I tend to be drawn to a lot of fantasy books, and I freely admit it! But this time, I’ve kept myself to contemporary realism. No spells or superpowers or talking animals, just real people in real situations. Okay, the virtual reality graphic novel might be skirting the line, but I still get points for trying.
“Big” written and illustrated by Vashti Harrison
This could easily be one of the most important books we read this year. The book opens with an adorable baby girl, who has a big laugh, a big heart and big dreams. She learns and grows, and adults exclaim over what a big girl she is. Being a big girl is an exciting aspiration when you’re little, but eventually it’s no longer a good thing. Soon it’s, “Aren’t you too big for that?” and suddenly you’re not fitting into costumes or swings or with the other kids. As the little girl is bombarded with cruel words, both unthinking and intentional, she withdraws until she finds the courage to love and accept herself. The author’s note shares her own experience of being “in the crosshairs of adultification bias and anti-fat bias” and offers hope and love to all other children that may be going through the same thing. Known as an illustrator, Harrison’s artwork is absolutely perfect, and the story itself is one that everyone needs to hear.
“Hello, Mister Blue” written and illustrated by Daria Peoples
A little girl loves visiting her grandpa. They eat breakfast together and stroll through their neighborhood, playing music on their violins. They dance and make music with Mister Blue who is always outside, playing on his harmonica or upside-down buckets. Her grandpa and Mister Blue go way back, having served in a war together. Grandpa says Mister Blue is, “a working man, a moving man, a get-up-and-go kind of brother,” but that isn’t enough of an explanation for the little girl. She keeps asking questions, like if he’s safe or scared or lonely. When a rainstorm moves in, she insists on finding Mister Blue and inviting him into their warm house. Her questions not only prompt Grandpa to reconsider his old friend, but they also model a compassionate way of viewing others, especially those experiencing homelessness. There are no easy answers or long-term solutions, but there is an abundance of compassion, dignity and hope.
“A Work in Progress” by Jarrett Lerner
We had a book about anti-fat bias from the perspective of a young Black girl, now we’ll look through the eyes of a middle school boy in this verse novel. Will Chambers has felt insecure and ashamed about his body ever since a boy maliciously called him fat three years ago. He does his best to hide in baggy clothes and the backs of classrooms, but he knows something needs to change — especially if he wants to have a chance with his skinny crush. Exercise isn’t getting the results he wants, so Will begins eating less and less. Shame quickly morphs into self-loathing, and the pages of his journal are filled with angry scribbles that show his anxiety and fears. With the help of a caring friend, Will slowly begins to see his body as a work in progress, instead of something deserving of hatred. Now that I have a boy of my own, I’m especially aware of books that address body image for boys. I’m grateful to see more books like this on the shelf, that will be just what some readers need, and give valuable insight to others.
“Lo & Behold” written by Wendy Mass and illustrated by Gabi Mendez
Addie loved her life until her mom got in a cycling accident and everything changed. Mom is no longer acting like herself, and Dad decides to distract Addie by taking her across the country for the summer. He’s working on a virtual reality project at a university, and Addie is sure she’ll be bored on the empty campus. Instead, she meets a boy named Mateo who attempts to draw her into his many volunteering efforts. The two of them also explore her father’s lab, and get to beta test many of the students’ VR projects. Addie dives deeper into VR but realizes she’s avoiding dealing with the issues in her real life. As she and Mateo open up to each other about the trauma in their families, they come up with a new VR idea that could help others as well as themselves. A graphic novel is the perfect format for this book, as you get to see all of the fantasy and adventure of the virtual reality, as well as the nuanced emotions of the characters in real life. Mendez is a debut illustrator and does a fantastic job.