Crabapple Trouble by Kaeti Vandorn

Crabapple Trouble is the graphic novel about an anxious apple girl that you didn’t know you needed. At first glance, this book looks like a super cute story but it’s actually so much more, and I totally love it!

Callaway is a girl who also happens to be an apple. She lives in a place with lots of other fruit and vegetable people and fairies. Everyone is responsible for growing their own crop and Callaway worries that her crabapples aren’t good enough. With the Produce Competition coming up at the Summertime Fair Callaway really starts to worry, so much so that she literally loses her head. It pops off and rolls away, bumping into a fairy called Thistle. Callaway and Thistle work together to help sort out not only Callaway’s problem but those of others around them too. Thistle just needs to take a nap first.

Crabapple Trouble is a bright, cheerful story about friendship, worries and figuring out who you are. It is such a relatable story for kids and adults alike, who will see themselves in Callaway and Clementine. Kaeti Vandorn has brought her experiences as a kid to the story and shows kids that they don’t have to be exactly the same as everyone else. I especially love the end of the story as I can totally relate to it. I’d never heard of the term ‘awfulizing’ (to imagine something to be as bad as it can possibly be) but I’m sure we’ve all done it at some stage (either as kids or adults).

Kaeti’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of joy. Some pages are an explosion of colour! They will certainly appeal to younger readers. I loved looking at the illustrations with all the characters, trying to pick out the different fruits and vegetables. Kaeti’s characters are quite simple but very expressive. As a bonus at the back of the book you can learn how to draw Callaway and create your own fruit and vegetable characters.

Crabapple Trouble is one of my favourite graphic novels for younger readers of 2020. This is Kaeti’s first printed graphic novel and I certainly hope we see more of her stories. I know Crabapple Trouble will be a hit with the kids at my school.

Pacey Packer Unicorn Tracker by J.C. Phillipps

Most books and movies would have us believe that unicorns are cute and colourful but not J.C. Phillipps’ new graphic novel. Dive into Pacey Packer Unicorn Tracker and discover what unicorns are really like.

Pacey Packer is a girl with a big imagination but she could never have imagined she would find herself in Rundalyn, the secret land of the unicorns. Pacey’s little sister Mina gets sick of waiting for Pacey to play with her. When Pacey goes looking for Mina she finds her about to leap out of her window on the back of a unicorn. Pacey thinks Mina is being kidnapped and tries to grab the unicorn. Pacey, and Mina’s plushie unicorn, Slasher, fall from the sky and find themselves lost in Rundalyn. Pacey and Slasher set off to find Mina but also discover what unicorns are really like. Pacey will have to become the brave hero from her imagination in order to save her sister.

This is a super cool graphic novel for kids! It’s a story full of nasty unicorns, weird plants, magical seeds and sassy characters. J.C. Phillipps’ illustration style is unique and will certainly appeal to kids. She has used a limited colour palette, with just black, white and purple. I really like how J.C. uses different perspectives throughout the story (like Pacey being up in a tree) and the movement between panels, like the example below:

J.C. has even made chapter headings cool by incorporating them into the illustrations.

Pacey herself is a great character but my favourite is Slasher. He’s full of attitude but looks super cute. He’s a soft toy but he’s clearly not happy about it. He’s always cursing his lousy plushie grip. I’m sure most kids won’t see this but Slasher reminds me of Brian, the dog from Family Guy.

Thank goodness this is just the start of the Pacey Packer series! Kids are going to love Pacey and Slasher and, like me, will eagerly await their next adventure.

Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature by Renée Treml

Everyone has wondered what happens in a museum at night. There have been books written and movies made about it. In Sherlock Bones and the Natural History Mystery, Renée Treml introduced us to the great detective known as Sherlock Bones. The always sharp and super-observant tawny frogmouth skeleton is back on the case again in his latest mystery, Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature.

Sherlock Bones lives in the State Natural History Museum with his pals Grace the raccoon and Watts the stuffed parrot. When the sun goes down and the humans leave, Sherlock and his friends come alive. A new wing of the museum has just opened, with new exhibits, but Sherlock has heard of a swamp monster that is scaring the visitors and the octopus is missing. Where there is a mystery Sherlock Bones isn’t far away.

Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature is a pun-tastic read that is both laugh-out-loud funny and chock-full of facts. Sherlock not only thinks he is an amazing detective (he’s really not), he also thinks he’s the funniest bird around (he just ends up making himself laugh). He has plenty of bad puns up his sleeve that will make readers young and old crack up. Unlike Sherlock and Grace, Watts never says anything out loud but he still communicates with Sherlock and his wings can be extended to help Sherlock fly around the museum. Sherlock and his pals are always on the lookout for clues but the reader sees things that they completely miss. Grace spends a good part of the story distracted with a Rubix cube and isn’t aware of what is going on around her.

