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

We Ride Titans

“It’s going to come at you fast, and you’re going to freeze.” For Kit Hobbs, fighting monsters is the family business. But facing unexpected responsibilities she didn’t want is only the beginning. It’s salvaging her family that’s truly going to be the challenge.

In a world where monstrous kaiju regularly attack cities, Nexus Command oversees a network of city defenders known as Titans, gigantic robots with human pilots who serve as the only line of defense between the kaiju and human civilization. When Kit’s father lost the use of his legs piloting a Titan, the job fell to his son—leaving Kit feeling discarded as second best and estranged from her family. However, when addiction and depression make Kit’s brother more of a liability than an asset, she is called back home, both to look after her brother and take his seat in the Titan for as long as she’s needed.

Remembering her training and fighting kaiju is hard enough, but there’s an unidentified Titan making appearances in Kit’s city, picking fights and disappearing without a trace, a Titan with no pilot. It’s one more problem to solve even as Kit fights for her life every time she climbs into the pilot’s seat. And that’s not even the biggest issue facing her. Family legacy is a heavy thing. The demands of the job haunt her parents, causing rifts between them and their children. The pressure and never-ending expectations drove Kit’s brother to the bottle and kept Kit from her family for years. And now, returning home and reopening old wounds is straining Kit’s relationship with her partner. Hoping for redemption is easy. Finding it is hard. And if Kit manages to survive the threats encroaching on her city, there are still years of trauma left to confront on the way to something resembling a happy ending.

Written by Tres Dan, We Ride Titans from Vault Comics searches for a balance between kaiju vs. mecha action and emotionally grounded family drama. The limited series delivers on its promise in the opening pages as Kit’s brother teeters on the edge of success and calamity in a fight against the newest monster. As the story continues, the action is intriguing, but it is the family moments which carry the most weight. The comic’s examination of family trauma and healing is strikingly relatable and delivered with empathy and nuance from all the various members of the family. With only 5 issues, the story does end up feeling rushed in places, especially the drama of the larger kaiju/Titan conflict. However, given the amount of space these creators have to work with, they do serve up some bold mecha action alongside strikingly tender family moments grounded in flawed characters who are worth spending time with.

Bringing the action and emotion to life, Sebastian Piriz captures the epic scale of the physical conflicts as well as the intimate moments of conversation, hurt, and beauty that continue to shape the lives of the characters. The action sequences are occasionally difficult to follow, but the range of gross monsters is fun to watch as they rampage across the page, and Piriz conveys the very human lives of these characters in engaging detail. In facial expressions and dynamic paneling, Piriz and the other artists work to convey the depth of the story with each new twist of the plot.

Vault does not provide a specific age rating for this title, but with sci-fi violence, strong language, and thematic elements, it’s a story aimed at older teens and adults. The creators organically include a good range of diversity in terms of race, sexuality, and disability, and the main setup of Titans fighting kaiju across cities is sure to have appeal to fans of anime and science fiction. With everything else this title does well, its greatest strength really is the character relationships and examination of family at the story’s center. For We Ride Titans, its greatest flaw is its brevity, but as it delivers on its epic premise and grounds everything in its characters and their complicated lives, there’s plenty here to enjoy for a wide range of readers.

We Ride Titans
By Tres Dean
Art by Sebastian Piriz
Vault, 2022
ISBN: 9781638491187

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Argentinian
Character Representation: Black, Lesbian, Mobility Impairment,  Addiction

Joe Hill’s Rain

Whenever a movie adaptation of a popular book comes out, some people will bombard their social media with angry posts proclaiming that this movie will fall way short of the book’s genius. It’s a popular and well-worn refrain to say that the book is always better than the movie and people could spend all day compiling examples that prove the validity of this statement, but is the same true for the visual medium of graphic novels? Graphic novels tell a story visually, just as a movie does, through the use of comic panels and word balloons, and may sometimes even utilize sound effects like POW!, but is the retelling of a story through a visual medium automatically a lesser representation of the original work? The graphic novel adaptation of Joe Hill’s Rain, adapted by writer David M. Booher and illustrated by Zoe Thorogood is evidence to the contrary. 

