5 Great Middle grade graphic novels I read recently
As I've decided to dedicate myself more towards a goal of illustrating graphic novels for a middle grade audience (8-12 years old) I've spent a lot of time researching and reading a lot of what is currently being published. I've concluded there's never been a better time for young readers interested in graphic novels than now. There is just such a wonderful variety of books out, with great art and great writing that takes the genre and the target audience as seriously as they deserve to be.
When I was young and learning to read the only comics in the library were Asterix and Tintin, and I devoured every issue of them I could get my hands on. In fact I think I might credit really learning to read with Asterix comics.
Here are 5 graphic novels for a middle grade and tween audience that I was really inspired by reading recently.
1. LIGHTFALL: The Girl and The Galdurian by Tim Probert
Published 2020, by Harper Alley
This is exact sort of middle grade graphic novel that I love. The story is an adventure set in a magical fantasy world, the writing is tight and funny, the character designs are instantly iconic and every single page is beautiful.
The way Tim Probert draws and uses the full colour range makes each page feel like a painting, and his drawings are not overly fussy and complicated but so highly skilled. I love seeing that he 'inks' with a mechanical pencil that has a real tactile sense and there are often little ghosts you can see of his construction lines and initial sketches in there if you look hard.
The way he draws and paints nature is fabulous, and his panel pacing is excellent, giving jokes little 'beats' and moments to breathe. The story feels akin to something like BONE where the world starts small and the tone is light but then will just unfold and get bigger and deeper with each new instalment.
I particularly like the subtle subtext about anxiety that that the main character is dealing with, though it's not heavy handed or 'messagy' it grounds the fantastical story in relatable emotions.
2. BE PREPARED by Vera Brosgol
Published 2018 by First Second
I devoured this one in a single sitting and was just completely charmed by both the illustration and the writing by Vera Brosgol. It's the story of a tween girl and her younger brother getting sent to a summer camp and dealing with it not being exactly what she had hoped it would be.
The emotions and scenes all feel so real and lived in, and through the specificity of her story there is a strong universality and keen understanding of what it is to be in that strange in between stage of life. I was moved almost to tears by a few passages and really felt invested in this girl and her story.
Her character design achieves something that seems easy but is actually incredibly hard, the faces are all simple, yet distinct and extremely expressive. The rendering is in black ink with tones of green with just enough texture and roughness to really bring out the rustic summer camp in the middle of nowhere feel. Her panel pacing is great as well, letting moments really breath by giving multiple panels over to something as like our main character trying to chop wood. there are also so may wordless panels devoted to just letting an emotional moment sink in, to watch a slight look in the eye change, or cheeks flush with embarrasment. It's just incredible storytelling.
3. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by Mariah Marsden and Brenna Thummler
Published 2017 by Andrews McMeel
This classic story has been interpreted many times, from the t.v. series I remember watching as a kid, to the more recent Anne with an E Netflix show, but this is the first time I'd ever read it in book or graphic novel form. Of course the original books probably has much more depth, this adaptation captures everything about Anne that makes it a magical story.
The linework Brenna Thummler uses here is so fluid and beautiful and I particularly like the way she draws trees and wrinkles in clothing. There are a lot of wide, poetic, magical illustrations of nature which really do justice to Anne's imagination and loquacious descriptions of her environment. The only thing that took me a while to get into was the face design for Anne, the circle dot eyes and the little mushroom nose didn't quite work for me to convey the emotions Anne feels so deeply- but eventually I wasn't bothered by it and honestly I'm so impressed that Thummler took just a big swing to make such an interesting design choice. The colouring is another highlight for me, with the ink lines being tinted green or blue and the colours that somehow feel both muted and vibrant. I particularly like the dappled lighting in scenes set among the trees.
4. THIS WAS OUR PACT by Ryan Andrews
Published 2019 by First Second
Ryan Andrews achieves something that is very hard to do, using a wiggly simple line that looks loose and tossed off, but maintains perfect character consistency and conveys emotion. I often think of someone like Quinten Blake (who did the Roald Dahl illustrations) as the master of that. Each illustration seems to be done almost 'sloppily' but then taken all together you realize that the character design is totally consistent.
This is another fantasy story that has one foot in grounded middle grade concerns of friendship dynamics of a pack of boys out for a bike ride at night and one foot in a totally magical world of magic and cosmic animal friends, particularly a charming bear that accompanies the boys for a lot of their adventure.
The whole book almost feels like a dream, the way it starts slightly grounded, with the boys seeming to exist in the real world, but ends up totally fantastical populated with a starlit magical environments. The colouring in this book is particularly striking, mostly in shades of blue and black, but then switch strikingly into bright pink or yellow tones when our characters go into particular environments.
5. THIS ONE SUMMER by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Published 2014 by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press
This is the one book on the list that maybe is for a slightly older audience than middle grade. I'd probably peg the audience for this book at 12-15, as some of the themes and language are more 'teen' despite the characters being both tweens. But it's totally authentic to the experience of a young teen who is becoming aware of the dynamics or relationships of the older kids and their parents and are trying to seem more grown up and savvy than they really are.
This book is extremely well written and drawn and totally pulls you into that feeling of being stuck between being a kid and teen, and the feeling of having a 'summer friend' who you are slowly growing apart from. The whole book is so well observed so real and lived in, the location feels so specific and the characterizations and drawings are so tight and on point. The details of everything feel so specific, from the furniture at the cabins to the shelves of the local store to the natural environment.
There's a lot going on in this book, mainly about the two main protagonist young girls, but also in the world around them, we get glimpses into their parents and the older kids in the cottage town they inhabit, but it's all through the eyes of the protagonist Rose who Mariko Tamaki is unafraid to write as a three dimensional person. We understand her motivations, and sympathize with her often but also see her being a bit of a jerk, or a bad friend or missing the depths of what her parents are going through. This is a really deep book, and the illustrations are fabulous. Can't say enough good things about this one.