Once upon a time, graphic novels were “those things my dorky kid brother reads”. Over the past few years, though, graphic novels have come into their own, and popular titles are being adapted to the format in an effort to reach a broader audience (or sell more books to collectors, *ahem* Twilight *ahem*). Here are a few great reads you may’ve missed the first time around.
* book may be hard to find
** best for older teens
1. THE BOOKS OF MAGIC, Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, & Paul Johnson
Considered by some to be an early Harry Potter, The Books of Magic introduce Timothy Hunter, a weedy kid with glasses and a pet owl. Timothy is introduced to the world of magic by the Trenchcoat Brigade, a quartet of fallen mystics (and familiar faces to DC readers) who are aware that the boy has the potential to be the world’s greatest magician, but that his allegiance to good or evil is undecided. They take him from the birth of the universe all the way through to its eventual death, ostensibly teaching him about the possibilities – and the price – of wielding magic before he decides whether to embrace his destiny. Along the way, Tim meets some of the DCU’s more prominent magicians and fantasy characters, whilst his allies try to protect him from the machinations of the Cult of the Cold Flame. Following his misadventures, Tim decides that the price is too high . . . only to find that everything he has learnt from his supposed mentors has made it impossible for him to turn away from magic.
2. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, Gene Luen Yang
As alienated kids go, Jin Wang is fairly run-of-the-mill: he eats lunch by himself in a corner of the schoolyard, gets picked on by bullies and jocks and develops a sweat-inducing crush on a pretty classmate. And, oh, yes, his parents are from Taiwan. This much-anticipated, affecting story about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese-American childhood; it’s a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape. The fable is filtered through some very specific cultural icons: the much-beloved Monkey King, a figure familiar to Chinese kids the world over, and a buck-toothed amalgamation of racist stereotypes named Chin-Kee. Jin’s hopes and humiliations might be mirrored in Chin-Kee’s destructive glee or the Monkey King’s struggle to come to terms with himself, but each character’s expressions and actions are always perfectly familiar. True to its origin as a Web comic, this story’s clear, concise lines and expert coloring are deceptively simple yet expressive. Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he’s depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you’ll already have reached out to others.
3. EMMA, Kaoru Mori
Meticulously researched and beautifully rendered, EMMA is a beloved, award-winning series that was adapted into an acclaimed anime series in Japan. In Victorian-era England, a young girl is rescued from a life of destitution and raised to become a proper British maid. Emma meets William, the eldest son of a wealthy family, and immediately falls in love with him. William shares her feelings, but the strict rules of their society prevent their relationship from ever coming out in the open. Traditional class distinctions and rich, historical details provide the backdrop for this appealing romance.–DC Comics
4. THE WALL: GROWING UP BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN, Peter Sis **
Born out of a question posed to Sís (Play, Mozart, Play!) by his children (Are you a settler, Dad?), the author pairs his remarkable artistry with journal entries, historical context and period photography to create a powerful account of his childhood in Cold War–era Prague. Dense, finely crosshatched black-and-white drawings of parades and red-flagged houses bear stark captions: Public displays of loyalty—compulsory. Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students. Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves. Text along the bottom margin reveals young Sís’s own experience: He didn’t question what he was being told. Then he found out there were things he wasn’t told. The secret police, with tidy suits and pig faces, intrude into every drawing, watching and listening. As Sís grows to manhood, Eastern Europe discovers the Beatles, and the Prague Spring of 1968 promises liberation and freedom. Instead, Soviet tanks roll in, returning the city to its previous restrictive climate. Sís rebels when possible, and in the book’s final spreads, depicts himself in a bicycle, born aloft by wings made from his artwork, flying toward America and freedom, as the Berlin Wall crumbles below. Although some of Sís’s other books have their source in his family’s history, this one gives the adage write what you know biting significance. Younger readers have not yet had a graphic memoir with the power of Maus or Persepolis to call their own, but they do now.–Publishers Weekly, ages 8 & up.
5. PERSEPOLIS, Marjanne Satrapi
Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up. Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom–Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today.
