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,
It’s been a few decades since I was a teen, but the memory of what it was like is still prescient. The pressure of getting good grades, figuring out who I was, and dealing with trauma like losing a parent are all universal themes and something we can all relate to in one way or another.
The kids of the midwestern town of Howlette (get it? Howl-lette) have a lot going on. Jae works for his parent’s jewelry store while twins Isabelle and Lorenzo, whose parents are never home, have unrequited crushes on Jae and Jaxon respectively. Alvern lost his parents and recently moved to Howlette from Philadelphia. Mara’s father, the alpha of the local werewolf pack, has gone missing and her mom has been gone from her life for years. There is a lot going on for the kids, plus the pressure of doing well in school, getting ready for college, fitting in, and just overall being kids. I may remember what it was like to go through some of those things, but being right in the moment of them is sharper still.
One day, the kids are attacked by a quartet of vicious dogs. Mara, the lone wolf (get it?) comes in to save them. She directs the kids on how to clean up their wounds and the kids are grateful for her kindness. The following day, the wounds have all nearly healed, but individually the kids don’t feel so hot. When Jae turns into an Airdale in the nurse’s office, you know things are going to change, and quickly.
With a slight horror twist, Werewoofs is also a mystery to find Mara’s dad, who has disappeared. Mara’s familial relationships also come into play in a big way when her cousin Zev takes over as alpha and attempts to turn the pack from peace loving and working with humans to wanting to destroy humans and take over Howlette.
There is a lot going on here as the kids work together and individually on their stuff, with Lorenzo becoming a dog to befriend his crush Jaxon and the kids working together to help protect Jae’s parents from a robbery, as well as solving the mystery of what happened to Mara’s dad.
Joelle Sellner is a versatile writer, having written everything from advertising campaigns for Lexus and Kleenex to movies on the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime. She also has a long resume of writing for animation projects such as Lego Friends, DC Super Hero Girls, and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. If that weren’t enough, she’s also written for Blizzard, DC, and Marvel. She’s got the chops and it shows. The script is tightly plotted and the characters are fully realized, so you get to experience the pain and joy of all the kids as well as the adults. She leaves no stone unturned and makes sure all the plot points are covered.
Val Wie is an illustrator who has worked on the graphic novel Cheer Up!: Love and Pom Poms as well as anthologies and other works for YA and adults. Wise’s work concentrates on the body, transness, and romance, which is evident here. The characters come in a wide range of sizes, genders, and sexual identities, as well as racial backgrounds. The art feels natural and akin to our daily lives where we come in contact with all sorts of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and in Werewoofs this is very important. While the kids are fairly self-confident in who they are, there are some struggles such as Lorenzo grappling with his queerness and his single statement to his sister that she doesn’t get what it’s like to be him.
This graphic novel is styled as if it’s a volume one and I hope that is true. The kids of Howlette have earned a fan and seeing more stories, solving more mysteries, and learning about themselves and others would make for a great read.
The age range of the book is 12 – 17 but I heartily recommend it for all ages. It will be a great addition to collections that showcase diversity, equity, and inclusion as not only a great starting point to talk to kids about the changes they are about to go through, but also to have the representation of those changes.
Werewoofs By Joelle Sellner Art by Val Wise New Paradigm Studios, 2021 ISBN: 9781939516800
Publisher Age Rating: 12 – 17
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Queer, Trans
Hotel Dare tells us that family are the ones you fight for. The story comes out swinging, with newly adopted Charlotte explaining she beat up a kid at school because he was saying things about her family. As eldest sister Olive points out, everything the kid said is true, the siblings don’t look alike at all and Olive is queer. Still, it’s this fighting nature, and the notion that how you protect your family won’t always be popular with them, that holds the story together. Hotel Dare offers a number of ways for families to fall apart, from the space pirate Mila being exiled from their world for who they love, to Mamá Lupe neglecting her son while she lookes for her lost husband in the magical worlds. Amidst strife there’s always the hope for love triumphing.
