Incubators: A graphic history

Even before graphic novels took off, several publishers, notably Lerner and Capstone, featured graphic nonfiction produced in a similar vein to the series nonfiction that most librarians are familiar with. The series nonfiction in graphic format continue to be a staple for nonfiction collections, although there are more literary options, like the Science Comics series.

Lerner’s Graphic Universe imprint produces new series twice a year, in January and August, and they usually pick timely topics. The January 2022 series Medical Breakthroughs is no exception, with titles on vaccines, germs, antibiotics, and more. The particular title we’re looking at today is the history of incubators.

The information is collected briefly in 32 pages with a short framing story showing two White children and a White, male-presenting doctor looking at a miniscule infant in a modern incubator while the doctor explains what incubators are used for. The story then jumps back to the 1870s and the work of two French doctors who. while trying to raise France’s falling birth rates, were inspired by the incubators they saw used with birds’ eggs at the zoo.

The incubators these and other doctors developed were funded by the exhibition of the premature babies, culminating in a semi-permanent exhibit on Coney Island. By the time the exhibit closed in 1943, thousands of babies had been saved and incubators became standard equipment in hospitals. Incubators continued to be improved, with interest and funding reviving after the death of President Kennedy’s premature son and culminating in the invention of a rechargeable and affordable incubator called the Embrace Nest that would be accessible to all people, especially in developing countries. The story ends with a return to the premature infant at the beginning, now a healthy toddler with their older siblings and parents.

The artwork is not memorable, but it is neatly done, with carefully drawn images of the various machines, and people shown in the appropriate period clothing as the story moves through time. All but a few people in the background and some nurses are depicted as White, which is a drawback, as one of the points of Couney’s work (the doctor who established the “Infantorium” at Coney Island) was the acceptance of infants of all backgrounds in sharp contrast to the eugenics movement. Most panels show the doctors and occasional nurses moving through bland scenery and exchanging a few remarks while the narrative is carried on in descriptive paragraphs. The appeal to readers who want the story told primarily through art is limited, since, as in most series nonfiction graphic novels, the narrative is told primarily in prose or through multiple “talking heads.” There is enough detail in the art to show the change in time periods, from the 1870s to 2008, and some additional information is provided through the pictures, like a nurse feeding a premature infant through their nose or the doctors explaining what they are doing to spectators and anxious parents.

One title is listed as a source, and there is also a glossary, index, and brief list of information to explore further.

The length of these titles naturally limits the amount of information that can be included and these titles tend to be brief introductions, which will hopefully engage interest in exploring topics further. Like most series nonfiction, they are available only in paperback or expensive library binding, which can be prohibitive for smaller budgets. If you have to watch your pennies it can be difficult to justify an extensive outlay on nonfiction that may quickly become dated. However, this series primarily covers historical events and so should have a longer shelf-life. With an ever-increasing number of struggling readers as well as graphic novel fans, Medical Breakthroughs should be a solid purchase for most school and public libraries and a good choice to interest young readers in history and science.

Incubators: A Graphic History
By Paige Polinsky
Art by Josep Rural
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2022
ISBN: 9781541581517

Publisher Age Rating: grades 3-6
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Representation: French, German

Cassandra Animal Psychic: Cassandra Steps Out, vol. 1

Cassandra’s story begins with her playing with her English Shepherd, Miss Dolly, and a somewhat tense meeting with her mom, mom’s boyfriend Bruno, and his daughter Juliet. We learn that Cassandra is fourteen and Juliet seventeen, and Juliet is not happy about sharing her dad or the suggestion that she hang out with a little girl like Cassandra.

Cassandra takes Miss Dolly for a walk in the park to cheer herself up and there encounters a dog locked in a car. Determined to help the dog, she uses her ability to psychically communicate with animals to get help, but is alarmed when a young “journalist,” a blonde boy named Tristan, shows up and wants to know just how she managed to communicate with the dog! Cassandra has always kept her gift secret and she doesn’t want anyone else to know, other than her purple-haired best friend Sophie, and her mom.

