Some people will love this fanciful tale of a 19th-century space race so much they never finish it.
This graphic novel is filled with distractions. Every scene has a new detail to focus on, usually off in the corner of a panel: a watercraft decorated with golden cherubs or an airship shaped like a swan. When one character holds up a book of blueprints (for a craft that travels “through aether”), readers may be tempted to crane their necks to get a better view of the tiny drawings. The artwork, which combines loose pencil outlines with elaborate watercolors, is that spectacular. Many panels could be framed as paintings, and it would be easy to ignore the text and just stare at the pictures of cloud banks. But that would be a mistake, as it’s a terrific adventure story with disguises and air chases and a plot against Bavarian royalty in the late 1800s. The story is full of digressions, though, and the digressions are the best part, as when the main character (a schoolboy named Seraphin) explains why there must be dinosaurs on Venus. In another, the royal architect shows off the orchestra pit on an airship. This is bad science and bad history (and surely not everyone in Bavaria was white), which makes it fantastic steampunk.
Like the best steampunk, this story is one excellent distraction after another, with enough blueprints to hold people’s attention while they’re waiting for Book 2.
(Graphic steampunk. 10-16)
When a young girl’s imagination and creativity are co-opted by a mysterious new friend, she must find a way to regain what is rightfully hers.
Sandy is a brown-skinned, dark-haired girl with big black eyes and a vivid imagination. At night, as she goes to sleep, she catches the lights bobbing about in her room and turns them into anything she imagines. The next day is spent drawing the fantastical creatures from her dreams, much to the detriment of her schoolwork. When a tall, pale-skinned girl with purple hair befriends her, Sandy is excited, though there is something eerie and unsettling about her new companion. Her excitement soon turns to anger as Morfie enters her imaginative nighttime world and tries to take it over. Readers will cheer at the clever way in which Sandy regains control. Using a lovely palette that includes a liberal amount of rich, dark purple, Colombian-born Alvarez has drawn a world that harks back to her native Bogotá and days in Catholic school, evoking it in wonderful detail and atmosphere. Her pages are not crowded yet are filled with details that will engage readers. The beings that inhabit Sandy’s nighttime world are simply delightful. The album size, cloth spine binding, and spot gloss on the cover are the icing on the cake of this beautiful graphic novel.
Jack and Lilly return in a new adventure in which they must navigate a fantastic and foreign land to save Jack’s autistic sister, Maddy.
The story dives in where Mighty Jack (2016) had left off on a breathless cliffhanger, which finds Jack and Lilly emerging through a strange, keyhole-shaped portal in order to save Maddy from a fierce monster. Rather like Alice down the rabbit hole, the kids find themselves in an unfamiliar world where they must climb a tenuous beanstalk and face vicious, biting rats, lovably bumbling goblins, and fearsome giants. Hatke’s reimagined fairy tale is a masterpiece that blends all the familiar elements of “Jack and the Beanstalk” with a decidedly fresh eye in a visually arresting graphic format. His art, brilliantly colored by Campbell and Sycamore, is vividly kinetic, taking over with many wordless action scenes that fire off with rocketlike propulsion. Though Hatke’s cast is predominantly white, he gives diversity a nod with an autistic main character and defies gender convention when another female character is crowned king. Though Jack is given sole titular credit, he and Lilly share the heroic spotlight in this installment, as she is every bit as mighty and important as he. Expect demand for the next installment to be through the roof; Hatke’s brilliant final scene should elicit audible exclamations from fans of his work.
Another outstanding adventure from a master storyteller.
(Graphic fantasy. 7-14)
A home-centered sequel to Sunny Side Up (2015), with incidents joyful and otherwise in a middle schooler’s life.
The tale is set in the 1976-77 school year and framed by references to TV shows of that era (both contemporaneous and reruns, including The Six Million Dollar Man, The Brady Bunch, and Gilligan’s Island, with amusingly pithy show notes for each). The story unfolds in successive episodes of Sunny’s self-conceived The Sunny Show that confront her with domestic challenges ranging from little brother Teddy’s filled diaper (“Something Smells”) to the stormy holiday visit by formerly loving but now angry, troubled big brother Dale, come home from a military-style boarding school (“Six Million Dollar Boy”). Despite such low notes, though, the general trend is upbeat—with Gramps coming up from Florida for a visit, a sisterly, Indian-American teen neighbor named Neela Singh moving in next door (adding some diversity to the otherwise all-white main cast), and a heartening if long-distance thank-you from Dale for the pet rock Sunny gives him at Christmas being particular highlights. Using a combination of short exchanges of dialogue and frequent wordless reaction shots, the Holms again leverage simply drawn scenes colored by Pien into a loosely autobiographical narrative that is poignant and hilarious in turn and emotionally rich throughout.
