Thursday, April 30, 2020

Sincerely, Harriet

Today, I feature another nominee for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. Sometimes you read a book that defies categorization in a wonderful way. Sincerely, Harriet was that sort of book for me, a very pleasant surprise that did unexpected things with its characters and plot. The main protagonist here is Harriet, a teenage girl living in a new apartment in Chicago during the 1990s. Because of her medical history, she has to stay isolated there, with only her mother and downstairs neighbor, an older African-American woman named Pearl, as company. Cursed with an overactive imagination and lots of free time, Harriet begins to create all sorts of sinister backstories.

Harriet is also a writer, and she sends off lots of postcards to her friends from summer camp but does not get replies. She finds writing as an outlet though, and even begins to learn more about and from Pearl that both fires her imagination and gets her to explore the more mysterious parts of the building and her own psyche. I am being rather vague with my description of this book, because I found that it defied my expectations so much that I took great joy in seeing how things unfolded and how the various characters revealed things about themselves and their pasts.

This book contains lots of strong emotions, from the loneliness of dealing with seclusion, to the dread of having to treat a serious illness, to the demands of maintaining family relationships under difficult conditions. Harriet herself is very fleshed out in terms of characterization, as complex a character I've encountered in a graphic novel. I also think that the artwork is delicate and nuanced so much that it conveys subtle emotional moments in brilliant fashion.

This book's creator is Sarah W. Searle, and she has made a number of other comics, including the Victorian-era graphic novel romance Sparks. She also did the Hedy Lamarr entry in the recent Noisemakers anthology I reviewed last month. She speaks more about her work on Sincerely, Harriet in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Heartfelt and heartwarming, highlighting the power of story to both conceal and reveal." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that it "isn’t a book to instantly fall in love with. It’s one that quietly paints a picture of an uncertain young woman whom many readers will sympathize with." Erin Partridge opined, "The story of Harriet & Pearl encourages us to think beyond our immediate family when seeking support for chronic or invisible illnesses. It also suggests several creative coping outlets that readers may find useful."

Sincerely, Harriet was published by Graphic Universe, and they offer a preview and more here.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Pilu of the Woods

Pilu of the Woods was another nominee in the Middle Grades category of the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. It is a sweet and moving book, featuring a girl named Willow. She has experienced a big loss in her life, and she contains a tempest of emotions, which she tends to unleash on her older sister. One day she is out in the woods with her dog Chicory when she meets up with a tree spirit named Pilu.
It turns out that Pilu has run away from home and is lost in the world. Willow takes it upon herself to help Pilu find her way back, seeing many of her own experiences embodied by the tree spirit. Pilu is literally a force of nature though, and many of the emotions she and Willow both feel start to take physical manifestations, leading to great peril.

I do not want to reveal much more, to prevent spoiling the story, but I do want to impress just how human and heartfelt this book is. It deals with complex emotional relationships and does so in nuanced and realistic ways. I found it very easy to relate and care about these characters, and they are portrayed in vibrant ways. The artwork, with its manga-inspired characters and muted coloring, excellently conveys feeling and emotion, and the storytelling is very kinetic.

In retrospect, I can see many similarities to the classic movie My Neighbor Totoro, which I have watched with my kids about 100 times, as both works feature a pair of sisters, a professor father, and an encounter with a forest spirit. Also, both have a powerful emotional impact and strong characters. This book is not derivative in any way to the movie, and I think it is a great companion piece to it for anyone who is a Studio Ghibli fan. I loved this book, and I feel it has much to say about loss, family relationships, and dealing with turbulent events. It's a real gem.

Pilu of the Woods is the impressive graphic novel debut of Mai K. Nguyen, who also has a couple of self-published comics to her credit. She speaks more 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 lovely graphic novel focusing on confronting our inner feelings and how we express them." Samantha Puc wrote, "This middle-grade graphic novel will appeal to readers of all ages, but its aesthetics are firmly rooted in the perspectives of its characters, which is utterly delightful." Publishers Weekly added, "Effectively navigating grief, anger, and their place in the world, the characters in this debut show without didacticism how to engage with tough emotions."

Pilu of the Woods was published by Oni Press, and they offer more info about it here.

