31 Days, 31 Lists: 2022 Comics and Graphic Novels for Kids
Would I call this my favorite list? That would be picking favorites, and like any good parent I love all my babies equally. But if I were to admit to the list that feels closest to what my 10-year-old self would have loved back in the day, then yes. It’s this one. Comics are growing increasingly prolific these days, and it’s almost all I can do to keep up with them. Which is wonderful! I dream of a day when they might rival picture books in terms of output. Until that happy day arrives, though, let’s celebrate the ones that do a particularly good job. The cream of the crop! Delightful from start to finish, and very different. We’ve post-apocalyptic hellscapes, hair pride, space cats, OCD, dog walkers, you name it!
Still can’t get enough comics? I can’t blame ya. Here are the round-ups I’ve done in previous years:
2022 Comics and Graphic Novels for Kids
Alte Zachen by Ziggy Hanaor, ill. Benjamin Phillips
Benji and his grandmother are shopping. Along the way she’s cranky and rude with other people, but her memories tell us stories of the way things used to be long ago. A tale of empathy, even for grumpy bubbes. This one’s for those of you worried that all graphic novels are starting to look the same these days. If you’ve ever fretted that the bulk of GNs are just memoirs done in the style o’ Telgemeier, allow me to dislodge that notion from your cranium. What we have here is a very complicated book. A boy walks the city with his elderly grandmother who is, to put it mildly, a lot. She’s cranky and rude and he spends half the time apologizing for her. However, lodged in the crevices of that story are these memories. You get glimpses of her past and her youth and how hard life has been for her. So even when she is being nasty to people, you can simultaneously see another side to her. It helps that her grandson’s a nice guy who has no problem trying (and, admittedly failing) to keep her in line. It’s a melancholy little thing but it ends on a happy note. A sophisticated way to remind kids that grandparents were once young too.
Anne of West Philly by Ivy Noelle Weir, Illustrated by Myisha Haynes, edited by Rachel Poloski
A classic gets an update with remarkable results. Join foster kid Anne Shirley as she navigates the highs and lows of living in West Philly in typical Anne fashion. And yeah, these adaptations and modernizations are so hit and miss. This one? A hit. A bullseye of a hit. Though I liked it from the start it completely had me when it exchanged Matthew buying Anne a dress with puffed sleeves for Matthew buying Anne an ugly second-hand Christmas sweater. I just kinda adored it after that. I should note that my 10-year-old romance-obsessed daughter didn’t like how the book telegraphed one romance with Gilbert with blushing, but then pulls a switcheroo with her liking Diana. She didn’t mind Anne being with Diana. She just felt that the art was purposefully trying to fool the reader and that that was unfair. I don’t disagree. Even so, this is a slick updating that doesn’t just mimic the original but adds and deepens it.
Apple Crush by Lucy Knisley
What could be more fun than working on a haunted hayride? This fall Jen is thrilled to be helping out during her favorite fall season. Trouble is, everyone around her is getting crushes! Could anything be more annoying? What you have right here is a particularly strong autumnal title. A real paean to the season. I mean, I read it in the Spring and found myself yearning for cider and the smell of fallen leaves. I read this with my 10-year-old daughter who requests, nay, demands that all books I bring to her now include romance in some fashion (see: Anne of West Philly). This one was an interesting test since Jen, the heroine of the story, really isn’t getting crushes the way her stepsister is. Happily, my daughter didn’t mind. I think she’s just happy as long as someone is having a crush. A gentle story with a gentle realistic arc.
Bug Scouts: Out in the Wild! by Mike Lowery
“I promise to fly, I promise to crawl, or make a cool web, or roll into a ball.” The Bug Scouts are here! They’re on a mission and nothing, not even a hungry frog, will stand in their way! While I freely admit that I’m a #1 Mike Lowery fan over here to begin with, not all of his books are created equal. But this one? It’s lovely. Nature loving bugs, a grumpy spider, a not-so-sneaky frog? This is a case where tone is key. I’ll even ignore the fact that while the frog is seen as a threat the spider is just one of the crew. A rather good pairing with Sir Ladybug (see below), come to think of it! Best of all, it’s great on the younger end of the reading spectrum, and that’s something we can always use more of.
