I have recently been reading several graphic novels aimed at middle graders, tweens, and teens—some alone and some with my nine-year-old son, The Boy. Today, I’m sharing my opinions of five of them, and my son gives his perspectives on a couple, too.
Hex Vet: Witches in Training by Sam Davies
Age Range: Middle Grade
In Hex Vet: Witches in Training, Nan and Clarion are two apprentice witches who are training to work as magical veterinarians at a clinic for weird and wonderful pets. The pair find themselves in trouble when the senior vet and nurse have to attend an emergency outside the clinic, leaving them in charge. An infected rabbit with strange eyes soon has many of the clinic’s dangerous creatures attacking the apprentices as they attempt to get everything back under control. All the while, Clarion is trying to handle a Bugbear that has taken up residence in the basement, and Nan is facing a potentially much worse hardship—the stares and whispers of the clinic’s human customers who know she comes from a family famed for its use of dark magic.
This is a cute and fun little story that kids will love. There’s not a huge amount of magic in this book—no spellcasting or potion mixing—instead, it feels like the next step for those whose favorite class at Hogwarts was Care of Magical Creatures. There’s plenty of exotic creatures here, from the familiar such as pythons and magic rabbits to griffins and manticores, and the book is clearly set up as the beginning of a series.
I hope that in future books, we get to learn more about the characters. Alongside Nan and Clarion is Head Veterinary Witch Dr. Cornelia Talon, and there’s also Nurse Ariel Chantsworth, who reminds me somewhat of Gilderoy Lockhart with his long flowing locks and somewhat arrogant demeanor. This first volume was very strongly plot-centered, and I’m curious to learn more about the small cast, as this book gives away almost nothing beyond a few teasing comments that make us want to know more.
I’ll definitely be picking up more volumes of Hex Vet as they become available, a second volume—The Flying Surgery—is scheduled for release on Christmas Eve.
The Boy thought Hex Vet: Witches in Training was, and I quote, “really good.” He enjoyed the parts of the story where things “went wrong” for the main characters and they had to solve problems together. He especially liked the bugbear, and how he initially seemed scary but ended up being helpful, showing that looks can be deceiving, and he thought the scene where the bugbear gets hold of the spray bottles was extremely funny.
Ben 10: The Truth Is Out There by CB Lee
Age Range: Middle Grade
Let me be honest; I picked up this book purely because of the title. As an X-Files fan, I just couldn’t resist taking a look at something titled Ben 10: The Truth Is Out There, and I ended up enjoying the short story over one of my lunchbreaks despite knowing almost nothing about the Ben 10 universe.
Ben, his cousin Gwen, and their Grandpa are away on a “boring” camping weekend when they discover they are camping at a site filled with a large and friendly gathering of Bigfoot enthusiasts, including Kyle and his Grandpa George, who get together every year to try and track down the elusive creature. Ben thinks their quest is ridiculous and decides to prank the group overnight by creating some fake evidence, however, his prank backfires the following morning when he sees the false hope he has given his new friends and soon some more evidence turns up that Ben had nothing to do with, leading him to question his own beliefs even as he is needed to once again save the day.
I really liked the messages this book sent. Ben’s actions straddle that border many kids struggle with between playing a fun prank and going too far where the prank ends up hurting people’s feelings and perhaps putting them at risk. It is Ben himself who realizes that he has stepped over the line and needs to put things right, with some guidance from his family.
Both kids also learn a lesson during the story about the value of doing things that others enjoy as well as themselves. Ben and Gwen start out unhappy to be on the camping trip because they would rather be doing something more “fun” like visiting a theme park or checking out the new Egyptian exhibition at the museum. They consider their Grandpa’s desire to show them the things he enjoyed doing as a kid boring, and the activities of the Bigfoot group laughable. Yet, by the end, both kids want to stay longer at the campsite. Ok, it’s a little heavy handed, but this is a story aimed at kids and I hope the message will land where it’s most needed.
There are also some really fun details in the artwork. Kyle’s Grandpa George wears a vest covered in patches from the various societies he belongs to—The Werewolf Conservation Society, Mothman Support Group, etc—that made me laugh when I saw them. Fox Mulder would most definitely approve.
Fans of Gravity Falls and Phineas and Ferb will enjoy this book, and it was easy enough to get into without knowing any previous information about Ben 10.
Minecraft Volume One by Sfé R. Monster
Age Range: Middle Grade
I picked up Minecraft Volume One for The Boy because he is a regular Minecraft player. Although I don’t play myself (I’ve tried several times and just can’t seem to get the hang of it), we read the story together over a few afternoon reading sessions, and it was a fun enough story to pass the time and encourage my reluctant reader to engage without too much coercion.
In this volume, we meet Tyler and his friends Evan, Candace, Tobi, and Grace. Tyler has recently moved to a new school a long way away and feels isolated. Playing Minecraft together with his old friends allows him to feel like he’s still part of their gang, although he finds himself worrying that they are beginning to leave him out of things.
