Your New School Library: Graphic Novel Edition #1

“Your New School Library” is a new column of book reviews that will highlight the expanding role of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and strong female characters in literature for children and young adults today. Once a month, we’ll tell you about books that help young girls be awesome.

Welcome one and all to Your New School Library’s first Graphic Novel Edition! While the term “graphic novel” often translates to “fancy words for a long comic book,” for my purposes with this column I’m going to make it mean “any story told through illustration.” In a field that has historically been dominated by men, strong ladies in graphic novels are increasingly on the rise and increasingly important. My reasons for how and why they are so important could fill an entire separate post, but for now, I’ll stick with just telling you about some of my favorite books.

Quick notes before we get started: I’m going to hit all age bases with these columns by including picture books, graphic novels for middle grade readers, and graphic novels for young adults (and those of us who love anything aimed at young adults). Not all of the stories will necessarily be queer, but they will all feature a female protagonist whose main storyline doesn’t involve snatching some dude.

The exciting truth is, there are now so many books in this category to choose from that narrowing down selections for this first post was difficult. If you enjoy this idea, I aim to stick these graphic novel editions into the column a few times a year. I rest assured that you will let me know what I should include next time in your comments! But for now, here’s what I selected for today.

For young readers:

Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride, words by Pam Munoz Ryan, pictures by Brian Selznick, Scholastic, 1999

If you want to teach your child about lesbian subtext early on in life, there is truly nothing gayer than the “friendship” of Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt. This picture book is based on the true tale of when Amelia impulsively took Eleanor on a joyride above our nation’s capital during a dinner party in 1933, all while “still dressed in their glamorous evening gowns!” If the subjects of this story weren’t dynamic enough, the creators of this book are also powerhouses of the children’s lit world. Among other accomplishments, Pam Munoz Ryan crafted one of the best female centered books for children of the last decade, Esperanza Rising, and Brian Selznick penned The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was adapted into the movie Hugo. Amelia and Eleanor’s story is charming at worst, romantic and beautiful at best, and the sweeping black and white illustrations throughout are wonderful. This book is slightly old, and I’ll include newer picture books in the future. (And let me just say, the power of the picture book is extremely underestimated.) But for this first column I had to include it, because it’s a delight.

For middle readers:

Rapunzel’s Revenge, words by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale, Bloomsbury, 2008

For those of us who are both feminists and children’s lit lovers, there’s nothing more satisfying than a good rewriting of a fairy tale, and this is one of the best, most fun revisions I’ve seen. Remember how Rapunzel was locked up in a tower until she let a prince climb up her long, long hair? Right. It does seem silly (and painful). But In Hale’s version, she uses that long, long hair to get herself out of her imprisonment, thankyouverymuch. After she’s freed herself, she does run into that prince who was supposed to come to her rescue:

If that weren’t enough, our Rapunzel then continues to lasso that hair to use as a weapon to fight some outlaws, and eventually to help rescue her real mother from the witch Gothel. She does eventually get some help from a sidekick she runs into, Calamity Jack–although it should be said that the first time she befriends him, he’s dressed in drag. But Rapunzel remains the star of the show. Along with the endlessly entertaining story, the illustrations and color throughout are equally fantastic.

For older readers:

I Kill Giants, words by Joe Kelly, art and design by Jm Ken Nimura, Image Comics, 2009

Barbara Thorson does not fit in. She’s not even just your typical angsty outcast so often seen in lit for young people. Because you see, in addition to scorning her peers with a biting, hilarious wit and clarity, she also swears that she fights giants. Yeah, giants. Real ones. She never lets go of her satchel, which houses the weapons necessary to fight these evil-doers. Also, there’s something really scary going on with her house.

Not surprisingly, the “giants” end up being not quite what we’re first led to believe, and this book turns out to be more realistic fiction than fantasy, more tragedy than comedy. I’ve seen this trope many times before in children’s lit, in comics in particular — young person facing horrible circumstances on her own, creating her own way to deal with it. Yet what makes I Kill Giants special is that it is all just done so well. When it’s funny, it’s really funny, and when it’s sad, it’s really sad, with every dramatic turn dealt with subtly, with respect and sophisticated craft. It has an important message without being cheesy in the least, a tricky feat to accomplish in any art form. The black and white art and design is also sleek, interesting, and effective. Excellent stuff.

Anya’s Ghost, words and art by Vera Brosgol, First Second, 2011

Neil Gaiman called this book “a masterpiece,” and it’s a good general rule of thumb to listen to Neil Gaiman. I’ve also come to trust anything published by First Second, which has printed some other favorites of mine such as American Born Chinese, The Color of Water (which I will also review soon), and Robot Dreams, among many others. Seriously: First Second is doing high-quality, important work. 

Not only does Anya’s Ghost star a super duper creepy ghost, but it also has a Russian-American teenaged girl as the protagonist, which I personally had never seen before. Our girl Anya is angsty and lonely, but she’s different from Barbara Thorson. While Barbara truly has no interest in her peers, Anya longs for it. She longs to shed the immigrant girl vibe, she longs for the cute popular guy. Don’t worry, the creepy ghost stuff way outweighs this plot line.

