Review of Paul Bunyan: The Invention of an American Legend, by Noah Van Sciver

Paul Bunyan

The Invention of an American Legend

by Noah Van Sciver

With stories and art by Marlena Myles
Introduction by Lee Francis IV
Postscript by Deondre Smiles

Toon Graphics, 2023. 48 pages.
Review written December 1, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review

The bulk of this book is the graphic novel story of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe — but this story goes further and shows us an advertising man with a lumber company making up the tale, exaggerating other lumberjack tales, in order to make their company look like heroes for clearing the old growth forests that used to blanket North America.

Set in 1914 on a train in Minnesota, there’s a delay in the journey and an ad man from the lumber companies starts telling the tall tales of Paul Bunyan, mesmerizing the other passengers as they wait for the train to start again.

But in this version, we see that a slick ad man is inventing the stories. And he gets some pushback from people on the train who saw acres and acres of mighty forest cut down. The land is laid bare, and the lumber companies simply continued to move further west.

The other people listed on the title page are Indigenous creators whose stories and art appear before and after the main narrative. They give more context about how those same lumber companies pushed out Indigenous peoples to get access to the trees.

Put together, it’s a thought-provoking and moving story that shows how much more there is to the tall tales I heard as a kid.

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Review of Hidden Systems, by Dan Nott

Hidden Systems

Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day

by Dan Nott

RH Graphic, 2023. 264 pages.
Review written September 29, 2023, from a book sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2023 National Book Award Longlist

Hidden Systems is graphic novel format nonfiction about some essentially important – but hidden things. In three sections, the author explains, with diagrams and drawings, how the Internet works, how electricity works, and how our water systems work.

It’s interesting that the topics are approached in the opposite order from the subtitle, which is also the opposite order from how they were developed in the real world. But taking a present to the past approach does get the information across.

At the front of the book, the author talks about what hidden systems are and how he learned about them by trying to draw them. Because so much is invisible, the metaphors we use to describe them are important. Here’s a bit from that introduction, which has a small picture accompanying each line.

A hidden system is something we don’t notice
until it breaks.

But when these systems are doing what they’re supposed to,
they become so commonplace
that we hardly see them.

Hidden systems are in the news all the time.
Usually when something dramatic happens.
(especially if something explodes)
But by overlooking hidden systems the rest of the time,
we take for granted the benefits they provide for some of us,
and disregard the harm they cause others.
These systems structure our society,
and even when they’re working,
are a source of inequality and environmental harm.

Something I appreciated about this look at the Internet, Electricity, and Water Systems is that he showed the big picture, too – how these things are physically hooked up and connected around the world.

There was a lot I didn’t know about each system: The importance of data centers for the internet, almost all the physical aspects of the electricity grid, and our frequent use of dams to run the water system.

Okay, this summary doesn’t do the book justice. Let me urge you to read it – and look at it – for yourself. (So much is communicated by the drawings!) The story of how humans have built these systems helps us think about what ways we could modify them to better work with our earth.

As he finishes up (accompanied by pictures):

We often just see the surface of our surroundings,
but by understanding these systems more deeply,
we can form our own questions about their past and future.
The answers to these questions can help us not only fix these systems
but also reimagine them –
creating a world that’s more in balance with the Earth
and that provides equitably for all people.

dannott.com
RHKidsGraphic.com

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Review of Squished, by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

Squished

by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

Scholastic Graphix, 2023. 250 pages.
Review written July 12, 2023, from a library book.

Hooray! Big family representation in a graphic novel!

I’m third from a family of thirteen children, and I’ve noticed that there’s not a whole lot of big family representation in children’s books, so I was delighted to learn that the creators of the charming graphic novel Allergic have taken this on.

Avery’s the second in a family of seven kids. (So that’s just over half as big as my family — but let’s not get crazy. It’s a big family.) She’s 11 years old, and all her younger siblings look to her. And she’s desperate for her own room and a place to paint — and sleep — without being disturbed by little kids.

So when her older brother gets his own room, and the toddler comes into the room she already shared with a sister — well, it’s simply not fair.

This book mostly shows the light side of big families. But it does show how an older sister ends up doing lots of caretaking, like it or not. And the embarrassment of a huge family showing up to “support” her at school events. I enjoyed the way all the kids were invested in getting the baby to crawl. All of that is for sure realistic, and fun to see in this book.

