Invader Zim: Best of Skool

Do you remember what it was like to be in elementary and middle school? I do. It’s frustrating! Trying to make friends, worrying about schoolwork, being called on by the teacher, worrying about whether you’re cool enough and if anyone is looking at you while you need to scratch “that place”. It’s one of the reasons I loved the original Invader Zim cartoon on Nickelodeon, created by Jhonen Vasquez which aired from 2001-2006. The Invader Zim comic was released as individual issues from July 8, 2015 – August 4, 2021. Zim is sent from his authoritarian home world to ours, to start his prison sentence with only a robot named Gir, disguised as the pet dog, to keep him company. Elementary school will not stop his plans for world domination, though, because, like most kids that age, it’s all about him. This series compiles the Invader Zim comic issues #15, 32, 37 and 45 by Oni Press into a Best of Skool trade paperback, released in November 2021.

Have I mentioned that I love creator Vasquez? He managed to capture perfectly my scary bitter 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Collins. (Though, to be fair, my mom said Mrs. Collins had a lot on her plate, so maybe that’s why she was so scary and mean.) I also loved art and English and hated PE and was the smart misfit. This Zim compilation has the two-level pop culture references that I remember, one level for the kids and one level for the adults. So, if you grew up in 2001-2006, you’ll enjoy reading this to your kids. If you get some of the other references, you’ll enjoy reading it with your grandkids! (“That’s a metaphor kids; Don’t think too much about it.”—HA!) The Skool is every bit as zany as Zim, with spontaneous moose, beavers, ham, and LOTS of slime! Zim has to figure out how to beat his archenemy Dib in the fitness challenge, give his presentation in front of an uncaring and insulting Mrs. Bitters, and care for an inanimate “baby” who turns out to be a lump of meat. But a bigger challenge is coming for Zim! (No, it’s not the chickens who don’t want Zim and the meat baby in their town). How will he deal with the big feelings of “squintz”?

This title is four complete story arcs, together in one trade paperback. You don’t need to have watched or read any other Invader Zim, but it might help to know the background. The title should go wherever you put comics for middle readers, about 7-13 years of age. There is nothing violent or of adult nature. There is a small amount of “cartoon violence” (like Looney Toons). The art mostly resembles the style of the animated cartoon, and even though there are five credited artists for the four compiled issues, the issues resemble each other in style. The panels vary in size, shape, and place on the page, with dark wide gutters, no gutters, or just manga-style speed lines, which keeps the action moving! There are lots of silly things crammed into each frame, and lots to look at. For instance, in the first chapter, the kids are making up stories to explain why Mrs. Bitters is late. One kid explains that she’s actually a “Queen Bug” that has invaded a bug home and taught the bugs how to take over the planet. The next frame is a living room with child bugs – one is sipping a fast food soda, one is doing math on a chalkboard, a couple are reading books and writing, and several are watching two sock puppets on TV. “And they also learned how to order Greezy’s Double Slammer Pizza with extra olives!” 😀

Even though I loved the comic, I would rate it an “optional” purchase for middle school libraries and public libraries.

Invader Zim: Best of Skool
By Eric Trueheart and Aaron Alexovich
Art by Warren Wucinich, Kate Sherron, and K.C. Green
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2021
ISBN: 9781620109168

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

The Snowcat Prince

Syv is the youngest of seven snowcat princes and the most popular with the people of the realm. Since the people’s support determines the next king, his older brothers are worried. So they decide to send Syv on a quest: find the magical crown of the legendary snowcat Eldking that allows its wearer to defeat the wicked sandfoxes, who have used magic to warp and twist the natural world. Many snowcat princes have sought the crown, but none have returned. Still, armed with a map that his brothers claim shows the way to the crown, Syv is willing to try.

For all his bravery and good intentions, Syv is sheltered and inexperienced. Luckily, he soon stumbles upon a well-traveled companion: a rough-around-the-edges girl named Kit. As they follow the map, Syv discovers how badly the world has been corrupted by the foxes’ magic, which causes everything from extreme seasons to twisted wildlife. If he can just get the crown, he can fix it all.

Then Syv learns the devastating truth about Eldking. He can’t trust the legend, the map his brothers gave him, or maybe even his new friend Kit, who has been hiding a big secret. Can Syv still find a way to save the world?

Syv and Kit are both well-intentioned, but both naïve in their own ways. At first, Syv finds Kit obnoxiously uncouth and Kit finds him laughably ignorant of the world. But as they face warped wild animals and treacherous shape-shifters, the two grow to trust and value each other. Being the protagonist, Syv undergoes more personal growth and encounters more challenges, including deciding how to react when Kit’s secret comes to light. The young snowcat is devastated, but his good heart leads him to do the right thing when it matters most.

