It is spring of eighth grade, time for a Riverdale Academy Day School tradition: a school trip to somewhere exciting and educational. For Jordan and his friends, that just happens to mean a trip to Paris. School Trip is the third installment of Jerry Craft’s graphic novels about Jordan, who readers first met in the Newbery and Coretta Scott King Award winning New Kid, and an excellent addition to the collection.
At the cusp of a new stage in his life, Jordan finally feels a part of the RAD community and can’t wait to travel overseas with his classmates and teachers. He never gets to see kids like him, other young Black kids from New York City, traveling the world and experiencing different cultures. This is his chance to be the main character and blaze a path. But there’s more than just the trip on his mind. Eighth grade will be over before he knows it and he’ll have to decide between RAD, where he’s no longer the new kid, or art school, the place that could help make his dreams come true. He knows what his parents want him to do and where his friends will be but hasn’t quite come to realize the best path for himself.
A prank causes some unexpected changes to the RAD trip to Paris, but the group makes the best of the situation. Along the way, the classmates learn more about each other, sometimes resulting in conflicts amongst the characters. Craft’s masterful storytelling gives these arguments and discussions depth, without seeming unrealistic for a bunch of eighth graders.
The trip exposes each student’s prejudices, fears, and unrealized ideas about themselves and their peers. Readers will see characters like themselves reflected back at them and School Trip gives them the space to discuss similar things happening in their lives. Witnessing Jordan and Ramon, amongst others, sticking up for themselves against unaware bully Andy may even give readers confidence to do something similar.
The introduction of the Thumbs-Downers in the story gives a realistic explanation to why negative, hateful people always speak the loudest and get the most attention. A two page spread between Drew, the focus of Craft’s Class Act, and Andy is particularly visually striking as a follow up to this idea. Andy is a Thumbs-Downer but he’s much more than that and must recognize his own privilege. This scene could, and should, cause reflection in young readers as they consider their own racial, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds.
As with Craft’s previous books, it is recommended readers keep an eye out for easter eggs throughout School Trip, especially anyone who reads lots of graphic novels. There’s even some aimed at older readers! Craft does a great job of setting his characters in very specific places without the cities and backgrounds becoming the main focus. Your eye is always drawn to the characters and their stories.
School Trip belongs on every library’s and classroom’s shelves, alongside its predecessors. Craft’s fondness and appreciation for these characters is evident throughout the book, something that readers of all ages will find themselves feeling as they follow along with Jordan, his family, and his classmates.
School Trip By Jerry Craft Quill Tree, 2023 ISBN: 9780062885531
Elle-Q has become a bona-fide pop sensation basically overnight, singing her way into the hearts of her fellow middle schoolers in her viral online videos. But behind the mask and flashy outfits, Elle-Q is hiding a big secret, one that would be sure to surprise the students at Rainham Middle School: she’s actually Mia Tabolt, their quiet, autistic classmate.
Bullied for years by popular girls Laura and Jess and the rest of their clique for her autism, Mia doesn’t feel like she can be herself at school. But when she’s with her best friend Charlie, she knows she doesn’t have to hide anything. Plus, they’re the person who’s been creating the awesome beats Elle-Q sings to!
When the chance to perform in a local talent show comes up, Charlie thinks it’s the perfect opportunity for Elle-Q to go live in person, but Mia is hesitant. Will her overprotective mother ever understand what she’s truly capable of? Will the bullies judge her for even trying? Will her friendship with Charlie survive her uncertainty? Mia’s got a lot of choices to make, and only she can decide if she’s going to stick with what she knows or break open the box the world seems determined to stick her in.
It’s so much fun to see an alter-ego story that centers an autistic character, especially one where the alter-ego isn’t fictional or imagined. Elle-Q isn’t just a character that Mia writes about, a version of herself who lives in a comic or in a game with a friend, or even just in her own imagination as a story-within-a-story. Instead, Elle-Q is a stage persona, which is something that’s incredibly common for lots of musicians and artists, even big name, well-known allistic (non-autistic) ones. In that respect, what Mia and Charlie have created is a tale as old as show business itself, even if the concept of Elle-Q did start as Mia’s idea for a Dungeons and Dragons character.
Purple-haired and bedazzled, Elle-Q is a loud, vibrant, boisterous version of Mia, the complete opposite of how she’s presented herself to everyone she knows her whole life. She’s a version of Mia who allows herself to be everything people around her judge her for or, in the case of her mother, actively try to make her suppress. Rebecca Burgess does not shy away from showing the detrimental effects of intent versus impact that often occur from the actions of overprotective parents of autistic children. While Mia’s mother may think she’s trying to shield Mia from a harsh world by trying to have her act and be more “normal” (in this case: neurotypical), she’s actually telling Mia that her natural instincts and even bodily functions, like stimming, are not acceptable, not even to her own mother. The effect this has on Mia’s self-esteem is not so different from the effects of Laura and Jess’ years of bullying, and while it’s hard to read, it’s unfortunately incredibly realistic for many neurodiverse youth.
