6 New Middle Grade Graphic Novels to Comfort, Entertain, and Enlighten

Starting the school year means new pencils and notebooks, and for some kids, an uptick in anxiety. Shifting allegiances among friends, changes at home, and required presentations in class can all make kids sick to their stomachs, emotions conveyed beautifully by the authors and illustrators behind these sensitive, witty, and engaging new graphic novels.

Guts, by Raina Telgemeier
Raina Telgemeier is one of the key figures in the recent boom in graphic novels for kids. She got her big break when she was hired to create graphic novel versions of the first four books in The Babysitters Club series. Her first autobiographical graphic novel, Smile, shot to the top of the bestseller list. Kids—and the adults who occasionally raid their kids’ bookshelves for reading material—love Telgemeier’s frank, funny take on sibling squabbles and adolescent struggles, and her bright, clear drawings that bring Raina’s everykid world to life. In Guts, Telgemeier tells the story of the devastating anxiety that struck her when she was in elementary school, causing terrible stomach aches that kept her home from school. As Raina faces her best friend moving away, the terrifying prospect of a class presentation, an overcrowded house, and a mean girl’s ire, kids will be riveted, and just might find a way to speak up about their own troubles.

Sunny Rolls the Dice, by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm
The chronicles of Sunny, child of the ’70s, that began with Sunny Side Up continue here as Sunny enters seventh grade in her school in Pennsylvania in 1977. Sunny’s best friend Deb loves teen magazines, feathered hair, and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, and is ready to put childish things aside, but Sunny still thinks being a kid is more fun than obsessing about crushes and hair. Some boys from the neighborhood teach Sunny how to play a fascinating new adventure game, Dungeons & Dragons, and Sunny is rapt, but her female friends think the game is lame. With humor and verve, the Holms convey Sunny’s shifting emotions as she charts where she stands on the “Groovy Meter” and attempts to navigate her friendships. Young readers will relate to the emotions and interpersonal dynamics, while enjoying the novel ’70s flair of the fashions, expressions, and hobbies, especially kids who are fans of Stranger Things and want to know more about D&D.

Best Friends, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
In this second collaboration between Hale and Pham, the author-illustrator duo demonstrate their total respect for what matters to kids—they know friendship drama that might seem silly to adults can dominate a young person’s existence. The shifting power dynamics among groups of friends can be so complex that an adult might get lost as a tween tries to explain it, but Hale and Pham walk the reader through carefully. As this graphic memoir opens, young Shannon is entering the sixth grade on top of the world. She and her friends will be the oldest in the school, and the most popular girl, Jen, wants to be her best friend. But Shannon’s position as Jen’s top pick is always under threat with Jen’s former favorites scheming to overthrow her and Shannon’s own joie de vivre often leading her to act in a way the others consider dorky. Pages from the fantasy adventure story young Shannon is writing are woven throughout. Pham’s illustrations convey every moment of elation, anxiety, rejection, and contentment that young Shannon experiences.

Stargazing, by Jen Wang
This moving, funny, and beautiful graphic novel plunges the reader into the Chinese-American community where two girls, Christine Hong and Moon Lin, meet. Christine is a disciplined striver, aiming to keep up with the top violin player in the orchestra. She’s so concerned about perfect math grades that when they slip, she convinces her parents to sign her up for extra tutoring. When Christine’s parents learn that a family from their church community is having money trouble, they clean out their extra unit and rent it to Mrs. Lin and her daughter Moon. Moon has a reputation for fighting and being weird, but Christine soon finds that Moon enjoys a freedom and carefree nature she longs for. Moon loves K-Pop, doesn’t speak Chinese, and paints her toenails blue. The girls become fast friends before a medical scare inspired by the author’s experience of having a brain tumor removed when she was six threatens to derail their plans to perform a K-Pop dance at the school talent show. Sweet and atmospheric, Stargazing captures the genuine inspiration we derive from our friends.

The Okay Witch, by Emma Steinkellner
Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel captures both typical adolescent social anxiety and an extraordinary magic world. Moth is growing up in Founder’s Bluff, Massachusetts, with her single mom who runs a thrift store, constant harassment by boys at school who single her out for being different, and no friends until a new boy named Charlie moves to town. In history, the kids learn about a witch hunt in their town in the 1600’s and how the town’s mayor is a descendent of the town’s founder, who hated witches. The problem is, Moth is beginning to have some magical experiences that suggest she might be a witch herself. Steinkellner captures the atmosphere of an old New England town, and in the midst of this rollicking fantasy adventure, manages to make some vital points about how history often only tells one side of the story.

White Bird by R.J. Palacio
R.J. Palacio’s smash hit Wonder catapulted her career as an author and sparked the Choose Kind movement. But Palacio’s first love was art: she started out drawing illustrations for newspapers and magazines and designing book covers as an art director for publishing houses. Her debut graphic novel shows off her skills as a storyteller, artist, and conveyor of wisdom. As the book opens, Julian, a character from Wonder, FaceTimes his grandmother in France, and asks her to tell the story of how she survived the Holocaust. Reluctant at first, Grandmère realizes she must share the tale so the young generation won’t forget those horrors. Born Sara Blum in a Jewish family, she was the pampered only child of her surgeon father and her math teacher mother in a small village in France in the 1930s. Her world is disrupted when the Nazis take over, and her parents consider fleeing, but don’t do so quickly enough. On the terrible day when the Nazis come to round up all the Jewish children in town, Sara is spared by a boy everyone called Tourteau (“crab” in French) because he must use crutches due to the aftermath of polio. As this somber, heartfelt story shows, kindness can save a life, and kindness turned into action can change the world.

Does your young reader enjoy graphic novels?

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