The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza by Mac Barnett, ill. Shawn Harris
Egads! The moon is rapidly disappearing down the gullets of hungry moon rats! First cat in space to the rescue! WILL he save the day? WILL the rats be defeated? WILL he ever get to eat delicious pizza? Find out! So this is shaggy. Definitely very shaggy. As far as I can determine, this is a pandemic book that was cobbled together by kids’ actual suggestions throughout the early days of COVID-19. That may account for the sheer wackadoodle nature of the endeavor, but boy is it a lot of fun. This is just pure silly, heightened a bit by Harris’s art, which occasionally becomes rather lovely. But make no mistake, this is a ridiculous book. One thing I really enjoyed while reading it to my 7-year-old was how you could look up the Spotify playlist with this book’s songs and then play them at key moments during the read. A book that’s kind of going for the DogMan crowd, and kind of creating its own entirely different fans as well.
The Flamingo by Guojing
While visiting her grandmother, a child hears story after story about a girl long ago that raised a flamingo chick from an egg. An artful, nearly wordless tale with the feel of a Miyazaki film. Utter gorgeous gorgeousness. Guojing’s the same creator that brought us The Only Child years ago. That story was just soaked in sadness. This one is far happier. I was surprised to see that the book had any text at all. Most of it is wordless, and since Guojing is a master at the sequential wordless sequence, it made sense to assume that the whole book would be like that. Oh, but I loved the storyline. Those sunsets. And though I believe a newly hatched flamingo chick could never, not in a million years, be quite as cute as this one, I loved watching it grow up. This is complete and utter wish fulfillment and I am here for it!
Freestyle by Gale Galligan
It’s bad enough that Cory can’t join his dance crew because he’s been grounded but now he’s being tutored by Sunna his weird lab partner? Then Cory learns Sunna’s yo-yo secret, and the two become an unstoppable dancing/yo-yo team. I would like to personally apologize to the universe for not reading this book immediately when it came into my possession. A mistake! I think I wasn’t giving it proper attention because I still associate Galligan with all those Babysitter’s Club adaptations. Utterly unfair. After all, she did a stand up and cheer job on those. This book is a marvelous example of great storytelling in the graphic novel genre. Dancing + yo-yos does not strike one as a naturally occuring combination but Galligan makes it work. I was taken in by the ups and downs, I thought the characters’ motivations and relationships rang completely true, and the whole thing just sings. Sequential storytelling at its finest.
Frizzy by Caribel A. Ortega, ill. Rose Bousamra
Marlene loves a lot of things in life. But hair-straightening weekly visits to the salon–not so much. Why must everyone pick on her beautiful naturally curly hair? Wow! This really works. I worried that a single-topic graphic novel like this one (dealing with your hair when the world, and your mom, want you to change) would feel one-note. No justified fears here. Ortega takes you on a veritable emotional roller coaster ride with Marlene. You LOATHE her cousin. You kinda can’t stand her mom (or at least the messaging her mom is putting out there). And Rose Bousamra’s art really is the perfect complement to the storyline. The aunt character is a little too good to be true, but by the point you get her wisdom you are desperate for her to be there. I am very much on board with this book.
