Justin Barisich

The range of graphic novels and nonfiction for children gets better, more exciting and more popular with each passing year. Even the choosiest young reader won't be able to resist the charms of these wonderful books.

Marshmallow & Jordan

For the reader who carefully arranges their stuffed animals at the head of their bed every morning—and knows each and every one of their names

Growing up in Indonesia, Jordan is a talented basketball player who lives for the sport. She's even named after her dad's favorite player. After an accident two years ago, Jordan is also a paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. Although she's still the captain of her school's team, an official rule means she's not allowed to participate in games against other teams. In spite of her teammates' sincere efforts to make her feel included, it's just not the same. 

Jordan's life changes when she discovers an injured young white elephant at a park one day after basketball practice. She names him Marshmallow and, with help from her veterinarian mom, nurses him back to health. Jordan and Marshmallow become fast friends, but it's soon clear that the connection between them runs much deeper. Marshmallow obviously needs Jordan's help, but as it turns out, Jordan needs Marshmallow too. 

As Jordan leans on Marshmallow, he helps her begin to swim, and eventually she discovers a new athletic passion: water polo. But a worsening drought threatens the local water supply and the use of water for recreational purposes like swimming. Could there be a connection between Marshmallow and the much-needed rain?

Marshmallow & Jordan is a practically perfect graphic novel. Jordan's strong spirit and earnest emotional vulnerabilities make her an appealing and relatable hero, and Marshmallow is irresistibly adorable as his big blue eyes shine with emotion. Lush and lovely, Alina Chau's delicate watercolor illustrations are rendered in warm pastel tones. The book's text is fairly minimal, so her images pull a great deal of the narrative weight, making this an ideal choice for young readers still gaining verbal confidence and fluency who would benefit from the unique interplay of words and images that graphic novels offer. 

This beautifully rendered tale, with its fluffy, marshmallow-sweet images, is all heart. 

—Sharon Verbeten

Another Kind

For the reader who has always felt a little out of place—except within the pages of a great book

Inside a hidden government-run facility called the Playroom, six creatures known as Irregularities are living out their childhoods quietly tucked away from society. There's Omar, who's half yeti; Sylvie, a will-o'-the-wisp; Newt, a lizard boy; Jaali, who can transform into a Nandi bear; Clarice, a selkie; and Maggie, who might be the daughter of Cthulhu. When the group's secrecy is compromised and their safety endangered, government agents decide to move them to a more secure location.

Along the way, the powerful youngsters end up fending for themselves in a totally unfamiliar world filled with ordinary people who are totally unfamiliar with them. To survive, they must hide their unusual features and abilities—and avoid detection by dangerous forces that are hot on their trail. When the merry misfits meet other Irregularities and uncover rumors about a place called the Sanctuary, a place where they'll all be safe, they're determined to find it and make it their new home.

Trevor Bream's narrative touches subtly on weighty themes, including gender identity, bullying and feelings of abandonment. At every turn, the story emphasizes the importance of self-acceptance and a sense of belonging within a community—empowering notions for young humans to consider.

Illustrator Cait May's art is gorgeous. Just as Bream grounds their supernatural characters in emotional realism, May's linework anchors this fantastical story in a detailed, realistic aesthetic. There's a lightheartedness in her use of color that's perfectly suited for a tale that never loses sight of its young characters' optimism and hopefulness.

Another Kind is a magical graphic novel that movingly demonstrates the power of being different.

—Justin Barisich

★ The Secret Garden on 81st Street

For the reader who knows that if you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden receives a contemporary update in this thoughtful graphic novel. 

Mary Lennox is a loner, and she likes it that way. She doesn't have friends in her everyday life, but she makes up for it by immersing herself in technology, especially via her cell phone and online video games. Her parents, who both work in Silicon Valley, aren't home much, which doesn't help Mary's isolation. When they're killed in a tragic accident, Mary must go live with her uncle, whom she barely knows. 