Olive, Darwin, and Charlotte are spending their summer with their abuela in Mexico at the Hotel Dare. It looms on the first page in a splash of boxy house shapes cobbled together and teetering at the highest levels, connected by rope ladders. Olive has an ulterior motive to their trip: to discover why it is their father and Mamá Lupe are estranged, what fight it was that separated them. Mamá Lupe makes it clear they’re there to help her clean and fix up the hotel, but softens her expectations with conchas, hot chocolate, and several days of the siblings lounging around the house.
Once the work gets underway, they split up to clean three separate rooms and simultaneously discover three closets leading to three different fantasy worlds. Olive is in a wizarding world where she finds herself comforting Brad, a muscled apprentice with chiseled features and long flowing blond locks crushed by his hideous inability to grow a beard, the most important status symbol of his world. Darwin, who almost never speaks in the real world, is drawn into a world of cotton candy colors and fluff juxtaposed with dark black glass. A fuzzy floating creature befriends him. Charlotte finds a world of space pirates and opportunities to put her tinkering abilities to good use. None of the worlds are quite what they appear and the siblings find out many family secrets as they begin to understand everything Mamá Lupe has been hiding in the Hotel Dare.
Terry Blas’s writing in Hotel Dare spins out character development and action in well measured doses. We never find out much about the siblings’ pasts, beyond Charlotte and Darwin having come from orphanages. What’s important is how they act now in preserving or stressing their family. The worlds they end up in tell us more about their inner struggles and identities. Mamá Lupe’s past is fully developed, a beautiful homage to a love of fantasy stories and Mexican history and mythology. Not to mention Mamá Lupe has led a pretty badass adventure-packed life in the many worlds. Blas weaves themes of isolation, gender, justice, and bigotry into the story. There’s a lot of the plot I’m leaving out so you’ll get to enjoy it unfolding, you’ll just have to trust me. The only weakness in the book is that it ends much too soon. You will feel like there should be a sequel before you realize that the resolution is already there, you just didn’t get to experience the fallout and emotional work still to come for the characters. You want more time with the characters. The kind of longing only great books can bring.
Claudia Aguirre’s art is dynamic and busy, colors and shapes often crammed in like the erratic rooflines of the Hotel Dare. Sometimes the panels slant and crash under the action. The faces are cartoonish with crystal clear emotions, touching on the human core of the fantasy story. Color palettes and background art styles create the character of the different worlds, cool toned soaring fantasy for the wizard world, soft warm colors and childish shapes for Darwin’s world and geometric metallic settings for the space pirates. These divisions are necessary to help the reader navigate the story as it frequently switches between the different worlds. In every world, even ours, there’s always a sense of something glowing that makes Hotel Dare feel alive in your hands.
I’m reaching back a bit for this review; Hotel Dare was published three years ago. It’s an often overlooked gem that features a Latinx cast, LGBTQ issues, and the kind of fantasy multiple dimension world building that never goes out of style. I breathlessly tore through the advance reader copy, pushed it in booktalks, and for years have worn a pin on my lanyard like the mysterious one discovered in Mamá Lupe’s office. If you missed it, I hope you’ll take a second look for your collections and programming. Hotel Dare has a place in any children’s collection. There are no content issues, but upper elementary and tween students will get more from the nuances of the family dynamics. Hand it to kids reading 5 Worlds, Star Scouts, and Lumberjanes. Chapter book fans of Dragons in a Bag and visitors to Narnia, Neverland, and other magical portals will also find a lot to love.
