31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Comics & Graphic Novels
It’s finally here! One of this month’s more popular lists. Due to the fact that my children are comic lovers, I read a LOT of them in a given year. Today, I’m sharing the ones that made it through the rotation and were found to be above par. There’s something for everyone on this list. The usual suspects and a few surprises along the way . . .
2019 Comics and Graphic Novels
Apocalypse Taco by Nathan Hale
I cannot praise this book enough. I keep saying that we’re in the thick of a new Golden Age of Children’s Literature, but sometimes I forget that we’re just at the beginning of that Golden Age. As such, where’s all the good horror comics for older kid readers? Nine times out of ten you have to go to the YA section, and that’s just not fair. Now Nathan Hale apparently has been holding out on us. His One-Trick Pony kind of hinted at the levels of weirdness he was capable of, but I had no idea that this was percolating at the back of his mind. It’s nightmarish, grotesque, surreal, and wonderful. Don’t hand it to a five-year-old or anything, but for the right eleven-year-old this is going to feed a weirdo need they didn’t even know they had. Just be prepared for when they ask you, “That was great! What do you have that’s just like it?”
Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice by Debbie Levy, ill. Whitney Gardner
Credit this one to Debbie Levy. She wrote a nonfiction picture book bio of RBG called I Dissent a couple years ago (Fun Fact: 12% of librarians still use the tote bag S&S made for that title’s promotion) and then, I guess, figured that there was a lot more to say. But rather than do a nonfiction chapter book (which could be a snorefest) she decided to do a comic. Very cool. I read this one to my daughter at bedtime and found myself explaining all SORTS of stuff I hadn’t thought to explain to her before (how courts work, why women should serve on juries, etc.). Levy kind of doubles down on the legal aspects here, so expect that some kids will drop out during her cases while others swallow them whole. My daughter, meanwhile, was convinced for a while that Ruth’s husband was a goner. Quite the relief that he lives!
Best Friends by Shannon Hale, ill. LeUyen Pham
All hail, Pham and Hale! This one almost didn’t make today’s list. Not because it isn’t one of the best books of the year (it is) and not because it doesn’t live up to its predecessor Real Friends (it does). Rather, I read it and then my daughter kidnapped it and took it to her room before I could record it in my log. Little Shannon’s woes continue unabated as she tries to navigate friendship. A nice consideration of the fact that even if you’re at the top of the social pecking order, that just means you’ve a long ways to fall.
Click by Kayla Miller
I’ve been reading a lot of really dour comics. Comics that just feel infused with misery. And on the third page of this one, I began to write it off as more of the same. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I found this book to be a wholly different affair. I’ve never seen a book where the main character got along with everybody. I mean, I knew that girl in high school. We all did, right? The one who instinctively knew how to communicate with a wide range of different types of friends. And Olive’s loneliness when she isn’t asked to be part of someone’s group in the upcoming talent show is raw and close to home. This could have just been a FOMO book, but instead it turns into something a lot cooler. It’s about finding your voice, not through singing, but through comedy! And you know I’m down with that message.
Camp by Kayla Miller
Sharp-eyed spotters will notice that these books are out of order alphabetically, but I do honestly feel that Click comes before Camp. I really felt for the girls in this book too. It’s not a situation I’ve encountered often in comics before. Olive wants to be a good friend and stick with her buddy Willow, but going to camp for the first time has made Willow scared and clingy. With the help of The World’s Most Patient Camp Counselors (capital letters entirely mine) they have to sit down and work through this issue in a mature, thoughtful manner. Like Click, there isn’t much to cringe at in this book. I find that so alluring.
Dugout: The Zombie Steals Home by Scott Morse
The Bad News Bears meets Monster Squad. Stacy and Gina may be twins but their rivalry in baseball makes them enemies. When Gina puts a spell on Stacy’s glove, the end result is a goofy baseball chasing zombie that turns out to be the best practice the team’s ever had. Can I tell you how much I love this book? I mean, zombies and sports are not new to the children’s book scene (anyone remember Zombie Baseball Beatdown?), but what I really respect about this book is that the sports element isn’t just tagged on there. Essentially, this is a baseball book that just happens to have a big old zombie in it. And the sports stuff really and truly works. I loved the writing and the humor especially. One of my top contenders this year.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier
What started as just an upset stomach snowballs into something out of Raina’s control. Telgemeier lends her signature touch to a very personal story about the connection between the mind and body and how everyone has something going on in their lives that you may never see. For my part, I found it a very nice encapsulation of those internal problems folks get that are, often, dismissed by the people around them. I think I may have liked it more than Sisters, though perhaps less than Smile. Even if you haven’t read those books, though, it stands on its own. A very nice look at the role of therapy in a kid’s life.
