Bake Sale

By Sara Varon
160 pages, color
Published by First Second

Sara Varon’s first graphic novel Sweaterweather shifted her from "she’s a good creator" to "I must read everything she works on." She’s had books since then like the adorable Robot Dreams, or her Cat and Chicken titles for much younger readers, but there’s something about her new book Bake Sale that particularly grabs my attention. Maybe it’s having the lead character running a bakery, or the underlying theme involving friendship, but there was something in it grabbed me in a way that even her previous works hadn’t already done so.

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Americus

Written by MK Reed
Art by Jonathan Hill
224 pages, black and white
Published by First Second Books

Americus is the kind of graphic novel that I wish wasn’t so timely. Centered around a teenager whose town is trying to ban his favorite fantasy book series, it’s the sort of story that plays out in the real world far too often. MK Reed and Jonathan Hill’s story is painful to read in that respect, but its lead in the form of Neil Barton is the kind of character who’s compelling enough that you’ll read all the way through just to see if he succeeds, not only in stopping the banning but also trying to get a better life for himself.

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Lewis & Clark

By Nick Bertozzi
144 pages, black and white
Published by First Second Books

Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the West Coast is one of those things that most Americans know about in terms of the absolute basics (they were sent by President Thomas Jefferson to find a water route to the West Coast, one of their guides was the Native American Sacagawea), but almost none of the details. I hate to admit that I fall into that category, so between learning more about this important expedition and also getting a new Nick Bertozzi graphic novel, Lewis & Clark looked immensely promising. What we got? In some respect it feels almost like Lewis & Clark: The Cliff Notes Edition, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that’s a good thing.

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Zita the Spacegirl Book One: Far From Home

By Ben Hatke
192 pages, color
Published by First Second

Ben Hatke is one of those creators that when you first encounter, you instantly want to read more of his comics. That’s how I felt when I read his stories in the Flight anthologies, which had a lot of charm and wit about them. So when his debut graphic novel showed up on my doorstep, it was one of those, "Put everything down and make time to read this first." And I’m glad I did.

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Koko Be Good

By Jen Wang
304 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

Are you a good person? Do other people see you as a good person? And what are you doing with your life anyway? They’re all questions we’ve asked ourselves at one point or another. Koko Be Good by Jen Wang uses those ideas as a launch point, and what initially looks to be a slapstick-styled book ends up being a much more thoughtful and introspective book than you might have expected as its three main characters fumble through turning points in their own lives, and what might be intended to help others doesn’t always turn out that way.

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Unsinkable Walker Bean

By Aaron Renier
208 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

Aaron Renier’s debut graphic novel, Spiral-Bound (Top Secret Summer), was a strong splash by the cartoonist; I remember being almost instantly impressed at how strong he was able to convey a sense of adventure and fun into both his script an art. It’s been a long time coming, but his new book The Unsinkable Walker Bean is here. The end result? It’s a book with so many different ideas and concepts that it feels like Renier almost doesn’t have room for them all.

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Prime Baby

By Gene Luen Yang
64 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

I do wonder what the readers of the New York Times Magazine must have thought when Gene Luen Yang’s Prime Baby first started its serialization in its pages. I guess if they’d read American Born Chinese or The Eternal Smile that they might’ve had at least the glimmering of an idea that it was bound to be a little odd. I’ll go a step further, though; not since first encountering Yang’s Gordon Yamato and the King of the Geeks have I seen such a strange book from Yang. Not that I’m complaining. But it’s definitely one of Yang’s more eccentric works.

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Foiled

Written by Jane Yolen
Art by Mike Cavallaro
160 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

I remember when, years ago, First Second announced some upcoming books in their catalog that included a graphic novel written by Jane Yolen. Yolen is one of those masters of fantasy, with a bibliography rapidly closing on over 300 books, plus numerous short stories and awards to her credit. And, while many of her novels are intended for young adults, she’s written for adults as well. So a graphic novel from Yolen? This seemed too good to be true. Now that I’ve finally read Foiled, I must admit that I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

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Refresh, Refresh

Original short story by Benjamin Percy
Screenplay by James Ponsoldt
Adapted by Danica Novgorodoff
144 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

A graphic novel based on a screenplay based on a short story? I suppose there are more circuitous routes out there for graphic novels, but none are immediately springing to mind. That’s the slightly thankless task that Danica Novgorodoff has with Refresh, Refresh, a story that gets traced back to a short story by Benjamin Percy. Reading the graphic novel, though, I ended up with a slightly disconcerting feeling that had I just picked up Percy’s short story that I would have ended up with a much stronger and more interesting experience.

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Ball Peen Hammer

Written by Adam Rapp
Art by George O’Connor
144 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

I have to hand it to Adam Rapp. When I first picked up Ball Peen Hammer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never seen anything by him before (even though he’s written novels, plays, and directed films), so I was going into the story blindly. And with hindsight, the book’s cover did warn me somewhat of the experience to come, with its stark black cover and single, slightly disturbing image. But by the time I was done with Ball Peen Hammer, I felt somewhat stunned, as if I’d gotten on a familiar bus route and somehow ended up in Hell.

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