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)

Wait Till Helen Comes

Critics of graphic novels will often say that reading graphic novels isn’t truly reading and nothing could be further from the truth. While there might not be as many words within a graphic novel, the pictures themselves are there to help tell a story. Much in the same way directors and cinematographers must think about lighting and composition when making a movie, so must the artist work together with the writer to help create the setting, the characters, and even events that help move the story along. Therefore, graphic novel adaptations of popular works are not a dumbed-down version of the story, but tells the story in a different way. This is the case for the graphic adaptation of Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes, illustrated by Meredith Laxton and Russ Badgett.

Those who remember Hahn’s tale of middle school hauntings and family drama will find the same story beats here. The story still follows siblings Molly and Michael, who are annoyed by their younger stepsister Heather who does everything she can to get Molly and Michael in trouble. The blended family move out to the country where, in the graveyard near their home, Heather discovers a grave belonging to a girl named Helen. She soon starts to threaten her step-siblings that they will be sorry because Helen is coming. Helen might not be as dead as Molly and Michael thought, and she seems to be willing to do whatever Heather asks.

Hahn’s stories are just the right fit for young readers who like just a little scary, even if adults might find it tiresome. There are elements of genuine spookiness and dramatic tension in this adaption by Scott Peterson, but adults especially might notice that there is no real sense that anything too terrible will happen. Sure, the blended family is a great source of conflict, particularly when Heather’s dad takes up for his daughter no matter what she does, but those dynamics aren’t the story’s focus; instead, it focuses on Molly, Heather, and Helen. Heather and Helen have a very parallel narrative while Molly, as the main protagonist, is the one who must develop some kind of sisterly bond with a sister she and the readers can barely tolerate. Adults might call this kind of story “Terror with Training Wheels,” but it’s perfect for kids who want a bit of terror beyond R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps.

The artwork by Laxton and Badgett isn’t spectacular splash pages and precariously placed panels. Instead it simply serves the purpose of moving the story along. Fans of Hahn’s original stories might like to see if their version of Molly fits into how she is drawn here, but they will also see Helen as a ghost who could easily be a living character painted white and having access to a fog machine. There are a few moments when Heather warns her older siblings that Helen is coming, and they can see her expression turn slightly sinister, but the artwork here isn’t designed to dazzle the reader.

But does this basic approach make this graphic novel adaptation a bad one? To answer such a question, it’s important to ask why go through the trouble of adapting a well-known story into a graphic novel format. There are possibilities to experiment with how the story is told, or even how it’s portrayed. Different looks for Heather and Helen could have made the book even scarier, but that might distract from its purpose to introduce Hahn’s stories to fans of graphic novels. The book might not be breaking new ground in this story, but it is perhaps a less intimidating introduction to Hahn’s work and to juvenile horror in general. This adaptation of Wait Till Helen Comes is still asking young readers to process how the pictures and words tell a story, which may lead into a deeper appreciation of graphic novels and, in general, of reading.

Wait Till Helen Comes
By Mary Downing Hahn, Scott Peterson
Art by  Meredith Laxton, Russ Badgett
Harper Collins, 2022
ISBN: 9780358536901

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Swim Team

Swim TeamThere are major changes happening in Bree’s life. She and her dad are moving to Florida, where he’ll be doing double duty in a training program and as a delivery driver. She’s leaving her whole life in Brooklyn behind, but hey, maybe she’ll see a gator or manatee around her new home. Their move kicks off Swim Team, by Johnnie Christmas, a middle grade graphic novel about facing your biggest fears and the strength that can come with changes. 

Bree can’t wait to start at Enith Brigitha Middle School, named after the first Black woman to medal in swimming in the Olympics. Swimming seems to be a pretty big deal all over this new town. Even the diner has swimming themed names for their dishes! But for Bree, it’s not even an option. She’s ready to join the Math Club and take the Math Puzzles elective, two things she adores. 

Until Bree finds out that Math Puzzles is full, along with every other elective she’s interested in. The only one left with space is. . . Swim 101. There are no puzzles in swimming! Just the thought of going near a pool fills her with dread. Plus, that annoying voice in her head keeps popping up to remind her that she’s doomed, it’s her fault she can’t swim, and maybe she should just hide in the locker room. 

When Bree falls into their apartment complex’s pool, Ms. Etta, her neighbor and fellow puzzle lover, rescues her and offers to help her conquer her fear of the water, setting off a chain of events that kick the story into full gear. Can Bree overcome her fear of the water and make it onto the team? Will the Mighty Manatees finally beat their rivals, Holyoke Prep, and go all the way? 