To show support to Tyler and prove their commitment to staying together, the gang decides to take on the ultimate Minecraft quest: journeying to The End and defeating the Ender Dragon. We get to see them working together to gather all the supplies they need, defeat monsters, locate a stronghold, and finally come face-to-face with the Ender Dragon itself. There are challenges along the way, and the story is clearly focused on promoting the ideas of friendship and teamwork as a means to overcome those. It’s all very worthy, but for me reading as an adult, it felt a bit forced at times.
There were a few negatives aspects to the story. Despite the ending being very nice and heartwarming, it felt rather contrived and even The Boy commented on how unbelievable it was, which says a lot. Also, although it was great to see an LGBTQ relationship in a middle-grade story, I did feel like the romance element came out of nowhere in the final few pages (and trust me, I can spot a potential queer ship a mile away), which made it feel like an afterthought. Finally, I do wonder where future volumes will take these characters now that they have already tackled the Big Bad of the Minecraft universe on their first outing.
The Boy thought Minecraft Volume One was fun. He especially liked that the story was grounded in real Minecraft story elements, which means that readers could choose to recreate it with their own friends.
Mera: Tidebreaker by Danielle Paige
Age Range: Teen
I’m not a DC Comics fan at all, which is why I didn’t even click that Mera: Tidebreaker was a DC title at first. Mera is a brand new character to me and this book, which I picked up purely based on its cover art, was my first introduction to this part of the DC Universe.
I ended up enjoying the story, even with its flaws. In Mera: Tidebreaker, we are introduced to Princess Mera as a teenager living in her father’s kingdom of Xebel, which has been ruled by Atlantis for many years. The Xebellians, however, are plotting to overthrow their oppressors by assassinating Arthur Curry, the long-lost prince of Atlantis. When Mera learns of this plot she is determined to be the one to kill Arthur and secure her rightful throne. Striking out on her own she quickly finds Arthur, but instead of immediately killing him, she finds herself falling in love.
OK, so the story is very smushy for a book that sells itself on its lead character being a warrior brought up to fight for the freedom of her people and plotting to overthrow her oppressors. I also found several elements that required a little too much suspension of disbelief—the fact that the apparently long-lost Prince of Atlantis just happens to be living in a coastal town close to Xebel for one. For someone “long-lost” it took Mera all of thirty seconds to discover him (he’s literally hanging out on the beach when she first pops out of the water after her trip from Xebel), and their relationship grew unbelievably fast and all too easily, especially considering Mera had been brought up to see Arthur’s people as oppressors and sees Arthur as the one thing blocking her from her birthright. Yes, the ending had to be taken when a hefty pinch of salt, but this is fiction after all, and the story was fun enough as a prequel to a film I have no intention of watching.
The thing that really sold me on Mera: Tidebreaker was the artwork. Stephen Byrne has created a visually stunning story told almost entirely in shades of blue and grey, evoking a stormy sea across every page. There is almost no other color in the book except for Mera’s hair (and that of her parents), which is shown in red, making her stand out on every page. I absolutely fell in love with the palette used in this book and with Byrne’s art style, I know I’m going to be checking out more of his work in the future.
The Iliad, Adapted by Gareth Hinds
Age Range: Teen
A graphic novel retelling of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad is a faithful adaptation designed to make this notoriously difficult tale easier to grasp.
This version of The Iliad employs several methods to help readers manage to follow the enormous cast and convoluted plot. Each of the main characters has their initial subtly designed into their armor, the Gods are rendered in a style that makes them appear as colorful ghosts—each one given a unique color—and maps and graphics are used to show the origins of the thousands of soldiers who massed at Troy.
As with many versions of this tale, it is somewhat sanitized. Having recently read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which tells the same story from the perspective of Briseis, it’s clear how male-centric this version is and how the horrific treatment of women is glossed over. There is an attempt to show the violence of war as Homer originally intended with many panels showing deaths in great detail, and the atrocities performed against Hector’s body by a distraught Achilles are described with shocking specificity. I also noticed how this version avoids labeling the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as anything more than friendship, despite the former’s absolute heartbreak providing strong evidence to the contrary.
While this was an OK telling of The Iliad, I can’t say it was the most gripping one and I found myself grateful to reach the end. Considering how much has been removed from the original translation there was still a lot of repetitive description of who killed who and whose armor was plundered from their body by whom. It also failed to explain the motivations behind the Gods interference with mortal events, leaving me confused about why events played out as they did. Considering how text-heavy it is for a graphic novel (the similes defy belief but I understand this is taken from the original), it’s impressive how little the motivations behind anyone’s actions or beliefs are explained in any depth.
Annoyingly, the book is littered with footnotes that pull you away from the story and the artwork is depressingly bland throughout, although I did like the way the Gods were depicted. Finally, the story just… stops. There’s no warning. I was expecting several more pages at least, but it just ends abruptly which leaves you feeling dissatisfied.
Given how many versions there are of The Iliad to date, this isn’t one I’ll be recommending any time soon.
GeekMom received copies of these titles for review purposes.