2020 Graphic Novels: An Accounting of Some Standouts
I’m a little embarrassed to confess this to you, but I have been planning this post for a long time. Since October, pretty much. Of all the booklists that I like to produce, this one might be my favorite. And why not? With a newly minted Newbery Award going to a COMIC for the very first time, librarians are knocking down the last barriers between these lovely amalgamations of text and image and young readers. World domination is imminent. Breathe it in. It’s a new day.
This particular list consists of all the 2020 comics I’ve seen so far that made me inordinately happy. The best news is that it’s only February and we have so many more months of comics to come! Please note that a lot of these aren’t out quite yet. Consider them something to look forward to then.
2020 Comics for Kids
Black Sand Beach: Are You Afraid of the Light? by Richard Fairgray
The Twilight Zone meets Twin Peaks . . . for kids! When Dash and his friend Lily set out to spend the summer at Black Sand Beach, they have no idea how many ghosts, changelings, and malevolent forces they’ll have to encounter. I have a bad habit of reading books to my 5-year-old and 8-year-old before I’ve read them myself. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but once in a while I come across something that’s particularly creepy. That’s what happened with this book. You want a bad psychedelic trip in your middle grade? I’m taking horse people with giant toothy mouths on their bellies? Got your number. Of course both my kids ADORED the book, and the only reason they’re upset with it is that they won’t be able to read the sequel until the summer of 2021. I loved the humor and weirdness of it. This is sort Twin Peaks-y, as I mentioned before, but the characters are so confident in this world that you take comfort in how they saunter through it. Oh, and my favorite character is Andy. You’ll soon see why.
City of Secrets by Victoria Ying
Before his father died, Ever Barnes was entrusted with a secret so dangerous, it’s worth killing for. When Hannah befriends him they are pulled into a web of deceit and cunning. The Invention of Hugo Cabret meets City of Ember but with a heaping helpful of Steampunk for spice. This book has its fair share of secret assassin societies, underground mysteries, maps, orphans, and gears gears gears! I’d like to see the final copy since the sketches are a bit sketchy and it can be difficult to figure out how everything moves around (quite literally). Worth keeping an eye on.
Cub by Cynthia L. Copeland, ill. By Ronda Pattison
If you look at the cover, the print on the dress (with that magnificent white collar) and old-school camera are a clear indication that we’re in graphic novel memoir territory. Copeland reflects back on the 70s, at a time when, as a kid, she got to follow a female news reporter about town. With the Nixon hearings in the background, young Cynthia is also navigating shifting friendships, her first boyfriend, and mean girls. It’s the kind of low-level conflict I’m completely okay with. Nothing overly cruel. Lots of smart stuff to say about how friends change and finding your voice. I particularly loved how Cynthia’s relationship with her father changed over time. Good strong stuff, though a friend of mine pointed out rightly that this book could have benefitted HUGELY from some backmatter. You could easily walk away from it thinking the ERA had been ratified, after all…
The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith
If you’re going to take a swing, swing big. And if you’re going to create an entirely new world, make sure your world building is sharp and to the point. Smith doesn’t tenderly dip a toe into her world, she dives in, head first, leaving the reader to catch up. Is there magic? A bit. But at its heart this is a story about identity, military coups, and kids taking the initiative. Are you tired of passive protagonists? Then meet Hawke and Grayce. Their cousin has murdered their family in her attempt to gain power, and only they know the truth. Hiding out within a women’s group called The Communion of Blue, disguised, they must come to terms with what they want and who they really are. Action and acceptance by turns. And yes, mom. That’s a drop spindle on the cover. Smith really does get the technique and the physicality of spinning on a drop spindle correct. I was very impressed with the research she must have done.
Diana: Princess of the Amazons by Shannon and Dean Hale, ill. Victoria Ying
There was a time when I was reading my kids about five different Wonder Woman origin story picture books at any given time. Therefore, they were well and truly prepped for this foray into a series about young Diana, the only kid on her island. I’m wracking my brain, trying to figure out if Shannon and Dean have done any comic collaborations since Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack (both of which are fantastic, and illustrated by Nathan Hale of Hazardous Tales fame, if you’re curious). In any case, they’re back in rare form. It’s short and sweet. My sole objection is that Circe isn’t wearing her killer green and yellow outfit with the cool little black rectangles on it. I love that thing. Otherwise, no beef. OH! And does the name “Victoria Ying” sound at all familiar to you? Go up and take a look at who did City of Secrets. It looks like she’s having a busy year.
Go With the Flow by Lily Williams, ill. Karen Schneemann
How do you battle injustice when you’re young? When Abby discovers that the tampon/tampax machines in her school are always empty, she and her friends band together to fight for what’s right. Period Equity: The Book! Are you ready for a story that’s all about menstruation? The final taboo topic of children’s literature is breached in every possible way. From the economic inequity of schools never stocking their tampon/tampax machines, to the pain some girls suffer from their periods, to just the casual embarrassment of wearing white on the wrong day, it’s an issue book, sure, but the friendships and character development stand out. So too does the art. Some may suggest that it’s too old for kids, but girls get their periods as young as 9 these days and they desperately need this information. These characters are in high school but I think there is a definite reason they’re marketing this title younger.