And yes, older siblings really do need their own room!

meganwagnerlloyd.com
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Review of Ride On, by Faith Erin Hicks

Ride On

by Faith Erin Hicks
colors by Kelly Fitzpatrick

First Second, 2022. 220 pages.
Review written May 9, 2023, from a library book.

Ride On is a sweet graphic novel about making friends – and riding horses.

The book starts with a new girl at the riding stable, named Victoria. At first, she rebuffs the overtures of one of the regulars. We learn that she had a falling-out with her best friend at the other stable because Victoria decided to have a gentler summer and not focus on competing in shows. So now, she hopes to just focus on horses and not mess with human friends.

But humans have a way of getting into your heart. The book has lots of interactions with people and with horses. My heart was warmed by an adventure at the end with Victoria and her new friends.

Graphic novels are always popular with their accessible story-telling, and this one will especially appeal to horse lovers.

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Review of Garlic and the Witch, by Bree Paulsen

Garlic and the Witch

by Bree Paulsen

Quill Tree Books, 2022. 152 pages.
Review written March 3, 2023, from a library book.

Garlic and the Witch is a follow-up to the delightful Garlic and the Vampire. In both, we see sentient vegetables created by Witch Agnes to be her helpers.

In the first book, sweet, small, and timid Garlic confronts a vampire who has moved into the nearby castle. In this book, Garlic turns to her friend and neighbor Count as she is startled by changes happening to her. They go on an adventure together to the Magic Market to get ingredients for Count’s blood substitute.

It’s another sweet story about a timid and small young person confronting her fears. In this case, I got to thinking a little too much about sentient vegetables becoming human — but if you don’t do that, it’s another lovely story. (And I’m pretty confident most kids won’t be freaked out by that.)

It remains a wonderful graphic novel for early elementary. There’s no talking down to the reader and visually the panels present much of the story in a sophisticated graphic novel set-up. But it also doesn’t have a high word count and does have an emotionally comforting story.

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Review of Chef’s Kiss, written by Jarrett Melendez, illustrated by Danica Brine

Chef’s Kiss

written by Jarrett Melendez
illustrated by Danica Brine
colored by Hank Jones
lettered by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Oni Press, 2022. 160 pages.
Review written February 26, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2023 Alex Award Winner

The Alex Award is given each year to ten books published for adults that will be of interest to teens. The committee picked a fun one with this rom-com graphic novel.

The characters in this book are new adults. We meet four of them on the first panel, moving into a new apartment together after college. Two have jobs already, which they’re ready to begin. One is staying in school with a new major (theater), and the other, Ben, has job interviews lined up.

We follow Ben to the interviews, and in each one, the interviewer loses interest when Ben admits he doesn’t have professional experience. He decides to lower his sights, but even the trash collectors want professional experience!

It’s at that point that Ben sees a Help Wanted sign at a restaurant, with “No Experience Necessary” at the bottom. And the cook who talks with him is heart-throbbingly handsome. Ben does have some ideas about cooking and something of a knack for it. But it’s a three-week training process before he can be permanently hired, and he has to please the owner’s pig!

The training is full of ups and downs, as he gets to know his handsome coworker. But then on the last day, his parents learn that he didn’t get the writing job he’d told them about. They pressure him instead to take an internship with a literary magazine, with their support, rather than continuing with “this nonsense” of working in a restaurant.

The whole thing is super fun, with adorable characters trying to set out into adult life. Since it’s a graphic novel, it didn’t take me long to read, and left me smiling.

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Review of Garlic & the Vampire, by Bree Paulsen

Garlic and the Vampire

by Bree Paulsen

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 154 pages.
Review written January 9, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Garlic and the Vampire is a fun graphic novel suitable for early elementary school kids. The book opens with bulb of garlic with a body oversleeping and being teased by her friend Carrot when she’s late. They’re part of a whole group of sentient vegetables made by kindly Witch Agnes. Garlic and her friends help Agnes tend her garden and sell the produce in the village market. They happily interact with the people in the village.

Garlic has some anxiety about doing her job well. Witch Agnes tries to reassure her and encourage her that she’s doing fine.

But then somebody moves into the castle overlooking the valley. Agnes’s magic mirror shows them that a vampire has returned. The vegetables go into a panic. What about the people in the village?

