MMGM and #IMWAYR: Lucy in the Sky, Best Friends, and more!

Hey y'all! I'm exhausted at this very moment on Saturday, but that doesn't mean I can't format a post of two great MG graphic novels for you. Let's dive in!

Middle Grade

Lucy in the Sky

Written by Kiara Brinkman and illustrated by Sean Chiki (they're a couple!)
Graphic novel · 2021
Recommended by Karen Yingling

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

It’s the first day of seventh grade, and everything is going downhill for Lucy Sutcliffe. At school, she has the feeling her friends are all leaving her behind. At home, her single father is in a rut, and her perpetually traveling photojournalist mother is more absent than ever. Worst of all, Lucy’s grandmother is undergoing chemotherapy and is no longer the warm, vibrant presence that her family has come to depend on.

But everything changes the day Lucy discovers a box of her father’s Beatles records. Inspired by their music, she gets a drum set and forms an all-girl rock band with her friends. But can she keep the band together when petty rivalries, unrequited crushes, and outside pressures threaten to tear it apart?

· · · · · ·

So here's a story. A few weeks ago, this book was sitting in one of several bags of books to donate. I was overwhelmed by all the books I had yet to read, and even though my attitude is usually to read all the graphic novels because they're not too long, I decided some just weren't going to be my thing.

Then I found myself worrying about all the books I might have put in those bags that would actually be good if I gave them a shot. When I created a mental image of those books, it was basically Lucy in the Sky and...well...that's it.

So I went back through the bags and pulled out, like, 3 books, including this one—the other 37-odd books are still set to be donated.

And thank gosh I did, because this ended up being one of my favorite graphic novels everEver! It was love by page 50.

I'm genuinely tempted to make comparisons to Goodbye Stranger (my favorite book) here, both because they actually do tackle some similar topics in similar ways, and because they both brought me the same sense of warmth and safety that tends to turn a book into a favorite.

One topic both of these books have in common is exploring how friend groups evolve as the people within them evolve, during the time of rapid development that is middle school. Our protagonist, Lucy, is balancing longtime friendships with Vanessa and Rupa with a budding new friendship with Georgianna—and these friendships don't all fit together as neatly as the perfectly posed picture on the book cover might indicate.

Vanessa embodies the old friend who Lucy might be growing apart from—their interests and concerns have diverged (like when it comes to crushes and romance), even as the degree to which these girls know each other is revealed. Meanwhile, Georgianna is the new friend who meets Lucy where she's at (the two girls bond quickly over music), but there's that implicit understanding that she doesn't know Lucy as well as the other girls. It's a situation with potential for both meaningful connections and chaos, as Vanessa and Georgianna embody the opposing ideas of "I've known Lucy" and "I get Lucy."

And as for Rupa? She ends up stuck in the middle of the chaos, and her ability to stay clearheaded makes her a favorite character of mine.

Something I want to comment on too is how this book forces readers to have compassion not just for Lucy, but for her friends too. Georgianna and Rupa deal with opposite but still equally frustrating parents that don't make things any easier for them. And although I wished for a slightly more explicit fair shake for Vanessa too, it's still quite clear in the story how Vanessa's stress about boys and dating—which might be easy to label as frivolous—is really just another kind of growing up, with its own challenges and intensity.

So that's friendship. (And no, I haven't talked about the band—we'll get to that, sort of.) Another way in which this book reminds me of Goodbye Stranger is its emphasis on family. And gosh, if you think the friendship dynamics sound pretty rich here, just get a load of the family dynamics. Lucy's dad, Daniel, is a loving single father who is consistent about being there for his daughter—whether that means taking her to the park so she can feed the ducks, bonding with her over the Beatles, or helping her face the challenges of growing up. (Daniel is the absolute best, for the record.)

The duo is in close contact with Cookie, Lucy's mom's mother (and yes, Daniel's ex-mother-in-law)—she is a spirited woman who Lucy loves to pieces and whose energy lets her bake like a fiend, impart wisdom about her family, and even get up and dance, all despite undergoing treatment for cancer (yeah...it can't all be fun).

