Friday, May 25, 2018

Secret Coders: Potions and Parameters

In this fifth volume of the Secret Coders series, things really kick into high gear. First off, the evil Dr. One-Zero's plot is hatching, with dire outcomes for our heroes and their families, which include ducks with teeth(!).
Second, there is a lot more happening with the protagonists' inter-personal relationships as they face life and death situations: Eni confesses having more-than-friend-feelings for Hopper, which causes her pause and also confusion. Josh admits he feels a bit like a third wheel and confesses feelings of inadequacy when someone whom he thought was his friend betrays them. So those revelations all add a more human wrinkle to the proceedings, which I much appreciated. Third, we finally learn about the origins of Dr. Bee, which have a surprising link to the classic book Flatland. Finally, the stage is set for the grand showdown and climax of the series, which is coming in the next volume. It was exciting to see so much happening and paying off here, and longtime readers of the series will be jazzed.

In addition to all those plot developments, this book also contains a few excellent explanations and activities that teach coding and geometry. And like the other entries in this series (you can read all my reviews here), it is wonderfully written and drawn. There is a severe dearth of quality graphic novels for young readers about mathematics and computer programming, and these books fill both of those needs admirably.

This book/series is a prolonged continuation of the collaboration between Gene Yang and Mike Holmes. Yang is one of the premier comics creators working today. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and was also the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He has won the Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese and explored themes of immigration, belief, identity, and growing up in his many works, including The Eternal Smile, Level Up, The Shadow Hero, the twin volumes Boxers & Saints, and his current run on New Superman. Holmes is best known for his work on the weekly comic True Story and drawing Adventure Time comics.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive, with one caveat. Brett Schenker "loved" it, though he does note that the whole series reads like a school lesson and should not be read out of order. Shannon Buchanan wrote that it was "a very effective way to teach rudimentary programming skills," though she was disappointed that it was not a stand-alone volume. Kirkus Reviews noted, "While the coding instruction’s as top-notch as ever, in this installment it’s interpersonal dynamics and characters that, satisfyingly, take center stage."

Potions & Parameters was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and more about it here. You can also visit the series' official website for a lot more info.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Awkward

I came to read this book, Awkward, in a backward way. While judging books for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, I got a copy of its sequel Brave. I read and very much enjoyed it, so when I came upon this book at the local library sale I totally snapped it up. I had read work by these books' author Svetlana Chmakova years before (the series Dramacon, which was more of a soap opera/romance set at comic conventions), and I very much was impressed at how she crafted characters and relationships. This book is similarly excellent, only in a middle school setting.

Awkward follows the exploits of Penelope (Peppi) Torres, a transfer to a new school who on the first day tries to stay below the radar but accidentally knocks over a geeky boy named Jaime. When people start to tease her that she is his girlfriend, she shoves him and runs away. This event opens a rift between the two, and it weighs heavily on Peppi because 1. she knows she should do the right thing and apologize, and 2. she thinks Jaime is a good guy and she (small spoiler) develops a crush on him.
 
 

Complicating that awkward situation, the two also end up belonging to two clubs (Peppi the Art Club and Jaime the Science Club), that are actively hostile toward each other, playing pranks and getting into a competition where only one will get a table at the annual Club Fair.
What makes all of these happenings work is that the characters in this book are vibrant and well defined. They are complicated and interesting, not playing into stock stereotypes and often offering up surprising insights. Also, there are a bunch of gags, funny expressions, and an overall light-hearted, fun tone about the everyday goings-on at school as well as the idiosyncrasies of people's relationships with the friends and family. I know that it's been a while since I was that age, but this book made me remember some of the tentative, confusing, and intense feelings that go with being a middle schooler. I loved getting to know the characters in this book, and the plot, with its competitions and over-the-top hi-jinx, is suitably fun and heartfelt.

This book's author Svetlana Chmakova has won a slew of awards and accolades for her works. Along with this series and Dramacon, she also has published a supernatural themed series called Nightschool. She speaks more about her work and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. The School Library Journal's Mike Pawuk called it "another shining example of kids comics done right," and added, "It’s got plenty of heart and soul." I agree with Amanda M. Vail who wrote, "Once you pick up Awkward, you’ll have a hard time putting it down." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "I enjoyed spending so much time with Peppi and her classmates, seeing them grow and learn. Events resolve in surprising but rewarding ways, as the kids get to know each other as people instead of stereotypes."

Awkward was published by Yen Press, and they offer more info about it here. Like I wrote, this book has one sequel already, Brave that I will be reviewing in the near future, and a new one coming soon entitled Crush.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The True Death of Billy the Kid

While reading this book I realized that pretty much all I know about Billy the Kid I know from popular versions of his story, like Young Guns or Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which means I have really only been acquainted with lots of legends and lies about the guy. This book, The True Death of Billy the Kid, is not a full biography of the infamous outlaw, but it is a well researched and fully realized account of his last days: After being captured, tried, and found guilty, Billy enacts a daring escape and goes on the lam for a time before he is finally tracked and gunned down.
As you can see from the excerpt above, this book features lots of action and intrigue. It is a relatively short work and a page-turner as well. The art is crisp and beautiful to behold. And unlike most books by this author, this one features larger pages, which help feature the maps, floor plans, and lots of other details that help bring the story to life. I feel that this book is pretty economical in terms of storytelling, but it is still affecting and fascinating. It was a fun read, plus it taught me a bunch to boot.

