Mr. Wolf’s Class: Field Trip by Aron Nels Steinke

Aron Nels Steinke’s Mr Wolf’s Class series of graphic novels have been hugely popular with the kids at my school. With their quirky cast of characters, relatable storylines and awesome art, it’s not hard to see why kids love them. I always look forward to another story of loveable Mr. Wolf and the antics of his class. The latest book in the series, Field Trip, has just been released by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint and I think this is the best book yet.

Mr. Wolf’s class are going on an overnight field trip in the mountains. They get to sleep in log cabins, come up with camp names, build huts and see things they’ve never seen before. Before they even get to camp though, Randy and Aziza have a falling out, which leads to some awkward moments on camp. Competition with another class staying at the camp leads to new friends, but Randy and Aziza must learn to work through their argument too. There is so much to do, see and learn outside the classroom.

In Field Trip, Aron throws his characters into a completely different environment and we see them thriving in the outdoors. There is plenty for both kids and adults to enjoy in this story. Kids will bring their own experiences of field trips to the story and relate to the good and bad that happens. There are plenty of laughs too, like the kids staying up late talking and farting just when everything is quiet. As an adult I really love seeing how Mr Wolf copes with everything that comes his way. His thought bubbles are especially hilarious as he’s often thinking something different than what he’s saying to the kids.

I really like the way that Aron uses lots of visual storytelling. There are several parts of the story where there is little or no text, letting the reader interpret what is happening in the story through the illustrations. I especially like the parts where Aron shows the kids all doing different camp activities, almost like a little montage.

There are a few cool references dotted through the story for readers to pick up too. Randy and Aziza are obsessed with Hazelton the Musical (a nod to Hamilton). The other reference I really liked was Fawn reading the Sky World series, a series of books that she says are all being adapted into graphic novels (a nod to Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series).

If you’re new to Mr. Wolf’s Class this is a great introduction to the series. You’ll want to go back and read all of the others in the series.

Pea, Bee and Jay series by Brian “Smitty” Smith

Three unlikely friends become besties in Brian “Smitty” Smith’s new graphic novel series for younger readers, Pea, Bee and Jay.

The first two books in the series have been released simultaneously (I love it when publishers do this, so thanks Harper Alley!) so we get a double dose of this funny team. In Pea, Bee and Jay: Stuck Together these three first meet. Pea lives on his farm and he loves to roll. When a mean strawberry dares him to roll all the way to the big tree, Pea knows that he can do it. Unfortunately it’s a lot further away than he thought and then a storm strikes, bouncing him off course. He bounces right into a bee named Bee, who is hiding from her responsibilities, and a bird called Jay, who doesn’t know how to fly. These three unlikely friends band together to help Pea find his way home.

In the second book, Pea, Bee and Jay: Wannabees, Bee would rather play with her new friends than perform her queenly duties. When she leaves the hive to see her friends a coup takes place and Lenny declares himself Queen of the hive. Pea and Jay must disguise themselves as bees and help Bee infiltrate the hive and get back what is rightly hers. Add in some daring acrobatics and a vegetable dispute and you have a seriously funny adventure.

Pea, Bee and Jay is a series that constantly cracks me up. Each book is full of laughs and super-silly puns. The argument between the corn and the potatoes in Wannabees had me cackling with laughter (it’s a graphic novel that adults will appreciate as much as the kids). Coming in at just over 60 pages each, they’re short and snappy, and I just know that kids (especially boys) are going to read them over and over again. I’m sure it won’t be long until I’ll be hearing fruit and vegetable puns in my school library. The illustrations are super cute and not highly detailed which makes them especially great for younger readers.

These first two books are the start of a series that is just going to keep getting better and better. I know my kids will be begging me to get the next ones as soon as they’re released. These are a must-buy for school library collections as I guarantee they will fly off the shelves. They’re a great read-alike for James Burke’s Bird and Squirrel series.

Squidding Around: Fish Feud! by Kevin Sherry

If you’re looking for a super-fun, pun-tastic graphic novel for younger readers then look no further than Kevin Sherry’s latest, Squidding Around: Fish Feud!

Squizzard and Toothy have been best friends since they were teeny tiny. A squid and a Great White Shark at first seems like an odd friendship but Toothy is a vegetarian so it works. They do everything together but Toothy is getting sick of being pushed around by Squizzard. Toothy finally snaps and says he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Squizzard has to figure out how to put others first and learn how to be a good friend. If he can do that maybe Toothy will want to be his friend again.

