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Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love. I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a teacher in Central New York, a mom of two tween girls, and currently – all about the new Miles Morales Spiderman movie. It’s the lockscreen on my phone, my girls and I have the soundtrack set to shuffle in the car….and I already have plans to go see it a second time. Into the Spiderverse is the most innovative and fresh and exciting movie I’ve seen in years. It’s some next-level stuff. Just – go see it!! And see it on the BIG screen!
This is episode #67 and today we are celebrating some of the best middle grade graphic novels published in 2018. On our last episode, I listed my top 25 middle grade novels of the year and I’ll include a link to that if you missed that episode.
I think it’s important at the outset when making a list of this kind to explain what “best” means to you. What are your criteria? Is that popularity? The Goodreads best of lists tend to veer in that direction. Is it literary appeal? That is more along the lines of say, the Newbery Awards. For me, an outstanding book has to fit three criteria:
- I couldn’t put it down. Meaning – it was immersive, it has flow, it kept me turning the pages.
- I can’t forget it. Meaning – it had some extra special sparkle. An unforgettable character, an intriguing setting, a ground-breaking format, or a powerfully poignant message.
- I think kids would like it. There are books out there marketed to middle grade readers (sometimes those big award winners) that adults love but kids don’t seem to latch onto as much. So I also try to be mindful that kids books are for kids. Not for me. I am just the conduit to getting books into their hands and helping them discover what they like.
Okay – let’s jump in!
Main Topic – The Top 9 MG Graphic Novels of 2018
#9: Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk
This full-color graphic novel is about a 7th grade girl named Dany. She has just started middle school and is pretty lonely. Her friends are in different classes now and have new in-jokes and stories that she doesn’t get anymore. So she’s feeling socially vulnerable when her eccentric (and loaded) great-aunt passes away and she ends up with the woman’s sketchbook. A magical sketchbook that will turn your drawing into real-life. So when Dany draws the head of her favorite anime character (uh yeah… JUST the head) and a super popular girl to be her friend, there are (as you can imagine!) some unintended consequences. This book is FUNNY but you won’t catch half the stuff unless you read the background texts – like the store names: “Hot Topic” is “Cool Subject” and the indredients list on the food have some interesting things listed on them. This book is like a mix of Shannon Hale’s Real Friends with a touch of Suee and the Shadow with a little sprinkle of Amulet. If you have readers about ages 10 and up who like graphic novels about friendships and would be up for something with a supernatural twist, then this would be a great recommendation. And… I see Gudsnuk has a sequel in store as well!
#8: Mr. Wolf’s Class by Aron Nels Steinke
This graphic novel started as a webcomic and is a great option if you are looking for something for younger middle grade readers who’d enjoy a sweet, gentle story. And it looks like lots of sequels are on their way! Mr. Wolf’s Class is about the first day of 4th grade – for brand new teacher Mr. Wolf and his students. By the way, Mr. Wolf is a wolf and the students are… rabbits and frogs and pigs and… well, just suspend your disbelief over the whole predator/prey thing! The book includes a cool preview of each student the night before school starts and then the day unfolds with short slice-of-life stories as we get to know each of the students and their teacher. A strength of this book is that the author clearly KNOWS what an actual classroom community is all about – the interactions of personalities. It feels really authentic in that way. And uh… I can definitely relate to being late to pick my kids because I was distracted by a donut in the break room!
#7: Sheets by Brenna Thummler
You might be familiar with Thummler’s brilliant artwork from last year’s graphic novel adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. And if you haven’t yet gotten to that gem, bump it up on your TBR pile! This is her first solo graphic novel and I have a feeling we have a lot more in store from her! It’s the story of 13 year-old Marjorie who has been thrust into the responsibilities of running her family’s laundromat and taking care of her younger brother after her mother dies and her father has fallen into a deep depression. She is just barely hanging on and resisting the awful Mr. Saubertuck who wants to run them out of business and turn their building into a spa. But then… enter Wendell. He’s a young ghost – young meaning new and young meaning died when he was young who winds up being pulled out of the afterlife world and into Marjorie’s life. He’s looking for.. meaning. And after a rocky start with Marjorie, does end up finding it. For me, the strength and charm of this book is really about the outstanding illustrations – the gorgeous pastel palette and the nuances of the wordless panels. And based on how this book is flying through my classroom, it clearly also has that all-important kid-appeal.
