Review: The Wendy Project

Title: The Wendy Project
Author: Melissa Jane Osborne
Illustrator: ‎Veronica Fish
Publisher: Super Genius
Publication Date: August 1, 2017
Plot Synopses (provided by publisher): 16-year-old Wendy Davies crashes her car into a lake on a late summer night in New England with her two younger brothers in the backseat. When she wakes in the hospital, she is told that her youngest brother, Michael, is dead. Wendy ― a once rational teenager – shocks her family by insisting that Michael is alive and in the custody of a mysterious flying boy. Placed in a new school, Wendy negotiates fantasy and reality as students and adults around her resemble characters from Neverland. Given a sketchbook by her therapist, Wendy starts to draw. But is The Wendy Project merely her safe space, or a portal between worlds?

Overall rating: 4.5/5

Spoilers below

Overall: This is a great story that keeps the reader guessing about what’s real and what’s in Wendy’s head throughout the entire book, and even the end manages to be somewhat ambiguous.

Main themes/tropes: fantasy vs. reality, art as therapy, guilt, death in the family

Plot: This plot really keeps the reader guessing what’s going to happen next. I hate predictable, so this was a breath of fresh air. Wendy’s guilt and pain are deep and well-articulated, and her interactions with her peers (and her parents) are believable.

Characters: All of the main characters are fully fleshed out and sympathetic in their own ways, even Eben who is kind of a thoughtless ass (much like peter Pan 1.0, of course.)

Art: The use of color to denote fantastical elements is really effective, and the splashes of color across each page draw the eye and are (as they are supposed to be) the focal points of the story. I love Wendy’s face and how expressive it is.

Review: The Little Mermaid

Title: Little Mermaid
Author: Metaphrog
Illustrator: ‎Metaphrog
Publisher: Papercutz
Publication Date: July 11, 2017

Plot Synopses (provided by publisher):The Little Mermaid is Hans Christian Andersen’s most celebrated tale and is beautifully adapted here as a graphic novel by the Eisner award nominated duo Metaphrog (Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers), winners of the Sunday Herald Scottish Culture Awards Best Visual Artist 2016, and authors of the acclaimed The Red Shoes and Other Tales.

The Little Mermaid lives deep under the ocean and longs to see the world above. When at last she is allowed to rise to the surface at age fifteen, she falls in love with a young prince. In order to become a human and to be with him, she makes a dangerous pact with the Sea Witch.

Overall rating: 4/5

Spoilers below

Overall: Because there isn’t a lot of text, this book feels very short, but it really does capture the entire story and all of its accompanying emotions very handily. I’ll get into it below, but the art is amazing. The story is a classic for a reason – everyone can relate to unrequited love and the idea of being completely overlooked. I also like that they didn’t age up the main character. She’s 15 and acts 15, and her choices would never be made if she were 5 years older.

Main themes/tropes: outsiders, sacrifice, unhappy endings, unrequited love

Plot: The classic plot, completely unDisneyfied. Hans Christian Andersen really wrote some fucked up shit. The story is laid out in the most barebones way possible, letting the art tell the story instead of the words.

Characters: Besides the Little Mermaid (who is never given a name), all of the characters are two-dimensional and barely in the story. The prince is particularly flat, and I can’t tell if it’s deliberate (making him a cipher) or not. It makes her choices regarding him seem particularly stupid, which may be the point, or if the point is more that her choices are her choices, and he’s part of it but not the biggest part.

Art: The art is amazing, rich and colorful. It’s done mostly in cool colors to reflect the melancholy of the story. The pages are black, so there’s an added depth to the color. The faces are expressive and unique.

Review: Witch Boy

Title: The Witch Boy
Author: Molly Knox Ostertag
Illustrator: ‎Molly Knox Ostertag
Publisher: Scholastic
Date Published: October 31, 2017
Audience level: Grades 3-7
Plot Synopses (provided by publisher): In thirteen-year-old Aster’s family, all the girls are raised to be witches, while boys grow up to be shapeshifters. Anyone who dares cross those lines is exiled. Unfortunately for Aster, he still hasn’t shifted . . . and he’s still fascinated by witchery, no matter how forbidden it might be.

