Have you ever driven past a pond and heard a symphony of frog croaks? Well, you were probably hearing those frogs’ regional accents. (Yes, their accents!). Maybe you’re familiar with tadpoles as part of the frog life cycle but did you know out of 2000 eggs, only five will make it to adulthood? (Don’t worry, not only have frogs adapted but they’ve flourished!) There is so much to learn about frogs and Liz Prince’s Frogs: Awesome Amphibians, the latest entry into FirstSecond’s Science Comics series, has no shortage of them.
Fran’s a city kid until one of their dads gets a new job and the whole family moves out to the country. It’s quiet, there’s no one around, and the only thing for them to do is sit by the pond through the trees of their backyard, missing their friends back home. That is, until they meet a talking tadpole in said pond and find themself in Professor Sal A. Mander’s class at Amphibian Academy. The professor is an upright talking salamander who wears glasses and a jacket, just as one would expect at such a school.
Before they know it, Fran’s learning all the ins and outs of amphibians, frogs’ particular classification of cold-blooded vertebrates. This graphic novel is packed to the gills with fascinating frog facts! Fran transports to the Andes Mountains to meet the Lake Titicaca frog, watches a play about the four life stages of an amphibian, and visits the African tropical savannah to discover the role water plays in some frogs’ home environments. They even learn how they can help keep frogs safe and thriving in their very own town!
Prince’s enthusiasm and adorations of frogs shines throughout Science Comics: Frogs. It is very heavy on the information and often goes into detail overload, which will make frog fan readers not want to put this graphic novel down. Not all of the facts are pretty and some more sensitive readers may find themselves slightly grossed out. Fran will be relatable to readers, as even they can’t always hide their disgust at some of the grosser info. Prince’s art style is bright and fun so even the slightly difficult portions are more palatable to younger readers.
Like others in the Science Comics series, the book begins with an introduction from a scientist and ends with additional information for anyone looking to learn more. Frogs: Awesome Amphibians ends with a glossary, as well as a mini comic featuring Prince. She encourages readers to take action and find local Big Night projects, where frog appreciators of all ages come together to help the creatures cross busy roads during their yearly migrations.
Frogs are a common classroom and library pet, so this book is recommended to those that have one, as it’s a handy and colorful guide for readers of all ages who want to learn more. It would also be a great supplement for students learning about the animal kingdom at large and looking for a more in-depth deep dive on a specific vertebrate.
There’s so much to learn about these amazing amphibians, as the title suggests, and Science Comics: Frogs fits nicely both into this ongoing series and onto your non-fiction graphic novel shelf for middle grade readers.
Science Comics: Frogs Awesome Amphibians Vol. By Liz Prince Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250268860
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Zara and Zeeshan, twin Muslim Pakistanian American siblings, love to spend time on their phone apps. Zara keeps a photo journal of different animal species she encounters and Zeeshan geeks out on space exploration facts by tuning in to NASA videos. While preparing for a family trip to Florida, a series of mishaps, jabbing insults, and mistaken interpretations deprives them of their phone privileges, stirring up heated resentment between the two. Bouts of sibling rivalry abound in Saving Sunshine, a heartfelt graphic novel written by Saadia Faruqi (Yasmin and Ali the Great series) and illustrated by Shazleen Khan.
From the moment their mom receives an invitation to accept an award at a medical conference in Key West, Florida, the fun begins. As they are packing, Zeeshan kicks over Zara’s neatly stacked pile of clothes. Upon arriving at the airport, he accidentally bumps into Zara’s luggage cart, causing her to trip over and fall. Their parents execute the ultimate punishment by confiscating their phones and demanding that they stick together, forcing them to work out their differences throughout the trip. After kayaking to a nearby island resort, Zara discovers a lone, ailing loggerhead turtle whom she names “Sunshine.” Little by little, the two team up to nurture it back to health, gaining a deeper understanding and respect for each other’s hobbies in the process.
Beyond the central sibling conflict, the twins also face microaggressions in various guises throughout the story. Classmates poke fun at Zeeshan’s name. In a flashback from sixth grade, Zara wears a hijab for the first time in school only to become the target of jeers from taunting classmates. They are frequently greeted with the question, “Where are you from?” At an airport security checkpoint, a security guard pulls their father aside for questioning. Their parents handle these discriminatory gestures with respect, aplomb, and resilience.