With the encouragement of her mom and her friend, she decides to step out of her comfort zone and try using her ability to help others, starting with a little boy who has lost his pet cat. Along the way, she has to deal with many changes in herself and others, from the challenges of her blended family to Sophie moving away. By the end of the story, she’s more confident in her own abilities and herself in general and ready to meet new changes and challenges. Pages from Cassandra’s “secret notebook” at the back tell the reader more about Miss Dolly, her breed, and her own peculiarities.

The art is cinematic and attractive; Cassandra has brown skin and curly hair, presumably inherited from her father, as her mother is white. Juliet and Bruno are both white and blonde, Juliet with a short pixie cut and a curvy silhouette. Sophie is Asian and Tristan is white. The animals are cute and fluffy and the other people Cassandra interacts with, while mostly white, show a variety of body types. There’s lots of spring green, purples, and pinks in the color scheme and Cassandra’s abilities are shown in a kind of dream fashion, with pictures of animals and events in a large bubble above her head.

This was translated from the original French version, and it definitely has a more European vibe. Cassandra calls Tristan “Tintin,” and although there are skeptics, most people are accepting of Cassandra’s psychic gifts. It may also strike American readers as odd that Cassandra’s mom is so casual about her daughter going to a stranger’s house and telling them she can psychically communicate with their cat! There’s also a kind of ebullient flavor to the characters and their dialogue which I don’t normally see in American graphic novels.

While not a necessary purchase, readers who are fans of Raina Telgemeier and open to something a little different will find this attractive. There are lots of cute animals and a whiff of romance with Tristan, as well as Cassandra coming to terms with major changes in her life and her own psychic abilities.

Cassandra: Animal Psychic: Cassandra Steps Out, vol. 1
By Isabelle Bottier, and Norwyn MacTire
Art by Helene Canac, and Drac
ISBN: 9781541572836
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 7-10
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

The Invisible War

This is an unusual graphic novel, comparing the battles of World War I to the interior battles of soldiers and nurses fighting dysentery and other diseases.

The story begins at a casualty clearing station in France, where an Australian nurse is checking in sick and injured patients. Sister Annie attends a soldier with acute diarrhea and the doctor diagnoses dysentery. During the rush of tending to patients and sending them off to various points for further treatment, the soiled cloths are spilled and readers get a close-up view of the microorganisms called Shigella Flexneri, seeking new places to breed. Annie and her fellow nurses eat together and survive a gas attack, but the shiga are advancing… into Annie’s digestive system. Ill from dysentery, as the microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses battle within her, the war continues outside with soldiers fighting and dying on the front lines and in the hospitals.

Detailed back matter adds information about the terms and historical events referenced, from the lives of nurses at the front to the different bacteria in the digestive system. The creators are also profiled, along with their credentials and experience.

The art is black and white, fine ink drawings. Injuries and diseases are shown, but not in graphic detail and the faces of the nurses and soldiers are drawn with individual character but not caricatured. The primary action pictured is among the microorganisms in the digestive system. Shiga are pictured as little furry logs, chattering and zipping around. Viruses are robotic, chanting their motto of defense as they struggle to mutate and fight off the invasion. The stark black and white of the art illustrates the desperate life and death struggle of the soldiers and the organisms, fighting to survive another day on the battlefield in France and in Annie’s gut.

This isn’t likely to appeal to a wide audience. The medical and scientific terms are carefully explained, but it’s still a challenging and complex read. Despite the effort to make it appear an action-packed adventure, it doesn’t have a great deal of emotional appeal. However, it’s a fascinating look at how microorganisms and the digestive system work and also offers a glimpse into the atmosphere of the trenches and hospitals of World War I. This is most likely to be of interest to teens and adults with an interest in medical history and World War I.

The Invisible War
By Ailsa Wild, Dr. Jeremy Barr
Art by Ben Hutchings
ISBN: 9781541541559
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

The Wolf in Underpants

Are you afraid of the big bad wolf? Is he really as “bad” as others say he is? Nothing is as it seems in this short graphic novel. The Wolf in Underpants, written by Wilfrid Lupano and illustrated by Mayana Itoiz and Paul Cauuet, transforms the common wolf stereotype into a comedic folktale.

