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,
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 ,
What happens when five middle school children from different walks of life wind up working together to complete their community service hours? Well, they complete their assignment, just not the one they were given. And while doing so, they discover that they are more than what their school perceives them to be. Invisible, written by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (award winning author of The Red Umbrella and Concealed) and illustrated by Gabriela Epstein (contributing illustrator for the Babysitter’s Club graphic novel series), gives readers a story about overcoming expectations and being seen as someone who can make a difference.
Conrad Middle School students George, Sara, Dayara, Nico, and Miguel have one thing in common: they all speak Spanish. They don’t know each other nor have they ever hung out together, but that all changes when they need to complete their community service hours. Their assignment: cleaning up the cafeteria each morning under the stern gaze of cafeteria lady Mrs. Grouser. As they take out the garbage and organize utensils, the group meets a mother and her young child who live in a car next to the school. Throughout the week, the children provide them with food, books, soup kitchen notices, and a job listing, meanwhile getting to know each other and becoming friends.
What makes Invisible different from other middle school graphic novels is its cast and dialogue. Not only do you have five Spanish speaking students from different parts of Latin America, but most of their conversations are spoken in their native language. For those who are unfamiliar with Spanish, Epstein prints the speech bubbles in both English and Spanish, reminding readers where these children come from. However, author Gonzalez gives each student their own background story with situations that most children, no matter what nationality they are, may experience. As the story progresses, the readers see the children as regular middle school students who want to show others that they are more than their language. Readers are also treated to a story centered on helping others and how a language barrier should not hold you back. Epstein’s artwork provides a diverse look at the many different Latin nationalities there are and their visible differences. Any emotions from the characters, especially in difficult situations, are expressed vividly without having to use dialogue of any language.
With relatable characters and a heartwarming storyline, Invisible is a must have for both school and public libraries. With its use of bilingual text, libraries that cater to Spanish speaking communities should be willing to purchase it for their collection. As for elementary and middle school students, (preferably those in grades 4-7) they will be intrigued with the methods these characters use to help someone in need and be inspired to do the same.
Invisible By Christina Diaz Gonzalez Art by Gabriella Epstein Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022 ISBN: 9781338194548
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Character Representation: Latine, Spanish, Spanish-American
Navigating senior year is hard enough already, but having to choose between living the life you want for yourself and living the life others think is right for you is a level up in difficulty. Nothing makes Noah feel more like himself than designing and sewing clothing, but his public servant parents are adamantly against him attending art school to pursue a career in costuming. Azarie has gotten very good at playing the part of the perfect mayor’s daughter, helping keep up the “traditional” family facade her father projects to the public as he runs for re-election, but deep down, she just wants to read comics and play video games.
When the two teens from very different worlds accidentally run into each other at the mall, it turns out they’re not so different after all: they both just want to realize their dreams. But unfortunately for them, not everyone else supports them. As Noah and Azarie navigate their double lives and work together towards a common goal, will their new friendship and confidence in themselves hold strong? Or will the actions of those determined to maintain the status quo unravel it all?
Though teens struggling to find and be themselves while under the constraints and expectations of their parents is not a new concept in teen stories, it feels fresh in David Pinckney’s Needle & Thread. The narrative decision to have Noah and Azarie stay purely platonic friends is refreshing and important, and keeps it from falling back onto the star-crossed lovers trope that so easily can happen when characters are from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds (Noah is Afro-Latine and middle class, Azarie is White and wealthy). Their friendship and character development as they discover who they are together and apart is one of the strongest aspects of the story, and readers will root for them as their bond gets tested by outside influences.
Cosplay and the world of cons are starting to crop up more in teen stories and it’s nice to see it presented as just a thing that the friends are doing, and not something that is completely out there or niche. The many scenes of Noah, Azarie, and the Cosplay Squad working on Azarie’s costume for the contest (and Noah’s portfolio) will absolutely ring true to readers who are involved in fandoms and cosplay themselves.
