Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona

Pakistani American teenager Kamala Khan wishes she could just be like everyone else. She’s tired of the kids at school making fun of her culture and her Muslim parents’ strict rules. “Why do I have to bring pakoras to school for lunch? Why am I stuck with the weird holidays? Everyone else gets to be normal. Why can’t I?” But one night, after sneaking out to a party that her parents forbid her to attend, her wish to be someone else comes true in a way she could never have imagined. When Captain Marvel, Iron Man and Captain America appear to her in a sea of fog and ask who she wants to be instead of Kamala Khan from Jersey City, she quickly replies, “Right now? I want to be beautiful and awesome and butt-kicking and less complicated.” In other words, she wants to be like Captain Marvel herself. But when the fog clears and her wish is granted, Kamala discovers that her new shape shifting abilities have made her life more complicated, not less. While she does manage to pull off a pretty heroic rescue, she also accidentally destroys her school locker room when her “embiggen” powers get away from her. “What does it mean to have powers? To be able to look like someone I’m not? What if I don’t fit into my old life anymore? Like it’s a pair of pants I’ve just outgrown? Would I still be Kamala?” As Kamala struggles to answer these questions, she and her friends are drawn into a battle with shady villain known only as “The Inventor.” Does Kalmala have what it takes to bring down the Inventor? Maybe…if she learns to believe in herself as much as she does her beloved Captain Marvel Carol Danvers. “I’m not here to be a watered-down version of some other hero…I’m here to be the best version of Kamala.” This fresh, funny, thought provoking graphic novel featuring a realistic teen who turns the superhero stereotype upside down makes a terrific read alike to Gene Yang’s equally awesome Shadow Hero.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

High school junior Lara Jean Song doesn’t know who is more surprised when the secret love letters she wrote to all her old crushes suddenly show up in their mailboxes: her or all the boys she’d loved before. Now Lara Jean is in the uncomfortable position of having to admit to old friend Peter and her sister’s ex-boyfriend Josh that in the past she nursed mad crushes on them both. It’s so awkward that Lara Jean proposes to Peter that they launch a “fake” romantic relationship so that Josh doesn’t find out the real truth: that she’s STILL nursing a mad crush on him even though he just broke up with her older sister Margot, who is convientely attending college in Scotland. Lara Jean thinks she’s salvaged the situation until the inevitable happens–she starts having feelings for Peter, and she suspects he might be having them for her, too. But she also still likes Josh. And with Margot coming home from college in just a few short weeks, Lara Jean knows she needs to make a decision before circumstances make the decision for her. While this sister love triangle may look and sound like a romance, it’s also a smart coming of age story about a girl not only figuring out who she LOVES but also who she IS. What does it mean to be the middle sister in a family where her Korean mother died too young and her white father is raising Lara and her two sisters on his own? Who do you talk to about your love life when your mother is gone and your oldest sister and dearest confidante is a million miles away? Funny, tender and true, this romantic family drama mash-up will be cherished by fans of Judy Blume, Gayle Forman and Sarah Dessen.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

When Deshi Li’s irresponsible older brother Wei is killed in a tragic accident, his parents charge Deshi with finding him a corpse bride, a dead female body to accompany him into the afterlife. Stricken with grief and guilt, Deshi complies, hiring a black market body dealer named Song to help him secure a girl who’s not too long gone in her grave. But when the two men are startled at the graveyard and become separated, Deshi runs into Lily, a rural girl desperate to escape an arranged marriage who’s looking for a free ride to Beijing. The two team up on the road, and Deshi finds his thoughts going to dark places. Should he just murder Lily and take her body home to his parents? But how can he, when each day he delays killing her in sleep he falls deeper in love with her? Meanwhile, Lily’s father and crooked Song are hot on their trail, each hoping to exact their own special brand of revenge. This beautifully illustrated modern fable of love and death hooked me from the very first sentence with an original plot grown from the rich soil of Chinese folklore. Author illustrator Danica Novgorodoff (Refresh, Refresh) tells Deshi and Lily’s story through sparkling, darkly humorous dialogue and lavish watercolor panels that take your breath away with each turn of the page. You’ll want to hightail it to a library or bookstore near you ASAP in order to experience this fantastic journey for yourself.

