The Tryout

Finding your identity is easier said than done. You can try a variety of clothes, hobbies, sports, etc. and still be unclear on who you are and where you fit in. In the end you may find your place but you may also realize that it doesn’t matter where you stand, as long as you stay you.  Newbery Honoree Christina Soontornvat relates her troubles with identity in her new book The Tryout. Partnering with illustrator Joanna Cacao, Soontornvat narrates her journey to become a middle school cheerleader and finding where she fits within her group of peers.

Christina and Megan have been best friends since grammar school. The duo had spent countless hours swapping secrets, playing with dolls, and chatting on the phone. But as they enter the seventh grade, Christina fears that their friendship will never be the same. Not only that, Christina has been feeling out of place. She needs to find something that will guarantee her a place within her middle school population, so why not the cheerleading squad? They are popular, adored, and amazing at performing different tricks and keeping the audience pumped. So when tryouts begin for new students, Christina and Megan jump at the chance. But will joining the squad change their middle school status and still keep their friendship intact?

The creative partnership of Christina Soontornvat and Joanna Cacao is a success in this coming of age story. Soontornvat does not hold anything back in her narration. There are scenes of stereotyping and racist comments witnessed by Christina and Megan. Moments of distress and anxiety are shown, with characters’ letting their emotions come out through actions or words. But after these scenes of distress, instead of letting hateful words keep her down, Christina is able to fight back in her own way. Readers will appreciate her devotion to her faith and identity, as well. Joanna Cacao includes scenes of pray within Christina’s Thai temple and her Presbyterian church, with Soontornvat’s explanation on Thai culture and comparisons between the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha. Cacao’s illustrations also include a diverse community being able to thrive within a mostly Caucasian town. Cheerleading stunts and tricks are shown from panel to panel, allowing the action to flow without interruptions.

Public and school libraries (especially those who have students in grades 4-8) need to have The Tryout on their shelves. It’s a great choice for any young reader who enjoys being on the pep squad or is on the path of trying to find their place in middle school. Place it right next to other coming of age comics, such as Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, Kayla Miller’s Click and Kathryn Ormsbee’s Growing Pangs.

The Tryout
By Christina Soontornvat
Art by Joanna Cacao
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338741261

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12:

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Thai-American,  ,  Character Representation: Thai-American, Buddhist ,

Freestyle

The boroughs of New York City are filled with the stylish moves of breakdancing teens and tweens. But what happens when they add a twist to their routine?  Breakdancing and yo-yo tricks are an unstoppable pair in Gale Galligan’s newest graphic novel Freestyle. The author and illustrator use their skills to create a story with relatable characters having fun expressing their style and flair on and off the dance floor.

The breakdance crew Eight Bitz need to practice every weekend if they want to win the upcoming dance competition. Their team captain is pushing their limits, causing rifts between members. However, things get a bit more chaotic when team member Cory is grounded until his grades improve. Not only that, he is stuck with quiet studious Sunna as his tutor. At first the two have trouble getting along, but things soon change when Cory watches Sunna perform some expert yo-yo tricks. As she flicks her wrist and lets the plastic bauble fly to and fro, Cory becomes mesmerized and wants to learn all the techniques. As the two become closer, however, members of Eight Bitz take note. With tensions in the dance team rising, a few members confront Cory and question his loyalty to the team and their friendship.

Gale Galligan’s artwork and storytelling go very well together. Not only are readers introduced to the world of breakdancing and yo-yo competitions, they are treated to a story of middle schoolers foraging and maintaining friendships while preparing themselves for that next level in their academic careers, high school. Each character has their own recognizable strengths which they use to achieve their goals and weaknesses that they combat in their own way. The cast is very much diverse, with characters of different gender identities and nationalities. There are also pressures of perfectionism and meeting parents’ standards within the story, common occurrences in the lives of most middle schoolers.

What really brings this story to life is Galligan’s artwork and panels packed with slick dance moves and yo-yo throwing action. In double page spreads, tweens are jumping and moving to a hip hop beat while spinning yo-yos fly in all different directions. The artist’s choice of using a bright color scheme adds to the excitement of the pages, giving readers a chance to pore over every single detail. Their research into both activities is prominently shown throughout the story, with characters using different lingos and names to describe routines, movements, and positions.

