2019 was a great year for middle grade graphic novels. Here are two recent ones I enjoyed and will often recommend to kids, particularly when their favorites aren’t on the shelf.
Vietnamese American surfer girl Trot is surfing with her cat, Cap’n Bill, when she’s pulled beneath the waves into the sea kingdom below. There, Cap’n Bill’s ornery nature manifests in an unexpected way: he can now talk! Trot and Cap’n Bill find themselves caught up in a battle between the Sea Siren mermaids and the Serpent King. Even if they survive, will they be able to make it back to the surface, where Trot’s ailing grandfather waits for them? What’s more – will Trot even want to?
This is a graphic novel after my own heart. I’ve written before about how I learned to read in part from The Wizard of Oz, and its influences upon Amy Chu and Janet Lee’s book are easily noticed. (In fact, it was directly inspired by one of Baum’s other stories, The Sea Fairies, which started out as separate from Oz, but later overlapped.) Kids who have read a few of the Oz novels beyond the first may recognize Trot and Cap’n Bill from The Scarecrow of Oz, Baum’s ninth book in the series, who originally appeared in The Sea Fairies and whose names Chu borrows for her story. Lee’s character designs and costuming are reminiscent of the illustrations by John R. Neill, who illustrated most of the Oz series, including recognizable hairstyles and headpieces. Her vivid art lends itself well to the myriad strange and curious creatures Trot finds in the sea kingdom, creatures with which Oz fans will feel right at home. And the story uses one of the most popular fantasy tropes that Baum visited frequently – that of a girl swept away to a magical land, where animals can talk and adventure awaits. Chu infuses Vietnamese mythology into her story, effectively blending multiple points of inspiration into a unique and compelling graphic novel. A sequel, Sky Island, is due out this summer.
Meconis’ book is something a bit different from the usual middle grade graphic novel fare. For starters, it’s alternate historical fiction – based upon the childhood of Queen Elizabeth I – that even adults may find difficult to parse without some research or an author’s note. It’s also quite long at almost 400 pages. This may not be a book a kid (or even an adult) could finish in a single sitting. But for the right kind of reader, the ones who like their stories a bit slower and more contemplative, who are fascinated by the past and how different people used to live, this will hit the spot.
The star of Queen of the Sea is Margaret, an orphan who lives in a convent on a tiny island off the coast of Albion. Her only companions are the nuns who run the convent – some kind, some not – and a boy around her own age, William. Then a mysterious woman arrives, and though her identity is supposed to be a secret, Margaret learns that she is Eleanor, the exiled queen of Albion. Eleanor’s arrival throws Margaret’s life into upheaval, revealing secrets about the convent and bringing the world beyond the island very close to home.
Meconis takes her time with her story, fully developing Margaret and her place on the island, as well as her relationships with the nuns, before bringing in Eleanor to shake things up. Margaret’s relationship with Eleanor is particularly fascinating, both in terms of how they interact with each other and how close Margaret discovers her own story is to Eleanor’s. The world-building is a real treat for historical fiction fans, peppered with little details about what life was like at a convent in the 16th century (for example, the many different times of day the nuns – and Margaret – were required to pray, and what each time for prayer was called). Meconis complements her intriguing, slow burning story with muted full-color art in a mostly realistic style, occasionally breaking away for asides in which Margaret explains convent life to the reader. These parts are reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript in style, a nice touch that adds to the sophistication and design of the entire work of art.