Hello, book lovers! I had a longer break between columns because, well, time is passing weirdly during the quarantine and sometimes the days blend into each other. This week’s column is all comic books—a mix a of books for younger kids and older readers.
This comic book for kids introduces Baloney (a pig), Peanut (a horse), Bizz (a bee), and Krabbit (a rabbit), in series of short stories. Baloney thinks the book is all about him (and, to be fair, the title is Baloney and Friends), but his friends aren’t all too keen on that—especially Krabbit, who is just as crabby as you’d expect from his name. The stories are fun and silly: Baloney attempts to put on a magic show but isn’t very good at magic, wrestles with the idea of jumping into the pool, and has a sad spell where he’s just feeling down. There are a couple of mini-comics as well, just two-page spreads with a brief interlude. It’s a fun collection, and I imagine we’ll be seeing more of Baloney and his pals in future books.
I’m not sure whether to call this book a picture book or a comic book—it’s smaller than most picture books and has more pages, and it has illustrations and text but usually not multiple frames on a page. It is, as the subtitle says, “a story of bananas, belonging, and being yourself.” Rumple Buttercup is a strange green lizard-like creature who has scraggly teeth and only three strands of hair, and he was afraid of being weird. He didn’t want other people to be scared of him or mistreat him, so he lived in a storm drain near the center of town, and just peeked out from time to time (with a banana peel on his head as a disguise).
The story has a lot of ridiculous elements in it, but ultimately has an uplifting message: that everyone in the town felt a little bit weird for one reason or another, and so they all accepted Rumple Buttercup as he was. It’s about being yourself and being kind to others. In the real world, we may not all find acceptance quite so quickly or universally, but I think it’s a good lesson nonetheless.
Breaking Cat News is back with another collection! In case you’re not familiar with it, BCN follows the adventures of several cats living in or near a big apartment building as they “report” the news of their surroundings. This particular collection has a lot of strips about holidays, and also has an ongoing story arc about Tillie, a ghost cat that only a few of the cats can see. Tillie is herself a reporter and keeps talking about “the new addition,” but none of the other cats know what that’s about. There are also some robber mice, a few more cats from the area (including Burt, the AV cat, and Baba Mouse, an old barn cat). These comics are always really entertaining, as we see the world of humans from the cats’ perspectives. Like the first book, this one also includes a few pages of paper dolls at the back, so you can cut out and dress up the various cat reporters.
Crows are clever birds—but how clever? This volume in the excellent Science Comics series digs into how crows’ brains work, and the many things that crows do that demonstrate their remarkable intelligence. There’s a fun framing story: one particular crow (the self-declared smartest crow in the world) befriends a dog, Buddy, and takes him all around the neighborhood to show him how to find delicious food to eat—by knocking over trash cans. Of course, the crow is really just using Buddy’s brawn to help his crow friends to a huge feast, but along the way he tells Buddy all about what makes crows so special.
There were some things I already knew, like that crows can use tools and that they have some fascinating social practices, but I also learned a good deal about the structure of the crow’s brain. There are also stories of some really cool experiments that have been done with crows to show how they think. If you like crows and want to learn more about them, this book is a great resource.
Andy Hirsch wrote and illustrated the Science Comics volume about dogs, and here he takes a deep dive into the world of cats, explaining how so much of their behavior and physiology is based on being predators. Unlike dogs, even pet cats often maintain some of their independence from humans, and Hirsch explains how that might have happened. Our guide in this book is Bean, an internet-famous cat who had lowly beginnings. In an exclusive interview from her private jet, Bean shares her origin stories—and the origin stories of cats themselves, covering everything from domestic cats to wild cats, how cats manage to land on their feet, and how cats get along with each other (or don’t).