Charmingly sketched characters and scenic backgrounds fill the narrative panels rendered in a watercolor style complemented by soft pastels. Anecdotal flashbacks and memories colored in sepia tones add insight to the backstories of the siblings, elucidating their childhood escapades in some panels that spread out as a series of overlapping photos. Pop-up notifications containing factoids of the siblings’ specialized interests sporadically appear, enhancing the narrative flow of information. Overall, Faruqi incorporates elements of sibling rivalry, reconciliation, animal activism, and Islamophobia into the plot, making this story an enriching addition to middle-grade collections and reinforcing the enduring message of standing strong and true for oneself and others in solidarity.
Saving Sunshine By Saadia Faruqi Art by Shazleen Khan Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250793805
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Pakistani-American Character Representation: Pakistani-American
Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha are best friends, muddling through high school together. In the previous volume, the four girls worked together to get their high school to carry free menstrual products in the girls’ bathrooms. Now, Abby is determined to go further: to convince the school to carry the products in all bathrooms so that trans and nonbinary students can access them. Meanwhile, Sasha is so wrapped up in her boyfriend that her grades are slipping, which hurts her self-esteem. Brit is dealing with endometriosis and with two boys vying for her attention. And Christine is still not ready to come out to everyone—or to admit she has a massive crush on Abby.
Educating readers about menstrual issues is part of the authors’ goal, so it’s perhaps not surprising that this volume, like the first one, can be a little didactic. At the beginning, Brit explains endometriosis to her friends, accompanied by cartoon diagrams of a uterus. After that, though, Look on the Bright Side focuses mostly on crushes. Christine is scared to confess her feelings to Abby; Abby isn’t sure about her own orientation; and Brit finds herself reenacting Pride and Prejudice with two boys in her class. (Despite being a huge fan of the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries, Brit never comments on how closely her love life parallels that story: she is torn between a grumpy-but-noble boy named Fitz and a charming scoundrel named Jorge.)
All the protagonists are imperfect but good-hearted and easy to root for. They make mistakes and struggle with misunderstandings and fears, but they overcome these challenges with help from each other and from their families. While the girls’ friendship is central to the book, we also get at least a glimpse of each girl’s family, all of whom seem loving and supportive. Their school environment, too, seems positive. The high school has a new principal since the events of the last book and there is an active LGBTQ+ club.
The art is colorful, with a simplified cartoon style. The characters are all distinct, in part because they include a variety of races and body types. The backgrounds include enough detail to set the scenes, which are generally at school, outside, or at the girls’ homes. The focus, though, is on the characters. Despite the simplicity of their designs, they are expressive—important in a book with so many emotional plotlines. Their feelings are often underscored by scribbles or smudgy textures in the backgrounds of the panels, especially when the characters are stressed.
There are lots of crushes in this book, but no nudity or sexual content beyond a couple of quick kisses. There is one discussion in which the girls joke about wishing for bigger or smaller boobs. Characters discuss attraction, but not in terms more explicit than, “I think she’s cute.”
Despite being set in high school, this book fits nicely among the many popular graphic novels depicting the trials of middle school life. That’s a good thing, because middle school readers may benefit most from clear discussion of menstrual issues. And while this book does drop a fair amount of information on endometriosis, it centers on friendships, romance, helping others, and figuring out life. The heroines are relatable and kind. This volume can stand alone, but reading Go with the Flow first will provide some context (and a lot more menstrual information). Hand both books to fans of authors like Raina Telgemeier, Megan Wagner Lloyd, and Kayla Miller.
Look on the Bright Side By Lily Williams Art by Karen Schneeman Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250834119
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14 NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Character Representation: African-American, Lesbian, Queer
In Layers: a Memoir, Pénélope Bagieu, the author and illustrator of the Eisner-winning book Brazen, explores the complexities of her youth with grace and wit. As adults, it is often tempting to view our past through a lens of cynicism or jest, especially when recounting embarrassing fumbles or difficult mistakes. However Bagieu cares for her younger self with respect, and in doing so she also respects the mistakes and fumbles of her young readers.
The book opens with the story of a beloved pet cat. The story is told with wit and humor, and some tears. You can’t share stories of childhood pets without tears, but it is a strong opening to a book that explores the complex spectrum of emotions associated with relationships and moments from our youth.