Uncle Archie keeps his New York City mansion tech-free, and Mary has an understandably hard time adjusting to his rules. But with help from her cousin, Colin, and her new friend Dickon, Mary begins to restore the rooftop garden at her uncle's house. Gradually, Mary starts to acclimate to—and then thrive in—New York, working through her grief and forming meaningful connections along the way.

Adapting a beloved classic to a new form and setting is no small task, and it's clear that author Ivy Noelle Weir and illustrator Amber Padilla did not take the challenge lightly. Their love for Burnett's original novel shines through on every page and makes The Secret Garden on 81st Street a truly heartwarming experience. Padilla's playful, cartoonlike style lends itself wonderfully to expressing the happiness and contentment that Mary slowly finds. Weir's prose is refreshing and modern, with just enough nods to Burnett's best-known lines to preserve the story's classic roots.

Best of all, Weir revisits many of the themes of Burnett's novel through a contemporary lens, approaching each character's journey with sensitivity. Colin stays in his room all the time because of anxiety, while Uncle Archie is grieving the loss of his husband, Masahiro. These updates blend perfectly with some of the most powerful elements from the original story, such as the slow transformation of the garden and the ways that nature and human connection have the ability to heal us.

The Secret Garden on 81st Street is a beautiful and respectful new vision of a long-treasured tale.

—Hannah Lamb

Salt Magic

For the reader who would be more that willing to pay the hero's price for a thrilling, out-of-this-world adventure

Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel) teams up again with illustrator Rebecca Mock, her partner on Compass South, to create Salt Magic, an absorbing and fast-paced historical fantasy adventure.

There's a hint of The Wizard of Oz to Salt Magic, which begins in our world, then launches its hero on a quest into a new, magical world before she finally returns home again. Twelve-year-old Vonceil is the youngest of five children on an Oklahoma farm in 1919. She is a determined and appealing character whose boredom and angst simmer on every page, perfectly conveyed through her many evocative facial expressions and especially her piercing eyes. 

As the story opens, Vonceil's beloved brother Elber has finally returned from World War I after two long years away. Physically and mentally, he's a changed man, and he seems to have no time for the fun he used to share with his littlest sister. Vonceil feels more alone than ever when Elber marries his sweetheart, Amelia, a local girl. Before long, however, a mysterious, wealthy woman in white named Greda appears in their small town. Greda was Elber's nurse and lover in Paris, and she is so enraged to learn that Elber has married someone else that she curses his family's farm, turning all of their precious fresh water into salt water. 

Vonceil feels responsible for Greda's curse, having hoped that Elder would have a fabulous romance with someone from France and resented Amelia for marrying him instead. When she realizes that Greda is a salt witch, she sets out in the dark of night to try to make things right. So begins a fantastical journey that leads Vonceil to uncover not only Greda's secrets but also numerous revelations about her own ancestors, culminating in a dangerous bargain to save the family farm and Elber's life.

Mock's illustrations make every enchanting, dangerous moment pop. Even a close-up of a seemingly simple handshake between Vonceil and Greta conveys the importance of their dire agreement. Other scenes expertly dramatize the desolate landscape Vonceil traverses, the inescapable power of the all-important salt crystals she discovers and the many strange creatures she encounters along the way. 

Salt Magic is a feast of a tale that treats readers to an epic battle between evil forces and a courageous, persistent young hero.

—Alice Cary

Other Boys

For the reader who needs to hear that they are never as alone as they sometimes might feel

Damian Alexander's debut graphic memoir, Other Boys, is a powerfully compelling portrait of a boy learning to understand and accept himself.

Damian has always felt different. He and his brother live with their grandmother in a small apartment, because when they were very young, their father murdered their mother. Damian has also always enjoyed things that he thinks boys shouldn't like, such as dolls, flowers and tea parties. He's repeatedly been told that he's too "girly" to fit in with boys, but girls often excluded him from playing with them because he's a boy. His struggle to understand where he belongs has followed him all the way to middle school.