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew

After Hank’s mother is attacked at gunpoint by a bank robber in 1940’s California, she becomes obsessed with one thing, and one thing only—that nineteen year old Hank become a superhero just like the Anchor of Justice who rescued her. Except Hank had been looking forward to taking over his father’s small Chinatown grocery store and living “a happy life, a fortunate life, filled with friends and Mahjong and maybe even a little whiskey.” But Hank’s bossy mother won’t relent, making him a green superhero suit, dubbing him The Golden Man of Bravery and setting him up with kung fu lessons with Uncle Wun Too. Soon Hank is getting into the swing of things, especially after his combat training starts to kick in. But when Mock Beak, the king of organized crime in Chinatown, threatens his father and Hank tries to intervene, the results are disastrous. Maybe he’s not cut out to be a superhero after all. It’s only after he’s visited by the kind and ancient spirit of Turtle that Hank discovers his true calling as Green Turtle, a Chinese superhero impervious to bullets and ready to take on the entire organized crime empire known as The Tong of Sticks. He just didn’t count on falling for his archenemy’s beautiful daughter… I absolutely adored this funny, big-hearted GN that melds fact, fiction and folklore into a delectable Turtle soup! The Shadow Hero is an inspired origin story based on the actual Green Turtle from the 1940’s who failed to take off because supposedly publishers at that time didn’t think that “a Chinese superhero would sell,” and wouldn’t let his creator Chu Hing give him Asian features. Click here to listen to author Gene Luen Yang explain the fascinating backstory behind Green Turtle and The Shadow Hero. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you July 2014.

This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

Rose Wallace has been going with her family to their rented cabin at Awago Beach “Ever since…like…forever.” She anticipates this summer will be much like all the others spent swimming, biking and hanging out with her younger friend Windy. But this is the summer that Rose discovers the cheap thrill of horror movies, the ache of an unrequited crush and the weight of adult secrets. She longs to flirt with the gangly teenage clerk at the corner store who rents her and Windy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but she’s too shy. She wants to shake her withdrawn mother out of her unrelenting sadness over an unspoken tragedy that happened last summer, but she’s too scared. She yearns to understand why she and Windy are growing apart, why the shabby town of Awago is so different from the rental houses by the beach, and why all the girls in horror movies seem to be so, well, stupid. She wants to know why this one summer is the summer when everything that used to be simple suddenly became complicated. This wistful, character driven GN, inked in a cool blue palatte, perfectly captures that transitional moment between chewing gum and trying cigarettes. Rose and Windy are both polar opposites and kindred spirits, clashing as Rose leans into adolescence and Windy leans back into childhood, but coming back together when the confusing world of parents and slasher movies becomes too much. This One Summer should be number one on your summer reading list.

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

There are two sides to every story, and stupendously talented author/artist Gene Luen Yang elevates that saying to a whole new level with Boxers & Saints. In this double volume, graphic novel masterpiece, two teenagers become caught up in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1898 on opposite sides, fighting to retain their identity and hold on to their hard won religious values.

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a motherless family of farmers from a poor village. When a Catholic missionary priest smashes the statue of one of his village’s gods in front of him, he is devastated, especially since the opera stories he sees during the spring fairs make him feel as though the ancient gods are his close friends and allies. As he grows into adulthood, he begins training with a kung fu master in order to join the rebellion against these foreigners who have their own army and refuse to respect the native Chinese ways. Soon he is heading up his own small army, each member fueled by the angry spirits of the old gods. But as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist” marches closer and closer to the capital of Peking to “eradicate the foreign devils” once and for all, Little Bao begins to question his rock solid faith as the number of bodies of innocent people build in his violent wake.

Saints tells the story of Four-Girl, a lonely child who is considered a bad luck devil by her family no matter how much she tries to win their approval. The only person who shows her kindness is the village acupuncturist, who is also a Christian. He tells her Bible stories that fire up her imagination, and she begins having recurring visions of Joan of Arc. Soon she decides to become baptized and join the church. She gets a new name, Vibiana, and leaves home to work at a Catholic orphanage, followed by her visions of Joan. When Little Bao’s army comes to her village’s doorstep, Vibiana decides that God is calling on her to be His warrior maiden like Joan of Arc. The tragic, unpredictable result of Little Bao and Vibiana’s final meeting will haunt you long after you close the covers on Saints.

The earthy/monotone palate of both volumes perfectly conveys the rural landscape and hardscrabble life of the peasants, only exploding into vibrant color when Little Bao’s pantheon of Chinese gods arrive on the scene, with their rainbow robes and elaborate masks, or Four-Girl’s golden vision of Joan of Arc shimmers between the trees outside her home. While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

It’s 1986 in Omaha, and sixteen-year-olds Eleanor and Park are about to fall in love. They just don’t know it yet. Park is half Korean, loves to read Watchmen comics and listen to punk music on his Walkman. Eleanor is the whitest red-headed white girl who ever lived, loves to re-read Watership Down and never listens to music because she is too afraid that her evil stepfather will take it away from her. They meet not cute on their shared school bus and all Park can think is how weird Eleanor seems: “With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like…like she wanted people to look at her…She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.” Park feels sorry for the strange girl, so he lets her sit next to him and before he knows it, she’s reading his comics over his shoulder and he’s making her mix tapes of The Smiths and Joy Division because this girl—this bizarre girl is funny and cool and smart and she just gets him in a way no one else ever has. And Eleanor can’t believe that slender, steady Park actually likes chubby, klutzy her: “She hadn’t told him that he was prettier than any girl, and that his skin was like sunshine with a suntan. And that’s why she hadn’t said it. Because all her feelings for him—hot and beautiful in her heart—turned to gobbledygook in her mouth.” But even as their oddball love blossoms in the most Some Kind of Wonderful way ever, Eleanor can’t bear to tell Park the whole truth about herself and her mixed up family. And after she meets his Avon saleswoman mom and ex-military dad, she is sure that Park will never be able to understand the chaos that she comes from. But that’s the thing about love. It can save you if you if you trust it. And when Eleanor finds herself with no one else to turn to, she must trust Park’s love to save them both. This story is not new. If you’ve seen this or this, or read this, then you know the score. But what is new here is how the author portrays young love–with a brio and honesty that just took my breath away, it was so fresh and true. My god, I felt sixteen again (and let me tell you friends, that was AWHILE ago.) If you want to experience what a first love feels like or feel your first love all over again, you MUST read this book.

Adaptation by Malinda Lo

It starts with the birds. Great flocks of birds begin flying directly at airplanes across the United States, Canada and Mexico, causing massive crashes that kill hundreds of people. On her way home from a failed debate meet with her partner David, Reese is at the airport when the news hits. Terrified, the teens attempt to avoid the ensuing cancelled flight chaos by renting a car and driving from Nevada to California. They never make it. Just outside of Las Vegas, Reese and David are involved in a car crash and land in a military hospital near the infamous Area 51. There they are treated for their injuries and sent home to their families. But it isn’t long before they both notice that something is different. They are having strange dreams and odd sensations that ripple across both their bodies and minds. Why did the doctors make them sign nondisclosure statements about their hospital stay and order them not to give even their own parents any details? And how is it that the scars from their nearly fatal injuries have almost disappeared only a few short weeks after their discharge? Reese is determined to find the answer to these questions, even though she finds herself sidetracked by a beautiful distraction: the enticing Amber, who Reese thinks she may be falling in love with. This new relationship is complicated by the fact that Reese thought she was head over heels for David. But who has time for romance when it’s possible she and David have been part of some secret government conspiracy? Reese must set aside her confusing feelings and focus on what’s important: finding out exactly what happened to her in the hospital and discovering what it means not only to her and her family, but to her country and potentially the entire human race.  A thought provoking and sobering sci-fi thriller that holds loads of appeal for you X-Files conspiracy theorists, this pace-y page-turner will help keep your homework blues at bay.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