6. THE RABBI’S CAT, Joann Sfar **
Sfar, the French cartoonist behind the Little Vampire children’s books, has come up with a hilarious and wildly original graphic novel for adults. The nameless, scraggly-looking alley cat who narrates the story belongs to an Algerian rabbi in the ’30s. When the cat eats a parrot, he gains the power of speech and tries to convince his master to teach him the Torah, raising the question of whether the appropriate age for his bar mitzvah should be in human years or cat years. Of course, being a cat, he has plenty of impertinent opinions about Judaism. That’s a delicious setup on its own, but it gets better when the cat loses his speech again halfway through, and the story becomes a broader, more bittersweet comedy about the rabbi’s family and the intersection of Jewish, Arab and French culture. The rabbi’s daughter Zlabya marries a young man from a nonobservant family in France. The Algerian family’s visit with their Parisian in-laws is the subject of the final and funniest section of the book. Sfar’s artwork looks as mangy and unkempt as the cat, with contorted figures and scribbly lines everywhere, but there’s a poetic magic to it that perfectly captures this cat’s-eye view of human culture and faith.
7. EPILEPTIC, David B. **
The cartoonist’s memoir of growing up in a family in which his brother’s grand mal epilepsy regularly took center stage is packaged here in its entirety. Although the first part of this book appeared in English in 2002, published by L’Association, there is no demarcation within the current volume to show where that break in the story occurred–nor does there need to be. David B. reports on the childhood adventures and interests he and his siblings shared–including warrior fantasies, a fascination with World War II, and drawing–and the family’s increasing involvement in seeking help for coping with the epilepsy. The latter half of the complete work continues through adolescence and into manhood, including David B.’s education in art college and his founding of L’Association. His brother’s failure to respond for any duration to any form of treatment or to adjust to life with a chronic disease is presented with unsentimental but humane forthrightness. The heavily inked images include many hallucinatory panels, and subplots involve the grandparents’ prejudices, David’s developing relationships outside the family, and his continued interest in his family. While the final difficulties revolve around the author and his inability to become a father, most of the book is both accessible and of high interest to teens.–Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
8. THE RUNAWAYS, Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Adrian Alphona
This unusually clever, fun teen comic is based on the novel premise that parents don’t just seem evil, they actually are evil supervillains. Or so some kids find out one night while eavesdropping on a dastardly meeting they take to be a cocktail party. Although the children are each a “type” right out of sitcom land-the goth girl, the brain, the jock, the dreamboat, the shy one-they’re also fairly empathetic characters. Vaughan’s closely observed dialogue lends them authenticity and pathos as they go through the disturbing realization that their parents aren’t just jerks but actually mass-murderers. The plot builds from this initial discovery, as the kids band together, discover they, too, have superhuman powers and engage their parents in good, old-fashioned superhuman fisticuffs. The group goes on the run and discovers their parents have all of Los Angeles in their pockets-it’s enough to make a teenager feel more alienated than ever. Alphona’s dynamic, manga-influenced artwork agreeably complements Vaughan’s crisp writing. They tell the story with clarity, a dollop of drama and just enough pizzazz to hook video game-obsessed readers. Packaged in a manga-size paperback, Marvel’s attempt to tap both the manga and the young adult market nicely succeeds.–Publishers Weekly
9. 1001 NIGHTS OF SNOWFALL, Bill Willingham, illustrated by Charles Vess, Esao Andrews, & more **
Probably the smartest mainstream comic going, Fables usually concentrates on the contemporary activities of characters from children’s stories who now are living as secret refugees in New York. This collection gives glimpses of their individual backstories before the armies of the brutal Adversary drove them out of Fairyland. Readers will learn, for example, what spoiled the Big Bad Wolf’s disposition and what happened to the witch after Hansel and Gretel pushed her into the oven. It would be relatively easy to do clever, merely cynical readings of the fairy tales, but Willingham is after something much more interesting. Like Neil Gaiman and Tanith Lee, he’s reimagining the old stories, trying to see why they have survived and also to point out the aspects they somehow neglect: it’s only natural that Snow White would take revenge on the seven little rapists who abducted her, but the independent way she goes about it casts doubt on her subservient relationship to Prince Charming. Willingham reminds readers of how much they ignore in their anxiety to believe that all stories end happily ever after. Artists like Charles Vess, Mark Buckingham and Jill Thompson work up to the level of the perceptive scripts, making this a memorable, uncomfortably amusing treat.–Publishers Weekly