As he starts seventh grade at a new school, Damian has decided that the best way to avoid being bullied is to give his classmates absolutely nothing to bully him about. Damian is not merely planning to speak only when spoken to or to keep his voice to a whisper; he's not going to speak at all. To anyone. But his silence doesn't go unnoticed, and his grandmother arranges for him to see a therapist. With the therapist's help, Damian begins to understand that he isn't weird, strange or wrong. Meanwhile, he's also discovering that not all boys are bullies, and some are even, well, pretty cute. The only way that Damian will find his place is by staying true to himself and finally speaking up. 

As he narrates in the voice of his seventh-grade self, Alexander skillfully uses flashbacks to fill in his personal history. His bright color palette balances the book's darker elements, and his figures' slightly enlarged faces keep readers focused on the emotion of each panel. Other Boys will be a life-changing read for any young person who is questioning their identity or searching for where they belong.

—Kevin Delecki 

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Just try to resist the charms of these delightful middle grade graphic novels, perfect for gifting.

The bestselling author of the young adult novel Dread Nation brings her storytelling prowess to middle grade to create a story that will definitely cause you to start seeing things—namely, ghosts, but also the injustices suffered by generations of Black Americans.

In Ophie’s Ghosts, Justina Ireland transports readers back to the early 1920s, a time when Black Americans were fleeing the South to escape the poverty and persecution caused by the long arm of Jim Crow laws. The novel opens in rural Georgia, as 12-year-old Ophelia “Ophie” Harrison’s father wakes her up in the middle of the night and tells her to take her mother to her favorite hiding spot just beyond the tree line. From there, she witnesses a mob of angry white men burn her family’s home to the ground. The next morning, Ophie learns her father was murdered by the same mob earlier that day because he voted—and that’s how Ophie discovers she can see and speak to ghosts.

Ophie and her mother flee to Pittsburgh to live with Great Aunt Rose with hopes of starting over. Rose tells Ophie that the women in their family have been seers for generations, aiding the ghosts trapped in this world so they can transition onward to the next. It’s their duty to help bring the ghosts peace so the human world can remain peaceful as well. In Pittsburgh, Ophie and her mother take jobs at Daffodil Manor, where they meet Mrs. Caruthers, the wealthy estate’s sickly, irritable matriarch, and her benevolent son, Richard. Daffodil Manor is also home to a full staff of house servants and a whole host of ghosts. 

Ophie gradually befriends the kind but elusive ghost of Clara, a servant whose unsolved murder occurred in the manor, which keeps Clara tied to it, unable to pass on. But Clara’s ghost can’t quite remember the details of what happened to her, so Ophie is determined to uncover the murderer as well as their motive. In doing so, she risks unearthing secrets about the dead that threaten to put the living directly in harm’s way.

Ophie is a compelling, realistic heroine with a strong sense of justice and duty. The hopefulness and idealism she’s able to retain, in spite of the horrors she’s experienced and the death that surrounds her wherever she goes, ultimately become her saving grace. Though the story’s pacing is uneven at times, Ireland conceals a massive reveal so expertly that even the savviest readers won’t see it coming.

In an author’s note included in advance editions of the book, Ireland writes that she wanted to explore the question, “How do we grieve when the ghosts of our loss appear in the everyday suffering around us?” Ophie’s Ghosts offers a moving answer through Ophie’s unwavering sense of what is just—for both the living and the dead.

The bestselling author of the young adult novel Dread Nation brings her storytelling prowess to middle grade to create a story that will definitely cause you to start seeing things—namely, ghosts, but also the injustices suffered by generations of Black Americans.

Angie Thomas returns to the Garden Heights neighborhood in Concrete Rose, a powerhouse prequel that explores the life of Maverick Carter, the father of The Hate U Give’s protagonist, Starr.

As the book opens in 1998, Maverick is a carefree 17-year-old kid. He’s happy to spend time with his girlfriend, joke around with his cousin and deal a bit for the King Lords alongside his best friend—just enough to help his mom bring in a little extra cash, since his dad has been in prison for nine years.

