11 Summer Graphic Novels for Early and Middle-Grade Readers

From flashlight-under-the-blanket page-turners and music-infused time travel to a campy book about camp, here are 11 summer novels for comics-hungry kids.

By Jennifer Krauss

Early Readers

‘Haylee and Comet: A Tale of Cosmic Friendship,’ by Deborah Marcero
(Roaring Brook, June 1)

Haylee loves to wish on stars, but only falling stars. One night, rather than darting away, the “tiny yellow flare” to which she pleads her most pressing case gets closer and closer, bigger and bigger, until (“uh-oh”) it knocks her over and lands in her lap. It seems Comet, too, is lonely: “I was in my own orbit, without anyone else to share it.” Together, they build a Friend Ship from a kit. There are lots of parts but no instructions, so they use their imaginations. Haylee starts on the front, Comet on the back. When they’re finished, Haylee’s half of the ship looks ready to sail the ocean, Comet’s to fly through space. “Uh-oh.” But then the deep blue sea reminds Comet of space, and Comet reminds Haylee of a dolphin, jumping and playing in the waves. There are more “uh-ohs” along the way as Comet adjusts to the ups and downs of an earthly relationship (“growing things is hard”), which is what makes this tale so authentic. The clever wordplay and painterly doodling by Marcero (author/illustrator of the picture books “My Heart Is a Compass” and “In a Jar”) will keep readers eager for adventure after adventure.

‘Fish and Sun,’ by Sergio Ruzzier
(I Can Read Comics/Harper Alley, June 22)

The incomparable Italian picture book author and illustrator Sergio Ruzzier (“Fox + Chick,” “Two Mice”) dips his pastel watercolor brush into the comics format with a poignantly deadpan, linguistically spare new series perfect for beginner readers. “Mom, I’m bored. And it’s dark and cold here. I’m going out,” a little pink fish announces, even before having its breakfast, and swims to the surface of the ocean. Sadly, outside it is “also dark and cold and boring.” Until a bright yellow creature with octopuslike arms appears — “You are very warm,” the fish marvels; “Thank you,” the sun replies — and they play a joyful, whimsically drawn game of hide-and-seek. Then just as their fun reaches a crescendo: “Sun, are you OK? You seem a bit red.” “I know. I’m setting.” Thankfully, Sun does reappear the next day, after an anxious-making bout of gray, and more understated verbal and visual banter ensues.

Middle Grade

‘Black Sand Beach: Do You Remember the Summer Before?’ by Richard Fairgray
(Pixel + Ink, May 4)

A New Zealand comics creator (best known for “Blastosaurus”) and host of the popular podcast “Fortress of Comic News,” Fairgray not only writes and draws his work, but also colors it himself — especially noteworthy since he’s legally blind — and the richly textured hues are dazzling. This second book in his delightfully creepy summer beach house series begins with a “Previously …” wrap-up, so it’s thoroughly enjoyable on its own. Twelve-year-old Dash and three of his friends are still at Black Sand Beach, where his father’s family has a house — well, more like a shack. (Only a few horror-packed days of their stay were covered in the first book, “Are You Afraid of the Light?”) This installment unfolds as they read entries from an old journal of Dash’s about the even-more-terrifying summer before, which his best friend, Lily, found in the basement of the haunted lighthouse. Dash doesn’t have any memory of being at Black Sand Beach that summer, much less keeping a journal, so the book-within-the-book is as much of a flashlight-under-the-blanket page-turner for them as the graphic novel is for us. While we meet a zombie sheep monster, a gigantic poisonous cobra and a ravenous blob that steals people’s faces, the real monsters are closer to home: an absent mother; a sometimes evil stepmother; a crazy aunt and cousin; bottom-feeding neighbors; and, yes, one’s own face in the mirror.

‘Shark Summer,’ by Ira Marcks
(Little, Brown, May 25)

Set on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1974, during the filming of “Jaws” (here called “SHARK!”), this debut graphic novel is about moviemaking, friendship and history’s deep dark secrets. It’s also about four adolescents who are trying to figure out who they are. Like the amateur documentary three of them are attempting to make alongside the blockbuster being shot in their midst, they start out thinking their story is one thing and it turns out to be quite another. Marcks, who teaches cartooning online, has accomplished an unusual feat with this cinematic homage: He has produced a meta-graphic novel that manages to deconstruct a genre, pay tribute to it and keep the reader happily inside it all at the same time. More popcorn please! (Hunting for “Jaws”-inspired Easter eggs advised.)