That creepy ghost I keep talking about shows up when Anya falls into a deep hole one day, where her only other company is a pile of bones of another girl who fell into the hole long ago. While Anya is rescued, she carries a small bone of the girl in her bag, allowing the ghost to follow her wherever she goes. At first, this seems like a bonus  — her ghost can come with her to school and spy on whoever she wants! But soon, the ghost’s darker desires become clear, and with them, Anya begins to realize what the ghost has wrong, and what she has right. Empowering and unique.

The Plain Janes, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, Minx/DC Comics, 2007

This story starts out with a girl  — our first Jane  — surviving a catastrophe in Metrocity. They refer to this event as a bomb explosion, but it strikes me as purposely reminiscent of 9/11. Accordingly, after this, Jane’s parents don’t feel comfortable in the city anymore, and decide to move to where it’s “safe”: the suburbs. But for Jane, her new high school doesn’t feel safe. It feels isolating and boring, and she misses the culture and vibrancy of the city. But then at lunch, she stumbles onto a table where the girls seated there are all reading, writing, or doing their own thing, and her eyes light up: she has found her people. Her people also happen to all be called Jane, or some variety of it. But even the Janes don’t seem that interested in accepting her as their new buddy. Our protagonist is resilient though, and still gives becoming their friend a valiant try. She finally strikes gold when she walks past a vacant lot destined to become a strip mall, and is hit with an idea. An idea the other Janes are willing to try.

It’s called PLAIN  — People Loving Art in Neighborhoods. The Plain Janes commence to acts of local-art-rebellion, plotting up strange ideas and carrying them out in the night, leaving the townspeople to stare and wonder the next day. After building pyramids in the vacant lot they put bubbles in the fountain; they wrap statues and storefronts in bows; they place huge balloons in random places; they instruct everyone to sing out at the same time no matter where they are. And like most art and things that people don’t understand, it scares the hell out of the adults. Curfews are put in place; people who participate in PLAIN are threatened. And the original Jane starts to wonder if it’s all worth it  — and if art really can save her.

Awkward, Definition, Potential, and Likewise: The High School Comic Chronicles of Ariel Schrag, Simon & Schuster, 1995-1998

These books are not new, but they are still revolutionary in their concept, content, and ambition, and they have to be included in my first graphic novel column, as they are essentially and collectively the Graphic Novel For The Young Lesbian. The lowdown is this: Ariel Schrag decided to document each year of her high school experience in comic form, with Awkward chronicling her freshman year up until Likewise for her senior year. The thing that blows my mind, though, is that she wrote them while she was still in school, distributing them to her peers as they were finished. The time and detail that went into preserving her memories and creating these books is simply incredible. If there was a picture of the word “authentic,” it should be Ariel Schrag’s High School Comic Chronicles. They are full of the inescapable joy, doubt, philosophy, and pain of youth, told as it was lived, told better than most adults who attempt to convey it.

Awkward and Definition are now packaged together and are jam packed with excitement for ’90s punk and Gwen Stefani, alcohol and drugs, best friends, and the beginnings of a fluid sexuality, and they frequently had me legit laughing out loud. Potential starts with hilarity as Ariel begins to fully realize and accept her lesbianism, even as she struggles as a science nerd to understand the biology behind it. She cycles through a few girls until she meets the first love of her life, Sally, who occupies most of the second half of the book. Oh, Sally, Sally, Sally. Ariel and Sally’s relationship is at turns sweet, at turns tortuous, and like a lot of love, frequently all-consuming. 

The last volume, Likewise, is a huge book in comparison to the others, both in subject matter and length. Most of it deals with heartbreak over losing Sally or meditations on the comic, which at this point has understandably become larger than Ariel herself. At the same time, she begins to experiment artistically in a way she never has before. A lot of the writing also runs by you in a stream of consciousness style, at times brilliant, at times purposely incoherent. Ariel’s pain and ache and honesty are almost too much for me to bear at points in this behemoth of a comic. Regardless, the entire series remains one of the most impressive achievements I’ve ever read. And listen: there is a lot  — a lot  — of sex.

News broke a few years ago that Potential was being made into a movie by Killer Films (Boys Don’t Cry, Kids, Far From Heaven) with the screenplay adapted by Schrag herself, but sadly, no word of a release date or any other real news has come forth since then. For now, if you want to keep yourself occupied with Schrag entertainment, you can read her online comic, Ariel and Kevin Invade Everything.

I’ve been a bit behind with this Your New School Library column due to other events in my life, which I apologize for. But after this, I promise to get my reading hat firmly back on and be back to your regularly scheduled programming next month with more “traditional books” for young queer folk, including a review of Malinda Lo’s new upcoming sci-fi novel, Adaptation.

Meanwhile, what are your own favorite female-centric graphic novels for young people that I should know about for next time?