Grrl power graphic novels and memoirs

In comic form, these six recent fiction and nonfiction books for middle-grade and middle-school readers feature girl protagonists who are passionate, resilient, adventurous, and fallible. Their experiences and development showcase the breadth of the comic format…and true grrl power. Look for Sylvie Kantorovitz’s article “Graphic Memoirs: Why We Read Them. Why We Need Them” in the forthcoming March/April Horn Book Magazine and revisit “Middle-Grade Graphic Novels Make Good.”

Scout Is Not a Band Kid
by Jade Armstrong; illus. by the author
Middle School    RH Graphic/Random    272 pp.    g
4/22    978-0-593-17623-8    $20.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17624-5    $23.99
Paper ed.  978-0-593-17622-1    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17625-2    $8.99

Scout is not a band kid…she’s a fangirl. This graphic novel celebrates the lengths to which eighth grader Scout goes to meet her idol, Pristine Wong, creator of a beloved (fictional) book series about a magical girl. When Scout learns that her school band will be performing at Almontefest — where Wong is doing a signing — she enthusiastically seizes the opportunity to scam her way into the trombone section. The only other trombone player, Merrin, a type-A overachiever, is thrilled to have her company, until Scout’s utter lack of musical knowledge becomes apparent. The two eventually find common ground and discover that each girl’s strengths complement the other’s vulnerabilities. New characters are introduced with a stat box that lists their pronouns and ranks personality traits (e.g., Merrin’s “Dexterity, Intelligence, Charisma”) from Scout’s perspective on a scale of one to four stars. Additionally, Armstrong’s cartoony art style and focus on expressions and interactions help animate the characters. While this graphic novel will immediately entice nerdy fans of all stripes, Scout’s development models a nuanced, supported approach to goal-setting that will resonate with many middle-school readers. Back matter includes details and reference drawings for Armstrong’s characters, and sixteen four-panel black-and-white mini comics. NIKI MARION

Big Apple Diaries
by Alyssa Bermudez; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    Roaring Brook    256 pp.    g
8/21    978-1-250-77428-6    $14.99

Bermudez mined her middle-school diaries to create this appealing debut graphic memoir set in NYC just before and after 9/11. Twelve-year-old Alyssa splits her time between her Puerto Rican dad’s apartment in Manhattan and her Italian American mom’s place in Queens. While her seventh-grade year at St. Ignatius is full of universally relatable middle-school drama (a painful first crush, multiple friendship conflicts, and a cosmetic malfunction — she accidentally shaves off too much of her eyebrows), Alyssa is also a quintessential New Yorker who rides the subway on her own and takes weekend art lessons at the Met. Then her bustling city life is shaken by the 9/11 attack, which takes place at the start of her eighth-grade year. Though she doesn’t suffer a direct loss from the tragedy — although her father worked in the World Trade Center, he was not in the building that day — Alyssa’s ideas about herself and the future are upended. The cool blue limited palette of the panels underscores the moodiness of the middle-school years and serves as an effective backdrop to the apple-cheeked and open-faced depictions of Alyssa and her friends and family. Fans of Craft’s New Kid (rev. 1/19), Telgemeier’s Smile, and Hale’s Real Friends (rev. 5/17) will find much to love here. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN

Isla to Island
by Alexis Castellanos; illus. by the author
Middle School    Atheneum    192 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-5344-6924-2    $21.99
Paper ed.  978-1-5344-6923-5    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6925-9    $9.99

In this mostly wordless historical-fiction graphic novel, Marisol lives with her parents in Habana (according to captions using the Spanish spelling), Cuba. Marisol, who loves her island’s culture and collecting native flowers, lives a happy and charmed life. Then Fidel Castro comes to power, and everything changes. His regime makes the family feel unsafe, and Marisol’s parents send her to New York City as part of Operation Peter Pan. The couple who takes her in does their best to welcome her, but she finds this new place strange, foreign, and colorless; the gray tones of the previously vibrant illustrations reflect Marisol’s emotional state. The language barrier is challenging; school, which she used to like, is a constant source of frustration. Once she finds the school library and rekindles her love of botany, she’s able to acclimate to her new life. As Marisol begins to feel joy again, color reappears. While there’s no dialogue, the illustrations incorporate quite a bit of print into the characters’ surroundings — Spanish in Cuba, English in the States — which, when coupled with the striking use of color, powerfully depict the disorienting experience of immigration in a way reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (rev. 11/07). A recipe (“From Marisol’s Kitchen”), reading list, more information about Operation Peter Pan, and an author’s note are appended. JONATHAN HUNT