Local forest denizens prepare themselves every day for a possible wolf attack. Various traps and weapons are sold, nightly wolf lectures are held, newspapers print articles on recent wolf attacks, and the anti-wolf brigade are geared up and ready to defend. Everything is in place until the wolf is sighted. As everyone hides from the gruesome predator, they are surprised by who they see. It is indeed the wolf, but he is not scary at all. In fact, he is a nice guy who wears a pair of underpants to keep himself warm and shops at the supermarket. But with this revelation, what will the forest critters do now?

Itoiz and Cauuet use a cartoon style in their comic, which will appeal to young readers. The duo have created anthropomorphic characters of different professions and appearances, from moose professors to knitting owls. Fearful and surprised expressions are clearly shown in each character, especially before the wolf’s reveal. In fact, the titular wolf is far from his fairytale counterpart, with his stylish underpants, friendly smile, and clean grey fur. The use of color to denote danger, daytime, and nighttime adds to each scene’s atmosphere. The rest of the color palette is used very well to add small but noticeable features found in the forest and on each character.

The placement of the character’s dialogue and any other outside narration is different from the traditional graphic novel format. At first the story starts off with an unnamed first person narrator, describing the supposedly dangerous wolf that lives above the forest, but it then becomes a comic with the characters exchanging dialogue but without the use of speech bubbles or panels. This placement works well with Lupano’s story, allowing each character to voice their opinions one after another. The moral will teach children that it does not make sense to be afraid all the time, especially when your fear takes over your daily life.

The Wolf in Underpants is a great graphic novel for young readers who are looking for a short read or a comedy. Children in grades 2nd-4th will enjoy the fun story and be surprised with the wolf’s true identity. Public and school librarians should consider this title, especially if they are looking for something a little different for their collections or an easy, quick read for their patrons.

The Wolf in Underpants
By Wilfrid Lupano
Art by Mayana Itoiz Paul Cauuet
ISBN: 9781541528185
Lerner Publishing Group, 2019

Captain Barbosa and the Pirate Hat Chase

In Jorge Gonzalez’s new wordless graphic novel, Captain Barbosa and the Pirate Hat Chase, a pirate and his crew sail the seas to find the captain’s lost hat. Using a mixture of soft pastels and colored pencils, Gonzalez has created a story that flows from one panel to the next, without skipping a beat. No words are needed to tell this tale of adventure, which young readers will indeed enjoy.

Captain Barbosa and his animal crew, which consists of a fly, an alligator, and an elephant, are on an ocean voyage when a seagull flies by and takes his hat. Annoyed and embarrassed about his bald head, the captain instructs his crew to follow the feathery thief. Along the way they stumble upon a friendly cyclops, rolling waves, and an island occupied by numerous seagulls. But when the crew finally catches up with the thief, they soon discover the reason behind his actions.

Gonzalez has created a fun story with unique characters and a charming twist ending. His choice to exclude any words within the graphic novel works very well. The reader will be able to follow along with the tale by the actions of the characters and the scene changes. Action flows from panel to panel, whether it is traveling through a storm to investigating new lands, keeping the pace. Gonzalez’s choice of art style, pastels with colored pencils, enhances the story with colorful scenery and soft textures. There are close up scenes of characters, with readable expressions and details that keep the story going. The tale itself is humorous at first, but becomes a tale of kindness that readers can appreciate. No dialogue or narration is needed with Gonzalez’s colorful creation.

Wordless graphic novels are a must for all graphic novel collections because they provide a different means of storytelling for young readers. For this reason, along with its creative art style and entertaining story, Captain Barbosa and the Pirate Hat Chase is a great choice for both public and school libraries. Give this title to young readers in grades 2nd-4th and they will want to read it over and over again.

