MMGM and #IMWAYR: A-Okay, Twins, and more!

Y'all may know that I love the show Steven Universe, and one of the show's soundtrack composers, aivi, has a solo EP called tiger & water that I've been listening to—and I'm completely obsessed with it! I especially recommend track 3, "Undercurrent," which has a guest vocalist and is just brilliant.

Now for books! I'm excited to recommend a pair of MG graphic novels today—let's dive in!

Middle Grade:

A-Okay

Written and illustrated by Jarad Greene
Graphic novel · 2021
Recommended by Kellee Moye

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

A-Okay by Jarad Greene is a vulnerable and heartfelt semi-autobiographical middle grade graphic novel about acne, identity, and finding your place.  

When Jay starts eighth grade with a few pimples he doesn’t think much of it at first…except to wonder if the embarrassing acne will disappear as quickly as it arrived. But when his acne goes from bad to worse, Jay’s prescribed a powerful medication that comes with some serious side effects. Regardless, he’s convinced it’ll all be worth it if clear skin is on the horizon!

Meanwhile, school isn’t going exactly as planned. All of Jay’s friends are in different classes; he has no one to sit with at lunch; his best friend, Brace, is avoiding him; and—to top it off—Jay doesn’t understand why he doesn’t share the same feelings two of his fellow classmates, a boy named Mark and a girl named Amy, have for him. 

Eighth grade can be tough, but Jay has to believe everything’s going to be a-okay…right?

· · · · · ·

I really enjoyed this graphic novel, which pairs a keen exploration of middle-school life with a look at some issues not often explored in MG books!

Sometimes, it feels like I read MG books as a way of healing my own middle-school-shaped wounds—there's something cathartic about reading stories filled with the joy and kindness that I'm not positive is the dominant emotion of those years. And I'm happy to say that A-Okay has a good heart, and brings that same kind of compassion and warmth that I love in MG graphic novels!

Part of why I loved this book so much is Jay himself. Jarad Greene draws from his own experiences, albeit in a fictional narrative, to create Jay, who reminds me a bit of Olive from the Click series in his ability to show kindness to so many different kids even while pushing through his own struggles. Jay has to learn to navigate fractured old friendships while forming sometimes-messy new ones, but interests like his passion for art serve as a bit of a north star for him through these tricky times. I also love that things like Jay's shyness, or his style in art class (which is perhaps more lighthearted and less "cool" than what norms might demand) are ultimately accepted as a part of his character, even as he grapples with some realistic anxiety about them.

I loved the LGBTQ+ representation in this story too—I feel like a lot of graphic novels that tackle the drama of middle school like to draw a big map of interlocking boy-girl crushes, while completely ignoring the fact that so many students' experiences fit outside that structure. (I will briefly note a favorite graphic novel that does account for this, which is Drama by Raina Telgemeier! How have I never reviewed that book...) Anyway, I was so excited to see A-Okay explicitly explore asexuality within the context of all these relationship dynamics—especially there is a genuine pittance of ace rep in any kidlit, much less MG. And besides asexuality, this book also includes same-gender crushes, helping create a fuller picture of what early relationships in middle school look like.

Speaking of relationships, I think there's this implicit (and ridiculous) assumption in life that if you tell your crush you like them and they don't like you back, they will hate you forever (I guess for you daring to burden them with your attraction or something) and your relationship will be ruined. And I love that A-Okay dares to question this notion by asking: if you're comfortable with the idea that someone's attracted to you, and you're willing to honestly express that you're not attracted in return, does it truly have to be the end of the friendship?

Honestly, I can think of even more smart things this book has to say about MG crushes, but I won't give everything away upfront!

The big-ticket issue this book advertises is acne. And Jay's acne is certainly no joke—amidst growing insecurities and an unpleasant share of teasing and bullying, Jay ends up on the wonderful (not) medication Accutane, which brings all kinds of wild side effects in its quest to clear his skin. I've never seen any books talk about the experience of acne, and the specific details will definitely be normalizing for so many readers. But more than that, what I was drawn to was how Jay's experience with acne affects his self-image. It's hard enough to be shy in middle school and not want anyone to look at you, and feeling like your face is literally screaming out for negative attention only makes this a million times harder for Jay. And having read the author's note by Jarad Greene, I also want to call attention to how this book normalizes being concerned about one's own appearance, rather than shaming people like Jay for not achieving the impossible double standard of looking "flawless" (whatever that means) and doing it without thought or effort.

In terms of craft, I love how sharp the dialogue in this story is—it feels like how people actually talk, which is definitely not always a guarantee in books! I do think the plotting is a little messy in places, with some events that don't lead to payoff or that aren't resolved in a meaningful way. But the art is fabulous—it's crisp, colorful, and realistic, and the two-page spreads that start off each chapter do such a great job using little visual details to bring life to the story. I also love one particular spread showing Jay's room in detail, and conveying interests of his (like Nintendo characters) entirely through visuals. And speaking of art, the cover art being set amidst an expanse of white is such a creative choice—I love how it looks, and the ways in which it resonates with the story's themes (in terms of the perfection of the white vs. the unachievable perfection of beauty standards) is intriguing as well.

