The year in graphic novels is just half over, but already there's an embarrassment of riches. From a wordless fable for toddlers and a couple of graphic tales for beginning readers, through some rockin’ fantasy and comedy for middle graders, to poignant coming-of-age tales and glimpses into history for teens, we have picked 15 of the best.
Want to get more graphic? Read our list of graphic novels for adults.
Nick Bertozzi’s graphic reenactment of the Lewis & Clark expedition is a serious corrective for anyone under the misapprehension that the journey of discovery was a barrel of fun. Here there be monthlong portages, unfriendly locals, blistering cold, endless rain, giant thorns to impale your foot, mosquitoes, bears and probably dragons somewhere. True, there are astounding landscapes, Sacagawea and occasional good days—like the one when they returned home—but it is Lewis’ descent into madness that will stick with readers. The panels are loosely drawn and highly dramatic, which befits the raggedy, perilous nature of the enterprise. The story is so grim that it manages to reverse-engineer itself into the sublime—and if anyone ever deserved to experience exaltation, it was these unmerry men. (12 & up)
Anya is a high school student with a Russian background that she has toiled to erase from her makeup. She falls into a cistern one day—a near-everyday happenstance in the graphic world—and encounters the ghost of a murdered child. The ghost becomes a friend, helping Anya with schoolwork and her love life. At first meek, the ghost turns toxic, however, wanting to channel Anya’s life into her woeful ways. Vera Brosgol’s Anya is the kind of kid you’d like to know: a bundle of anxieties wrapped in an endearing envelope. The transmogrification of the ghost is eerie and its exorcism hard won, and Anya is a winning protagonist, drawn with echoes of Persepolis and Charlie Brown, though wholly owned by Brosgol. (12 & up)
Laura Lee Gulledge
When Paige’s family moves from Charlottesville, Va., to Brooklyn, N.Y., the relocation is dislocating, exacerbating her already discombobulated identity quest. Is she the artist she thinks she might be? If Page by Paige is any indication, she is. Laura Lee Gulledge’s black-and-white artwork is certain as she illustrates her narrative. It is raw and intensely experienced (if delivered in a mostly quiet voice), as long as Paige doesn’t actually have to say the words to anyone—“The inside of my head is a loud place”—at least not until the moment of truth. So utterly identifiable, the story will make readers’ teeth ache; such yearning is a beautiful thing to behold. (13 & up)
Zita is just your ordinary troublemaker before she finds the teleporter and becomes Zita the Spacegirl, sending herself and her friend Joseph to a soon-to-be-apocalyptic world. Though this sounds dire, and Zita will meet up with a cast of unsavory characters who would have felt right at home in the Star Wars bar scene, the mood in Ben Hatke’s tale is young and upbeat. There is something of a Shakespearean background at work—with castles and wastelands—and a heart-stealing company who befriend Zita, including the roguish Piper, a hovering droid, a giant mouse and a great protoplasmic blob, Strong-Strong. This is a high-octane story, with dashing, stylish artwork and a well-turned story line. (9-12)
Online extra: Read our Q&A with debut graphic novelist Ben Hatke.
Geoffrey Hayes’ Patrick is a little bear with the willfulness of Dennis the Menace and a Katzenjammer Kids–style brusqueness in engaging with the world and its sometimes truculent citizens. Happily for the little bear, Ma and Daddy act as ports in the storm and general softening agents. All are drawn with an antique feel, like early animated cartoon movies, though here in lovely, washed color. Perhaps young readers won’t sense it, but this ’toon is also a tool for learning to read and gaining a notion of storytelling. The sentences are short and the settings are intimate—a picnic, a nap, a journey to market—but the stories are expansive, with classic tragic arcs, all on a sweet scale. (4-6)
Jennifer L. & Matthew Holm
Squish is an amoeba, blobby, a lover of Super Amoeba comic books and, fittingly, Twinkies, even though he has no mouth (that will be explained). The drama of his pond life is caught here by siblings Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm—Jennifer has garnered two Newbery Honors—in simple panels of broad strokes and slime-mold green, telling the crazy yet weirdly realistic story of a bad amoeba who wants to eat Squish’s paramecium friend. Will he do the right, brave thing, like his comic book hero? There’s science in them pages; goofy and antic, yes, but also intriguing enough for readers to go look up rotifer and E. coli. Bonus feature: Details on how to grow your own mold (under your sister’s bed, natch). (7-9)
Carla Jablonski; illus. by Leland Purvis
In Defiance, Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis offer the second book of their Resistance trilogy, and it is as emotionally stirring as the first, Resistance (2010). The setting, again, is a small and superbly rendered village in the Jura countryside of France during World War II, and the activities of the Tessiers are the heart of the action. The youngsters in the family are increasing their dangerous participation in the French Resistance, including the shifting dynamics and internal tensions among groups: Who’s fishy, who’s trustworthy? (kids, like animals, have a nose for such things—listen up, Marshal Pétain!) A fine, sometimes grim tale—hopeful, ominous and complex—with handsome, rousing art and a dramatic narrative. (12 & up)
Tony Lee; illus. by Sam Hart
