The recent Newbery Award for Jerry Craft’s New Kid feels like an acknowledgment of what most tween readers already know: graphic novels that deal with the ups and downs of middle school life make for great reading. Fans of Raina Telgemeier have devoured each of her books, from the memoirs Smile, Sisters, and Guts to her fiction such as Drama and Ghosts. The visual style of these books helps ease the barrier for readers who might be intimidated by longer books or prone to disengagement and the relatable dialogue helps younger readers empathize with what they see on the page. If you’re looking for the next relatable read in this genre, check out the picks below.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
A major theme of Telgemeier’s books is that they revolve around middle school aged girls exploring their everyday lives and reader’s who connect with those themes will also love the graphic novels of Victoria Jamieson. Roller Girl, a 2016 Newbery Honor winner, centers around the adventures of tween girl Astrid, the roller derby team she joins, and the friendships she struggles to make and keep. Jamieson presents issues like breaking off a friendship or experiencing jealousy over a friend’s success that will resonate with middle schoolers as a whole, while also allowing them a glimpse into the world of roller derby and using it to show Astrid’s growing confidence in what makes her unique. The upbeat and bright illustrations and action-packed dialogue make this a great choice for the easily bored middle schooler or fans of realistic middle grade fiction.
Akissi by Marguerite Abouet
Akissi is the funny and visually engaging account of life in the Ivory Coast, drawing on the author’s own childhood memories as well as inventive situations that Akissi works her way through with cleverness and humor. The modern, urban setting provides a much needed contrast to many of the stereotypical presentations of Africa that children and teens often encounter as well as hooking readers with plenty of jokes and well-drawn characters. Readers will be especially excited to know that this is the first book in the series. (Also, a side recommendation for the author’s Aya series of graphic novels, based on her own adolescence, which are a great choice for teens who love realistic graphic novels but may have aged out of these suggestions!)
Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez
Combining an appealing story with gorgeously detailed illustrations and characters who spin together a fantasy world, Alvarez’s Nightlights takes the reader into the world of Sandy, student and lover of daydreaming and doodling on her schoolwork. She feels like an always in trouble outcast at her parochial school until a mysterious new girl comes and starts to rave about what Sandy draws. This starts a magical sequence of events that bring her drawings to life, blurring the lines between her real life and imaginary world. Alvarez illustrates this change beautifully, combining the duller colors of Sandy’s school and “real life” with the vivid, deep shades of her dreams, which helps younger readers understand the symbolism behind the two worlds.
Cub by Cynthia L. Copeland
Readers who love the memoir basis of Sisters and Smile can dive into Cub, Copeland’s memoir of her time as a cub reporter for her local paper in the 1970s. The retro illustrations help readers get a quick sense of the style of the decade, while musing on cliques and popular girls make the book feel connected to the present. Showing how Copeland developed a passion for writing while also addressing the sexism both she and her mentor at the paper face, this is a great addition to lists of female-centric, realistic, graphic novels.
Luz Sees the Light by Claudia Davila
A perfect gift to hand to budding activists, this first book in the series The Future According to Luz lets us view a world of rolling blackouts and shortages through the eyes of its 12-year-old main character. As Luz’s family faces food shortages and a lack of gas, she decides to be more locally involved and encourages her fellow kids to start composting, growing their own food, and conserving energy. Readers who love learning about the environment and acting up for change will be inspired by the story and the end of the book even contains tips for becoming more environmentally friendly in their own lives.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Loosely based on Bell’s childhood, El Deafo tells the story of a girl who relies on “The Phonic Ear” to hear, eventually coming to see herself as a superhero rather than someone sidelined by difference. The portrayal of characters as animals echoes to more mature graphic novels, such as Maus, and provides an opportunity for discussion about why the author chose to use that particular art. Bell’s charming tale is a Newbery Honor winner that presents the idea of disability as a difference and a source of unique strengths, rather than something that to be pitied or mocked.
Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Another retro plot set in the turbulent ’70s, Sunny Side Up tackles the story of Sunny, sent to live with her grandfather in his Florida retirement community for the summer. Sunny’s parents haven’t been entirely upfront with her about the reasons for her trip, but, like most middle schoolers, she knows something is going on while she’s gone. The book presents Sunny’s brother’s struggle with drugs through her perspective and shows how addiction affects the members of his family and their feelings of distance from him and from each other. The book pairs bright colors and Sunny’s Florida adventures with these more serious topics, making it an approachable and enjoyable read.
Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitty Holy by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen, and Noelle Stevenson
A multi-book series that associates itself more with comic book style publications than the graphic novel form, Lumberjanes brings together a gifted group of writers to tell the story of five best friends and their summer at camp. Incorporating both kick-ass female friendship and awe-inspiring monsters, this series is sure to hook readers looking for action and who like a bit of the supernatural in their stories. The series progresses with the characters and showcases an awesome diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, and sexualities while continuing to showcase the mystery-solving, adventure having lives of its protagonists.
Click by Kayla Miller
Readers that love the fitting in narratives of New Kid and Drama will enjoy reading about the trials of middle schooler Olive who suddenly finds herself not “clicking” with her old friends and having to audition as a solo act for the school talent show. A relatable choice for readers at the younger end of the middle grades range, this book explores the particular pain of feeling cast out as interests and friendships change in middle school, as well as how families play a role in supporting us as we grow up and how tweens can build up their confidence in themselves and start finding where they fit.
Stargazing by Jen Wang
Stargazing is a sweet story, both warmly told and illustrated, that explores friendship, illness, and Asian American identity through the relationship between neighbors Moon and Christine as they navigate different families and expressions of their shared Chinese American heritage. While Christine’s family is strict and teaches her to always stay within the lines, Moon is impulsive and tells Christine about the celestial beings that speak to her and tell her she has a different home. As the real world implications of what Moon is hearing become clear to both the girls and their families, their friendship faces a seismic test that puts Moon in the hospital and leaves Christine struggling to understand what is and isn’t real about her own identity.
Whether you’re in middle school yourself, trying to connect with someone who is, or simply wanting to engage with a good story, visually imagined, these picks are sure to connect with both your eyes and your heart!