Friday, March 30, 2018

Science Comics: Robots & Drones: Past, Present, and Future

I have read all the entries in the Science Comics series published so far, and I am sad to say that this one, Robots & Drones is not one of my favorites. I can also be glad to report that it is still an enjoyable book, as it features excellent artwork and lots of interesting information. By no means is it a bad book; it just did not light my fire the ways some of the other volumes have.

In particular I felt this one lacked a hook that would draw me in and also unify the entire book. Perhaps what stuck in my craw was how hung up the book was on definitions and drawing distinctions on what defines a robot and how other devices and machines (like automatons or remote controlled vehicles) are not actually robots. It seemed to take for granted that the reader would be interested in robots and drones (and I have to admit I was and am), but it did not offer much to put a specific trajectory on that interest. The result is a lot of information, about what robots are (and are not), what computers are (and why they are not robots), and how drones fit into these configurations as well. The lack of narrative thread that left me wondering at times why things were being discussed in the order they were. I just felt like the book was hopping from topic to topic without much context (kind of like this review, eh?).

Still, I learned lots from it, like when the first robots were created (in the 1600s in Japan, in case you were curious), how the Mars rover maintains itself and its power supply, and the fact that an automatic coffee maker is in fact technically a robot. The opening vignette is a tale of the book's narrator, a fun little proto-robot named Pouli (the invention of Archytas in the the fourth century BCE), which added a playful touch to the proceedings and a much needed sense of continuity. There were also a few other impressive features, like a refresher about simple machines and a great timeline of notable robot/drone inventions over history that closes out the book. If you want to learn more about robots and drones, or if you know a young person who is into them, you could do a lot worse than select this book. It was fun to read; I just felt it was not overall as well composed as other volumes in this series.

Robots & Drones is a collaboration between writer Mairghread Scott and artist Jacob Chabot. Scott writes animated series and comics, and she has another original graphic novel The City on the Other Side in the works. Although he's got lots of credits on licensed characters' comics, Chabot I know best from his work on The Mighty Skullboy Army, which I feel is an excellent and funny series. It stars a cantankerous and sneaky robot, so I was hopeful that his artwork in this book would be equally as charming. I am glad to report it is as good, if not better, than I expected. For those interested in learning more about this book and its creators, you can read an interview with Scott here and an interview with Chabot here.

The reviews I have read about this book have been mixed. Johanna Draper Carlson was lukewarm about it and wrote, "There’s good information here, but I felt as though a lot of space was wasted on irrelevant information, leaving me confused as to just what the purpose and message of the book was." Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "A lighthearted, enjoyable introduction to a fascinating subject."

Robots &  Drones was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Roller Girl

I have had this book on my shelf for a little while now. I bought it at my local independent book store after I had read Comics Squad: Detention and thought that Victoria Jamieson's entry in that anthology was the best part of the book. Roller Girl was a 2016 Newbery Honor book and has a slew of other honors as well. The story here follows a girl named Astrid who is at a crossroads, growing up and becoming more at odds with her mother as well as tenuous with her best friend Nicole. One day the trio attend a roller derby match, and Astrid is completely blown away.
 
Soon after, they learn that there will be a roller derby camp that summer, and Astrid cannot wait to sign up. Nicole is not so keen on joining and opts instead to attend dance camp, where she has a different set of friends, one of which is very much at odds with Astrid. Complicating matters, she lies to her mother that Nicole is at camp with her, so she does not worry about her getting a ride home everyday. And adding even more to this drama is Astrid's realization that roller derby is very challenging, taxing, and tiring.
What I loved about this book was how it approached all of the physical and emotional adversity Astrid has to face in very real and relatable manner. Over the course of the book, she learns much about friendship, stamina, and herself. I felt that the characters and relationships were complex and nuanced, and that this book was done in a smart way that would appeal both to young people and adults, without insulting either audience. The ending, which focuses around Astrid's first competitive match, does not go exactly as she intended but it's a great learning experience. The conclusion was mostly sweet and just a little bitter, and I'm not going to lie but it made me tear up. I am a total sucker for a story told this well, where all the disparate narrative threads come together in such an artful manner. This book deserves all the accolades it has received (and then some!).

This book's creator Victoria Jamieson is a children's book illustrator and graphic novelist who has since published a few others since this debut. One is the stand-alone volume All's Faire in Middle School,  the other two entries in her Pets on the Loose! series The Great Pet Escape, and The Great Art Caper. She speaks more about her work on Roller Girl in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been celebratory. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and stated that "readers will want to stand up and cheer." Kirkus Reviews also gave it a starred review and wrote that it was "Full of charm and moxie." Esther Keller summed up, "This is a great summer or all-year read that will thoroughly be enjoyed by middle-grade readers."

