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The Midwinter Witch (The Witch Boy #3)

Aster is a boy who practices the traditionally feminine witch magic. He hopes to compete in the Vanissen’s (very) extended family’s Jolrun tournament at their annual Midwinter Festival. He isn’t afraid to show who he is, but others in his family are afraid and even angry at him for trying. Ariel is a girl without a family, who has been somewhat taken in by the Vanissens due to her magical abilities. She is still uncomfortable with the prospect of so much family all of a sudden, and isn’t sure whether or not she’d like to attend the Midwinter Festival. She’s also been having strange dreams in which a mysterious witch appears, claiming to know more about Ariel’s past. How can Aster and Ariel fit in with their family and stay true to themselves at the same time?

I felt very… confused by this story. As in, I felt I was coming in at the middle of a bigger story. One of my co-workers informed me that this book is the third in The Witch Boy series, which explains why I felt that way! I hadn’t realized it was part of a series, or I’d have started at the beginning. Though I had to fill in some plot holes myself, not having read the first 2 books, I was able to follow along well enough.

Aster’s story was the most compelling, even if it felt like Ariel was supposed to be the main character. Aster and Ariel shared the stage about half the time, but Ariel had slightly more “screen” time. Unfortunately, I was much less interested in her story of trying to find her family, than with Aster’s struggle to break traditional gender norms. In this universe, witch magic is traditionally performed by women, and shapeshifting by men. Aster’s choice to study witch magic is unprecedented – and it shows. He is to some extent worried about what the rest of his family will think, but he doesn’t let it stop him. Others, who are afraid for him, afraid of him, and angry at him for not being “normal” are the ones who try to get in his way.

There are more characters who are representative of minority races and the LGBTQ+ spectrum. In my opinion, all of them were more interesting than Ariel. Perhaps I need to read the first two books to see where and how she came in, and what her overall significance is to the bigger story, but compared to Aster’s struggle, her well-tread journey seems, well, dull. I would rather her not have been in the book at all.

Because this is a middle-grade novel, the art is soft and skews to a cute aesthetic. The figures are rounded and expressive in a cartoony way. The backgrounds are soft and not too interesting, to keep the focus on the characters. All the colors are vivid and bright.

Overall this story was bogged down by Ariel’s character and inner journey. While there is certainly nothing wrong with it, she paled in comparison to Aster’s fight to break gender norms within his family. Middle-grade readers will appreciate the easily accessible art and the wealth of normalized representation.

-Kathleen

Ostertag, Molly Knox. The Midwinter Witch. 2019.

School Library Journal reviews

I have been reviewing YA books and children’s graphic novels for the School Library Journal magazine for the last two years. I enjoy getting a sneak peek at some titles that will be coming out, as I order both genres for my library.  Reviewing is different than writing for my personal blog, as I am limited to 250-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. I’ve now reviewed twelve books for them, I shared six on my previous post, and six now. I feel it helps me as a professional, for when I accepted my job as Head of Teen Services last year, my writing for this blog and for the magazine were pluses in my favor for the library director.

The Map From Here to There

Gr 7 Up: Endearing new couple Paige and Max from The Start of Me and You are back for their senior year in this sequel about friendship and finding life balance. Over the course of a school year, Paige struggles with what choices lay ahead for her after graduation. Despite being happy with Max, she wrestles with which colleges to apply to and saying goodbye to her close-knit group of friends. Her anxiety gets the best of her and her relationship with Max begins to disintegrate; she gets caught up in her head about choices to make in the future and loses sight of how to enjoy the moment she is in. An experienced YA author, Lord captures teenage struggles effectively and shows how senior year is a difficult time for many. Teens are almost at the end of their school career and thinking of the different paths they will soon be taking, yet they need to live in the here and now. Friendship is an important part of the narrative, and the author ably shows that one does not have to choose a relationship over friends, but that they can balance both. Paige’s and Max’s journey is realistic and readers will root for them to reconcile.