And then there's Isabel, Lucy's mom and Cookie's daughter, who works hard to be close to Lucy but always keeps (physical) distance—she's a photographer who travels the world shooting different locations for magazines.

Every one of these characters is both precious and flawed, and there is so much richness in the challenges that they face. At one point, we see Daniel struggling under the weight of maintaining a co-parenting relationship with the woman he once loved, and obviously shares a lot of history with. And Isabel is so complex—it's tempting to say she's a bad mother for traveling the world and leaving her daughter behind, but when you imagine Lucy being shuttled between homes to see a mother always wishing for more, one starts to wonder if there are advantages to the dynamic they've built. (Of course, what Lucy thinks of the situation is also another matter.)

What I love most about the family dynamics in Lucy in the Sky is how Lucy doesn't act in obvious ways. She's unafraid to call her grandmother her best friend, and for better or worse, her feelings about how her mom shows up in her life aren't raw anymore—the idea of her dad dating someone new doesn't scare her in the ways it scares other MG protagonists. This book doesn't chart the same ground as other MG stories, and I love that about it.

Lucy herself reminds me of the protagonist of Goodbye Stranger, Bridge, in a surprising number of ways. In both books, while the other characters in the story might be summarized in a few adjectives or sentences, the protagonists are harder to define, because they defy definition. Like Bridge, Lucy embodies every adjective and every aspect of human experience—other characters can be described in relation to her, but she herself is expansive. Also like Bridge, Lucy is quietly fierce—she loves what she loves, does what she wants, and is generally unafraid of judgment from the world. Rooting for Lucy is the easiest thing in the world, let me tell you.

This story feels so real, for so many reasons. It's uncommonly deep for an MG graphic novel, especially one clocking in at just 288 pages. Eavesdropping on the characters' dialogue is genuinely a pleasure—you learn things you didn't know before, laugh at the banter, and feel what the characters are feeling. (Seriously, now I want to go back and revoke my dialogue praise from other books.) Also like in Goodbye Stranger, the characters never behave to make a point to the reader—rather than understanding themes immediately, Lucy has to process them, learning them at one point and acting on them much later. The characters are also unafraid to change—Lucy can be in favor of something on one page, and mad about it the next, not because she's being ridiculous but because that's how human emotions work. Above all else, this story reminds me of Goodbye Stranger in its willingness to meander, to luxuriate in the moments of everyday life rather than racing to a pre-planned conclusion.

Oh, and it also helps that the art is phenomenal—the page layouts alone (like the overhead shot of school lunch, or the woozily-shaped panels during a scene of strange emotions) could be the topic of a whole blog post, or more.

I want to conclude this review by tackling music—a constant and essential throughline of this story. I think what ultimately stands out to me, watching Lucy grow to love the Beatles and draw inspiration from them in crafting her four-kid band, is how music serves as a means for these characters to try on different ways of being, to test out emotions and mindsets like someone tries on clothes before finding the truly authentic outfit. And also, music serves as a window through which Lucy can observe other human relationships—like those of the Beatles themselves—and understand that she isn't alone in trying to find meaning in the mess of friendship, family, and love.

This book actually reminds me of another graphic novel too, Operatic, in its use of music specifically as a means of cracking open the box of MG life and getting to an essential truth: the process of growing up is itself beautiful.

For what could be more beautiful than pushing through the weeds and finding...yourself?

Best Friends

Written by Shannon Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Graphic novel · 2019
Series recommended by Sue Jackson, Aaron Cleaveley, and Linda Browne

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

Follow your heart. Find your people.

Sixth grade is supposed to be perfect. Shannon’s got a sure spot in the in-crowd called The Group, and her best friend is their leader, Jen, the most popular girl in school. 

But the rules are always changing, and Shannon has to scramble to keep up. She never knows which TV shows are cool, what songs to listen to, and who she’s allowed to talk to. Who makes these rules, anyway? And does Shannon have to follow them?

· · · · · ·

I loved this just as much as Real Friends, and I suspect I will love it just as much as book three in this graphic memoir trilogy, Friends Forever! I'm not going to repeat all my praise about Real Friends, but I will share some additional thoughts on this book specifically.

FYI, this review doesn't spoil Real Friends, except for one paragraph that I've tagged below so you can skip it.