Overall, I'm happy I finally took the time to read this story—A-Okay explores experiences not often discussed in MG books, depicts middle school life with respect and sharpness, and brings smart craft choices to the table too, resulting in a snappy and thoughtful MG graphic novel that I think will mean a lot to young readers!

Twins

Written by Varian Johnson and illustrated by Shannon Wright
Graphic novel · 2020
Recommended by Cheriee Weichel and Sue Jackson

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

Maureen and Francine Carter are twins and best friends. They participate in the same clubs, enjoy the same foods, and are partners on all their school projects. But just before the girls start sixth grade, Francine becomes Fran -- a girl who wants to join the chorus, run for class president, and dress in fashionable outfits that set her apart from Maureen. A girl who seems happy to share only two classes with her sister!

Maureen and Francine are growing apart and there's nothing Maureen can do to stop it. Are sisters really forever? Or will middle school change things for good?

· · · · · ·

This was so good! Seriously, why do I let all these books linger on my shelves for years—I should have read this ages ago!

There's a ton to love about Twins, not the least of which is its exploration of, well...being twins. Author Varian Johnson draws from his own experience as an identical twin to craft the dynamic between Maureen (our protagonist) and her identical twin Francine (or Fran, the name she is testing out). I think for a lot of us, we're so used to feeling lonely that the idea of having a twin is really fun—it's like having a guaranteed best friend! Except...it's not. Twins carefully and thoughtfully shows the frustrations of how identical twins get treated in the world. Differences between Maureen and Fran either get ignored entirely, so that the two kids can be lumped into a singular whole, or get acknowledged with the implicit expectation that the other girl needs to live up to the "standard" the first is setting. Being sixth graders, the two girls are still practicing their perspective-taking, so as Maureen stresses about being in Fran's spotlight socially and now having to fend for herself, she also learns that perhaps Fran is struggling to measure up to Maureen too.

I also really appreciate how willing this story is to show the messiness of life. It might be genuinely impossible to have productive fights in middle school, and Maureen and Fran have certainly endured a lot of crap in their quests to be who they are today. So things aren't exactly rainbows and butterflies between them—there's one brilliantly crafted scene showing Maureen's thought process as she intends to tell Fran something important, but procrastinates and procrastinates until things get chaotic. This book isn't always as uplifting as some MG graphic novels, but I think it does a better job than most understanding the ways that middle school genuinely hurts, while also balancing that with enough sweetness and energy to keep you plowing through the pages.

And then there's student council. And as I've said before, I really don't know if there's a more effective or more socially acceptable way to utterly demolish human relationships than running for student council—I feel like we need to rethink if this is actually healthy for kids. But it's certainly fertile storytelling ground for exploring these characters, as they learn to present themselves to the world, fight for their right to be heard, and overcome the boxes people put them in.

It helps that Maureen and Fran have some pretty great support networks in Twins. I love how nuanced the girls' parents are—they make decisions ranging from terrible to great, but you can see their thought process throughout, an important reminder that parents are imperfect and just trying to figure things out too. The girls also have a wonderful adult half-brother named Curtis who helps save the day in moments of need—and among their friend group, I also think we need a major shout-out to Monique, described as the "fifth gear" that keeps the group of five functioning. And realistically, even amidst the chaos, Maureen and Fran's own relationship doesn't vanish, as frustrated as they are with each other—that support is perhaps the most important of all in this story.

I also want to take a moment to discuss representation. Johnson discusses on his website how his own kids, who are graphic novel fans, had trouble finding graphic novels about Black kids like them. And from my experience as a relatively prolific graphic novel reader, I can say that what little racial diversity does exist in this space is heavily skewed away from Black protagonists written by Black creators, to a truly alarming degree. Johnson writes that "Black kids deserve to see themselves as the stars of the story, and it’s just as important for other readers to see Black kids as the stars of the story as well"—and until this massive hole in representation becomes more full over time, Twins is one of the precious few stories meeting this important need.

I also shouldn't forget to mention that Shannon Wright has done an amazing job with the art in this story—it's clear and expressive, with a couple illustrations that stop you in your tracks with emotion and impact too.

It was interesting to read this after A-Okay above, because where that book feels like an immensely well-crafted look of what MG life looks like from the outside, with relatively minimal narration of characters' inner worlds, Twins feels like a brilliant look at what MG life looks like from the inside, with psychologically rich characters and smart use of narration to bring Maureen's inner world to life. While this book fits nicely into the realm of MG graphic novels, its depth and craft set it apart, making this graphic novel in particular one to watch out for if you're looking for a smart and meaningful story!

Currently reading (review coming soon!):

Gender Queer

A Memoir

Written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe
Young adult/adult · Graphic memoir · 2019
Recommended by Ricki Ginsberg

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

2020 ALA Alex Award Winner
2020 Stonewall — Israel Fishman Non-fiction Award Honor Book

In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, Gender Queer is here. Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears.

Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.

· · · · · ·

I'm loving this book so far—I can't wait to share more soon!

That's all, y'all—thanks for visiting! ✨✨

Comments

  1. All three of these sound so good. I also kick myself when I realize I've let a book linger on my shelves for way too long and they are excellent.

