Today’s stack is all about comics for kids: a few are new or upcoming, and a few are a little older, and there are even a couple that are somehow both at the same time. Let’s dive in! These are arranged roughly in order of target audience age.
Fitz and Cleo are siblings who also happen to be ghosts; this book is a chapter-book comic, divided up into 11 short stories, as they have silly adventures and play with their cat, Mister Boo. (Cleo loves Mister Boo and gets along well; Fitz is a bit more skeptical and Mister Boo responds accordingly.) The stories are cute and have funny endings; most are fairly short at just a couple of pages long. I’ll note that although the formatting looks similar to an easy-reader book, the vocabulary is mixed and very young readers may need a little help with words like “vanquish” and “definitely” and “echinoderm.” (Fitz and Cleo will be available at the end of May.)
This story is about a little girl who makes a wish on a falling star—which actually turns out to be a comet! It turns out they both wished for a friend, and their meeting is the start of their friendship. The book is something between a comic and a picture book, with panels and dialogue bubbles on most pages, but also pages with just narrative text and larger illustrations. It’s also broken up into chapters, though it does feel like one overarching storyline with natural breaks. One of the topics touched on is being honest with your friend when things go wrong—Comet is sad that the plant Haylee gave as a gift wilted and tries to cover it up, so part of the story is about forgiveness and communication. (Haylee and Comet is coming in June.)
Blue, Barry, and Pancakes are best friends: Blue is a worm, Barry is a frog, and Pancakes is a rabbit. When they go to the beach, Barry and Pancakes want to play with Blue’s beach ball, but Blue is worried that something bad might happen to it, which would break up the collection. Well, during a game of keep-away, the ball gets swallowed by a passing whale. What follows is a series of ridiculous adventures as the three friends work to get the ball back, which takes them to outer space, into a volcano, to an unexpected birthday party, and more. In the end, all three learn some important lessons about friendship: Barry and Pancakes are sorry for the trouble they caused, and Blue realizes friendship is more important than a beach ball. (That said, I think the story shows that Blue’s fears were completely justified, and Barry and Pancakes should have respected Blue’s boundaries to begin with.)
InvestiGATORS: Take the Plunge and InvestiGATORS: Off the Hook by John Patrick Green
Take the Plunge and Off the Hook are the second and third books in the InvestiGATORS series, featuring the crime-fighting alligators Mango and Brash. In case you’re new to the series, it’s a very silly spoof of secret agents, kind of like Inspector Gadget but with more reptiles and a whole lot of puns. The books are filled with wordplay and visual gags, and also have a lot of fun with spy-movie tropes.
The gators are constantly working to foil the plots of Crackerdile, a former agent who was turned into a saltine. It’s a bit hard to summarize the plots because there are so many wacky threads that all combine, but Take the Plunge involves a robot that gains the power to combine things and starts making weird hybrids all over town. Meanwhile, Crackerdile has flooded the sewers (thus the title), wreaking all sorts of havoc. And on top of it, Mango and Brash are demoted for making some mistakes, so the B-Team (a pair of badgers) is brought in to replace them. There’s a good bit of potty-related humor in this one, so be warned.
In Off the Hook, Crackerdile has an accomplice, a mysterious man with a snake for an arm going by the name Hookline and Slinker. Crackerdile is still on a quest to make himself stronger—being a crumbly cracker is too vulnerable, as previous volumes have shown, but he has an idea… Mango and Brash are also having some workplace tensions: Brash thinks Mango needs to learn to focus on the greater good and stick to the mission, but Mango can’t help feeling like keeping his partner safe is more important than catching the bad guy. Can they figure out what Crackerdile is up to? Will their new prototype vests stop glitching? And has anyone seen Cilantro, the chameleon agent?
Phoebe and Her Unicorn is a fantastic comic strip about a geeky kid who happens to have a unicorn for a best friend—if you haven’t read it before, you’re in for a treat! It’s one of my family’s current favorites, and every time a new volume arrives my kids have an intense debate about who gets to read it first. (Meanwhile, I just wait until they’re in bed and then I read it myself!) It has a lot of the charm and imagination of Calvin & Hobbes, but it’s also very much a modern strip: Phoebe has a cell phone and social media, for instance.
Unicorn Famous is the 13th collection in the series, and although the books generally don’t have an overarching plotline, there are sections within the book with shorter storylines that go across several strips. Dakota is finally starting to be nice to Phoebe … or at least, not as actively mean. There’s a unicorn fashion trend, which bothers Phoebe a bit. And Phoebe accidentally makes herself speak unicorn for a while when she reads a unicorn spellbook.
Here’s another comic strip collection: Wallace the Brave stars three friends, the imaginative and often outlandish Wallace, the ultra-careful Spud, and the somewhat intimidating Amelia. They live in a small seaside town and have adventures in and out of school. This is another strip that has a similar vibe as Calvin & Hobbes, mostly in the types of activities the kids do, though not necessarily in the way that they relate to each other. Some of the hijinks in this volume include Wallace and an extremely hot chili pepper, Wallace breaking his arm, and a big storm coming to town.
I mentioned at the top that there were some books that were old and new—and here they are! The first Astronaut Academy book came out a decade ago, and our paperback copy of it (and the sequel, published in 2013) are both very well-worn because my two older daughters loved them so much. Well, this month there’s finally a brand-new volume, Splashdown, as well as new editions of the first two books in full color. When the review copies arrived, my older daughters (who are now both teenagers) were extremely excited, and it was also a great chance to introduce the series to my youngest (who has now already read all three books multiple times).
