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Guest Post on the 2021 YASF Tournament of Books

As the Head of Teen Services at my library, I attend a networking group with other librarians who work with teens in the Chicagoland suburb area. For several years the YASF (Young Adult Services Forum) group has had a yearly Tournament of Books for YA novels from the previous year, and this is my fifth year participating by writing reviews for their blog So like YA know

This year I was assigned graphic novels Flamer by Mike Curato and Go With The Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann. Both books were excellent and dealt with issues facing teens today. Make sure you read my original reviews, as the YASF review was edited considerably for length. Click here to find out which book I chose and WHY!

-Nancy

Flamer

Flamer by Mike Curato is a layered graphic novel set in 1995 about a teen who is struggling with the growing realization that he is gay. 

Aidan is a Filipino-American Boy Scout who is attending summer scout camp and struggles with the toxic masculinity that the other boys demonstrate. However, despite these issues, he feels more at home with his troop, after enduring worse treatment in middle school. Nervous about transferring schools to avoid his bullies, he wonders if high school will be more of the same, so this pause between the known and unknown is a time of growth for Aidan. 

A devout Catholic, he finds solace in his church, but that has also fueled his worries that he will be cast out and deemed a sinner if he reveals that he is gay. Plus, all the messages that he receives from others indicate that being gay is wrong, and in addition, he worries he would be kicked out of scouts, for at that time gay males were not allowed in scouting. His attraction to males is pushed down, for he is afraid of the ramifications with his family, friends and faith if he reveals what he truly feels. 

Aidan’s friendship with his friend Elias is put to the test when Aidan’s growing attraction to him is acted upon, and Elias reacts negatively. Afraid that he has jeopardized everything, Aidan debates committing suicide but is saved by an epiphany. By the end of the story, Aidan becomes more comfortable with himself and his future. 

Author and illustrator Mike Curato’s narrative is all the stronger because it is semi-autobiographical and is #ownvoices as he is gay. His sketchy black and white drawings, with limited orange and red highlights, captures teen angst and will be very appealing to a YA audience. A mix of fantasy and reality is woven together to tell a strong tale of self-discovery and acceptance. At times the narrative can become very heavy and might benefit from some trigger warnings as the homophobia and suicide attempt could be upsetting to some readers. However, I believe that LGBTQ+ readers will feel seen, and others might gain a greater understanding of their peer’s lives. 

-Nancy

When I Arrived At The Castle

I am a fan of Emily Carroll’s past work Through The Woods. This new graphic novel is very reminiscent of her earlier horror-inspired short stories, but this longer story is more adult with a lesbian erotica angle. 

A feline young woman arrives at the castle ready to do battle with the Countess, who appears to be a beautiful vampire. But she immediately falls under her spell and becomes more of a guest, than a warrior. Her passiveness makes the vampire despise her and toy with her. She is escorted to a corridor of red doors, where fairytale-esqe experiences await her. After a few frightening scenes behind the doors, the feline is ready to attack the vampire. Their erotic but macabre embraces end in an ambiguous manner.

Carroll’s art is rendered in only black, white and red to great effect. Few panels are used, instead, the art flows dreamlike from one image to the next. Some illustrations include intricate details, making the pictures sensual and Gothic-like. The red splash pages that included the text of the fairytales were striking. 

I came away from the story feeling it was atmospheric and unsettling, but with little in the way of plot. The dreamy aspect of it had some appeal, yet I felt dissatisfied with the story afterward. I don’t mind open-ended conclusions, but it needs to make sense. While seductive with lovely art, this story left me wanting.

-Nancy

Heathen: Volumes Two and Three

Heathen is a three-volume series that gives readers a fresh take on Viking mythology with a welcome LGBTQ+ storyline. Aydis is a young Viking woman warrior who has recently been outcast by her tribe for she was caught kissing another woman and did not renounce her feelings like the other young woman did to save face.  Aydis wishes to take her destiny into her own hands, so she seeks Brynhild, a former Valkyrie banished by Godking Odin for disobeying him and gets mixed up in some additional adventures. I read the first volume a year ago, and have been looking forward to how the author and illustrator Natasha Alerici would wrap the trilogy up.

Volume Two:

This middle volume of the planned trilogy has young Viking Aydis trying to reach Heimdall, which is the magical entrance to the land of the Gods. She enlists a ship of female sailors to take her northward into unfamiliar waters along with a trio of man-eating mermaids. On parallel journeys, recently released Valkrie Brynhild is struggling with the price of her freedom and Freyja, the decedent Goddess of Love, is feuding with the God-King Odin. All three women are set to converge soon, and hopefully throw over the patriarchy together.

