Let’s Get Graphic

Graphic novels for all ages are booming! For at least a decade, the number of graphic novels for youth has been growing, with increasingly diverse topics, characters, and storylines.

Until recently, though, graphic novels for youth with QUILTBAG characters and themes were few and far between. Despite all the awesome comics for kids and teens, graphic novels seemed to be lagging behind traditional novels in the QUILTBAG arena.

Thankfully that’s changing, and graphic novels for and about QUILTBAG youth are becoming more plentiful. In QUILTBAG #6 I talked about Drama by Raina Telgemeier, a groundbreaking middle grade graphic novel that’s been a massive hit ever since its release in 2012. In just the past year or two, a flood of other graphic novels for teens, tweens, and younger kids have joined Drama in the QUILTBAG graphic novel landscape.

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Check, Please! #Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu tells the sweet and funny tale of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former high school figure skater who applies his skating skills to hockey once he’s in college. Bitty loves baking for his friends, social networking (his tweets are compiled in the back of the book), and the camaraderie of his hockey team. The cute, cartoony art in this Morris Award finalist will appeal to younger readers, but this one is for older teens — the characters are all in college and the storylines are authentic to that. Some of Bitty’s teammates express themselves in the colorful ways you might expect from college hockey players, so fair warning. I loved this book and can’t wait for the next volume.

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In Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau, Ari is eager to move to the big city with his bandmates, but his parents need his help running the family bakery in their sleepy beach town. Ari thinks if he can find someone to take his place, maybe his father will let him go. Enter Hector, an easy-going guy who loves to bake and answers the Help Wanted call. Ari and Hector become co-workers, then friends. This charming, slow-burn romance features older teens but will appeal to younger teens as well; it’s published by First Second, who can always be counted on to provide some of the very best graphic novels for youth.

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The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang, also from First Second, showed up on the 2019 Rainbow List (see QUILTBAG #2) and is also a Teens’ Top Ten 2019 nominee. After seamstress Frances is fired for creating a dress her boss finds too edgy, she’s hired by a mysterious client who is intrigued by her daring designs. Her new admirer turns out to be the Prince, who secretly likes wearing beautiful dresses. Together, the two of them are unstoppable. Using a lush color palette and clean, sweeping lines, Wang beautifully tells this charming tale of fashion and finding one’s identity. This is a sweet story suitable for tweens and older.

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A collection of connected short stories, The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell tracks a neighborhood-full of kids who, over the course of one summer, create an increasingly elaborate fantasy world using cardboard boxes and their imaginations. Several characters display some sort of gender non-conformity in ordinary, childlike ways — the boy who wants to play the Empress; the girl who wants to be a mustache-wearing scientist; the boy who’d rather be rescued by the prince than slay the dragon. The art is colorful and energetic, and the text is spare and easy to read. This book is perfectly appealing for all ages.

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Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw is a recent release from First Second for more mature teens. Mads attends Catholic high school where her friend group includes wild child Cat, goody-goody Laura, and Laura’s brother Adam, who has a crush on Mads. Venable has crafted a story rich with friend drama, family mystery and strife, and a main character who compellingly struggles to make sense of her family, friends, and feelings. Crenshaw’s drawings are lively; expressive body language and facial expressions help tell the story in tandem with the text.

There are plenty of other comics and graphic novels for youth with QUILTBAG characters, and also several with QUILTBAG vibes or appeal. Nimona, Fence, Witch Boy, Lumberjanes, Backstagers, Roller Girl, This One Summer, and Tomboy are just a few worth recommending.

What are your favorite graphic novels and comics for youth that have QUILTBAG characters or storylines? I’d love to hear your suggestions!

PS: I know some of you are educators, and if you’re still reluctant to read graphic novels or use them in your classroom, I recommend this essay-in-comic-form by Gene Yang, the author of the Printz-winning American Born Chinese and a huge advocate for comics for kids. A recent Edweek article weighs in, as well, on why graphic novels belong in your English classroom. And finally, Publishers Weekly explains why the graphic novel is a perfectly teachable format.

Cons, Ships, and Fics

Ah, fandom. The world of cosplay, slashfic, cons, and headcanon ships.

If most of that sounds like a foreign language, you owe it to yourself to dive into some of the latest YA novels that use the universe of fandom to tell compelling stories of identity in the 21st century. (And I’ve included a short glossary at the end of this post, just in case. Look for bolded words in the glossary.)

The Pros of Cons by Alison Cherry, Lindsay Ribar, and Michelle Schusterman

Three authors tell three interconnected stories of three girls, all at the same hotel and convention center for three different events. Callie is assisting her father at the World Taxidermy Championships. Phoebe is with her fellow high school band mates at the Indoor Percussion Association Convention. And Vanessa is at the We Treasure Fandom Convention, aka WTFcon, where she’s excited to finally meet IRL her online co-author and girlfriend Soleil.

Callie and her father are clashing over family dynamics; Phoebe is caught in a web of conflicting crushes and frenemies in her circle of band friends; and Vanessa discovers that Soleil may have misrepresented herself online in a variety of ways to further her own fanfic fanbase. (On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, as they say.)

In rotating chapters, the three girls narrate their individual stories, which increasingly overlap until the different plotlines weave together in one satisfying climax. A podcast project for Creativity Corner, WTFcon’s culminating event, combines the talents and connections of all three girls, and hinges in part on the fact that they are unknown to each other’s con companions and can therefore interview them face to face in relative anonymity. The project also gives Vanessa a chance to further her budding friendship with fellow fanfic writer Merry (who uses they/them pronouns).

Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner

Cameron designs costumes, often gender-flipping characters from comic books and video games as she reimagines their looks. After winning a recent cosplay contest she’s been suffering abuse from Internet trolls who are mad at how she’s altered their favorite characters, or simply can’t believe a girl could know anything about the world of comics and gaming.

Cameron hopes to finish her costume portfolio in peace, and since her family has recently moved to a new town, it’s easy to be a recluse. But as she’s browsing the local comic shop for inspiration, her ire is newly raised by a smug clerk who steers her to the “girl section” and quizzes her on obscure characters to test her cred.

On a suggestion from her gay twin brother Cooper, Cameron borrows some of his clothes and gender-swaps her own identity. She’s surprised to find how easy it is to be taken seriously when she’s back in the comics shop as boy-Cameron; she’s even more surprised when a good-looking guy invites her to join his D&D group that plays regularly at the shop.

Cameron develops a crush on the dashing DM but is in too deep to reveal that she’s a girl. Her brother Cooper is interested in Wyatt, another player, but Wyatt seems to only have eyes for Cam (who he thinks is a boy!). Meanwhile, the Internet bullies are coming after Cameron full-force, and it’s affecting her ability to finish her portfolio in time for her big college interview.

Filled with great social commentary on gender dynamics, Internet trolling, table-top gaming, comics, cosplay, and role-playing of all kinds, Chaotic Good delivers a delightful and timely story.

Ship It by Britta Lundin

Smokey is a demon hunter. Heart is a demon…with a heart. The two are sworn enemies, and yet…. When Claire writes slashfic starring the two main characters of her favorite tv show Demon Heart, the two hunky leads are in love.

Claire travels from her small Idaho town to a Comic-Con in Boise where the stars of Demon Heart are appearing, and she has the opportunity to ask them about the possibility of their smoldering attraction finally playing out on screen. It may not be canon, but it’s Claire’s headcanon. And she’s not alone. Fandom reacts with enthusiastic curiosity, but Forest Reed (who plays Smokey) does NOT like the idea that fans might see his character as gay.

After a clip of the Q&A goes viral, Claire is invited to follow the Con to Portland and Seattle, in part to pander to the show’s online and LGBTQ fans, but also in an attempt at damage control. Forest, and others involved with the show, just want Claire and her uncomfortable questions to go away.

Claire meets fellow Demon Heart fan Tess, a self-proclaimed “homoromantic pansexual,” and Claire begins to realize she may have feelings for Tess beyond fellow fan and potential friend. Meanwhile, Forest and his co-star Rico react differently to the fans who ship their characters, and Forest has to face some of his own issues.

All three of these books are on the American Library Association’s 2019 Rainbow List. All three titles have interesting things to say about the gender spectrum, gender roles, questioning, and attraction as well as the tricky navigation of public and private identities, the power of online communities, and the creativity of fandom. Still, they never feel preachy or teacher-y; each one is a fun adventure with fascinating characters. So whether the world of Cons, Fics, and Ships is familiar territory or completely new to you, dive on in!

Glossary

Canon – The facts of an original story, especially in contrast to what happens in fanfic. For example, plenty of fanfic has Harry and Hermione getting together romantically — even though that’s not canon. Or fanfic might have Harry on Safari in Africa, even though that’s not canon.

Con – Short for convention, often a fan convention of some kind. LeakyCon is a well-known Harry Potter convention.

Cosplay – Short for costume play. Often fans will attend cons or meet-ups in elaborate costumes, which could be careful replicas of well-known characters (storm troopers, Hobbits) or variations such as gender-flipped versions of characters or fanfic characters that are clearly from a certain fandom (“I’m a bisexual Slytherin with a thing for both Tonks and Ron.”)

D&D – Dungeons and Dragons, a popular tabletop role-playing game.

DM – Dungeon Master. The person who plans and runs campaigns for D&D games.

Fandom – This can refer to all the fans of all the things; or a specific fandom, such as the Harry Potter fandom, the Lumberjanes fandom, or the High School Musical fandom.

Fanfic – Fiction written by fans and set in the world of an existing story. Fanfic could be about canon characters, new characters invented by the fanfic writer, or both.

Headcanon – A fact that isn’t canon, but a fan (or many fans) assume to be true, so it is part of their personal headcanon. Supposed queerness is a frequent topic of headcanon: Lady Elaine Fairchild is a lesbian; Ryan Evans (HSM) is gay. (See the brilliant essay in comic form, “Tell Me About Your Trans Headcanons,” by Sfe R. Monster in the anthology The Secret Loves of Geeks.)

IRL – In Real Life.

Ship – Short for relationship, but used as a verb. When a fan wants two characters to get together romantically, they ship them. So many Harry Potter fans ship Harry and Draco, it’s practically become headcanon for many of them.  

Slashfic – Fanfic that puts two characters in a relationship that isn’t canon, usually a queer relationship. For example, fanfic that pairs the Winchester brothers from Supernatural (“Wincest”) or stories about Meredith and Cristina from Gray’s Anatomy.

Trolling – Being intentionally inflammatory in online comments to provoke individuals or groups, incite anger, and disrupt online communication and communities.