Graphic Gems: Novels, Biographies, and Memoirs for Younger Readers

Since I recently shared some utterly satisfying single-volume graphic titles for adults, I figured I should point out a few outstanding titles for middle-grade and YA readers, as well. That said, so-called grown-ups will surely find many of these titles just as satisfying. Equal literary opportunities for all!

be prepared

Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol

Caldecott Honor winner Brosgol (Leave Me Alone!) draws on her own childhood as a Russian immigrant who doesn’t quite fit in with her fellow suburban classmates. When she finds out about ORRA, a summer camp specifically for Russian kids, she’s hopeful of finding kinship with girls from similar backgrounds, but the tents, bugs, creek-side bathing, and especially the outhouses (ironically dubbed “Hollywood”) aren’t exactly what she was hoping for. The girls, too, are just as dismissive, judgmental, and exclusive as they were back home. Despite the isolation and discomforts, everyone—including her younger brother—is having a better time than she is. But when she rediscovers her own power for kindness, her summer adventure finally begins improve.


Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu

Despite a horrific accident that cooked her skin green, Margaret Hamilton finished The Wizard of Oz and continues to terrify new audiences as the Wicked Witch of the West. Childhood polio couldn’t stop Annette Kellerman from setting swimming records. Explorer Delia Akeley was the first woman to cross the African continent (a minor typo in her dates makes her 95, although the final panel quotes her correct age at death as 100). Leymah Gbowee didn’t let her naysayers detract from the work that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. Gorgeous actress Hedy Lamarr was also a brilliant inventor with one of the greatest, albeit least-appreciated, twentieth-century scientific minds. Bagieu’s rollicking collection of 30 mini-biographies of rebel women (including her own at book’s end) is as entertaining as it is informative and inspiring. Her additional “Thirty More Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World” bodes well for a future follow-up.

dare to disapoint

Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, by Özge Samanci

Throughout her Turkish youth, Samanci was told that the right education would be the key to a secure future: “to study engineering or medicine at a prestigious university [would lead to] a good job, mak[ing] lots of money, and be[ing] powerful,” insisted her schoolteacher father. But Samanci preferred to talk to a poster of Jacques Cousteau about a life in the sea. She also considered taking to the stage. She doodled and drew. Meanwhile, her country experienced its own coming-of-age, from fundamentalism and militarism to signs of moving toward more secularism, then back again to political mayhem. “In the midst of the noise that I grew up with I could not hear my own voice,” Samanci realized. To “dare to disappoint” turns out to be her first step toward her own future. She chronicles her personal journey through spectacular graphics at which it’s impossible not to giggle, sniffle, and guffaw.

fish girl

Fish Girl, by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by David Wiesner

Internationally award-winning Napoli and three-time Caldecott Medal winner (and three-time Caldecott Honoree) Wiesner make their graphic-novel debut together with a spectacular fantasy about a mermaid who, step-by-step, breaks free of her captor who dares call himself Neptune. Content enough behind glass walls with her aquatic companions, Fish Girl’s perspective begins to change when Livia, a daring human girl, sneaks past the “Keep Out” signs and offers true friendship. Beyond the enchanting narrative, Wiesner washes every panel with enthralling magic.

the gods lie

The Gods Lie, by Kaori Ozaki and translated by Melissa Tanaka

New boy Natsuru, 11, lives with his writer mother, likes playing soccer, and notices that girls usually don’t talk to him. Only Rio turns his head, so unlike the chatty, clique-y posse. A stray kitten, his mother’s allergies, an evening run-in with heavy groceries, and a skipped soccer camp unexpectedly bring Natsuru and Rio—and Rio’s adorably rambunctious younger brother Yuuta—under the same ramshackle roof for a few days of summer vacation. Natsuru’s mother thinks he’s playing ball, and Rio’s father has been gone for months working in Alaska. Without adults, the three children become an unexpected family-of-sorts. But reality means they can’t stay together forever, especially when Natsu discovers a secret that could never stay buried. Ozaki depicts first love with heart-melting vulnerability.

honor girl

Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir, by Maggie Thrash

Over the decades, Maggie, her mother, and grandmother have spent their youthful summers at Camp Bellweather, where “nothing [has] changed since 1922.” Surviving as a deeply Southern, Lilly Pulitzer–garbed, pre-debutante 15-year-old in search of National Rifle Association approval is challenging enough, but what happens when she falls head-over-heels in love with someone she can’t bring home to Mommy? Subtitling her work a graphic memoir, author/artist Thrash is literally an open book, something she couldn’t be as an angst-riddled teenager. Thoughtful, honest, candid—and indelibly drawn—here the adult Thrash finally gets to show-and-tell her teenage self with maximum resonance.

i kill giants

I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly and illustrated by JM Ken Niimura

Barbara Thorson is most definitely not your average fifth-grader. She refuses to buy the “motivational speaking” going on in the front of the classroom on career day, quipping “I already have a ‘career,’ thank you.” Indeed, Barbara’s calling is greater: “I find giants. I hunt giants. I kill giants,” she stands up and announces. With her oversized glasses and looming bunny ears, rocking an untucked skull shirt and a heart-shaped supply bag, Barbara is quite the sight to behold. Amidst push-and-pull chaos, Barbara must keep the giants from destroying her universe as she knows it. Armed with a single weapon—her “Coveleski, the Giant Slayer”—Barbara will need to ward off all the naysayers in order to safeguard the world . . . and maybe, somehow, oh please, save the one person dearest to her breaking young heart.

The Outside Circle, by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and illustrated by Kelly Mellings

“The way our communities were set up was like a circle,” an Elder explains to a group of imprisoned men. “In the middle of that circle were children. Around those children were the Elders, who would teach them. Around the Elders were the women. Keeping the home fires burning, for us all. And we were the outside circle—ensuring the safety of everyone. We were warriors.” But among the Aboriginal community in Alberta, Canada, that circle is devastatingly broken because of inequitable laws, racism, and social systems. Insisting on not assigning blame, the Elders push the newest generations to break the crushing cycles of abuse, poverty, crime, drugs, and escape violent death. Pete is currently behind bars for murder, but a visiting Elder recognizes Pete “deserve[s] a second chance.” He’s moved from maximum security to begin the “In Search of Your Warrior” program. With soul-wrenching difficulty, he works to heal. While Pete’s story is fiction, his surroundings, his life-saving program, are real. Beyond the facts, LaBoucane-Benson and Mellings’ sensitive, careful presentation reveals a narrative that must be told, acknowledged, remembered, confronted, fixed.

the prince and the dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang

The eponymous prince is Sebastian, and he needs a dressmaker because donning magnificent gowns is what makes him feel whole and authentic. His royal parents, alas, hope to arrange his teenage marriage,  so he’s convinced he can’t tell them about what makes him happiest. He hires the titular dressmaker—Frances—who dreams of having her own collection one day. The Prince becomes her employer and patron, as well as her ideal model as he metamorphosizes into Lady Crystallia in Frances’ most daring, delightful designs. With such growing fame, how much longer can Sebastian’s secret stay safe? Oh, oh, oh . . . if this one doesn’t melt your heart, then you’re even more of a curmudgeon than I am!'

About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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