Splashdown takes place during summer break, when Maribelle Mellonbelly (the richest and prettiest girl in all of Astronaut Academy) decides to host a party on her private resort, “Beach Planet? Yes!” (Formerly known as “Martin Landau.”) She invites all of the kids from the school, along with a few other characters we’ve seen in previous volumes, but isn’t prepared for the various tensions that will arise, which are helpfully chronicled by the conflict-loving teacher Mrs. Bunn. (Human vs. technology? Check. Friend vs. friend? Check.) It has a lot of the random, silly humor from the first books, but the story also critiques the way that Maribelle’s resort exploits the planet’s resources.
It was fun to read the first two books in full color, because everything was a lot more vibrant—it also helped me keep the characters straight (an issue I had when I read them originally). The only thing we miss about the originals is the shiny foil covers. If you’re new to Astronaut Academy, this new set is a nice way to dive in.
Maggie wants a dog, and for her 10th birthday she’s finally going to get one. But when she arrives at the pet shelter and finds the perfect puppy, she starts sneezing and itching. It turns out, of course, that she’s allergic to pretty much everything with fur or feathers. Her dreams of a cuddly pet are dashed, and her list of possible alternate pets just never works out, either. Even the fifth grade hamster ends up moved to a different classroom, which does not make Maggie the most popular kid in class.
Maggie faces a lot of challenges: aside from her newly discovered allergies, she struggles to feel like part of the family. Her twin brothers are very close, and her parents are preoccupied with their soon-to-arrive new baby. She manages to make some new friends, though: a sixth grader named Claire who moves in next door, and a boy named Sebastian who has an egg allergy and knows what it’s like to miss out on certain experiences. There’s also a whole scheme that Maggie comes up with in an attempt to solve things on her own … with some unexpected results. It’s a nice story that mixes some of the usual growing-up struggles with the specifics of dealing with allergies, and it never gets bogged down by the subject.
I haven’t read the middle grade novels this book was based on, but it works as a stand-alone graphic novel, too. Jacky Hart is a bit of a clown: her humor started as a way to deflect insults about her stutter, and it’s become such a part of her personality that she has trouble turning it off when things get serious. And things are serious. Her mom has been deployed to the Gulf War (the story takes place in the early 1990s), her dad seems to be spending a lot of time with his pretty coworker even when they’re not working as lifeguards, and Jacky is racking up a record number of detentions at school.
Then the new English teacher steps in and makes a deal: if Jacky will join the drama club and perform in the school musical, then her theater rehearsals will count towards detention. Jacky is skeptical: singing on stage? Memorizing lines? That’s not really her thing.
As you might expect, the musical does start to change the way that Jacky sees herself, and sets her on a different path: the story is told as a flashback, framed by Jacky as an adult talking to her kids before she heads to the Academy Awards. Although the story didn’t surprise me for the most part—it follows the expected paths of an after-school special—it was still entertaining and had some great moments. The one word of caution I have is about the subplot involving her dad: for much of the book, Jacky is left wondering what’s going on, and kids who have experienced their own parents’ infidelity may find that a little too much in a story meant to be uplifting.
Miles Morales is getting the hang of this Spider-Man thing, zipping through the neighborhood, helping old ladies cross the street, and stopping small-time crooks. But then he encounters a pair of thieves who have some tricked-out tech and … maybe superpowers? Meanwhile, on the home front, Miles is trying to help his mom raise funds to help Puerto Rico after a major earthquake. Both of these things may be connected to his new classmate, Kyle, whose father has gone missing. Miles is stretched thin: chasing down the crooks at night means he’s sleepy at school and distracted when his parents are talking to him, so they think he’s not really interested. It’s a challenge for Miles to put the pieces together—and pull himself together in the process.
I don’t know Miles Morales well (outside the Spider-verse movie), but I like what I’ve seen so far. This comic book is aimed at middle grade readers and while you do get some fun web-slinging (and other powers), Miles spends just about as much time out of costume, too, dealing with the pressures of being a regular kid, too. (Miles Morales: Shock Waves will be available in June.)
I wrote about Island Book back in 2019, and mentioned that it was numbered, but that it also worked as a stand-alone story. Well, the second book takes place some unspecified amount of time later: Sola and her friends have all gone in different directions, and she’s clearly uncomfortable with the way that many of the islanders treat her as a hero. Among them is Alef, the captain of the Wake, who was inspired by Sola to explore. He has found evidence of the “infinite land”—a continent—and plans to lead the islanders there, hoping to find a place to live that isn’t constantly at threat from the dangers of the sea. But Alef’s expedition leaves death and destruction in its wake, and Sola takes it upon herself to stop them.
This second book still holds a lot of the mystery that the first book had, though in this case Alef is at the center of many of the encounters, and his approach is quite different from Sola’s in the first book. His journey is all about conquering, planting flags, claiming things. This story, unlike the first, does end on a cliff-hanger after a violent confrontation, so I’ll have to wait for the next book to see how things unfold. (Island Book: The Infinite Land will be released in mid-May.)
My Current Stack
Aside from reading a bunch of comics in the past two weeks, I’ve also been catching up on some other reading, including some series that I never got around to finishing. I’d read Steelheart, the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy, back in 2015, but somehow never got around to the other two books, so I caught up on those. I also had only read the first two books of The 5th Wave trilogy by Rick Yancey, so I finished that as well. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing some time travel and universe hopping in Time Travel for Love and Profit by Sarah Lariviere, The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry, and Finn and the Intergalactic Lunchbox by Michael Buckley. And, finally, I read a future-Western book about queer librarian spies called Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey. More on all of these in a future column!
Disclosure: I received review copies or galleys of the books included in this column. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support independent bookstores and my writing!