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Pumpkinheads

I have been waiting on this graphic novel by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks for years and it is finally here!  An article was written about this duo collaborating back in January of 2014 and as I was then a fan of Rowell because of Eleanor & Park, I checked out Hicks’s work and loved her books too. But the wait was so long…

Pumpkinheads does not disappoint and is so adorbable! I eagerly scooped up a copy that I had ordered for my library’s graphic novel collection before it hit the shelves (working at a library has its perks). The story takes place on Halloween night at a popular pumpkin patch farm, and if you aren’t from the Midwest you might not know how big of a deal that pumpkin patches, corn mazes and apple orchards are in the fall. Attending is an EVENT. Friends Josiah and Deja, who have worked at the patch for years, are facing their last night as employees as they are seniors and will be at college next fall. Josie is morose about leaving the patch, while Deja wants to grab the opportunity to live it up, and that includes pushing Josie to talk to another employee he has a crush on.

What follows is an adventure around the patch that pushes them both out of their comfort zone and on a journey of discovery about themselves. What I love about Rowell is that she captures teenage life perfectly. Senior year is a difficult time for many, as you are almost at the end of your school career and thinking of the different path you will soon be taking, yet you need to live in the here and now. It’s easy to get caught up in your head about choices you should make in the future and lose sight that one can still enjoy the moment they are in and that they can build a bridge between the two. The characters are believable, with spot-on conversations and interesting backstories.  Deja’s personality is especially nuanced, and I liked how she was portrayed. Her race, sexuality and size do not define her, they are just a natural part of who she is. And while Josie was more a rule-follower, he ended up having a believable arc of self-discovery and learned how to not be so passive.

The art by Hicks is so fresh and inviting, and is truly reminiscent of local patches that are similar in a way to amusement parks. Hicks captures emotional moments perfectly and the pacing builds to a very satisfying end between Josie and Deja. Her backgrounds included fun details and the recurring runaway goat carried through with a certain someone getting a well-deserved comeuppance on the last page. Colorist Sarah Stern uses a warm palette with a lot of oranges (of course!), golden yellows and mellow purples. The colors are evocative of autumn and bring the story further to life. A map of the imagined patch is on the inside covers, which further world-builds and an enjoyable interview between the two creators concludes this fun book.

This graphic novel was everything I hoped it would be and I will be singing its praises to the teens at my library. I believe this book will become a classic to be revisited every fall.

-Nancy

Rowell, Rainbow & Faith Erin Hicks. Pumpkinheads. 2019.
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The Divided Earth

The Divided Earth is the final book of The Nameless City trilogy, and wraps the narrative up in a thrilling and satisfying conclusion!

Preceded by books The Nameless City and The Stone Heart, the story takes place in the fictional city Daidu, named by the Dao’s, the most recent conquering nation. However, due to centuries of conquest, the inhabitants of many different nationalities simply call it The Nameless City. This politically important Asian city sits alongside a mountain pass and is the only route to the sea, making it a critical location for trade and military movements. An ancient people carved a passageway through the mountain, but the technology they used has been lost to the ages.

The main characters are teen Kaidu, a Dao recently of the distant Homelands who is sent to the city to train as a soldier, a street-wise girl named Rat who has lived in the city her whole life, Ezri, who is the General’s son and who has just taken drastic measures to rule the city and his dangerous bodyguard Mura. These four young people have just discovered a mystical tome in the monastery that they believe has powers to dominate all the surrounding nations.

Ezri and Mura take the book that holds the formula for making Napatha, a powerful fire that can destroy armies and eat through stone, and plan to use it for the Dao nation to remain in control of the city. Both have complex and diverging reasons for wanting this power, and author Faith Erin Hicks deftly weaves in their back stories to explain their viewpoints. We see in the above panel how Ezri desperately justifies his actions, and his layered portrayal shows that he isn’t crafted to be a pure villain in the story.

Additional characters come into play, as adults from Kai and Rat’s life play integral roles in trying to thwart the war that Ezri and Mura are intent on starting. The conclusion has Ezri and Kai, two young men who come from privileged upbringings, face off. Paired with that, is the poignant confrontation between Mura and Rat whose backgrounds include tragedy and broken homes. These matches between the pairs show how similar starts in life don’t always lead to the same paths; as love and support from others and your own personal integrity can help shape you.

