Thursday, May 8, 2014

5 "J" Graphic Novels That Should NOT Be Overlooked

At our library, we had an increase in young children interested in comics and superheroes, but at the same time, this was the age you weren't quite ready for them to stumble across 'The Walking Dead'. We decided to separate the graphic novels into two collections- ones that are appropriate for all ages, and ones that are suitable more for older teens and adults (or in colloquial library terms 'jGraphics' and 'YAGraphics'). This has ended up working really well, and parents seem appreciative that we did that. Unfortunately, it also means that a lot of people have mistranslated 'jGraphics' into 'kiddie comics' ... and granted, there are a few of them in there. There are, however, a lot of really intelligent graphic novels in the 'j' category that get overlooked because adults and teens automatically go to the 'YA' section for their 'serious and mature comics.' Today, I plan to debunk the myth that there's nothing 'mature' in the 'j' section. I've selected 5 graphic novels that have been labelled essentially 'E for everyone' that deserve your attention. In no particular order or preference.

1. Hereville, or How Mirka Got Her Sword

"Spunky, strong-willed eleven-year-old Mirka Herschberg isn’t interested in knitting lessons from her stepmother, or how-to-find-a-husband advice from her sister, or you-better-not warnings from her brother. There’s only one thing she does want: to fight dragons! Granted, no dragons have been breathing fire around Hereville, the Orthodox Jewish community where Mirka lives, but that doesn’t stop the plucky girl from honing her skills. She fearlessly stands up to local bullies. She battles a very large, very menacing pig. And she boldly accepts a challenge from a mysterious witch, a challenge that could bring Mirka her heart’s desire: a dragon-slaying sword! All she has to do is find—and outwit—the giant troll who’s got it!" (taken from Goodreads)

Mirka is truly a rare character. She's a female protagonist seemingly bound by traditions, fed up with traditions, wants to follow her own dreams, and doesn't let things get in the way of her succeeding... while at the same time not falling into traditional 'traps' like marrying or 'acting like a lady' or any of that bullshit. You may think that in this day and age that a lot of comics portray strong independent women... but a lot of those 'strong independent women' are highly sexualized thanks to typical 'superhero' anatomy and 'fanservice' ... this Jewish Orthodox girl has none of that; she doesn't need it, the story doesn't need it, and the fact that the story itself is beautiful makes Mirka one of my favorite comic heroines of all time. Feminists may be taken a little aback by the religious aspects in parts of this book, but the graphic novel is a beautiful portrayal of a strong female heroines who has faith. It's not an accomplishment many graphic novelists can boast.

2. Bone

"Three modern cartoon cousins get lost in a pre-technological valley, spending a year there making new friends and out-running dangerous enemies. Their many adventures include crossing the local people in The Great Cow Race, and meeting a giant mountain lion called RockJaw: Master of the Eastern Border. They learn about sacrifice and hardship in The Ghost Circles and finally discover their own true natures in the climatic journey to The Crown of Horns." (taken from Goodreads)

Bone is one of those graphic novel classics that most people have read and while it does have a little bit of fantasy violence in it, I feel like I have to add it to this list because of its sheer popularity with the kids and masterful fantasy storytelling. Although not as deep as some of the other graphic novels on my list, Bone displays a level of high-fantasy and humor that fans of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings will even enjoy.

3. Peanut

"Before you write me off as a delusional psycho, think about what it's like to be thrown into a situation where everyone knows everyone... and no one knows you. Sadie has the perfect plan to snag some friends when she transfers to Plainfield High—pretend to have a peanut allergy. But what happens when you have to hand in that student health form your unsuspecting mom was supposed to fill out? And what if your new friends want to come over and your mom serves them snacks? (Peanut butter sandwich, anyone?) And then there's the bake sale, when your teacher thinks you ate a brownie with peanuts." (taken from Goodreads)

There's a lot of controversy and dislike for this graphic novel, but I think it's rather ingenious on a lot of levels. A lot of the outrage was over how the protagonist fakes her allergy, and people with food allergies didn't think it was funny or kind for it to be the subject of a book, especially when the protagonist seems to 'get away with all the lies' in the end. That's not true at all. They obviously didn't read to the last page or between the lines. To me, this book is less about food allergies and more about how people create illusions of themselves and how the smallest lie can become people's biggest realities in their life.... how people come to seriously believe these lies... and then of course, the chaos that comes out of that. And it's something we all do whether intentionally or unintentionally is the fascinating part.

