Inside every mascot, there’s a person. Belle Hawkins (you can call her Hawkins) doesn’t mind that she’s the one stuck behind the tiger mask at her high school. A true wallflower, she prefers the anonymity of hiding her face in front of the whole school. It doesn’t hurt that there’s the added advantage of getting to spend more time near her crush, Regina Moreno, head cheerleader and Hawkins’ total dream girl. Belle of the Ball by Mari Costa is the story of Hawkins’ senior year and what happens when she peers out from behind her mascot head.
Throughout school, Hawkins kept to herself, content with her own interests like manga and very girly things, all while keeping up her grades and not thinking much about what comes next. Feeling particularly brave after practice, she finally decides to go for it and ask out Regina. Regina isn’t just the head cheerleader; she’s one of the most popular girls at school, successful and motivated too. Who doesn’t have their whole life planned out in twelfth grade? There’s just one not-so-little problem in the shape of a massive jock named Chloe Kitagawa, who happens to be Regina’s longtime girlfriend. Hawkins’ attempt at bravery goes awry when Chloe catches her in the act and immediately puts a stop to it.
But the three aren’t out of each other’s lives yet. In order for Regina to have the next ten years go exactly as she’s planned them, Chloe needs to bring up her English grade and it seems that Hawkins is the perfect English tutor. The teens’ lives begin to encircle each other as they navigate this final year of high school while rediscovering friendships, evaluating expectations, and even getting some kissing in too.
Belle of the Ball is an engaging graphic novel for teen readers that deals with the realities of growing up and discovering who you are. The graphic novel is recommended for high school age readers but also has crossover appeal for adult readers too. Costa’s storytelling highlights the growth of the characters and makes the reader feel connected to each of the main characters individually. The plot flows at a reasonable pace, giving readers a chance to settle in with these girls. Plus, it is just a delightfully sapphic story!
Costa’s art is animated and enchanting. The color palette of the graphic novel is very pink, with only a few other colors, and it fits the story absolutely perfectly. The varying hues of pink complement the charm of the characters and their individual stories. The manga influence in some of the panels, reflecting Hawkins’ own interests in the story, is another great touch. There are also diverse body types so many readers can see themselves on the pages.
Readers who enjoy young adult romance or the Heartstopper series will dive right into Belle of the Ball. It is just as sweet as its pink color pages and will fit nicely in any Valentine’s Day or romantic comedy display.
Belle of the Ball By Mari Costa Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250784124
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Brazilian-American, Lesbian Character Representation: Lesbian, Jewish
Eugene Bullard lived the kind of life that demands biographers take notice. He was the first Black fighter pilot from the United States, as well as a decorated soldier, boxer, vaudeville performer, and Paris businessman. His social circles included early 20th-century notables like Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and boxer Aaron Lister “Dixie Kid” Brown. During his pilot career, he had a pet monkey named Jimmy who accompanied him on all of his combat flights.
Now Let Me Fly: A Portrait of Eugene Bullard captures the kinetic energy of Bullard’s biography but also gives it weight. It’s a sensitive portrait of a daring young man encountering the possibilities and complexities of the world beyond his birthplace—small-town Georgia at the dawn of Jim Crow. The book’s success is due to a seamless collaboration between cartoonists Ronald Wimberly and Brahm Revel; Wimberly’s deft script allows Revel’s emotionally rich, vintage-inflected art to speak for itself and makes use of a clever frame story that positions Gene as the author of his own story.
Bullard did tell his story to the American public more than once, most notably on the Today Show in 1959. By that time, he was an unknown figure working as an elevator operator at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Now Let Me Fly imagines Gene trapped in an elevator with a white advertising worker who’s spellbound by Gene’s stories and later arranges for him to appear on the show. This accidental interviewer serves as an audience proxy, giving us space to process the emotional highs and lows of Gene’s story but also bookmarking moments when Gene’s story complicates the expectations of a non-Black audience.
Gene’s story opens with trauma—the near-lynching of Gene’s father by the Klan after he stands up for himself against an abusive supervisor. The episode underscores the precarity of the family’s life in the Deep South, and despite a tender relationship with his father, Gene begins running away from home. At thirteen he leaves for good, joining a group of traveling Romani and learning to race and perform with horses. At this time, many African Americans are moving north in the Great Migration, but Gene is determined to go farther—he’ll make his way to Europe, where he believes he’ll find true racial equality.