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    1. I'm so glad these books sound good, Helen! It's definitely frustrating to have missed out on these for so long, but the bright side is getting to bring them back into the blogosphere for a moment, after their initial buzz has perhaps faded! (Well, the buzz hasn't faded for Gender Queer, but maybe the other two.) Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  2. I always wanted a twin so I love the story from from twins perspective. I have to say middle school sounds very rough! Glad I am not that age anymore!!

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    1. That's so fun, and I'm glad Twins appeals to you! And I don't think there's a human on the planet who isn't glad to be done with middle school—it's not a fun time, but hopefully books like this one make it more bearable! Thanks so much for stopping by, Valinora!

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  3. My older granddaughter, I think, was greatly helped by reading and loving all the Raina Telgemeier books. She'll be in high school next year, glad to be 'out' of middle school. I imagine she would still love A-OK, sounds very good & the acne is such a trial for many. It is good to see the ups & downs of it in a book. I agree, there does need to be more diverse characters in books & there has been, but only lately. I've love Varian Johnson's other books, will look for Twins! Thanks for these, Max! Have a great week ahead!

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    1. I'm glad to hear that these kinds of MG-life graphic novels helped your granddaughter during her MG years! I think many kids will relate to A-Okay in terms of its depiction of acne—that is always a fun (sarcasm) hallmark of puberty. Thanks so much for stopping by, Linda, and have a great week too!

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  4. A-Ok sounds very interesting, I like that it explores some not usually discussed topics like acne. And agree most people probably are glad to be done with middle school.

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    1. I definitely appreciate A-Okay for bringing some new topics to the table—it's surprising how many common aspects of human life rarely get talked about in kidlit! Thanks so much for stopping by, Brenda!

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  5. "So many books, so little time" applies to all of us who love to read, need time to write and juggle family time.

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    1. I can totally see that—the summer has been helpful for me in cramming in more time to read!

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  6. It is hard to read everything, but if you want a fascinating look at a teen struggling with acne, try to find Burns' Smooth. I didn't buy it for middle school but still think about it!

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    1. Karen, I think you are genuinely closer than any of us to actually reading everything, and I admire you greatly for it! Smooth sounds like a really intriguing read, looking at the description, so it's on my TBR now. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  7. Glad you read such great books. Both sound like good reads and perfect for their age groups. I really like graphic novels and these two are new to me. Thanks for sharing. :)

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    1. I'm glad I could bring these books to your attention—thanks so much for stopping by!

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  8. I really want to read Gender Queer, so I'm looking forward to your review. Both A-Okay and Twins sound like great books, too. Thanks for sharing about them!

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    1. I just drafted my review of Gender Queer one or two days ago, and I'm excited to post it Monday! And I'm glad the other two books sound good too. Thanks so much for stopping by, Kasey!

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  9. I thoroughly enjoyed A-OKAY and your review hit all the high points as to why. Twins is on my future read list thanks to your enticing perspective. Your ending comparison of the two books was perfect. Smart and meaningful? I'm all in. I appreciate your participation once again on this week's MMGM.

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    1. I'm really glad you had the chance to enjoy A-Okay too, and I'm glad I could add Twins to your reading list as well! Thanks so much for stopping by, Greg, and I appreciate you hosting as always!

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  10. I should look for A-OKAY. Your review has got me curious about it. Have a great reading week!

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    1. A-Okay is definitely worth tracking down if you have the time! Thanks so much for stopping by, Earl, and have a great reading week as well!

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  11. These all sound great. A-Okay takes on some issues really important in middle-grade, but I think the friends' crushing is probably the biggest deal for Jay. Twins growing apart has to make for a great story. I'll try to check these out. Thanks for your very thorough reviews.

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    1. Jay definitely has a *lot* on his plate all at once, and A-Okay juggles it all with aplomb! And twins growing apart is definitely a really nuanced topic, and Twins fully brings it to life. Thanks so much for stopping by, Rosi!

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  12. A-Okay is so great! I'm so glad you read it and loved it! Twins is also really good! You had a great graphic novel reading week!
    Also, thanks for the tiger&water recommendation--Trent and I will listen to it tomorrow :)

    Happy reading this week!

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    1. Thank you so much for recommending A-Okay—I'm glad I finally got to enjoy it! And yes, I really did have a great graphic novel reading week—all winners! Also, I'm so glad you and Trent can find time to try the album—I hope you enjoy it!! Thanks so much for stopping by and for hosting us, Kellee!

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  13. I also enjoyed Twins and second all the good stuff you said in your review! I hadn't heard of A-Okay before, and it also sounds like a great graphic novel! I have been getting back to my graphic novel reviewing, after a bit of an unintended hiatus, and I'm enjoying them. Thanks for the great reviews!

    Sue
    2023 Big Book Summer Challenge

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    1. I definitely appreciate you recommending Twins to me, Sue! And I'm glad I could bring A-Okay to your attention as well—I've seen some buzz about it, but definitely not as much as I'd expect. And I'm really glad you're finding your way back to graphic novels—I always benefit from seeing your great picks! Thanks so much for stopping by, Sue!

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