Captain Barbosa and the Pirate Hat Chase
By Jorge Gonzalez
ISBN: 9781541541542
Lerner Publishing Group, 2019

Game for Adventure, vol. 3: Chavo the Invisible

Nordling’s wordless series based on traditional childhood games continues with an exciting adventure based on Capture the Flag. As the streetlights turn on and the sky darkens, children begin to gather with their flashlights in a pleasant, green park. Two older children start choosing sides and little Chavo is disappointed to be chosen last of all. The children raise their flashlights and…they are transported into a twisting, blue and purple alien landscape. The game is on!

Chavo is thrilled to be chosen to hide his side’s flag, but then discovers everyone else has taken off without him, into the enemy’s territory! Can his courage and quick-thinking save the day?

Readers who have experienced the previous titles will recognize several characters, including Belinda and Andrew. Chavo is a strongly relatable character, drawn with a shock of dark brown hair, light brown skin, and a determined face. Kids will instantly sympathize with his disappointment as he’s passed over again and again, his panic as he’s thrown into a frightening landscape, and eagerly try to guess what he’s thinking as he tries to come up with a plan to save his team—and the game.

Although wordless, even readers who have never played Capture the Flag will be able to figure it out from the clear movement of the players. Personally, I have never figured out how the game works until now, so if it made sense to me, anyone could pick it up! The landscape is creepy, but not too scary. Twisting vines and jungle scenes, accompanied by a scary snake-venus fly trap, give a sense of an alien landscape, as well as clearly defining the opposing teams; one side of the landscape is purple and the other blue, matching the two teams. Readers will be quickly drawn into the game and experience some delicious shivers, while still realizing it’s the really the park underneath.

Wordless books offer numerous opportunities to build visual literacy and encourage imagination, and Chavo the Invisible could also be of use in the classroom in focusing on predictive, narrative, and social-emotional skills. A diverse cast of characters, not just in race but also in behavior and personality, offer more opportunities for kids to relate to the story. A strong addition to the Game for Adventure series, both teachers and librarians will find this a useful title for their collections.

Game for Adventure, vol. 3: Chavo the Invisible
by Lee Nordling
Art by Flavio Silva
ISBN: 9781512413328
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 5-9

Q & Ray, vol. 2: Meteorite or Meteor-wrong?

Young readers will be delighted to see another mystery from the team of Trisha and Stephen Shaskan. Q (Quillan Lu Hedgehog) and Ray (Ray Ratzberg) team up to solve yet another baffling mystery at Elm Tree Elementary.

The story opens with the two friends sharing their newly acquired interests; Q is practicing her deductions and Ray is excited to learn more about meteorites at the school field trip. Their interests are encouraged by the school media specialist, Mr. Shrew. They have a great time at the presentation with Frank Ferret from the Elm Tree Science Center, and learn a lot about meteorites. Ray is even more excited when they arrive at the science center and he sees one of his heroes, Dr. Neal D. Grass Bison. But when the time comes to see the center’s prize exhibit, a real meteorite, the class (and Dr. Bison) is stunned to realize it’s a fake! Between Q’s deductive skills and Ray’s knowledge of meteorites can they track down the thief?

Even with a cast of animal characters, Shaskan still manages to give an impression of diversity; Ray and Dr. Bison both sport dark skin and tightly curled hair, while the rest of the students have a range of skin and hair colors, sometimes, but not always, matching up with their animal identity. Despite the sometimes busy layout of multiple small panels and speech bubbles, the larger size of the book and the minimalist art style keep it simple for beginning readers, making it easy to follow the clues and action. Bold backgrounds make flashbacks and separate stories, like the discovery of the meteorite, stand out from the rest of the story. The bulk of the panels are set against pale green or cream colors, which keeps the focus on the characters rather than the backgrounds. Q’s questioning personality continues to be spotlighted and her quirky dress sense—yellow suit and purple bow tie— fit the cheerfully wacky theme of most of the characters. Ray’s eyes are heavily magnified behind his glasses and this adds a little to the nerd stereotype. But the warmth and acceptance of both his friends and the school at large show him fitting just fine into a community that encourages discovery, unique characters, and Q and Ray’s sleuthing abilities.

