The Cosmic Adventures of Astrid and Stella

HelloLucky, a stationery company owned by sisters Sabrina and Eunice Moyle, has produced a small line of board books and picture books, distributed through Harry N. Abrams. The Cosmic Adventures of Astrid and Stella is the first of a series of graphic novels for beginning chapter readers. Although it’s a new format for them, their trademark color and cheerfulness can be seen throughout this peppy adventure.

Astrid, a unicorn with a pink mane and purple horn and Stella, a flying squirrel with a fantastic hairdo, are taking off for outer space! If they can get their rocket going. With the help of their robot, Bobo, and despite multiple snack and dance breaks, they manage to blast off into space! Their lighthearted adventures continue onto the planet Caturn, where the inhabitants are threatened by the evil Kittywonkus, and then the beaches of planet Bloop, where they meet a whale in need of some good advice.

The pages are liberally sprinkled with rainbows, stars, and bright colors while the text is positively peppered with exclamation points. They battle Kittywonkus with a hose and the threat of being petted “against the grain” and spend much of their time on Caturn cuddling the kitties. On their way to new adventures, they see what appears to be a parade of giant balloon-like space creatures and join them, finding themselves at the beaches on Bloop, a planet that looks like a giant striped beach ball. The two main characters bounce exuberantly through the story, dealing with frustrations and setback with humor and plenty of snacks and dance breaks.

At just over 100 pages and with the silly story and child-like characters, this is aimed at a young demographic, those ready to move from early readers to chapter books. However, it’s actually a fairly complex book to read. The narrative throws a lot of unexpected changes at the reader, as part of the silly, surreal feel of the story and the art is crowded with a wealth of shapes, colors, and odd characters. Readers who are still focusing on the mechanics of reading are likely to find this frustrating. However, those who are already fluent but prefer shorter, illustration-heavy stories and readers who want a quick, comforting and funny story, will enjoy this wacky adventure.

Libraries building their beginning graphic novel collections should consider this if they are looking for more silly stories for younger readers or have the budget to fill in with additional titles, having purchased core works like the Branches and Acorn series.

The Cosmic Adventures of Astrid and Stella Vol. 1
By Sabrina Moyle
Art by  Eunice Moyle
Abrams Amulet, 2022
ISBN: 9781419757013

NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)

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,

The Realist: Last Day on Earth

In the opening pages of The Realist, a young girl realizes that pet cats are not as compliant as stuffed animals and a high school boy experiences a class lecture from controversial Israeli professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz while simultaneously debating how to break up with his girlfriend. In this way, the commonplace and the existential entwine throughout the panels of this third collection of comics from Eisner winning cartoonist Asaf Hanuka.

Published by Archaia, The Realist: Last Day on Earth collects many of Hanuka’s weekly, autobiographical comic strips and cartoons, each delivered within a single page. The topics are wide ranging. As an Israeli artist grappling with life as a secular family amidst an often-religious society, Hanuka’s work deals a lot with politics, religion, and social issues. He recreates heated debates about Judaism with family members and displays consideration for the deeply engrained faith evident in the landscape around him, even as someone who does not necessarily believe the same. He reckons with a national situation rapidly changing, and often not for the better.

The collection never strays too far from the religious-political violence of Hanuka’s homeland, while some of his observations about modern politics find international relevance amidst the years of the Trump presidency and the coronavirus pandemic. Hanuka’s observations are sometimes precise and biting, other times esoteric, inviting deliberation rather than making a statement.

Though the global is a constant theme in The Realist, there is plenty of space in these pages for the personal as well. As Hanuka relates to his wife and raises two children, there are plenty of anecdotes about domestic life. He ruminates on trading bus trips for riding a scooter. He considers family vacations and what his life might have been if he had lived in a different city, a different country—the course of everything else spinning out from there. In the midst of it all, Hanuka contemplates what it means to be an artist, to be a human, in a world where such things are not always easy, nor do they always make sense. The resulting collection is global and personal, widely human and intimately personal to the man himself.

Depicting all these things, Hanuka’s work is realistically stylized, moving between grayscale and a wide range of colors, between carefully detailed scenes and characters navigating an uncertain void of possibility. The consistency of the visuals speaks to the creator’s depth of experience, deploying humor and exaggeration alongside more somber emotions as the scene requires. There is a solemn angst, a grief, running through much of the book, and Hanuka captures this quietly across the expressions on his characters faces, across each gesture and the sometimes fantastical scenarios and scenes he imagines to explain the concepts he is seeking to capture on the page.

