The Cool Code

Cool Code

After years of being homeschooled, Zoey McIntyre is about to become an eighth grader at Hawthorne Middle School. She’s more than a little anxious about it, since she doesn’t exactly have friends or really know how to have friends, but her parents are sure she’ll fit in just fine. They don’t know she’ll be relying on help on the app she’s been secretly developing. In The Cool Code written by Deirdre Langeland with art by Sarah Mai, we follow along with Zoey and her eventful first few months at her new school. 

The daughter of two coders, twelve year old Zoey (or Zonut, as her dad lovingly calls her) grew up with technology in the forefront. For every problem, there’s a possible solution in an app. She created Cool Code to help her navigate the world around her and middle school is putting it to the test. Throw in C.C., the adorable llama mascot of Cool Code and Zoey’s voice of influence, and it’s a recipe for popularity!

At Hawthorne, Zoey meets David and Morgan, the members of the coding club. When they learn about her app and vast knowledge of coding, they decide to work together to make it the perfect solution for the problem of fitting in in middle school. They devour every bit of media about what it means to be cool and popular to program the app to be unstoppable. But when C.C. 2.0 turns out to be a complete monster, focused only on popularity and actively hurting Zoey’s new friendships, she discovers that programming doesn’t always have the answers for real life. 

One of the main takeaways from The Cool Code is that sometimes you have to do what’s right for you, not what the algorithm says. This message has the potential to be very important to young readers who feel the temptation and influence of social media apps in their daily lives. Zoey finds herself not fitting in but getting by, as she says, all because she is only doing what C.C. tells her is worth doing. Langeland’s writing doesn’t come off as preachy here; instead, the absurdity of C.C. and how far out the story goes works to get the message across clearly. 

Zoey’s parents become background characters as the book progresses. They are so into their latest coding project that she finds them progressively distant and straight up ignoring her. The resolution at the end of the book and the honesty Zoey shares with her mother may inspire readers who find themselves with parents who are inseparable from their desks, even if they aren’t even leaving the house to go to work. 

The Cool Code has a very distinctive art style that is very bright and vivid. The characters’ facial expressions are so strong, we can tell what they’re thinking without even reading the words on the page. Mai’s art style is another element that makes this book stand out, it is something different in the world of middle grade graphic novels. 

Kids struggling to make sense of fitting in or those dealing with anxiety will find themselves wrapped up in The Cool Code. It will also be an appealing read for fans of Kayla Miller’s Click series and Terri Libenson’s Emmie and Friends series. It also would work great in book clubs and for group discussions.

The Cool Code
By Deirdre Langeland
Art by Sarah Mai
Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2022
ISBN: 9780358549314

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

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

Measuring Up

In virtually every culture, food connects families across generations and bridges gaps between diverse communities. In Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu’s Measuring Up, not only does food play a key role in the plot, but the art of cooking serves as a mirror into one’s identity and a window into other cultures.

The story begins when twelve-year-old Cici moves from Taiwan to America to start life anew in Seattle. Cici misses her grandmother A-Má dearly and longs to have her come visit so they can spend her 70th birthday together. Cici decides to enter a cooking contest to win a grand prize to raise money for A-Má’s plane ticket. Thus begins her culinary quest to create the best dishes ever in hopes of helping her grandmother. As a native of Taiwan, Cici is familiar with how to cook Taiwanese food such as minced pork over rice and sticky rice dumplings. But can she possibly learn the intricacies of American cuisine to win the contest?

In this debut graphic novel, LaMotte delves into the culinary arts and centers the story around how a young Taiwanese girl adapts to a new country, depicting the challenges of reconciling two cultural worlds while honoring one’s heritage and traditions. LaMotte paces the plot with a steady momentum, raising the stakes each time when Cici and her competitors must invent creative ways to prepare a dish using a designated ingredient. Along the way, Cici grapples with twin forces of passion and duty. While she yearns to follow her heart in cooking, she must also obey her father’s wishes that she pursue an education. Furthermore, she wrestles with her identity as an immigrant adapting to American society while preserving her cultural roots, all the while navigating the intricacies of growing up and finding acceptance among her friends.