These mysteries are just right for beginning readers. They feature diverse characters with wide interests, a supportive adult community, and include nonfiction elements as well. This title blends most of the information about deduction and meteorites into the story, but there is a brief author’s note at the end with some additional facts. Young readers will enjoy following along with the clues and may get interested in a little investigative work of their own after finishing the story.

Q& Ray, vol. 2: Meteorite or Meteor-wrong? 
by Trisha Speed Shaskan
Art by Stephen Shaskan
ISBN: 9781512411485
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 7-11

The Whiskers Sisters, vol. 2: Mystery of the Tree Stump Ghost

The Whiskers sisters return in another magical woodland adventure.

The odd little trio, Mia the cat-girl, Maya with pink hair and antlers, and silent little May, are enjoying some cozy storytelling with their grandpa, the Guardian of the Forest. They’re arguing about whether the ghost in the stories really exists, when Mrs. Owl shows up with a frightening tale of a ghost encountered on her mail route. The Guardian takes off to handle the situation, so the girls are home alone when Mrs. Fox appears with her own problem—Tim has fallen into a hole by the old, possibly haunted, stump! The girls are determined to help, but what will they do when they encounter the ghost?

Delicate artwork shows a magical forest with creatures ranging from spooky to friendly; frisky squirrels, elegant foxes, and several new magical characters. Most of the characters have a similar body-type; long, slender legs that make them look like they are tiptoeing and wild, fanciful hair or antlers curling up above their heads. The sisters are the exception, with sturdy, more proportioned bodies. One of the best scenes is a wordless, full spread of the sisters and Tom, a fox cub, traveling through the underground cave system. Creepy and fascinating creatures hover in the background as the four adventurers wander through a twisted landscape that typifies the odd forest they live in. Most of the panels have a green or violet hue, possibly foreshadowing the new character they discover at the end, who is covered in long, lavender hair.

While there are magical and fairy elements woven throughout the story, this book has more in common with a Miyazaki film than a typical fantasy graphic novel. Being the second title in the series, there’s no clear introduction of which sister is which, and there’s also no additional character development. The two older sisters remain largely interchangeable in personality, and only readers who have carefully read the first book will understand little May’s occasionally understanding animals when her sisters can’t—although they can now understand adult animals, just not the babies? It’s really not clear. In some ways this title has a clearer plot than the first story—scary ghost, lost fox cub, journey to find him, startling discovery—but the sisters abilities and personalities are still unclear and the plot still wanders rather vaguely through the book with more emphasis on the odd creatures than the storyline. It feels younger, especially with the often juvenile behavior of the sisters, but the “ghost” is definitely creepy and until all is revealed at the end the story has a rather spooky feel.

This won’t have the wide appeal of Cici: A Fairy’s Tale, a similarly magical tale for younger readers, but if you have both the first and second volumes available, it will find an audience. Readers who enjoy Hotel Strange, Hilda, or other gently mystical fantasies will be happy to check out this new series and follow the fantastical adventures of the Whiskers Sisters.

The Whiskers Sisters, vol. 2: Mystery of the Tree Stump Ghost
by Miss PATY
ISBN: 9781512425284
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 6-10

Andrew the Seeker

Lee Nordling (Three-Story Books) teams up with artist Scott Roberts to present another series of wordless adventures for young readers. The Game for Adventure series presents different classic childhood games with a fantastical twist. This book, Andrew the Seeker, reinvents hide-and-seek.

One sunny day, Andrew, a small boy with exuberant orange curls, is busy drawing. He creates a big purple monster, but is interrupted by the appearance of a real purple monster outside his window. Once he’s sure the creature is really there, he sets out to catch it, complete with pith helmet and butterfly net. The forest seems to grow bigger and bigger as he searches for the elusive purple beast, and the more he tries and fails to catch it the more frustrated he gets. Finally, it’s just too much and Andrew storms off home, leaving behind a sad and confused monster. Andrew scribbles up his picture and goes to bed. But the next morning, all it takes is one glimpse of a purple figure in the distance to get him suited up and back on the track of the mysterious beast.

