A lot of people are talking about how successful YA is right now and how picture books are on the downturn, but they're mostly referring to marketing and sales numbers—quantity, not quality. Despite some very cool individual titles, YA seems a little bogged down in cookie-cutter paranormal romances (sweeping generalization, I know!). The genre that is taking off and producing some really amazing stuff is the graphic novel, a variation on the comic book which tends to get attention for its reluctant reader appeal, but which should rather be fully appreciated as a burgeoning art/literature form comparable to the picture book. Not every attempt has worked, but I feel like a lot of the risk-taking in children's literature, creatively speaking, is happening in the graphic novel genre at this point in time.
I've read half a dozen graphic novels over the past month, many of them discovered thanks to other bloggers in Kidlitosphere. Of course, there were other standouts earlier in 2010, such as Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallero's Foiled or Shannon Hale and Nathan Hale's follow-up to Rapunzel's Revenge, Calamity Jack. Not to mention certain novels which were reimagined in GN form, e.g., Twilight. Here's a look at the graphic novels I've read lately.
Vögelein: Clockwork Faerie by Jane Irwin with Jeff Berndt
Steampunk meets the fey in this black-and-white graphic graphic novel about a small clockwork faerie whose protector dies, leaving her to wonder who will wind her up each day so that she won't die herself. But there's more to her quest than merely living or dying; she is a repository of memories going back more than a century, nearly to her invention by a German clockmaker. Flitting around a huge, dark city (New York?), Vögelein meets a homeless man and a potential human guardian who must prove his worth, as well as a real fairy who has become corrupted both by his long exposure to urban humans and by his hatred of them. We also get to hear a little of the clockwork faerie's history, including her travels with a gypsy and how she came to be more than just a wind-up toy. I thought the artwork could have included more setting details in spots, but the storytelling is intriguing. I also liked the poetry selections and quotes used at the beginning of each chapter. Clockwork Faerie will appeal to teen bibliophiles with an interest in fantasy and steampunk. The book is listed for 10 and up, but has an adult fiction sensibility that might make it best suited to older teens. Look for info about the sequel, Old Ghosts, at Jane Irwin's website.
The Clockwork Girl by Sean O'Reilly and Kevin Hanna
More clockwork! This book has pretty art, but the storytelling's awfully predictable. Start with two mad scientists—one into machines and one into organic monster building (reminiscent of Scott Westerfeld's Clankers and Darwinists). Wilhelm the Tinkerer has built a lovely little clockwork girl who eventually adopts the name Tesla, while Dendrus the Grafter has patched together a monster boy named Huxley (AKA Wolf-boy). The two scientists show off their work at a science competition (picture a science fair for grown-ups), where they exchange insults. From there we get a bit of a Romeo and Juliet feel as Tesla and Huxley make friends behind their creators'/fathers' backs. Turns out Wilhelm and Dendrus used to be best friends, and who better than their creations/kids to help them make up? A nice, full-color book for middle grades, but not outstanding. The story lacks heft and feels like a TV episode. Here's The Clockwork Girl website if you'd like to take a look.
Lunch Lady and the Bake Sale Bandit by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
The fifth book in Krosoczka's yellow-and-black series about a lunch lady who's secretly a superhero, aided by her own "Q" (Betty) and a trio of kids called the Breakfast Bunch. In this installment, someone steals the bake sale goodies which are intended to be sold to fund a field trip to a museum. (The field trip will be the topic of the next book.) The Lunch Lady books are aimed squarely at the second grade crowd and are consistently fun and funny. I especially like the use of kitchen implements and cafeteria food as weapons and spy devices. And if Krosoczka's books are kind of lightweight, well, they don't pretend to be anything else. Have your reluctant boy reader go through this very friendly series, after which he can move on to things like Ursula Vernon's Dragonbreath books and Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series. The series has girl appeal, as well, with its female superhero! Link through to Jarrett Krosoczka's website here.
The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds (and Homer!)
