Big Nate: Destined for Awesomeness (Big Nate TV Series vol 1)

A fun take on the animated Big Nate series, but if you’ve seen the series, you’ve read this book already. This graphic novel has three episodes in it: “The Legend of the Gunting”, “Go Nate! It’s Your Birthday”, and “CATastrophe!”. The stories are essentially shorter versions of the animated episodes. Since they are based off episodes written by different authors, these are not directly written by Lincoln Peirce.

In “The Legend of the Gunting”, our main character and prankster, Nate, is thinking about a legendary prankster that wreaked havoc all over the school campus by doing all kinds of tricky things, like swapping all the school frisbees with slices of bologna. Nate is imagining how he can get to this level, when a new student, Bentley Carter, joins P.S. 38. Nate is asked to show him around and instead, it seems that Bentley is showing Nate around the world of high level pranking. In the first hour that Bentley’s at the school he somehow manages to prank the principal by stealing his underwear, a feat that Nate can’t help but be seriously impressed by. However, with this level of pranking, things are bound to get messy. 

In the second story, “Go Nate! It’s Your Birthday,” we find big sister Ellen giving Nate a hard time, as usual, and Nate’s dad, Martin, continuing to be fearful of just about everything. Nate takes his friends on a spending spree to celebrate his birthday, which is a ton of fun until they get a massive bill at the end. Now Nate and his friends need to figure out how they’re going to manage to get themselves out of this situation. 

In the third story in this series, “CATastrophe!” we have Nate up to his usual shenanigans. He craftily conjures up a distraction for his teacher that allows him to be partnered up with Jenny instead of Kim for a school project. Nate is so excited about this match up that he’s ready to work on the assignment as soon as class is out, instead of waiting until the last minute. Things don’t go quite as Nate has planned and a series of silly and comical situations ensue. 

Overall, this is a very fun fast paced version of Big Nate. The artwork looks like it’s screenshots taken directly from the animated series. This is mixed in with pages stylized as graphic novel panels of snapshots of notebook pages filled with doodles and scribbles. The book is in full color with minimal text and short text bubbles. 

This graphic novel is essentially a condensed version of the animated series. If your child enjoyed watching it, there are going to be no surprises in this book. It’s the same fun set of characters with all the silly situations that we find in the show. There are sure to be a lot of laughs. However, with no new stories and not a whole lot of text for children to read, the original Big Nate books (with a lot of text, pictures, and all kinds of fun page designs that keep readers engaged) are still a more worthwhile choice. 

Big Nate: Destined for Awesomeness (Big Nate TV Series, vol 1)
By Lincoln Peirce
Andrews McMeel, 2022
ISBN: 9781524878061

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Heart Takes the Stage: A Heart of the City Collection, Vol. 1

Navigating middle school is no easy task, especially for future actress Heart Lamarr. Not only does she have to deal with the pressures of performing in her school’s latest musical, there are tests to be taken, friendships to forge, holidays to celebrate, and preteen milestones to accomplish. Comic readers can explore the world of Heart and her little niche of friends in Heart Takes the Stage: A Heart of the City Collection, Vol. 1 by Steenz.

Middle schooler Heart Lamarr is ready for the stage. However, the wannabe actress needs to focus more on her craft than her award acceptance speeches. Lucky for her, she has a small group of friends who are willing and able to help her hone her skills. There’s free spirited Kat with her great advice, theater techie Charlotte’s knowledge of stage productions, and pop culture enthusiast Dean’s insight on the acting style of William Shatner (which may or may not be as helpful as he believes it to be). But her premiere performance on the stage is not the only moment Heart will be experiencing. With teacher strikes, preteen party planning, ear piercings, detention, and Dean’s trail of lies, Heart and her friends will be very busy as the school year continues.

Even though this collection of short comics may look appealing, young readers may have difficulty enjoying it. The artwork of Steenz includes a diverse cast of students, parents, and teachers of different identities and races and her character’s actions flow from panel to panel. The artist uses panel placement similar to that found in newspaper comics, with characters completing a scene, ususally in four panels. However, there are some issues with the main character Heart and the comic’s various storylines. In most scenes, Heart is your typical preteen girl who fails to listen to directions and wants to be part of the newest trend. She is also shown to be self-centered and obsessive with her interests. Readers will fail to find anything relatable to this character, even those who have experience in theater work. It seems that Heart either does not learn from her mistakes or the latest drama she is experiencing is resolved too quickly. Pop culture references from John Wick to Kristin Chenoweth to Disney’s Gargoyles are abundant in each storyline, but young readers who are not familiar with some of the references being used will be lost in understanding their importance in the storylines.