The story is told in a graphic novel format, with black and white illustrations. Sherlock is a skeleton but Renée has given him so much personality. I think the star of the show has to be Nivlac though, as he is able to turn invisible and disguise himself. You can tell that Renée has had a lot of fun hiding Nivlac in the illustrations.

The thing I love the most about this book is the way that Renée incorporates information into the story. There are facts about the exhibits in the illustrations that help to explain what is happening in the story. The exhibit about the octopus says that octopus do not have a skeleton which means they can squeeze into tight spaces. This explains why the octopus goes missing. It’s one of those books that is really entertaining but you don’t realise you’re learning something at the same time.

I highly recommend both Sherlock Bones books, especially for kids who struggle to find something to read. They’ll be hooked straight away. They’re also great for kids who have read all of the Bad Guys books by Aaron Blabey as they’re a similar format and sense of humour.

The Big Break by Mark Tatulli

There are some really great graphic novels for kids that focus on female friendships in middle school. Shannon Hale, Victoria Jamieson and Kristen Gudsnuk are among the best. There are few graphic novels for kids that focus on male friendships, but the best are those by Mark Tatulli. I loved his semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Short and Skinny, about his childhood years spent making a spoof movie of Star Wars. Mark is back again with The Big Break, a story about growing up, growing apart and monster hunting.

Andrew and Russ are best friends who are obsessed with finding the legendary Jersey Devil. They’ve been making a movie about it for ages but need to come up with an ending. Russ starts spending less time with Andrew and more time with a girl at their school called Tara. It seems like Russ has become a different person, someone who thinks that the things Andrew likes are too ‘babyish.’ Andrew really dislikes Tara and thinks she’s stealing his friend away. Suddenly their friendship that has always been so strong is falling apart. Then a bunch of Jersey Devil sightings are reported in their town and the boys are thrown back together again. They have to figure out how to mend their friendship if they’re to have a chance of finding the monster of their dreams.

The Big Break is a fantastic story about the ups and downs of friendship, full of humour and heart. It’s the kind of graphic novel that I wished I’d had as a kid. Friendship between boys is so different to friendship between girls but Mark shows you how complicated it can get, especially when there’s a girl involved.

There are three characters that I loved in this story – Miss Robbins the librarian, Andrew’s mum and Andrew’s action figure conscience General Dakkar. Andrew and Russ spend a lot of time in their local public library in the story and they have the coolest librarian, Miss Robbins. She really knows the kids who come into the library, so she knows what kind of books they really like. She’s also interested in local history and folklore so she comes in very handy for Andrew and Russ’ search for the Jersey Devil. Andrew’s Mum is just a really caring mum. She’s always talking with Andrew about what is going on in his life and making sure that she gets her hugs and kisses. Andrew’s conscience takes the shape of his version of a Jersey Devil and one of his action figures, General Dakkar. I love General Dakkar because he looks like this tough bad guy but he’s the voice in Andrew’s head that is freaking out and jumping to conclusions. I kind of imagined him shouting with Mr T’s voice.

I love Mark’s style of illustration, especially the way that his characters communicate non-verbally. Mark says so much just through body language or facial expressions of his characters. This makes Mark’s graphic novels especially great for neuro-diverse kids because they can pick up visual cues from the illustrations.

I can’t wait for the kids in my library to read this one because I know it’s going to be popular.

Sparks! Double Dog Dare by Ian Boothby and Nina Matsumoto

Sparks! by Ian Boothby and Nina Matsumoto is one of the funniest graphic novels for kids. I recommend it to kids in my library all the time. When I saw that there was a sequel coming I was super excited and I’ve been counting down the days. When I opened a book delivery for my school library the other day it was on the top and I did a little squee of excitement. Double Dog Dare is everything I hoped it would be – silly, funny and action-packed.

Charlie and August are two cats keeping their city safe, dressed in the mechanical superhero dog suit known as Sparks. When there is a family trapped in a burning building, a twister heading for a bus full of children or a pizza truck that’s crashed into the ocean, Sparks is there to save the day. But when a second, evil Sparks shows up and starts causing trouble everyone blames the real Sparks. Who is this fake Sparks and what do they want? It’s up to Charlie and August to uncover the truth and prove that Sparks is a good boy.

