Graphic Novel Roundup – Raina Telgemeir Edition

Drama
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Content: There’s middle school drama, but other than that, it’s pretty tame. It’s in the teen graphic novel section of the bookstore, but only because it feels a bit mature for the middle grade section.

Callie is a theater nerd. She’s not one to be on stage — she can’t sing, and her acting needs some work — but she LOVES being backstage, helping create the sets. And so, for the middle school production (middle school!) of Moon over Mississippi, she’s been assigned to be in charge of the sets. That’s overwhelming enough, but Callie’s personal life has taken a turn for the confusing. She thought she was getting somewhere with her long-time crush, but he went back to his girlfriend (who’s not terribly nice). And then a set of twin brothers show up in her life to just confuse things more.

I really liked Telgemeir’s depiction of middle school (spot on!) and the theater program (again, spot on!). I loved Callie’s spunk and drive and her longing to feel accepted and belong. And even though it was Callie’s story, I thought that all her friends — from the twins to her best friend, Liz — were fully developed. (Though there were some stereotypes, the mean girl girlfriend being one.) My only real complaint was the inclusion that all guys who do theater (at least on-stage) are gay. It’s a stereotype, and although there are gay boys who do theater, not all theater boys (even on-stage) are gay. I know I’m nitpicking, but here in Kansas, that’s the kind of stereotype that really takes hold and so parents discourage boys from participating in the arts because of it. I would have appreciated one character, at least, who wasn’t part of that.

Even so, it was a lot of fun to read.

Smile
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Content: much the same as Drama; it’s got some themes that are a bit old for the younger elementary crowd, but there’s not much “objectionable”. It’s in the Teen Graphic Novel section, mostly because it seems to do better there.

Every once in a while, there’s an author (or in this case an author/artist) who gets the middle grade years so absolutely perfectly. The awkwardness, the challenges with friends, the wanting to be liked and not feeling liked.

Telgemeier is one of those people. It’s loosely based on her early teen years, and tells the story of how she lost her two front teeth in an accident and the dental work it took to make her smile what it is today. But it’s also the story of acceptance (inner and outer) and the things we’ll do and put up with so we don’t feel alone.

One thing I liked (well, I liked lots of things) was that the middle and high school Telgemeier drew was a diverse one. From her friends to the boys she liked, there were all shades of skin. And it wasn’t  this one’s the “black friend” or the “Asian friend”. They were all just friends — well, sort of; some of her friends, as A pointed out when she read it, were not very nice — and it wasn’t like Telgemeier was forcing a diverse world on things. It felt natural.

And, on top of that, she set it in 1989, which was a lot of fun to revisit.

Sisters
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Content: This one is “tamer” (not that the other two are wild) than the previous two books, and has a more universal appeal, being about sibling rivalry. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the store.

This is another memoir(ish) graphic novel, that takes place during Smile (though you don’t need to read that one to enjoy this one). It’s centered on Raina’s relationship with her younger sister, Amara. It has their backstory, their relationship as siblings as well as a road trip (yay road trip!) to visit cousins in Colorado for a family reunion.

It’s not an easy relationship, the one between Raina and Amara. There’s jealousy, age difference, interest differences, and (of course) just plain sibling rivalry. It’s the usual stuff: hitting, yelling, punching, name-calling. But an event on the road trip (I knew they were useful!), helps the sisters see that maybe it’s okay if they’re different. They can still get along.

I think, out of the three, this one was the least angsty, the least middle-school drama-y, and my personal favorite. Not only because I still remember fighting with my siblings, but because I’ve got all these girls around here who fight and squabble and don’t get along. Maybe, someday, they’ll figure it out. So, this one hit home in a way the other two didn’t.

A word on her art: it’s a bit cartoon-y (that’s the techincal term), but I thought it fit her story-telling style. It’s not terribly detailed, but it served it’s purpose, and the bright colors drew the eye in.

I handed all three of these off to the girls and they enjoyed them as much as I did. I’m glad we finally got around to reading her work!

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The Great Greene Heist

by Varian Johnson
First sentence:
Support your local independent bookstore (actually, just support mine!) and buy it there! (Before the end of June, PLEASE.)
Review copy sent to me by the author, upon my request. Also, I’ve met him a couple of times and I think he’s fantastic.
Content: There’s no swearing, and only hints at romance. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) at the bookstore, though older kids would like the con aspects of it, I think.

Jackson Greene is going clean. He got ratted out (and caught) four months ago, in what he calls the “Kelsey Job” but what the school has come to know as the “Mid-Day PDA”. It cost him a certain amount of freedom (he can no longer have a cell phone, and he has weekly meetings with the principal, Dr. Kelsey) and one of his best friends, Gaby de la Cruz. Fast-forward to the fall of 8th grade, and student elections. Gaby’s running for president, and Jackson’s not going to get involved. That is until her opponent suddenly drops out, and Jackson’s nemesis, Keith Sinclair, enters the race. Jackson knows something fishy is up, and sets out to prove it. Of course, that means a long con. Which means he needs a crew.

