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

The Golem of Venice Beach

A reworking of the 400-year-old Jewish legend of the Golem of Prague is the foundation for this contemporary exploration of life, crime, and death in Venice Beach, California.

Adam, the Golem, now resides in California and has a direct link with the human protagonist Jake, a secular Jew hipster. Jake’s bloodline has been historically protected by the Golem, demonstrated in the graphic novel in two historical vignettes taking place during World War II. This background is further explained through discussions with Jake’s Uncle Steph. Jake’s life, and Adam’s existence, become imperilled when Jake falls for a neighbour with connections to a Santa Muerte cult and drug-dealing gangsters.

The legend of the Golem is born of violence towards Jewish people. In Venice Beach, the violence is not motivated by antisemitism but the death cult of the antagonists as they secure their drug fiefdom. Nevertheless, there are numerous connections in the storyline to Jewish culture, traditions, and history through the agency of Jake’s uncle and the vignettes. Adam may not be regarded as a legendary creature by the citizens of California, but readers have no doubt who he is and has always been although he does not physically resemble his ancient origins of a man made of clay. He is, however, a very large being that locals call “The Giant of Venice” or “El Gigante”.

Contemporary Venice Beach itself is a primary character in this tale, exemplified by Vanessa Cardinali, who provides potent contrasts between the sunny and exuberant day time scenes and the dramatic noir scenes at night. The original script for the storyline, written by Chanan Beizer, won the inaugural ScreenCraft Cinematic Book contest in 2018 before being offered as a Kickstarter project. Vanessa Cardinali is the lead artist with a variety of others illustrating the balance of the story.  Bill Sienkiewicz created the striking cover as well as the uncompromising prologue depicting the origin of the Golem. Jae Lee was responsible for the World War II flashbacks, Paul Pope for the Golem’s interface with two teens, Michel Allred for the map of Venice Beach, Nick Pitarra for his double-page spread of the neighbourhood, and Stephen R. Bissette’s horror dream sequence. All the artists, colourists, and letterers are identified and celebrated within the graphic novel. The different styles and use of colour add to the enchantment of the book and the understanding of the time sequences of the story. The major disappointment was that the story-arc is divided into two volumes. This first one ends in a cliff-hanger that requires patience for readers in the resolving of the tale. I had not realized this when I first dove into the novel although the number 1 is visible on the spine but not the cover.

I therefore am recommending it with reservations. I am unable to pronounce the ending as satisfactory until the second volume is published. The story is extremely violent and includes images of sexual congress and horror but is fascinating at the same time. I am looking forward to finding out where the storyline will take me and the Golem. I will admit that I have a fascination with the Golem and have visited Prague and the supposed place of the creation of the clay creature and so may be successfully drawn into this world because of that. I may have been drawn into it because it is well told and effectively and thoughtfully illustrated and packaged. Or, as I highly suspect, for both reasons.

The Golem of Venice Beach, Vol. 1
By Chanan Beizer
Art by  Vanessa Cardinali, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jae Lee,
Clover Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781951038601

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: Jewish

We Survived the Holocaust: The Bluma and Felix Goldberg Story

This book is more than the story of how two Polish Jews survived; it is also a cautionary tale of what happens when people stand by and allow antisemitism, hate and prejudice to run rampant” (Introduction, xii).

This nonfiction graphic novel illuminates the story of Bluma Tishgarten and Felix Goldberg, two young Polish Jews who were survivors of the rise of fascism and Hitler’s rise to power. It also reveals the intensification of antisemitism in Europe and the rise and consequences of the Holocaust to contemporary readers. The narrative follows Bluma and Felix on their individual fraught journey to an eventual fruitful meeting filled with optimism, endurance, and promise. It does not sugar coat the horrors of the Nazi concentration and death camps but offers historical insight and background along with the pain and anguish experienced by the protagonists and their allies. It is not an easy story to read but an extremely important one, especially in our current society.

The story, opening in the present day, explains several Jewish customs before moving back through time to the explore the beginnings of the Holocaust in 1917. It paints a bleak picture for the Jewish population as events lead up to the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II. In alternate vignettes the reader follows Bluma and Felix as they are separated from everything and almost everyone they have known and thrown into the frightening cauldron of racial and religious exploitation.