The Island Book by Evan Dahm
On her island, everyone believes that Sola is the reason a Monster once rose from the sea and caused mass destruction. Determined to solve the mystery of the creature that seems bonded to her, Sola sets off into the wider world, making new friends and new foes along the way. Boy, combined with This Was Our Pact, First Second is really churning out some big quest/personal introspection titles. This is perhaps one of the more metaphorical monsters I’ve seen this year. Hard to believe that Dahm never published with a real publisher before. His art is crisp and clear and precise. I’m not getting a huge amount of character development from this (everything is rather dreamlike and surface) but since it’s not pretending to be that kind of book, I don’t mind. Worth examining closely.
Livi & Nate by Kalle Hakkola, ill. Mari Ahokoivu, translated by Owen F. Witesman
Considering how popular comics are all around the globe, it’s odd to me that we don’t see more comic translations here in the States. I mean, it’s not like our shelves are constantly overflowing with marvelous Finnish graphic novels, am I right? If you wanted a place to begin, this is an excellent choice. This year I’ve been alternating my children’s bedtime reading between novels/picture books and graphic novels. This book, I found, is perfect bedtime reading. It is cozy, lightly magical, and bereft in any kind of fear or trauma aside from the usual misunderstandings involving a grandfather’s snores. A comic for readers on the slightly younger side.
Lupin Leaps In: A Breaking Cat News Adventure by Georgia Dunn
This just in! Elvis, Lupin, and Puck are three cats brave enough to bring the latest in Cat News. Whether it’s spiders, houseplants, a new baby, or the cats upstairs (what are they DOING up there?) these intrepid reporters are here to give YOU the story. This is a newspaper comic series turned into a book, and I always have complicated emotions about that when I consider these titles for my lists. I myself would be mixed on it, were it not for the fact that it makes me laugh. Hard. So hard that I was reading it in my bedroom and my husband called up, “Why do you keep giggling?” Georgia Dunn knows cats, yes, but even if you don’t like them you’ve gotta adore the funny stuff at work here.
Major Impossible (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales) by Nathan Hale
Okay, I don’t usually do this, but I want to show you my favorite part of this book. What you have to understand is that this is the true story of John Wesley Powell. As part of the Hazardous Tales series, you may be familiar with the set-up where the spy Nathan Hale tells stories of American’s future (to him, history to us) to delay his inevitable hanging. This is the first book in the series to rely heavily on flashbacks (a fact that really disturbs The Hangman). In this flashback, Powell is confessing to his firebrand preacher of a papa his intentions of not following in his footsteps.
Sorry, but that cracks me up so hard. The rest of the book is just as good.
Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo
Your eyes do not deceive you. This is indeed an updated edition of Little Women (and just in time for the Greta Gerwig version, now in theaters). The way Terciero tackles it, it adapts amazingly well. The girls now live in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn where their mom is a nurse and their dad is serving in Afghanistan. Jo and Meg are stepsisters and Beth and Amy came after their parents married. Laurie’s next door, Beth gets cancer, Jo’s gay, there is a LOT to go through. After reading this book my daughter was actually quite interested in the original Little Women too. The best proof that it’s good? You really wanna bop Amy upside the head a lot of the time. So. Right there.
Milo’s World: The Land Under the Lake by Richard Marazano, ill. Christophe Ferreira
Not sure who translated this one but they actually did a pretty darn good job! I love the big pages, the fact that the story is self-contained (you could see it as part of a series but the plot wraps up without a cliffhanger), and it’s an original fantasy. Sure, it sort of sounds like other stories out there, but there’s a level of care and attention to the art that’s noteworthy. We actually see a lot of European comic imports in the course of a given year. I wouldn’t ignore this one. Definitely worthwhile reading.
Monster Allergy 1: House of Monsters by Francesco Artibani, ill. Alessandro Barbucci
Pets don’t fare particularly well in this Italian import, so if you’ve kids with tender feelings towards doggies I might point them elsewhere. Yet as it stands, I have two children in my home that love pets. This book went down very easily with them. My one objection may be that it wasn’t printed in tandem with Book 2. Expect a cliffhanger, but it’s a fun, kooky ride along the way.
New Kid by Jerry Craft
There’s a serial quality to the stories in this book that reminds me of comic collections, so that was interesting. But the issues the guy is tackling here are intense, insightful, and biting. This is the book we’ve been waiting for, as far as I’m concerned. I like to call this one “Microaggressions and All Out Racism: The Book!” A necessary title.
Nico Bravo and the Hound of Hades by Mike Cavallaro
Where do gods get their goods? From Nico Bravo, of course! That’s why, when a headstrong ancestor of Beowulf comes in looking for a sword to kill off Cerberus, Nico has to set off to stop her before she causes a zombie apocalypse. Don’t worry. This one contains a whole slew of different mythologies in here, not just the Greeks and Romans. There’s a really peculiar unicorn/Vietnam subplot at work (I honestly can’t describe it any better than that) but it doesn’t really distract. Me? I liked it a lot. Different from everything else I’ve seen.
The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner
Aw. While the idea of a girl discovering that she’s a witch and has powers isn’t necessarily new, this is a nice fresh take. Steinkellner has a keen sense of humor, which is a true asset when writing a book of this sort. And with her animation background, the art really pops. It’s a strong graphic novel field this year, I’ll be the first to admit, but we should bear this little number in mind. In terms of tone, it sort of reminded me of The Prince and the Dressmaker.