Ignatz nominated cartoonist Xu peppers the story with adorable illustrations. Selected panels spotlight visual lists of ingredients much like a recipe in a cookbook. Quarter to full-page sized panels highlight the nurturing, rich colors of vegetables, fruits, condiments, and culinary staples seen on familiar tv cooking shows reminiscent of Julia Child and other cooking personalities. Whether capturing Cici’s anxiety at a failed food experiment, displaying the appropriate kitchen gadgets for her next experiment, or highlighting her fervor in stir-frying rice noodles, Xu’s panels exude with wonder and pride at every turn as Cici persists at her craft, her unfailing passion fueled by an adventurous spirit.

Measuring Up serves up more than just a culinary feast of food competitions played out in a lively episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. The heart of the story lies in Cici’s intimate connection with her A-Má, for Cici yearns to overcome a plethora of obstacles to reunite with her. Food and cooking illuminate the traditions and values that empower her to discover who she really is. While this story may seem like a gastronomic food fest, conflicting situations such as Cici bringing her mom’s homemade pickled cucumbers to school only to be taunted by her classmates accentuate the growing sensibility of her dual identity in America. By weaving the art of cooking into her story, LaMotte masterfully probes the deeper relationships that connect adolescent readers to unique cultural communities, thereby enriching the increasing selection of works from diverse voices for all library collections.

Measuring Up
By Lily LaMotte
Art by Ann Xu
ISBN: 9780062973863
Harper Alley, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

Fantastic Tales of Nothing

What’s great about fantasy is that it is a genre that allows you to do whatever you want. With the right storyline, characters, dialogue, and unique creativity, a fantasy graphic novel can take your readers on a journey that they may see themselves in. Writing and illustrating duo Alejandra Green and Fanny Rodriguez have done just that in their new graphic novel Fantastic Tales of Nothing. The ladies have created an energetic new series with a lot to offer to readers, whether it’s the inclusion of non-binary and diversified characters, its hilarious use of word play, or a world with hidden mysterious that are waiting to be solved.

In the land of Nothing, two races of beings are constantly fighting one another, the Human Empire and the shape shifting Volken Court. For now, there is peace between the two but that could fracture at any time. Amidst all this there is Nathan Cadwell, a common minstrel who discovers that he possesses magic from an ancient spirit named Lerina. He is soon thrust into a quest to stop a possible war and vanquish an evil entity. Lucky for him he has two volken mercenaries to aid him, the magical crow Sina and the tough wolf Bardou, and a being who he calls Haven who speaks the ancient tongue and may be an important key in his journey.

This graphic novel takes readers into a truly magical and mysterious fantasy world filled with color, well thought out characters, and plenty of action. The creators have crafted a vast landscape of forestry, deserts, townships, and seaports with hidden details that keep the reader searching within each panel. They use a palette of shadows and dark colors for panels that take place at night or in a dark area and bright colors of various hues for sunny days and magical actions. Scenes with magical forces at work flow from panel to panel along with any action that is taking place, keeping readers alert to any revelations or plot twists that may arise. As for the story, readers will recognize common fantasy tropes (a group quest, each teammate with a specific skill, traveling different lands, etc.) but they will appreciate how this story takes a different turn.

Most of the cities and towns are inspired by Hispanic architecture and cultures, with townspeople that appear Latinx, and Nathan using a few Spanish words during conversations. There is also Haven, a non-binary character who speaks an ancient tongue that the writers may only translate if it is important to the story. Other than that, their dialogue is kept in their tongue. The story also contains some humorous dialogue, mostly wordplay centered on the various lands and cities the group visits and the fact that their land is just called Nothing.

Fantastic Tales of Nothing is a great fantasy read for those who enjoy similar graphic novels like Amulet or Bone. It is a great addition to both public and school libraries, especially those with patrons in fourth-sixth grades grades.  Librarians should also mention to their patrons that the duo Alejandra Green and Fanny Rodriguez have their own website with other comic series and news about upcoming and current illustrated projects.

Fantastic Tales of Nothing
By Alejandra Green
Art by Fanny Rodriguez
ISBN: 9780062839473
Harper Alley, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Traits: Latinx
Creator Highlights: Latinx

Pea, Bee, & Jay #1: Stuck Together

Brian “Smitty” Smith is best known as being a former editor for both Marvel and DC Comics. Titles he’s worked on include the Ultimate Spider-Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and Batgirl. He is no stranger to creating comics either, as you can also see from his work on Tree Mail (a collaboration with Mike Raicht). His latest work, Pea, Bee, & Jay is an all new children’s graphic novel series that he has solely illustrated and written.

