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Brain Camp

“Something isn’t quite right at Camp Fielding” is the premise for a summer camp from hell experience for a pair of young teens.

I actually read this YA graphic novel a few years ago and never reviewed it, and while recently taking a walk through my local library I spotted it and checked it out again. I also re-discovered why I didn’t review it, it just wasn’t that great, but Kathleen and I are honest in our reviews and I can share reviews even if they aren’t completely positive.

Jenna and Lucas are underachieving teens who mysteriously are selected for an all-expenses-paid summer camp, that they never applied for, under the premise that it will boost their college readiness skills. Their parents eagerly agree and off they go the very next morning arriving a week later than most campers. These two misfits bond with Dwayne and the three immediately notice that something is very off at the camp. Campers seem to be growing intellectually in leaps and bounds, but a strange bird-like creature is controlling the camp directors and feathers ominously appear in connection with unexplained events. When Dwayne is sidelined it is up to Jenna and Lucas to figure out what is happening and try to save all the campers from an insidious plot.

Faith Erin Hicks is a favored author/artist of mine (Friends with Boys, the Nameless City trilogy, Pumpkin Heads and Comics Will Break Your Heart), although in this book she strictly provides the art. And the art is what elevates this meh graphic novel. She draws appealing characters and really shows emotions and nuances that help push the narrative forward.

Taken in parts there are some good elements in the story- there is an attempt to show some racial and socioeconomic diversity, issues with growing teen bodies are addressed, and there is an interesting supernatural twist. But stitched together it didn’t quite work. As I said earlier, the art by FEH elevated the story and I have read many books by her since.  I believe a YA audience will enjoy this story and art as they consider how they themselves would save the day like Jenna and Lucas did.

-Nancy

Go With The Flow

A friendship story. Period.

Go With The Flow is an empowering book about friendship, pushing back against injustice, and yes, menstrual periods. The story revolves around four sophomores- Abby, Britt, Christine and new student Sasha. When Sasha unexpectedly has her first period at school and leaks through her pants to her horror, the other three girls take her under their wing and help her get a pad and a change of clothes. While in the bathroom they discover the pad dispenser is empty, as usual, which angers them. But their kindness leads to a friendship with Sasha and soon their trio is now a quartet.

The narrative takes place over a school year, as the four girls navigate school, crushes, bullying and of course their changing bodies. Abby, in particular, takes it upon herself to object that the school administration doesn’t prioritize women’s health and access to sanitary supplies, while they always find the money for the football team. She steps up her protest by staging provocative art about periods in the building that gets everyone’s attention, yet puts her friendships at risk. Abby is later able to achieve a broader audience with a blog post that goes viral and is able to raise money that will go to schools to help with providing access to supplies to students.

What I appreciated was the varied home experiences of the girls. While two girls come from two-parent homes, one lives with her single mom, and another with her Grandma. One girl is questioning her sexuality, while another faces an unknown medical future as she possibly suffers from endometritis. When Sasha’s mother finds out she had her period, she doesn’t offer her any advice, she just silently hands her supplies with no guidance on how to use tampons. This is true to life for some girls who gain their knowledge through their peers and now a book like this. Not all the narrative threads are tied up, but I found that refreshing, for we are only looking at a window of time in their life.

The illustration were cute and anime-like and will appeal to a middle school audience. Each page had typically three to five panels and they flowed well, but there was enough variety with splash pages and some blog entries to mix it up a bit.  Appropriately, the color palette is red. The art will remind you of Raina Telgemeier’s, which is praise indeed.

I applaud the author and illustrator, Williams and Schneemann, for taking a taboo subject and making it completely relatable. This is a perfect book to put in the hands of preteens, for it can serve as a primer for what to expect. This sweet tale about bodies, friendship and activism is a winner.

-Nancy

Are You Listening?

Bea is alone, trying not to be scared walking down the side of the road, when she’s picked up by the least likely person imaginable. Lou is the local mechanic and remembers Bea from working on her family’s cars. The two young women, both in denial that they’re running away from something, decide to ride together through West Texas. Though they are practically strangers, they start to connect and form a friendship of sorts, especially after picking up a cat who’s gotten lost. On their way to Lou’s family, they decide to reunite Diamond with her family in the town of West – but no one can tell them where it is, and it’s not on any map Lou owns. The closer they get to West, the more curious and perilous their road becomes. Will these two perfect strangers stick together as things get rough, or go their separate ways?

Tillie Walden keeps getting better and better. Both her art and her writing have improved significantly over the years, and this volume is no exception. They are so closely intertwined it’s nigh impossible to talk about one without the other.

This volume looked and felt more manga-like to me. The characters are rendered stylistically and without much realism, but each was still recognizable. The landscapes too, are stylized – they could be anywhere at all out in the wilderness of the American West. We flip often between the cramped space of Lou’s car and the vast, empty landscapes, which at once forces the reader to be an uncomfortable passenger with Lou and Bea, and yet all alone at the same time.

Great swaths of color are used here: moody, cold blues and purples, dull oranges and pinks. The detail that impressed me most were the circles of light used to convey the passing of streetlights as the characters drive by. The colors suit the story, which is set in winter, perfectly, as well as the secrets the characters are hiding from each other and the isolation they feel even as they are stuck together in a tiny car.

This surreal, yet very real, story is ultimately a muse on human connection. A must-read for any fan of Walden’s work, and for those who like a dash of surrealism in their graphic novels.

– Kathleen

Walden, Tillie. Are You Listening? 2019.

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.

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.

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