Nico Bravo and the Hound of Hades by Mike Cavallaro
Nico Bravo and the Cellar Dwellers by Mike Cavallaro
This comic book series mashes characters from lots of different mythologies for a really fun adventure. Nico Bravo is a kid who was found on Vulcan’s doorstep, and has grown up working in Vulcan’s Celestial Supply Shop, along with Lula (a sphinx) and Buck (a unicorn). In the first volume, a would-be monster slayer decides to go on a quest to kill Cerberus, despite Nico’s insistence that the dog is there to prevent anyone from getting out of Hades. So Nico goes on a quest of his own to stop the monster slayer.
There’s a whole lot going on: Buck—who sometimes slips between dimensions—talks often of the Unicorn Wars (where he injured his horn), but nobody else has ever heard of these wars. Nico is obsessed with a theory that the world is a sphere, but has invisible “corners” like a cube that lead to the other realms. Gilgamesh is famed in this world, not only as a hero from long ago, but also as the star of a popular comic book.
The second volume (due out in August) involves a shape-shifter who has infiltrated the shop but accidentally unleashes a chaotic malady, sending the shop into quarantine as they try to find the intruder (and catch the escaped beast). Meanwhile, we also get to witness for ourselves a piece of the Unicorn War taking place in an alternate dimension (or timeline?), and Nico learns about his own origins.
The books are a lot of fun, with a huge cast of characters drawn from all over the world (though there’s a particular emphasis on Roman mythology). There’s a lot of humor and adventure, and the illustrations are zany, depicting familiar characters in unfamiliar ways. Fans of the Percy Jackson books may really enjoy these as well for their take on mythology, even though Nico Bravo doesn’t stick to one particular set of myths.
Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha are a group of high school friends, and they’re on a mission: their high school never has enough tampons or pads in the bathroom dispensers, but they can’t get the administration to care. So the girls work together to get some attention, while trying to normalize conversations about menstruation. The book isn’t all serious, though. It’s still a fun story about four friends going through high school, having crushes, trying out for sports, and so on—a normal high school friendship tale. But they also talk to each other about their periods, sharing tips with each other and observing the ways that they differ from each other, in a way that’s frank (and also informative to the reader).
Williams and Schneemann have an ongoing webcomic called The Mean Magenta that’s all about periods, and features the same four characters, but as adults. You don’t have to be familiar with the webcomic, though, because Go With the Flow introduces the characters (including when Sasha first met the others).
Although the characters are in high school, the book is appropriate for middle schoolers and up, for anyone who’s starting to have conversations about periods. I’ll also note that, despite the fact that the four main characters are girls, part of normalizing the topic is that the book’s audience shouldn’t be limited to middle school girls anyway. There are all sorts of ways that menstruation has often been considered taboo, making it harder to get access to medical care or supplies. This book is one step in moving readers past the “ew, gross!” stage and teaching us how we can help.
The latest Pearls Before Swine collection includes strips from early 2017 to late 2018, with commentary written even more recently. (The introductory note was written in March 2020.) If you’re familiar with the strip, you’ll know that Pastis is not shy about his opinions, and this particular volume seems particularly political. It includes the plotline about Rat becoming president, with some pretty clear parallels to our current president. There are also, as always, a lot of very elaborate puns, and Pastis continues to push the boundaries of what newspapers will print with his Comic Strip Censor character. (I’ll note for parents that, unlike previous collections, this one does include a bit of profanity sprinkled throughout in the commentary sections.) There are also some uncharacteristically sweet strips as well, which Pastis notes were some of the most popular.
The comics in this book were also made during the time period when the Timmy Failure movie was being written and filmed, so there are some references (particularly in the commentary) about screenwriting and being in Portland (where much of it was filmed). Overall, it’s another fun collection to read, though perhaps even a bit more biting than previous collections.
After reading Spinning by Tillie Walden a few years ago, I’ve been keeping my eye out for other books she’s written. I picked up her sci-fi book On a Sunbeam last year, and when I came across Are You Listening? at the store this year, I bought myself a copy. I was not disappointed.