But when Maverick finds out he’s the father of a 3-month-old boy, his world changes in an instant. He accepts his responsibility on the day he receives the results of the paternity test and begins to raise the child, even as the boy’s mother disappears.

As the weight and exhaustion of fatherhood begin to add up for Maverick—on top of balancing high school, work, relationships with his friends and maybe-still girlfriend, and the sudden, violent killing of someone who was like a brother to him—Thomas chronicles the makings of a character that readers have only previously known as a mature man and father figure. Along the way, Maverick wrestles with loyalty, revenge, responsibility and the siren song of the streets—one that promises a fast life down a hard road to ruin. Thomas also reveals the meanings behind Maverick’s name and his children’s names and deepens our understanding of the resonance of Tupac’s lyrics in these characters’ lives.

The Hate U Give became a literary phenomenon because of the depth and authenticity of Thomas’ characters, and those elements shine once again in Concrete Rose. Though it can be read as a standalone work, this prequel adds so much to our understanding of The Hate U Give that reading them together will be especially rewarding.

Angie Thomas returns to the Garden Heights neighborhood in Concrete Rose, a powerhouse prequel that explores the life of Maverick Carter, the father of The Hate U Give’s protagonist, Starr.

Readers who love complex, mythology-based fantasies, meet your newest obsession.

For seven days every seven years, Greek gods must walk the earth as mere mortals during a period they call the Agon. Well, they don’t so much walk as fight for their lives. After thousands of years, many of the gods haven’t survived, as they’ve been hunted down by the descendants of ancient Greek heroes. Each heroic bloodline is sworn to protect a god, but these hunters are also eager to slay other families’ gods in order to seize the deities’ divine power and immortality.

Once an Agon ends, the family reaps the benefits of their deity’s powers, which they can use to build family-owned business empires. For example, a god’s healing powers can help create a pharmaceutical company, the powers of war are a boon to a weapons manufacturer, and so on.

Seventeen-year-old Melora “Lore” Perseous is the descendant of Greek hero Perseus, and as the last of her bloodline, she’s gone to great pains to remove herself from the Agon’s brutality. A rival bloodline led by Wrath, a hunter who slayed Ares and inherited his powers to become a god himself, viciously murdered Lore’s family during the last Agon, and though Lore is a highly skilled fighter, she went into hiding to avoid sharing her family’s fate.

But when the Agon begins again in New York City, Athena, one of the last remaining gods, comes knocking at Lore’s door. In exchange for Lore’s help to survive the Agon, Athena agrees to slay Wrath, their shared enemy, who’s set on slaughtering the other gods in order to ensure he—and no one else—inherits their powers.

Bestselling author Alexandra Bracken, whose Darkest Minds series was adapted into a movie of the same name in 2018, strikes a notably darker tone here than in her previous work. Lore’s world is a violent place, and Bracken doesn’t hold back. Though keeping track of hunter family genealogies as well as the histories of gods both old and new can be cumbersome at times, readers eager for detail-oriented world building will find Lore enthralling. Bracken’s well-drawn characters drive the narrative, keeping it anchored in gritty prose and high-stakes emotions.

Lore is a wildly inventive and ambitious blend of reimagined Greek mythology and contemporary urban fantasy.

Readers who love complex, mythology-based fantasies, meet your newest obsession.

In Punching the Air, National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi and activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five create an intimate and moving portrait of the realities and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline through the story of 16-year-old Amal, who is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated after a false accusation. In spite of his surroundings, Amal clings to hope and saves himself by finding his truth through art and creativity. BookPage spoke with Zoboi and Salaam about the power of poetry, their book's origin story and the message they hope it sends to young readers.

How did you two meet? How did Punching the Air come about? What was it like to work with one another on this book?

Yusef Salaam: Ibi and I met over two decades ago while we were both students at Hunter College taking a class in African Studies by one of the most foremost scholars of that time, the late Dr. John Henrik Clarke’s protege.

