Bad Kitty: Supercat

Nick Bruel first introduced Bad Kitty in picture book format in 2005 and she was immediately popular. Her alphabetical shenanigans returned with the introduction of Poor Puppy in a second picture book and then she found her true metier in illustrated chapter books with Bad Kitty Gets a Bath in 2008.

Over the years, Bad Kitty has starred in a number of humorous adventures, the later titles including some pointed commentary on refugee (kittens), the election (of cats), education (of cats) and Bad Kitty’s cell phone usage. Bad Kitty retains her stubborn nature and chaotic behavior throughout, and the latest incarnation of this perennially popular character is the reissue of her tantrums and adventures in full color.

Her latest book, published in full color, starts with Bad Kitty leisurely scrolling through her phone while her exasperated (and unseen) human asks her to help clean up or at least do something that’s not electronic! It’s decided, to Kitty’s shock, that she must have… a playdate and Strange Kitty is the selected “friend.” Strange Kitty, who wears a top hat and tie, talks (unlike Bad Kitty who communicates only in meows), and has a mouse friend, arrives with a stack of comics and eventually, after an eloquent flow of language, convinces Kitty to join them in a make-believe game of superheroes. This involves several activities for readers to participate in as well, like using a superhero name generator and following instructions to create a comic. The arrival of another friend, going by the name of Dr. Lagomorph, sets the game going and the trio enjoy a raucous game throughout the house, ending when Kitty gets a little over-enthusiastic and breaks the rules. It all ends happily however, with a rather sententious speech from the mouse and amends from Kitty—and the human’s discovery of just what their game has done to the house…

Bruel’s layout for the Bad Kitty chapter books alternates between spot illustrations with short paragraphs of text and more traditional comic panels, with the primary dialogue from Strange Kitty, Dr. Lagomorph, and Power Mouse. Kitty has retained her trademark look throughout the series, a skinny black cat with spiky fur, bulging yellow eyes, and a splash of white on her chest. Bad Kitty’s expressions are most often seen in their lack, as she stares blankly at Strange Kitty’s antics, occasionally shrugs, and periodically erupts into a frenzied attack. Most of the humor is a combination of the deadpan delivery of lengthy perorations from Strange Kitty and the rapid switch between Bad Kitty’s indifference and wild reactions. Bruel plunges fully into the imagination game in this book, cutting panels in half with the imagined superheroes and villains, sporting full armor and massive muscles, and the real “kids” playing in homemade costumes.

As I’ve watched Bad Kitty evolve over the years, I’ve personally found the later books to be a little repetitive and leaning more heavily on didactic lectures. The combination of illustration, text, and comic can be both a pro and a con, as it discourages some struggling readers who can’t handle the lengthier text and complex vocabulary as well as falling on the radar of “comics are not real books” parents, but also gives readers a little bit of extra challenge on adding more text to what appears to be an “easy” chapter book. In my experience, most young fans gravitate to the earlier titles, those which don’t necessarily include a “lesson.” However, the series as a whole continues to be wildly popular and this latest title will both get kids giggling and as well as giving a tip of the hat (Super Kitty’s hat of course) to parents and teachers concerned with excessive screen use, not to mention including some inside jokes for superhero fans.

While I would not introduce a new reader to the series with this title, it’s certainly worth adding to the collection; the only real drawback is that this and the other newly reissued full color titles are not yet available in library binding, only in hardcover, and they are less likely to last through multiple readings from eager young fans.

Supercat
By Nick Bruel
Macmillan Roaring Brook, 2022
ISBN: 9781250749987

NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)

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,

Wait Till Helen Comes

Critics of graphic novels will often say that reading graphic novels isn’t truly reading and nothing could be further from the truth. While there might not be as many words within a graphic novel, the pictures themselves are there to help tell a story. Much in the same way directors and cinematographers must think about lighting and composition when making a movie, so must the artist work together with the writer to help create the setting, the characters, and even events that help move the story along. Therefore, graphic novel adaptations of popular works are not a dumbed-down version of the story, but tells the story in a different way. This is the case for the graphic adaptation of Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes, illustrated by Meredith Laxton and Russ Badgett.

