Norah Piehl

High school junior Becca has always been bookish and smart, the kind of girl no one really notices. So on her very first day at Piedmont High School, she’s surprised when she draws the attention of beautiful Marley and her megacool friends, and she can’t quite believe their interest in her is authentic. Granted, Arianna can be a little blunt, and Amanda and Marley make not-so-subtle attempts to tweak Becca’s personal style to match their own, but they all seem to genuinely enjoy spending time with her. But when they take her to a party, Becca realizes in the most disconcerting way possible that Marley’s clique isn’t a squad—it’s more like a pack.

Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall upends many classic werewolf tropes in Squad, her first graphic novel. Werewolves are typically hairy and muscular, but they’re also governed by the full moon, and Tokuda-Hall imbues them with feminine power. Squad is a revenge narrative and a quasi fable about consent, but beneath its supernatural premise, it’s also a classic teen drama that will disrupt readers’ assumptions about fashion-conscious teenage girls.

Illustrator Lisa Sterle’s bold, energetic artwork perfectly complements the novel’s themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and the possibility of love. Her palette ranges from muted jewel tones in nighttime scenes to rich reds as bright and bold as blood. Her depictions of the werewolves are particularly skillful, as she uses color and shape to connect each girl’s human and wolf forms. The book’s layouts are varied and dynamic, with small panel groupings occasionally interrupted by spreads that highlight moments of drama and emotion. Be forewarned: Squad’s most violent panels are fairly graphic, and these scenes of uncontained carnage can seem especially jarring when juxtaposed against the candy-colored, meticulously polished personas that the girls project in their human forms.

Squad is a story of dramatic contrasts and surprising transformations, and both its words and images underscore the notion that underneath their carefully cultivated surfaces, teenage girls might not be precisely what they seem.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creation of Squad.

After she attends a party with the coolest girls in school, Becca realizes they’re not a squad—they’re more like a pack.

Squad is the first graphic novel from YA and picture book author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea), and it features eye-catching illustrations by comics artist Lisa Sterle. It’s the story of Becca, the new girl at Piedmont High School, who is invited to join the most popular clique of girls at school. Then she discovers that they’re not so much a squad as a pack. Of werewolves.

Maggie, tell us a little bit about Becca, the main character of Squad. What ideas were you hoping to explore through her story?

Maggie Tokuda-Hall: Becca is someone who wants to fit in so badly. She’s a try-hard who doesn’t have a natural knack for making friends. She thinks that if, somehow, she just does everything right then maybe, MAYBE she’ll fit in and everything will be OK, and she won’t feel so lonely anymore. And so when she has a group of friends, she’s willing to overlook anything about them: their microaggressions, their casual racism, their cruelty. The fact that they’re straight-up murderers. They’re bound by a sense of having been wronged, and they have been wronged. All of us have been. Rape culture hurts everyone. 

Becca is meant to be a stand-in for the rest of us. It’s so human to want to fit in. It’s so human to want justice. But are power imbalances ever the way to seek justice? Is the death penalty ever right? What does punishment accomplish, really? These are things Becca allows us to ask ourselves, even if she makes decisions we may disagree with.

What challenges did you encounter as you worked on this story?

Tokuda-Hall: The hardest thing was trying to find the right frame to tell this story. Ever since I graduated from the real Piedmont High, I’d been trying to figure out how to write about what I saw and experienced there. I didn’t have the language yet, but now I know it was rape culture. I was furious. Heartbroken. And it took me more than 15 years after graduating to be able to craft the right story in the tone I wanted to address it.

When Fred Rogers defended PBS’ funding before Congress, he read the lyrics of a song he sang to children to help them cope with being mad, and there’s a line from it that I think about a lot: “What do you do / with the mad that you feel / when you feel so mad / you could bite?” Sorting through my own anger was the hardest part of writing Squad, and the hardest part of talking about it.

“These girls aren’t role models, and they aren’t heroes. . . . They’re girls who have been beaten down by a world that will never love them back, no matter how ‘perfect’ they are.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Can you talk about the way that consent is represented in Squad, and what you hope readers take away from it?

Tokuda-Hall: Squad is about rape culture, obviously. And so of course there are terrible boys, exactly who you’d expect. But the girls also have a really unhealthy consent praxis. They think they’re these white knights riding against predators, and yeah, they are, I guess. But they also threaten to kill Becca if she doesn’t join them. Becca is so chuffed to be invited that she doesn’t think about it that way; she was going to say yes, but she couldn’t have said no if she wanted to and lived. The girls enforce horrible body standards that are, in my view, an extension of rape culture, this effort to always keep the female body obedient for the male gaze. They do this without questioning themselves, without seeing the ways they’re enforcers of the very culture they purport to destroy.