Green Lantern: Legacy by Minh Lê
Let me tell you how much I trust the pen of Minh Lê. This book is a product of DC Kids, a kind of imprint of DC Comics, that is attempting to jump into libraries by any means necessary. And last year they produced one of the worst superhero comics I have ever had the misfortune to see. Ridley Pearson’s Super Sons was disjointed, poor executed, and lacking in any and all care. In sharp contrast is Green Lantern: Legacy. The fact that I even picked this up is due to its author, and I was not disappointed. No doubt Minh was given a word and page limit, so he has to keep his storytelling short, sweet, and to the point. Even so, you have this clear cut sense of the history of the Vietnamese in America, a message about embracing immigrants, top notch art and coloring, characters you care about, jokes that land, the whole enchilada. This book plays fair and if DC Comics is smart they’ll see to it that we get many more sequels to this in the future.
The Postman From Space by Guillaume Perreault, translated by Françoise Bui
Bob’s a simple space postman who loves his regular routine. So what’s he supposed to do when the Boss gives him a wacky new route with strange planets and kooky inhabitants? This is a younger comic with a gentle lesson of trying something new. It’s easy to forget about comics for those younger readers sometimes. This book may clock in at 142 pages or so, but it’s essentially a short story for kids. It all boils down to getting out of your comfort zone and how that often isn’t a fun experience at first, but can grow on you. It’s gentle, this one. A lovely tone to it, fun peppy art, and how can you not love a book that makes fun of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince? I loved the tiny hidden fox on the planet and the fact that the Prince (called Mr. Small here) is kind of a jerk.
The Runaway Princess by Johan Troïanowski, translated by Anne Collins Smith and Owen M. Smith
Princess Robin just can’t stay put! In three lushly illustrated stories the wayward royal helps new friends find their way, outwits a witch, and defeats a crew of nasty pirates. Originally these were three little books about a princess and her friend, but here in the States they’ve been collected into one book and translated for American audiences. Like the previously mentioned Postman, this is also a comic that’s on the younger end of the spectrum, which is something we definitely need. I love verbal sophistication and wit, but there’s a lot to be said for dreamlike imagery and simple storytelling. Troïanowski definitely belongs to the same camp as your Johann Sfars or Lewis Trondheims, but it’s the colors that really set him apart. He manages to be detailed and packed with images without being overwhelming. The book has lots of little interactive elements where the fourth wall falls to pieces and readers are invited to help the characters. I appreciated that the book sometimes says to put a piece of paper down to trace, rather than drawing on the pages. Nice touch.
Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz
Basketball loving Jamila and super sleuth Shirley team up to escape unwanted summer camps and attempt to solve a mystery involving a pool and a missing gecko. I should probably spare myself the embarrassment of confessing how long it took for me to realize that Shirley Bones is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock fans will get a kick out of her, right down to the violin playing and lack of knowledge about the cosmos. Most Sherlock riffs tend to just replicate A Study in Scarlet, but Goerz has opted to create a new, and very fun, type of mystery. We don’t actually see that many great mystery books in a given year. I’m delighted, then, to introduce you to this one. Deserving of an Edgar Award someday.
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
I get why they renamed it from its original title, Roadkill Witch, but I still think that was the better title. When she stumbles on the local witch in the woods, Snapdragon discovers a whole wide world where being the odd one is a blessing, not a curse. Personally, I liked this a lot. It has a creepy opening to rival Black Sand Beach‘s changelings, but if you read a little further in then you see how it really hides how sweet a book this is. A second readthrough and you discover how so many of the book’s themes are hidden early on (did you notice the quick glimpse of violets at the start when Jacks realizes who Snapdragon is?). The art is so incredibly stylized that I don’t know how it’s going to be received widely, but it’s dead on in its GLBTQ themes. I like it but I’m interested in hearing what other people think about it.
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, color by Iman Geddy
Though it will end up in the Fiction part of your graphic novel collection, this is the true story of Omar Mohamed and his life as a Somalian refugee, from the ages of 4 to 15. Written closely with Omar, together he and Ms. Jamieson have worked as hard as possible to tell his story truthfully. It’s never easy to turn a real life into a comprehensive story, but this does an admirable job. One librarian I know said that the book does feel Americanized, to a certain degree, for young audiences and I don’t think that’s wrong. That said, it’s pretty darn accessible too. Pairs well with the far darker Eoin Colfer book Illegal from 2017.
Yorick and Bones by Jeremy Tankard and Hermione Tankard
I could swear I never saw so many books written in collaboration between parents and children as I have in the last year or so. Subtitled “The last graphic novel by William Shakespeare”, this strange little creation is charm incarnate. Yorick the skeleton, lately dug up by a friendly pup, speaks in iambic pentameter and seeks a friend. Trouble is, skeletons are not wont to make others feel at ease, and Yorick will need to look a little closer to home if he wants the companionship he so desperately desires. With its bright colors, thick black lines (a Tankard specialty), and small size, I tried the book out with my kids. The 8-year-old enjoyed it, but then she saw her first Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) this past summer. The 5-year-old found it a bit on the wordy side, and it is. Yorkick is essentially a book-length monologue, but I’ll guarantee you haven’t seen a comic book skeleton as charming as this since Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks. Oh! And look how beautifully the cover pairs with Deep & Dark Blue!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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