November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Grab Them with Graphic Novels

Featuring concise narratives, vivacious artwork, and page-turning comic book formats, these new  graphic novels make compelling choices for encouraging and empowering young readers. In each of these offerings, the interplay between words and images adds greatly to the storytelling, augmenting the impact and understanding of the events, ideas, and concepts presented. These engaging books can nurture readers who are reluctant to embrace traditional texts, cultivate critical reading skills, and engender a lifelong love of reading.

Giggles Galore for Elementary Age Readers

Dog ManDav Pilkey unleashes a new series that features his trademark blend of fast-paced action, deliciously harebrained storylines, and irreverent humor. Best friends George and Harold, fourth-grade co-creators of copious Captain Underpants comics, revisit their very first literary effort, a graphic novella that inspired many shared guffaws and irate letters home from their first-grade teacher. Thus, touched up with “more better” spelling and improved drawings, Dog Man (Scholastic, Aug. 2016; Gr 3-6) is “reborn anewish.”

Beginning with an origin tale (this humble hero is created when the head of a smart dog is sewn onto the body of a tough police officer after both are fatally injured), rapid-fire chapters describe how Dog Man stops a devious mayor from replacing the police chief with her very own evil robot minion, foils a feline villain’s plot to use his latest invention to zap the words out of every book (without reading, folks quickly become “supa dumb!”), and saves the world from an army of belligerent frankfurters brought to life with mad-scientist spray.

Concise narrative and dialogue balloons are paired with brightly colored illustrations that showcase a diverse cast of simply depicted characters along with their over-the-top emotions and outrageous antics. “Flip-O-Rama” segments allow readers to animate the action by quickly turning pages back and forth, and directions for drawing the cast are appended. This riotous romp about a crime-fighting canine will please devoted Pilkey fans and bring new followers into the fold.

Sweaterweather & Other Short StoriesIn Sweaterweather & Other Short Stories (First Second, 2016; Gr 3-6), Sara Varon updates her previously published collection (2003) with new offerings, also adding brief introductions to all 18 tales that touch upon her creative process and evolution as an artist.

Taking a more understated approach, the brief vignettes star charming anthropomorphic animals and other endearing characters who explore issues of friendship and self-discovery: during a snow storm, a shivering rabbit and turtle shrink down and take shelter inside the turtle’s shell to sip hot tea and knit a cozy scarf and hat; a raccoon steals and roasts marshmallows from two sleeping campers and then, feeling repentant, leaves them a tasty surprise; a lion dons reading glasses to consult a self-help book about fitting in in the African grasslands and amusingly puts the advice into practice (he later gives the tome a five-star review); dinosaurs sweating in a sweltering primordial landscape hear the tinkle of musical notes and gleefully dash to an arriving ice cream truck.

Many of the comics are wordless (or nearly so), and the bulk of the storytelling is done through the expressively drawn artwork. Effective visual characterizations combine with quiet beats of humor to vividly convey the cast’s interactions, relationships, and revelations. Though these warmhearted tales will appeal to a wide audience, Varon’s commentary makes this book particularly interesting to budding graphic novelists.

Middle Grade Marvels

ghostsRaina Telgemeier once again exhibits her talent for telling stories that seamlessly integrate complex family relationships, heartfelt personal quandaries and challenges, and reader-gripping plotlines. The Allende-Delmar family is moving to the Northern California coast where the cool sea air will help ease the symptoms of her little sister’s cystic fibrosis (CF), and Catrina already misses the friends she left behind. As if the constant wind and fog in their gloomy new town aren’t bad enough, she soon discovers that everyone in Bahía de la Luna is obsessed with Ghosts (Scholastic, Sept. 2016; Gr 4-8).

When handsome teenage neighbor Carlos Calaveras takes the sisters on a ghost tour to a local mission and introduces them to Bahía’s long-dead residents, many from Mexico, Maya, always outgoing and adventure-loving, is mesmerized; however, Cat’s jitters are cemented into solid fear when her sister experiences a medical crisis that results in a brief hospitalization.

Carlos tries to make amends, but Cat pushes him away, even when they meet at school. However, other new friends, including Seo Young, a girl who moved to Bahía two years ago, seem to share Carlos’s admiration for ghosts. As the town’s Day of the Dead celebration approaches, Cat gradually begins to comprehend the tradition, rooted in Mexican culture, of welcoming back the spirits of loved ones, but will she overcome her fears in time to understand what ghosts truly mean to both herself and her sister?

Conveyed through concise dialogue and atmospheric artwork, this graphic novel sparkles with searing emotions and strong characterizations. Meaty themes abound, as Cat struggles to fit into an unfamiliar place, wrestles with both the jealousy and sense of responsibility that come along with having a chronically ill sister, and makes discoveries about her own family (Cat’s now-deceased Abuela immigrated from Mexico). The motif of breathing is thoughtfully woven throughout this multilayered work: Maya’s CF makes it difficult for her to breathe; Cat’s anxieties often leave her short of breath; the ghosts tap into the wind to “absorb the essence of the world breathing around them.”

