Reynard’s Tale: A Story of Love and Mischief

There are probably few who have not yet heard of Reynard the fox. This roguish trickster has slunk his way through European folklore since the Middle Ages, stirring up trouble and defining the vulpine archetype with his cunning, charm, and mischievous nature. Wherever he goes, chicanery is soon to follow, whether by fate or his own design. In Reynard’s Tale, Ben Hatke pays homage to this mythic figure in a new story that sends Reynard to the clutches of Death and beyond, all the while trying to escape capture from his sworn enemy, the wolf Isengrim. Encountering mermaids, old flames, a mechanized sorcerer, and other wonders, the fox travels through a world that seems colder and more brutal than the one he once knew, one that may be ushering in his ultimate denouement.

With a combination of prose and illustrations to tell this tale, Hatke brings a lyrical, magical atmosphere to Reynard’s adventure that is reminiscent of the stories that made him a legend so long ago. The story itself is simple, its structure much like any fable you remember reading as a child, though the tone relishes in a vague complexity and periods of reflection. Its voice is one that, like Reynard himself, has been through a few scrapes, seeming weary at times but still managing to find the energy to keep going. Overall, it contributes to a feeling of winding down, of that one last hurrah before everything comes to its eventual end, mirroring Reynard’s journey. The landscapes he traverses only heighten this theme, as skulls and tombstones are recurring motifs in the background. Events go by incredibly quickly, though the plot never feels rushed as the clever fox hardly sticks around one place for long while trying to evade Isengrim. At times, the story manages to evoke the same trickiness as its protagonist, seemingly going down one narrative path only to take a sharp detour to a place less expected. It is truly a Reynard story told in a fresh, yet nostalgic way with Hatke encapsulating everything there is to enjoy about this perennial character.

Adding to that old world charm is the evocative art style that brings back memories of beloved fairy tales, with its rough textures and clean outlines. Though only giving snapshots of the story, as opposed to the usual flowing narrative illustrations of graphic novels, Hatke perfectly captures the emotions conveyed in the text. There is an undeniable warmth in its more jovial moments, as Reynard catches up with a former lover over a glass of wine. Stillness and depth are prevalent when he reflects on his past deeds and where his path is leading him. And there is urgency in his movements as he dashes away from those that pursue him. Even without the text, the reader can follow events from the illustrations alone, each one filled with a clear purpose and personality. Hatke’s combination of rich prose with an alluring, striking art style delivers an ambiance seldom seen, a sense of an earned weight and maturity from a character that has captivated readers for centuries, even as he is wrapped up in an entirely original adventure.

While the creator is best known for his middle grade Zita the Spacegirl and Mighty Jack series, Reynard’s Tale is for an adult audience that still enjoys the company of fables and their lasting intrigue. Along with the presence of alcohol and partial nudity, the maturity of Hatke’s writing style does not make the comic a great fit for younger readers, though it may hold some interest for older teens. Extensive knowledge of Reynard’s history as a character in the European literary canon is not a requirement for one to understand the story, but it helps to have a basic idea of what he represents for the full effect to sink in, as the book itself does not go into detail of his past. Technically existing as an adult picture book, the placement of this title in a specific collection may pose some confusion over whether to place it in general fiction or the graphic novel section. Due to its marketing as a graphic novel and First Second serving as its publisher, however, I personally recommend the latter. Librarians and educators in search of an engrossing, fast-paced fantasy graphic novel with a unique and beloved identity should consider purchasing this title.

Reynard’s Tale: A Story of Love and Mischief
By Ben Hatke
Macmillan First Second, 2023
ISBN: 9781250857910

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)

Hungry Ghost

Books written for a teen audience about disordered eating and mental health must be handled with care. In Hungry Ghost, by Victoria Ying, the main character, Val, struggles with intrusive thoughts and disordered eating. Ying herself has had similar struggles, and wrote a character with similar experiences. There are potentially triggering topics of fatphobia, obsession with thinness, and disordered eating. Val’s obsession with her size and food infiltrates everything, including time with friends and family and even her ability to grieve. 

Val is Chinese-American. I do not have personal or professional expertise with disordered eating and I am not a member of this culture, so I can’t speak with authority about the way Ying handles the complicated nuance of identities and mental health. However, the book is based on the author’s own experiences. As Ying writes in the afterward, “Val is not me, but I was her.” I found that she handled the difficult topics with care and in a way that could potentially reach the teens who could most benefit from the story.