When a mysterious danger threatens the other boys, Aster knows he can help — as a witch. It will take the encouragement of a new friend, the non-magical and non-conforming Charlie, to convince Aster to try practicing his skills. And it will require even more courage to save his family . . . and be truly himself.

Overall rating: 4/5

Spoilers below

Overall:This was ridiculously cute. I really liked the world that was created, the way that magic works, though we aren’t shown much of how many magic users there are, how they have gone totally undetected, etc. (Okay, that is probably not a fair nitpick for this story, which is very self-contained.)

Main themes/tropes: magic, gender norms, never fitting in, friendship

Plot: There have been hundreds of years of no one questioning the gender roles involved with magic? Or are all of the questioners erased/demonized like Mikasi? I was left with a lot of questions after reading this, but considering the age range the books is for I can see why the rules of the world weren’t explained more and can forgive them.

Characters: Charlie was the most interesting character for me, with everyone else, including Aster, seeming a little flat. The boys are especially one-dimensional, and it’s hard to feel sorry for them even after what Mikasi puts them through.

Art: Full color vibrant art.

Review: Spinning

Title: Spinning
Author: Tillie Walden
Illustrator: ‎Tillie Walden
Publisher: Macmillan
Date: September 12, 2017
Plot Synopses (provided by publisher): Ignatz Award winner Tillie Walden’s powerful graphic memoir Spinning captures what it’s like to come of age, come out, and come to terms with leaving behind everything you used to know.

It was the same every morning. Wake up, grab the ice skates, and head to the rink while the world was still dark.

Weekends were spent in glitter and tights at competitions. Perform. Smile. And do it again.

She was good. She won. And she hated it.

For ten years, figure skating was Tillie Walden’s life. She woke before dawn for morning lessons, went straight to group practice after school, and spent weekends competing at ice rinks across the state. Skating was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family. But as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the close-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life, and whether all the work was worth it given the reality: that she, and her friends on the team, were nowhere close to Olympic hopefuls. The more Tillie thought about it, the more Tillie realized she’d outgrown her passion—and she finally needed to find her own voice.

Overall rating: 3.5/5

Spoilers below

Overall: I liked this. Tillie’s character is layered and interesting, even if a lot of the other girls around her are more than a little flat. As someone whose only exposure to competitive figure skating is Yuri on Ice, (and who had never even heard of synchronized skating), I found the glimpses into that world interesting, even if I didn’t feel like I gained any real understanding of it. One thing that often happens in a book like this is that the sport is either idealized or demonized, but this book strikes a great balance of showing all the reasons she dislikes it but keeps at it.

Her sexuality is also handled well, with the stress of having to come out over and over to everyone in her life being particularly true to life.

Main themes/tropes: coming out, competitive sports, never fitting in, first relationship

Plot: The first thing we learn is that Tillie hated skating and is still haunted by it, and the rest of the book explains why she skated for so long and all of the things she did like about it. It’s well-plotted as far as being convincingly awful and fun at the same time. It’s hard to know how much of this is true to life and how much has been artfully changed for the graphic novel, but there are no melodramatic points that a reader can point to as obviously being invented.

Characters: Tillie is very relatable, even when the situations she’s in are unfamiliar (skating competitions and judging.) Her parents are remote and unsympathetic, but she’s gifted with many adults in her life like her coach Caitlin who clearly care about her and take on parental roles.

Tillie’s relationship with Rae is obviously meant to be an important plot point, but the character is two dimensional and their relationship just never feels as emotionally resonant as the text states it is.

Art: Blue, yellow and grey coloring and simple lines make a pretty compelling style. The size of the panels also varied a lot, which helped to make things more interesting and break up too much dialogue.