10. BUDDHA, VOLUME 1: KAPILAVASTU, Osamu Tezuka
Tezuka, the master of Japanese comics, mixes his own characters with history as deftly as he transfers the most profound, complex emotions onto extremely cartoony characters, and his work defies easy categorization. In Buddha, originally serialized in the 1970s and one of his last works, he lavishly retells the life of Siddhartha, who isn’t even born until page 268. Instead, Tezuka introduces Chapra, a slave who attempts to escape his fate by posing as the son of a general; Tatta, a crazed wild child pariah who communes with animals; Chapra’s slave mother, who stands by him no matter what; and Naradatta, a monk attempting to discover the meaning of strange portents of the Buddha’s birth. Throughout the book, the characters engage in fresh and unexpected adventures, escapes and reverses, as they play out Tezuka’s philosophical concern with overcoming fate and the uselessness of violence. Despite episodes of extreme brutality and broad humor, the core of the story revolves around various set pieces, as when Tatta sacrifices himself to a snake to save Naradatta and Chapra’s mom. After a moment of intense emotion, the scene is upended by the arrival of a bandit who mocks their attempts at keeping their karmic slates clean. “Why were you all fussing over some stupid trade? Why not just kill the snake and eat it?” The answer unfolds over succeeding volumes. Heavily influenced by Walt Disney, Tezuka’s often cute characters may take some getting used to, but his storytelling is strong and clean. Appearing in handsome packages designed by Chip Kidd, this is a stunning achievement.–Publishers Weekly
Still recovering from hitting the Irish coffee too hard on St. Patrick’s Day? These gems, set in Ireland, steeped in Irish folklore, or written by a few great Irish YA novelists, will help you get back on track.
1. NOTES FROM A SPINNING PLANET–IRELAND, (series), Melody Carlson
Affectionately teased as a “country bumpkin,” nineteen year-old Maddie has never been one to explore new territory. Her first trip outside of the country with her Aunt Sid and Sid’s godson, Ryan, promises an exhilarating adventure. Northern Ireland is more captivating than she even imagined–and Ryan is offering plenty of intrigue himself. During the journey, Maddie begins to discover more about what she wants from life, while developing a deeper friendship with her irresistible traveling companion. When Maddie and Ryan dig for the truth about the IRA car bomb that killed Ryan’s father years ago, questions about the past accumulate. Unable to let go of growing suspicions in this mysterious country, Maddie finds herself on a dangerous journey, a journey that will lead her to the greatest discovery of all.–Amazon
2. ARTEMIS FOWL, (series), Eoin Colfer
Colfer’s crime caper fantasy, the first in a series, starts off with a slam-bang premise: anti-hero Artemis Fowl is a boy-genius last in line of a legendary crime family teetering on the brink of destruction. With the assistance of his bodyguard, Butler, he masterminds his plan to regain the Fowls’ former glory: capture a fairy and hold her ransom for the legendary fairy gold. However, his feisty mark, Holly, turns out to be a member of the “LEPrecon, an elite branch of the Lower Elements Police,” so a wisecracking team of satyrs, trolls, dwarfs and fellow fairies set out to rescue her.–PW
3. 12 AGAIN, Sue Corbett
A riveting first novel. Overwhelmed with her life as a mother, wife, and newspaper journalist, Bernadette McBride decides to spend the night at her late Irish mother’s house. Helping herself to some mysterious liquid in the pantry, Bernadette ruefully wishes to be young again. When she awakens, she has been transformed into a 12-year-old on what should be her 40th birthday. She hears her mother calling her down for breakfast and is at first jubilant, but then realizes how complex her life has become. She enrolls in her oldest son’s school and tries to figure out how to undo her wish and get back to her husband and three boys. As weeks go by, her family assumes the worst but her son Patrick is certain that his mother will try to contact him, and he never gives up hope. When he receives her mysterious and untraceable e-mail sending him off on a dangerous errand, he realizes that her rescue is completely in his hands, and the results measure up to a satisfying conclusion. Corbett’s story, told from the alternating points of view of 12-year-old Patrick and Bernadette, is an extraordinary alchemy of elements that makes for an engaging read. The dialogue is natural and believable, and the emotions expressed by the characters are genuine. A great mix of fairy charms, Irish folklore, humor, mystery, and familial love. –Janet Gillen, Great Neck Public Library, NY for School Library Journal
