Haphaven

“If fortune plays you a bad hand, you can still win if you play the game right.”

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Alex Mills grew up learning about superstitions and how to keep herself safe. She always kept her lucky baseball bat at her side. Her father claimed that avoiding bad luck was their heritage because her great-great grandfather Zane Mills, a professional gambler, married Lady Luck. Together they watch over the Mills descendants.  Alex’s mother is more of a skeptic but doesn’t interfere with Alex and her dad bonding over these beliefs.

Alex’s father is killed in an accident when she’s still a young girl. Years later her mother asks her to let go of superstitions and not be afraid to celebrate her 13th birthday.  Alex agrees to do so and tempts fate by stepping on a crack. Suddenly her mother is paralyzed as if her back were broken. Alex is left to figure out what to do. She’s shocked by the sudden appearance of a leprechaun warrior who whisks her away to Haphaven, the land from which all superstitions draw their power. She must complete a quest to retrieve the one thing that will cure her mother.

This graphic novel is full of colorful characters, deception, hidden agendas and shout outs to familiar superstitions, elevating it from a simple fairy tale to a genuine adventure. The narrative benefits from dialog that is funny, snarky and engaging. The art conveys the creepy world of Haphaven but still shows the warmth of interactions among the characters.  Although Alex is the child of white father and black mother the story doesn’t focus on her identity. Rather, it centers her love of baseball, her relationship with her parents and her dangerous quest.

Once you’ve seen the world of Haphaven, I think you’ll join me in being more conscientious about throwing salt over your shoulder!

Click here to find Haphaven at your local independent bookstore or local comic shop.

New Kid

New kid, new lifestyle?

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In this graphic novel we meet Jordan Banks, a 12-year-old living in New York City, who has just started attending Riverdale Academy Day School. In addition to having to make new friends and navigate the culture of this very fancy private school, he must deal with the challenges of being one of a very few kids of color there. His parents reflect the mixed feelings Jordan brings to the experience. While his mother is excited that he has the opportunity to go to a school that’s well-resourced and will allow him to make connections, his father is concerned about the lack of diversity.

A bigger issue for Jordan is that he’d rather go to art school. Jordan is a cartoonist; his creations, which are interspersed throughout the book, show how he uses his art and sly sense of humor to work out his frustrations. Many of them center around how Jordan and 2 other African-American boys at the school are treated. Jordan lives in a 2-parent middle-class household, Drew lives with his grandmother, and Maury, who has been at Riverdale since kindergarten, is the son of a Fortune 500 CEO. Despite coming from different backgrounds each of them is subject to the same assumptions. This is really brought home at the school’s book fair. The only books featuring African-Americans involve slavery, gang life and poverty. Making matters worse, the event organizers hand each boy  “The Mean Streets of South Uptown.”  The adults assume this street lit reflects the lives of the African-American boys and they expect the boys to love it.

This moment really struck me because, sadly, I personally have seen librarians do this. It is infuriating that anyone would look at Black youth and imagine that they would only be able to relate to books where someone gets shot, is forced to deal drugs or has incarcerated or drug-addicted parents. The belief that this represents all the boys’ experiences is insulting; even worse is the assumption that students who could relate to this book would have no interest in reading anything else. There are other instances of macroaggressions, some of which are experienced by staff of color, others by students who feel like they’re outsiders for other reasons.

However, these issues are all raised organically with irony, sarcasm and humor, so the story is refreshing, not didactic. The art brings Jordan’s journey to life beautifully. The fresh, colorful palette is engaging and clearly expresses everything the characters are experiencing. Switching to black and white for Jordan’s cartoons helps focus attention on his real feelings.

New Kid is a wonderful graphic novel which will resonate with a variety of readers – no matter how far removed you are from middle school.  Find it at your local bookstore.

 

 

Bitter Root

Sometimes the monsters are right next door.

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Set during the Harlem Renaissance, Bitter Root tells the story of a New York City beset by monsters known as Jinoo, and the African American Sangerye family, the only people with the skills and knowledge to fight them off. It seemed the monsters had been put to rest but recently they have been rising again. This time it’s more difficult for the Sangeryes; the family is divided over methods, as well as who can fight the Jinoo. Even worse, a new creature, more powerful than they’d ever seen, has emerged. The Jinoo themselves used to be human. Their souls were corrupted by racism and violence, turning them into monsters; once turned they infect others. As we get deeper into the story, the battles facing the Sangeryes get more frightening. On the face, this is a good horror story. Looking deeper, the powerful narrative shows how people can allow themselves to be poisoned with hatred to the point where they lose their humanity. The art, in style, tone, and use of a deep, moody color palette, evokes a feeling of ever present danger.

Like the film Get Out, or much of Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction, the events in this reimagined reality provide a different way to examine real world issues. Three issues of this knockout comic series have been released as of this writing. Normally I would wait until the whole series, or possibly the trade version (one volume containing all the issues), had been published, but this comic is so good I couldn’t wait to talk about it.

Head out to your local comic book shop and pick it up! Not sure where your local comic book shop is located? Find it here!

 

If The Dress Fits…

Being true to yourself is easier said than done.

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In this lovely graphic novel, Frances, an aspiring designer makes an outrageous dress for a young woman attending a prince’s ball. The prince is captivated, not by the princess but by the dress.  Prince Sebastian is gender fluid, some days feeling fine in traditionally male clothing, other days loving wearing his mother’s dresses and feeling like a princess. Frances dreams of creating costumes for the Paris ballet and loves designing with drama. Prince Sebastian secretly employs Frances as his seamstress, and together they create Lady Crystallia, Sebastian’s alter ego who soon becomes the fashion icon for the young women of Paris. Secrets like this are hard to protect, especially when Sebastian’s parents have been presenting him with princess after princess, pushing him to get married. At the same time Frances grows frustrated because she cannot be recognized for her work. Eventually they both have to make some difficult decisions in order to move ahead. Jen Wang’s illustrations, in both style and tone, beautifully express the delight, drama and sadness the characters experience. Each chapter is introduced with an illustration of a pattern piece, a nice touch. Overall, this is a moving exploration of balancing what others expect of you with your own dreams. I was surprised to hear some “gatekeepers” saying this graphic novel is for high schoolers. The story is fine for middle schoolers; in fact, it’s important for them to see stories like this. They are in the midst of figuring out who they are, and seeing different ways of being helps sort out the confusion that comes with this journey.

The Prince and The Dressmaker, Jen Wang, First Second

Love and Soul reaping

Did I mention I also love comics and graphic novels?

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Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings is a sweet, queer love story that manages to be funny and creepy at the same time. Becka has been crushing on Kim and one day decides to ask her out. As Becka approaches her, Kim disappears through a portal, which Becka is then sucked into. She lands in a house and discovers Kim at her part time job – she’s a grim reaper. Understandably Becka is freaked out so Kim calmly explains she’s not a murderer, she just shepherds souls into the afterlife.  Kim is still new at the job and is only allowed to harvest animal souls; things get complicated when she decides to harvest a human, and has to face the consequences. Kim and Becka have a sweet relationship; Kim introduces Becka to the cool things about being a reaper and Becka shows Kim how much fun it is to work in a bakery.  They do their best to grow their relationship in the midst of reapings, possessions, zombie uprisings and dealing with Kim’s reaper bosses. They have their ups and downs but they come through for each other. The colorful art’s somewhat whimsical style supports the story well, easily being both charming and disturbing. The narrative around the relationship keeps the focus where it belongs – on the relationship itself, not their sexuality or culture. We get to see how two people can enjoy a life together – even if that life involves soul harvesting.

Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings, Sarah Graley, Oni Press