Hotel Dare By Terry Blas Art by Claudia Aguirre BOOM! KaBOOM!, 2019 ISBN: 9781684152056
Publisher Age Rating: 9-11
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Mexican-American, Queer Character Representation: Mexican-American, Queer
Cape Grace is one of the most haunted towns in America, what with its records of mysterious disappearances, cult activity, and unnerving spirit sightings, making it the perfect destination for the next episode of Specter Inspectors. Paranormal enthusiast, Noa, her younger sibling, Gus, best friend and secret crush, Astrid, and their camera operator, Ko, journey to the small town to prove that ghosts exist. However, when Astrid suddenly becomes possessed, the gang soon stumble upon forces far beyond their understanding. To save their friend they must uncover the town’s dark history, which holds more sinister secrets than the odd ghost or two. Coming off as a queer Scooby-Doo for a new age, Specter Inspectors delivers an engaging, fast-paced, and, at times, emotionally compelling tale all wrapped up in an eerily atmospheric style that perfectly sets the mood for spooky shenanigans.
Authors Bowen McCurdy and Kaitlyn Musto hit all the narrative beats one expects to find in this kind of story: investigating a decrepit, creepy building, ensuing supernatural hijinks, at least one trip to the local library, and ultimately coming toe-to-toe with an otherworldly entity. Despite the typical formula, the writing and characters are what keep the story fresh and interesting. There is never a dull moment, as our inspectors are thrust from one ghoulish encounter to another, while still having more grounded, character-developing moments. When writing a story with an ensemble cast, there is always the risk of alienating and setting aside certain characters, leading to an unbalanced focus. Thankfully, McCurdy and Musto avoid this issue, giving everyone their chance to become endearing and relatable to the readers. The dynamics of the group are expertly in-sync, with Noa as the enthusiastic true believer, Astrid the skeptic, Ko the scaredy-cat, and Gus the sarcastic younger sibling doubling as the voice of reason. These archetypes gel well together, enriching each interaction with personality and occasional humor. There were one or two scenes that got a good snort out of me, mostly due to great comedic timing paired with the wonderfully expressive faces of the characters.
McCurdy also serves as the comic’s artist, utilizing colors that bring out the evocative qualities of the illustrations, especially in the opening establishing panels of Cape Grace, which is awash with varying shades of an ominous green. In the first few pages alone, McCurdy instantly draws readers into the paranormal vibes that constantly linger around the setting, heightened by the appropriately ghastly appearance of the old town hall and the overall feeling of barrenness around the town. Though a few residents appear every now and then, there is an emptiness to Cape Grace with each deserted street and building, depicting the environments as somewhat foreboding and isolating. McCurdy excels at giving Cape Grace that lovely “small town spooky” aesthetic, though is also capable of creating beautiful scenes, like a firefly-lit night by a lake covered in deep blues, somehow seeming so far away from the constantly emerald lit town, but still a part of it. The range of colors, expressions, and designs both in setting and characters truly elevate the effectiveness of the emotional impact of the story, whether when it is trying to send a shiver down our spines or endearing us to a romance that lies just beneath the horror.
One blurb on the back of the comic states that you will “show up for the ghosts, stay for the queer romance” and I could not say it any better myself. Noa and Astrid’s relationship, giving sapphic romance representation, blossoms so wonderfully on the page, starting from awkward attempts at flirting to genuine displays of admiration, affection, and concern for the others’ wellbeing. I am always so excited to see more LGBTQ+ relationships in horror media and it is wonderful to see that this representation is being more normalized across multiple genres. Other representation includes Gus, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.
Marketed as a horror title, Specter Inspectors skews towards the lighter side of the genre, without depending on blood or gore for its few scares. This makes it ideal for those that enjoy paranormal stories that are short on true terror, but compensate it with likable main characters, elements of mystery, and an unearthly ambiance. There is a touch of unsettling imagery towards the end and talk of possessions and cult behavior throughout, so it would be best for ages 13 and up. Those that are looking to acquire stories with positive LGBTQ+ representation across various genres, as well as add to a collection that has a high circulation of paranormal/horror materials, should consider purchasing this title.
Specter Inspectors By Bowen McCurdy, Kaitlyn Musto Art by Bowen McCurdy BOOM! Box, 2021 ISBN: 9781684157402
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Queer Character Representation: Queer, Nonbinary
What would you do for a lifetime pass to your favorite theme park? Maybe come up with a seemingly foolproof plan to ensure you and your friends get such passes? Jackie Chavez concocts a brilliant scheme to do exactly that in Lifetime Passes, written by Terry Blas with art by Claudia Aguirre.
