School-set comics

Comics do belong at school — and many of them, including the following graphic novels and graphic memoirs for middle graders and middle schoolers, even take place there. See also Guide/Reviews Database subject: Graphic novels; “Middle-Grade Graphic Novels Make Good”; and the Graphic Novels tag at

Other Boys
by Damian Alexander; illus. by the author
Middle School    First Second    208 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-250-22282-4    $21.99
Paper ed.  978-1-250-22281-7    $14.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-86086-6    $9.99

Clearly and honestly, cartoonist Alexander’s debut graphic memoir explores familial loss, social isolation, and sexual identity. At the start of seventh grade in a new school, Damian vows to remain silent. “If I never spoke with anyone I couldn’t get hurt, right?” Effectively sequenced flashbacks highlight frequent harassment by classmates and relatives for being “girly” and “sensitive,” providing context for Damian’s cautious behavior. In contrast, tender and supportive memories of his grandparents, along with a small group of elementary-school friends, offer moments of hope and humor. Having tragically lost their mother at the hands of their father, Damian and his older brother were raised by their grandparents. Throughout this tumultuous childhood, doodling, writing, reading, and video games become a source of escapism and companionship. Feelings of attraction to other boys eventually lead an adolescent Damian to realize that he is gay, but it is not until a liberating conversation with a school therapist that his sexual identity is positively affirmed. The digitally rendered illustrations feature an organic, wobbly pen line and an authentic 1990s-to-early-2000s visual aesthetic. Alexander regularly forgoes representational backgrounds for emotive blocks of colors (red for anger, pink for love, blue for sadness), allowing the main characters to take center stage and drive the narrative — particularly through facial expressions. An often-heartbreaking but powerful — and empowering — story of self-discovery, akin to Curato’s Flamer (rev. 11/20) and Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo (rev. 9/18). PATRICK GALL

Swim Team
by Johnnie Christmas; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    HarperAlley/HarperCollins    256 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-06-305677-0    $21.99
Paper ed.  978-0-06-305676-3    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-305680-0    $11.99

In Christmas’s debut graphic novel, Bree and her dad are moving to Florida from Brooklyn for his new job. Bree is excited for the first day of school until she finds out swim class is the only available elective. Bree doesn’t know how to swim but is too embarrassed to tell the teacher. When her neighbor, Ms. Etta, finds out Bree’s secret, she offers to give her private lessons. The lessons pay off, and Bree joins the swim team to improve her grade. When arguments among team members threaten to break them up, Ms. Etta and her friends step in to help them pull together, and when Bree finds out her dad can’t swim, she teaches him. Like Johnson’s Twins (rev. 11/20) and Craft’s New Kid (rev. 1/19), this enjoyable graphic novel deals with familiar and middle-grade-appropriate themes of friendship, perseverance, and overcoming fears. The accessible illustrations add to the humorous (and sometimes serious) moments within the text. The book also introduces readers to the history of Black people being denied access to public pools, which limited their ability to learn to swim. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

The Real Riley Mayes
by Rachel Elliott; illus. by the author
Intermediate    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    224 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-06-299575-9    $21.99
Paper ed.  978-0-06-299574-2    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-299576-6    $11.99

“Fifth grade isn’t my kinda vibe,” admits Riley at the start of Elliott’s debut graphic novel, an exploration of self-identity that is both LOL funny and touching. Riley struggles in school, preferring to crack jokes and doodle on her assignments. And she doesn’t have a crush on anyone in Eleventy-One, the boy band that is the frequent subject of her classmates’ discussions. But she starts to suspect she might have a crush on Joy Powers, a celebrity comedian who is her idol and the intended recipient of a letter for a school assignment — if Riley can only figure out how to narrow her questions (“Do you ever love stuff that other people think is weird?”). Riley finds a true friend in new-kid Aaron but accidentally outs his parents as gay. When a classmate calls her a “lesbo,” Riley (who thinks of herself as a “dude-ish girl”) struggles to come to terms with her own identity. With the help of a few friends, her tight-knit family, Aaron’s dads, and even Joy Powers, Riley realizes that “it’s worth it to find the few people who truly get you.” Elliott brings readers crisp linework, a bright palette, expressive body language, rich narrative details, and (bonus!) kitty comics. Best of all is inimitable Riley, who endears herself to readers with her budding self-awareness and undeniable moxie. JULIE DANIELSON

by Christina Diaz Gonzalez; illus. by Gabriela Epstein; color by Lark Pien
Middle School    Graphix/Scholastic    208 pp.    g
8/22    978-1-338-19455-5    $24.99
Paper ed.  978-1-338-19454-8    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-19456-2    $7.99

