Ghost Friends Forever, vol 1

If you encountered a ghost on your shortcut to school, what would you do? Scream? Run? Convince yourself you imagined it? Not in Spectreville! In fact, as the daughter of paranormal investigators, Sophia Campos is not only used to ghosts, she’s eager to start investigating hauntings herself. Since a mysterious paranormal event led to her parents’ divorce, Sophia has been living with her dad while her brother, Felix, lives with their mom. When Sophia meets Whitney, a ghost with no memory of her death who haunts a local bridge, Sophia decides to solve her murder. To do that, Sophia must team up with Felix and her old crush Jake, which creates a love triangle when Sophia begins to develop feelings for Whitney.

Ghost Friends Forever, vol 1 was released under Papercutz CHARMZ imprint, which the publisher describes as targeting tween and teen girls. The age range is listed as 10+, which feels appropriate. Sophia and Felix are 15 and 14, respectively, yet they often act younger than that. Their thoughts and actions, as well as the book’s romantic elements, feel right at home with a teen/tween audience. Ghost Friends Forever is well-suited to readers who are just developing an interest in character romance, where the affection never goes beyond a kiss. There is little content-wise that would raise a flag for the recommended age group; Sophia’s mother says “dammit” once, and the story and circumstances of Whitney’s murder come across as a bit darker than the rest of the story. However, there are enough other plot elements working within this story that the murder often takes a backseat.

Ghost Friends Forever is one of those great comics where the images and text work together so well that it’s tough to talk about one without the other. For example, the text in this book is almost exclusively character thoughts or dialogue. I’ve become accustomed to narration boxes of text in many other comics I read, yet I hardly noticed their absence here, nor did I miss them. The images and speech/thought bubbles did an excellent job of conveying everything in the story. Writer Monica Gallagher captures character speech well, and all of the dialogue is natural sounding. Though a few elements of the story did feel weirdly juxtaposed (murder alongside sweet teen romance), I found the overall plot to be enjoyable, and the ending allows the book to work as either a stand-alone or the start of a series. The book is marked “volume 1,” suggesting there will be more to follow, but the last panel also reads “end,” rather than presenting a blatant “to be continued” scenario, so readers can stop here easily if they choose. A few plot points were left open or ambiguous, and readers dying to learn every detail, or those who gobble up graphic novels and character-driven stories, will be seeking out the sequel.

Kata Kane’s art isn’t overly detailed, and that works well for this story; it focuses on the most important parts of each panel, without filler, which allows younger readers to focus on the story’s progression without getting bogged down. Character facial expressions often play a crucial role in setting the mood and scene, and they are used to great effect. I truly enjoyed the depictions of characters overall; there are a variety of racial/ethnic backgrounds shown, even in background characters, and I liked that. The art style is rather cute, with occasional panels of small (chibi) characters, fitting well with a story targeted to a tween and young teen audience. Matt Herms’s colors work well with Kane’s art, setting the tone for each scene with how light or dark the color palette is.

Representation is a crucial element for me when it comes to the books I choose, both as a reader and as a librarian, and Ghost Friends Forever does not disappoint in that category. In addition to the diverse depictions of all characters throughout, Sophia and Felix are biracial (White/Hispanic), but their background is never treated as a big deal, which I liked. Characters’ sexualities are also treated as normal; Sophia’s previous crush on Jake and her realization that she likes Whitney are treated the same. Felix expresses some concern over Sophia’s feelings for Whitney, but they are focused more on the fact that Whitney is a ghost than that she is a girl. Ghosts provide an important way for characters to address acceptance, and Sophia argues that even if ghosts seem “transparent,” that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have feelings. The art, presence of a take-charge female character, and young romance mixed with coming-of-age themes make Ghost Friends Forever a great read-alike for anyone who enjoys Raina Telgemeier, Faith Erin Hicks, and Lumberjanes. The story’s few minor flaws did little to detract from my overall enjoyment, and I would happily recommend this book to any tween or teen in my library.

Ghost Friends Forever, vol 1
by Monica Gallagher
Art by Kata Kane
ISBN: 9781629918037
Papercutz, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 10+

Bingo Love

A lot of transformations occur in the lives of Hazel Johnson and Mari McCray. From meeting and forming crushes in 1963 to reuniting in 2015 and nurturing their long-lost love through 2038 and beyond; these queer, black women navigate the changes and regrets of life, love, family, and identity. Their story is a powerful and diverse narrative, whether in reference to LGBTQ experiences, senior love, body sizes, oppressive socio-religious norms, growing social acceptance, or simply processing the choices in one’s life.

The story mainly focuses on Hazel Johnson, a middle schooler lovestruck at meeting the new girl in town, Mari. Mari dubs her Elle, a nickname no one else uses and a term of endearment that gains power through the story’s decades as precious few people accept or even know about Hazel’s romantic interest. Hazel and Mari are clearly compatible, going on dates with good humor and finding time to be together in and out of school, continuing through high school. Both of their families discover them kissing, which leads to a number of religious-fueled denouncements. “My grandmother says I’m an abomination and I’m going to hell,” teenage Mari reports to the love of her life. “Let go of that sinner,” “Beg God to forgive you,” and “Jesus did not die on the cross for this sin,” they are told, though Hazel wonders to herself “Since when is it a sin to be in love?” After their forced separation, both women surrender to arranged marriages and going on with their lives of quietly nursing wounds that won’t heal.