Double Dog Dare is another hilarious, explosive adventure with Charlie and August. While we don’t have the alien baby overlord in this story there is a lot of action, with explosions, fire and fights. August’s inventions always make me laugh and I especially love the way he uses the most advanced laser beam in the world. Charlie loses his confidence when a new cat moves in across the road. This cat is polydactyl (meaning it has extra digits on its paws) and Charlie thinks that August wants to replace him. After all, a cat with thumbs could do some pretty awesome things in the Sparks suit. Charlie’s insecurity leads to us getting a flashback to his life before he met August.

The story and the illustrations feel bigger and bolder than the first book. I really love the action of Nina’s illustrations that flows really nicely from panel to panel. I want to give a special mention to David Dedrick, the colourist of this book. The colours are sharp and really make the illustrations jump off the page. There is a lot of action in the story and David’s colours make the action pop.

I highly recommend both Sparks books and they have the kid tick of approval too (the first book is hardly ever on the shelf in my library). I hope there will be more Spark books to look forward to.

S. Tinker Inc. series by James Foley

James Foley’s S. Tinker Inc. graphic novels are some of the funniest books I’ve read. I read and reviewed the first book in the series, Brobot, here on the blog when it was released in 2016 and it’s been really popular in my library. I’ve missed the last couple of books in the series but I wanted to read them before the 4th book, Chickensaurus, is released in September. I can’t believe I waited so long to read them because I’ve spent the last couple of nights laughing out loud at the misadventures of Sally, Charli, and Joe.

Sally Tinker – the world’s foremost inventor under the age of twelve – invents all sorts of devices. In Brobot, Sally creates a robot brother to take the place of her annoying, stinky baby brother, Joe.

In Dungzilla, Sally creates a Resizenator that could solve many of the world’s problems. However, a test run of the device ends in a dung beetle being embiggenated and terrorising her town with a giant dung ball. They’re going to need a giant solution to a giant problem.

Gastronauts sees Sally taking her Resizenator technology to the next level. She has created a smartCHIP that she plans to shrink and then drink so she will become the ‘smartest human who’s ever lived.’ Unfortunately, her annoying brother Joe drinks it first. Sally must shrink herself, Charli and a submarine and travel into Joe’s body to stop the smartCHIP attaching itself to Joe’s most powerful organ. If they don’t make it, the consequences could be disastrous!

These books are absolutely hilarious! James has great comedic timing and a lot of the funniest moments in the stories come from the visual gags. It’s often the characters’ facial expressions that make me laugh. Sally is always so proud of her inventions and so optimistic but you always know that something is going to go wrong. I love the way that Sally talks to the reader but none of the other characters know it’s happening (Charli keeps asking who Sally is talking to).

Joe is the funniest character in the series, even though he says nothing. Often he is just doing something in the background or wandering past with a toxic cloud coming from his nappy. In Gastronauts, Joe’s stink becomes multiplied and these scenes had me cackling with laughter. Sometimes fart jokes can get a bit over-the-top in kids books but James does it well. My other favourite character in the series is Sally’s Nan. She seems to just take everything in her stride and isn’t surprised when Sally’s inventions malfunction and she needs her help.

One of my favourite scenes from Gastronauts.

I can’t recommend the S. Tinker Inc graphic novels highly enough. They’re the same kind of format to Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys and Gavin Aung Than’s Super Sidekicks so they’re a great readalike for those series. Confident readers will love them but they are great to hook those kids who ‘don’t like reading.’ They will be an invaluable addition to your graphic novel collection. Check out the book trailer for Dungzilla below to tempt your readers. I can’t wait to get my hands on the fourth book, Chickensaurus.

Peter & Ernesto: Sloths in the Night by Graham Annable

Who doesn’t like sloths? Sure, they’re slow but also adorable. I love sloths, so when I came across Graham Annable’s Peter & Ernesto a couple of years ago I knew I would love it. Peter and Ernesto are best friends but they’re completely different. Peter loves their tree and never wants to leave, but Ernesto loves the sky and wants to see more of it from every place on Earth. Since their first adventure Ernesto has been dragging Peter along wherever he goes. Sloths in the Night is their latest adventure and it’s brilliant.

Peter and Ernesto are hanging out in their tree one day with their sloth friends when one of them, Bernard, goes missing. They’ve heard that there is a dragon at the old temple by the river and think that maybe Bernard has gone to check it out. They leave the safety of their tree in search of Bernard and the dragon, meeting friends and foes along the way, and doing things they never thought they would.

