This post is about not so much a book as a person. Raina Telgemeier is the fabulous, fantastic author of Smile, Drama, and Sisters.
Smile takes the (true) story of dental insanity and turns it into a long-term coming-of-age tale (which helped inspire Cece Bell to write El Deafo as a graphic novel). Drama takes on the big world of middle school theater. And Sisters is, of course, about sibling rivalry (and baring your teeth at your sister, apparently).
Telgemeier’s books are just really, really good middle grade, period. Like, I’d be happy to read these stories in a text-only format, I’d be happy to watch them on TV (preferably Degrassi), I’d be happy to have my little cousin act them out for me using only her words and her twelve-year-old feelings.
But I’m happiest to read them as graphic novels because Telgemeier’s visual storytelling is so spot on. Who can take a ubiquitous image like a yellow smiley face and turn it into something so totally associated with her story that she can use it again as a self-reference on a second book cover? Raina Telgemeier can.
Also, apparently she wrote the graphic novel versions of The Babysitters Club. So I’m adding all of those to my library holds list immediately.
One day late, because I’m bad at days… here’s Sidekicks by Dan Santat.
Sidekicks is one of those brilliant books with a concept so simple, so original, but so based in something familiar that it practically sells itself. We’ve got ourselves a washed up superhero looking for a way to break back into the business.
This is concept art because Dan Santat and the internet are amazing.
And we’ve got ourselves his motley crew of household pets. They enjoy being lazy, as pets are wont to do.
When Captain Amazing decides to start searching for a new sidekick, the pets get understandably jealous. And self-righteous. Each of them wants the sidekick job. And silliness and adventure ensue.
This book is just pure fun. Go read it now. (And then go read The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, Dan Santat’s 2015 Caldecott-Medal-winning picture book. He’s got the chops.)
Damn, but this book is badass. I mean, honestly, what’s not to love about a middle-grade graphic novel about a twelve-year-old girl who decides that what she wants out of her life is to become a roller derby champion? Nothing, that’s what.
At the beginning of Roller Girl, Astrid is in a position that a lot of us probably remember from our youths. She’s best friends with another girl her age, they do everything together, and that’s just a given, that’s just the way it works. But then one summer their paths diverge, and suddenly Astrid has to figure out how to be herself, all on her own. And, as is fairly typical, the figuring out process involves lots of bumps and bruises and falling down, but in Astrid’s case, all of that is literal as well as metaphorical, because she’s doing it at roller derby camp.
One of my favorite things about this book is that Astrid is by no means a natural born derby champ. In fact, she pretty much sucks. But she works so hard and sticks with it despite everything because she just really, really likes it. It takes some serious guts to keep doing something you’re terrible at just because you want to, and I love Astrid for it. Trust me, you will too.
Oh, and PS. In case you were in any doubt, this book is about roller derby, so obviously it’s super gay.
At the very beginning of Page by Paige, Paige Turner (her parents are writers) buys a sketchbook. She’s just moved from rural Virginia to Brooklyn and she’s feeling lonely and unmoored. But she’s always loved to draw, so she sets about following the rules her painter grandmother set herself a long time ago, starting with the first: “No more excuses! Buy a sketchbook and draw a few pages each week.” Maybe, Paige thinks, it will help.
And help it does. Over the course of her first semester at her new school, Paige, quiet and reserved on the outside, pours her loud, brilliant, and extraordinarily imaginative inner life onto the pages of her sketchbook, and eventually, it gives her the strength she needs to start sharing some of that inner life with the world.
At its core, this book is your standard realistic young adult novel. It’s about friendships and first loves and figuring out who you are and who you want to become. Paige deals with all the inescapable teenage joys of endless frustration and insecurity and awkwardness, and watching her navigate it all is delightfully entertaining. But Page by Paige sets itself apart with Laura Lee Gulledge’s gorgeous art and the brilliant way she waves the narrative of Paige’s story into the structure of Paige’s own drawings and inner monologue. It’s one of the best renditions I’ve seen of a young artist’s mind in progress.
Every once in a while, no matter how much you love books, you go through a reading slump. You know what I’m talking about—you pick up a book you’ve been looking forward to, one you’re absolutely certain you’ll like, and, for some reason, you just can’t make it stick. So then you try out another off your epic TBR pile, and another, and another. And even though you know, you know, you actually like the books, you just can’t seem to enjoy them.
First things first: forgive yourself. It happens to the best of us. Right now, it’s happening to me. And I’m here to tell you that there is hope. There is a solution, friends, and that solution is middle grade graphic novels. Other people will tell you to reread your favorites, to try short stories or comedy or edge-of-your-seat thrillers, and those are all solid suggestions. They’ve helped me through some tough spots. But in my experience, the best way to get yourself to want to read again is to pick up a book that doesn’t require a lot of reading at all.
