Two middle grade graphic novels navigate the hallways and hormones of tween life.
Ah, middle school. That time of great, exciting change we all must go through, willingly or not, when every day can be thrilling, terrifying or downright weird—all before lunchtime.
Filled with empathy and humor, Jerry Craft’s Class Act is a warm hug of a book that chronicles a school year in the life of aspiring artist and eighth grader Jordan Banks. Jordan starred in Craft’s Newbery Medal-winning New Kid, which followed his first year at the private Riverdale Academy Day School in the Bronx. Now Craft’s focus expands to include Jordan’s best friend, Drew Ellis, and their classmate Liam.
Jordan and Drew deal with typical tween issues, such as Jordan’s insecurities about being smaller (and hilariously, less stinky) than the other kids and Drew’s discomfort with a classmate’s amorous attentions. But as Black kids at Riverdale, they must also contend with racist microaggressions and colorism. Class differences crop up, too. In their neighborhood, Jordan and Drew are teased for being too fancy, but at school, classmates comment on their relative poverty. In an especially compelling storyline, a visit to white, wealthy Liam’s home causes Drew to grapple with conflicted feelings about friendship with someone who lives in a mansion.
Class Act’s modeling of thoughtful communication and its celebration of friendship are appealing and heartfelt. Craft’s expressive characters, strong command of vibrant color and hits of visual humor—including references to popular books in the double-page spreads that open each chapter—are downright delightful.
Twins, written by Varian Johnson and illustrated by Shannon Wright, speaks to a younger experience, opening on the first day of sixth grade for twins Maureen and Francine Carter. Francine is ready to roll, complete with a funky new hat, a plan to run for class president and a determination to go by “Fran” from now on. In contrast, Maureen is anxious about middle school; she and Francine only have a few classes together, and she’s been assigned to Cadet Corps instead of gym class.
As the girls struggle to reconcile their fierce love and strong bond with a new desire to be recognized as individuals, they must also navigate “Jock Mountain” and the “Valley of Burps & Smells.” Maureen finds her footing and learns to stand up for herself, but her decision to run against Francine for class president throws the girls’ relationship even more off balance.
Wright’s art skillfully captures the emotion and physicality of tense car rides, anxiety-inducing classroom scenes and a variety of school hallway hijinks. In his first graphic novel, Johnson, author of the 2019 Coretta Scott King Honor book The Parker Inheritance (and a twin himself!), creates a cast of engaging characters, including a family that’s by turns supportive, frustrated and funny. The lead-up to the election is suspenseful, and Johnson’s depiction of the girls’ parents’ willingness to listen to their daughters is both moving and inspiring. Twins marks an auspicious start to a new series.