Astrophysics, Cats, Skyscrapers, and Polar Bears: Graphic Novels about Science!

Ottaviani, James; Myrick, Leland (2019) Hawking. New York: First Second.

Hawking: Ottaviani, Jim, Myrick, Leland: 9781626720251: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  Is. / Isn’t. / Is. / Is not. / Still isn’t. ? Wait a minute, Stephen.  Is there life on other planets like in the Arthur C. Clark books? / Yes. / Proves nothing, that does.  What does he know?

Short Summary:  This graphic novel biography follows astrophysicist Stephen Hawking from his youth, through college and grad school and his rise to a position of prominence as one of the most respected scientists of our age.  It also follows the progression of ALS, a degenerative neuromuscular disease as it took away his ability to walk, speak clearly, and eventually early everything (but not his ability to think. It also follows Stephen’s relationship with his wife and children, his divorce from his wife, and his remarriage.  All three strands are woven together in a well-balanced, well-written, and masterfully-illustrated narrative that will give the reader plenty to think about.  

Why should I read this book?  This book does an excellent job of highlighting both the ways that Hawking is exactly the same as any other human being, and the ways in which he is different.  We see his frustrations and foibles, the ways in which he loved thinking about the way the universe is structured, and the ways in which that thinking often left his first wife, herself a talented and smart person, with the bulk of the responsibility for the kids.  We see the ways in which he was a generous and excellent friend, and the ways in which he could be selfish and inattentive.  All in all, it paints a clear picture of who Stephen Hawking was.  The art work is well-suited to the tale and more than carries its own weight in terms of portraying the story, asking the reader nuanced questions, and combining with the text to get across remarkable detail of Hawking’s life.

Who is this book best for?  While bright middle school students could certainly follow it, I think it is perhaps best suited for high school students.  And while it might be tempting to set it aside for students who are especially interested in science, I would encourage teachers and librarians to think of a wider audience for this book.  There is plenty of social story in here for anyone who likes reading how people get along (or don’t get along) with each other.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I wouldn’t think so.  There is some alcohol consumption, some mention of evolution, and some people who are not nice, but there is little here that I imagine would rise to the level of objectionable.

Hirsch, Andy (2019) Science Comics: Cats: Nature and Nurture.  New York: First Second

Science Comics: Cats | Andy Hirsch | Macmillan

Opening Lines:  MRRRMPH, mrmph. /  Oh, did I doze off?  / Where is my sunbeam? / There! / Sorry, this lifestyle really takes it out of you.

Short Summary:  Bean the Kitten is a star of countless cat videos, but takes time out of her busy schedule to describe everything you ever wanted to know (and some things you didn’t know you wanted to know) about the anatomy, behavior, and distinguishing characteristics of pretty much every variety of domesticated and wild cats on the planet. With Bean as our guide, and Hirsch’s mastery of panel movement providing the structure, readers will enjoy learning about cats and exploring their world.

Why Should I Read This Book?   Honestly, I have never been much of a cat person.  I had a dog growing up, my daughters had a couple of rabbits, and my wife has a turtle as a classroom pet.  So I am quite certain that I am not the target audience of this book.  Having said that, I found it to be fascinating. There are diagrams showing how cats extend and retract their claws, explanations of how they track their prey, stories about how people who think they have seen a black panther are likely mistaken, and an endless array of different adaptations that help varieties of cats survive in almost any environment.  Sometimes the narrator, Bean the famous internet cat, is a little annoying, but mostly she is funny and the book is a lot of fun.

Who is this book best for? Fourth-graders through middle school would enjoy this one.  Kids who like nonfiction might be especially interested in it.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  There is some explanation of evolutionary theory, but other than that, I can see no reason why anyone might object.

Viola, Jason; Giallongo, Zack ((2019) Science Comics:  Polar Bears: Survival on the Ice.  New York:  First Second.

Science Comics: Polar Bears: Survival on the Ice: Viola, Jason, Giallongo,  Zack: 9781626728240: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  Hmmm.  You cubs stay back a bit. / Quit it!  Mom! / The ice is not thick enough yet.  Anik, stop pestering Ila.

Quick Summary:  A mother Poral Bear and her two cubs allow us a glimpse into their lives in their graphic novel exploration of survival in the arctic.  As the mother polar bear teaches the cubs about which sorts of ice are strong enough to walk on, what it means to be a carnivore, how to stay cool, how to swim, how to catch seals, and all sorts of other vital knowledge to be a successful polar bear. 

Why should I read this book?  The story is interesting, the scientific knowledge is solid and clear, and the illustrations are a delightful combination of a cartoonish style in some panels, and a much more realistic depiction in other panels.  This allows the artist to insert some humor at times, but at other times to remain serious.  Also, I love that one of the two cubs is a self-proclaimed ice-nerd.

Who is this book best for?  Fourth graders and up who like non-fiction will enjoy this book a great deal.  Polar bears are both cute and cuddly (especially the cubs) and huge and ferocious (particularly the fully-grown males who may weigh up to nearly 2,000 pounds) so there is something for everybody in this book.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I wouldn’t think so.

Kerschbaum, John (2019)  Science Comics: Skyscrapers: The Heights of Engineering.  New York:  First Second.

Science Comics: Skyscrapers: The Heights of Engineering: Kerschbaum, John:  9781626727946: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  In a large bustling metropolis, people rarely have the time to look up. But sometimes there appears something so remarkable they can’t help but stop and say…// Look! Up in the sky! / Gasp!

Short Summary: A superhero who looks remarkably similar to another guy with a cape and an S on his chest, along with his sidekick Quiz Kid, finds out of about the history, engineering, and design of skyscrapers by literally running into them during patrols of the city and going back in time to look at the design elements of the pyramids, medieval cathedrals, and the first real skyscrapers.  Along the way the reader learns about the forces of gravity, compression, wind shear, and other aspects of physics that are part of designing a skyscraper.

Why should I read this book?  Mostly because this book is clever.  Providing a narrative to keep students interest in a graphic novels that is mostly a non-fiction informational book can be hard to pull off.  It is easy for such a the story to seem too weak to support the information and see hackneyed and fake.  Or sometimes that srt of story is too strong and it is hard to work in all the detail and information.  Kerschbaum treads that line well, and has a bit of fun with it along the way.  There are plenty of veiled superhero references and jokes along the way that sharper kids will enjoy catching.  Kerschbaum also presents information about skyscrapers in terms of larger concepts, which helps keep it from becoming a list of facts. The art come across as a wonderful combination of comic book backgrounds, angles, and panel and page design, and characters that owe a lot to Matt Groening’s style on “The Simpsons.”  The bottom line is that the book is a lot of fun to read

Who is this book best for?  I would say fifth or sixth graders who are really interested int eh topic would like it.  On up through high school where they might think the illustrations are beneath them, but will find the explanations to be really helpful.

Is it likely to be challenged? I don’t think so.

Graphic Novels about Changing the World

Are your students eager to fix our broken world? Are they asking about ways they can make a difference? There are a lot of graphic novels that address social change out there. Here are several recent ones that are some of the best. Some of these highlight global crises, making clear the nature of social problems. Others suggest some solutions or ways for students to get involved. All are excellent reading for young activists.

William, Lily; Schneeman, Karen (2020) Go with the Flow.  First Second:  New York. 

Go with the Flow: Schneemann, Karen, Williams, Lily: 9781250305725:  Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  Wakey, wakey, eggs and…bakey!  Who’s ready for her first day of sophomore year?”

Quick Summary:  Abby, Britt, and Christine have been friends since freshman year.  When new student Sasha gets her first period while in school (and wearing white pants), much to the amusement of many students who notice before she does, Abby, Britt, and Christine gently take her aside to the girl’s bathroom and support her on a pretty horrible day.  When they try to get her a pad from the machine in the bathroom, they find that it is empty.  One of the friends has a spare for Sasha, but all four of them start imagining what it would be like if they were caught in that situation.  They ask the school administration to be more proactive about making sure the machines are stocked and find that the school doesn’t consider it a priority.  The girls begin a crusade.  When Abby takes some actions on her own without telling the others, their relationships become strained and their crusade is in peril.  Will they be able to get themselves back together in time to make the world safe for every girl?