So that’s what we’ll be posting about this month: our favorite graphic lit written for people at least ten years younger than we are. These are obviously great books if you happen to be twelve, but they’re also great if you happen to be 25, or 38, or 59 (or, you know, any other age) and just in need of a reading pick-me-up.
I was having trouble deciding whether to include Herve Tullet’s Press Here this month. Does it count as interactive? There’s nothing weird about it production-wise. You don’t have to put it together or unfold it or lift flaps or anything like that to make it work. It’s just pages bound together with a regular spine and a regular cover.
But you can’t really get away with just turning the pages either. Here’s the concept: you open the book to the first page. It looks like this:
You’re a good reader. You listen to books when they tell you to do something. So you press there and you turn the page and…
How did that second yellow dot get there?! You did it. You made that yellow dot appear. And you can make more things happen if you press on (get it?!??? knee slapper).
Every page has a new instruction—press! shake! blow! tilt!—and every time you, the reader, follow the instructions, you make the picture that appears on the next page happen. Here’s the book trailer, so you can see it in action with some very excited four-year-olds:
So yeah. I think this codex counts as interactive. It’s a brilliant reminder that readers make books happen.
Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade is kind of the Platonic ideal of an ensemble book in my head. It’s about a series of distinct voices, each of them fascinating and fully realized on its own, but so much better when taken as a whole.
One day, in a classroom in the Bronx, one of the boys decides that, instead of writing his assigned essay about the Harlem Renaissance, he’s going to write a poem. Why, he wonders, would a person write an essay about Langston Hughes when Langston Hughes was all about poetry—plus, poems are way shorter to write. The (fantastic, tough-lovey) teacher obviously isn’t letting him get away with that. Instead he makes him read his poem out loud to the class. And thus begins Open Mike Friday, a weekly classroom tradition.
As the students in the class read their own poems out loud every Friday, they each find their own voices and they begin to understand each other and come together as a community. I know that sounds cheesy. But the book doesn’t feel quite so cheesy when you read it—each kid’s poem is distinct and troubling and perfectly pitched in its own way, and they fit together as an awesome, readable poetry slam.
So this is a little bit of weird one. But it’s so very good.
Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is exactly what the title says—it’s a book of poems for two voices. Each of the poems in the book is carefully crafted for two people to read aloud together. One person reads one column, the other person reads the other, and their two voices mesh together to create one whole poem. So for example:
How cool is that?? So cool.
This is a book that I never would have discovered if I hadn’t been a bookseller at Politics & Prose (despite the fact that it won the 1989 Newbery Medal). It was just sitting on the shelf in the poetry section, and I was just sitting around with no customers late on a Thursday night, and we found each other. The next day I made several of my coworkers read out loud with me, because this book just begs to be heard, immediately. And it’s great on the page, but oh so much better when you read it as a team.
If we’re going to talk about books about school, then we’re going to have to talk about middle-grade novels. (Middle-grade, for the non-kids-book people out there, are books for right around the eight- to twelve-year-old age bracket. Think Bridge to Terabithia or Walk Two Moons or whatever book you loved best in fifth grade.) And it’s, like, really really hard to pick just one middle-grade novel to represent all the wealth of awesome schoolish books out there. Ramona the Pest (or pretty much anything else) by Beverly Cleary. Frindle by Andrew Clements. Because of Mr. Terupt by Rod Buyea (not quite a classic, but oh, to have a teacher like Mr. Terupt!). And those are just a few of the realistic ones. There are a ton more that are about, I don’t know, wizards or something.
But the one school book that I really want to put in every single person’s hands is Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind.
Melody is a brilliant ten-year-old girl. She’s the most brilliant ten-year-old girl in her whole school—only nobody knows it but her. Because she has cerebral palsy, Melody can’t speak, write, or walk; she’s been in a wheelchair her whole life, and she spends every day at school in a special needs classroom, going over the alphabet over and over, unable to tell anyone what’s on her mind. But when she’s in fifth grade, everything changes at once. The school decides to integrate the special-needs kids into the mainstream classroom, so for the first time, Melody is surrounded by new ideas every day. And, best of all, she finally has a way to express those thoughts that have been bouncing around her head her whole life: she gets a MediTalker, a special computer that can speak for her. Now Melody has a voice—and, just like everyone else, she’s got to figure out how to make herself heard.
My favorite thing about this book is the fact that, ultimately, it’s just a story about a fifth-grade girl trying to find her place. Melody has a very serious physical disability, yes, but she also has a sharp mind and a desire to make friends and a competitive spirit and a talent for leadership. School is the central setting of her life, just like it is for so many fifth graders. But for Melody, her school’s choice to support her needs makes it possible for her to live outwardly as the person she’s always been on the inside.