MMGM and #IMWAYR: Isla to Island, Scout Is Not a Band Kid, Skim, and more!
So remember last week when I said I had a plan to read so many books? Well, what happened was that I went out of town with 10 graphic novels in tow, and—
I read all 10 graphic novels!!!
My favorites of the 10:
- My Last Summer with Cass (review coming next week!)
- Isla to Island
- Scout Is Not a Band Kid
- Freestyle (review coming next week!)
Isla to Island
This book is absolutely stunning. If I had known how good it was, I surely wouldn't have let it sit on my shelves for this long.
Marisol loves her home in Cuba, and it's easy to see why—in not many pages, Alexis Castellanos brings to life the colorful buildings, abundant flora, and perhaps most importantly, Marisol's doting parents and the traditions they and their daughter share. You'll fall in love with Cuba too, before you're even a quarter through the book.
But soon, revolutionaries take control of Cuba, and it becomes abundantly clear that it's no longer safe for Marisol to live there. And so Marisol's parents send her to the United States to live with a foster family—Castellanos explains in the informative back matter that a program called Operation Peter Pan helped thousands of kids escape Cuba to live with foster families in the U.S. during this time. Castellanos is also clear that Marisol, as painful as her journey is to watch, is actually lucky to have successfully entered the U.S.—around this very same time, she explains that our government committed the largest mass deportation in our history, sending Mexican-Americans back to Mexico.
Returning to the story, Marisol makes her way to New York City, which is nothing like Cuba—it lacks both the metaphorical and literal warmth of Marisol's home. And it doesn't help that Marisol is an immigrant, so bullies set their targets on her, and language barriers abound. Even amidst all this, regular childhood challenges find their way into her life too.
Marisol's journey sounds like an impossible task, and Castellanos is deliberate about clearly illustrating the challenges Marisol goes through. But countless immigrants made and still make similar journeys and find their way, and Marisol might just find her way too. Partially because she is fortunate to find two loving foster parents who want to connect with her and support her—and partially because some of the joys of life, like books, nature, and food, are constant no matter where you are.
As Marisol learns to integrate her experiences from two different countries into her own story, Castellanos uses color brilliantly as a measure of her journey. Cuba is rendered in full, abundant Technicolor—but New York City through Marisol's eyes is complete, stark gray. But glimpses of color symbolically enter the story as joy sneaks its way back into Marisol's life, resulting in some illustrations you truly won't want to miss.
And perhaps most awesomely of all, Isla to Island is almost completely wordless—and the few words that are present are primarily Spanish. Castellanos skillfully uses her illustrations to build the plot and the characters' emotions, and I must say, I felt more deeply connected to Marisol's journey than I would have if it was being narrated to me. And if you're new to graphic novels, fear not—it's actually easier to process the illustrations of the story when there isn't an entire separate channel of information competing for your attention. The icing on the cake is that I imagine this story would be completely accessible across language barriers—Marisol herself would have benefited from a book like this.
Isla to Island may tackle difficult subject matter, but it is also inherently hopeful. Marisol is as resilient as she is lovable, and her journey to find herself in an entirely new country reveals the importance of our homelands, the joys of everyday life, and the nuance of the immigrant experience.
Alexis Castellanos is a voice to watch in the kidlit world.
Scout Is Not a Band Kid
Like Lucy in the Sky, this was another MG graphic novel (about music) I saved from the donation bag, and also like Lucy in the Sky, I'm so glad I did, because I had a blast reading it!
Frankly, this book is just a rollicking good time, and that's because Jade Armstrong has imbued it with enough detail and humor to make you feel like you're eavesdropping on a bunch of witty, endearing, and often alarmingly misguided middle schoolers who are doing their thing.
In terms of detail, we get to know a surprising number of characters and a whole lot of facts about the story's universe—like the manga about superpowered musicians that Scout adores, Posaune, and its multitalented elderly author, Pristine Wong, who Scout is desperate to meet. We also get some real-world facts embedded into the story too, from detail on Canada's terrible cell service to a realistic look at the process of learning the trombone! (I feel like this is the book real-world band kids have been waiting for.)
Some of the story's detail is conveyed through words, but a lot of it is owed to Armstrong's simply gorgeous art, filled with detailed backgrounds and settings ranging from Scout's cluttered bedroom, to the storefronts and food trucks in her small Ontario hometown (which gives off touches of Tillie Walden in places), to the absolutely incredible comic/music/arts convention Scout wants to attend (it's pure wish fulfillment and I'm here for it). I also love Armstrong's style—they often choose one or two colors to focus a scene around, and this monochromatic look combines with a flat, outline-heavy art style to create worlds that honestly feel luscious. (Like, I could eat them. And I do know that sounds weird.)
Armstrong brings the characters within these worlds to life with a manga-esque art style and plenty of exuberance and dry humor—but they're also not afraid to let their characters get serious when the need arises. And I feel like the story is often subversive in a way that acknowledges that yes, detail x or y may not make perfect sense, but who cares? Just go with it!