But of course, there could be no Needle & Thread without artist Ennun Ana Iurov’s lovely illustrations. Her line work has a pen and ink style that gives the art a fashion sketch vibe—a perfect choice for this graphic novel’s themes. The muted pastel color palette is absolutely gorgeous, and has a softness which feels right for the introspective aspect of much of the story. And yet there is still such a liveliness to the characters as she depicts both the humor and drama of teenagers trying to just exist as they are. Additionally, an especially creative touch is the intro page for each new chapter: each one has a drawing of a character’s cell phone home screen, giving little context clues like time of year (to help move the story along) and additional story teasers via social media notifications complete with hashtags, or incoming message snippets.
Teens feel pressure from a myriad of sources telling them who to be and what paths to choose. Finding the confidence to assert yourself in a world full of adults who think they know what’s best for you in order to grab hold of at least a little piece of a dream is something both Noah and Azarie strive to do. Maybe, by adding Needle & Thread to your collection, a reader might feel seen or heard enough to try for a little of that confidence too.
Needle & Thread By David Pinckney Art by Ennun Ana Iurov Mad Cave Studios, 2021 ISBN: 9781952303234
Publisher Age Rating: Grade 7-9
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: African-American Character Representation: African-American, Latine
What’s not special about celebrating your quinceanera? This traditional fifteenth birthday celebration is a special time for many young ladies as they enter adulthood. But there is always someone who is a little hesitant in keeping up with traditions. For Kat Fajardo’s protagonist in her newest graphic novel, Miss Quinces, a family party with dancing and dresses is not her thing.
Young comic artist Suyapa Yisel Gutierrez, or Sue for short, is so not looking forward to her trip to Honduras. Not only is she miles away from her friends and summer camp, she is staying out in the country with no cell service, Wi-Fi, or cable and visiting her loud relatives. Things go from bad to worse when she finds out that her mother is planning her quinceanera behind her back. The family is so excited for her but Sue would rather skip it. Wearing a frilly dress and making speeches is just not her. However, with some coaxing from her grandmother and a willing compromise with her mother, Sue settles into the planning stages of her party and gets a chance to finally express herself.
Fajardo’s graphic novel combines the craziness and love of family. Readers will be reminded of their own families after witnessing emotional and hilarious scenes between Sue and her relatives. The main character’s journey to rid her of self-doubt and to be expressive in her own special way is reminiscent of any teenager’s life. Along with her storytelling, Fajardo has created a diverse cast of characters with their own unique style and expressions. Scenes of Honduras’ countryside, city life, folklore, languages, home life, and meals provide U.S.-based readers with a look into a place different from their own, Readers of Latinx descendant will find a connection with Sue and her culture, especially young girls who are preparing for their own quinceanera. For those unfamiliar with the celebration, the author provides a brief explanation of the party, its traditions and photos from her own.
Kat Fajardo’s Miss Quinces is a definite purchase for school and public libraries. Middle school and junior high school readers who enjoy reading graphic novels by Raina Telgemeier, Kayla Miller, and Terri Libenson will want to give this one a try. For libraries who serve a bilingual community, it will be beneficial to include Miss Quinces in their graphic novel collection, along with the Spanish edition that will be published simultaneously with the English one.
Miss Quinces Vol. By Kat Fajardo Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022 ISBN: 9781338535594
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Latinx, Character Representation: Honduran, Latinx,
What if going to school, making new friends, and even just the idea of having to participate in a group activity made you feel so awful you wanted to disappear? What if it was much more comfortable to talk to the one friend you do have through a screen and not in person?
Eleven year-old Rena Villanueva, who has social anxiety disorder, knows exactly what that feels like. She’d much rather hang out in her room playing video games and chatting online with her best friend, Sidney. But her mom and her therapist have other ideas (and the ultimatums to go with them), which is how she ends up a real student at the totally fake-sounding Watsonville Ninja School, suddenly the center of an ancient prophecy.
As she trains to become “The Ghost” with ninja master Dysart and her mom spends all her time creating a super advanced AI, Rena learns that things aren’t always what they seem, and that maybe she’s capable of more than she thinks.
