2020 Gift Guide: Favorite Graphic Novels for Ages 6-15

November 5, 2020 § 7 Comments

Back by popular demand: an installment of my Gift Guide devoted entirely to my favorite graphic novels of the year! Graphic novels make some of the best gifts. Not only are they coveted among emerging readers, tween readers, and teen readers alike, but they invite repeat readings. I’ve watched my kids race through a new graphic novel as soon as they get it, then a few days later start it over again, spending more time on each page. After that, they might set it down for a few weeks or months or years, only to pick it up again with fresh eyes. It’s no wonder many of the graphic novels below took over a year to create; they are packed with visual nuance, literary allusions, and layered meanings. Like treasured friends, graphic novels grow with their readers.

I read dozens and dozens of graphic novels in preparation for this post. Below are the ones that rose to the top in originality, beauty, fun, diversity, or impact. A few of these you’ll remember from a blog post I did earlier this year, but they bear repeating because they’re that good. There are others, like the new graphic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which my daughter was horrified wasn’t included here. I simply had to draw the line somewhere.

The list begins with selections for younger kids and concludes with teens. Enjoy and happy gifting!

Pea, Bee & Jay: Stuck Together & Wannabees
by Brian “Smitty” Smith
Ages 6-8

This new series employs my favorite tactic for emerging readers: funny, punny dialogue! Created by a former Marvel and DC Comics editor, Pea, Bee, & JayStuck Together and Wannabees are the first two titles—stars a trio of fast, if unlikely, friends. Emboldened in his youthful naiveté, Little Pea is determined to prove his superior rolling skills, especially if it means heeding a challenge to roll under the farm’s fence, all the way to the towering red oak, and back again. Soon after he sets off, a torrent of rain and wind sends him off course, straight into the path of a queen bee shirking her royal duties and a blue jay who never learned to fly. With good-natured bantering, the three join forces to help Little Pea find his way back to the farm.

Clever and hilarious word play abounds, and the reader almost always understands what’s happening before the characters do. Still, as endearing as they are in their cluelessness, Pea, Bee, and Jay are surprisingly insightful when it comes to the tenets of good friendship.

The Not Bad Animals
by Sophie Corrigan
Ages 6-9

I miss the days when my son got excited to see a little garter snake; now he just screams. With informative and entertaining word bubbles, The Not Bad Animals tackles 38 creatures with bad raps, from snakes to skunks to slugs to spiders. It was the perfect book to bring with us on a recent trip to the woods, and my kids did save a spider while we were there, so maybe there’s hope.

Each creature gets two pages to make its case to the reader as to why it’s not as bad as people assume. The first page exposes all the myths about that animal (vampire bats get tangled in people’s hair; the only way to ease a jellyfish sting is to pee on it; wolves howl at the moon). The next page exposes those myths for what they are—silly nonsense—and showcases special and wonderful characteristics instead (centipedes only have 30-40 legs; possums are exceptionally clean; snapping turtles can’t hide in their shell like other turtles so “sorry if that makes me seem a little grouchy”). The moral: don’t judge an animal by its rap.

Witches of Brooklyn
by Sophie Escabasse
Ages 8-12

Reading Witches of Brooklyn is an absolute delight: a fresh, witty, sweet story about finding family and magic in the most unexpected of places. When adoption services shows up unannounced at a Brooklyn home with eleven-year-old Effie, it’s hard to tell who’s more horrified at the prospect of Effie moving in with her late mother’s estranged older stepsister: Effie herself, or the two elderly aunts suddenly expected to raise her. But things start looking up when Effie discovers there’s more to her eccentric, bejeweled aunts (and their basement) than meets the eye. To the outside world, they’re herbalists and acupuncturists; to those in the know, they’re benevolent witches, who brew potions and spells to cure unusual ailments. Effie, her own powers just awakening, has arrived just in time to become their apprentice. Before she knows it, she is juggling school, new friends, a pop star’s nervous breakdown, and an as-yet-uncontrolled penchant for bringing paintings to life.

Creator Sophie Escabasse misses no opportunity to add dimension to her characters, whether through quick-witted dialogue, unique fashion sense, or the quirky Victorian house the aunts call home. Did I mention there’s an enchanted suit-of-armor librarian in the basement? I’m ready to move in.