The conclusion is satisfying, with a three year time jump to show a realistic wrap up to the story. A few details were a bit pat, but as the story is geared towards young readers, the arcs for the four main characters ended appropriately. I was invested in the city’s inhabitants and would love to visit them again in a future story by Hicks. As such, I was excited to be approved for this book by NetGalley, so I could get a sneak peek at how the series concludes.

Hicks has crafted a story that tied in adventure, friendship and the cost of war.  She creates a believable world inspired by 13th century China and her artwork was wonderful with the precision of her backgrounds and how she captures emotion.  The coloring by Jordie Bellaire is lovely- and her work should get a shout out, as a colorist’s work establishes an aesthetic that is a crucial part of the storytelling. This captivating trilogy is a must read, not only to a YA audience, but also with older readers who will enjoy the nuanced tale.

-Nancy

The Stone Heart

Faith Erin Hicks’s second book in her The Nameless City trilogy shines!

In the first book we were introduced to the fictional city Daidu, aka Dandoa, named by the Dao’s, the most recent conquering nation. However, due to centuries of conquest, the inhabitants of many different nationalities simply call it The Nameless City. This politically important Asian city sits alongside a mountain pass and is the only route to the sea, making it a critical location for trade and military movements. An ancient people carved a passageway through the mountain, but the technology they used has been lost to the ages. The main characters are teen Kaidu, a Dao recently of the distant Homelands who is sent to the city to train as a soldier, and a street-wise girl named Rat who has lived in the city her whole life. Their unlikely friendship helps prevent the General of All Blades from being assassinated in book one.

In this second book, the plot is more character driven, and Kaidu and Rat’s back stories are fleshed out. Not only do we learn more about their families, we get a brief interlude that goes  further into world building, for Hicks has created a believable and exquisite city based on 13th century China. In addition, we are shown an authentic friendship and realistic banter between Kaidu, Rat and others.

We are also given background on the General’s son Ezri and his mysterious green-eyed bodyguard Mura. Ezri and Mura are shown to be calculating and murderous, and both make decisions that can only lead to the ruin of the tenuous treaties that the Dao nation was making with other kingdoms. They storm the monastery named The Stone Heart, which houses irreplaceable books including a mystical tome that they believe will give them powers to dominate all the surrounding nations. What they do next sets in motion the narrative for the final book The Divided Earth.

I eagerly look forward to how Hicks will wrap up this powerful graphic novel series. Her art work and storytelling are absolutely first rate!

-Nancy

Hicks, Faith Erin. The Stone Heart. 2017.

Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints is a companion set of historical fiction graphic novels that gives a unique look at the Boxer Rebellion of China between 1899-1901. This magical realism tale delivers a heartbreaking look at the violent upheaval that occurred in Chinese society during this time period.

The longer first book, Boxers, sets the stage for young Lee Boa to see how both foreigners and encroaching Christianity are changing his rural village as well as his entire country. Boa is entranced by a traveling warrior who teaches him and the other peasants a form of kung fu that incorporates mysticism. When his mentor dies, Boa and his band leave their village to roam the countryside to drive out the foreign “devils” and the Chinese Christianity converts whom they call “secondary devils”.

The story does not shy away from bloodshed. This group, who call themselves The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist, at first are viewed as noble vigilantes that take inspiration from the Gods of old and the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. But soon their commitment to saving Chinese culture ends up destroying it as their original intent morphs into extreme violence. While Boa remains a sympathetic figure, you can see the conflict in his heart as he struggles with what he feels would be best for China.

The second book, Saints, tells the story of Vibiana, a young girl who is abused by her family. Her conversion to Christianity at first is just an experiment and a way to get away from home rather than experiencing a real love of Christ. But slowly, as she learns more about it, and she is offered different opportunities than she would be given if she remained at home, she starts to actually live out the tenets of the faith.  Her inspiration is Joan of Arc, whom she sees in visions.

Boa and Vibiana meet in Peking (now known as Beijing) when the Boxer Rebellion comes to a head. Both are fighting for a cause they feel strongly about and we see where their loyalties lay. We see nuanced views from both perspectives and see the extremes that people will go to in the name of faith and country.

To put the stories in context, in an interview with Austin Chronicle, author Gene Luen Yang said “I wanted to do two volumes because I was not sure which side in the conflict were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and I noticed connections between contemporary terrorists and the Boxers. So in a lot of ways, I was trying to write the story of a young man who was essentially a terrorist, and I wanted him to be sympathetic, but I also didn’t want the book to feel like I was condoning terrorism. So it was kind of a fine line.”

