Middle grade graphic novels are perfect summer reads: lightweight in heft but full of drama, experiences, and perspectives. It is easy enough to dip in and out of many of these books, not requiring a ton of concentration, and usually they come complete with a happy ending.
The agony of those preteen years is perfectly suited to the graphic novel format. It’s both an interesting and deeply monotonous time of life because you still can’t really do anything. You desperately want freedom, but are not responsible enough yet to be given any. For the most part, I spent empty summer days writing in my bedroom and talking with my best friend outside our local video store. These would not make for especially engaging prose – in a novel, action has to move the story forward – but the graphic novel format can capture boredom and lift it into a nostalgic literary confection. In a panel, plenty can be expressed by two people just sitting silently.
In late spring–early summer, school was slowing down, days were growing longer again, and it was when you had time to finally sit and process the year’s lessons. (I definitely don’t mean school-wise.) It was then that I could begin to process my gayness, explore the city properly, and deal with friendships that were beginning to shift, cement and break. Don’t you still remember what it felt like to be an almost-teenager, on the verge of summer holidays, with your heart, and mind and eyes blown open by new experiences? I still do, and it remains a wonderful and terrible sensation.
I chose these five middle grade graphic novels because something in each of them reminded me of that time. These clever books warmly explore topics like racism, sexual orientation, and family, and there is much to appreciate in each.
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
Vera wishes she could properly fit in, but is self-conscious about how being a Russian immigrant makes her seem weird. Longing to not feel left out and wanting to attend sleepaway camp like her American classmates, she begs her mom to send her to the Organization of Russian Razvedchiki in America. Shared cultural background does not make an experience automatically easy, so Vera struggles to fit in at camp too. I attended a Jewish sleepaway camp for two weeks when I was 12, and this book really resonated with me for that reason. Was my time at camp a good experience? Insert comme si comme ça hand gesture here. Reading Brosgol’s charming, affectionate book, on the other hand, was a great experience.
All Summer Long by Hope Larson
Summers feel endless when you are a kid, those wide open days with nothing really to do. Bina is reluctantly spending her first summer without best friend Oliver, who is off at soccer camp and acting weird. Larson really captures listlessness well (playing music, watching TV, reading in PJs). I totally remember being sent on errands just to get me outside! While I wish the narrative were a bit stronger, it is the first part in a planned series, so more is sure to develop. I did come to appreciate Bina and her music-backed growing pains, especially since that was a huge part of my own development (from top 40 countdowns to Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins).
Operatic by Kyo Maclear and Byron Eggenschwiler
Another one about the power of music to help us connect. Charlie Noguchi is upset by the disappearance of classmate Luka, who was being bullied. She is unable to connect with friends and classmates, until her favourite teacher, Mr. K, begins teaching the class about different musical genres to help them find “their song” – the one that will always fit them. Charlie discovers outsider Opera star Maria Callas, a performer both celebrated and criticized until her early death at 53. Maria’s story teaches Charlie the importance of perseverance and self-belief. The art has planned-mess vibe, while wiggly monochromatic illustrations add a dreamy feel.
Hotel Dare by Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre
This one is a mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and family drama. Though it doesn’t remind me of my life in particular, it’s great there’s a queer character like Olive. The story: Olive and her adopted brother and sister, Darwin and Charlotte, aren’t fully blending as a family. Charlotte feels uneasy and resentful, and is angry that she has to go for a summer-long stay at the hotel home of their estranged Grandmother. Mamá Lupe is secretive and unfriendly as she immediately saddles the trio with household chores. Bored and bickering, they find a creepy mask that opens secret portals. These link each of them to other worlds filled with space pirates, fuzzy cloud-looking monsters and snobby wizards. Their only way to defeat the troubles plaguing these worlds is to finally embrace and accept each other.
New Kid by Jerry Craft
Though set firmly in the school year, this book is too wonderful not to mention. Funny? Check. Multi-layered characters? Check. Relevant social commentary? Big ol’ check. Jordan is a talented artist, sent to a wealthy school on scholarship despite his protests. He makes friends, but also struggles with a series of racist interactions. Overall, Craft writes a nuanced portrayal of the overt and subtle ways that black children experience racism in mostly white schools. Characters are portrayed with real depth, shown both at their best and worst.
Let me know if you’ve read any of these, or if I missed any that you feel really strongly about. If you want middle grade novels about misfit kids, there are these too. If you’d like some suggestions of new YA graphic novels, you’ll find those here.