Belle of the Ball

Inside every mascot, there’s a person. Belle Hawkins (you can call her Hawkins) doesn’t mind that she’s the one stuck behind the tiger mask at her high school. A true wallflower, she prefers the anonymity of hiding her face in front of the whole school. It doesn’t hurt that there’s the added advantage of getting to spend more time near her crush, Regina Moreno, head cheerleader and Hawkins’ total dream girl. Belle of the Ball by Mari Costa is the story of Hawkins’ senior year and what happens when she peers out from behind her mascot head. 

Throughout school, Hawkins kept to herself, content with her own interests like manga and very girly things, all while keeping up her grades and not thinking much about what comes next. Feeling particularly brave after practice, she finally decides to go for it and ask out Regina. Regina isn’t just the head cheerleader; she’s one of the most popular girls at school, successful and motivated too. Who doesn’t have their whole life planned out in twelfth grade? There’s just one not-so-little problem in the shape of a massive jock named Chloe Kitagawa, who happens to be Regina’s longtime girlfriend. Hawkins’ attempt at bravery goes awry when Chloe catches her in the act and immediately puts a stop to it. 

But the three aren’t out of each other’s lives yet. In order for Regina to have the next ten years go exactly as she’s planned them, Chloe needs to bring up her English grade and it seems that Hawkins is the perfect English tutor. The teens’ lives begin to encircle each other as they navigate this final year of high school while rediscovering friendships, evaluating expectations, and even getting some kissing in too. 

Belle of the Ball is an engaging graphic novel for teen readers that deals with the realities of growing up and discovering who you are. The graphic novel is recommended for high school age readers but also has crossover appeal for adult readers too. Costa’s storytelling highlights the growth of the characters and makes the reader feel connected to each of the main characters individually. The plot flows at a reasonable pace, giving readers a chance to settle in with these girls. Plus, it is just a delightfully sapphic story!

Costa’s art is animated and enchanting. The color palette of the graphic novel is very pink, with only a few other colors, and it fits the story absolutely perfectly. The varying hues of pink complement the charm of the characters and their individual stories. The manga influence in some of the panels, reflecting Hawkins’ own interests in the story, is another great touch. There are also diverse body types so many readers can see themselves on the pages. 

Readers who enjoy young adult romance or the Heartstopper series will dive right into Belle of the Ball. It is just as sweet as its pink color pages and will fit nicely in any Valentine’s Day or romantic comedy display. 

Belle of the Ball
By Mari Costa
Macmillan First Second, 2023
ISBN: 9781250784124

Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Brazilian-American,  Lesbian
Character Representation: Lesbian, Jewish

Hollow

Izzy Crane, Sleepy Hollow’s newest resident and paranormal cynic, is getting a little tired with the town’s obsession of its famous local legend, the Headless Horseman. Even with Halloween right around the corner, Izzy has no time to focus on ghosts when making new friends at a new school has its own challenges, like her developing crush on local teen icon Vicky Van Tassel. That all changes, however, when the Horseman himself chases her down one night, bringing with him a deadly mystery that’s been haunting the Van Tassel family for generations. To save her from a gruesome fate, Izzy must team up with Vicky and jock prankster, Croc Byun, and face the malevolent force stalking Sleepy Hollow.

The writing team of Shannon Watters, co-author and co-creator of Lumberjanes, and debut author Branden Boyer-White brings new life into this legendary tale, with Hollow standing as a fresh reimagining for a new generation. Each member of the core trio carries a great amount of charisma, sparking from Izzy’s skepticism and determination, Vicky’s need for identity beyond her family name, and Croc’s goofball good-naturedness. Their dynamic with each other easily makes them a group to root for as they face conflicts both supernatural and domestic.  Izzy and Vicky’s relationship in particular serves as the heart of the story as the reader slowly sees them grow closer and navigate their feelings for each other, resulting in sweet scenes of queer teen romance, as well some comedic moments from a clueless Croc. Along with the sapphic representation, the comic holds a diverse cast, with Izzy being biracial and Latina, Croc Asian, and a side character/potential love interest named Marjorie using mobility aids.