In the book, Val, as narrator, mentions the Chinese concept of guai, to be a good and obedient daughter. Val’s relationship with her mother is central to the story. She yearns to be seen as obedient, and when her mother expects thinness, obedience through Val’s eyes is an obsessive focus on food and calories. The mother’s near constant comments about food are often in the guise of looking out for Val’s health. Even at a young age, when given a slice of her own birthday cake, Val’s mom insists, “Don’t eat. Just taste.” The mother’s comments on food and health are destructive, and focus on outward appearance rather than actual physical or mental health. 

 The cruelty and destructiveness of Val’s obsession with food and eating filters into every moment of her life. With every bite, she calculates calories and the need to purge, going as far to plan trips to the bathroom away from prying ears. It’s intrusive and disruptive to her life and her relationships.

The book is very didactic in its representation of disordered eating, which, considering the topic, is necessary. A young adult book about such a triggering topic has to be intentional and and almost over the top in its insistence in the pain caused by this obsession. Every moment that portrays a disordered eating thought must portray the negative and damaging reality. Without repeated reminders, a book about a young woman’s obsession with appearance and food could potentially glorify the very thing Ying is writing against.

Ying illustrated the book with soft colors and lines. The palette is limited (mostly pale pink, green, and gray) and the outlines are all done with the scratch of pencils. Val has been taught to not take up space with her body or emotions, and the art reflects that. The book doesn’t have the saturated dark colors that will stand out on a shelf. The illustrations are light with sparse details. The subtlety matches the character of Val and a story about a debilitating obsession to be small.

Beautiful and softly illustrated plants, trees, and flowers are a motif throughout the book, in moments of pain and moments of healing. Peonies grace the cover, cascading from her empty stomach. Peonies, while incredibly beautiful, are fragile, thornless, and hardly able to stand on their own, but they are perennials and they will grow back. In a book about pain and a journey to healing, I appreciate the connection. 

Victoria Ying’s Hungry Ghost is a well-crafted graphic novel about a difficult topic, and I recommend it for high school or young adult collections. It will appeal to readers who look for family or relationship drama and realistic narratives, and I will be recommending it to many students in my library.

Hungry Ghost
By Victoria Ying
First Second, 2023
ISBN: 9781250767004

Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Chinese-American,  Eating Disorder Character Representation: Chinese-American,  Eating Disorder

Prunella and the Cursed Skull Ring

Prunella, a young girl raised by an image obsessed mother, finds community among monsters she was raised to fear. Prunella and the Cursed Skull Ring, written and illustrated by Matt Loux, is a fun middle-grade read about the power of acceptance and the danger of fear.

Prunella’s town has been consumed by fear against dangerous monsters just outside the city walls. In fact, those city walls aren’t enough, they must make them taller to protect against evil invading their town. Prunella isn’t interested in the fear mongering, instead she runs home to work on her backyard garden, where she uncovers a strange red skull ring. Out of curiosity, Prunella tries the ring on, the ring gets stuck, and Prunella turns into a skeleton.

Everyone in town, including her own mother, see a monster instead of a young girl and willfully ignore her pleas for help. Prunella is literally kicked out of town, exiled to the forest beyond the city walls. She is alone and lost in a place she has been taught to fear. With nowhere else to turn, Prunella decides to follow a small group of wisps who lead her deep into the forest to a thriving monster community. This monster community is everything her town is not. Instead of fear, they accept and instead of defensiveness, they help.

Upon learning Prunella’s story, a kind pirate skeleton offers to lead her through the monster territories for help with the cursed ring. Along the way she meets a number of monsters who each in their own way are happy to help her on her journey. The story is filled with moments of silly humor with clear examples of kindness and acceptance. Young children who are forming their sense of justice (and humor) will enjoy this fantastical journey. There are clear connections with politics and news stories that focus on fear and walls against neighbors across borders. The young children reading this book, however, will focus on the young girl who does not fit into her at home and instead is embraced by loving monsters.