Relationships are also poignantly drawn—conflict and contentment between the sisters, parent-child interactions, learning to value and trust new friends. All of these elements are skillfully wrapped into a story that keeps readers turning pages with well-plotted events, a pervasive sense suspense, and a touch of the magical wonder. In a climax both heartrending and uplifting, Cat finally begins to face her fears—not only of ghosts but also of her sister’s fate.

compass southFirst in a new series, Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock’s Compass South (FSG, 2016; Gr 4-8) stars two redheaded, freckle-faced twins with a penchant for finding trouble. It’s 1860 in Manhattan, and 12-year-old Alexander and Cleopatra Dodge, who haven’t seen their father since he left to look for work several months ago, have joined the Black Hook Gang to survive. When Alex is apprehended during a burglary, the siblings rat out the gang’s hideout in exchange for the boy’s freedom. They set off for San Francisco with a wild plan to impersonate two missing redheaded twin brothers being sought by their rich father, only to meet Silas and Edwin, an older set of also-carrot-topped twins with the same plan in mind. Separated in New Orleans, Alex and Edwin are shanghaied onto a sailing ship and make their way around Cape Horn, while Cleo (disguised as a boy) and Silas stow away aboard a steamer and then travel across Panama.

Pursued by vengeful gang-leader Luther and a terrifying pirate captain, encountering one spine-tingling adventure after another, and desperately trying to find one another, the Dodges eventually realize that the knife and watch their father gave them holds the secret to a lost pirate treasure. In additions to malevolent villains, they also meet good guys, including Tarboro, a free black man who possesses both wisdom and amazing sword-fighting skills, and Sar, a courageous and independent girl who knows her way around the rain forest.

Ranging from detailed close-ups of a room interior or ship’s hold to breathtaking cityscapes and panoramic scenes, the artwork vibrantly creates a strong sense of time and place while also conveying the rip-roaring action. Multiple plot lines intersect and unwind at a furious pace, but leave room for steady character development and slow-to-unravel mysteries. In addition to plenty of swashbuckling escapades, this graphic novel also includes more thoughtful undercurrents that encourage contemplation of Victorian attitudes toward gender roles and people of different races, sibling bonds and relationships, and those rare things more valuable than even pirate treasure.

Solid Picks for Fact Hounds

Coral ReefsPart of the “Science Comics” series (First Second, 2016; Gr 4-8), these beguiling volumes introduce nonfiction topics with crisp artwork, well-written texts, abundant facts, and reader-grabbing approaches. Maris Wicks’s captivating look at Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean begins with a sequence of wordless panels that zoom in from the spiral-shaped Milky Way, to the solar system, Earth, the planet’s surface, an aerial view of a coral reef, a coral, a particular polyp, and finally, the close-up face of the narrator, a smiling glasses-wearing goby.

Well-organized chapters introduce the classification and characteristics of coral and other cnidarians, how and where coral reefs are formed, the ecosystem and its diverse inhabitants, how coral reefs and oceans connect to the planet’s water cycle and oxygen production, and the effects of climate change and other challenges (and ways to take action). Both text and artwork provide occasional chuckles, as the goby dons Hawaiian shirt and suitcase to discuss migratory animals, or photosynthesis is summed up by two eloquent daisies (one sings, “eatin’ up the SEE-OH-TOOO,” and the other replies, “fartin’ out the oxygen”).

Throughout, clearly drawn and labelled charts and diagrams convey bountiful information about this habitat’s residents and their way of life, the food chain, and the animal classification system. Broader perspectives help readers appreciate the incredible biodiversity found in coral reefs and the important role they play in Earth’s ecology.

Dinosaurs Fossils and FeathersSpanning the eons, MK Reed and Joe Flood introduce Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers while also relating how human knowledge about the natural world has grown through the centuries. Sequential panels and lucidly presented diagrams explain such concepts as how fossils are created, how dinosaurs are named, classification (including the division between Sauriscians and Ornithiscians), differences between herbivores and carnivores, cause of extinction, evidence of feathers and evolution into birds, and more.

The book’s chronological organization allows readers to see how theories have evolved in response to new scientific findings, and to meet an entertaining array of groundbreaking individuals. Among the personalities introduced are the remarkable Mary Anning (1799–1847), born into a poor family in Lyme Regis, England, who became a skilled fossil-hunter and self-taught paleontologist and played a role in the discovery of coprolites; controversial naturalist Richard Owen (1804-1892), who coined the term “Dinosauria” in 1842 but was also known for his plagiarism and “ungentlemanly” behavior toward his peers; and Americans Othniel Marsh (1831-1899) and Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) and their much-celebrated bone wars. These individuals and their discoveries are presented against visual backdrops that convey both time and place. Touches of humor are woven into both words and images, keeping the tone inviting, and dramatic renderings of dinosaurs in action aid both understanding and imagination.

Taken individually or grouped together, these titles can be used to incorporate numerous Common Core Standards, including the following: students can look closely at the relationship between words and pictures, and analyze how visual elements “contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text” (RL 5.7). Citing examples in words and images, students can “analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters…in a text” (RL 7.6). Inspired by the works featured here, students can script and draw their own graphic novel fictional tales or memoirs (W 4.3-8.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences), or organize and illustrate a research paper in comic book format (W 5.7-8.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic).

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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