Comics Lockdown: Middle Reader Mayhem

So many articles on comics out there in the world begin with “Comics: not just for kids anymore!” to a point where it’s eye roll-worthy. This need to brush the “kiddie fare” under the proverbial rug is not only obnoxious, but also disingenuous. There are lots of comics for kids — and they’re great, even for adults. “All ages” doesn’t mean it’s baby stuff, it means it’s interesting to readers of all ages.

I’m not going to put Raina Telgemeier or Dav Pilkey on this list, because I suspect that if you have children, you’re already quite familiar with these industry heavyweights. What I’m hoping to give you is the goods from some equally worthy but less well known creators, to help get your kids through the trying times between Dog Man books.

I’m referring to these comics with the publishing industry term “middle reader,”  or “middle grade,” which designates books for children between the ages of eight and twelve. Middle reader is not a genre, so these books will range in the types of stories being told. I may well include some middle reader comics on other, genre-themed lists later down the line, but I wanted this to be a helpful guide for parents who are looking for age-appropriate material for their young readers. Middle reader books, both in comic and prose form, are some of my favorite books. They are so often fun, imaginative, and inspiring, even now that I’m an adult with a child of my own.

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Aquicorn Cove, by Katie O’Neill — published by Oni Press

I wrote last week about how much I love Katie O’Neill’s work, much of which falls under the middle reader category. Of all her works, I think Aquicorn Cove is my favorite. It tells the story of young Lana, who is at the seaside visiting with her aunt and helping to clean up the wreckage in the aftermath of a horrible storm. While there, she finds a young, injured aquicorn, a magical sea creature similar to a sea horse. She nurses it back to health and then discovers that there is a whole colony of aquicorns under the sea, and another storm on the horizon forces her and the community to think about the ways in which people and the environment can learn to coexist. I’m a really easy mark for children’s stories about environmentalism (my favorite Dr. Seuss book is The Lorax, I’m sure you’re surprised to discover), and O’Neill does a great job of getting that message across without condemnation. And of course, there’s her beautiful artwork throughout, along with her inventive creatures and the inclusion of a character who uses gender-neutral pronouns. All around, a really stellar comic about compassion and community.

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The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang — published by FirstSecond

The Prince and the Dressmaker probably doesn’t need my help, as it is currently awaiting a movie adaptation. But I love it, and so I want to share it with you. While Prince Sebastian’s parents are busy trying to find him a bride, he’s preoccupied with hiding a part of his life that he believes they will find shameful. Sebastian enjoys wearing dresses and going into the town as Lady Crystallia, a most fashionable young woman. To this end, he employs Frances, an extremely talented dressmaker who swears to keep his secret and make him the belle of every ball. Sebastian’s secret does get out, of course, but he learns how to be honest with himself and his family at the end. And Frances is able to further her own goals and career, as well. This is a sweet story of love, friendship, and acceptance, and I’m really excited to see what comes of the adaptation.

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The Adventures of Luna the Vampire, by Yasmin Sheikh — published by IDW

I love weird, gross-out humor involving monsters. Luna the Vampire is such a series, with Grumpy Space (linked above) and Pickled Zits comprising its print editions thus far. Luna is a grouchy, lazy vampire girl who lives in space and has remarkably normal adventures — which is to say, normal for her. She attends her uncle’s zombie-fication ceremony, adopts a fat worm that was intended to feed giant spiders, and clears a raucous party out of her coffin-shaped ship with the help of Kir, the pet store clerk who seems to have fallen in love with her. It’s silly nonsensical fun wrapped in a pink ribbon, and I especially like it because it’s the type of humor usually marketed to little boys but which clearly has young ladies in mind — though I would recommend this for the older end of the middle reader spectrum, with the acknowledgement that it might be for a more worldly-wise kid.

