Saturday, June 15, 2019

Making Friends

I am taking this month to highlight some of the titles I read for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented earlier this month at the Denver Pop Culture Con. Making Friends was a book I was excited to read because I had read a couple of titles by its author Kristen Gudsnuk in recent years. It takes its title literally, because it is about a teenage girl named Danielle who inherits a sketchbook from her great-aunt. Normally, this is not out of the ordinary, but it turns out the sketchbook is magical and can bring to life anything drawn in its pages. Danielle (Dany for short) is into anime, which takes an unfortunate turn as one of the first things she draws is the head of Prince Neptune, an evil alien overlord. Luckily, it only being a head makes it concealable, but (spoiler) it eventually figures out a way to wreak havoc.
Where this book really takes an intriguing turn is when the isolated Dany uses it to create a popular newcomer to her school, Madison Fontaine, to be her best friend and change her social status. Dany's plan has lots of unexpected wrinkles, biggest of which is that Madison becomes cognizant of being a fictional creation with no real family or home. Also, her being under Dany's control brings on some dark overtones. On top of this bunch of strange social dynamics, Dany also has to contend with and foil the evil plans of Prince Neptune, which brings a huge, unexplained catastrophe to town.

I found Making Friends to be a fun book that turned my plot expectations on their heads. It features interesting characters and a good amount of suspense. I was also impressed by how it made this magical premise work with "real world" repercussions. My only gripe would be that I felt that ending seemed a bit rushed in terms of the whole narrative, but overall I felt the book was exceptionally good.

Like I noted before, it is the creation of Kristen Gudsnuk, who has also created a couple of titles Henchgirl and Modern Fantasy I have enjoyed. Her artwork is expressive and features lots of little gags peppered throughout, which I found to be a funny and rewarding bonus. She speaks about her various works in this interview.

Making Friends was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer more info about it here. And good news for those who like me who like this book: it's getting a sequel.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race is another book I reviewed for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. This one was fun for me for a few reasons. First off, it had a lot going on in a good way. Clem is the orphaned daughter of two archaeologists, only here the setting is a sort of extreme archaeology where drivers are given clues for treasure sites and then have to speed off in souped-up battle vehicles in order to be first to claim the prize. There are lots of competitors in interesting and deadly vehicles, and the event is cut-throat. For instance, there is one giant, armored battle wagon driven by large, sentient crocodiles. They are not to be taken lightly.
You would think that this race would not be the place for a young girl, but she has few prospects and is living hand-to-mouth. She also has specialized knowledge and skills. Clem is recruited (even though she is underage) to drive for the team led by her parents' former assistant, a shifty guy she had lost contact with. In the course of events, Clem learns some shocking secrets about him and his relationship with her parents, has to contend with the deadly Ironwood Race, and finds out that she is a pretty good extreme archaeologist. Also, she travels with her android brother named Digory who helps her along the way, and I very much liked their repartee and relationship.

There was much I liked about this book. It has a simple, sturdy plot. The characters are types of a sort, but they are engaging and easy to root for or boo. Best of all, the world and character designs really shine in the artwork, which features top-notch storytelling. This book left me breathless with its action sequences. It's a vibrant and exciting read.

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race was a collaboration between writer Jen Breach and artist Douglas Holgate. Breach has written a few comics and books, including the self-published Maralinga and Something's Amiss at the Zoo. Holgate is a frequent collaborator with Breach, and he has drawn a host of other comics and graphic novels, most notably the The Last Kids of Earth series.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "Indiana Jones meets Mad Max in a whirlwind as exciting for teens as it is for middle-grade readers." Elizabeth Bush called this book's premise "an action-lover's dream." Patrick Hayes wrote, "As soon as I was done, I wanted to read more."

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer a preview and more here. It is listed as a #1, so I hope we get to see more books in the series, though so far I have seen nothing solicited.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Kate's Really Good At Hockey

This past year, I served as a judge for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con. As part of my duties, I am charged with reading and rating a bunch of books, and I thought I'd take this month to highlight some of my favorites from this year's submissions.
Someone's excited!

As a big fan of the sport, I was excited to read Kate's Really Good at Hockey. It is about a teenager from Nashville who, like the title says, is really good at hockey. She's so good that she gets invited to a prestigious hockey camp in Denver, Colorado. There, she is not so much the big fish in the small pond but comes to see what it's like to play with others who are just as good, if not better, players.

There are obstacles Kate has to face on ice, including a couple of French-Canadian skaters who get under her skin and the coach whom she has long admired from afar but is pretty hard on her performance and demeanor. Off the ice, she also has to deal with a few issues. While at the camp she comes to stay with her grandmother, with whom she has had a pretty distant relationship. They start off icy, with Kate being tasked with specific chores she does not appreciate.
Kate does not really get why her mom made her stay there, but over time learns a couple of family secrets that put a different spin on things. Over the course of the book, Kate learns much about herself, her family, and the game of hockey. I very much enjoyed the characters, the plot, and the artwork, and I'd love to see more books like this, or even a series about these same characters.

Kate's Really Good At Hockey was written by Christina M. Frey and Howard Shapiro with art drawn by Jade Gonzalez. Frey is an editor and writer, and this site may or may not be hers, as I am not sure if there are two people with the same name who live in Maryland who work on books. Shapiro is an accountant by day and publisher by night, and he has written and published several comics, including a few other graphic novels about hockey. Gonzalez is based in Chile, and she has worked on a series The Oswald Chronicles. There is more info about this book's creation in this article.

I had a tough time finding many reviews of this book, but they were all were positive. Laura Astorian wrote, "The illustrations and inks pop and are engaging, the characters are emotive, and the hockey is full of action." Tonja Drecker added, "It's wonderful to see a middle grade book with girls and hockey, and one that hits the game with all that hardness the game holds." Kristen opined, "I like the dedication that Kate displays – even in the face of adversity – and would think she could be inspirational for young hockey players."

Kate's Really Good At Hockey was published by Animal Media Group, and they have more info about it here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

2019 Excellence in Graphic Literature Winners!

This past weekend I was proud and glad to attend the 2019 Denver Pop Culture Con. I served on the jury for the Middle Grades category of the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, presented by Pop Culture Classroom, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

Here is the entire list of winners:

·       2019 Book of the Year: Berlin by Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly)
·       2019 Mosaic Award: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Adult, Nonfiction: Monk by Youssef Daoudi (First Second)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Adult, Fiction: Berlin by Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Young Adult, Nonfiction: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Scholastic)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Young Adult, Fiction: Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Dorkin (Sourcebooks)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Middle-Grade, Nonfiction: The Faithful Spy by John Hendrix (Abrams Comic Arts)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Middle-Grade, Fiction: Crush by Svetlana Chmakova (Yen Press)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Children, Nonfiction: The Eye That Never Sleeps by Marissa Moss and Jeremy Holmes (Abrams Comic Arts)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Children, Fiction: Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Titri (First Second)

Congratulations to all the winners!

There were so many great books that I will spend the rest of the month highlighting some of the ones I found exceptional. Stay tuned for more tomorrow!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Hangry

Sometimes a book just comes into your life at the right time, and for me right now that book is Hangry. It is a picture book that uses comics to tell its story, about a small reptile that simply wants to explore culinary delights while visiting a big city. Unfortunately for many, the best hot dog shop in town (Hot Diggity Dog) is closed for a vacation, and the poor reptile gets increasingly angry and hungry until it grows into kaiju-sized proportions and wreaks havoc. Not even a truck-load of cabbage or broccoli can sate its hunger, although they both result in a giant belch. A hotdog vendor does intervene to help feed the poor reptile, but a pigeon makes matters worse...
As you might can tell from my summary, this book is fun and funny. It features colorful, bombastic artwork, sprinkled with visual gags. The premise is silly but well executed, and the story is quite pleasing to my 3- and 1-year-old sons, who both love to have a book read to them while they eat. This one makes them giggle and also eat, and the 3-year-old wants to hear it on a loop, at bedtime, and even wants to take it to preschool. That's a huge endorsement. I like reading it aloud, too, as it gives me lots of chances to be overly dramatic, chew the scenery, and also share my love of giant reptile monsters with a new generation. It's a win for everyone!

Hangry is Drew Brockington's picture book debut, but he is no stranger to the world of comics, as he's published four graphic novels in the CatStronauts series. Also, he's got a really cool sounding name, and I look forward to checking out more of his work.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews wrote that "both caregivers and small children will find much to chuckle at." Publishers Weekly praised the artwork with its "fun visual asides." Kate Quealy-Gainer opined that it would make for "a lively storytime performance."

Hangry was published by Little, Brown Young Readers, and they offer more info about it here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

New Kid

New Kid was recommended to me by fellow graphic novel aficionado Zach Barnes, and I am glad he turned me onto it. It is a rare book, in its view of a scholarship student going to a private school. Riverdale Academy Day School is a launching pad for success, and Jordan Banks's parents decide it is the best way for him to go. He's African-American, which puts in him in the minority at that new school, and he's really unsure if he belongs for many reasons. First, he wants to be an artist, and he feels that art school might be a better path for him. Second, he's from a family with modest means, and most of the students at RADS are super-rich patricians, some of whom have legacies there.

What really stood out to me about this book was how it depicted Jordan's various plights with humor, heart, and nuance. His parents want what is best for him, although they also have their disagreements about this situation. Jordan has to navigate a new space while dealing with racial and class issues. People often do not speak to him, and when they do they call him by the wrong name. Furthermore, he has to make new friends while also maintaining his relationships at home and making sense of both worlds. In part this struggle is embodied by the subtle transformations he makes each day as his dress and demeanor change over the course of the long bus ride to school. He has to assume several identities and navigate multiple realities, which this book shows in a way that drives home what many young people have to do in order to get by on a daily basis.
The book is laid out in multiple chapters, episodes that follow him across the school year. There are multiple plot threads, and overall I'd say the narrative is more observational than dramatic. But those observations are sharp, astute, and often heartfelt. I also very much enjoyed the sequences where we get to see Jordan's artwork and its humorous commentary on his life in and out of school. All of the characters are interesting and well portrayed as individuals who I enjoyed getting to know the over the course of the book, and I'd love to have another opportunity to revisit them in a sequel. I feel that this book has much to offer as food for though and also as a keen and emotional look at teen life. It is excellent for reading and re-reading, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Jerry Craft wrote and drew this book. He has drawn multiple children's books and graphic novels in the past, and he is known for his work on Mama's Boyz, both as a comic strip and in four books. This article sheds light on his work on New Kid, as does this interview.

Every review I have read about this book has been glowing. Elizabeth Bird summed up, "More than just the sum of its parts, Craft has created a book with guts, that kids will want to read multiple times. Funny, whip smart stuff." Victoria Jamieson called it "tender and tough, funny and heartbreaking." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "An engrossing, humorous, and vitally important graphic novel that should be required reading in every middle school in America." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review that ended, "This engaging story offers an authentic secondary cast and captures the high jinks of middle schoolers and the tensions that come with being a person of color in a traditionally white space."

New Kid was published by HarperCollins, and they offer an audio excerpt, teacher guide, and more info here.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Mera: Tidebreaker

Aquaman is one of my favorite superheroes and always has been. When I was a kid, I watched reruns of his original cartoon series, had some cheesy toys, and have followed his adventures in comic books. These were my first introductions to him and his wife Mera, and right now with their hit movie they are pretty visible. They are so visible in fact that DC Comics decided to use Mera’s story to launch their new imprint DC Ink, which is geared toward a young adult book-reading audience. As you can see from the trade dress, they recruited successful young adult authors to write these books, and their names are displayed prominently across the top of the cover. The artists, even though these are comics that rely heavily on visual storytelling, are listed in smaller font toward the bottom of each cover. It seems pretty apparent to me that they are looking to make an impression in the young adult book market.

All of this business talk does not describe the book though, and still the question remains of how good it is. I am happy to say that I enjoyed reading it, and it is pretty dense but not in a bad way. Mera’s character has a long, complicated history that this book tells in a way that a new reader could easily get into. She has superpowers, and can control water via telekinesis. She is a princess of Xebel, an underwater region that is currently ruled by Atlantis. Her people do not particularly like this situation, and Mera takes part in covert acts of rebellion, which can put her father the king in serious hot water. Also, she is supposed to marry Larken, a prince from the Trench, as a way to unite their regions in an alliance. 
Although she has known Larken pretty much her whole life, she bristles at having these decisions made for her. In order to break out of these multiple constraints on her life, she decides to go behind her father’s back and assassinate the crown prince of Atlantis, Arthur (who comics readers know will grow up to be Aquaman). She feels that would free Xebel from Atlantis's rule and also prove her worthy of choosing her own spouse. There are a couple of complications in this plan. Arthur, it turns out, lives on the surface world and does not know anything about Atlantis. Mera has to find a way to infiltrate his life on dry land, which she does, but the more she learns about Arthur the more she finds him kind, noble, and innocent of the actions being perpetrated by Atlanteans. She starts to admire him, and feelings develop that make it hard for her to complete her mission. 
That is about as much of the plot I will reveal without spoiling things, and I felt that this book covered a lot of ground. I know young adult books often get dismissed as being light and breezy, but this book was substantive and weighty. There was much going on, a lot of work put into developing the character and the intricate plot. I enjoyed seeing how all the moving parts fit into each other, and I think this book would be great for both superhero fans, young adult book readers, and also those looking for a good action/fantasy tale. It also ties in well with the film’s version of these characters, if that might be the entry point. Although it does not feature the characters as I am familiar with them, it recasts them in a contemporary way that is attractive and interesting. This is a Mera who is her own person, a strong, complicated protagonist who I think would be popular with a new generation of readers.

This book was a collaboration between writer Danielle Paige and illustrator Stephen Byrne. Paige is known for her YA novel series DorothyMust Die, and Stealing Snow. Byrne is relatively new to comics, and he is currently working on the Wonder Twins mini-series published by DC Comics. His art is well detailed, reminiscent of animation, and the underwater scenes are especially well rendered and highlighted by the book's coloring. Paige speaks more about her work on Mera: Tidebreaker in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been pretty positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "Although classically formulaic, evoking star-crossed lovers and those buffeted by fate and constrained by royalty, the journey here is deep and satisfying." Kirkus Reviews called the plot "a bit convoluted" and described Mera as "a sassy, take-no-prisoners heroine who may look like Disney’s Ariel but who is imbued with grit and substance." Ray Goldfield called it "a surprisingly mature comic, essentially a tale about child soldiers in a war they didn’t start."

Mera: Tidebreaker was published by DC Ink, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.