I think the intended teen audience will appreciate the emotional honesty of Bagieu’s work. Some of the memoir focuses on her days as a teen or in high school, but much of it follows her life in and just after university. It explores the awkward growing pains of this time, with a sense of pride for her younger self.
The memoir is split into chapters. They might better be characterized as comic essays, each one exploring a different theme or relationship. The stories are based on diary entries from Bagieu’s youth and range from lighter moments recounting some embarrassing story from her past to darker depths related to sexual assault and broken relationships.
In a few chapters, she illustrates difficult moments from her teen years paralleled against devastatingly similar ones from her life as a young adult. Literally paralleled. The stories from high school on the left side of the page, while the ones from her 20s on the right. It is a poignant choice to connect themes that are recurring elements in the lives of many young women who may read this memoir.
The handling of sexual topics is well done. It is a sex-positive book that does not use sex as a cautionary tale but does accurately portray the ways that young adults must navigate it. In one scene a nurse at a Planned Parenthood gives Bagieu advice on sexual health. In that essay, she notes how eternally grateful she was as a teenager to get clear and honest advice about sex from an adult. At a moment that for many may be filled with shame and embarrassment, she was treated with respect and care. I believe that Bagieu holds the same level of respect and care to her younger readers in the way she discusses sex in the book.
The hand-drawn black and white illustrations are not crisp and clean. The style isn’t dissimilar from her work in Brazen. But unlike in Brazen, she took away the color and added some chaos to the lines. When we look back on the chaotic time in our own lives in the transition from teen to adult, this stylistic choice is incredibly appropriate. Black and white pictures, with harried lines, are also reminiscent of the thoughts (sometimes in words and sometimes through pictures) scribbled into the diaries of young people.
Many adults, when imparting learned wisdom to the younger generation, condescend and/or tell their stories through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and focus on the lessons. However, despite telling stories from 20 years ago, these essays feel fresh and relevant to today’s teens. She does not organize the chapters on passed-on lessons, rather she focuses on honest snippets of her life. The moments of struggle juxtaposed against levity are honest and refreshing.
I think it is a strong choice for collections serving teens, and I think many young people will see themselves in the pages of the book.
Layers was originally published in France in 2021, and has been translated to English by Montana Kane.
Layer A memoir Vol. By Pénélope Bagieu, Montana Kane, , Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250873736
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: French,
In the regency era, a marriage of convenience between two people trapped by circumstance may lead either to happiness or the risk of total ruin.
First Second presents Ruined by Sarah Vaughn, Sarah Winifred Searle, and Niki Smith, a graphic Regency romance marketed for fans of Bridgerton. The story opens with the marriage of Catherine Benson and Andrew Davener. Catherine comes from a respectable family and her situation offers a large dowry to whichever man marries her. However, she is overshadowed by swirling rumors that claim she lost her virtue under scandalous circumstances. Andrew’s family has seen a string of deaths, forcing him into the unexpected role as head of a household on the brink of financial ruin. Knowing fully that each is the other’s last chance of redeeming their situations, their wedding is agreeably one of need, not passion.
Such an arrangement naturally comes with difficulty, even before the ghosts of Catherine’s and Andrew’s pasts begin to reappear. But as the couple begins to work together to rebuild the Davener estates and put their affairs in order, something new begins to grow between them. The sparks of love are undeniable, but also terrifying to two people who have found themselves adrift in turmoil they never expected to face. And if they dare to trust one another, it opens their comfortable arrangement up to the possibility of even more heartbreak.
For Ruined, the comparison to Netflix’s Bridgerton series is inevitable. Thankfully, the resemblance goes deeper than the simple trappings of the genre. The world of Ruined embraces a welcome level of diversity. Though the two leads appear to be white, characters of various ethnicities inhabit multiple levels of society throughout the story. Additionally, sub-plots involve side characters of other sexualities and neurodivergence, and all of these characters are integrated smoothly into Vaughn’s version of Regency England. As for the central story, marriage of convenience is a familiar trope, and Vaughn plays it out mostly as expected, though not without some touching moments scattered across Catherine and Andrew’s growing relationship. The writing could sometimes be honed a bit more to the razor sharpness that shines in regency romance stories, but fans of the genre will find plenty to enjoy here nonetheless.
Searle’s art presents a distinct illustrative style, drawing together elements of realism with a decidedly more animated appearance that will work well for some readers, while it will leave others wanting. There are times when the simplicity pays off. In other moments, the story seems to want a rich complexity that the art simply does not capture. However, from lush balls and gardens to moments of intimacy and awkwardness, Searle’s work undeniably portrays the layers and vulnerability of Catherine and Andrew as they are forced to face themselves before they can take a chance on true happiness.