Growing Pangs by Kathryn Ormsbee, ill. Molly Brooks
My 11-year-old daughter has grown quite adept at identifying different neurotypical situations in the graphic novels we read. It wasn’t very far into Growing Pangs that she turned to me and asked “OCD?” I had to concur with the diagnosis, and it wasn’t the first time we’d encountered some form of it in a comic, but this story felt the most familiar to me personally. I had a best friend who experienced OCD in the late 80s and much of what I saw in this book was what I witnessed firsthand. The difference is that Ormsbee makes her OCD into a buzzing insect that is continually telling our heroine Katie, based on Kathryn herself, what she should do and when. Things like tapping things a certain number of times, for example. I was impressed with the book’s willingness to leave things unfinished and open-ended. At one point Katie and her best friend have a fight and the friend moves away before anything can be resolved and . . . that’s it. That’s the end of that particular story. No resolution. Also, as someone who used to run a book group for homeschooled kids out of my public library, I appreciated the depiction of homeschooling in this book. There really aren’t a lot of stories about homeschoolers unless the plot hinges on them going to public school for the first time. Beautifully illustrated with clear cut visual storytelling, definitely add this one to your shelves.
Invisible by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, ill. Gabriela Epstein
They were five total strangers with nothing in common, except their Latinx heritage. But when they find themselves on an early morning volunteer crew at school, they come together to help someone in need, no matter the consequences. Books for kids are really leaning heavily on the 80s tropes these days, aren’t they? Now we’re getting a kind of Breakfast Club homage (they actually name the movie at one point,) but the twist is that these very different kids are all Latinx. For this reason the adults sort of lump them all together. The book’s way of distinguishing them is to give each character their own voice as they tell the story of how they came together to help a woman and child with housing insecurities. What impressed me was that this is one of the few books for kids I’ve seen that doesn’t just lump all these different nationalities into one group. The Spanish is integrated artfully into the text and in a very short amount of time you get the personalities of each and every character. And you want microaggressions? Microaggressions galore! A smart, thoughtful bit of storytelling.
Isla to Island by Alexis Castellanos
How does it feel to be shipped off from the island you love to a city where you know no one and don’t speak the language? A wordless graphic novel explores Marisol’s life in NYC after the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba. This comes off as an interesting experiment in how much you can communicate wordlessly. There is information in the back to explain who Fidel Castro was and why Marisol leaves Cuba in the first place. Still, just reading it off the shelf, it can be awfully confusing. I did like her attachment to nature and the way her host family connected with her. It would pair rather beautifully with Sonia Manzano’s Coming Up Cuban: Rising Past Castro’s Shadow, also out this year.
Leviathan (Adventure Game Comics #1) by Jason Shiga
The choices are yours but the answers aren’t simple. Can you crack the code of the Leviathan and the wand that keeps it at bay? Hint: Think outside the box. Oh, Jason Shiga, you mad genius, you. As someone who was head-over-heels crazy about his other book for kids Meanwhile, I’ve been waiting for him to do something else for kids for years. He hasn’t quite put the same amount of energy into this book, but that doesn’t mean it won’t muck with your brain waves a little. It’s one of those pick-your-own-path stories, and so my son and I gamely went along with it. It took us a little while, but we finally cracked the secret of it. If you want to win the book you have to listen VERY carefully to what Kanoxx the sorcerer is saying to you. Ultimately, we won, but in doing so discovered that this is, without a doubt, one of the most subversive bits of messaging we’ve seen in a comic for kids in a long time. I’m so proud. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Little Monarchs by Jonathan Case
In a future where very few mammals have survived, a girl and her guardian fight to find the vaccine that will save the human race. The secret ingredient? Monarch butterfly scales! Just watch out for the very people you’re trying to save… This book isn’t messing around. It’s got such a goofy premise for a post-apocalyptic tale that you just sort of go along with it, no matter how strange it is. I worry a bit that the opening might scare some kids off since it looks awfully wordy. Even so, this is one of the most book-talkable titles I’ve encountered in a while. Please note that this is definitely for your older readers (12-14), no question. I got so tense reading it that I had to skip ahead just to make sure everything ends up okay. Hand this to the kids that love them some end of the world storytelling. End of the world slash pretty pretty butterflies.