Excalibur is a deep, rich retelling of the Arthur legend, one that feels old and true. Tony Lee's interpretation is ably assisted by Sam Hart’s artwork, with its burnished colors of umber and sienna that purple into night and winter and dread. The story takes its time and in its leisure is able to create strong portraits of Arthur, Merlin, Morgana, Guinevere, Vivianne, Gawain and Lancelot. Lee’s dialogue is rousing—“Welcome to Stone Hill, Arthur. This is where you take Caliburne. This is where you find your destiny”—as it taps into the many branches of the legend, the tale of the Green Knight being a particularly good one, as well as one that raises Guinevere from the ashes of not betrayal, but following her heart, just like her king. (12 & up)
In his picture-book debut, Owly starts from the page with near three-dimensionality. In Andy Runton’s latest graphic work starring the young owl and his small pal Wormy, Owly & Wormy, Friends All Aflutter!, the two of them struggle to attract butterflies to their garden. They acquire a milkweed plant in hopes thereof, but they get a couple green bugs in return. Owly and Wormy come to befriend the bugs, but then the bugs melt into thin air—causing some distress for Owly and Wormy—only to reappear as…This is a wordless tale, the intentions and concerns conveyed through telegraphic facial expressions and little rebus-like “voice” bubbles. The settings will make readers feel like they are being held in toast-warm hands, and the learning experience is beautifully stirring. (2-5)
Captain Amazing is feeling his years. It’s time for him to find some new Sidekicks, but—silly him—he has overlooked the pets in his home because he’s just been too darned busy. They have budding superpowers galore, though they will have to save Amazing’s sorry bacon before he realizes it. A dog, a cat, a chameleon and a hamster. Each is drawn with charming empathy—“An invincible hamster. Well, I guess we know why you’ve never shown any superpowers before”—and the kind of affection that will make readers weep: The cat has to wear an Elizabethan collar (aka Cone of Shame) to keep from licking his wounds after battle. Dan Santat’s artwork is both catching in its electric coloring and tightly energetic: If the final conflict takes 100 panels, it still feels like a blazing instant. (8-12)
It is not easy to pretend you are having a great adventure when your companion is Mr. Literal. That’s the case with Zoe and Robot. Zoe, a little girl, tells Robot that they are going mountain climbing. Robot is game but doesn’t get the drift: Zoe’s mountain of pillows, Mt. Pillow, fails to register. “Robot only sees pillows,” says the One—Can’t-Pretend. She tries her darndest to create the right atmosphere—covering Robot’s eyes, dressing him in gear for cold weather, turning on a fan to mimic alpine winds (“That is not a breeze. Robot hears the whirring of a fan,” says the clueless killjoy). Finally she gets him to the top of the hill, then they tumble and Robot bonks his head—and, hey presto! Robot sees the light. Drawn by Ryan Sias in party colors and with a degree of enthusiasm that only the comatose will not respond to, Zoe and Robot give hope for even the most wonderless among us. (4-8)
The Never Weres live in a dystopia with promise, if that’s not asking too much. The promise lies in three teenagers—Mia, Xian and Jesse—who have the spunk to find the key that will allow the Earth to overcome the barren virus, which has rendered humans childless for a generation. Ultimately, it involves those in favor of cloning and those who don’t—a canny entree into a number of issues—which the three friends face with trepidatious resolve. Art—vision, truth, creativity, freedom—will have its way in fighting fear and chaos. Fiona Smyth’s artwork is text-perfect. Her sepulchral black-and-white drawings drift between Surreal and Expressionist and have the inexorable pull of a riptide. (11-13)
Evonne Tsang; illus. by Janina Görrissen
Good zombie stories are always welcome, and My Boyfriend is a Monster #1 makes for a fine zombie graphic. It all starts innocently enough as a tempestuous and savory love story between a jock (her) and a nerd (him), but both teens managed to defy simple pigeonholing. Things dissolve quickly, however, as they deliquesce in the vilest manner when a fungus goes viral...and enter the walking dead. "Guh. Guuuuuh." Illustrator Janina Görrissen's choice of black-and-white coloring is moodily appropriate, and her panels are rich with emotion and personality, allowing for a degree of detail that lets you get right into a zombie's exploding noggin. (11-13)
Colleen A.F. Venable; illus. by Stephanie Yue
This third in the Guinea PI(g), Pet Shop Private Eye series is plain good and wacky. The pet-store owner can’t identify the animals in his shop and tries to sell a pair of shoes as a pet. P.I. Sasspants’ assistant, Hamisher the hamster, suffera terrible motor-mouth because he’s been drinking too much soda so as to stay awake during the day. Off-the-wall comments spout from the fish. And a loopy little mystery threads its way through the absurdities. Colleen A.F. Venable’s dialogue is bright and merry and appropriately nutty—Hamisher on a slogan for their detective business: “How about ‘Hey, That’s My Tuba!’ That would make an awesome catchphrase. Well, it would if we owned a tuba and people kept stealing it”—and Stephanie Yue’s artwork is soothing and genial, its clean lines perfect counterpoint to all the madcap activity. (6-12)
Ursula VernonThe legend of Camazotz—the prehistoric giant vampire bat revered down Mexico way by the ancient Zapotec—affords Ursula Vernon’s young dragon Danny (this is his fourth caper) a chance to get himself into a big pickle. Vernon’s neat trick in Dragonbreath: Lair of the Bat Monster, a fusion of graphic panels embedded in an extended narrative, is to invest lots of information on the topic at hand—here being bats and their natural and cultural environments—with a wild story, peopled with animal characters drawn with gentle curves and great, round eyes (except the baddies, which are craggily malevolent), and great dollops of humor. Danny’s nebbish-but-loyal friend Wendell thinks the puss of the wrinkle-faced bat looks “like the back end of a crab”—and it really does. (8-12)