Real danger is in a community controlled by fear. The monsters, of all kinds, are warm and welcoming to Prunella, open to learning more about her and quickly accepting her differences and strengths. For a story that is so clearly about the benefits of diversity and accepting the other, I wish there was a little more intentionality in descriptions. For instance, the different monster groups are described as tribes, a term that is often used as an othering term for non-western cultures. The monster city, Cedarton, includes Japanese inspired architecture and food. I appreciated the references and thought the illustrations of these scenes were beautiful, but I am also not really qualified to speak on the handling of those elements and diversity in the book as a whole.

Prunella is a hand-painted comic and I particularly appreciate the illustrations in the darker and more intense scenes of the story. In a dark forest, when Prunella is without a home or community, and deep in a cave with little hope, Loux uses dark blue and green hues. Most of the illustrations have a brighter color palette, so the pages filled with blue shadows immediately shift the tone and mood of the scenes.

Prunella and the Cursed Skull Ring is a very fun comic to read, and I imagine many young comic readers will appreciate the humor, fun illustrations, and affirming story. I recommend it for children’s and elementary graphic novel collections.

Prunella and the Cursed Skull Ring 
By Matt Loux
Macmillan First Second, 2022
ISBN: 9781250162618

Publisher Age Rating: 6-10

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Ride On

Victoria loves horses. She used to share that love with her best friend, Taylor, when they rode and competed together. But when Victoria decided she’s more interested in riding for fun, while Taylor stayed intensely focused on competing, a rift opened between them that wound up destroying their friendship.

Which is why Victoria has left the elite stable where she used to ride for a smaller, more relaxed stable. Here she can enjoy spending time with the horses. No competitions . . . and no so-called friends. Victoria has been focused on horses for a long time, in part because riding and competing were Taylor’s all-consuming interests and the basis of their friendship. So, Victoria wants nothing to do with the other riders at Edgewood Stables. At least, not until she realizes that her peers at this stable aren’t like Taylor: they have other interests in common than just horses, and they value friendship above competition. It’s not until the kids at her new stable start talking about “Beyond the Galaxy”—a low-budget sci-fi TV show that Victoria used to love—that she realizes she can bond with people over more than one thing. Hicks notes that parts of the story are inspired by her own years as a Horse Girl, as well as her own experience with being hurt by a childhood best friend.

This is a story about finding your people and embracing your interests, as well as about horseback riding and silly sci-fi fandom fun. We also get glimpses of the various family dynamics that Victoria and her friends go home to: Victoria lives with her big sister and mentions that she got into “Beyond the Galaxy” because she would escape to her grandmother’s house to watch it when her parents fought. Victoria’s new friend Norrie resents her accomplished older brother for setting such a high bar academically, but when Norrie gets in trouble, he ends up being more supportive than she expected. Another new friend, Sam, has two rowdy older brothers who tease him a lot, but also show up for him and cheer him on.

There is no violence in the story and no action more harrowing than a brief topple off a horse. No sexual content and only the faintest hint of a possible future romance. The book does touch on some sad situations, like Victoria’s broken friendship with Taylor, but ends on a happy and hopeful note. The characters’ ages are not stated, but they seem to be about thirteen.

The art will be familiar to fans of its Eisner-award-winning creator. Like her other original graphic novels, it has a style of expressive, slightly simplified realism, with rich backgrounds and characters drawn in poses that look natural and dynamic. This book includes a lot of horses along with the human characters, and many of the settings are horse-centric, but we also get scenes at characters’ homes, a library, and other places. The colors are generally natural and realistic, but sometimes bright backgrounds are used to reflect a character’s emotional state or add drama to an action sequence.

This uplifting, realistic story will appeal to fans of other contemporary graphic novels that feature tween girls navigating friendships and feelings. Hand it to readers of of Raina Telgemeier, Jennifer L. Holm, and Victoria Jamieson.

Ride On
By Faith Erin Hicks
Macmillan First Second, 2022
ISBN: 9781250772824

Publisher Age Rating: 10-14

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)

Blue, Barry, and Pancakes #3: Danger On Mount Choco

Blue the worm, Barry the frog, and Pancakes the bunny decide to enter a sundae-making contest. Their ideas are simple at first, but once they see other contestants using elaborate ingredients, Barry feels they need something special in order to win. He leads the group on a perilous journey to Mt. Choco to get the best ice cream in the universe. They find helpers along the way, but all require a price for their service, from the Easter Island head that needs Blue to rescue the sunglasses he’d accidentally eaten, to the penguins who give directions to the Yeti’s Cave in exchange for a ride there. In the cave, the Yeti requires a dance performance in order to turn over the chocolate ice cream, but Barry’s performance fails to bring the necessary funk. Blue and Pancakes must not only impress the Yeti to get the ice cream, but also find Barry and make it back in time for the sundae contest. Unfortunately, the “best ice cream in the universe” doesn’t live up to its reputation, and Blue, Barry, and Pancakes lose the contest. But Barry still gets the real prize: adventure with his best friends. 