I think it's so powerful how Shannon Hale is willing to openly acknowledge the mistakes she made as a child—mistakes ranging from inaction, to unintentionally hurting someone, to even intentionally hurting someone. I can't imagine it's easy to say on a public scale, "These are the things I've done wrong," but I can imagine it will be so cathartic for young readers to know that they aren't the only people who have regrets or get things wrong.

And child Shannon doesn't get everything wrong, I'm happy to report—in fact, Best Friends is just as full of the excitement (and trepidation, to be sure, but also excitement) of making big, brave choices that ultimately pay off for our protagonist/author.

This book also includes a more thorough look at Shannon's experience with anxiety and OCD, which is briefly examined in book 1. As someone with anxiety and OCD myself, pretty much every moment hit home for me—especially one moment, tying things back to two paragraphs ago, when child Shannon beats herself up over past mistakes she's made. Navigating middle school is hard enough, and doing it while juggling intense fears and self-criticism only makes it harder.

Like in Real Friends, interspersed within this book are sequences based on real stories Shannon wrote as a child. And there are two things I love about these, one being that they brilliantly parallel the questions and struggles on child Shannon's mind—it's clear that she used these stories as a way of processing her experiences as a kid and finding hope in the process. And the other thing I love is how her stories are treated with so much respect—these are actual words Shannon Hale wrote in sixth grade, not shoved in a box or deemed childish, but instead brought to life with beautiful art by illustrator LeUyen Pham.

*Slight spoilers in this paragraph only* I did also love the chance to see further into the mind of Jenny, one of the girls at school who Shannon has always had a contentious relationship with. A couple of scenes hint at how Jenny isn't cruel for cruelty's sake—she's cruel because it's the only way she's learned for processing the pain of childhood. *End of slight spoilers*

I did also want to call out this book's keen exploration of sexism and how it affected Shannon's ability to envision her adult life. We see pressures ranging from TV shows to the old, dead men taught in literature classes, and these pressures try to tell Shannon that she needs to make herself presentable to boys and ignore her own dreams. There's also one particular scene that, in the context of our world, is a frightening but oh-so-real look at how boys grow up to become men who won't take "no" for an answer.

I feel like I'm making Best Friends sound sad, and indeed, this book has a keen understanding of the struggles that make us all too anxious to escape childhood. But Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham have crafted this book with a gentle touch and deep respect for their young readers. Ultimately, child Shannon is able to keep going because of hope—hope that as she gets older, things will get easier, and she'll meet her true friends. Thinking back to my own childhood—where hope sustained me through the pain, and I eventually made meaningful friendships and grew into my authentic self—I can confirm that sometimes, hanging in there really does work.

And I think Best Friends will help so many young readers hang in there, and find happiness in the end.

Bookish thoughts:

I think (unless I recklessly change plans) that I'm going to embark on a big Raina Telgemeier re-read of Smile, Sisters, Guts, Drama, and Ghosts. It's been so long since I've read any of her books, and I'd love to look at them with a slightly more careful lens than I did upon first reading. (Plus, Ghosts is literally so good and I miss it...)

If you could go re-read any book or author right now (which you can, just saying 😉), who would you pick?

That's all, y'all—happy reading! ✨✨

Comments

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Max!

    I was really interested to read your review of BEST FRIENDS and agree that the more thorough exploration of OCD and anxiety was extremely powerful. It hit home for me, as well. The sexism was really well portrayed, and took me right back to my own GenX childhood. I've been a fan of Shannon Hale's fantasy novels since forever, so it was great to discover her backstory in the graphic novel series.

    I'm definitely going to have to read LUCY IN THE SKY after your review, especially after you compared it to Rebecca Stead's GOODBYE STRANGER. I love complex family dynamics in MG books.

    I have a feeling that a re-read of Susan Cooper's DARK IS RISING sequence may be in my future. However, this endeavour may have to wait. I'm taking a month off from my blog and I've loaded up my eReader with a ridiculous number of books - 20 at last count.

    Cheers!

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    1. Of course, Linda—thanks for helping bring the series to my attention!