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Making Friends, by Kristin Gudsnuk — published by Scholastic

I was immediately in love with Kristin Gudsnuk’s work back when individual issues of her comic Henchgirl were coming out. Maybe it’s because she and I are approximately the same age, but I find her subtle references to anime just really get me. Making Friends makes use of this tendency of hers, as protagonist Dany inherits a magical sketchbook from her great-aunt which allows her to bring to life anything she draws within it. She finds out about this by sketching the head of her favorite comic book/cartoon villain, and when that head pops into existence, she realizes that she can navigate some of the anxieties of 7th grade by creating her own perfect best friend, Madison. Dany learns a hard lesson about facing consequences, but she also makes a lot of real friends along the way. Plus, there’s a magical girl sequence. What can you want more out of a comic than magical girls, I ask you? There is a sequel, Making Friends: Back to the Drawing Board, which I admit I have not yet had the pleasure of reading. But it seems like Dany hasn’t finished learning her lessons when it comes to magicking things into existence!

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Cursed Pirate Girl, by Jeremy A. Bastian — published by Archaia

My heart races whenever I look at Jeremy Bastian‘s exquisite artwork. I adore Cursed Pirate Girl, though I will warn you that the one volume does not contain the full tale, and it’s hard to know when new material is available. (There was an annual a few years back, if you can track it down!) Still, it is an incredibly beautiful and deeply captivating book where a young girl is on an adventure in the Omerta Seas to find her father. But of course, she’s cursed. Treasure Island meets Alice in Wonderland, albeit with a brash, brave little girl protagonist with hair longer than her whole body. Bastian clearly takes cues from 19th century illustrators, and his incredibly detailed ink work leaves a lot of territory to explore. This is the book for the kid who dreams of magical adventures, possibly ones which involve sentient skeletons. I’m currently reading the second book in Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series of novels, and I think it’s got approximately the same vibe; they both certainly transport me completely to my girlhood fantasies.

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Lowriders in Space, written by Cathy Camper and illustrated by Raúl the Third — published by Chronicle Books

If the title of this book gets War’s “Low Rider” stuck in your head, well…that’s been me all week. In all seriousness, though, this is another lushly illustrated comic which follows Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack, and Elirio Malaria who dream of running their own garage. They catch wind of a car contest and know that they’ve gotta trick out a lowrider of their very own in order to win the cash and start their garage. They manage to fly their work in progress right into space, where they wrangle the stars and upholster their ride in red-Mars-dust velvet. One of my favorite things about this comic and its sequels (Lowriders to the Center of the Earth and Lowriders Blast from the Past) is that Raúl the Third has drawn the entire thing in ballpoint pen. It’s a great testament to using what you have to make incredible art, and the story itself is a gorgeous homage to lowrider culture. Just don’t be surprised if you suddenly wish you had a car that was bajito y suavecito!

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Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula, by Andi Watson — published by FirstSecond

It should surprise no one that this title popped out at me when I saw it on a shelf at Comicopia in my first year working there. Princess Decomposia is the daughter of the King of the Underworld, but that job isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. She has a lot of responsibilities, and unfortunately is forced to shoulder those of her father most of the time, as well. Seeing as he just fired the cook, she has to hire a new one immediately — and thus we meet Count Spatula, the vampire chef with an unrepentant sweet tooth. The two become fast friends, though a budding romance has to take a backseat to Princess Decomposia’s many tasks. This is a cute little volume about love blooming in spooky darkness, for the little Wednesday Addams in your life.

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Nicola Traveling Around the Demons’ World, by Asaya Miyanaga — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

I’ve written about Nicola before, both here on the blog as well as for Comics Beat. It’s a delightful adventure where little witch Nicola, who has recently stumbled into Hell, has latched onto Simon, a traveling merchant. The two form a sort of father-daughter bond, and Simon becomes increasingly impressed with Nicola’s emerging magical talents — though she does not seem to notice her own powers herself. I felt so good after reading the first volume, like here was something that truly deserved being called “all ages,” something I could recommend to everyone without reservation. I love Asaya Miyanaga’s artwork, with its detailed hatching and whimsical creature designs. The physical copies of the book are printed in sepia ink, making the book something truly special.