Jackie lives with her tía Gina, working alongside her at the Valley Care Living Retirement Home. Ever since Jackie’s parents were deported, her relationship with her aunt has been her constant. The retirement home isn’t glamorous, but luckily Jackie has an escape: Kingdom Adventure. She and her friends spend all their free time at the theme park, a world of fantasy and magic. It was where Jackie’s parents took her as a child and told her that she could be anything, be anyone.
But theme parks are expensive and Kingdom Adventure is no exception. Jackie’s aunt can no longer afford to renew her season pass, leaving her with no way to get in and no place to go once the summer is over. She’s devastated until she overhears some of the park employees one afternoon. If a member of your party dies while you’re in the park, everyone else in the party receives a free lifetime pass, a way for the company to avoid any legal troubles. How convenient that Jackie works at a place full of elderly people!
Jackie creates a new program to use the residents of the home for their advantage. Senior Time Outreach Program, or S.T.O.P., gives the group of friends a chance to take different members of the home to Kingdom Adventure for a day outing. It’s a hit! The seniors love getting out and Jackie finds herself bonding with Phyllis, who has a lifetime of stories from her years working in the entertainment industry and a special connection to the theme park itself.
As readers spend the summer with Jackie and her friends, both old and new, more about Jackie’s parents and her struggles to fit in come out as her relationship with Phyllis blossoms. Phyllis encourages Jackie to embrace her adversity, to become stronger, and to force herself to grow. A girlfriend won’t necessarily be what makes Jackie happy, it will be herself and all the relationships she values in her life.
The book also tackles the often uncomfortable subject of elder care, through the retirement home and Jackie’s relationships with its residents. For readers watching older folks in their life move onto the next stage of life, this book helps them deal and understand those very feelings.
Lifetime Passes features characters with a number of different backgrounds, so there are multiple characters readers might find themselves relating with. Aguirre’s art matches the tone of the story and its shifts throughout. The characters are expressive, the colors are vibrant, and the world of Kingdom Adventure jumps off the pages. There is a lot of heart in the story being told and readers will root against S.T.O.P.’s goal. Readers who like stories of those who don’t exactly fit in or how you can change after making a mistake will be drawn into Jackie’s world and Kingdom Adventure.
Lifetime Passes By Terry Blas Art by Claudia Aguirre Abrams ComicArts, 2021 ISBN: 9781419746666 Publisher Age Rating: 14+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Mexican, Mexican-American, Queer Character Representation: Mexican-American, Queer
A charming and diverse group of kid cryptids live together in a protected home called the Playroom, until one day the protection fails and they must run for their lives. Deemed “irregularities” by society, the kids manage to escape being kidnapped by an evil “Collector” of oddities—for the moment. With no place to turn and no one to trust but each other, the group flees from hazard to hazard, each new danger adding to their doubt that anyone will ever accept them for who they are.
Mutants and aliens have long served as a metaphor for prejudice of all types, and the lesson isn’t neglected here. Society is set against the children because they are different, and in most cases the children’s families were also persecuted. As their journey unfolds, so too do their traumatic backstories. White-haired and white-skinned yeti Omar had to watch his Sherpa Nani die in front of him as she tried to protect him from being taken away. Will-o-the-wisp Sylvie, pale-skinned with pointy ears, was imprisoned as a child because she can fly. She also has a darker power: the ability to control anyone who threatens her safety. Newton, a green, scaly reptilian alien clone who can take on the appearance of a white boy, has been ostracized from his stoic people because he shows too many human emotions. Brown-skinned Jaali is one of the Nandi bears of Kenyan legend. When he was young, he and his father were discovered in their transformed states and captured, but Jaali escaped and his father did not. Ever since, he has been haunted with worry for his dad. Selkie Clarice and green-skinned, tentacled Maggie were both stolen from their ocean families. Each kid’s candid sharing about their past evokes empathy for their plights, and the regular-kid hijinks, even as they face threat after threat, add to the group’s likability.