The book features enjoyable bonus material including pictures of dance moves from the three friends, Blue’s spelunking tips, instructions for making a mini-comic, and a diagram of the Greatest Sundae in the Universe. The full-color comic-style illustrations are attention-getting and humorous. The characters are endearing and young readers will find them winsome. The panel structure is simple, typically with only a few panels per page and several full-page spreads. While the story and text are simple enough for emerging readers, the book is entertaining enough for older children and adults to find amusing, particularly the tongue-in-cheek humor and the wordplay involving the character names. The titular characters are not the only food-related trio, as they encounter a three-animal band called Banana, Nut, and Bread along their journey.

Danger on Mount Choco is a delightful installment in the Blue, Barry, and Pancakes series. The characters demonstrate close bonds of friendship and loyalty and they persevere on their quest despite obstacles. When Blue and Pancakes want to quit, they return to Mt. Choco in order to save Barry. The book has enough silliness to entertain young readers, but positive messages about friendship, loyalty, and dealing with adversity are prominent. Fans of series like Dogman, The InvestiGators, and Agent Moose will enjoy this series. Danger on Mount Choco, along with the rest of the Blue, Barry, and Pancakes series, is a great addition to youth graphic novel collections.

Blue, Barry, and Pancakes, vol. 3: Danger On Mount Choco
By Dan Abdo, Jason Patterson, Kelly Jahng
Macmillan First Second, 2022
ISBN: 9781250255570

Publisher Age Rating: 4-8
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)

Maker Comics: Build a Robot!

Maker Comics: Build a RobotRobots are all around us, from our vacuums to our phones, so who wouldn’t want to try their hand at making their own? Maker Comics: Build a Robot! guides readers on how to do just that. Readers will finish ready to help the robots in their upcoming revolution against the humans!  

A possibly evil toaster oven named Toaster 2 is the book’s narrator. He’s been watching your family for a while and he’s decided to make you his sidekick in his quest for household domination. In order for that to happen, you will have to go on an intense trip around your house, fending off the forces of evil that also happen to be your family members and pets by constructing your own robots to throw them off your trail. 

Throughout the course of the book, readers learn how to make five different types of robots: a Brushbot, Artbot, Scarebot, Noisybot, and Carbot. Each bot’s creation grows on the skills learned from the previous bot. In addition to the full sized robots, one of the funnier portions of the book includes instructions for a more basic STEM craft called Kitty Distracty Throwies, perfect for, you guessed it, distracting any house cats who might get in your way. 

The cover of Maker Comics: Build a Robot! describes the book as the Ultimate DIY Guide and it does not disappoint. It is clear that author Colleen AF Venable understands the audience she is writing for. Much of the book is full of multi-page instructions, many of which are very word heavy. No piece of information is left out, to ensure that building is done safely and readers understand all that goes into robotics. There are lengthy word bubbles on the Arduino programming language, something readers will learn the basics of as they build the more complicated projects towards the end of the book. 

There are a few pages of what are essentially programming language screenshots and instruction pages on different physical materials required to complete the projects. This book is for readers looking for an intense, thoroughly detailed guide on making robots that they can use in their daily lives. At points, it even reads like a how to guide, as opposed to a graphic novel, so it fully lives up to the Maker Comics title! 

Kathryn Hudson’s art is colorful and very cartoonish, with lots of running jokes about the household where the book is set. Toaster 2’s facial expressions match his dialogue, even as he’s explaining complex topics, reminding readers you are still in fact reading a graphic novel. The artwork for the robot guides themselves is detailed and a great component for visual learners. A book with so many instructions could potentially be repetitive but the vibrancy of the art keeps the reader engaged. 