Verdict: An appealing romance, at times heavy on the angst, that can stand alone but should be a definite buy where the first book was popular.

Gr 7 Up: Four friends—Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha—who have been tight since kindergarten are entering their senior year and beginning to face the realization that they will all be going in different directions. The opening chapter establishes that one will become President of the United States, but readers don’t know which one. Is it Ava, an artist who is struggling with her future choices; CJ, an earnest do-gooder; Jordan, a budding ace journalist; or Martha, a strong young woman who is facing some hurdles in life? As the novel spans a year of their experiences, a red herring is thrown in to muddy the waters as to who the future president could be. Debut author Watson creates four appealing and diverse young women; however, the narrative can seem formulaic and strives hard to check all the boxes, thus feeling like a made-for-TV movie. But this coming-of-age drama has a twist that will throw off readers as to which young woman becomes president, as all are smart and capable, and worthy of the office. Plus, the message of enduring friendships is always important for young people to read.

Verdict: A fun and light read, this book will appeal to teens who like contemporary fiction. A solid purchase.

Aster and the Accidental Magic

Gr 4-7–A move to the mountains results in adventure beyond a young girl’s wildest dreams. A strange species of gigantic birds that reproduce on a 15-year cycle is gearing up for a migration—always a destructive event. To help guide the birds, Aster’s scientist mother is building a robot. Her work takes the family to the mountains, and young Aster is initially distraught when her life is uprooted. But as she explores the countryside, she finds magic and mischief, befriends a seasonal deity, acquires a pet dog, outwits a trickster, and has the adventure of a lifetime. Aster learns to cope with the unexpected and finds solidarity with her family and new friends. The conclusion hints that more fun awaits in future volumes. Featuring simple lines and appealingly bizarre creatures, the art will entice readers. The Alps-inspired landscapes and characters are colored with muted Photoshopped blocks of color, with panels that let the busy narrative flow. At times the style turns anime-like to convey extreme moments.

Verdict: Those who love Luke Pearson’s “Hilda” series will eagerly jump on board the Aster bandwagon.

InvestiGators

Gr 2-5–In the first installment of what promises to be a wildly successful graphic novel series, Green (“Kitten Construction Company”) once again shows off his knack for pun-filled animal tales. Alligators Mango and Brash are friends and secret agents for S.U.I.T. (Special Undercover Investigator Teams), tasked with solving their first case: finding Chef Mustachio, who went missing just before he was about to unveil his latest concoction. These masters of disguise are off and running. But when there’s an explosion at the Science Factory, the duo are asked to look into that mystery, too. No matter where they go, Mango and Brash blend in seamlessly with humans who somehow never notice that they are interacting with alligators who sport vests outfitted with gadgets. Jokes, especially visual puns (“Badges?” “We’re not badgers, we’re alligators!”) and toilet humor, come fast and furious, and the clean, simple cartoon art and paneled layout are easy to follow. Kids who are tickled by Green’s irreverent humor will appreciate the drawing tips that conclude the book.

Verdict: Like the heroes of Dav Pilkey’s “Dog Man” or “Captain Underpants,” the Investigators are bound to resonate with kids.

Gr 9 Up–Cariani transforms his popular play into a fully realized YA novel of interconnected vignettes. The third-person narration opens on Ginette and Pete going to look at the stars in their hometown of Almost. Although they are beginning to fall in love, a verbal spat leads to Ginette’s leaving. Every subsequent chapter is a two-person vignette, a short story informed by her walk home past various locations. The couples experience the joys and struggles of love, with a magical realism bent, and not all the stories end happily. Of the ten couples featured–one more than found in the play, and including LGBTQ+ representation–only two characters are teenagers, so this may require some handselling to get YAs to fully connect with the stories. It will be worth it.

Verdict: For New Adult sections, theater enthusiasts, and born romantics, a charming and whimsical collection.