Why should I read this?  Three reasons:

  1.  It is an interesting story.  I have always loved a good nerd story.  While these girls are certainly not the bottom of the social pecking order, they are definitely not the top either.  Sasha courageously tries out for the cross-country team and, because she is a small person, gets mocked and challenged by the older girls.  Abby, Britt, and Christine seem to be self-assured enough not to care so much for the popularity games that so often characterize high school interactions.  There is a lot of social dynamic intrigue going on here. As I said, it is an interesting story.
  2. This is also an inspiring story for students who want to have an impact on their world.  Students have very little power in schools, and so trying to bring about change has some parallels to what other marginalized groups fighting for change go through.  The protagonists try different approaches from calm discussions with the administration, to protests in the school, to involving people outside the school.  While this book is certainly not a how-to book about social change, it might be inspiring to help your students step into roles of advocacy and activism.
  3. The images in this graphic novel are excellent.  One of the things I love the most is how Schneeman depicts the girls as embodying a wide range of physical types.  Some are small and skinny, some are larger, some look like they spent hours on their hair and make-up and others look like they really don’t care.  The four protagonists seem comfortable with who they are and what they look like mostly.  The entire graphic novel makes constant use of the color red in a way that emphasizes the main topic of the book.  It also makes most of the pages jump out at you.  This would be an excellent book to spend some time analyzing, if you think your students can handle it in a mature manner.

Who is this book best for?  It is probably most ideal for high school students, but middle school students would certainly be able to comprehend it.  The content would tend to make one think of it as a book targeted for female readers, but it would be great if male students would engage with this book as well. This would work well in a classroom library or school library.  There is enough here to make it usable for lit circles or even whole class study, but you may get some pushback from students or parents, depending on the context in which you teach. 

Is this book likely to be challenged?  The book mentions menstruation and shows blood-stained pants. While that doesn’t seem to me to be something that would warrant the removal of a book, I would not be surprised if it offended some people’s sensibilities.

Brown, Don (2015) Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans  New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans: Brown, Don: 9780544586178:  Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  Early August, 2005.  A swirl of unremarkable wind leaves Africa and breezes toward the Americas.  It draws energy from warm Atlantic water and grows in size.

Quick Summary:  There is only one recurring character in this story who we follow through the whole graphic novel, and that is the storm.  While we see the faces of many who are threatened and even killed by the storm, we seldom see them for more than a panel or two.  What this book does is tells the story of Hurricane Katrina and the damage it caused first of all, then the story of the injustice that followed as the federal, state, and local governments largely turned their backs on the most vulnerable and the least able to rescue themselves.  The story of the 9th Ward, the levees breaking, the Superdome, and even the beginning of the reconstruction after the story are all told, in general terms, in this book.

Why should I read this book?  While the book doesn’t have any real characters, and is, at heart, more of an informative/history book, it is the art that really stands out.  Brown’s one and two-page spreads, often seen from an overhead vantage point, give a clear impression of the power of the story, the breakdown of systems from levees to disaster management that failed the people of New Orleans, and the profound struggles and challenges that those who survived the initial onslaught then had to face.  The art combines realistic line drawings of structures, landscapes, and peoples, with remarkable washes of clouds and water to create a powerful impression in readers. 

Who is this book for?  This graphic novel would be excellent supplemental reading for any unit that touches on Hurricane Katrina itself or any unit exploring how social safety nets can fail those who need them the most.  While the text could easily be comprehended by students as young as fourth grade, middle school and high school students would be more likely to have the emotional maturity necessary to really understand the implications of this text.

Is this book likely to be challenged?   I cannot imagine why it would be.

Colfer, Eoin; Donkin, Andrew; Rigano, Giovanni (2018) Illegal. New York: Jabberwocky.

Illegal: A Graphic Novel: Colfer, Eoin, Donkin, Andrew, Rigano, Giovanni:  0760789270239: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines: 

“Now.  Seahawk inflatable rubber dinghy.  Maximum safe load, six people.  Currently carrying 14 passengers.”

Quick Summary:  Ebo’s brother, Kwame, left during the night.  He is travelling on a dangerous journey to Europe where he hopes to find their sister, Sisi and bring her back.  Ebo decides to go after him.  To do so, he will have to cross the Sahara, evade bandits, make enough money to pay for bus rides and boat passage.  And all Ebo has going for him is his ability to sing and his dedication to finding his family.

Why should I read this book?  This graphic novel highlights the plight of illegal immigrants and refugees as they try to find those they have been separated from and a safe place to live.  It does this by bringing us inside the lives, minds, and hearts of two brothers, and the story is both captivating and moving.  The art is beautiful, but more importantly, it draws you so deeply into the story that you don’t notice its beauty as you get lost in Ebo’s world.  If there is a story that would cause those who dismiss all immigrants as criminals and freeloaders looking for a handout, to consider the possibility that immigrants are people with ordinary lives and families who are seeking safety and a new home, this is that book.   It shows Ebo and his siblings as deeply human and in need of help. Colfer brings a storytelling ability honed on writing the Artemis Fowl books to bear on an important issue of social justice and shows that he can tell that story with seriousness and insight.

Who is this book for?  The short answer to this question is probably “Everybody”.  In fact, I would say sixth grade and up could probably handle it best.  This would fit well with language arts or Social Studies units focused on global issues.  It would also be a great addition to a classroom or school library.  

Is it likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.

Newman, Daniel G.; O’Connor, George (2020)  Unrig: How to Fix our Broken Democracy.  New York:  First Second.

Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy (World Citizen Comics): Newman,  Daniel G., O'Connor, George: 9781250295309: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines: “Hi, I’m Dan Newman.  When I was growing up, I learned that democracy here in America is about government by and for the people. Everyone’s voice is supposed to matter.  And our elected leaders are supposed to act to help everyone.  But over time, I’ve notices that’s not how it works in practice.”

Quick Summary:  This non-fiction graphic novel describes the steps that the American people can take to move democracy in the direction of representing the people – not corporations, not the rich, not a certain political party, but the people.  Chapters cover the problem with lobbying, how the system has shifted to be more responsive to money than voters, vote suppression, fighting gerrymandering, and through it all, concrete steps that the voters can take to get their power back.  George O’Connor’s mastery of the graphic novel form allows him to provide insightful illustrations that keep the reader grounded throughout this journey. 

Why should I read this book?  Because the sooner you read it, the sooner you can recommend it to someone or adopt it as a textbook for your class.  This book is largely non-partisan and is full of excellent examples and suggestions about how we can repair our broken democracy.  Along the way readers get a clear understanding of what is broken about the system, why even well-meaning potential legislators  who want to make a difference for their constituents find themselves running smack up against a concrete wall.  This book is a rare combination of brilliant and utterly readable,

Who is this book for?  I think it could be most useful for high school students and any student who is passionate about social change.  It would make an excellent supplemental text for a high school civics class.  It would also be a fine addition to a school or classroom library.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  While I suppose a challenge is possible, it would not have much ground to stand on.  Newman cites examples of republican and democratic legislators and presidents to support both positive and negative things from a nonpartisan perspective.  It would be hard to argue the book is strongly biased toward one political party or another. I can think of no real basis for objection.

Mystery, Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Adventure: Some Graphic Novel Titles for Middle School That You May Not Have Heard Of.

Thompson, Kelly; St-Onge, Jann; Farrell, Triona; Maher, Ariana (2019) Nancy Drew:  The Palace of Wisdom.  Mt. Laural, NJ: Dynamite.

Nancy Drew: The Palace Of Wisdom (9781524108496): Thompson, Kelly, St.  Onge, Jenn: Books - Amazon.com

Opening Lines:  The more things change, the more they stay the same is a thing people say.  Me?  I’m more of a “shark philosophy” person myself.  Keep swimming or die.

Short Summary:  When Nancy Drew comes home to Bayport, she finds her old high school friends there, but she also finds a threatening anonymous letter  and a decade old murder-mystery that no one has solved yet.  As she begins to investigate, she finds herself wondering who she can trust, if anyone. So one the one hand, this is classic Nancy Drew, but on the other hand, it is also a very well done graphic novel and a fantastic rendering of the classic chatterers from the series into the modern world.

Why should I read this book?  There is a reason the Nancy Drew series have been popular ever since the first book was published in 1930.  Nancy is a strong, smart protagonist and the mysteries whe becomes involved with have plenty of twists and turns.  The cast of characters (including Nancy’s friends Georgia and Bess) and other people she meets (who appear to be upstanding citizens, lowlifes, dangerous characters, or just mysterious) are all fun to read about.  This graphic novel version brings Nancy into the present day in a way that is not at all jarring.  There are a few changes.  Ned Nickerson, her boyfriend form the series is nowhere to be found, instead she has a couple of different boys she is interested by.  Her friends are no longer only exclusively white people but include Georgia’s girlfriend, who is Black.  Her friend Bess, described in the original series as being chubby, is drawn in a way that could be described with that word, but Bess is very comfortable with what she looks like (whereas my recollection from the original series is that this was sometimes a subject of shame).   Also, the Hardy boys make an appearance.

