Ten years ago, First Second Books was a brand-new publisher bent on putting out a few, select graphic novels from promising young talent. They saw a growing industry, an untapped market, and a lot of amazing authors and artists who were hungry to tell their stories… and have them heard.
Ten years and 157 books later, I think it’s safe to say they’ve succeeded. In a major way. Over the decade, First Second has become a breeding ground for some of the industry’s best. Their books have been honored with several Eisner, Printz, and Cybil Awards; with a Caldecott Honor; and as National Book Awards finalists. Most have been New York Times bestsellers. And almost all of them have been on more “best of” lists than you can count.
It’s also safe to say that we here at GeekDad are big fans of their books and creators. Indeed, we’ve featured many right here on Stack Overflow.
To celebrate their 10th anniversary, we present to you our list of Essential First Second books. I tried to do the impossible–choose one title from each year–and I was mostly able to do just that (with the exception of a couple ties).
If you’re new to First Second or if your bookshelf is looking lonely, scroll on, add to your wishlist, and stock up!
2006 – American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: This is more or less where it all began. Gene Luen Yang’s now classic book about the Asian American experience was one of the first books out of the gate for the young publisher, and it took the industry by storm. The book went on to become a National Book Award finalist, and it won Printz and Eisner Awards. It also helped define First Second as a publisher that wasn’t afraid to confront social and cultural issues. If I absolutely had to recommend only one of these books to read, it would be this one. Listen to Jonathan Liu’s chat with Gene Luen Yang here. Also a shameless plug for this adorable video with Gene.
2007 – Robot Dreams by Sara Varon: Robot Dreams is a wordless book about a dog who orders a robot in the mail and their adventures together. It’s cute, quirky, and unexpectedly poignant. It will leave you breathless… and probably a little bit sad. But it’s utterly beautiful and well worth the emotional ride. I’m a huge fan of wordless storytelling (when done well), and Varon’s book is right up there with David Wiesner, Aaron Becker, and Pixar shorts.
2008 – Slow Storm by Danica Novgorodoff: Deceptively simply yet utterly brilliant, this ambitious work marries words to watercolor images that practically leap off the page. It’s also a fantastic example of how First Second was willing to take risks and break the boundaries of what graphic novels could be… from such an early date. Novgorodoff went on to create the breathtaking (and slightly unsettling) The Undertaking of Lily Chen, but Slow Storm was her debut, and it’s a masterful example of storytelling through powerful images that cut to the core of who we are.
2009 – The Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa: Not only is First Second a fantastic publisher for young U.S. creators, it’s also a publisher of insanely good international works. In 2009, they released translated editions of the three books in Kim Dong Hwa’s “color trilogy.” Originally published in Korea, the books follow a teenage girl’s coming of age, sexual awakening, and relationship with her mother. It’s this kind of calculated risk-taking that sets First Second apart. Their willingness to take on Korean manhwa also led to them becoming a publisher known for exposing fantastic international stories to a U.S. audience.
2010 – Zeus: King of the Gods by George O’Connor: This book makes the cut since it’s the beginning of O’Connor’s epic series about Greek mythology, which is still ongoing and currently includes eight books–each focused on a specific god or goddess. Zeus is where it all begins, though. For the sheer audacity shown in telling these stories and for starting off First Second’s longest-running series, O’Connor’s book is our recommended title for 2010.
2011 – Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke: The first of a trilogy, Zita the Spacegirl is superb for readers of all kids, whether they’re into comics/graphic novels or not. It’s got all the makings of a classic in my house: strong and spunky female protagonist, funky-looking aliens and creatures, amazing art, and an engaging adventure story. It’s basically everything my daughter loves all packaged together into one book. Really, in my eyes, Ben Hatke can do no wrong (see 2015 below), but this is the root of his greatness. Pick this up for every young reader in your life.
2012 – Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel: Siegel is actually the editorial director of First Second Books, but that connection isn’t the reason this book is our recommended title for 2012. Sailor Twain is about a 19th-century ship captain who discovers an injured mermaid, nurses her back to health, and slowly becomes obsessed. The book is long, gorgeously illustrated, and not for kids. It’s a phenomenal example of the power of graphic novels and types of stories it can tell so well.
2013 – Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks / Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang: In a year with so many great books, it was hard to pick just one. Therefore, we have a tie. Primates is a retelling of the lives of scientists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. Recruited by legendary anthropologist Louis Leakey, these three were charged with studying three different ape species. The results of their work changed paleontology forever and challenged what it meant to be human. Their story is powerfully told and an inspiration to budding scientists everywhere.
Our other recommendation for 2013 is another entry from Gene Luen Yang. In two volumes, Boxers & Saints presents graphic storytelling at its finest. Told in two parallel stories, the reader is taken on a journey through opposing sides of China’s Boxer Rebellion. Tackling history, religion, culture, and family, Boxers & Saints is a masterpiece and was another National Book Awards finalist for Yang. Check out our interview with Yang about this book.
2014 – This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki: Our pick for 2014 is rather obvious but nonetheless incredibly deserving. This One Summer was the first graphic novel ever to be recognized with a Caldecott Honor and only the second to snag a Printz. The book is a coming-of-age story about two friends, one summer, and a whole host of life changes. Firmly entrenched on many Best of 2014 lists (including our own), the book was a surprise pick for the Caldecott simply because it targets an older demographic than most honorees. Check out my interview with cousins Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki here.
2015 – Last of the Sandwalkers by Jay Hosler / Little Robot by Ben Hatke: I simply couldn’t choose one of these books over the other, so we’ve got our second tie. In Last of the Sandwalkers, biologist Hosler takes you on a journey inside an intricate society of beetles, and believe me when I tell you: it’s well worth the journey. Brimming with detail and fascinating insights into the insect world, this was one of First Second’s first forays into graphic novels based firmly in science, and it’s a remarkable accomplishment.
Our second entry for 2015 is also Ben Hatke’s second book on this list. I told you he can do no wrong by me. Little Robot is another (nearly) wordless book that has a surprising emotional impact. Our protagonist is a young, barefoot girl who assembles her own robot and discovers the meaning of friendship. Perfect for beginning and imaginative readers of all ages. This one will melt your heart.
2016 – The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks: We’re just a few months into 2016, and the bulk of First Second’s books aren’t even available yet, but The Nameless City is already the frontrunner for pick of the year. Hicks made a big splash in my house with The Adventures of Superhero Girl, and The Nameless City ups the ante with epic cultural conflict and the promise of an ongoing story.