‘The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher: A Johnny Constantine Graphic Novel,’ by Ryan North and Derek Charm
(DC Comics, June 1)

The DC antihero John Constantine first appeared in the 1980s “Swamp Thing” comics, where he was drawn to look like Sting. He went on to become the lead character in the “Hellblazer” and “Constantine” series, and has also shown up in Neil Gaiman’s comics. This new graphic novel series by North and Charm (the duo behind the Eisner Award-winning “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” series) is a prequel of sorts, depicting Constantine’s life as a young “heck blazer” and his evolution as a wizard. Shortly after we meet him, the 13-year-old British hooligan is shipped off by his parents to an American boarding school in Salem, Mass., where he teams up with Anna (Zatanna Zatara when she becomes a superhero), the only other student at the school who seems to have magical powers, to investigate why their witch of a history teacher not only hates him on sight, but also is scheming to destroy the world. Ms. Kayla sports a Cruella de Vil-like white streak in her hair and glares at him through satanic red glasses. But remember what history teaches us about witch hunts. Also on the friends’ side in their half-terrifying, half-satirical battle against evil is the good demon Etrigan, who likes heavy metal music and speaks in rhyme.

‘Miles Morales: Shock Waves: A Spider-Man Graphic Novel,’ by Justin A. Reynolds and Pablo Leon (Marvel/Scholastic Graphix, June 1)

Not to be confused with Peter Parker, that other Spider-Man in Queens, Miles Morales lives in Brooklyn, where he attends a charter school. (Far from rivals, though, he and Parker are mutually supportive friends.) When an earthquake strikes Puerto Rico, his mother’s birthplace, Morales helps organize a fund-raiser. Then a new classmate’s father, who works as a security analyst for the event’s biggest corporate sponsor, disappears. Reynolds (author of the young-adult novels “Opposite of Always” and “Early Departures”) and Leon (a 2019 Eisner Award nominee for his original comic story “The Journey,” featuring true accounts of Latin American migrants) emphasize family ties and ethnic pride.

‘The Legend of Auntie Po,’ by Shing Yin Khor
(Kokila, June 15)

When Mei was little, her father told her stories of Chinese heroes and gods. But he doesn’t tell them to her anymore. It’s the late 1800s and Hao is head cook at a Sierra Nevadas logging camp, in charge of feeding 100 lumberjacks plus 40 Chinese workers who pay their own board. Mei helps out in the kitchen. Though she was born in Reno and has never been to China, she now tells the children in the camp Chinese stories of her own — vivid, inspiring Paul Bunyan-esque tales about the elderly Po Pan Yin (“Auntie Po”), who “ran the most efficient logging crew west of the Mississippi,” and her loyal blue water buffalo, Pei Pei. Khor, a Malaysian-Chinese immigrant and American citizen since 2011, draws Auntie Po like a giant, with superhuman strength, and writes wise words for her to speak. Anti-Asian racism abounds: Some of the Chinese workers are attacked and injured by “roustabouts” aiming to drive them out of town, and the foreman is threatened with a boycott if he continues to employ them. Some of the dialogue in this hopeful, humane, empowering story is presented in both English and Cantonese (the translations were done by Khor’s mother and most of the Chinese characters are in her handwriting). Mei’s silent crush on the foreman’s daughter, Bee, with whom she grew up, is a lovely, subtle subplot.

‘Jukebox,’ by Nidhi Chanani
(First Second, June 22)

The Indian American author and illustrator of the 2017 graphic novel “Pashmina” here follows two Bangladeshi American Muslim cousins as they time-travel through decades of music history via a rare custom jukebox (which plays entire 12-inch albums), in order to find clues to the disappearance of the younger girl’s white father. Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” takes them to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in 1929; Nina Simone’s “Black Gold” to a Washington, D.C., women’s liberation march in 1970; James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’” to the concert that kept Boston calm on the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968; Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to Chicago for Bud Billiken Day (the largest African American parade in the United States) and San Francisco for a Vietnam War protest in 1971. Though her dad’s obsession with music is initially what separates Shahi from him, searching for him through that music brings her closer to him, and to her cousin, in addition to helping her better understand herself. A playlist of songs by artists mentioned in the book is included at the back.