People who have read Joe Hill’s novella are familiar with the premise: One day, instead of water droplets falling from the sky, needle-like crystalline shards descend from the clouds, shredding any living thing that isn’t under cover. This day was supposed to be the best day of Honeysuckle Speck’s life, the day she moved in with her girlfriend Yolanda, but the rain came and punctured her happily ever after. After surviving the storm and burying her girlfriend, Honeysuckle goes on a quest that takes her outside of the city and under a sky that could any minute rain death upon her. 

Joe Hill’s original story does what great apocalypse stories do best: it makes clear the always-present danger of this new status quo while showing moments of humanity from its characters. Honeysuckle has already had so much taken away from her that she makes the perfect protagonist that could survive a rain of crystal nails. Booher’s story doesn’t miss any of these fundamentals that made the original work. There seem to be some changes here and there, but they also weren’t drastic enough to change the story’s overall tone and conflict. 

Does adding artwork to Hill’s tale add or subtract to what the original created? It’s one thing for Hill to describe with text what a rain of crystal nails would do to a human body, but Thorogood’s artwork shows how one can be visceral even without a slaughterhouse’s worth of blood. In apocalyptic television shows and movies like I am Legend and The Walking Dead, images of life after that apocalyptic event serve to constantly remind the viewer that the reliably civilized world these characters have occupied for a majority of their lives no longer exists, and Thorogood’s artwork is a constant reminder that every moment for Honeysuckle Speck and the other people occupying this universe is a fight to survive. 

It’s possible that Joe Hill-written graphic novels like Locke & Key and Basketful of Heads are already in a library’s collection, and this book could fit right alongside it, as well as find its way into a collection on its own merit. By reimagining Joe Hill’s story for a new medium, Booher and Thorogood not only create a harrowing, heartfelt apocalyptic tale; they have also created an example of how telling a story through a visual medium doesn’t diminish it.

Joe Hill’s Rain
By David M. Booher
Art by Zoe Thorogood
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781534322691

Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up
Related media: Book to Comic

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

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,

Heathen: The complete Series Omnibus Edition

Aydis is the finest hunter and warrior in her tribe. This is something of a problem as her people believe that the role of women is to marry early and start having children. (Preferably boy children, of course.) Her father was allowed to indulge her, however, up until she kissed another girl in the village. Aydis spared him the pain of marrying her off or killing her, however, declaring herself outlaw and leaving all she ever knew behind.

Now, Aydis is on a quest to build a better world, for she knows that the edicts that prohibit women from being warriors or loving other women were delivered from on high by the All-Father Odin. Thus she will free herself and other women like her, starting with the Valkyrie Brynhild, who defied Odin’s whim and was cursed to wait for a mortal to claim her as their bride.

Heathen offers a new view of Norse mythology, which, it must be admitted, is predominantly conveyed through masculine voices. This is largely due to what few stories of the Norse gods have survived to be passed down into the modern era. While the Vikings had a pantheon as rich as that of the Ancient Greeks, we know very little about deities like Eir the goddess of medicine and Saga, who is presumed to be the goddess of poetry because of her name. This is ironic given how relatively progressive their culture was regarding the rights of women.

In this, Heathen is not a historically accurate work. It does, however, take ample inspiration from the Völsunga saga, bringing in Brynhild and her would-be husband Sigurd as members of the ensemble, alongside the Norse gods. The script by Natasha Alterici puts a decidedly feminist spin on these sagas and characters.