The art is deceptively simple, with a very muted color palate. More color is used in the first book when Boa and his band of rebels transform into Gods of the Opera. Readers are not spared from the blood of the victims, but it is only right to be truthful to the fact that this rebellion resulted in much loss of life, both for the Chinese and the foreign Westerners. Yang draws the people and the traditions of his ancestral land with pride and dignity, and you can tell he spent much time researching the era and region to draw it accurately.

It seems almost a trope to say that this duology is thought provoking, but it truly is. The magical realism both added and detracted from the power of the story for me. Created for a YA audience, this magical element helps show what the young protagonists were thinking, and drives the narrative. As an adult I struggled with it, for I wanted a more realistic rendering of this time in history. But ultimately I believe this set of books is perfect for youth to explore this little known rebellion and will hopefully lead to them studying more about it. Huge kudos to Yang for creating this atypical graphic novel series that will have readers pondering their faith and political views.

-Nancy

The Nameless City

Faith Erin Hicks + Avatar: The Last Airbender vibe + mythology + friendship = must read!

I am reading The Nameless City with my library middle schoolers for our graphic novel book club early in August based off several requests of theirs for this book. Despite my love of FEH’s book Friends With Boys and my excitement for her upcoming collaboration with Rainbow Rowell, I had not picked this up on my own. I typically am drawn to more mature storylines, and as this graphic novel is marketed to younger readers, I had not made an effort to read it until I needed to. But the story is anything but basic.

The story takes place in the great city Daidu, aka Dandoa, named by the Dao’s, the most recent conquering nation. However, due to centuries of conquest, the inhabitants of many different nationalities simply call it The Nameless City. This politically important Asian city sits alongside a mountain pass and is the only route to the sea, making it a critical location for trade and military movements. An ancient people carved a passageway through the mountain, but the technology they used has been lost to the ages.

Young Kaidu, a Dao recently of the distant Homelands, is sent to the city to train as a soldier and meet his father General Andren. While out on his first walk with his father through the city streets he spots a young girl who is sitting on a roof and who nimbly runs away across the rooftops.

Image result for the nameless city

Kai has reason to meet her again the next day when he slips out to explore the city unescorted, which is against the rules. He and the street-wise girl, named Rat, develop a solid friendship despite their differences, and she teaches Kai how to quickly move about the city overhead in an extreme style of parkour.

As Kai gets to know his bookish father, and the inhabitants of the city, he realizes that the 30 year reign of the Dao is not as stable as he thought. Undercurrents run through the political organization with the head leader, General of all Blades, and his son Erzi training new recruits to maintain their hold on the city. When Rat and Kai hear of a plot to assassinate the head leader they take action and much adventure occurs.

The art by FEH is spot on. She has created a believable and exquisite city filled with details in the architecture and in how she draws it’s varied people.  While many times Hicks gives her characters extreme Manga-type expressions, other times she is more subtle and the variety is appreciated. Colored by Jordie Bellaire, the  aesthetic is subdued with a pleasing earth tone palette.

One good reason in waiting this long to pick up the first volume is that I can pick up the second volume The Stone Heart immediately, and then the concluding volume, The Divided Earth, will be available in September. I look forward to reading the entire trilogy and highly recommend this series!

-Nancy

Image result for the nameless city
Hicks, Faith Erin & Jordie Bellaire. The Nameless City. 2016.

The Prince and the Dressmaker

Frances is a tailor in a dressmaker’s shop, but she dreams of more. She wants to design her own dresses one day, and become famous. They’re in Paris after all, and anything can happen. Through a series of (un)fortunate events, she ends up at the royal palace, making clothes for the royal family! She works closest with Prince Sebastian, who is guarding a secret. Frances makes dresses for him, because he loves to dress in them and go out at night as the Lady Crystallia, the famed beauty and fashion icon. Sebastian is less interested in the hunt for a bride and more interested in helping Frances with her designs. Frances is fond of Sebastian, but keeping his secret means keeping herself a secret, too. She’ll never be able to make a name for herself, because if she does, Sebastian’s secret will be revealed. Will she find contentment in anonymity, or will she find a way to reach her dreams without revealing Sebastian’s secret?