In the end, I recognize that I am not the target audience for Hanuka’s work. Some of what he delivers here resonates clearly, while much of it is interesting but always with a level of inescapable distance from the lived reality he is describing to my vastly different life on another portion of the globe. Some readers will no-doubt enjoy crossing that divide for a time; others may struggle to remain engaged.

Aside from the occasional panel, there isn’t much content here that one might deem inappropriate, but the majority of The Realist is clearly aimed at adult readers interested in delving into the socio-political themes of Hanuka’s work as well as the reflections of a man who has experienced decades of life as an artist, a father, a husband, and a political commentator. For readers who enjoy more literary comics such as those typical of Drawn & Quarterly, as well as international cartoonists such as Chabouté, this compilation could certainly be worth picking up. And for any comics collection looking to expand to more literary and international offerings, The Realist: Last Day on Earth is definitely worthy of consideration.

The Realist: Last Day on Earth
By Asaf Hanuka
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781684158379

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Israeli,

Tin Man

Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is a story that is so firmly entrenched in our culture that the story can be brought to the forefront of anyone’s mind by simply mentioning “cowardly lion,” “flying monkeys,” or “tin woodsman.” To do an original story that heavily borrows from Baum’s universe is to invite one’s original story to be saddled with a Yellow Brick Road’s worth of baggage and expectations. In a world where “reimaginings” can turn off readers, it’s risky to relate your story to anything from Oz. Luckily, writer and illustrator Justin Madson avoids this in his work Tin Man by plunking a very familiar Tin Man in a very different Oz.

This Oz doesn’t have the glistening emerald spires; what it does have is an image very similar to small-town middle America, one that has very few opportunities for kids like Solar and Finn. Solar was once on her way to a promising career working on rockets, but after the death of her grandmother, she suddenly decides to stay in her hometown. Instead of helping her little brother Finn build his rocketship, she hangs out with a crowd of bad influences. Enter Campbell, a tin woodsman who leaves his forest after receiving a heart he got by mail. Campbell stays in Finn’s treehouse to learn how to be human, while Solar and Finn learn what they truly want out of life.

The cover of the book, from the image of a hand constructed of tin to the yellow brick background, is meant to invoke The Wizard of Oz, but any reader focusing on Baum’s story might miss what Madson’s story does right. There are a few nods here and there, such as Campbell actually meeting a woman named Dorothy, but Madson manages to create a wholly separate coming-of-age tale generously sprinkled with magical realism. Magical realism works when the magical elements are not substitutes for the emotion and conflict in a story. That is exemplified by Campbell learning the nuances of his new heart and learning his place in the world. This parallel, of course, is established among the brother and sister as well. .

Madson’s artwork also adds its own charm to this story. The lines and shapes are simple, almost like they could step from a children’s picture book, but the story they tell isn’t necessarily sheer whimsy. There are discussions of grief as well as the pain of not belonging, and the art adds the perfect kind of juxtaposition. Madson doesn’t need to depict the gloriously beautiful gleaming towers and dark forests where things worse than cowardly lions creep. His story is serviced by his rendition of a Midwestern town that has seen better days and that isn’t as hospitable to dreams as the place another Dorothy visited.

The book would make a fine addition to any Young Adult collection because it skirts the line between being born from a children’s classic and dealing with some serious themes. In collections that have lots of superheroes, space aliens, or Anime-inspired action, this coming-of-age tale can be a surprising breath of fresh air.

Tin Man
By Justin Madson
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781419751042

Publisher Age Rating: 9 and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)

Sisters of the Mist

Swirls of green and blue introduce readers to the setting of the story, the enchanted forest of Frygea, with many strange creatures, some terrifying and dangerous, some cute, and all magical. The most terrifying are the Fog Furies, ghostly wraiths of mist who lure young girls into their clutches… or so the book of legends being shared by three sisters says.

Janna is the littlest, a preschooler with unbounded enthusiasm, a constant grin, and an eagerness to be friends with every magical creature she encounters. Kyra is the middle child, a preteen expecting that things will stay the same on this traditional vacation with her grandma and sisters; she’s ready at any moment to scramble up a tree, plunge into the enchanted woods, and bounce on the beds. Margot, getting ready to go to high school in the fall, is caught in between her sisters’ innocent fun and her own feelings of change; one moment she’s climbing trees and bouncing on beds with her sisters, the next she’s testing out makeup and diving into anime romances.