Heathen’s portrayal of Freya is a fine example of this. In most of the surviving myths involving Freya, the Viking goddess of love and war is either reduced to the role of a bargaining chip in the games between the male gods and various giants who want her as their wife in exchange for some service or as a greedy harlot willing to prostitute herself for the sake of some fine dwarven jewelry. The Freya of Heathen is lusty and bisexual, as one might expect from a love goddess, but she is also a warrior who offers Aydis her support, even after Aydis rejects the offer of a place by her side.

The artwork by Alterici and, in the final four chapters, by Ashley Woods perfect suits the mood of the story. Rendered in muted earth tones with simple line work, the reader is reminded of the woodcuts that accompanied many classic manuscripts. In this, Heathen perfectly emulates the feeling of the old Norse sagas, presenting itself as some lost tale only recently unearthed. Fans of dark fantasy are sure to find it enthralling.

Heathen is rated 16+ and I consider that rating to be a fair one. There is a fair bit of nudity and sexual content, particularly when Freya’s realm is revealed, and the story does not shy away from depicting the violence of Viking culture. The story also involves some frank discussion of religion that make it more suitable for older audiences that can fully appreciate the nuances of Aydis’ quest.

Heathen: The Complete Series Omnibus Edition
By Natasha Alterici
Art by Natasha Alterici, Ashley Woods
Vault, 2022
ISBN: 9781638490906

Publisher Age Rating: 16+

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

M is for Monster

Shaken from the accidental death of her sister Maura, the grief-stricken Doctor Frances Ai vows to bring her back to life with all the scientific and magical power at her disposal. And it works. . . supposedly. The being that rises from the slab has no memory of Maura’s life, nor does she share any of her interests or quirks. This is someone entirely new, though Frances is willing to do anything to bring her sister fully back, even if that means taking the new being apart and trying again.

Fearing her own unmaking, the creation, who deems herself M, attempts to slip into Maura’s old life, aided by Maura’s spirit still wandering among the house’s mirrors, visible only to M. However, that life comes with Frances’ high expectations, ones that M has no interest in pursuing as she discovers her own passions and desires. Once masquerading as Maura starts taking its toll, M must decide who she wants to be, her own person or the pale shadow of someone else. Talia Dutton’s Frankenstein-inspired debut, M is for Monster, expertly navigates through the topics of grief, self-discovery, and the importance of self-expression, as M strives to become the most comfortable and authentic version of herself.

M’s journey with forging her identity, Frances’s struggle with her grief and guilt, and Maura’s frustration of having to live vicariously through M give the story a resonating and relatable weight. Each character receives just enough focus for their arcs to develop and conclude satisfyingly, while also having their own moments to shine and make their mark on readers. M, with her hiccups of having to adjust to life in general, Frances’s overexuberance towards science, and Maura’s wit and dry attitude all add a lighter side to the story, allowing it to breathe in its more relaxed moments. Personally, I found myself invested the most in M’s progression, which naturally lends itself to a queer allegory. While not explicitly queer herself, M goes through many experiences that one does when first discovering that part of themselves: the uncomfortable nature of having to put on a persona to conform to others’ expectations, of trying to distance oneself from a past version of themselves, and finding oneself growing beyond the vision other people have of them. In the end, it becomes a lesson in allowing one to be themselves for their own benefit, something M tries to come to terms with over the course of the comic.

Along with this allegory, there is some LGBTQ+ representation in the form of Frances’s partner, Gin, who goes by they/them pronouns, and their neighbors who are in a sapphic relationship, all of which are normalized.

With a calm, cool palette of white and teal, the comic exudes a sense of thoughtfulness and reflection that distinguishes it from the more horror-based aspects of its story. It reminded me somewhat of Bloom, a comic that, while completely different in terms of plot, utilizes a similar coloring motif to enhance the mood and atmosphere of each panel. In Dutton’s work it serves as an emotional hook for the reader, pairing well with the paneling that becomes an additional storytelling device. There are multiple instances in which the layout of a scene provides subtle indications of developing character dynamics or adds subtext to the overall plot and character motivations. A spread that particularly stands out is a page of Frances and M conversing, with Maura appearing in a bubble to the side, slowing inching closer and closer with each panel as a result of her speaking through M, until she is completely between them with M uncomfortably pushed to the side as Maura’s influence becomes more prevalent. In a scene with no dialogue, it speaks volumes to M’s plight, perfectly summarizing the overall conflict of the story.