Illustrator and author Gale Galligan combines the quick moves of breakdancing and yo-yo tricks to create an exciting, heartfelt story of friendship and expression. Public and school libraries should consider this graphic novel in their collections, especially those who cater to devoted readers of Raina Telgemeier and Kayla Miller. Middle school readers and fans of Galligan’s work on The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels will definitely want to give this book a try and perhaps look into the exciting world of yo-yo tricks and dance crews.

Freestyle
By Gale Galligan
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338045802

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Taiwanese-American,  Genderqueer, Nonbinary
Character Representation: Chinese-American

Miles Morales: Stranger Tides

Miles Morales is adjusting to his identity as the new Spider-Man in town. It can be tough, but it has some serious perks, like being a guest of honor at the release event for the video game launch of the century. Which is awesome . . . except it turns out the game is a trap set by an alien mastermind who plans to use it to destroy humanity.

Everyone who logs onto the game—or even sees a video of it—is frozen in a state of suspended animation. Miles would be one of them, but he is grabbed at the last moment by an unlikely rescuer: former supervillain Trinity. She and another villain, Vex, have been working with a powerful alien entity called the Stranger, who is responsible for the video game plot. According to the Stranger’s plan, in three days, the frozen people will unfreeze and attack everyone else, causing potentially millions or even billions of deaths. But Trinity doesn’t actually want humanity destroyed, so she proposes a team-up to save the world.

The problem is that the Stranger is powerful. Maybe too powerful even for Spider-Man, his loyal “man in the chair” Ganke, and Trinity to take on. Especially when Miles is distracted by worrying about his own friends and family who have been frozen by the game. Things are looking grim, but as it turns out, Trinity is not the only surprising ally willing to help Spider-Man take down the Stranger.

Miles is brave and goodhearted and has all the snarky banter one expects from a Spider-Man. His friendship with Ganke, in particular, feels caring, real, and full of fond ribbing. But Miles also feels things deeply, especially when someone he loves is hurt. This book gives considerable page time to Miles’ worry about his beloved uncle Aaron, who became frozen while driving and crashed his car, ending up in the hospital. Other family and friends are targeted by the Stranger as the book goes on, strengthening Miles’ resolve.

The art is angular and colorful, giving the pages a lively look even before the additions of classic superhero visuals like action lines and sound effects. Kool-Aid-bright colors highlight the neon lights of the city and the larger-than-life characters, settings, and action sequences. The cast is racially diverse and the characters visually distinct and expressive. Screentones are used frequently, but subtly, often to highlight a character’s altered state: for instance, simple screentones help differentiate the frozen people from others, and is one of the visual indications used when Miles turns invisible.

The stakes are high in this story, with danger both global and personal, but things do work out well in the end. The frequent fight scenes are full of teleportation and spider webbing, but no blood or graphic injuries.

This is a smart, fast-paced story with lots of superpowered action. Hand it to young readers who want a relatable hero with attitude and heart. Fans who enjoy seeing superhero comics written by popular YA authors may also like this volume’s preview of Captain America: The Ghost Army by Alan Gratz.

Miles Morales: Stranger Tides
By Justin A. Reynolds
Art by Pablo Leon
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338826395

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  African-American, Guatemalan
Character Representation: African-American, Puerto Rican

Squished

Being one of seven children isn’t easy. Everyday is another day of chaos in the Lee household. It’s even more stressful when all you want is a little space of your own, but it’s always just out of reach. That’s the dilemma facing Avery Lee in Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter’s Squished

It’s the summer before sixth grade (middle school!) and 11-year-old Avery is determined to make the most of it. When her parents inform her that her older brother Theo will be getting his own room, she becomes set on getting the thing she wants the most: her own private space. That’s right, somewhere without her younger siblings climbing all over everything, somewhere where she can work on her art, and where she can spend solo time with Miss Kitty, her beloved cat. Things reach a tipping point when her younger brother Max decides to make himself the center of attention and rush the stage at Avery’s fifth grade graduation. Between that and Theo getting his own room, her goal for summer is doing what she can to get her very own bedroom. 