Review: Louis Undercover

Title: Louis Undercover
Author: Fanny Britt
Illustrator: ‎Isabelle Arsenault
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Date: October 1, 2017
Plot Synopses (provided by publisher): In this powerful new graphic novel from Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, we meet Louis, a young boy who shuttles between his alcoholic dad and his worried mom, and who, with the help of his best friend, tries to summon up the courage to speak to his true love, Billie.

Louis’s dad cries — Louis knows this because he spies on him. His dad misses the happy times when their family was together, just as Louis does. But as it is, he and his little brother, Truffle, have to travel back and forth between their dad’s country house and their mom’s city apartment, where she tries to hide her own tears.

Thankfully, Louis has Truffle for company. Truffle loves James Brown lyrics, and when he isn’t singing, he’s asking endless questions. Louis also has his friend Boris, with whom he spots ghost cop cars and spies on the “silent queen,” the love of his life, Billie.

When Louis and Truffle go to their dad’s for two weeks during the summer, their father seems to have stopped drinking. And when Truffle has a close call from a bee sting, their mother turns up and the reunited foursome spend several wonderful days in New York — until they reach the end of the road, again.

A beautifully illustrated, true-to-life portrayal of just how complex family relationships can be, seen through the eyes of a wise, sensitive boy who manages to find his own way forward.

Overall rating: 4/5

Below May Contain Spoilers

Main themes/tropes: kid POV of adult problems, brothers being brothers, alcoholic parent, first crush

Plot: I liked the way that the family’s problems were always boiling away beneath the surface of Louis’ other stories, and that the father’s alcoholism is never really resolved. There’s no happy ending here, and no villains, just people doing the best they can.

Characters: Both of the parents are portrayed sympathetically, though it would have been very easy to cast either or both as the bad guy in this situation. Louis’ crush on Billie also felt very true, and was in fact super cute, and using yellow as her color, with all the hope and light it represents, was great.

Art: The oversized pages seem to lend themselves to big, exaggerated art, but the art is actually subtle. The faces of the characters aren’t drawn very expressively, and the reader has to rely on dialogue and actions to understand all the nuances of how they’re feeling.

Review: Thornhill

Title: Thornhill
Author: Pam Smy
Illustrator: Pam Smy
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication Date: August 29, 2017
Plot Synopses (provided by publisher): Parallel stories set in different times, one told in prose and one in pictures, converge as a girl unravels the mystery of the abandoned Thornhill Institute next door.

1982: Mary is a lonely orphan at the Thornhill Institute for Children at the very moment that it’s shutting its doors. When her few friends are all adopted or re-homed and she’s left to face a volatile bully alone, her revenge will have a lasting effect on the bully, on Mary, and on Thornhill itself.

2017: Ella has just moved to a new town where she knows no one. From her room on the top floor of her new home, she has a perfect view of the dilapidated, abandoned Thornhill Institute across the way, where she glimpses a girl in the window. Determined to befriend the girl and solidify the link between them, Ella resolves to unravel Thornhill’s shadowy past.

Told in alternating, interwoven plotlines―Mary’s through intimate diary entries and Ella’s in bold, striking art―Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a haunting exploration of human connection, filled with suspense.

Overall rating: 4.5/5

Spoilers below

Main themes/tropes: outsiders, hauntings, lonely girls, creepy old house

Plot: Excellent building tension with enough ambiguity so that it could go almost any way right up until the very end, and the end is satisfying. One thing I appreciated was at no point was there any coyness about Mary being a ghost – that particular “twist” (can you even call it a twist anymore?) has truly been beaten into the ground at this point.

Mary’s bullying feels very visceral and true to life, and her slowly deteriorating mental health recalls Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House (also a book about someone who dies rather than leave a place) and her voice is clear.

The Mary sections are the most suspenseful, but the Ella sections, sans dialogue/interaction with anyone else as they are, really show how isolated and lonely she is. While the ending is unexpected, it does make sense, given her circumstances.

Characters: Mary is the character we get to know and understand. Ella is more of a blank – we never know what she thinks or feels about anything, so the audience is left to project motivations onto her until the very end of the book, and even then we’re not sure if she knew she would die when she went to Thornhill or if Mary lured her to her death without explanation.

Mary’s tormentor is obviously one of the villains of the book, but most of my ire was focused on the adult caregivers in Mary’s life that are completely oblivious to what’s going on right under their noses.

Art: The art is black and white, reflecting the disturbing vibe of the text. It’s gorgeous and full of trees and plants, contrasting to the dolls and doll parts that look very creepy.

Five Reasons to Read This:
1. Rising tension that resolves awesomely
2. Atmospheric art
3. Dark story about girl bullying
4. A story that will stick with you long after you’ve put the book down
5. The ending opens the door to more deaths, and the reader is left to decide how that would develop

Review: Backstagers volume 1

Title: Backstagers vol 1
Author: James Tynion IV
Illustrator: Rian Sygh
Publisher: BOOM!
Publication Date: July 19, 2017

Plot Synopses (from publisher): James Tynion IV (Detective Comics, The Woods) teams up with artist Rian Sygh (Munchkin, Stolen Forest) for an incredibly earnest story that explores what it means to find a place to fit in when you’re kinda an outcast. When Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, he’s taken in by the lowly stage crew known as the Backstagers. Hunter, Aziz, Sasha, and Beckett become his new best friends and introduce him to an entire magical world that lives beyond the curtain that the rest of the school doesn’t know about, filled with strange creatures, changing hallways, and a decades-old legend of a backstage crew that went missing and was never found. Collects the first four issues. “With heart and chutzpah to spare, [The Backstagers] soars as a sincere love letter to the unsung heroes of the theater world.” – Newsarama

Overall rating: 3.5/5

Spoilers below

Main themes/tropes: outsiders, new on the scene, found family

Plot: As someone who did a lot of backstage work in high school, I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a while. At first I was disappointed when I realized it wouldn’t even try to incorporate realism, but the weirdness definitely grew on me. The hook into the second volume is interesting enough to keep readers going straight to that volume (it came out recently!)

Characters: Jory’s adorable and an excellent choice for the introductory character/audience stand-in. All of the characters are well-formed enough that by the end of the volume was able to 1) remember their names, and 2) know something about them, except for Aziz, whi seemed to be left behind in all the major plot points. I struggled with Sasha a lot, because that kind of infantile character always drives me up the wall (see also: Lumberjanes) but the group is cohesive enough that by the end of it I had not quite come around, but was convinced the group would be less compelling without him.

Spiders, though. Why does it always have to be giant spiders?

Art: The art is vibrant and interesting, with each character (besides the McQueens, of course) having a very different look. The panels are full but not overcrowded.

5 Reasons to read it:

  • Jory is adorable. Seriously.
  • Low-key fantasy elements and weirdness, but the real focus is on the characters.
  • The technical elements of working backstage on a production are simplified but still really present – if you have an interest in such thing, you’d appreciate this
  • The tunnels are legitimately creepy
  • The found family theme is particularly strong.

Review: Escape From Syria

Title: Escape from Syria
Author: Samya Kullab
Illustrator: Jackie Roche
Publisher: Firefly Books
Publication Date: Oct 17, 2017
Audience: Tween to Teen
Plot Synopses (from publisher): A graphic story of intense current events.

From the pen of former Daily Star (Lebanon) reporter Samya Kullab comes a breathtaking and hard-hitting story of one family’s struggle to survive in the face of war, displacement, poverty and relocation.

Escape from Syria is a fictionalized account that calls on real-life circumstances and true tales of refugee families to serve as a microcosm of the Syrian uprising and the war and refugee crisis that followed.

The story spans six years in the lives of Walid, his wife Dalia, and their two children, Amina and Youssef. Forced to flee from Syria, they become asylum-seekers in Lebanon, and finally resettled refugees in the West. It is a story that has been replayed thousands of times by other families.

When the family home in Aleppo is destroyed by a government-led bomb strike, Walid has no choice but to take his wife and children and flee their war-torn and much loved homeland. They struggle to survive in the wretched refugee camps of Lebanon, and when Youssef becomes fatally ill as a result of the poor hygienic conditions, his father is forced to take great personal risk to save his family.

Walid’s daughter, the young Amina, a whip-smart grade-A student, tells the story. As she witnesses firsthand the harsh realities that her family must endure if they are to survive — swindling smugglers, treacherous ocean crossings, and jihadist militias — she is forced to grow up very quickly in order to help her parents and brother.

Kullab’s narrative masterfully maps both the collapse and destruction of Syria, and the real-life tragedies faced by its citizens still today. The family’s escape from their homeland makes for a harrowing tale, but with their safe arrival in the West it serves as a hopeful endnote to this ongoing worldwide crisis.

Beautiful illustrations by Jackie Roche — whose work on the viral web-comic, Syria’s Climate Conflict, was seen prominently in, and, among others — bring Kullab’s words to life in stunning imagery that captures both the horror of war and the dignity of human will.

Overall rating: 4.5/5

Spoilers below
Main themes/tropes: Immigrant experiences, Life during wartime, Facing discrimination, Growing up too fast, child brides

Plot: The story opens with the start of the bombing in 2013, which is a great hook and then jumps forward and backward in time to explain the political situation in Syria going back decades. The book is good about giving readers just enough information to understand the different factions without overwhelming them with too many details. It also completely sells the misery the family experiences in the face of crippling debt and the myriad tiny daily challenges that come with emigrating halfway around the world. The mother’s realization that Syria is a different country and that they really can’t go back is a particularly great and well-earned emotional moment.

Characters: The story is really Amina’s, and her concerns are relatable and age appropriate, especially as she has to leave school and work for money for the family, and has to grow up too fast. One thing I wish had been included was a glimpse into how she transitioned from having adult burdens in Lebanon to being a teenager in school again once they arrived in Canada.

All of the main family characters are wonderfully fleshed out with the exception of Amina’s little brother Youssef whose main character arc is that he gets sick –> is sick –> gets better.

Art: The art is colorful and vibrant. The faces could be more expressive, but overall the characters were well-defined.

5 Reasons to read it:

• Great insight into life inside refugee camps, including the unending tension and boredom
• Amina’s character is going to stick with you
• Gives identities to Syrian refugees
• Gives a good summary of events in Syria without overwhelming the reader with too many details
• Captures the devastation of losing your home and your homeland

Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution & Che: A Graphic Biography

Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution
Written by: Julia Alekseyeva
Art by: Julia Alekseyeva
Publisher: Microcosm Publishing

Soviet Daughter is Julia Alekseyeva’s graphic memoir, telling in parallel the story of her life as an immigrant to the US and her great-grandmother Lola’s life in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Both women have to deal with their own difficulties and tragedies, but Julia’s tribulations can’t remotely compare with the things that Lola has to deal with as a Jew in Ukraine and the Soviet Union, and the strongest, most interesting parts of the book are definitely Lola’s story. It also goes to great pains to show that while misery was ever-present during the world wars, the pograms and the endless cycles of disease and famine in the USSR, there was also drinking and love and young people being young people. One of the most difficult things in writing the story of someone you love is in editing, and if anything Soviet Daughter gives too much detail about Lola’s various friends and bosses, so that they distract from the overall narrative arc.

The art is monochromatic, and cluttered, with both typed and handwritten lettering to differentiate Julia’s narration of events from the actual events as they happen.

Che: A Graphic Biography
Written by: Sid Jacobson
Art by: Ernie Colon
Publisher: Hill and Wang

Che is exactly what it says on the tin: a graphic bio of Latin American Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, who played a prominent role most notably in the Cuban and Bolivian revolutions.

This is a good overview of both Che’s life and the broader political context in which he operated, though it would have profited from being about twice as long, and piling all that extraneous detail from Soviet Daughter into it. Che had an amazing life, the highlights of which are pretty well known, so it would have been nice to have delved into more obscure areas or expanded on his relationships and interior life as opposed to the bare historical facts.

The art is full color and at times almost too stylized and jovial for he events being depicted (massacres, etc.)