I read four of the seven finalists in the 2014 Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels category – the other three were not available through my libraries. Here’s a rundown of them:
El Deafo by Cece Bell. Amulet Books, 2014.
This graphic memoir about the author’s growing up deaf is one that I’d heard about when it first came out, but it was never on the shelf and I didn’t bother to put a hold on it until January, when it made the Cybils shortlist and also won a Newbery Honor award. It really is a wonderful book. Cece explores her feelings about her deafness and especially the bulky hearing aid she had to wear to school which proved to be both socially awkward and a hidden superpower. But even as the reader – hearing or deaf – gets a view into the difficulties posed by her deafness, it’s also filled with the funny and painful ordinary adventures of trying to make and keep friendships. The illustrations of people with bunny ears are deceptively simple, but deftly convey emotions. I’m reading it aloud to my daughter, whose hearing loss is mercifully much less severe – but it’s the first book I’ve found for her with a hearing-impaired protagonist. My ten-year-old also routinely sneaks into her bedroom to listen to me read it, and then makes off with it himself to continue reading, a sure sign of its powers. It’s mostly about Cece’s elementary school years, and clearly has appeal for kindergarten on up, though probably older elementary and up for independent reading. I’ll be buying this for our home library.
Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley. GRAPHIX, 2014
This memoir, also about school days, focuses on middle and high school, as Jimmy (the author of the very popular Amelia Rules books) relates the story of how he made his first, self-published comic book. It’s rooted in his Catholic school experience, as an illness that keeps him out of school for a long time both ignites his passion for comics and makes him disillusioned about staying ahead at school, as he’d always done. Basketball, comics, school, friendships and first dates weave together in this highly relatable story. I especially loved his presentation to a disapproving Sister on the importance of comics. Though it’s high school with dating, things never go beyond a kiss or two, keeping the content appropriate for middle grade kids and up. The title comes from Jimmy’s response to his best friend Tony’s suggestion that rather than writing a comic mash-up of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, he write about their own life. Though memoir for kids has the potential to be too adult and therefore boring to kids, this reads more like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile with just enough perspective for honesty while still keeping that kid’s sensibility. It is funny and true, and my boy and I both zipped through it with enjoyment.
Hidden by Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, and Greg Salsedo. English translation by Alexis Siegel. First Second, 2014.
This one won a Sydney Taylor award for Jewish literature from the ALA as well as being on the Cybils shortlist. It tells the story, fictionalized from true accounts, of Dounia, a young Jewish child in Paris during the Nazi occupation. It’s told through a frame story of Dounia as a grandmother telling it to her grandchild. As with the previous book, it’s easy to make a story about a child too adult for a child simply by telling it from an adult perspective, but Dounia’s perspective in the book is still limited to her knowledge as a child, with the frame story mostly serving as reassurance that she’s going to make it out OK. Dounia’s father first tells her that the yellow stars they have to wear are sheriff’s stars, and it’s only when she and the other Jewish children in school are mocked by their teachers that she realizes that it means something else entirely. Things go from bad to worse until the day she has to hide in a cupboard as her parents are taken away and wait for the neighbors to rescue her. Eventually, they have to flee Paris and Dounia gets new pretend parents, who work as hard as they can to find out where her real ones are. The story never gets into what really has happened to them, though it’s dreadfully obvious to anyone who knows about the Nazis. This is as sensitive a treatment of the topic as you can get, but I still didn’t find myself wanting to bring it home to my son. As much as he loves reading about military history, concentration camps are quite different, and I don’t think he’d be able to read the book without having more questions. The large-headed characters in the art add to the childlike feeling of the whole piece, so that another librarian and I were discussing if that would make it unappealing to the middle school students who might otherwise be the right age for starting to learn about the Holocaust. Still, this a good introduction for children just old enough to learn about this difficult and important topic.
Ballad by Blexbolex. Translated by Claudia Z. Bedrick. Enchanted Lion Books, 2013.
A short paragraph tells the story of two children coming home from school, followed by a page with just one word for each of the major events in the story. The story is retold again and again, getting longer and more fantastical every time as bandits, a queen, a witch and more are involved in the adventure. The illustrations are bright screen-printed images with a decidedly retro look, and the adventure is exciting if a little hard to follow exactly because of the very short descriptions and single-page illustrations rather than panels. This is a really neat concept piece, and I enjoyed both the illustrations and the story, which never clarifies whether the adventure is really happening or all in the mind of the school children. The biggest drawback is that the text is all in a round cursive script, so that when I took it home for my son to read, he just couldn’t decipher it.