The bottom line, though, is that this graphic novel introduces us to a Nancy Drew who is a lot of fun to read about.

Who is this book best for?  Sixth graders and up who are interested in stories that combine adventure and social interaction between teens will enjoy this book.  Student readers younger than sixth grade will likely miss a lot of the more subtler interpersonal interactions. There are plenty of male and female characters to connect with all students

Is this book likely to be challenged?  It is possible, but somewhat unlikely.  There is some brief mention of Georgia’s gay relationship, but it is kind of in the background of the story. There is also some vulgar language. While ther are some murders, there is no gore and not much violence.

Xu, Ru (2019) Endgames.  New York: Scholastic.

EndGames (NewsPrints #2) (2): Xu, Ru: 9780545803168: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:          “Blue.  You’re up.”

                                    “Hector, Morning.”

                                    “Sleep well?’

                                    “Nah.”

                                    “I’ve been havin’ trouble sleeping ever since that night Crow and I… Sigh.”

Short Summary:   Um, so this is the sequel to News Prints.  I haven’t read that one, so I am honestly not entirely sure what is going on in this one.  As near as I can figure, Blue is a news reporter and is covering the war between Grinnaea and Goshwish.  She is hoping to find her friend Crow, who is now a cyborg and is responsible for running the air force.  When Blue gets kidnapped by enemy forces, things get really complicated. So complicated that after a couple of readings of this book, I am still not quite sure what is going on.  It would be helpful to read the first book in the series.

Why should I read this book?  The artwork is beautiful and the story moves along nicely.  The world seems to be well-created, though I was having trouble following the alliances and political disputes.  The characters are distinctively drawn, but I think would be easier to follow if I had read the first book.  Honestly, it did not grab my attention as much as other fantasy manga-style graphic novels have.  My advice would be to get ahold of the first book, News Prints, and see if it connects with your students.

Who is this book best for?  Fans of manga in fourth through nineh grade will like this one.  It is an adventure story with strong male and female characters though.  Although it could be argued that it is a stand alone text, I would argue that it might be best to buy the first book in the series and see how it catches on with your students.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.

Hicks, Faith Erin (2018) The Nameless City: The Divided Earth.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: The Nameless City: The Divided Earth (9781626721616): Hicks,  Faith Erin: Books

Opening Lines:  The leaders of our people have decided.  The said: our empire is fragmenting.  Our people split from the whole and turn against each other. We must destroy all knowledge of our greatest tool, our greatest weapon, lest it be used against us in war.

Short Summary:   In this third graphic novel of an excellent series, Rat and Kai must break into the palace (where Erzi now sits on the throne, having murdered Kai’s father).  They must steal a book that contains the formula for napatha, a powerful explosive that, in the hands of Erzi, will bring aobut only destruction and pain.

Why should I read this book?  First of all, the art is fantastic, especially the arctitecture of the nameless city.  It is the sort of city that the reader can get lost in – in a good way.  The way Hicks draws the characters is also delightful.  Readers of the previous two books in ther series will enjoy seeing Rat and Kai growing up.  Also, Hicks is a master in using the language of the graphic novel., so that the story is deeply enthralling (and often seems magical).  Finally, not only is the story excellent with just enough twists and turns in it, but also, though it has a lot of action, it gives the reader something to think about, presenting more than a few moral questions and yet avoiding being so excessively morally ambiguous that there is no one the reader can root for.  Bottom line, this is a wonderful story to get lost in.

Who is this book best for?  Exceptional fourth graders who love graphic novels might enjoy it.  But I would guess we are probably talking fifth grade and up.  I think middle school, high school, and even college students would enjoy this one.  Equally of interest for males and females.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.  There is some violence, but nothing really objectionable, I think.

Larson, Hope; Mock, Rebecca (2017) Knife’s Edge. New York: Square Fish.

Knife's Edge: A Graphic Novel (Four Points, Book 2) (Four Points, 2): Larson,  Hope, Mock, Rebecca: 9780374300449: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  Manhattan, October 1959.  I’m looking for a man named Dodge.  You know im?  Naw. 

Short Summary:  This graphic novel features a rollicking treasure hunt in which two twins, Cleo and Alex, and reunited with their long lost father, who gives them a penknife and a compass that he says are vital for finding a treasure that is their birthright.  But the ship they are on is sailing into peril, with pirates, coral reefs and other dangers, as well as a growing rift between the twins – largely because their father does not want Cleo (the only girl on board the ship) to take part in any fighting or adventures. 

Why should I read this?  Because it is a splendid adventure story.  There are twists and turns, reunions, clues, and all the elements of a good action story.  But there are not any superpowers, big guns, or magic wands.  Instead all the characters have is their wits, their skill, and their cunning. It is wonderfully illustrated with equal parts of candlelit darkened rooms and bright sunshine on the decks of ships,  Larsen has proven herself an excellent writer time and time again.  This is the sort of graphic noel that students will want to reread – not because it isn’t clear, but because there is more that you catch each time you read it through.

Who would this book be best for?  It feels like it would be good for fifth through middle school, particularly for readers who like action and adventure combined with the twists and turns of a mystery story.  While it it is remarkably well told, the plot is complicated enough that this is probably not an ideal graphic novels for someone who has never read anything written in this format before. It would give experienced graphic novels readers plenty to chew on, though.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.

Andrews, Ryan (2019)  This Was Our Pact. New York: First Second.

This Was Our Pact: Andrews, Ryan: 9781626720534: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines: Our pact had two simple rules.  Rule one: No one turns for home.  Rule two: No one looks back.

Short Summary:  On the night that the whole town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river, Ben and his friends decide to ride on down the road and follow the lanterns drifting down the river.  One by one, though, they turn back, until finally it is only Ben and Nathaniel (the one kid nobody wants to hang out with).  Then the meet a bear standing upright wearing a scarf and a coat who wants a ride on a bike.  From there thing get stranger and more dreamlike, captured perfectly in the images of this graphic novel.  Ben and Nathaniel are imprisoned in an old woman’s cellar, escape with the aid of their friend the bear, discover a cave with a star map built into the ceiling, and at the same time, Ben discovers his courage, and figures out that Nathaniel is the best friend he could hope for (and finds out where the lanterns end up).  This is a wonderful adventure into a dreamworld.

Why should I read this?  Okay, so this book is kind of weird.  It starts off realistically, and then takes a right-angle turn from reality and brings us on a ride through a wonderous dreamscape.  The art is beautiful, the story is delightfully surprising, and there are these moments that are beautiful and haunting, and it says some amazing things about friendship and being open to adventure and the ways that life can pull the rug out from under you in a good way— Look, you are just going to have to read it.  I can’t be sure you will love it, but I did. 

Who is this book best for?  Open-minded, experienced graphic novel readers in fifth grade and up who wouldn’t be too bothered by the illogic of a talking bear who wants to ride on a bicycle.

YA graphic novels (and one regular novel) about same-sex relationships

Panetta, Kevin; Ganucheau, Savanna (2019)  Bloom.  New York: First Second.

Opening Lines:  “What are you doing here?  Everyone is dancing now.”

                                    “I’m listening to music.  Why did you hit me on the head?”

Short Summary:  Ari doesn’t know what he is going to do with his life, but he knows he wants to get far away from his parents and their little family bakery and go somewhere else.  He also knows he wants to stay connected to his friends, and he hpes their band can make it big.  He even wants to say connected to Cameron, who can be a big jerk to everyone.  Ari convinces his parent to hire someone to help with the bakery for when he is gone.  Hector applies for the job.  Hector turns out to be perfect.  Baking seems to be the thing that gives him joy, and he does it very well.  He is also kind to Ari and a lot of fun to be with.  But Hector has his friends and Ari has his own.  They grow closer and just when things seem to be going really well, they cause an accidental fire which burns the bakery to the ground.  Hector takes all the blame to save Ari’s relationship with his parents.  Ari’s dad fires Hector and Ari’s life seems empty again.  He knows he shouldn’t have allowed Hector to take the blame, but now, their relationship is over.  Or is it?

