To be honest, I often feel overwhelmed gazing at the graphic novel section of my library. So many superheroes! So many ninjas! There’s nothing wrong with these. They just aren’t my cup of tea. However, I have found a number of graphic novels with quite a different voice, and besides being a delight for reluctant readers, they are a fabulous genre for anyone to explore. Here are four I’ve read recently and enjoyed, plus one illustrated novel:
Little Robot, by Ben Hatke published in 2015 by First Second
I wouldn’t have guessed I’d call a robot book “sweet,” but this one is! It’s tender and daring. Darling and hair-raising. And it stars a resourceful, friendly little gal, her diminutive robot friend, and some handy tools.
From Little Robot’s first wobbly steps, he and the little girl who discovers him are on quite a journey together, exploring what friendship looks like between such different persons.
When a gang of giant, creepy robots pursue them, their friendship, bravery, and loyalty save the day . It’s a thoroughly-satisfying, enjoyable story, for ages 8 and up.
Bake Sale, by Sara Varon published in 2011 by First Second
Any story starring a cupcake is worth at least a second look, right?
Sara Varon is a delightful storyteller with an uncomplicated, friendly drawing style.
Cupcake runs the Sweet Tooth Bakery with panache. He dearly loves to create awesome confections for his patrons.
When Cupcake’s good friend, Eggplant, announces that he’s traveling to Istanbul to visit his Aunt Aubergine, and when Cupcake discovers that this aunt is a long-time friend of Super-Chef Turkish Delight — Cupcake’s dream-goddess-chef-hero! — he begins furiously working to make enough money to travel along.
It’s a delightful story, and as a delicious bonus, a number of Cupcake’s Sweet Tooth recipes are included so you can make Raspberry Squares, Peppermint Brownies, and more. A treat for ages 8 and up.
Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke published in 2010 by First Second
Zita and her friend Joseph are blasted into another world at the outset of this sci-fi adventure, the first of an extremely popular trilogy by Ben Hatke.
Joseph is immediately seized by a grim creature, all diving helmet and scurrilous tentacles. It’s up to Zita to navigate the new species, mechanisms, and dangers of this place, find Joseph, and get them both safely back home. Can she do it?
If anyone can, it’s the intrepid Zita! It’s a thrill a minute, with explosions, humor, and a heap of loyal friendship, sure to win the hearts of readers, ages 9 and up.
Sunny Side Up, by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm, with color by Lark Pien published in 2015 by Graphix
With this novel, we move from riotous space adventure to a poignant story of family, brokenness, and healing, based on the childhoods of brother-sister team, Jennifer and Matthew Holm.
It’s 1976, Sunny is 10 years old, and she’s heading to Florida to spend some time with Grandpa. That sounds idyllic, right? Disney World. Beaches. Sun. Ice Cream Cones. But that isn’t what’s in store for her. Grandpa lives in a retirement village with a bunch of batty old women and their cats. And he thinks Disney World is a tourist trap.
As the weeks roll by, Sunny navigates this new pace of life, meets a new friend named Buzz, discovers superhero comics, rescues a lot of cats, and processes some painful, confusing memories from home. Concurrently, she discovers that masks, duplicity, and alter-egos can be tremendously hurtful, and both she and Grandpa learn that telling the truth can be a freeing proposition.
A remarkable story addressing the pain of a loved one with substance abuse issues, with a lovely, personal note to readers from the authors. Ages 10 and up.
A Year Without Mom, by Dasha Tolstikova published in 2015 by Groundwood Books
Finally, this poignant, spare, illustrated novel set in 1990s Moscow. It’s not a graphic novel, but it’s so heavily illustrated that it sort of defies categorization.
Dasha is a 12-year-old girl whose mother is moving to the U.S. to study in a master’s program. Dasha will be left behind, living with her grandparents, and navigating an entire year without her mom. Nobody asks her if this sounds like a good idea.
Friendships. School. Growing up. Exploring new identities. All of this is hard enough to handle with a mom at your side, but it feels overwhelming to Dasha.
As the year progresses, Dasha comes into her own, starts to feel comfortable in her new independence. So what happens when Mom comes back? And what happens when she wants to take Dasha with her to America?
It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking book, offering a window into Russian culture as well as the universal bond between daughters and mothers. The hushed, mostly monochromatic pages, splashed with cherry red, are gripping and lovely, with compositions and portraits that brilliantly reveal personality and powerful emotions. I truly enjoyed this book. Ages 11 through adult.