The three sisters start out their vacation squabbling, playing games, discovering magical creatures, and joking and laughing together. But there are hints that Margot is changing and this confuses Kyra – who would want to read a book with kissing in it? Why doesn’t Margot like to do the same things they’ve always done? When the three girls get lost in the forest, chased by the fearsome Hellhound, Margot and Kyra each have their own frightening encounter with the creatures of the forest – but Margot comes back changed. When she gets her period the next day, the two feel even farther apart and Kyra is hurt and confused, feeling left out and left behind by her sister’s new experiences. Eventually, they both return to the forest and Kyra is determined to save Margot – but from what? What do the Fog Furies want with her and who is the real danger?

The metaphor of a young girl growing into a woman is obvious, but it’s presented here in a fresh, comforting, and humorous way. Readers will empathize with the different life stages of all the girls and women presented, from innocent Janna, a plump, curly-headed kid who flings off her shirt with abandon and makes friends with cute root vegetable elves, to their wise and experienced grandmother, who knows just what to do when Margot gets her period and is clearly comfortable with her body, reacting with amusement when the family is bathing together and the girls joke about her large size bra.

Spaalj marks the change from the everyday world of their home to the magic of the forest with abrupt color changes; at first the farm is most often seen in daylight, with bright green grass, sharp blue sky, and friendly, colorful creatures. The forest is another world, dark and misty, covered in swirling fog out of which trolls and strange creatures loom and through which the girls stumble into frightening bogs. There can be magical moments in the forest, and as the story progresses the fog from the forest winds into the house, especially at night, entwining Margot and signaling that she is changing and experiencing something new and magical.

In a school library, with the ongoing increase in challenges, librarians will want to be aware of possible controversial points, depending on their community. Puberty, including breasts and periods, is referred to in a natural way and the girls joke together about “titties” and breast development. It’s a wholesome, positive message for those experiencing puberty and beginning a menstrual cycle, and coming from a smaller, low-profile publisher is unlikely to pop up on the radar of those looking for titles to challenge. In a public library, this will be popular with a wide variety of readers; younger kids can enjoy the magical creatures, fantasy plot of the story, and the experiences of a younger sibling. Tweens will sympathize with the girls who are dealing with different stages and changes in their lives. This would make a great choice for an adult-child book club, emphasizing the inter-generational tone of the book and art lovers of all ages will delight in the vivid colors and charming illustrations.

Sisters of the Mist
By Marlyn Spaaij
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781838740740

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

Leviathan

Jason Shiga, author of Meanwhile, has created another addictive, interactive, and mind boggling graphic novel for tweens. Leviathan is a choose-your-own adventure story that keeps readers guessing until the end.

Leviathan, is about the Leviathan, a dragon-like mythical creature. The protagonist must navigate through an ancient medieval village to find and destroy the monster. The reader must choose between different paths to reach the final ‘ending’. Until the ending is reached, readers will find out a lot of secrets that they will need to fully understand the entire story. The character must navigate through an ancient medieval village to find and destroy the monster.

Kids will love navigating the story, learning about a powerful wizard, a mysterious medieval village, and hidden treasure in the process. Small tubes connect the illustrated panels, giving readers almost endless possibilities of plots and endings. Readers must follow the tubes that indicate what page number to turn to next. The story can be completed very quickly or take around an hour. There are so many possible endings, leaving no room for boredom. For example, readers explore a castle to find out more about the town, visit the library to learn more about a powerful sorcerer, or stay over at a lodge to inquire about the monster with an innkeeper. 

The author/illustrator Jason Shiga does a wonderful job creating a complex narrative. Even though there are many panels and interconnected stories, the reader is able to easily follow along and explore the seemingly endless mazes. The larger panels that let readers skip between various storylines on one page are engaging. For instance, readers get to choose to take a boat, swim off the dock, etc. Shiga’s art is worth high praise. His distinctly simply rendered characters with large- popping eyes add humor to an overall serious story. The illustrations are fun and humorous-sometimes unexpected. Action words and illustrations combine harmoniously to show emotional depth.

Reluctant readers will particular enjoy this engaging format that makes the reader feel like they are in a role-playing video game. There are fights, shipwrecks, and fights with mythical monsters. Leviathan is a perfect recommendation for a child that enjoys graphic novels and adventure stories. Middle grade readers will devour this book and anticipate more in the series. (Grades 4-7)

Adventuregame Comics vol. 1: Leviathan
By Jason Shiga
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781419757792

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Dark Blood, Vol. 1

Superpowers, as depicted in fiction, are often a double-edged sword—there’s the freedom of flying like Superman or having enough strength to move the car that’s taking up your parking spot, but there’s also the inherent fear of others that comes with having abilities different from mainstream humanity. Add in the volatile component of racism and the superpower narrative can become quite explosive, as it does in Dark Blood, written by LaToya Morgan and illustrated by Walt Barna.