Towards the end of the war, Felix is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he is tattooed and where 960,00 Jews, 74,000 Non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Romas, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and over 15,000 citizens of other nations died before liberation. At the same time, Bluma and her sister Cela are transferred to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp which also housed Jews, POWs, political prisoners, Romas, criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals and where approximately 50,000 people died. Both camps excelled at humiliating treatment and considered the inmates as less than human. Eventually the three protagonists, along with Felix’s friend David Miller, are sent to a Displaced Persons camp in Landsberg, Germany. (Ironically, in 1924, Adolf Hitler was imprisoned there and where he wrote Mein Kampf.) The four young people meet, fall in love, and have a double wedding before moving to the United States. Once they are settled, they begin informing others about the atrocities they experienced and the dangers of unbridled antisemitism. They encouraged their children to continue their mission with one of the results being this moving graphic novel.

The evocative black and white realistic illustrations signify both the hardships and the joys that the families experience. Most of the written content is in text boxes augmented by some dialogue. There is a great deal of information to absorb on each panel and page. A variety of panels and backgrounds of the pages add to the depth of data and emotion in the story.

Extensive back material includes family photographs, biographies of the creators and contributors of the graphic novel, a timeline of events related to World War II and the Holocaust, a succinct glossary, recommended resources, and an index.

Highly recommended for middle and high school libraries and public and academic library collections. The title has been nominated for inclusion in this year’s YALSA listing of Great Graphic Novels but is a substantial read for older readers.

Thanks to Crystal Strang who gifted me an autographed copy of the graphic novel after attending a presentation by the author, illustrator, and publisher. She, along with the creative team, truly understands the importance of making sure this message is spread far and wide for people of all ages.

We Survived the Holocaust: The Bluma and Felix Goldberg Story
By Frank W. Baker
Art by Tim E. Ogline
Imagine & Wonder, 2022
ISBN: 9781637610206

Publisher Age Rating: 12-16

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

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 ,

Let There Be Light: The REal Story of Her Creation

What if the God of the Hebrew Bible was a woman? In Let There Be Light, Liana Finck’s playful Jewish humanist retelling of the Book of Genesis, this question isn’t simply a thought experiment. It isn’t even a ploy to swap out the mercurial God of Genesis for a more enlightened model. Finck just wants you to know that her God is a woman, floating above us with a crown and a fairy godmother wand, a woman who is quick to anger and has some attachment issues, but is mostly doing the best that she can.

Genesis lends itself to adaptation, as even the most Bible-illiterate among us are likely to have passing familiarity with its stories: the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, Joseph of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. These are origin stories meant to orient us to our place in the world and our responsibilities to one another and their meanings shift depending on the reader. In Finck’s hands, they form a narrative about relationships: resentful spouses, jealous siblings, and an emotionally insecure God who can’t seem to figure out what she wants from her chosen people.

Examining the human element in these ancient stories, Let There Be Light remixes its source material in funny, startling ways. The book is structured in three parts: “Past,” which is vaguely set in what we might call Bible Times, “Present,” in which a modern-day Abraham fulfills his covenant with God not in the Promised Land of Canaan, but as an art student in a sort of Promised City, and “Future,” a science fantasy that unexpectedly imagines Joseph’s Egypt as an underwater kingdom peopled by merfolk (perhaps poking fun at the exoticization of Egypt in contemporary and ancient depictions—but also, why not merfolk?)

The artwork in Let There Be Light has a spareness that recalls Tom Gauld’s graphic novels. Despite its simplicity, it’s perfectly pitched to carry the story’s tonal leaps. At one moment, we’re treated to visual gags designed to make readers cackle (wait until you get to the “Begatting” section, which lampoons the erasure of women from Bible lineages by depicting babies sprouting from patriarchs in the manner of Athena from the head of Zeus). Yet the next moment, Finck starkly renders a story like the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham is spared at the last minute from sacrificing his beloved son. Against the grayscale line art, the color red is used to link images of desire or destruction—reminding the reader that we are all connected by blood, in more ways than one.

In the afterword, the author acknowledges she’s dodged some of the most difficult stories in Genesis. We don’t read of the rape of Joseph’s sister Dinah, nor do we witness the forced enlistment of enslaved women Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah into the Abrahamic lineage. While this book is deeply concerned with gender, it doesn’t wholly reckon with the ways in which female characters in the Torah are treated like property instead of people. Finck explains that she didn’t want to make these women’s stories feel like an afterthought in a narrative that might not do them justice. I did feel these omissions in the text, but I can understand her reasoning.