Additionally, while realistic from the perspective of middle schoolers and how friendships are made, the redemption arc Laura receives (partially through being an Elle-Q superfan) could perhaps be approached with caution by young readers. While sometimes you do overcome your differences to find common ground and real connection, no one should ever feel pressure to befriend their former bullies, even when those bullies have worked to redeem themselves.
Through Burgess’ vividly delightful art, readers will feel the characters’ big emotions right along with them, especially when they use a manga-esque style to highlight overexaggerated facial expressions. Emotions are definitely a strength of Burgess’s; the panels depicting the internal and external sensations Mia experiences as she moves through the world as an autistic person are visceral; lightning bolts and dark clouds surround her in moments of sensory overload; a metal panel with rivets is drawn over her mouth when she feels silenced, etc. While the majority of the main characters seem to be depicted as white, including Mia, Charlie is Black, and another member of the popular clique seems to be Black-coded as well. The almost watercolor-like feel of the digitally created art lends it a softness that is just the right vibe for this story.
Mia’s experience of confronting stereotypes and expectations head-on, standing up to bullies, and learning how to be herself is a story that’s at once universal while also being specific to marginalized youth. She is a welcome and important addition to the growing canon of autistic characters in children’s literature. Speak Up! has something in it for many types of readers, and is a recommended read for all libraries that serve tweens and teens.
Speak Up! By Rebecca Burgess Quill Tree, 2022 ISBN: 9780063081192
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Asexual, Queer, Nonbinary , Autistic Spectrum Character Representation: Autistic Spectrum
Sustaining imperialism and empire requires that a society tell its youth stories of glory and honor. Aiza has heard these stories and dreams of becoming a knight and serving the Bayt-Sajji Empire, even though her Ornu people were recently colonized. The life that waits for her when she goes into training to become a squire is more complicated and dangerous than she expected. Her decision to hide her Ornu heritage only adds to the danger.
As Aiza trains to become a squire, she makes friends and enemies. She trains with Husni the wealthy dreamer, Basem the royal rule follower, and Sahar the strong tough girl. Aiza is headstrong, but hiding deep insecurities and it is clear that she may fail in her quest. And the cost of failure will be high. Any wash outs are immediately sent to the front lines as infantry in a never ending war the Bayt-Sajji are fighting. Just as Aiza is on the brink of losing everything, she happens on an opportunity to be trained by a former knight. As she secretly gains new skills, her chances improve. Yet, as her goal gets within her grasp, the cost of what she hopes to achieve becomes clearer. Will she close her eyes to the pain her Ornu people are suffering under the Empire, or will she stand up for them and jeopardize her chance at being a knight someday at possibly the cost of her life?
Writer Shammas sets up an intriguing fantasy world with distinct historical ties to the peoples of the Middle East, in particular the Bedouins. She fills this world with a cast of characters that could come from all parts of our world. There are many intriguing ideas explored as well. How does a colonized people become integrated into a conquering power? What power do ‘stories’ have over us and who gets to tell them? Is it more important to win the battle or be alive to write the story of the battle? What is the value of friendship? Can friendship survive keeping secrets, even if well-intentioned? At points, there might be too many ideas vying for space in this story. The narrative feels rushed as we reach the climax because so many ideas have been put in play. I could imagine a trilogy of stories needed to unwind this complicated tale. Unfortunately, the motivations of the antagonist are also not well defined. There is a lot of figurative mustache twirling sans mustache.
The art and colors by Alfageeh are solid, particularly the colors. She draws clean lines and keeps the art realistic without being overly detailed. The landscape and buildings are excellent and evoke a sense of place well. Her faces occasionally lack definition and balance, yet the coloring helps the reader keep track of who is who. Her description of her process in the afterword is illuminating and welcome.
Squire is really a must buy for most public and school libraries. Even though a fantasy, it’s a story set in a thinly veiled historical Middle East told by a Palestinian-American writer and Jordanian-American artist. It adds much needed diversity to our graphic novel collections and kids will likely enjoy Aiza, her friends and the action. They will also benefit from the conscientious look at what it takes to sustain a colonizing empire and its effects on the peoples it oppresses.
Squire By Nadia Shammas Art by Sara Alfageeh Quill Tree, 2022 ISBN: 9780062945853
Publisher Age Rating: 14+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Jordanian-American, Palestinian-American,
Oh, Grapes! Garlic is a ball (or bulb, rather) of anxiety. She struggles to make it to market day on time, has an unfortunate experience with spilled celery, and constantly worries how the witch, Agnes, will react. However, Garlic is more than her anxiety or her mistakes. With the help of Agnes and Carrot, Garlic begins to see herself as the brave and capable vegetable she is.
Garlic and the Vampire, by Bree Paulson, is an uplifting (and frankly, adorable) graphic novel about friendship, community, and self-discovery among anthropomorphic fruits and vegetables. Sometime ago Agnes, the witch, imbued life into her fruit and vegetables to help around her farm. Garlic, Carrot, Celery, Pumpkin, and the others plant seeds, tend to the growing plants, and harvest the produce. They are a hardworking community that takes pride in their work.