Avery’s attempts at making money to fund her bedroom are a bust; she can’t seem to do anything without her siblings involving themselves and turning every situation into a disaster. Then her best friend meets another friend, one who has her own pool! Just when things seem like they can’t get any more hectic, Avery’s parents inform her they’re considering a cross-country move. Sure, she might be her dad’s helper extraordinaire, but how can she trust her parents when they want to leave Hickory Valley, the only place she’s ever lived, her home? 

Squished is the story of a summer of change. Avery is an immediately likable protagonist, one who kids will find relatable, especially ones struggling to find their place in their own family. She acts impulsively and is often quite selfish at multiple times throughout the book. She is not a perfect daughter, sister, or friend, and these qualities only make her more appealing as a main character. She acts on emotions and doesn’t always think of how her actions affect the people she cares about. Readers around Avery’s age who find themselves struggling with how to handle big emotions may find a sense of solidarity with her. 

The book’s art is warm and realistic, with individual character’s personalities shining through in their depictions. Readers see the frustration and the stress, along with their joy and familiarity, in the character’s faces. With so many kids in the house, there’s often action happening behind the scenes in the busier panels. It’s hard not to feel the stress Avery is facing with so much happening right in front of you on the page. 

With its emphasis on life in a big family, readers who enjoy The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels, as well as readers who liked the delightful Allergic, Lloyd and Nutter’s first graphic novel collaboration, also for middle grade readers, may find Squished up their alley  Readers outside of the intended age range may also find themselves drawn to the Lee family; there’s someone and something for nearly everyone to relate to in Avery’s story. 

Squished
By Megan Wagner Lloyd
Art by Michelle Mee Nutter
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2023
ISBN: 9781338568936

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Character Representation: Korean-American

Welcome to St. Hell: My Trans Teen Misadventure

Lewis Hancox’s teen years were much like anyone else’s, filled with the typical high school drama, perpetual awkwardness, and desperation to fit in. For him, however, it seemed like there were extra hurdles to face, being a girl that had yet to discover that he was actually a boy. In Welcome to St. Hell, Hancox addresses his younger self to guide her through those messy years of hating her body, of being confused at who exactly she’s supposed to kiss, of constantly trying to pass as a “normal girl.” Being a typical teenager, the younger Hancox tries to ignore her older self at every turn but cannot deny that she feels like an alien in her own skin. What follows is a humorous, relatable, and down to Earth depiction of Hancox’s gender exploration and eventual acceptance, told in a way that educates just as much as it entertains.

Welcome to St. Hell’s story is refreshingly grounded, widening its appeal to every kind of audience. Though the author’s transness is the focal point, there are other elements and situations that distinguish Hancox’s experiences from coming solely from a trans standpoint. Anyone who has ever walked a high school hallway will relate to those feelings of just trying to survive that time while also making an identity that’s your own, or something close to it. We all face adversities when discovering who we are, and we all fumble along the way. Hancox utilizes these shared feelings within adolescence to illustrate his journey in a context that anyone can empathize with. This is also added by his inclusion of interviews he conducted with his family and friends, detailing their initial reactions to his coming out and how they came to support him. These interviews allow for a different perspective for both allies and trans youth, delivering moments of education in how to best conduct allyship and shedding light on the effects a coming out may have to both parties.

The one thing that may take some readers out of the comic is the heavy use of British slang, which can confuse those not familiar with it, though they may adapt once they find the comic’s rhythm.

Though it has its moments of heartache, Hancox’s story is ultimately one full of honesty, hope, and humor. Even the presence of Hancox’s older self brings the positivity of a future where trans youth survive and have fulfilling adult lives. While trauma and hardship are incredibly valid in one’s gender journey, a memoir that sets a more uplifting tone to a work of trans survival can bring about a great deal of affirmation in trans youths’ lives.