4. The River

"Surprising, original, and gorgeous, The River is a book about the seasons and the different kinds of experiences and stories that each season brings. Consisting almost entirely of images, The River presents each of the four seasons as its own chapter and story. A few sentences at the start of each chapter set the stage and provide clues for following each story. Beginning in autumn and ending in summer, The River is about our connection to place, as well as about the connections between geography, setting, and the stories we tell. The River
 is also about the flow of time, which flows like the river, and carries us." (taken from Goodreads)

This is a premiere U.S.A. graphic novel by artist Alessandro Sanna in Italy. It is the only graphic novel on this list to have no dialogue in it; the story is told solely through pictures. The River details all of the days and seasons of the Po River- creatures and people and events that interact with it. It's a different kind of story as the protagonist is in fact the river itself which neither moves or talks or really interacts with the reader at all. Most people will look at this as a cute wordless picture book talking about seasons, but those seasoned in the arts this charming graphic novel is so much more. Admittedly, it is one of the few graphic novels that I've had to really take my time with and study the pictures carefully.

5. Cardboard

"When cardboard creatures come magically to life, a boy must save his town from disaster.
Cam's down-and-out father gives him a cardboard box for his birthday and he knows it's the worst present ever. So to make the best of a bad situation, they bend the cardboard into a man-and to their astonishment, it comes magically to life. But the neighborhood bully, Marcus, warps the powerful cardboard into his own evil creations that threaten to destroy them all!" (taken from Goodreads)

Doug TenNapel is one of my favorite comic artists ever, and already renowned for several of his creations- Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, and graphic novels like Bad Island and Ghostopolis. I could choose any one of his graphic novels to appear on this list, but Cardboard has a lot of heart and perhaps the most meaning for me. It seems absurd at first that the story is fought over something we take so much for granted - cardboard- PAPER essentially. But it's the imagination and the heart that gets put into the cardboard creations that give it its values. It's a story about giving and taking and being grateful for the things that you have in your life NOW and letting go of things you 'had'

Honorary Mentions : Amulet   +  Americus
 Although both of these books are fantastic graphic novels, they didn't make my list for small reasons. 

"After the tragic death of their father, Emily and Navin move with their mother to the home of her deceased great-grandfather, but the strange house proves to be dangerous. Before long, a sinister creature lures the kids' mom through a door in the basement. Em and Navin, desperate not to lose her, follow her into an underground world inhabited by demons, robots, and talking animals.
Eventually, they enlist the help of a small mechanical rabbit named Miskit. Together with Miskit, they face the most terrifying monster of all, and Em finally has the chance to save someone she loves."
(taken from Goodreads)

Amulet is fun, fast, and paced the way that a movie would so it is exciting to read and the world is epic (although the story not as masterfully told as aforementioned 'Bone'. The designs are imaginative and beautiful. However, it lacks a level of depth. The literary archetypes are all too apparent, and none of them used in a refreshing way. Amulet is that series that is fun and well-made, but not taken too seriously.

"Neal Barton just wants to read in peace. Unluckily for him, some local Christian activists are trying to get his favorite fantasy series banned from the Americus public library on grounds of immoral content and heresy. Something has to be done, and it looks like quiet, shy Neal is going to have to do it. With youth services librarian Charlotte Murphy at his back, Neal finds himself leading the charge to defend the mega-bestselling fantasy series that makes his life worth living."
(taken from Goodreads)

Americus, on the other hand, hits all the right and relevant notes, but is too mature for me to add to the 'all-ages' list. The book banning and mentioning of book-burning ... not to mention the Christian activists... make this book too much for younger kids to understand but teens and older readers will appreciate immensely. I can relate to this book a lot because of the original publication of the Harry Potter novels when I was a child and the activism around that time to ban them from public libraries. Thankfully, that didn't happen! But it strongly affected my views on books and publication in general. This is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. 

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