4. THE GAME, Dianna Wynne Jones
Celestial intrigue and the nature of storytelling are just two of the strands woven together in Jones’s (the Chrestomanci books) inventive novella. Sent from her grandparents’ London home in disgrace, Hayley arrives in Ireland to stay with her aunts and cousins in their rambling castle home. The girl takes to her new life almost immediately, especially the thrilling game her cousins play, in which they venture into the mythosphere—a mysterious realm where they perform various tasks drawn from the worlds of fairytale, myth and legend. In the course of her own quests, Hayley discovers the truth about her own unearthly nature. She gets the chance to rescue her long-lost parents from dreadful fates, to which they’ve been condemned by domineering Uncle Jolyon, a power-hungry god thinly disguised as an unpleasant business man. Readers less familiar with classical mythology will be helped (and may well find their interest piqued) by a note at story’s end that clearly links the original Greco-Roman characters with their modern-day avatars.–PW
5. THE DEMON’S LEXICON, Sarah Rees Brennan
In this riveting debut novel, 16-year-old Nick and his older brother, Alan, are accustomed to life on the run. Since their father was murdered, the boys have been forced to slay demons set on them by magicians seeking the powerful charm stolen by the boys’ mother. Nick is furious when Alan receives a first-tier demon mark while saving a neighborhood boy. While seeking to remove it, Nick begins to suspect that his brother is lying to him about the reason for the magicians’ attempts to kill them and about why their mother screams whenever Nick touches her. Fans of the Supernatural television series will be hooked from the novel’s opening lines (The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.). Even teens who don’t consider themselves genre buffs will appreciate the solid writing, fast-paced plot, and sense of authenticity that Brennan gives to the shadowy world between ordinary, modern-day London and the otherworld of demons and magicians. Though Nick and Alan’s story is mostly resolved with Nick discovering the truth behind his father’s death and his mother’s fear of him, readers will no doubt clamor for the next book in this planned urban fantasy trilogy.–Leah J. Sparks, formerly at Bowie Public Library, MD for School Library Journal
6. THE CHRONICLES OF FAERIE, (series), O.R. Miller
An Irish Canadian author’s lauded fairy fantasies are updated and introduced to U.S. fantasy readers for the first time in O.R. Melling’s Chronicles of Faerie. The first volume, The Hunter’s Moon, follows two cousins, Gwen and Findabhair, as they backpack around Ireland in search of the country’s magical past. But the girls go too far when they dare to spend the night in a known fairy mound. Finn is stolen away by the dark king of Faerie to become his bride sacrifice to the Great Worm, or Hunter. It is up to timid Gwen to rescue her intrepid cousin, and she wonders if the task will be too much the first time she catches a glimpse of the Little People at play. “Gwen quaked inside. This wild abandon…was beyond anything she could imagine…Exquisite chaos.” But with the help of a fairy doctress and her handsome grandson, Gwen assembles a rag tag team of heroes determined to bring Finn back — even if it means the destruction of Faerie itself.–Jennifer Hubert for Amazon
7. THE ORAN TRILOGY, (series), Midori Snyder
(Series begins with “New Moon”.) Two hundred years ago, the Fire Queen destroyed her rival queens of Earth, Air, and Water in the fateful Burning and took power over Oran. No child with a trace of the elemental magic was allowed to live. Years later, the country still trembles under her oppression. But now there are rumors of hope. Four young women escaped—four who have the powers of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air—and are even now finding each other. At the same time, a ragtag army of artists and singers, orphans and vagrants, thieves and knifewielders is stealing into the city. Their sign is the bloodred, blade-thin New Moon . . .–Amazon
8. BALLADS, illustrated by Charles Vess & Jeff Smith, authors including Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Charles DeLint.