The setting draws inspiration from the author’s native Norway. The three lands Syv and Kit visit are depicted in a map at the back of the book. In the north, the snowcats lounge in their Halls of Gold; in the south, the sandfoxes have their Temple of Thorns. Humans occupy the middle, though they also make up most of the population of the north, supporting the snowcat princes with offerings. Both snowcats and sandfoxes have innate magical abilities, which are connected to aura, the magic of the land. Notes at the end of the book elaborate on this, as well as on the life cycles of snowcats and sandfoxes.

The art is vivid and appealing. The bright, saturated colors and Syv’s plush, cuddly character design could be at home on a Lisa Frank binder, while the sneering foxes and the sickly sludge of corrupted magic add an edge. In the book’s opening, when Syv’s father tells him the legend of the Eldking, the art supports the mythic tone with dramatic two-page spreads, larger than life characters, and geometric page borders framing the action. The style changes slightly once the main story begins, dropping the borders and splitting the pages into a variety of dynamic panel configurations for a more immediate, active feel. The bonus material at the end includes character sketches and alternate covers.

There is some danger and creepiness in this book: Syv uses his snowcat magic to fight, an aura-corrupted bear threatens a village and is shot by archers, and some sandfoxes menace Syv and Kit. These scenes are over fairly quickly, though, and there is no gory violence.

This lavishly-illustrated story has action, creative worldbuilding, and lots of heart. Hand it to fans of the Warriors series and other animal-centric fantasy.

The Snowcat Prince
By Dina Norlund
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2023
ISBN: 9781637151983

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Series ISBNs and Order

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

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost

Blue is absolutely smitten with his best friend Hamal, a kind, soft spoken gardener with a heck of a green thumb. There’s just one problem: Blue is, well, kind of dead. Thankfully, Hamal also has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, though lacking a physical form naturally prevents Blue from deepening his connection with Hamal. To make matters worse, something odd is happening to the local spirits who suddenly find themselves briefly flickering between a dark, decaying forest and the living world. To protect the one he loves, Blue must solve this mystery even if it costs him everything in the process. Keezy Young’s sweet, yet delightfully spooky romance, Taproot, presents a look into the delicate balance between life and death and all the love and sacrifices therein.

Taproot provides an engaging enough concept to pull readers into this mismatched couple’s story. Blue and Hamal’s dynamic is playful and endearing, but the story’s fast pace and short length prevents any sort of natural development of the relationship, the progression ultimately coming off as superficial and rushed. The overall story suffers from being somewhat frustratingly vague with certain scenes lacking a cohesive flow from one to another, all coming to an incredibly anticlimactic end.  Even the “One Year Later” segment feels tacked on, as it felt narratively needless other than to show the reader what the characters are doing after the main conclusion. Though epilogues can feel welcome in other literary scenarios, here it only adds to the slight disconnection between events. While a struggling read at times due to these elements, I can still appreciate the emphasis of queer joy and acceptance in this comic, which also features a refreshing multiracial cast and non-white leads.

Despite the somewhat underdeveloped narrative, Young manages to create an inviting, memorable world through richly illustrated landscapes and characters. The character designs immediately provide a good sense of personality, whether it’s found in Hamal’s rounded, gentle features or Blue’s angular, expressive face complete with a cheeky grin. Opting for a bluish green hue to distinguish the ghosts from the living adds more stylistic and visual intrigue as Young incorporates a good amount of framing to ensure they do not blend into the similarly colored, detailed backgrounds where Young shows off the natural wonders of this setting. Images of flora thriving around every corner exude a cozy, magical atmosphere, as we see the entire town covered in fluffy moss and colorful flowers. Even the mysterious forest has a gothic, ethereal charm to it, with its twisted, gnarled trees housing skulls and listless, chalky plant life. The environments function almost as characters in and of themselves, experiencing the same trials of life and death as our main characters, and are just as severely affected by its imbalances. Taproot’s visual style perfectly complements the tone and message of its story, marveling at the beauties of life while also stressing the inclusion of death and rebirth as a necessary part of it.

As a blend of a heartwarming queer romance with a paranormal edge, Taproot will interest fans of  Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series and Suzanne Walker’s Mooncakes, both of which share friends-to-lovers relationships and distinctive styles that enhance their stories. Those looking for a quick, character driven comic may enjoy this title, though the lack of worldbuilding and disjointed plot threads may be a turn off for some readers. Young states that Taproot is intended for audiences of all ages, though it would likely appeal most to ages thirteen and up due to its romantic focus, as well as its more mature handling of the themes of life and death. This rereleased edition comes with a brand new cover, an afterword from Young, and backmatter material including original concept art. Librarians and educators looking to include more inclusive and diverse paranormal romances should consider purchasing this title.