      I'm really glad those aspects of Best Friends resonated for you as well, and while I wish the sexism wasn't so reminiscent of your childhood, I do appreciate Hale's work in calling it out. These are actually the first of her books I've ever read—I'll have to track down more at some point!

      And I'm glad I could highlight Lucy in the Sky—it's definitely worth a read, and the family dynamics are so compelling!

      I wasn't familiar with the Dark Is Rising sequence, so I looked it up, and it definitely sounds worth re-reading! And I hope you enjoy your month off with all those books—it sounds like a dream to me! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  2. "For what could be more beautiful than pushing through the weeds and finding...yourself?"
    Love your reviews! I really need to check out Lucy in the Sky and Real Friends/Best Friends.
    Thanks for your great reviews, Max!

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    1. Thanks so much, Sara—I really appreciate that, and I hope you enjoy those books! Thanks for stopping by, and have a great week!

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  3. Lucy in the Sky sounds fantastic and maybe that's because I am a real Beatles fan.

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    1. Oh, how perfect! I hope Lucy in the Sky clicks for you, and thanks so much for stopping by, Helen!

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  4. I've always been a fan of Shannon Hale. It must have been hard for her to be so honest in this book. I'll have to check it out. And it's great that you decided to pull Lucy in the Sky out of the donation bag. It sounds like a winner too.

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    1. If you're a Shannon Hale fan, I'd definitely check out this trilogy! And Lucy in the Sky was definitely a winner too—thank gosh I pulled it back out. Thanks so much for stopping by, Natalie!

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  5. I'm glad you liked Lucy in the Sky! I rarely buy books, so never have the problem of things piling up. I also rarely reread, since I'm always looking for new books to buy for my school library. Embarking on a Telgemeier reread sounds like fun if those are something you enjoy. Have a great week!

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    1. I really appreciate you recommending Lucy in the Sky a while back, Karen, or I would have totally missed it! And that makes sense that you don't re-read often because you're staying focused on finding new books for the library. And I definitely love Raina Telgemeier's books—I've already started my re-reading and am loving it! Thanks so much for stopping by, and have a great week as well!

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  6. That was a fortunate change of mind, Max, that really paid off!! Lucy in the Sky sounds great, the characters sound so complex which makes for a rewarding read! I must check out Shannon Hale, I haven't read any of her books, so adding her to my TBR. Thanks for the super in-depth reviews, and I hope you find a few more treasures! Have a great week!

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    1. Changing my mind definitely did pay off, Valinora! I'm glad both of these books sound intriguing to you, and giving Shannon Hale a try is definitely a good idea—I'm glad I finally did myself. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  7. I like when a book happily surprises me like Lucy in the Sky did for you. Now that you've mentioned Raina Telgemeier I feel like it's been a while since we've had a new book by her. Her books are so adored!

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    1. I was literally just thinking that about Raina Telgemeier—it's been about 4 years since Guts! I don't know if she's taking some time to rest (she had been churning out a book every two years, roughly), or if she has a big, dramatic project in the works... And I love when books are a pleasant surprise as well! Thanks so much for stopping by, Lisa!

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  8. I don't usually read graphic novels because I love to let the stories take over my imagination. But there are times ( though I've made exceptions for Raina Telgemeier and Cece Bell... ) - and these two books look like a couple I will want to make some time for.

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    1. The above comment was from me - for some reason google isn't playing nice today

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    2. I understand what you mean, Sue! I was thinking about your comment, and I think for me, the act of imagining the visuals of a story was always a little tiresome, so graphic novels free up my mental energy to focus on plots and other details. Raina Telgemeier and Cece Bell are definitely worth making exceptions for, and I hope if you do make exceptions for these two books, you end up enjoying them! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  9. Sounds like fun to re-read the Telgemeier books. They have been very popular with my granddaughters & they got to see her a couple of years ago when she came to Denver. Best Friends Forever was just donated to the used bookstore where I work so I snatched it up. It seems that these books & The Gray would make good pairings, having both girls and boys included in the challenges of anxiety issues. Lucy in the Sky is new to me so will look for it, Max. Thanks for the rich review! Have a super week ahead!