Another girl capable of more than she thinks is Adara Sanchez, creator of Shy Ninja and teenage daughter of writer Ricardo Sanchez. In the graphic novel’s forward, readers will enjoy learning about how the original idea for the story came from a young teen riding in the back of her dad’s car on the way to San Diego Comic Con. Even better? The fact that none of Ricardo’s ideas were good enough for the editors he pitched them to, but Adara’s was (and yes, he immediately gave her credit after pitching it). It’s a sweet account of a father and daughter team working together to take a graphic novel from idea to page.
The Sanchez duo’s portrayal of Rena’s desire to stay in her safe bubble of video games and minimal social interactions where she can be her regular energetic, engaging self feels realistic and genuine, and the discomfort she feels when pressed by her therapist to push herself outside those boundaries feels truthful to the behavioral therapy experience, especially in treatment of anxiety disorders. Additionally, the juxtaposition between her friend Sidney’s unspecified physical medical condition that forces him to stay inside alone in an actual bubble and Rena’s wish to do the same for her mental health presents conflict between the two BFFs in a “grass is greener” way that will be relatable to kids and tweens dealing with their own mental health struggles.
On the topic of representation, for a story with some focus on ninja lore there seems to be very little Japanese representation outside of the historical stories Rena learns about. But there is some racial diversity in our central characters, as best friend Sidney is Black, and Rena herself is coded as Latinx, given her last name and her tan skin.
And of course, Shy Ninja wouldn’t be the same without Arianna Florean’s vividly colored illustrations bringing an animated feel, absolutely perfect for showcasing the fast-paced action of Rena’s ninjutsu skills and daring missions. Florean’s emphasis on lively, exaggerated facial expressions add to the cartoony vibe, inviting readers to dive into a book that’s just a blast to look at as well as read.
It’s refreshing to see an uptick in middle grade content with mental illness representation as of late, and Shy Ninja does it well, creatively combining realism with chosen one prophecy tropes and adventure in its portrayal of social anxiety disorder. It would be a welcome addition to any library’s middle grade/tween collection, especially where slice of life stories featuring unsuspecting girls who are ready to maybe kick a little butt are popular.
Shy Ninja Vol. By Adara Sanchez, Ricardo Sanchez, , Art by Arianna Florean Humanoids Big, 2021 ISBN: 9781643378633
Publisher Age Rating: 8+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Latinx Character Representation: Latinx, Anxiety
The Animorphs are back! In the previous volume, five normal kids gained the ability to shapeshift into animals and learned that Earth is under attack by mind-controlling aliens called Yeerks. Now Rachel, Jake, Cassie, Marco, and Tobias continue to learn more about their morphing abilities as they debate whether or not it is too dangerous to take action against the alien menace. After all, the Yeerks are ruthless and have already infiltrated human society. And the Animorphs are just kids. But if they don’t fight for humanity, who will?
Readers of the original Animorphs series will recognize the basic pattern that begins to appear: the team identifies a problem, comes up with a specific animal form they could use to tackle this challenge, then must locate the animal and touch it to “acquire” its form before shapeshifting and taking on the original problem. This pattern appears in many, though not all, of the original books, but is broad enough to allow for huge variation in the plotlines.
Here, the Animorphs decide to spy on one human they know is being controlled by the Yeerks: their school principal, Mr. Chapman. And how to get close to him? Well, Rachel used to be friends with Mr. Chapman’s daughter Melissa, and recalls that she has a cat. Nobody would think twice about revealing their secrets in front of the family pet, would they?
As with volume two of the original series, this graphic novel focuses on Rachel, the most impulsive and action-oriented member of the team. She is determined to find a way to fight the Yeerks, especially when she realizes how her old friend Melissa is suffering—her parents no longer seem to care about her, and Melissa has no idea they are both being controlled by aliens. Rachel acquires the form of Melissa’s cat to spy on the Chapmans. While this yields useful information, she takes risks that worry the rest of the team.