Why should I read this book?  Ganucheau’s drawing style is perfect for this story.  It has a lightness to it that really gives life to the story.  Neither of the two protagonists is perfect.  They both make mistakes, but it is clear that they care deeply for each other, and are willing to forgive mistakes.  Panetta’s story and scripting includes enough sub-plots that this is not just an inward story about romance, but the story of Ari coming to value his family and learn to participate in the community of people who love him. He also learns not to take Hector’s presence and caring for granted.  This is a graphic novel of a same-sex relationship – but it is also a graphic novel about two people growing to love each other and it works quite well in that universal sense.  I also really appreciated the way the book focused on two people getting to know each other, rather than moving swiftly to sex, as many contemporary YA book do.  In fact, this book shows a kiss or two, but that is all.  Not because it is being prudish – but because the focus of the relationship is more than just physical.

Who is this book best for?  This is a book for high school and older.  It would be a good choice for a classroom library and a school library, depending on the context of the school.  There is enough going on thematically that it would make a good choice for literature groups.  In light of possible challenges to the book, it might also work for an opt-in after school book club.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  Yes, on the grounds that it is about a same-sex relationship. The pity about that is that the way this romance story is told is very much in line with the sort of values that those likely to object to it hold close.  It depicts a love between two people based on knowing each other, caring for each other, taking things slowly, and  working out relationship issues from a position of concern for the other person.  There is also some mild vulgarity, but far less than most contemporary YA.

Uzaku, Ngozi (2018) Check Please; Book 1: Hockey.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: Check, Please! Book 1: # Hockey (Check, Please!, 1)  (9781250177964): Ukazu, Ngozi: Books

Opening Lines: “I’m in my freshman dorm at Samwell!  It’s a dream come true.  Oh my goodness and the campus is so gorgeous.”

Short Summary: In this graphic novels, Eric “Bitty” Bittle has a scholarship to Samwell University.  The thing is, it is a hockey scholarship.  Bitty is good on skates (he should be, he made it to finals in high school figure skating.)  But the thing is, he is scared of getting hit – and that makes him a liability in hockey.  Also, he has a crush on Jack, the team captain.  All this causes him stress, and when Bitty feels stress, he bakes pies.  Lots of pies.  Will he be thrown off the team?  Will he make any friends?  And what about Jack?

Why should I read this?

Uzaku’s art is easy to follow and entertaining (she has an interesting style that is part cartoon (around the faces) part realism (the backgrounds and bodies), and part manga (really just in Biddy’s eyes.)  The story is entertaining *though it is a little hard to follow the characters at first, but it gets easier.  This graphic novel is meant to be fun, and it is.  Uzaku says in the foreword that, “I don’t consider this comic Very Serious Art at all, but I do consider it something even better: fun”  It is that, and there is not a lot of thematic depth here, but there are some things here students might want to do some thinking about.  This book raises some interesting questions about stereotypes, with characters who seem to live up to the stereotypes and others that seem to go against them.  Ransom and Holster are best friends who seem like typical interchangeable fraternity row beer-obsessed womanizers, excpt that one of them is black and the other white.  Another character, known only by his questionable nickname, seems to be a burn-out, but is hyper-intelligent and remarkably loyal.  Jack seems like a typical athletic hunky male, though later we find he may not be the alcohol-soaked girl-crazed jock we might imagine.  And Biddy himself seems manufactured from stereotypes.  He is a former figure-skater who likes to bake and fears any type of violence.  This seems like a stereotype of a gay character.  As the book goes on and we get to know him better, he becomes more three-dimensional, but the stereotyped elements remain. 

Who is this book best for?

This one is probably best for high school or college.  It would certainly be a good choice for a classroom library or school library, depending, however, on the community context of the school.  Though it could be an excellent part of a unit on stereotyping, the content may prove problematic for some school systems.

Is this book likely to be challenged?

This could be a fine book for discussing stereotypes, but the same-sex attraction that is in the midst of the book may be problematic for some school systems.  Because much of the story is set in a frat house, there is plenty of vulgar language, objectifying of women, and alcohol use.

Venable, Colleen Af; Crenshaw, Ellen T. (2019) Kiss Number 8.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: Kiss Number 8 (9781596437098): Venable, Colleen AF, Crenshaw,  Ellen T.: Books

Opening Lines:  2004.  I have never understood the world’s obsession with kissing.  And “swapping spit?”  That’s supposed to make me want to do it?  I guess my first wasn’t so bad.

Short Summary:  In this graphic novel, Amanda has two friends, Laura, who is straight-laced and careful; and Cat who is wild and up for anything.  She also has an excellent relationship with her dad, who takes her to ball games and watches movies with her.  Cat thinks she should go after Laura’s brother Adam.  Her dad thinks so too.  When letters come to the house from someone named Dina, Amanda begins to think that her dad is having an affair.  But when she find a cashier’s check for $30,000 made out to her and a note from her grandfather telling her not to tell her parents about it, she has another mystery to solve.  Eventually (after a fair amount of friend drama and a whole lot of dodging from her dad) Amanda finds out that her dad’s mom was transgender, that Dina is her step-grandmother, and that her dad’s dad (who remarried) is deeply intolerant.  Because Amanda herself has been feeling pulled toward a same-sex relationship, this is very important to her.  When she confronts her grandpa about it, Amanda realizes that her quest for truth and honesty may destroy her relationship with her dad, and his relationship with his dad.     

Why should I read this?  With a topic as potentially divisive as this one, there is always a danger of depicting one side or the other as foolish, self-centered, or intolerant.  And though Amanda’s grandpa comes across as a villain, most other characters in the story are three-dimensional.  Amanda’s dad, for example, seems initially unreasonably unwilling to consider Amanda’s preferences and feelings, we later learn how much he has been hurt, and that, as a child, his anger was deliberately misdirected toward Grandpa Sam and Dina.  Amanda’s mom seems like a distracted and out-of-touch parent at first, but later shows that she loves and connects with Amanda deeply.  Laura seems dorky and unexciting, but she also proves a better friend, at least initially, than Cat.  And Cat’s wild promiscuous nature, which is so attractive to Amanda at first, later turns to uncaring rejection.  Not everything works out in the end.  Some relationships remain unmended.  But the final pages show forgiveness and acceptance and a family that is back together again.

Who is this graphic novel best for?  This is best for a high school audience.  This might be a good classroom library book, where the classroom teacher might be able to offer guidance and judge whether the student is ready to consider the story of this book.  It could work for a school library, though it might be more likely to be challenged there.  There is enough thematically here to at least consider it as an option for literature circles, but the complicated plot and content that will challenge some students a great deal might mean that teachers should be very strategic in using it. 

Is it likely to be challenged?  Yes.  This book has frank discussions not only of transsexual characters and same-sex attraction, but also of kissing, drinking, and disobeying parents.  It has multiple uses of vulgarities.  Having said that, it is a graphic novel that strives for realism, and Amanda’s story I am sur e runs true to some high school experiences.

Tamaki, Mariko; Valero-O’Connell, Rosemary (2019) Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (9781626722590): Tamaki,  Mariko: Books

Opening Lines:  Dear Anna Vice, My name is Freddy Riley.  I’ve been reading your column for four years.  My mom reads it too. I’m not sure what you need to know aobut a person to give them advice.

Short Summary:  In this graphic novel, Freddy Riley needs some advice.  She loves being with her girlfriend, Laura Dean, but Laura is not reliable, sometimes ignores her in social settings, and keeps breaking up with her.  Every time it happens, her friends suggest that maybe she should find someone else.  Then Laura shows up and they next thing Freddy knows they are making out and all she wants is for them to be together again. Meanwhile, Freddy’s friend Doodle really needs her help with something that is the hardest thing Doodle has ever had to go through.  Unfortunately, Freddy is still too wrapped up in getting Laura Dean’s attention.  Soon she must decide between a good friend who needs her and a girlfriend who half the time doesn’t seem to notice she is there.

Why should I read this book?:  Tamaki’s art is beautiful, with fine lines that are this beauriful combination of angles and curves.  She draws people very realisitically, and draws their facial expressions so well that you can usually tell what they are thinking before you even read the word balloons.

            In terms of the story, this is kind of an anti-romance novel.  It is about Freddy’s journey to get enough self-confidence to break up with Laura for good, and also to realize that sometimes being true to your friends is more important than anything else.  So while this story involves a same-sex relationship, it is less about leaping into relationships and more aobut thinking before you leap – an interesting message for students to consider.

Who would this book be best for?  It is hard to tell the age of the characters.  They seem to be either 8th or 9th graders – so the book is intended for middle school or high school.  I hav ha hard time imagining this book in a middle school library or classroom library.  It seems like more of a high school book. I could imagine using this in connection with a unit on self-esteem or abuse, but there are some better books for serving that purpose.  This seems like a book that might best be discovered by the reader outside of class.

