Review of the Day: Mexikid by Pedro Martín
“I don’t think he’s ever done a book for kids before.” I’m standing on the floor of the American Library Association in June of 2023. The conference is packed. Librarians that haven’t been to an annual conference since before the COVID pandemic are congregating in droves and the noise levels are significantly high. In spite of this, I can hear my companion clearly, but I’m still having difficulty figuring out what it is that they’re saying exactly. “What do you mean?” I’m trying to blame the ambient sound for my confusion, but my friend isn’t helping. They shake their head. “I mean, if they’d ever done a book for children before they wouldn’t have tried to get away with everything this book gets away with.” And they shrug, but it’s clear that they’re saying this with deep respect. The shrug conveys an understanding that were we all capable of getting away with murder, the way that Pedro Martín has with his debut middle grade graphic novel (comic) Mexikid we would do so. I look back on this conversation as I prepare to review this book and the inescapable conclusion I come to is that my friend was wholly, entirely, shockingly correct. Sometimes the best books for kids come from people that have no idea what is and is not considered “appropriate” in this day and age. Mexikid, a graphic novel memoir of a time when Martín’s family headed South to Pegueros to pick up his grandfather and bring him back to the States, is a epic in every sense of the word. It has laughs, music, snot, baby coffins, live amputations, feats of strength, bad haircuts, and (of course) family, family, family. It may also well be the most ambitious comic I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something.
Pedro (known as “Peter” in the States where he was born) is the seventh in a line of nine kids. His five oldest siblings were born in Mexico, while his and the younger children were all born in the States. With such a huge family it seems nutty that they’d be adding anyone additional to their household, but that’s exactly what happens when his father announces that the whole family is going to travel down to Mexico to pick up their abuelo in Pegueros and bring him back home to the States. Packed into a Winnebago and a separate truck, the family drives 2,000 miles on their mission. Along the way, Pedro hears wild stories about his grandfather. Tales of superhuman strength and resilience that can’t possibly be true… right? Trouble is, when you’re the grandson of a legend, sometimes it’s harder to resist your destiny than agree to it.
I’m an old children’s librarian by definition. I’ve been in this business over two decades and I’ve watched, with interest, the rise of comics for kids. Time was that the demand was there but the creators and output simply weren’t. Now you can’t shake your fist in the general direction of a publisher without hitting one or two comic creators along the way. In a given year I’ll read dozens and dozens of comics and you know what the problem is with that? Like every other genre in the world, once something gets popular then it also gets filled with tripe. With increasing percentages every year, more and more comics being published are dull as dishwater. They all look the same, feel the same, and essentially are the same. That’s what makes a book like Mexikid so amazing. This book feels nothing like all the other comics for kids out there. It has its own style, look, and feel, but at the same time its art style is as approachable and as welcoming as any Raina Telgemeier/Lucy Knisely title I could name. It is, in a word, enticing.
Mind you, I’m still not entirely certain how its creator managed to pack in as much storyline into this book as he did. Most comics (and I’m painting with a broad brush here, but still…) keep things relatively simple. Clean art, concise storytelling, the works. Mexikid, by contrast, is so packed with content that you feel like you’re getting away with something by reading it as is. At times when I feel weighted down by the number of jobs I need to finish in a given day, all I have to do to put things in perspective is postulate on how long it took Pedro Martín to finish this book. I’m only half joking. Mexikid gives you so much bang for your buck that you’re left panting. But even more amazingly, for all that it’s filled to the brim with fun stories and characters, it never loses sight of its central theme. Its protagonist really and truly does go on a hero’s journey, and comes out better for it.
When you find your new favorite author/illustrator, what do you do to learn more about them? I’m old so my first move is to check out their website, and from there, you’ll naturally be directed onto social media. So it was that I discovered that Pedro Martín has an Instagram account called @Mexikidstories. I didn’t learn much more about the man himself there, but I did discover that any kid that already likes this book will have a plethora of additional stories that didn’t make it to the page. They’re just waiting to be read (and just as interesting, quite frankly). But, of course, part of the reason I sought out his website was to discover how Martín came to know how to draw as many artistic styles as he does. One minute he’s emulating classic “Hulk” comic book styles and the next it’s his standard clean-lined go-to middle grade GN style. There’s also the fact that the design of this book is choice. Each and every page is laid out with care and attention. After the first twenty pages I was so struck with awe that it was all I could do to keep turning the pages. Read the book over and over again and you’ll notice things like the fact that there are moments when Martín repeats whole panels for comedic effect (particularly near the end of the book). You’ll start to realize that the speech balloons are never out of place. The entire title is so sophisticated and profoundly well-executed that it puts the competition to shame.
And it’s gross. I mean that as the highest compliment. Sometimes folks think I don’t have an appreciation for disgusting books for kids, but that’s simply not true. I don’t have an appreciation for poorly done disgusting books for kids. But you hand me a book that’s smart and funny then all the diarrhea, snot, dangling hooves, and peeing doll jokes in the world won’t get past me unnoticed. Fact of the matter is, I love scatological humor when the person making it is skilled. And friend, Mexikid may contain some of the MOST fantastic gross stuff on a page for kids that I’ve seen in years and years.
In spite of everything, Pulitzer prize wins and academic awards, and even the occasional Newbery, comics for kids are considered ancillary. Secondary. Less important than novels. Some folks understand that it’s not a competition. A book with words and pictures can be as stirring and important as a book that’s just words-alone. Still, I think it’s important to note that Mexikid is more than just snot+Pop Rocks and crazed deer. Told in the first person, this is a memoir in the purest sense. Martín has taken a section from his childhood and not simply imbued it with story and purpose but also a hefty dose of personal growth. The ending is incredibly satisfying both because all adventures have reached their close and also because young Pedro has managed to do something he never quite realized he wanted all along: he’s earned the respect of his superhero grandfather. Soaked in a reality that few can master on the page as well, Mexikid may be one of the best comics I’ve ever read for this age range. Consider it an amazing example of how to retell the story of your youth in the most epic (yet shockingly accurate) way possible. As my friend at the ALA Conference said, Martín may not have known how much additional work he was doing here, but I’m so glad no one spilled the beans. One of the most enjoyable books you’ll encounter out there. A true modern day classic.
On shelves August 1st
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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