Middle Grades Graphica—Some Suggestions for Your To-Read Stack
Luckily, early in my doctoral program my advisor asked me to be a graduate assistant for his Teaching Literature for Preservice Teachers course, and on his syllabus was American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Reading that exquisite story began the evolution of my perspectives on graphica, and I expanded my YA reading list to include more of it. I now find myself gravitating toward YA graphica selections, especially after reading the scholarship of and conversing with colleagues such as Stergios Botzakis and David Low. So, all this background is meant to push those readers who consistently bypass the graphic novel and manga section of their local bookstore or have as yet attempted to include such selections in their curriculum. Or, at the least, refrain from passing judgement on both young and adult readers who intentionally choose these books over others.
To get you started (or, for those readers already reading graphica on a regular basis, some selections to add to your to-read list), here are some of the highlights from my book stack this past semester.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
This story of female empowerment should resonate with many young women trying to navigate the pressures related to womanhood and adolescence in both school and society. I particularly appreciated that all the main characters were women, so that their voices prevailed and appropriately limited the voices of male characters due to the thematic focus of the story. Also, the illustrations are clean and expressive, reminding me of the work of Vera Brosgul and Faith Erin Hicks (who are, unsurprisingly, also First Second illustrators). The decision to switch from grayscale when Priyanka was in the “real” world to vibrant color when she (or other characters) entered the “pashmina” world created a surreal feel for the special world. This shift in color also helps the reader understand how entering the pashmina world heightened Priyanka’s senses and feelings for India. Finally, and perhaps most important, Chanani has written a story about young women of color with Indian/Indian American backgrounds—a character that is unfortunately rare in children’s and YA literature. I imagine that youth with similar cultural backgrounds to Priyanka and her relatives would appreciate the opportunity to see someone like them and their families in a story written for youth. The story also provides a window into Indian/Indian American traditions that would help youth of other backgrounds learn about Indian/Indian American culture, issues, and successes.
Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt (Author) and Isabelle Arsenault (Illustrator)
Be forewarned: this is a story about melancholy. The main character, Louis, is grappling with understanding his parents’ strained relationship while essentially raising his younger brother because of their relationship struggles. Yet, it is an important story about alcoholism, depression, and family dynamics that asks difficult questions of the reader. Louis’s endurance, along with his continued support for his brother’s endurance, is actually uplifting, and illustrates how one can find personal success in even the most difficult situations. Britt and Arsenault chose to use an oversize presentation—the book is roughly 10 by 12 inches—which I liked because it provided more space for Arsenault’s broad landscapes and larger closeups on the faces of individual characters. Arsenault also chose to use color only for the background and not the characters, which reveals their seemingly lack of definition, which greatly contributes to Britt’s character development through her narration. Again, this story is both heart-wrenching and up-lifting, which good stories tend to be. And, yes, the raccoon on the cover plays a role in the plot.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
When I first picked up this selection by Wang, I was sure that I would not enjoy it. The cover features a young couple, a royal prince and a girl clearly from a lower-class status embraced in a dance, enveloped by a sweeping dress. So, I assumed it was a typical fairly tale story of the unexpected princess. I was very wrong. Yes, the boy on the cover is a rich prince, Sebastian, and the girl on the cover is a poor dressmaker, Frances, but that is where the fairy tale similarities end. Sebastian enjoys wearing dresses and explores the Paris nightlife and fashion scene as Lady Crystallia, his alter ego, and Frances creates his extravagant dresses. As one might expect, Sebastian hides this aspect of his identity from his parents, who are determined to find a match in marriage for the young prince. Wang’s artwork is as beautiful as Lady Crystallia in her dresses made by Frances. The lines sweep the reader through the story and the color choices are vibrant. I think this story represents diverse sexual orientation positively, although I know that some view the ending as a bit unrealistic (as the linked Kirkus review indicates), but that one critique is not enough to avoid including this novel on your graphica shelf.
Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks
This selection is the first in a series about the adventures of two girls living in a distant space station. Sanity is a budding scientist and Tallulah is her inquisitive, supportive best friend. They decide to create a three-headed cat—breaking the strict rules about such scientific experiments—which, of course, promptly escapes and havoc ensues across the space station. Despite their parents’ repeated directives to stay out of the way, the girls continue to investigate because of their belief that their cat-creation is not the root of the station’s malfunctions. I greatly appreciate the diversity of the characters, in terms of race, gender, and (dis)ability, as well as the presentation of women in science-based roles. The premise has great possibility to interest young readers, especially those that enjoy series and/or science fiction. In my opinion, Brooks’s made some questionable decisions in her artwork, as it comes across as overly one-dimensional and her choices on representing skin color might make some readers uncomfortable. However, such representations could present productive opportunities to discuss such issues around race and ethnicity, and her choices do not detract from the overall “cool” story and setting.
Soupy Leaves Home by Cecil Castellucci (Author) and Jose Pimienta (Illustrator)
There are many reasons I would recommend this book, beginning with the historical 1930s setting, which exposes young readers to an important time period in U.S. history. I imagine teachers could pair it with other YA novels about the Depression Era, such as Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, to create a robust interdisciplinary curricular unit spanning both English language arts and social studies. The primary plot of a young girl, Soupy, overcoming an abusive father and finding intergenerational friendship is not only engrossing, but also informative about the issues associated with domestic violence—particularly how the issue was viewed in the 1930s and how perspectives on this issue have shifted in our contemporary society. I also like Ramshackle’s, the older hobo that befriends Soupy on her travels, wondrous view of life and the world. He plays an almost sage-like character that shows the hurting Soupy that beauty and hope still exist, which helps her understand what she needs to do to heal. Finally, Pimienta’s illustrations are fantastic. His use of a shifting color palette—often changing from panel to panel—functions to provide mood for the story and evoke feelings in the reader. His illustrations also serve as a vehicle to drive the plot since Castellucci took a minimalist approach to providing narrative text and character dialogue for the reader. As well, his sweeping landscapes and the magic realism of his illustrations show the reader the romanticism that is often associated with the “hobo lifestyle.” Soupy Leaves Home is an important contribution to graphic novels written for youth.
Grand Theft Horse by G. Neri (Author) and Corban Wilkin (Illustrator)
My final suggestion is this nonfiction selection that tells the story of the first person in California to be charged with grand theft horse in over 70 years. Gail Ruffo is a thoroughbred trainer who advocates for more humane treatment of race horses, and developed a training regimen that both prepared her horses for racing and protected their health. She was both trainer and part-owner of a young thoroughbred that developed a leg injury. Her co-owners wanted to push the horse to race despite her strident objections, so she decides to move (and hide) the horse without their permission. Their arguments gradually lead to Ruffo being charged with grand theft horse by the state of California. As the story unfolds, the reader learns about the issues of money, power, and privilege associated with our legal system, as well as the problems with the treatment of race horses. Wilkin’s illustrations are straightforward but expressive, especially the emotions felt by both humans and horses throughout the story. Anyone interested in advocating for the humane treatment of animals will enjoy this story.
Mark A. Lewis, Ph.D.A
Associate Professor of Literacy Education
Loyola University Maryland
Until next week.