Long time readers of this blog may have realized that I am a huge fan of Rick Geary's work. He has been making comics for decades now, winning major awards for his efforts, and telling all kinds of historical tales in graphic novel format. He is meticulous in detail and research, and I love his specific art style. He is especially known for his Victorian Era and 20th Century series of murder tales. Go check out these reviews and see what I have written about them over the years. He talks about his work on this newest book in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "While the Kid has been treated to ample renderings in film, television, and prose, Geary makes his story feel fresh." Johanna Draper Carlson stated that "Geary’s art is well-suited for this kind of reporting, as it’s straightforward in showing expression and setting. With its pen-and-ink, old-fashioned flavor, the reader feels transported back to an earlier time." R.C. Harvey wrote, "As always, he is scrupulous in covering the known as well as the unknown ground."

The True Death of Billy the Kid was published by NBM, and they have a preview and more info about it here. This book was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign a few years ago.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Tsu and the Outliers

I added a new way to learn about new graphic novels. I found this book by following uncivilized books' Instagram account. I thought the cover was very cool and asked for a galley copy, and I am very glad I did. This book features a Sasquatch and a Chupacabra, so it's got a lot going for it right off the bat.

Seriously though, this book stars Tsu, an autistic, adolescent boy who lives in a rural setting and does not talk. He is an outcast at school, and receives his share of grief from the local bullies. But he has some sort power that gives him the ability to communicate with wildlife, and in particular he is close with one incredibly large and powerful creature that saves his life after a bus accident.
All of these weird happenings bring the attention of a strange and mysterious doctor who resembles a chimpanzee and is looking to exploit Tsu's abilities and gain control over that creature. I am not going to reveal more about the plot, only to say that its ending is unresolved and invites reading the next book in the series. I found myself very intrigued by the mystery and adventures here, and I am looking forward to that continuation.

Not only did I enjoy the plot of this book, I was also very taken with the artwork. It is frenetic and exciting, particularly in its action and woodland sequences. I love the character designs and feel that they contribute to a fine balance between darkness and adventure. This book takes on the look and feel of the superhero genre but of a more visceral, almost horrific tale. I really liked its vibe.

This is the debut graphic novel by E. Eero Johnson, who has also collaborated on the illustrated novel Original Fake. He is a veteran illustrator whose work has appeared in many high profile publications.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book online, but Kirkus Reviews wrote that it "may appeal to middle school readers looking for a different kind of superpowered adventure." You can read some earlier reviews based on the original 32-page version of this story published in 2013. There are also a few reviews of the current edition available on Goodreads.

Tsu and the Outliers was published by uncivilized books, and they offer more information about it here.

A galley copy was provided by the publisher.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

My Boyfriend is a Bear

My Boyfriend is a Bear is graphic novel take on a magic realism romance tale. It stars a 28-year-old woman named Nora who's got cool friends, a lame job, and a history of dating jerks. One day while she's out camping she happens upon a bear and runs away, as she should. However, that bear eventually finds his way to her house (and heart), and they start an unlikely relationship. 
 
 

In a sense this book follows in the tradition of novels like Kafka's The Metamorphosis or David Garnett's Lady into Fox in that it uses a radical transformation into an animal form to observe the human condition. The bear is a metaphor for a romance with a person who comes into your life and fulfills you in a way you did not expect or need. Additionally, this person may not exactly fit in with the expectations of your friends and family, so there is some static in those areas. Also, there are logistical complications, like having to be without that person for an extended period of time, in this case while he hibernates, which can lead to uneasiness, loneliness, and worrying about the direction of your life and relationship. So, what I am saying in a long way is that this book, for all its fantastical set-up, is actually an excellent exploration of the joys and pains of a real, adult relationship.

What I left out of that paragraph above, and what this book does exceptionally well, is not be all dry, analytical, and academic about the topic. It is also not nearly as dark or fatalistic as those two novels I mentioned above. As you can hopefully see from the excerpt above, this book is a joy to read, with lots of humor and heart. The situations with the bear are sometimes made literal, which is often hilarious, like when he is left alone with a huge ice cream sandwich and just devours and destroys it. The energetic, expressive, and playful artwork goes a long way in providing the sense of whimsy and relatability to the story. The bear might only have a few verbal expressions (Grah!), but boy is he visually communicative. And the human characters are nuanced in terms of their characterization as well as how they are depicted. This graphic novel is expertly crafted all-around.

This book is a collaboration between writer Pamela Ribon and artist Cat Farris. Ribon is very well known for writing animated features like Moana, Smurfs: The Lost Village, and Wreck It Ralph 2, and she also has a number of novels as well as the women's roller derby comic book series Slam! in her credits. Farris is a member of the Helioscope studio who has worked on her own webcomic The Last Diplomat as well as having done work for several publishers. Both creators speak about this book in this interview, and Farris also speaks extensively about it in this interview, too.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review that concluded, "This resonant, absurdist modern fable is a joyful discovery." Oliver Sava called it "a light-hearted, very cute romantic comedy about the ups and downs of dating someone that may not by typical boyfriend material, but has a big heart." Eric Kallenborn called it "a refreshing surprise."

My Boyfriend is a Bear was published by Oni Press and there is more info about it here. This book features some profanity, adult themes, frank talk about sexuality, and one tiny picture of a butt, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.
That Arcade Fire shirt cracks me up.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Science Comics: Sharks: Nature's Perfect Hunter

I have read every volume of Science Comics to date, and I am glad to report that this volume Sharks: Nature's Perfect Hunter is an excellent addition to a very strong and informative series. In fact, the biggest quibble I have is with the title. I want the subtitle to be Nature's Perfect Hunters (for agreement's sake!), but hey, I am not in book marketing, so what do I know?

That petty grammar business aside, I can say that I learned a lot about sharks from this book. Many, if not all of us, are fascinated and captivated by sharks. There is so much about them that is interesting, which has fired up works as diverse as Shark Week, Jaws, and Sharknado. Visually, they are simultaneously frightening and fascinating, but there is much about them that we are either ignorant or misinformed about. This book's premise is to inform the general public about these creatures, and boy does it. Sharks are some of the oldest living animals on earth; they are some of the most unchanged from prehistoric times, and they are incredibly diverse in terms of specific species and families. And there are many factors that have contributed to them being over-hunted and killed in recent years. I am not going to say that they are all gentle or nice creatures, but they are the victims of some mis-characterization.
Perhaps most impressive about this book was how it was basically structured as one long essay without a narrator (although there is a farming sequence and a recurring character that resembles Maris Wicks). It packs in myriad amounts of information in a way that reads logically and flows very well. This text coupled with artwork that is clear, vibrant, and appropriately well-detailed makes this book a must-have for any upper elementary or middle school classroom library.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Kirkus Reviews found faults with digressions, conflicting information, and racial representations, and summed up by calling the book "informative, exciting, and, unlike sharks, just a bit disappointing." Jody Kopple called it "an accessible and inviting work" in a starred review from the School Library Journal. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that "the entire book is something to sink into, enjoying the images of these sleek beasts."

Sharks: Nature's Perfect Hunter was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and much more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Be Prepared

I have never been to summer camp, and I am not of Russian descent, but I sure found a lot to relate to in reading Be Prepared. This tale of Vera, a 10-year-old girl who strives to fit into American culture is full of empathetic moments, moments of levity, and the pathos of being a tween. The artwork is impressively expressive, and it suits the well-paced and -plotted narrative beats to a T.

Vera's mother is Russian, in school, and trying to make a better life for her and her children. Vera is trying to keep up with her middle class American friends, which in her mind involves buying stuffed crust pizza, the right brand of soda, and the right kind of doll, as well as hosting slumber parties. None of those things are on her mom's radar. And what's worse her versions of all of them are uniquely Russian-themed, and to Vera's (and her friends') sensibilities completely off-brand and embarrassing.Vera's solution is to go to summer camp, just like her friends do, and she convinces her mom to send her brother and herself off.

The camp she goes to is not what she expects. It's a special camp for children of Russian lineage, and they celebrate that heritage in specific ways. Also, because of her age, Vera gets assigned to the older girls' camp, so not only does she not know anyone there, she's also the youngest girl and living with two of the oldest girls who have been going to the camp for forever. Consequently, she has a tough time making friends and simply wants to go home. Also, she has to shower and go to the bathroom in an outdoor toilet, which is a disgusting and unsavory experience.
 

Over the course of a few weeks however she does learn a few things about herself and how to (and also not to) make friends. She also earns a bunch of merit badges. Looking back at what I've written, it now seems that everything I've described looks pretty formulaic and familiar, but I feel that this book has a specific charm and delivery that makes the proceedings vibrant and new. The characters are not one-dimensional but nuanced and interesting. And by the end of the book, I felt very attached to them, which left me yearning for more because the ending is open-ended.

This book's creator Vera Brosgol is an accomplished illustrator and animator. She worked for Laika on a number of animated films like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and Paranorman. She also has published a children's book Leave Me Alone, which won a Caldecott Honor, and the graphic novel Anya's Ghost, which won an Eisner Award. 

All of the reviews I have read of this book have sung its praises. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "While the culturally specific references will particularly resonate with kids of Russian heritage, the larger story will strike chords with any kid who has ever struggled to find a place to belong." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded, "By turns sardonic, adorable, and noble, Vera is a beguiling hero who learns how to recognize who's really on her side." Elizabeth Bush wrote that "Brosgol's illustration skills fully match her convincing narration in this autobiographical graphic novel."

Be Prepared was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.