This young adult comic book starts off with a teenager, Bea, running away from home but missing the bus. At a convenience store, she runs into Lou, who recognizes Bea and offers to give her a ride—but it seems like Lou has her own hidden reasons for taking a long drive in the middle of the night. At first it seems like it’s going to be just a road trip story, two people getting to know each other and wrestling with their own secrets. And it is, to some extent: we learn more about both of their pasts, which include sexual assault and a recent loss. But it also gets very weird: they find a lost cat and decide to get it to its owner, only to find themselves pursued by some men from the Office of Road Inquiry, and the landscape morphs in strange ways. Somehow, Walden manages to make it all tie together: the weirdness of it all doesn’t make the emotional impact any less real, and the journey that Bea and Lou take together winds up in some very unexpected places.
Check, Please! Book #1: Hockey! by Ngozi Ukazu
Check, Please! Book #2: Sticks & Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
I’ll start with this, because I didn’t know going into this series: despite the cute-looking covers, these books are not intended for younger readers. The books start with the main character, Eric “Bitty” Bittle, starting his freshman year at Samwell University, where he’s joining the men’s hockey team, and there’s a whole lot of college and hockey culture: drinking, partying, swearing, and sex. The sex isn’t explicit, partly because for the first half of Book 1, Bitty’s teammates don’t actually know he’s gay. The profanity, on the other hand, is pretty constant: one of the main characters goes by the name “S–tty,” and you don’t even discover his actual name until sometime in the second book.
Okay, so content warning aside, here’s what the book is actually about: Bitty is a hockey player, but he’s also a baker and has his own baking vlog. Many sections of the book are presented as parts of his vlog, where he’s talking to the camera—and, in typical vlog fashion, it’s not just about baking but also about his relationship struggles and life at college. He’s from a small town in Georgia and hasn’t always felt comfortable revealing himself, so he’s surprised to discover how welcoming and inclusive Samwell is. And the book is also about hockey, and hockey culture, and traditions. Jack, the captain of the team, has his own painful history—his father is a famous hockey player, and the stress of following in his dad’s footsteps almost ended his hockey career. (And to complicate matters, of course Bitty has a crush on Jack.)
The two volumes are a nice pairing, and take Bitty all the way through college graduation. We also get to follow Jack’s hockey career, since he graduates and gets signed to a professional team. The cast of characters is great, and you’ll wind up really adoring these raucous, obnoxious, jocks, and the way that Bitty wins them over with his amazing baking skills. I’ve never had much interest in hockey before (and I’m not likely to start watching now), but I really enjoyed following Bitty’s story and cheering him on.
Bitty also has his own Twitter account (@omgcheckplease) that runs parallel to the events in the books—though I would recommend waiting until you’ve read the books before checking it out to avoid spoilers.
My Current Stack
I just started reading a time travel novel called Now and Then and Everywhen by Rysa Walker, about historians who use time travel to go back and do more in-depth research about important events. But there are definitely some shenanigans afoot, including evidence that the timeline has been changed in significant ways in the past. Curious to see where this will go. I’ve also read a couple more comics since wrapping up this column, but I’ll get to those in a future column!
In other news, a friend of mine shared this article about Bookshop, an online bookstore that is designed to support independent booksellers: you can order a book online, and then pick a local bookstore to receive the profits! If you don’t pick a specific store, profits go into a pool that are then shared with independent shops (even those that aren’t signed up for Bookshop). It’s still in beta, but it seems like a very cool idea. I mentioned a few months ago that I was uncomfortable continuing to use Amazon affiliate links in my posts, so that cut out a potential source of income for me, but also meant that I couldn’t direct readers to a place to buy a copy of a book for themselves. I was using WorldCat.org, which shows library listings, but sometimes it wasn’t entirely clear which version of a book I should link to (and sometimes the site didn’t work for me). For now, I’ll try using Bookshop for links, and disclose that I do get a commission on books purchased through my links. Thanks for supporting me, and for supporting independent booksellers!
Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles except where noted.