2022 Gift Guide: Graphic Novels for Kids & Teens

November 17, 2022 § Leave a comment

This is always the most requested installment of my Gift Guide, and for good reason! Designed to be read again and again, graphic novels are some of the best books to invest in. Their popularity continues to skyrocket, and with original, thought-provoking stories like the ones below (OK, one is just plain silly and that has value, too!), coupled with beautiful, arresting artwork, we can feel great about our kids losing entire afternoons to them.

We’ve never done the Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition known as Jolabokaflod in our family (though please invite me to be part of your family if you do), but we do place a wrapped book at the foot of each kid’s bed for them to open as soon as they awake on Christmas morning. The idea is to buy us, as parents, a few extra minutes of sleep before the mania begins. And let me tell you: the only books that are going to keep my kids in bed, knowing that their stockings are full to bursting just one floor down, are graphic novels.  

Whether you’re using them as bribery or for their indisputable literary merit, below are my favorite graphic novels of 2022 for gifting. I’ve omitted those I already included in the Summer Reading Guide, though it should be noted that The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza and Swim Team deserve to be in the present company.

Arranged from youngest to oldest, with selections for teens at the end. (As always, links support my work at Old Town Books, where I’m the kids’ buyer. Thank you kindly!)

For the “Narwhal & Jelly” Fan

Tater Tales: The Greatest in the World!
by Ben Clanton
Ages 5-9

Before we get into the angsty, moving, important stories on this list, let’s start with one that reminds us how good it feels to laugh. And laugh. You know Ben Clanton—lover of silliness and word play whiz—from his beloved Narwhal and Jelly series. Now, he brings us The Greatest in the World!, about a trio of tater siblings set on determining which one is the most “spudtacular.” It’s the first in a rip-roaringly funny new graphic series titled Tater Tales, perfect for reading aloud or handing to newly independent readers.

Rot is a mutant potato, complete with “awesome unibrow a.k.a. uniwow,” who wakes up one morning on the “right side of the garden bed.” He’s feeling good—check that, he’s feeling great! But when he starts singing his own praises, his big bro and self-proclaimed “couch potato,” Snot, isn’t having it. “It’s 5 A.M.!!! Why are you making that ridiculous racket?!” A challenge ensues: the two will compete in a sequence of epic challenges to determine which one of them is truly the greatest. The judge will be their baby sister, Tot, who turns out to have her own agenda.

From a muddy potato sack race, to a hot potato roll, to a laughing contest, the stakes—and sibling banter—escalate to absurdity, before landing softly with a gratifying message about family and loyalty.


For the Future Grown-Up

Killer Underwear Invasion! How to Spot Fake News, Disinformation & Conspiracy Theories
by Elise Gravel
Ages 8-12

Never before has a timely topic been handled with as much hilarity as helpfulness! Do you have a kid who would believe peanuts give you super strength, or Martians once invaded New Jersey? If you want them to become discerning consumers of media, get them Killer Underwear Invasion! In 2020, I got the Gift Guide pick, True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News, for my son, which he (and my husband) loved. But I knew I’d never convince my daughter to read such a dense book. So, I was thrilled to see the topic taken up by Elise Gravel, who conveys similar information through her witty, quirky cartoons.

The book teaches kids how to research and judge information in order to make informed decisions about what to believe. Chapter titles include: What is Fake News? Why is Disinformation Such a Bad Thing? Why Do We Believe Fake News? How to Tell Real News from Fake News? In clear, concise language, sprinkled with speech bubbles and humor, we learn how social media works, what click bait is, why confirmation bias is so powerful, and much more.

Funny hyperboles aside, what’s most effective about this book is the epiphany that rarely does fake news sound as preposterous as superhero peanuts and invading Martians. At the heart of disinformation are nuggets of truth or facts, manipulated just enough to sound believable and spark potentially dangerous actions. Read up, parents—I mean, kids!