All in all, Heart Takes the Stage will be difficult for most school and public librarians to sell to their patrons. There is nothing that makes it stand out from other middle school comics, especially those that follow the same panel work as a newspaper comic strip. Graphic novel and comic readers in middle school, especially in grades 4-6, may give it a try, but will find its humor lacking and characters unrelatable.

Heart Takes the Stage: A Heart of the City Collection, Vol. 1
By Steenz
Andrews McMeel, 2022
ISBN: 9781524871598

Publisher Age Rating: 8-14

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)

Crabgrass

Andrews McMeel produces a wide range of both long-running comic strips, like Phoebe and Unicorn and Big Nate, collections from older and more obscure strips, and an interesting variety of more recent strips, including Will & Henry and now Crabgrass, which began appearing in papers in 2022.

This collection introduces the two main characters, Miles and Kevin, who join up as best friends when Miles moves into the neighborhood, despite their differences. Miles is Black and his family is middle class. While they are not “helicopter” parents, they have definite expectations and rules for Miles and he himself is comfortable with this more structured environment. Kevin, whose father is largely absent, lives in a rambunctious, low-income household with his long-suffering mother, teenage brother, twin sister, and baby sibling. He casually mentions to Miles at their first meeting that his previous friend wasn’t allowed to play with him because his family was “too poor” and his mom is working with limited resources. Kevin is the Calvin of their Calvin & Hobbes friendship, happier out of school than in, and causing havoc wherever he goes while Miles is the voice of reason (or at least the voice of concern) and is both intrigued and sometimes disgusted by Kevin’s hijinks. With rare breaks for introspection, the two play pranks, argue, get into trouble, explore the outdoors, and live a contemporary version of the idyllic suburban childhood.

Bondia, a Black cartoonist from Kentucky, has a great sense of comedic timing as well as a wonderful sense of characterization that helps him fill his strip with instantly recognizable characters. Their faces are all heavily expressive; the adults tend to have smaller eyes and frequently show their exasperation with an eyeroll or exasperated closed eyes. One of the fun parts of the comic is showing how the adults, as well as the kids, form friendships despite their differences. Some of my favorite sequences show Kevin’s mom, dangling a cigarette as she clues Miles’ mom into the facts of life of being a single mother of four.

The kids have huge eyes, which are useful in showing their more caricature-like expressions; Miles usually wears a worried frown and habitually wears red t-shirts with stars on them. He also shows wide-eyed innocence when Kevin pulls tricks or shocks him with revelations from his own life (like baths being for babies?!) Kevin has a mop of longish red hair and is always dressed in a sleeveless white undershirt, of varying cleanliness. He has some streetwise smarts, but is less strong on academics, glaring in suspicion at Miles when he suggests reading a book or produces an odd fact. Excepting Miles and his family, all the adults and kids shown are white.

The author has said the strip is based on his own family and friends from the 1980s, but it fits easily into a contemporary setting in a quasi-rural area. Despite being (apparently) the only Black family in town, Miles’ family meets with a general air of acceptance and Bondia’s philosophy seems to be encapsulated in a conversation between the two boys when Kevin asks if they would be less likely to be friends if there were more Black kids in town and Miles responds “I was friends with all kinds of kids in my old neighborhood.” Kevin agrees, saying “I just figure why not be friends with whoever is the most fun?” which quickly devolves into whether they’d ever be friends with a girl.

While readers who want a more serious-minded strip about the experiences of Black youth in predominantly white settings will do better to turn to Jerry Craft’s graphic novels, this comic strip fills a different niche, showing Black kids as the main characters in funny stories. Kids might pause to think occasionally, but mostly they’ll just laugh and enjoy the humor and hijinks of the characters and even adults may take a moment to snicker over a particularly wacky moment.

Crabgrass
By Tauhid Bondia
Andrews McMeel, 2022
ISBN: 9781524875558

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation:  Black,  Character Representation: Black,