After all the publisher’s glowing reviews, I found this one less charming than it was made out to be. Everything happened too neatly, and the happy ending was less than believable. It is for middle-grade readers though, who will absolutely adore it. It’s easy to read, with wider spaces between panels and easily digestible chapters. The art is also easy to move through: the characters are rounded, the backgrounds uncluttered, and emphasis is on expression and, of course, movement of dresses. I can definitely see how it can be used to explain to kids the idea of gender-fluidity – Sebastian is male, yet is interested in feminine things, and young readers may see this quality in themselves or their friends. As a jumping point for this discussion, it’s wonderful; on it’s own literary quality, I was left wanting.

– Kathleen

Wang, Jen. The Prince and the Dressmaker. 2018.

Best Reads of 2017

As we did last year, we went through all the graphic novels we read and reviewed this year to give you a Top 10 list – the best of the best!

RoughneckNancy: Roughneck is a beautifully told standalone tale of a brother and sister’s quest to reconnect with one another and their cultural identity written and illustrated by the talented Jeff Lemire. Lemire handles the storyline of Derek and Beth’s Cree heritage with grace and respect. The reality of native families becoming disenfranchised from their cultural heritage, is mirrored in the excellent book The Outside Circle, which also deals with First Nation individuals whose circles of community were broken which led to fragmenting generations of people with no connection to their tribe anymore. The ending is open to interpretation, and while I at first looked at it one way, re-reading it I saw a more melancholy but poignant way of concluding the story.

 

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Kathleen: A review of this book is upcoming, but last week I read this graphic memoir, Lighter Than My Shadow . The illustrations were all drawn by hand by the author, who suffered from anorexia when she was younger. This is the story of her recovery, and all the difficulties and choices that came with it. I don’t want to spoil my own review (edit-added link!), but suffice it to say for now that the illustrations are among the most beautiful and effective that I’ve seen this year.

 

Nancy: This graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s story, Kindred, was extremely well done. Butler’s original novel, published in 1979, was a ground breaking story that liberally dipped into historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy within a time traveling framework. The author herself called the story “a kind of grim fantasy”, and this adaptation shows just that. This was a heartbreaking story, and through the juxtaposition of Dana’s (the main character) experiences in two different centuries, this fantasy novel actually gives a highly realistic view of the slavery era.

 

 

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Kathleen: Beauty is an adult fairy tale in graphic novel form. It tells the story of Coddie, a fishmonger, who wants nothing more than to be beautiful so she’ll stop being the laughingstock of her small village. When a fairy grants her wish, however, she quickly learns that she can now have whatever she wants – at a steep price. The child-like art belies the serious messages and themes within. The figures are loose and almost caricature-like. The writing is phenomenal, with unconventional characters and fairy tale tropes turned slightly askew. If you like your fairy tales with more of a brothers Grimm than Disney flavor, this is perfect for you.

 

Nancy: Although the Superman: American Alien has Superman in the title, it is really Clark Kent stories. The seven stories are chronological and fill in the gaps in the Superman canon. We start with Clark as a boy learning how to fly, move through his adolescence, and finally settle in his early years in Metropolis. Every story is strong, and fits in seamlessly with what we already know about Superman. I highly recommend this book, for it humanizes Superman. The seven stories are all excellent, and they flow and connect into one another, to form the larger picture of who Clark Kent is and who he will be. A must buy for Superman aficionados!

 

5820769-21Kathleen: Unfortunately, DC Rebirth has been a hit or miss for me, but the one story that I’ve consistently loved is Wonder Woman. Bringing Greg Rucka back to her title was the best decision they could have made! After discovering that she’s been tricked into thinking she could return to Themyscira at will, Diana sets out to discover the truth of herself and who has deceived her once and for all. She is vulnerable and human here, and I’ve cried shamelessly as she struggles to figure out the truth – her own truth, the truth of who she is. Greg Rucka is without a doubt one of the best writers of Wonder Woman. The art is nothing to sneeze at, either, beautifully detailed as it is!

 

Nancy: Vision- Little Worse Than A Man is as far from a superhero story as possible. While grounded in the Marvel universe, with cameos by other Avengers and villains, this book is about our definition of humanity. This quietly ominous story had such power, and felt especially moving to me to read at this time when I worry about our nation’s future. I feel some in our country have embraced a bullying rhetoric, and turn a blind eye to facts and justice for all.

 

 

 

 

91epsqx38slKathleen: The memories of her childhood ice-skating days became the subject of Tillie Walden’s graphic memoir called Spinning. The uncertainty of moving to a new city, starting middle school, and discovering her body and her sexuality make Tillie’s ice-skating routine comforting to her – until she starts questioning that, as well. The art is fantastic: only purples and yellows are used, and yellow quite sparingly, to highlight important parts of the story. Great blocks of deep purple around a single figure illustrate Tillie’s loneliness and uncertainty more than her words could.

 

 

Nancy: Briggs Land is an absolutely riveting new series about “an American family under siege” by both the government and their own hand. Set in rural upstate New York, Briggs Land is a hundred square mile oasis for people who want to live off the grid. Established in the Civil War era, the Briggs family would give sanctuary to those who wanted to live a simple life, but this anti-government colony has taken a dark turn in recent times. The village that grew within it’s fences has morphed into a breeding ground for white supremacy, domestic terrorism and money laundering. The second volume is scheduled to be released in late January, and I dearly hope it stays as strong as it’s debut volume was.

 

 

gunslinger-rebornKathleen: Like the rebel that I am, I read the graphic novel adaptation of The Dark Tower series titled The Gunslinger Born before I started the books. But let me tell you, it left me desperate for more and started my new-found obsession. The young Roland sets out with his two best friends to Mejis, where they are sent by their fathers to stay out of trouble. What they find in that sleepy little town is a conspiracy loyal to the Crimson King – and Roland’s true love, Susan, who may doom them all. I can’t say enough about the art in this book. I was in love with the stark contrasts and the way the figure’s faces were usually in shadow, leaving the reader to guess at their true intents. If the seven book series scares you, try reading the graphic novel first and seeing how fast you devour the books after that 😉

And there you’ve got your must-reads of 2017! We spanned several genres and publishers, and each of us had a DC and Marvel choice. Surprisingly Image didn’t make the cut. Here’s hoping 2018 brings us many more excellent graphic novels… we don’t think they made it hard enough for us to choose ;D

– Nancy and Kathleen

Pashmina

Priyanka Das – or Pri, as she likes to be called – is an Indian-American teenager who has a lot of questions about her roots. Her mother doesn’t like to answer her questions about India, however. The question of her father is especially off-limits. Her Uncle Jatin is the closest thing she has to a father. But once his wife becomes pregnant and her baby cousin is born, he has no more time for his niece. One day, the lonely Pri finds an old suitcase in her mom’s closet. Inside is a beautiful shawl that transports her to India whenever she puts it on. She follows her visions to India, to her family, and to her destiny.

This is an adorable little graphic novel. It’s aimed at middle-grade readers, with language that’s a little easier and simple panel sequences. The characters are so expressive and lively. The majority of the art is in black and white, but the parts where Pri puts on the shawl and is transported away are in full, stunning color. At the heart of the story is discovering who you are and learning to follow your heart and the choices you make. I quite enjoyed it as a young adult, but pre-teens will love it.

– Kathleen

Chanani, Nidhi. Pashmina. 2017.

Spinning

Tillie Walden’s routine consists of waking up at the crack of dawn, going to synchronized skate practice, going to school, going to figure skating practice after school, then going home and doing her homework before sleeping. The next day, it happens all over again. On the weekends, she competes. The routine is familiar. Comforting. During an uncertain time in her life, Tillie clings to it with all she has. Her family has just moved from New Jersey to Texas. She transfers to an all-girls private school, but still has problems with bullies and grades. She also falls in love with her first girlfriend. When everything is changing – family, friends, feelings, even skating – what will Tillie hold onto, and what will she find the strength to let go of?

I’ve been waiting for this GN for a while after reading a great review in a publisher’s journal at work. There was a picture of the cover accompanying the review, and I was immediately drawn to it – purple/yellow is my favorite color combination. I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint. It completely sucks you in and keeps you in your seat until the very end. Tillie’s story of change feels just like yours – that period in middle school when everything is changing, and you don’t know what to hold onto and what to let go of. I was not an ice skater, but her stories of the cliques of the other girls in her groups resonated with me.

The art is sparse and two-dimensional – there is often an object or figure in one panel, the background either a block of white or deep purple. Yellow is used sparingly, to highlight only important or dramatic parts of the story. Lots of negative space portrays Tillie’s feelings of loneliness and emptiness better than her words could. A beautifully rendered graphic memoir.

– Kathleen

Walden, Tillie. Spinning. 2017.

 

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