‘Long Distance,’ by Whitney Gardner
(Simon & Schuster, June 29)

Since Vega is sad about moving from Portland, Ore. to Seattle — away from her only close friend, Halley (both are astronomy lovers whose favorite activity is star gazing) — her two dads send her to a camp that vows to coax introverts out of their shells. “Make your next friend at Camp Very Best Friend,” the grinning counselor on the brochure advertises. Once there, it doesn’t take Vega long to realize something is wrong with the place, and it goes far beyond the cringe-worthiness of its name. She and the other campers — on the surface unlikely friends — bond as they join forces to investigate. The counselor turns out to be an alien and the campsite a space station he built to simulate the atmosphere of Earthling camp movies he’s watched. He’s lonely in space and “Everyone is happy in those movies!” This lighthearted romp by the author/illustrator of the 2018 graphic novel “Fake Blood,” with information about astronomy interspersed throughout, is a quintessentially campy (sorry, there’s no better word for it) tribute to long-distance friendship.

‘Bad Sister,’ by Charise Mericle Harper and Rory Lucey
(First Second, July 13)

“I was a bad sister. It wasn’t on purpose. The badness just happened.” So begins this wickedly funny, wrenchingly remorseful graphic memoir by the author/illustrator of the “Crafty Cat” and “Fashion Kitty” series, her words here perfectly matched with the kinetic, retro, comic-strip-style art of Rory Lucey. The book is divided into chapters devoted to the respective powers of Charise and her younger brother, Daniel. She gets more (duh) owing to her supreme power — the power of being older — though he possesses that one super-annoying power of being younger: He’s outgoing, friendly and helpful (or as the older sister sees it, a pleaser, a suck-up), so everyone likes him. How unfair is that? Other big-sister powers include the Power of Blame: “I was good at pointing.” And the Power to Dare: “He was the follower and I was the leader.” But just when you start to think she’s truly evil, she begins to realize Daniel has powers too — superpowers even — like being able to recognize people. (Charise has face blindness.) Eventually Charise and Daniel become partners in crime. And when they fight she finds it harder to stay mad: “It was exhausting to be mean.” Harper ends the book with a real-life photograph of herself and her little brother as children. She confesses that she still has the toy truck she stole from him many years ago. And dedicates the book to him, with love.

‘Mel the Chosen,’ by Rachele Aragno, translated by Carla Roncalli Di Montorio
(Random House Graphic, August 10)

Aragno, an Italian cartoonist from a small town in Tuscany who has a degree from Rome’s International School of Comics, starts her first graphic novel in gorgeous full color. Mel (short for Melvina) overhears her parents arguing about her future and yearns to choose her own path. Right at that moment, her cat climbs out onto their building’s roof and makes a beeline for another tenant’s window. Mel goes after him and together they fall into the neighbor’s apartment. “We’ve been expecting you,” a white-bearded man named Otto declares. When she voices her confusion, he flashes back to his youth, and the watercolor panels turn to sepia. So strong is her empathy for his boyhood frustration that full-color Mel jumps into his sepia recollections, a splash of red hair in the muddied past. Otto is offered a book that will transform him into a grown-up in exchange for —— Overeager, he says yes without listening to the rest, and immediately becomes an old man. A cloaked serpent appears and announces that the only one who can reverse Otto’s plight is the Chosen One. Otto can’t look for her; she will have to find him. And so she has. But despite this cautionary tale, Mel, too, is tempted to see what it’s like to suddenly be older. Her first glimpse is her parents’ (black-and-white) gravestones. “Becoming older means everyone else gets older, too.” “I want to go home!” she cries, now fully on board with young-again Otto to experience life in all its colors, one gloriously frustrating moment at a time.

Jennifer Krauss is the children’s books editor for the Book Review.

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