Throughout the book, Ms. Etta shares swimming history with Bree. Eventually, Bree admits she’s nervous because, “Black people aren’t good at swimming.” Using the ongoing metaphor of puzzles, Ms. Etta puts the history of Black swimming in America together. She explains the years of racist segregation laws limiting and preventing Black people from using pools, beaches, and other recreational facilities, as well as the violence committed by white people against Black people for using these public spaces. Together, the puzzle pieces slowly come together, but not without Ms. Etta acknowledging there are still problems faced today with swimming continuing to be inaccessible and the need for it to be more diverse. 

Swim Team is full of characters with realistic, distinctive personalities, including the group of swimming bullies from Holyoke Prep and the many adults in Bree’s life. Every character we’re introduced to is more than just what they initially appear. Readers will find someone to relate to and find themselves cheering for Bree and the rest of the team. To extend the metaphor, by the book’s end, all the pieces fall into their right spot and multiple puzzles are solved. 

The art is colorful and highly detailed. One particular highlight is the dark clouds that surround Bree when she is anxious, her worst fears coming alive around her. These overpower the pages, much like these thoughts do for anyone dealing with anxiety and fear on their own. The swimming scenes are another highlight of the art, as well as the frequent puzzle imagery. 

Readers will find themselves rooting for Bree and might even walk away with a newfound interest in swimming themselves. If you know a reader who loved New Kid looking for their next poolside read, Swim Team is right up their lane. 

Swim Team
By Johnnie Christmas
Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2022
ISBN: 9780063056763

Publisher Age Rating: 8 to 12

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

And Now I Spill the Family Secrets

In some ways, And Now I Spill The Family Secrets reads like a police file or murder board, carefully drafted forensics shots of the crime scene as a frame for analysis: transcripts of conversations, reproductions of documents, photographs of persons of interest. It is a reconstruction of an adolescence, a reconstruction of a family. I was two thirds of the way through reading it before I realized I hadn’t seen dialog and faces at the same time, that it was so thoroughly different from most graphic novels I’ve ever read. The emotional strength of the narration, the way the story is laid out, drew me in and made me stay up late to get just a  few more chapters in. It’s curiously engaging, the people we see are only drawings of photographs, to give us just as much context as the meticulous interiors of apartments and houses. There’s no visual action, no living characters on the page, only in the words. 

The book begins with a moment all too familiar to those with a much recorded and photographed childhood, hearing a truth or context that changes something you mostly only “remember” via photos and videos. Is she an unreliable narrator or is what she knows about her family predicated on incomplete understanding and information? Over the course of the book she moves back and forth between the modern day and stories about the past, including her grandmother’s early life and the time her grandmother and mother have spent hospitalized. Extensive documentation comes with the parts that aren’t about Kimball herself, or conversations and asides about why she can only get scant information about some areas. The bulk of the story is about her childhood and teen years, growing up in the ’90s with divorced parents and the strange trajectory of her father’s second marriage. The story focuses on what family means day to day, for supporting one another, and what it might mean as pathology for mental illness. 

The art is draftsman style line art of buildings, inside and out, with varying gray washes for shading. Despite the lack of characters and action in the locations, the narration and minute personal details (a label for the location of a memory, haphazard shoes on the floor) makes the pages buzz with the same emotional connection you might have looking at a photo of your childhood home. Kimball excels at transferring that experience to the reader. The interiors are can be claustrophobic and there are times when she lets a bubbled conversation unfurl over a black background or highlights just one image swimming in black. 

It’s an arresting memoir but not good graphic medicine. It doesn’t claim to be graphic medicine but it seems important to make the distinction when so much of the book is about bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and there are still so few realistic depictions of those in literature of any kind. Dr Ian Williams, the founder of graphicmedicine.org and the one who coined the new genre term “graphic medicine” defines it as the “intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” For all of her extensive family history excavation, she doesn’t place a lot of context on their experiences against fuller knowledge or information about mental illness. It feels like she offers her mother’s bipolar disorder as a condition to explain a lot in her life without making it clear that it’s an individualized experience, that many people are capable of getting it under control, that many others struggle at finding a good medication or at staying on their medication. Maybe part of that was not going into more detail on what her mother’s actual treatments have been and respecting her privacy, but the few Kay Redfield Jamison quotes about mania and depression just made me want a lot more context. Even the mention of her mother’s spending binges (common symptoms of mania) being hints isn’t fleshed out for people who don’t already know that detail about bipolar.