Various havens serve as interludes between the dangers, reassuring the kids that not all the world is against them. A street urchin named Tibbs leads them to an abandoned theater where the group is delighted to find many more young cryptids like them. A brief Romeo and Juliet-esque side plot develops, revealing that prejudice exists even among the cryptids themselves. Meanwhile, Tibbs gives Omar a quick lesson on pronouns, leading Omar to later realize he is nonbinary. Though not germane to the plot, the group’s easy acceptance of Omar’s decision highlights the support they offer one another.
Visually, the panels are a delight: uncluttered and easy to follow but laid out in a variety of shapes and tonal themes. The clean pages prevent the large cast from becoming unwieldy and make it all the more fun to pore over the occasional highly detailed spreads, such as the montage of the kids’ foray into various cryptid locations.
The concept may be reminiscent of YA comics like Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways or James Patterson’s Maximum Ride, but Another Kind strikes a perfect middle grade balance: the high-stakes adventures are perilous enough to keep the pages turning, but the love and loyalty the children show for the found-family they’ve formed makes it clear there’s hope for a better future. This mix of action, sweetness, and humor is sure to appeal to readers who enjoy series such as Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy, Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless, and Mark Siegel’s 5 Worlds.
Another Kind By Trevor Bream, Cai May Art by Cai May Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2021 ISBN: 9780063043534 Publisher Age Rating: 10+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Queer Character Representation: African-American, Nonbinary
The life of Nova Huang, teenage witch, had been going through its usual motions: helping her grandmothers run their bookshop, loaning out spell books to the local magic users, and investigating the odd supernatural occurrence in the community. Naturally, she did not expect to run into her long-lost childhood friend and werewolf, Tam Lang, facing off against a malevolent horse demon in the woods. Currently on the run from those looking to steal their wolf magic, Tam turns to Nova for aid. What follows is a resurgence of unspoken feelings, their relationship deepening as they reconnect over hopes, fears, and uncertainties both old and new. In this brand-new collector’s edition of the Hugo Award nominee, Mooncakes weaves a beautiful story that will captivate readers with the wonders of magic, self-discovery, and the unshakeable strength of love and family, both born to and found.
Wendy Xu’s muted, yet charming color palette immediately engulfs readers into the atmosphere of the story, as the comic opens on a panel filled with the alluring reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn. A sense of coziness in the colors persists in the backgrounds, whether in the forest surrounding Nova’s town or in the book-filled backroom of her grandmothers’ bookshop. Even the clothing of the characters goes a long way in strengthening the fall vibes that linger within each page, displaying comfy sweaters and stylish button-ups and jackets. From the art alone, Xu’s illustrations bring about an urge to whip up the warmest, most comforting beverage, wrap yourself in a soft blanket, and nestle within them. The use of larger panels as well as a straightforward layout scheme make this an accessible read, its more character-driven scenes being the most standout portions of the story. Panels in which there is no dialogue are fairly common, relying completely on Xu’s artistic choices to accurately convey the underlying emotions of the scene. As a result of the depth and versatility of the characters’ expressions, each of these scenes hit their marks perfectly.
The story itself is mostly grounded, all fantastical elements aside. Nova and Tam’s relationship serves as the emotional crux and, though we fall into the middle of their developing romance, this does not make it any less compelling. Their constant support and loyalty to each other cements them as a couple we want to see succeed and overcome all odds. Both of them try to anchor the other through their own emotional insecurities, whether it is Nova’s fear of leaving behind the only family she has left or Tam’s doubt of their own abilities and need for acceptance and family. The open and honest communication between them is equal parts refreshing and endearing as we follow them through their shared journeys. This dynamic aside, the comic underlies the story with a healthy amount of humor with the characters naturally bouncing off of each other. Though the danger of whatever is lurking in the woods remains prevalent in the story, the action mostly takes a backseat to the exploration of the characters and their dynamics.
