I’ve long been a fan of graphic novels and so I was delighted when my friend and amazing author Lyn Miller-Lachman offered to write a round up of great MG Graphic Novels. Take it away Lyn!
Middle Grade Graphic Novel Picks from the 2013 Cybils
This past fall, I was invited to become a member of the first round Graphic Novel panel for the 2013 Cybils Awards. My interest in graphic novels has grown out of my own work, writing and photographing an interrelated collection of short stories using LEGO minifigures and settings that I post on Instagram and have begun to publish on my blog. (For a sample of my work promoting literacy and libraries, see my mini-story “How Rainha Lost Her Crown” here.)
Being part of the Cybils panel exposed me to a wide variety of graphic novel styles and genres. The middle grade and young adult submissions (there were separate categories for elementary/middle grade and YA) included historical fiction, contemporary realism, high fantasy, paranormal, mystery, science fiction, and humor. About half of my choices overlapped enough with those of other panelists to make the shortlist, but being more a fan of historical and realistic fiction meant I was odd person out on a couple of books. The titles described below represent my favorites but also my effort to recommend books in a variety of styles and genres for readers at the elementary and middle school level.
Each of the Cybils panelists was tasked to annotate a book to go on to the second round. I chose John Lewis’s March Book One, illustrated by Andrew Aydin and released by Top Shelf Productions.
I wrote, “The visit of a constituent family from Atlanta to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama frames this story of Congressman John Lewis’s childhood in Alabama and his involvement as a college student in the civil rights movement. Readers see Lewis preaching to the chickens on his family’s farm and making a difficult choice on whether to integrate an all-white public university near his family’s home. A comic-book account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott inspired Lewis to become an activist in the 1950’s, and Lewis’s graphic-novel memoir will inspire readers to make a difference today.”
Like March Book One, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party (Amulet) uses the techniques of fiction to explore a moment in history. Donner Dinner Party is the third in Hale’s series that employs metafiction (commentary on his storytelling itself) for both education and humor. The graphic novel follows a doomed
party of settlers traveling to California in 1846 as they make a series of bad choices leading to their having to spend a winter in the snow and bitter cold near Truckee, California, resorting to cannibalism in order to survive. Fans of the classic Oregon Trail video game (which has been reissued for a new generation) will recognize the disasters that befall the migrants and their animals, from broken legs to dysentery. The artwork matches the breezy narrative style and over-the-top humor. This graphic novel is a great choice for showing reluctant readers that history can be fun.
Speaking of reluctant readers, I have a friend whose son, a seventh grader, has struggled in school and is now in danger of repeating the year. He has never read a book on his own, but when I finished Jeffrey Brown’s Star Wars Jedi Academy (Scholastic), I passed it on to him. I thought he would like this story of middle schooler Roan Novachez, whose test scores keep him from Pilot Academy and get him assigned to Tattooine Agriculture Academy instead. At the last minute, a disappointed Roan gets into the brand-new Coruscant Jedi Academy, where he struggles to fit into a demanding program and wonders why he was chosen to become a Jedi. Roan keeps a cartoon journal of his first year at the academy, and the style of the graphic novel is consistent with the work of a decent-but-not-great artist who is sensitive, optimistic, and funny. Roan is the oldest student at the academy, and he ultimately becomes someone who the younger students look up to. My friends’ son read this graphic novel in one evening, giving it milestone status in their house. It’s a great book for showing reluctant readers and other students who struggle that there are different ways of contributing to the world.
When Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword came out in 2010 from Amulet, I became a fan of this plucky Orthodox Jewish girl who chafes against the rules that restrict her to the kitchen and sewing-room. But that is where we find her at the beginning of Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite, knitting beanies as punishment for her efforts to become a superhero. When Mirka saves Hereville from a meteorite, the ball of flaming rock becomes Metta, a Mirka look-alike. Mirka hopes to use Metta to get her out of unpleasant work at home and problems at school so that Mirka could continue to be a free spirit, but Metta causes far more problems than she solves. Deutsch combines delightful fantasy with realistic details of modern Orthodox Jewish life to create an engaging 11-year-old heroine and a warm, multi-dimensional portrait of family and community.
Graphic novels tend to appeal more to boys than girls, but the Hereville series and Ayun Halliday’s Peanut (Schwartz & Wade) feature female protagonists and stories with girl appeal. While Peanut is set in a high school (and there are some sexual references that should have put it into the YA category for the Cybils), the story will resonate with middle school girls who worry about where they fit in on the social ladder. Sadie is starting over at a new school, and this time she wants to make a lot of friends. She gets the idea that a peanut allergy will gain her attention and sympathy, but despite some initial success she finds that one has to be even more vigilant when the allergy is fake than when it is real. The minimalist artwork is attractive and expressive, revealing the emotions of the teenage characters in subtle and powerful ways.
One of the most distinctive Cybils entries in terms of artwork is Matt Phelan’s Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton (Candlewick), which also features a complex and thought-provoking story. What goes around comes around, and Bluffton, like March Book One and Donner Dinner Party, is set in the past, this time on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan beginning in 1908. Henry has a boring life going to school and helping in his family’s store. Every summer he looks forward to the vaudeville show in his resort town. Playing baseball one day with his friends, he meets Buster Keaton, a child vaudeville performer. Henry longs to have Buster’s glamorous life. Buster doesn’t say much, but readers see through Phelan’s expressive watercolors that Buster wants a different life as well. While the artwork portrays and reflects the historical setting, the overall theme—wanting what someone else has—is contemporary and universal.
In all, I learned much about graphic novel art and storytelling from my time on the Cybils panel. I look forward to reading and reviewing more in the future.