In 1975, Arn Chorn-Pond was a carefree and enterprising Cambodian kid who snuck into movies with his brother, listened to the Beatles and played games of chance on the street to make money for candy and coconut cake. Then the Khmer Rouge came to town. The rebel military group had won control of Cambodia, and they began ordering Arn’s family and neighbors to pack up and leave because the Americans who had been at war with Vietnam were now coming to bomb them. The rebels would protect them and bring them back to their homes in three days. Frightened, but also a little excited, Arn joins the mass exodus out of the city of Battambang. But what he doesn’t know is that the Khmer Rouge are lying. There are no attacking Americans. What waits for him and thousands of other children in the country and fields outside of town isn’t salvation but fear, starvation and death at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge who believe that in order to build a new Communist society, they must first destroy the old one. So begins Arn’s horrific odyssey through a Khmer Rouge work camp, training as a child soldier and eventual escape to the United States. He quickly learns that showing emotion can be deadly: “I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.” But while he finds physical safety, will he ever be able to forget the friends and family he was forced to leave behind? “…after all the thing I been through, now being rescue is something I also have to survive.” This true story of heroism and fortitude was related by Arn himself to the award-winning author Patricia McCormick, who wove his words into a fictionalized account of real events. The result is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting narrative that demonstrates humanity’s enduring tendency towards hope, even in the darkest of circumstances. I was completely undone by the simplicity and power of this book, couldn’t stop thinking about it for DAYS and already anticipate that it will be wearing several shiny metals on it’s cover come YA book award season. In other words, an absolute must read! (To see an interview between Arn and McCormick and to find out more about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Killing Fields, click here)

Habibi by Craig Thompson

One of my favorite books of all time is Craig Thompson’s transcendent adolescent love story Blankets. I feel as though I have preached the gospel of that gorgeous graphic novel to thousands of friends, colleagues and students–probably until they were sick of hearing about it! Thompson’s latest opus is also about love, a fervent love between a girl and a boy that morphs several times during their lifetimes. When Dodola and Zam first meet in a slave market as children in a fantastical Middle Eastern world that includes both oil pipelines and medieval camel caravans, they are lost and afraid. After escaping the slavers and fleeing to the desert, they lead a charmed but lonely existence on a boat that has been mysteriously beached on miles of sand, where Dodola entertains Zam with stories of queens, heroes and warriors from the Quran and the Bible. At first Dodola acts as a mother to toddler Zam, though she is little more than a child herself. But as Zam grows, their relationship becomes more like that of squabbling siblings. Until the day that Zam witnesses the terrible thing that Dodola must trade away in exchange for their food from the brutish men in the caravans. He cannot forget what he has seen, and soon his feelings for Dodola begin to change into something lustful and wild that he doesn’t understand. So he runs away to the bustling city, searching for a way to relieve his forbidden thoughts, while Dodola is left frantically searching for him before she is stolen away by bandits and forced to become a member of the Sultan’s harem. Through their mutual trials and struggles, they never forget their life on the little boat and never stop looking for each other in the faces of strangers that pass by. It is many years before they meet again, and they each have been drastically changed by their circumstances. Will their hearts recognize each other? Is there a possibility that their love can survive under the harsh laws of a judgmental society that condemns them both? This lushly illustrated and deeply felt graphic novel is both hard to read and hard to stop reading. Thompson is clearly in love with Arabic script and design, which dance sinuously through the panels, and his interweaving of Christian and Arabic mythology, showing their ultimate similarities instead of their often harped upon differences is masterful. The story and art took Thompson six years to complete, and it shows on every dazzlingly detailed page. But while it is a beautifully rendered story of love, faith and perseverance, it is also a sad story of sexual abuse, dominance, misogyny and guilt that is probably best for older teens and the adults in their lives. Extraordinary.

Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda

devil's kissYou think your after school job sucks? Try being fifteen-year-old Billi SanGreal for a day. After facing down mean girls in the cafeteria and sleeping through most of her classes, Billi has to go home to her London flat, don some chain mail, and head out into the dark to stake some undead with her hard bitten dad. See, Billi is the daughter of one of the last remaining members of the fabled Knights Templar, a mysterious society of Christian crusaders dating back to the 1100’s. Originally a monastic order of impoverished knights who ferried pilgrims back and forth to the Holy Land, the rag-tag modern day Order defends humanity against the supernatural forces of darkness, including vampires, werewolves and the occasional fallen angel. In spite of being a pretty smooth hand with a sword, Billi is sick of cleaning blood off her jeans and landing in detention for late homework because her driven, distant father thinks decapitating demons is more important than long division. Plus, her half Pakistani & Muslim heritage make her feel like a square peg in a round hole in the traditionally Christian fighting force. Tired of the politics and pain that come from being a Templar, Billi tries to leave the Order, but finds herself sucked back in when she discovers that her lapse in judgment concerning a tall, dark and handsome maniacal stranger may have resulted in the Tenth Plague being released on the greater UK. Equally distracting is the fact that her childhood friend Kay has returned from Oracle training in Jerusalem and somehow managed to turn into a total hottie while he was gone. Now Billi has to find a way to mend her relationship with her forbidding father, figure out if Kay is the Templar for her and somehow stop the Angel of Death from frying all of the world’s firstborn. It’s a tall order, but if anyone can do it, Billi can. Move over, Buffy Summers. Billi SanGreal eats vampires for breakfast. What else ya got? This creepy, cheesetastic gore-fest mixes history, fantasy and horror in a compulsively page turning way that will have you screaming for a sequel long before you hit the final chapter. (And yes, there is one coming.) Did I roll my eyes (okay, more than a few times) over some of the over-the-top bits? Sure. But Billi’s showdowns with various versions of The Unholy are truly terrifying and the book’s fighting sequences frightfully well choreographed. This is a must-read for The Da Vinci Code and Buffy fans alike. And don’t blame me if you stay up all night poring over the pages. I warned you–debut author Sarwat Chadda‘s story of the first female Templar is hopelessly addicting.

Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Sixteen-year-old Maybelline Chestnut has a big problem (bigger than the fact that she’s been named after a brand of mascara) and that problem is spelled M-O-M. “You’ve heard of serial murderers? My mother’s a serial marryer. It’s a disease. The husbands get blinded by the big blonde hair and the big boobs and big personality. There’s so much big stuff that they never notice the little cracks in the marriage until it’s too late.” Maybe’s former pageant-winning mother has been married six times, and when lucky #7 tries to give Maybe a grope, she knows it’s time to strike out on her own. She takes off to Los Angeles to find her biological father, her only clue a blurry photograph scammed from one of her mother’s dusty hatboxes. Accompanied by her best friends Ted (a short statured baby-mogul-in-training) and Hollywood (a tall, gangly aspiring filmmaker), Maybe at first finds California as intoxicating as she imagined it being back in boring old Florida. But as her money runs out and her friends establish lives of their own, L.A. seems meaner and colder, and Maybe despairs of ever completing her DNA mission. She is granted a reprieve from sleeping in the back of Hollywood’s car when she scores a job on taco truck and is supplied with a bed and three squares a day by an unlikely guardian angel. However, her bio-dad is still at large, and an inevitable confrontation with her confused and angry mom looms large. Will Maybe solve the mystery of where she comes from? Or will she be forced to return to Kissimmee broke and unsatisfied? This fast, fun read reminded me of Sonya Sones’ One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies,another Hollywood-themed family drama that is also shot through with laughter and tears. Pair them together for an inexpensive trip to La La Land, courtesy of your imagination!