Decades later, Hazel and Mari meet again, at a church bingo game. This time, both ladies have families of their own and a lot of consequence to consider. “I love my family, but deep down inside, I’m truly not happy,” Hazel recognizes, going so far as to say “I’ve been dead inside since 1967.” In order to be as close as they both desire, they have to divorce their husbands and explain their long-hidden love to their families.

Readers who enjoyed The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance or Melanie Gillman’s As The Crow Flies will find a lot to love here, as Tee Franklin’s writing, Jenn St-Onge’s art, Joy San’s colors, and Cardinal Rae’s lettering all work together in support of Hazel and Mari’s pure, natural love. As girls and women, these two make each other smile, laugh, and feel comfortable in their skin, and St-Onge never runs out of glowing, joyous facial expressions at every stage to communicate their compatibility. In addition, Hazel and Mari’s outfits and hair are consistently stylish and represent the wealth of expression bubbling within them, from 1963 to the near future. Their lives radiate against the comparatively plain backdrops of suburbia and high school. In scenes populated with family members, a variety of hair styles are shown, whether long, short, shaved, curly, wavy, black, brown, gray, or rainbow. A scene of Hazel lovingly braiding her granddaughter’s hair shows how the activity emotionally grounds both of them and serves as an important bonding ritual. Layouts are clear and easy to follow, and the creative team has good instincts for when to employ a large or full-page panel to show off a powerful emotional moment, whether it’s a warm family celebration, an enraged outburst, or a loving embrace.

There are a couple of minor stumbling blocks in the story in the form of editorial notes referencing digital, supplemental chapters about events outside of the main story. These notes could have been used as miniature advertisements at the end of the book, but in the heart of the action, they might give readers the feeling of missing out on bonus material. Also, at the beginning of the story, Hazel refers to the lighter-skinned Mari as a “honey colored maiden” and “honey glazed goddess.” While used as terms of endearment, these expressions are part of a pattern of non-white characters in literature described as foods and flavors. The pattern only lasts as long as the opening scene, but it’s there.

This 88-page queer black love story has a lot to unpack and appreciate that this review can’t cover out of length concerns, but the central conceit has a lot of characterization and commentary hung with care for the story’s impact and adoration for the central romance. Instances of characters clearly stating their interests or identity will serve as encouragement, reinforcement, and education for readers of all stripes. With official release on Valentine’s Day 2018 and content that falls squarely within a wholesome tween/teen range (no explicit nudity, no swearing besides “Hell,” lots of family drama and reconciliation, a bathtub embrace), audiences will positively swoon to find this on your library’s shelf. Its message of “Love whomever you want to love. Just make sure they’re deserving of your love,” deserves to be embraced by a wide audience.

Bingo Love
by Tee Franklin
Art by Jenn St-Onge and Joy San
ISBN: 9781534307506
Image, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 13-16

Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel

I need to begin this review by stating my unabashed love for author Jason Reynolds. I’ve been enamored with Jason’s work for the past few years and I’ve had the chance to see him talk or present at readings, performances, and conferences five times this year. (I’d like to think these five times were all coincidental, but let’s say that two of the five were coincidences and the other three I went to because I knew I’d have a chance to see him and brag about how many times I saw him later, like right now.)

Reynolds is a writer of the adolescent human spirit and the Black experience. He can express the sensations, frustrations, and temptations of middle school-age characters in novels like Ghost and As Brave as You as easily as he can depict grittier coming-of-age stories of high school-age characters in novels like All-American Boys, When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in the Black Suit, and the forthcoming Long Way Down.

In Miles Morales, Reynolds injects Miles Morales with social conscience and dynamic optimism that readers of his other books will find familiar. Miles is a five-day boarding student at Brooklyn Visions Academy (BVA), which he attends on a scholarship. I know what you’re thinking, dorms and academic quadrangles don’t belong in Brooklyn; the pressure to turn some 14-year-old’s dorm into rentals would be way too high for that to work, but go along with the story here.

As one of a few scholarship students at BVA, Miles feels a little on the outside. Aside from his best friend and sidekick Ganke, who lacks for a loving family but presumably doesn’t have to prioritize which bills to pay, and Miles’s love interest, Alicia, who comes from Harlem Renaissance royalty, the only other classmates who seem to get any airtime are the other scholarship students at BVA. Adding to Miles’s outsider status is history teacher Mr. Chamberlain, who seems a little too eager to defend the slave-owning south and admires Jefferson Davis. Miles’s spider-sense is activated by Mr. Chamberlain, and Miles’s reaction to this is interpreted by Mr. Chamberlain as academic misbehavior.

