The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag. Scholastic Graphix, 2017. 9781338089516. 214pp.
Aster’s family can use magic. Girls learn spells and potions and how to talk to trees, that kind of thing. Boys learn to shapeshift, and have the ability to see the demons they fight. Aster isn’t allowed to learn girls’ magic even though he feels drawn to it (and practices it in secret). Worse, his grandmother’s twin brother secretly learned girls magic, lost control, and had to be cast out because he was a danger to himself and the rest of the family. He prefers the girls’ company but can’t spend time with them during their lessons, and he’s a bit of an outsider where the boys are concerned, but he makes a friend outside of his family’s land, a normal girl named Charlotte who also hates the way boy and girl stuff is split up at her school.
Aster’s witchery gets stronger while his shapeshifting skills fail to develop. His parents don’t know what to do. There’s a big bad evil beyond the boundaries of the family’s land. Bad things happen, good things result. It’s really good. In less-skilled hands it could really come off as a thinly-veiled after school special about gender roles and sexual identity, but it reads like a good all-ages story full of magic. My advanced copy’s art was mostly black and white; the finished graphic novel will be color throughout, and based on the few pages that were colored in this, I can’t wait to read it again — it looks beautiful.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, illustrations by Brendan Shusterman. HarperCollins, 2015. 9780061134111.
As a book blogger, I hope I can bring you some value in my writing: helping you find a hidden gem or highlighting the best new stuff. So it feels weird to write about a book you probably already know is really good. The book, published three years ago, is widely-acclaimed, by a well-loved YA author, and won the National Book Award. It’s not new and it’s not hidden, but it is a gem. Challenger Deep ended up on my phone when I was taking screenshots of my library’s eBook platform for a presentation and needed to borrow a book. Before I knew it I was completely sucked in.
The chapters are short and propel you along quickly through two parallel stories. In one, fifteen-year-old Caden is beginning to suspect something might be wrong, but he can’t articulate what or why to his family. Strange ideas keep nagging at him, he feels connected in some profound way to everyone and everything, and he’s afraid that a kid at school wants to kill him. These thoughts become more persistent, the illusions and emotions become more heightened, and he develops physical symptoms: his artwork becomes abstract and uncontrolled (the art in the book is drawn by the author’s son, who is the inspiration for the book), he walks for hours and hours every day, and he never wants to eat. In the other story Caden is aboard a pirate ship crewed by teens with similar problems. Reality warps from moment to moment and analogy, metaphor, and even puns become real as the ship heads for the depths of the Marianas Trench.
The spoiler/not spoiler (the information is on the book jacket and in every review) is that Caden is struggling through the onset of schizophrenia. The chapters on the ship explore his experience through metaphor and may be the reality that Caden is living at his lowest points. The chapters set in real life show Caden’s perspective as he copes as best he can while his friends and family are frightened and bewildered by the changes in his behavior. The chapters begin to overlap as Caden responds to treatment, and the “real life” chapters show him regaining his perspective and sense of humor. My favorite character was the ship’s figurehead/fellow patient who forms a deep connection with Caden and gives him advice about his future. As Caden himself points out, people’s experiences with schizophrenia and its treatment are very individual: this is only one story and can only really show one experience. But I think it’s invaluable for humanizing this experience.
Spinning by Tillie Walden. First Second, 2017. 9781626729407. 345pp
This is the best graphic novel I’ve read in a long time. Everyone once in a while a comic is so innovative or well executed it gives goosebumps. This is one of those.
The level of craft is as amazing as the art. It will be a crime if this doesn’t win a bunch of major YA and graphic novel awards. I don’t really want to say anything more about it than GO READ IT!
But here’s a little more: I read a lot of high fantasy, more superhero comics than I’m comfortable admitting (I only tell you about the best), plus a bit of science fiction, crime, and literary stuff. Before this I had read one graphic novel biography about ballet (Mark and Siena Cherson Siegel’s To Dance) and zero books about ice skating. I never planned on reading a book about ice skating, and would have bet anyone money against my ever finishing one. But this autobiographical graphic novel showed me that ice skating is fascinating (there’s a taste of the diagrams skaters use to plan programs on the back cover). And as much as this is about ice skating (my high school English teachers just rolled over in their graves at my word repetition), it’s also about growing up: Tillie struggles to fit in, find people who love her, figure out if skating is worth the time and effort, and how to tell everyone who she is. (It most reminds me of another amazing YA graphic novel, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer, which is also just so good.)
The Wendy Project by Melissa Jane Osborne and Veronica Fish. Emet Comics / Super Genius, 2017. 9781629917696. 96pp.
Chris at Comics Dungeon introduced me to Emet Comics a while back, and it’s great to see the company’s first graphic novel. All the comics I’ve ever seen from this small press, which focuses on comics from diverse creators that empower women, are absolutely beautiful. I recommend you visit their website and sign up for their newsletter.
Wendy is driving her little brothers John and Michael across a bridge when their car crashes through the guardrail. John and Wendy are fine, but Michael’s body can’t be found. Wendy insists that she saw him fly away into the sky and also that a bright (fairy-like) light caused the crash. Needless to say no one believes Wendy, so she’s sent to a therapist. And…
Well, you should read this short graphic novel. It’s an inventive, well-written take on grief and blaming oneself, and Fish’s art is spectacular: everything is black and white except the traces of magic, including the magic in Wendy’s notebook (which refuses to get lost), Michael’s teddy bear, and a boy named Peter.
(Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Peter Pan, and my favorite adaptation/version is by French comics creators Regis Loisel.)
Such A Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961 – 63 by Marcelino Truong. Translated by David Homel. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016. 9781551526478. 272pp.
This not-quite-all-ages autobiographical graphic novel opens in Washington DC in 1961, with the author’s French mother writing a letter home, upset at having to move back to Saigon in the middle of the Vietnam War. Truong’s father worked as cultural attaché at the Vietnamese embassy in DC but had been recalled by Vietnamese President Diêm. Truong’s mother is worried that all whites and mixed-race people will be killed if the Communists take over. Outside their house, Truong and his older brother play war, forced to take the part of Communists and endure racial slurs because the neighborhood boys think they look the part.
In Vietnam, the family lives an obviously upper class existence as Truong’s father works for President Diêm and his mother gets more and more anxious. (Her mental illness is explained in the book.) There’s an easy-to-understand history of the country and the conflict, as well as many fights between Truong’s parents as the war gets closer. The violence in Saigon never really has much of a direct impact on the kids, and before things get really rough they take an extended beach vacation and then relocate to London. (There the boys face racism from the neighborhood kids, but by that point they’ve clearly had enough of that.) A short section at the end tells what happened to Vietnam and Truong’s parents.
Saigon is drawn in beautiful detail from a kid’s point of view — most of the pages’ black inks are accented with red, though there are a few totally beautiful, full-color pages sprinkled throughout. Truong’s art is a masterclass in how to draw almost anything in a straightforward, simple way, from a horseshoe crab to an antiaircraft gun, while it still managing to express character and the beauty of Vietnam.
Time Shifters by Chris Grine. Scholastic Graphix, 2017. 9780545926577. 272pp.
Gene: One of my favorite graphic novels ever is Chickenhare by Chris Grine. You ever seen it?
G: It’s about a half chicken half rabbit who is captured by a guy who collects really strange animals. There’s a bearded turtle and other weird things. Grine hasn’t done a new graphic novel for a while. Chickenhare was originally published by Dark Horse in black and white in 2006, and it was republished in color by Scholastic in 2013. I’ve been hoping that another Chris Grine graphic novel was on the way since then. And then this arrived, his new book.
I had no idea what it was going to be about, but I cleared my schedule and grabbed a beer and read it straight through. And it is fan-tastic. If I’d read it first maybe I’d love it more than Chickenhare…
It opens with a very sad bit, two brothers, Kyle and Luke, being forced to jump off a cliff into a very shallow pond. Luke is fine but Kyle hits his head and dies. Luke, a week later, when his mom is trying to comfort him, he sees a crazy lightning storm in the woods near his house. (Aren’t the colors beautiful?)
S: They are!
G: He goes to investigate and runs into — dun dun dun! — a skeleton in a spacesuit, a mummy, and vampire Napoleon. (He just wants to be known as “Napoleon.”) They lose a device which allows them to move through dimensions, and they end up with Luke’s flashlight instead. Luke puts the device on his arm and then they’re after him. They’re working for some big bad boss. And they’re about to grab him when suddenly from out of nowhere appears —
S: This dinosaur chicken with a button on his head?
G: (laughing) This is very hard to explain. It’s a dinosaur from an alternate dimension where they were even more birdlike (so this one has a beak). It’s name is Zinc. There’s a ghost girl, Artemis. A scientist whose name I cannot remember. And robot Abe Lincoln. They are trying to keep the multiverse safe I guess…they grab Luke and take him to another universe in an amazing burst of color.
S: Oh yeah, that’s gorgeous.
G: And they land in a world that’s the old west but populated by bugs. Lots of spiders driving stagecoaches and wagons. Luke finally snaps and tries to run off and then passes out. (laughing)
Continue reading “Chickentime”
Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence. First Second, 2017. 9781626722804. 185pp.
When Mabel (a blue alien, at least to us) tries to teleport a harmless alien (to her, it’s all relative) to her family’s spaceship as part of her homework, she accidentally gets Avani, a young girl who doesn’t enjoy being a part of Flower Scouts. Avani’s parents are hoping the group helps her make new friends — they just moved. But Avani is into things most of the other girls aren’t: rodeos, punk, and hip hop. But I digress.
Onboard the spaceship, with the help of a translating comm badge, Mabel and Avani hit it off. Mabel is a Junior Star Scout trying hard (and probably failing spectacularly) to finish up some awesome badges: piloting, jetpacks, lasers, collecting, xenoscatalogy. That all sounds awesome to Avani. She joins the troop and starts having secret off-planet adventures. She really wants to go to Camp Andromeda with the rest of the troop, but she needs her parents’ permission to go. Spoiler: she finds a way around this. I can’t wait for some parent to object to this book in their kid’s library because the main character lies to her parents. At Camp a rivalry develops between her group and a troop of toot breathers (aka methane breathers) that drives the second half of the book. Avani’s love of rodeo comes into play at the end.
It’s amazingly colorful and action packed, and there’s a sense of low-stakes, not quite life-or-death adventure that I think a lot of younger kids will love without getting too freaked out. This awesome graphic novel should be in every school and public library.