Alterici’s art has improved since volume one. Inked in black and white with a few sepia and blush overwashes and black gutters, it captured the iciness of the Northlands. Backgrounds remain minimal, but she captures a diverse cast well. I also liked how she introduced some complexity into Aydis’s story, in which she was very naive about a choice she made and when it backfired and someone else was hurt, she was called out on it.

Volume Three:

Aydis is now at the entrance to Heimdall, when she is attacked by two giant trolls. During her captivity with them, they reveal that their mother has been kidnapped by Odin and she agrees to go in and try to help her escape. While this is happening Brynhild happens upon the former village of Aydis and is there to help when an invading army attacks. This standoff also throws in Freyja, the female ship crew from the last book, Aydis’s father in addition to her former love. So long as we are including everyone, we get the mythical wolves Skull and Hati, plus Saga the horse in the narrative too. There is a final wrap-up up with Aydis, the goddesses and Odin in a feel-good bow. But the troll mother thread was completely forgotten with no resolution!

In real life, Alterici had some health issues with hand pain, so she employed Ashley Woods as the artist for this last volume, and it took some getting used to, although she tried to emulate the established style. She also utilized another letterer, for it had been Rachel Deering for the first two volumes but used Morgan Martinez in this last book. The muted color palette continued along with minimal to no background in the panels.

I have to admit, this last volume really let me down. In addition to the artist changing, the plot fell apart. I’m sure Alterici was fond of many of her background characters, but the way they were all shoved in for no purpose was off-putting. And the huge gap of not wrapping up the troll storyline showed a lack of editing and judgment. But as a whole, I still think very fondly of this series, for I liked the character of Aydis and the idea of fighting back against the patriarchy. I hope to read more from Alterici in the future as she offered a fresh voice and a needed diversity.

-Nancy

The Low, Low Woods

The Low, Low Woods is an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania.

Elements of feminism and malevolence come into play, as two young women El and Vee realize something is terribly wrong in their town. Years ago a fire moved underground into the coal mines, forcing their closures and gutting an already fragile economy. In addition, women began to exhibit strange episodes in which they were losing large portions of their memory. When this seems to happen to the two friends on an evening at the movies, they want answers. Readers then discover there is already a layer of magic, as a strange deer/human hybrid is sighted, skinned men are hiding in the woods, and there are rabbits everywhere with human eyes. There is somewhat of a Paper Girls vibe in this story, further supported that El and Vee ride their bikes everywhere, but late in the story the narrative takes a sharp and confusing turn. A witch who is trying to combat the cruelty of the men in the region, as previous sexual assaults are implied in the story but not seen, but her spells don’t always work the way she intended. The remainder of the story is the young women trying to give agency back to the women affected by the dark magic.

The illustrations by artist Dani are dark with a color palette using a lot of black and red. The panels are varied, often with a large picture with smaller ones layered on top with black gutters. But the lines can be imprecise and lacking details. For example, El who is a larger woman is often drawn blocky. But I did appreciate that the various characters were given a diverse look. There was a lot of dialogue and information given in text boxes, with a small font that made reading challenging.

I have read a previous short story, Blur,  by the author Carmen Maria Machado through LeVar Burton Reads, and she is known for her LGTBQ+ storylines in the horror genre. While this story wasn’t exactly to my liking, I like how Hill House Comics is using a variety of authors to reach different audiences. I was pleased to receive an advance copy through NetGalley and I plan on reading more of this label’s graphic novels!

-Nancy

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is a coming of age story with a welcoming and needed look at teen romance with a same-sex couple.

Freddy and Laura’s relationship is as normal (and toxic) as any other teen relationship might be; readers will immediately spot Laura’s selfish and callous treatment of Freddy and will be hoping that Freddy has enough strength to break it off for good. I believe teens can learn from this narrative on how to recognize an unhealthy relationship dynamic, and also how to be a better friend to people who truly do care. The narrative also included an in-depth look at Freddy’s friendships and her burgeoning interest in the larger LGBTQ+ community. There is also a very adult decision that one character needs to make, and I was impressed at how it is so respectfully addressed.

The artwork by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell was lovely with a greyscale and soft pink color palette. Her backgrounds are minimalist, but then you’d be treated to an ornate panel where she added much detail to a garden or to the medium’s home. Valero-O’Connell drew Freddy, Laura and the rest of their friends and family in a slightly anime-like style, which was an inviting and charming look for the graphic novel. The illustrations also had a running motif of stuffed animals of Freddy’s that gave their insights, which balanced some of the angst and heavy-hitting topics.

As I said in my earlier Bloom review, I do want to share one problem I had with that cover and this one too- if you were to take a quick glance without opening the book, you would think that the couple was of mixed sexes and I think that is a disservice to the storyline found within. I felt like the publishers weren’t being bold enough with their covers to show what the narrative was truly going to be about, and I found that disappointing. In fact, I was so confused when I first picked up this book that I thought Freddy was Laura and kept looking for the boy from the cover I assumed was Freddy.

I had the pleasure of reading this novel and Bloom for a Tournament of Books that I participated in with other teen librarians. While I pushed Bloom through to the next bracket, this graphic novel deserves the rave reviews and book awards it has already earned.

-Nancy

Bloom

Bloom is a lovely coming-of-age graphic novel with welcome LGBTQ+ representation. Ari, a recent high school grad, is chafing at working at his family’s bakery until he meets Hector, a young man who accepts a job at the bakery, so Ari can move to the city with his bandmates.

This graphic novel has a similar storyline to the more popular Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, although it came out first and the genders are flipped. Author Kevin Panetta told a story that felt softer and gentler, with family playing a large part in Ari’s summer journey. I was rooting for the slow-burn romance with Hector to develop as Ari slowly came to realize that his attitude needed to change and Hector’s kindness and stability were exactly what he needed. Ari also needed to come to terms with a toxic friend whom he always gave a pass to, and learn that he was allowed to outgrow his prior dreams and make decisions that were best for him and not just go along with the group. This character-driven story showcased a healthy romance, once Ari owned up to his mistakes, and a strong family dynamic. Diversity among his friends and an after high school graduation timeline was also welcome.

Savanna Ganucheau’s artwork has a tri-color palette, in black and white with a blue-green color wash used throughout which evocatively signified the Maryland seaside town that the Kyrkos Family Bakery was located in. The panels flowed well and included several two-page splash pages set in the bakery that wordlessly showed Ari and Hector falling in love. Occasional anime-type drawings were utilized to show strong emotions. That a recipe for sourdough rolls and a playlist were included at the end was a delightful way to conclude this engaging story.

I do want to share one problem I had with the cover- if you were to take a quick glance without opening the book, you would think that the couple was of mixed sexes and I think that is a disservice to the storyline found within. I felt like the publisher wasn’t being bold enough with the cover to show what the narrative was truly going to be about, and I found that disappointing. But, I found Bloom the stronger of the two similarly themed books, for it includes a lovely ode to family and different perspectives, which I think teens need to see during this time of transition when their friends take on more importance, yet their family is still a big part of their lives.

-Nancy

Guest Post on 2020 YASF Tournament of Books

As the Head of Teen Services at my library, I attend a networking group with other librarians who work with teens in the Chicagoland suburb area. For several years the YASF (Young Adult Services Forum) group has had a yearly Tournament of Books for YA novels from the previous year, and this is my fourth year participating by writing reviews for their blog So like YA know

This year I was assigned graphic novels Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up WIth Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Both books have gained impressive followings, rave reviews, and book awards due to their positive and true-to-life representation of LGBTQ+ life. Click here to find out which book I chose and WHY!

-Nancy

Heathen

Heathen was this month’s selection from the Goodreads group  I Read Comic Books as this month’s topic was own voices. At first, I wondered if the author, Natasha Alterici, was a half-naked woman Viking, but no, she is lesbian and we are given a fresh take on Viking mythology with a welcome LGBTQ+ storyline.

Aydis is a young Viking woman warrior who has recently been outcast by her tribe for she was caught kissing another woman and did not renounce her feelings like the other young woman did to save face. Her father was told to give her two choices- death or marriage, and her father knows she has the skills to survive on her own, so he lies and tells the villagers she is dead. Aydis wishes to take her destiny into her own hands, so she seeks Brynhild, a former Valkyrie banished by Godking Odin for disobeying him, and forced to marry any mortal who can free her from a magical mountain. Already the parallels are clear-  women are being punished by the patriarchy for going against their wishes of what they feel is proper.

A short interlude introduces us to Skull (aka as Sköll) and Hati who are two wolves from Norse mythology that are forever trying to eat the Sun and Moon. At first, their inclusion in the story seemed odd, but as the story progressed there was also Aydis’s talking horse Saga and the trickster God Ruadan who appeared as a bull. All of this contributed to the world-building of this fantasy-based Viking tale, in addition to Aydis’s journey to Odin’s decadent castle with the Goddess Freyja.

The art, also by Alterici,  really grew on me. Inked in black and white with a few sepia and blush overwashes and black gutters, it captured the iciness of the Northlands. The ladies were often very scantily clad lithe beauties, and I being a practical lass, wondered wouldn’t they be cold or more battle-worn? Then it dawned on me that guys aren’t the only ones that can admire the female form! While not a lot of background is drawn into the panels, it lent itself to a more character-driven story.

A fan of Brian Wood’s Viking series Northlanders, this similarily themed graphic novel was lighter with more of a mythology angle. I found it extremely appealing, and plan to read volume two that just came out of the planned three-volume series.

-Nancy

Alterici, Natasha & Rachel Deering. Heathen. 2017.

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