Summer Reading Guide: The Graphic Novels

June 16, 2022 § 1 Comment

My Summer Reading Guide continues with a round up of favorite new graphic novels. Think of these as your secret weapons this summer. Got bored kiddos? Leave these lying around the house for wandering eyes to page through. Need one kid to sit through another one’s swim meet? Stick two of these in your bag. Packing up for a beach vacation with cousins? Throw a bunch of new-to-everyone graphic novels in your suitcase and then watch the kids pass them around like coveted candy. (We actually do this every year when we visit our cousins in Boston, and it is a favorite tradition!)

If you worry about investing in books your child will fly through at breakneck speed, consider this: graphic novels are designed to be read multiple times. The first time a child reads a graphic novel, they’re reading for plot and plot alone; the visuals propel them forward. The second, third, and fifteenth times: that’s when appreciation for character development, visual details, and tricky vocab develops. A good graphic novel is a richly layered piece of literature, and each reading takes you deeper into the story. This is true as kids age, too. Those Raina Telgemeier graphic novels they first read when they were seven? They resonate on an entirely different level years later, when the reader catches up in age to the protagonists.

Of course, sometimes kids re-read a title, not because they have anything left to learn, but because it’s fantastically entertaining. Or comforting. Or restorative.

I’ll be honest. There was a period, earlier this year, when I looked around the bookshop and thought, Ummm, where are all the new graphic novels? Thankfully, my panic didn’t last long, because come they did, many in just the last few weeks.

That said, I’m remiss in not including the sequel to Katie the Catsitter, the latter of which my daughter hails as her favorite graphic novel of all time (well, tied with Witches of Brooklyn). She loved the sequel—we all did—but as it came out all the way back in January, it escaped my mind as I was putting this post together. It’s nearing midnight, I’ve already taken my pictures, so just trust me on this one.

The titles below are organized from youngest to oldest, and I hope you enjoy them as much as we do. For those who don’t have an independent bookstore near them, my links support my work at Old Town Books here in Virginia, where I am the kids’ buyer (and yes, we ship everyday!).

The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza
by Mac Barnett & Shawn Harris
Ages 7-10

Absurdity has never been so delightful! Based on the live intergalactic cartoon that Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris penned in the early months of the pandemic, The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza was always going to deliver on hijinks and laughs. What I didn’t expect was that the world building would be equally spectacular—nor the art so lush. I can’t wait to put this book into the hands of every kid who comes into the shop asking, “Do you have something as good as Dog Man?”

When Earth scientists discover the moon is being consumed by rats, they unveil Project 47 and launch the moon’s “one true savior” into space. That savior is none other than an ordinary feline, albeit with a brain enhanced by microchips and a suit made of cybernetic biotechnology (he only speaks in meows though). With help from Loz 4000, a toenail-clipping robot stowaway, and the Queen of the Moon, a resourceful ruler who physically resembles her beloved moon, the First Cat in Space must journey from the Land of Cheerfulness to the Dark Side of the Moon, where he will destroy the Rat King’s palace.

Along the way, the trio battles extreme temperatures and space pirates, bores through underground tunnels and frolics along yellow-brick roads, rides on the backs of singing whales and detours to hang with an eight-legged, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, philosophizing space creature named Dennis. There are also lots of opportunities to eat pizza—nearly all of them thwarted. What’s clear from every page is that Barnett and Harris had as much fun making this book as kids are having reading it.

Your Pal Fred
by Michael Rex
Ages 7-10

I’m pretty sure no one but Michael Rex could pull of an apocalyptic story about the power of kindness, set in a futuristic world where savagery is prized above all. The beauty of Your Pal Fred lies in the hilarious dichotomy between a robot boy programmed to give out gold stars for good behavior and a world of “destructo-domes” and “murder-cubes.”

“Hello! Thank you for activating me. My name is Fred, and I want to be your pal!” You can boot him out of your castle, trap him in the boom room, or shoot slime at him, but Fred was built to make the world a better place through good cheer and conflict mediation and that’s exactly what he’s going to do. The question is, can he talk the two warlords, Lord Bonkers and Papa Mayhem, into working out their differences in a face-to-face meeting that doesn’t end in mutual destruction? Or is Fred as “kooky-bazooky and altogether ooky” as everyone makes him out to be?

With his blue hair, oversized goggles, and relentless optimism, Fred might just be the hero the world didn’t know they needed.

PAWS: Gabby Gets It Together
by Michele Assarasakorn & Nathan Fairbairn
Ages 8-11

A few years ago, my daughter and her friend announced they were starting a dog walking business. Honestly, I didn’t give it much notice, even when they started posting fliers around the neighborhood. It wasn’t until my daughter asked me to drop her off at a neighbor’s house on the way home from school so she could walk their dog—her friend had set up the gig before going out of town—that it occurred to me that, as we didn’t have a dog at the time, she had virtually no experience walking dogs. How exactly was this going to work? (I may or may not have shadowed her entire walk, ducking behind trees to escape notice.) Suffice it to say that reading PAWS: Gabby Gets It Together, the first in a new series about a trio of girls who launch a dog walking business and suffer the casualties of their enthusiasm, felt VERY FAMILIAR.