One aspect that was somewhat disappointing was the villain, whose entire vibe just screams baddie from his first panel. Though his role is immediately obvious, I was hoping for something to make him stick out more, a hidden layer or an interesting motivation. And yet, from start to finish, everything about him comes off as surface level, which is a shame given the potential that comes from updating such an iconic story. I kept feeling like I was waiting for a reveal or explanation of his identity or actions, something to further his characterization, only for it to fizzle out at the end. While I was left wanting more in this regard, everything else about the story, from its characters to the reframing and revisioning of the Headless Horseman folklore, provided a good balance that left me satisfied in the end.

Artist Berenice Nelle captures the Halloween spirit with lovely crisp colors that ooze with autumn charm that matches the coziness of the small-town setting. While some panels have backgrounds that wonderfully utilize one or both of these aesthetics, there are several panels, especially as the story progresses, that only use a flat, solid color. The backgrounds in these panels typically succeed in getting emotions across, but may break immersion in the scene or cause it to be less visually interesting, especially if they take up the majority of the page. In this instance, the characters become the focal point of the panel and, for the most part, Nelle’s designs always manage to bring vitality to each scene. Facial expressions are emotive and carry a great deal of personality, and the character designs come together to form a distinct cast of characters. Vicky, in an act of self-expression, is constantly shown wearing different clothing styles leaning towards gothic, country, or preppy to name a few, and not a one looks out of place on her. Nelle’s illustrations hold an intrigue to them that makes readers excited to see what could be waiting for them on the next page.

Those that enjoy the supernatural shenanigans of Lumberjanes as well as the spooky style and characterization of Specter Inspectors will most likely enjoy Hollow, a story that leans more on the lighter, more comedic side of paranormal activity while still having its moments of danger and action. Teens and younger adults may gravitate towards this title for its sense of humor, moments of drama, and relatable issues, especially when it comes to living up to and trying to distance oneself from familial expectations, making it a good fit for the 13-17 demographic. Educators and librarians looking to fill their graphic novel collections with inclusive reimaginings in terms of story, characters, and tone should consider purchasing this title.

Hollow
By Branden Boyer-White, Shannon Watters
Art by  Berenice Nelle
BOOM! Box, 2022
ISBN: 9781684158522

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Lesbian,  Character Representation: East Asian, Latine, Lesbian, Queer,

Doughnuts and Doom

The witch Margot and aspiring rock musician Elena are each going through a rough patch in their lives, with the former failing yet another spell license exam, and the latter struggling to get her band off the ground. Tensions are already running high as the two meet at the local doughnut shop, culminating in Margot unknowingly cursing one of Elena’s pastries. After Elena experiences an onstage accident gone viral, Margot seeks to remedy her mistake, but will it be enough to stop a doom of her own making?

Balazs Lorinczi’s debut graphic novel, Doughnuts and Doom, is a sweet treat of a story as we see the growth of Margot and Elena’s relationship, going from initially hostile to stalwartly supportive. Though they get off to a rocky start, the two eventually bond close enough to help the other through their toughest moments, whether that be Elena getting Margot through her performance anxiety or Margot standing with Elena as she faces an almost debilitating fear of failure. The connection they share through their similar conflicts of striving for success and constantly being tested on their abilities allows them to empathize more deeply with each other, something Lorinczi manages to convey in the story’s subtler moments. However, the short page length and fast pace make it a challenge for the comic to leave a lasting impression. While Margot and Elena’s dynamic is a highlight, it feels like there could have been more exploration or depth to it, something to make it stand out among the other entries in the paranormal romance genre. Character motivations also stand as being somewhat surface level, while others tend to be more vague or unaddressed, making it a bit harder to fully connect with their struggles.

In terms of world building, Lorinczi takes a laxer approach as witches and other supernatural beings are accepted and regulated figures in society, though there is not much explanation on how they function within it. Still, bits of exposition are transmitted through everyday conversation, leaving readers with enough detail to understand the world without completely breaking immersion. This falls in line with Doughnuts and Doom’s simple, relaxed tone, choosing to spend more time with how the characters interact and develop rather than fleshing out the setting. Overall, the graphic novel is one that is easy to relax to, the witchy, rock n’ roll vibes only adding more to the chill, low key atmosphere.