Miss Quinces by Kat Fajardo
Sue’s dream is to go camping with her friends for the first time ever. Instead, she’s being packed off to Honduras with her family where she’ll endure mad turkeys, fire, waterlogged manga, and (worst of all) a quinceañera party she never wanted. How can she make it her own? And does she even want to? Oo! This is a good one. I read this aloud to my daughter who, while completely flummoxed as to why anyone wouldn’t want to wear a pink frilly dress and have a huge party, nonetheless really enjoyed this story of one girl trying to establish her own personality in the midst of major family drama. I thought the relationship between Sue and her mom really worked, and its ups and downs were completely understandable. I probably identified a little too much with the mom (who has, like, 500 things all going on at once), but Sue’s p.o.v. was perfect. Great book. And since I read the galley I can’t wait to see it in color.
Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus, ill. Julie Robine
What can one boy do in the face of a nation at war? When Muhammad Najem started reporting live from Syria, his bravery brought attention to his country like never before. A harsh, hopeful story. Ever read a work of recent historical events that makes you regretful that you paid them insufficient attention when they happened? This is, by far, not the first autobiographical graphic novel I’ve seen, but it may be the best written/best illustrated. The sheer levels of care and attention that have gone into it just shine through. Publishers are getting increasingly comfortable creating children’s books on tough topics, and living through Syria’s civil war falls squarely in that category. What really impressed me about this wasn’t just how the facts were laid out, but the sheer clarity of the storytelling. I never had any doubts of what was happening from one panel to another. And then there’s Julie Robine’s art. The meticulousness at work here is remarkable. This must have taken years and years to make! A stunner and a fantastic inclusion on any list. Don’t miss it!
My Aunt Is a Monster by Reimena Yee
You ever read a book starring a child with impaired vision and notice that, in spite of this fact, the kid seems to have some ability to see things they shouldn’t be able to simply because it makes the plot run a little bit smoother? Yeah, there was at least one book out this year that did that and it did not make me happy. What does make me happy? This makes me happy. My Aunt Is a Monster is a much better title with a blind child protagonist and her somewhat unusual aunt. It’s a mildly goofy premise from the start. Newly orphaned Safia is sent to live with an aunt she never met before named Walteranne Hakim Whimsy. A former adventuress, Aunt Whimsy now suffers from a curse that has rendered her form monstrous. She hides this fact from Safia, but she cannot hide from the call of adventure when it comes calling for them all. Aunt Whimsy’s rival from her previous life (a woman she simply calls Pineapple Tart) is close to discovering the very same location that cursed Whimsy in the first place. Now they’re setting off to warn the tart. What they don’t count on is an evil organization dedicated to chaos that has plans for Aunt Whimsy beyond her control. Loved the art and the succinct storytelling. This one gives you a nice bit of bang for your buck. I also very much enjoyed the fact that Safia is just as capable of adventuring as anyone, and is much much more than a stock character.
Paws: Gabby Gets It Together by Michele Assarasakorn, ill. Nathan Fairbairn
Three girls. Zero dogs. Gabby, Priya, and Mindy are all desperate to pet and play with dogs of their own, but their families are strict about not having them in the home. Enter PAWS! Think, The Baby-Sitter’s Club but for pets. But who knew a dog walking service could be this much work? Oh, I really like this one! Definitely bound to be a favorite of those kids desperately waiting for the next Baby-Sitter’s Club graphic novel installment. A lot of what I liked about it, though, was that subtle dynamic that you get when kids of different ages are friends. The fact that Gabby is one year younger than Pirya and Mindy really hit home and hit home hard. That casual dismissive attitude they show her is so horrendously realistic. I also loved the way in which the book works in questions of economic privilege and what happens when you bottle up your issues. Bound to be a hit with more than just the dog fans out there.
