Silent meditation retreats are havens for deep, spiritual enlightenment, and it’s the last place Binh wants to be—especially after fighting off a bully in school for having taunted his Vietnamese heritage. From award-winning author and graphic novelist Minh Lê (Drawn Together, Green Lantern: Legacy) and New York Times bestselling illustrator Chan Chau (Baby-Sitter’s Club) comes Enlighten Me, a coming-of-age story steeped in Buddhist traditions, history, and folklore.
The story begins with Binh and his family headed to the peaceful Three Jewels Mountain Retreat, a silent meditation camp where he surrenders his treasured Game Boy upon arriving. This is the last place he expected to find himself after defending himself from a school bully who directed anti-Asian slurs at his Vietnamese culture. Why was he punished for being the victim? The vice principal figured a weekend family trip here would address his violent behavior. He joins the others kids to practice the art of meditation, but before long, sore legs, a stiff back, and disruptive thoughts invade his mind and distract his focus. Not until Sister Peace, one of the Buddhist monks, begins recounting wondrous tales about the Buddha does Binh embark on a path toward self-enlightenment and deep understanding.
The plot shifts into gear as Binh learns about Prince Siddhartha—a young boy sheltered from the evils of the world—who would one day venture beyond the walls of the royal palace, destined to become the Buddha. Another story drawn from the Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha’s past lives, reveals how as a young prince, he wielded five deadly weapons to combat a ferocious monster lurking deep inside a dark forest. In another tale about devotion to family, Buddha in the form of a golden deer gets caught in a trap, so its siblings come to its aid, refusing to leave its side even when a hunter comes along. Lê and Chau have created a delightfully heartwarming story that blends snatches of humor with moments that capture Binh’s hyperactive fascination with videogames. From serene images of nature to the digital world of Donkey Kong, he envisions himself floating through nebulous space in dynamically arranged panels. Events in the present unfold as Binh imagines taking part in adventures from the traditional tales, each one bearing a nugget of wisdom.
Structured in a semi-episodic style similar to the Arabian Nights, Enlighten Me paves an intriguing path into Buddhist philosophies, yet also weaves in themes of bullying, fitting in, self-control, community building, and finding oneself in the moment. This entertaining and thoughtful semiautobiographical graphic novel highlights a unique perspective on how one middle-schooler learns to navigate the challenges of life to find inner peace through self-disciplined mindfulness, thereby adding a culturally enriching experience to middle grade collections.
Enlighten Me Vol. By Minh Lê Art by Chan Chau Little, Brown, 2023 ISBN: 9780759555488
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Vietnamese American, Character Representation: Vietnamese American,
The graphic novel Wildfire grapples with the experiences of Julianna, a middle schooler, and the traumatizing effects of wildfires when her family loses their home in Western Oregon. The wildfire, in this instance, was caused by human negligence when some of her classmates naïvely shoot firecrackers in the woods just beyond the farmyard. Everything physical Julianna knows and cares about is obliterated by this one foolish act that she witnessed. Her pet goats survive, but she can’t take them with her when she and her family relocate to an apartment in Portland.
Julianna decides to keep her personal involvement with the wildfire a secret from her new classmates. Her new friends in grade eight are politically engaged and all belong to an environmental club which she reluctantly joins. One of the other members of the club is also a recent incoming student and, to Julianna’s horror, she recognizes Carson as one of the boys she warned about lighting the firecrackers back home. He joined the club as a condition of his mandated community service and agrees that Julianna can keep her background secret to herself. However, the trauma, stress, and anger that Julianna reins inside builds and builds until she becomes overwhelmed.
Julianna is a sympathetic and realistic character who undergoes growth and self-knowledge throughout the story arc. While the story revolves around a harrowing instance, it is a character-driven tale that should resonate with young readers. The readers, along with Julianna, learn about climate change and collaborative positive action possibilities such as trash cleanup days, tree planting, and protests. Julianna also learns that listening to other people and trying to understand their motivations and experiences can aid in mediating her own anger and angst. The author embeds relationships, environmental knowledge, post-traumatic stress, mental health, and healing into a thoughtful and realistic narrative with her writing style and illustrations. At times the text is didactic when exploring the climate crisis, but the storyline absorbs these soapbox moments as a shared experience with the characters in the graphic novel.
The thick outlines and basic backgrounds, combined with intense hues of colour, add to the vibrant settings and animated faces and emotions of the characters who are illustrated with varying skin tones.
The book concludes with a note from the author about the incentive for writing this book and information and resources for young people to become involved with climate justice and action. Recommended for middle schools, especially with those who have more than a passing experience with wildfires themselves.
Wildfire By Breena Bard Little, Brown, 2023 ISBN: 9780316277655
Publisher Age Rating: 8-14 NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Representation: Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Your face is crooked. You’re going to make everyone you love sick and die. You’re ugly and no one likes you and you’re going to be alone forever. The bees flying around Isaac Itkin’s mind never seem to shut up. What if they’re right? Buzzing, written by Samuel Sattin and illustrated by Rye Hickman, is a look into the life of a twelve year old boy with obsessive compulsive disorder.
Isaac was recently diagnosed with OCD. Focusing is impossible with the same intrusive thoughts never giving him a break. He just wants to get through the school day and maybe draw a little before going home where he doesn’t have to worry about being such an embarrassment. His mom is busy and his sister can’t stand to be around him, so diving into his sketchbook is the perfect way for Isaac to escape all the noise. The particular unrelenting noise of his OCD is depicted in the form of a small squad of bees that encircle him at every chance, always colorful in an otherwise drab world. They’re always waiting to pop up and ruin his day, to convince him of things that are untrue that he can’t escape.
Then Isaac meets Micah at school. Micah notices his drawing of a dragon and asks if he’s interested in joining their Swamps and Sorcery game. Similar to Dungeons and Dragons, the tabletop role playing game is all about fantasy, letting players be whoever (and whatever) they want to be as they work together. It also doesn’t hurt that Micah themself catches Isaac’s eye as he develops his first crush. Within the world of the game and the supportive circle of friends he plays with, Isaac finds life becoming more colorful day by day.
Buzzing is one of the latest graphic novels aimed at younger readers that features a RPG within the story. While parts of the game do come to life on the pages, the story isn’t so much about the game as it is about Isaac’s relationship with his new friends and his family, especially as they begin to understand his mental illness. His sister is learning how to deal with her younger brother’s new diagnosis and how to support him, even if she doesn’t quite understand.
His mom wants to keep him away from anything that could potentially be triggering and to live in the present in the real world, taking advice from doctors they’ve seen. Any reader who’s had to defend their interests to misunderstanding families will relate to Isaac and his mom. She only wants the best for him and has to listen to him to understand what that best really is. Sattin doesn’t write Isaac’s mom as bad or negative, but instead as a parent learning to understand what her son is going through.
Hickman’s art style features very expressive faces and the wordless panels contain just as much emotion as the others. The color palette fluctuates throughout the book. It’s colder and sterile when Isaac is feeling his worst but bright, warm, and colorful when he’s feeling joyful and accepted. The fantasy scenes will catch the eyes of RPG loving readers especially!
Buzzing is recommended to middle grade readers and has some cross appeal to younger teen readers. It’s also recommended to anyone working through their own OCD diagnosis or even to parents reading to better understand their child.
Buzzing By Samuel Sattin Art by Rye Hickman Little, Brown, 2023 ISBN: 9780316628419
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Character Representation: Queer, OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)