This series gets better and better. It’s such a fun read that’s full of laughs. I love that Peter is coming out of his shell a bit more with each new book. Sure, he still seems a bit anxious and afraid to try new things, but there are also a couple of times in this story where he’s quite brave.

Graham’s simple but expressive illustrations and sparse text make this series perfect for younger readers. Older readers will love them too though, especially for the humour. First Second (one of my favourite graphic novel publishers) has put a lot of thought into the production of these books too. They’re hardcover, with quality paper and binding, and the endpapers are very cool.

Grab Sloths in the Night and the other Peter & Ernesto graphic novels for the young reader in your life (you just might find you enjoy them just as much as they do). They are a must-buy for school libraries.

The Weirn Books 1: Be Wary of the Silent Woods by Svetlana Chmakova

Svetlana Chmakova’s Berrybrook Middle School graphic novel series (Awkward, Crush, and Brave) have been some of the most popular graphic novels in my school library. Her characters and the awkward situations they find themselves in at middle school are really relatable for kids. Svetlana’s latest book, Be Wary of the Silent Woods, is the first in her new series, The Weirn Books, and it’s scarily good.

Ailis and Na’ya live in a small, sleepy town called Laitham. It’s home to humans and human-passing night things – vampires, shapeshifters, mermaids and weirns. Ailis and Na’ya are weirns, witches born with a demon guardian spirit (called an astral) bound to them for life. The girls go to school at night and have classes on things like Astral Training and Alchemistry. Like any school there are bullies and detention, but also crystal caves and fireproof walls. While searching for a book in her grandma’s attic, Ailis uncovers a family secret. A shadow starts looming in the Silent Woods, a classmate starts acting weird and then Na’ya’s little brother D’esh disappears. Ailis and Na’ya realise they must face their fears and confront the secrets of the mansion in the Silent Woods.

Be Wary of the Silent Woods is an action-packed start to this awesome series that delivers frights and fun. It has the humour that I love from the Berrybrook series mixed with this cool supernatural world. Svetlana uses lots of onomatopoeia so there are some great panels that are taken over by sounds, like screaming or rain pouring down. She doesn’t let the panels limit the story either, with action and speech bubbles breaking out of their panels. Svetlana’s colour palette is muted but never dull.

One of my favourite aspects of Svetlana’s books is that her characters are so expressive and this book is no exception. Ailis and Na’ya’s go through lots of different emotions in the story but it’s always clear from their faces how they’re feeling.

Be Wary of the Silent Woods is out now and I’m already looking forward to book 2. Get this for fans of the Berrybrook Middle School trilogy or kids who like a spooky adventure story.

Stephen McCranie’s Space Boy series

If you’re looking for a great graphic novel series for Year 6 and up then look no further than Space Boy by Stephen McCranie.

Space Boy follows Amy, a teenage girl who has to get used to life on Earth after years in deep space. After her father loses his job on a mining colony in deep space, Amy and her family must be cryogenically frozen for 30 years and travel back to Earth to start a new life. When she reaches Earth her best friend is now 30 years older, gravity feels different, technology is weird and the other kids seem strange. To Amy, everyone has a flavour – her dad is hot chocolate, her mum is mint – but a quiet boy that she meets at her new school has no flavour and Amy finds herself drawn to him.

This mysterious boy and trying to figure out his story is what frames the series. In each book we learn a little more about him. Is he an alien? Is he a robot? Is he something completely different? I’ve just read Book 7 and I have my theories but I don’t know for sure quite yet. It feels like the answers are not far away though and Book 8 is due out in October. The story started out as a webcomic and I could read ahead at webtoons.com but I prefer to read the physical book.

The characters are teenagers and some of them are in relationships but the content is appropriate for Year 6 and up (ages 10+). The illustrations are simple and the text is sparse so they’re a quick read. Each book has a different character on the front cover as each one focuses a bit more on that character (like their relationships or their back story).

This is a particularly good series to add to your graphic novel collection if your readers don’t like waiting for the next one in the series. There are currently 7 volumes published with more to come.

Interview with Jonathan King

Jonathan King’s first graphic novel for children, The Inkberg Enigma, has just been released. It is a brilliant graphic novel filled with mystery, adventure and secrets. You can read my full review here on the blog.

I really love The Inkberg Enigma (it’s one of my favourite children’s graphic novels of 2020) so I wanted to ask Jonathan my burning questions about the story. Read on to find out about Jonathan’s inspirations for the story, the process of creating a graphic novel and some of the Easter Eggs you can find in the story.

Reading The Inkberg Enigma made me feel like I was 10 again, reading Tintin. Did you set out to create the kind of story that you would have loved as a kid?