Ballads were little known to the literate world until the 18th century, when scholars began writing them down. Since then, they’ve received attention from folklorists, folksingers and, now, cartoonist Vess (Stardust; Rose). Vess and his collaborators put a little meat on the ballads’ often bare-bones stories, adding fantastic elements not in the originals (“Barbara Allen”), giving them modern settings (“Twa Corbies”), sexing them up (“Savoy”) and otherwise putting their own mark on them. Vess approaches them with an appropriately elegant style. His exquisitely detailed art delightfully recalls the Pre-Raphaelites here, Aubrey Beardsley there and elsewhere Winsor McCay or Gustave Dor . The best stories involve passion, whether celebrated (“King Henry” and “Savoy”) or cautioned against (“The Demon Lover” and “The Three Lovers”), though even the least effective stories are still beautiful. “The Three Lovers” is especially noteworthy; in it, Vess makes clever, subversive use of comics language, presenting a story that pretends to be a play (complete with proscenium arch). “Tam Lin” may be the collection’s consummate piece. In it, Vess goes for straight illustration, with each illustrated page facing a page of verse. Here Vess reaches the peak of his art, standing proudly with the 19th- and early 20th-century illustrators who influence him.–PW
9. THE HOLLOW KINGDOM, (series), Clare B. Dunkle
When orphaned Victorian teenager Kate and her younger sister move to an estate they have inherited, Kate feels sure she’s being watched. She’s not wrong. The suave, hideous Goblin King, Marak, plans to kidnap and wed her (goblin women are mostly infertile, so “crossing out” to other species ensures the survival of the race). All seems poised for clever Kate to outmaneuver the villain, but the seemingly conventional setup gives way to something far more intriguing: the dreaded marriage actually happens. Readers are then plunged into the goblins’ eerily lovely subterranean world, where Marak, despite his pitiless disregard for certain human sensibilities, surprises Kate with his wise leadership and husbandly concern. Each of the novel’s three parts fairly brims with plot, at times things seem a bit rushed, and Kate’s concluding adventure presupposes a devotion to her husband that hasn’t yet been convincingly established. But this is a fresh, powerful twist on the Beauty-and-the-Beast theme, and the impact of Dunkle’s evocative storytelling lingers long after the final page. –Jennifer Mattson for Booklist
10. LAMENT: THE FAERIE QUEEN’S DECEPTION, (series), Maggie Stiefvater
Sixteen-year-old Deirdre Monaghan, a gifted harpist who regularly plays for weddings and other events, has the kind of stage fright that makes her physically ill before a performance, which is an inauspicious way to start a romance; but while vomiting before a competition she meets a gorgeous boy who comes into the restroom to hold her hair. He is Luke Dillon, a flautist who proceeds to accompany her in a truly stellar performance. As four-leaf clovers start appearing everywhere, Deirdre develops telekinetic powers and encounters strange, unworldly people who seem to bear her ill will. Her best friend, James, also a talented musician; her beloved grandmother; and her mother all are in danger, as Deirdre is targeted by the queen of Faerie. Deirdre eventually discovers that she is a cloverhand, a person who can see the denizens of faerie, and Luke, not the only immortal who has her in his sights, is a gallowglass, an assassin assigned by the queen of Faerie to kill Deirdre but who falls in love with her instead. This beautiful and out-of-the-ordinary debut novel, with its authentic depiction of Celtic Faerie lore and dangerous forbidden love in a contemporary American setting. –Diana Tixier Herald for Booklist
11. IMPOSSIBLE, Nancy Werlin
Date rape, a pregnant teen, and a shotgun wedding (of sorts)—must be a YA problem novel circa 1985, right? Not really. From a hidden letter, 17-year-old Lucy Scarborough learns “all sorts of melodramatic, ridiculous, but true things” about the circumstances surrounding her rape on prom night, her subsequent pregnancy, and why therapy and her signature pragmatism won’t be much help against an ancient fairy’s curse. By the Edgar Award–winning novelist whose thrillers include The Rules of Survival (2006), this tale, inspired by the song “Scarborough Fair,” showcases the author’s finesse at melding genres. Although it’s perhaps overly rosy that Lucy’s devoted foster parents take the curse in stride, Werlin earns high marks for the tale’s graceful interplay between wild magic and contemporary reality—from the evil fairy lord disguised as a charismatic social worker to the main players’ skepticism as they attempt to solve the curse’s three archaic puzzles (“We’ve formed the Fellowship of the Ring when really we should’ve all just gone on medication”). Meantime, Lucy’s marriage to childhood pal Zach, a development unusual in YA fiction but convincing in context, underlies the catapulting suspense with a notion that will be deeply gratifying to many teens: no destiny is unalterable, especially not when faced with tender love magic, “weird and hilarious and sweeter than Lucy ever dreamed,” worked by truly mated souls. –Jennifer Mattson for Booklist