These girls aren’t role models, and they aren’t heroes. They’re murderers. They’re also victims. They’re girls who have been beaten down by a world that will never love them back, no matter how “perfect” they are.

Squad is equal parts revenge fantasy and a question of what justice is in our world, which is so deeply entrenched in patriarchy, rape culture, racism and misogyny. Law enforcement doesn’t help with any of these things—in fact, it is very much an extension of them. Revenge feels good, but that isn’t justice, is it? I don’t know what justice is. But I do know that I’m not equipped to dispense it.

Werewolves are usually portrayed as masculine creatures—but not so here. Where did the inspiration for your “squad” of werewolf girls come from?

Tokuda-Hall: I think anything that’s been arbitrarily gendered is begging for subversion. And honestly, who looked at werewolves and periods and didn’t connect the dots? Uterus-havers experiencing something secret and bloody once a month? I couldn’t possibly think of any real life situation that’s analogous to that.

There’s also something inherently camp about werewolves. They’re human/dog crosses. Even if they’re scary, they’re still goofy. I love that about them, how ripe they are for comedy.

“No matter what we do, we’re somehow monstrous. So fine. Let’s be monsters.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

What werewolf tropes—or general horror tropes—did you hope to challenge? Did you intentionally preserve any tropes?

Tokuda-Hall: The one werewolf trope that I love is that they’re monsters born out of trauma. Typically, a werewolf doesn’t ask you if they can bite you, at least in most of the stories I know. I’m a person who’s been sexually assaulted, and I know that feeling of monstrous violation leaving me with consequences I was ill-equipped to handle. It made werewolves an apt cipher. I don’t mean to say that everyone who’s been assaulted is made a monster by it, but I do think it can create a craving for revenge. At least, it did for me.

The trope I was most interested in challenging was that, in horror, female monsters only get to be scary if their power comes from sex or age. Making them disgusting bloodthirsty dogs was sort of a middle finger to that. Even when we’re monsters we’re supposed to be hot. If you’re a woman, people are going to judge you and find you wanting. There’s no “right” way to be a woman in our world. You should be smart but not a nerd! You should be hot, but you shouldn’t act like you’re hot! You should look presentable and good all the time, but you shouldn’t try too hard! Be skinny, but not anorexic! Be one of the guys, but don’t fart! It’s impossible. No matter what we do, we’re somehow monstrous. So fine. Let’s be monsters.

From its inception, was Squad always going to be a graphic novel?

Tokuda-Hall: I have wanted to tell some version of Squad for a very long time, but I wasn’t able to crack it until I decided it needed to have werewolves, and it needed to be a graphic novel. As soon as I did, it flowed really easily. It was a complete joy to write, and it was similar to writing a picture book in that you want to leave room for an illustrator to make it their own, too.

Can you give us a little behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Squad was made?

Tokuda-Hall: I wrote the script like I was possessed, then my fantastic agent, Jennifer Laughran, helped make it make sense, and then the marvelous Martha Mihalick at Greenwillow gave it a home. We edited it together and passed it to Lisa, who had a couple of smaller notes that I added in. Lisa and I didn’t get to collaborate much directly, but watching her take this book and make it her own amazing vision has been both humbling and career-affirmingly rad.

Lisa Sterle: I signed on as the illustrator after Maggie already had the pitch and the first draft of the script finished, so I got to read the whole thing pretty immediately. To be honest, I was sold at the first mention of girls turning into werewolves. I love supernatural fantasy, so this was a concept that hooked me in fast. After reading the first chapter of the script, I immediately had such a strong idea of who these girls were, and I hadn’t even really visualized them yet. The dynamics between the squad felt immediately familiar, and I related so much to shy Becca’s desire to fit in and her sense of longing to belong somewhere. I think it’s a familiar narrative to anyone who’s been a teenage girl. The horror aspect of boy-devouring werewolves was icing on the cake.

“I had a whole mood board full of outfit ideas for the squad, because I wanted them to each have their own sense of style and yet feel like they all coordinated.” 

Lisa Sterle

Though the script was completed before I started on the artwork, I did a lot of the directing myself as I formatted it for a graphic novel. I figured out the page breakdowns, panel breakdowns, which scenes needed to be splash pages or needed more breathing room, when to focus on characters or the surroundings and so on. So even though the story was done, I definitely appreciate that I got the opportunity to put my own special stamp on it through the art and the comics medium.