After a day at the market, someone notices smoke coming from a nearby abandoned castle. A vampire has taken up residence, and their farm community is in danger. To Garlic’s utter horror, it is suggested that garlic’s natural vampire repellent properties make her the perfect candidate to confront the unwanted visitor.
This is a heartfelt and unique story that exceeded my expectations. This is not the type of story where a witch holds power over her constructs. Over the years, the plants have grown into their own individual beings with their own thoughts and ideas. In a scene I found to be particularly touching, Agnes takes the time to reassure Garlic’s anxieties by reminding her that she is an individual who has grown beyond the silent helper Agnes once created. Garlic has her own thoughts and feelings, is free to make her own choices, can take care of herself, and is able to go on her own adventures. In a children’s fantasy about anthropomorphic constructs, it’s refreshing to see respect for identity, choice, and consent.
This is also not the type of story where a community comes together to battle a vampire. Upon reaching the vampire’s castle, Garlic finds her bravery and her voice. She boldly confronts the vampire, with a threat to vanquish him should he not surrender the castle. Bree does a beautiful job illustrating this scene. We see a small garlic bulb threatening a vampire who towers above her. Garlic’s bravery is no longer in question; however, the vampire is not the monster they assume him to be.
Garlic’s best friend, Carrot (they/them), is also worthy of note. They are a calming force for Garlic, quick to offer support and guidance. And while Garlic is away in the castle, Carrot sits atop a water tower in vigil waiting for their friend’s return. Other characters use they/them pronouns when referring to Carrot, but it is handled as natural rather than with ceremony, another important touch in this story.
Paulsen uses the colors of a garden to illustrate this novel: tints of green throughout with natural reds, oranges, and browns. Drops of water land on leaves in the garden or come out of hysterical eyes. The characters are drawn with a cartoon feel. They have human-like bodies, and farmer clothes, with heads shaped like fruits and vegetables. Their eyes also hold a great deal of expression and character. For instance, there is little reason to question the character of either the vampire or the witch when you can see their eyes.
This book warmed my heart (and made me giggle a few times) from beginning to end. I strongly recommend this for elementary libraries and young library patrons. But honestly, I loved it, and I am sure its appeal will stretch beyond the intended audience. This will be a hit among readers, and I will, without a doubt, buy a copy for my high school library. I am sure many of my teens will eat it up (pun not exactly intended).
Garlic and the Vampire By Bree Paulsen Harper Collins Quill Tree Books, 2021 ISBN: 9780062995087 Publisher Age Rating: Grade 3-7
All Jordan Banks wants to do is go to art school. Instead, his parents send him to the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School (which is far from his neighborhood and far from diverse), so he will gain opportunities that he might not otherwise. Out of his depth, Jordan finds himself struggling to fit in. Jerry Craft won the 2020 Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards for New Kid, and there are several good reasons for those accolades.
One of the great things about New Kid is that it strikes a balance between serious and light. It follows Jordan through his first year at his new school, where he has new experiences such as trying soccer and baseball and makes new friends, all while dealing with the microaggressions that people of color face in a predominantly white environment. While these issues are not played down, they never overwhelm the main narrative of a kid trying to figure out his new school. The result is a warm, thoughtful, and humorous story.
Another strength is the cast, particularly Jordan. Through his playful cartoons, the reader gets a clear sense of Jordan as a person, and Craft includes little details that give the character life, such as his fondness for his hoodie and love for superheroes. Craft strikes a balance between sweet, smart, and uncertain in a way that is highly relatable and engaging. The supporting cast are also distinct with their own unique quirks and struggles, and their interactions are true to life.
In addition to a strong story and protagonist, the artwork makes the action easy to follow and captures the actions and emotions throughout the book. Craft also uses the artwork to make his most serious points in a humorous way. For example, there’s a scene at the school book sale where most of the books featuring people of color have titles such as “Escape From Slavery,” their “empowering” messages the bookseller cries exaggerated tears over—a decision that make his points about bigger issues without overwhelming the main story.
Public and school libraries in particular will want to make sure to have it on the shelves as it is a great book for young people, and educators will be excited to know that there is a teaching guide to use in the classroom. Quill Tree Books (which is part of Harper) sets the age range at 8 to 12, and that is a good starting point; that being said, teens, especially those in middle school, will likely also enjoy New Kid. Other reviews have suggested that fans of Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang will enjoy this title. Because of its relatable protagonist and strong coming-of-age plot, readers who enjoy the work of Victoria Jamieson (author of Roller Girl), Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina, and Shannon Hale’s Real Friends should also enjoy New Kid.
New Kid By Jerry Craft ISBN: 9780062691200 Quill Tree Books, 2019 Publisher Age Rating: 8 to 12
Browse for more like this title Character Traits: Black Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator