Man, I missed signing up to be a judge or panelist for the Cybils (The Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards) this year. Every year, committed bloggers nominate, discuss, and judge the best in kid and YA lit. The short lists that they come up with in each category are pretty excellent shopping lists for anyone stocking a library, buying for a classroom, or just looking for something good to read.
Last year I was a panelist for the graphic novels category. I have, I blush to say, A LOT of experience reading graphic novels. I blame my friend Sean, who gave me a taste of The Dark Knight Returns and Love & Rockets twenty years ago, and who gradually introduced me to the hard stuff: Sandman, Tank Girl, V for Vendetta.
The Cybils panelists last year nominated eleven books, each of which I endorse with my whole being. This year, in lieu of being a panelist, I'll just offer up my own graphic novel winners:
Magic Trixie continues to charm: the first in the series was nominated last year and I knew it was going to be strong. Jill Thompson's bright beautiful colors and exuberant characters, her fun and funky details make Magic Trixie one of my favorites to sit back and savor.
Binky the Space Cat by Ashley Spires. Hm. I had this book, I loved this book, I'm sure I wrote the review, but now I can't find it. Weird. Anyway. Binky, the intrepid space explorer? Is really Binky, the fat house cat who's never been outside. But Binky has the heart and soul of a ninja astronaut superhero beating inside that flabby, gluttonous exterior, and his sincere efforts to ready himself for his great adventure are both funny and witty. There's a difference, and the difference is fart jokes vs. visual puns, and both are in evidence here and damn if I could find that original review you'd certainly read this book.
Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians by Jarrett Kro-whatever. Kidding. Jarrett J. Krosoczka. (And JJK, whatever happened to your awesome Who's Who in Kidlit Illustration / Karate Kid video? I was trying to describe Tomie De Paolo's performance in it the other day and I couldn't find it!)
It was the Holm siblings, who, with Babymouse, popularized this black-and-white-and-one-color style of graphic novel illustration. It's a good method. Keeps costs down but injects color. You cannot underestimate the importance of color when you're talking kid appeal. Ursula Vernon uses it in Dragonbreath, with green (a good choice) and I had to confess, when I first saw the yellow in the Lunch Lady books, I kind of winced. Pee-colored accents? Really? In a book with 'lunch' in the title? Well here is me being wrong. The yellow is bright and lemony, and I asked my 8-year-old, and he said that pee never crossed his mind when he was reading the books. Which has got to be some kind of record.
The books are funny, and make sense, and the art, while satisfyingly cartoony and goofy, doesn't get so loopy as to be incoherent or icky. Lots of people can't manage that, you'd be surprised. And the librarians are the bad guys, but I'm not taking it personally.
T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. On the other hand, Jim Ottaviani, who still is an actual librarian, knows who's buttering his bread. (I am still kidding!) He has been writing comics about science and scientists for a while now, and this is his contribution to this year's explosive blast of books commemorating our first trip to "that giant glowing rock in the sky".
Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom by Eric Wight
Frankie Pickle. He's an average kid, with predictable crises - a messy room, a broken toy. But his imagination takes his everyday problems to unpredictable and exciting places. This book is a mixture of text narrative and graphic passages; the change in format more or less signaling the switch between reality and imagination. It's like Skippyjon Jones for third graders, without the Spanglish. What busts this book to a higher level is Eric Wight's extremely confident pen and ink art. You can tell that he never has to stop and think before jetting Frankie off to a new setting - "Can I draw stalactites? Oops, how am I on trucks?" Gives the whole book a sort of... muscular vibe.
The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis.
Ok now see Eleanor Davis has been my secret girlfriend since I read Stinky last year (Pink Me review here). That book was pretty simple, but the art was... deceptive. No fancy-tricky panel shapes, no show-offy splash pages, but extremely self-assured line, keep-you-on-your-toes perspectives, and very thoughtful, unexpected, harmonious color choices.
Her new series, The Secret Science Alliance, follows through on that promise. It's for middle grade readers, with a higher page count, more complex characters, and, you know, more words. But not a ton of words. It's still a quick read, and there's more going on in the art than in the dialogue. The detail is luxurious and funny. The style is retro-ish (in a Jimmy Corrigan kind of way). The layout is readable but less programmed than in Stinky - kids can find their own path through some of these pages. And I'm going to stop gushing about the color. I am. After this: A rainbow of mid-tones! Underappreciated purples and browns! Excellent green accents! Somebody give this book an award.
And, I would be remiss in not mentioning Fiona Robinson's The 3-2-3 Detective Agency. Sigh. I did not like this book. I thought the deployment of color was gratuitous and overwhelming. Every area of every frame was bright and solid, with no distinctions between foreground and background. I thought the adolescent drawing style made animals who were supposed to look fuzzy appear to be melting, and I could not figure out what that was on the side of every character's face - until I realized that the artist was placing each animal's mouth in the middle of his or her right cheek. I also thought that there was too much text per page, too much text per word balloon, and that the text was printed in too tiny a typeface.And then my son got ahold of the book. Read it straight through, bouncing in his seat and cackling aloud. And then his friend Nature Girl, who can sometimes be described as a reluctant reader, got ahold of it. She read it straight through, and rushes to find it whenever she comes over so she can read it again. I give up. Sometimes I think I'm pretty good at all this - finding, evaluating, and passing along books to children. I like to think that I'm not too snobby, and that I spend enough actual time with kids to see things from their perspective. Other times I just have to realize - they like Capri Sun, I like a nice hoppy I.P.A. And that's how it should be.