Roller Girl was published by Penguin Random House, and they have more info about it here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nightlights

Although it is not a finalist in the middle grades category, Nightlights is another stand-out book I read while judging for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. It tells the story of a young girl named Sandy who every night when she goes to sleep  travels to incredible worlds full of strange and wonderful creatures and each day while she is awake depicts those worlds and creatures in her artwork. These activities make her an outlier in her school. She does not have many friends and gets picked on frequently. The nuns who teach her do not appreciate her spacing out and staring out windows. Nor do they like that she is constantly doodling in her notebooks instead of taking notes or doing schoolwork.
All of this changes one day when she meets the new girl in school, Morfie, who loves her drawings and wants nothing more than to see them all. Soon afterward, however, Sandy begins to wonder if Morfie is even real, and things take a pretty dark turn.

This book tackles multiple themes, chiefly how creativity and imagination work as well as how people socialize and are socialized. I feel the story is surprisingly complex for what is a relatively brief text, and the artwork is exquisite. I had never seen the work of this book's creator Lorena Alvarez before, and I have to say I am very impressed by it. Her characters are vibrant, expressive, and relatable, and she is adept at creating fantasy scenes that are simultaneously gorgeous, breath-taking, and terrifying. I loved going to this site here where I could look at her previous and current projects. Go check out her fabulous artwork! Also, for more about her work and inspirations for Nightlights, check out this interview (but be aware that it does contain spoilers).

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a deliciously hair-raising story that thoughtfully explores themes of isolation, creativity, and how social pressures can encroach on individuality." April Spisak wrote that "Alvarez has achieved something special and unforgettable with her first authorial outing." In a starred review from School Library Journal Abby Bussen opined that "Alvarez’s artwork is gorgeous, alternating between traditional panels and, in the dream sequences, vibrant spreads that spill from page to page with grace and fluidity."

Nightlights was published by NoBrow Press, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

As the Crow Flies

I read As the Crow Flies as an entry in the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, and I have to admit I went into the text with a chip on my shoulder. From the onset, I thought "young girl goes on a wilderness hike with a church group, not going to be my cup of tea." Boy, was I wrong. Much like the theme of this book, which deals with people's preconceived notions of specific experiences and social groups, I felt transformed by the insights and events depicted in its pages. As the Crow Flies is the best kind of book about identity, where it forces you to look outside of yourself and question your thoughts, values, and prejudices in a real manner. It turns out that this book was totally my cup of tea and one of the best graphic novels I have read this year.

The main story in this graphic novel follows 13-year-old Charlie Lamonte, a black, queer child, who attends an all-girl, all-white Christian summer camp. The centerpiece experience of the camp is an extended hike where the counselors teach them about the history of the place in terms of an exceptional band of independent women. Of course, their messages are replete with assumptions about religion, gender, and some race, which Charlie bristles at.
 

She feels isolated, alone, and often offended, but she comes to look at things somewhat differently over the course of the hike. Some of this change comes from getting to know Sydney, a fellow camper who has issues of her own, but some of it comes from Charlie's reflections while out in the wilderness.

I have to admit that this book, which collects the narrative of an on-going webcomic, started out pretty slowly, but about halfway through it had me hooked and totally engaged. What I like about it is that it tackles many identity issues with candor and sincerity, offering a complex look at them without offering easy or pat solutions. This book maintains a difficult balance between offering experiences that are relatable while also presenting a nuanced take on identity politics. It turns out to be both compelling as a story as well as engaging as inquiry, which I feel is no easy feat. I am very much looking forward to the follow-up book that continues this story/conversation.
As the Crow Flies is the creation of Melanie Gillman, who has been running this webcomic since 2012. It is a celebrated work, nominated for Eisner and Ignatz Awards, and the recipient of a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators. I very much admire the unique artwork in this book, done with color pencils. The characters are very well rendered and expressive, and the scenery and tone are very well suited to this tale. Gillman talks extensively about their work on this webcomic and book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been overwhelmingly positive. In a starred review from the School Library Journal, Mahnaz Dar called it "heartfelt, stimulating, and sure to spark discussion about feminism’s often less than inclusive attitudes toward marginalized groups." Caitlin Rosberg concluded, "It’s a story that embraces the truth of how bad things can be without abandoning kindness, and that’s something comics could use a lot more of." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review and called it a "brutally honest and wrenchingly beautiful story of friendship."

As the Crow Flies was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and published by Iron Circus Comics. They offer a preview and some more info about it here. It was originally published as a webcomic, which you can read here.