The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim

Dashing young Duncan is either a handsome knight trying to win the heart of a princess by relieving the dreaded Frog King of his head, OR just another downtrodden teen trying to get by in the projects of Oakland, as his depressed mom dates one jerk after another. Greedy Gran’Pa Greenbax is either a latter day Scrooge McDuck-like animated TV star, OR just a little freshwater frog who’s been used and abused by cruel humans. Meek Janet is either a stately Nigerian princess, OR just another cubicle-dwelling office drone. No one is quite who they seem to be in this lushly illustrated, full-color collaboration between two of the best author/illustrators in the comic biz.  But no matter what their circumstances, each character manages to discover hidden stores of bravery, hope and optimism that help clear away the dark clouds of anger, fear and pride. And what is the Eternal Smile? Well, it’s either the face of God or a hole in the ceiling, and the only person who can decide that is YOU, dear reader! Award winning authors and illustrators Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim will both blow and bend your mind with these three quirky, offbeat Twilight Zone-meets-Pushing Daisies short stories about love, life and the power of the imagination. I didn’t even have to get to the last page to know that what I was holding in my hands was pure graphic novel gold.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Deep sea divers. Little leaf men. Suburban water buffalo and lost dugongs. Giant mechanical penguins and getaway cars filled with turtles. All these arresting, ingenious images and so much more await the lucky reader who enters Tan’s whimsical world of “Outer Suburbia.” Not quite a graphic novel, not quite a picture book, this strange amalgamation of pictures and prose (some only a page long) reads like a collection of colorful and creative detritus Tan discovered in the crooked corners of his superior imagination that he then picked up, dusted off, and polished into small, perfect gems. “Eric,” which chronicles the adventures of a small exchange student who marvels at the complexity of his host’s home, will immediately bring to mind Tan’s gorgeously wrought The Arrival, his wordless homage to the immigrant spirit. Others gently emphasize themes of hope, peace and bravery in the face of adversity. Like “Alert But Not Alarmed,” where a neighborhood finds a way to humorously re-purpose the missiles the government requires them to keep in their backyards.  missilesOr  “No Other Country,” where a family, fed up with the dry, arid environment of their new home, discovers a lush hidden courtyard that exists only in that sweet geographical spot, giving them cause to appreciate a place they used to loathe.  In this celebratory season where I am part of a community that often argues over competing holiday symbols, I was especially moved by “The Nameless Holiday.” Here, Tan describes in both words and pictures a holiday that moves around the calendar and is characterized by everyone choosing the object they love most. These treasures are then left hanging on the television antenna as an offering for a giant reindeer, who carefully carries them away, making the participants feel special and chosen instead of regretful and sad. Depending on how you feel or where you are when you open this wonderful tome, the stories will seem sad, happy, hopeful or tragic. But they all share one thing in common—they are born of Tan’s unique and singular vision and therefore are simply not to be missed.

Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston

Emi is an Everyteen on a hunt for some artistic inspiration to pull her out of her summer-job doldrums. When she sees performance artist Poppy make a scene at the mall while advertising the “Factory,” a local open mic venue, she knows she’s found her muse. Poppy, with her multi-colored dreads and multiple piercings, is everything Emi is not—loud, brash, beautiful and totally uninhibited. With Poppy as her motivation, Emi finds the dubious courage to do things she never thought she’d do—even stealing the journal of a woman she baby sits for, and using her private thoughts as a spoken word act. Soon “Emiko Superstar” is the belle of the Warhol-esque Factory. Deep down, Emiko feels guilty for using someone else’s life as fodder for her performance. But if she drops her act, will she be forced to give up all her fabulous Factory friends and go back to being just boring Emi again? It will take a kind stranger, a timely 911 call, and a torn paper heart to make a-MAH-zing Emiko realize that good old Emi wasn’t so bad after all. This thoughtful, smart story about finding yourself after your fifteen minutes of fame has passed reminds me of Cecil Castellucci’s groovy Plain Janes (another arts-full MINX title) and the work of  Derek Kirk Kim. And though it looks like Emiko may be one of short-lived DC imprint MINX’s swan songs, hopefully artists and authors will continue to produce and promote more girl-rrific graphic novels for us fangirls who still need an occasional rriot grrl fix!