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys family history memoirs and wants to read more about how children experience divorce, a good read-alike for Fun Home. Because the connection between the art and the text is more illustrative than carrying the story the way other graphic novels do, it may be more accessible to people who aren’t familiar with graphic novels or worry about “missing” something in trying to navigate back and forth between pictures and text. It would be a good choice for a book group as there’s a lot to talk about in Kimabll’s intentions and how her family’s wishes contradict the story. There’s no content that would cause any issues beyond the frank discussions of suicide and mental illness. Older teens might find it interesting but the level of introspection will be better appreciated by adults. Readers who are interested in graphic medicine depicting schizophrenia and bipolar should try Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell, States of Mind by Patrice Guillon and Emilie Guillon, and Marbles by Ellen Forney.

And Now I Spill the Family Secrets
By Margaret Kimball
Harper Collins, 2021
ISBN: 9780063007444

Publisher Age Rating: Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

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

The first cat in space ate pizza

During the early days of the pandemic, Mac Barnett, a prolific author of children’s books from picture books to chapter books, joined up with relative newcomer Shawn Harris, an award-winning illustrator, to create a comic book story that they presented live to kids each weekend, ending in 12 episodes.

The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza is that story, edited and refined into a cohesive and hilarious narrative alongside Harris’ chunky and colorful art. The story begins with a series of alarming events culminating in the realization that the moon is being destroyed! Scientists send their secret weapon, First Cat, to the moon to combat the space rats who are eating it. Along the way, First Cat picks up a stowaway robot, LOZ 4000, and once they arrive they join up with the queen of the moon. Together, the three friends will face many perils, meet strange creatures, and answer difficult questions like, “Will the first cat in space ever get to eat pizza?” and “Will LOZ ever find a purpose besides clipping toenails?”

Barnett and Harris blend their styles of humor seamlessly and each new imaginative addition is ably brought to life by Harris. His thick, colorful lines show movement and activity in each panel with details large and small adding humor, from a panicky scientist whizzing through the scenes on a desk chair to the “old ones” of the moon, caterpillar-like creatures, chilling on a moon beach underground. The first cat in space is an expressionless gray tabby, its face marked by an X forming eyes and mouth, which matches its monosyllabic dialogue, consisting solely of “meow”. LOZ is a perky box of a robot, with endlessly extendable arms and a usually cheerful expression on its screen. The queen of the moon is a small, dramatic woman with flowing white and blue hair, robes, and an imperious manner, shown in her many pronouncements and constant hurrying of the oddball crew.

Although the publisher, with their usual fine abandon, recommends this to fans of Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, and Raina Telgemeier, three completely disparate authors, they do hit the mark in their recommendation of Dav Pilkey. Barnett’s sense of humor, though more eccentric than Pilkey’s with less potty-humor, has the same episodic nature and Dog Man fans will eagerly devour this new epic adventure. It’s also a great match for fans of such madcap adventures as InvestiGators, Agent Moose, and Bad Guys. There are enough mild lessons on friendship and listening to others to please adults with all the wacky adventures a dedicated graphic novel fan could desire. This book is sure to fly off library shelves.

The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza 
By Mac Barnett
Art by Shawn Harris
Harper Collins, 2022
ISBN: 9780063084087

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

The Legend of Brightblade

Everyone in the realm of Skald knows the legend of Lady Brightblade, the hero who vanquished the dreaded Bone Drake and brought peace to the land, her story immortalized in story and song. Now, in a time when the need for heroes has passed, her son, Alto, longs to follow in her footsteps and embark on an adventure to create his own legacy. Possessed with the skills of bardic magic, Alto escapes from the humdrum life of a prince, eventually making new friends and discovering new magic in the process. However, he soon stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very stability of Skald, and to thwart it will require more than the power of one lone bard. The stories had always made hero work sound so easy, but will Alto and his troupe be up for the task? In his newest fantasy adventure, writer and artist Ethan Aldridge introduces young readers to a visually engaging world that weaves the elements of legends, songs, and friendship into a tale truly made magical.

Being a fan of Aldridge’s Estranged series and artwork, I was naturally excited to dive into this comic, which proved to be just as engrossing as its predecessor. The Legend of Brightblade’s storyline is simpler in comparison, but stands as an impactful tale in its own right. There is more time devoted to developing the plot and character dynamics than worldbuilding, allowing the story to stay grounded and focused on its most resonating element, the friendship between Alto, the gentle troll Ebbe, and the clever Clarabel. Through these characters, the comic imparts the message of teamwork and camaraderie, of building upon each other’s strengths to achieve a shared goal while also providing meaningful support. Though the troupe at first seems like your standard fantasy trio, readers will no doubt be able to admire and resonate with Alto’s passion, Ebbe’s kindness, and Clarabel’s ingenuity. Each one is given their time to shine and make their mark on the reader, strengthening the image of them as a team with their own unique contributions.

Artistically, everything about Skald is absolutely stunning. The environments have a cozy whimsy to them and make it all too easy to lose oneself in this world. Aldridge’s watercolors present this comic as a delicacy for the eyes, giving it a distinctive style that reinforces its most charming qualities, such as the rich colors and wonderfully diverse character designs. The trolls in particular have such a fascinatingly unique look to them, as they come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, looking like they have the potential to be fearsome but are also somewhat cuddly in their own way. Even the characters in the background have interesting quirks and features, resulting in panels that become even more polished and intricate. Aldridge also incorporates a good sense of motion, as the action is easy to follow due to large, spacious panels that strike a clear balance between text and image. This leads to many impressive displays of bardic magic, which definitely give off some Dungeons and Dragons vibes, as multiple colors combine to create illustrated wonders. The visual aspect of Brightblade’s magic system brings this comic to a new level of enchanting, which is sure to entice and ensnare the imagination of any reader.

Due to its accessible plot and presentation, as well as its relatable and endearing characters, The Legend of Brightblade serves as a great introduction to the fantasy genre for any young reader. It provides a story full of adventure, magic, and heart, but is devoid of any overwhelming exposition that may make it too intimidating for those just starting out with the genre. Those already familiar with the genre may enjoy the comic as well, as it incorporates beloved fantasy tropes along with the depiction of a magic system they may not have seen in other graphic novels. The publisher has given the comic an age rating of 8-12, which is apt due to its lighter tone and narrative simplicity. Libraries that see a high circulation of fantasy titles in their youth graphic novel collections and are looking for those with a standout style and story definitely should consider purchasing this title.

The Legend of Brightblade
By Ethan Aldridge
Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2022
ISBN: 9780062995520

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

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

Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American

Where does one’s sense of identity begin, how does it evolve over time, and can it be shaped honestly to avoid misunderstandings? Laura Gao wrestles with these elusive questions as she navigates the curious wonders of growing up in her graphic memoir Messy Roots. Whether riding on a buffalo though the lily pad ponds of China, playing tricks on her little brother, or getting love struck by a slick female basketball player at her middle school in Texas, Laura Gao aims to find her identity and truth. This coming-of-age memoir presents a wildly amusing and deeply personal account of straddling between different cultures which will resonate with young adults seeking to find themselves along the universal journey of life.

Messy Roots transports readers on a ride through the curious and vivacious life of Laura Gao as she embarks on fanciful escapades in Wuhan, China, immigrates to Texas, returns overseas to her native homeland one summer, and finally reaches San Francisco in adulthood. Like an alien transplanted to another planet, she struggles to adapt to American culture by changing her Chinese name from Yuyang to Laura (after the first lady under President George Bush), hiding her Chinese dumplings for lunch at school, and defying stereotypes of being a math whiz. She further weaves cultural details seamlessly into her narrative–from reflecting on the Chinese legend about the young maiden whisked off to the moon during the mid-autumn festival to satisfying her cravings for white rabbit candy (a sweet milky confection).

Gao’s characters, rendered through sketched line drawings, resonate with comedic effect. Facial expressions and doodles capture a mixed range of emotional nuances and personas, sometimes with exaggerated effects reminiscent of manga. Intricately composed panels in some instances feature subtle details that warrant a second viewing to fully appreciate their thematic implications.

A remarkable and rollicking rampage through one teenager’s rites of passage, Gao delivers an honest and humorous take on the ups and downs of growing up in a constantly shifting world while tackling intersectional themes of immigration, assimilation, racism, sexuality, and self-identity. While the story adopts a warm, light-hearted tone, it also sheds light on more serious issues including the anti-Asian microaggressions that continue to persist during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her debut offers a refreshingly energetic voice to young adult library collections, bringing a queer Wuhanese American to the forefront of BIPOC characters.

Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American
By Laura Gao
Harper Collins Balzer + Bray, 2022
ISBN: 9780063067776

Publisher Age Rating: 14+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Chinese-American,  Queer, Genderqueer ,  Character Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer,

Squad

In her new home of Piedmont, Becca yearns for what every high schooler desires: a place to fit in and a squad to call her own. Much to her surprise, the most popular clique in school immediately accepts her into their fold, bonding over shopping trips, gossip, and… bloodlust? On a full moon’s night, Arianna, Amanda, and Marley reveal their secret: they are werewolves, preying on skeevy boys who target unsuspecting girls at parties, and they want her to join the pack. Filled with a need for acceptance, Becca embraces the transformation, feeling a kind of strength she never had before. But with this power comes a dangerous hunger that rattles her to her core and tests her morals. Tensions only flare higher as longstanding rules are broken, authority in the pack is questioned, and one wrong kill threatens to expose them all. In this fast-paced, strikingly illustrated graphic novel, Squad perfectly balances its elements of drama and horror, though unfortunately does not live up to the full potential of its story.

Personal tidbit about me, I love werewolves, they’re my favorite monster, star in my favorite horror films, and can be abundantly diverse in terms of storytelling and design. I also love the girl gang trope found in films like Heathers and The Craft, which this comic utilizes perfectly, as I found so many parallels between this comic and the latter film. Naturally, I was excited to dive into a story about a pack of female werewolves taking a bite out of the patriarchy in a way only werewolves can, but was ultimately disappointed once I reached the final page.

Most of my issues with this comic comes from its story and how certain elements do not receive any development that would have made it more memorable. The themes of Squad, such as finding community, reclaiming agency and control from potential aggressors, and challenging oppression towards women are all there, but become muddled due to its fast pace and short page length. Standing at around two hundred pages, this does not give Squad the time it deserves to properly flesh out its message, characters, or lore and, as a result, its impact is compromised significantly. Though the comic strives to highlight female empowerment, the internalized misogyny shown by the main characters, exhibited through fatphobic remarks and moments of victim blaming, is seldom addressed or even combated. There are also several microaggressions committed against Becca, who is Asian, that receive the same treatment, which is odd considering they mainly come from her eventual love interest. Seeing this, I was waiting to see how the climax would handle these moments, if they were to serve some purpose for a more nuanced message about feminism or the effects of, as Ms. Norbury so eloquently put it in Mean Girls, “girl on girl crime.” Unfortunately, those scenes just sit within the story, unanswered for.

Some of the characters and their dynamics almost exist as afterthoughts, appearing through the uneven character development of our main cast, or the tacked-on romantic relationship between Becca and Marley that begins nearly fifty pages before the end of the comic. While it is always wonderful to see more LGBTQ+ representation in young adult graphic novels, it still needs to be quality representation that has enough time and focus devoted to make it truly resonating. What is truly disappointing about Squad is that its lacking elements could have worked, if only given a little more time to breathe, develop, and not feel so constrained by its own page length.

The saving grace of the comic would definitely be Lisa Sterle’s illustrations, which evoke an engaging atmosphere that revels in the story’s horror aspects. In the more suburban scenes, the colors are flatter, more evenly toned to match the domestic setting, but, in moments of high emotion or violence, Sterle incorporates a startling scarlet red, making these scenes stand out in a perfectly visceral way. The character designs are memorable, giving off a more modern Archie Comics vibe while having their own identity. Sterle deciding to give the squad’s wolf forms a leaner, more emaciated look is a good touch, tying in nicely with their insatiable appetites, though having them all mostly be different shades of brown makes it difficult to tell who is who at times.

Fans of series like Riverdale, Teen Wolf, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina will appreciate the dramatic and horror elements of the story, and for teen readers there is the additional appeal of connecting with a high school setting and the social issues brought up in the story. As Squad has multiple instances of gore and violence, along with one moment of near sexual assault, I would agree with the publisher-given age rating of 14 and up. While I would not recommend this comic as a must have for a collection, it may interest librarians and educators looking to include titles that share the appeal of the previously mentioned series or have a high circulation of female-centered, character-driven stories.

Squad
By Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Art by  Lisa Sterle
Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2021
ISBN: 9780062943149

Publisher Age Rating: 14+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Japanese-American, Bisexual, Jewish
Character Representation: Black, Japanese-American, Lesbian