First Second does not list an age rating for this title, but with multiple scenes of nudity and sexual content, Ruined would live most comfortably in the adult areas of any collection. In the end, the book does not rise to the same heights as the Bridgerton show and some similar titles, but it has an undeniable charm which should please readers looking for additional Regency-era romance stories—especially in graphic novel form where this genre of romance is not as common. It may not draw in new readers to the genre, but for any readership that is already onboard with regency romance and related tropes, Ruined is worth considering.
Ruined By Sarah Vaughn Art by Sarah Winifred Searle, Niki Smith Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250769350
Publisher Age Rating: Series ISBNs and Order Related media:
The bold cartooning knight is back, and she’s ready for her biggest adventure yet! She wants to travel to new and fantastic worlds—but first, she’ll have to draw them. Her horse, Edward, is no help at all; he can’t seem to draw anything but food. When the knight gets frustrated and yells at him, Edward leaves. Well, she doesn’t need him, anyway! She’ll draw her own fabulous worlds! She just has to figure out how.
Luckily, the Magical Cartooning Elf is here to help. He shows the knight some tricks for drawing worlds, like how to use a horizon line and how to show distance and scale by overlapping objects. When the Elf leaves to help other budding cartoonists, the knight starts drawing world after world: islands, cities, alien planets, and more. But each one is missing the one thing she really wants: Edward. How can she get him back?
Readers of the Adventures in Cartooning series will enjoy learning about world-building with the impetuous knight and the Magical Cartooning Elf. The Elf explains some helpful basic techniques for drawing settings, while the knight demonstrates brainstorming methods to help fill out those settings. For example: “I started jotting down all the things that make a city a city… I had to look at pictures to remind myself of everything!”
Then, of course, there’s the story. (After all, this is Adventures in Cartooning, not Instructions in Cartooning.) The tips and tricks all fit into the tale of an impatient knight realizing that even the wildest adventures aren’t much fun without her best friend.
The characters are drawn using simple shapes, and the worlds start that way, too. Beginning cartoonists may share the knight’s frustration at having to practice and learn to draw more complex elements, and will be encouraged by the book’s assurance that even simple shapes can create complex worlds—and if you start with the basics, your skills will grow as you go. Readers can enjoy this book on its own or along with others in the series, some of which cover other elements of cartooning, like drawing characters, speech bubbles, and more.
Adventures in Cartooning, Vol. 3: Create a World By James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, Alexis Frederick-Frost Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250839411
Publisher Age Rating: 6-10
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)
Author and illustrator, Thien Pham, shares memories of his life framed around particular foods he remembers.
The book starts with a memory from when he was five years old on a small boat in the ocean fleeing Vietnam and encountering pirates. He remembers eating a rice ball his mother saved for him. His next memories come from his time in the refugee camp in Thailand when his mother purchased a banh cuon stall in order to support their family. After finally making it to America, Thien recalls his first American meal, steak and potatoes, as well as the luxury of fresh strawberries and potato chips. Life is hard for Thien’s family but they persevere together, opening their own café then converting it to a video rental store. Thien recalls attending an American school and reuniting with a friend he made at the refugee camp. The last few memories he shares are about the American disposition toward immigrants, especially the loud, angry messages, and his work to become a full American citizen with the support of his friends and family.
Sometimes words aren’t enough to convey all the emotions and meaning you want to share with others. This theme is prevalent throughout Family Style as Thien Pham’ excellent illustrations impart little things like the language barrier (word clouds full of lines and the occasional word that is recognized) or how tired his parents were so often. There were not very many bright colors used. Light seems to be used to show time of day. The muted colors serve to highlight and support the storytelling. Bright colors would have detracted from the serious tone used throughout. Personally, I find graphic memoirs more powerful than just words on a page or in audio form. It can be hard to imagine or picture someone else’s experiences from just words, so the illustrations express both the hardships and trauma as well as the triumphs and joys this family found together while pursuing the American dream.