This project was a desire of mine to tell the story of injustice in America, a story that often isn't told, and to tell it through the eyes of a modern-day version of myself. This was important and necessary.

Working on this book with Ibi was liberating and amazing because of our shared experience of being close in age and also having known what it was like to be a New Yorker as youngsters. This gave us an advantage of being able to tap into a certain shared experience to tell this story.

Ibi Zoboi: I met Yusef in college in 1999. I was an editor for my college’s newspaper, and when he walked into one of my classes and I was reminded of who he was, I immediately wanted to interview him. I grew up in New York City and had seen all about the racial violence incident that had taken place on the news. This is why I wanted to become a journalist.

I never got that interview, but I ran into Yusef in 2017 while I was promoting my debut novel, American Street. He was selling his self-published book of poems, and I wondered why more people had not heard about his story as a member of the Central Park Five. (This was before I knew about the Netflix series).

My work with Yusef was simply a continuation of the work I had set out to do as an aspiring journalist in college. I wanted to tell stories that resonated with me and my experiences growing up in New York City, and the experiences of the young people I care about.

Ibi, tell us about the choice to write Punching the Air in verse. What did writing in verse allow you to do that you wouldn’t have been able to in prose?

Zoboi: Yusef’s book of poems served as a foundation for Punching the Air. While only about five of his poems made into the book, I was able to get a sense of his voice and his worldview as a wrongfully convicted incarcerated teen.

I was a poet before I was a novelist. My novels American Street and Pride feature some poetry, so writing a novel-in-verse came naturally to me. There is such power in being able to capture a certain emotion with only a few words. I really loved being able to use metaphor to describe how Amal saw the world and his place in it. He is a deeply wise young man in the same way that Yusef was very introspective as a teen. The best way I could capture that strong sense of self was through poetry.

Of the book’s many poems, is there one that you’re the most proud of?

Zoboi: I love “The Scream." Many of the poems share titles with famous classical art pieces, and this one is based on Edvard Munch’s famous painting. That’s intentional. I really wanted to capture what rage feels like and what it does to the body. I could only imagine what Yusef must’ve felt while experiencing that tragedy, and he tried to tell me in so many ways. So I thought of the act of ingesting something that is harmful to the body—swallowing something that could potentially kill you.

Salaam: I love how Ibi was able to include my poetry in the story so seamlessly. For example, “Microphone” is more than a poem. It’s a message. It’s a speech that Amal is trying to convey while incarcerated. He is referencing Kunta from the movie Roots being in captivity. He was once free in Africa, but slavery has stripped him of all his identity. There is pride in that poem, pride in his history and in his dark skin color. It’s about liberation while in captivity.

Yusef, what were some of the challenges of creating a character whose experiences have much in common with your own, but who is not merely a fictionalized version of you? What was rewarding about it?

Salaam: The challenge was to make it unique, even though there were similarities and things that overlapped, and to make a character that readers could identify with. The challenge in my story is that not everyone can identify with being falsely labeled a rapist or a sex offender. That part of my story is very unique. But a fight is something that lots of boys can relate to. They can see themselves in that position. The reward was in telling the story and giving it life so that we can begin to talk about it and see it without blinders on.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Punching the Air.


Ibi, what kinds of research went into creating the character of Amal and representing his emotional landscape as well as his experiences?

Zoboi: Aside from having extensive conversations with Yusef, I watched Time, the documentary about Kaleif Browder’s time on Rikers Island. I also read Liza Jessie Peterson’s nonfiction book, All Day, about her experiences teaching incarcerated boys. I also pulled from my relationships with teen boys from when I was a teen and as an educator and a mother of a teen boy. My husband is a high school art teacher, and he was very helpful in offering some insight into some of his students’ experiences.

What other works of art and literature, especially for young people, do you see Punching the Air as engaging in dialogue with, drawing inspiration from, contributing to a larger conversation alongside? What do you hope Punching the Air adds to that conversation?