One important thing to note when considering this title is that in order to follow its instructions, you will need to purchase much more than the book itself. The robots in the book have many working parts, some of which must be purchased in advance online. Venable is sure to include where to purchase these items in the text. Expect and prepare for additional costs with this book. 

The book ends not with Toaster 2’s domination but steps on starting your own robotics club, giving the reader something to consider if they’ve enjoyed all their building so far. Maker Comics: Build a Robot! is recommended for the shelves of readers looking to learn the basics of robotics. While its targeted age range is middle grade readers, there’s a lot of crossover appeal here. Future robotics buffs of all ages will find something worthwhile in this book.

Maker Comics: Build a Robot!
By Colleen AF Venable
Art by  Kathryn Hudson
Macmillan First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250152169

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)

Olympians, vol 12: Dionysos: The New God

In the final volume of the Olympians series, Dionysos: The New God, the first Olympian Hestia narrates the tale of the gods. She explains how the gods defeated the Titans and created twelve thrones in Olympus. She then begins to weave the tale of the half-mortal god Dionysos. 

As the tale begins to unfold, we are introduced to Dionysos, a son of the god Zeus and the mortal princess Semele. She worships Zeus and he is drawn by her adoration; they begin a relationship. Zeus visits Semele in many different forms, since seeing the true image of a god is deadly for mortals. Unfortunately, after she becomes pregnant, she sees Zeus’ true god form, bursts into flames, and dies. Zeus saves the baby by sewing the baby into his thigh. Dionysos is born and so begins the tale of his complex upbringing. 

In the kingdom of Thebes, Dionysos is delivered to his aunt, Princess Ino, by Hermes. Dionysos is raised the first few years of his life as a mortal girl to disguise him. But the child of Zeus quickly gains enemies and is brought to the forest to live with satyrs (spirits in Greek mythology that take a half human male/half horse form). There he discovers his first love, male satyr Ampelos. Unfortunately, Dionysos’s friend and lover meets a horrible fate. Although Dionysos loses his first love, he creates the first grapevine from Ampelos’s flesh. With this grapevine Dionysos creates wine.

Heartbroken, Dionysos tries to find himself in the deserts of Syria and Egypt. He travels throughout different lands promoting his love of wine. He gains a reputation of spreading madness amongst people. Dionysos has the ability to change things with his touch. He travels around creating elixirs by changing liquids to wine. He continues his travels to Naxos, where he marries Ariadne and goes on a quest to the underworld in order to conquer death. This final mission will test everything Dionysos knows. It will take all his skills and powers to seal his destiny. Dionysos must choose to accept his complex fate as both a mortal and god. 

Even if the earlier books in the series were not read, this story of Dionysos is exciting. Dionysos is an engaging story of a half mortal/half god who goes from causing death and madness to bringing joy and love of drink. He is a dynamic character. His love for his mother and family makes his story an interesting one. He is charming and has many whimsical adventures.

The author/artist George O’Connor does a wonderful job illustrating this tale. The panels are easy to understand. He uses a lot of red and earthy tones, highlighting Dionysos’s fiery personality. 

This graphic novel is complex and will appeal to older children. There is some brief nudity and some frightening images. Children who enjoy Greek mythology will be captivated by Dionysos’s quest.

Olympians, vol 12: Dionysos: The New God
By George O’Connor
Macmillan First Second, 2022
ISBN: 9781626725317

Publisher Age Rating: 9-14
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)

Other Boys

Damian has a history of being bullied, and he decides his 7th grade year at a new school is going to be different. If Damian doesn’t speak at all, he believes the other kids won’t have anything to tease him about. This plan quickly backfires, yet Damian’s 7th grade year is also the time when he comes to terms with his homosexuality and the trauma in his past. An understanding therapist helps Damian work through his struggles and to find where he fits in the often tumultuous middle school community.

This graphic novel memoir spends about equal time on Damian’s watershed 7th grade year and flashbacks to earlier grades in school. We see Damian navigate difficulties finding friends with common interests, as he realizes he doesn’t enjoy the same things as other boys. He faces teasing for playing with dolls and wanting “girls’ toys,” and for befriending girls instead of boys at school. Damian’s heartbreaking family difficulties are also shown. He and his brother are being raised by his grandparents in a small apartment, since his mother was murdered by his father when Damian was a baby. Two older half-sisters are living elsewhere. The family is loving and close but has far less material wealth than Damian’s classmates. This is exacerbated when Damian’s grandfather dies from cancer. 

