My love of middle grade graphic novels continues to deepen as more and more great books come out. Over the past week I read these six, which almost all came out recently (Tidesong came out in 2021). What really struck me about most of them is the wonderful diversity of viewpoints and experiences, which makes for a varied and rewarding reading experience. Hopefully as the generation of kids reading these grows up, we will see a similar boom in YA and adult graphic novels.
Freestyle was probably my favorite of the bunch — I am such a huge Gale Galligan fan and this lived up to and surpassed my expectations. This book follows Cory Tan, who loves dancing as part of his dance crew. His grades are suffering, though, and his parents get him a tutor. Sunna is an outsider kid in their class and she and Cory don’t start off on a good foot, as he views her as a perfect kid sent to torment him. But when he finds out how amazing she is at yo-yoing, they become friends and Cory finds a new passion in doing yo-yo tricks. Tensions rise between him and his other friends, and there’s a great arc here about old vs new friends, old vs new passions, and the weight of parental expectations. Galligan’s art is perfect, the big cast of characters all feel distinct and charming, and the colors by K Czap are just wonderful. I loved this, it hits every button for what I love about the medium. Super highly recommended!
There are a surprising amount of middle grade graphic novels about struggling with OCD! As someone who also had obsessive/intrusive thoughts starting around middle school, it would have been amazing to have books like this and I’m so glad they exist now. Growing Pangs is a sensitive and autobiographical look at changing friendships, OCD/anxiety, and growing up. It feels very authentic since it’s based so closely on the author’s life. Molly Brooks’ art is very warm and she gets across the emotional struggles Katie is going through very well. I also liked the nuanced look at homeschooling here. I wasn’t homeschooled but my sibling was, so it was good to see a positive homeschool experience portrayed here. I also appreciated her parents taking her to therapy and giving her practical tips as soon as they noticed her OCD symptoms. Definitely recommended, it was sweet and thoughtful.
I saw some recommendations for this online somewhere, so I picked it up when I went to B&N Friday. What a nice treat! Frizzy is a good exploration of grief, bullying, anti-Blackness, familial pressure, and challenging norms. I really enjoyed it and thought the arc of Marlene struggling against the weight of societal, cultural, and familial pressures about her hair was super well done. I ended up with “good hair” so never had the fight she did, but I’ve watched my mom’s fight with her hair so this felt familiar (my feelings about “good hair” are a whole other story). I especially appreciated the characters of her best friend and aunt who help her and show the reader that it’s okay to ask for help and support. And her mom’s journey through grief and self-love is also super heart-warming. I liked the nuance that often, negative messaging comes from our family, and the damage that does when those people love you but are pushing you to fit in even if it hurts you.
Another delightful entry in the Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel series! This is the twelfth in the series, and it lives up to the wholesome vibe and strong cartooning of its predecessors. This is Chan Chau’s second BSC book and I hope they do another one, because their cartooning style works really well with middle grade. It’s detailed but light, and they do faces so well! Jessi’s Secret Language follows Jessi, who starts babysitting for Haley and her brother Matt. Matt is Deaf, and Jessi learns sign language so they can all communicate. She also starts at a more intense ballet school and is worried about try-outs for the big show. The representation of the Deaf community here is very thoughtful and gets into the issue of hearing families not learning ASL and the issue of isolation and lack of communication, which I wasn’t super expecting but was very welcome. This one felt a little more radical and spoke to the social model of disability a bit, which was great.
Tidesong is a nice fantasy following Sophie’s struggles to learn magic and deal with the pressures of her family. Her mother and grandma send her away to live with her aunt and cousin whom she’s never met in order to train before she takes the magic academy test. Her aunt immediately is really mean to her and is always telling her she’s disappointing and a failure. Her cousin is very nice, but Sophie’s internalized self-hatred and drive to get better at magic immediately lead her to try magic that’s too hard for her. She accidentally falls in the ocean and gets saved by an water dragon who then gets trapped in human form when their magic gets intertwined. The rest of the book is everyone trying to figure out how to turn him back to a dragon and Sophie learning how to be kinder to herself and work through her emotional turmoil. I liked this as a good portrayal of a complicated family dynamic and an interesting fantasy world. It would be nice if there was a sequel!
Wrapping up the quick-fire reviews with The Tryout, another autobiographical work that deals with racism and belonging as a minority in a majority white town in Texas. Christina is Asian American (white mom, Thai dad — as a fellow mixed race person, I liked the positive portrayal of their marriage) and her best friend Megan’s father is from Iran. Both of them struggle throughout the book with microaggressions and outright racism from their teachers and classmates. They decide to try out for the cheerleading squad, and the pressures of the process put stress on their friendship but also teach Christina a lot about herself and what she is capable of. Because this is a true story the emotional core and layers of nuance feel very accurate and realistic. I also liked that Christina is not a perfect character and in her quest to fit in more and be popular, she does some mean things and has her own journey to becoming a better person. This book also shows the complexity of living in a smaller town and the community that grows up around her parents’ restaurant.