This book furthers the development of the Animorphs’ personalities. We see how Rachel’s behavior alarms her friends, especially Jake, the leader, who feels guilty when his friends are in danger. We also see Tobias’ level-headed strategy, Marco’s nervous humor, and Cassie’s thoughtful consideration of all the angles. There are moments of real emotional impact, too, as when Rachel stays in her cat form after a spy mission—risking being caught or running out of time and being trapped in cat form forever—to comfort Melissa.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be an Animorphs book without plenty of action and lots of gross-out morphing scenes. Though tense spy missions occupy much of this book, the team also fights aliens and undergo grotesque transformations between human and bird, shrew, cat, and even flea forms. Not to mention the disgusting maggot-centric dream that Rachel has the night after having turned into a shrew. Also under “gross,” Rachel has a couple of run-ins with a pair of redneck stereotypes who first try to shoot her when she’s in eagle form, then reappear later to aggressively hit on her when she’s a human. In both situations, Rachel’s violent reaction, though perhaps justified, showcases her reckless nature.
The art is straightforward and expressive. The backgrounds have enough detail to ground the action, but the focus remains on the characters, human, animal, and alien. There are a lot of visually complicated scenes—transformations, combat, holograms, and more—which the art makes clear and easy to understand.
Readers who enjoyed the first Animorphs graphic novel will enjoy this strong follow-up. This volume doesn’t stand alone especially well, so recommend that readers pick it up after volume one.
Animorphs: The Graphic Novel, vol 2: The Visitor By K.A. Applegate, Michael Grant, , Art by Chris Grine Scholastic Graphix, 2021 ISBN: 9781338538373
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 Related media: Book to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13) Character Representation: Black, Latinx,
The Hazards of Love began as a webcomic in 2015, with issue covers and occasional splash pages in color, the rest a thickly lined and crosshatched black and white. In 2018 author/artist Stan Stanley told Women Write Comics that she set out to create a creepy, queer YA story with a Latinx cast, the kind of story she’d love to have read as a teen. Book 1 collects the first 11 issues (plus an issue zero), fills every page with blazing color, and contains more teeth than you can imagine.
Amparo Uribe and Iolanthe’s meet cute is Amparo hiding from school authorities in the library after pulling the fire alarm. After a great evening with Iolanthe (that was not a date), Amparo’s abuela reminds them of the ways they’re letting their mom down by making mischief at school. So when a talking cat appears in their bedroom and offers Amparo a wish, they wish to become a better person. Unfortunately the cat was really just stealing Amparo’s name, body, and life. Now the cat is living Amparo’s life in Queens and Amparo is exiled to a lush, animalistic wonderland called Bright World, where everything loves to eat humans. Nameless and shoeless, they are helped by/fall prey to tavern owner Mimi, an anthropomorphized hairless dog. As a way out of Mimi’s doomed indentured servitude, they are helped by/fall prey to El Ciervo, who buys them from Mimi—but not before cutting their hands off. Given the name Fawn and new, morphing blue flame hands, they continue searching for an escape to the real world, aided by one of Mimi’s servants, Juliana.
Back in Queens, time is passing and Iolanthe is suspicious of the suddenly sweeter Amparo. But feline Amparo wins her over, and sets about bringing up their grades, holding down a job, and making their family proud. They go to prom and graduate from school and keep trying to build a future. But a cat’s life isn’t as long as a human, and this cat has been alive for a while already. When they disappear, Iolanthe begins a strange search involving an underground psychic.
My summary can’t do the writing justice. There are twists and turns and sickening reveals and the dangers of Bright World can’t be easily cataloged. Memories and things humans keep on the inside are currency in Bright World, combining identity and survival in a primal way. Amparo is established as using they/them pronouns early on, and is questioned occasionally throughout the book about their gender. They speak in terms of being “bad at being a girl” or not really feeling one way or the other, not choosing labels. What it means to be “you” is constantly challenged in both the Queens, NY and Bright World storylines. Many of the characters speak Spanish and all of the signs in Bright World are in Spanish. The characters are often sparse on details yet vibrant, like Juliana, who retains a fiery spirit in the midst of having lost most of her memories. We spend little time with Iolanthe, but feel her deep concern and care for Amparo.