Miles’ issues continue when he considers ditching his work-study job manning the on-campus convenience store for a hot minute to go see Alicia at a poetry reading and receive extra credit. He uses his powers of camouflage to leave the store and go unnoticed on the security camera. During his brief absence, canned sausages are stolen and Miles is suggested as the culprit. Miles refuses to admit that he stole the sausages, but he is also loath to admit the truth about his absence. As a result, superhero Miles is put in an even more vulnerable position as his room and board scholarship is revoked. It’s clear that somebody wants Miles to be vulnerable—but who? Why? What do they know about him?

A few too many interfering plot elements (a letter from a long-lost cousin, the struggle to write a poem for English class, the loss of an uncle, some sketchy neighborhood dudes) bog this book down a bit and detract from the excitement of the villains’ pursuit of Miles. When the big bad boss villain finally arrives deep into the story, there isn’t enough time or space to flesh the villain out to make Miles’ eventual victory satisfying. As much as I admire Reynolds’s riffing here, especially the heart and soul of sidekick Ganke, in a superhero story I want him to stick to the script.

Reynolds is absolutely a poet first and a plotter second. While this strength works well for most of his stories, readers who are picking up this story for cinematic fight scenes and sweeping city travels by web rather than subway are going to be disappointed. However, those who immerse themselves in the story will have an opportunity to visit a larger conversation about race relations in current times. We see Alicia fight for what’s right with protest instead of superpowers and we are given an opportunity to ask if racists are aware of their own hatred. Even Miles’s most utilized superpower in this novel, the ability to go invisible, is a subtle nod to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

What we learn from this book is that the bravest thing isn’t flying from building to building or defeating a villain with our cunning, because even if we defeat the villain today, systematic oppression will just generate a new villain tomorrow. Instead, we are at our bravest when we work on a broader level to make oppression visible and force others to recognize our humanity through words and actions. But if we happen to have superhuman powers and a costume, even better.

Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel
by Jason Reynolds
Art by Kadir Nelson
ISBN: 9781484787489
Marvel, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: (12+)

The Red Pyramid

47-coverAn adaptation of the popular book of the same title by Rick Riordan, The Red Pyramid follows teenaged siblings Carter and Sadie Kane as they struggle to avert an Ancient Egypt-flavored apocalypse.

Carter and Sadie’s mother died when they were children, and the two were separated — Carter traveled with their father, a renowned Egyptologist, while Sadie lived with their grandparents in England. But tonight their father takes the teens for a visit to the British Museum that ends with the Rosetta Stone exploding, their father disappearing, and Egyptian gods unleashed on the world. Carter and Sadie are soon on the run, discovering an uncle they’d never met, a (supposedly) safe house in Brooklyn, and their own magical powers. They have five days to stop Set, the Big Bad of ancient Egypt, from dissolving North America into chaos (followed, presumably, by the rest of the world). Carter and Sadie aren’t alone — they have their uncle, the cat goddess Bast (until recently known only as Sadie’s cat, Muffin), and a renegade magician from the House of Life, an Egyptian order of magic users. But Set wasn’t the only thing awakened at the museum and even the children’s allies aren’t all what they seem.

Having read the text version of The Red Pyramid, I would call this a pretty good adaptation. The characters look much the way they’re described, down to hairstyles and skin tones. A lot of the book’s content is incorporated, but it doesn’t feel crammed in or out of place, and the necessary context to understand it is mostly intact. Every once in awhile, a reader who is not familiar with the original book or with Egyptian mythology might stumble (exactly what a shabti is and does, for example, isn’t made all that clear, despite the fact that shabti appear several times, sometimes in important roles). Still, most of the plotlines are present and comprehensible, and there are some nice hints of others that readers of the original book will likely catch. (There is other cleverness worked into the pictures, as when the characters pass a pizzeria called Riordano’s.)

The original book alternates between Carter’s and Sadie’s points of view and uses a framing device wherein the book is supposedly an audio recording left for other super-powered teens to find and use. The graphic novel version dispenses with the latter device, but adapts the former by giving pieces of narration in text boxes with different colored outlines: blue for Carter, orange for Sadie. This works well, as their voices and viewpoints are pretty distinct, and it’s nice to have both preserved.

The artwork is a beautiful, soft, painted style, which is a little unexpected in a book so full of action, where one might expect more crisp lines and comic-book effects. Facial expressions are occasionally a little wooden or off, but the mythical beasts and gods are wonderfully done, as are scenes that I had imagined would be difficult to illustrate (the animation of the sky itself into the sky goddess Nut, for example). And many of the Egyptian-style demons — like Bloodstained Blade, the ship’s captain with a battleax blade for a head — were so vividly described in the original book as to beg for illustration, which does not disappoint.

The protagonists are both young teens and there is no sexual content, just a little flirtation between Carter and Zia and between Sadie and Anubis. The violence is frequent but not graphic, the tone a good match for that of the book it is adapting. Fans of the original may snap this up in part just to see the wacky demons and other unusual creatures in glorious full color. Those who do may be impressed at how well the story, too, is conveyed.

The Red Pyramid
by Rick Riordan
Art and Adaptation by Orpheus Collar
ISBN: 9781423150688
Disney Hyperion Books, 2012