M is for Monster will no doubt please readers who enjoy engaging, emotional stories with an evocative art style and a smidge of the grotesque. Due to its more mature handling of these themes, this title is most suitable for audiences 14 and up. Librarians and educators who have a high circulation of character-driven and low sci-fi titles and aim to include more representative and diverse materials should consider purchasing this title.

M is for Monster
By Talia Dutton
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781419762208

Publisher Age Rating: ages 13-17

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Bisexual
Character Representation: Assumed Asian, Lesbian, Queer, Nonbinary

The Real Riley Mayes

Riley doesn’t feel as if she fits into the social world of her 5th grade class. No one seems to understand her and perhaps she doesn’t quite understand herself, either. She does know that she loves to draw, tell jokes, and watch the comedian Joy Powers. Riley hopes to attend art lessons, but her parents require that she improve her grades and stop getting in trouble at school. This might be tougher than it sounds with a class full of cliques and a teacher that seems to find fault with everything Riley does. Riley’s mom encourages her that if she reaches out, she’ll find people who get her. A girl named Cate recognizes Riley’s drawing talents and asks her to illustrate some stories for her. But Cate’s behavior seems to depend on whether mean girl Whitney is around. The new kid at school, Aaron, has two dads which Riley finds interesting, but Aaron gets upset when Riley accidentally lets her classmates know about Aaron’s dads before he was ready to tell them. When Riley cuts her hair short, Whitney spreads the rumor that Riley is a lesbian, and Riley starts to think her interest in comedian Joy Powers might be more like a crush. All of this makes for a very confusing time at school. Through many ups and downs and with the help of a supportive family, Riley comes through it all feeling as though people are starting to see who she truly is, and that she has friends who like her for her real self.

Author/illustrator Rachel Eliott includes an introductory letter to the reader explaining the semi-autobiographical nature of the story reflecting her own childhood love of Carol Burnett. She encourages readers to reach out and find others who get them, just as Riley does. This message is prevalent throughout the story. The Real Riley Mayes has strong messages of LGBTQIA acceptance, but beyond that, it speaks to the child who may feel different or unaccepted among their peers for any reason. The book’s conclusion, while not tying everything up too neatly, still encourages readers to seek out connections with others and to meet them half-way. Riley doesn’t find another student with a Joy Powers obsession, but she does find friends with whom she can share common ground. At first, Riley thinks Cate’s fascination with Nyan cats is weird, but she learns to understand it, just as Cate learns to understand her. In the end, Riley collaborates with both Cate and Aaron on a comic book about all of their interests, and this pulls other students in, as well. 

The full-color illustrations in muted shades are reminiscent of a young girl’s drawings, with childlike whimsy and imagination. The illustrations contribute greatly to the humor of the book with an honest portrayal of Riley’s unusual clothing choices and many dream sequences, as well as some physical comedy in Riley’s real-world experiences. The reader can understand why Riley doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls at school, but she’s also shown with sympathy and endearing spunk. 

The Real Riley Mayes is a good addition to youth and elementary school collections. It not only provides another title in an area where more representation is needed, but it’s also a story with a strong young adolescent at an age where many kids struggle. Riley has the courage to be herself, even when it would be much easier to pretend. Riley is a good model for young tween readers. The response of Riley’s family, while not always perfect, is a great example, as well. Hand this fun book to the kid who’s struggling to find themself, and to the kid who might be waiting to be their friend. 

The Real Riley Mayes
By Rachel Elliott
Harper Collins, 2022
ISBN: 9780062995742

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation:  Lesbian
Character Representation: Lesbian

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,