I originally read this in a digital copy, on Hoopla. The bright colors glow and the characters jump off the screen. When I decided to review it I scored a hardcopy from my library and while I don’t usually worry over digital vs paper, the black of the pages made me fall in love with the art in a new way. The entire page and between the panels are a deep black, starting out with straight gutters in the beginning that start to wiggle and swirl as magic enters the story, then remaining wild twisted things, sometimes resembling thorns, for the rest of the story. These are shown in the digital copy as well but were brilliantly shown in the printed version. Bright World is colorful in the manner of poisonous plants and animals, standing against the black panes of the pages like stained glass or the images on prayer candles. Stanley has said she was inspired by her childhood in Mexico and the riot of color reflects this as much as the folk art animal shapes and characters. In violent contrast, El Ciervo is a flat black deer head above a crisp suit. He has blue eyes, white antlers, and occasionally his pointed teeth glint, but his face is mostly a void of darkness that quietly menaces Amparo. I want to read more, but love the colors so much I think I’ll wait for Book 2 instead of reading ahead from the webcomic.
There are few sections that are challenging in readability, including an issue that divides the pages horizontally with an undulating boundary showing Amparo’s Bright World troubles and Iolanthe dealing with the deceitful cat’s antics side-by-side. Sometimes following tightly stacked speech bubbles of conversations took a little more care. But the jumbled style and the extra attention it required from me felt appropriate somehow and well worth the trouble.
The Hazards of Love is best for older teens and has more than enough complexity for adults. From a content standpoint it’s fine in a teen or high school collection. Stanley has taken care of the language in the webcomic by simply scribbling out swear words, there’s no nudity or sex, and the violence is swift and cerebral, with only a little gore. Fans of gothic comics like The Last Halloween and twisted fairytales will find a lot to sink their teeth into.
The Hazards of Love, Book 1: Bright World By Stan Stanley Oni Press, 2021 ISBN: 9781620108574 Publisher Age Rating: Grade 9 and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Mexican, Queer Character Representation: Latinx, Queer, Nonbinary
How do you find the place where you fit in? Where do you find your people? Middle grade fiction is often preoccupied with these questions, but Jo & Rus provides answers that are a little different than the average. Upper elementary and middle school fans of the new classics of graphic novels (Roller Girl, New Kid, El Deafo) will appreciate Audra Winslow’s fresh take on the middle school story, where it’s the things we love that bring friends together, outside of the conventions of age and gender.
Jo is bullied to the point of constant misery at her middle school because she lives in a trailer park. She’s without friends and without anything to make her life joyful. She lives with her grandmother, who appears too checked out to be a comfort or guide for Jo. Jo’s only source of comfort and release is her old DVDs of the cartoon “Magic Cat,” that she watches over and over, and her prized possession is a Magic Cat keychain that hangs from her backpack. Her beloved cartoon gives Jo a needed dose of imaginary magic in her life. Soon real life provides a little bit of magic too: she saves a one-eyed stray cat (that looks remarkably like a wizard cat in the show) from a trap. The mysterious cat repays her by bringing her back to its home, a junkyard next to the highway.
At the junkyard Jo meets Rus, a high school senior who is also dealing with bullying at school because his family owns the junkyard. Jo and Rus bond immediately over the cats who make their home at the junkyard. The ruined van teeming with cats that’s pictured on the cover is home base for Jo, Rus, and their friends, and becomes the emotional center of the story. It’s a refuge from the hostile school environment, and a safe space for them to be themselves.
Rus is an open and kind kid, and he and his friends welcome Jo into their group without question and without a hint of romance or sex. They recognize a kindred spirit and make it a point to coach her in coping with her bullying. They encourage her musical talent and include her in their jam sessions. Rus is generous with his laid-back philosophy of life, telling Jo when she hears about the stresses of high school that, “it can be fun, too. Everyone has problems and gets stressed, it’s just life.”
