These YA Novels Are Graphic: Blurring the Line between Comics and Prose

Graphic novels have come to occupy their own tidy little corner of most libraries, staking an ever-expanding claim on the 741.5s (if you’re still using Dewey, that is). This, of course, makes perfect sense for readers looking only for sequential art narratives, as well as for readers looking just for sentences neatly ordered on a clean page. But what happens when visual storytelling bleeds over into prose novels, and vice versa?

The following YA titles muddy the distinction between graphic and prose novels in varied ways, sometimes by integrating a separate story line only in illustrations, others by punctuating a narrative with a character’s imaginative doodles, and still others by weaving expressive illustrations through the text that enhance the emotional weight of the story.

The Absolutely True DiaryThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Ellen Forney

Arnold Spirit, a goofy-looking dork with a decent jump shot, spends his time lamenting life on the “poor-ass” Spokane Indian reservation, drawing cartoons (which accompany, and often provide more insight than, the narrative), and, along with his aptly named pal Rowdy, laughing those laughs over anything and nothing that affix best friends so intricately together. When a teacher pleads with Arnold to want more, to escape the hopelessness of the rez, Arnold switches to a rich white school and immediately becomes as much an outcast in his own community as he is a curiosity in his new one.

Chopsticks, by Jessica Anthony and illustrated by Rodrigo Corral

Piano prodigy Glory Fleming meets an Argentinian teen, Francisco Mendoza, and the two fall into a mutual obsession. With a narrative that unfolds in a procession of photographs, sketches, scrap paper, wine labels, mix-CD playlists, IM sessions, TV stills, letters sent home from school, and other bits of visual imagery overlaid by short bursts of text, this is a book that plays with the boundaries between novel, graphic novel, scrapbook, and multiplatform storytelling. But this high-concept book’s ambition isn’t limited to its visual narrative mode and transmedia accessorizing, as the story itself moves from a teen love affair into something much deeper—and far trickier.

I Am Princess XI Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest and illustrated by Kali Ciesemier 

When May’s best friend, Libby, dies in a car accident at 14, she loses not only her friend but the closet’s worth of stories and comics they wrote together about Princess X, a katana-wielding cartoon girl with a crown and red Chucks. But three years later, when May discovers Princess X on vinyl stickers all over Seattle, as well as a recent webcomic containing characters eerily similar to May and Libby and clues only she can decipher, she begins to question everything she’s been told about the day Libby died.

In the Shadows, by Kiersten White and illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo

In Maine in 1900, five teens who live at a boarding house are attracted one evening by the sound of distant music, and together they sneak up on the source of the melody, a witch’s house. When they peer in the window, they watch as she dances wildly and then, horrifyingly, hangs herself, but when they return with help, the witch has disappeared. A tantalizing mystery unfolds in twinned narratives: one told in the intriguing text by author White, and the second told in artist Di Bartolo’s wordless, enigmatic panels that are interspersed throughout the narrative.

The Invention of Hugo CabretThe Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick

Selznick’s “novel in words and pictures,” an intriguing mystery set in 1930s Paris about an orphan, a salvaged clockwork invention, and a celebrated filmmaker, resuscitates an anemic genre—the illustrated novel—and takes it to a whole new level. The result is somewhat similar to a graphic novel, but experiencing its mix of silvery pencil drawings and narrative interludes is ultimately more like watching a silent film.

The Year of the Beasts, by Cecil Castellucci and illustrated by Nate Powell

The hybrid book that alternates prose and comics chapters is nothing new, but it can be a tricky proposition to get right. Castellucci and Powell make a powerful team, and smartly let the two different breeds breathe in different fashions. In Castellucci’s narrative, teen Tessa is driven wild with jealousy when her younger sister starts dating Tessa’s crush, Charlie. Powell’s skillfully drawn counterpoint is steeped in mythological undertones, as a girl (presumably Tessa, but never named as such) with Medusa hair turns all who look upon her at home and at school to stone. What emerges is an elegant evocation of the monster crouched at its center.

Why We Broke UpWhy We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler and illustrated by Maira Kalman

In faltering pitter-patter dialogue and thick, gushy, grasping-for-words paragraphs, Handler takes a tired old saw—an opposites-attract kind of romance—and injects us into the halting, breathless, disbelieving, horny, and nervous minds of two teens who feel “different” only in how they define themselves in contrast to each other. The story is told from Min’s perspective, a bittersweet diatribe of their breakup arranged around objects, which are artfully depicted in Kalman’s full-color paintings. It is fitting that the chapters center upon these items; the story itself feels like blurry photos, snippets of stray recordings—all the more powerful because of how they evoke truth more than any mere relaying of facts.

Winger, by Andrew Smith and illustrated by Sam Bosma

At 14, Ryan Dean West is a couple years younger (and scrawnier) than the rest of the juniors at Pine Mountain. He is a plucky kid who stars on the rugby team due to his speed and tenacity. The rail ties of his single-track mind, though, are his exploits (or lack thereof) with the opposite sex, particularly his best friend Annie, who thinks he is “adorable.” In short, Ryan Dean is a slightly pervy but likable teen. Much of the story seems preoccupied with the base-level joys and torments of being a teenager, content to float along with occasional bursts of levity from some nonessential but fun minicomics by Bosma. But at its heart, it is more in line with Dead Poets Society, and by the end this deceptively lightweight novel packs an unexpectedly ferocious punch.

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About the Author:

When Sarah Hunter is not reading for her job as senior editor at Booklist, she's baking something tasty or planning trips to the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahBearHunter.

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