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Heartstopper (Vol. 1)

Charlie is seated next to Nick one morning in class, and it starts an unusual friendship. See, Charlie is quiet and shy, and also happens to be one of the only gay person in his all-boys school; Nick is a rugby player a grade above him. So it’s a surprise to Charlie when Nick asks him to join the rugby team. What’s even more surprising in that learning from Nick, Charlie starts to get good at it! He also starts falling for the older boy the more they hang out, which is not a good idea. Nick is about as straight as they come. Charlie’s deepening friendship with Nick makes Ben, Charlie’s fling, jealous and possessive. Nick stands up for Charlie, only making his crush worse. As they get closer, Nick starts questioning himself too… is Charlie more than just a friend to him?

This welcome addition to the growing LGBTQ+ representation in graphic novels is very cute. It’s sweet without being saccharine and feels real without being overdramatic. The tone is just right, as is the pacing. We are pulled along by the boys’ heartstrings as they get to know each other, and by extension themselves, more.

Quick, lively linework and a non-traditional panel layout capture high school’s frenetic energy perfectly. The primary color is mint green in thin washes to build up value. Black and white is used as well. The monochromatic palette allows for greater focus on the story and characters. While the character designs seem simple, they are very effective in conveying the character’s emotions.

Overall, this was a highly comforting read. This is only the first volume, and so ends on a cliffhanger, but I can’t help feeling that it’ll all turn out okay. For a light, quick, sweet read that’s chock-full of LGBTQ+ representation, look no further.

– Kathleen

Oseman, Alice. Heartstopper (Vol. 1). 2020.

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.

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