Is it likely to be challenged?  Yes.  While there is no depiction of or direct discussion of sex, the book centers on a same-sex relationship.  There are multiple uses of vulgar language.  And that is too bad, because this book could lead to some really excellent discussion.  My guess is that most teachers will be afraid to use it though.

Konigsberg, Bill (2017) Honestly Ben.  New York: Arthur A. Levine.

Amazon.com: Honestly Ben (9780545858267): Konigsberg, Bill: Books

Opening Lines:  “According to the swim instructor at the Gilford gym, I had the worst buoyancy of any human he’d ever seen.” 

 Short Summary:   Ben is dating Hannah, but then begins noticing that he is attracted to his best friend, a guy named Rafe.  He doesn’t think he is gay, but cannot deny the attraction.  He needs to figure out what that means.  He also has to write a acceptance speech for an amazing scholarship he has been awarded, and he has to deal with bullies and keeping his grades up and all the other things that any high school student has to deal with.  About 200 pages into the book, he makes his choice, breaks up with Hannah, and goes out with Rafe.  The relationship progresses and Ben realizes he is not ready to be public aobut dating Rafe.  They break up.  Ben discovers some things about being true to himself.  Then there is a chance for him to see Rafe again.  Is that what he wants?

Why should I read this book?  That is a fair question.  I struggled with this book a lot.  It is true that I am a heterosexual, cis-gendered male who is over fifty years old, so there may be all sorts of bias I am not fully aware of here, but my main issue with the book had more to do with the fact that I am a nerd. Hannah, Ben’s initial love interest is clever, highly intelligent, and has a wonderfully strong personality.  She stands up for herself and others.  When Ben falls for Rafe, he breaks up with Hannah with little regard for her feelings.  In short, he acts like a jerk.  Well, to be fair, there are lots of protagonists who are jerky.  If it were a book about a guy who likes two girls, and picks one of them, would I have the same reaction?  Honestly, I think I would, because Hannah seems thoughtful and interesting and kind of a nerd.  And while Rafe is clever, he also seems flighty and self-centered.  So does Ben.  It is always frustrating when you are rooting for one relationship and the book goes the other way.  Because of that, it was hard for me to like Ben.  And because of that, it was hard for me to care about the book. 

Ben did have some moments.  I liked the scene where he spoke up against the bully who was telling rape jokes.  In spite of my not connecting with this book much,  I have to acknowledge that  Konigsberg is an excellent writer, especially with dialogue. This book might connect better with someone who is not me. 

Who is this book best for?  This might be a good book for high school students and probably deserves a place in a high school library and a classroom library as well.  Having said that, it very much depends upon your school’s context.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  Probably.  In addition to a central focus on a same-sex relationship (and a pan-sexual protagonist), there is a fair amount of vulgar language in it (interestingly, it is mostly Rafe’s parents who are the ones to use that language the most.)

The God of Fire, Popularity Contests on Another Planet, and Adventures on Islands: Graphic Novels for Elementary and Middle School

Pittman, Eddie (2017) Red’s Planet: Friends and Foes.  New York: Abrams. 

Red's Planet: Book 2: Friends and Foes: Pittman, Eddie: 9781419723155:  Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  “Hello Hello Hello Hello”

                        “Stay out.  Do not enter.  Danger, Stay out.  This means you !!”

                        “Sigh”

Short Summary:  Red is a young girl from earth who has been marooned on a planet with a lot of aliens who are very different from her.  They have formed a kind of loose community of primitive huts and bartered food.  But when a large anthropomorphic cat named Goose refuses o share the supplied his has hoarded from their crash-landed ship, Red finds herself running against him in an election for mayor.  After a long fought campaign, they become friends, and soon find themselves trying to prepare the community for an invasion from an army of space pirates.  Whether they can survive or not will depend upon them all getting along.

Why should I read this book?  Tis graphic novel story is fun and funny, action-packed and clever.  Red is a mischievous kid, but ultimately very likable.  Adults will enjoy the veiled references to everyone form Bugs Bunny to Elvis. There are themes of cooperation and valuing diversity here, but they are not heavy handed.

Who is this book good for?  Third grade and up, for readers who like adventure, aliens, friendship, humor, and good stories.  This one would be great for classroom and school libraries..  It is maybe just a bit too silly to be used as a book to study in-class.

Is this book likely to be challenged?

No.  I cannot imagine on what basis it would be.

O’Connor, George (2019) Hephaistos: God of Fire.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: Olympians: Hephaistos: God of Fire (9781626725270): O'Connor,  George: Books

Opening Lines:  Once there was a god…Not a god.  A titan…The titans.  Giant, immortal, beautiful, lords of space and time.  Before there were gods, titans ruled the cosmos. 

Short Summary:  This graphic novel follows the Greek god Hephaistos from his birth through his life, focusing on his alienation from his mother Hera, his Father, Zues and the rest of the Olympians.  The tale of Prometheus stealing fire back for the mortals and being punished for that crime (or possibly the crime of seeing the future.)  It includes the story of Hephaistos catching his wife, the beautiful Aphrodite in bed with Hephaistos’s brother Ares (god of War).

Why should I read this book?   Are you kidding me?  This was written and drawn by George O’Connor!  I don’t even have to tell you anything more.  If you have read George’s work you know that it will be superbly written and plotted, brilliantly drawn, and that O’Connor’s way with telling a story through panels and word balloons is nearly unequalled.  This is a fabulous story told with all the excitement and cleverness that graphic novels could possibly offer.  I mean, these stories were good enough, and universal enough, to last over three thousand years.  Homer and Virgil both would have loved to read this.  There is no better version of the Greek myths anywhere (well, except in the Iliad and the Odyssey

Who is this book best for?  I would say fourth grade and up.  Especially kids who love myths, adventure, and superhero stories (The Greek myths are pretty much the start of superhero stories).  Also for kids who don’t yet know that they love Greek mythology.  I would be a great text, along with the rest of O’Connor’s Olympians books, to supplement any study of Greek mythology.  It would also be a great addition to a class and school library. 

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so, but I suppose it is possible.  Ares and Aphrodite’s infidelity is dealt with in a sensitive manner (they are fully clothed).  Dionysus does get Hephaistos drunk (or at least very tipsy) in another scene, though it is subtle.  And when Hephaistos is cast down from Olympus after he is born, he is discovered and raised by two ocean nymphs, Thetis and Eurynome.  I suppose there might be some parents who object to their being a family consisting of a baby and two female parents.  All of these objections, though, would be a stretch as O’Connor is remarkably faithful to the original myths.

Renier, Aaron (2018) The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon  (9781596435056): Renier, Aaron: Books

Opening Lines:  When I left Winooski Bay I thought I’d never see you again.  I’m so happy that you’re better.  That you’re ALIVE.  I know you didn’t REALLY mean that I could create stars in the sky.  ..

Short Summary:  So Walker Bean, intrepid bur nerdish adventurer boy (who seems cut from the same cloth as Tintin) and the crew of the Jacklight take refuge on an Island with mysterious and elusive animals that seem made out of shadow, lots of characters who seems to be of a piratical nature, lost temples, royal families and other intriguing people and situations. But the story is overly complicated and while I wanted to care about Walker’s fate, I often struggled to do so. 

Why should I read this?  If you hav a student who is obsessed with graphic novels and need sa longer book to read (this one is 280 pages) you should preview it.  Maybe you will fall in love with it.  I had trouble doing so.

Who is this book best for?  Patient readers fifth or sixth grade and up.  This would be a good one for a school library.

Is this book likely to be challenged?

I don’t think so.  There is some buffoonish drinking and cigar smoking among the older characters. Not enough to matter though.

Dahm, Evan (2019) Island Book.  New York: First Second.

Island Book: Dahm, Evan: 9781626729506: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  “Cursed girl.  Back to the tower with you — where you can do us no harm!”

Short Summary: Sola is a young member of a community of green-skinned people.  They live on an island, fish, and live in fear that the monster will return.   Sola is shunned by the other kids, who think she is cursed.  So one day she takes a rowboat and rows out in search of the monster.  This leads to a series of adventures as she meets strange and generous people, warlike and violent people,  and sometimes frightening people, cultures, and lands, each built around a response to the monster: denial, aggression, respect and fear, and disbelief.  She sees the monster more than once, and finally confronts it.  Then she returns home.

Why should I read this?  It is an interesting and odd, but perhaps wonderful graphic novel.  I say perhaps because I have only read it twice and I think I will have to read it a couple more times before I feel like I have a good grasp of it.  And I want to re-read it.  Sola’s journeys seem to have a lot to say about how humans react to that which is strange and powerful.  The art is fantastic, and Dahm’s choice to render each of the characters as human-like without being exactly human encourages the reader to see the story with fresh eyes and leaves the reader open for reflection as well.

Who is this book best for?     This book would make for an excellent middle school book club read.  There is plenty hear to discuss, but I think it would not fare as well as the object of in-class study.  Doing so would take the magic out of it – and this book has some magic in it.  It would also be a great choice for a classroom library, or a school library too.

Is it likely to be challenged?  I cannot see why it would be.

The Harlem Renaissance explained in a book for kids (but I wish it grabbed them a bit more)

Hill, Laban Carrick  (2003) Harlem Stomp:  A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

Harlem Stomp!: A Cultural History Of The Harlem Renaissance: Hill, Laban  Carrick: Books - Amazon.com

One of the advantages/occupational hazards of being a professional nerd is that I pretty much love any book that can teach me something. I knew about the Harlem Renaissance, of course, that particular moment in history where African American culture and history went into overdrive in Harlem, New York — when poets and playwrights, singers, dancers, actors,  jazz musicians and composers, painters and sculptors were all working in one place and able to feed off each other’s genius in a way that happens only vary rarely.  

Harlem Stomp got me really interested through a combination of short biographies, amazing photographs, and some really cool primary source documents — like an annotated map of Harlem music clubs. There were a lot of historical figures in this book I had never heard of, and it was wonderful to be introduced to them. But the book also has a flaw.  Although the focus on specific moments and events is excellent, the through-line., the narrative thread that links it all together and helps us to see history as a story, is very faint.  I suspect that Hill was being a good historian and resisting the temptation to add a level of interpretation by trying to see such a through-line.  At the same time, because the narrative doesn’t feel connected, this is a remarkably easy book to drift away from.  To be fair, he does provide such a through-line, but you have to look pretty hard to find it.  Bringing that aspect of the book more to the forefront would have made it a much more engaging read. 

Having said that, this would be an excellent book to have available for students writing reports about important people in US history.  Fourth-graders (and maybe even third) could make sense of it, but it seems to me that middle school and high school are the real target audience here.

.

Excellent Graphic Novel Adaptations of Riordan, Alcott, and Harper Lee

Riordan, Rick; Venditti, Robert; Powell, Nate (2014) The Lost Hero (graphic novel adaptation)  Los Angeles: Disney Hyperion.

Opening Lines:   Somewhere in Arizona:  “All right, Cupcakes. Listen up!   You’re about to see the Grand Canyon.  Try not to break it.  And if any of you causes any trouble on this field trip, I will personally send you back to campus the hard way.”

Short Summary:  Jason, Piper, and Leo are, like Percy Jackson, half-bloods, or demigods.  They are also troubled kids on a field trip who know nothing of their heritage until a storm monster attacks and their teacher turns out to be a satyr.  The satyr disappears fighting the storm monster and the kids are wisked away to Camp Half-Blood, where they find out they have godlike powers, but from the Roman gods rather than the Greek gods, and they find out that the far=te of the earth may rest in their untrained and unprepared hands.  They also find out that their memories of being friends for months may be false. And one of them has visions that tell him he will betray the others. 

Why should I read this book?  Like any other Rick Riordan book, this one is a face-pased story that weaves together action, mythological references, and a fair amount of humor.  This book, though, is a graphic novel, and not only does it do an excellent job of maintainting the pacing, characterization, and story movement of the original, it also lets readers see the monsters, creatures, and heroic acts.  It is an excellent adaptation and might be a fun project for students to compare the writing in the original book with the way the same things are conveyed in this version through the intersection of art and text.

            Also, Riordan’s world is a fun world to fall into.  It is familiar to us because, like the Harry Potter world, it exists within our world, but student reader-s will enjoy the overhead view of Camp Half-Blood, the way the book pictures the forges and workshops beneath the cabin of the children of Hephaestus, and other aspects of that world.

Who would this book be best for?   Strong fourth and fifth grade readers would enjoy it.  I think it would also work well for middle school readers.  This is a great book for a classroom or school library.  I could imagine this being an option for lit circles, though I am not sure it could sustain extensive discussion.  I don’t see it being ideal for whole class study.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I wouldn’t think so.  The book does depict some supernatural elements and it does bring mythology to life, so I suppose some parents might object on those grounds.  It is possible there could be some who would critique the book in that while it features a multicultural cast of characters, their individual heritages and cultures play little part in the book – but then, it is primarily an action book and not aiming for deep character development.

Terciero, Ray; Indigo, Bre (2019) Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel New York: Little Brown.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel: A Modern Retelling of Little Women - Terciero, Rey

Opening lines: 

            “I love the holidays.”

            “Speaking of, what does everyone want?”

            “World peace.”

            “I mean, hat do you want for Christmas?”

            “I told you.  World peace.”

Short Summary:  In this graphic novel adaptation (or maybe modern retelling would be a better term) of Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy live with their mother in an apartment in New York City, while their father is in the US Army, fighting a war in the Middle East.  The story or the march girls, their various struggles (Jo trying to find herself as a writer, Meg’s search for love, Beth’s struggle between her shyness and her musical abilities, and Amy’s desire to have enough money to protect her whole family.) But some of those ideas are developed more fully than in the original book.  Jo comes to terms with being gay, Meg struggles with being a woman of color and trying to break into the business world (In the version the March’s father is Black, mother is white and some of the kids are from previous relationships, so there is quite a mix of colors and culture’s in the family.  Laurie is here too.  And instead of letters from father, they get emails.  In spite of the modernizations, though, the story is intact.

Why should I read this book? This is an excellent adaptation, and in spite of the change in scenery, costuming, and time period, it still manages to pull on the heartstrings the same way the original daoes.  The art is good.  It is abit stylized and you can tell the coloring was done on a computer because it doesn’t have quite as much of a human touch as other graphic novles do, but it is a fun version of a great story.

Who is this book best for?  Fifth graders and up will be able to understand this, but partly because of the way it explores identity crisis, the content would be ideal for middle school.  This would be a great book for classroom or school libraries, but would also work well for whole class study, especially in contrast with Louisa May Alcott’s original story.

Is it likely to be challenged?

There is a sensitively handled struggle as Jo tries to make sense of her same-sex attraction and coming out in her gay identity, so, probably. 

Lee, Harper; Fordham, Fred (2018) To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel.  New York: HarperCollins

Hardcover To Kill a Mockingbird: a Graphic Novel Book

Opening Lines:  When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.  When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-concious about his injury.

Short Summary:  Scout and Jem and their friend Dill are enjoying a lazy summer in Maycomb Alabama in 1933 when Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus, takes the case of Tom Robinson, a back man accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell.  At the same time, the kids are increasingly interested in rumors surrounding a mysterious reclue who lives in an old house whose name is Boo Radley.  As both stories unforld, Scout learns about jstice, the dignity of each human, and the fact that justice does not always happen.

Why should I read it?  This graphic novels adaptation is one of the most beautifully illustrated books I have ever read.  Fordham is incredibly gifted in working with light and the way the characters are dappled by sunshine through green leaves is wonderful to read.  That beauty contrasts strongly with the ugliness that we see in the hatred toward Robinson that comes out during the trial.  Fordham’s characters are drawn and painted realistically, but dramatically, so that we can see the twisted fury on the faces of both the witnesses and the gallery.  We also see Atticus’s weariness, humor, and stalwart resolve in the face of a difficult case.

            There have been critics in recent years who have complained that this story feeds into white savior syndrome, that the readers of this story are mostly white people hoping to feel good about the racial injustice in our country – to identify with the guy who tried to fight against it.  I understand and sympathize with that position, and as a white man, it is not my place, perhaps to disagree.  Having said that, though, I think if we want to change things, we need stories and those stories need heroes.  If this is the only story you read about race in America, I think you are getting an incomplete picture.  But as one book in a series of books that talk about race, I think this has value.  Reading this book along with The Hate You Give, Internment, and The Poet X I think would lead to some excellent conversation.

Who is this book best for?  Eighth or ninth grade would seem aobut perfect, but I read the book after I was in college, and my daughter read it when she was in middle school.  This graphic nvoel version would be excellent for classroom and school libraries, lit circles, and whole class study.  As I mentioned earlier, it would be interesting to contrast it with one of many contemporary YA books. 

Is this book likely to be challenged?  Yes. From two different camps.  Some parents will object to the use of the n-word, saying that word has no place in our language.  I find it difficult to disagree.  And yet, the work is, sadly, in our world, and it was certainly in Scout’s world.  The other group of people who might object are those who believe that kids should not read about this sort of thing because to do so it to stir up trouble.  Here too, though, to ignore the injustice int heworld doesn’t mean it is not there.

Middle Grades Books about the Jewish Tradition: Orthodox Girl Fights Troll and Evil Duplicate, Wild West Rabbi Versus Nemesis

Deutsch, Barry (2010) Hereville:  How Mirka got her Sword.  New York:  Amulet.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (NONE): Deutsch, Barry ...

This book somehow gives the reader insights into the day-to-day life of a Jewish Orthodox family and at the same time tells the story of a girl who manages to outwit bullies, a witch, and a troll.  We get to meet her good step-mother (who loves to argue for the sake of arguing), her brother Zindel (who is afraid of bullies from school, but brave enough to sneak onto a witch’s property to steal some grapes), an evil talking pig that steals her homework (just after the best graphic novel sequence about math homework that I have ever seen), and the troll that challenges her to a knitting duel. 

The art is excellent.  The panel lay-out is inspired, the drawings are clear and well done (the style tends just a tiny bit toward caricature/cartoon, but not enough to be distracting. Most of it is two- color rather black and white or full color, but it is so well done that if you read the book and I asked you later, you would say that it was full color.

The story is clever and wonderful and witty and exciting and informative and smart students with good senses of humor with love it.  I would guess smart fourth graders and up.  The story does contain a witch.  She doesn’t really do much in the story, but some parents object to any mention of witches in a story.  I cannot see anything else that would be challenged in this book.  Get it for your classroom library — or for yourself.  It will make you smile.

Deutsch, Barry  (2012) Hereville:  How Mirka Met a Meteroite.  New York:  Amulet.

When Mirka goes to claim her sword from the troll, he tricks her into summoning a meteorite that threatens to flatten Mirka’s town.  The witch stops the disaster before it happens by transforming the meteor into a duplicate of Mirka.  At first Mirka enjoys having someone who can do her homework while she plays, but before long, the meteorite duplicate proves to be better than Mirka in almost everything.  How Mirka resolves the problem is at times nail-biting, but also quite delightful (and involves fighting monsters)

The art is fantastic (and more color this time). Like the earlier book, this one is ideal for fourth grade an up. As with the earlier book, some parents might object to the witch.  Also as with the last one, this book is a lot of fun (and a good way to learn about the Jewish Orthodox faith — kind of by osmosis.)

Sheinkin, Steve (2010) Rabbi Harvey vs. the Wisdom Kid  Woodstock, VT: Jewish lights Publishing.

Rabbi Harvey is the wisest rabbi in the wild west (and before you sneer and say you bet he is the only rabbi in the wild west, as it turns out, he finds himself in conflict with a selfish, money-grubbing rabbi named Rabbi Ruben who calls himself The Wisdom Kid).  Soon they are having a duel, relying on logic, wisdom, and folktales to outsmart the other,  Every single page of this book has several amazingly clever moments.  For example,

Rabbi Ruben:  This town’s not big enough for two rabbis.

Rabbi Harvey:  Agreed.  Now what’s this about a woman paying you to treat her sick parrot?

Rabbi Ruben:  I said I’d treat it, but I never promised to save the stupid — I mean precious little creature.

Rabbi Harvey:  And she agreed to pay you anyway?

Rabbi Ruben:  That’s right.

Rabbi Harvey:  Whether you cured the bird or killed it?

Rabbi Ruben:  Exactly, thank you.

Rabbi Harvey:  And did you cure the bird?

Rabbi Ruben:  Regrettably, no.

Rabbi Harvey:  Did you kill it? 

Rabbi Ruben:  Positively not!

Rabbi Harvey:  So you neither cured the bird nor killed it.  According to your own agreement with this woman, you have no right to a payment.

Bystander:  That’s our rabbi!

The art is not spectacular.  Like the first book in this series, it is pretty rudimentary (the heads of every person in this graphic novel are disproportionately big).  But it is enough to get the story.  It  would be a great book for any kid with a good sense of humor who likes logic puzzles, or any kid who likes to see the bad guys humiliated.  It also conveys a rich history of folktales and wisdom literature.  I didn’t see anything objectionable in this graphic novel.

Excellent Realistic Fiction for Fourth through Twelfth-grade Readers

Erskine, Kathryn (2017) The Incredible Magic of Being.  New York: Scholastic. 

The Incredible Magic of Being: Kathryn Erskine: 9781338238532 ...

Opening Lines:          Magic is all around us, but most people never see it. Sometimes even I can’t.   Like right now.

Another Really Good Couple of Lines:   “Most teachers are okay with thinking.  They believe in asking questions.  School systems don’t like it though.  They want one answer bubble to fill in on the electronic score sheet and that’s it.  Done.  But the universe is never that simple.”

Short Summary:  Julian’s moms are trying to open a Bed and Breakfast, but their neighbor has refused to let them use his easement for their addition.  Julian, who has some physical differences and loves telescopes and astrophysics and he has always seen the world from a persepctive that is unlike everyone else’s, knows that what Mr. X really needs is a friend, even if he doesn’t know it yet. And maybe that means there is some hope in the universe.

Why should I read this book?  The plot described above might seem hokey or quaint, but it isn’t – mainly because Julian tells the story and his voice is spellbinding.  Julian’s way of looking at the  world makes this story into a non-traditional nerd story.  Julian doesn’t need to contend with any bullies (other than his neighbor, who is really more of a grumpy old man) or with the difficulties of being unpopular in school – but it is a nerd story all the same.  Julian is different and that is what makes his story wonderful to read.

Who is this book best for? This would be an excellent book for all middle schoolers to read.  It would be a great read-aloud, an excellent classroom library book, and is probably worthy of being studied in class – but I think it is probably best if discovered as an enjoyable story rather than an assignment.

Is it likely to be challenged? The book features a same-sex couple who are parents.  Though it is generally a loving family, there will likely be those who will object to this. 

Kreizman, David ((2019) The Year They Fell.  Imprint Books.

The Year They Fell | David Kreizman | Macmillan

Opening Lines:  On the night their parents’ plane did a header into the Caribbean Sea, Josie and Jack Clay threw the biggest blowout River Bank High School had ever seen.

Short Summary:  They were all best friends in pre-school – Dayana, Archie, Harrison and the twins. Jack and Josie.  Now high schoolers, Dayana is a drugged-out loner, Archie an African-American nerd with white parents, Harrison struggles to hide his anxiety attacks, and Jack and josie are at the top of the social ladder.  Though their parents are all still friends, the teens live in different social worlds.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s point-of-view which, in this story, works perfectly.  Readers begin to learn the forces that have driven the characters apart.  Josie was abused by a baseball coach and Jack blames himself for not being able to stop it.  Archie has always loved Josie, but since the night she told him about the coach, she cannot look him in the eye and wants nothing to do with him.  Harrison has lived his life to fulfill his mother’s dream of getting into Harvard.  Dayana has felt like an outsider ever since her parents’ divorce.  And then the plane carrying their parents to a Caribbean vacation crashes and the kid’s lives are turned upside down. 

Why should I read this book?

In addition to the point-of-view shifts, what makes this story deeply engaging and its ending remarkably moving is the way in which the characters form community and rebuild relationships only to have them shatter again and again in the face of grief and emotional struggle.  As they struggle through each setback, as more and more uncomfortable truths emerge, and as greater challenges face them at every turn, their friendships grow stronger and the story becomes more and more real. 

Who is this book best for? This book would be great for a high school classroom or school library as well as for study as part of a unit on community, responding to trauma, and other themes. 

Is it likely to be challenged?  Perhaps, there is mention of drug use, sexual abuse, and vulgar language, but the overall message of the book, that community helps us get through intense difficulty and that caring for other people is important – I would argue that outweighs the objectionable material.  As always, teachers should preread the book before using and consider the context and community before making a decision.

DiCamillo, Kate (2018) Louisiana’s Way Home. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Louisiana's Way Home - Kindle edition by DiCamillo, Kate. Children ...

Opening Lines:  I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante?  Where did she go?, they will have an answer.  They will know.

Short Summary:  It is hard for Louisiana, living with her often irrational Granny.  But when Granny decides they have to leave the town where Louisiana’s friends are, and she asks Louisiana to lie to the hotel owner where they are staying, drive her to a dentist for her bad teeth (even though Louisiana has never driven a car before), and find food on her own, it goes from hard to seemingly impossible. Somehow, Louisiana manages to find hope in surprising places, in a bag of peanuts a gas station owner gives her,  in a kindly pastor, and in a boy her age who has a pet crow.  When Granny disappears one day, leaving behind a letter revealing that much of what Louisiana has been told about her past was not true, Louisiana will have to rely on hope more than ever before.