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Kitaro, by Shigeru Mizuki — published by Drawn & Quarterly

I will never stop singing the praises of Shigeru Mizuki, whose comics about the adorable little monster boy, Kitaro, are so specifically my jam that I’m amazed they first came out before even my mother was born. Along with help from his father, Medama Oyaji (who is literally a giant eyeball with a tiny body), Kitaro helps settle disputes between monsters and humans. There are several volumes of the series out right now, but they are grouped by type of story instead of in any sequential order; I have linked to The Birth of Kitaro as my recommended starting point, since that’s where you learn our hero’s backstory. Translator and Mizuki expert Zack Davisson has written excellent informative essays in each of these editions, and those do follow an order. It’s a great way to learn more about the man who was Shigeru Mizuki, as well as the vast world of Japanese yokai — a subject very dear to my heart. If you or a kid you know are really into sympathetic monsters, potty humor, and/or the history of manga, I can’t recommend this enough.

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The Witch Boy, by Molly Knox Ostertag– published by Scholastic, Inc.

I just love witchy stuff for kids. In this coming-of-age story, Aster wants desperately to be a witch. Unfortunately for him, only girls in his family become witches, while boys become shapeshifters — though he has not shifted yet, himself. Aster has to study in private, eventually using his hard-won abilities to help rescue the other boys when a dark entity threatens them. This is a wonderful story for those who have ever been made to feel different or wrong when they choose to be themselves. This is the first book in a trilogy, the other books being The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch, which continue to follow Aster’s studies in witchcraft while expanding the cast, further exploring the challenge of bucking against tradition.

There sure are a lot of witches, monsters, and royalty this week. I told you middle readers get some of the best books! It was actually difficult to come up with this list because there’s so much good material out there, and still so much that I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I’m continually impressed by the quality marriages of story and art that exist in comics, but especially in comics “for kids.” I would absolutely recommend looking deeper into your library’s catalog for comics for this demographic, as I personally know a lot of librarians who cannot get enough of helping kids (and their parents!) find their next favorite read.

Until next week, I hope you all stay safe and well!

My Favorite Reads of 2018

It’s that time of year again, where every single nerd news site tells you what the best-of-the-best comics of the year are.  I’m always wary of trying to make blanket statements about literature, but I did want to share a few of my favorites from this past year.  I’ve done a LOT of reading, and I feel as though I’ve branched out more than usual (or more like, there have been more titles in Western comics that have appealed to me than there have been in the past).

I didn’t give myself a limit to the number of books I chose, nor any kind of guideline as to theme, tone, etc.  I just picked the ones I felt strongly about!  These are listed in roughly the order I read them in, and by no means in order of quality.  They’re all top-notch, anyway!

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The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang

Prince Sebastian has a BIG secret: sometimes he likes to wear dresses and go out on the town as Lady Crystallia.  In addition to keeping this part of himself hidden from Parisian society, he has to deal with his parents determinedly seeking out a bride for him.  Enter Frances, an extremely skilled seamstress with dreams of fashion design whom Sebastian employs to outfit him for all occasions, public and secret.  The story of these two growing together and learning to be their best selves is captured incredibly in Wang’s bright, flowing artwork.  Plenty of humor helps to balance out the heart-rending moments that remind the reader to never lose sight of the things that make them unique.

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Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu

I genuinely did not expect to adore this book as much as I do.  I’m not well-versed in the non-fiction graphic novel, and I’m often suspicious of cheery, pink-emblazoned “girl power” books — not because I don’t believe in girl power, but because it’s hard to encapsulate in one book what it is about womanhood that is so unique.  That said, I was truly fascinated and enthralled by the stories that Bagieu, in her whimsical style, has presented in this hefty tome of awesome and awe-inspiring women.  Women from all backgrounds, in all types of careers, with differing needs and goals, and with all sorts of romantic entanglements and personal dramas, are presented for the reader with reverence, joy, and good humor.

 

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Go For It, Nakamura!, by Syundei

I have been seriously reveling in the increased publication of good, sweet, not-super-fetishistic BL manga this past year or so.  In this exquisite example, young Nakamura knows for sure that he’s gay, and also knows for sure that he’s in love with his classmate, Hirose.  The problem is, he doesn’t even know how to become friends with Hirose, never mind try to ask him out!  Between caring for his pet octopus, perusing questionable BL for romance tips, and just generally trying not to act overly weird, will our stalwart hero ever secure Hirose’s friendship?  A familiar story for anyone who was shy in high school, Go For It, Nakamura! uses awkwardness, hilarity, and genuine heart to create a sweet and fuzzy one-shot that will make you yearn for more.  Syundei’s artwork is adorable, and very reminiscent of that of manga powerhouse Rumiko Takahashi.