Those who remember Hahn’s tale of middle school hauntings and family drama will find the same story beats here. The story still follows siblings Molly and Michael, who are annoyed by their younger stepsister Heather who does everything she can to get Molly and Michael in trouble. The blended family move out to the country where, in the graveyard near their home, Heather discovers a grave belonging to a girl named Helen. She soon starts to threaten her step-siblings that they will be sorry because Helen is coming. Helen might not be as dead as Molly and Michael thought, and she seems to be willing to do whatever Heather asks.

Hahn’s stories are just the right fit for young readers who like just a little scary, even if adults might find it tiresome. There are elements of genuine spookiness and dramatic tension in this adaption by Scott Peterson, but adults especially might notice that there is no real sense that anything too terrible will happen. Sure, the blended family is a great source of conflict, particularly when Heather’s dad takes up for his daughter no matter what she does, but those dynamics aren’t the story’s focus; instead, it focuses on Molly, Heather, and Helen. Heather and Helen have a very parallel narrative while Molly, as the main protagonist, is the one who must develop some kind of sisterly bond with a sister she and the readers can barely tolerate. Adults might call this kind of story “Terror with Training Wheels,” but it’s perfect for kids who want a bit of terror beyond R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps.

The artwork by Laxton and Badgett isn’t spectacular splash pages and precariously placed panels. Instead it simply serves the purpose of moving the story along. Fans of Hahn’s original stories might like to see if their version of Molly fits into how she is drawn here, but they will also see Helen as a ghost who could easily be a living character painted white and having access to a fog machine. There are a few moments when Heather warns her older siblings that Helen is coming, and they can see her expression turn slightly sinister, but the artwork here isn’t designed to dazzle the reader.

But does this basic approach make this graphic novel adaptation a bad one? To answer such a question, it’s important to ask why go through the trouble of adapting a well-known story into a graphic novel format. There are possibilities to experiment with how the story is told, or even how it’s portrayed. Different looks for Heather and Helen could have made the book even scarier, but that might distract from its purpose to introduce Hahn’s stories to fans of graphic novels. The book might not be breaking new ground in this story, but it is perhaps a less intimidating introduction to Hahn’s work and to juvenile horror in general. This adaptation of Wait Till Helen Comes is still asking young readers to process how the pictures and words tell a story, which may lead into a deeper appreciation of graphic novels and, in general, of reading.

Wait Till Helen Comes
By Mary Downing Hahn, Scott Peterson
Art by  Meredith Laxton, Russ Badgett
Harper Collins, 2022
ISBN: 9780358536901

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

The Extincts: Quest for the Unicorn Horn

Lug the Wooly Mammoth, Martie the Passenger Pigeon, Scratch the Saber Toothed Tiger, and Quito the Collins Poison Frog make up a special group known as ROAR – the Rescue Ops Acquisition Rangers. ROAR exists to protect environmental artifacts, especially those that have become exposed by climate change. Their leader, Dr. Z, has just sent them on their first real mission, to rescue a rare horn from a Siberian unicorn, an extinct creature similar to a rhinoceros, which may have inspired the legend of the unicorn. The horn is thought to possess medicinal qualities which could be squandered if it falls into the wrong hands or is lost to the melting effects of climate change. ROAR travels via futuristic vehicles like a hovercraft and an all-terrain mobile support vehicle called the MoSUV. They also have a computerized guide named GAIA which shares facts with them during their mission. 

At first the story seems fairly straightforward. The group embarks on their mission with little trouble apart from being followed through Siberia by a mysterious cave bear on a motorcycle. However, astute readers may wonder why no origin story is presented for this group. It is also perplexing why these animals are alive and well even though they are members of extinct species. The cave bear who finally catches up to ROAR knows the truth, and a twist in the plot will surely surprise readers. Future volumes in the series will undoubtedly provide more adventure as “The Extincts” find their place in a world that was never made for them. 