Measuring Up
by Lily LaMotte & Ann Xu
Ages 8-12

What do porcini risotto, minced pork over rice, zucchini chocolate cookies, and potato pancakes have in common? They’re just a few of the dishes twelve-year-old Cici makes in Measuring Up, a delectable exploration of personal and cultural identity, involving secret spices, unexpected alliances, and “courage of conviction.” When Cici’s family immigrates to Seattle for “good grades, good college, good job, good life,” part of her heart remains in Taiwan with her grandmother, A-má. But while Cici harbors memories of them making tsuí-kiáu (boiled dumplings), she quickly realizes it’s easier if she hides her Taiwanese heritage (and lunches) at American school. On the heels of A-má’s seventieth birthday, the two hatch a secret plan: Cici will enter a local kids’ cooking competition, where she’ll channel her inner Julia Child and take home prize money to purchase a plane ticket for A-má.

But can Cici keep up her grades with the added pressure of mastering Western cooking? Can she compete with the likes of Miranda, daughter of a famous restaurateur, who shows up with her own set of knives? Most importantly, can Cici win the contest while remaining true to herself? A touching look at the struggle immigrant children face in reconciling one identity with another in the quest to find their own path.

A Cat Story
by Ursula Murray Husted
Ages 9-13

You won’t find a more gorgeous book on this list than A Cat Story, at once a fantastical adventure and a metaphysical musing. Set in the cobblestone back alleys of Malta’s capital, a European art city on the Mediterranean, the story features two stray cat, fed up with sleeping under leaky fishing boats and bumming scraps from tourists, who set off in search of a storied “quiet garden,” where cats are always welcome and humans are always kind. Cilla and Betto have a funny odd-couple dynamic, as they attempt to sort through the cryptic, more-philosophical-than-practical advice of the other cats they encounter. Is the garden real or is it myth? More importantly, how do Cilla and Betto resist becoming pawns in other people’s storytelling and begin to author their own?

As if the European seaside setting wasn’t enchanting enough, the cats don’t just travel through Malta’s streets and ferry boats on their quest; they also move through historical paintings, sketches, and tapestries, some unique to Malta and others recognizable from museums around the world. (All art is footnoted at the end). As the cats move through each piece, the art bends and shifts, its fluidity a further reminder of the power of story to create truth and perspective. I’m no cat lover, but a visually engrossing romp through art history that poses larger questions about our own restlessness and need for answers? I’m in.

by Varian Johnson, illus. Shannon Wright
Ages 8-12

Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright nail the tween voice in Twins, where every mislaid accusation, overblown reaction, and earnest confession is entirely believable. Francine and Maureen are twins, who’ve always shared clothes, classes, and friends. They’ve also stayed in their lanes: Francine is the “talker,” Maureen the “thinker.” But on the first day of sixth grade, Maureen senses a seismic shift, and it’s not just that Francine is sporting a new look, shortening her name, and seems pleased to learn her schedule doesn’t match Maureen’s. Soon after, Francine throws herself into the race for student council president; and before Maureen has time to examine her own motives, she submits her name to run against her sister.  

One of the most effective and endearing things about Twins is that, as the race heats up, it’s impossible for readers to side with one twin over the other—at least, for more than a few pages. Our continual shifting loyalties are owing, not just to the complex rendering of these characters, but to the fact that the girls share a mutual love and respect for one another that transcends their moments of tween drama. Those who are twins themselves will find much to relate to in this story, and those who aren’t will be fascinated to delve into this unique sibling dynamic.

Fly on the Wall
by Remy Lai
Ages 8-12

Technically, Fly on the Wall is less a graphic novel and more a fictional diary accented with ink sketches and word bubbles (much like Remy Lai’s previous creation, Pie in the Sky). But the premise has massive kid appeal. Twelve-year-old Henry Khoo is tired of being babied by his overprotective family. In a grand gesture to prove his independence, he pretends to go to a friend’s house, while actually purchasing a plane ticket and flying solo to Singapore to visit his father. Improbable? Possibly. Awesome? You betcha.

The triumphs and mishaps that ensue are dramatically presented with Henry’s oddball humor and insightful observations. But as Henry makes his way through the many obstacles on his journey, we come to realize there’s more to his journey than he initially lets on. Sure, he wants to advocate for independence. But, even more, he yearns to feel seen and loved for who he is. He longs for a relationship with his physically and emotionally distanced father; he seeks the forgiveness of a friend he’s wronged; and he regrets authoring a gossip cartoon that now threatens his school back home. Henry’s narration buzzes with energy and anxiety, but underneath is a sweet, tenderhearted tween.

by Chad Sell
Ages 8-12

Doodleville is a dark and quirky art-fueled adventure replete with socio-emotional insights and the same diverse collaboration that made Chad Sell’s first graphic novel, The Cardboard Kingdom, so beloved in our house.  Drew has been a doodler since she was three years old, but increasingly, she’s having trouble controlling her art. You see, her doodles are…alive. First, they wreak havoc on a Chicago field trip with her art club to The Art Institute, jumping from the pages of her sketchbook into Degas and Van Gogh masterpieces, and even making off with a baby’s hat from a Dutch portrait. Then, for an art club project, Drew creates her largest doodle to date—a giant snake-like monster called The Leverathon (Levi for short)—-whom she intends to be more cute than menacing, but who quickly assumes some of the darkness buried inside Drew and unleashes it on her classmates and their creations.

Can Drew learn to manage her own feelings of shame, insecurity, and jealousy instead of relying on her penned altar ego to do it for her? One thing’s for sure: she’s going to need help from her fellow artists and their own doodles. After all, life is infinitely better when you don’t have to go it alone.

When Stars are Scattered
by Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed
Ages 10-14

This book is a wonder. That Victoria Jamieson could take Somalian refugee Omar Mohamed’s real-life memories and transform them into an exquisite graphic novel with equal parts suspense, heart, and inspiration. That colorist Iman Geddy could contrast the sandy, barren refugee camp in Kenya against the rich purple skies of its sunsets and the vibrant spirit of its inhabitants. Most of all, that Omar Mohamed himself could endure such enormous childhood loss and hardships, could have his hopes of leaving the tented city dashed for fifteen years, yet still manage to graduate top of his class, care for his non-verbal brother, and battle a slew of never-ending daily chores. I can’t remember the last time I was so moved.

Both my kids devoured When Stars are Scattered before I had a chance to read it. Listening to them rave about it, I had almost impossibly high hopes. Now that I’ve read it, I can concur: this story is pure gold. A story of the power of brotherhood, community, and education to sustain us in our darkest moments.

Class Act
by Jerry Craft
Ages 10-14

In Class Act, the follow-up to the Newbery Award winning New Kid, Jerry Craft once again delivers a funny, heartfelt middle-school story about friendship, identity, and adolescence (i.e. getting your “big-boy stink on”), while raising timely conversations about racial bias and microaggressions. Class Act picks up where New Kid left off, only this time Jordan’s friend, Drew, takes center stage. Jordan and Drew are among the handful of Black students at the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School, but Drew is often tokenized, owing to his darker skin and Afro. Not only does he feel like to has to work “twice as hard to be just as good,” he’s unsure how to reconcile his growing friendship with Liam, a white classmate, whose mega-wealthy family couldn’t be a starker contrast to Drew’s.

Jerry Craft’s dialogue is spot on, and all three of his protagonists are immensely likeable for their vulnerabilities. His effective use of comic hyperbole to draw attention to important issues facing today’s youth will elicit laughs as they invite consideration, and the numerous allusions to other popular graphic novel titles read like a love letter to a medium finally getting the awards recognition it deserves.

by Kat Leyh
Ages 10-14

Wacky, unpredictable, and surprisingly funny, Snapdragon defies categorization. On the one hand, it’s about a girl who befriends the town’s witch and comes to discover her own magic in the process. On the other hand, it’s about roadkill and horror flicks and flying motorcycles and unrequited love and anatomical science. Or maybe, most accurately, it’s about the kind of friendships which re-frame how we see ourselves, which have us believing we’re less weird and more deserving of love than we thought.

Snap’s town has a witch. Or, as Snap tells us, “that’s the kind of bull the dumb kids at my school say.” In reality, Jacks is a heartbroken woman who sells roadkill online after she performs a ritual to put their spirits to rest. When Snap—herself no stranger to loneliness, owing to her single mother’s late nights at school—comes across a crate of abandoned baby possums, she brings it to Jacks and asks for help; in exchange, Jacks puts her to work assembling fractured skeletons. With the help of a new friend, a trans girl struggling to define herself against the mold, Snap uncovers a truth about Jacks’ past that sets into motion a chain of suspenseful, supernatural events.

The Phantom Twin
by Lisa Brown
Ages 12-15

“Freak: A sideshow performer, usually someone born with a visible physical difference, who manipulates their body, who has extraordinary abilities, or, until the mid-twentieth century, who came from or pretended to come from a non-Western culture. This term was used pejoratively, but also was, and continues to be, used with pride by the performers themselves.”

The idea of “otherness” is beautifully and complexly explored in The Phantom Twin, the story of Isabel and Jane, conjoined twins performing in a traveling carnival sideshow, before an ambitious surgeon tries and fails to separate them, killing Jane and leaving Isabel with one fewer arm and leg…and haunted by the ghost of her sister. Isabel has only ever known acceptance and success among the sideshow freaks, most of whom she loves and admires as family, but as she begins to explore the world outside the carnival, she begins to recognize the exploitation, ableism, racism, and ethnocentrism embedded in carnival life.

The turn-of-the-century setting is rich and alluring, especially for fans of The Greatest Showman; and Brown has based many of the performers in her story on real historical figures. But the biggest draw for readers will be Isabel’s own transformation—both physical and emotional—amidst profound loss, loneliness, and the necessity of an income to secure independence. In her quest for wholeness, Isabel discovers strength often lies in fragility. (Potentially triggering content: some profanity.)

Go With the Flow
by Lily Williams & Karen Schneemann
Ages 12-15

The teenage world has been given an absolute gem with Go With the Flow, moving the conversation around menstruation out of the bathroom. Four sophomore besties are fed up. Fed up of feeling embarrassed about period accidents. Fed up with the dispensers in the school bathrooms never having tampons or pads when girls need them. Fed up with school districts who fund new football uniforms but can’t subsidize menstruation supplies. As the book’s jacket puts it: “Good friends help you go with the flow. Best friends help you start a revolution.”

Shades of red comprise the palette of this fast-paced novel of friendship, angst, activism, empowerment, and blood. As a bonus, in honoring a diversity of menstruation experiences, readers will learn something I didn’t realize until adulthood: periods often manifest themselves differently from one person to the next (and, yes, I’m using “person” deliberately, another point made in the book). We’ve come a long way from whispering in the halls about getting our friend because we didn’t dare say the word period, much less menstruation.

by Mike Curato
Ages 14-18

Mike Curato’s deeply moving and gorgeously wrought graphic novel, Flamer, is inspired by his years as a closeted gay teen in the mid 90s, confronting the homophobic culture of the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church. Candidly narrated in the first person, the story stars Aiden Navarro, a half-Asian, comics-loving, fourteen-years-old altar boy and assistant patrol leader, glad to be spending his summer at Scouts camp as much for the canoeing and orienteering as for the distraction from starting public high school. But Scouts doesn’t offer complete relief from plaguing feelings of self-doubt and shame. Even those who don’t outright bully him drop none-too-subtle hints that if he would just try harder to act “normal,” he’d have an easier time.

Aiden can’t even entertain the idea of being gay to himself, since the two organizations he loves vilify it. As Aiden fantasizes about his tent mate—a blond-haired football player who seems entirely at home in his body—the guiltier and more unsettled he becomes about his own desires. If he’s not safe singing around a campfire, will he ever feel safe?

Curato’s freehand charcoal sketches are accented with splashes of orange. Like Aiden’s own journey towards self-understanding and self-love, the orange shifts from an allusion to the flames of hell to a metaphor for something good and true inside him, a life force more powerful and creative than the hate and ignorance around him. (Potential triggering content: sexual language and profanity.)

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