Graphic Novel Roundup

It hasn’t been an outstanding year for graphic format works with Printz potential — but a handful of books either have some buzz or have some potential, even if none of them are likely to be serious contenders. So read on for an alphabetical listing of graphic novels that might maybe could (but probably won’t) […]

It hasn’t been an outstanding year for graphic format works with Printz potential — but a handful of books either have some buzz or have some potential, even if none of them are likely to be serious contenders. So read on for an alphabetical listing of graphic novels that might maybe could (but probably won’t) have Printzly aspirations.

Real Friends coverReal Friends, Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
First Second, May 2017
Reviewed from final copy; 3 stars

It’s easy to dismiss this sweet memoir as way too young for Printz consideration, but that’s doing Hale’s sophisticated and charming friendship tale a disservice. Pham’s expressive, easily decoded, beautiful panels are appropriate for any age, and so is this story of finding friends, losing friends, finding yourself, and ultimately finding better friends. Yes, Shannon-the-character is only in 6th grade at the end, and if this were a fictional recounting, it would clearly be a children’s book — but it’s a true story, one that will resonate with plenty of teen readers and hold out hope for others.

Hale uses a combination of traditional graphic novel dialogue and narrative panels, which here function more like voiceovers, an effective choice; the voiceover provides a little distance and perspective (and is literally distant, as it’s superimposed on images or even outside the panels altogether), and lends maturity to the narrative. Pham’s art is excellent; she changes style for imaginary moments, uses color to delineate times and emotions, and does so much with facial expressions it almost seems like you could read this without the text.

Yes, it’s young enough, and a small enough story, that is an unlikely Printz (perhaps another shocker Caldecott though?), but don’t dismiss it out of hand — this is a true all-ages read, and a perfect example of how the graphic format can breathe extra life into a story, making small details come fully to life.


The Witch Boy coverThe Witch Boy, Molly Ostertag
Graphix/Scholastic, October 2017
Reviewed from ARC; 2 stars

Another young-but-not graphic novel, this one a debut.

On the surface, this is a story about not fitting in, but witchcraft here is also clearly a metaphor, specifically for gender or sexuality. In a deeply gendered magical community existing on the frienges of the familiar world, Aster (whose gender is at first glance unclear) is a boy who prefers learning magic to shifting his form, but witchcraft is for girls and shape-shifting is for boys. In the end, his interstitial, non-binary identity is critical for saving his world, driving home the message that a more inclusive reality is a better reality. It’s also a delightful friendship story, and the final panels, with Aster and Charlie (who is black and has two dads, furthering the delicately delivered message that the world should have fewer arbitrary boundaries) just laying on her bed and talking, and then the view zooming out — lovely.

I read this in ARC, so only a small portion was colorized. Even in black and white, Ostertag’s art is charming and expressive; her bodies, in particular, convey a lot of emotion. The colors are — meh, at least early on — a lot of blue sky and green grass, all of it a little intense but somehow also washed out. I’m sorry I didn’t see a final copy to see the color work in the woods and the town, because if the palette shifts, then the sort of hyper-colored opening becomes more clearly purposeful and might be less meh. Regardless, the linework and story are strong enough to carry this.

Again, this is a Printz longshot, but perfect for the younger YA — right up through 9th grade — and it’s not impossible to imagine a nomination.

Thornhill coverThornhill, Pam Smy
Roaring Brook Press, August 2017
Reviewed from final copy; three stars

What a spooky book this is! It’s horror, but the kind that even those of us who can’t watch horror and can only read it during the day can handle. It’s also the closest to YA of the three I (Karyn) am covering today; Ella and Mary might be any number of ages, but the combo of iPhone and being left on her own for Ella makes me think 13-14, although she could be as young as 12 or older than 14 — I think one of the virtues of the relative lack of detail here is that the reader can interpret according to their own preferences or headspace.

The format here is especially interesting, as it’s something we’ve seen only a few times before, and always by Brian Selznick. Smy cuts back and forth between prose (first person diary entries) and picture, and uses almost no text in the visual portions. The prose does exactly what it needs to do, but it’s the visual narrative that really sets this one apart. Smy’s lines are dark and generally clear, all in black, white, and gray tones. The overall effect is often near-cinematic. There is a literal fade to black (a double page spread) each time the action moves from Mary (prose) to Ella (picture) and back again. The perspective in the art pushes in-in-in in the opening pages, and this push in-pull out panning repeats frequently, drawing the viewer into the narrative and also making it clear that we aren’t the ones Mary wants. What’s particularly impressive is how much Smy packs into the art. Spreads are full page, usually 2-pages, so there’s no traditional comic panels, and the images reward close reading. So much is conveyed — about Ella’s grief (her mother has recently died), about her socioeconomic status, about her loneliness in her new town — and also about her love of Gothic fiction (Jane Eyre and Rebecca nestle side by side on her book case). Creepiest of all is the picture of Mary tacked up on her wall as she repairs Mary’s puppet — Ella knows exactly what she’s dealing with, and she keeps going back for more. And all of this happens with text used only where there would be text in the narrative (an inscription on a picture, a note read over breakfast, spines of books); all the other narrative work is purely pictorial.


This is brilliant and spooky — especially the final image section, where the ghosts of Ella and Mary stare insistently at the newest occupant of the house Mary watched and Ella occupied. It’s innovative and a page turner; this deserves a very close look from the committee, and much more recognition than it’s received.


Spinning coverSpinning, Tillie Walden
First Second, September 2017
Reviewed from final digital copy (read in full color on iPad); 3 stars

Spinning is an ambitious effort from a young author, Tillie Walden. With a tighter focus and a clearer vision, Walden will be a graphic novelist producing work like This One Summer, but for the purposes of this conversation, let’s focus on the present.

Walden spent most of her childhood as a competitive figure skater. She was also bullied at school, neglected at home, suffered from anxiety, and struggled with her sexuality. These were all aspects of her actual life so we can’t fault her for having lived through all of this–in fact, kudos for making it through the other side and telling the tale–but Walden only gives the reader small glimpses into each these aspects, creating a narrative that feels diffuse, which seems inappropriate for such intense circumstances.

Around a third of the way through the book, it seems like Walden will finally make the connections between her unhappiness with her new synchronized skating team’s lack of organization and discipline and what is clearly anxiety (her need for order and routine) but the narrative continues, a series of vignettes of memory. The book reads like a dear friend recounting her childhood traumas; there’s a warmth and intimacy in her writing and art. However, the meandering tone results in themes that arise accidentally and without resolution. This lack of clarity makes a longshot for the Printz to me, but perhaps some of you see it differently? —Joy Piedmont


So there you have our pile of picture books — what say you? Any other graphic works we should be looking at? Thoughts on these four? Have at it in the comments — and if you haven’t already voted in the Pyrite, you still have time!


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