One element that Suzanne Walker and Xu weave expertly in Mooncakes is its representation, which, although present and utilized in the story, does not make up the sum of the characters. Both Nova and Tam are Chinese-American, with Nova also being bisexual, hard of hearing, and a hearing aid user, while Tam is genderqueer and goes by they/them pronouns. The intersectionality of these representations does not come off as “how many identities can we stack on top of each other,” but as realistic facets of these characters, as they should be. Neither of the main characters’ main conflicts revolve around these parts of their identities, nor does the comic completely shy away from how they do impact their lives. These two elements balance each other perfectly, leading to a representative material that treats its characters like people first and foremost.
Due to the art style of the comic, its themes on identity and acceptance, and the meaningful relationship between the main leads, Mooncakes is best for those 13 and up looking for a good mix of heart and humor with a paranormal edge. This special edition also includes a new introduction and afterword, as well as previously unpublished materials, such as concept art, scripts, and letters from the characters that give additional worldbuilding. Librarians and educators looking for more inclusive materials or character-driven stories for their collection should considered purchasing this title.
Mooncakes Collector’s Edition By Suzanne Walker Art by Wendy Xu Oni Press, 2021 ISBN: 9781620109731 Publisher Age Rating: 13-16
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer, Hearing loss Character Representation: Chinese-American, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Hearing loss
In volume one of The Cardboard Kingdom, we are introduced to a motley group of kids who create their own world, ranging from sorceress and rogues to gargoyles and princes, in their neighborhood. Told through a series of vignettes, they go on adventures, discover friendships, and navigate their personal worlds using play and imagination.
In Volume 2, The Roar of the Beast, it’s the beginning of the school year and the kids are getting excited for Halloween. Nate discovers one night that there is a monster in the neighborhood and each kid claims that it’s not them and thus, instead of a series of connected vignettes just like in the first volume, they go on separate adventures to find the monster once and for all.
One night, Nate thinks he sees his step-brother, Elijah, going into the garage when Nate notices a monster in their midst. In a rush to save Elijah, Nate breaks his leg. The story commences with residents of The Cardboard Kingdom working together (The Monster Mashers) to find and catch the monster with Nate leading the way, from his front porch, of course. The kids are scared, and rightly so, because the monster is indeed scary. A secondary story features VIjay, The Beast, who is being bullied by the neighborhood teens.
Is the monster real and who is behind it? Will the monster ever stop terrorizing the neighborhood? Will Vijay ever come back as The Beast and leave his bedroom? All the mysteries will be revealed.
While there is not really a backstory to this volume, and you don’t really need to read volume one to get the kids’ personalities, it is helpful if you do. There is a lot of subtext going on that could easily be missed, such as Miguel’s crush on Nate, and Alice’s battle between being a brilliant business woman (her aunt is a lawyer) and her desire to have friends.
The book is perfectly rated for grades 4 – 7 and for fans of Raina Telgemeier and All’s Faire in Middle School. There is a lot to unpack beyond the play and imagination. At first blush, it seems like a pre-teen adventure story, but it is so much more than that. Just like in volume one, readers will learn about relationships and cultures they may not find in their day-to-day lives, such as one-parent families, families of mixed races, first generation immigrants, queer kids, and gender fluidity. This is the perfect time for the kids, as pre-teens are still between the worlds of growing up and childhood.
Chad Sell is again the artist and he brings with him the cadre of writers who worked with him on volume one. Their work together has continuity and the voices are consistent, with a lot of uniformity from one volume to the other. I really liked that writers brought their own experiences and influences which really imbues the kids with personalities.
Even as an adult of a certain age, I love The Carboard Kingdom series and I highly recommend this for pre-teens and adults alike. As Sophie the Big Banshee says, ROWWWRRRR.
