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Middle Grade Graphic Novels that Dive Deep

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Anne Mai Yee Jansen

Contributor

Anne Mai Yee Jansen is a literature and ethnic studies professor and a lifelong story addict. She exists on a steady diet of books and hot chocolate, with a heaping side of travel whenever possible. Originally hailing from the sun and sandstone of southern California, she currently resides with her partner, offspring, and feline companion in the sleepy mountains of western North Carolina.

Have you taken a look at the selection of middle grade graphic novels out there lately? Because it’s incredible. I’m gonna be honest with you: when I was a kid, I didn’t even know what middle grade books were. (That doesn’t mean I wasn’t reading them whenever I could, though.) But middle grade graphic novels? Those were definitely not a thing in the ’80s.

According to Publishers Weekly, middle grade graphic novels were “the hottest category in books” 5 years ago, “but the category was almost nonexistent” in the early 2000s. It’s wild to think that this versatile and rich category was barely a blip on the publishing world’s radar at the turn of the century.

Yet here we are (thankfully!) in a time when there are so many graphic novels for middle grade readers — and all the rest of us who also enjoy these books — that it’s hard to decide which ones to grab off the shelves of your local library or bookstore.

Graphic novels have tremendous potential to help young readers develop crucial literacy skills, and while they can be just-for-fun books (like some books for older readers), they can also engage with some pretty complex topics. I suspect that’s part of what draws some young readers to these books. After all, middle grade readers are at a stage in their lives where they’re trying to understand themselves and the world around them on a more substantial level than their younger counterparts.

With that in mind, I’ve curated this list of middle grade graphic novels with an eye toward books that dive deep. The topics these books grapple with vary pretty widely, but they’re all united by their top-notch writing, engaging illustrations, and valuable engagement with substantial topics and themes.

The Deep and Dark Blue by Niki Smith book cover

The Deep and Dark Blue by Niki Smith

This graphic novel, both written and illustrated by Niki Smith, is a fantasy tale that focuses on royal identical twins Grayce and Hawke whose family has been murdered (by their own cousin, nonetheless) in a coup. While court politics and a mysterious organization called the Communion of Blue are integral parts of the story, they also intertwine with the more personal aspects of the twins’ lives. More specifically, Grayce is a trans girl who comes into her identity over the course of the novel while her cis-male brother Hawke is intent on righting the wrongs of their traitorous cousin.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang book cover

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Originally published in 2006, Yang’s graphic novel (which walks the line between MG and YA) has been recently republished to coincide with the release of the new Disney+ series of the same name. The graphic novel has three intertwined storylines: Danny, an American-Born Chinese kid who’s just trying to fit in at school; his cringe-worthy foreign-born cousin who inconveniently comes to visit; and the Monkey King from Chinese folklore. As their stories unfold, it becomes clear that there are some important threads connecting their lives. Bonus: You can hear Yang talk about the process of adapting the book for the show in episode 201 of the podcast They Call Us Bruce.

Frizzy by Claribel A. Ortega book cover

Frizzy by Claribel A. Ortega

Ortega’s graphic novel, compellingly illustrated by Rose Bousamra, is one of those books where the cover really corresponds to what’s inside. Put another way, the strikingly rendered natural hair of protagonist Marlene that features so prominently on the front of the book is the heart of the story. Her mom makes her endure the harsh and time-consuming chemical process of getting her hair professionally straightened every weekend. Yet Marlene’s desire to let her hair be natural invites the reader into a rich exploration of internalized racism, white beauty standards, and one girl’s empowering journey to be allowed to be herself.

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier book cover

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

This book is really sweet. It opens with Catrina’s family making a big move — one she’s not happy about but accepts is the best thing for her younger sister Maya’s health. As Catrina, AKA Cat, gets to know her new town, she gets a little more than she bargained for because it turns out Bahía de la Luna is massively haunted! As the narrative unfolds, Cat struggles to come to terms with her sister’s mortality (she has cystic fibrosis) and all the ghosts wandering around the place. What ensues is a thought-provoking and touching story of family, love, and living with and loving someone who has a serious health condition.

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas book cover

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team is one of my all-time favorites! Bree and her father have just moved to a new state and everything’s unfamiliar. When Bree tries to join the math club, she’s turned away and ends up having to join the swim team. Oh, and Bree doesn’t know how to swim! With the help of her neighbor Etta, Bree not only learns how to swim — she also learns a lot about the history of segregation and racism. Luckily for her, she finds community in her eclectic swim team as they compete with the rival team and try to figure out what kind of legacy they’ll create in their small town.

The Awakening by Jaimal Yogis and Vivian Truong book cover

The Awakening Storm by Jaimal Yogis and Vivian Truong

Volume 1 of the City of Dragons series, The Awakening Storm is a fast-paced adventure set in present-day Hong Kong. On the surface, it’s a cinematic story of an ordinary girl who finds out she’s extraordinary. After all, Grace is just trying to fit in after her family’s big move to Hong Kong, and it’s not her fault a stranger gives her an egg that turns out to be a dragon egg. Of course, the egg hatches pretty much right away, so Grace has to figure out what she’s landed herself in the middle of — and fast! One of the things I love about this graphic novel (besides the great story, of course) is that it’s a dragon adventure tale that also happens to celebrate what it means to be mixed race (like Grace).

New Kid by Jerry Craft book cover

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Jerry Craft’s aptly named New Kid follows Jordan Banks as he attempts to navigate the social perils of being not only the new kid but also being an African American student at a predominantly white elite private school. Riverdale Academy Day School presents Jordan with a slew of microaggressions so that instead of being across the city from his neighborhood, it may as well be on another planet. Tapping into larger social concerns linked to racial and socioeconomic privilege, New Kid is a powerfully written and dynamically illustrated book that cuts right to the heart of the matter. Bonus: it’s book one of three (currently) interlinked graphic novels that include Jordan and his friends.

Just Roll With It by Veronica Agarwal and Lee Durfey Lavoie book cover

Just Roll With It by Veronica Agarwal and Lee Durfey-Lavoie

Just Roll with It is a really touching story with illustrations I can only describe as super cute. It’s hard enough to start middle school, but Maggie Sankhar has the added factor of her struggles with mental health to contend with as she makes this transition. Maggie is living with OCD and is coming to understand that a literal roll of her trusty 20-sided dice (hence the book’s title) isn’t going to be enough to get her through this. With the support of her family, a new therapist, and a newfound friend, Maggie begins to navigate the perils of middle school in a way that works for her.

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed book cover

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

This graphic novel is based on co-author Omar Mohamed’s own experiences as a child living in a refugee camp. The young Omar and his little brother live in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp after their family is torn apart in the Somalian civil war. Omar has to figure out how to handle everything from caring for his brother (who has a medical condition) to making decisions about his own education and also trying to plan for the future. The story is thoughtfully conveyed and gives young readers an accessible and humanizing window into refugee camps and the real-life impacts of war and displacement.

Still Searching? Look No Further!

If you want more middle grade graphic novels (whether or not you’re a middle grade student), take a look at the titles on this list of middle grade graphic novels to lose yourself in. For a list of recent reads, peruse the books on this list featuring new-in-2022 titles, or go back a little further and check out these 50 must-read middle grade graphic novels.