This story starts off on a beautiful farm with our main character, Pea. Pea is looking for adventure. After arguing with his neighbors, a gang of fruits, about who has ventured the furthest from the property; Pea finds himself faced with a challenge he can’t pass up. He must be the one to make it the furthest. A huge, red-leaved maple tree beyond the fence is set as the destination he is to reach.

Trouble starts as soon as Pea sets off. He quickly finds himself caught in a terrible rainstorm and is blown far, far away. Feeling panicked at the thought of being lost forever, Pea, desperately tries to just get onto dry land. He then bumps into Bee, literally. Bee, an academic know-it-all, helps Pea out. Together, they meet Jay, the blue jay that doesn’t seem to know how to be a bird at all. Jay can’t fly and doesn’t try to eat either Pea or Jay, even though seeds and insects would normally be tasty morsels for a bird to enjoy. The characters run into many whimsical forest characters that will make any child giggle, from raspberries “blowing raspberry” to not so smart acorns.

Smith has an easy to follow panel style with bold colors, and cute cartoon characters. Children will like this illustrative style, and the clear dialogue will be manageable to newly independent readers.

Pea, Bee, & Jay features an unlikely friendship with easily likeable characters, simple color illustrations, and humor sprinkled throughout. It’s a quick read that I would recommend as a great addition to any collection. Smith is releasing the second title in the series, Wannabees, in September 2020. Readers won’t have to wait long to enjoy the next adventure that this trio of friends faces.

Pea, Bee, & Jay #1: Stuck Together 
By Brian “Smitty” Smith
ISBN: 9780062981172
HarperAlley, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 6-10

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)

A Cat Story

This story is from HarperCollins’s new graphic imprint for young readers, HarperAlley, and their new imprint for “authors with a strong point of view, as well as those who are often underrepresented,” Quill Tree Books. It will be released in October 2020 as part of the first set of books from Quill Tree. It was reviewed from a galley, so the art was presumably not final and the paper quality was also not the finished product.

The story opens with an illustrated note from the author, explaining how she was inspired to make this book after a trip to Malta with her family, and reassuring readers that it has a happy ending.

The sun rises on the ancient harbor of Malta, and a sleepy black and white cat emerges from under an old boat, leaving her sleeping companion behind. Shortly afterwards, the tan cat awakes and snags a luridly green fish for his breakfast, fleeing for safety from thrown stones.

While the tan cat devours his breakfast, the black and white cat seeks out a home, only to be tossed out when the mother of the boy who took her in returns home. We discover her name is Cilla as she talks to a big brown cat named Alaya in the flower market and Alaya tells her the story of the Quiet Garden and the power of stories and art. Cilla hurries back to the docks to rejoin her friend, the tan cat named Betto, and tells him of her determination to find the Quiet Garden. This “kitten tale” place is supposed to be the perfect place for cats, where all are welcome, there is plentiful food and clean water, and a beautiful garden to explore. Betto tries to convince her that it’s just a story, but Cilla sticks to her determination, meeting different cats and braving a dangerous ferry ride to a nearby island to follow her dream. Eventually, Betto catches up and, although he doesn’t believe the Quiet Garden exists, joins her to keep her safe, and because of their friendship.

Along the way, they meet other cats, humans, and even a dog. They hear stories and become stories, as their journey leads them in and out of art, and finally, they tell stories to make sense of their journey. As they return to the docks together in the moonlight, they decide to search for the garden another day—as long as they eat lunch first!

Husted’s art is predominantly in earth tones, with squiggly lines showing the movement of the cats and the play of wind and water around the island. The few humans shown are distinctive, from the boy with light brown skin and glasses to the gray-haired sailor who picks them up, with her wedge-like nose and large eyes. The cats themselves have more personality than just their size and coloration. Cilla’s slightly smaller size is not the only thing that delineates her kitten-like innocence and hope. She has a more curved, rounded face than the other cats, and expressive green eyes that show her longing and determination to find the place where she belongs. Each cat she meets is distinctive, from the peaceful Old Paolo, enjoying his quiet old age in a monastery, to the mystical Dolce, painfully thin as she sheds her earthly body and meditates on her next phase of being.