No one loves animals more than Gabby, Priya, and Mindy. And while each of them has been dying for a dog since forever, it’s out of the question: Gabby’s Dad is a neat freak, Priya’s sister has severe allergies, and Mindy’s apartment building doesn’t allow them. So, the girls do the next best thing: they walk other people’s dogs! Before they know it, they are taking on more clients than they can manage and having to wrangle their four-legged friends away from cats and squirrels. Plus, as the money adds up, the girls’ friendships are tested. Not everyone seems equally invested, and what one thinks is best for the business does not fly with the others.

You know how third graders inhale all those graphic novels about girl friendships even though most of the characters are well into puberty? What I appreciate here is that even though the protagonist is in 5th grade and her besties are in 6th, it feels on the younger side, with Gabby’s first-person narration innocent and forthcoming. Is it as complex as Katie the Catsitter? Not by a long shot. Will kids still like it? Most certainly.

Miss Quinces
by Kat Fajardo
Ages 8-13

This big-family, big-hearted graphic novel is guaranteed to leave the biggest smile on your face! Kat Fajardo’s debut, Miss Quinces, is a wonderful validation of the challenge of staying true to yourself amidst familial and cultural pressures.

Sue wants to spend the summer at sleepaway camp with her friends. Instead, her family drags her and her two sisters to rural Honduras to visit relatives. The only thing worse than no phone service or Wifi is what Sue learns upon arrival: her family has been secretly planning her quinceañera, a coming-of-age ceremony in Hispanic communities for girls turning fifteen. Sue wants nothing to do with frilly dresses, dancing lessons, or being the center of attention. How will she survive the mortification? Is it even possible to get her family to listen to her own, non-traditional way of doing things?

Somewhere amidst ghost stories, sibling squabbles, cousin sleepovers, and one-on-one chats with her wise abuela, Sue discovers joy and appreciation for her extended family. It may not be the summer she envisioned, but it’s definitely one to cherish.

Sort of Super
by Eric Gapstur
Ages 8-12

Sort of Super flew under my radar until my daughter insisted I read it, the first in a new series that Hilo fans are going to love (speaking of Hilo, book #8 came out earlier this year!). I think you’re going to hear a lot more about Eric Gapstur, because his art is immensely cinematic; this book feels like you’re stepping inside a Pixar action movie.

After a series of (seemingly) fluke accidents endow Wyatt Flynn with superpowers—super flight, super speed, even invisibility—his sheriff Dad informs him that eleven is too young to be a superhero, then relocates their family to the countryside where Wyatt’s powers have a better shot at escaping notice. What’s the point of having superpowers if you can’t use them against the school bully, not to mention save the world?

Thankfully for Wyatt, his younger sister is an actual genius, the savvy planner to his super execution, and she convinces him to join forces with her to investigate a string of animal disappearances in their town. What their Dad doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right? But neither of the siblings foresees that their investigation will have intergalactic consequences, nor that it may be connected to the disappearance of their Mom, years earlier.

Spy School: The Graphic Novel
by Stuart Gibbs & Anjan Sarkar
Ages 8-12

I’m including this one juuuuust in case it escaped your kids’ notice that there is now a graphic adaptation of the first book in Stuart Gibbs’ hugely popular Spy School series, about a twelve-year-old boy recruited by the CIA to attend a top-secret boarding school specializing in espionage, under the cover of a prestigious science academy. (“A science academy? I’ll be training to save the world but everyone’s gonna think I’m a dork.”) I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this series is probably my son’s favorite thing to read in the entire world.

Gibbs could have easily outsourced the text for this adaptation. AND I LOVE THAT HE DIDN’T. His novels are dialogue heavy to begin with—it’s one of the things that makes them enticing to a wide range of readers—so it’s no surprise that they would translate well to the comics format. But I love that the text still feels authentically Gibbs: equal parts smart and snarky humor, breathlessly paced, and somehow successfully walking the line between preposterous and aspirational.

Rightly so, Gibbs credits a lot of this success to Anjan Sarkar, whose pictures do a terrific job of capitalizing on the humor and revealing what the dialogue cannot. A must for Spy School fans and a great way to turn new kids onto the series!

Marshmallow & Jordan
by Alina Chau
Ages 8-12

I’m cheating here, because his graphic novel came out in 2021, but as my daughter didn’t discover it until this year—at which point she fell madly in love—I’m including it here. Straddling reality and fantasy, Marshmallow & Jordan stars a sports-loving girl who befriends a magical baby elephant in her Indonesian hometown, as she works to get used to life in a wheelchair. Come for the heartfelt story; stay for Alina Chau’s expressive, saturated watercolors, which envelop the reader in the warmth of rich friendships, unexpected successes, and delicious native foods.

Ever since an accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, Jordan—named for the basketball superstar—is allowed to practice but not compete with her teammates, a technicality that weighs heavily on Jordan’s heart, especially since her shooting skills remain topnotch. On her way home from school one afternoon, Jordan rescues an injured baby elephant and convinces her mother, a veterinarian, to allow her to keep him for the short term. From the start, we recognize that Marshmallow isn’t an ordinary elephant—Chau tells us in her author’s note that he is inspired by a Hindu deity linked to rainclouds—though his full backstory isn’t revealed until later. Through Marshmallow, Jordan rediscovers her love of swimming—and earns a place on her school’s water polo team.

The story is set largely against the backdrop of Jordan’s multicultural school, where she has a group of loyal, supportive basketball friends, alongside skeptical new teammates, who question her ability to compete in a sport as technically difficult as water polo without the use of her legs. Chau admits to taking some liberties with Jordan’s physical abilities—she is almost Olympian in her strength—but her portrayal of middle-school friendships feels entirely genuine. Marshmallow brings no shortage of joy to Jordan, but it’s the magic the girls create among themselves, on the court and in the pool and everywhere in between, that becomes the real catalyst for Jordan’s resilience. We get by with a little help from our friends, of the two-legged and four-legged variety.

Chunky Goes to Camp
by Yehudi Mercado
Ages 9-13

Chunky was our family’s favorite graphic novel of 2021, and we’ve been counting down to the sequel, Chunky Goes to Camp, out this week! Yehudi Mercado has once again delivered a personal story that touches the heart as much as it tickles the funny bone, as its protagonist struggles to find his place while staying true to himself.

After Hudi’s proclivity for comedy lands him in detention one too many times—the vice principal “hated class clowns more than he hated smiling”—his mother enrolls him in four weeks at a Jewish sleepaway camp in the blazing Texas desert. Accompanied by his faithful and invisible mascot, Chunky, Hudi is convinced he’ll find heatstroke before his people, but he happens to land in a cabin with kids as quirky as him. Bonus: one of his cabinmates, a boy named Pepe, also fancies himself a stand-up comedian, and he can even see Chunky!

Even as Hudi, Pepe, and Chunky hail themselves the “Three Amigos,” they head straight for Trouble, taking up a prank war against four look-alike kids Pepe calls the “richie riches.” Pepe, we quickly realize, is a ringleader used to negative attention, but even while Hudi learns a hard lesson about peer pressure—Chunky once again steps in to play the role of Hudi’s conscience—he’s also the first to recognize that Pepe is as desperate to fit in as the rest of them. A gratifying story about a friendship born from a shared understanding of what it means to be misjudged—and its power to rewrite both of their scripts.

Remarkably Ruby
by Terri Libenson
Ages 8-12

Remarkably Ruby, the sixth book in Terri Libenson’s popular “Emmie and Friends” series about a group of kids in middle school, whose titles can be read together or on their own, boasts 376 pages. And that’s music to every graphic novel lover’s ear.

This series is one of my go-to recommendations when parents (especially of girls) tell me they’d like to stretch their reader beyond graphic novels. Yes, these are graphic novels, but they’re also text heavy, with a combination of comics and traditional prose blocks. Each of the books center around a different pair of friends, showcasing the highs and lows of middle-school friendships (and sometimes crushes), and the characters are always relatable and never perfect.

This particular story centers Ruby and Mia, two girls who used to be friends but no longer seem to have anything in common. Ruby’s a bit awkward, preferring poetry to popularity, while Mia would love the thrill of being elected class president. But as their lives continue to intersect, they make surprising realizations—both about themselves and each other.

Swim Team
by Johnnie Christmas
Ages 10-14

We are committed to the swim team life for the first eight weeks of every summer, so I knew a graphic novel titled Swim Team would be an immediate buy for us. What I wasn’t expecting were the rich layers present in what has quickly become one of my favorites of the year. On the one hand, we have a story of a girl who moves to a new town and conquers her fear of swimming to land a place on the swim team (even if not by choice). On the other hand, we have Black history, racial and socioeconomic discussions, camaraderie and competition, parental pressure, swimming jargon, frenemy dynamics, and angsty humor (a.k.a. Jerry Craft and Raina Telgemeier).

Bree’s new middle school in Florida, where she relocates with her father, is home to the Mighty Manatees, a swim team that boasts a longtime rivalry with a prestigious school on the other side of town. None of that means anything to Bree, who is convinced Black girls can’t swim, until her math elective is full and she’s placed in…Swim 101?! Terrified, Bree finds every excuse to skip class, until a close encounter with drowning in her apartment complex’s pool makes her realize it’s sink or swim. Thankfully, one of her elderly neighbors, a Black woman who was a swimming star back in her day, agrees to coach her.

Before Bree knows it, she’s on the Mighty Manatees, bubbles of self-doubt surrounding every flip turn. But not only is Bree naturally adept at swimming, when she’s channeling her mental energy into swimming fast she gets a welcome break from overthinking. But the team is in danger of being canceled, the pool taken over by a real estate developer. Can Bree lead them to the State Championship and secure a permanent spot for the swim team at school and in her heart? Only if they survive the relay medley!

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All opinions are my own. My links support the beautiful indie, Old Town Books, where I am the buyer for the children’s section.

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