Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Cardboard Kingdom

This is the final book I am writing about this month that I reviewed for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con earlier in June. It really took me by surprise just how moving and heartfelt this book was. It is about a neighborhood that is full of imaginative children who like to engage in pretend-play. They build lots of structures and costumes from cardboard, with each chapter being focused on an individual child. At first, I thought this was just going to be a light look at a bunch of kids playing together, and I have to admit that, art aside, I thought it was going to be pretty forgettable. But after a couple of tales, I was struck by a few things.

First, all of the characters are memorable and nuanced. They come from different family configurations and backgrounds. They are racially diverse. Some may seem like types initially, but getting to see them and their lives quickly disabused me of the notion that they were simple caricatures. They have different interests and distinct personalities. Some want to play out fantasies, while others want to be business people. Some want to be superheroes to help others; some want to be monsters or villains to exercise their power. By the end of the book, I felt like I had known some of these children during my own life.

Second, the issues that they have to deal with are realistic and contemporary. Some come from multi-parent homes, others from same-sex families, or single-parent households. Some deal with abusive or harsh relationships. Some are trying on different gender identities. I feel that the cast of characters is aptly diverse and reflective of modern life in the US. Although it comes from the viewpoints of children, this book grapples with issues of identity, family, and finding one's place in the world.

Third, this book is deceptively complex and engrossing. Later in the story when there are some older kids who come in as bullies and wreck a lot of their work, I was genuinely concerned for the young kids and horrified by what I was reading. This book is gripping, and it sheds an intimate light into the inner lives that children have to life, warts and all. Not all of the stories here resolve well, but they all show what can happen when you have genuinely good friends. I found myself in love with these characters, and it's a book I will read again and again.
The book cover says that the author is Chad Sell, who illustrated the whole thing, but there are different writers (including Jay Fuller, David Derek, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Manuel Betancourt, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Cloud Jacobs, Michael Cole, Barbara Perez Marquez, Vid Alliger, David Demeo, and Chad Sell) penning individual chapters. In a helpful move, all contributors have a short bio in the end papers. Sell has a very strong, colorful art style that I found very attractive and inviting. I very much liked his technique where he switched back and forth visually from the reality of what the kids made and the fantasy play they were engaged in.
Sell speaks about his life and work in comics in this interview. Or if you prefer to listen to a podcast interview, here is a good one at Comics Syllabus (Hi, Paul!). This interview with many of the book's creators offers multiple insights about the stories. This interview touches on the logistics of tackling this project with so many contributors.

This book has been met with much praise and award nominations. It has received multiple starred reviews, such as the one from Publishers Weekly that concluded, "Imagination, these kids prove, can erase what seem like unbridgeable differences." In their starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it "a breath of fresh air," and added that " this tender and dynamic collection is a must-have for any graphic-novel collection." Esther Keller called it "a lovely book with bold artwork." Elizabeth Bird raved, "Chad Sell and his cadre of clever writers are here and they might just be the wave of the future we’ve been waiting for."

The Cardboard Kingdom was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer a preview and more here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Another of the finalists in the Middle Grades category for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con, Sheets is a ghost story with a few twists. 11-year-old Marjorie Glatt is the protagonist of the book. She faces trouble on three fronts: first she's a sort of pariah at school; second she is dealing with her mother's death and father's depression; and third she is running the family business, a laundromat. As if these obstacles were not enough, she gets more heaped on her plate. A scheming entrepreneur Mr. Saubertuck is trying to sabotage her business so he can turn the space into a yoga studio, and a ghost named Wendell starts showing up and treating the place like his very own spa.
After dealing with a few episodes of sabotage and ornery customers, Marjorie figures out what Wendell is and tries to enlist his aid. Unfortunately, he's not the most reliable sort and is also prone to telling lies. Without spoiling too much, she finds a way to prevail, and this book resolves pretty happily. Still, overall, the book is rather bittersweet.
For me, the best aspect here was the character work, which is strong. Marjorie is very put upon, but she is also strong and persistent and you really feel for her and her plight. Wendell is a complex sort of enigma, and Marjorie's dad is a mess who just cannot seem to get it together. But especially I must say that Mr. Saubertuck is the most reprehensible and vile villain I have encountered in a comic in a long time. I found him utterly contemptible in a visceral way, even though he turns out to be rather pathetic. In the end, the characters made Sheets a very moving and memorable read.

This book is the first original graphic novel by Brenna Thummler. She has previously collaborated on an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. She speaks more about making Sheets in this interview. She also elaborates more on it in this article related to its Free Comic Book Day offering.

The reviews I have read of this book have been mostly positive. Publishers Weekly called it "a smart story about friendship and grit." Johanna Draper Carlson found the book uneven and wrote, "Thummler has some areas to work on, but the combination of laundry, sheets, and ghosts is clever." Noah Berlatsky called it "a fairly standard YA coming of age story, which combines realism and fantasy deftly, if somewhat predictably." Zarik Khan described it as "incredibly endearing and heartbreaking." Gwen and Krystal also had a lengthy discussion about it at the Comics Alternative podcast.

Sheets was published by Lion Forge Comics, and they offer a preview and much more here. And, good news, there is a sequel coming out in 2020, called Delicates.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Hidden Witch

One of the finalists in the Middle Grades category for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con, The Hidden Witch is the sequel to The Witch Boy. After the events of the first book, Aster is now allowed to learn the ways of magic. He begins his studies under the guidance of his grandmother, but there is a catch. She asks him to help her with his great-uncle Mikasa, who almost killed him and his family. Aster struggles with his fears and trepidation on this front when another issue arises.
His non-magic friend Charlie has been tethered to a "fetch," a dark magic being that is typically forbidden. So, there is clearly some other player in the field here, though it is a newcomer who is hidden from the family and their familiars. Both plots fold into each other in an interesting manner, and like the first book in the series, I think that its real strength lies in its nuanced characters and their relationships. This book offers an exploration of what constitutes family and also friendships. It also explores the concept of evil and how redemption might be found from unlikely sources. It was very suspenseful and also moving, a great way to tie up the plot threads left after The Witch Boy.

I am a big fan of this book's creator Molly Knox Ostertag. I love the first work of hers I encountered, the webcomic Strong Female Protagonist, which has been collected in two trade paperbacks from Top Shelf, and I also very much enjoyed the sci-fi tale The Shattered Warrior she drew. She speaks more about her work on The Hidden Witch in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Esther Keller wrote that "it’s even better" than its predecessor. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that contained this insight, "Ostertag’s sophomore effort is every bit as wonderful as its predecessor, with continued strong worldbuilding, lovely large and bright illustrations, and its approachable and diverse cast that runs a true-to-life spectrum encompassing white-, tan-, and dark-skinned characters as well as same-sex relationships." Rebecca Williams opined, "This story’s multiple sub-plots bring a richness to a story that illustrates the author’s storytelling talent."

The Hidden Witch was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer a preview and more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

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!