Perseverance, charisma, and a stint as a stowaway allow Gene to make his way to Britain and then Paris. Racism is still present in his career as a street and vaudeville performer, but to Gene, none of it compares to the violent apartheid of the South. He trains as a boxer and settles into a seemingly charmed life as one of many African American exiles living in Paris—but then World War I strikes, and the city he loves requires defense. Gene enlists as an infantry soldier in the Foreign Legion, the boldness that’s defined his life propelling him to courageous feats amidst a dehumanizing war. Sent home with grievous injuries, he nevertheless talks his way into being selected as a fighter pilot, finishing out the war as one of the few Black pilots in the air.
In Wimberly and Revel’s hands Bullard’s story is powerful, but it’s rarely sensational. His story has room to breathe, with wordless panels lingering on the bittersweet beauty of the Deep South and lively adventure of Gene’s life abroad, as well as frankly depicting his experiences with violence, both at home and at war. This frankness extends to use of language; the book reproduces historical slurs, including “gypsy” to refer to Romani people. The inclusion of slurs in historical works is a debated topic, and this word in particular gave me pause, but the author’s intention appears to be an honest rendering of history, which includes sympathetic characters using problematic language. I do think it would have been useful to include an author’s note discussing this choice, as readers may be unaware that “gypsy” is now broadly considered offensive.
“A man can be a lot of things in life, and there’s a lot of ways to tell his story,” Gene says in the final pages of the book. Now Let Me Fly is particularly interested in how Gene’s travels shed light on the systems of power that define the modern world. As Gene escapes the uniquely American racism of his birth and makes new connections, he glimpses opportunities for solidarity among people of different oppressed backgrounds, whether they’re terrorized Black Americans, ostracized Roma, colonized Moroccans, or infantry soldiers of all ethnicities caught up in the mechanized horrors of modern warfare. Yet the book acknowledges how fragile these possibilities are—for instance, in an episode when a Jewish tailor calls Gene by a racial slur, only to make amends when passersby verbally attack both Gene and the tailor’s assistant. “Most people can’t see how they’re wrong till something similar happens to them,” Gene observes. “For some, they still won’t.”
I read Now Let Me Fly in a single sitting, and I think many readers will have the same experience—this book, and Bullard’s story, are just that compelling. This is a standout in the field of graphic biographies and highly recommended for adult and teen readers.
Now Let Me Fly: A Portrait ofEugene Bullard Vol. By Ronald Wimberly Art by Brahm Revel Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781626728523
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: African-American Character Representation: African-American, First Nations or Indigenous
There are probably few who have not yet heard of Reynard the fox. This roguish trickster has slunk his way through European folklore since the Middle Ages, stirring up trouble and defining the vulpine archetype with his cunning, charm, and mischievous nature. Wherever he goes, chicanery is soon to follow, whether by fate or his own design. In Reynard’s Tale, Ben Hatke pays homage to this mythic figure in a new story that sends Reynard to the clutches of Death and beyond, all the while trying to escape capture from his sworn enemy, the wolf Isengrim. Encountering mermaids, old flames, a mechanized sorcerer, and other wonders, the fox travels through a world that seems colder and more brutal than the one he once knew, one that may be ushering in his ultimate denouement.
With a combination of prose and illustrations to tell this tale, Hatke brings a lyrical, magical atmosphere to Reynard’s adventure that is reminiscent of the stories that made him a legend so long ago. The story itself is simple, its structure much like any fable you remember reading as a child, though the tone relishes in a vague complexity and periods of reflection. Its voice is one that, like Reynard himself, has been through a few scrapes, seeming weary at times but still managing to find the energy to keep going. Overall, it contributes to a feeling of winding down, of that one last hurrah before everything comes to its eventual end, mirroring Reynard’s journey. The landscapes he traverses only heighten this theme, as skulls and tombstones are recurring motifs in the background. Events go by incredibly quickly, though the plot never feels rushed as the clever fox hardly sticks around one place for long while trying to evade Isengrim. At times, the story manages to evoke the same trickiness as its protagonist, seemingly going down one narrative path only to take a sharp detour to a place less expected. It is truly a Reynard story told in a fresh, yet nostalgic way with Hatke encapsulating everything there is to enjoy about this perennial character.