Bad Sister
by Charise Mericle Harper; illus. by Rory Lucey
Intermediate, Middle School    First Second    240 pp.    g
7/21    978-1-250-21906-0    $19.99
Paper ed.  978-1-250-21905-3    $12.99

Skillfully told through the comics medium, this memoir centers on the author’s childhood experiences as a self-identified “bad sister”: “It wasn’t on purpose. The badness just happened.” Chapters function as short personal narratives, depicting memories of young Charise and her less-than-stellar treatment of her younger brother, Daniel. In one scene, Charise convinces Daniel to eat cat food; in another, she accidentally breaks one of his teeth with a golf club. As the siblings play, fight, and grow together, Charise develops understanding of and compassion for herself as well as others. Over time she learns to apologize to — and advocate for — her sibling. Raw emotions of guilt, shame, and jealousy are explored, as young Charise interrogates the power dynamics of big sisterhood and recognizes Daniel’s strengths. The first-person, past-tense narration is balanced by in-the-moment dialogue between characters. In bubbly, bright hues with loose outlines, Lucey’s comics convey thoughtfulness in form, placement, and perspective. Chapter introduction panels that look like Polaroids and the use of Ben-Day dots (like those typically found in newspaper funnies) add to the retro scrapbook-like feel. The soon-to-be cartoonist’s artistic endeavors are an ever-present part of this childhood portrait, but the emphasis remains on the highs, lows, and everything-in-between of sibling relationships. ELISA GALL

Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear
by Trang Nguyen; illus. by Jeet Zdung
Intermediate    Dial    128 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-593-35363-9    $23.99
Paper ed.  978-0-593-35362-2    $13.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-35364-6    $8.99

Nguyen’s graphic novel “based on a true adventure” tells the story of a girl named Chang, who is an aspiring wildlife conservationist, and her efforts to protect Vietnam’s native species and natural environments. Accompanying Chang is Sorya, a sun bear rescued in Laos, who must learn survival skills before she can be safely returned to the forest. Zdung’s expressive, expansive comics-style panels depict Sorya’s many playful antics moment by moment, as well as the fast-paced tension in more dangerous interactions in the wild. Clever picture-within-picture illustrations from Chang’s field-notebook sketches incorporate information on topics ranging from bear species to the many ways humans exploit wild animals for profit. The warmth of the characters’ relationship is conveyed with a minimum of anthropomorphism. The conversational narrative is occasionally paused by gorgeous interspersed partial-to-full spreads of Vietnamese rainforest landscapes filled with the heat, moisture, and density of tropical plant and animal life. Sorya eventually returns to the wild, while Chang continues her lifelong efforts to protect the forests and their inhabitants from human exploitation done through development, farming, dams, and the illegal animal trade. Brief author and illustrator notes are appended. DANIELLE J. FORD

Treasure in the Lake
by Jason Pamment; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    HarperAlley/HarperCollins    208 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-06-306518-5    $22.99
Paper ed.  978-0-06-306517-8    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-306519-2    $10.99

In this vivid graphic novel, adventurous thirteen-year-old Iris believes that she has explored every last corner of her small hometown with her best friend, the trepidatious Sam. She acutely feels Bugden’s limitations and how they hinder her boundless ambitions. After a fight with her mom, Iris camps out at the river, her place of solace and possibility. Sam finds her in the morning, peering down at the strangely dried-up riverbed. Iris ropes Sam into exploring the riverbed, which soon leads them to the dripping remnants of a once-submerged town. The more Iris investigates, the more she realizes how cautious (and complacent) Sam has become, and this frustration culminates in an outburst that separates the two friends just as the first traces of true danger appear. A skilled animation artist, Pamment balances his plentiful and cinematic sequential storytelling with bright, personality-building dialogue to create a cohesive and immersive narrative in both art and text. Detailed visual motifs and many potent sound effects handily extend the narrative beyond the page and activate readers’ senses. Hand this mesmerizing tale about hidden histories and friendship growth spurts to cautious and intrepid young explorers alike. NIKI MARION

From the February 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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