Fish Feud is one of the coolest graphic novels for young readers! It’s colourful, full of jokes and puns, packed with facts and totally hilarious. Kids will be laughing out loud while they read and sharing the jokes with their friends. Jokes like ‘What happened to the shark that ate a set of keys? He got lockjaw!’ It’s a story about friendship too and the importance of compromise. Squizzard is a clown who loves to be the centre of attention. Squizzard always thinks about himself and the games that he wants to play and Toothy feels like he doesn’t get heard. When Toothy snaps Squizzard has to change.

Kevin’s illustrations are bright and bold and his characters are simple but expressive. I love some of the little details of the illustrations, like the pages when the class are doing their oral reports. Each of the kids have brought something to talk about, from their video game to a priceless necklace.

The thing I love most about Fish Feud is the way that Kevin has incorporated facts about the sea creatures into the story. At the same time as laughing your head off you also learn about barracudas, hammerhead sharks, and squid. Sometimes facts are just dropped into the story and other times Kevin will change his illustration style to show you it’s a fact.

Fish Feud is the first book in what will hopefully be a big series. Readers are going to begging for more after reading this one.

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.

Agent Moose by Mo O’Hara and Jess Bradley

Kids everywhere are obsessed with Dogman, so it’s always great when I come across a new series that I can recommend to Dogman fans. Agent Moose is the new series by Mo O’Hara and Jess Bradley and it has everything that kids love about Dogman – laughs galore, bold illustrations, and characters that they’ll love coming back to.

Whenever there is trouble in Big Forest there is only one team for the job – Anonymoose and Owlfred. With Anonymoose’s astounding skills of disguise and Owlfred’s calm attitude and patience in a crisis these two catch the criminals…eventually. Something strange is going on at South Shore. Terence Turtle, a witness in a high-profile robbery case, has disappeared and its up to Anonymoose and Owlfred to find him. Unfortunately for Anonymoose that means a run-in with his competition, Camo Chameleon. Camo has just solved his 100th case, making him the best agent at Woodland HQ. That title was supposed to be Anonymoose’s and he’s still bitter about it. Anonymoose and Owlfred are going to have to go undercover and discover what is happening to the animals of Big Forest.

Agent Moose is absolutely brilliant! Mo and Jess have created characters that kids are going to go wild for. The story is super funny and full of gags that readers of all ages will love. I’m a huge fan of Jess’ art, from reading her Squid Bits comics in The Phoenix Comic, so it’s really great to see a whole book full of her art. I love that her illustrations are so simple but all of the characters have a personality. The simple illustrations and the sparse text make this book perfect for younger readers and it’s a great introduction to graphic novels.

Anonymoose and Owlfred are complete opposites but they make the perfect team. Anonymoose is sauve and fantastic at disguise, but not very smart. Owlfred is the brains of the operation and is the one who is calm and rational. Every time Anonymoose was in disguise he made me laugh, because he is so obviously a moose dressed as a turtle or a palm tree. The other characters don’t see this though and often get startled when he talks.

This is just the first book in a series that I hope with have many more books to come. I know that kids are going to gobble this one up and be desperate for book 2 (coming in March 2021). Check out the fantastic book trailer below (this will be great to hook kids in).

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.

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.

When Stars Are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson

When Stars Are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson is one of the most inspiring graphic novels I’ve ever read. It opens your eyes to what life is like for refugees and the conditions that they live in while at the same time filling you with hope.

It is the story of Omar Mohamed and his younger brother Hassan. They have spent most of their life in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, after escaping from their home in Somalia. Through Omar and Victoria’s words and pictures we learn about daily life in the refugee camp (referred to as an ‘open prison’). There’s never enough food or water, the routine is tiring and there is no access to the medical care needed for Hassan. When Omar has the chance to go to school he knows this is the only chance to break free of the refugee camp and make something of their lives. Going to school though means leaving his brother every day. Omar strives to work hard while coping with life.

This is an important story for both kids and adults to read. Omar’s life may be different to what we know and have experienced but there are also similarities. He struggles with middle school, friendships with boys and girls and with the small family that he has. Omar shows readers that no matter where you come from and how tough your life is you can rise above it and achieve your dreams.

This graphic novel is slightly different from Victoria Jamieson’s previous books but her illustrations are a perfect match for Omar’s story. I especially love her portrayal of the bond the two brothers share.

At the back of the book both Omar and Victoria tell us how their collaboration came about and we learn more about Omar’s life after the end of the story.

When Stars Are Scattered is one of the best children’s graphic novels of 2020. It’s a must-buy for all school libraries and a good companion to Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s excellent graphic novel, Illegal.