The book focuses on Avery Aldridge, a former Tuskegee airman living in 1950’s Alabama. He’s a veteran who fought in the war with the hope of making it back home to his family, but home means he and his family must endure the racism of the Deep South. While processing the trauma of war and the racism at home, he discovers that he can somehow move things with his mind. Many people, especially those who see Avery as less than them, will also be afraid of that power.

The superhero origin story is a popular trope and Morgan’s story offers an interesting take. There are multiple plotlines that run through this story, from Avery being trapped behind enemy lines to him being the victim of a racial attack that ultimately leads to him being on the run. The narrative jumps around a bit, but these stories are as vital to Avery’s superhero origin as a bite from a radioactive spider. Everything from the PTSD to how he is treated by the white people in his life all go into who he is and how he decides to use his gifts.

And when he starts using his powers in earnest, they are quite awe-inspiring, thanks to Barna’s use of dynamic POV angles that give a punch to the scenes of Avery fighting in the war as well as those showing him unleashing his powers. Where Barna really shines, though, is how he makes Avery’s telekinetic powers truly terrifying. Avery’s power builds from being able to lift small objects to stopping bullets, but it’s the characters’ body language, as illustrated by Barna, that really sells the power Avery has. From Avery’s tension-filled face as he uses his powers to people’s terrified reactions to them, readers can practically feel them thrumming off the page.

Some people dismiss superhero comics as straight-up revenge fantasies, as people gaining power to get back at those who slighted them. But the kinds of slights that Avery and his family must deal with go beyond what Peter Parker endured at high school or Clark Kent endured at the Daily Planet. More than just a story full of dynamic angles and fluttering capes, this tale is more of a character study of a man who suddenly gains great power and must decide how to use it. This book is sure to be a hit with superhero fans because of its many displays of awesome superpowers, but its social commentary is also an important message of how hard it is for the marginalized and disenfranchised to rise up, with or without phenomenal psychic powers.

Dark Blood, vol. 1
By LaToya Morgan
Art by Walt Barna
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781684157112

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

The Prisoner of Shiverstone

Young Helga Sharp likes to tinker with technology. Unfortunately, such tinkering is frowned on in her world—a place that, until a few decades ago, was in danger from a wide variety of mad scientists. When one of her secret projects makes radio contact with a stranger, the lonely Helga finds a kindred spirit. A kindred spirit who is currently being held in an island prison. Specifically, Utley Island, where the mad scientists are kept.

Helga decides to rescue her friend, but after a maritime mishap, finds herself waking up in an Utley Island hospital and facing a lot of questions. She plays dumb, claiming that she got separated from her parents at sea and pretending to know nothing about the island. If she can just stick around long enough to steal a few high-tech parts, she can make a device that will free her friend. But the longer she stays on Utley Island, the more she discovers that nothing about it—from the officers who run the place to the scientists it imprisons—is what she expected.

Helga is clever, sneaky, and skeptical, but well-intentioned, and makes friends on Utley Island despite herself. The residents there seem surprisingly good-hearted and friendly, given that most of them are technically prisoners and the rest are technically prison guards. While Helga’s focus is on building the device to rescue her trapped friend, there is a parallel emotional journey in which she begins to trust others and to find that there are people who actually appreciate her interest in science.

The setting has a fun, fantastical feel, with quirky characters and weird science inventions aplenty. It is unclear what the bar is in this world for being a “mad scientist”—we certainly don’t see any who seem power-hungry or cruel. At worst, they are careless about the potentially dangerous side effects of their cutting-edge experiments. Interestingly, the island’s Chief of Security seems to be a full-on superhero, patrolling in a flight suit, despite the fact that that there are no real supervillains in sight and most of the island’s inhabitants seem perfectly happy to stay there.

The art is vibrantly painted, and the character designs have retro charm, from the oversized bow in Helga’s hair to the oddball appearances of the mad scientists’ outfits and inventions. The colors are saturated, with vivid shades of pink, teal, and blue often dominating the panels, adding to the sci-fi feel of the setting. There is some racial diversity among the island’s inhabitants, though most of the main characters appear to be white.

There is a small amount of danger, as when some robot guardians run amok on the island, but it never gets too intense. Most of the action is of a more puzzle-solving nature as Helga tries to assemble her rescue device while dodging questions from well-meaning adults. (Basically all of the adult characters seem supportive of Helga in general, if not supportive of her secret mission – which, after all, they don’t know about.) This is a fun and gentle sci-fi adventure with a fun retro aesthetic. A nice addition to middle-grade collections.

The Prisoner of Shiverstone
By Linette Moore
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781419743924

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

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