Matching the tone and feel of the comic perfectly, Hancox’s art style looks like it came right out of a teenager’s prized doodle book. At many points, it reminded me of a lot of different zines, though mainly due to its mostly four panel per page structure and black and white color. The art style lends itself to a lot of great, funny expressions, my favorite being Hancox’s big eyebrows that cover a range of emotions all on their own. It is not an overly ornate comic, sticking more to simple character designs and backgrounds, but will appeal to those who prefer more cartoon-like art and less busy panels.

As the memoir is split between Hancox’s high school and college years, there are some mature topics that come into play, such as alcohol use, gender dysphoria, and eating disorders, and includes some brief moments of cartoony nudity and one use of the T slur. Scholastic has given this graphic novel an age rating of 14-18, which is appropriate given the content listed above, though I’m sure college students may be able to relate to the second half as well. Welcome to St. Hell is best for those looking for representative trans comics, whether as a trans youth looking for validating experiences, especially from trans men, or an ally looking to educate themselves on trans matters. I highly recommend this title to librarians and educators aiming to include a good variety of trans works into their graphic novel collections in terms of tone and depictions.

Welcome to St. Hell: My Trans Teen Misadventure
By Lewis Hancox
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338824445

Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  British,  Trans , Eating Disorder

The Inflatables, vol 1: Bad Air Day

There’s a reason S.T.A.R. is written on Flamingo’s butt and he is finally ready to fulfill his destiny! The Inflatables: Bad Air Day is the first book in a new series from Beth Garrod and Jess Hitchman, with art by Chris Danger. This installment introduces us to Flamingo and his crew of inflata-buddies, a friendly bunch of inflatable pool toys who spend their days at the Have a Great Spray! Water Park. 

Alongside Flamingo is the rest of the gang: Cactus, a prickly raft; Donut, a goofball float ring; Watermelon, an always-on-the-go beach ball; and Lynn, the elder raft of the group. They spend their days floating around the lost and found pool, soaking up the sunshine. But today isn’t a normal day at the water park. The inflatables discover park owner Walter S. Lide’s secret plans for the park, including one for a giant wave pool opening that very day. They wonder about all the excitement and new snacks this grand opening will bring, but Flamingo has his eyes on a bigger prize: fame, fortune, and the chance to steal the spotlight and finally become somebody!

The inflatables’ journey to stardom isn’t easy. There’s Paws and Claws, the park’s resident cats, in their way, along with Ice Cream Jean and her truck of many scoops. Luckily the group are masters at maneuvering around the park and facing any obstacles that come their way, including Flamingo’s archnemeses, a pack of beautiful white swans. Will they make it to the grand opening in time for Flamingo to steal the spotlight? 

From beginning to end, The Inflatables: Bad Air Day is a fun romp through a busy water park with a cast of characters children will love. The book is full of puns, both in dialogue and in the background art. There are lots of visual gags and readers will want to pore over every page to find all the hidden jokes. The characters are drawn in a fun, vibrant manner with very expressive faces. The visual gags work very well alongside the verbal ones. 

Readers of all ages will find themselves laughing at the inflatables’ quest to crash the wave pool opening. Reluctant readers and beginning chapter book readers will be drawn in by the goofy antics of the characters and the world around them. The chapters are short and manageable, but long enough that they can stand alone for those just starting chapter books. The content is silly and lighthearted. In fact, I’d say that the book is a great poolside or beach read for young readers. 

Fans of the Squidding Around or Narwhal and Jelly series will find this newest graphic novel series a blast and another one to add to their reading list. One might even say they’ll find themselves pumped for more, just like the characters in The Inflatables. 

The Inflatables, vol 1: Bad Air Day
By Beth Garrod, Jess Hitchman
Art by Chris Danger
Scholastic, 2022
ISBN: 9781338748970

Publisher Age Rating: 7-10

NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)

Invisible

What happens when five middle school children from different walks of life wind up working together to complete their community service hours? Well, they complete their assignment, just not the one they were given. And while doing so, they discover that they are more than what their school perceives them to be. Invisible, written by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (award winning author of The Red Umbrella and Concealed) and illustrated by Gabriela Epstein (contributing illustrator for the Babysitter’s Club graphic novel series), gives readers a story about overcoming expectations and being seen as someone who can make a difference.