Peter & Ernesto: The Lost Sloths by Graham Annable
You know what’s crazy? I liked last year’s Peter & Ernesto a lot (so much that I gave it a review) but this book? I think it’s even better. It may still suffer from the first book’s complete lack of female characters (though that green sloth could potentially be a girl) but all told it’s strong.
Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen
Two girls meet in a wood. One is human and one is not. A clever delving into the monsters inside of us and how we deal with them. What a pleasant surprise! Comics are becoming such repositories for metaphors these days. I swear that half the time the monsters can never be just monsters. This book reminded me a lot of Small Spaces last year, what with the personification of bad feelings. Very fond of the art and writing.
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis
Chock full o’ nuns! I don’t know if the world was crying out for a lightly fictionalized retelling of Queen Elizabeth I’s years in hiding while Mary ruled the throne, but if it wasn’t then it should have been. What we have here is a loving telling of what it’s like to grow up on a beautiful island with nice nuns, only to have the world encroach not just on the people you love but also on what you thought you knew to be true. Due to its size and some of its complexity, someone asked me if this would be more for teens. After long consideration I think I would slot it firmly in the kids section. This is probably because Margaret, its heroine, is such a thorough kid. Funny and gripping and tragic and lovely all at once.
Red Panda & Moon Bear by Jarod Roselló
Meet the superheroes destined to protect their Cuban-American neighborhood (and, by extension, the world). Armed with magic hoodies, this sister and brother pair are ready to take on monsters, ghosts, robots, you name it! It’s not every comic I run across that contains a blurb from Duncan Tonatiuh. This wackadoodle Cuban-American series is just packed with energy. I swear, I read it to my kids in two days. If we’re looking for Latinx graphic novels that are just pure madcap fun, this certainly fits the bill.
Shadow Island: Sueño Bay Adventures by Mike Deas and Nancy Deas
Deas and Deas start from a pretty dark place with this story. The hero, Ollie, is stuck on an island, having been tossed from relative to relative over the years. His grandfather’s his last chance for a family, but Ollie’s given up. He wants out. Only, that’s before he and three other kids discover that their gym teacher has been keeping magical moon creatures in her trailer. To what end? Can they rescue them? The plotting here is clever, leading the kids (and the reader) astray for a while and then legitimately letting the children use their brains to plot out the solution. Love the art and it’s truly exciting. After we finished my son insisted on my reading #2, which is not out for a while. He will need to learn to live with disappointment.
The Singing Rock & Other Brand-New Fairy Tales by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, ill. Simini Blocker
Tested this one out on my kids and while they liked all of them the clear favorite was “The Sorcerer’s New Pet”. I’m a sucker for fairy tales rendered into a comic form. Now the puritan that lurks inside of me would prefer that the book use real fairy tales, but honestly I like these original ones, and I see no reason not to potentially include them. Very fun.
Stanislaw Lem’s The Seventh Voyage by Jon J. Muth
Muth adapts an old Stanislaw Lem short story into a comic. The end result is an utterly unreal treatise on time travel and how we are our own worst enemies. If you’re not confused while reading it, you’re doing it wrong. The question here is not whether or not this book is amazing. It is. Completely. No, I guess the question is whether or not it’s for kids or teens. Not because it’s inappropriate or anything. It’s just ruddy complicated. In the end, I think it’s for kids because you are SUPPOSED to be confused by it. That’s actually the fun. And I love that Muth modeled the hero on Stan Laurel of Laurel & Hardy fame.
Stargazing by Jen Wang
Christine feels like she has to do everything absolutely perfectly all the time. Moon is laid back, easy to know, and fun. Unalike in many ways, these two figure out how to be the friend the other one needs. Been waiting for the next Jen Wang book since The Prince and the Dressmaker? Well consider your prayers answered! This doesn’t attempt the lofty heights of her previous book. Instead, Wang takes a moment from her own youth and makes an original story out of it. This may fly very well with the Raina Telgemeier fans of the world. Keen.
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews
Such a strange, marvelous, epic and dreamlike journey. At some point the internal logic of the book takes over so that when the heroes say they’re going to circumnavigate the globe, by gum you believe them. All you need are a couple Rice Krispie treats in your pocket and you’re good to go. Beautiful to look at and the emotions ring so true. A standout.
Young Mozart by Augel, translated by Blase A. Provitola
Picture this: You are trapped in an airport in Charlotte, N.C. because your plane was cancelled and there don’t appear to be any others available. You have two small children who are, to put it mildly, bored out of their skulls. You have packed a backpack full of comics that were supposed to last the entire trip. You are now burning through them at a prodigious rate. Your savior in this situation? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This book reads as though a series of newspaper comics about Wolferl (as his family calls him) were collected, which is a rather eclectic way of presenting young Mozart’s life. You can tell it’s an import because of the sheer number of poop jokes but putting those aside this is a rather delightful encapsulation. I wish more cartoonists would adapt historical figures’ lives in this manner.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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