The endnotes section contains a series of interviews and insights as the author answers some frequently asked questions like what his parents think of how he told the story and what they played with at the refugee camp. Although there are heavy topics introduced and discussed, I would recommend adding this to any graphic novel collection. It brings a perspective to light that not everyone has a chance to encounter in their everyday lives. The author keeps the illustrations pretty PG-13 and does show some violence on the page. The best use of this title would be for a parent to read it with their young ones and have discussions at the end of each memory/chapter.
Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam By Thien Pham Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250809728
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18 NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Vietnamese American Character Representation: Vietnamese American
Penny’s getting ready to move, but there’s something important she wants to do before she goes. Luc is reluctant to help, but as Penny’s friend agrees to join in. K(aylee) just wants to expand their cryptid knowledge and can’t resist a quest. So the three of them (supervised by Penny’s mom) set out for Lake Bockamixon. Their quest? To find the elusive Bawk-ness monster, Bessie, so Penny can say a final thank-you for saving her life when she was younger.
At first, it seems like the biggest problem will be getting away from Penny’s over-protective mom Ronnie, but things quickly get more exciting when the three friends, along with Bessie and Ronnie, get captured by a notorious cryptid hunter. As they encounter cryptids, villains, and Ronnie’s insistence on “talking things out” with “an adult” the three friends depend on Penny’s kindness and strength, K’s exuberance and knowledge, and Luc’s snarky but efficient preparations in order to survive their dangerous adventure, free the cryptids, and help Penny and her mom clear the air before their move. Along the way, there are brief flashbacks to some of their earlier encounters, including Luc’s initial bullying of Penny and finishing with a casual vignette where Lucy asks the friends to call them Luc going forward.
The raucous humor, boundless enthusiasm, and casual acceptance of indefinite gender expression in this story may remind readers vividly of Lumberjanes, but it’s clearly aimed at a younger audience, especially with a, to my mind, much more concrete plot than the Lumberjanes‘ more fluid narrative. Goetter and Riess are an artistic duo and include a detailed comic of their artistic process at the end of the story, explaining how they work out the plot together, Goetter draws the character and lettering, Riess creates backgrounds and digital art and lettering, and together they produce a finished comic!
The art is colorful and exciting, much like the bouncy characters, with lots of dramatic movement and rich colors. Penny is portrayed as a stocky, strongly-built girl, much like her mom, with chunky hiking boots. She often wears skirts and a bow. Luc, usually shown with a frown, has spiky anime-style brown hair, casual shorts and t-shirts, and an ubiquitous backpack, from which they can produce maps, utility tools, and endless plans. K is Black, the smallest of the three, sporting a white lab coat, green sneakers, goggles, and a maniacal and determined grin.
Alvida, the villain, has a sleek build with snake-like pupils, a hint of fang, and a Cruella deVil style white stripe in her black hair. The myriad of cryptids all have unique designs and looks, but even the slimy ones give the impression of fur and the Bawk-ness Monster is both bird-like and serpentine, with a warm heart under its fluffy feathers. Most of the action takes place in the woods, lake, and Alvida’s creepy lair and the backgrounds are smoothly layered, making the characters and colors pop out at readers.
Penny, her mom, and Alvida are given female pronouns and Alvida’s henchmen are all implied to be male, but K and Luc are not addressed by any specific pronouns.
This delightful romp will be an immediate choice for fans of the duo’s previous book, Dungeon Critters, and anyone who loves humor, cryptids, and a good old-fashioned adventure with determined characters and an evil villain. It’s a strong addition for any library collection, well-suited to elementary school collections, and a great start for a new series.
The Bawk-ness Monster By Sara Goetter, Natalie Riess Jennifer Wharton Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250834669
In her first choose-your-own-adventure challenge, Megan was in charge of the school talent show. Readers were able to pick her path and help her make choices that ended in disaster or triumph as she dealt with sick performers, murderous seagulls, and all manner of catastrophes. Now she’s back, exhibiting at the Sunbright Middle School’s science fair, but at least she’s not in charge this time?
Unfortunately for Megan, there’s still a lot of ways thing can go wrong amidst the myriad of possible endings, from being embarrassed in front of her crush, captured by aliens, to facing down her old enemies, the sea gulls! Make the right choice and see her helping her friends win a trophy, impressing her crush, or just making it through the day without hideous embarrassment. Wrong choice? She could end up trapped in the school basement, covered in acne, or just leaving early!
