Often, the “Good Comics for Kids” bloggers have lively debates about the best graphic novels of the year. The choices were easy for 2014, and our picks were nearly unanimous. We chose four superhero stories, each with its own twist: Ms. Marvel features Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager with plenty of real-life issues; the Green Turtle in Gene Luen Yang’s The Shadow Hero is the son of Chinese immigrants battling cultural rifts and organized crime; Aw Yeah Comics! stars the super-cute creations of “Tiny Titans” team Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani; and Cleopatra in Space equips the teenage Egyptian queen with a ray gun and a sphinx-shaped space bike.
Coming back to Earth, we have Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters, the follow-up to her 2010 memoir Smile, and Cece Bell’s debut, El Deafo, her memoir of growing up as a deaf child in a (mostly) hearing world. Just one historical graphic novel made the list: Nick Bertozzi’s Shackleton, the story of the trouble-plagued Antarctic expedition.
Finally, three of this year’s picks are whimsical stories with a touch of fantasy: Lilli Carre’s Tippy and the Night Parade; Luke Pearson’s Hilda and the Black Hound; and The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow, based on a never-produced Jim Henson/Jerry Juhl television script and brought to life by Roger Langridge, writer of the “Muppet Show” comics and creator of the series “Snarked!.”
Here are our picks for 2014.
Sisters, by Raina Telgemeier. Scholastic/Graphix. Gr 3-7. Telgemeier takes the bitter with the sweet in this memoir of her childhood relationship with her younger sister, Amara. As a child, Raina had always wanted a sister, but Amara was not the one she expected. Amara has a strong personality all her own, and the two don’t always get along. The story is structured around a family car trip, with flashbacks filling in the gaps and providing texture. There is plenty of humor (for instance, when Amara’s pet snake disappears and then pops up again most unexpectedly) and serious moments, as Telgemeier portrays the strains her family goes through both at home and on what turns out to be an unusually eventful road trip.
Hilda and the Black Hound, by Luke Pearson. Nobrow. Gr 1 Up. Hilda lives in the semi-magical town of Trollberg, where house spirits (“nisses”) dwell in the unused spaces of every home, and a mysterious black hound is unnerving the townfolk. Hilda’s friendship with a homeless nisse leads her through an unexpected series of adventures, eventually coming face to face with the giant hound himself. This modern twist on Mary Norton’s “Borrowers” stories is full of fanciful details, and Pearson’s imaginative depiction of space turns ordinary surroundings inside out.
El Deafo, by Cece Bell. Abrams. Gr 3-7. Bell became deaf at the age of four, but with a hearing aid, the Phonic Ear, she is able to attend a hearing school. The protagonist has a remarkable superpower—with her Phonic Ear, she can hear what her teacher is saying and doing anywhere in the building. But sometimes she misses out on what’s going on around her, and some people treat her strangely because she is deaf. Much like Telgemeier’s Smile, El Deafo mingles the writer’s unique situation with the universal story of growing up and building (and sometimes breaking) friendships.
Ms. Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson. illus. by Adrian Alphona. Marvel. Gr 7 Up. You don’t have to be a superhero fan to enjoy this tale of a 16-year-old girl who suddenly finds herself transformed into Ms. Marvel (a character who has existed for decades with different alter egos). The twist in this story is that Kamala Khan, the heroine, is Muslim and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, so in addition to the trials of adolescence and her clumsy shape-shifting powers, she also has to contend with cultural differences. Witty, perceptive, and filled with sly pop-culture references, this book is a nice blend of everyday teen drama and super-powered adventures.
“Cleopatra in Space,” vol. 1: Target Practice, by Mike Maihack. Scholastic/Graphix. Gr 3-7. The historical Cleopatra, presented here as a mischievous 15-year-old girl, is whisked away to the future and lands on a planet filled with humans, but run by talking cats. Facing an enemy who has stolen all their information, the cats look to Cleopatra to be their savior. In this lively first volume, Cleopatra attends a special training academy where she makes new friends, dodges her classes (except combat and target shooting), and tackles her first mission: flying through space on a bike shaped like a sphinx to retrieve a lost data key.
Tippy and the Night Parade, by Lilli Carré. TOON Books. K-Gr 1. Why is there a pig in Tippy’s bed, a bird on her head, and a horse peeking in her window? She can’t figure it out, but when the lights go out, she sleepwalks across a dreamy landscape, accumulating a fanciful menagerie of followers as she goes. With its simple narrative and detailed drawings, this book has plenty of read-aloud potential.
The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow, created by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl. adapted and illus. by Roger Langridge. BOOM! Studios. Gr 4 Up. Timmy likes to go off and play his guitar in a quiet spot, but one day he is joined by a septet of furry, music-making aliens who soon turn the whole town of Turkey Hollow topsy-turvy. Could they really have eaten all the turkeys in Turkey Hollow—or are they being framed by Timmy’s evil neighbor? This whimsical story was originally written by Henson and Juhl as a TV holiday special, and the book includes some extra treats for Henson fans, such as photos of his daughters with the puppets he made for the never-produced show.
Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey, by Nick Bertozzi. First Second. Gr 7 Up. Whether you regard Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to trek across Antarctica as hubris or heroism, the fact that every member of the expedition survived even after their plans went horribly awry is a testament to his leadership and the human spirit. Bertozzi uses the graphic medium to good effect here, incorporating maps and diagrams into his story to help explain what’s going on and often focusing on the smaller, more human moments recorded in the explorers’ diaries.
Aw Yeah Comics! And… Action, by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani. Dark Horse. Gr 3 Up. Action Cat and Adventure Bug, along with their pink-clad counterparts, AC and Shelly, keep Skokie and the rest of the world safe from the villainous Evil Cat in this light-hearted take on superhero stories. Baltazar and Aureliani are the artists behind DC Comics’s “Tiny Titans” series. This comic features their original characters and drops the in-jokes in favor of goofy humor, as when Evil Cat tries to smother Skokie with a giant pancake. This collection of the first four issues of “Aw Yeah Comics!” also includes short stories by a variety of other creators.
The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang. illus. by Sonny Liew. First Second. Gr 7 Up. In this superhero story with a twist, Hank, the son of Chinese immigrants, is pressured into donning the cape by his mom, but things get serious when his father becomes a casualty of Chinatown’s gangs. Prodded along by an ancient spirit, Hank must choose between traditional ways and modern mores. Yang has a light touch, but he doesn’t shy away from violence and the everyday racism that was pervasive in the 1930s, when the story was set. The character is very loosely based on the Green Turtle, which was created in the 1940s by Chu Hing and is the first superhero from an Asian-American creator. n