The cool blue color palette also feeds into the laid-back nature of the comic, which incorporates a shock of pastel pink whenever Margot uses magic. Lorinczi’s choice in contrasting the two colors creates memorable and visually distinct scenes, as the extra bit of color never fails to pop right off the page. Character designs hold a charming, alternative quality that reminds me of posters for lesser known rock groups, which, of course, is apt. Lorinczi instills so much personality in the main characters’ looks alone that it doesn’t take long for them to become endearing, as Margot’s down-to-earth appearance pairs well with Elena’s wilder style and effectively contributes to the balance of the comic’s magical and musical sides.

Doughnuts and Doom will definitely call to readers who enjoy a soft, queer paranormal romance similar to Mooncakes and Moonstruck, while also displaying an engaging sense of humor à la Fangs. The book markets itself as a “enemies-to-lovers” romance, which may not be entirely accurate, as Margot and Elena’s antagonistic moments are regulated to mostly one scene, and even then do not come from a place of working against each other, so that’s something to be aware of when suggesting the title to readers looking for certain themes.

The book has a suggested audience of 13-17 year olds, which is appropriate as, aside from the odd swear word, there is no content that would be unsuitable for younger audiences and they would have the most to benefit from seeing a depiction of a healthy, close, and supportive friendship turned relationship. Librarians and educators looking to include diverse art styles and portrayals of romantic relationships into their graphic novel collections should consider purchasing this title.

Doughnuts and Doom Vol.
By Balazs Lorinczi
Top Shelf, 2022
ISBN: 9781603095136

Publisher Age Rating: 13-17

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Representation: Lesbian, Queer,

Blackwater

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 ,

Batter Royale

Rose is an amateur baker working as a waitress in a small town restaurant. When she makes a special dessert for a food critic, she is invited to participate in a baking competition with her childhood friend Fred. This isn’t an ordinary competition though as the contestants are faced with obstacle courses, sabotage, and surprise ingredients like brussel sprouts.

Rose is motivated to win the grand prize in order to attend college at a prestigious cooking school. She is also dealing with her parents’ eminent divorce, her developing feelings for Fred, and a rival who is willing to do anything to prove herself to be the best. It’s no wonder she finds herself distracted and just managing to stay off the bottom in the competition. 

This story has all the feelings of a Hallmark romcom. The author/illustrator does a fantastic job of balancing the plot with humor, seriousness, and the competition. The judge makes a lot of corny baking puns, which is a fun recurring joke throughout the story. The illustrations are crisp and with just enough details to convey the emotions and visual cues that readers should be able to easily pick up.

Although there is not a lot of technique explanations in the text, this book does include detailed recipes sprinkled throughout the story. I did not have the chance to try making any of them, but the ingredients look to be standard baking fare and the directions easy enough to follow. Younger readers will need help from an experienced adult to help them understand some of the unexplained terms, but preteens and teens should be capable enough to follow along.

Batter Royale is recommended for any collection aimed at preteens or younger teens.  

Batter Royale
By Leisl Adams
Amulet Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781419750755

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Character Representation: Assumed Black, Canadian,

Belle

The magical realism of anime meets the enchanting wonder of Disney in Academy Award nominated director Mamoru Hosoda’s (The Girl Who Leapt through Time, Mirai) mesmerizing virtual world fantasy that echoes Beauty and the Beast. The tagline of this fantasy thriller states, “You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U,” prepping viewers to delve into this alternate reality where the inhabitants adopt identities that mask their true personas, yet draws out their hidden strengths.

Suzu, a reclusive and socially awkward lone wolf of a schoolgirl, leads a melancholy life. At a young age, she lost her mother to a drowning accident, and since then, has been holding onto a fractured relationship with her father. With the aid of her savvy social media classmate Hiro, they enter “U,” an immersive virtual world populated by avatars of every imaginable size, style, and variation. Before long, she rises to stardom as a sensational global pop star, captivating fans with uplifting songs that inspire and heal. In this world, however, lurks a brooding figure known as the Dragon, a monstrous beast who hides in the shadows, isolated and sheltered away from everyone else. Who is this mysterious beast? What secrets does he harbor? In her persona as Belle, Suzu seeks to penetrate the depths of the Dragon in hopes of uncovering his identity to redeem him.