Gonzalez’s compelling graphic novel opens with five students from Conrad Middle School sitting in the principal’s office. They assume they’re in trouble but aren’t sure why — the why they’re actually there is uncovered through flashback scenes from each of the kids that forms the story’s narrative. Originally, the five were grouped together for early morning cafeteria clean-up duty because of a misperception about in-common Latin heritage, but none of the kids identifies primarily as Latine. Jorge (he prefers George) is American and Puerto Rican; Nico is Venezuelan; Miguel is Dominican; Dayara is Cuban; and Sara is Mexican. Gonzalez uses a mix of English and Spanish (and Spanglish) in her narrative, highlighting how assumptions about language and academic ability based on ethnic origin are inappropriate and often false. The story ably explores the concept of diversity within the Latin community, including national origin, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, debunking the harmful myth that the Latin diaspora is monolithic. At the same time, each of the students is challenged to make sense of their internal and external personas — a universal experience for middle schoolers. Epstein’s vivid, nuanced illustrations feature bold colors and dynamic movement and enhance character development. In the end, the real reason the kids have been summoned is a surprise to them all — and a heart-warming model of selflessness and community building. NICHOLAS A. BROWN

Growing Pangs
by Kathryn Ormsbee; illus. by Molly Brooks; color by Bex Glendining and Elise Schuenke
Intermediate    Random    256 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-593-30128-9    $20.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-30129-6    $23.99
Paper ed.  978-0-593-30131-9    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-30130-2    $8.99

Rising sixth graders Katie and Kacey, both homeschooled during the year, head to summer camp. Though Katie loves being with her best friend, she frets about feeling homesick. She’s also self-conscious about being “different,” with her red hair, freckles, and crooked teeth. At camp, she makes a confident new friend who “cusses” (“Backstreet Boys suck”), and Kacey seethes with jealousy and drifts away. Back home, Katie begins engaging in compulsive behaviors in an effort to “pus­­h the buzzing thoughts [depicted as a bee that won’t leave her alone] away.” Katie’s father, who eventually guides her to a professional, helps her understand that “our thoughts aren’t us. They’re just our thoughts.” This sensitive, deeply felt graphic novel, divided into four seasons of the year, is one that will resonate with many readers, particularly those living with OCD. The story also captures in detail a realistic homeschooling experience, including stereotypes about it: “I didn’t feel like the weirdo homeschooled kid when Kacey and I hung out.” Katie ultimately finds joy in theater, undergoes a scary lingual frenectomy, and learns that “maybe I could have best friends and good friends. I didn’t have to choose.” Best of all, she learns that many people are hounded by worries, with Brooks depicting various creatures nagging others as Katie’s bee nags her. Both author and illustrator share their own childhood OCD experiences in appended notes, with Ormsbee explaining that the story is a fictionalized version of her own youth. JULIE DANIELSON

Button Pusher
by Tyler Page; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    First Second    256 pp.    g
4/22    978-1-250-75834-7    $21.99
Paper ed.  978-1-250-75833-0    $14.99

This graphic memoir describes what it can be like to grow up with ADHD. When Tyler is eight years old, he whips out his penknife and proceeds to cut the seat of his school bus, landing him first in the principal’s office and eventually in group counseling. It’s not an isolated incident but rather part of a sustained pattern of behavior: distracted, impulsive, and out of control. It will ultimately lead to an ADHD diagnosis and a Ritalin prescription. The Ritalin is a mixed bag: it does help Tyler focus, but it brings some unwanted physical changes, such as constipation and weight gain. As if that isn’t bad enough, Tyler is trying to navigate the difficult years of adolescence, even as his home life is fraught with tension. His father also has telltale signs of ADHD, frequently throws temper tantrums, and is verbally abusive; his mother contemplates divorce and comes close to leaving, despite medication for Tyler’s dad and family counseling. It’s a lot for Tyler to process, but he gets a handle on things by the time he graduates from high school — sort of. Page’s storytelling incorporates an appealing mix of humor, angst, school story, relationship drama, and medical information; it’s a winning tried-and-true formula à la Telgemeier’s Smile, etc. Informational vignettes about ADHD — what it is, how it affects people, why treatments work — appear intermittently throughout the book. JONATHAN HUNT

Twin Cities
by Jose Pimienta; illus. by the author
Middle School    RH Graphic/Random    256 pp.    g
7/22    978-0-593-18063-1    $20.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-18064-8    $23.99
Paper ed.  978-0-593-18062-4    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-18065-5    $8.99

Grounded in Pimienta’s experience growing up in Mexico across the border from the United States, this graphic novel explores the relationship between young teenage twins as they traverse physical, personal, and cultural borders. Teresa and Fernando are recent sixth-grade graduates in Mexicali, Mexico. With his sister’s decision to attend school north of the border, change is coming, and Fernando isn’t pleased. In the fall, both siblings experience their share of ups and downs (skillfully depicted through a range of cartooning techniques, such as alternating panels and mirrored layouts). Teresa struggles with the commute and the English curriculum but cultivates a strong friend group. Fernando is less interested in school but develops a friendship with the slightly older and opinionated Alex. Confrontations over shared space, autonomy, and heritage come to a head after Teresa discovers a stash of marijuana that Fernando was given by Alex. The dramatic conclusion sees the siblings reach a newfound level of closeness through open and honest communication. Penciled and inked by hand, the illustrations feature a thin, organic line and a muted, full-color palette. A consistent three-tier panel structure creates a visual rhythm that is periodically punctuated by splash pages and spreads during moments of heightened emotion. Back matter includes an author’s note, a hand-drawn map, and rationale regarding the use of language throughout the book. PATRICK GALL

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

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.