I'm also like a kid doing a book report when it comes to themes—I'm always looking for them, and I love to expound upon them! So let's do that. I'd say one theme of Scout Is Not a Band Kid is that relationships can, and should, evolve—when you pigeonhole people you know into categories and only expect certain things from them, you eliminate the potential for people to surprise you, and for you to bond with others when you don't expect it.
Another theme is that friendships are reciprocal, and sometimes, they involve sacrifices! Yes, everyone should fight for the things they care about, but their friendships with others should be one of those things—and both friends should be willing to give things up once in a while to prioritize the friendship instead.
And one last theme is that sometimes, you have to buckle down and do the hard work—no matter how certain you are that you can just skate along without trying and be fine, sometimes, you have to commit to the bit if you want your life to stay on track.
A few more things: I love the characters, especially our cover stars Scout and Merrin, who look like polar opposites but are actually two sides of the same coin. You see, if you read the book synopsis above, you know Scout joins band to meet her favorite author—but although she'd never admit it, I think she stays in band in part due to sheer stubbornness. Merrin's going to do band as well as she can, gosh darn it—and Scout is doing to do band, period, gosh darn it. (Maybe not as well as she can, though...unless Merrin has anything to say about it.)
Three more random details—I love all the queer representation in this story, including the explicit inclusion of characters' pronouns! Also, there's a moment at the end of the story that broke my heart but in such a meaningful way—it's so fast, but so brilliant, and just wild. Geez. And finally, the characters' independence in this story is so fun to watch—it feels like exactly what I would have dreamed of as a middle schooler (and still dream of now), playing out for these kids!
I do have some concerns I should include, although frankly, they have faded in my memory in favor of the joy of this story! But to get through them briefly, first, I feel like the story's best moments are concentrated in the second half, although the first half is definitely strong too, just a bit slower. (There's also the anxiety that Scout's plan is going to catastrophically backfire—by the second half, that anxiety settles down, I promise.)
Second, I was confused by the idea that Scout's school band would be performing/competing at a comic-con—those two things seemed a bit unrelated, but honestly, just go with it! The convention seems focused enough on all the arts that I made it fit together in my head.
Lastly, some of the characters in the story say some really mean things to each other, only to bond with each other later. If this was a YA or adult book, that would be a deal-breaker—but honestly, since this is MG, I think it's actually pretty realistic to show kids going way overboard, making mistakes (often more than once), and finding other ways besides pure apologies to repair things.
Overall, Scout Is Not a Band Kid feels like a realistic fiction story imbued with the peppy energy of a supernatural manga, like that Scout enjoys so much—this book finds the zany silliness in daily life and keeps you turning the pages, while its gorgeous art and compelling themes keep you engaged throughout this layered, unique read!
(Oh, and one more bonus—there's extra mini-comics at the end that give more detail on the characters! Score!)
The Wondrous Wonders
This book was wild, delightful, and certainly unlike any graphic novel I've read before—it was much more akin to a storybook, or a tall tale, or a melding of Over the Garden Wall and The Beatryce Prophecy.
The Wondrous Wonders follows our young protagonist Jo, who runs off from a camping trip with her frustrating blended family and quickly enters a strange, magical forest. There, a tight-knit land of fantastical creatures are gearing up to rescue several of their kind from the evil Emperor Tomcat and his lavish estate.
This book features:
- Childlike whimsy at every corner
- A dog with six feet and a slightly traumatic past
- A fierce magical mother who will do anything for her daughter
- An alliterative horse
- A fox trying so hard not to be won over by his traveling companions
- Rhyming songs (the translator's dedication here is impressive)
- Disturbing villainous excess
- The playing of many games
- Characters running the gamut from human to animal/magical (and I do mean the gamut, not just the two extremes)
- A peaceful abandoned house
- Trekking by foot
- Gossipy old women
- Grade-A scheming
- And gorgeous art!
So there's really something for everyone in The Wondrous Wonders, and I have to say, Camille Jourdy has imbued this journey with so much humor, intrigue, and, well, wonder that it will be hard for readers not to pick it up again...and again...and again...and, well, you get it.
I'd say the plot 90% made sense to me, but really, I didn't mind the 10% because this isn't supposed to be stressful or shocking or mind-blowing—it's supposed to be a magical and surreal journey that, unlike so many others in children's books, actually has some length to it so you can get immersed in it. And this book delivers at all of that!
A few critiques: I don't think this is suited for the youngest of readers due to a couple of moments, like one involving some slightly graphic swordfighting, or another where the gag is that a woman wants to poison herself with a magic apple out of frustration. In that same scene, an unlikable character also said something that had a racist undertone to me—I'm not sure if that was to more thoroughly depict her as unlikable, or if it got mixed up during translation into English, or if there's not a reason for it besides implicit/explicit racism (sigh). Lastly, on a plot note, I wanted a more thorough emotional end to Jo's journey with her magical companions—it felt like they didn't really get to say goodbye!
Despite those flaws, I still had a delightful time reading The Wondrous Wonders. I've seen reviewers talk about how you'd be hard-pressed to find themes in this book, and I agree—and that's the point! The Wondrous Wonders is an ode to pure escapism, and it gives young readers the gifts of feeling like a leader, a hero, an explorer—and perhaps best of all, just a kid having fun!