The Prisoner of Shiverstone by Linette Moore
11-year-old Helga has suddenly appeared on the mysterious Utley Island. She claims to have been separated from her parents, but is there more to her story? What is it she’s really looking for? As I often say, I admire comics that take big swings and tell their stories in unique ways. This book most certainly fit the bill. I like how long it takes for you to figure out what our heroine, Helga, is up to. You don’t even know if she’s a good guy or bad guy for much of the book. It also slowly introduces information about this world (a world where all the mad scientists were rounded up and put on one island and now anyone who shows any aptitude or love for science is viewed with suspicion) but in a comprehensible way. One thing I’m increasingly impressed with is how well certain comic authors are at making panel by panel moments logical and something you can follow. Another plus: Cool things go boom! There’s something to be said for that.
Prunella and the Cursed Skull Ring by Matthew Loux
I like inherently ridiculous concepts in my kids’ comics. This year has seen a bumper crop of weird ideas too. Everything from vampire lumberjacks to cheery post-apocalyptic androids. But for a wacky idea to actually work beyond its pitch it needs a steady hand at the wheel. Now Matthew Loux is the fellow responsible for the two Time Museum books (and my son would like to inform Mr. Loux that we are patiently awaiting the third . . . ahem). Here, a nice girl from a terrible town of nasty, suspicious humans finds a skull ring in her garden. She puts it on and POOF! Now she’s a skeleton girl. Naturally the humans run her out of town, but when she goes to the monsters she’s heard so much about they are, quite simply, lovely. Really sweet. There are plenty of books for children out there where the outsider is rejected summarily and cruelly. This book is quite the opposite. Where Prunella fits in, she is rejected. Where she stands out? She is embraced. It’s a book about finding your people, even if your people happen to be made of skulls and bones.
The Real Riley Mayes by Rachel Elliott
Riley would love to be known as a lovable goofball who loves to draw, but too often she’s seen as a disruptive annoyance who doodles on all her homework. When two potential friends come into her life, will she be brave enough to explore who she likes (does she get crushes on girls?) and who she wants to be in the world? I feel like we often see a lot of coming of age comics for boys coming to terms with their sexuality, but far fewer for girls. And there are moments in this book that felt too real to be made up. Additionally, I’d also like to compliment a book where a girl has impulse control and attention issues. There is indeed the usual checklist of middle grade dramatic moments, but I thought there was a bit of complexity as well. Riley is definitely a flawed character but an identifiable one. And her journey is incredibly understandable. This feels very contemporary with the fact that this is a world where kids in middle school are in very different places when it comes to LGBTQIAP+ issues. This isn’t a book that could have come out even 10 years ago. The kids are better informed, but that doesn’t mean the bullying stops, by any means. A lot to chew on with this one.
Red Scare by Liam Francis Walsh
What if the solution to all your problems just magically presented itself? It’s 1953 and Peggy is still recovering from polio. And when she finds an unearthly substance that even the government wants, she’ll do anything to keep it safe. Gorgeous. Walsh has really leaned into some of the more noir aspects of the 1950s. Since the creator lives in Switzerland, it’s not surprising that this book would have as many Tin-Tin influences as it does. And boy does it lean into those sweet 50s tropes. Polio, Commies, nasty American agents, and even some science fiction (though I was mighty surprised when that element came up in what I thought was a straightforward bit of historical fiction). What this really reminded me of a lot was Eugene Yelchin’s Spy Runner. This is definitely for older readers since kids get punched, kicked, and shot in the course of things, but it all turns out all right in the end. A fascinating action piece.
Ride On by Faith Erin Hicks
Who is the mysterious new girl at Edgewood Stables? When Victoria shows up one day riding the horses there, she tells the other kids that she does not need new friends. But why is she there then? And what happened at her stable before? I adore Hicks’ books and I’m ashamed that I almost missed this one this year. Rest assured, my daughter is mocking me mercilessly for this error. More to the point, this book is such a delight. Note that I am NOT a horse person. Consider me horse neutral. I thought it was the characters that were wonderfully realized (I think Norrie probably came out of Hicks’ brain wholecloth, she is so realistic and beautifully flawed) and the drama was just the right level of serious for me. No one’s saving the world here. They just wanna ride horses. I can respect that.