 

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Tokyo Tarareba Girls, by Akiko Higashimura

I wrote about my initial reaction to volume one of Akiko Higashimura’s forays into 30-something woman angst back when the print version first came out.  The series is now three print volumes in (with all volumes available digitally), and it has not stopped being maybe the most anticipated title in my pull at work.  Higashimura’s ability to poke fun at the stupidity of a woman’s society-bred anxieties while treating the same character with sympathy and understanding is so incredible to me.  I often find it hard to articulate what it is that makes this series so good, because it’s really everything.  Please…I don’t often make demands, but read Tokyo Tarareba Girls.

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Claudine, by Riyoko Ikeda

I find this manga hard to recommend, even though I love it.  It is a quick read; I read it from start to finish on my half-hour bus ride home from work one day.  But it is also a dramatic and sad read, in true 70s shojo fashion.  Our protagonist Claudine is assigned female at birth, but knows in his heart that he is a man.  Even his own father embraces Claudine as more of a son than a daughter, going riding with him and treating him like his older brothers.  Society in early 20th century France, however, is not as kind.  To the rest of the world, Claudine is a girl, and the tragedy here lies in the outmoded concept that any woman he might love will never lead a fulfilled life with a “woman” partner.  So in many ways, this is a fantastic achievement, being a trans story from 70s Japan; but it is also a story about a trans man from the perspective of a cisgender woman, writing at a time when shojo manga was about deep, dramatic personal struggles and utilizing queerness as a vehicle for those struggles.  If you can go into it with the understanding that it is a sad story (and yes, I did cry on that fateful bus ride home), it is a simply gorgeous and heartbreaking work of tragedy.

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Making Friends, by Kristen Gudsnuk

I’ve been in love with Kristen Gudsnuk’s work ever since I read the first issue of Henchgirl, back when it was released by Scout Comics.  Her artwork is fun, her dialogue is funny, and she makes plenty of obvious anime references that I feel are speaking directly to me and my sense of humor.  So of course I was thrilled when Making Friends came out, and I was not disappointed.  Protagonist Dany is starting middle school, where she is separated from her friends and everything that was familiar to her.  She turns inward and begins to draw in the sketchbook she recently inherited from her recently deceased great-aunt.  Soon she discovers that anything she draws in the sketchbook — including the head of her favorite anime badboy — comes to life!  She quickly devises a plan to create a new, perfect best friend.  But as we all know, magic has serious consequences, and Dany is going to have to figure out how to fix the mess she’s made.  Gudsnuk does an excellent job of keeping this story about friendship and responsibility from becoming saccharine or tropey, instead treating every character with equal weight and relying on her uncanny knack for coming at a story from a slightly sideways perspective.

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Satoko and Nada, by Yupechika and Marie Nishimori

This was absolutely one of my most anticipated titles of the year, and man oh man did it hit a home run for me.  Upon initially receiving it I was uncertain, as it is laid out in 4-koma format, which I usually find cute but not particularly compelling.  And yet in this easy gag style, with simple illustrations, Satoko and Nada manages to be a profoundly intimate story of friendship between women and across cultures.  Nada is a college student from Saudi Arabia who is looking for a roommate.  Satoko, a student in the same school, has recently arrived from Japan and chooses to become that needed roommate.  Thus begins this tale of two people from very different backgrounds as they live together and learn all about each other and about their multicultural friends.  Warm-hearted, informative, and full of meme references, this manga really surprised me in the best possible way.  I want everyone to read it!

(Just an honorable mention here: I reread two of my absolute favorite series this year: Pet Shop of Horrors, by Matsuri Akino, and The Wallflower, by Tomoko Hayakawa.  One day, I’d like to write at length about both of these series, but as they’re old and hard to find, I opted against adding them to this list.  Look forward to an analysis of them one day, because I am very attached to them both!)