It’s in this view of teenage friendship that author Winslow (they, their) differs from other authors of middle grade stories. There is never a question of Jo developing a crush on Rus. Although his impending departure for college causes anxiety and stress for Jo, it is only because she’s afraid of losing her friend. The book is dedicated to “the Rus to my Jo,” supporting the strong sense of autobiography in the story. It’s heartening to see stories of adolescence that highlight different experiences of gender and sexuality.
The art in Jo & Rus is full of rich natural colors and loving views of Rus’s home junk yard. A scene of the kids watching a rocket launch from behind their Florida high school shows the lyricism in Winslow’s view of a well-worn Southern suburbia.
Jo & Rus is a great purchase for most collections of middle grade graphic novels, as it rounds out more conventional tales of middle school social life like Shannon Hale’s Real Friends.
Jo & Rus By Audra Winslow Kaboom, 2021 ISBN: 9781684156108 Publisher Age Rating: 9-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Gender Nonconforming, Character Representation: Latinx
One otherwise ordinary day, five teenagers suddenly find themselves with the ability to mentally access all recorded public knowledge. Research studies, the entire Internet, every book and movie ever made… it’s all in their heads.
Four of the teens reveal their powers immediately and become media sensations before being whisked away to a safe house by the FBI. It seems great: they have a fancy villa to themselves, they’re world-famous, and they’ll never have to go back to school. But the fifth teen hangs back, not trusting the authorities. She’s right not to: some members of the FBI have sinister plans for these teens, and a secret organization is also desperate to get its hands on them. Will all the world’s recorded knowledge be enough to keep “the omniscients” safe? And how did they come to have this power, anyway?
Despite the series title, the teens aren’t actually omniscient. Most of them can only pull up information that is public knowledge, meaning their ability is not that much more useful than having a smartphone. One, however, can access information that is more private, like police reports, while another can see events in the recent past, even if they have not been recorded. The boundaries of their powers and the differences between them are a little fuzzy, with the teens not trying to parse or explain them until very late in the book. Still, their abilities have interesting implications, from telling them the locations of security cameras to effectively spoiling the ending of every book and movie in existence.
While they all live in America, the five teens hail from very different families and situations, as well as different races. One is the child of successful lawyers; one is an undocumented immigrant separated from his parents; one is the overworked and underappreciated daughter of a family struggling on the edge of poverty. These differences shape how they react to their new abilities and changing situations.
No single character emerges as the main protagonist of this story, though Jessica, the skeptical girl who does not rush to reveal her powers and join the other four, gets more solo page time than the rest. The book jumps between points of view, including not just the titular “omniscients,” but FBI agents and members of the secret organization that is after the teens. There are also brief, intriguing glimpses of an anonymous person who may be connected to how the teens got their abilities.
This volume has virtually no violence. Any tense situations are all comfortably resolved by the end (though there are hints that the mystery of these new powers will continue to be explored). There is no nudity or sexuality unless you count a couple of random guys hitting on Jessica. No romance, either—perhaps surprising for a story where a group of teens is thrown together with danger, superpowers, and little supervision. The complexity—and things like the FBI alluding to preparing “a little Guantanamo” for the teens—push this toward teen, rather than kid, territory. At the same time, there is some clumsy exposition, with characters explaining things to people who would already know them.
The art is detailed, clear, and expressive. The characters are realistic, and their poses, expressions, and movement feel natural, but with a slight comic-book exaggeration for emphasis. They are all distinct and easy to recognize. The backgrounds are fittingly realistic, detailed without being cluttered, and good use is made of color to add to the mood of various scenes and settings.
This is a mostly gentle story of five teens brought together by the strange power that changed their lives. They aren’t exactly superheroes; as of yet, they aren’t fighting crime, just trying to figure out their own circumstances. Fans of supernatural stories with relatable, good-hearted protagonists—and nothing too scary—might enjoy this volume.
The Omniscients, vol 1: Phenomena By Vincent Dugomier Art by Renata Castellani, Benoît Bekaert, Europe Comics, 2020 ISBN: 9791032811191
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Belgian, Italian Character Representation: African-American, Latinx