Maggie, what’s different about working on a book with a collaborative partner like an illustrator versus working on a novel where you’re the sole contributor?

Tokuda-Hall: IT WAS THE BEST. It is 100% better than working on your own. Illustrators are perfect magical creatures, and we don’t deserve them. She drew! So many! PICTURES! And they are all amazing! I cannot fathom what it’s like to live in her head and to be able to breathe life into drawings and to make characters come alive. But I can say that I am a huge fan of her work, and I cannot wait for her to achieve the unbearable fame her talent deserves.

Writing a novel is like being trapped in a room with yourself. You may be great company to yourself, but I know that to my own taste, I am not. Working with an illustrator relieves some of that great loneliness that comes with being a writer.

Lisa, you’ve illustrated lots of interesting things, from comics and comic book covers to a tarot deck. How did working on a graphic novel compare?

Sterle: Working on a graphic novel was a new experience for me! It was wonderful to not have to feel rushed by a monthly delivery schedule like in comics, and to really be able to take my time on each step of the process. Sometimes it was challenging to keep the momentum, though! 200-ish pages is a LOT, and at times it can feel like it never ends. I found ways to stay inspired and motivated though, such as inking a couple pages during the pencils stage to switch things up creatively.

What were your inspirations for the overall look and feel of the book?

Sterle: I knew going into this project that I wanted to do something bright and colorful, as it was the first comic I’d really fully colored myself. My Modern Witch Tarot was actually a bit of an inspiration, because through those illustrations I really uncovered a palette that spoke to my pop sensibilities. 

Fashion was also a big inspiration. I had a whole mood board full of outfit ideas for the squad, because I wanted them to each have their own sense of style and yet feel like they all coordinated as well. The Chanels from “Scream Queens” were an inspiration, as were Cher Horowitz from Clueless, Lirika Matoshi’s dresses and Cara Delevingne’s style, to name a few others.

I love how you differentiated the girls, even when they’re in their werewolf forms. What techniques did you use to give the werewolves their individual looks?

Sterle: Figuring out the werewolves was one of the first big challenges! I definitely went with a more wolflike approach than humanlike, and that meant that they could have been hard to tell apart from one another. I considered differentiating them with jewelry or some kinds of accessories at one point, but I landed on the surprisingly simple approach of just having their fur color match their hair for the most part. I did have to tweak slightly since two of the girls have black hair, but I think it worked out in the end.

“Lisa is a marvel at creating the emotional world of a character in their body language and on their faces.”

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Can you talk about how you used color in these illustrations?

Sterle: I love bright colors, especially when paired sparingly with pastels—kind of an ’80s/’90s vibe. I tend to stay away from earth tones, and I feel like that was an easy solution to unifying colors throughout the book. The daytime and school scenes are all very bright and warm, while the nighttime scenes tended to have a cooler, blue-green scheme, which worked out perfectly to really make the red POP when the werewolves and gore show up.

How did you approach illustrating those violent scenes?

Sterle: I’ve always been a fan of horror, so I’ve formed thoughts on what I like and dislike when it comes to gore and violence. I tried not to go too far into the realism, but I do think that in certain scenes it was important to show what these girls were really doing. No sugarcoating here! But I’m not a fan of gore for its own sake, so I tried to make sure I wasn’t going over the top unnecessarily.

Maggie, what are some things you love about what Lisa brought to the book?

Tokuda-Hall: The facial expressions. There would be direction in the script, like “Marley looks annoyed.” But then Lisa would imbue these facial expressions with so much depth and complexity. She’s annoyed, yes, but she’s also disappointed and a little embarrassed now that Lisa is done with her. Lisa is a marvel at creating the emotional world of a character in their body language and on their faces.

It is also worth noting that Lisa is like . . . a cool person. And I am not. And so she was able to lend the aesthetic a coolness that I wanted but in no way could have created on my own. The girls’ fashion is so correct and current. They’d all be dressed the way high schoolers dressed when I was in high school if I’d had to do it myself. Which, needless to say, wouldn’t be right. I’m almost old enough for all my teen fashion to have come back around, but not quite.

Do you have a favorite illustration of Lisa’s from the book?

Tokuda-Hall: All of Lisa’s work is exquisite. But probably the seemingly silliest thing that I really, truly, deeply love is that she added sound effects. I didn’t write any of those. So, for example, when Bart O’Kavanaugh gets eaten, there’s a “SPLORCH” sound effect. Has there ever been a word as onomatopoetic as splorch? Anyway, it lends the book the correct, campy, comic book-y vibe to help cut through the trauma. It’s really important for that reason, I think, because otherwise the book’s tone is a little off. This is a horror comedy. Splorch helps drive that home.

Read our review of ‘Squad.’

What are you most proud of having accomplished in Squad?

Sterle: I brought to life four very unique characters, each with hopes, dreams, insecurities and faults. I think we told a pretty complex story, disguised as a fun supernatural horror teen drama.

Tokuda-Hall: I wrote the first draft of Squad in the summer of 2018, just before Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings were held in the Senate. Like many other people who’ve been sexually assaulted, I was inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s courage, and I confronted the man who sexually assaulted me. He was a friend from Piedmont. Someone I trusted, someone I’d grown up with. The publication of Squad feels like the end to the time when I felt afraid or victimized or disempowered because of what he did to me. Men like him can’t scare me anymore. I’m the scary thing in the woods now.

And as the goddess and prophet Beyonce Knowles-Carter said, “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”


Photo of Maggie Tokuda-Hall © Red Scott. Photo of Lisa Sterle © Meg Mantia.

Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea) and illustrator Lisa Sterle discuss their first graphic novel collaboration, Squad, a story in which teenage girls are never quite what they seem.

If you think minimalism is a one-size-fits-all lifestyle and aesthetic, you clearly haven’t encountered Christine Platt, known on social media as the Afrominimalist. In her clearly written, approachable guide, The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living With Less (5.5 hours), Platt traces her journey—including plenty of initial resistance and more than a few missteps—toward deliberately choosing to live with fewer objects. The author’s calm, careful narration is both relatable and ressuring, and it’s punctuated by real-life, sometimes humorous anecdotes delivered by a cast of additional narrators. 

Platt’s guidance is enriched by sections titled “For the Culture,” in which she acknowledges how the history of racial oppression and systemic racism has, in many ways, made Black and other historically marginalized people of color more vulnerable to overconsumption and conspicuous consumption. She also notes that the Scandinavian aesthetic that permeates most mainstream minimalist guidebooks doesn’t come close to representing everybody. Platt’s friendly, flexible approach urges listeners to embrace a minimalism that celebrates cultural heritage and comes in all colors.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of print edition of The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living With Less.

Afrominimalist Christine Platt’s calm, careful narration of her journey toward living with less is both relatable and reassuring.

In So Many Beginnings, Bethany C. Morrow (A Song Below Water) proves up to the challenge of remixing Louisa May Alcott’s most famous work: Little Women.

Like Alcott’s novel, So Many Beginnings takes place during the American Civil War. However, the experiences faced by Morrow’s March sisters—formerly enslaved young Black women—are drastically different from those of Alcott’s more sheltered white family.

In the wake of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Marches have settled on Roanoke Island, along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Readers may be familiar with Roanoke Island's mysterious history during the colonial period, but few are aware that it was home to a colony of free, formerly enslaved people during the Civil War. As Morrow notes in an afterword, she didn't learn about this history until researching the novel. Roanoke, and a handful of other settlements like it, were considered “contraband camps” by the Union. “Black folk were spoils of war, if they were more than a nuisance,” Morrow writes, “and their greatest value was in not being available to serve the Confederacy.

On Roanoke, the March sisters soon realize that they’ve exchanged the brutality and dehumanization of enslavement for the paternalism and disrespect of Union forces, missionary teachers and other white people who have come to the island to dictate what young Black people should learn, where they should live and even how they should dress.

Morrow’s nuanced take on what life was like for newly freed Black people at this time will prompt readers to reconsider the simplistic good vs. evil, North vs. South mythologies that characterize too many Civil War narratives. Morrow also skillfully incorporates cultural divisions between Southern Black people like the Marches, who lived through enslavement, with those of Northerners who never experienced enslavement firsthand.

Part of the new Remixed Classics series, which reinterprets canonical texts like Treasure Island and Wuthering Heights through diverse cultural lenses, So Many Beginnings contains twists that will surprise even the most devoted Little Women fans. In addition to shedding light on a lesser-known chapter of American history, Morrow takes creative (and for many readers, long-desired) liberties with the fates of the four March sisters. Alcott fans and newcomers alike will find much to appreciate in Morrow’s sophisticated remix.

In So Many Beginnings, Bethany C. Morrow (A Song Below Water) proves up to the challenge of remixing Louisa May Alcott’s most famous work: Little Women.

Your early 20s can be strange and exciting, filled with uncertainty, new beginnings and the first opportunities to truly be an adult. These feelings are especially heightened when you throw not only career and life goals but also love into the mix. These two romances are very different in tone and setting, but they both feature young characters who are simultaneously falling in love and figuring out who they really are.

In Jennet Alexander’s I Kissed a Girl, Noa Birnbaum drops out of college a few credits shy of a degree to seize a chance at her big break, much to her mother’s dismay. Noa’s dream is to become a special effects makeup artist, and the opportunity to work on the set of the horror movie Scareodactyl is the first step toward union membership and a career in her chosen industry. Noa’s talents with latex and paint are evident, so almost from the beginning of the shoot, she is assigned to work with the film’s two stars, including the intimidatingly beautiful Lilah Silver. 

Lilah hasn’t come out as bisexual in her professional life, but the chemistry between her and Noa is palpable and only grows during those many hours in the makeup chair. As their love story develops, Lilah is also trying to figure out the next step in her career. Does she want to remain a scream queen or try for something different? And where might Noa fit into Lilah’s dreams? Alexander includes thoughtful, introspective moments about the couple’s shared Jewish background but also keeps the tone light, even during a twist worthy of a horror movie. (Be forewarned: There’s a stalker and a lot of snakes.) 

Sara Jafari’s The Mismatch feels a world away from the Hollywood horror of Alexander’s novel as it follows 21-year-old Soraya Nazari, a recent graduate of prestigious Goldsmiths University in London. Soraya’s arts degree hasn’t really given her a good idea of what she wants to do professionally—or given her a leg up on finding a decent job after graduation. She finds herself spending more time with fellow alum Magnus Evans, whose easy charm, good looks and flirtatious manner bely surprising depths, including family troubles. 

Soraya’s family has secrets of its own, which readers discover as the coming-of-age story of Soraya’s mother, Neda, unfolds in parallel with her youngest daughter’s first foray into love. Neda grew up in Tehran and married Soraya’s father, Hossein, after knowing him for only a short time. The two of them emigrated to the U.K. for Neda’s education and, following the Iranian Revolution, it became their permanent home. 

The Mismatch deals with some pretty dark subjects, including infidelity, drug use and physical abuse, but it’s also wryly and surprisingly funny, especially in Soraya’s and Neda’s matter-of-fact narration. While fans of more straightforward romances may want to look elsewhere (the emotional heart of the story really lies in Soraya’s family’s story, rather than the story of her relationship with Magnus), it’s still a thoughtful exploration of how we’re all shaped by our history—and how that history can in turn shape how, and with whom, we fall in love.

Your early 20s can be hard, but in these two romances, those strange and uncertain years also lead to self-discovery and true love.

In Blackout, six of YA’s biggest superstars join forces to create a memorable collection of interlinked love stories that all unfold on one unforgettable New York City night.

Talented authors Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicola Yoon have been crafting memorable novels and gaining deservedly passionate readerships for years. That makes this joint undertaking nothing less than a landmark publishing event for YA literature enthusiasts.

Jackson’s story, “The Long Walk,” serves as a framing narrative of sorts for the book, as it’s split into five “acts” that alternate with the other contributors’ stories. It’s late afternoon on a sweltering summer day, and just as Tam realizes that she and her ex-boyfriend Kareem have mistakenly been offered the same internship at the historic Apollo Theater, the city is plunged into a widespread blackout. Tam and Kareem embark on an epic journey on foot from Harlem back home to Brooklyn, where the summer’s most happening block party will kick off that evening.

Along the way, Kareem and Tam’s story intersects with five other tales of love. In Stone’s “Mask Off,” two boys stuck on the same subway car feel torn about the last time their paths crossed, when both were in disguise. In Clayton’s story, a girl in the iconic New York Public Library struggles to find the perfect book to express her romantic feelings. And in Thomas’ “No Sleep ’til Brooklyn,” set on a double-decker tour bus, a girl on a class trip from Mississippi gets valuable advice from a bus driver about charting her own course—which is exactly what he does, too, when he steers the bus to Brooklyn and to that same block party.

Not all of Blackout’s stories are typical happily-ever-afters, but they’re more interesting that way. Several leave just enough ambiguity to encourage healthy debate among readers. Spotting various characters’ connections to one another will also keep readers engaged and entertained.

YA readers have been calling on traditional publishers to acquire and support more positive representations of Black teens. Readers in search of joyful stories of young Black love will adore Blackout.

In Blackout, six of YA’s biggest superstars join forces to create a memorable collection of interlinked love stories that all unfold on one unforgettable New York City night.

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