Gr 7-10–Recent valedictorian Rachel has been laser-focused on her goals of obtaining high grades and getting into Northwestern University. Now that summer has arrived, she can finally relax. Reflecting that she had refused to participate in many high school rites of passage, and after finding a self-help book that encourages saying “yes” to new life experiences, Rachel decides to try this approach. She’s quickly out of her comfort zone as she inadvertently becomes involved in a love triangle, reconnects with an old friend, and learns new truths about her classmates. While the John Hughes–esque narrative is rom-com in nature, Culli has crafted a more substantial book than readers might initially guess. She captures teen life and thoughts authentically and shows that the way people present their lives to the public is not always what is truly happening behind the scenes. A strong supporting cast of characters also adds depth.

Verdict: A definite purchase for YA collections, this winning book will have readers considering how a few key decisions could alter their entire lives. Lessons in taking risks, being true to yourself, and not buying into stereotypes create a truly compelling read.

It is a pleasure reviewing for this librarian’s magazine, and I hope to continue doing so in the future!

-Nancy

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Coronation (Vol. 1)

Others have entered the Labyrinth before Sarah. In fact, Jareth decides to tell Toby, Sarah’s baby brother, about one such woman as he waits for Sarah to fail the maze. In 18th-century Venice, a young woman named Maria is married to Count Albert Tyton, and they seem to have the perfect life. But Tyton has been on the run from his father and the authorities since he married Maria, a woman below his station. When his father finally catches up to him, he succumbs to the temptation of his “visions,” the goblins, and wishes his child – indisputable evidence of his marriage to Maria – away. Maria was accidentally spirited to the Labyrinth as well, before the Owl King snatched her child from her arms and sent her back. She forces her return to the Labyrinth to rescue her son. Will she prevail?

It’s hinted multiple times throughout the book that this may be Jareth’s origin story – but in the Labyrinth, where things aren’t always as they seem, who can say? 😉 This first volume is the set-up for what is sure to be a winding tale of courage and deception, just what you’d expect from an offshoot of the original movie. It will be interesting to see how Maria’s journey parallels Sarah’s as the story moves forward.

The art is superb. The colors are bright, eye-catching, and fantastical. The linework is severely precise and clean, lending a grounding element to an otherwise tumultuous story. The goblins, and some new creatures, are rendered just as if they’d stepped out of Jim Henson’s imagination. Jareth and Sarah aren’t rendered exactly as David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, but there is a great likeness and they are still instantly recognizable.

Looking forward to the next volume!

– Kathleen

Spurrier, Simon, Daniel Bayliss, and Dan Jackson. Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Coronation (Vol. 1). 2018.

The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66

A lifelong dream of author Shing Yin Khor’s is to travel on Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago. Her family emigrated to the United States from Malaysia when she was a little girl, so she grew up both in her home country and her new one. Though she spent the later half of her childhood and early adulthood in the glamorous City of Angels, she had always been intrigued by the mythical ’60s Americana that Route 66 stood for. So with nothing but the bare essentials and her dog, Bug, Shing sets off in her tiny car along the fabled road, hoping to gain better understanding of her adopted homeland, and herself.

This graphic memoir is part diary, part fact book. I learned a lot! Her personal story is littered with the history of Route 66. She divides the book into chapters by the states the highway runs through – first California, then Arizona, then New Mexico, and so on. However, the first 3 chapters are the longest, and so packed with information, that the remainder of the book feels rushed and far shorter by comparison.

Shing’s art is delightful. I can still see sketch lines of the pen or pencil beneath the watercolor, which I adore! It never feels unfinished, though. Her forms and colors are loose and quirky, more concerned with conveying an idea or a feeling than how things actually are. I think this was a good choice, so we readers could feel what was going on in Shing’s head and heart throughout her journey.

In her epilogue, she writes that she took her trip 6 months before the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. It forces the reader to wonder how the trip might have turned out if Shing, a Malasyan immigrant, had taken her trip after the election – or whether she would have taken it at all.

– Kathleen

Yin Khor, Shing. The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66. 2019.

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.

Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride

Graphic novel artist and author Lucy Knisley chronicles the story of her wedding here. She starts, of course, with the first date she and her now-husband John went on. They dated, broke up, and got back together when he proposed in her apartment in New York with his grandmother’s ring. As an artist, Lucy wanted to make her wedding completely her own. She takes readers through her process of planning and making a wedding, navigating family and friend input, and much more. And of course, she takes us through her special day at the end.

I have to admit I couldn’t read this all the way through. I skipped to the middle, then the end after the first quarter of the book. It wasn’t what I was looking for – I had been hoping to read the experiences of a fellow bride-to-be who also completely eschewed wedding traditions, but that just was not the case. I also had a hard time getting past what I see as a fundamental incompatibility in the couple. But, that’s a post for another day.

Knisley is an accomplished graphic novel artist who had a few under her belt before Something New was published, such as Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (2013) and An Age of License (2014). Because of her prior experience, Something New is very well-put together. It’s laid out in chapters, which tell a specific part of her story. Each chapter wraps up nicely while also serving to further the overall narrative, just like a traditional novel. Just as in Jarrett J. Krosoczka‘s Hey, Kiddo, the title page for each chapter is a photograph of the wedding, momentos from the wedding, and so on. I’m a fan of this literary device for graphic novel memoirs, which reinforces to the reader that we are reading about someone’s real life, not just a fictional story!

Just like the layout, the writing and art are straightforward and intuitive. It’s very easy to read, even for those who are new to graphic novels. The linework is clean, and the coloring realistic though a bit on the saturated and cartoony side. While sometimes speech bubbles may overlap the blank space between panels, it’s otherwise uncluttered. Not only does Knisley write about her personal experience, she sprinkles in facts and figures about the wedding industry, which may be helpful to brides. All is written in a conversational tone.

Something New blends memoir and nonfiction in a straightforward, yet expertly executed, way. For brides looking to make their special day their own, yet nod to traditions, Knisley will be very helpful, and will help them feel not so weird or alone in their choices!

-Kathleen

Knisley, Lucy. Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride. 2016.

Cheshire Crossing

What do Alice Liddel, Wendy Darling, and Dorothy Gale have in common? Well, everyone thinks they’re crazy. Each girl has claimed to have gone to a different world and had fantastical, yet harrowing, adventures. They are sent to Cheshire Crossing under the pretense of getting the best medical care. However, Dr. Rutherford, the director, and Miss Poole, their nanny, actually BELIEVE the girls. Dr. Rutherford believes he can teach the girls to control their powers to step in and out of alternate realities – and whatever other powers they may develop. Alice, having none of it, tries to escape. As Wendy and Dorothy try to stop her, the girls accidentally unleash the Wicked Witch upon Neverland, where she teams up with Captain Hook. Can three untrained girls and their nanny possibly have a hope of fixing their mistake?

Nancy reviewed this one for School Library Journal, and at her encouragement I took a stab at this one too. Andy Weir and Sarah Anderson are a lively creative team. They took the question of “What happens after happily ever after?” and decided that for these girls, ever after was not so happy. They are a little more grown up, and perhaps a little more hardened, than you remember, though they have not lost their original charm. It made for a fun romp across the real world, Neverland, Wonderland, and Oz.

I have to admit, like Nancy, it too left me a little confused as to which audience it was meant for. The writing and themes were undoubtedly for a YA audience, but the illustrations skewed years younger. If I didn’t know any better, at first glance I’d say it was a middle grade graphic novel, because of the straightforward panel layout, rounded forms, exaggerated features and facial expressions, and bright colors. In this way, this graphic novel is not as effective as it could have been. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have because I couldn’t get past the disconnect between the writing and the art.

For the target audience (I’ll say upper middle grade to YA), Cheshire Crossing is a fun, empowering take on classic female characters, and going off the cliffhanger ending, with much more in store.

– Kathleen

Weir, Andy, and Sarah Andersen. Cheshire Crossing. 2019.

The Perineum Technique

Contemporary video artist JH and Sarah met on a dating app, and hit it off right away. They meet on Skype regularly for hook ups. Though Sarah is elusive, cold even, JH can’t stop thinking about her, and starts to become obsessed. Despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to convince her to meet in real life. When finally she does cave, she asks him to meet at a swinger’s party, and asks a vow of abstinance lasting months while she’s on vacation. JH will do anything she asks, if only for the chance to get close to her. When she gets back, will they finally have a chance?

This is a very adult graphic novel that focuses on the juxtaposition of emotional intimacy in the age of online dating. We only focus on the “relationship” from JH’s point of view. We see him struggle with trying to connect to Sarah, but just like him, we readers are left to wonder about and draw our own conclusions about how Sarah is feeling. The most effective panels are of JH, alone, staring at his computer screen or his phone, waiting for an answer.

Though there is nudity, there is very little explicit sexual content. Instead we experience JH and Sarah’s sexual acts through visual metaphor, some of which are JH’s video art pieces. I found the cliff sequences quite clever: JH and Sarah are falling down a cliff, holding onto swords or daggers that make marks in the cliff face. For the most part they are parallel to each other, but sometimes they cross. Sometimes the sword or dagger marks wobble with increased or decreased frequency. To me this suggests the level of excitement or involvement that both parties have in the sexual act.

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Page 76 of The Perineum Technique, showing one of the visual sexual metaphors.

Though some of the mind games shown here probably went over my head, as I’ve never dated online, I was impressed by the artwork and the alternative ways that sexual acts were portrayed. We see two young adults struggling to find what they need, when they might not even realize they need it. Though I tend to roll my eyes at the “intimacy vs. technology” cliche, I found this one to be the most effective I’ve read so far.

– Kathleen

Ruppert & Mulot. The Perineum Technique. 2019.

Norroway (Book 1): The Black Bull of Norroway

Sibylla is not your usual little girl. She craves adventure, not a husband. When she goes to see a witch with two of her peers to get her fortune told, she asks, “Will I ever get to sail a ship?” The amused witch tells her instead that she will marry – the Black Bull of Norroway. He is supposed to be a terrifying legend. Sibylla, however, isn’t fazed. When the Black Bull does indeed show up at her doorstep when she’s older, she readily packs her bags and goes with him. He is on a quest to break the curse that was put on him, and do to that, he needs a bride, a sword, and a shield. Sibylla is the required bride, but she’s ready to prove that she’s so much more than that. She puts her foot down and travels with him across Norroway, searching for the last elements and trials he must endure to break his curse.

I absolutely adored this graphic novel, adapted from a Scottish fairy tale, written and illustrated by two sisters named Kit and Cat Seaton. I’d say it’s middle grade to young adult, but I found it entertaining as an adult. Sibylla’s no-nonsense and tenacious personality was a big draw for me. She and Bull are a lot alike, but they also learn a lot from each other throughout this story. This is only the first volume, with (hopefully!) many more promising adventures ahead.

As such, the full backstory of Bull’s curse is only hinted at, and the repercussions of the curse on those close to him aren’t yet fully unfolded. Many times in fantasy, when there is a curse involved, it only involves and affects the one person on whom the curse was placed. Here, the curse affects multiple people, adding an extra layer of intrigue. By doing this also, it emphasizes the fact that the actions of one person have consequences for many. Very rarely do our choices impact only ourselves. I appreciated this aspect of the story most, and would be looking forward to more for that alone…

… If it weren’t for the art, too. It’s delightful! I don’t think it is watercolor, though there is an airy quality about it all the same, like you would get with watercolors. Both human and bull characters are adorably animated and expressive, bringing the story to life. The backgrounds and landscapes remind me almost of ancient Asian paintings. There is a soft and calming quality about them, much like those old works, that I enjoy.

This is the first installment in what promises to be a delightful series, filled with intrigue, adventure, and two stubborn heroes learning to live with and like each other. I am highly anticipating the second volume.

– Kathleen

Seaton, Kit & Cat. Norroway (Book 1): The Black Bull of Norroway. 2018.

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