Smiley’s art is the same goofy cartoon style as in the first volume, with thick lines that show stick-figure characters. Megan stands out with her brown bun and big glasses and is joined by friends and enemies from the first book—plump Olivia, who’s presenting an experiment on body fungus, apoplectic Mr. Fisher the vice-principal, who’s determined to make a good showing in front of the science fair judges but can’t make it five minutes without bouncing up and down like the ball he resembles and dripping green and yellow sweat, and introducing new friends and enemies for Megan, like her co-presenter Charlotte and fellow student Ponah. The characters all have one of a few body types, oblong or rounded, and their faces show a limited gamut of emotions, mostly anger, surprise, and disgust.
The first book has been popular in my library and readers who like the choose-your-own-adventure format will be eager for another addition to the series. This one is a little more gag-worthy than the first, with Olivia’s body fungus project, run-ins with a skunk, and several other somewhat nauseating science projects, but it’s also got a wider range of endings, from comical cartoon death, with little x’s for eyes or Megan reduced to a skeleton, to the rather blah endings of leaving early or a successful day, sure to send readers back looking for a more exciting finish!
Although I don’t know any schools that have a science fair anymore, the concept is still familiar to kids and the additional goofiness makes this a little stronger than the first title, although both can be read separately. It’s a silly and fun offering that will appeal to many tween readers and could make for a fun ice-breaker exercise in a class presentation or with a group of tweens at a program.
What Happens Next?, Vol 2: Science Fair Frenzy By Jess Smart Smiley Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250772848
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Things in the Basement, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke, is a heroic journey through the depths of a basement on a quest to find a lost sock. Milo is in a new house. Well, the house isn’t new. It is old and filled with mysteries and adventure, and Milo is ready to explore in the shadow of moving boxes. However, while busy with twin infant sisters, Milo’s mother needs help finding a lost pink sock, made by his Tia Maria for his sister Lucy. He has been called for a quest, and heroes must answer the call.
Milo ventures into the basement, reluctantly peering into shadows and around corners, until he finds the sock in the mouth of a rat. When the rat disappears into a wall, Milo must follow. In his quest to find the rat and the sock, Milo uncovers unknown depths to his basement, monsters, mountains of socks, and some friends along the way.
The story is a classic hero’s journey into the underworld from the point of view of a child. It is abundantly clear that Hatke respects that point of view, and I think because of that many children will find themselves in Milo and in the story. The plot follows a child-like logic without being demeaning or using it as a punchline. The levels of the basement underworld unfold in the way pretend play with an adventurous child does, with something akin to the “yes, and…” improvisational structure. Turn the corner, embrace the unknown, and move forward bravely. Above all else, a sock must be found.
I always appreciate stories of children who waste little or no time in confusion when falling into a new magical world. There is no need to put up a pretense that this isn’t the exact type of world a boy like Milo could imagine for his basement. He befriends a large eyeball with tentacles instead of a body and a skull that talks in simple images, because why would he not. They were perfectly friendly, and as we all know, heroes need support on their quests.
Hatke’s illustrations perfectly blend the strange, dark, and unusual with enough whimsy to ease the imaginations of his young readers. Most of the book pages have monotone color palettes ranging from sepias to some blue and green. There are occasional pops of intense color for menacing green ooze and Lucy’s lost pink sock. The palette evokes the feeling of epic adventures. It also gives room for the strange details of each basement level to remain in the background, available for those interested in looking with a closer eye, but without taking attention from the story at hand.
Milo is Latino with brown skin, but overall his illustration lacks detail. He has a mop of tousled hair that obscures his eyes. The absence of great detail leaves room for children who want to see their face on Milo’s. Without eyes, we follow Milo’s emotion through his posture and movements. Hatke also has to be similarly creative with other important side characters, such as the skull and the eye, or a shepherd with a bell for a face. For young readers to have empathy for the strange and unknown, there must be some level of familiarity. Hatke accomplishes this balance of making the strange familiar through the character’s emotions, often without the ability to rely on facial expressions. It is a tightrope to walk as an illustrator, but one that Hatke clearly masters.
Things in the Basement made me smile, laugh, and feel all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings. It includes themes of friendship and kindness, but isn’t overtly didactic, and is funny without mocking. It’s a journey with child-sized epic proportions. I highly recommend it for elementary and other graphic novel collections for young and middle grade readers. I truly think children will love this story, along with those of us adults who appreciate authors who understand childhood.
Things in the Basement By Ben Hatke Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250836618
Publisher Age Rating: 6-9 Series ISBNs and Order Related media: