Friday, June 15, 2018

Brave

I have been reviewing books that have been nominated for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Award in the Middle Grades category, and the winners will be announced this weekend. Today's book received an Honorable Mention, and it is a sequel to Awkward, which I reviewed last month. This book is also set at Berrybrook Middle School, but it shifts to focus on a new protagonist Jensen, who is also a member of the Art Club. He's a bit oblivious about a lot of things, and gets stuck in his own head a lot.
The irony!

He's failing math class and needs tutoring. He goes through his school day like it's a series of video game levels he has to pass, so he's not so cognizant of the frequent bullying and harassment he faces. Also, he sort of fades into the background so much that he might not be so much anyone's actual friend. He learns a lot about himself over the course of the book, from reflecting, from his friends, and from his teachers, but none of it seems forced or artificial like an afterschool special might.

What I love about this book are two things: Its characters and situations are vibrant and relatable to me. It has been a long while since I was in junior high (what they called it back then), and there were scenes in this book that really brought me back. There are many life and social issues that readers can take in and think about because they are presented so realistically and dynamically. Also, this book is full of a diverse cast of characters who feel genuine. Second, although this is the second book in a series, it's instantly accessible to new readers. There are passing references to familiar characters and events that past readers would get, but none of them are essential to the plot so new readers don't feel like they are missing something. I think that is a tough trick to pull off, and I am impressed by the overall quality of this book. It's fantastic, and I feel it should be a super-popular choice for middle school students.

This book's creator Svetlana Chmakova is a celebrated comics artist who has won a slew of awards and accolades for her works. Along with this Berry brook Middle School series, she also has published Dramacon, set at a comics convention and the supernatural themed series Nightschool. For those interested in her work and career, this article is a good one to check out.

The reviews I have read of this book have been universally glowing. Kirin at the Islamic School Librarian wrote that it offered a "good message, that is more self empowering than preachy." Matthew Burbridge opined, "I consider BRAVE one of this year’s must-reads for anybody who has a difficult time understanding the problems and pain that bullying can cause." Esther Keller called the artwork "magnificent" and added that the book "really captures so many realities of middle school life, as if Chmakova just left there herself."

Brave was published by Yen Press, and they offer a preview here. The next installment in the series, called Crush, comes out soon.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dawn and the Impossible Three

Fun fact: This is the first Babysitters Club graphic novel I have ever read, which is weird considering how popular they are and how instrumental they were in also launching Raina Telgemeier's career. Going further, I don't think I've ever read a Babysitters Club novel either, even though they were ubiquitous when I was growing up. I always felt that they must be formulaic crap, but boy was I shocked by how much I liked Dawn and the Impossible Three.

This book, which is also a finalist in the Middle Grades category for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, follows the exploits of Dawn, the newest member of the eponymous club. She is new in town, having just moved from California. She has difficulty adjusting to the New England locale, dealing with her mom's dating, and also juggling the interpersonal relationships of the club. To top things off, she ends up babysitting frequently for the Barrett family, an undertaking that gets complicated by the mom who is struggling to be a single parent in terms of managing her children and a household. There are many serious, real-life issues at play here, and they offer real stakes that propel the narrative in strong directions.
Over the course of the book, Dawn learns much about personal boundaries, how to communicate with others, and in general about being a mature person. What is more, I felt that the characters and situations were complex and all treated with dignity and care. I definitely went into this graphic novel expecting some generic claptrap but instead I found myself reading a very evocative and affecting book. I will definitely be checking out some of the other books in this series.

This book is Gale Galligan's debut graphic novel, but she has experience as a production assistant on a number of other books like Teen Boat!Astronaut Academy: Re-Entryand Drama! She speaks about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A worthy addition to the series, albeit a bit more somber than its forerunners." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that Galligan has "got a good sense of storytelling." Kathryn White summed it up, "Great fun for BSC fans new and old. Highly recommended."

Dawn and the Impossible Three was published by Scholastic, and they offer more info about it here. Galligan is working on the next entry in this series, Kristy's Big Day, which is expected to be published later this year.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Soupy Leaves Home

For the next couple of weeks, I will be reviewing books that have been nominated for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Award in the Middle Grades category. First up, Soupy Leaves Home is the tale of a girl named Pearl set in Great Depression-era United States. Her father is abusive, and finding no recourse she runs away from home. Not really knowing what she is doing, she disguises herself as a boy and falls in with a hobo named Ramshackle.
Together the duo look out for each other and tramp all over the country. Along the way, Pearl takes on the name Soupy, and she learns to take care of herself, deal with with railroad bulls, navigate the complex system of hobo life, and also read the signs left by others. Still, as much as they get to know each other, both Soupy and Ramshackle keep important secrets from each other.

I felt that overall, this book was a well crafted piece of historical fiction, with likeable characters and a few parallel plots that tied together well. Probably the strongest part of the book is the characterizations, with Soupy and Ramshackle really standing out. I especially liked spending time with Soupy as she grew and became more confident and capable over time. I do not really want to spoil much, by the end of the book, there are multiple revelations about the main characters, some happy and some sad, with lots of provocative thinking about social class, gender, and gender roles. And none of it is as stuffy as I just made it sound.

This book was a collaboration between writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Jose Pimienta. Castellucci is a prolific writer with many books to her credit, including YA novels and comics like The Plain Janes and Shade the Changing Girl. Pimienta has drawn a number of other comics, and his best known work is probably The Leg, a kooky piece of historical fiction starring Santa Anna's amputated leg(!). Castelluci speaks more about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A compelling graphic offering that explores relevant gender roles and self-identity through a historical lens." Stephanie Cooke wrote that it's "a book that will resonate in everyone’s heart and you’ll be happy that you checked it out." And I agree strongly with Eric Kallenborn's observation that "the last act of the book is powerful and emotive."

Soupy Leaves Home was published by Dark Horse, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

All Summer Long

All Summer Long is a story about adolescence and relationships. Bina is thirteen years old, and during the summer after seventh grade, her life starts changing in all sorts of ways. To start with, her best friend and next door neighbor Austin is going away for a month to summer camp. Not only does his absence leave a void in her typical social life, he also has been  acting weirdly of late.

After a set of circumstances, Bina ends up hanging out with Austin's older sister Charlie. Charlie is typically loud and obnoxious, but she and Bina like the same kind of music, so they bond over that. Over time though, Bina learns that Charlie might be using her to get out and also see her sort-of-boyfriend Jae.
Ah, sibling love!
What I admired most about this book was how it handled its characters and their interactions. As you can see, the situations they are dealing with are pretty ordinary and relatable. I was impressed by how well developed and interesting all the characters were, not falling into stock stereotypes but surprising me with how they respond to particular situations. Also, there is lots of clever dialogue and interesting conversation. Oftentimes, when a comic depends on text heavily, it can be a slog, but this one is a joy to read, moving along at a crisp and effervescent pace. I very much liked getting to know these characters, and better yet, this volume is the first of three, so I'll get more chances to see how they mature and evolve.

This book's creator Hope Larson is an Eisner Award winner for her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. She also has written and drawn the young adult story Chiggers. She has written a number of comics, notably the graphic novels Knife's Edge and Compass South, as well as comic book series, one about a teen detective Goldie Vance and the other a run on DC Comics' Batgirl. She speaks about her work on All Summer Long in this interview.

All the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a coming-of-age story as tender and sweet as a summer evening breeze." Elizabeth Bush called it a "compact but deftly developed graphic novel." Publishers Weekly praised the character work as well as "dialogue that’s fresh and funny."

All Summer Long was published by Farrar Straus Giroux, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Secret Coders: Potions and Parameters

In this fifth volume of the Secret Coders series, things really kick into high gear. First off, the evil Dr. One-Zero's plot is hatching, with dire outcomes for our heroes and their families, which include ducks with teeth(!).
Second, there is a lot more happening with the protagonists' inter-personal relationships as they face life and death situations: Eni confesses having more-than-friend-feelings for Hopper, which causes her pause and also confusion. Josh admits he feels a bit like a third wheel and confesses feelings of inadequacy when someone whom he thought was his friend betrays them. So those revelations all add a more human wrinkle to the proceedings, which I much appreciated. Third, we finally learn about the origins of Dr. Bee, which have a surprising link to the classic book Flatland. Finally, the stage is set for the grand showdown and climax of the series, which is coming in the next volume. It was exciting to see so much happening and paying off here, and longtime readers of the series will be jazzed.

In addition to all those plot developments, this book also contains a few excellent explanations and activities that teach coding and geometry. And like the other entries in this series (you can read all my reviews here), it is wonderfully written and drawn. There is a severe dearth of quality graphic novels for young readers about mathematics and computer programming, and these books fill both of those needs admirably.

This book/series is a prolonged continuation of the collaboration between Gene Yang and Mike Holmes. Yang is one of the premier comics creators working today. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and was also the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He has won the Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese and explored themes of immigration, belief, identity, and growing up in his many works, including The Eternal Smile, Level Up, The Shadow Hero, the twin volumes Boxers & Saints, and his current run on New Superman. Holmes is best known for his work on the weekly comic True Story and drawing Adventure Time comics.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive, with one caveat. Brett Schenker "loved" it, though he does note that the whole series reads like a school lesson and should not be read out of order. Shannon Buchanan wrote that it was "a very effective way to teach rudimentary programming skills," though she was disappointed that it was not a stand-alone volume. Kirkus Reviews noted, "While the coding instruction’s as top-notch as ever, in this installment it’s interpersonal dynamics and characters that, satisfyingly, take center stage."

Potions & Parameters was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and more about it here. You can also visit the series' official website for a lot more info.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Awkward

I came to read this book, Awkward, in a backward way. While judging books for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, I got a copy of its sequel Brave. I read and very much enjoyed it, so when I came upon this book at the local library sale I totally snapped it up. I had read work by these books' author Svetlana Chmakova years before (the series Dramacon, which was more of a soap opera/romance set at comic conventions), and I very much was impressed at how she crafted characters and relationships. This book is similarly excellent, only in a middle school setting.

Awkward follows the exploits of Penelope (Peppi) Torres, a transfer to a new school who on the first day tries to stay below the radar but accidentally knocks over a geeky boy named Jaime. When people start to tease her that she is his girlfriend, she shoves him and runs away. This event opens a rift between the two, and it weighs heavily on Peppi because 1. she knows she should do the right thing and apologize, and 2. she thinks Jaime is a good guy and she (small spoiler) develops a crush on him.
 
 

Complicating that awkward situation, the two also end up belonging to two clubs (Peppi the Art Club and Jaime the Science Club), that are actively hostile toward each other, playing pranks and getting into a competition where only one will get a table at the annual Club Fair.
What makes all of these happenings work is that the characters in this book are vibrant and well defined. They are complicated and interesting, not playing into stock stereotypes and often offering up surprising insights. Also, there are a bunch of gags, funny expressions, and an overall light-hearted, fun tone about the everyday goings-on at school as well as the idiosyncrasies of people's relationships with the friends and family. I know that it's been a while since I was that age, but this book made me remember some of the tentative, confusing, and intense feelings that go with being a middle schooler. I loved getting to know the characters in this book, and the plot, with its competitions and over-the-top hi-jinx, is suitably fun and heartfelt.

This book's author Svetlana Chmakova has won a slew of awards and accolades for her works. Along with this series and Dramacon, she also has published a supernatural themed series called Nightschool. She speaks more about her work and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. The School Library Journal's Mike Pawuk called it "another shining example of kids comics done right," and added, "It’s got plenty of heart and soul." I agree with Amanda M. Vail who wrote, "Once you pick up Awkward, you’ll have a hard time putting it down." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "I enjoyed spending so much time with Peppi and her classmates, seeing them grow and learn. Events resolve in surprising but rewarding ways, as the kids get to know each other as people instead of stereotypes."

Awkward was published by Yen Press, and they offer more info about it here. Like I wrote, this book has one sequel already, Brave that I will be reviewing in the near future, and a new one coming soon entitled Crush.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The True Death of Billy the Kid

While reading this book I realized that pretty much all I know about Billy the Kid I know from popular versions of his story, like Young Guns or Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which means I have really only been acquainted with lots of legends and lies about the guy. This book, The True Death of Billy the Kid, is not a full biography of the infamous outlaw, but it is a well researched and fully realized account of his last days: After being captured, tried, and found guilty, Billy enacts a daring escape and goes on the lam for a time before he is finally tracked and gunned down.
As you can see from the excerpt above, this book features lots of action and intrigue. It is a relatively short work and a page-turner as well. The art is crisp and beautiful to behold. And unlike most books by this author, this one features larger pages, which help feature the maps, floor plans, and lots of other details that help bring the story to life. I feel that this book is pretty economical in terms of storytelling, but it is still affecting and fascinating. It was a fun read, plus it taught me a bunch to boot.

Long time readers of this blog may have realized that I am a huge fan of Rick Geary's work. He has been making comics for decades now, winning major awards for his efforts, and telling all kinds of historical tales in graphic novel format. He is meticulous in detail and research, and I love his specific art style. He is especially known for his Victorian Era and 20th Century series of murder tales. Go check out these reviews and see what I have written about them over the years. He talks about his work on this newest book in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "While the Kid has been treated to ample renderings in film, television, and prose, Geary makes his story feel fresh." Johanna Draper Carlson stated that "Geary’s art is well-suited for this kind of reporting, as it’s straightforward in showing expression and setting. With its pen-and-ink, old-fashioned flavor, the reader feels transported back to an earlier time." R.C. Harvey wrote, "As always, he is scrupulous in covering the known as well as the unknown ground."

The True Death of Billy the Kid was published by NBM, and they have a preview and more info about it here. This book was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign a few years ago.