Yes, I absolutely did. Tintin was huge for me as a kid: The Black Island was the first one I read, but I devoured them all over the years. I knew from the outset that I wanted it to be an adventure with fantastic elements. I think I decided fairly early that it wouldn’t be a globe-trotting kind of thing – that Tintin often did – but digging into the secrets and corners of one location. That’s what I love about stories – that can show us how our own world has hidden wonders.

The Inkberg Enigma is set in the fictional town of Aurora. Being a Christchurch local I immediately recognised Lyttelton in your illustrations. Did Lyttelton inspire the setting?

Lyttelton – and Diamond Harbour access the water – definitely the primary inspiration for the setting. I have family in Diamond Harbour and Lyttelton, and have spent quite a bit of time there. I love the self-contained nature of the two of them (in my story there’s no Christchurch just over the hill). And I’ve always had a connection to places by the sea – with their attached nautical influence, like Lyttelton has, of hotels, seamen’s union buildings, antique shops with diver’s helmets in the window (which I really did see in Lyttelton!). Other influences are Cannery Row in Monterey in California – where John Steinbeck set his book of that name — Astoria in Oregon (where The Goonies was filmed) and, for the castle, Larnach Castle in Dunedin.

I love that the main character in The Inkberg Enigma, Miro, sells off treasures from his attic to get money to buy books. Is this something you would have done as a kid?

I don’t know if I would go quite as far as Miro does! But I do remember what it felt like to be obsessed with things – like Star Wars figures or comics – and doing anything to complete collections. 

Mr Hunter is one of the creepiest characters in the story. I’ve been wondering where he got his huge scar from?

I think Mr Hunter has been involved in some very dangerous situations at sea over the years – but ignored or buried them, to continue the regime of (what they think is) control over the sea and the creatures below. I think there’s a climate change metaphor in there too …

The kids at my school often complain about how long it takes a creator to release a new graphic novel. To put it in to perspective for them can you explain the process of creating The Inkberg Enigma and how long it took you to pull the story together.

It takes a long time for new ones to come out because it takes a loooooong time to draw them! Unlike commercial monthly comics – which usually have a writer, a penciller, an inker, a colourist, a letterer – a graphic novel is usually the work of just one or two people. It took me about three years from start to finish. Part of that was finding the story. I had the world and the kids in the story pretty early … but the story they were in and the relationship between them took a while to find; I made a false start and pencilled / roughed about 40 pages … that I abandoned. But once I cracked the relationship between the kids, the stay was clear. Then I just had to draw it all. Certainly a detailed, clear line style slows things down. I’d love to try a looser (faster!!) style in the future.

Did you experiment much with the character designs before settling on their final look?

I think their look came quite quickly. Learning how to draw it consistently took a little while longer!

The name of the bookshop in the story is a nod to your film adaptation of Maurice Gee’s Under the Mountain that you wrote, directed and produced. Are there other Easter eggs for readers to look out for in The Inkberg Enigma?

I’m thrilled you spotted that. Yes, there are others: a number of Tintin props, I think. The books in the bookshop Miro looks at are favourites of mine. The museum building is based on the jailhouse in Goonies (a real building in Astoria!) I’m sure there’s other odds and ends!

How does your film background influence your comics?

I’m not sure. Probably it does n terms of story structure – something I’ve spent a long time thinking about. I probably think it terms of close ups and wide shots … and even the ‘lens’ that I frame images in: a wide angle lens sees something differently from a ‘long’ lens. Certainly telling the story with pictures is as important as words. 

Would you like to make a movie of The Inkberg Enigma?

All the way through making I didn’t think that I did: it was only ever meant to be a comic. Now that it’s finished, it’s its own thing … yeah, I kinda would actually! 🙂 

There are so few comics and graphic novels published in NZ for kids and teens, even though these books are some of the most popular with kids in our libraries. Do you have plans to write more for this age group?

I’m sure one of the reasons that there are so few is that for something takes so long, it’s really hard to get enough income to justify the time it takes (though I must acknowledge the support I ad from Creative NZ). Some cool local creators are Katie O’Neill’s Tea Dragon Society books, Ant Sang’s Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas, Roger Langridge’s Abigail & The Snowman and, of course, bob Kerr and Stephen Ballantyne’s Terry Teo books. 
I would love to write more for this age group. Having done a book that took years to draw, I’d love to write book that’s just words – a mystery perhaps! And, yes, before long I’ll do another graphic novel. 

Check out my review of Jonathan’s graphic novel, The Inkberg Enigma. Available now from Gecko Press.