I'm not sure I could name a book besides Frizzy that explicitly focuses on women of color's right to wear their hair (a) naturally and (b) how they want to, and for that alone, I am so grateful to have read it!
And it certainly helps that this is a high-quality story—rather than getting distracted by too many other topics, Frizzy gets right to the heart of this issue and how it affects our lovable protagonist Marlene.
There's so much that's wrong with the pressure Marlene faces to wear her hair in specific ways. Not only does she face physical pain and wasted days at the salon her mom takes her too, but she also faces fractured relationships and damaged self-esteem regarding the idea that the way she naturally looks—and wants to look—is less worthy.
But this pressure originates from somewhere, and this book tackles that too. Marlene faces bullying at school when she tries wearing her hair in its natural, frizzy state. And the story also ties the pressure Marlene faces to broader issues of internalized racism and colorism that affect her Dominican family—those topics are so rarely discussed in kidlit, yet so real.
I love that Frizzy is entirely from Marlene's perspective—she's trying to make sense of these issues in ways that are realistic for a middle-schooler, and her hair emergencies or fights with her mom feel like natural consequences of a young kid trying to stand up against a complex, longstanding issue.
Marlene is also a delightful kid—you'll fall in love with her immediately, and I appreciate that her mom, who is one major source of pressure for Marlene to straighten her hair, is also a complex character. And Marlene's Tía Ruby and best friend Camilla deserve shout-outs as sources of love, affirmation, and brightness in this story. (Tía Ruby gives me Aunt Molly energy from the Click series!)
Claribel A. Ortega's writing warmly invites kids to think about these topics in the context of a middle-schooler trying to be herself. And Rose Bousamra's expressive, detailed, and warmly colored art brings the story's environments to life, adding depth to the story without distracting from its main focus.
So many kids will need this book, and it's taken so long for something like it to exist. But now it does, and it's kind and wise and full of heart, and we have Ortega and Bousamra to thank for facing this topic head-on—and reminding us that all hair is good hair.
I'm completely in love with this book.
I already knew I liked Mariko Tamaki (author of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me and This One Summer) and her cousin Jillian Tamaki (illustrator of This One Summer and My Best Friend and creator of Our Little Kitchen).
But even so, I did not expect to so completely adore this book in its 140-page entirety.
This book's premise might seem disturbing or tragic, and I was honestly nervous about reading it for those reasons. But part of why it works so well is that you will want to reach into the book and give Skim, our protagonist, the most enormous hug pretty much instantly. I love Skim—she doesn't know everything, but darn, she knows a lot, and Mariko Tamaki's respect for this character comes through in how sharp and insightful her voice is. Skim is a Wiccan, and I loved the moments where she described her painstakingly assembled altar, or tried to make sense of the world using spells from her books. And I also love her attempts to describe her physical feelings using surprising and clever similes (skimiles?) throughout the book. Just listen to this, from page 58: "I feel like I have wings but my bones are bricks." Just...whoa.
And then in terms of themes, this book so clearly and cuttingly establishes how many attempts at supporting mental health turn into self-congratulatory bullsh*t and toxic positivity that do nothing. Skim and her fellow classmates watch the popular girls at school try to "fix" mental health without ever acknowledging what made it go wrong in the first place. And this feels like a larger allegory for how so many people panic about suicide without ever acknowledging that we—yes, us—have allowed certain things, like queerness, to become so ostracizing and isolating for young people that of course they result in suicide. If you aren't confronting the real problems and looking inward at your own pain, you can't help others face their pain either, and Skim shows us this so beautifully.
Skim also tackles the pain of love. And yes, Skim's love with her English teacher, Ms. Archer—which is GALLINGLY facilitated by Ms. Archer—is a lot worse than most loves. (Don't worry, this book won't ask you to empathize with Ms. Archer too much.) But I connected to what Skim goes through too, because I think anyone can understand how, when everything else is falling to pieces, love feels like the last lifeline, the last thing to desperately cling to in hopes that it will singlehandedly sustain you through whatever pain you're facing. Which is fine (or something)—unless that love is on unsteady footing.
This doesn't sound very uplifting, I know, but it falls effortlessly into the category of books I love so much—not those that skip over actual problems in favor of toxic positivity (just like the popular girls at Skim's school!), or those that wallow in pain, but those that truly face the pain of human existence and then find hope nonetheless. The ending of this book is surprisingly straightforward and surprisingly hopeful too, so if you want resolution to all the things I've mentioned, I promise, the book will give it to you.
But wait, there's more! Divorce, the immense capability of children to be racist and evil, idiotic first dates, best friends changing for the worse, fatphobia—I don't want this book to sound completely crushing because it isn't, but I do want to acknowledge how many elements of human experience it acknowledges. And Jillian Tamaki brings the storyline to life with her moody, soft yet jagged black-and-white illustrations.
There's so much depth in this book that I know I'll have to come back to it at least once. I read it on Libby and know I need to buy a physical copy to display. There's a reason people are still talking about Skim 15 years after its publication—and that reason is that it achieves true greatness, and it gets to the heart of topics most people are unwilling to even look in the eye.
Please, read Skim. You won't regret it.