“Graphic novels aren’t real reading.”
“No graphic novels allowed!”
“That one doesn’t count for summer assignments.”
Sound familiar? Sadly, well-meaning parents and even teachers often veto a format that encourages kids to escape into other worlds just as much as novels and nonfiction do. Worse, for those who aren’t yet avid readers, such prohibitions cut off a pathway to falling in love with storytelling, one that might eventually lead to reading more books of all types.
Titles such as “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust tale and the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize; “Persepolis,” Marjane Satrapi’s best-selling graphic recollection of her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution; and “Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel’s darkly comic memoir that inspired the Tony Award-winning musical, are now considered modern classics. Recent titles like Jarrett Krosoczka’s “Hey, Kiddo,” a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, and February’s “New Kid,” Jerry Craft’s exploration of fitting in at a new school, are aimed particularly at young readers.
Even newer are the two titles featured here, both of which also happen to feature summery themes. Read on — and don’t let anyone tell you they don’t count.
Olive and Willow can’t wait to finally get to camp. After all, they’re best friends who will share a cabin for two whole weeks, when they’re not enjoying campfires or weaving friendship bracelets.
But as Kayla Miller shows us in the middle-grade “Camp” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Kids, $24.99 hardcover; $10.99 paperback), it might not be that simple. Olive happily signs up for myriad activities and reels off a long list of hobbies during icebreakers at circle time.
Willow doesn’t make the transition quite so easily. In the mess hall the first night, meatloaf is on the menu — not her favorite. She stumbles during icebreakers and agrees to join softball so she can be with Olive, even though she can’t really play.
The more Olive tries to expand her circle of friends to include their new bunkmates, the harder Willow holds on. The bonds that tie them together stretch almost beyond repair.
Miller, who both wrote and illustrated “Camp,” adeptly uses the graphic format to illustrate mood and tone, enriching her dialogue. From the voiceless anxiety on Willow’s mother’s face as she exhaustively details her daughter’s allergy protocol, to both girls’ dream sequences that give shape to their innermost fears, the images add to and augment this story. Its showcase of hard-won emotional literacy is perfect for middle-graders struggling to make sense of an ever-shifting social hierarchy. (Ages 10-13)
Trot loves surfing the waves in Huntington Beach, the California town where she’s spent all of her years. Her grandfather loves it, too, because it reminds him of his childhood in Vietnam.
But her grandfather also suffers from dementia, and when he wanders off one day while Trot is busy surfing with her cat, Cap’n Bill, Trot’s mother forbids them from going to the beach while she’s at work.
Furious, Trot sneaks out with Cap’n Bill to ride anyway. An approaching rainstorm fuels huge waves, and one pulls her and her feline companion under.
Enter the “Sea Sirens” (Viking/Penguin, $20.99 hardcover, $12.99 paperback), written by Amy Chu and illustrated by Janet K. Lee. Inspired by Vietnamese folklore and “Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum’s “The Sea Fairies,” “Sirens” retains the classic feel of these stories during Trot’s underwater adventures while evincing a thoroughly modern take on the adventure trope.
Lee’s ethereal, lush illustrations plunge the reader squarely into the fantastical underwater kingdom of the Sirens, where Trot, Cap’n Bill and eventually, Grandpa enjoy sumptuous banquets and mystical seascapes. A misunderstanding with the adjoining kingdom of the Serpents leads to peril, and a mini-cliffhanger sets up more episodes in future volumes. It’s a splendid start to a planned series. (Ages 8-12)
Story by text
The graphic format is one less-traditional way to tell a story. Lana Wood Johnson’s inventive “Technically, You Started It” (Scholastic, $18.99) is another: It’s told completely in text exchanges. When Haley receives a message from Martin Nathaniel Munroe II in her history class about homework, she’s pretty sure she knows which one. (Yes, there are two.) What starts as a discussion about group work morphs over time into extended riffs on the high school social caste system, romantic relationships, parents and more.
Johnson’s all-dialogue story has plenty of entertaining banter to carry readers along as Haley and Martin get to know each other better.
Martin: “Everyone at school gets so competitive.”
Haley: “True. It’s a gifted and talented program.
“Might as well call it Hunger Grades.”
Yet just as teens save their true feelings for their Finsta accounts, Haley and Martin share their vulnerabilities via text far more easily than they do with their compatriots in real life. Haley confesses her anxieties; Martin reveals his troubled family situation. The two quickly grow closer through their correspondence, underscoring that honesty is a cornerstone of meaningful relationships (as opposed to, say, Snapchat streaks). The all-text format could be a gimmick in less talented hands, but here the dialogue sparkles as it lets readers inside these teens’ heads. It’s a surprisingly powerful way to illustrate the true value of connection. (Ages 12 and older)