A brilliantly executed rendition of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, Hosoda’s fantasy, supported by the creative character designs of Jin Kim (Frozen, Moana, Encanto), orchestrates a story that intersects elements of mystery, romance, and fantasy while touching upon issues of self-identity, trust, loneliness, courage, and hope. Vibrant CGI set designs along with exquisitely hand-drawn scenic backgrounds complement a surrealistic world reminiscent of the dazzling dreamlike sequences in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. In addition to the vibrant fluency and synergy of colors, strategic camera angles capture majestic and iconic shots in homage to Disney’s original animated film. The songs enrich the film’s charming enchantment, transforming it into a semi-musical piece that resonates with warmth and heart.

While not initially apparent, each character plays a significant role that culminates in a riveting climax that propels Suzu to embrace her true identity and purpose, empowering her to uncover the mystery behind the beast’s predicament. Bonus extras include character and set design galleries, insightful interviews with Hosoda, scene breakdowns, and more.

A fine achievement to the ever-expanding films of GKIDS (a division of Studio Ghibli) for family and adult audiences, Belle radiates with heartwarming passion and makes a welcome addition to anime collections .

Belle
By Mamoru Hosoda
Art by Jin Kim
GKIDS/Shout! Factory, 2022

Publisher Age Rating: PG

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Japanese
Character Representation: Japanese

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost

Blue is absolutely smitten with his best friend Hamal, a kind, soft spoken gardener with a heck of a green thumb. There’s just one problem: Blue is, well, kind of dead. Thankfully, Hamal also has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, though lacking a physical form naturally prevents Blue from deepening his connection with Hamal. To make matters worse, something odd is happening to the local spirits who suddenly find themselves briefly flickering between a dark, decaying forest and the living world. To protect the one he loves, Blue must solve this mystery even if it costs him everything in the process. Keezy Young’s sweet, yet delightfully spooky romance, Taproot, presents a look into the delicate balance between life and death and all the love and sacrifices therein.

Taproot provides an engaging enough concept to pull readers into this mismatched couple’s story. Blue and Hamal’s dynamic is playful and endearing, but the story’s fast pace and short length prevents any sort of natural development of the relationship, the progression ultimately coming off as superficial and rushed. The overall story suffers from being somewhat frustratingly vague with certain scenes lacking a cohesive flow from one to another, all coming to an incredibly anticlimactic end.  Even the “One Year Later” segment feels tacked on, as it felt narratively needless other than to show the reader what the characters are doing after the main conclusion. Though epilogues can feel welcome in other literary scenarios, here it only adds to the slight disconnection between events. While a struggling read at times due to these elements, I can still appreciate the emphasis of queer joy and acceptance in this comic, which also features a refreshing multiracial cast and non-white leads.

Despite the somewhat underdeveloped narrative, Young manages to create an inviting, memorable world through richly illustrated landscapes and characters. The character designs immediately provide a good sense of personality, whether it’s found in Hamal’s rounded, gentle features or Blue’s angular, expressive face complete with a cheeky grin. Opting for a bluish green hue to distinguish the ghosts from the living adds more stylistic and visual intrigue as Young incorporates a good amount of framing to ensure they do not blend into the similarly colored, detailed backgrounds where Young shows off the natural wonders of this setting. Images of flora thriving around every corner exude a cozy, magical atmosphere, as we see the entire town covered in fluffy moss and colorful flowers. Even the mysterious forest has a gothic, ethereal charm to it, with its twisted, gnarled trees housing skulls and listless, chalky plant life. The environments function almost as characters in and of themselves, experiencing the same trials of life and death as our main characters, and are just as severely affected by its imbalances. Taproot’s visual style perfectly complements the tone and message of its story, marveling at the beauties of life while also stressing the inclusion of death and rebirth as a necessary part of it.