By the end of this book, the tricky God-human relationship has become less histrionic and more sustainable, and Abraham’s desperate striving has given way to Joseph’s triumphant thriving. Finck leaves us with a lesson plucked from the Jewish diaspora, voiced by a God that’s mellowed out over the millennia: “What’s most important is that you stay alive, and stay together.” For readers open to reading the Bible as literature, whatever their faith background, Let There Be Light brings exuberant new life to this very old book.

Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation
By Liana Finck
Penguin Random House, 2022
ISBN: 9781984801531

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: Jewish

The Unfinished Corner

Middle schooler Miriam Feigenbaum is about to be an adult. Well, in the Jewish tradition, that is. Her Bat Mitzvah is quickly approaching, so she’s got a lot on her plate: practicing her Torah portion, attempting not to roll her eyes too hard at her Dad’s terrible jokes, party planning, and, oh yeah, getting sent on a surprise journey to finish the mythical Unfinished Corner—the one section that was left undone when the world was created, where it’s said everything evil and monstrous hides. Just completely regular things for a 12-year-old who isn’t even sure how she feels about being Jewish, right?

What was supposed to be a field trip for winners of the school art contest is suddenly the adventure of a lifetime for Miriam, her two best friends Avi and David, and their classmate/frenemy Judith, complete with shapeshifting buses, fantastical creatures, and a rabbi who might just be something more. As the intrepid tweens make their way across this mystical and mysterious land in search of the Unfinished Corner, they’ll find themselves delving deeper than ever into Jewish traditions, mythology, history, and lore, and maybe, just maybe, starting to figure out what being Jewish means to them. And if they’re lucky, Miriam might help them save the universe while they’re at it.

There has been an uptick of late in middle grade novels centering the mythology of historically underrepresented cultures, and The Unfinished Corner fits right in, with the graphic novel format making it even more accessible. Part coming of age story and part adventure yarn, author Dani Colman seamlessly weaves those aspects together with stories from the Jewish tradition that many readers may not be familiar with. Through conversations between our main four characters, as well as from folks they meet along their trek, stories and religious customs are explained in a way that feels casual and conversational; natural and not didactic, even when asterisks are employed to translate Hebrew terminology and phrases. 

As a non-Jewish reviewer, I cannot speak about the representation the book provides in the same way that a Jewish reviewer would be able to. I can, however, say that Dani Colman is a Jewish author, and lends at least her own lived experience to the voices of Miriam, Judith, Avi, David, and the cultural nuances they express throughout the book as they learn and grow together. So much Jewish literature for youth is focused on one specific period of history. It is incredibly refreshing to see instead a story where our main characters are just regular kids dealing with generic tween things like trying to figure out whether or not to wear makeup, drawing cool maps for role playing games, taking up a martial art to deal with bullies, and the way friendships grow and change, especially when you’re maybe hiding a pretty big secret. All while on an epic adventure, of course!

As always, when it comes to graphic novels, the stories would be mere shadows of themselves without the talented illustrators who bring the characters to life on the page. Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz’s art style feels like watching an animated TV show or film; perfect for the wide range of events throughout the book, from action-packed demon fight scenes to the moments of goofiness, exaggerated expressions, and humor, and the quieter moments of deep frustration and generational anguish. Each character has a vivid, bright personality, and the diversity of backgrounds is made clear as well (Miriam and Avi are white, David seems to be coded as Black and possibly Iranian as well, given that he mentions speaking Farsi, and Judith seems to be coded as Latine and speaks Spanish). It’s an important visual reminder that there is not one specific way to be Jewish.

A recommended purchase for any library, The Unfinished Corner fills a much-needed gap in Jewish youth literature and is an at turns informative, funny, moving, and exciting graphic novel that will appeal to middle grade readers who are fans of friendship stories and anything under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint.

The Unfinished Corner 
By Dani Colman
Art by Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz
Vault, 2021
ISBN: 9781638490111

Publisher Age Rating: 8-13

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: Jewish

Leonard Cohen: On a Wire

In this personal contemplation on the life, death, and influences of Leonard Cohen, Philippe Girard creates a tour de force. Originally published in French, the novel was translated to English by Helge Dascher and Karen Houle.

