17 Immersive Graphic Novels for Teens | Summer Reading 2021

From intimate memoirs to gripping accounts of history to fantastical tales that take teens out of this world, these graphic novels will mesmerize readers.

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From intimate memoirs to gripping accounts of history to fantastical tales that take teens out of this world, these graphic novels will mesmerize readers.

Be Gay, Do Comics: Queer History, Memoir, and Satire from the Nib. ed. by various. illus. by various. IDW. ISBN 9781684057771.
In the disturbingly recent past, YA lit’s queer stories have been cautionary tales, rife with unhappy endings; by contrast, this anthology resounds with triumph. Hilarious, poignant, and enlightening, it offers a nuanced look at queer history—one that starts far earlier than the Stonewall riots—and intimate perspectives from cartoonists grappling with identity.

Incredible Doom: Vol. 1 by Matthew Bogart & Jesse Holden. illus. by Matthew Bogart. HarperAlley. ISBN 9780063064942.
Centering on two teens dealing with, respectively, abuse and bullying, this achingly poignant 1990s-set graphic novel pays homage to the internet’s role as correspondence tool, library, and liberator. Readers will root for these characters who are desperately attempting to forge much-needed bonds in this retro-tech drama that gets so much of the Nineties right that it hurts.

Flamer by Mike Curato. illus. by author. ISBN 9781627796415.
Boy Scout camp is a double-edged sword for Aiden, a gay, biracial teen—though he finds friendship and a crush, the racism and homophobia of his fellow campers cut deeply. Relying on raw, grayscale art, “Little Elliot” author Curato’s visceral graphic novel debut urges teens to look for slivers of hope even amid despair.

The Backups: A Summer of Stardom by Alex de Campi. illus. by Lara Kane, Dee Cunniffe & Ted Brandt. Imprint. ISBN 9781250153944.
Three Brooklyn Performing Arts High School juniors land the gig of a lifetime: singing backup on pop singer Nika Nitro's tour. However, lengthy rehearsals, constant criticism, and the lingering effects of pretour drama make this dream job more like a nightmare. Stylized, clean-lined art focuses on characters over backgrounds and conveys an upbeat tone that matches the pop music vibe. Come for the wacky shenanigans; stay for the heartfelt friendships. 

Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder. illus. by author. Dial. ISBN 9780525553021.
Feder manages the near impossible—a memoir about joining “the Dead Moms Club” that’s palpable in its depiction of grief yet also exuberant, uplifting, and funny. Using a pastel-infused palette and creatively placed lists, asides, and diagrams, she lovingly remembers her mother, explores the less talked about aspects of loss, and offers a balm to anyone confronting the death of a parent.

I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib. illus. by author. Clarkson Potter. ISBN 9780525575115.
Gharib, the U.S.-born child of divorced Egyptian and Filipina immigrants, loved both her cultures but grew up deeply confused about her place in the world. Full of chaotic doodles, lists, and asides, this intimate graphic memoir mirrors Gharib’s uncertainty—about her complex relationship with whiteness, her attempts to belong in high school and in college—and her joy at her rich cultural identity.

Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha. illus. by author. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062685100.
When Chuna’s mother moved them from South Korea to the American South, the teen’s life became a seemingly hopeless struggle to regain her footing. An enduring love of art led the newly named Robin to social lifelines, confidence, and a maturing appreciation of the highs and lows of American and Korean culture. An intimate, contemplative take on forging identity.

The Last Halloween: Book 1; Children by Abby Howard. illus. by author. Iron Circus. ISBN 9781945820663.
Left home alone during an apocalyptic Halloween, 10-year-old Mona stumbles into an unlikely alliance with some morbidly strange friends. With sarcasm, grit, and some magical assists, they fight back against the monstrosities that emerge during the violent night. Black-and-white artwork mixes visual gags and constant guffaws with thrilling turns into horror.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. illus. by author. Lion Forge. ISBN 9781549304002.
An art class assignment about confronting demons drove Kobabe, who now uses the pronouns e/em/eir, to grapple with eir horror at breasts, periods, and other symbols of femininity—and to realize e identified as genderqueer. Featuring realistic, earth-toned cartoons, this forthright memoir earnestly examines everything from pap smears gone wrong to experiments with sex toys. Kobabe is the reassuring older sibling that many LGBTQ teens will wish they’d had.

Nubia: Real One by L.L McKinney illus. by Robyn Smith. DC Comics. ISBN 9781401296407.
The world may laud white superheroes like Wonder Woman, but 17-year-old Nubia knows it’s different for Black girls like her, and for her whole life she struggles to hide her powers—until she intervenes in a store robbery to protect a friend. McKinney offers a delightful take on a character long considered to be DC’s first Black female superhero; her desire to combat injustice, combined with her longing for the typical teen experience, makes her the perfect 21st-century counterpart to Wonder Woman.

The Hazards of Love: Vol. 1; Bright World by Stan Stanley. illus by author. Oni. ISBN 9781620108574.
When a magical cat enters Amparo's room one night and offers to grant their wish to be a better person, Amparo is thrilled—until they find out that the cat was lying. The cat takes over Amparo's body and life, and even attempts to romance their crush Iolanthe, and sends the real Amparo to Bright World. Stellar, expressive art, featuring angular, dramatic linework, and an engaging narrative with solid nonbinary representation and well-developed characters bring this fantastical story to life.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, & Steven Scott. illus. by Harmony Becker. Top Shelf. ISBN 9781603094504.
In this evocative memoir, actor and activist Takei revisits his childhood, when he, his family, and thousands of other Japanese Americans were imprisoned in internment camps by the U.S. government during World War II. Becker’s clean-lined, grayscale art pulls back the curtains on our dark history and shines a light on recent events—Trump’s “travel ban” and the separation of parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border—that have chilling parallels with Takei’s experiences.

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki. illus. by Steve Pugh. DC Ink. ISBN 9781401283292.
This mesmerizing supervillain origin story reimagines the Joker’s hell-raising sidekick as a wayward 15-year-old determined to protect her newfound community from encroaching gentrification. Tamaki’s pitch-perfect narration and Pugh’s chaotic, superrealistic illustrations bring to life a Harley Quinn who’s a volatile mix of vulnerability and impulsivity, tempered by her growing social consciousness.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki. illus. by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. First Second. ISBN 9781626722590.
Francesca “Freddy” Riley flakes on her friends to chase after her dream girl, flighty Laura Dean, who sends mixed signal after mixed signal. Spot-on dialogue; stunning, fluid art; and a panel structure that captures the awkwardness of adolescence create a tender portrait of first love, set in a world where LGBTQ relationships are refreshingly normalized.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki. illus. by Jillian Tamaki. First Second. ISBN 9781626720947.
Every summer, Rose and her parents vacation at a lakeside cottage. The rest of the world fades away as Rose reunites with her friend Windy and delves into leisurely games of MASH, swimming, and the joy of digging giant holes in the sand—but this summer is different.

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang. illus. by author. First Second. ISBN 9781626720794.
A year after publishing his well-received Boxers and Saints, graphic novelist and math teacher Yang was beset by writer’s block. But his curiosity was piqued by the Dragons, his school’s men’s varsity basketball team.

Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang. illus. by Gurihiru. DC Comics. ISBN 9781779504210.
Roberta and Tommy Lee’s family moves from Chinatown to Metropolis only to encounter threats from the Klan of the Fiery Kross. The Lees have a friend in Superman, who grapples with his own sense of belonging, but they’ll need more than superpowers to prevent their community from falling under the sway of xenophobia. Nuanced writing and fluid artwork sell the bombastic moments as well as the heartfelt ones.

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