Notes from a Children's Librarian: Graphic Novels for Summer

Each month, our children's librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks. 


Bliss is a hammock in summer and a stack of graphic novels. Right on top of the pile should be This One Summer, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. It’s the story of Rose and her family’s annual trip to Awago Beach—a summer spent eavesdropping on a grownup world; the cute guy at the variety store who’s rumoured to have gotten a girl pregnant; Rose’s arguing parents; her mother’s confession of a miscarriage. Cottage life is captured in the graphic details: handmade cottagers’ road signs hammered onto a pole, a shampoo bottle floating in a bucket whilst washing hair in the lake. The plot is punctuated with poetic moments, particularly of Rose swimming and there’s a wonderfully playful scene of pudgy cottage best friend Windy, aka HipHop, showing off her “krunk moves.”

The Tamaki’s first book, Skim, is similarly brilliant. Its quiet, insightful narrator, Skim, is a little on the heavy side, the kind of girl who shows up to a Halloween party full of ballerinas and figure skaters, dressed as the cowardly lion. A boy in tenth grade commits suicide, triggering school-wide grief counselling. Skim sees the hypocrisy in singsongs of “Oh Happy Day” followed by self-love exercises and the formation of GCL, “Girls Celebrate Life Club” whose movie night features Dead Poets Society. Skim’s first crush is on the fringe-dweller Mrs. Archer, her drama/English teacher. Through diary entries, we learn Skim, who is experimenting with Wicca and tarot cards, is considered “fragile” by the adults around her, and is on a watch-list for depression. Serious topics such as hypocrisy, adolescent malaise, dysfunctional friendships, inappropriate first loves, and discordant parents are dealt with through Skim’s humour.

Book Cover Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life Volume 1, by Bryan Lee O’Malley and Keith Wood, introduces Scott, a 23-year-old who plays in a band, and whose apartment is so small he has to share a bed with his gay roommate. Even though Scott’s dating a high schooler named Knives Chau it doesn’t stop his obsession with Ramona, a “Ninja” delivery girl. The premise of the series: Scott must fight Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends and in this volume we see him use 46 moves to take down the first. Volume 2 is a dating saga, with a dramatic fight scene between Ramona and Knives in the Toronto Reference Library. This one appeals to those liking a soap opera feel, with old loves reappearing and showdowns between rivals.

Book Cover The BellyButtons

The Bellybuttons—Who Do You think You Are? is the first in a series by French Canadians Delaf and Dubuc. Each page is a complete story arc with Jenny and Vicky, (with croptops, pushup bras, and visible thongs) torturing Karine, the “lanky noodle,” by injecting her lips with silicone and sabotaging her attempts to connect with Dan, the nice, cute boy who likes her. Jenny and Vicky vie for attention from John-John, whose motorcycle and (never-removed) helmet makes him the mysterious bad-boy. (He removes it once to Karine, saying: “My parents won’t let me get surgery.”) Karine dumps the girls. They find a replacement scapegoat but it’s just not the same; these three characters need each other.

Book Cover Essex County

Essex County, by Jeff Lemire is a trilogy. Like the Tamaki cousins’ books, this is graphic fiction at its finest. The first book, Tales from the Farm, introduces us to Lester, who lives a bleak existence on the farm with an emotionally distant Uncle Ken. There are flashbacks to Lester’s mom dying of cancer. Lester develops a relationship with Jimmy, the slightly “slow” gas station attendant who began and ended his NHL career by being injured during his first game. They meet down by the creek and build a fort to find aliens. A sinister tone percolates until we start to suspect Jimmy is actually Lester’s father. This launches the trilogy’s historical unraveling—family secrets, avoidance, brotherly betrayal.

In Book Two, Ghost Stories, hockey figures large with brothers, Vince and Lou. Their careers are told through flashbacks by Lou who is old and struggling with alcoholism, regrets, loneliness. We learn the connection to Jimmy in Book One. And there’s a brief scene in which characters bridge time and past meets future.

In Book Three, The Country Nurse, Jimmy has abandoned his wife and Ken is furious at him for abandoning Lester, the comic-drawing, superhero-loving kid from Book One. There’s a family tree to connect the dots at the end, plus a few extra chapters with outtakes. In this one you have to concentrate to understand the connection between characters, but having to reread such a good graphic novel is a pleasure, especially if it’s interrupted by a snooze in the hammock. 

On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press in 2011.

July 16, 2014
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