The Cardboard Kingdom, vol 2: Roar of the Beast By Various Art by Chad Sell Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021 ISBN: 9780593125540
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Queer, Character Representation: Queer, Genderqueer
Black Star begins with a close up on the eyes of our heroine, gradually zooming out from her peacefully sleeping form as an inferno closes in from the edges of the page. A catastrophic asteroid hit to her space shuttle jars Dr. North out of stasis and into survival mode, fleeing the burning wreck. Once on solid ground she dons a visorcam that plugs her into Guardian, a tech intelligence that connects her to the ship’s systems, can monitor her physical condition, and guides her through the wild terrain of Eleos, the planet she’s crashed into. It says a lot about her frame of mind that the first thing she does is ask Guardian for the location of the auxiliary shuttle and directions to it, not realizing for several pages that her hands are bleeding, something Guardian has to alert her to. Guardian encourages her with all the mocking, annoying charm of the old paperclip popup from Microsoft Word (to offer an extremely dated reference), suggesting she pick up her pace when we’ve glimpsed the origins of the horror and exhaustion churning inside her. Eleos is created for the reader by expressive landscape shots of the ever changing environment and ominous warnings from Guardian about flooding, forest fires, and more.
Just after Dr. North experiences the first of the many dangerous climate features, she discovers that there was another survivor, Parrish, and that she too is heading for the auxiliary shuttle. She’s also burning with rage and grief, blaming Dr. North for not rescuing the rest of the crew. And the auxiliary shuttle only has space for one. The bulk of the book shows us their battle, with everything Eleos can throw at them, using their wits and tech to take shots from a distance, and in ferocious close-up brawls.
This is a taut, streamlined debut graphic novel, written by Eric A. Glover with art by Arielle Jovellanos. Adapted from a film screenplay, it makes full use of imagery to tell its story, with sparse dialog. In choosing a plot limited to two characters at the mercy of the elements, it’s tempting to rely on flashbacks to flesh out the story, but Glover makes sparing use of them. Each of the main characters uses the Guardian to access the ship’s video system and watch recent events, for myriad reasons ranging from confusion and longing to deception. The decision to have the characters control the flashbacks, an act of intention rather than external narrative, concentrates the story even further on the two women. There is no narrator or perspective apart from theirs. We do learn a little backstory about the scientific and personal motivations of the astronauts in the flashbacks, but mostly the book is about a cutthroat struggle for survival. It’s notable to have a science fiction action story that has an entirely female cast, with our two main characters shown as women of color. There’s also a lesbian angle to the plot. It’s a great entry in the slowly growing body of inclusive science fiction comics. Glover’s bio on the publisher’s webpage for the book cites his dedication to telling the stories of underrepresented groups, evident in Black Star‘s pages.
Arielle Jovellanos makes fantastic use of the panel structure to steer the mood of the story. Beats where Dr. North can catch her breath a little and makes plodding progress in tidy panels become fractured shards of off-kilter panels when floods, fire, and other calamities disrupt her journey. The art style is emotive, more on the cartoon side than realistic, while still aptly conveying the weight of the grim story. The eyes of the characters in particular bear a lot of the storytelling duties and she excels at bringing them to life. The palette often dips into the cold futuristic blue and digital readout red of sci fi, with floating pixels and grids denoting technological visuals.
This is a dynamic and engaging graphic novel, an excellent addition to any collection for adults or teens. There is a lot of fighting and blood and the often wordless nature of the storytelling makes it a little harder to follow than the average graphic novel, so advanced readers will enjoy it more. As a movie, it would probably be PG-13; the violence isn’t anything tv and movies haven’t prepared teens for, and there is no sex or nudity. It’s hard to come up with read-alikes that would help narrow down the perfect audience. If you like stories of survival, space exploration, and strong women, grab this right away. Black Star shows that on a planet full of deadly natural elements, it’s human nature that remains the most brutal.
Black Star By Eric Glover Art by Arielle Jovellanos Abrams, 2021 ISBN: 9781419742286
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Black, Queer Character Representation: Black