#6: The Night Door (Edison Beaker Creature Seeker) by Frank Cammuso
The author of The Knights of the Lunch Table series and the Misadventures of Salem Hyde has really taken things to the next level with this incredible and hilarious new world he’s created. This book is about a young boy named Edison who is afraid of the dark. When his mom has to go out of town, Edison and his little sister, Tesla, go to stay with their Uncle Earl. Uncle Earl is an exterminator and he reluctantly takes the kids (and their hamster!) on a late-night “emergency” job where the two kids (and the hamster!) wind up going through a portal into a shadowy other-worldly place where Edison has to confront his fears and lots of weird and cool creatures! This is one of those few books that has kids laughing out loud while they read it. It’s sort of like a mix between HiLo and Amulet. So if you have kids who love those two series, and want something similar, introduce them to Edison Beaker Creature Seeker.
#5: All Summer Long by Hope Larson
I loved this graphic novel for a lot of reasons but one of them was that it features a friendship between a girl and boy that doesn’t ever fall into that trope of “well, maybe things are changing because you two really just have crush on each other!” Nope! It’s real, platonic – and has rocky parts – but it’s not a stepping stone to a love interest. And – thank you Hope Larson! What it IS about is that one defining summer is a young teen’s life when you start to realize that your childhood is something behind you that you’re looking back on and you are entering a new era with new interests. Where music – and finding people that like the same music as you do – takes on heightened importance in your life. At least, for me it was like that. Maybe for other kids it’s sports or art or theatre. But you start to find your people. And not just be freinds with the people who are in your class or happen to live next door. This graphic novel is about 13 year-old Bina whose best-friend and neighbor, Austin, is off to soccer camp this summer. So she ends up.. Binge-watching Netflix until her mom cuts her off. (Relateable!) Also – it’s a little thing but I like the pale orangey-peach tones of the book, which one reviewer described as orange creamsicle.
#4: Crush by Svetlana Chmakova
I really, really loved her two earlier Berrybrook Middle School stories – Awkward and Brave, but this one just might be my favorite. This one takes a step away from the intrigues of the art club and the school newspaper and focused on Jorge Ruiz, a big kid, a pretty-popular jock who nobody really messes with, who seems to have it all together. Until he realizes that he’s got a massive crush on Jazmine and his world is suddenly tilted. This graphic novel really captures those quick relationship changes in middle school and that dynamic between texts and social media and how that influences and complicates face-to-face interactions. Sometimes novels totally leave out modern technology. I mean, half the time the problem in the book could be solved with a quick Google search or you know – maybe talking with the person that you’re having an issue with! But Chmakova knows that technology might solve some problems but ushers in a whole host of other ones. Crush is another one of those graphic novels that is getting passed from kid to kid to kid in my classroom with a big enough waiting list I ordered a second copy. And – a bonus – kids don’t have to read the three books in the series in order. They each definitely can stand alone.
#3: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
This graphic novel is loosely based on the author’s real-life experiences and her Russian-American background and that makes for a unique twist on a familiar setting for some kids – summer camp! 9-year old Vera is a Russian immigrant and we learn at the beginning of the novel, she doesn’t doesn’t exactly fit in with the popular crowd. Or really any crowd at all. Her family is poor and their traditions and food are just enough “culturally off” to make her feel awkward among the girls she invites to a birthday sleepover that goes bad…. And oh man… how I felt for poor Vera that night! That’s some real-life cringe-worthy stuff though. Vera desperately wants to fit in and finally convinces her mother to send her and her brother to a Russian summer camp sponsored by their Orthodox church where they will learn the Russian language and religion along with the typical summer camp things – like learning why you shouldn’t feed the wildlife and finding a comfortable place to poop! Brosgol’s illustrations are outstanding with a foresty green color palette. And this book about the poor choices one can make in the quest for friendship along with that added layer of feeling like you don’t really belong enough in any culture makes this graphic novel feel like a blend of Shannon Hale’s Real Friends and Kelly Yang’s Front Desk. This would be a great recommendation for kids in about grades 4 or 5 and up.