Conrad Middle School students George, Sara, Dayara, Nico, and Miguel have one thing in common: they all speak Spanish. They don’t know each other nor have they ever hung out together, but that all changes when they need to complete their community service hours. Their assignment: cleaning up the cafeteria each morning under the stern gaze of cafeteria lady Mrs. Grouser. As they take out the garbage and organize utensils, the group meets a mother and her young child who live in a car next to the school. Throughout the week, the children provide them with food, books, soup kitchen notices, and a job listing, meanwhile getting to know each other and becoming friends.

What makes Invisible different from other middle school graphic novels is its cast and dialogue. Not only do you have five Spanish speaking students from different parts of Latin America, but most of their conversations are spoken in their native language. For those who are unfamiliar with Spanish, Epstein prints the speech bubbles in both English and Spanish, reminding readers where these children come from. However, author Gonzalez gives each student their own background story with situations that most children, no matter what nationality they are, may experience. As the story progresses, the readers see the children as regular middle school students who want to show others that they are more than their language. Readers are also treated to a story centered on helping others and how a language barrier should not hold you back. Epstein’s artwork provides a diverse look at the many different Latin nationalities there are and their visible differences. Any emotions from the characters, especially in difficult situations, are expressed vividly without having to use dialogue of any language.

With relatable characters and a heartwarming storyline, Invisible is a must have for both school and public libraries. With its use of bilingual text, libraries that cater to Spanish speaking communities should be willing to purchase it for their collection. As for elementary and middle school students, (preferably those in grades 4-7) they will be intrigued with the methods these characters use to help someone in need and be inspired to do the same.

Invisible
By Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Art by Gabriella Epstein
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338194548

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Character Representation: Latine, Spanish, Spanish-American

Bug Scouts, vol. 1: Out in the wild!

Mike Lowery’s distinctive art style can be seen in a wide variety of formats, including popular picture books, graphic novels, and activity books. Scholastic Graphix, which has been a forerunner in the comics market for kids, from the ground-breaking Bone to the record-breaking sales of Dog Man, is now expanding into beginning chapters with Graphix Chapters. The two are a natural fit and Mike Lowery’s new series, Bug Scouts, is a wonderful addition to the ever-growing options for beginning chapter readers who love comics.

Meet the Bug Scouts! Doug is “some kind of bug” with a spherical blue body, wings, antennae, and a cheerful disposition. Abby is a worm who loves books, dirt, and Bug Badges (she really REALLY loves getting Bug Badges!). The third, and reluctant, member of the Bug Scouts is Josh, a grouchy spider who only likes snacks. Doug and Abby are welcoming a new Bug Scout, Luna, a bug who looks rather like a miniature Doug, but with extra glow, since she’s a lightning bug. Chapter one ends with the Bug Scout Oath and the friends are ready for adventure in the next chapter. Together they go on a hike, earn some bug badges, have a frightening encounter with a frog, and even Josh ends up participating.

Lowery’s art, which is blocky with bold lines, shows to great advantage in an early reader or beginning chapter. The large, bold font and simple shapes make it easy for kids to follow the story and keep the characters straight. Their emotions are shown with grins, smiles, or frowns, nervous sparks of sweat, and lots of exclamation points, to show how excited most of the Bug Scouts are (just not Josh). The friends search through an imaginary forest, collecting plants and encountering various other creatures, but it’s clear that it’s a cartoon world. The galley provided by the publisher was in partial color, showing an array of muted, natural colors from a variety of greens to the bold blue of Doug and Luna, and not forgetting browns, oranges, and soft reds.

At under 60 pages, with short, simple sentences, this humorous offering is just right for readers transitioning into chapter books and more complex graphic novels. Readers who love Elephant and Piggie and Scholastic’s Acorn imprint will gravitate naturally to this, although kids who prefer more facts in their reading will want to stick to Elise Gravel’s Arlo & Pips or Anstee’s Shelby & Watts for a more informational experience. Readers who aren’t ready for Dav Pilkey will also appreciate this goofy adventure and it will tie in nicely to outdoor programming and activities.

Bug Scouts, vol. 1: Out in the wild!
By Mike Lowery
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338726336

Publisher Age Rating: grade 1-3

NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)