrior who offers Aydis her support, even after Aydis rejects the offer of a place by her side.
The artwork by Alterici and, in the final four chapters, by Ashley Woods perfect suits the mood of the story. Rendered in muted earth tones with simple line work, the reader is reminded of the woodcuts that accompanied many classic manuscripts. In this, Heathen perfectly emulates the feeling of the old Norse sagas, presenting itself as some lost tale only recently unearthed. Fans of dark fantasy are sure to find it enthralling.
Heathen is rated 16+ and I consider that rating to be a fair one. There is a fair bit of nudity and sexual content, particularly when Freya’s realm is revealed, and the story does not shy away from depicting the violence of Viking culture. The story also involves some frank discussion of religion that make it more suitable for older audiences that can fully appreciate the nuances of Aydis’ quest.
Heathen: The Complete Series Omnibus Edition By Natasha Alterici Art by Natasha Alterici, Ashley Woods Vault, 2022 ISBN: 9781638490906
Publisher Age Rating: 16+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Queer Character Representation: Lesbian
Gender Queer: A Memoir begins with an arresting image. As a student, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, taped over two pages of eir sketchbook with blank pieces of paper. The pages concealed an autobiographical comic about gender created for a school assignment, a topic that filled Kobabe with discomfort. In the opening of Gender Queer, we’re shown the censored pages—then, with an immensely satisfying “RIPPP!”, Kobabe tears away the paper, revealing the title page of Gender Queer itself.
Gender Queer is the self-portrait of a queer artist developing the confidence to tell eir story, in eir own words and on eir own terms. Narrating Kobabe’s gender journey from early childhood to the present,this graphic memoir chronicles eir efforts to build a life that affirms every piece of eir identity. There isn’t a single pivotal coming-out scene; instead, Kobabe embarks on a slow, continuous project of self-expression and self-knowledge, with results as precise and dazzling as the constellations that decorate the cover of this deluxe edition.
Maia Kobabe’s story begins with a California childhood spent catching snakes, making art, and feeling completely out of step with eir peers. A series of early crushes helps Maia to realize e’s bisexual, but this doesn’t explain the deeper discomfort e feels with eir body and assigned gender. Confused and discouraged, Maia catches hold of a pair of lifelines—coming to books as a late reader, and joining a Queer Straight Alliance at eir high school. Discovering stories that reflect eir own experiences, e begins to feel less alone.
Entering adulthood, Maia finds a word—genderqueer—that reflects the complexity of eir experiences. Just as important, e continues to collect touchstones that affirm eir sense of self instead of eroding it. There’s the first time e listens to David Bowie; the male figure skating costume that fills em with gender euphoria; the queer fan fiction that sparks eir sense of the erotic, yet ultimately makes em realize that e prefers reading about romance to experiencing it firsthand. Kobabe’s sophisticated artwork explodes to life in these moments, expressive full-color panels featuring inventive imagery such as Maia’s gender leafing out like a young seedling, or Bowie’s music as a full-body, cosmic experience (complete with rocketship).
Yet as Maia pieces together identity labels—nonbinary, mostly asexual, queer—and builds a network of supportive friends and family, the obstacles grow. Maia knows that as long as e minimizes eir gender, eir relationships and sense of self will suffer. But loved ones offer pushback when e tries to explain nonbinary identities; Pap smears are a source of trauma that medical professionals rarely take seriously; and everyday interactions come with a cost: Maia must stand up for emself, over and over, just to feel comfortable in eir own skin. This is the Maia who censored eir own sketchbook, and at the close of the memoir, this self-effacement is still palpable. Now a working artist, e hesitates over whether to share eir pronouns with students. “I think I’m carrying more fear than I need,” e realizes.
If Gender Queer is an act of bravery, it’s also a funny, sophisticated, deeply relatable coming-of-age story about charting your way alongside books and best friends into adulthood. Accessible but never didactic, Kobabe’s deft storytelling and polished, appealing artwork excels at communicating with a broad readership. For a queer and trans audience that has rarely encountered nonfiction centering nonbinary experiences, Kobabe’s memoir delivers affirmation, while for readers who are new to learning about queer identities, it educates and invites empathy. Gender Queer is also smart about the way it presents sexual material; this book doesn’t shy from frank discussions of sexuality, masturbation, and sexual health, but the content is contextualized in a way that is sensitive to the needs of younger readers, and Kobabe takes care to avoid explicit sexual depictions of underage characters.
The 2022 deluxe edition collects process pieces and select issues of the original Genderqueer comic strips, providing a snapshot of Kobabe’s creative process. An introduction by She-Ra and the Princesses of Power creator ND Stevenson reflects on the impact of Gender Queer since its initial publication in 2019. Stevenson writes about the book’s significance to himself and queer loved ones, as well as, briefly, those who have sought to remove it from public schools and libraries in “a last, desperate attempt to hammer an infinitely complex world into a small, unthreatening shape.”
Maia Kobabe’s introspective, joyful memoir is an important contribution to comics literature. It is highly recommended for any library collection serving adult and older teen readers.
Gender Queer: A Memoir, Deluxe Edition By Maia Kobabe Oni Press, 2022 ISBN: 9781637150726
Publisher Age Rating: 18+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Asexual, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Nonbinary
The Woman in the Woods and other North American Stories marks the fifth volume in the series of cautionary fables and fairy tales. The eight tales in this volume are from Indigenous nations, told and illustrated by Indigenous artists, and highlighting tales from Odawa, Chickasaw, Métis/Cree, Métis, Ojibwe, Tania, Navajo, and S’Kallam societies. The editors asked each of the authors to ask for permission from the Elders and/or nations to retell and rework the stories for inclusion in this anthology as they recognized and respected the protocol inherent in the gathering of the stories from the people. Unfortunately, there are no source notes included in the collection, making it of less value to educators, librarians, and storytellers than I had hoped. True, the intended audience is middle school readers, not scholars, but the authenticity of each of the tales should be paramount for them as well. I do appreciate the fact that each of the tribal affiliations has been identified for the tales.
While the tales are rendered in black and white with various hues of grey, the cover itself jumps with colour. Ironically, the story alluded to on the cover is not included in the collection. Editor and cover artist Alina Pete remarked that she had hoped to include the creation story of Sky Woman and Turtle Island, but she could not find anyone that had permission to tell this story. Sky Woman fell to the water-covered world and fell on the back of Turtle. One by one, the animals dive into the water to try and find land until Muskrat is successful in bringing back soil. Sky woman spreads the soil on Turtle’s back to create the world as we know it. She shows Sky Woman dancing for joy and two constellations on the back cover featuring two of the characters from the tales within the covers.
Most of the illustrations in the book itself have simple backgrounds, focusing on the characters of each tale. The different styles of illustrations make each of the stories individual in a collection continuous from tale to tale without any commentary. Most of the illustrations are rendered realistically, although one or two stories have manga-like characteristics and vary between historical and contemporary settings. They also vary in length.
The anthology begins with the Odawa creation story, “As it was told to Me,” retold and illustrated by Elijah Forbes, which demonstrates that the world needs the balance of good and bad to exist. It is followed by a trickster rabbit story about the cost of vanity from the Chickasaw people. “Chokfi” is written by Jordaan Arledge and illustrated by Mekala Nava. The next two stories are located closer to this reviewer. “White Horse Plains,” from the Métis settlement St. Francois Xavier, relates the tale of the dangers of greed and conflict. It is written and illustrated by Rhael McGregor. The second Métis tale is possibly the most familiar character in the collection for me. Written by Maija Ambrose Plamondon and illustrated by Milo Applejohn, “The Rougarou” tells the story of a werewolf like monster and a young boy who befriends the Rougarou. I must admit that while I am familiar with many Rougarou tales, this is the first time I have encountered this one. Alice RL’s Ojibwe tale of “Agonjin in the Water” relates a tale of another story of friendship between a human and a mythical creature: the mythical, Mishipeshu the Great Water Guardian of the lakes and rivers.
The Taino story that follows gave its title to the anthology. It is written and illustrated by Mercedes Acosta and also focuses on the relationship between a woman and a spirit of a young girl who sees the mysterious “Woman in the Woods.” The penultimate tale, “Into the Darkness,” is a Navaho shapeshifter tale about a character so frightful that no one dares to speak its name. It is written by Izzy Roberts and illustrated by Aubrie Warner. The final tale, written by Jeffrey Veregge and illustrated by Alina Pete, is a romantic tale from the S’Kallam people. The Moon in “By the Light of the Moon” falls in love with Octopus Woman, the Queen of the Salish Sea in Puget Sound. The bright light of the Moon makes it possible for the Moon to watch her dance and to send her kisses. The power of the kisses has a surprising repercussion.
The stories are followed by two pages of concise biographies of the creators including their tribal affiliations and, in most cases, their sexual orientations.
Recommended for middle school and public library collections. Because the book is part of the cautionary fables and fairy tales series, most of the stories have strong lessons imparted in the story line, but they are not dogmatic and do allow the power of the storytelling to shine through. I just wish there were adequate source notes—did I say that already?
Cautionary Fables & Fairy Tales, vol. 5: The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories Edited by Kate Ashwin, Kel McDonald, Alina Pete Iron Circus, 2022 ISBN: 9781945820977
Publisher Age Rating: 10-12 Series ISBNs and Order
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Cree, Metis, Navajo, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans, Two Spirit Character Representation: Cree, First Nations or Indigenous, Metis, Navajo
Where does one’s sense of identity begin, how does it evolve over time, and can it be shaped honestly to avoid misunderstandings? Laura Gao wrestles with these elusive questions as she navigates the curious wonders of growing up in her graphic memoir Messy Roots. Whether riding on a buffalo though the lily pad ponds of China, playing tricks on her little brother, or getting love struck by a slick female basketball player at her middle school in Texas, Laura Gao aims to find her identity and truth. This coming-of-age memoir presents a wildly amusing and deeply personal account of straddling between different cultures which will resonate with young adults seeking to find themselves along the universal journey of life.
Messy Roots transports readers on a ride through the curious and vivacious life of Laura Gao as she embarks on fanciful escapades in Wuhan, China, immigrates to Texas, returns overseas to her native homeland one summer, and finally reaches San Francisco in adulthood. Like an alien transplanted to another planet, she struggles to adapt to American culture by changing her Chinese name from Yuyang to Laura (after the first lady under President George Bush), hiding her Chinese dumplings for lunch at school, and defying stereotypes of being a math whiz. She further weaves cultural details seamlessly into her narrative–from reflecting on the Chinese legend about the young maiden whisked off to the moon during the mid-autumn festival to satisfying her cravings for white rabbit candy (a sweet milky confection).
Gao’s characters, rendered through sketched line drawings, resonate with comedic effect. Facial expressions and doodles capture a mixed range of emotional nuances and personas, sometimes with exaggerated effects reminiscent of manga. Intricately composed panels in some instances feature subtle details that warrant a second viewing to fully appreciate their thematic implications.
A remarkable and rollicking rampage through one teenager’s rites of passage, Gao delivers an honest and humorous take on the ups and downs of growing up in a constantly shifting world while tackling intersectional themes of immigration, assimilation, racism, sexuality, and self-identity. While the story adopts a warm, light-hearted tone, it also sheds light on more serious issues including the anti-Asian microaggressions that continue to persist during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her debut offers a refreshingly energetic voice to young adult library collections, bringing a queer Wuhanese American to the forefront of BIPOC characters.
Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American By Laura Gao Harper Collins Balzer + Bray, 2022 ISBN: 9780063067776
Publisher Age Rating: 14+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer , Character Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer,