Blackwater

Tony Price is your average high school track star/rebel looking to prove himself to his absent, overworked father. Eli Hirsch is a meek boy with a chronic illness that keeps him from having a stable social life. Together, they experience the eerie events that plague their quaint New England town of Blackwater, such as a terrifying creature that stalks the woods and a haunting presence in the harbor that only Eli can see. As the two face the horrors of the supernatural, as well as a healthy amount of teen drama, they grow closer as friends and, in time, start to feel something deeper for each other.

While Blackwater delivers on its more horrific moments, creators Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham capture a more down-to-earth, character-driven narrative in which the supernatural elements are there more for the development of the main characters rather than to give the reader a scare. This works in the graphic novel’s favor, as Tony and Eli’s relationship is a major highlight of the story. Their romance builds naturally and is constantly being tested through their actions and how they react to the odd goings on around them. There is a slow-burn aspect to their dynamic, which may disappoint those looking to jump right into the romance, but it ultimately culminates in a satisfying payoff to this slight enemies to friends to lovers build up. Other character ties are explored and gain some depth and/or resolution, though there are a few that gain some focus only to lead to loose ends. Since relationships, whether platonic, romantic or familial, play such a large role in the story this lack of resolution gives off a disjointed feeling at times.

One quality of Blackwater worth noting is the normalized intersectional representation shown through the characters. Tony is bisexual and half Puerto Rican, while Eli is Jewish, transgender, and queer. Both of them are disabled, Tony having asthma and Eli having a chronic autoimmune disorder as well as being an ambulatory wheelchair user. The representation varies in terms of what is specifically addressed, ranging from a few panels showing a menorah in Eli’s hospital room to the boys’ disabilities playing major roles in the story. Regardless, the creators treat each facet of the characters’ identity with respect, refraining from making them sole, defining characteristics.

Without a doubt, Blackwater’s standout quality is its use of multiple art styles. Arroyo and Graham’s illustrations alternate between chapters, aiming for a more “unique and dynamic” experience. Each artist creates a moody, spooky atmosphere for this small woodsy town, as the black and white color palette gives it all the charm of an old monster flick. A constant foggy texture lays within the backgrounds, giving a further air of mystery to each location. Though Arroyo and Graham both enrich the comic in their own ways, it may come down to the reader’s personal tastes whether the desired effect of both styles works or not. For me, I found myself more drawn to Arroyo’s chapters, where characters have such expressive facial features that each emotion is instantly recognizable, sometimes overexaggerated in a cartoony way that I really enjoy. Arroyo uses the entire face to her advantage when having a character emote, giving it such a dynamic malleability and making for a great range of expressions. In comparison, Graham’s designs are more static, more reserved, to the point where their features somewhat conflict with what the character is meant to be feeling. Still, Graham greatly contributes to the comic through their lush backgrounds, enhanced by the monochromatic hues. While each style has its own strengths, they both fit the story and tone perfectly.

Blackwater expertly balances a cute, budding romance with paranormal perils and a dash of teen angst thrown in for good measure, giving it an appeal akin to Heartstopper, Teen Wolf, and Riverdale all rolled up into one. Presenting a somewhat light horror, there is nothing too off-putting for those just getting into the genre, aside from some visuals of blood. The publisher gives an age recommendation of 14-18, which fits well with the teen-centric issues of the main characters and overall aesthetic. Educators and librarians that are looking for representative and diverse materials that also give variety in genre and story should consider purchasing this title.

Blackwater
By Jeannette Arroyo, Ren Graham
Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2022
ISBN: 9781250304025

Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Latine,  Queer,  ,  Character Representation: Black, German-American, Latine, Bisexual, Queer, Trans, Chronic Illness, Disability, Wheelchair User, Jewish ,

Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984

In striking, virtuoso graphic style that captures both the immediacy of childhood and the fervor of political idealism, Riad Sattouf recounts his nomadic childhood growing up in rural France, Gaddafi’s Libya, and Assad’s Syria–but always under the roof of his father, a Syrian Pan-Arabist who drags his family along in his pursuit of grandiose dreams for the Arab nation.

Riad, delicate and wide-eyed, follows in the trail of his mismatched parents; his mother, a bookish French student, is as modest as his father is flamboyant. Venturing first to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab State and then joining the family tribe in Homs, Syria, they hold fast to the vision of the paradise that always lies just around the corner. And hold they do, though food is scarce, children kill dogs for sport, and with locks banned, the Sattoufs come home one day to discover another family occupying their apartment. The ultimate outsider, Riad, with his flowing blond hair, is called the ultimate insult… Jewish. And in no time at all, his father has come up with yet another grand plan, moving from building a new people to building his own great palace.

(Publisher Description)


Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
By Riad Sattouf
ISBN: 9781627793445
Henry Holt and Company, 2015
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Volumes available: 4


Our Review

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984

Pawcasso

School is out, and Jo is facing a boring summer at home with her siblings. With no friends, an absent father, a harried mother, and nothing to do at home, Jo reluctantly goes out for a walk. In the town’s shopping district, she discovers a dog that carries a basket shopping for groceries. When she follows the dog into a bookstore, a children’s art class meeting there assumes the dog belongs to Jo. Over the next several weeks, the art students befriend Jo, and she enjoys their companionship so much that she continues to pretend she owns the dog. The art students begin to use the dog, now called Pawcasso, as a model for their work and Jo helps them plan for an upcoming art show. Meanwhile, the town becomes divided over whether Pawcasso should be allowed to roam off-leash, and Jo’s secret becomes more difficult to keep. Jo risks losing her new friends and alienating her family as tensions rise in her small town.

Pawcasso is a heartwarming blend of lighthearted fun and deeper themes. Readers will laugh at watching Pawcasso navigate his path through the neighborhood, stopping to send and receive “pee-mail” at every tree, and occasionally rolling in poop. Yet more serious life lessons are also prevalent. Some of these are very practical, such as the need to consider the rights of everyone involved in a civic issue, like the question of whether dogs should be able to visit businesses off-leash. Other lessons involve thinking about the experiences that others may have had in the past, such as the loneliness that Jo learns is faced by the character at the center of the protest against Pawcasso. Jo learns many things about her own family, and about others in her community, and her relationships grow in unexpected ways throughout the book. These themes make Pawcasso a well-rounded story that’s highly enjoyable and has a lot of value.

Remy Lai’s full-color illustrations are winsome and expressive. Her cartoon style depicts both characters and setting in a way that is accessible and attractive to young readers, but also provides plenty of detail. The settings throughout the town are drawn in interesting ways, with a variety of unique shops, streets, homes, landscapes, and a main park. The characters frequent the same locations, helping the reader get to know the town well and making it a believable small-town setting for this doggie drama to unfold. 

Middle grade readers will love Pawcasso, and what’s not to love? Between the adorable and precocious dog at its center, kids rallying their town for a worthy cause, a lonely girl making friends, and lessons learned about compassion and forgiveness, there’s a lot going for this book. Remy Lai lets her characters deal with genuine struggles in a way that shows how real kids face real emotions, but her books never get so heavy that kids won’t love to read them. Pawcasso joins her other well-loved books Pie in the Sky and Fly on the Wall as must-haves for any youth library. 


Pawcasso
By Remy Lai
Holt Books for Young Readers, 2021
ISBN: 9781250774491
Publisher Age Rating:  8-12

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

Flamer

The front cover of Flamer has a lofty quote from Jarrett J. Krosoczka: “This book will save lives.” It may seem like an overstatement, but when one finishes reading Flamer, they will invariably agree. Flamer may be a devastating read, but it provides a much-needed update to Dan Savage and Terry Miller’s It Gets Better Project that feels current in spite of its mid-1990s setting.

Aiden Navarro is spending his summer earning badges at Boy Scout camp. In the fall, he’ll start at public school, choosing not to return to the Catholic school he’s attended—and where he’s been relentlessly bullied—for years. Aiden is chubby, Filipino, and effeminate, all qualities that render him an easy target for the aggressively masculine white boys at his school (and, for that matter, at Boy Scout camp). Unfortunately, Aiden’s home life is difficult as well. His father is verbally abusive, and his mother leans heavily on Aiden for emotional support after their fights. At its best, Boy Scout camp provides Aiden a refuge, a space where he and fellow campers are free to rank their favorite X-Men characters and where friends value his thoughtful perspectives about how to treat their girlfriends with dignity. At its worst, though, Boy Scout camp is a hotbed of daily micro and macro-aggressions. One camper targets Aiden with a relentless stream of racist comments, and another holds Aiden down to pull out his ponytail, ripping out some of his hair in the process.

In spite of his discomfort with the homophobic jokes other campers make, Aiden is convinced he’s not gay. After all, as he puts it, “Gay boys like other boys. I HATE boys.” But after daydreaming that he is Jean Grey to his bunkmate Elias’s Cyclops and experiencing a handful of other clues—like an accidental erection in the boys’ shower—he begins to suspect he is different from his girl-obsessed peers. He writes to his BFF Violet to express his concerns. After a particularly embarrassing moment with Elias, and suspecting that Violet’s lack of response to his letter means she’s ashamed of him, Aiden reaches a breaking point. He contemplates suicide and is confronted by a humanoid manifestation of the fire inside him; a flame, often used as a pejorative for queerness, is literally his savior. This powerful moment is likely to resonate with anyone who has tried to push away an aspect of their identity only to realize it is integral to who they are.

Curato’s art, in colored pencil and ink wash, is predominantly drawn in thick, pastel-like black and white lines. Curato uses fiery spot colors to indicate particularly emotional moments, such as scenes where Aiden is being bullied or where Aiden feels conflicted about his Catholic background. There are three particularly powerful panels of artwork I’d like to highlight. In one, Aiden is sinking into a deep pool of water created by his mother’s tears. Another is reminiscent of the Rider-Waite tarot deck’s Nine of Swords: Aiden is covering his eyes in his bed in one corner of the full-page spread, while the walls around him are scrawled with his own negative self-talk. The third depicts Aiden, saved by the fire inside him, reborn as a phoenix in flames.

Curato includes a handful of practical resources alongside the narrative. Since the story takes place at summer camp, Curato seizes the opportunity to teach the reader about aspects of camping, such as different knot shapes, orienteering, hemp bracelet stitches, and how to find and use good firewood. Additionally, after Curato’s afterword, in which he details how Aiden’s story is similar to his own experiences, he shares information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the TrevorLifeline. 

Flamer doesn’t sugarcoat its subject material, so readers who enjoyed the similar handling of tough subjects for tweens in Tillie Walden’s Spinning and Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies are sure to love this book. With its soft-edged illustrations and frequent daydream sequences, Flamer retains an otherworldly quality even while grounded in the real world’s brutalities. This truly intersectional queer graphic novel is a must-have for all libraries serving teens and adults.


Flamer
By Mike Curato
Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2020
ISBN: 9781627796415
Publisher Age Rating:  14-18

Title Details and Representatio
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Filipino-American, Gay,
Character Representation: Filipino-American, Gay, Catholic

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984

Arab of the FutureThe award-winning artist Riad Sattouf channels his younger self in the first volume of The Arab of the Future. Appearing for the first time in English, Sattouf takes the reader along with him on a journey to Libya and Syria at the whims of his father during the 1970s and 1980s. His father’s ambitions and somewhat misguided search for wealth lead him to take his family to seek better pastures in the tumultuous Middle East, where Gaddafi has installed himself as leader in Libya, and Syria’s Muslim faith is cause for his father’s soul searching. Presented in an illustrated style similar to Matt Groening’s early work, The Arab of the Future is a good primer to 20th century Middle Eastern politics as seen through the eyes of a child.

Riad is not like other Arab boys. Because of his parents’ lineage, he has long and flowing blond hair and is the darling of every adult who crosses his path. A precocious lad, he is blissfully unaware of his father’s growing adoration of Muammar Gaddafi after the 1969 coup d’etat against King Idris I. By way of Gaddafi’s “Green Book”, Riad’s father, Abdel-Razak Sattouf, is enchanted by Libya’s Socialist leanings and gets a job in the country as a university teacher. Although Riad is too young to truly grasp what is going on in the world around him, Riad’s father puts on a brave face when Libya doesn’t meet his expectations, especially when half finished homes are literally up for grabs. Things aren’t much better when they eventually move to Syria, where the strict Muslim faith and culture is a curiosity to Riad. His father bears the brunt of resentment amongst his cousins. Riad and his mother seem to take their transitions and cultural adjustments in stride; the chapters tend to focus on his father as he suffers embarrassment, slights, and difficulty among his countrymen and kin.

Riad’s father’s ambitions take the Sattouf family from Paris to Libya, Libya to Paris, and Paris to Syria. Riad encounters all sorts of interesting people, many of whom are from his father’s extended family. In Syria, Riad experiences people and situations that make him uncomfortable and unhappy, a stark contrast to his happy-go-lucky times in Libya and Paris. Wherever they travel, there’s an unspoken comparison between the comforts of Parisian society against those of the Middle East. Sattouf presents his world without commentary, a void (intentionally?) to be filled by the reader’s own notions and observations. The graphic novel paints intimate, and telling, portraits of life Libya and Syria that may trigger feelings of culture shock among readers not versed in Middle Eastern culture or the Muslim religion. Because the United States hasn’t experienced unpredictable regime changes, The Arab of the Future can be a tricky read for Americans. There were scenes in Riad’s life that I had a hard time with. Specifically, the torture and death of a small dog by a group of Syrian villagers (the Muslim faith views dogs as unclean). Riad doesn’t react to the scene as much as his mother, who runs screaming from the house to stop the fracas only to be held at bay. Because of my sensitivity towards violence against animals, the scene made me feel angry and upset to the point where I wanted to stop reading.

What also makes The Arab of the Future a little difficult to get through is an overall dryness of the text. Riad’s adventures are presented in a “matter of fact” style of speech presented in text boxes at the top of each panel that serve as Sattouf’s adult voice as he details the circumstances and political backdrop and sheds insight into his family dynamic. I find that Sattouf does a good job with showing, not telling, with his artwork and while it’s important to know the context of the places Riad finds himself in, I often found that Sattouf’s voice gets in the way.

To read The Arab of the Future means opening your mind to a culture and society that may be very different from your own. Otherwise, a closed mind will get in the way of a story about Sattouf’s childhood experiences of living in two very different Middle Eastern countries. Sattouf never casts judgement on his surroundings, preferring to let his father’s ramblings and fervor do that for him.

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
by Riad Sattouf
ISBN: 9781627793445
Henry Holt and Company, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: OT

Journalism

Journalism
  In his introduction to Journalism, comics-journalist Joe Sacco makes it clear that while objectivity might be the “Holy of Holies” in American journalism, the medium of comics is, by nature, a subjective form. While he may be able to capture his interpretation of events and interviews in his drawings, the objective truth must necessarily be filtered through his interpretation. What use then, is this watered down version of journalism? Where is the integrity, or the veracity?

This collection of war and strife reporting from the last decade, presented through the medium of comics, is just as gut-wrenching, emotional, and poignant as any traditional long-form reporting. The lynchpin here is the combination of professionalism and frankness through which these stories are recounted. Sacco is as skilled a reporter as any who would put only words to paper; Sacco breathes truth into his subjects through the wrinkled, exasperated faces of those who were unfortunate enough to be caught up in the horrors and insanity of modern war.

Sacco frequently assumes the role of a character in his own stories; he often portrays himself in caricature, as opposed to the more lifelike and realistic subjects of his interviews. This choice serves to separate himself ever so slightly from the action; his expression (and perhaps by extension, his subjectivity) is masked by the blank, white discs of his glasses. His subjects, on the other hand, are portrayed with an honesty that is both brutal and poetic. Their pinched faces express with soul-crushing ease the grueling injustice of innocents dragged into conflict, whether ethnic, sectarian or otherwise. These are the casualties of man’s unbearable arrogance and petty strife, given form, voice, and expression through Sacco’s meticulous lines and cross-hatch. The same level of detail to given to the depiction of the environments; every stitch in a wallet, each individual sack of flour in a warehouse, and all of the separate rocks in a pile of rubble contribute to the reality of these events and locations as Sacco observed them.

Through this work, Sacco achieves a truth that transcends objectivity. Whether they are displaced Chechen families, Iraqi Army trainees, or African refugees, their raw emotion is laid bare for the reader in vivid detail. This work is a fantastic option for adults who might not otherwise have given a graphic novel a chance to move them in ways that they might find surprising. As a work of journalism, this book is without reproach. As a work of graphic non-fiction, this book surely has the ability to convince even the most reluctant of readers that there is truth and power in words and pictures.

Journalism
by Joe Sacco
Art by Joe Sacco
ISBN: 9780805097931
Henry Holt and Company, 2012

Katman

Kit doesn’t care about much of anything. Life in his low-rent part of town is rough, but it mostly passes him by. Then one summer his brother kicks him out of the house for two hours and Kit discovers a world of homeless cats. Soon he is feeding almost twenty of them, which catches the eye of both his mother, who orders him to stop, and Jess, a cool girl who hangs out with a tough group of guys. As tensions build, Kit feels trapped between doing what is right for the cats and the local cat lady he befriends and doing what is easiest to get by in the world.

Pyle’s Katman succeeds because of its honesty. He doesn’t try to make it an after school special kind of story, where the choices are easy and right and wrong are clear. Almost no one in Kit’s world is doing much for the cats, so he could choose to also do nothing and he would be no different than the adults around him. But that choice would leave him miserable and guilt-ridden. By choosing to help the cats, though, he also chooses to lie, steal, and associate with people on the fringes of society, which makes it likely that he too will become an outcast. Pyle is careful to show that Kit is torn by what he must choose. Those around him are equally caught. The cat lady no longer trusts people, having learned that they will turn on you much quicker than a animal will. Kit’s mom and brother are simply trying to survive in a situation they hate. Jess and her friends are trying to be cool and fit in, while not wanting to fit in with everyone else. All of these emotions are real and believable and Pyle brings them fully to life….

This review was originally posted at Good Comics for Kids. Please visit the original post to see the rest of the review.

Katman
Kevin C. Pyle
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8285-2
Henry Holt, September 2009

Joey Fly, Private Eye, in Creepy Crawly Crime

Sometimes it’s hard to pull off a particular style when writing for kids. Are the kids going to get it? Will they understand the nuances of word choice, the significance of color schemes, the jokes? Aaron Reynolds and Neil Numberman take film noir, apply some schtick, and make what can be a dry sub-genre work for elementary school-age kids.

Private investigator, Joey Fly, gets more than he bargained for when he takes on a young scorpion as his new assistant. Sammy Stingtail is brash, clumsy, and completely clueless as to how to work a case. When the lovely and curvaceous Delilah, a swallowtail butterfly, turns to Joey for help in finding her missing diamond pencil box, Sammy gets the team fired when he accuses her of being guilty of the crime without first looking at any evidence. Joey keeps the investigation alive, conducting interviews with two of Delilah’s ex-friends and teaching Sammy the ropes as the evidence builds.

Set in a film noir world much like the one seen in Bruce Hale’s Chet Gecko series, Joey Fly, Private Eye is played much more obviously for laughs….

This review was originally posted at Good Comics for Kids. Please visit the original post to see the rest of the review.

Joey Fly, Private Eye, in Creepy Crawly Crime
Author: Aaron Reynolds
Artist: Neil Numberman
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8786-4
Henry Holt, April 2009

Pedro and Me: friendship, loss, and what I learned

You all know the tag line of The Real World: Seven people are chosen to live in a house to find out what’s “real.” In 1993, in San Francisco, the world was given an unexpected, and perhaps unasked for, gift — through watching this hyped reality soap opera, we all got to live with someone who had AIDS. That young man, Pedro Zamora, touched the entire country — but for author Judd Winick, fellow cast member, he was simply one of his best friends. Here he relates the story around and after the television show and the life-changing effect Pedro had on him. This is the book that got me really into graphic novels. Like Maus, it has won awards, and like Maus, it made me both laugh and cry. If you must read only one graphic novel, this is the one.

Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned
ISBN: 9780805089646
By Judd Winick
Henry Holt & Company, 2009 (new edition)