#2: The Prince & the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Oh how this book made me smile!! It’s set in a 19th century-ish Paris where 16 year-old Prince Sebastian has a huge secret he is keeping from his parents – from everyone except for his trusted butler. He loves getting dressed up in fancy gowns and makeup and wigs. Eventually he discovers a lowly dressmaker, Frances, who has shown she is willing to break societal norms – and secretly hires her to help him transform into a different, more glamorous person. But things go awry when Sebastian’s parents try to arrange his marriage and his alter-ego (and her designer) become the talk of the town. It’s like Project Runway meets Versailles with a twist of Cinderella. And I really, really want Disney to make this into a movie! We need more books that go beyond the traditional gender norms so kids can both see themselves and also so that kids can see others not like them at the center of important and positive and fun stories.
#1: The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell (and others)
I was reading the last third of The Cardboard Kingdom after dinner one night. I may have mentioned before that we have a post-dinner reading routine of 20-30 minutes. All of us. And since the girls had taken over my prefered reading spot on the couch, I was off in the easy chair in the corner. Chuckling and smiling and just… reacting as I read it. And suddenly, Helena, my 9 year old, is reading over my shoulder, looming over me. Then she’s sitting on the arm on the chair, her head pressed against mine to see every angle of the illustrations. Then she’s in my lap with her hands on the book slowing down my turns of the pages so she could absorb each panel. Until finally, I relinquished it to her and just said, “Start from the beginning babe. It’s all yours.”
I just happened to pick up this graphic novel right after I finished The Prince & the Dressmaker, and I loved the parallels between it’s main character, Sebastian, and the first character we meet here – The Sorceress! The first section is told completely through wordless panels as we witness two siblings playing with a kiddie pool, a chair, and a bunch of cardboard boxes and how their imagination has transformed that into magic and adventure. A girl peeking over the fence at them starts laughing and at first it breaks the spell and ends the game. But then she gets drawn into their world in her own unique way. And the story takes off from there – with each neighborhood kid bringing in their own personalities and quirks and their own imaginative spin on adventure. There are knights and robots and banshees and beasts. And entreupreneurs. There are conflicts and battles. And quieter moments of understanding. The stories stack and intertwine and build and build to create an amazing collection of backyard adventures! And just as the kid’s adventures are collaborative – so is this book! Chad Sell is the illustrator but each section was crafted along with a different writer – Jay Fuller, David Demeo, Katie Schenkel, Manuel Betancourt, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Cloud Jacobs, Michael Cole, and Barbara Perez Marquez. And somehow, those diverse authors and illustrators have captured that magical feeling of childhood where there’s boundless inspiration and freedom and when it’s good – acceptance and transformation of flaws into strengths and positive energy. It’s hard to describe the special magic of this book. But it gave me the same feeling as watching the new Spiderman movie I mentioned at the top of the show. A feeling of witnessing some of the best that collaboration has to offer – it’s some next-level stuff!
Well – you’ve heard from me and now I want to hear from you! What graphic novels from the past year did you and the kids in your life love? Which ones are really making an impact among your students? And which ones are you all looking forward to in 2019?
We’ll be back to our every-other Monday schedule starting January 14th and make sure you check out the next episode which will be all about the most anticipated middle grade books of the upcoming year.
Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org. And, if you have an extra minute this week, reviews on iTunes or Stitcher are much appreciated.
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Talk with you soon! Bye!
Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.