But everybody knows that vampires are afraid of garlic, so they decide that Garlic should confront the vampire.

Witch Agnes gives her tools to help her, but it takes all Garlic’s courage to do the job.

And things turn out like no one expects – in a fun and child-friendly way.

A delightful, quirky, and very sweet story about a little bulb of garlic being brave.

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Review of Swim Team, by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team

by Johnnie Christmas

Harper Alley, 2022. 248 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Middle school experiences are the perfect content for graphic novels. They make for quick reads, and the pictures fully bring you into the volatile emotions of that time in a person’s life. Swim Team is already popular, and it’s going to join other classics of middle school graphic novels.

As the graphic novel opens, Bree is moving with her father from Brooklyn to Florida, ready to start middle school. She does make a friend pretty quickly in her apartment complex, but instead of Math club, the only elective still available is Swimming 101. She doesn’t want to admit she doesn’t know how to swim, and she misses some classes at first.

But then she gets help from Ms. Etta, a lady who lives above her in the apartment and turns out to be a champion swimmer herself. When Bree expresses the belief that Black people don’t swim, Ms. Etta explains that this false rumor has everything to do with the racism that kept Black people from swimming in pools white people used.

And it turns out that Bree is pretty fast in the pool, once she learns to swim. One thing leads to another, and she ends up on the swim team. And they have quite a rivalry with the private school in town. It all builds to the relay race, which depends on working together.

This is a middle school story without a lot of angst, but with plenty of fun.

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Review of Little Monarchs, by Jonathan Case

Little Monarchs

by Jonathan Case

Margaret Ferguson Books (Holiday House), 2022. 256 pages.
Review written September 12, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This post-apocalyptic graphic novel features a 10-year-old protagonist, Elvie. With the help of her caretaker, Flora, she’s learned how to safely scavenge and survive on things left since mammals were wiped out on earth fifty years before.

It wasn’t war that wiped out humans. It was sun sickness, caused by a change in the radiation coming from the sun. The only people who survived were deep underground. Survivors, Deepers, lived in underground communities. Until Flora discovered that scales from Monarch butterflies could be used to make medicine that protects people from sun sickness. The problem is that it takes lots of butterflies to make enough medicine for a few people, and it expires after six weeks.

Eight years before, when Elvie was a baby, her parents traveled to Mexico, where they could find more monarchs and get more medicine and work on a vaccine. They left Elvie in Flora’s care. But they didn’t come back and sent a message by carrier pigeon that though they had made it, the trip was too difficult without a vaccine.

Not long after they received the message, marauders attacked their site and took it over. Since then, Flora and Elvie have been on their own, with Flora always trying to develop a vaccine, so humans would be able to live on the surface again.

All this background is communicated fairly quickly. Flora and Elvie have some adventures while simply foraging for supplies, and then an earthquake hits. After the earthquake, they find a toddler near the ruins of an underground station. They have no choice but to take care of him. But will his adults follow? And can they be trusted?

This graphic novel had me on the edge of my seat. I loved Elvie — so resourceful, feisty, and kind-hearted.

You might think the story of humanity wiped out by sun sickness would be dark and dismal, but since Elvie and Flora have the medicine, the pictures are bright and colorful. I learned a lot about Monarchs along the way. (Which goes well with a board game I bought recently called “Mariposas” that’s about Monarch migration.)

Bottom line, this is a really good story — great art, great characters, gripping plot.

jonathancase.net
HolidayHouse.com

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Review of Displacement, by Kiku Hughes

Displacement

by Kiku Hughes

First Second, 2020. 284 pages.
Review written September 2, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Displacement is a graphic novel telling about a teenage girl who gets suddenly displaced – sent back in time – to her grandmother’s past. The first two times it doesn’t last long, but then she gets displaced for months and sent with others to the incarceration camps of Japanese Americans.

This is a look at those camps through modern eyes. Kiku is bothered that she’s a visitor from the future, but she didn’t really know what happened. Because those who were incarcerated were shamed about it, they didn’t talk much about it, even with their own children. Kiku’s grandmother died before she was born, and not much of her story made its way to Kiku.

Like They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, this book emphasizes the importance of not letting this happen again. Incarcerating people for the color of their skin is a grave injustice, and this book helps you see through the eyes of the humans treated that way.

A powerful story, skillfully told.

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