The author has an extended background note, explaining a little about Malta and the artists involved in the book, and then giving careful details identifying the art on the pages from old masters like Caravaggio and Matisse, to contemporary artists, photography from the author’s family, and much more. The creator has gently adapted the art to her own style, adding or replacing elements with cats and seamlessly weaving it into the narrative of the story. There is a wide range of artists included and, although mostly Western, they do include a large number of female artists.

Husted’s reimagining of the art retains the original flavor, while adding her own loose lines and air of movement to the pictures. Some of the faces in the art do not, however, have the fine detail of the characters in the book. There are also some panels with hazy printing, but that is most likely to be fixed in the final version of the book.

It’s tempting to immediately slap a “Warriors read-alike” on this, since it’s about cats seeking a new home, but this is far from being similar to the popular fantasy series. It is more similar to the equally thoughtful Miss Annie duology (Freedom! and Rooftop Cat) by Frank Le Gall published a few years ago, or the new Brina the Cat by Giorgio Salati. The addition of art brings an increased depth to the story as well.

This is not likely to have a wide, popular appeal to middle grade readers. The complex art references especially are likely to confuse and bore the majority. The philosophic musings also seem aimed at a more mature (and patient) audience. However, if you have readers who like slower-paced graphic novels, more thoughtful animal stories, and are interested in art enough to chase all the references through to the end, this should satisfy those niche audiences.

A Cat Story
By Ursula Murray Husted
ISBN: 9780062932044
HarperAlley, 2020

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

Arlo & Pips: King of the Birds

Gravel has created a number of simple comics for intermediate readers that combine fact and fiction in a humorous way. Best-known and loved, at least at my library, are the Disgusting Critters series. I like to read the titles à la Monty Python’s tree sketch: The Bat. The Toad. Arlo & Pips: King of the Birds is similar, but includes more narrative.

Arlo the crow, a large and sleek black bird, is ready to meet his fans! He has a crown and everything—after all, he is king of the birds! Pips, a small, nondescript yellow bird, is not so sure. After all, Arlo is just plain black, his caw is a bit… raucous, and he eats everything, including dead fish! But as they talk and travel, from the city to the beach, Arlo explains just what makes crows—and Arlo himself—so special.

This is a humorous blend of fiction and fact. Arlo shows his intelligence when tricking another crow into abandoning his tasty french fries, displays his tool skills by opening a clam, and even gifts Pips with a special shiny object as the two build their friendship. As the two interact, Arlo tones down his over-the-top personality and boasting, and Pips learns to appreciate Arlo’s skills as the two become friends.

Gravel’s blocky art fills numerous small panels and a few large, full-page panels as well. Red, pink, and cream backgrounds predominate, with occasional blue and darker yellow, especially as Arlo and Pips move around outdoors. Pips is a bird-shaped yellow teardrop with a black eye dot and stick beak and eyebrow, and Arlo a smooth black curve, with massive gray beak and expressive eye. There are panels showing Arlo’s “collection of shiny things,” the litter that humans leave behind (and the two bird friends clean up) and a frenzy of hungry seagulls.

This is an entry in HarperCollins’s new graphic imprint, Harper Alley, and blurbed by popular author Ben Clanton, creator of the intermediate comic Narwhal and Jelly. I am a little curious as to how this could be continued as a series; Arlo and Pips seem to have shared all their information and stories with the reader already, but perhaps this was just the introductory volume and they will go on to have more adventures together.

Readers who aren’t yet ready to tackle Science Comics‘s volume on crows and fans of Ben Clanton and Elise Gravel will be delighted with this new title, whether or not it ends up turning into a series. It’s got humor, information, and a not-so-subtle call-out of careless humans who litter. This is sure to please your beginning readers who are looking for easy graphic novels as well as placate parents and teachers who worry that comics are too “frivolous,” since it has plenty of nonfiction and text for young readers to tackle.

Arlo & Pips: King of the Birds
By Elise Gravel
Art by Wharton
ISBN: 9780062982216
Harper Alley, 2020

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