Santiago! Santiago Ramón y Cajal – Artist, Scientist, Troublemaker by Jay Hosler
Santiago just can’t seem to keep out of trouble and his father wants him to stop drawing and study. A fiery look at the life of a mischievous kid who went on to become the father of modern neuroscience. Oop! Here we go. This is one of those books that mixes and melds its fact and fiction together in interesting new ways. That sort of drives me crazy when the book in question is a picture book but I feel an awfully lenient when comics are involved. Particularly comics as fun as this one. Essentially, this is what you’d get if you combined Calvin & Hobbes with Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. I mean, in terms of looks it really resembles the style of Christopher Eliopoulos. But if this is the future of biographies then I am HERE for it! Hosler (remember last year’s The Way of the Hive?) really encapsulates Santiago’s life beautifully while making it clear why he was so essential to the study of cells and the brain. History has been getting great comics for years. Such a thrill to see a bit of biology in there too.
Scout Is Not a Band Kid by Jade Armstrong
Scout’s mission is clear. To get to see her favorite author she must join . . . band! But can this trombone faker convince her new uptight seat leader that she’s worthy enough to stay? I honestly cannot believe that this is Jade Armstrong’s first published graphic novel. This is so funny, so true, and so beautifully put together that I swooned. My daughter liked this book so much that she didn’t even notice that it’s 100% romance free! Loved the translations of all things Canadian in the sidelines. There’s also a really nice manga influence at work here, particularly with some of the character’s small asides. And did I mention it’s funny? Laugh out loud funny, no less. Fantastic from start to finish, I am a HUGE fan of this title. Hoping to see more of Armstrong’s work in the future too.
Shuna’s Journey by Hayao Miyazaki, translated by Alex Dudok de Wit
It’s absolutely baffling to me that we received, this year, a fantastic Miyazaki (yes, THAT Miyazaki) graphic novel with all the hallmarks of one of his films and yet the publicity? Almost nil. The story behind this book is nearly as fascinating as the book itself. Apparently this title dates back to 1983 (though it feels fresh and new when you first encounter it). It was published a full two years before Studio Ghibli was established. The story, according to Miyazaki himself in the Afterword, is based on an old Tibetan folktale called “The Prince Who Turned Into a Dog”. In this version, a young man named Shuna is the prince of a poor land. Determined to find a mysterious grain that could feed his people, he sets off on a quest to find this miraculous food. Along the way he runs into slavers, slaves, and an economy based on humans for grain. It actually reminded me of this year’s film Nope a little bit at times, as well as a lot of other Miyazaki films. The book takes an unexpected turn halfway through when its focus shifts from Shuna’s point of view to the formerly enslaved Thea. But the reason I’m placing it on today’s list is that it’s a shocking beautiful book through and through, thanks in large part to the incredible watercolors inside. Apparently this has been popular in Japan since the early 80s, and the translator, Alex Dudok de Wit, speculates that its been ignored by scholars because it had never been translated before. Well, problem solved! One of the more amazing comics of the year. Don’t let it pass you by.
Simon and Chester: Super Family! by Cale Atkinson
I’ve an unspoken rule against putting sequels onto any of these lists. It’s not hard and fast, but just for my own reading I don’t have much time to dedicate to titles I’ve seen before. But rules, even unspoken ones, are meant to be broken. Particularly when they involve a fellow by the name of Cale Atkinson. Now I don’t know if you had the pleasure of seeing his first “Simon and Chester” story but it was a marvelously funny book. This one also doesn’t disappoint, but it also contains a couple melancholy undertones that deepen the characters and lift this above the pack of normally silly/funny gns. In this story Chester has learned through popular culture that his family situation (living with just his grandma) is not a “normal” family. Simon isn’t very sympathetic to this p.o.v. because he’s gearing up for a ghost conference and he’s hoping to rub his new haunting situation (a.k.a. Chester’s home) in the faces of some of the snobbier ghosts. There’s a single moment in this book that solidified its placement on not just this graphic novel list but my upcoming “Funny” list, when Simon is talking at the ghost convention to a fellow ghost that haunts a bucket that had me snorting way too loud in my staff break room one lunchtime. And with its increasing emotional maturity, this is definitely a series to grab close and hold onto.