Another radiant outing.
(Graphic historical fiction. 9-11)
A home-schooled squireling sallies forth to public school, where the woods turn out to be treacherous and dragons lie in wait.
Imogene Vega has grown up among “faire-mily”; her brown-skinned dad is the resident evil knight at a seasonal Renaissance faire, her lighter-skinned mom is in charge of a gift shop, and other adult friends play various costumed roles. As a freshly minted “squire,” she happily charges into new weekend duties helping at jousts, practicing Elizabethan invective (“Thou lumpish reeling-ripe jolt-head!” “Thou loggerheaded rump-fed giglet!”), and keeping younger visitors entertained. But she loses her way when cast among crowds of strangers in sixth grade. Along with getting off on the wrong foot academically, she not only becomes a target of mockery after clumsy efforts to join a clique go humiliatingly awry, but alienates potential friends (and, later, loving parents and adoring little brother too). Amid stabs of regret she wonders whether she’s more dragon than knight. In her neatly drawn sequential panels, Newbery honoree Jamieson (Roller Girl, 2015) portrays a diverse cast of expressive, naturally posed figures occupying two equally immersive worlds. In the end Imogene wins the day in both, proving the mettle of her brave, decent heart in finding ways to make better choices and chivalric amends for her misdeeds.
Readers will cheer her victories, wince at her stumbles, and likely demand visits to the nearest faire themselves to sample the wares and fun.
(Graphic fiction. 10-13)
Korean siblings have a rip-roaring adventure, tumbling into a magical land in search of their missing grandmother in this folklore-inspired graphic novel.
A girl and her little brother arrive at their halmoni’s home only to find her mysteriously absent and large paw prints covering the floor. Falling through the doors of a bedding closet into a fantastical wilderness inhabited by classic Korean folk-tale characters, the siblings work together—armed only with a backpack full of snacks, an enchanted back scratcher, a golden door handle, and their plucky wits—to find Halmoni. The children’s dialogue is written in English, while the utterances of the rabbit, goblins, tiger, and nine-tailed fox are given in the Korean alphabet, hangul. Romanized Korean also appears throughout, with an endnote providing translations as well as background about Korean folklore. Kim’s bright, expressive illustrations are a delight, effectively conveying triumph, indignation, surprise, consternation, and more. Hidden clues lurk, adding another layer of intrigue to the plot for observant readers to ponder. Cultural details are seamlessly integrated into the story, such as removing outside shoes to change into slippers indoors and gesturing “come here” in the East Asian manner. Those familiar with the culture will appreciate elements that are not explicitly explained, such as the little boy’s calling his sister “Noona,” the appropriate kinship term for an older female, making this an accessible, diverse title for a broad readership.
An exceptionally charming and well-executed romp that brings to life loving family relationships and an enticing fairy-tale world.
(Graphic fantasy. 7-10)
Thirteen-year-old Aster is of age to find the animal that will deem him worthy to take its shape as a shape-shifter. There’s just one problem. Aster doesn’t want to shape-shift—he wants to do witchery, which is forbidden for boys.
Aunt Vervain teaches witchery to the girls, and Aster hides, taking careful notes—but he’s caught. His mother tells him a family secret: his grandmother’s male twin was attracted to witchery. After dabbling in forbidden magic, he morphed into something terrible, caused a disaster in their village, and was cast out. Though Aster’s horrified, he can’t resist practicing magic alone in the woods. To his delight, it works, but he’s seen by Charlie, a black girl from outside his community, and eventually she becomes the confidante and adviser he’s needed. On the night of the Finding, a boy is taken by a mysterious creature. Aster knows he can help with witchery, but he’d have to admit how much he’s learned. Ostertag’s story is straightforward, acting as a parable for gender conformity that’s pitched just right to middle-grade audiences. Her panels are clear, colorful, and friendly, and her worldbuilding flawless, Aster’s magic-working community sitting cheek by jowl with Charlie’s suburb. Characters are all different races: Aster’s mother appears white, his father appears black, and Aster has darker skin than his mother but has her red hair.
With charming artwork, interesting supporting characters, natural-feeling diversity, and peeks of a richly developed world, this book leaves readers wishing for more.
(Graphic fantasy. 8-12)