As a blend of a heartwarming queer romance with a paranormal edge, Taproot will interest fans of  Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series and Suzanne Walker’s Mooncakes, both of which share friends-to-lovers relationships and distinctive styles that enhance their stories. Those looking for a quick, character driven comic may enjoy this title, though the lack of worldbuilding and disjointed plot threads may be a turn off for some readers. Young states that Taproot is intended for audiences of all ages, though it would likely appeal most to ages thirteen and up due to its romantic focus, as well as its more mature handling of the themes of life and death. This rereleased edition comes with a brand new cover, an afterword from Young, and backmatter material including original concept art. Librarians and educators looking to include more inclusive and diverse paranormal romances should consider purchasing this title.

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost
By Keezy Young
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150733

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Gay
Character Representation: Bisexual, Gay

Chef’s Kiss

What does an English major college graduate, a chef at a restaurant, and a pig with fine tasting aesthetics have in common? For a studious bookworm like Ben Cook, this unlikely combination may lead him to a future career or even his life’s destiny. A bit of soul-searching propels him into an unexpected culinary extravaganza in Jarrett Melendez and Danica Brine’s artfully charming graphic novel debut Chef’s Kiss.

The story begins with a group of four twenty-somethings straight out of college who move into an apartment to start the next chapter in their lives. Ben in particular tackles multiple interviews and fails to hit the mark repeatedly until one day he spots a want ad at a restaurant. There his entry-level roasted squash soup dish wins the approval of Watson the pig, the head chef’s ultimate taste test for evaluating the quality of gourmet concoctions, thereby landing him his first job after college. Along the way, Ben befriends his partner-in-cooking, sous-chef Liam, and thus begins a crush relationship between the two, steering them into uncharted territory beyond mere culinary creations. But are they prepared to take their relationship to the next level?  And what other adventures lie beyond the life that Ben is just starting to explore after college?

Melendez’s characterization of Ben, his roommates, and Liam combined with Brine’s character designs and vibrant colors of Hank Jones engenders a synergistically compelling storytelling experience. Facial expressions and subtle mannerisms amongst the characters add emotional nuances to each of their distinct personalities. Single-shot panels delineating food ingredients, prep work, and cooking tasks unfold in a montage style, animating the narrative sequences to produce a gastronomical feast for the eyes. While navigating variant pathways through life, Ben relies on the advice of his longtime best friend Liz Brooks, who serves as his conscience and guides him through the labyrinth of decision making.

A light-hearted and humorous yet constructive soul-searching quest through the afterlife of college, replete with uncertainties and serendipitous discoveries, Chef’s Kiss navigates the meandering currents of maintaining friendships, exploring queer relationships, making life choices, and finding one’s identity. Variant covers, standalone artwork, and character profiles are included as bonus extras. This graphic novel adds an enriching adult coming-of-age story to the nebulous period between graduating from college and entering the real world. Bristling with colorful panels and winsome characters makes this an engaging read for all library collections.

Chef’s Kiss
By Jarrett Melendez
Art by Danica Brine
Oni Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781620109045

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Representation: Gay

The Rema Chronicles: Realm of the Blue Mist

Fifteen-year-old Tabby Simon is in a depressing rut. Her father died seven years ago in a mysterious accident. His death was attributed to mist emitted by the strange tree he was studying, but Tabby doesn’t buy that. So now, she spends all her free time studying the tree herself, in secret. But it’s going nowhere . . . until the day a handsome boy with glowing blue eyes shows up, and everything changes.

Tabby is pulled through a portal and finds herself on another planet. Rema is a beautiful world, full of alien architecture and sweeping vistas. It is also dangerous. The geists, people with supernatural powers, are feared and shunned – and some of them are plotting against the government. The Keepers, meanwhile, travel between worlds and protect the realm. The blue-eyed boy, Philip, is a Keeper who is also, secretly and unhappily, a geist. He promises to get Tabby home, but that proves difficult—maybe even impossible. Meanwhile, Tabby and Philip are beginning to grow attached to each other. Would either of them even want her to leave Rema?