REMINDER: Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards Nominations Livestreamed TODAY

Just a reminder that Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards nominations from Pop Culture Classroom will be streamed live TODAY on KidLit TV at 1PM ET. I hope you can join in the fun!


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World

I am a HUGE fan of Pénélope Bagieu's comics. California Dreamin' and Exquisite Corpse were two of my favorite graphic novels in recent years, and I feel that her artwork is ethereal and gorgeous to behold. So when I got the review copy of this book I was very excited to read it. I am pleased not only to report that it did not disappoint, but that I loved this book, and it gets my highest recommendation.

Brazen is a one-person anthology of stories about strong, impactful women from across history and cultures. It is a hefty volume containing 29 mini-biographies that range in length from 2 to 10 pages, via 9 panel grids. One thing I loved about it was that I could read it a few stories at a clip or simply laze over one and then come back to the book later. The stories themselves are condensed, colorfully illustrated, and very substantive. They are also told in a simultaneously respectful and cheeky manner that I found extremely engaging and informative. This book is the best combination of art and education, and I found I learned much from it while also being quite enchanted while reading.
The women profiled range from the well known, like investigative reporter Nellie Bly and Wicked Witch of the West actress Margaret Hamilton, to the more obscure (at least to me) like Giorgina Reid and Angolan Queen Nzinga. What I appreciated, even with the ones I knew something about, was that she included lots of detail about their accomplishments and contributions to society across history. Some folks know that Hedy Lamarr was a famous actress, but they do not know perhaps that she was also an important scientific inventor.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Rachel Cooke wrote, "This book already feels like a classic, one to be loved by every girl who reads it from now until the end of time." Michael Cavna wrote "that it belongs in most every girl’s — and boy’s — hands by middle school." Rosemary at Mom Read It called it a "a must-add to your collections." Oliver Sava highlighted the lovely representative spread that follows each entry, stating,  "After the waves of information in the preceding strips, these clever, bold illustrations give the reader moments to meditate on what they’ve just read, enriching each individual history."

Brazen was published by First Second, and they have more information and a reading guide for it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards

I am proud to announce that I am a judge for the inaugural Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards to be presented by Pop Culture Classroom. You can check out the official site here for more information about the organization and its awards.

Please be sure to check back one week from today on March 15 at 1 pm ET when the award nominations will be streamed live on KidLit TV.

I am very excited to share my work on this project as well as some of the excellent books I got to read as part of the judging in the recent future. Please check back to see my reviews in the upcoming days. See you soon!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lighter Than My Shadow

Have you ever started reading a long book late at night, knowing you should probably go to bed but are so compelled that you read the whole thing? That's what happened to me when I picked up Lighter Than My Shadow. This reissue of a 2013 book just kept me entranced with beautiful, haunting, and often horrific images. I could not stop reading as I saw the multiple cycles of struggle the author went through over the years in relation to eating.
The story unfolds over a long period of time, starting with Katie's early years as a picky eater. She starts hiding food in her room, pretending to have eaten it. By the time she gets to high school, she is anorexic, obsessively counting calories, starving herself at times, exercising compulsively, and pushing herself into academics. Ignoring her own health, she spirals into an unhealthy state that requires withdrawing from school and getting medical and psychological help. Over time, she gets older, starts rebelling against her parents, falls in with a shady alternative healer, and eventually goes to art school. All the while though she is haunted by the specter of her own thoughts and anorexia, which inhibit and trouble her life.
The ways that she depicts her various mental states, the gnawing of hunger in her belly, her disassociation from her body and herself, and the way that she saw herself in the mirror are all marvels of innovative comics storytelling. Her art chops are impressive, and they go very far in expressing the depths of her feelings and misery. And although the book ends on a positive, sweet note, Green does not pretend that the struggle is ever really over and provides no pat ending. She treats her condition with the seriousness and gravity it requires, and this work seems uniquely geared to shed light on a hidden, often shameful situation that affects many people's lives. The world is better for having this book in it.
This book's creator, Katie Green, is a British artist and illustrator. This book began as an art school project but grew into something much larger and took five years to complete.She speaks extensively about her work on this book in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review from the School Library Journal, Mahnaz Dar wrote that the "straightforward text and vivid imagery combine for a powerful, achingly honest memoir." Dustin Cabeal stated that it was "incredibly impressive both with the writing and visual storytelling." James Smart described it as "gripping, thanks to its honesty and its disjunction between traumatic subject matter and sometimes childlike artwork."

Lighter Than My Shadow was published by Roar in the US. There is much more information and a preview available at the book's official website. Some of the imagery is disturbing, and there is some nudity and sexual abuse, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to deal with such features.