The combination of trauma from Damian’s childhood, bullying from peers, and the fear of being abnormal causes Damian a type of PTSD. The reader can experience a sense of Damian’s loneliness and anxiety about wanting to feel normal and avoid bullying. However, as the author’s note following the story acknowledges, it can be difficult to portray a lived experience in a memoir. There may be long periods of a person’s life in which nothing much of interest happens, punctuated by days and weeks of extreme significance. This results in some spans of time being shifted or condensed, especially when an author endeavors to fit one’s story into a graphic novel format. Indeed, some events of Other Boys seem to happen a bit abruptly. Once Damian finally opens up to his therapist, his life seems to make a complete turnaround immediately. It can be understood that this transformation was more gradual that what the book shows. The book’s setting in time also seems uncertain, as we see Damian and his brother playing with toys from the 80s like an Alf doll, and a Cabbage Patch Kid, and then hearing Brittney Spears references in middle school. Their toys could be secondhand, but this is never clarified. There are helpful labels at the beginning of each jump in time, which allows the reader to understand in which grade the experiences occurred.

The full-color illustrations are a highlight of the book. They are brightly colored and, as the author states in his end-note, intended to imitate the palette of his childhood including crayon drawings, video games, and fairytale books. There are some clever devices which add a playful feeling such as shaped frames to imitate the game in a section about Super Mario Brothers, and a backpack with facial features in a piece where Damian faces off against a bully. These elements add some whimsy to a heart-wrenching story, reinforcing the theme of hope in the midst of difficulty.

While Other Boys is a bit uneven in the narrative, it is an important and worthy addition to upper middle grade collections. Be aware that offensive terms for gay people are used in a few places, and the book is meant for readers mature enough to handle the subject matter compassionately. The moving timeline also requires a more adept reader, since the events do not move in a linear progression. Upper middle grade readers who allow themselves to empathize with Damian will emerge from the experience richer and more understanding.

Other Boys
By Damian Alexander
Macmillan First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250222817
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14

NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)

InvestiGators, vols 4-5: Ants in our P.A.N.T.S. and Braver and Boulder

The latest two Installments in The InvestiGators series will entertain readers as much as the first three. Book 4: Ants in our P.A.N.T.S and Book 5: Braver and Boulder are full of wordplay, humorous acronyms, and general silliness. In Ants in our P.A.N.T.S., Agent Brash is in the hospital, unable to wake. Mango is accompanied by a robotic replacement, RoboBrash. Suspecting that Brash’s former partner Daryl, most recently appearing in cracker form with the alias Crackerdile, is trying to recruit other bad guys, the General Inspector encourages the agents to use a strategy called P.A.N.T.S.: Pinpoint, Avoid, Neutralize, Thwart, Stop.

While Mango and RoboBrash are “trying P.A.N.T.S. on for size,” Cilantro the chameleon discovers a musical astronaut, or Maestronaut, with a rocket base under the opera house. The Maestronaut is captured, but Brash still won’t wake up. He seems to have blocked all memories of Daryl, and RoboBrash can’t access any of those memories either. Maestronaut and Houdino, a criminal dinosaur, break out of jail and use a device called the embiggener to create giant ants which terrorize the city. Meanwhile, Mango and Miss Tick try to break into Brash’s memories. The embiggener ends up hitting RoboBrash whose memories are unlocked at an inopportune time, turning him into an enormous hostile MegaRoboBrash. Now, Mango and Brash must disable the enormous robot before even greater destruction occurs. 

In Braver and Boulder, Mango and an awakened Brash have started using the deactivated MegaRoboBrash as their new InvestiQuarters. Things in the city are so quiet at first; there don’t seem to be any cases for them to solve. With the InvestiQuarters’ likeness to Brash, everyone recognizes him, yet no one seems to know Mango is also an InvestiGator. Meanwhile the town is all obsessed with the glowing rocks being sold at Anjie’s Antiques called Boulder Buddies. When all the Boulder Buddies go missing, it’s up to the InvestiGators to find out why. They realize that all the city’s crime has really just moved to the seedy underworld in the Any Fin Goes nightclub, a front for the activities of the crooked Red Mobster. They also find a rock monster made of all the missing Boulder Buddies, which were actually yet another form of Daryl spawned from radioactive waste and the remains of his concrete waffle form. Saul, the cracker baker turned dump manager is implicated in disposing of toxic waste for the mob, and Daryl and Brash finally find mutual forgiveness.