The art is bold and colorful, almost feeling like an old-fashioned cartoon with series of trees all pressed together and spinning into the horizon. The monster is actually a little scary—a giant purple lump with some orange squiggles that move depending on its shape. Sometimes it has one eye, sometimes two. It changes shape to fit in with the trees, the birds, or just disappears into the background. The blue end-papers change from the basic map at the beginning to a filled in adventure at the end with all Andrew’s imaginary encounters neatly added in. The panels are bold and simple, with an occasional free space showing Andrew in full seeking mode.

This title didn’t click for me as much as one of the companion books, Belinda the Unbeatable. There’s not really much plot, although one can definitely feel Andrew’s frustration over being unable to find the monster. This is one I’d use primarily in a classroom setting, since it’s a good choice for learning sequential thinking, inferring the results of actions, guessing what’s coming next, and learning the tropes of visual storytime. The binding choices for this publisher are paperback or expensive library binding, another reason that it might be a better choice for a school setting with young children.

Andrew the Seeker
by Lee Nordling
Art by Scott Roberts
ISBN: 9781512413304
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 5-9

Q & Ray: The Missing Mola Lisa: Case #1

Children’s librarians will quickly recognize the name of Shaskan as one that is associated with the funniest of picture books and a sure laugh in storytime. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time the duo have branched out together into graphic novels and their style translates well to this medium.

The book opens with a list of the extensive cast. Q, Quillan Lu Hedgeson, and Ray Ratzberg are students at Elm Tree Elementary and they solve mysteries with the supervision of the media specialist, Mr. Shrew. Their classroom teacher, Ms. Boar, is a bit touchy and always telling people to settle, but the art teacher Ms. Easel, is a free spirit and loves art. Occasionally the two need help from magic shop owner Jimmy, who knows everything magic. The police are there too, in Officer Rocco. Finally, this first adventure introduces the mysterious Great Don Realo, a magician.

Nothing much is going on, just Q trying out her disguises, when the two learn there are going to be two special occasions at school – a magician, Don Realo, and a field trip to the art museum to see the Mola Lisa. The two are enjoying discussing Ray’s magic tricks and the unexpected excitement when things get a little too exciting—the lights go out, there’s a flash of fire, and the Mola Lisa disappears! Can Q and Ray use their disguises, magic tricks, and detective skills to find the thief and get the Mola Lisa back?

Fun facts about the real Leonardo da Vinci are included in the back and there are plenty of art clues for adults (and kids) to catch, like Ms. Easel’s art-inspired dresses (one is a collage of soup cans, another clearly inspired by Mondrian) and the references to the real theft of the Mona Lisa. Shaskan’s clear panels and sharp style will help younger readers follow the clues and the action while they try to solve the crime. The art is big, bright, and bold, a good fit both for younger readers and for the larger picture-book format Lerner often uses in their Graphic Universe titles. Something I’ve previously seen in his picture books is that Shaskan has a great use of white space. He divides up the panels and action, alternating between conversations about the clues, background pictures, and the movement of characters as they hunt down the clues—and the thief!

Despite all the protagonists being animals, they still manage to include plenty of diversity. Ray, a rat, is racially coded with dark skin and tightly curled hair. Officer Rocco is a female raccoon, and Jimmy (a rabbit) uses his nose to sniff out the detectives’ identity and his memory to help them solve their crime, while his visual disability is shown in the receipt he pulls up with an extra line of text in braille, a cane, and dark glasses.

Young readers who like mysteries will be eager to pore over the pages and follow each clue to the conclusion. Teachers will also find many uses for this new series in the classroom, from practicing logical thinking and observation skills to tying in to art curriculum. This new series is sure to fly off the shelves in both libraries and classrooms.

Q & Ray: The Missing Mola Lisa: Case #1
by Trisha Speed Shaskan
Art by Stephen Shaskan
ISBN: 9781512454147
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: