2021 Gift Guide: Graphic Novels for Ages 7-16

November 23, 2021 § 3 Comments

Give the kids, tweens, and teens what they want! It’s the post many of you have been eagerly awaiting: the 2021 graphic novels that will make your gift-giving prowess shine. As today’s readers continue to inhale the graphic format, more and more gems are being published every week. The competition is getting stiff, my eyes are getting tired, and kids are losing their minds with excitement.

If you’re not sold on your kids reading graphic novels, you can find my top ten list of why this obsession is better than OK here. If you’ve seen firsthand the joy it brings to said children, then you’ve come to the right place. Because the graphic novels below are fan-freaking-tastic. And more than deserving of a bow.   

Please note the age ranges beneath each title, which reflect the maturity of the subject matter. There are selections for kids, tweens, and teens, in that order. And if you need more, no reason any of these or these shouldn’t be added to this list.

Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear
by Trang Nguyen; illus. Jeet Zdung
Ages 7-10

Calling all animal lovers! The award for the giftiest book in this post goes to the exquisitely illustrated Saving Sorya, which boasts the trim size of a picture book with the length (113 pages) and content of a graphic novel. Even before we discover that this amazing story is true, we know we’re in the presence of something special.

Meet Chang, an insatiably curious young wildlife conservationist in the Vietnamese rainforest, who teaches herself survival skills and keeps a detailed field journal to prove she isn’t too young to volunteer at the local rescue center. Once she earns her place on the volunteer team, she spends her time raising a baby sun bear named Sorya—an animal who becomes her best friend—before she’s tasked with the daunting and heartbreaking challenge of transitioning him to life in the wild. But can an animal raised in captivity learn to feed himself, sleep by himself, and protect himself in the wild? Those who doubt Chang underestimate the power of her love.

A beautiful, science-filled story of passion, resilience, and the incredible bond between animals and humans.

When Pigs Fly: A Batpig Book
by Rob Harrell
Ages 7-10

One of my favorite middle-grade novels of 2020 was Rob Harrell’s Wink, a story about a comics-loving boy going through treatment for a rare cancer. Interspersed throughout the story is a comic the boy himself pens, starring a super swine named Batpig. That comic was so popular that Harrell decided to give Batpig his own book. A good thing, since When Pigs Fly is one of the funniest things I’ve read this year. It’s perfect for your Dog Man lover.

When we first meet Batpig—a mild-mannered swine named Gary with secret superpowers bestowed on him after a bat bite—he’s in trouble, strapped to a giant rocket by a “potty-mouth repto-man” with the fuse lit. As it turns out, Repto-Man is the byproduct of a misguided experiment by one of Batpig’s best pals, after he discovers Batpig has been keeping his secret identity from him. Give poor Batpig a break! He’s just trying to do his part saving the city from petty thieves, a giant robot, and a butcher bent on harnessing the world’s meat power for evil.

If you’re looking for a higher message here, you won’t find it. And therein lies all the fun.

Besties: Work It Out
by Kayla Miller & Jeffrey Canino; illus. by Kristina Luu
Ages 8-12

“Welcome to the wonderful world of teenage responsibility. It’s a place where the expectations are sky-high, everything has a price tag, exhaustion is your constant companion, and it’s impossible to know if you’ve done your best.” Advice that only a snarky big sister can dish out, am I right? Still, sixth-grade besties, Beth and Chandra, are picking up what Beth’s sister is putting down. After all, it’s precisely their determination to prove their maturity and responsibility to their parents that lands them in a heap of trouble.

Besties: Work It Out is the first title in a spin-off series of Kayla Miller’s hugely popular CLICK books, and it hits the same pitch-perfect notes of female friendship. The graphic novel follows these two self-proclaimed fashionistas as they try their hand at entrepreneurship. When their lemonade stand doesn’t prove lucrative, they volunteer to dog sit for the pampered pooch of their glamorous neighbor, Ms. Langford. Surely, this will finally convince Chandra’s parents that she’s ready to adopt a cat and earn Beth the money to treat her mom to a well-deserved spa day. That is, until their lust for popularity tempts them to invite a few friends over to the fancy new digs…and suddenly, Ms. Langford’s prized vase is in pieces on the floor.

Will Beth and Chandra’s friendship survive this rollercoaster of Teenage Responsibility? With humor and heart, this story astutely points to the importance of listening, accountability, and creative problem-solving in friendship and in life.

by Yehudi Mercado
Ages 8-13

It’s my favorite graphic novel of the year. Wait, let me revise that. It’s our entire family’s favorite graphic novel of the year. (That includes the hubs, by the way, who reads all the kids’ graphic novels, with no prompting from me.) Yehudi Mercado’s graphic memoir is brilliant. It’s comedic. It’s bursting with heart. And it centers a character that doesn’t get much (if any) representation in middle-grade fiction: a Mexican Jewish kid from Texas.

Hudi doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere, and he’s quick to deflect his feelings of shame with one-line zingers. Worried about his weight, his parents enroll him in every sport they can think of—from baseball to soccer to swim to tennis—and each one is a colossal fail, with an uncoordinated Hudi as prone to injuries on the sidelines as the field. Enter Chunky, an “imaginary mascot” replete in neon pink, who appears as Hudi’s personal cheerleader. Chunky’s not only there to pick up Hudi each time he’s down (literally), but he’s the first to notice Hudi’s creative side. In fact, he’s a manifestation OF that creativity. Might Hudi be better suited to a life on the stage?

Chunky is a delightful, surprising, entirely fresh coming-of-age story about finding your people and your place.

Katie the Catsitter
by Colleen AF Venable & Stephanie Yue
Ages 8-12

A girl-power adventure that sweeps across NYC, straddles middle-school friendships and superheroes, and stars a budding entrepreneur tasked with wrangling 217 cats who may or may not be evil geniuses? Yessssss. Technically, Katie the Catsitter made an appearance on my blog earlier this year, but it bears repeating in case there is anyone left who hasn’t read it. (Psst, the sequel launches soon.)

Katie’s best friends are headed to sleep-away camp for the summer (the woods! the s’mores! the cute boys!), but the only way she can join them is if she earns the money herself. Used to being alone while her single mom works nights, Katie gets herself a job as a cat sitter for a woman in her building who has mysterious gigs in the evenings. The trouble is: these are no ordinary cats. More like lock picking, couch stealing, interior decorating, cyber gaming, martial arts training cats—and they’re about to give Katie a run for her money.

Meanwhile, there’s a supervillain afoot in the city, burning down factories despite the efforts of NYC’s highest Yelp-reviewed superhero, Eastern Screech. And Katie just might be the key to solving the mystery and turning her summer around, camp or no camp.

Unsolved Case Files: Jailbreak at Alcatraz
by Tom Sullivan
Ages 8-13

This non-fiction series, about historic FBI cases that remain unsolved, debuted earlier this year with Escape at 10,000 Feet: D.B. Cooper and the Missing Money, and every kid I know went crazy for it. These books are not written in comics form—like, say, the hugely popular Hazardous Tales series (newest title here)—but the text is heavily illustrated in full-color, including diagrams, newspaper cuttings, photographs, and sequential panels to highlight the action. Now, we have Jailbreak at Alcatraz, a gripping, sometimes irreverent account of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers’ escape from the infamous island prison.

The book begins with the Alcatraz guards discovering papier-mâche heads (with real human hair!) in the beds of three inmates, decoys for the men who escaped. We then flash back to an overview of The Rock, from its creation in reaction to the organized crime of Prohibition, to its floor plans, cell layout, daily life, and the allegedly shark-infested waters surrounding it. We learn about Frank Morris, the mastermind behind the escape, who was sent to the high security prison in the first place because he had escaped from all his previous jails. And we learn how, in 1962, he used nail clippers, a spoon, a nail file, some matches, and the support of his fellow inmates to pull off the greatest escape the world had ever seen.

That Frank Morris and two of his accomplices were never seen again, despite a decades-long manhunt, remains a mystery. And one that is downright fascinating to read about.

Horse Trouble
by Kristin Varner
Ages 10-13

If your tween liked Starfish as much as mine did (as much as anyone who reads it does), this graphic novel wrestles with similar body insecurities through another immensely likable girl protagonist. But with horses. Lots and lots of horses. My sister was a huge rider growing up—the barn was her home away from home—and she would have flipped for Horse Trouble.

The barn has always been where twelve-year-old Kate feels most herself: mucking out stalls, grooming horses, and taking weekly lessons on jumping and showing. It’s a welcome refuge from middle school, where she feels awkward, especially compared to her popular, skinny, boy-crazy best friend. And yet, as she hurdles into puberty, Kate’s growing awareness of her pudginess—something her mom and brother remind her of with their teasing, offhand comments—begins to affect her in the saddle. She falls off her horse a total of ten times in the story, and her confidence is increasingly shaken with every tumble. Can she reclaim her poise around the thing she loves most?

In blue-toned graphics with the occasional pop of pink, this novel skillfully explores puberty, friendship, and body insecurity to tell the story of one girl’s path towards embracing the space she takes up.

by Jarad Greene
Ages 11-14

A-Okay is another story of trying to find and hold onto your dignity during puberty—only this time starring a boy protagonist. And a whole lot of pimples.

Jay is embarking on eighth grade with a serious case of acne that has him hating the face he sees each morning in the mirror. School is already complicated enough—his best friend has ditched him for the band crowd, and he’s increasingly confused about the fact that he doesn’t seem to like girls or boys “in that way”—without constant dermatology appointments and treatment with a litany of side effects, including irritability and overheating. Thankfully, he has art class, including the friends he makes there, to quiet that judgy inner voice and nurture a sense of belonging.

Loosely based on the author’s own early teen years, including a long battle with acne, this confessional graphic novel reminds us that what we see in the mirror is only one small part of who we are. It’s what’s on the inside that matters the most to the people who get to know us.

The Legend of Auntie Po
by Shing Yin Khor
Ages 10-14

If there are any skeptics left who think a graphic novel can’t teach history, can’t shine a light in corners left dark for too long, can’t raise issues essential to humanity with multi-faceted characters and soulful art…to them I say, HOW ‘BOUT THIS? The Legend of Auntie Po is a fresh and nuanced window into the pioneer time period of the American West. It boasts a feminist protagonist equal parts lovable and inspiring. Its gorgeous color palette and use of negative space is a painting lover’s dream. And the way it straddles multiple genres and resists categorization is deeply satisfying to the bildungsroman lover in me.

The story is set in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885 on the heels of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a vicious attempt to curb Chinese immigration and maintain “white purity” in the West. At the center of the story is thirteen-year-old Mei: Chinese, queer, and known for her scrumptious pies as daughter of the camp’s head cook, as well as her storytelling prowess around the campfire. The young children love hearing her re-imagined stories of American folk hero Paul Bunyan, starring a larger-than-life Chinese matriarch named Po Pan Yin (Auntie Po) and a giant blue water buffalo. What Mei doesn’t realize is how essential these stories will become to her own identity, offering a way to connect with her cultural heritage at a time when others would erase it.

As Mei and her father are displaced from the camp due to political pressure, the loyalties of their longtime employer—the white foreman and his daughter, Mei’s best friend—are tested. Alongside dangerous log jams and cooking fiascos, Mei’s self-discovery comes about at the intersection of gender, race, and privilege, as she begins to understand what it means to dream big, to fight for what she deserves, and to hold fast to who she is.

Huda F Are You?
by Huda Fahmy
Ages 12-17

One of the final 2021 releases of the year, Huda Fahmy’s graphic memoir, Huda F Are You?, is one of the funniest, cheekiest, poignant depictions of a teen identity crisis I’ve ever encountered. I spent the first half of the book laughing out loud, and the second half moved to tears. I immediately gave it to my son, who loved it, and then my husband, who devoured it.

“Well, if you like high school tales of confused identities, broken hearts, and kids disappointing their parents…Then mine is the story for you.” Huda’s story begins with a face-off between her and her mother over an unprecedented C minus, then backtracks to explore how things started going off the rails. One of five sisters recently relocated with her parents to Dearborn, Michigan, Huda has always been “the smart one” in the family. In her old school, she was also the only kid in a hijab. Now, in Dearborn, it seems half the school is smart AND wears hijabs…so what’s so special about Huda? This is the question that starts to invade her thoughts every minute of every day. What kind of young woman does she want to be? What kind of daughter? What kind of American? What kind of Muslim?

But when you’ve spent your life craving validation, faking personalities, and letting microaggressions pass without mention, it’s hard to know where to start. Sometimes you have to make a mistake (or ten) to discern what really matters. “Hi, my name is Huda, and I’m learning to like myself.” A terrifically entertaining and astute rumination on identity, self-love, and the roller coaster that is high school.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
by Prudence Shen & Faith Erin Hicks
Ages 13-16

You know what’s often missing from teen fiction? Nuanced, sensitive portrayals of male friendship. Which is why I adore Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. It’s also the total package: sports, STEM, well-developed boy and girl characters that push against stereotypes, and lots of humor.

By all accounts, Charlie and Nate shouldn’t be friends: the former is the easy-breezy captain of the basketball team, the latter the neurotic president of the robotics club. And yet, they are. Until a campaign for student body president threatens to be their undoing. Nate decides to run, bent on the prize money that will cover an out-of-state robotics competition for his club (“Why petition the student council when you could BE the student council?”). Charlie would prefer to stay out of the whole thing, except that his cheerleader ex-girlfriend, running against Nate, makes Charlie the mascot for her campaign. Will Charlie risk rocking the boat with the in-crowd by standing with his geeky friend?

Mistakes are made, lines are crossed, but even amidst a battle of chainsaws, an illicit road trip, and a giant robot death match, the teens in this story—yes, even the cheerleaders—reveal themselves as more complex and compassionate than their shenanigans would suggest.

Ruta Sepety’s Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel
adapted by Andrew Donkin; art by Dave Kopka; color by Brann Livesay
Ages 13-16

If your teen hasn’t discovered Ruta Sepety’s compulsively readable and beautifully penned historical fiction, they’re in for a treat. Now, her bestselling novel, Between Shades of Gray, has been adapted into a graphic novel, both enhancing its cinematic quality and lending exquisite watercolors to a plot that is, in many ways, about art—specifically, the power of art to offer salvation in the most hopeless of places.

Fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas is arrested by the Soviet secret police in her Lithuanian home and deported by train to Siberia with her mother and younger brother, where she must endure horrific conditions and fight for those she loves, including a boy she meets on the train. Determined to track down her father, whom she believes is being held at another prison camp, she uses her most precious skill—drawing—to infiltrate the officer headquarters and send her father secret messages. But can her art reunite her family and save her loved ones before it’s too late?

Based on real-life accounts of Lithuanian refugees, a side of WW2 not often depicted, this story of perseverance is as powerfully unflinching as it is supremely beautiful.

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All opinions are my own. Please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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