As you can see, I read a lot of very heartwarming stories by or about women this year.  I have been immensely impressed by the range in stories and creators I’ve had access to, and that’s something I want to see continue to grow year by year.  My reading list has been a bright spot in what has been a very tumultuous year otherwise (personally and in the world at large), and it gives me hope that more differing voices are being tapped to tell more and varied stories.

Looking forward to reading more in 2019!

 

Monthly Manga Mailing

I have some exciting news to share with everyone today!  Part of my job is to advise fellow comics retailers on which manga they might be interested in stocking in their stores.  Because the demand for this service has gotten so high and is causing me to cross-post in several groups, I’ve decided to create a mailing list!  While it will be geared toward comic shop retailers, certainly anyone who would like to see my monthly thoughts on upcoming titles is welcome to sign up.  I just ask that everyone bear with me as I slowly learn how to use MailChimp to its fullest potential, haha.  The link to sign up is here, and I’ll be posting it in several locations over the course of today so that it reaches everyone who might want it!

In other news, I haven’t written much lately, but I assure you all that I’ve been reading a ton.  I’ve been on a bit of a shojo romcom kick lately; I read seven volumes of Waiting For Spring the other day, and have slowly been working my way through High School Debut.  I’m not sure why, but every now and then I just feel the need to read something sweet and positive, and shojo romances really fill that requirement for me.

My last post was a review of a middle reader graphic novel that isn’t a manga.  This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned manga (obviously), but I do want to mention that I probably will be doing more non-manga reviews in the future.  I believe that middle reader and young adult graphic novels are among the best (and best-selling) graphic works right now, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them, especially as so many of them have been influenced by manga and are being read alongside manga.  Media, after all, does not exist in a bubble.  Works for young audiences are important right now, creating many new readers and strengthening visual literacy.

And that’s all to report right now!  Just some little updates to tide you over until I post again — or until you sign up for my regular emails!

Ghosts & Grief: A Sheets Review

I’m a sucker for friendly ghost stories.  As a kid, I was desperate to meet a ghost, dragging my best friend through her 300+ year-old house with a tape recorder ready to catch some EVP or find cold spots.  I was also raised by my single mother and my tailor grandparents — so Brenna Thummler’s new middle reader graphic novel, Sheets, speaks to me on many levels.

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Marjorie Glatt has recently lost her mother, and with her father overwhelmed by grief and depression, she is left to manage the family’s laundromat all on her own.  Between that, her school obligations, her little brother, and their overbearing neighbor Mr. Saubertuck, Marjorie feels overwhelmed and adrift. Similarly adrift, a ghost named Wendell wanders into the Glatt Laundromat after his escape from the Land of Ghosts.  Prone to mischief, Wendell turns the laundromat upside down one night, hardly endearing himself to Marjorie, who very much does not believe in ghosts. But with Mr. Saubertuck putting the pressure on Marjorie to give up her family’s land in order for him to build his new spa, Wendell and his fellow ghosts might be her only hope of keeping the business…afloat.

It is no secret that being a young teen is difficult; the chaos and uncertainty of puberty are exacerbated when a child is thrown into a tragedy like the death of a parent, or a divorce, or a debilitating illness.  But while we try to shield our children from the harm of the world, we cannot prevent every bad thing from occurring. I sometimes hear complaints about media that depict untrustworthy adults, but the reality is that there are plenty of adults — even ones who mean well — who are not always up to the task of making things work so that their children don’t have to suffer.  Sheets portrays that relationship well, with Marjorie’s father very clearly caring about his children only as far as his depression will allow; and those who have ever suffered from depression, whether chronic or episodic, will relate to the empty numbness that Mr. Glatt experiences.

Despite the heavy material, this book is not a downer!  Thummler’s artwork conjures up the wonder of childhood autumns, each page reminiscent of faded photo memories.  The action switched between the real world and the Land of Ghosts with a simple palette shift. The ending is positive without feeling saccharine, as the themes of grief, fantasy, and friendship are all tied together.  A satisfying, engaging read that takes about as long as doing a load of laundry, perfect for the kid whose best friend is a ghost, or who would like some not-too-scary reading material for the Halloween season.

Sheets, by Brenna Thummler, is now available in print from Lion Forge.