Zoboi: I truly think pairing music with books is a good way to get young readers to meaningfully engage with a text. Young readers can create their own playlists. Of course, the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a perfect pairing. While Walter Dean Myers’ Monster focuses on the events of a crime, Punching the Air narrows the lens on the experiences of an incarcerated boy. In fact, the lens is within him, inside his heart, mind and soul. Ava DuVernay’s 13th as well as When They See Us should be required supplemental material alongside Punching the Air. Before that, the Ken Burns documentary on the Central Park Five is instrumental as well.

Punching the Air focuses on the inner life of a child caught up in the system. I hope readers will sink into Amal’s skin not only to empathize with his story but also to begin to see themselves in that situation. What would you do to make it through to the next day?

Yusef, can you share how you see the role of arts and creativity in Amal’s life and in your own life?

Salaam: The importance of art is to tap into the creative force of God. There is beauty in everything. With the power of art, Amal does not have to conform. His creativity is not put into a box. In my life, art has been a key to unlock the mystery of what it means to be free.

What would you say to a young person who feels discouraged or disheartened right now, or who feels like the ability to impact the world and make positive change is too far out of their reach?

Salaam: I would say to young people that you are the answer to the question. You have been gifted with unique abilities that only you can give to the world.

Zoboi: Your very presence in the world is enough change for now. You are here, and you matter. Don’t be ashamed of being silent and being still. This is where art and creativity are born. As long as you are present, observing, witnessing and taking notes. Create something new. That is change, too. Whatever it is that you created did not exist before you made it come alive. There is power in that. It could be a drawing, a funny meme, a TikTok post, a beautiful sentence. Even asking questions is art. I don’t want young people to feel defeated and discouraged. This is when we begin to lose hope. 



Photo of Ibi Zoboi courtesy of Joseph Zoboi. Photo of Yusef Salaam courtesy of Staci Nurse (Staci Marie Studio).

In Punching the Air, National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi and activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five create an intimate and moving portrait of the realities and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline. BookPage spoke with Zoboi and Salaam about the power of poetry, their book’s origin story and the message they hope it sends to young readers.

Prison is a box. Once a person is trapped inside, the box’s hard lines and confines become their entire world. The box presses down on the people it holds captive and tries to destroy what makes them unique, what makes them human, all in the interests of conformity, survival and the comfort of others. In Punching the Air, 16-year-old Amal Shahid finds himself slammed inside the cold, concrete box of a juvenile detention center after a false accusation.

Amal is a talented visual artist, an aspiring poet and rapper, a well-read scholar and a skilled skater, beloved by his Muslim family. He’s never fit easily into any box. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Amal and his friends got into a fight with a group of white kids at the basketball court in Amal’s gentrifying neighborhood. Amal admits to throwing the first punch, but he definitely didn’t throw the punch that put one of the white kids in a coma. That doesn’t save him from becoming the victim of an unjust, racist system that punishes him for it anyway. As Amal serves out his sentence, he tries to write and paint his way out of the box, even as the box itself—and many of those trapped inside it with him—try to break him. In spite of his surroundings, he clings to hope and saves himself by finding his truth through art and creativity.

A fast-paced novel in verse co-authored by National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi (American Street) and activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, Punching the Air is an intimate and moving portrait of the realities and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline. Amal’s first-person narration is an extraordinary achievement of characterization. His voice on the page is youthful but wise, cutting but inviting, quiet but resonant; his words read effortlessly, but that effortlessness is clearly the result of skilled effort. Punching the Air more than deserves a place among both outstanding YA novels in verse, including Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X and Jason ReynoldsLong Way Down, and among YA novels that explore the intersection of race and justice, including Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give and Kim Johnson’s This Is My America. This is vital reading for every teen.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Punching the Air authors Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam discuss the power of art and creativity to set us free.

Prison is a box. Once a person is trapped inside, the box’s hard lines and confines become their entire world. The box presses down on the people it holds captive and tries to destroy what makes them unique, what makes them human, all in the interests of conformity, survival and the comfort of others. In […]

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