Adding to that old world charm is the evocative art style that brings back memories of beloved fairy tales, with its rough textures and clean outlines. Though only giving snapshots of the story, as opposed to the usual flowing narrative illustrations of graphic novels, Hatke perfectly captures the emotions conveyed in the text. There is an undeniable warmth in its more jovial moments, as Reynard catches up with a former lover over a glass of wine. Stillness and depth are prevalent when he reflects on his past deeds and where his path is leading him. And there is urgency in his movements as he dashes away from those that pursue him. Even without the text, the reader can follow events from the illustrations alone, each one filled with a clear purpose and personality. Hatke’s combination of rich prose with an alluring, striking art style delivers an ambiance seldom seen, a sense of an earned weight and maturity from a character that has captivated readers for centuries, even as he is wrapped up in an entirely original adventure.
While the creator is best known for his middle grade Zita the Spacegirl and Mighty Jack series, Reynard’s Tale is for an adult audience that still enjoys the company of fables and their lasting intrigue. Along with the presence of alcohol and partial nudity, the maturity of Hatke’s writing style does not make the comic a great fit for younger readers, though it may hold some interest for older teens. Extensive knowledge of Reynard’s history as a character in the European literary canon is not a requirement for one to understand the story, but it helps to have a basic idea of what he represents for the full effect to sink in, as the book itself does not go into detail of his past. Technically existing as an adult picture book, the placement of this title in a specific collection may pose some confusion over whether to place it in general fiction or the graphic novel section. Due to its marketing as a graphic novel and First Second serving as its publisher, however, I personally recommend the latter. Librarians and educators in search of an engrossing, fast-paced fantasy graphic novel with a unique and beloved identity should consider purchasing this title.
Reynard’s Tale: A Story of Love and Mischief By Ben Hatke Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250857910
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Books written for a teen audience about disordered eating and mental health must be handled with care. In Hungry Ghost, by Victoria Ying, the main character, Val, struggles with intrusive thoughts and disordered eating. Ying herself has had similar struggles, and wrote a character with similar experiences. There are potentially triggering topics of fatphobia, obsession with thinness, and disordered eating. Val’s obsession with her size and food infiltrates everything, including time with friends and family and even her ability to grieve.
Val is Chinese-American. I do not have personal or professional expertise with disordered eating and I am not a member of this culture, so I can’t speak with authority about the way Ying handles the complicated nuance of identities and mental health. However, the book is based on the author’s own experiences. As Ying writes in the afterward, “Val is not me, but I was her.” I found that she handled the difficult topics with care and in a way that could potentially reach the teens who could most benefit from the story.
In the book, Val, as narrator, mentions the Chinese concept of guai, to be a good and obedient daughter. Val’s relationship with her mother is central to the story. She yearns to be seen as obedient, and when her mother expects thinness, obedience through Val’s eyes is an obsessive focus on food and calories. The mother’s near constant comments about food are often in the guise of looking out for Val’s health. Even at a young age, when given a slice of her own birthday cake, Val’s mom insists, “Don’t eat. Just taste.” The mother’s comments on food and health are destructive, and focus on outward appearance rather than actual physical or mental health.
The cruelty and destructiveness of Val’s obsession with food and eating filters into every moment of her life. With every bite, she calculates calories and the need to purge, going as far to plan trips to the bathroom away from prying ears. It’s intrusive and disruptive to her life and her relationships.
The book is very didactic in its representation of disordered eating, which, considering the topic, is necessary. A young adult book about such a triggering topic has to be intentional and and almost over the top in its insistence in the pain caused by this obsession. Every moment that portrays a disordered eating thought must portray the negative and damaging reality. Without repeated reminders, a book about a young woman’s obsession with appearance and food could potentially glorify the very thing Ying is writing against.
Ying illustrated the book with soft colors and lines. The palette is limited (mostly pale pink, green, and gray) and the outlines are all done with the scratch of pencils. Val has been taught to not take up space with her body or emotions, and the art reflects that. The book doesn’t have the saturated dark colors that will stand out on a shelf. The illustrations are light with sparse details. The subtlety matches the character of Val and a story about a debilitating obsession to be small.
Beautiful and softly illustrated plants, trees, and flowers are a motif throughout the book, in moments of pain and moments of healing. Peonies grace the cover, cascading from her empty stomach. Peonies, while incredibly beautiful, are fragile, thornless, and hardly able to stand on their own, but they are perennials and they will grow back. In a book about pain and a journey to healing, I appreciate the connection.
Victoria Ying’s Hungry Ghost is a well-crafted graphic novel about a difficult topic, and I recommend it for high school or young adult collections. It will appeal to readers who look for family or relationship drama and realistic narratives, and I will be recommending it to many students in my library.
Hungry Ghost By Victoria Ying First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250767004
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Eating Disorder Character Representation: Chinese-American, Eating Disorder