For the Detective

Unsolved Case Files: The 500 Million Dollar Heist
by Tom Sullivan
Ages 8-12

Tom Sullivan hits it out of the park with another riveting title in the hugely popular graphic non-fiction series about real, unsolved FBI cases. The 500 Million Dollar Heist features the 1990 museum heist that not only rocked the art world, but remains the single largest private property theft in the United States.

This past summer, while visiting our cousins in Boston, we visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, site of the art heist. (Did I know the book was coming out a week later? But of course.) The kids watched a documentary about the heist before we went, and they delighted in finding the empty frames still on display throughout the rooms—the thieves cut the art out of the frames so they could be rolled up—and offering up their own whodunnit theories.

Well, the book delivers in spades! Abounding with art, photographs, and diagrams alongside the text, it’s packed with fascinating information, including why Isabella began collecting art in the first place; what investigators have pieced together regarding the night of the robbery; background on the stolen art pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and various Impressionists; profiles of the suspects (was the night guard in on it?!); and the mastermind criminal—who once escaped prison with a gun carved from a bar of soap and polished with shoe polish—who came forward when the FBI raised the reward to $5 million and offered to solve the case for them. The case gets stranger and stranger, as new theories arise, people end up dead, and the web of evidence becomes more entangled. Narrative non-fiction at its best!


For the Rising Pop Star

Speak Up!
by Rebecca Burgess
Ages 8-12

Themes of standing up to peers and finding power in your own voice are a dime a dozen in middle-grade fiction, but few graphic novels handle them as insightfully and infectiously as Speak Up! Add in a neurodivergent protagonist, and this book stole my heart. (My tween adores it, too.)

Mia is regularly teased for her social awkwardness that comes from having autism, and behaviors like hiding behind ear phones and scribbling mysteriously into a notebook all day don’t help. What her classmates don’t know is that, in the privacy of her own bedroom and with the help of her non-binary best friend, Charlie, she’s the viral pop sensation known as Elle-Q, who these same classmates idolize, connecting to her poetic songs about not fitting in. Mia would be happy to keep her songwriting a secret, only Charlie is tired of hiding. But when they enter Mia in a community talent show, will Mia find the courage to out herself and perform in front of the very people who have only ever seen her as the weird kid?

I love a dual-identity story, with all the mishaps and misunderstandings that ensue, and this one delivers in spades, with an ending befitting of hearty applause.


For the Raina Telgemeier Fan

The Cool Code
by Deirdre Langeland; illus. Sarah Mai
Ages 8-12

The Cool Code is a fun addition to the “surviving middle school” trope—and an instant favorite with my own tween. What if you could hack middle school? That is, what if there was an app that dished out real-time coaching to guarantee your popularity? That’s the premise of Deirdre Langeland and Sarah Mai’s story, starring a girl whose exceptional coding skills land her in a heap of trouble.

Zoey has been homeschooled her entire life, but when her parents decide to launch a software business in the middle of the fall of sixth grade, Zoey finds herself at her neighborhood school…with other kids. Accustomed to coding her way out of problems, Zoey tries her hand at fitting in and making friends with the help of an app she designs: “Welcome to the Code Club! Who are you going to impress today?” With a purple llama avatar who speaks advice in her ear, Zoey navigates the halls of middle school.

At first, the app’s glitches result in advice more ridiculous than helpful. But when Zoey enlists the help of two kids from the school’s Coding Club—“for the good of middle schoolers everywhere!”—the three begin to delve into data analysis and feedback loops, and the app’s success takes off, with Zoey its test case. But as Zoey’s popularity begins skyrocketing, she finds herself increasingly ambivalent about following a by-now-very-bossy llama, especially as Zoey is encouraged to take credit for ideas that aren’t hers and ignore the friends she does have. Perhaps popularity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but is Zoey ready to see what happens when she trusts her own heart?


For the Resilient

The Tryout
by Christina Soontornvat; illus. Joanna Cacao
Ages 8-12

Speaking of losing yourself in the quest for popularity, Christina Soontornvat writes one of the richest, most forthcoming graphic memoirs of the year. The Tryout isn’t simply about the weeks leading up to some very loaded cheerleading tryouts; it’s also about a young Christina navigating both the changing dynamics of female friendship in middle school alongside her own “outsiderness” as the daughter of a Thai immigrant in her small Texas town.

As the only two kids of color in their school, Christina and her BFF, Megan, are convinced that if they can land a place on the cheerleading squad, they’ll be assured of acceptance and popularity. They throw themselves into the grueling preseason: eating, sleeping, and breathing cheerleading for weeks. And they’re good! Christina is surprised by how much she enjoys the cheers and stunts—that is, until the final round, which is judged by the entire seventh grade, including the kids who jeer things like “rice girl” when Christina passes them in the hall. The fallout to what is essentially a popularity vote is devastating for Christina and Megan, who don’t make the squad.

How often does a middle-grade story build to a pivotal moment that results, not in triumph, but in defeat? Herein lies the beauty, because readers get to watch Christina land on her feet in ways she would never have predicted. By this point in the story, we know Christina is more than her cheerleading journey—we’ve seen the myriad of ways she works to shape her identity outside of school, from the Buddhist temple to the Christian church—and it’s gratifying to watch her begin to bring that confidence into the school halls, forging new interests and investing in the people who like her for who she is.


For the “Witches of Brooklyn” Fan

My Aunt is a Monster
by Reimena Yee
Ages 8-12

And now for the most original graphic novel of the year! A contemporary fantasy, My Aunt is a Monster is as entertaining as it is eccentric, as funny as it is heartwarming. And every one of its 336 pages is an artistic marvel.

Owing to her blindness, Sofia has always taken refuge in stories about far-off places and exciting adventures, assuming that’s the closest she’ll ever come to experiencing them. But when her parents die and she is placed into the custody of her last living relative, who lives in a mysterious castle-like house on a hill surrounded by a forest, she stumbles into a plot far wackier and more satisfying than any audio book. Her Aunty Whimsy is none other than Walteranne Hakim Whimsy, famed globe trotter and explorer, as well as former editor of a magazine dedicated to the world’s curiosities and found objects. No one has seen or heard from Lady Whimsy since her expedition into the mountains of the Subcontinent to search for the treasures of a Lost City. The world presumes she’s dead. Only her elderly caretaker and partner-in-crime knows that she’s in hiding after being cursed into a blue-horned monster.

As it turns out, the reclusive Aunty Whimsy is in need of familial love as much as Sofia. Because when Whimsy’s childhood arch-rival begins taking credit for her discoveries, it’s Sofia who convinces her to come out of retirement—and to take Sofia along for the ride. A high-seas, high-stakes adventure ensues, but will the many secrets onboard cost Sofia her newfound family and budding confidence?


For the Skeptic

Invisible
by Christina Diaz Gonzalez & Gabriela Epstein
Ages 9-13

Fans of middle school drama with a touch of mystery and a feel-good ending will adore this story, seamlessly told in English and Spanish. An exciting piece of storytelling in its own right, Invisible also provides a valuable lens into the diversity of the Latine experience. Much like Jerry Craft did in New Kid with his Black protagonist,  Invisible deftly explores the microaggressions that exist outside and inside the Hispanic and Latine communities.

When five middle schoolers are grouped together to complete their school’s community service hours and ensure their principal’s perfect record, they’re less than thrilled. The outside world might assume all Spanish-speaking kids know and like each other, but the reality is that George, Sara, Dayara, Nico, and Miguel have vastly different backgrounds and interests. But when the students encounter a woman outside the community who’s in trouble, they must decide whether they’re willing to open up to one another and work together to help.

Fun fact: Christina Diaz Gonzalez is, I believe, the only author to have TWO books on this year’s Gift Guide. You’ll see her riveting historical novel, The Bluest Sky, in the middle-grade round up coming next week!


For the Dancer

Freestyle
by Gale Galligan
Ages 10-14

A graphic novel about the thrill of dance, the payoff of taking chances, and that transitional eighth grade year? Sign me up! In Freestyle, Gale Galligan (many of your kids know her from her graphic adaptations of the Babysitters Club stories) has written a pulsating, technicolor story with a refreshingly diverse cast that’s original, funny, and poignant. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a single page.

Cory’s competitive dance crew, of which he’s the indisputable star, is staring down their last major competition before they disperse to different high schools across New York City. Only there’s some dissension in the ranks. To begin with, the crew captain is pushing to remove improvisation—Cory’s strength—in favor of more rigid choreography. Additionally, schedules are proving tricky to coordinate, especially Cory’s, who ever since his grades plummeted has to make time for tutoring. Said tutor, hired by his parents with absolutely zilch say from Cory, is none other than his ultra-nerdy lab partner, Sunna, the very last person Cory intends to take advice from.

But then Cory catches Sunna, a rising yo-yo star (yup, competitive yo-yoing is a thing in the Bronx) practicing her tricks in secret. And his interest is piqued. Perhaps he’ll hear her out on geometry in exchange for yo-yo lessons. But what happens when this budding friendship begins to pull him further away from his dance friends and the sport he loves? A rollicking, insightful look at one boy trying to balance the expectations of parents, school, passions, and old and new friends.


For the Survivalist

Little Monarchs
by Jonathan Case
Ages 9-13

That monarch butterflies will save us all is the premise of Little Monarchs, a suspenseful apocalyptic story set fifty years after a sun shift has wiped out nearly all mammal life on Earth and civilization is rapidly being reclaimed by nature. The small populations of humans who remain must spend daylight hours underground or suffer a fatal sun sickness—except for ten-year-old Elvie and her caretaker, a biologist named Flora, who has discovered a way to humanely harvest the scales from monarchs and convert them into an antidote.

Now Elvie and Flora are on a mission to track the migrating monarchs down the Western United States to Mexico, in order to collect enough specimens to turn the medicine that’s keeping them safe from the sun into a vaccine to save humanity. But will they make it before their own supplies run out, before another natural disaster strikes, or before they’re turned on by crazed marauders stalking their every move?

Traditional comics panels are interspersed with excerpts from Elvie’s diary, replete with tips for surviving in the wilderness, from knot tying to star navigation to the particulars of this new world. The oversized trim size and Jonathan Case’s painterly art give the book an especially gifty quality, but it’s the chilling, ultimately hopeful story that will stay with readers long after the final page.


For the Horse Lover

Ride On
by Faith Erin Hicks
Ages 9-13

Inspired by Faith Erin Hicks’ own childhood as a Horse Girl, Ride On is a poignant story that will appeal to horse lovers everywhere. My sister was the rider in our family, not me, but even I connected with the universal tension between passion and burnout that’s so astutely presented here.

Victoria has always loved horses, but she doesn’t love how competitive the sport has become as she has gotten older, so she switches to a low-key stable, where she can continue to ride but still pursue other interests. Unfortunately, the move creates a rift between her and her best friend, who sees Victoria’s decision as giving up on her ambition. Will Victoria be able to move past her bitterness at her bestie’s response, or will her love for the sport be forever tainted?

The novel is full of mucking out stalls, training new horses, and horse shows, but it’s richly balanced with new friendships, self-exploration, thoughtful discussions of privilege, and a truly charming (and funny!) cast of supporting characters.


For the Future Journalist

Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria
by Muhammad Najem & Nora Neus; illus. Julie Robine
Ages 10-15

An advance copy of this graphic memoir showed up at my house months ago. My daughter immediately made off with it, returning a few hours later to report that it was one of the best graphic novels she has ever read. “When the time comes, you have to put this on your Gift Guide.” I then forgot about it, but she didn’t, re-reading it half a dozen times, even asking me to log onto Twitter so she could look up Muhammad Najem’s feed. Finally, I had to see what the fuss was about. Well, I WAS BLOWN AWAY. A true story about a contemporary figure who continues his work today, Muhammad Najem, War Reporter is living proof that one young person can change the world.

Muhammad Najem is just eight when war breaks out in his beloved Syria, and only thirteen when his father is killed in a bombing while praying. By the time he is fifteen, despite the fact that his family is fleeing to Turkey, he makes the brave choice to stay behind and use the camera on his phone, along with social media, to convince the greater world to care about what’s happening in Syria—specifically, about the violence befalling the innocent children. As he risks his own life to record and post to Facebook, he attracts the attention of a CNN reporter named Nora Neus, who later credits Muhammad with changing the course of the news coverage of the Syrian conflict.

Muhammad’s cinematic story is delivered straight from his heart, and we quickly become invested, not only in Muhammad’s own well-being, but in the that of his entire family, whose courage, community mindedness, and love for one another in the face of war and loss exemplify resilience. 


For the Athlete

Victory. Stand! Raising My First for Justice
by Tommie Smith & Derrick Barnes; illus. Dawud Anyabwile
Ages 13-16

If Muhammad Ajem’s true story blew my daughter’s mind, Tommie Smith’s true story did the same for my son. Victory. Stand! is the stirring graphic memoir of the American sprinter and activist, written by Tommie Smith himself, with help from critically acclaimed author Derrick Barnes and comics artist Dawud Anyabwile. There’s a reason this book was shortlisted for the National Book Award: the story is gripping, the black-and-white art is powerful, and the printing, with its oversized trim size and French flaps to boot, is gorgeous. CHILLS, I tell you.

At the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968, after setting a world record and winning the gold medal in the 200-meter sprint, Tommie Smith stood atop the podium as the US national anthem played, only instead of putting his hand over his heart, he raised a black gloved fist in the air, protesting racial injustice and the poverty of Black Americans. He was joined by his teammate and bronze medalist, John Carlos. How Smith arrived at that iconic moment, from his humble childhood as one of twelve children in a sharecropper family in rural Texas, to his athletic prowess as a football, basketball, and track star at San Jose State College, to his involvement in the Olympic Project for Human Rights movement, is the subject of the memoir. As well as what followed.

 “We had to be seen, because we were not being heard.” Smith and Carlos paid dearly for their courageous stance. They were stripped of their medals and forbidden from ever competing again. Smith was fired from his job, received death threats, and was ruthlessly attacked in the press. What the holder of eleven track and field records did next—achieving advanced degrees in sociology and social change, as well as teaching and coaching on the collegiate level for over thirty years—is further testament to his fortitude and faith. Alongside Tommie’s story, young readers will get a crash course in key moments from the Civil Rights Movement, as well as an appreciation for two men who laid groundwork for acts of resistance carried out by contemporary sports figures, like Colin Kaepernick.


For the Girl with Fire in her Veins

Coven
by Jennifer Dugan & Kit Seaton
Ages 13-16

Coven combines the feels of Heartstopper with the drama of  Sabrina the Teenage Witch, because whose day couldn’t be improved by a contemporary story filled with teenage angst, an inclusive cast of inter-generational witches, a murder mystery, themes of found family, and a precarious Homecoming dance?

When Emsy’s parents inform her that she has less than 24 hours to pack up her life of surfing and romance in sunny California and relocate to the other side of the country, she is NOT pleased. And leaving her girlfriend is only the beginning. What peeves (and confuses) Emsy the most is that her parents are returning to the coven life they abandoned when she was young. As far as Emsy is concerned, they can “relive [their] little Hocus Pocus days” without her, because she has never cared to learn to channel the fire magic inside her. Never mind that her childhood friend’s parents were just murdered under mysterious circumstances that might signal the rise of a so-called “death witch.”

But when Emsy arrives in upstate New York, moves into the old house shared by members of the dwindling coven, and begins attending the local high school, she is quickly caught up in an eclectic new group of friends. Amidst uncovering family secrets, navigating nuances of new friendships, and deflecting crushes, the teen witches begin to dabble in spells beyond their control. Will this dangerous magic cost them the found family they’re coming to cherish?


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All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).

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