Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third
This is such a great example of a Cybils book. An impala (Lupe Impala), a mosquito (Elirio Malaria), and an octopus (El Chavo Octopus) are three friends who own a garage together. When their pet cat goes missing, they climb into their lowrider and set out to rescue him. What follows is a fast-paced adventure to the center of the Earth, involving Aztec gods, La Llorona, and even a bit of lucha libre. Camper weaves Mexican and Latin American culture seamlessly into the storyline, and her characters pepper their language with Spanish words and phrases (translated for non-Spanish speakers in footnotes at the bottom of each page). The story is rife with wordplay and puns, including some that take advantage of both languages at once. Raul the Third’s pen and ink art is unique and a delight to look at – I can picture kids spending long moments poring over the frequent double-page spreads, picking out every last detail.
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill
This is a graphic adaptation of a story originally published in 1898 by Ernest Thompson Seton (who helped found the Boy Scouts of America), about a wolf named Lobo and various attempts to trap or kill it. I’m not sure how much the text itself was modified by Grill, but it still feels very old-fashioned in its syntax and word choice. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it did make it a bit of a dry read for me. The art, on the other hand, is phenomenal. I would describe this as a cross between a standard picture book and a graphic novel, because there are no panels, really, though the art is mostly sequential and necessary to the story, as opposed to being merely illustrative. It looks like it was done in colored pencil, a deviation from what most people think of when they picture a comic book. While I didn’t love the text, the art makes this a treasure of a book. In fact, the whole package is gorgeous and a stellar example of bookmaking – thick, somewhat rough pages, a textured cover, oversized. This kind of bookmaking is a hallmark of Flying Eye books and I always look forward to what they publish for this very reason.
Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke
I’m a big fan of Hatke’s work. His stories are so kid-friendly, and he’s a major double threat: great writing, great art. Zita the Spacegirl is one of my favorite graphic novel series and I recommend it all the time. Mighty Jack is his re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it’s a solid start. Jack’s family consists of his sister Maddy, who has autism and doesn’t speak, and his mom, who is taking a second job over the summer to help make ends meet. The setting appears to be pretty rural and Jack’s family also appears to be pretty poor, both elements you don’t see very explicitly in much kidlit. At the flea market one day, Jack is persuaded to hand over the keys to his mom’s car in exchange for some seeds…by Maddy, who speaks for the first time in Jack’s experience. It’s astonishing enough that Jack makes the trade, though of course he gets in hot water for it (luckily, the car is recovered). But when the seeds are planted, the story deviates from its source material pretty significantly. All sorts of different things grow, not just a beanstalk, and there aren’t really giants to speak of. Plus there’s a neighbor girl and some swordplay and possibly a dragon…it’s imaginative and fun and sensitive to its characters. It ends a bit abruptly and feels very much like a first installment, but I look forward to reading the next.
The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks
Faith Erin Hicks is another graphic novel creator I consider a double threat. I liked both Brain Camp and Friends With Boys (the latter was a 2012 Cybils winner I helped choose as a round 2 judge). I thought the concept of The Nameless City was really intriguing – a fictional city reminiscent of feudal China that is conquered every 20 years or so by a different group of people due to its strategic location. The two main characters each belong to a separate group – one a member of the conquering, the other a member of the conquered. The characters feel real and the art is expressive and lovely, as is always the case with Hicks’ work. That said, Angie Manfredi brought up some thoughtful points about the problematic aspects of the book’s premise and execution, thoughts echoed by another of our round 2 judges. These points are worth considering as we (particularly white and non-Asian) readers absorb stories like these, which draw inspiration from cultures that are not our own.
Compass South by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock
I really enjoyed this story of a pair of identical twins whose adoptive father has gone missing (presumed dead) and decide to impersonate another man’s missing twin sons, who also happen to have red hair, in order to benefit from his wealth. There are a couple of problems: they’re in New York and the man is in San Francisco, and these twins are a girl and a boy named Cleo and Alex. This is a historical adventure set in the 1860s that involves stowing away on a ship, gangs of street kids, mysterious artifacts, another pair of twins pulling the same con, reluctant cross-dressing, and hints of lost pirate treasure. There’s also a significant amount of emotional heft to the really fun storyline: the relationship between Cleo and Alex is fraught but loving, and their friendship with the other set of twins they meet – who have different motivations for their con entirely – adds another layer. Mock’s art is clean, colorful, and expressive. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel.
Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill
I love this book to pieces. It’s more on the elementary side than the middle grade side – a bit shorter, a bit more simplistic than the others on the shortlist. It’s a sort of retelling of Rapunzel, but this time it’s a headstrong black princess, Amira, who rescues a white princess, Sadie, in the tower. They then go on a series of fun, small adventures, culminating in a bigger adventure where they confront the person who put Sadie in the tower in the first place. And yes, they fall in love, and there’s a sweet lesbian wedding in the epilogue, where the two girls are now adults and have accomplished much in their lives – and have come back to each other to live happily ever after. The mini adventures are cute and funny, subverting gender roles along the way (including the proscribed role of men in traditional fairy tales), and the ending is a joy and a gift. (One note: Sadie is frequently described as fat, and refers to herself this way too, but another judge pointed out the art doesn’t do a great job of depicting her this way, which is true. So, there’s definitely a body positivity message, but whether it’s executed successfully or not is up for debate.)
Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard
Bera finds a human baby one day and decides to save its life, when all the other creatures in the land of trolls would like it dead, or to use it for their own ends. In her quest to return it to its parents in the land of humans, she encounters all manner of creatures who pose a threat to either Bera or the baby – or both. This is a cute, imaginative story, but ultimately I found it mostly forgettable. That is partly due to the art, which is mostly browns and grays (I wish it had all been colored like the cover). It fits the mood of the story but also feels a bit repetitive. Worth a read, but not my favorite.
For reviews of titles on the Young Adult shortlist, see this post.