Why should I read this book?  DiCamillo is an amazing storyteller, easily avoiding pitfalls that could sink a story like this.  The Granny does some hurtful things, but the reader comes to understand why, so she is not a one-dimensional villain. At no point does the reader hear the emotional music rise or sense that the story is about to become obviously emotionally manipulative like a Hallmark show.  The story has enough twists and turns to stay unpredictable without being unbelievable. 

            But one of the best reason to read this book is the way DiCamillo uses sentences.  In the midst of a narrative, she gives you words that hook together in ways to make you laugh, reflect, or consider.  Check out these examples:

            “It seemed like a very sad thing to be jealous of a fake cow on the side of a truck.”

            “Lots of things, in fact, should be different than they are.”

            “He was the kind of person who, if you asked for one of something, gave you two instead.”

            “Maybe crows are right about the world.  Maybe everything is funny.”

            “I liked that answer very much.  I think that cake is a very good word in general and that people should use it as an answer to questions more often.”

            And there are many more.  This is a delightful book.  You need to read it.

Who is this book best for?  With themes of finding hope in surprising places and struggling to find forgiveness in oneself being a greater gift to the forgiver than the forgiven, this book would be an amazing read aloud book for fourth through sixth grade at least.  It would work well for in-class study through middle school.  It belongs in classroom libraries and school libraries alike.

Is it likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.  Because it depicts a kid who has to fend for herself, though, I suppose it is possible that some adult readers might object that a book for children should not show them that the world is uncertain or difficult.  I can never figure out if such readers don’t know what kids are like or don’t know what childhood is like or don’t know what books are like – but there you go.

Bradley. Kimberly Brubaker (2017) The War I Finally Won.  New York: Dial

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: 9780147516817 ...

Opening lines:  You can know things all you like, but that doesn’t mean you believe them.

Short Summary:  This is the sequel to The War that Saved my Life.  The story is exciting and follows Ada, the 11 year old protagonist from the first book.  Her club foot has been fixed by surgery; she and her brother are living with Susan, their guardian; their Mam is no longer a threat; and so things should be much better.  But Lady Thornton gives up her manor for the war effort and moves in to the cottage that Ada thinks of as her home.  And a German refugee girl moves in with them.  And through it all, it is clear that Ada still hasn’t learned to trust that her new family loves her, that the war won’t kill them all, and that hope could lead to happiness.

Why should I read this book?  Often the problem with sequels is that the story has already been told.  The sequel is then either a reboot of the first story, played out with higher stakes but essentially the same plot, and with a character who has already changed. This book follows Ada, who had just begun to change at the end of the last book.  And while the plot is still interesting, what is fascinating is reading the tale of how hard the journey still is, even after the central conflict of the first book has been solved.  If you have ever read to the end of a book and read hope in the ending but wondered how (or if) that hope could ever come to fruition, this book is the one for you.

Who is this book best for?  Strong fourth grade readers might like this, but it is probably best for fifth graders and up who like realistic fiction. It would be a great book for a classroom or school library.  There is enough here for it to be an option in literature circles too.  It would be great for a read-aloud except, at about 380 pages, it would take more than a semester to get through.  If a class read The War that Saved My Life the year before though, it might be a good choice.

Is it likely to be challenged?  I wouldn’t think so. The first book mentioned very obliquely the same-sex relationship between Susan and her friend who died before the first book.   This book mentions it even less. Very sharp readers might catch it, but it will fly over the heads of most readers.

Schlitz, Laura Amy (2015) The Hired Girl. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.  

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Opening Lines:  Today Miss Chandler gave me this beautiful book.  I vow that I will never forget her kindness to me, and I will use this book as she told me to – I will write in it with truth and refinement.

“I’m so sorry you won’t be coming back to school,” Miss Chandler said to me ,and at those words, the floodgates opened and I wept most bitterly. I’ve been crying off and on ever since Father told me that from now on I have to stay at home and won’t get any more education.

Short Summary:  After her father mistreats her, Joan decides to run away from the farm in Pensnsylvania where all she does is clean up after her unappreciative father and brother and wishes her mother wre still alive to stand up for her.  Joan journeys to Baltimore where she gets a job as a maid and kitchen helper for a Jewish family.  Filled with enthusiasm and romantic notions form the books she reads over and over, she becomes adept at getting out of the ridiculous and awkward situations she gets herself into.

Why should I read this book?  It is funny, relatable, and informative.  Joan is a likable heroine, but one that you have to cringe at when she makes one mistake after another, all of them good intentioned, but all of them resulting from her misunderstandings about the family dynamics of her workplace and from her lack of knowledge about Jewish beliefs and customs.  This book is a great way for students unfamiliar with Jewish culture to learn about it, yet at no point does the book feel like it is trying to teach you something.  The awkward and difficult moments Joan goes through are balance with moments of generosity, kindness, and understanding.

Who is this book best for?   While some older and wiser middle school readers might enjoy it, this book might be best for high school students who like historical stories (the book is set in 1911) with conflict and relationship-based conflict.  This book would work well for a classroom or school library.  It could also be a candidate for literature circles.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.

Anderson, John David (2017) Posted.  New York: HarperCollins.

Posted by John David Anderson, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

Opening Lines:  I push my way through the buzzing mob and freeze.  Heart-struck, dizzy.  It takes me a minute to really get what I am looking at.

Short Summary:  Wolf, Frost, and DeeDee cheer for their friend Bench, who is on the football team but never gets put in. School isn’t fun, but at least it is predictable.  Until three things change.  First, a girl named Rose comes to school and starts sitting at their table.  Then Bench actually gets in a game and when he makes a touchdown and that touchdown means that the team has their only win for the year, Bench is suddenly one of the popular kids and his friends are left wondering why he won’t sit at their lunch table any more.  Finally, the administration at their middle school decides to ban phones and soon people are using post-it notes to send messages to each other.  When the tone of the notes turns nasty, someone tags Wolf’s locker with a horrible message, he stops coming to school and Rose finds herself challenging the kid who probably put that note there to run the gauntlet – ride a bike down a hill that is more of a cliff, with trees all the way down. How each part of the story plays out reveals a lot about friendships, betrayals, acceptance, and finding your own tribe.

Why should I read this book?  First of all, because it is a nerd story – and a good one.  Some nerd stories are about nerds who play the game, get popular, and join the cool kids.  Those stories always seems to me to be missing the point.  Some nerd stories are about how the nerds get revenge on their oppressors.  These stories also seem to be missing the point.  This story is more about finding people who, like you, are different, and then learning to be friends with them even though you are not exactly the same.  This is a message the world could use right now.  A quote from the book nicely illustrates this idea: 

            “My theory has to do with the people who don’t find people just like them,  These people – they find each other.  Then they realize that not finding people like them is the thing they have in common.  That is what happened to me, I think.  I found the people who weren’t quite like other people and we used that difference like glue.”

            This is an excellent book.  Read it.

Who is this book best for?  Fifth graders and older, especially those who have ever been on the outside of the popular group would love this book.  Kids that are a part of the popular group should read it, though.  Anyone who likes realistic fictions will enjoy this one. It would be a great read-aloud, great for literature circles or even to you as a whole class text in middle school.  This would also be a great book for your classroom and school library.

Is it likely to be challenged?  Central to the story is the fact that Wolf is gay and is verballu attacked as a result. While this is very important to the book, it is not dealt on nor focused on much.  It is possible that it might be challenged on this basis, but I don’t consider it likely.

The Twilight Zone Graphic Novel!

Kneece, Mark; Ellis, Rich; Serling, Rod (2009) Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone: Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? New York: Walker and Company.

Amazon.com: The Twilight Zone: Will the Real Martian Please Stand ...

When two state troopers find evidence of a UFO crash landing in a pond and footprints leading to a diner, they go in to investigate. A snowstorm traps everyone in the diner and soon the busload of people eating in the diner begin to suspect each other of being the alien and suspicion reigns supreme. The diner owner, a skeptical old man, and a Boston Lawyer who seems wound up a little too tight become the central players. Of course, like any twilight zone story, there are lost of twists and turns before we get to the end.

Today’s students are largely unfamiliar with Rod Serling’s truly inventive television show, and this graphic novel gives them a chance to experience it. The art is somewhat pedestrian, but does a great job of telling the story. This book would grab the attention of readers who like to read new and interesting things. Probably we are talking fifth grade and up.

This is actually one of a series, and though I have not read the other books in the series, this one seems to be pretty representative.

There is nothing objectionable in the book, unless you are offended by the aliens. This book was a lot of fun.