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost
By Keezy Young
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150733

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Gay
Character Representation: Bisexual, Gay

Milo’s World, book 1: The Land Under the Lake

Milo, a white boy with messy brown hair, drags the reader right into his story by racing through his small, traditional village, past the elderly aunts who keep an eye on him, to the small house where he lives mostly alone despite his young age. He’s determined to set out on an adventure across the forbidden lake, despite his dad’s warnings over the telephone.

Once he arrives, he runs into adventure—but not what he’d expected! Two strange, monstrous creatures appear and one is toting a mysterious bag, which he constantly threatens to eat. Milo investigates and discovers a red-headed girl in strange clothing who adamantly refuses his help. Nevertheless, Milo gets dragged into her world, literally, when they are pulled into a kind of wormhole in the lake. Stranded in a strange world, in peril from monsters and a past he’s never known, Milo not only struggles to survive, but begins to learn some of the secrets his family has hidden from him all his life.

The art in this French import reminded me irresistibly of Miyazaki’s films, especially Ponyo. The quirky old ladies, environmental destruction and renewal, and red-roofed houses will all resonate with fans of the Studio Ghibli films. However, Ferreira’s art stands alone, from the monstrous creatures hidden beneath dark cloaks, to the independent and fierce Valia who struggles to find a place she belongs. There are people living in the land beyond the lake too, small, elf-like creatures with pointed ears, in a medieval-style village. Most unique are the monsters, developed from ordinary creatures in the marsh, they become ravenous and terrifying caricatures of their natural selves, rampaging across a desolate and frightening landscape.

In some ways this is a very typical fantasy story; Milo discovers he has hidden powers and is, to some extent, the “chosen one”. There is an evil sorcerer and magical creatures who need his protection. However, the complex character of Valia and slowly unfolding backstory, not to mention the contrasts between the green and growing lands and the desolation beneath the lake, make this stand out in fantasy epics. The book is promoted as part of three stand-alone titles, and while the ending leaves room for another story, it closes most of the threads of the story.

This is an intriguing and beautifully illustrated fantasy epic that will appeal to fans of Miyazaki’s films, Kibuishi’s Amulet, and Scott’s The City on the Other Side.

Milo’s World, book 1: The Land Under the Lake
By Richard Marazano
Art by Christophe Ferreira
ISBN: 9781549306709
Lion Forge, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12 yeras

This is a Taco!

This is a Taco! is a book that satisfies the need for an imaginative story that’s also educational. The book begins with a couple of pages of squirrel facts, with Taco the squirrel acting out the facts (whether he likes it or not). On one page, the text describes how flying squirrels can glide in the air for long distances, while Taco the squirrel is flung from the tree he was climbing as he protests “you’ve got the wrong squirrel! My cousin Barry is the flyer in the family!” Taco puts up with these conflicts until a rather dangerous one is mentioned—hawks eat squirrels. At this, Taco panics and jumps out of the illustrated scene to cover the offending text, changing it with a red pen at the very last second. With his edits, the hawks vanish and tacos appear, to his great delight, and he continues to change the story to suit his desires.

This playful picture book hybrid is short and sweet. The art wonderfully represents the dual educational and humorous nature of the book, with pretty and realistic woodland scenes, including a delightfully detailed hawk, and comical characters drawn in more cartoonish style. The art also acknowledges how Taco breaks the fourth wall, creating a more dynamic reading experience. When Taco lands in the mud with a great WHAM! after demonstrating the “grace” of flying squirrels, the pages are drawn as if they moved with him, shifting downwards to show a peek of the pages underneath. The impact causes dirt to fly out in all directions, beyond the confines of the illustrated scene, breaking free of the picture book panels and keeping the reader on their toes in terms of what they might expect of the story.

The book also has gorgeous endpapers that demonstrate Taco’s shift in how he’s represented in the story; the front endpapers have a pattern of acorns and oak leaves, factually representing your average squirrel, while the back of the book is covered with tacos, avocados, and tortilla chips, representing the story he writes himself into, as a squirrel who loves to eat tacos.

The writing makes this book a little more engaging than your average book on squirrels. In addition to presenting the facts, it sends readers the message that they are in charge of their own stories and can free themselves from preconceived expectations. This title was a 2019 Eisner Award nominee in the category of best publication for early readers. Readers who enjoyed this book should be sure to check out Cangelose and Shipley’s other book, This is a Whoopsie!, presenting a similarly styled book about a moose.

This is a Taco!
By Andrew Cangelose
Art by Josh Shipley
ISBN: 9781941302729
Lion Forge/Cubhouse, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 6-10