Monday, April 20, 2020


With the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards winners announced earlier this month, I thought I would highlight some of the fine books I read as part of my role as Assistant Chair of the Middle Grades Jury. First off is this book, Hicotea, which was a nominee in the Middle Grades category and is also a good book to read this time of year with the 50th Earth Day just around the corner.

This book's creator Lorena Alvarez won the 2019 Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award during the Eisner Awards. Hicotea is her second graphic novel, a sequel to Nightlights, featuring the same protagonist, Sandy, only in a different setting that makes no reference to the first book. Here, she and her class take a trip to a local wetland to gather specimens for science class. She happens upon an empty turtle shell, and then ends up in a magical space that is part museum/part library/part portal, curated by animals and full of all sorts of paintings, books, and other works about the natural world.  

While in this magical (or is it imagined?) space, Sandy learns about nature and also a number of threats it faces. These threats are embodied by dissecting tables, polluted ponds, and a sinister flock of black birds, from which Sandy has to use her wits and imagination to escape. This book works in a very organic manner, and I was impressed by how it features a strong environmental message without being didactic or preachy.
And as you can see from the excerpts above, the artwork is one of the major draws in this book. It is gorgeously and lushly illustrated, full of exquisite double page spreads. The characters are full of life and emotion, environments have strong tones, and the storytelling is complex and satisfying. This book is one well worth visiting and revisiting.

All of the reviews I've read of this book have been celebratory. Brigid Alverson called Alvarez "truly gifted." Johanna Draper Carlson opined that "the images are worth getting lost in, and the books can be looked at over and over, with new things discovered every time."  Gene Ambaum wrote, "The drawings, and particularly the colors, are absolutely dazzling."

Hicotea was published by NoBrow Press, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Congratulations, 2020 Excellence in Graphic Literature Award Winners!

A couple of days ago, Pop Culture Classroom announced the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, even as they had to postpone the Denver Pop Culture Con to November. I was proud and honored to serve as Assistant Chair for the Middle Grades Award Jury. Below you will see the complete list of winners (with links to ones I have reviewed), though I plan to highlight some of the other notable submissions I read in the next few weeks.

Congratulations to all the winners and to PCC for another great year!

2020 Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards Winners

Book of the Year

  • White Bird: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio (Random House Children’s Books)

Mosaic Award

  • Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (First Second)

Best in Children’s Graphic Literature

  • Fiction Akissi: More Tales of Mischief by Marguerite Abouet & Mathieu Sapin (Flying Eye Books)

Best Middle Grade Graphic Literature

  • Fiction – White Bird: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio (Random House Children’s Books)
  • Nonfiction – Guts by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic)

Best in Young Adult Graphic Literature

  • Fiction Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (First Second)
  • Nonfiction King of King Court by Travis Dandro (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best in Adult Graphic Literature

  • Fiction – The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis (Drawn & Quarterly)
  • Nonfiction A Fire Story by Brian Fries (ABRAMS Books)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Deadendia: The Watcher's Test

Deadendia is a tough book to describe, but an utterly enjoyable one to read. It is about Barney, who has left home and seeks refuge (and a job) as a janitor in a horror-themed amusement park called Dead End. His boss (and friend) Norma is ornery but caring, and he is also accompanied by his faithful dog Pugsley. The beginning parts of this book read sort of like a work-centric sitcom, with petty squabbles and personal drama where Barney and Logs (the guy who runs the log flume ride) may or may not start dating. Then, things take a Buffy the Vampire Slayer type turn, and they learn that the park is actually a portal to hell.
From here, things get really weird with ghosts, demons, time-travelers, and glimpses of an apocalyptic future. I loved the twists and turns of the plot, even when things get a bit hairy and complicated. This book was a delight, because of its various fantasy adventures balanced well with strong characters and emotive moments. In particular, the sections where we learn about Barney's gender identity as well as why he is currently homeless because of his relationship with his family ground everything emotionally and in reality.

I brought up BTVS earlier, and it is one of my favorite shows ever. The highest compliment I can pay this book is that it brought up similar sensations as a read it. I liked how the trip of main characters interact, and I thought that there adventures were well balanced in terms of being entertaining but also raising real stakes. This book was an enchanting amusement, full of bold characters, vibrant artwork, fun plotting, and well designed demons and monsters.

Deadendia is the creation of Hamish Steele who first got on my radar for his hilarious and profane debut graphic novel Pantheon. He is a freelance animation director and illustrator from London, UK, and this book began as a pitch for an animated series (you can see the episode here). You can read more about his early visions of this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Amanda MacGregor described it as "sweet, funny, and enjoyably, delightfully weird. " Publishers Weekly wrote, "A Steven Universe–like aesthetic and a full palette of bold, contrasting colors grace a diverse cast of characters (attendant pronouns specified), from trans haunted-house janitor Barney to hijabi carnival-attraction operator Badyah." Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a wild ride."

Deadendia was published by NoBrow Press, and they offer a preview and more here. Those who like to read online can find the original and updated webcomics here.

Also, the second book in this series just came out. I am excited to check it out!

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Crossover

This book is an adaptation of the 2015 Newbery Award-winning novel, and it relies heavily on text language. Most likely this is due to preserving the verse from the source material, but I still feel it is a very engaging and moving book. Its main character is 12-year-old Josh Bell, the star basketball player on his junior high basketball team. He is very confident and flashy, wearing his hair in dreads. He revels in the attention he gets from his athletic prowess. He is also influenced heavily by hip-hop culture, and his voice is full of flavor and verve, as you can see from how he introduces himself in this book.
Josh plays along with his twin brother Jordan (JB), and the two of them are very close until a new student (whom he calls "Miss Sweet Tea") complicates their relationship. He seeks advice on how to deal from his dad, a former professional basketball player, and less so from his mom, who is the vice-principal at their school. All of these relationships have there own tensions, which make for all sorts of drama and intrigue that get heaped on top of the ups and downs of individual games and the competitive season.

I found this book to be very engrossing and affecting. The artwork was very expressive, and I loved its interplay with text. The expressions and actions are very clear, and the storytelling is able to go between the bombastic aspects of athletic competition as well as more quiet moments of reflection or emotional responses. Sometimes adaptations of novels can be done in a loose or quick fashion, but I this one is very thoughtful and successful. I have not read the source material, but this book really left an impression on me as I could not put it down.

This book was written by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile. Alexander is a best-selling author of over 30 books, including Booked and Out of Wonder. Anyabwile is a veteran artist who is best known for the Brotherman series of graphic novels.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Marissa Moss concluded, "This is a graphic novel for people who don't like graphic novels, a sports book for readers who don't like sports books. It's a strong story that breaks through genres, well told through a magical combination of words and pictures." In a starred entry, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Flashy and engaging with emotional depth—a slam-dunk thrill." Esther Keller wrote, "I think that visual learners will absolutely love this adaptation, and I will be highly recommending it to students — even if I can’t categorize it as standard."

The Crossover was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and they offer a video preview and more info about it here.

For those interested in hearing more of the novel, author Kwame Alexander read the book aloud during this time of self-quarantine and "shelter in place," and you can find each update on his Twitter feed.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend

Just Pretend is the first book in the Benny and Penny book series, aimed at younger readers. They are young mice, with Benny being the older brother to little sister Penny. In this book Benny tries to avoid playing with Penny, because he wants to play pirate by himself. He keeps telling her that she's too little and afraid to hang out with him, but over the course of this book (spoiler) he turns out to be a fraidy cat who needs his little sister to rescue him.
This book was a joy to read, and both of my sons (ages 2 and 4) have wanted to read it multiple times. The illustrations bring to mind classic children's book characters; they are adorable and full of expression and life. The situations, like a brother trying to trick his sister to take or nap or get her to play hide and seek, then "forgetting" to seek her, are relatable and familiar. I've not read other books in the series, but now I just may have to.

This book's author, Geoffrey Hayes wrote over 50 books for children over his career. His first love was comics, though, and he published six Benny and Penny books toward the end of his life. He spoke about his career and work on Benny and Penny in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have sung its praises. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, "Jazzy, multipanel layouts add a contemporary dimension to simply worded episodes about an eager younger sister and standoffish brother who relish their rivalry more than they admit." Greg McElhatton praised the artwork, "His colored pencils are just gorgeous to look at, rich in detail and shading, and his mice are nothing short of adorable." Usha Reynolds concluded, " Hayes has created a thoroughly charming and witty book that begs to be read over and over again."

Just Pretend was published by TOON Books, and they offer a preview and more info here.