Graphic novel adaptations of great literature tend to feel like thinly veiled attempts to get reluctant readers to tackle Shakespeare and his buddies for instructional purposes, but this one soars past all that and stands on its own merits as a beautifully gruesome piece of epic storytelling. It's a fairly mature work, and not just because it makes you watch things like Cyclops and Scylla devouring humans or shows you just what a bloodbath Odysseus's homecoming really was. There's also a little sex, though mostly not shown in the act so much as before or after (with naked breasts, for those of you who dislike seeing that). No, it's just that the language is kind of dense from a kid standpoint and the story has what we call mature themes. Yet this is a very reader-friendly version of Homer's epic poem, all things considered, and just flat-out beautifully done. The pacing is perfect and the artwork is, too, page after page after page of gorgeous. I especially like how Hinds presents the gods and depicts the sea. Next I'm looking for his graphic novel version of Beowulf. Take a look at Gareth Hinds's website here.
Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel
Oh my, another chthonic tale! Garth Hale is a kid with a terminal illness, but he's not in hospice yet and certainly not ready to cross over. Except that a jaded ghost hunter named Frank Gallows accidentally sends Garth to the underworld while trying to capture a runaway ghost horse. Garth makes friends with the skeletal horse and meets up with his very own grandpa, while Frank gets fired and launches a secret rescue mission with the help of his ghostly ex-girlfriend, Claire Voyant. Then there's an official rescue mission, not to mention the fact that the other side has been taken over by a sneery guy named Vaugner. I love how TenNapel divides the afterlife into districts ruled by beings such as the Bone King, the Mummy Pharaoh, the Will-O'-the-Wisp Queen, and the Specter King from the South. I also like his humor and his vivid visual storytelling. Don't miss the cameo appearance by Benedict Arnold, for example. Oh, yes, and the fight scenes, complete with superpowers and characters turning into buildings. This is a marvelous graphic novel, and I hope there's a sequel. Ghostopolis is listed as YA or grades 7 and up, but I think a lot of 4th through 6th graders would like it, too. Check out TenNapel's website here. Also, it looks like they're going to make this one into a movie starring Hugh Jackman, presumably as Frank Gallows. (For more stories of the afterlife, though not graphic novels, try Neal Shusterman's Skinjacker Triology, Jodi Lynn Anderson's May Bird and the Ever After and sequels, and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin.)
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch
This graphic novel has gotten a lot of attention, and with good reason. It's set in a rural orthodox Jewish community—the time frame is unclear, but I guess that doesn't matter much. (One reviewer said it's contemporary, but it could just as easily be set in the early 1900s.) Originally a web comic with the provocative slogan, "Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl," Deustch's story is about Mirka, who lives with a slew of irritating siblings and a stepmother who's both irritating and wise and caring. Mirka really, really longs for adventure, and she gets her wish when she makes enemies with an angry talking pig, meets a witch, and then battles a troll in the apparently enchanted forest. Watch for the ways Mirka's culture is interwoven with the plot. Especially keep an eye out for knitting, not to mention Mirka's logic, which she apparently learned at her stepmother's knee. Aside from his obvious creativity, Deutsch's biggest success is the character of Mirka, who is very real and likable. Now, your average kid may not reach for Hereville, and I do think young readers would benefit from a little intro about Orthodox Judaism before launching into this book, but then they'll discover a great read. See the Hereville website for additional info.
Bonus Book: Not for kids, though! I also recommend the two volumes of James Turner's Rex Libris: I, Librarian and Book of Monsters. Very funny in a dry, off-the-wall way. Adventures of a square-jawed world-saving librarian with a noir sensibility. I suppose these are actually comic book compilations, though the lines between comic books and graphic novels are getting a little blurry these days. It becomes a technical matter of first being published in shorter installments. But then, that's how Charles Dickins worked, too!
Note for Worried Parents: As mentioned above, The Odyssey has gory violence and some references to sex.
Update (1-15-11): See also this 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list from YALSA, which I found thanks to a post at Kids Lit.