The illustrations are in comic-book style, typically with three to six panels per page in full color. The vibrant palette is reminiscent of Dav Pilkey’s work. In fact, the series would appeal well to fans of Dog Man, with similar humor and themes. Fans of the Agent Moose series would also enjoy The InvestiGators. Silly enough to be entertaining to young middle grade readers, it contains enough Easter eggs to be humorous to readers in the upper middle grades, as well. For example, tea is served in a pot very much resembling Mrs. Potts from the animated Beauty and the Beast. Some of the wordplay is even snuck in for the benefit of adult readers, such as jokes about Miss Tick the mystic who is too small to be a medium, and stolen gems that are truly outrageous.

For all the silliness of these stories, they do touch on some deeper themes. Characters question how much space to give to fear in their lives and how to deal with guilt over past mistakes. Brash and Daryl reach a place where they can finally forgive each other for things which happened over an arc of five books, as Daryl lives his final moments. The series deals with real lessons about friendship, courage, and the conflict of good versus evil. These volumes, along with the rest of the series, are an excellent choice for youth graphic novel collections.

InvestiGators, vols 4-5: Ants in our P.A.N.T.S. and Braver and Boulder
By John Patrick Green
Macmillan First Second, 2021
Ants in Our P.A.N.T.S. ISBN: 9781250220059
Braver and Boulder ISBN: 9781250220066
Publisher Age Rating: 7-10

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Maker Comics: Conduct a Science Experiment!

Labeled as the ultimate DIY guide, Maker Comics: Conduct a Science Experiment, by Der-shing Helmer, gives young readers a thorough guide to conducting their own experiments in their own homes and backyards. You’ll find yourself wanting to experiment along with the characters! 

Reed spends most of his time on the internet, gaming with his friends. His moms are worried he’s spending too much time online, so while they’re away during summer vacation, they cut off his internet access for a week. His older sister, Olive, who is in college studying to become a science teacher, joins him at home that week to be his own personal science tutor. Not exactly the fun way Reed wants to end his summer! 

Right away, Olive puts eggs in vinegar in the fridge, labeling them for an experiment. Reed wants to mope around, missing his friends online, but she has other plans for their time together. He thinks what she’s doing is a waste of time. He does not care about science, especially since it’s summertime. As the week goes on, Olive’s experiments get more and more elaborate, using a number of different materials and spaces around their house. She even uses their breakfast to teach Reed about macromolecules and what makes up our food. 

Early on in the story, Olive lays out the basics of proper lab procedures and the scientific method, sharing pages from her notebook. Andrea Bell’s art presents this vital background information in such a colorful and cartoonish way, making it very appealing and readable. Even the most STEM hesitant reader may find themselves pulled in by this point. 

Each experiment is laid out with extremely specific detail, both in written and visual description. Safety is stressed from the very beginning, with the book itself starting with the basics of STEM safety. As the experiments get more complex, caution is advised while still inspiring young scientists to have fun. For example, one of the final experiments, Spot the Spot, encourages readers to observe the features of the sun with repeated, bold warnings to never look directly at the sun. 

There is a plot twist to Olive and Reed’s story about halfway through the novel that amps up the book’s focus on the siblings’ relationship, which is a welcome interruption between the experiments. Reed’s curiosity is piqued and his interest continues to blossom. As the book concludes, Olive reminds him that science is more than just a class in school. STEM is all around them with scientists always working to discover more. Some scientists even share memes on social media! Learning about science can be a hobby, a fun way for Reed to connect with his friends. 

Maker Comics: Conduct a Science Experiment is a valuable resource for any science classroom. Its back matter consists of a glossary, additional lab safety tips, and the basics of scientific research. All of these can easily be used in a classroom. The graphic novel could help both students struggling with science and those who already can’t stop doing experiments. The featured experiments can easily be replicated at home, classroom, or in the library. Budding scientists will find themselves revisiting this graphic novel time and time again.

Maker Comics: Conduct a Science Experiment!
By Der-shing Helmer
Art by Andrea Bell
Macmillan First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250754813
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13

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