Sir Ladybug by Corey R. Tabor
Evildoers and hungry chickadees beware! Whenever there’s trouble, he’s there on the double. He’s… Sir Ladybug! I’m always talking about how I’d like to see younger comics on my comic book lists. Corey R. Tabor to the rescue! You might remember him from last year’s Mel Fell or from the delightful Snail Crossing. I’m happy to report that a snail does indeed make it into this book (maybe the same one?). And I adore the idea of a sinister chickadee as they are, undeniably, the cutest of the tiny birds. This book just works, man. Tabor’s a master. Extra points for making me really hungry for cake and Sterling’s poem (“so much depends / upon / a slice of / cake / glazed with thick / frosting / beside the video game / console”). The sole flaw? No recipe for lemon layer cake in the back. Tut tut.
Smaller Sister by Maggie Edkins Willis
Lucy adores her big sister Olivia, but Olivia has problems that Lucy just can’t understand. And while Olivia is dealing with an eating disorder, Lucy begins to slip down the same slope. A loving portrait of family and positive body attitudes. I’m a little influenced by my 11-year-old’s reaction to it. She was instantly drawn to the title and read it in about a night, then told me to read it. Please note that she never tells me to do that. I thought the book captured very well the see-saw effect of eating disorders in a single home. Also, I know the parents were supportive but could these people freakin’ keep a job in a single place for more than a year?!?
The Tryout by Christina Soontornvat, ill. Joanna Cacao
2022 was the year when I finally stopped reading to my daughter every night. We managed to keep it going until she started middle school, but once she was off and running it just felt like a natural stopping place. Fortunately, I was able to get in a fair number of 2022 graphic novels and comics with her before the switchover. The Tryout was one of those titles and seemed a perfectly timed title for the world she was about to enter. Soontornvat apparently took a dare somewhere to publish as many different types of children’s books in a single year as possible. How else to explain the fact that she has out a picture book bio, a fantasy middle grade, a younger nonfiction picture book about the environment… shall I go on? This is the most autobiographical of her titles and it follows a moment in middle school when Christina and her best friend decided to try out for the cheerleading squad. Interestingly, the thing it reminded me of the most was Jimmy Gownley’s Amelia Rules series, specifically those books where Amelia tries out for cheerleading. Cheerleaders, by and large, get a bad rap in children’s literature and it’s nice to see a realistic look at a specific time and place (complete with plenty of microaggressions) that shows why this is important to so many girls. A complex but not overly complicated view of a young life.
Twin Cities by Jose Pimienta
Twins Teresa and Fernando have always done everything together. But now, living on the US-Mexican border, Teresa is studying in the States and Fer is staying in school in Mexico. Will their relationship survive the strain of this separation? Nuance! I love it! Like I’ve mentioned before, I read all these emotional middle grades with my daughter and we spend a lot of time trying to predict what one person or another’s deal is. In the case of this book, Fer’s new friend had something going on with him but until he pulled out those joints we weren’t quite sure what it was. I was impressed by the depth and complexity at work here as well. If you’re reading this hoping for black and white issues, for people to be all good or all bad, or for issues to be clear cut, look elsewhere. Both Fer and Teresa are navigating these complicated issues on their own, and the whole basis of their problems lies in the fact that for most of the book they can’t or don’t confide in one another. Plus, I have never ever seen a book about characters that live in Calexico/Mexicali. This entire world and premise was new to me, and Pimienta includes some really helpful backmatter to put everything (including the ease with which they cross the border everyday) into perspective. Just know that there is drug use in this book, so it’s definitely on the upper end of the middle grade spectrum.