And that’s before Tabby meets a strange being who knew her father. A being who knows what really happened to him—and who wants something from Tabby.

It’s easy to feel for Tabby: she’s an intensely lonely kid who misses her dad, doesn’t get along well with her mom, and seems to have no friends. This ends up being convenient, as she is not terribly upset by the prospect of being stuck in Rema, unable to return to Earth. Philip, too, is lonely. He has no family and is isolated by his dangerous secrets. The book drops hints of a tragic backstory, too. Tabby finds Philip handsome and kind, and he finds her sympathetic and easy to talk to. Throw in a lot of blushing and one very emotional hug, and an Earthling-Reman romance is born.

The romance is not the only plotline likely to be expanded in future books. There is the mystery of what happened to Tabby’s father, and also the geist rebel who suggests that Tabby can expect a visit from one of the Reman gods. Lots of reasons to keep reading the series!

The world of Rema, in which most of this book takes place, is lush and imaginative. Its history, religion, laws, and social structure are introduced in this book, but it feels as if we have seen only the tip of the iceberg. The visuals underscore the alien feel of the world: not only is it full of whimsical architecture and art, but it is often seen from above, as citizens of this city can fly.

The characters have a manga-influenced look – some more than others – but they are simpler and more realistically-proportioned than many manga characters. They fit well with the backgrounds, having a similar level of detail and smooth, organic feel.

Many graphic novel readers will be familiar with the Amulet books by Amy Kim Kibuishi’s husband, Kazu Kibuishi. The series have some things in common; fatherless young protagonists who find themselves in bizarre, richly-illustrated fantasy worlds in which they have important destinies. Fans of Amulet may enjoy this series, too, especially if they like a little light romance with their otherworldly adventures.

The Rema Chronicles: Realm of the Blue Mist Vol. 1
By Amy Kim Kibuishi
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338115130

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)

Coming Back

Coming Back is a romance adventure about magic, family, and the journeys we go on to find ourselves. A mythic sensibility and appealing artwork in dreamy, saturated earth tones makes this young adult title by creator Jessi Zabarsky a contemporary fairy tale to look out for.

Valissa and Preet are young and in love. According to the customs of their island of magical women, the next step in their relationship is straightforward—wait for a seed to wash ashore, plant it, and tend to it until it hatches a child. (Wait, where did you think babies came from?)

But Valissa goes off-script when a dangerous enchantment infests the village library. Valissa is a rare non-magic user, and she’s tired of being the dependent one in her partnership with magically talented Preet. She volunteers to descend into the library catacombs alone to safeguard the village from danger. Before she departs, a seed comes ashore for her and Preet, but they make the heartbreaking decision to return it to the waters—the village won’t allow Preet to raise a child without a partner at her side.

Time passes without any word from Valissa, and Preet is visited by the seed again. This time, she impetuously decides to raise the child by herself. Soon the community discovers her transgression, and she and her daughter are exiled. Even as Valissa descends into the library and excavates its uncanny secrets, Preet and her daughter go on their own surreal journey of self-discovery. What both women uncover will test their relationship—and the foundations of their society.

I loved the strangeness at the heart of Coming Back. Zabarsky’s artwork is cozy and accessible, with folksy scenes of homemaking and village camaraderie and a queer, multiracial cast. Yet its cottagecore charms are paired with odd, pleasantly incongruous images: tending to a leafy seed-child, exploring an otherworld of weird creatures, traveling through Wonderland-like portals in a magical library. Sometimes this dream-logic approach to plot makes for a puzzling read, with story beats that don’t seem entirely congruous with what’s come before. Still, my emotional investment and the pleasure of spending time in this world made for an engaging reading experience with a heartfelt resolution.

Coming Back is a bold, delightfully queer reimagining of what it means to be a family, as well as a parable about the power of questioning the expectations that are placed on us. At a disruptive time when many of us are forging our own paths in the face of self-doubt and dislocation, both teen and adult readers will find magic and affirmation in this book.

Coming Back
By Jessi Zabarsky
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9780593125434

Publisher Age Rating: 12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Representation: Lesbian,