The Extincts: Quest for the Unicorn Horn has a lot to delight middle grade readers. The story is action-packed, with an interesting illustration scheme that’s dynamic and attention-grabbing. Scott Magoon makes each character distinctive from the others and from the human world around them. Young readers will enjoy the characters’ ROAR uniforms, gadgets, and vehicles. There are typically two to three colors used per page, but the colors alternate frequently, making the book visually interesting and reflecting the different settings of the story. There is also plenty of age-appropriate silly humor—Lug the wooly mammoth has to go to the bathroom through much of the story and opens a new cave tunnel with a giant fart.

The book also teaches a great deal of science, especially about the effects of climate change on the arctic regions, including melting permafrost, collapsing buildings, and habitat loss. The end matter Includes an experiment you can try at home with supercooled liquid. Other features in the end matter are information about all the extinct species featured, a glossary of terms, more about the Siberian setting of the Batagaika Crater, and things readers can do to help the earth. The Extincts is a strong new series for middle grade readers, and its opening volume, Quest for the Unicorn Horn is as entertaining as it is educational.

The Extincts, vol. 1: Quest for the Unicorn Horn
By Scott Magoon
Abrams Amulet, 2022
ISBN: 9781419752513

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Incubators: A graphic history

Even before graphic novels took off, several publishers, notably Lerner and Capstone, featured graphic nonfiction produced in a similar vein to the series nonfiction that most librarians are familiar with. The series nonfiction in graphic format continue to be a staple for nonfiction collections, although there are more literary options, like the Science Comics series.

Lerner’s Graphic Universe imprint produces new series twice a year, in January and August, and they usually pick timely topics. The January 2022 series Medical Breakthroughs is no exception, with titles on vaccines, germs, antibiotics, and more. The particular title we’re looking at today is the history of incubators.

The information is collected briefly in 32 pages with a short framing story showing two White children and a White, male-presenting doctor looking at a miniscule infant in a modern incubator while the doctor explains what incubators are used for. The story then jumps back to the 1870s and the work of two French doctors who. while trying to raise France’s falling birth rates, were inspired by the incubators they saw used with birds’ eggs at the zoo.

The incubators these and other doctors developed were funded by the exhibition of the premature babies, culminating in a semi-permanent exhibit on Coney Island. By the time the exhibit closed in 1943, thousands of babies had been saved and incubators became standard equipment in hospitals. Incubators continued to be improved, with interest and funding reviving after the death of President Kennedy’s premature son and culminating in the invention of a rechargeable and affordable incubator called the Embrace Nest that would be accessible to all people, especially in developing countries. The story ends with a return to the premature infant at the beginning, now a healthy toddler with their older siblings and parents.

The artwork is not memorable, but it is neatly done, with carefully drawn images of the various machines, and people shown in the appropriate period clothing as the story moves through time. All but a few people in the background and some nurses are depicted as White, which is a drawback, as one of the points of Couney’s work (the doctor who established the “Infantorium” at Coney Island) was the acceptance of infants of all backgrounds in sharp contrast to the eugenics movement. Most panels show the doctors and occasional nurses moving through bland scenery and exchanging a few remarks while the narrative is carried on in descriptive paragraphs. The appeal to readers who want the story told primarily through art is limited, since, as in most series nonfiction graphic novels, the narrative is told primarily in prose or through multiple “talking heads.” There is enough detail in the art to show the change in time periods, from the 1870s to 2008, and some additional information is provided through the pictures, like a nurse feeding a premature infant through their nose or the doctors explaining what they are doing to spectators and anxious parents.

One title is listed as a source, and there is also a glossary, index, and brief list of information to explore further.

The length of these titles naturally limits the amount of information that can be included and these titles tend to be brief introductions, which will hopefully engage interest in exploring topics further. Like most series nonfiction, they are available only in paperback or expensive library binding, which can be prohibitive for smaller budgets. If you have to watch your pennies it can be difficult to justify an extensive outlay on nonfiction that may quickly become dated. However, this series primarily covers historical events and so should have a longer shelf-life. With an ever-increasing number of struggling readers as well as graphic novel fans, Medical Breakthroughs should be a solid purchase for most school and public libraries and a good choice to interest young readers in history and science.

Incubators: A Graphic History
By Paige Polinsky
Art by Josep Rural
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2022
ISBN: 9781541581517

Publisher Age Rating: grades 3-6
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Representation: French, German