Two-Headed Chicken by Tom Angleberger
Kind of what you’d get if the film Everything Everywhere All at Once switched out its leads for a two-headed chicken and a green Colonel Sanders-suited moose. Clear as mud? Great. I should mention that Tom Angleberger’s book is one of the few comics that I read to my 8-year-old this year that had him literally guffawing out loud as I did so. The concept of a multiverse has started, slowly, to spur on a range of different books for kids. I would argue, however, that few have taken the ball and run with it the way that Tom has here. The entire concept is, quite simply, that you, the reader, are one of the heads of a two-headed chicken. The other head has a hat that allows you to leap from multi-verse to multi-verse. And this would be all well and good were it not for the fact that in every multi-verse you are being chased by the aforementioned moose and his battle cry of “I’m gonna fry you!” It’s an exploration in originality, since Tom literally could do ANYTHING with this book… and he takes things to ludicrous heights and lows. And here’s the thing: Don’t find one sequence funny? No worries! You’re bound to find another one exactly up your alley. It’s a marvelous exercise in different types of humor and how to incorporate them all into one book for kids. And THAT is worth celebrating!
Wingbearer by Marjorie Liu, ill. Teny Issakhanian
A quick word of warning, this book is very much the first in a series and it ends on a cliffhanger. I know some folks like to know about that beforehand. By this point you understand that each book on this list, if my daughter sees it, gets a romance rating. And while this book does not really have any romantic impulses in it, at the very least “the boy is cute” (quoth she) so take that under advisement. I like a book that comes up with a wackadoodle new idea and gives its world building some proper time and attention. Liu delivers on that point. Our heroine, Zuli, has been raised in a magical tree by mystical birds. At this safe haven, birds, when they die in our world, go there to be reborn. Got that? Trouble is, the birds are now dying but their souls are not being reborn again. What gives? Zuli sets out on an epic quest, meets friends along the way, suffers betrayals, comes to understand her own powers, and then there’s a wonderful bad guy twist right at the end. The art is skillfully done and everything that happens is crystal clear from start to finish. Definitely one for your shelves.
The Wolf Suit by Sid Sharp
I like a book so weird I don’t know where to put it. I like a book so weird it should live in its own little section of the library or bookstore by itself. Maybe someone could build it a tiny apartment out of cardboard underneath a sign that reads This Book Is Too Weird To Live Anywhere Else. Because where exactly do you put this title? In the graphic novels and comics? In the early chapter books? Me, I put it here on this list and I regret nothing. The story is just so strange and charming that I couldn’t help but adore it. Our star is Bellwether Riggwelter (are you not entertained?) a sheep that lives on his own and is perfectly happy about that. Unfortunately, Bellwether is totally terrified of wolves, and with good reason being a sheep and all. One day he decides to go out into the woods to pick some berries but a close encounter with a wolf scares him back home. Once there, he gets the clever idea to create a wolf suit. Now he can get out and about. Trouble is, when he runs into “other” wolves they invite him out that night. Will his secret be revealed? Did I see the twist in this story coming? I did not. Should I have? Probably. But as far as I’m concerned this is a book with a moral that refuses to moralize. It just wants to be weird and wild. I am okay with that.
Your Pal Fred by Michael Rex
Post-apocalyptic adorableness! Meet Fred. He wants to be your friend, even if you happen to be a killer robot, a warlord, or entirely covered in spikes. Resist his charm if you dare! Kind of what you’d get if you drop a lovable schmuck in the middle of Mad Max: Fury Road. Fred’s just sweet and there isn’t a drop of real violence in this whole book. Put another way, Fred’s like a little android Ted Lasso, merrily skipping through a hellscape, trying to stop war and violence, and handing out cheery stickers along the way. Niceness is seeing a real uptick in adult programming (how else to explain Our Flag Means Death?) so it makes sense that we’d see a little of that on the children’s side as well. Color me a Fred fan.
Want to see other lists? Stay tuned for the rest this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 3 – Simple Picture Book Texts
December 4 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
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 – Gross 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 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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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