The graphic novel opens on December 7, 2016, with legendary Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen dying on the floor beside the bed. Girard imagines that a bird on the wire outside the bedroom window may be one of the last sights of Cohen’s final moments. He also imagines Cohen’s final reminiscences as he faces mortality to offer the reader a myriad of episodic flashbacks on Cohen’s life and achievements. As we turn the page, we are transported to a traumatic winter day in 1947 in Montreal, Quebec when young Leonard discovers his deceased dog. His sorrow immediately takes him to his typewriter and solitude, a familiar reaction to distress, which is constant throughout his lifetime.

This is soon followed by his reverence for poetry, music, wine, and, of course, women. Cohen moves to London where Girard dresses him in a blue raincoat, another nod to Cohen’s song titles that reverberate throughout the novel. His distress with his flagging writing career and the wet weather prods him to leave for Greece, where he meets his muse, Marianne Ihlen, and becomes a writer of songs. Girard returns us to the dying man saying his goodbyes to his life at that time and to Marianne. The palate of the background for the pages with Cohen lying on the hospital room floor are dark and cloudy while the backgrounds for his memories are filled with colour and light.

This episodic pattern continues throughout the book, highlighting his fascination with Suzanne, his recording career, his touring in Israel and other points of interest, and his escapades with well-known stars such as Lou Reed, Nico, Phil Spector, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Rebecca De Mornay, John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley and more. A brief annotated Rogues Gallery of these cameo appearances is provided at the end of the novel along with a concise bibliography for further reading. We follow his iconic recording career, Girard’s humorous depiction of Cohen’s disenchantment with the popularity of the myriad of covers of his song Hallelujah and the lack of recognition of him as the writer, and his retreat to the monastery. Girard also highlights Cohen’s necessary emergence to tour again and his eventual diagnosis of leukemia, before returning us to early memories that offer us background knowledge of some of Cohen’s axioms hinted throughout the book.

The final full-page illustration by Girard of the towering mural depicting Cohen wearing his signature fedora with his hand over his heart pays respect to both the man and the city he called home. Both Leonard Cohen and Montreal are brought exquisitely alive in this tribute to the man whom Girard, along with a large universal fandom, obviously venerated.

I appreciated this personal view of Leonard Cohen. I have been a long-time fan with many memories of the man, his music, and his words. I appreciated the selective process that Girard must have undergone because of the length of Cohen’s lifetime and career. Of course, there were episodes I would have liked to see included, especially his time in Edmonton, Alberta. As my friend Gilbert Bouchard reported on July 23, 2008, Cohen wrote several poems and songs while he was here as the guest of the University of Alberta. This is where Sisters of Mercy, one of Cohen’s best-known compositions, was written and where Cohen got his first taste of real fame. “He became one of the first Canadian writers to step away from the academy and become a celebrity and a pop culture figure at a time when that was just not done. His visit wasn’t a celebrity experience for those of us there. It had a very personal feel.”

I appreciated the research methodology that Girard undertook. In a recent interview webinar, Girard explained how he wanted the book to represent his own impression of Cohen and so did not undertake any interviews himself. Instead, he made his way to the public library and took out everything they had on Cohen and read everything and watched every video he could for five months before he started to write the novel. He then drew a Star of David and allocated each point as a decade in Cohen’s life. A song, woman, and item were chosen as pivotal moments for each decade. Girard presented his material in a forthright manner, with straightforward lines and warmly coloured panels, for the most part, extending a nuanced and balanced portrayal of his subject. The layout of the panels is also fairly uniform and straightforward with simple backdrops to the personalities and items that are the focus of each panel.

This realistic and honest look at a man, his career, and his influences should be included in all biographical collections from high schools to public and academic libraries. There is a universal and spiritual appeal to the story and, for the wide legion of fans, could be considered required reading. Highly recommended for readers to pull up a chair, pour yourself something to sip, and listen to a selection of your favourite Leonard Cohen songs while appreciating the skill and talent of both Leonard Cohen and Philippe Girard.


Leonard Cohen: On a Wire
By Philippe Girard
Drawn & Quarterly, 2021
ISBN: 9781770464896
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Canadian
Character Representation: Canadian, Jewish