Jackson assembles a memorable one: reminiscent of great heist movies (Oceans 11 is referenced more than once) and books (Heist Society!), Johnson weaves in not only every stereotypical element (there’s the right-hand-man, the tech guy, the runner, the money) but also plays against stereotype. My favorite is with the beautiful cheerleader Megan Feldman, who is a tech and programming genius. But there’s also Hashemi who is a budding inventor (my favorite: the MAPE, a beta cellphone the size of a brick); Bradley, a sixth-grade artist who’s mostly in awe of being included; Victor, the money behind the operation; and Charlie, twin brother to Gaby, and Jackson’s right-hand-man. And the cool thing? Only two of the crew is white.

It was refreshing that race rarely comes into play; for the most part characters were just that, and not the “Asian kid” or the “Black kid” or the “White girl”. Yes, one of the older secretaries is subtly racist, mixing up the names of the Asian kids and saying “Boys like you are always up to something or other.” It’s probably over-the-top, but in the context, it works. And the principle is a certified jerk (he was the one I wondered about: how did he ever get to be in charge of a school and not challenged?). But then again, this is all an elaborate fantasy: how many 13-year-old boys are capable of running a long con?

It was a ton of fun, though.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek

by Maya Van Wagenen
First sentence:”‘School is the armpit of life,’ my best friend Kenzie once told me.”
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Content: Because eighth graders aren’t exactly the nicest creatures in the world, there is some language, all of it mild and very infrequent. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-12) of the bookstore, but honestly, anyone who can handle the subject matter (she does talk about taking sex ed and drug inspections and lockdowns at her school), should read this one.

The summer before she starts eighth grade, Maya Van Wagenen discovers in a box a copy of “Betty Cornell’s Guide to Teenage Popularity”, circa the 1950s  Her mom suggests, offhand, that maybe Maya should follow the advice in the book, write it down, and see what happens.

This book is the result of that year.

There aren’t the words to express my love here.  Perhaps it’s because I have a daughter just finishing eighth grade, and it’s been a rough year for her. Perhaps, it’s because I was much like how Maya started eighth grade: socially awkward, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, trying to fit in my small, conservative, Michigan middle school. (I had just moved there two years before, and still hadn’t figured out how to fit in with kids who’d known each other since kindergarten.)

But my enjoyment went beyond just being able to relate to Maya. She tackled a chapter or two of Betty’s book each month during the school year, and the chapters were divided up with her reflections of her progress. Along the way, I got to know her family (she has terrifically cool parents; my favorite side story of hers was the list of answers you’re not supposed to say when crossing through a U.S./Mexico border patrol. My favorite was “I am, but I’m not too sure about the kids in the trunk.”) and her school mates (she lives in Brownville, TX, and to say that she has a rough school, is an understatement). At first, she’s very humorous about he whole project. For instance, when she hits the dress chapter, she takes it literally, dressing like someone from the 1950s, getting stared at and teased for dressing like someone’s grandma. It’s easy to think that Betty’s guide really doesn’t fit in today’s world.

Somewhere along the way, Maya — and I, as well– discovered that Betty’s book is really still applicable, and maybe she really does have the secret to “popularity”.  I was touched by Maya’s insight, her observations, and her maturity. By the time I closed the book, I wanted to cheer for her — she’s an amazing girl, one I’d be proud to call my daughter — and to thrust this book in the hands of everyone I know, grownups and teens alike.

Fangirl

by Rainbow Rowell
First sentence: “There was a boy in her room.”
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Content: There’s quite a few f-bombs, and some insinuations of sex. Plus a lot of underage (and overage) drinking. Also, it’s about college freshmen, a subject which I’m not sure younger readers want to read about. It’s rightly in the teen section (grades 9 and up) of the bookstore.

Cath and Wren are twins. Wren is the outgoing one, the pretty one, the fun one. And Cath stays home and writes Simon Snow (think Harry Potter) fanfiction. She’s really good at it: her stories get thousands of hits, and are widely talked about on the fanfiction sites.

But none of that is going to matter now that they’re freshmen at the University of Nebraska. Cath wanted to go the safe route by rooming with Wren. But, for Wren, that wasn’t an option. So Cath is forced to branch out. Experience things. Actually have a life.

In many ways, this is a love story to those who write fanfiction. Yes, Cath is an introvert, and no she doesn’t want to engage in what most people call “living”, but in no way does Rowel make Cath seem pathetic. She puts her in contrast to Wren, who spends weekends (and some weeknight) partying until we hours (the “normal” college experience) and lets us choose on our own. Perhaps some readers will see Cath as pathetic and without a life, but I never did. (Perhaps, too, that’s because I’m an introvert and I have a nerdy family who actually read — and write — fanfiction.)

It’s also a traditional love story. Cath’s roommate, Reagan, has a boy, Levi, kicking around. Cath thinks they’re dating, but eventually realizes that it’s really her Levi is interested in. And it’s their romance that made the book for me. Levi is so danged good and it was a pleasure watching the good guy get the girl. (So often it’s the “bad” one.) I loved the banter, I loved the push and pull, and I loved watching Levi draw Cath out of her shell, while simultaneously wholly accepting her for who she is.

The ending was a bit pat, I thought, and all the drama with her parents (dad’s a bit on the manic side; mom walked out on The 9/11, and Cath is understandably resistant to her attempts to reconnect) was a bit over-the-top. And while I appreciated that Rowell was reaching out to those who immerse themselves in a fandom, including pages and pages of Cath’s fanfiction was a little boring for me.

Even with the quibbles, though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one.

The Importance of Being Ernest

by Ernest Cline
First sentence: “I started writing and performing poetry in the mid-90s when I moved to Austin, TX.”
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Content: Chock full of sex talk (no actual sex, though), f-bombs, and other swearing.

I’m going to start a review — granted this is more a reaction than a review; then again, most of my “reviews” are “reactions”, I’m just being up front about this one — the way I’m not supposed to and say: I dislike poetry.

I don’t “get” it, I don’t particularly like it, and even though we have a shelf of poetry books — collected best-ofs as well as the Shel Silverstein/Jack Pretlusky ones parents are supposed to have — I rarely crack them open.

And so when my manager — who usually is spot-on pinpointing taste and books people will like — suggested I give this one a shot (because I really did love Ready Player One) I didn’t jump up and say, “Sure! I’d love to!”  It was only as we were paring down the inventory after Christmas when she said she thinks it’s worth a shot, and couldn’t I please give it a look over so maybe we can sell it? Please?

So I did.

And.

It’s Geeky poetry. There’s that.
But I’m not sure I’m the target audience.
And they are really foul. Like REALLY. Foul.
I’m not one to get turned off by language, usually,
but I did this time.

Some of the poems — most notably
“When I Was a Kid” —
made me laugh.
And “Nerd Porn Auteur” was spot-on
about smart girls
even though it made me blush.

But some of it was just
very Geek Gamer Guy
which I’m not.
And I don’t care enough
about poetry
in order to care enough
about Geeky Gamers
to like/get/understand
this collection.

That said,
I guess I know who I
can sell it to now.

The Vengekeep Prophecies

by Brian Farrey
First line: “Even weeks later, I heard rumors that I had ruined the Festival of the Twins.”
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Content: Aside from the fact that Jax and his family are thieves — and  I suppose adults might have a problem with their kids reading that (though I don’t know why…), and maybe some scary monsters (depending on how sensitive your kids are; they’re not that scary) there’s absolutely nothing untoward in this book. Resides quite happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Jax Grimjinx is a thief. He comes from a long line of thieves. It’s the family business, and has been for centuries. There’s only one problem: Jax is a bookish nerd, a klutz, and actually is quite a terrible thief. (Yes, it is his fault — this time — that the Grimjinx family ended up in jail.) Then a suspiciously convenient prophecy turns up, putting his family at the center as the Heroes. It predicts all sorts of Dire Perils for the town of Vengekeep, which start coming true. (It wasn’t supposed to: there really is no such thing as Lava Men.) There’s seemingly no stop to it. Until Jax with his bookishness figures out there might be a Way to break the prophecy. And it’s up to him — and his new friend, Callie — to go and get what is needed.

There’s so much to love in this book. Jax is a terrific character: a bookish kid (I love that he’s wearing glasses. I know it’s a little thing, but I do love it.), an unwilling hero, and yet he finds a way to outsmart the more Savvy characters and Save the Day. I love his relationship with Callie; none of that sappy romance stuff (I’ve decided that I don’t like romance in my middle grade fanatsy), but a good solid friendship that works. I love that it’s all plausible and that the “prophecy” isn’t something that’s set in stone, which gets old after a while. And the writing is tight; it kept me reading, turning pages, wondering what is going to happen next. I’m just glad the second one, The Shadowhand Convenant, just came out. Because I don’t want to wait to see what happens next to Jax and his family.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Audiobook: An Abundance of Katherines

by John Green
read by Jeff Woodman
ages: 14+
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I picked this up on a whim,  partially because Laura (all my good ideas come from her!) suggested the YAckers read another John Green book, and partially because I’ve been trying to get this guy at work to read John Green, and I suggested this one. I figured it was due for a reread. Or listen in this case.

After going back and reading my initial review, I realize I don’t have much to add. It’s still a great mix of nerdiness, humor, and Deep Thoughts, though I think John (I can call him that, right? Being a Nerdfighter and all?) has gotten better at meshing the Deep Thoughts into his books  and they come off less as Deep Thoughts and more as, well, just thoughts. I didn’t remember the bit about the footnotes; I’m assuming Woodman read them, but they just came off more as asides, which I didn’t mind at all.  Speaking of Woodman, I thoroughly enjoyed his narration; he got the voices just right, and the girls — always an issue with me with male readers — weren’t simpery. Hassan was still my favorite character, hands down; it was nice to have a religious character — an Islamic one at that — who wasn’t preachy. Not to mention the fact that he was overweight but not obsessive about it.

I do think, in the end, that although this is John’s funniest book (all the fugs made me laugh), it’s not my favorite anymore. (I’ve remembered it that way for the longest time.) It’s charming, it’s sweet, it’s fun, but it lack the depth that he has in his other novels. Perhaps I should try pushing Paper Towns on the guy at work (he’s one of those literary fiction sorts). He might like that one better.