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    1. That's so fun that your granddaughters got to see Raina Telgemeier in Denver! I actually got to see her at a convention in Texas a couple years back, which was super-fun. And after reading your review of The Gray, I think those books would pair really well—as an anxious person, it's so nice to see books describing the surprisingly varied ways that anxiety can present and affect one's life. I hope these books are enjoyable, and thanks so much for stopping by, Linda!

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  10. Lucy in the Sky is a new book to me so thank you so much for sharing your thoughtful review. I also am a fan of Beatles music so it would be an enjoyable read.

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    1. Oh, how perfect—I feel like this should be automatically on the TBR list of any Beatles fans, since they'll understand the references even better! I hope you get a chance to track it down, and thanks so much for stopping by, Laura!

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  11. I have yet to read either of the books you've mentioned, but they both sound really good. Hope you have a lovely week.

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    1. I'm glad both books sound appealing, Brenda, and thanks so much for stopping by!

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  12. I love Shannon Hale's Friends series :) And Lucy in the Sky sounds wonderful! I hadn't heard about that one - must have missed it somehow. I'm so glad you rescued it from the giveaway bags! And I'm impressed by your ability to reduce your stress by getting rid of some books you haven't read yet. I have a serious problem with worrying I;m going to miss something (always been a bit of a rule-follower, too). Good for you! I hope you can now enjoy your slimmed down TBR pile.

    Sue
    2023 Big Book Summer Challenge

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    1. It's such a great series, and I really appreciate you recommending it to me! And I'm glad I could bring Lucy in the Sky to your attention too. After pulling it out of the bag and finding out it was so good, I'm definitely having that same worry of missing out on books—it's just that I have a similar kind of anxiety when there's a bunch I own but haven't read! Thanks so much for stopping by, Sue!

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  13. Lucy in the Sky sounds like a must read for me. You sold me with your compelling review. I previously read Best Friends and agree with you on your critique. Enjoy your re-reads! I'd do the same if it weren't for this teetering stack of books to read before month's end. Thanks for being a part of MMGM!

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    1. I'm so glad Lucy in the Sky sounds appealing to you, Greg, and I hope you enjoy reading it! And that's fair that it's harder to fit in re-reads when you've got so many other reviews to write—I hope you can find time for those re-reads at some point. Thanks so much for stopping by and hosting us!

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  14. I didn't even finish reading your remarks about Lucy in the Sky before looking to see if either of my libraries had a copy. Alas they don't!
    I am a huge fan of the Friends series and have recommended them to many parents and children.
    Goodbye Stranger is one of my favourite books too!

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    1. Oh no—I hope you're able to find Lucy in the Sky some other way, and I'm kind of surprised your libraries don't have it! And I must have missed your reviews of the Friends series, but I'm so glad you've recommended those to others. And that's so awesome that Goodbye Stranger is a favorite of yours too—I knew we were on the same wavelength! 😁 Thanks so much for stopping by, Cheriee!

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  15. Lucy in the Sky sounds fun. And it's always enjoyable when kids books have sort of a soundtrack or playlist to go along with it.

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    1. That's a really good point—I always intend to try out the music that comes up in the books I read, and I unfortunately almost never do, but it's still cool that it exists! Another graphic novel, Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani, has an official playlist on Spotify if I remember correctly. Thanks so much for stopping by, Earl!

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  16. I have a Beatles-loving granddaughter who would probably like Lucy in the Sky. I'll try to get a copy for her. I never get a bag of donation books out the door unscathed. Good for you for grabbing out some good ones.

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    1. I hope your granddaughter enjoys Lucy in the Sky—it sounds like a great fit for her! And I'm glad to know I'm not the only one having that experience with donation bags—letting go of books is *so hard!* Thanks so much for stopping by, Rosi!

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  17. Glad you are enjoying this series. It is still really popular with students in my library. Like Cheriee, I also love Goodbye Stranger! Thanks for the great reviews.

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    1. That's wonderful to hear, and thanks for bringing this series to my attention, Aaron! And how awesome—we should start a Goodbye Stranger fan club! Thanks so much for stopping by, and have a great week!

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Please feel free to leave a comment—I always love reading them! ✨✨

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